Politics & Policy

Armchair Quarterbacks Try to Rewrite History on Coronavirus

President Donald Trump addresses a news briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic at the White House in Washington, D.C., March 16, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
COVID-19 caught lots of people in America by surprise. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise for cynical political gain.

This morning, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough claimed that, unlike the Trump administration, “Everybody saw this coming in early January.”

If Scarborough knew that a deadly, once-in-a-century pandemic was about to descend on the nation in early January — I assume he considers himself part of “everyone” — why on God’s earth didn’t he warn his susceptible viewers that they should begin social distancing? Why didn’t his producers book a single expert who could beseech his viewers to start wearing masks, to shutter their non-essential businesses, and to avoid church and sporting events? Why didn’t he mention coronavirus at all? Even in late January, nearly a full month after “everyone knew,” Scarborough’s show was dominated by the Donald Trump impeachment trial.

As far as I can tell, in the entire month of January, Morning Joe didn’t reference the coronavirus once to his 2.6 million followers on Twitter. Imagine the thousands of lives Scarborough could have saved if he had only shared his insight.

Does “everyone” include the World Health Organization, which claimed in a January 14 tweet (reflecting earlier findings) that preliminary investigations into Chinese authorities found “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus”?

Does “everyone” include the Chinese government — whose propaganda Scarborough shares as reliable data? Because it was China’s downplaying and lying about coronavirus that ensured its spread around the world. The blood is on their hands, not on the hands of your least favorite American politicians.

In early March, when reporters were fixated on a vacuous debate over the political correctness of affixing “China” to the virus’s name, researchers at the University of Southampton released a study indicating that 95 percent of COVD-19 cases would have been prevented around the world if the Communist regime had acted three weeks earlier. If China had intervened just one week earlier, there would have been an 66 percent mitigation, while two weeks would have led to 86 percent fewer cases.

Scarborough, like most of us, was busy talking about the impeachment trial in early January. And that’s exactly the topic we should have been focusing on. We had no business expecting our elected officials or our media outlets to obsess over every outbreak in China. No doubt I’m older than many of you, but I can recall warnings about perhaps a dozen potentially dangerous epidemic breakouts around the world, and none of them ever materialized in a legitimately scary way for us. It’s human nature to assume similar outcomes. And if China had acted like a first-world nation, coronavirus would have been contained.

Even if Scarborough had warned us, what would the public have done differently in early January, before a single confirmed case in the United States? When Trump “did something” in late January and restricted travel to China, I don’t recall a single mainstream pundit applauding him for taking the virus seriously. (In fact, the opposite happened.)

And even if we had “listened to the scientists,” the United States wouldn’t have been able to avert the coronavirus. Expert predictions were all over the place, and very few researchers or scientists came close to calling the spread correctly. But now we’re going to act as if politicians were negligent for failing to try to lock down the entire economy in early January? In mid March, you could hardly get people off beach in Florida, but you think the American public was going to consent to deep-freeze the economy and shut down the NFL in January? To say such things is just armchair quarterbacking of the most cynical kind.

Major media outlets, incidentally, ran plenty of their own stories in January and February tempering fears over coronavirus. And that’s okay, too. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s impossible to be on a perpetual war footing, organizing and planning for every known emergency and eventuality at all times. Of course there is great room for improvement. Of course we should have more flexibility to produce ventilators or other emergency equipment. But it’s unrealistic for the public to expect there is any policy proposal or political leader that can immunize us from disasters such as this one.


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