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Analysis
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Politics
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Coronavirus

The Other Virus Test: Who’s a True Leader?

The crisis exposes the lethal venality of Trump and other honchos. How does Trudeau rate?

Michael Harris 30 Mar 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly-awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

If you get COVID-19, the wolf is not at the door, he is under your duvet.

If that happens, as it has to 5,596 Canadians, a lot of things suddenly matter: age, pre-existing health conditions, timely testing, medical equipment, frontline staff, and sadly, a will.

Where you actually are, a fact that is not much talked about, is crucially important.

The pandemic is throwing into high relief the lethal effects of incompetent leadership beyond our borders, and sharpening contrasts with what’s happening in Canada.

A report card is in order.

Justin Trudeau

In Canada, both the federal government and the provinces grasped fairly quickly how serious the current situation is, though no one leapt into action. Science has been the country’s policy compass. It is still unknown if anyone can collectively stop the virus in its tracks; but at least no Canadian political leader is minimizing the risks — or offering hunches and hearsay remedies.

During his daily press conferences on the outbreak, the prime minister has urged Canadians to stay home and practise social-distancing. He himself has been doing that ever since his wife Sophie tested positive for the virus. Thankfully, she has now recovered. With all provinces having now declared an emergency, Trudeau has stopped short of ordering a federal lockdown.

But the PM has stressed that his government is monitoring the situation in the provinces very closely. If things get dicey, if it looks like any jurisdiction might be overwhelmed, the PM will invoke his emergency powers and ride to the rescue — or so the script goes.

The weakest part of Canada’s response is the relatively small number of people who have been tested country-wide — just 184,000 as of Sunday. By comparison, with a population of over 51 million, South Korea’s current daily test capacity is an astonishing 15,000.

As is the case in many countries, Canada has a shortage of testing kits. It also takes days to confirm results. So provincial governments are trying to preserve their stockpiles by limiting testing. One of the ways to do that is to advise people who develop symptoms of the virus to self-isolate at home.

The problem with that? It satisfies only a small part of the best advice of the World Health Organization — to isolate, test, treat and trace. Canada didn’t do all that quickly enough and now 65 per cent of known cases are the result of community transmission.

On the economic front, the PM has passed a $107-billion aid package to help workers and businesses, including $2,000 per month for the next four months for Canadians who lose their jobs.

Far from perfect, lots of holes, premised on a big dose of trust, and we’re not out of the woods by a long shot. But Canada is at least headed through the woods with a plan.

For empathy and energy in tough times (the real test is yet to come in the form of performance outcomes), Trudeau gets a B+.

Boris Johnson

The United Kingdom has embarrassed itself and endangered its citizens. When the house is on fire, it is the wrong time for thumb-sucking indolence. You either put it out, or you don’t.

Johnson stood pat in the early days of COVID-19, while more aggressive governments in France, Denmark and Germany took heed after the virus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11.

They locked down their countries, and closed their schools and businesses. Like China, Singapore and South Korea, they began the tough work of “flattening” the curve of the infection by aggressive testing. While others practised social-distancing, Johnson publicly celebrated Brexit Day.

In a dreadful lapse of judgment, PM Johnson only got around to locking down the U.K. this week. Now he himself has the viral infection, along with 17,089 of his citizens. One-thousand and nineteen Britons have died.

Having lost faith in their prime minister, ordinary citizens are trying to look after themselves, and set an example to their government — hoping that the National Health Service doesn’t collapse under the weight of COVID-19. As John Crace put it in the Guardian: These days in the U.K., the regular people are “the lions leading the donkeys.” The lead donkey is the PM.

For his damaging indecisiveness, Boris the Old Etonian gets an F for fooling around, and a dunce cap.

Jair Bolsonaro

Then there is Brazil. You don’t want to be in the land of the bossa nova if COVID-19 comes calling.

True, by order of local authorities, hundreds of towns and cities are closed down tighter than an oyster. But the country is run by Jair Bolsonaro. This irresponsible blowhard says that as an ex-athlete, the virus would not have much impact on him. He also says that the real disaster is the recent 30 per cent drop in oil prices.

Never mind the pandemic, it’s the economy stupid — the same argument he used to give the green light to burning so much of the Amazon rainforest. There is a reason he is known as “The Trump of the Tropics.”

Bolsonaro has described COVID-19 as a “fantasy” and “small flu.” He says mayors and state governors should roll back their lockdown measures. He believes those measures amount to “scorched earth policies.” People are “overstating” the power of the virus, maybe for “political reasons.” His bottom line? “Some will die. I’m sorry. That’s life.”

All this with over 600,000 people infected worldwide, 30,000 deaths, and no end in sight. Brazil has 3,900 of those active cases and 114 of the deaths. The Mr. Magoo of this pandemic, Bolsonaro gets an F for having his head in his ass.

Donald Trump

Another place you don’t want to be in this pandemic is any part of the United States that depends on Washington for its response to COVID-19.

President Donald Trump has been dazzlingly irresponsible. This is the man who just a few weeks ago, during the Feb. 26 press conference of his Coronavirus Task Force, griped about investing $2.5 billion in the fight against COVID-19.

A scant 30 days later, the stimulus package he just signed, and is now taking credit for, calls for nearly $2 trillion — half a trillion of it for corporations. There isn’t room enough in the Guinness Book of Records for the magnitude of his miscalculation, hubris and stupidity.

