Another ‘Decision” Drama with Lives in the Balance

Many US state governors and their medical advisers are pondering President Trump’s assertion Friday that “the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make” is something they will want to go along with at the end of the month.

Some expressed concerns the president’s continual emphasis on reopening the economy could eventually short-circuit the extraordinarily unified adherence to stay-at-home orders from statehouses and the 30-day guidelines from the White House that are saving tens of thousands of lives. Others, through the lens of political and ideological polarisation, see the issue as pitting common sense against tribal loyalties.

Some Republican governors and Republican-controlled state legislatures are more inclined to follow the president’s lead just as their party opposites are more inclined to ignore him – unless they need something from FEMA and the National Strategic Stockpile.

There was a state Supreme Court hearing Saturday on the lawsuit filed by the Democratic governor of Kansas, for instance, in which she challenged the Republican legislature’s cancellation of her order limiting attendance at church and funeral services to 10 or fewer attendees. She wanted a ruling before Easter.

Governors are either experiencing up to hundreds of virus-caused deaths in their state or watching the threat of mass deaths inexorably advance in their direction. They have undergone an intense education in recent days on what it takes to save lives.

The first phase of fencing in the virus through intense mitigation is seeing a promise of peaking the death toll in a few days to a couple of weeks. The next phase looms, of keeping deaths at some minimum level even as possibly infected people are encouraged to circulate again in some parts of the country.

The Task Force’s Anthony Fauci said he would expect additional cases of the virus to pop up any place people are not practicing social distancing, at least until there’s a vaccine. He indicated that could be tolerated as long as those areas were in a containment phase and could immediately isolate virus victims and anyone they contacted. In areas where only after-the-fact mitigation is possible, like New York, he cannot see lifting stay-at-home advisories and orders.

Even as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Detroit, Seattle, Los Angeles and a few other places were caught behind the virus curve, learning too late what should have been done, most of the rest of the country takes measures to meet the threat head on before it gets out of control. Areas like Denver, where the virus has spread in a meat packing plant, are already using aggressive contact tracers to get to those who brushed again virus carriers so they can be isolated before they perpetuate the spread. Epicentres like New York never had the chance to fence in the virus. It had already spread.

The installation of a new White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, has evidently not imposed any constraint on the president’s impulse to keep his image of a disruptor intact and, in fact, seems to be reinforcing the tendency. Trump has threatened to withhold US contributions to the World Health Organisation in the middle of a pandemic or at least force the resignation of its director, and it has launched an attack on its own Voice of America worldwide broadcasting network. That’s just this week.

The White House objection to the Voice of America, in a weekly newsletter, seems to be that it can accept some information from China as being factual. One time VOA director Edward Murrow would not be pleased.

As in the past, the president seems to look for opportunities to telegraph that he has a big decision to make, igniting speculation, dread or delight in anticipation as the deadline approaches. The world waited as he decided whether to impose additional tariffs on China products until the question was mooted by events.

The pattern began to evidence itself early in the Friday afternoon Coronavirus Task Force briefing, one in which the word “decision” surfaced 36 times, not everyone referring to the big forthcoming decision. “I don’t know that I’ve had a bigger decision,” the president said of his choice whether to encourage people to return to work, at least in some areas. “But I’m going to surround myself with the greatest minds, not only the greatest minds but the greatest minds in numerous different businesses, including the business of politics and reason. And we’re going to make a decision and hopefully it’s going to be the right decision.”

If case anyone had missed the point, he went on. “I didn’t think of it until yesterday. I said you know this is a big decision.”

As he continued he made it more clear that it’s not going to be “we” making the decision. “I’m going to make a decision based on a lot of different opinions. Some will maybe disagree and some – I’d love to see it where they don’t disagree.”

Will there be risks in reopening?  After all, many of those most closely involved in decision making – the governor of New York, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, esteemed medical experts – warn against the danger of a “false start” and the difficulties of having to reimpose a lockdown.

“It’s always going to be a risk that something can flare up,” Trump said. “Look at what’s happening where countries are trying to get open and there’s a flare up…but I’d like the flare up to be very localised so that we can control it from a local standpoint without having to close” the country again.

Will his medical Task Force allow his council of reopening specialists pick Iowa and Nebraska in return for keeping New York, New Jersey and Chicago closed? Is the American economy really reopened without New York and Chicago?

Once more, the president said, “I’m going to have to make a decision. And I only hope to God that it’s the right decision. But I would say without question it’s the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make.”

The 20-day countdown to the decision begins.


Colin Lambert

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