“Stay calm, carry on,” Mr. President ?!?

See Disclaimer. This article is part of the ‘Letters to an unfit president‘ series.

Mr. President:

In an interview on Fox News, yesterday, Vice-President Mike Pence tried to explain the unexplainable. He defended your lies on the threat of COVID-19, documented anew in Bob Woodward’s recently released tapes, as an example of leadership. What you did, he said, was akin to adopting the “stay calm, carry on” British philosophy in World War II.

On cue, on a news conference in the same day, you sported a rare calm demeanor. When asked “Why did you lie to the American People?”, you lied once more, this time by denying that you had lied.  In fact, you disparaged the reporter’s question, before implying that you were just acting in the country’s best interest. Specifically, you said: “That’s a terrible question. And the phraseology. I didn’t lie. What I said is we have to be calm. We can’t be panicked.”

This ‘must-keep-calm’ defense will not work, Sir. It is neither credible nor logical. Ignorance is not a remedy for a pandemic. As of yesterday, there were 6.5 million reported cases of COVID-19 in the US, and 193 thousand deaths. We rate worst in the world in these statistics. And beyond each case and death, there are real people, real families and loved ones, real tragedy.

You knew how serious COVID-19 was, and you lied to us. Blatantly, for sure. Many of us realized that we were being lied to, and acted appropriately from early on in the crisis. But, without government action and guidance, many others did not have the means, or awareness, to take life-saving precautions. Others yet were led by your example or words, to do the exact opposite of what the situation demanded—even now, when social distancing and the use of masks is officially recommended as essential by health authorities.

I struggle to understand how you manage to fall sleep at night. Have you no conscience? Do you realize that, rather than showing leadership or resolve, your lies—and the associated missed opportunities for timely and effective action—were death or sickness warrants to a very large number of Americans?  Do you realize that early action would have equated to less pain—both on public health and economically? Do you understand that you were elected to protect and serve the American People, and failed dismally to do so?

You keep telling us that China is responsible, not you. The reality is that, in this pandemic, almost every government around the world failed, to an extent or another, and China is no exception. But your Administration stands nearly alone, among first-world nations, in so completely misreading, mismanaging and aggravating this crisis.

You politicized a public health crisis, rather than addressing it decisively. Your frequent talking point of closing the airports to China travelers will be judged by history as a cynical, incompetent, politically driven maneuver, rather than effective policy. By the time you did it, it was clear that the virus had spread, and, in particular, Europe was already becoming a major focus of infection. But flights from Europe went unimpeded.

When you eventually created panic among Americans abroad, prompting them to fly back in droves, you neglected to have plans and protocols in place to receive them. The lack of planning was even reflected at the basic level of insufficient proper screenings and personal spacing at entry points—and, of course, also as shortage of actual testing and lack of science-driven quarantining policies and facilities.

When the country finally entered into a partial lock-down, you already lacked even a basic credibility on the handling of the pandemic. Governors were leading, and many were making a real difference.  Meanwhile, you kept aggravating matters by continuing to play a dangerous game of mixed messaging, compounded with an ‘us versus them’ attitude towards states. Your adversarial relationship with many (mostly Democratic) Governors, belied one of our central tenets: united, as in United States of America.

True leadership would have been to take the bull by the horns, as far back as January. You could—as was your duty!—have addressed the nation, with a realistic, calm, and effective message. Something along the following lines:

“My Fellow Americans:

The  world is facing the prospect of a major pandemic, from a virus known as COVID-19. The infection has deceptive similarities with the flu, but it is far more damaging and deadly.

COVID-19 originated in China, but has now spread to Europe and will spread further. Evidence from these regions shows that the virus propagates quickly, mostly through the air at close proximity. We are collectively learning more on a daily basis about mechanisms, health effects, and most vulnerable populations.

Within days or weeks, we will begin to feel the effects of COVID-19 in the United Sates as well. Together, acting early and decisively, we can minimize how we will be affected.

My administration is working with governments across the world to minimize global spread—both for humanitarian reasons and for our own protection We are also collaborating with a great sense of resolve and urgency with all Governors, and through them with local authorities. I am declaring a national emergency to develop tracing and screening procedures, test kits, and medical equipment. We will also invest heavily on the safe development over time of vaccines and therapeutics.

We must limit how infection is brought into the United States through international travel. We must also limit how fast infection propagates across and within our states and communities, once it reaches our shores. Early action is essential. To be effective, it will temporarily disrupt many things we take for granted, including our mobility, work routines and social interaction. But science-informed decisive action, undertaken by all Americans with a unified sense of urgency and commitment, will save hundreds of thousands of American lives, the economy, and ultimately our way of life.

Working with Congressional leaders and the Governors’ National Association, I have created three task forces. One will address the public health crisis, another will focus on its economic and social impacts, and the third will coordinate and facilitate implementation of policy responses. The first two of these task forces will be led and composed mostly by technical experts in areas ranging from science, health, technology to economy, social justice, and human behavior, and more. The third task force will be bipartisan, and coordinate across the Executive and Legislative branches, as well as state governments.

All Task Forces will jointly brief me, Congress and state governments on a daily basis. They will also provide daily updates to Americans. Knowing that time is of the essence, we will move expeditiously to develop and communicate guidelines and policies that—with your buy-in and collaboration—will keep America healthy, strong and safe. Those guidelines and policies will be adaptive to what we learn about the virus, and conditions on the ground.

For now, please follow some basic precautions: Limit travelling, in-country and especially abroad. Take basic hygienic precautions, and in particular wash your hands frequently. Cover you mouth and nose when in public. Minimize large gatherings, especially in close spaces. If you are an employer, consider work-from-home strategies for as many of your employees as possible. For additional guidance, the heads of the task forces will begin their public briefings tomorrow.  

I know that you will be equal to the challenge, and I want to remind you that America has traditionally been at its best in times of crisis. The moment requires unity and empathy, and placing country above partisan politics. We will emerge from this threat stronger, as a nation and as a global leader.”

Back in January, Sir, this message would have promoted a productive “stay calm, carry on” attitude. Instead, by panicking, lying and failing to act, you predictably enabled the devastating situation we live in.

We no longer have the benefit of time. But we still need a President who leads. And that is not you, Sir. I expect that we will elect one in Joe Biden, this November.


— Antonio Baptista


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