If you had been asleep for the last six months and woke up to the news that over 75,000 Americans were projected to die in the next three months, you might understandably wonder if you were in the middle of a dystopian novel.
It would perhaps be more surprising to learn that 155,000 people were already dead and still there was no plan to turn things around.
President Donald Trump appears quite reluctantly at the helm during troubled times that are impossible to just talk his way out of. He hoped the election would be about the economy and the divisive issues of immigration and his isolationist, nationalist view of the world, not a health care crisis that tests his competence and compassion and has consequences that are hard to hide from.
But the times select us; we don't select the times. And the mounting death toll, the 30 million unemployed and the record second-quarter economic contraction (32.9% at an annualized rate) are reflections of the Trump administration response.
Trump ignored underlying pandemic
COVID-19, as challenging as it is, is not an unsolvable problem. Slowing down the spread is a function largely of not sharing the same breathing space with others too closely, for too long. Countries across Europe, including those with U.S. levels of early contagion, have reduced infections down to the number of cases that can be easily traced. The global pandemic to most of the developed countries outside the United States feels very different: Exceedingly watchful, lots of testing, mandatory mask wearing, broad awareness, very few deaths and daily life much closer to normal.
Among other things, countries around the world have demonstrated that you do not build your economy back without addressing the underlying pandemic.
Much of the reason the United States is in this position is because, having at first dismissed the pandemic as a Democratic "hoax," Trump took a vacation from COVID for the months of May, June and July. He encouraged states to open the economy and claimed the pandemic was being overblown, but did not actually put in place any of the tools to get back to normal or reduce cases to a manageable level.
So the virus has spread from big cities in the Northeast to those in the South and Southwest, and now moves to cities and smaller towns across the country that have neither the visibility to see it transmitted nor much in the way of a comprehensive strategy to stop it. Along the way, it increasingly preys on marginalized communities — older and sicker people, migrant laborers, nursing homes, jails and detention centers, and other groups that have limited chances to isolate.
As the country gets set to send kids back to school, partially start up its sports leagues and flood college towns with students, it is clear we desperately need a strategy. But at this point, such a strategy would need to overcome a beleaguered and divided public. It would need to carry the full weight of President Trump so that his supporters join much of the rest of the country in reducing the spread of the virus. It would need to call on Americans to sacrifice in ways that they haven't.
The strategy would follow what we know works: a national mandate on mask wearing, closing all the hot spots for a period of time including bars and churches, drastically reducing travel, and shutting down what we had previously considered essential services but exposed too many to needless risk. With such a strategy, there's reason to believe based on other countries' histories and indeed, our own experience in New York over the last month, that within weeks COVID-19 could be brought under control.
Leadership we need but don't have
By Oct. 1, this approach, which I have labeled the "kitchen sink" approach, would have us safely walking our kids to school, voting in person, traveling, dining out, and cautiously returning to normal life. It would also save many of the 75,000 lives we don't need to lose. Few experts doubt that if we did this, it would work.
But to pull off a reset asking more of Americans would require leadership we just don't have. With holes in the boat, Trump only decides it's worth paddling if either the stock market or his polls drop. And when he does deign to put on a mask or hold a press conference, he's sure to wink at his followers with a tweet or a mischaracterization, or some other way of undermining the message. Saving 75,000 lives is not as important to him as his self-image, his lifelong mantra of never admitting mistakes, and his desire to avoid even the hint of accountability for whatever we need to do,
Joe Biden is of course the reset we need, but that answer is 75,000 lives away, more counting the time to inauguration in January. Who could be blamed for advocating drastic steps, including legal means to remove Trump from office, however unlikely that may seem? Who could be blamed for looking in disbelief at the Cabinet and the Republican Senate and wondering why they too won't help save lives? Who could argue that Trump and Republicans shouldn't pay a historic price?
Who could argue that Trump and Republicans shouldn't pay a historic price?
Andy Slavitt is board chair of United States of Care, host of the In the Bubble podcast and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. A former health care industry executive, he ran the Affordable Care Act and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from 2015 to 2017. Follow him on Twitter: @ASlavitt
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump will never be the COVID leader we need and Biden is months away