One of the things you want to have in the face of a potential infectious disease outbreak is credible messaging from public authorities. However, credible messaging does not appear to be one of the Trump administration’s strong points.
Yesterday, President Trump declared the virus to be “under control” and — apparently concerned by a plunge in the stock market — urged his followers to buy stocks:
This morning, Trump assured audiences “there’s a very good chance you’re not going to die.” He then apparently suggested “we’re very close to a vaccine.”
The White House clarified that Trump was referring to an Ebola virus vaccine, not a coronavirus vaccine, which is reportedly at least 18 months off.
An official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took a more cautious line, telling reporters, “We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad.” However, Trump’s political appointees have continued preaching optimism. Chad Wolf, acting secretary for the Department of Homeland Security — one of the many federal agencies lacking a permanent director — testified that the coronavirus has a mortality rate no higher than the ordinary flu:
That is extremely wrong. The mortality rate of the coronavirus is roughly 20 times higher.
And Trump’s economic adviser, Lawrence Kudlow appeared on CNBC. Kudlow has a decades-long record of being wrong about nearly everything. Of course his expertise in economic wrongness does not neatly translate to medical wrongness, it is nonetheless unnerving to hear confident predictions from a man whose statements have a near-perfect record of predicting the opposite result. Kudlow, following Trump’s lead of reassuring investors, asserting the virus has been “contained … pretty close to airtight.”
As a virus containment metaphor, “pretty close to airtight” is not what you’re looking for. You really want completely airtight. In any case, Kudlow’s boast is at best premature and at worst fanciful. The U.S. has not conducted enough tests to determine if the virus has taken hold here yet.
It’s going to be hard to trust information from the administration when the president’s paramount concern is preventing day-to-day drops in the stock market.