They don’t know what they are doing. That’s what President Barack Obama said about U.S. leaders in charge of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. He was giving online speeches at commencement events around the country with discomforting rhetoric, but was nicer than usual. He mentioned no names.
The suspicion is that he mostly had President Donald Trump in mind, but if he were instead indulging in actual analysis, he might have been focused on the multiple, disastrous goofs of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York. Here’s a guy who was outstandingly polished, articulate and forceful in daily TV briefings, what you’d expect from a movie star. Some pundits, whose wisdom is assumed endless in spite of no beginning, said he should be the Democratic candidate for president.
The neglected truth was that when things had started going wrong in New York, so did Cuomo. In early March, when other states began taking action, he didn’t. He did not even promote social-distancing, for instance, and later confessed he did not blow the bugle as soon as he should have. Some argue that his hesitancy cost countless lives as Cuomo maintains that The New York Times should have warned him of what was coming. It did, with a reported 450 stories between Jan. 9 and March 1, although they did not outline his duties.
Cuomo’s missteps were numerous, but here is the most unspeakable horror. Against protests that they were in no way capable of dealing with the influx, Cuomo insisted nursing homes let virus carriers in with especially vulnerable patients, and more than 5,000 have died. When publicity caught up with the death toll, he changed his mind, although insisting that the virus was always sure to take lives. In this case, it had an accomplice.
To be sure, dealing with this kind of once-in-a-century mega-crisis leaves just about everyone prone to mistakes, even including Obama, who, in another speech did mention Trump by name, saying he was “an absolute chaotic disaster.” An Obama theme has been the dangers of divisiveness, and surely he was sowing no discord in this utterance or when he said leaders were just “pretending to be in charge.”
Trump once did try to go beyond pretense by absurdly declaring he had complete authority over the states, although later allowing each state to go its own way along with federal guidelines. The left did not like either alternative even though public health is primarily a state responsibility, no two states are exactly alike and there’s this thing called dual sovereignty. Obama as president did know how to be in charge; he once told Congress he was going to proceed on the equivalent of law creation without its OK and demonstrated his leadership capacities in a recession recovery longer than any since World War II.
Despite Trump blunders seen as viruses themselves, the administration in February was working with labs on tracing infections, getting a vaccine program started and checking airports for virus carriers from abroad, according to the Federalist. The White House also engaged with Congress on a $2.5 billion virus bill and tempered regulations to allow more aggressive research on medicines. A tough responsibility was obtaining needed masks because the Obama administration had used up the federal government’s emergency supply without replacement.
The coronavirus crisis is far from over, and the issue now is how fast the states should reopen although most experts do concur there should be careful restraints to stave off a new surge. To move too slowly, however, could give us a decrepit America for years with more deaths from all kinds of other causes. New York had better get things right this time, and remember this: While comparisons to other crowded cities show density was likely not the primary cause, the state, with New York City leading the way, became the coronavirus capital of the world, with more cases per capita than any country.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.