Donald Trump is getting criticism, much of it richly deserved, for delaying America's response to the coronavirus. But even a better leader would have had to delay extreme measures until they became politically possible.
My own experience indicates how easy it is to underestimate a looming medical threat. In December 1968 Adrian College president John Harper Dawson called department heads to an urgent meeting during the national flu epidemic. The campus doctor had recommended closing down early, several days before the scheduled Christmas vacation.
Dawson asked for our perspectives. Some colleagues favored shutting down, and others opposed it. I objected that it would complicate student travel arrangements and mess up faculty class plans.
President Dawson decided to shut down. I went away grumbling. The next morning I awoke with a horrible case of the flu, soon passed along to my extremely pregnant wife and our cat!
John Harper Dawson had no problem getting compliance with his decision. We all recognized that he was the boss. But government leaders don't have the luxury of making decisions without considering whether people will comply. Leaders can't lead without followers.
Imagine how we would have reacted in early February if Donald Trump had closed all the schools, told people not to meet in groups of more than 10, shut down most incoming air travel and proclaimed other measures shutting down church services and a significant percentage of the national economy.
It is hard to specify the date when the accelerating American deaths finally prepared the public to accept such extreme measures. But it obviously was after the date on which these measures would have held casualties down to the lowest possible number. And even after Mr. Trump belatedly proclaimed an emergency, too many didn't pay attention. College students packed the Florida beaches during spring vacation and some churches still held services.
Since not all of the delay in declaring a national emergency could have been avoided, it is unfair to blame President Trump for all of the additional deaths resulting from his delay.
But Trump can hardly be deemed totally innocent. He shouldn't have made comments in January and February minimizing the danger. His credibility problems were only increased by his recent claims that he knew all along that the pandemic was going to be so bad. His attempts to hog the limelight in his daily "briefings" and to blame others for our problems —the Chinese, WHO, Democratic state governors — have been transparently political in the worst sense of the term.
Although he never claimed the pandemic itself was a hoax, it was particularly inappropriate when Trump complained that our media's early focus on it was a Democratic hoax. Our media may may actually been too slow to give the pandemic adequate coverage. For several weeks before our TV networks focused on it, the daily news from the BBC was about nothing else. I wrongly thought at the time that the BBC was unnecessarily alarmist.
But media people are only human, and like our political leaders and general population may not have understood how the number of afflicted can increase exponentially in an epidemic — how small numbers of cases which double every few days can become huge numbers very quickly. (Try this yourself: 5, 10, 20, 40, 80, 160, 320, 640, 1,280. Eight more doublings and we get 327,680. Another eight doublings and we get nearly 84 million!)
Obviously the extreme American measures were taken later than they needed to be. But we shouldn't spend much energy right now trying to allocate blame. We need to be discussing more important things, like what we can all do to help win the current war.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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