The Press, the President and the Coronavirus

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By Shivaji Sengupta

A dear friend of mine, Harshad Sakaria, told me over the phone that he reads so many different reports on Coronavirus, stating so many different facts, that he is confused and afraid. Further, he said, the president of our country seems just as confused as me, one day saying one thing, and contradicting himself the next day.
I don’t blame Harshad. I am going through similar experiences. The newspapers and the visual media often seem to be saying different things about this pandemic. Worse, for some years now, Television news channels give less news and more opinions, for or against the president. The major cable-based networks like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News are so one-sided that we can predict before tuning to these channels what they are going to say. And, of course, our president doesn’t help. He says he wants to cheer up his countrymen, not make them anxious. But his seemingly unprepared speeches, high on praising himself and his staff but equivocal on facts, succeed only in bewildering us.
Granted, this is a virus never experienced before. As such, there is not much knowledge yet about the illness and, therefore, no cure. Everybody, from the president to peons, and all the professionals in between, is trying to understand COVID-19. But at times like these, it is essential – even imperative – to be adaptive, candid, and publish whatever facts one has about Coronavirus. The information is frightening, and so it is better to state (not brag about) the positives and appraise the public about the dangers. That’s not what the President’s press briefings do.
There is little doubt that the White House is responsible for putting the country in such danger. The Washington Post has reported the president’s incompetence in managing the crisis, documenting evidence after evidence. “Warnings were sounded, including at the highest levels of government, but the president was deaf to them until the enemy had already struck,” writes The Post. Many in the country are outraged. Barbara Weber-Floyd writes in a blog:
I cannot escape one undeniable fact, that this crisis, all of it, from the number of infected and dead, to the dire shortage of personal protective equipment for our healthcare providers, to the shuttering of businesses and skyrocketing unemployment, to the food shortages for low-income families, every bit of this trauma the country is now enduring, has been made much worse by the incompetence, selfishness and corruption of the Trump administration.
Not that Trump is without supporters. The pro-Trump newspapers and weeklies, not as renowned as The Post, are fighting back, extolling Donald Trump, and downplaying the escalating pandemic, “Checks on the way. Treatments being tried. Travel bans in place. Information conveyed, in real time,” they write, with the elections, and not the Virus, in their focus.
And it’s working. According to an ABC/Ipsos poll released on March 24, fifty-five percent of Americans were approving of his management of the Coronavirus outbreak, compared with 43 percent who disapprove. These numbers were almost the reverse of the week before. No doubt this would please the Republicans.
The people, however, are less concerned about elections than they are about their lives. Again, I quote from Barbara Weber-Floyd: “Two weeks ago my anxiety reached a maximum level when my husband, son and I all came down with a cold. How surreal that the common cold induced frantic days obsessively taking my temperature and sleepless nights of pure dread, kept awake by coughing that I could not determine if it was wet or dry. It was hard to get through to the primary care physician’s office, the line was always busy…”
So this is the plight we are in, day in and day out. The end is not near, although Mr. Trump repeatedly talks about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
The Washington Post’s criticism of Trump is relentless. The president learned about the impending Coronavirus back in January, it reports, but he ignored it. It took 70 days from that initial notification for Trump to treat the Coronavirus as a deadly disease that has hoodwinked America’s defenses and killed over 15,000 people, and counting. “That more-than-two-month stretch now stands as a critical time that was squandered,” The Post writes.
So we are amidst a political culture full of blame even though just today New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, pointedly refused to blame anyone. “This is game-time, we’re in the game. Now is not the time to point fingers. Let’s keep working.” Some of the blame is the result of panic the disease has created. But much of it, from both Democrats and Republicans, is from the fear of losing in November. As I have written in the past, the president is blatantly using the daily press conferences with one eye on his re-election. He even sounded a warning to the nation during one of these press-briefings: “Do not elect the Democrats!” – a palpably unethical thing to do when the briefings are supposed to be about governmental action again Coronavirus. But then again, whoever said that this president cares about ethics?
I notice that even I, as I write, about agreeing with Governor Cuomo that this is not the time for blame, am doing the same thing: blaming the president and the Republicans! Perhaps for someone who is both a possible victim of the Virus and a columnist, it is natural. After all, “critical,” and “criticism” emanate from the same root word!
We are in a time-warp. Home, amidst silent streets, empty stores, amidst fifteen million unemployed within the space of five weeks; fifteen thousand dead. We don’t know how these very important presidential elections will pan out, whether it will be held at all, indeed, whether you or I will be here at all! There is little hope that we will get accurate news, or that the president will ever turn a new leaf. All we can do — and this sounds weak – is hope for the best.

Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti!