Trump’s Pandemic Performance

Over the last month, given that most of us have been focused primarily on the health risks to ourselves and our loved ones from the virus – and in innumerable cases, secondarily on the very considerable economic costs of the shutdown to the same people – I have tried to avoid the political partisanship that is frequently found in these posts. Some things are way more important than trying to score points for ideological positions. Doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about the political implications of what’s been going on; I have.

Now that, in my view, evidence is clear that we have begun to emerge from the immediate healthcare crisis I feel marginally more comfortable sharing my thoughts about how President Trump has been handling his responsibilities. Indeed, I would think it almost irresponsible to leave unanswered the particularly putrid partisanship of the Harlot of Times Square, which misses no chance to play gotcha games with decisions our president has made along the way, whether or not such imprecations run directly counter to their lines of attack against him when the decisions were made.        

To properly explain my take on how Trump has managed the crisis, I must begin with a brief assessment of where we are:

As you probably know, the daily totals of new reported US cases of the virus have been on a slight downward trend since the April 4th peak of 34,196; yesterday’s total was 27,421 (all figures from here: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/). Deaths from the virus seem to have peaked three days ago at 2,035; yesterday’s total was 1,528. These figures strongly suggest that we have succeeded at “flattening the curve” so that our medical system will not be overwhelmed to the point at which it will be unable to provide proper care to the gravely ill, as many had feared. A happy consequence of slowing the spread of the virus is that the most recent estimates of the numbers of Americans who are likely to die from the present pandemic have been falling rapidly – from the original fears of millions, to 100,000-200,000 as recently as ten days ago, to around 60,000 now.

The bad news about the virus (notwithstanding our having “flattened the curve”) is that there clearly won’t be an approved/available vaccine anytime soon – and it seems to be beyond the realistic possibility of true containment at this time. This means that the most vulnerable will have to be very self-protective for a pretty long while.

The good news is that herd immunity is a real thing, likely already causing the incidence of severe illnesses in California to be vastly lower than it is in New York. What I’m reading suggests that the IFR – the fatality rates among those who have been infected – might be around .4% – three or four times worse than most flus, but radically less than the reported CFRs – case fatality rates – which are based on the cases that present themselves to the medical community and ignore the many people for whom the illness is so mild as to be barely noticed. (The IFR might even be dramatically lower than .4% if, as some researchers are now asserting, the infections have been much more widespread than had been assumed).  Essentially, if correct, this means that only the very elderly and immuno-compromised need worry – and even people in those categories will increasingly be protected by the much lower transmission rates resulting from herd immunity.

Also, I have no doubt that the medical community is in the process of improving survival rates by figuring out which treatments are more helpful, and – crucially – we are definitely crossing over the danger that the medical system would be overwhelmed right now.

***

Meanwhile, at least 15,000,000 – and more likely 20,000,000 or more – Americans have lost their jobs because of the lockdowns that have helped stall the virus’s progress. Even ignoring the business failures that represent the broken dreams of millions of hard-working small business owners, this simple total of job losses represents pain, insecurity and personal displacement on a staggering order of magnitude. What’s more, the relief bills that are intended to soften these blows and help the economy recover quickly are adding trillions to our already out-of-control federal debt. These bills will come due one day – we’re just not quite sure how, or by whom, they’ll be paid.

***

Was “flattening the curve” via lockdowns (and social distancing) worth these human and financial costs? How long will/should the lockdowns last? On what basis have/will/should these decisions be made? Has Trump been making the right calls? Should we have confidence that he will make the right ones going forward? These are the questions that – as much as any other decisions he has made – will determine how he is viewed by the voters in November and historians down the road.

My assessment is that President Trump has been doing an excellent job of trying to balance the relevant considerations in light of the tremendous uncertainties of the situation. He was heavily criticized (by Biden and Pelosi, among many others) when he stopped incoming flights from China long before there was a consensus that the virus presented a real threat to Americans (indeed, at a time when Dr. Fauci was asserting that it didn’t). Trump’s having done so showed a deep respect for what was then an unknown risk of potentially staggering magnitude. And a good case can be made that it bought us time that saved the lives of many.

Even more substantively, and unnoticed by the media’s many rabid Trump-haters, throughout the crisis the president has been consistently governing from the middle, rather than taking ideologically “right wing” positions. He has allowed – and encouraged – the lockdowns that curtail many of our cherished civil rights and impose huge economic and social costs on all. He has been working with governors who (at least publicly) hate his guts to make sure that their medical systems have the supplies and personnel they need. He has unreservedly agreed to spend money like there’s no tomorrow to help those in need and – we hope – to re-start the economy promptly. These are not “conservative” positions and, if the virus fades quickly, the government’s whole response to it may well come to be seen as having been a terrible over-reaction, where the cure was much worse than the disease.

