Jason Riley: Why a Pandemic Is Always Political

People who follow politics for a living are voicing shock—shock!—that the coronavirus outbreak has been politicized. “Is Even the Coronavirus Partisan?” asked a recent FiveThirtyEight podcast. Jeez Louise, folks, of course it is. And here’s an argument for why it ought to be.

Making political hay of health scares is a commonplace activity that’s also unfailingly bipartisan. Democrats complained that President George W. Bush was too slow in responding to the West Nile virus and SARS outbreaks that occurred in his first term, and talking points to that effect became part of John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004.

Republicans returned the favor in the runup to the 2014 midterm elections, when President Obama was trying to keep West Africa’s Ebola epidemic from crossing the Atlantic. Mr. Obama tapped Ron Klain, a former vice-presidential aide, to coordinate the response, and Republicans reacted by calling Mr. Klain a political hack with no medical background. Which is precisely how Democrats responded last week to President Trump appointing Vice President Mike Pence to be the point man on coronavirus.

Mr. Trump understands by now that he will be knocked by his political opponents and their friends in the media regardless of how he proceeds. If he overreacts, they’ll say he’s creating a panic. If he underreacts, they’ll say he’s lackadaisical. And since this president is not someone who lets criticism go, count on him doing his level best to punch back at every opportunity.

The best thing Mr. Trump could do for the country right now is find a way to calm fears without being overly dismissive of the threat posed by a virus that medical doctors and human immune systems have never encountered before. And he needs to be wary of overpromising how soon it will all be under control. Schools are closing, conferences are being canceled, spring-break travel is on hold, and testing for the virus is only now ramping up. More economic disruption is coming, and the administration’s focus should be on preparing people to absorb the shocks. Hope that Mr. Trump’s efforts to protect public health will be based on the vast amounts of information and expertise at a president’s disposal, and not on what he’s watching on CNN.

The only thing we know for sure is that the political pot shots will continue, and why shouldn’t they? Politicians exploit our apprehensions for a living. It’s a presidential election year, heath care has been a major campaign theme, and voters deserve to know what the Democratic candidates would do differently. Joe Biden hasn’t been very specific about how he would address an infectious-disease pandemic, but in a newspaper op-ed, he did describe the president as “the worst possible person to lead our country through a global health challenge.”

Bernie Sanders said on Twitter that he would make any coronavirus vaccine available for free. Someone might ask the Vermont senator how price controls would affect the development of new medicines going forward. Nor is cost a real factor in why people shy away from other available vaccines, as he suggested. Millions of Americans neglect to get a flu shot each year out of fear, ignorance or a misguided sense of invulnerability, but not because they can’t afford it.

It’s clear that both Democratic candidates want government to play a much larger role in U.S. medical care going forward, and Mr. Trump might press them to explain how public health would be better served under such a system during future pandemics, which are inevitable. If coronavirus is going to be politicized, this is the debate we should be having. But don’t hold your breath.

For now, both sides seem content with silly posturing. On Sunday, Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California said that Mr. Trump’s refusal to cancel campaign rallies “suggests that he is willing to place even his most ardent supporters at risk.” In a joint statement, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said they want to work with the president but that he “continues to manufacture needless chaos” and “is hampering the government’s response” to the outbreak.

And last week, GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz appeared to mock people who are concerned about the spread of coronavirus by tweeting a photo of himself wearing a huge gas mask on the House floor. A few days later a resident in his Florida district died after contracting the virus, and the congressman himself is now in quarantine after coming in contact with someone who has tested positive for the disease.

Mr. Trump has an opportunity to be the adult in the room, and he would pleasantly surprise a whole bunch of voters in swing states and help himself in November by seizing it.

Jason Riley is a member of The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board.

The views expressed in opinion articles are solely those of the author and are not necessarily shared or endorsed by Black Community News.

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