On day seven of the White House’s “15 days to slow the spread” initiative, President Donald Trump started talking about sending Americans back to work — an idea at odds with advice from his top health advisers.
In a tweet on Sunday, the president said in all capital letters: “AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
On Monday, he retweeted similar opinions as news began to leak that behind the scenes Trump was sharing this view with his advisers, and one of his aides appeared on Fox News to say the same thing.
WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2020
Trump’s eagerness to end social distancing was also a major topic of his marathon news conference on Monday evening. He said he plans to reopen certain parts of the economy “not long after” the 15-day initiative ends, even if his medical and public health advisers don’t agree with him.
“The doctors, if it was up to the doctors, they’d say ‘let’s shut down the entire world,’” Trump said at one point, adding at another that the shutdown “causes other problems, and maybe it causes much bigger problems than the problem we’re talking about now.”
The point of the 15-day initiative was to encourage social distancing to “flatten the curve” of the virus and save lives. But as of Monday, there was no sign that the pandemic was slowing. In fact, outbreaks in America are even outpacing some of the worst-hit countries in the world.
Worse, most experts, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the most prominent expert on Trump’s coronavirus task force, warn that the pandemic will get worse before it gets better. Experts fear that talk of encouraging people to get back to their normal routines quickly could hamper efforts to slow the pandemic — or even encourage its spread.
Trump, however, indicated on Monday that he thinks people have already learned the necessary lessons — even though he was speaking on the day after single-day coronavirus-related deaths in the country broke 100 for the first time ever.
"We learned so much discipline" -- Trump is talking like the coronavirus pandemic is in the rear view mirror, when in fact America just broke 100 deaths in a single day for the first time. pic.twitter.com/pnmFzN1QxW— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 23, 2020
There is a minority opinion — one expressed in particular by economists associated with Trump — that resuming some economic activity after a 15-day period is a worthwhile risk to take. But even the most aggressive argument emerging from that camp doesn’t compare to Trump’s willingness to send people back to work en masse. It’s clear that with the Dow plummeting and unemployment claims spiking, Trump fears an economic disaster ahead of the 2020 election could doom his prospects. (He even posted a retweet suggesting his idea is directly tied to the election.)
Trump’s sudden swing from calling for a 15-day day crackdown, to doubting the science it’s based on less than halfway through, is emblematic of his reckless approach to combating the coronavirus. All signs point to the crisis getting worse — and the man in charge is putting his own political interests before the lives of Americans.
Trump is getting frustrated with the advice of public health experts
On Monday, the president followed up on his previous night’s tweet by retweeting a number of accounts with sketchy handles like @steph93065 that urged him to get people back to work — not only for the sake of the economy, but for his reelection hopes as well.
“15 days. Then we isolate the high risk groups and the rest of us get back to work before it’s all over for everyone!! #Landslide2020,” wrote @FedupMil in a post that was retweeted by the president.
On Monday morning came a slew of news reports that Trump is “itching to scale back social distancing after 15-day period,” as CNN put it. The New York Times reported that “at the White House, in recent days, there has been a growing sentiment that medical experts were allowed to set policy that has hurt the economy, and there has been a push to find ways to let people start returning to work.”
Then came a Fox News appearance from top White House economics adviser Larry Kudlow in which Kudlow echoed points Trump made on Twitter.
“The president is right: The cure can’t be worse than the disease, and we’re gonna have to make some difficult trade-offs,” Kudlow said. “I spoke with the president about this very subject late last evening.”
KUDLOW teases that Trump will try to send people back to work next week: "We can't shut in the economy... POTUS is right: The cure can't be worse than the disease, & we're gonna have to make some difficult trade-offs... I spoke w/ POTUS about this very subject late last evening." pic.twitter.com/OV02aLFGxh— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 23, 2020
It’s understandable that the White House is eager to reestablish a sense of normalcy. Experts are now saying that the ongoing curtailment of economic life could produce unemployment levels worse than the Great Depression and an unprecedented shrinkage of GDP.
Trump would obviously have a hard time making a case for his reelection amid that sort of economic loss. But to the extent he cares about American lives more than his political future, the responsible thing to do is wait and see — at least until there’s some semblance of improvement, not as cases mount.
The number of US coronavirus cases continues to rise
The whole point of the 15-day program is to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed by “flattening the curve” of coronavirus cases. But as the following chart indicates, the number of confirmed cases in the US continues to grow at an exponential rate.
There’s no indication that the number of cases will plateau or start coming down before next week. On the contrary, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Sunday that “it’s only getting worse, and in fact April and May are going to be a lot worse.”
It’s true that many of the US cases are concentrated in especially hard-hit regions like New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington state. One might view that as contributing to an argument for the resumption of normal social and economic life in relatively better-off states like West Virginia or the Dakotas.
But the experience of Hong Kong, where the coronavirus seemed to be under control until a relaxation of social distancing resulted in a second outbreak and even more stringent measures, demonstrates the risk involved in prematurely encouraging people to go back to gyms, bars, and other places where the virus can spread. And the idea there’s much to be gained by reopening businesses in places like Grand Forks, North Dakota, while San Francisco remains under lockdown and hospitals are on the verge of overflowing in New York is dubious at best.
Furthermore, while US coronavirus testing capacity has increased in recent days, the country still lags far behind others in terms of tests performed relative to the population — meaning we still don’t have a clear picture of how widely the virus has already spread.
Resuscitating the economy requires getting the virus under control
In the end, the choice Trump seems to think he faces between continuing strict social distancing measures meant to get the coronavirus under control or ending them in hopes of stopping the economic collapse is a false one.
The latter can’t happen without the former, and the former can’t happen until the number of cases levels off, while more vigorous testing gives experts the tools they need to develop a better picture of how widely the virus has already spread.
Which is to say, even if you care about economic activity as the only value here, it's really not clear that anything like "business as usual" is even a possibility in the midst of a roaring pandemic, even if you let everything stay open.— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) March 23, 2020
Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiology professor at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and director of Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, told the Washington Post that “every well-informed infectious epidemiologist I know of” thinks the best way forward in the short term is more restriction, not less.
“We haven’t yet even seen signs that the growth [in coronavirus cases] is slowing, much less reversing. Now is the time to tighten restrictions on contacts that could transmit the virus, not loosen them,” Lipsitch said. “If we let up now we can be virtually certain that health care will be overwhelmed in many if not all parts of the country. This is the view of every well-informed infectious epidemiologist I know of.”
State governors have more authority than Trump to keep people at home, but what Trump says matters. For instance, the national standardization of social distancing measures throughout the country (with some notable exceptions, like beaches in Florida) came shortly after Trump stopped downplaying the gravity of the situation just over a week ago and embraced the “15 days” program.
At the very least, the president should wait until the outbreak is under control before trying to give people hope, because the trajectory of the numbers indicates there’s no good basis for doing so beyond short-term political self-interest. In fact, the quickest route back to some sense of normalcy is to stop the spread of the virus by continuing to encourage people to stay home, even if we have to do so for more than 15 days.