“First, we get rid of the plague,” President Trump said in last Saturday’s White House briefing, “we’ve done a fantastic job.”
That’s not how it looks to most Americans.
This is the tale of the plague in America:
The death rate in America continued last week at 3,000 per day — the equivalent of a 9/11 toll every day. Over the weekend, they passed the 40,000 deaths milestone. It will go far higher.
When President Trump talks about how many lives the pandemic has taken in the United States, he never discusses it in personal human terms (except in reflecting on the illness and death of his friend in New York). He tells no stories about the families, the ones who die alone, the fear and the agony. President Trump instead cites the macro numbers: two million deaths if the US had done nothing; 100,000 as the lower estimated real-world projection from the experts.
President Trump now believes that the death trajectory will peak at 65,000 — “a great job.”
What President Trump is even more concerned about is the economy, his signature issue going into the 2020 election. He mourns the death of the “greatest economy the US has ever had” at every press session. He urgently wants — and politically needs — the United States to go back to work.
To his credit, in his announcement last week of what US states could do to reopen, President Trump's advice was clearly based on solid public health factors, and he gave the governors very wide latitude.
But the huge unanswered issue is whether there is enough testing capacity to know who is infected, and is there also enough contact tracing capacity to avoid a second and third wave and keep the spread under control? As Thomas Friedman has written, this is like playing Russian roulette with the American people.
The lockdown of the economy has triggered a cascading catastrophe. Twenty-two million Americans — one in ten of working Americans — have filed for unemployment, putting the US rate at well above 10 per cent, with an expected crest at 20 per cent or higher. The United States is moving into a downturn far worse than the Great Recession ten years ago and could approach unemployment levels in the Great Depression (25 per cent).
The US$2 trillion-plus stimulus program is clearly not enough. The small business loan program to pay workers' wages has run out of money already; Congress is working to approve some more this week. Millions have been thrown into poverty. We are about to see a massive wave of bankruptcies. Recipients are spending the emergency relief cheques signed by President Trump on food. Lines for food banks are exploding.
Anger is growing, including in President Trump’s base, from Ohio to Texas, Minnesota to Virginia, Utah to Michigan, to reopen the economy now. While President Trump said he was giving the governors full latitude to decide what to do, he has also sided with those taking to the streets. He called them “responsible people.” His tweets spoke to them: LIBERATE MICHIGAN. LIBERATE MINNESOTA. LIBERATE VIRGINIA.
Michigan's Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a target of populist anger, had this response: “It’s better to be six feet apart right now than six feet under.”
We are at the defining moment of the Trump presidency. He will be judged on how he managed the crisis: did he do enough to prevent 50, 60, 70,000 deaths? Did too many die because the US government was so unprepared for this pandemic and did not move quickly enough to get ahead of it?
Presidents in office own the economy; it is seen as theirs. President Trump certainly benefitted from the upside in the first three years of his term. Can President Trump — could any president — survive this downturn? Or will voters want to simply say: we need the economy in new hands?
Does what President Trump say about winning over the virus — that the United States has the best testing, has the equipment, is meeting needs, that the economy will bounce back very quickly — stand up to the reality of people's day-to-day lives? Or does what President Trump says clash with what the American people are living with?
A tale of the plague in Australia:
Australia successfully ramped up the requisite health assets: testing, equipment, ICUs, ventilators. And it is clearly having a public health dividend.
There is a much closer working relationship between the premiers and the prime minister, and the establishment and forceful operation of the National Cabinet reflects that. President Trump and the US state governors are so far from where we are here. This has induced a much more bipartisan environment in Canberra and across the country than in the United States, and a much more effective Commonwealth-States working relationship. And Prime Minister Morrison’s soaring approval rating – compared to Trump’s – shows that.
Because Australia can do testing and contact tracing, it can begin to re-open the economy (to a limited degree now) with much less risk that we will have a second wave of infections, which would be a real setback.
A tale of two plagues:
As America crosses the 40,000 deaths threshold, Australia has marked 74. In population-adjusted terms, that would be a toll of 1,000 in the United States.
The pandemic in Australia is being successfully met, and managed. A safety net here far more generous and humane than what tens of millions in America have access to. A recession is underway, but a Depression here will likely be avoided.
A terrible human price that is sad, wrenching but for now bearable in these worst of times.