On Wednesday, President Trump held a press conference regarding the federal government’s response to coronavirus. The presser followed a series of ill-advised missives from Trump on the subject, from a tweet lamenting media coverage of “caronavirus” to stating that the United States was “very close to a vaccine,” despite the fact that such a vaccine will not be ready for a year, in all likelihood.
During the press conference, Trump downplayed the coronavirus threat, suggesting that the risk to the United States remains “low,” adding that a vaccine was “coming along very well.” He stated, “We’re ready to adapt, and we’re ready to do whatever we have to do.” He appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead a task force on the issue, and tore into Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, whom he termed “incompetent.” Trump also talked up the Chinese response to the virus, stating that the government of China was “very talented,” as well as “very tough and very smart.”
The stock market has continued to tank; the Dow Jones closed at 28,984.23 last Friday, but has now dropped precipitously – more than 10 percent of its total value – down to around 26,000. Obviously, markets are not seeing the sort of reassurance they believe is necessary. Nor, in all likelihood, should they: the international news makes clear that other countries are taking extreme measures to stop coronavirus’ spread, including Japan sending home some 13 million students for a month. Meanwhile, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar stated that the “degree of risk has the potential to change quickly.”
With all of this said, it’s important to take note of a few key points:
1. We Don’t Know Enough About Coronavirus. China’s initial attempts to crack down on information about coronavirus’ spread delayed dissemination of crucial information to governments around the world, and also led to a greater outbreak, as travel restrictions were placed later than would otherwise have been the case. Even now, China isn’t being transparent about the number of cases and deaths in China, attempting to clamp down on the severity of the outbreak in order to prevent disquiet domestically. This means we simply don’t know the transmission rate or the mortality rate from coronavirus – the two key components to figuring out the trajectory of the virus itself. We know that the virus can be transmitted by those who are asymptomic for up to two weeks; we know it is easily transmissible. The mortality rate has been estimated at upward of 2 percent, but it varies widely among populations: the World Health Organization, for example, estimated that the mortality rate in Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, was 2.9 percent, but 0.7 percent elsewhere in China.
2. America Isn’t Other Countries. Countries that have poorer health facilities and less responsible governments are experiencing the full severity of coronavirus. Iran’s entire central government seems to have been infected by coronavirus; China has obviously had severe problems controlling coronavirus. The United States has excellent health facilities, great wealth, and a ready distribution system for necessary materials. Acceleration of that distribution will be necessary, but seems possible. There have been no calls for widespread quarantining as of yet, as there have been in other countries. And while each story of monitoring sounds scary – California announced today that 8,400 people were under monitoring – the experts continue to say that the risk to the general public remains low, if fluid.
3. Trump Is Not Mishandling This Situation, And Democrats Are Playing Politics. Trump’s talk-radio-caller shtick doesn’t play well during an international crisis, and this situation is no exception: tweeting about “caronavirus” and botching the basic facts about vaccine development aren’t helpful. But the Trump administration has not mishandled this situation. Even the Associated Press acknowledges that Democratic complaints that Trump cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control is nonsense; the AP also explains that staffing levels are stagnant from the pre-Trump era. According to the AP, Democrats are presenting a “distorted picture.” That hasn’t stopped the Democrats from playing ugly politics (or a New York Times columnist from idiotically terming coronavirus “Trumpvirus”), and Trump is absolutely right to smash Nancy Pelosi and company over it.
4. The Stock Market Is Crashing Because China Botched This. Companies are announcing prospective earnings reductions thanks to disruptions in the global supply chains. Microsoft, for example, announced on Wednesday that its supply chain was “returning to normal operations at slower pace than anticipated.” Goldman Sachs’ chief equity strategist, David Kostin, stated that “US companies will generate no earnings growth in 2020,” thanks to the “severe decline in Chinese economic activity in 1Q, lower end-demand for US exporters, disruption to the supply chain for many US firms, a slowdown in US economic activity, and elevated business uncertainty.” The bottom line is that many enormous firms are reliant on smooth production and distribution of components if not end products via China, and the factory closings that have plagued that country have disrupted that chain. Trump has nothing to do with this.
Here’s the bottom line: this is an apparent black-swan event, with no real modern precedent in terms of scope and uncertainty. Downplaying risks would be a mistake; so would panic on the basis of lack of information. But the notion that the miasma of misinformation surrounding coronavirus has anything to do with Trump is a partisan talking point. And the media seem all-too-happy to run with it.