A world leader is in intensive care, a primary was held despite obvious danger to voters and poll workers, and minority victims are dying at a much greater rate.
As the coronavirus continues to ravage the world, it is sometimes hard to grasp these fast-moving events, especially the death toll that seems to exponentially increase by the day. Boris Johnson is being given oxygen in a British hospital. Wisconsin staged its primary Tuesday, over the last-minute objections of the governor, after the Supreme Court intervened.
And baseball is weighing a far-fetched plan to resume its season by putting players in empty stadiums, all of them in Arizona, and perhaps removing umpires in favor of electronic balls and strikes.
And in this surreal environment, with so many of us stuck at home, with big-city streets often all but deserted, it’s hard to sort through all the horrendous headlines and conflicting claims. It’s hard to know who to believe when the experts, not to mention the politicians, are often divided.
Has America flattened the curve or not? Should virus patients try hydroxychloroquine or not? Does wearing a mask really protect you? Is it safe to go to the grocery store? Should churches open on Easter? Could the economy be reopened soon without driving up death rates? There is no easy answer.
Over many years, in the wake of a catastrophe, disaster, collapse or accident, it’s usually the case that some person, or persons, issued a stark warning that was ignored. This happened with 9/11 and 2008 financial crisis. It happened with Katrina and with the Challenger explosion. It’s happened with major oil spills, floods, forest fires and coal mine collapses.
And now, with the coronavirus, comes the latest sign that it’s happened again.
I’m not talking here about vague warnings from pandemic experts that one day the big one would come and the United States would be unprepared, or overall warnings from health officials that hospitals would be overwhelmed and medical supplies dangerously low.
No, it’s a pair of memos from Peter Navarro, a senior official and controversial economic adviser to President Trump. And it’s no coincidence that Navarro has dealt primarily with trade issues, and been a vociferous critic of China.
The first memo was dated Jan. 29, a time when Trump was downplaying any threat from the virus and, to be fair, it was being treated as a faraway issue in Wuhan by most of the media.
“The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenseless in the case of a full-blown coronavirus outbreak on U.S. soil,” Navarro said in the memo, which was obtained by the New York Times. “This lack of protection elevates the risk of the coronavirus evolving into a full-blown pandemic, imperiling the lives of millions of Americans.”
The second memo, whose contents were first reported by Axios, was dated Feb. 23, when there was rising concern about the virus but the president was still making optimistic statements. In that memo, which was passed around the West Wing, Navarro warned of the “increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans, with a loss of life of as many as 1.2 million souls.” The document urged the administration to seek $3 billion from Congress: “This is NOT a time for penny-pinching or horse trading on the Hill.” Trump told reporters last night that he didn’t read either memo.
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Former White House senior strategist Steve Bannon told Axios that Navarro sounded the alarm in writing because “there was total blockage to get these facts in front of the president of the United States,” blaming the “naivete, arrogance and ignorance” of White House officials who disagreed.
Now hindsight is always perfect, and it’s not reasonable to expect the entire government to swing into action based on one aide’s memos. Navarro is not a doctor or a scientist. In fact, he’s stirred controversy in recent days by promoting (along with Trump) the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which Anthony Fauci and others say remains unproven for the virus.
Navarro’s response is that he’s a social scientist who knows how to read studies. He has a Ph.D. And Trump just made him the production czar under the Defense Policy Act to get badly needed medical equipment into the pipeline.
Yet even Navarro, in that first memo, said a pandemic was a possibility, not a certainty.
But when Trump and others say no one could possibly have predicted a crisis of this magnitude, that’s not right. Navarro nailed it more than two months ago.
That, of course, is water under the bridge. The question for the country is what to do now–and whose advice to rely upon.
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