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KEVIN LEININGER: Nation’s response to virus is fair political game — but not yet

(AP photo)
Kevin Leininger

Barely a month ago, 200 community leaders gathered in a Memorial Coliseum meeting room to hear health officials compare the looming COVID-19 threat to the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 that killed 20 million people worldwide, including about 700,000 in the United States and 9,000 in Indiana. Nobody was wearing a protective mask or seemingly concerned about “social distancing.”

As I write this, I am sitting at my kitchen table, on virtual house arrest (except for work and government-endorsed activities) along with probably billions of other people around the world. When I do venture out I’m supposed to stay at least six feet from anybody else, even though I’m now warned you don’t need to cough or sneeze to spread the virus; merely breathing will do. And where officials once warned against crowds of more than 250 people, that number has since dropped to 10.

Meanwhile, my wife is sewing masks for both of us because the Centers for Disease Control, which only recently suggested healthy people didn’t need them, is now recommending their use in public. Even so, advises Deborah Birx, the Trump administration’s coronavirus response coordinator, “This is the moment to not be going to the grocery store.”

How did things change so much, so quickly? If the steps being taken today are necessary to save lives, why were they not implemented earlier?

I put that very question to county Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan at a news conference two weeks after that March 4 meeting at the Coliseum, and she explained that more aggressive responses were triggered by the World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic on March 11. It is no doubt also true that dealing with a new virus necessitated a certain degree of trial and error, and that officials were properly reluctant to restrict Americans’ liberties without the justification needed to enlist public support.

Coming in the midst of a presidential election year, however, politics has inevitably injected itself into the traditionally non-partisan public health arena. The Boston Globe, among others, has accused Trump of having “blood on his hands” because “much of the suffering and death coming was preventable.” Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who was prosecuting Trump’s impeachment as the pandemic was beginning to unfold, is calling for — you guessed it — an investigation into “our mistakes” in response to the virus. Democratic president frontrunner Joe Biden, who originally labelled efforts to limit travel from China as “hysterical xenophobia,” now says Trump didn’t do it soon enough.

Just this week, the Associated Press accused the Trump administration of failing to boost the federal supply of masks and other medical supplies and equipment even though, as USA Today fact-checkers stated, the Obama administration had failed to replenish the federal stockpile of N95 masks following the 2009 H1N1 outbreak that, according to CDC estimates, killed more than 12,000 Americans.

But the politicking is hardly confined to one side of the aisle. As fiercely as Democrats want to paint opponents as corrupt, negligent or inept, Trump and other Republicans have tried to convince the public of their competence and clairvoyance. Trump, whose own administration estimates COVID-19 could claim 200,000 American lives, insists he has done a “very good job.” And our own U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, has received national attention after writing that he was sounding the alarm in January while Democrats were still dithering with impeachment. “China should shoulder the blame both morally and fiscally for the fiscal cost of the coronavirus in the United States,” Banks insisted.

Government response to this crisis — at all levels — will be the subject of legitimate scrutiny and debate, and politicians should be punished or rewarded at the polls accordingly. But with COVID-19 not yet at its peak in the U.S., that debate must not be allowed to distract the nation from the far more important immediate task: saving lives and restoring economic activity as quickly as possible. A thorough review of the nation’s preparation for and response to the pandemic is in fact a good idea, but only if it is conducted in an objective and non-partisan way — and intended to equip America to do better next time, not to grab votes.

If fast-evolving conditions have forced even apparently non-partisan health-care professionals to dramatically alter their approach in just a few weeks, isn’t it both possible and essential for Americans to focus on protecting each other before exchanging accusations of fiddling while the nation burns?

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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