Even a stiff downturn on Wall Street this week didn’t faze Utah Senate leaders much. They told reporters they always try to budget with an eye toward the possibility that bad times will come, but they’re still exploring ways they might cut taxes this year.
All this could end quickly.
But they are not exactly like natural disasters. You can’t see an earthquake coming, not the way we seem to be watching the coronavirus lap at our shores like debris being carried by ocean currents.
If it strikes with a vengeance, the effect could be long lasting on the nation’s political and economic landscape.
Nothing puts the petty name-calling and taunts of politicians and candidates in perspective quite like a national emergency. Depending on how bad it gets, efforts to weaponize a pandemic in the political arena can backfire.
President Trump began the week by sounding out of touch with the mounting fears of coronavirus, or Covid-2019, the illness is causes. He said the virus was “very well under control in our country,” while, at the same time, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases was saying of contagion in the U.S., “It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen.”
A president’s job is to calm and reassure the public and to tamp down any feelings of panic. But reassuring words mean little if not backed by action. The president’s news conference on Wednesday, in which he announced that Vice President Mike Pence will be the point person for the nation’s efforts to fight the disease, was a much better display of reassurance, as was his willingness to accept more than the $2.5 billion he had asked from Congress.
Pandemic threats come with a host of potential political peril. Depending on what happens in coming weeks, both sides of the political spectrum may be exposed to ridicule. If the administration’s preparations are inadequate, the president will be blamed.
If a pandemic ends up harming the economy — imagine several weeks of canceled sporting events, conventions and other gatherings, with people confined to their homes and unable to eat out or shop, and with even online deliveries curtailed — liberal proposals to greatly expand deficit spending could seem especially irresponsible amid faltering markets.
And if the threat passes with little problem, the president’s critics will look foolish.
This is tricky business. President Gerald Ford wanted to react quickly and decisively to the threat of a flu virus in 1976 that some people believed could rival the 1918 pandemic. He launched a campaign to get all Americans vaccinated. That backfired when the vaccine itself made many people sick and the pandemic never materialized.
In January, I compared growing fears about coronavirus to the annual influenza outbreak that regularly kills more than 30,000 Americans a year. The point was that the nation already shortchanges health problems that could be solved through a concerted effort to find a universal flu vaccine. Also, Americans have become too complacent about protecting themselves from a disease, such as the flu, when yearly vaccines are plentiful and cheap.
But it would be foolish for any government to take the rapidly spreading coronavirus lightly.
During that pandemic of 1918, a Salt Lake Telegram editorial said all you need to know about what life was like. Health authorities, it said, “should consider themselves all powerful at this time and demand whatever is necessary to prevent the further sacrificing of lives.”
When democratic institutions are so easily brushed aside in favor of granting total power to doctors, government has effectively failed.
Maybe all the warnings are overblown. Maybe the troubling conditions in Italy, the Middle East, South Korea and elsewhere won’t hit our shores. We should hope so, although that seems far fetched in a world where people travel quickly and cheaply.
But if it does spread here, and if people begin dying, the political and economic fallout could ripple for a long time.