On COVID-19, Americans have been misled, lied to and confused.

In a crisis, people need clear, concise and authoritative messages from leadership. This crisis has lacked that.

At one extreme are politicians who put their careers ahead of the public good. At the other end are scientists, who must try to explain their complex work. In the middle are governors who seek to protect both public health and diverse state economies.

At the outset, President Trump dismissed the COVID-19 threat, because it threatened the booming economy on which his reelection depended. His ignorant assurances allowed the virus to spread unopposed. At this point, he may been engaging less in outright lying than in wishful thinking.

When it became obvious that Trump’s “miracle” would not occur and the disease would keep spreading, Trump’s new hope was that a ready cure would quickly stop it. Without evidence, he began to tout one medication after another.

The problem was that some proposed cures could be worse than the virus and might even cost lives. Though hydroxycholoquine carried warnings, Trump doubled down on advocating the drug and began taking it. “What harm can it do?” he asked. It could cause fatal irregular heartbeats.

Serious scientists were more truthful. Their warnings about the onset of the virus were ignored by the White House. Their efforts have focused on the need to stop the spread by protective measures and the time-consuming and detailed effort to find a drug to treat the virus and develop a vaccine.

Science has rules, because it produces facts. The rules require great care in order to provide great certainty. “Do no harm” is the first rule of medicine, so scientists must avoid rushing to conclusions that could mislead or, even worse, cause harm.

Politicians have fewer rules and produce fewer facts. That makes them impatient with scientists. In a crisis as big as COVID-19, the conflict breaks into the open. Unscrupulous politicians accuse scientists of having political motives, perhaps because they think everybody does.

Scientists do not usually lie or intentionally mislead. That puts them at a disadvantage in a political world. They must do their best not to alienate political leaders while defending their findings.

Trump’s followers soon began to distrust them, because they did not follow the president’s lead. They were politicized by their critics, some of whom argued that they lied to support the Democrats. Eventually, they faced a wave of politically inspired phony science.

Congress tried to save the situation. It appeared to believe that pouring out trillions of dollars would fund necessary research and reduce economic dislocation. But it put funds into the hands of COVID deniers or favored firms who could dip their hands into the cash flow as it passed to its supposed recipients.

Many Americans believed the fine promises and thought that massive federal spending would help them. Many are still waiting. They learned that even members of Congress who wanted to help them were misleading them and perhaps themselves.

Between the vast flood of federal misinformation and scientists who provide unwelcome forecasts are governors who are left with trying to protect their populations. But they also have to find ways to avoid protective measures destroying their economies.

While they struggle to find the right policy balance, they may send confusing messages. Increasingly, they have lined up by political party. Most Republican governors are more aggressive about reducing protection, repackaged as “opening” the economy, than are Democrats. Perhaps they reflect the political will of the more conservative states they serve.

One political rule is “when in doubt, don’t do it.” A majority of people, confused and probably fearful, are not “opening” as fast as Trump and his supporters would like.

In the absence of clear and consistent presidential leadership, governors are left to develop policies for both vulnerable people and local business. Most of them are probably sincere in their efforts and try to suit their constituency.

But the careful efforts of almost all governors of both parties have returned the crisis, in one view, back to the point where it began – from “miracle” to “magic.”

“And they [Democratic governors] think they’re taking away Donald Trump’s greatest tool, which is being able to go into an arena and fill it with 50,000 people every single time, right?” said Eric Trump, the president’s son.

“So they will and you watch. They’ll milk it every single day between now and November 3, and guess what? After November 3, coronavirus will magically all of a sudden go away and disappear and everybody will be able to reopen.”

At last do we have a clear, concise and even hopeful statement on COVID-19?

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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