Two days after Trump offered just $2.5 billion to combat COVID-19, he revealed what he really thought of the whole thing. On Feb. 28, the president told a campaign rally in North Carolina that the pandemic was the “new hoax” of the Democrats. Or as Fox News reported it, another attempt at impeaching the president.

Trump has constantly minimized, trivialized and brushed off the enormous threat of COVID-19, reminding Americans that car accidents kill more people, and no one is calling for a ban on cars.

He has even mis-prescribed medicine to treat the virus, and an elderly Arizona couple followed Dr. Trump’s advice. They took a version of the drug, chloroquine phosphate, which they had purchased for cleaning their aquarium. The 68 year-old husband died, and his wife, speaking by phone from an intensive care unit said this to Vaughn Hilliard of NBC news:

“Trump kept saying it was basically pretty much a cure.”

When 3.28 million Americans, two per cent of the entire workforce, applied for unemployment insurance for the week ending March 21, the president changed his tune. Coronavirus was now a hot mess. And it was all former-president Barack Obama’s fault for the crummy system he left to Trump to deal with situations like a pandemic.

For the record, Trump is the guy who in 2018 dismantled the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, the agency set up by then-president Obama in the wake of the Ebola outbreak. How visionary was that?

The president has consistently cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Here is his explanation:

“I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them. When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”

Trump’s response time to the pandemic is consistent with his preparedness for it. South Korea tested 66,000 people within a week of the first case of community transmission of the coronavirus.

The U.S. dithered for three weeks before reaching that number of tests. Now the horse is out of the barn. Containment became mitigation when the federal government fell asleep at the switch of timely and aggressive testing.

At this moment, Trump’s test kits are promissory notes lost in the mail, and the messaging of this self-styled “stable genius” has been incoherence in overdrive. His much promised personal protective equipment for medical workers is trickling out of federal stockpiles like tree sap creeping down a window pane.

Trump is the Nero of the COVID-19 pandemic, fiddling while his country’s fever burns. For putting doctors and nurses to work in homemade masks and plastic garbage bags as protective gowns; for promoting a return to normalcy by Easter against all the medical and scientific advice; for deciding the economy is more important than people, Trump gets an F for F-off and booted out of school.

The Texas brain trust

Another place you don’t want to be if you contract COVID-19 is the state of Texas. For starters, Republican Governor Greg Abbott continues to resist a stay-at-home order for all Texans.

For another, his lieutenant-governor, 69 year-old Dan Patrick, made headlines with his suggestion that the country should be open for business again because “lots of grandparents” are willing to die for the Trump economy. Elderly people, of course, are the most at-risk demographic in this pandemic.

For its obsession with business-as-usual, and its gross insult to the elderly, Texas, gets an F for failure and an L for the Looney Star state.

Various Christian clerics

Another place you might want to stay away from in this pandemic is church. Let it be clear: most traditional churches have reacted admirably in this crisis, cancelling services in the name of social-distancing. Some of them have taken their sermons to Facebook and YouTube, and other social media platforms like pray.com. They get it.

But a number of religious leaders, including some conservative Christians, have pushed back hard on the demand by secular authorities to practise social-distancing.

As reported by CNN, Cardinal Raymond Burke recently argued that church attendance should be defined as an “essential” behavior akin to grocery shopping.

Rusty Reno, editor of the religious magazine First Things, wrote that “the mass shutdown of society to fight the spread of COVID-19 creates a perverse, even demonic atmosphere.” He referred to the “false god” of saving lives, and the “many things” that are more precious than life.

One Louisiana pastor cited in the CNN story recently presided over a service of 1,825 congregants, because he holds his religious rights dear, and believes that the virus is “politically motivated.”

With universities from New York to California shuttering to stop the spread of the virus, Pastor Jerry Falwell Jr. has refused to close Liberty University, his private evangelical school.

The good news is that most of Liberty students take their classes online. The bad news is that Falwell is welcoming 57 per cent of his students who live on campus back to their dorms. Why is he going in the opposite direction of Yale, Harvard and Berkeley? Because he thinks the pandemic has been “overblown” and may be a plot to hurt the president. At least that’s what he told Fox and Friends.

Finally, there is Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne. Browne told his large flock that he would only close his church when the Rapture comes. He even asked all his congregants to shake hands.

“Well I know that they don’t want us to do this, but just turn around and greet two or three people. Tell them you love them, Jesus loves them. Amen.”

For practising a brand of Christianity Jesus could not recognize, for worrying more about empty churches than full graveyards, elements of the religious right get an F for fundamentalist failure.

(They should, however, be thanked for providing another argument for the wisdom of separating church and state.)

New York’s governor and NYC’s mayor

New York City and its state are once again ground zero for a catastrophe. Both Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio are fighting with tenacity, imagination and rationality.

They are converting convention centres, retrofitting hospitals to increase their capacity, inviting retired health-care workers to come back to the frontline, and aggressively trying to buy the medical necessities Washington is not supplying. If they are overwhelmed in their heroic last stand, it will not be for lack of trying.

Of the two, Cuomo was earlier to respond to the alarm and has shown the more grace and guts under pressure. So Cuomo gets an A while de Blasio, running hard now to catch up after faltering steps, receives a B+.

Back to you and me and the coronavirus. It comes down to these factors: What directs the thinking in the jurisdiction where we live and the circles we move in? Public health concerns? Stock market impacts? Political calculations? Or conservative Christian considerations?

All things in, this is a particularly good time to be a Canadian in Canada.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Coronavirus

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