19 March 2020

Big numbers and little platoons: Washington takes on the virus

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Washington, DC, is grinding to a halt. Last week, it was possible to leave your home, see restaurants with customers and streets only slightly emptier than usual, and convince yourself that life as we know it was not about to be put on hold. Not any more. The list of legitimate reasons to go out has shrunk: work for those who cannot do so from home, food and other essentials, exercise, the small-scale socialising that is possible under government guidelines. It will shrink again soon.

COVID-19 is universal; the grim local variables are where your town is on the inevitable, necessary slide towards lockdown, and the efficacy of your country, state and city’s policy response. But as the indiscriminate virus hits different places, it reveals what makes them, well, different. Italians blast opera on their balconies, New Yorkers yell “Flatten the curve, go home” at pedestrians.

In Washington, where the base currency is power, and one’s proximity to it, social distancing poses a particular set of problems. Needless to say that the schmoozefest is on hold. No embassy parties, no book launches, no powerbroking over cocktails at downtown hotels. Only a few weeks ago, the presidential election was the all-consuming news story you’d expect it to be. Now it is an afterthought.

For K Street’s lobbyists, limitations on access to legislators would be terrifying regardless of the circumstances. That they cannot visit Capitol Hill as the government prepares to write a massive cheque to the US economy is panic-inducing for them and their clients — though certainly not for the rest of us.

The advice of one lobbying firm to customers was, as reported by Politico, that “in lieu of face-to-face congressional meetings, those with Washington interests should explore op-eds on the pages of a member’s local newspaper, consider a social media campaign targeting congressional staff back in the district or state, and think about penning a thoughtful LinkedIn article that could be bolstered through online advertising”.

Congressional reporters have been asked to keep their distance from legislators too, with press packs and so-called “walk and talks” with (often very old) lawmakers in the corridors of power now officially frowned upon, if not prohibited.

In the White House, the penny has finally dropped. For weeks, Donald Trump has played down the seriousness of the virus, calling it “nothing to worry about” in late January. In late February he implied the worst was behind America. When he addressed the nation in a misleading Oval Office address last week, he was full of self-congratulation for his limited interventions so far and failed to brace the country for the coming tsunami.

This week, he has mostly struck a far more sombre tone in daily briefings, flanked by members of the White House Coronavirus Taskforce, including the reassuring duo of Dr Deborah Birx, who has spent more than 30 years in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading expert on infectious disease.

Trump cannot help but indulge in a pointless scrap over whether to call the coronavirus the ‘Chinese Virus’, and he sticks to the lie that he has always taken the coronavirus very seriously. More seriously than almost anyone else, in fact. But, these distractions not withstanding, he now seems to realise that his re-election chances, not to mention hundreds of thousands of lives, depend on a competent response both to the pandemic itself, as well as its daunting economic consequences.

The biggest failing of the American response so far has been the lack of testing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention botched the initial distribution of test kits and the US has been playing catch up ever since. According to Our World In Data, America has performed an estimated 125 tests per million people. In Britain, the number is 749; Italy, 2,514; South Korea, 5,557. On-the-ground reports reveal the maddening lengths Americans with good reason to believe they have the virus still need to go to get tested.

That ongoing failing is made more frustrating by the speed and scale of other parts of the American response. It took until Wednesday, for Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act, which gives the government extensive powers to enlist private-sector manufacturing in the war on the coronavirus.

For all that sclerosis, inaction and hyper-partisanship dominate in Washington, America’s political leaders can still be shocked into action by a crisis. The Senate has already passed a relief package that deals with part of the fallout of COVID-19, and more is certain to follow. The White House plan reportedly comes with a $1 trillion price tag, with $500 billion going directly to American taxpayers in the form of two cheques, one in April and one in May. Whether or not that money could or should be better targeted, it is at least a sign that Washington has learnt the political lesson of the last big bailout.

As the city’s centres of power talk eye-watering numbers, other parts of Washington depend on heart-warming little platoons. One bartender has put together a public spreadsheet that means Washingtonians can still tip local bar staff, even if they aren’t able to pour them a drink. Some restaurants have converted into community kitchens, offering reduced price meals and not charging those who cannot afford to pay. Big numbers and small acts of kindness. Washington will need both to cope with COVID-19.

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Oliver Wiseman is US editor of The Critic.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.