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President's penchant for real estate spin is only the explanation for his feckless handling of pandemic

David Von Drehle



U.S. President Donald Trump. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/File Photo/Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/File Photo/Reuters


U.S. President Donald Trump. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/File Photo/Reuters

Real estate developers begin as storytellers. They drive a few stakes into an empty expanse and begin spinning a tale of winding streets and welcoming houses, of shops and schools and playgrounds, a community centre, a swimming pool, a golf course. Or maybe instead of a subdivision, they tell the story of a skyscraper, an apartment complex, a retirement village.

They need people to believe them. Bankers to loan the money. Governments to grant the permits and abate the taxes. Tenants to sign the leases. Buyers to take out the mortgages. As if by alchemy, the story comes true because people think it will come true. Enough belief makes the whole thing fly.

Looking through the lens of President Donald Trump's real estate background is the only way I can begin to understand his response to the novel coronavirus, which has otherwise been as baffling as it has been feckless.

More than three months after his belated declaration of a national emergency, as the United States continues to set records for the number of new cases diagnosed each day, Mr Trump seldom speaks of the pandemic, except to disparage the disease and talk down its consequences.

More than half a million people have died around the world, about a quarter of them in America. Originally transported from China by unwitting international air travellers, the virus has now spread beyond developed nations to reach even the poorest corners of the planet. Thus, the toll is sure to grow even greater.

This was not only foreseeable; it was foreseen. Every public health official and epidemiologist I've read or heard has been telling us exactly what would happen if we began to treat the pandemic in the past tense. And yet that's the way the US president has treated it: Let's open up! Back to the bars and restaurants! Jam the arenas! And forget about those masks!

He wanted us to believe, as if belief would make it so. The danger would be over when we all agreed to stop thinking about it. If he drove a few stakes in the ground of a post-pandemic future, we could all live and work there happily ever after. Alas, Covid-19 is an independent fact, impervious to even the most desperate spiel.

I believe Mr Trump thought the virus would take the summer off, as many flu bugs and coronaviruses do, and remain quiescent until late fall or winter - after the election. Perhaps there would be a vaccine by the time it returned.

He wasn't alone in hoping for a seasonal reprieve. Even among experts, there was widespread optimism that we'd get a break over the summer. But here we are at the beginning of July, and the head of the World Health Organisation is telling us "the pandemic is actually speeding up".

Hospitals are at or near capacity in hot spots from one end of the country to the other, from California to Florida and points along the way. Guidelines that were loosened are being tightened again. It feels like putting toothpaste back into the tube.

We had a glimpse into the real estate mindset when Mr Trump disclosed at his Tulsa rally: "I said to my people, 'Slow the testing down, please.'"

His people scrambled to control the damage, assuring us that he was only kidding. To which Mr Trump said, "I don't kid."

Taking him at his word, then, we're left to conclude that he views the virus as a contingency: We only see it because we are looking for it; conversely, if we just stopped looking, it would vanish.

I had Covid-19 back when tests were extremely rare. Though I showed multiple symptoms, the doctor sent me home without testing me, because they were needed for healthcare workers. Only recently did I get screened for antibodies (Positive!).

And I can tell you: there's nothing contingent about it. Tests do not cause Covid-19. True, many people are lucky enough to experience no symptoms. But roughly 1,000 Americans per day, on average, have been dying of the disease over the past four months. Others have recovered, but with lasting damage.

We can't afford any more enchanted thinking. In just a few months it will be flu season again, and unless we take effective steps to minimise cases of both the new virus and bad old influenza, hospitals across the country will be overwhelmed.

Masks in public, social distancing, sanitary hands - that's a start. These measures are useful in fighting all respiratory viruses.

We also need (yes) more testing, contact tracing and effective quarantines.

We need clear, effective communication from knowledgeable authorities - including an urgent campaign to significantly increase the number of Americans getting the annual flu vaccine.

The surge of new cases is calling us back to reality. We can do this - once we stop building castles in the air. (© Washington Post)

Irish Independent