“Trump’s demonstrated failures of judgment and his repeated rejection of science make him the worst possible person to lead our country through a global health challenge,” former Vice President Joe Biden wrote Monday in a USA Today op-ed.
In turn, Donald Trump has had almost nothing to say about the outbreak, in But is this an issue that voters will care about in November, or even next week?
It depends how you define this “issue.” When it comes to the political implications of the coronavirus, there are really two conversations taking place at once. The first is about policy. The second is about Trump’s leadership. A debate over public health policy probably won’t influence voters. But if the coronavirus starts to threaten Americans, a debate over the president’s capacity to keep the country safe could end up moving the needle.
To rewind: The coronavirus is a pneumonia-like disease believed to have originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. The outbreak is spreading rapidly across that nation, and cases are cropping up with increasing frequency overseas. China said on Tuesday that 106 people had died from the virus, up nearly 60 percent overnight, while the number of confirmed cases rose overnight from 2,835 to 4,515. Thailand has reported 14 cases of the infection; Hong Kong has eight; the United States, Taiwan, Australia and Macau have five each, and cases have been reported in Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, France, Canada, Vietnam, Nepal, Cambodia and Germany. There have been no deaths yet outside China.
In response, the federal government has urged travelers to avoid any nonessential travel to China and started screening travelers arriving from Wuhan at 20 domestic ports of entry. The U.S. also chartered a plane Tuesday to evacuate diplomats from its consulate in Wuhan, an important manufacturing hub with a population of 11 million.
President Trump has himself remained relatively quiet. “We are in very close communication with China concerning the virus,” he tweeted Monday. “Very few cases reported in USA, but strongly on watch. We have offered China and President Xi any help that is necessary. Our experts are extraordinary!”
Earlier, Trump tweeted that “it will all work out well.”
Trump’s potential Democratic rivals, however, are not so sure. Last week, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren criticized Trump for seeking to cut funding meant to combat pandemics, and on Tuesday she released her plan to “ensure our public health agencies, hospitals, and health care providers are ready to jump into action when outbreaks strike” while also helping to “build strong public health systems abroad.”
A day earlier, Biden promised in his op-ed to “ask Congress to beef up the Public Health Emergency Fund and give me the power to use the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to declare a disaster if an infectious disease threat merits it” while also renewing “funding — set to expire in May — for the nationwide network of hospitals that can isolate and treat people with infectious diseases and fully funding the Global Health Security Agenda so the world is ready for the next outbreak.”
Both Democrats criticized what Biden called Trump’s “short-sighted policies” — namely, his proposed cuts to agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, his decision to eliminate the position of a White House health security czar and withdrawal of funding for international epidemic prevention.
These are all valid policy concerns. Yet the part of Warren and Biden’s pushback that has the most potential to influence the 2020 contest isn’t about policy. It’s about leadership.
“The possibility of a pandemic is a challenge Donald Trump is unqualified to handle as president,” Biden wrote.
As evidence, Biden cited Trump’s response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic.
Although largely forgotten today, Trump, who was already contemplating a presidential run, posted 100 tweets about Ebola in the summer and fall of 2014 — roughly one a day. His approach was consistent: to stoke fear about the disease spreading from Africa and attack President Barack Obama for his response.
Trump shouted about shutting down flights, even though public health authorities believe that blocking travel does nothing to stop the spread of disease, and can, in some cases, make things worse: "A single Ebola carrier infects 2 others at a minimum. STOP THE FLIGHTS! NO VISAS FROM EBOLA STRICKEN COUNTRIES!"
He sought to undermine the credibility of medical authorities: “Ebola is much easier to transmit than the CDC and government representatives are admitting. Spreading all over Africa — and fast.”
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