Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
The pandemic of 2020 is ravaging the United States faster every day. While many other developed countries gradually get back to normal, Americans are contracting Covid-19 in numbers that are hard to comprehend, breaking records every day.
Most disturbingly, the number of daily deaths has started to climb again. Counties in Texas, where morgues are running out of space, are asking FEMA for refrigerated trucks to hold the dead. Dozens of states are stopping or rolling back reopening; Michigan has asked the National Guard to stay and continue to help. Texas, whose governor was an early cheerleader for reopening, has extended its disaster declaration.
Why? Why are the European Union, Canada, New Zealand and others flattening the curve while American cannot?
The answer is found in two factors. One is the most dangerous myth surrounding Covid-19: that there is a tradeoff between beating the pandemic and restoring the economy. The other factor is a President who not only appears to believe that fallacy but is prepared to do whatever it takes to conjure a sense of normalcy for the sake of winning re-election.
First, the myth. It may seem counterintuitive, but combating the contagion is not contrary to helping the economy. Public health and economic growth are not incompatible; they go hand in hand. Fighting the pandemic is an indispensable step in returning to growth. There is no tradeoff. We all want the economy to recover, but allowing the coronavirus to surge is not the way.
Without the necessary measures – physical distancing, wearing face masks, etc. – the virus spreads like flames on dry brush. It will burn the economy to the ground if we don’t act. That is becoming achingly clear as we see cases spiking, fulfilling the prediction of epidemiologists who warned it was a deadly mistake to reopen too soon.
New York Times data shows that states like Florida, Texas and Arizona – all of which reopened early and aggressively – most aggressively, are becoming the new epicenters for Covid-19, with Florida reporting 15,299 new cases on Sunday – the highest number reported in a single day by any state since the pandemic began.
President Donald Trump pushed relentlessly to reopen, on the mistaken belief that it would fire up the economy, and devoted Republican governors quickly obliged. Reopening creates a flicker of economic activity, a fleeting illusion of recovery, followed by an explosion of disease and death, which demands further shutdowns.
This should not come as a surprise. A study of the 1918 flu pandemic found that US cities that took the fastest, most aggressive actions to reduce the spread ultimately experienced the strongest economic growth.
Reopening may save some jobs, some income, for a short time. But then we have to hunker down. Even if authorities don’t order the shutdowns, most people don’t want to risk getting the potentially deadly Covid-19 virus, so they make personal decisions that limit economic activity. By contrast, strong safety measures create confidence, trust in authorities, lower infection rates, and a return to something closer to normalcy.
If the entire country had continued a strict lockdown beyond a few weeks in the spring tens of thousands of lives could have been saved. We wouldn’t have close to 70,000 people diagnosed with Covid-19 in a single day, as we did on Friday. Americans would not be banned from entering Europe. The myth about reopening restoring the economy is killing people.
Among those who propagate the myth is Trump. But in his hands, the belief is weaponized and turbocharged by the electoral calendar.
The president acts and speaks as if he lives on a different planet. “I think we’re in a good place,” he said this week, as a top expert warned that we’re on a path to “one of the most unstable times in the history of our country,” with hospitals overwhelmed, their staff exhausted and becoming ill, and the pandemic raging out of control with deaths spiking again. Trump absurdly claimed that 99% of Covid-19 cases are “totally harmless.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, probably the most trusted man in the country on the topic, stated the obvious, “I don’t think you can say we’re doing great … we’re just not.” Instead, Fauci noted, we have a “serious ongoing problem,” a “perfect storm,” he called it. Days earlier, he had warned Congress that we could see 100,000 new daily cases. It sounded a little far-fetched. But now we’re barreling toward that horrifying marker.
At this point in the disaster, a fiendishly clever horror film screenwriter would throw a new plot twist: a leader who doesn’t care; one who does all the wrong things as the deaths pile up.
The President went to war against the recommendations of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding schools. Epidemiologists there wrote that schools and universities pose the “highest risk,” for the spread. But Trump didn’t like that, so he and his top coronavirus accomplice, Vice President Mike Pence, tried to pressure the CDC to rewrite the guidelines, because they were too “tough.” (CDC Director Robert Redfield refused to do so.)
Trump might as well order the virus to be less deadly. He appears to believe that he can somehow coax the country into ignoring the catastrophe and pretend happy days are here. But people are not buying it. That’s why 67% of Americans disapprove of his handling of the pandemic.
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Still, he persists. On Friday he went to Florida, a new epicenter of a raging disaster, to a place where about one out of every three coronavirus tests is positive, and he acted as if it was business as usual. (On Saturday, he briefly appeared in a mask on a visit to wounded service members at Walter Reed Hospital, saying he thought masks had “a time and a place.”)
Trump is detached from reality on the virus, or at least he acts as if he is. For the rest of us, for individuals and public officials, it is crucial to understand that the only way to return to normal and to protect jobs and incomes, is to save lives. There is no tradeoff. Ignore the rantings of the man with the curious tan. The economy will not recover until the virus is brought under control.