With the rapid growth of coronavirus infections in recent days, and likely for the foreseeable future, the United States finds itself in a grave predicament entirely of its own making. No amount of finger-pointing toward China about its lack of transparency early in the outbreak, or the time lost before Beijing finally alerted others about the nature of its epidemic—although both true—can change this harsh reality.
The country that seldom tires of reminding others that it is the richest and most powerful nation in the world has completely squandered whatever lead time it had before the virus took firm hold in places like Seattle and New York. But there is worse to come, as President Donald Trump has adopted a fugue state approach to policymaking, shifting daily from denial of any crisis, to predicting a miraculous disappearance of COVID-19, to adopting the mien of a “wartime president.” Along the way, he has also mimicked the decision-making habits of the authoritarian leaders he so envies, or at least his image of how they rule, going with gut judgments and boasting about his wisdom.
Such rudderless national leadership has left the application of measures to respond to the spread of the virus across the country severely uneven, with regimes of social distancing and sheltering in place varying from state to state. The Trump administration is still unable to meet the needs of hard-hit areas for masks, ventilators and other necessary medical gear. It appears the United States will largely waste its 15-day period of costly economic and social slowdowns aimed at arresting transmission rates. Washington now feels increasingly intense pressure to relax controls limiting work and social interaction, because of the untold economic damage that the ongoing shutdown will bring.