By the end of February, there were 85,403 confirmed cases, in 55 countries around the world.
Almost two decades ago, during George W. Bush’s presidency, the federal government developed guidelines for communicating during a public-health crisis. Among the core principles are “be first,” “be right,” “be credible,” “show respect” and “promote action.”
But the Trump administration’s response to coronavirus, as a Washington Post news story put it, is “breaking almost every rule in the book.”
The inconsistent and sometimes outright incorrect information coming from the White House has left Americans unsure of what, if anything, to do. By early March, experts already were arguing for aggressive measures to slow the virus’s spread and avoid overwhelming the medical system. The presidential bully pulpit could have focused people on the need to change their behavior in a way that no private citizen could have. Trump could have specifically encouraged older people — at most risk from the virus — to be careful. Once again, he chose not to take action.
Instead, he suggested on multiple occasions that the virus was less serious than the flu. “We’re talking about a much smaller range” of deaths than from the flu, he said on March 2. “It’s very mild,” he told Hannity on March 4. On March 7, he said, “I’m not concerned at all.” On March 10, he promised: “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”
The first part of March was also when more people began to understand that the United States had fallen behind on testing, and Trump administration officials responded with untruths.
Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services, told ABC, “There is no testing kit shortage, nor has there ever been.” Trump, while touring the C.D.C. on March 6, said, “Anybody that wants a test can get a test.”
That C.D.C. tour was a microcosm of Trump’s entire approach to the crisis. While speaking on camera, he made statements that were outright wrong, like the testing claim. He brought up issues that had nothing to do with the virus, like his impeachment. He made clear that he cared more about his image than about people’s well-being, by explaining that he favored leaving infected passengers on a cruise ship so they wouldn’t increase the official number of American cases. He also suggested that he knew as much as any scientist:
I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.
On March 10, the World Health Organization reported 113,702 cases of the virus in more than 100 countries.