The coronavirus pandemic is illustrating a basic truth about the U.S.

We are poor at long-term preparing and better at short-term reacting.

The country was unprepared for dealing with a worldwide public health crisis. Even if other countries were similarly unready, that’s no excuse for a country that considers itself and is widely considered by others to be the world leader.

The principal reason for lack of preparedness was the popular belief that the federal government is too big and people ought to be able to keep their own money rather than turning it over to a faceless government that independently follows its own agenda.

When the U.S. House of Representatives voted 363 – 40 for an economic stimulus package to deal with the virus’ effect, one member opposed it because it would “expand government massively.” In fact, it increases the size of government little, but it would be a major increase in government spending.

The basic function of any government is to protect public health and safety. But that takes money. Even worse, from the viewpoint of opponents, it needs funding before there is even a problem, when people would rather keep the money in their own hands. Why spend money on a police force, when there’s no crime?

A variation on this theme was President Trump’s initial focus on the stock market and, indirectly, on the economy. He favored leaving potentially ill people stranded on a cruise ship rather than bringing them ashore for testing and treatment. At home, they would run up the count of those affected, potentially harming the stock market.

Then, the president complained about the inadequacy of federal procedures to deal with the new virus, implying it was the fault of his predecessors. By now, he had been president more than three years, so if there were a preparedness problem, it could have been fixed on his watch.

Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world faces similar problems. For a century, the world has looked to the U.S. for leadership in a global crisis. This one gave the U.S. an opportunity to work with Europe and to demonstrate its superiority to the Chinese regime. Instead, it continued to let world leadership slip away.

If any proof were needed of a panic, people had to look no further than the stock market. Share prices are supposed to be forecasters of the future economy. If they are to be believed, a recession seems inevitable.

How can government leaders prevent panic? Merely counting gross numbers of tests and respirators is not the path to panic’s end. They need to informed, honest and complete in their explanations. That creates a sense of confidence and reduces harmful rumors.

Instead, Trump tried hard to minimize the crisis. He focused more on the health of the stock market than on the health of the American public.

Having taken credit for the run-up in stock prices, he worried that his political fate could be undermined by their collapse. He failed initially to understand that he would not be held responsible for developments that nobody could control.

Then, Trump made a major course correction. He began talking about the market being secondary to controlling the spread of the virus. He talked with the nation’s governors. He stopped blaming his predecessors.

He even praised the media. In fairness to him, some of them seemed intent on tripping him up. In fairness to them, they did not report fake news.

Above all, he backed a huge economic stimulus, contrary to the usual GOP position. It will add to an already large national debt. The result could be inflation and a tax increase, but with most of added cost to be paid after the presidential election.

Trump had also demanded lower interest rates. They were cut to zero, but it did not help.

The stimulus is targeted at relieving individual’s economic pain and preserving key industries when their revenues fall to the point they cannot pay workers. Many of the opponents of “big government” now recognize that only the government has the economic power to help.

The crisis will have an impact on the presidential election. The question will be whether it has educated people that they are, in fact, choosing how to spend their own money when they elect leaders to use tax revenues in preparing to meet possible future needs and crises.

The proponents of increased government action for dealing with the long-term effects of problems are not “socialists.” In fact, much work can be carried out by the private sector, as in the current development of a coronavirus vaccine.

Without understanding that we must devote resources to being better prepared, the coronavirus crisis would serve mainly as a sign of worse things to come.

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman. 

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