George Boardman: Political leaders should be quarantined until the pandemic has passed
Observations from the center stripe: Tourist edition
THAT’S QUITE a billboard greeting people entering Grass Valley from the south on Highway 49: “Puff, Let us roll this one” … THEN THERE’S the homeless person who was sleeping outside the door of the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce on a recent sunny Saturday … WHY DID Supervisor Heidi Hall hold her election night party at a restaurant outside her district? ... TO THOSE in the Higgins Fire District who voted no on Measure I; I don’t want to hear any whining about slow response times if your house catches on fire or you need medical aid … HER SUPPORTERS claim being a woman worked against Elizabeth Warren. Maybe, but she also turned off a lot of people with her purer-than-thou attitude … I’M AMUSED by Trump supporters who question the alleged moral and ethical shortcomings of his opponents. When it comes to morals and ethics, Trump didn’t lower the bar — he buried it … IF HE was Catholic, I’d advise Bernie Sanders to summon a priest to administer the last rites before his campaign expires …
The worldwide outbreak of the coronavirus is one of those events that try men’s souls, and is a moment in time when the public expects its elected leaders to provide mature, responsible leadership.
No such thing is forthcoming from members of our two major political parties, where every statement on the issue is an attempt to gain political advantage, and our leaders are reluctant to make the sacrifices necessary to set a good example.
The first case of coronavirus in the U.S. had barely been confirmed when Democrats went on the attack. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer accused President Donald Trump of “towering and dangerous incompetence,” and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar came under assault at a hearing on virus preparedness by grandstanders from both parties — Republicans Richard Shelby and John Kennedy, and Democrat Patty Murray.
When Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health appeared before a House committee last week to bring some clarity to the pandemic, he had to sit through a series of rhetorical hand grenades tossed by Democrats on the committee.
But don’t expect a restrained, mature response from the occupant of the White House. Trump is managing this crisis like a guy on a bar stool who had one too many, contradicting the experts, issuing unsound and misleading medical advice, and portraying himself as the victim of another political hoax.
This is not helpful at a time when some people confuse the virus with Corona beer, are boycotting Chinese restaurants, and bullying anybody of Asian descent. Supporters at a recent Trump rally told an NBC reporter they don’t think the coronavirus exists.
Trump views any negative development as a potential threat to his presidency, and in a year when he is facing reelection, political calculations figure into everything he does. He initially dismissed the coronavirus as nothing serious, and then tried to slow walk the government’s response.
His supporters picked up the cue. That well-known medical authority, Rush Limbaugh, initially claimed “The coronavirus is the common cold, folks,” while ex-Kentucky governor Matt Bevin tweeted that “Chicken Little has just confirmed that the sky IS indeed falling … Everyone is advised to take cover and bring lots of toilet paper with them” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R, Florida) appeared on the House floor wearing a gas mask when it came time to vote on a virus funding measure. (This was shortly before one of his constituents died of the disease.)
Then Trump’s supporters decided this was all a political ploy to defeat him in November. Limbaugh claimed the coronavirus threat was “exaggerated” and “lied about” to make Trump look bad. Fox Business anchor Trish Regan described the controversy as “yet another attempt to impeach the president.”
Fox News talking head Sean Hannity, who likes to proclaim that “Facts matter, the truth matters,” called attention on his radio show last week to a Twitter claim that the virus is a “fraud” by the deep state to spread panic in the populace, manipulate the economy, and suppress dissent. “May be true,” Hannity told his audience.
Trump’s original request for $2.4 billion to manage the crisis was deemed inadequate, and morphed into an $8.3 billion package passed by both houses of Congress. But then this is an administration that doesn’t want to invest in public health anyway.
The administration’s current budget proposal calls for a 16% cut to the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and a $65 million decrease in funding for the World Health Organization. Just as the spread of the coronavirus was becoming clear, the CDC was hit with a hiring freeze by way of an executive order on Jan. 22.
Vacancies in 125 job categories were blocked from being filled, including several in the Center for Preparedness and Response, and others in offices handling infectious diseases. The NIH isn’t allowed reassignments, so vacancies in necessary epidemiology and virology personnel can’t be filled that way.
But we’re no better off at the local level, where public health systems are on the frontline for battling disease. There are about 56,000 fewer local public-health workers than a decade ago, according to the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Per capita spending on public health is 3% below its 2009 level when adjusted for inflation, according to the CDC. Closer to home, Yuba and Sutter counties share the same health officer.
The administration has also been reluctant to endorse “social distancing,” a measure advocated by health experts to slow the spread of the disease. “Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on,” Trump tweeted last week. This gives license to people who don’t want to leave their comfort zones to adapt to the new reality.
Basketball star Rudy Gobert mocked the recommendation of the National Basketball Association to limit contact with others. Gobert made his point by touching the microphones of people interviewing him shortly before he was diagnosed with the coronavirus, prompting the NBA to shut down operations for the foreseeable future.
Closer to home, parents of students at Sheldon High School in Sacramento reacted with fury when authorities closed the school and threatened the chances of the basketball team to win another state championship. Our very own Center for the Arts went ahead with a reception for an art exhibit last week, anxious to show off the newly renovated building.
There’s a good reason health officials are encouraging social distancing. That reason is the “network effect,” the ability to move freely around the world and spread a disease to local networks — airports, shopping malls, supermarkets, concert and sports venues, and schools — that act as hubs connected to homes and offices. Disrupting that chain will slow down infections and avoid overwhelming our health system.
We don’t really know how bad the coronavirus is in the U.S. because we have tested so few people. Trump has been pummeled for not getting test kits distributed faster and I’m inclined to cut him some slack. After all, this is the federal government. But Trump just makes things tougher for himself when he claims kits have been widely distributed (they haven’t) and that anybody who needs a test can get one (they can’t).
Congress is wrestling with a bill to relieve the economic stress caused by the pandemic as I write this column. As is usually the case, both parties are more interested in getting their favorite goodies into the bill than doing what actually makes sense for the country.
As a member of the age group that’s most at risk from the coronavirus, I find none of this reassuring. But I’m in excellent health for my age, and I plan to stay that way by practicing good health and sanitation habits, and listening to the medical experts.
As for our elected officials, I’m going to put them in quarantine when it comes to public health. They’re almost as dangerous as a plane load of feverish passengers arriving from Italy.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at email@example.com.
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