On the other hand, if the virus persists, and Trump pushes to re-open the economy in a manner that later proves to have been premature, he will come in for terrible criticism from those who (like Dr. Fauci, as I read it) want the lockdowns to remain in place until there is no health risk at all, irrespective of the attendant economic risks.

Trump has made and is making his virus decisions decisions in an environment in which both sides of the balancing-of-costs equation involve staggering unknowns. Would millions die if he did nothing and left the economy running? Will the economy collapse (and be impossible to re-start amidst a flood of bankruptcies) if there’s a shutdown, or the shutdown goes too long? Nobody knows, but decisions must be made. You can watch Trump weigh the competing factors daily in his press briefings.

He’s trying to balance the competing costs – the health (and life) costs of a less aggressive lockdown policy versus the also very real human costs of allowing ever more companies to fail and people to lose their jobs. Right now, he is very publicly leaning toward re-opening the economy sooner rather than later. And given my assessment of the status of the virus – and of the economy – I agree.

Let’s just hope that if Trump goes with his instincts, between herd immunity, warmer weather (which often slows viruses) and a better-organized medical community, the incremental costs of the pandemic that would spring from a faster-than-Fauci-would-recommend re-opening schedule are small, and that the economic recovery that flows from the reopening (and the trillions in new federal spending) will give lasting succor to the millions who are now suffering from the economic consequences of the virus.

M.H. Johnston

5 comments to Trump’s Pandemic Performance

  • Doug  says:

    Mark, What if ‘social distancing’ is not flattening the curve but the so called ‘experts’ and the people who will allow Joe Biden to ‘follow the science’ are wrong? At the conclusion of the Swine Flu, the CDC on 11/12/09 reported that perhaps 22,000,000 were infected but later on 1/25/10 recalculated and estimated that 55,000,000 were infected. Similarly the IHME has been disastrous in its projections. Hospital bed requirements in NYC estimated at 135,000 by Columbia University and 53,000 by McKinsey are something like 15,000. Yet they tell us our quarantine efforts are flattening the curve? Look at the top 10 most populous countries in Africa representing 775 million people with a cumulative total Covid related deaths of 175. Yes. 175. India 1ith 1.38 Billion and a total of 166 Deaths. Bangladesh with 21 total deaths. So. Yes. the President has done a great job but we need to get back to work. These are the same experts who are asking us to follow the science and turn our economy over to the green new deal. Trump should announce that enough is enough. Fauci will never be happy. The social distancing…no running, biking, walking dogs, boating…whatever…is an infringement on our liberties and BS. IMO

  • DP  says:

    Mark, it is fair to defend him because he hasn’t done badly and the press (also in the UK reagrind the PM here) seems to be engaged in a “gotcha” game. Totally negative and pointless. But I would hazard to say that he has done essentially what every other country has done. And where he goes “off-piste”, such as his energetic enthusiasm for chloroquine, or his delegation to his son-in-law Jared, I can only shake my head. Granted his early closing-off o flights was good instinct. But that sort of gets to the crux of this. I wish our President were a little less instinctual and a lot more structured in certain areas.

  • Doug  says:

    Just a quick redux for DP. Please consider 175 Total reported Deaths in all of the 9 most populous countries in Africa and 166 in India against 1.378 Billion (17.7% of world population). Could it be that the wide spread use of Hydoxychloroquine in those regions to eradicate Malaria could have been at work mitigating the impact? And… with the ‘science’ and ‘experts’ being so wrong (maybe 100 people combined admitted to Javits and the Navy ship Comfort – and every other guess wildly wrong) who the hell is he supposed to listen to in order to be more structured. BTW, I had a dream last night that Andrew Cuomo was giving me a ride somewhere and we had much the same discussion – old two-toned Crown Victoria with a dent in the side

  • DENNIS A PAINE  says:

    Mark,

    This is stunning good news in respect of vaccine breakthroughs:

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/they-developed-their-coronavirus-vaccine-in-salks-shadow-11586557454

    These two men, and their colleagues, are heroes. The only obstacle to timely approval and scaled production is bureaucratic inertia. I pray that this breakthrough receives the attention it deserves and that prompt approval follows.

    • M Johnston  says:

      Exactly I’ve read of several other possible vaccines, too. Let’s hope Trump gets the regulatory agencies moving.

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