Rich Lowry: White House shouldn’t downplay the coronavirus

Vice President Mike Pence, accompanied by left, President Donald Trump's acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, speaks at a coronavirus task force meeting at the Department of Health and Human Services, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The White House has been walking into a coronavirus trap.

By pooh-poohing worries about the virus and saying everything is under control, it is setting itself up for the charge, if things get even a little bad, that it was self-deluding and overly complacent. It will be accused of making mission-accomplished statements before the mission truly began.

Although Trump struck (mostly) a better tone in his press conference after his return from his India trip, he's been a chief offender, wanting to downplay the virus for fear it will continue to suppress a stock market that has experienced vertiginous drops over the last week.

This is exactly the wrong approach. The moment doesn't call for market-reassuring Trump, but threats-aren't-getting-past-our-borders Trump, not Dow 30,000 Trump, but drawbridge-and-moat Trump.

Everything should be geared toward overreacting now, when the threat in the U.S. is still in prospect, instead of later, when circumstances may be beyond anyone's direct control.

That means appointing a point person for the coronavirus response with a medical background, who doesn’t already have a full-time job, like current designee Mike Pence. The selection of a czar is a Washington cliche, and often a kind of pantomime — the main usefulness of a czar is saying you’ve appointed a czar.

In this case, the right pick could provide genuine expertise in public health and the workings of government, as well as being a reliable source of public information.

It means erring on the side of further travel restrictions, even if it will be impossible to exclude infected people from the United States, given its break out from China to countries all around the world.

It means not quibbling with Congress over coronavirus funding, with even Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy saying the administration's $2.5 billion request is "a little low" (Trump has signaled a willingness to accept more).

It means making sure that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working at maximum efficiency to make coronavirus tests widely available, which is the most worrisome shortfall in the federal response so far, and that government agencies are doing everything possible to push the development and deployment of a vaccine.

Finally, it means coordinating with localities, as warranted, on ways to slow the spread of the virus via "social distancing," or the avoidance of large gatherings and public transportation.

It is certainly true, as the president’s allies have emphasized in recent days, that the press has hyped threats that would be harmful to Trump’s political prospects, whether the overblown fears of a recession last year, or to the hyperbolic warnings of war with Iran after the killing of Qassem Soleimani.

The coronavirus is not a modern-day plague. Many people infected will experience only mild symptoms, and it's not as deadly as SARS or Middle East respiratory syndrome.

Yet, it is not a creation of the fake news, either. It has hobbled the economy and everyday life in one of the most important counties in the world, China, and is shutting down towns in Italy. There are now more new cases outside of China than inside it. The virus has killed nearly 3,000 people.

If it gets loose in the United States, there could well be a panic that in itself would be damaging to the social fabric and the economy.

Maybe none of this comes to pass, but it's better to be overly prepared and vigilant than play to catch up.

Besides, the political valence of the coronavirus crisis should be favorable to Trump's worldview. It demonstrates a downside of globalization and shows the importance of borders. It is an object lesson in our overdependence on a China that is dictatorial, dishonest and poorly governed.

The president shouldn't shrug off the threat in the hopes of talking up the stock market. If his team responds effectively, the Dow will take care of itself.

Rich Lowry

Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.

Twitter @RichLowry