This was the week when despairing global leaders — with an urgency unlike anything since World War II — looked to the modern era’s Leader of the Free World hoping to find leadership, resources and maybe even an inspiring way to win our war against a rampaging pandemic.
But no. The present occupant of the office once called the free world’s titular leader, the president of the United States, was missing in action when most of the world’s most famous names convened, in person and virtually, at the World Health Organization’s two-day conference on how to conquer COVID-19. The novel coronavirus that surfaced in China has now enveloped our planet.
The WHO invited China’s president to speak — and Xi Jinping converted it into his newly assumed posture of global leadership. Xi pledged $2 billion in the global battle against the pandemic that started in his country.
The WHO invited America’s president to speak – and Donald Trump made himself a no-show. He wouldn’t appear or teleconference himself into the session. He just sent a tweet late Monday night converting the WHO into his political ploy and play toy. That’s how he sent the world his four page letter to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia. In it he blamed the WHO for failing to get tough with China on spreading the COVID-19. (Yes, the same China he praised earlier this year for having been “transparent” in sharing what it knew about COVID-19 with the world.)
Trump’s letter-tweet also leveled a number of false and flawed accusations at the WHO. Why? Clearly, Trump was attacking the WHO to please his U.S. political base of mad-as-hell/not-going-to-take-it-anymore voters. Why? He’s desperate to blame others so you won’t blame him for having frittered away the first two-and-a-half months of 2020 by insisting the coronavirus wasn’t a problem, and America’s 15 cases would soon be down to zero. So he’s blaming China for misleading the world and the WHO for sucking up to China.
Trump is right about China — it tried to con the world and cover up its new incurable coronavirus. But Trump wants you to forget that he was repeatedly warned by intelligence briefers and his top officials that this was a killer pandemic in progress. He wants you to forget he kept telling you it was just a leftist hoax.
And Trump hopes my media colleagues didn’t prove to you that his letter to the WHO director-general had whoppers scattered through it like raisins in raisin bread. Trump’s letter claimed the WHO “consistently ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from the Lancet medical journal.”
But no. The Lancet quickly proved Trump’s claim “factually incorrect.” The British medical journal said it published “no report in December, 2019, referring to a virus or outbreak in Wuhan or anywhere else in China.” Lancet said on Jan. 24 it first reported the virus outbreak in Wuhan, noting the first evidence of human-to-human virus transmission. It also said scientists and physicians from “Chinese institutions …worked with us” to share the information “to an international audience.”
Indeed, back then, in January, February and the first half of March, Trump kept insisting COVID-19 was just a hoax being fanned by Democrats to scare the stock market and make him look bad.
And this week we learned the real reason Trump was so desperate to convince you China and WHO must be blamed — anyone but him! In perhaps the most revealing news scoop in many eras, The New York Times reported that a Columbia University epidemiological team headed by Dr. Jeffrey Shaman has found that, according to its new model, Trump could have saved many thousands of lives if he had begun pushing new rules promoting social distancing and closing down workplace, restaurants and other facilities.
If Trump’s America had shut down just one week earlier in March, some 36,000 who died would still be alive today, the study showed. If America shut down two weeks earlier — on March 1 — 83% of the Americans who died would still be alive.
This is not a blame game, just numbers statistically crunched. It is a paint-by-the-numbers big picture of what a smart, caring president could have accomplished to save us all — save our families, friends, fellow workers — by just this once not treating every event as if it is only about him. The occupant of the Oval Office can someday, once again, really be the Leader of the Free World. She or he can lead and save us all, once again.
That’s the lesson that will make these seven days in May a week history must never let our leaders forget.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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