Politics in the US aren’t for the faint-of-heart at the best of times but this year, with only six months to run to the elections, under President Donald Trump it has become a bizarre wonderland with the president changing tack at will and his prospects of re-election vaporising by the day as the economy slides rapidly downhill.
Viewed from NZ, the situation looks chaotic, changing daily, sometimes hourly, with no coherent vision beyond that of the medical experts and no evident US-wide strategy to contain (let alone defeat) the coronavirus, so the country might be in better shape.
No wonder NZ is so envied and PM Jacinda Adern so highly regarded across the US.
More than 1.2m people in the US have been infected with the coronavirus and by Thursday, more than 74,000 have died. Only in New York State, where the widely-respected Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo imposed strict controls, has the rate of infection reached a plateau.
Elsewhere across the US the virus continues to spread inexorably.
President Trump is vigorously encouraging states to re-open for business, banking on a quick economic recovery. His rationale seems to be the revival of the economy is of primary importance, even though it risks a rising death toll.
Asked this week if deaths would rise with a re-opening, he said,
“Hopefully that won’t be the case. It could very well be the case. But we have to get our country open again. People want to go back, and you’re going to have a problem if you don’t do it.”
At the end of this week, 33m are unemployed and the rate nudging 20%. Back in early March it was only 4.2%.
Trump campaigned hard in 2016 on reviving the economy and it seemed he had succeeded until the Coronavirus arrived. If the White House an early management plan, it might have coped.
In many states, more than 25% of workers are unemployed. President Trump has encouraged governors to relax social-distancing rules, even though most states do not meet the guidelines provided by the White House.
More than half the 50 states have begun to reopen their economies or plan to do so soon. Most fail to meet the White House’s guidelines to resume business and social activities. These require – or suggest as they are non-binding – states should have a “downward trajectory” of documented cases or of the percentage of tests that come back positive.
Most states fail to adhere to even those recommendations when re-opening. In more than half of states easing restrictions, case counts are trending upward, positive test results are on the rise, or both, raising concerns among public health experts.
Most of these states have Republican governors and Trump has mocked Democratic state governors who have taken a cautious line – and even praised the protesters objecting to state lock-down
The Associated Press reports that a set of detailed documents was created by the top US infectious disease experts to give local leaders advice on how to reopen safely. But it has been shelved by the Trump administration.
The 17-page report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, titled “Guidance for Implementing the Opening Up America Again Framework,” was supposed to be published last Friday and was more detailed than the guidelines released by the White House. Now the White House says it was “too predictive”.
There is new evidence that much of the US infection came from New York. The city’s coronavirus outbreak grew so large by early March it became the primary source of new infections across the states as thousands of infected people travelled from the city and seeded outbreaks around the country.
The research indicates that this wave of infections began before the city began setting social distancing limits to stop the growth. It helped to fuel outbreaks in Louisiana, Texas, Arizona and as far away as the West Coast. The findings are drawn from geneticists’ tracking signature mutations of the virus, travel histories of infected people and models of the outbreak by infectious disease experts.
Back in Washington DC, there are signs of panic in the presidential team. On Tuesday, for example, Trump and his faithful vice president, Mike Pence, pronounced the White House coronavirus task force would be wound down at the end of the month. Mission accomplished; victory declared.
Not so fast. Next morning Trump tweeted it would continue with additional support.
Why? Because, he said, some “very good people” had urged him to continue the task force’s work. This emerged from within the Republican Party where anxiety is growing over Trump’s and the party’s public standings in the wake of the crisis.
Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accuse China of covering up the outbreak and failing to stop its spread. They reckon it came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, rather than from live animal markets in the nearby city, yet they have failed to produce any convincing evidence. This claim appears even further discredited by reports this week from Paris where a Covid-19 case was detected last November and the patient had not travelled out of France.
US intelligence is understandably reticent, noting only that it did not appear to be man-made. Led by the Defence Intelligence Agency, which has a department specialising in identifying pandemics, the intelligence community has a proven track record having spotted outbreaks from Sars to swine flu and Ebola in recent years long before their presence became publicly known.
Washington has ramped up its criticism of Beijing, which has blasted back using rhetoric which would make even the North Koreans blush. This is another example of the new aggressive and robust diplomacy from China, as evidenced in NZ and Australia. Nervous Republicans now worry what impact this will have on the vaunted Trump-Xi trade pact.
Further evidence of concern in Republican ranks came this week with polls suggesting Democrat challenger former vice president Joe Biden has the edge in being a steady crisis manager. Now Trump supporters have begun circulating video images purporting to show Biden as a mumbling forgetful oldie. He is not the most articulate public speaker and works better person-to-person. Perhaps the days of the Reality TV star are fading.