If President Trump is right that the fight against the coronavirus is the equivalent of a war, we need to focus first and foremost on defeating the enemy.
That means, as an urgent priority, getting hospitals the protective gear and ventilators that they need to handle the surge of patients that is already showing up in New York City, New Orleans, and other hot spots. If nothing else, it’s a sign of seriousness in meeting this need that President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act — the Korean War–era law allowing the government to direct the manufacture and distribution of goods necessary for the national defense — on Friday to compel General Motors to make ventilators on an emergency basis.
The action comes after a typically confusing back-and-forth over GM. If a report in the New York Times was to be believed, the $1 billion price tag of a potential deal with GM for the ventilators caused the administration to have second thoughts. Given the massive economic cost of the current lockdowns and the amount of money Congress is spending to try to cushion the blow, obviously, $1 billion is a pittance. The Times also reported that the administration worried about getting saddled with too many unused ventilators, a concern that accorded with President Trump’s statement on Fox News a day earlier that he doubts that New York City will really need 30,000 ventilators.
At the end of this, though, if we have kept hospitals from getting overwhelmed at the cost of paying top dollar for gear and buying too much of it, our response will have been a success well worth the price.
In tweets after the publication of the Times story, Trump said the issue was that GM couldn’t produce enough ventilators quickly enough, a much more legitimate concern. The Times noted, too, that officials worried about putting all of our eggs in one basket, rather than spreading production around to different companies. Meanwhile, traditional medical-device makers have worried about automakers sucking up component parts. Sorting through all of this on the fly in the midst of a crisis would tax any administration, but the emphasis should be on more material rather than less, and as quickly as possible.
As bad as the escalating numbers of cases and fatalities have been in the U.S. over the last week, the situation is surely going to deteriorate further. Besides fortifying the medical system, the massive scale-up in testing has to continue and every exertion must be made to develop and deploy therapies as soon as possible. The roll-out of a test by Abbott Laboratories that can reveal a positive in five minutes is a sign of the role technological innovation can play in this fight.
The hope that Trump expressed earlier in the week to open up the economy again by Easter weekend is understandable, but nothing is truly going to open up — nor should it — unless we have clearly gotten a handle on the virus and its spread has begun to wane. More important than coming up with an aspirational date for a return to normalcy is thinking through what our post-lockdown strategy will look like — how testing, masks, contact tracing, and other methods will be deployed to allow to a return to economic and social activity without risking a second wave of infections. Life in a place like New York City may not look the same for a long time.
President Trump has gotten a bump in the polls recently, perhaps a rally-around-the-flag effect or a reaction to his briefings, where new measures are announced every day. We suspect that his mini-bounce would be even higher if he could at least stop warring with governors and shooting at his critics during this interlude. Trump should know that how he responds in this moment will define his presidency and determine his odds of reelection.
We hope and expect that our country will, in its characteristic fashion, find its way through this crisis by marshaling huge resources, discovering innovations, and relying on the incredible courage and initiative of medical personnel, grocery-store clerks, and countless millions of others who make our civil society so robust. But the worst is yet to come.