The Covid-19 pandemic has come to America.
As of Thursday, there were 1,376 confirmed cases, up from just 221 a week before.
As has been the case in every country that has seen an outbreak, calls for the government to act have been growing. And on Wednesday night, it did. In a televised address to the nation, President Donald Trump announced travel restrictions on people from 26 European countries coming into America, active from today.
The travel ban makes little sense. For a start, it only applies to Schengen countries, despite the fact that the UK and Ireland are just as severely affected as places in mainland Europe (Italy excepted). And US citizens abroad are permitted to re-enter, regardless of where they have been or who they have come into contact with.
It is also a dramatic shift from a White House which, up until now, has shown very little coordinated response at all.
On information, the official Centers for Disease Control has been slow in updating the public, while the President himself has issued a slew of misleading statements about the virus, from advising those who have it to go into work, to promising it would “disappear” because “it’s like a miracle”, to insisting that a vaccine was coming “relatively soon”, when the estimates are 12–18 months.
In terms of testing, America’s fragmented healthcare system has not been able to cope. As of Thursday, the US had tested around 11,000 specimens in total. In contrast, South Korea is testing 20,000 people per day. Last week, vice president Mike Pence, who has been put in charge of crisis response, admitted that there was a shortage of tests. Yesterday, a top health official said that the testing system was failing.
With so much that is still unknown, there is clearly no correct way to deal with the pandemic, and countries are learning as they go. South Korea appears to have had the best results with its “trace, test, treat” strategy — so far it has had nearly 8,000 cases, but just 66 deaths, and the number of new cases per day is falling dramatically.
Italy, meanwhile, remains in lockdown, but the death toll keeps rising. China’s quarantine rules are by far the most draconian, as is uniquely possible in an autocratic regime, but there are fears that the virus could resurface as soon as they are lifted and people move again.
And in the UK, there is anger that the government has not yet taken the social distancing measures seen elsewhere, such as banning large public gatherings and closing schools, while experts are still debating the merits of such policies and weighing them against the inevitable economic impact.
The sight of 600-odd MPs crammed into a poorly-ventilated chamber on Wednesday, when one of their colleagues had just tested positive, caused a certain amount of alarm.
But the way the situation is unfolding in the US is different. Other world leaders have tried to strike a balance between keeping people safe and ensuring that disruption and slowing business do not bring the economy to a shuddering halt.
Trump’s travel announcement, in contrast, succeeded only in causing panic across airports and sending global markets into free-fall, not just because of confusion over whether it applied to the entry of cargo as well as people (which would have virtually ended transatlantic trade overnight), but due to fears that the US response was inadequate. The Dow Jones experienced one of its worst days in trading history
Trump’s justification was that EU countries were failing to take “the same precautions” as the US. In fact, most European efforts have been by far superior to America’s chaotic and laissez-faire response.
A few extra measures were announced to support US businesses and encourage Americans to stay home from work, but these fell far short of what other nations have done, and the shortage of tests in the US was not addressed.
Rather than a fact-based response to an escalating crisis, the travel ban looks like a knee-jerk decision founded on the President’s predilection for US isolationism. “Build a wall” may have won him an election, but it is no strategy for dealing with a pandemic that is already spreading within a nation’s borders.
It is, of course, far too early to say what impact this could have on November’s presidential election. By that point, the global economy could have collapsed, America could be too severely quarantined for a standard election to be possible, and one or more of the present contenders (all of whom are over 70) might not be with us. Alternatively, it could all have returned to normal.
But it is difficult to see how the Trump administration recovers from Covid-19 if the situation escalates. While the virus spreads quickest in urban areas (which tend to lean Democrat), it is also most deadly for the older demographics which have formed a key part of Trump’s base. It is not surprising that the President’s poll ratings have dropped since the start of the year.
Closing borders rather than providing rapid testing and treatment and taking an unnecessary financial hit just when the economy is already fragile has the potential to plunge the country into twin economic and social crises.
Coronavirus does not respect political affiliation any more than it respects borders. And the Trump White House could yet prove one of its most high-profile casualties.
Main image credit: Getty