There will be plenty of time to develop a historical analysis of the way in which our nation acted and reacted to the novel coronavirus pandemic that has enveloped over 140 nations to date and, as of this writing, has caused close to 17,000 deaths. What lies ahead is not clear as the crisis has precipitated a monumental clash between political scientists and epidemiologists (read: real scientists).
There is no definitive national strategy other than an ever-changing series of fairy dust optimism that delegates responsibility to state and local government leaders who have basically been told they are on their own. California and New York, predictably, have taken the most serious steps so far toward introducing to the nation terms such as social distancing, flattening the curve, sheltering in place, and stay at home orders.
The interwoven dependencies that this seemingly indestructible virus has revealed to the financial markets, the healthcare system and an economy highlighted by the service industry, “gig” workers (short-term, temporary, or independent contractors for one or a variety of employers), and a just in-time inventory business model, together with a globalized market of production and distribution has brought the international economy to its knees.
The overwhelming consensus of professional healthcare experts is that, in lieu of a vaccine, which is 12-18 months away, the most effective strategy to slow down the advance of the virus is to avoid human contact, what is known as social distancing. This requires self-isolating or quarantining so as to reduce community transmission of the virus. The results of reduced human interaction will flatten the curve of those contracting the virus and work to lessen a surge capacity upon hospitals and frontline medical workers.
The lack of an adequate stockpile of personal protective equipment such as masks, goggles, gloves and gowns threatens to overwhelm the system unless the surge capacity is reduced from its projected trajectory. A lack of ventilators for the most seriously respiratory challenged patients also threatens to make life and death triage decisions, who lives and who dies, especially taxing on healthcare workers and physicians. Yes, this is a wartime scenario.
There is little doubt that we were unprepared for what is surely a worst case scenario, even though early warnings going back to November of last year that went unheeded have put us into a mad scramble in search of miracle drugs that are currently being used as anti-malarial treatments. The rush to use these drugs, however, must be tempered by testing to ensure that unintended consequences may not complicate treatment of the patient and compromise their recovery or hasten their death.
However, unveiling before our eyes at the moment is a seeming reversal of movement toward a national stay at home policy driven largely by the dire prospects of a world-wide recession bordering on depression. In what is shaping up as a policy-making dilemma of historical proportions is the degree to which the conflicting goals of social distancing and economic recovery can be balanced. Intuitively, the goals of separation for health purposes and interaction for economic growth purposes present the policymaker with opposite poles of the action spectrum.
To further complicate the political/economic/healthcare landscape is passage of two distinct financial packages to promote rapid production of health care needs and a third package representing in the area of $2 trillion in economic aid to businesses large and small and displaced workers.
The Trump administration has experimented with a number of messages over the past month or so that are contradictory at best and dishonest at worst. Credibility in a crisis is paramount and the administration has struggled with balancing presentation of the scientific facts with a can-do positive attitude that we will ultimately prevail over COVID-19.
While the maxim “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst” is difficult to effectuate, the offering of promises that cannot be met dilutes credibility. Sometimes, it is just the best policy to let the experts present the case rather than to try to take a very public and visible crash course in mastering highly technical, scientific concepts. In Political Science 101 the role of the decision-maker must be to formulate complex issues into understandable explanations with realistically achievable goals. In this regard, the Trump administration seems to be drifting at sea.
We all want the president to succeed in pulling the nation through this tough spot. All who are compassionate toward their fellow men and women want to see an effective resolution that results in the least loss of life. The administration must devise a national strategy, involving coordination among all states, that has the support of the professional healthcare experts it has assembled on their taskforce and present it to the American people in the most credible fashion possible. This is no time for political partisanship.