(Originally published here on May 11, 2020 in South China Morning Post.)
It’s time to celebrate and mourn the passing of the daily White House coronavirus task force briefing. As Americans watched the Covid-19 pandemic turn New York into an epicentre of death on a scale seen only in dystopian sci-fi films, they tuned into the task force briefing to understand what was happening and what the federal government was doing to end the nightmare.
There was no other choice because Dr Nancy Messonnier, director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Centre for Immunisation and Respiratory Diseases, and the CDC itself, had already been sidelined after warning of community spread of the novel coronavirus in the US.
On February 25, a day before the first confirmed coronavirus case of unknown origin emerged in the country, Messonnier had said: “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen any more, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen … We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare in the expectation that this could be bad.”
Enraged by the panic that Messonnier’s message caused, Trump put US Vice-President Mike Pence in charge of the task force, with top epidemiology experts Dr Deborah Birx and Dr Anthony Fauci as key members.
To his credit, Trump gave Birx and Fauci a wide berth and supported their advice, which changed the pandemic’s course from a tsunami of disease rapidly threatening to overwhelm every medical facility in the country and potentially wipe out the country’s essential services, to the uncertain stalemate of a flattened epidemiological curve.
Now that the severe damage caused by shutting down a large swathe of the economy has become a political problem for Trump, the sober, scientific guidance of the two appears to be a liability. And that’s why we’re not seeing them on the White House podium any more.
So why celebrate? Because we will no longer be reminded how Trump stopped travellers from China from entering the US before there was evidence of community spread of Covid-19 in the country.
The travel ban was a wise move. But we got that answer several times in each briefing, even though it rarely related to the question of why Trump downplayed the pandemic threat for more than a month after that restriction was implemented.
There were other aspects of the briefings that few will miss. When Trump took the podium back from Birx and Fauci, we often had to listen to him rip into the World Health Organisation, the World Trade Organisation, Canada, Europe, California, N95 mask manufacturer 3M and an endless list of other entities on issues related either to the pandemic or dozens of other grievances Trump has harboured since he took office.
Most Americans were not looking to tune into a campaign rally or hear him trash talk Washington’s traditional strategic allies. Nor did they care, while thousands were (and still are) dying each day, exactly where the coronavirus originated.
The world needs to know where and how the coronavirus jumped to humans, but it’s difficult to investigate the cause of a fire while it rages.
Trump’s audience only wanted to know what was being done to bring the pandemic under control.
Which brings us to why we should mourn the loss of the daily coronavirus briefing. Americans and the rest of the world want to know how the country’s top leadership will manage a gradual resumption of economic activity against the threat of the kind of horror that New York suffered in March and April.
At the moment, Trump seems content to devolve all responsibility to state and local authorities even though the difficult task of reopening for business while Covid-19 cases mount calls for a coordinated plan from the top.
So let’s bring the task force back, but in a way that delivers nothing but the facts. Let Birx and Fauci, whose advice has so far staved off the worst-case scenario in the US, stand with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow and any other members of the administration not inclined to engage in tirades and conspiracy theories.
And if Trump can stand by them to support their prescriptions, let’s welcome him back also.