Memo to Trump and de Blasio: Don't Distort History

Halting COVID-19 requires facing facts

02 Apr 2020 | 11:01

There is one thing President Donald Trump and Mayor Bill de Blasio agree on: this is not the time to blame them for having soft-pedaled the impending coronavirus. OK, there is a case for this deferment since, as the mayor says, our laser focus right now must be on helping the ill and curbing the virus.

But in exchange for this we, their citizens, should ask them for one thing. Stop saying things that distort history to explain away that soft-pedaling.

Just this weekend on national television, the mayor fended off questions on why he attacks the president’s response when the mayor, too, was slow to warn New Yorkers and shut down group activities that spread the virus.

“We all were working, everybody was working with the information we had,” the mayor claimed.

For his part, Trump said on March 10, “well, this was unexpected.” Nine days later, he proclaimed, “I would view it as something that just surprised the whole world.” And on Tuesday, March 31, he said that what “nobody knew about this virus is how contagious it was.”

Alarms in January

My generation of journalists was trained not to call public officials liars. That restraint has fallen out of fashion, so I will simple say that these statements from the president and the mayor are exculpatory nonsense. They are all, provably, false.

The mayor did not listen to information he had. His own health department became alarmed in January about the virus in China. This newspaper reported that on Tuesday, March 10 – when the president was saying how unexpected this was and the mayor was refusing to close schools – the deputy New York Health Commissioner was warning doctors about the imminent danger.

What about Trump’s claim that the world was surprised? Well, of course, we don’t quite know what world he lives in, although lately he has pointed out he grew up not far from Elmhurst Hospital, which could actually be the global epicenter of the pandemic.

But in the world the rest of us live in, there was a movie by Steven Soderbergh – yes, a movie – which in 2011 described a deadly virus spreading from bats to pigs to people, starting in China and sweeping the world. Fox News calls it “a prescient film these days.”

Then in 2015, Bill Gates gave a TED talk saying that Ebola showed that the world was ill-prepared for a pandemic. “We need to get going,” he urged. There were any number of books, articles and think tank studies to this point.

Transmission Rate

The first news articles about this new illness appeared right after New Year’s. On January 2, 2020, The South China Morning Post described an outbreak of viral pneumonia in Wuhan, “sparking fears about a return of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).” On February 24, a World Health Organization (WHO) mission to China reported publicly that the transmission rate of the new virus, before action to contain it, was “a relatively high” 2 to 2.5, meaning each infected person spread it to at least two others.

The United States pays a lot of people to track things like this, and surely some intelligence officer somewhere has a subscription to the South China Morning Post. Yet the President insists he and the world were surprised and did not know how contagious it was.

To be fair, Trump and de Blasio were not alone in their deafness. “This was a new disease which the West didn't really understand,” said Dr. Bruce Aylward, who led the WHO’s mission to China. “It didn't trust all of the information that it was hearing. We are all human, at a certain level, and we tend to cherry pick that part of the information, which we find most reassuring ... So there was a lot of, I think, cherry picking of those aspects of the disease that were least unsettling to us. Rather than really preparing.”

We should just stipulate that we did not prepare as well as we could have. Later there will be time for the national commission on why and who should be held responsible. There is, to Aylward’s point, a larger lesson we had better learn about how we, as a country, take in knowledge about the rest of the world.

But all of that is for the day after tomorrow if we can make it there. Right now we need clear and trustworthy direction from public officials. The peak of the COVID-19 epidemic in New York State is now projected for April 10. One closely followed model (considered conservative) forecasts that 855 New Yorkers will die that day, according to the model’s authors at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at The University of Washington. The country’s death toll will peak four days later, according to the model, with 2,644 deaths (these being approximations within a possible range).

One Task for Leaders

There is a silver lining, if you can call it that. The model also forecasts, with a big caveat, that deaths will fall rapidly after the peak and that the pandemic will be largely past by early May in New York and early July across the country. The caveat is that we all maintain the social and civic discipline that keeps the virus from spreading.

To say this another way, April will be a month crueler than anything T.S. Eliot ever imagined. Our president, our governor and our mayor have but one task, guiding us through this to a better place this summer.

The only way history will remember them kindly is if they stop thinking about what anyone thinks about them and worry only about what everyone needs from them. Stop worrying about careers and approval ratings and say and do only those things that will get us through the next two months.

They can find guidance in achieving this focus from the greatest crisis manager in our history, Abraham Lincoln. In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln counseled one of his military officers not to waste energy debating critics.

“If I were to try to read, much less answer, all of the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”

All we can ask of our leaders is the very best they can. But we have a right to demand that.