Donald Dossier: Trust Issues - OZY | A Modern Media Company
SourceImage Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because our leaders are failing us … again.

By Daniel Malloy

On Feb. 29, the Surgeon General of the United States tweeted a broadside accentuated with capital letters: “STOP BUYING MASKS. They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.” His is not a political position. Jerome Adams is an anesthesiologist and former public health commissioner of Indiana. This is the kind of public health expert we should be able to trust in a crisis.

Yet in recent days, the advice has flipped: The government is now saying people should be wearing masks when they go out. Why the switcheroo? Adams tweeted: “We learn more about this disease every day … ” Perhaps he should have put a call into the Asian countries where ordinary citizens have been wearing masks for months. Were public health officials deliberately misleading us in order to make sure that the nation’s woefully limited mask supply went to hospitals and health care workers? Sure seems that way.

America is facing down a pandemic that has upended our way of life with astonishing speed, at a time when our trust in institutions has evaporated. It starts at the top, and President Donald Trump has not exactly garnered the public trust with his whipsawing, finger-pointing response. A Politico/Morning Consult poll last week showed that just 37 percent of people would trust President Trump’s recommendation on when to loosen social distancing restrictions. His lengthy daily press briefings veer from delivering somber news that hundreds of thousands of Americans will die under a good-case scenario to sniping at Democratic governors to bragging about his Facebook presence. But anyone expecting him to change his public persona now is out of their mind. 

(U.S. deaths from COVID-19 — in red — compared to America’s losses in modern wars.)

The biggest problem is overpromising and underdelivering. Take his splashy announcement of sending the hospital ship USNS Comfort to New York — with a presidential sendoff from Norfolk, and stirring visuals of the ship sailing up the Hudson River. But the ship is only meant to treat patients who don’t have coronavirus, and had only treated 27 patients as of Saturday. Congress swiftly unleashed a $2 trillion economic rescue, but there are serious delays afoot already in the Trump administration getting small business loans out and cutting checks to people who don’t have direct deposit information on file with the IRS.

Small wonder that interest is soaring in astrology.

Trump has talked up getting ventilators and other medical supplies to key hospitals from the federal stockpile. But on Thursday, his son-in-law Jared Kushner (who’s helping coordinate the coronavirus response on a break from brokering Middle East peace) said that the federal stockpile was “our stockpile” and not meant for states. So naturally, the Department of Health and Human Services changed the description of the federal stockpile on its website to eliminate the part about helping states and localities and emphasize that the Feds are meant as a “short-term stopgap.”

State and local officials are generally receiving higher marks than the president, but their response has been uneven too. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who played down the threat for far too long, urged New Yorkers: “If you love your neighborhood bar, go there now,” shortly before he shut down the city’s bars and restaurants. He also went to the YMCA for his usual morning workout, hours before shutting all of the city’s gyms. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp issued a belated stay-at-home order on Wednesday, saying he’d only found out in the last 24 hours that the virus can be transmitted by people who don’t show symptoms — an issue that’s been well-discussed for weeks.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, on the other end of the spectrum, had police pulling over everyone with a New York license plate and forcibly quarantining them, until she backed off last weekend. The culture wars rage on across the country as state and local officials snipe about whether gun purchases or abortions should be considered essential in these times of crisis.

The military generally gets far higher marks than politicians for public trust, but the Pentagon didn’t act strongly on a Feb. 3 Army memo warning of 80,000-150,000 U.S. deaths from the virus. Then it fired a Navy captain who sounded the alarm about the virus spreading on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier.

Small wonder that interest is soaring in astrology. The stars could be as good a guide as these jokers.

The omnipresent Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health has been the closest thing we have to a national oracle on how to handle this, and he’s done yeoman’s work in appearing everywhere from CNN to Barstool Sports’ Pardon My Take podcast to make sure everyone stays home as much as possible. But Americans are not falling into line, given how the number of cases continues to spike. “I can tell … that not every American is following” social distancing guidelines, Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said on Thursday. “And so this is really a call to action.”

It’s worth pondering whether we’ll come out of this with a different outlook on the world. Whether health workers will (rightly) earn new respect, and if kids will grow up wanting to be epidemiologists.

But it’s hard to imagine the pandemic reversing Americans’ cynicism toward our political class and experts. Masked or not, we’re still looking at them with jaded eyes.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories