Leadership matters during these unsettling times
The COVID-19 outbreak presents the United States with its most serious health scare in generations. All precautions taken thus far have been designed to "flatten the curve" of the novel coronavirus's course so that it doesn't spread like wildfire in a short period.
The world saw what that was like a century ago with the Spanish flu of 1918, which began in the late days of World War I, spread rapidly and ultimately killed 50 million to 100 million. COVID-19's scale is not close to that — more than 7,100 have died worldwide — and it almost certainly won't be. As noted by Jonathan D. Quick, former president of Management Sciences for Health, a global public health organization, today "in some ways we are clearly better off. We have modern vaccines and medical care, dramatically improved communication tools and healthier, better-nourished populations" than in 1918 "... and there are mechanisms in place for international cooperation."
Yet Quick points out important similarities — both outbreaks were unknown viral strains with no existing vaccine, both spread through respiratory droplets and both caused major economic disruptions — and in a Wall Street Journal essay published a few days before the situation in the United States worsened considerably, he highlights some of the lessons 1918 offers.
One is to provide accurate information and build community trust, which at times was lacking in 1918. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been doing that, as has the Oklahoma Department of Health. Both have provided daily updates with the latest cases and guidance for the public.
Another lesson, Quick says, is to lean on classic public health measures. The hodgepodge of approaches by cities and states in 1918 provided lessons for researchers. Cities that implemented isolation policies and "social distancing" had much lower death rates than those that didn't. Seasonal flu outbreaks and other pandemics have proved the benefits of hygiene instruction and regular handwashing.
The No. 1 lesson on Quick's list was this: Provide effective leadership. We have gotten that at the state and local levels and from state health officials, who have been forthright with information and guidance while encouraging people to use common sense and remain calm. President Trump's performance, on the other hand, has largely been subpar.
He shut down travel from Europe, then Ireland and the U.K., but for too long Trump downplayed the coronavirus and seemed to view it as a nuisance that would go away. Editors of the National Review, a conservative magazine, wrote recently that in a public health crisis, the public should expect the nation's top executive "to lead in a number of crucial ways," such as prioritizing the problem properly, deferring to subject-matter experts when appropriate and addressing mistakes and setbacks. "Trump so far hasn't passed muster on any of these metrics," they wrote.
This challenge, they argued, "demands a new level of seriousness from the president and those around him."
His opponents are sure that's not possible. For the good of the country, Trump must show otherwise.