"I haven't heard about testing in weeks." That was the response from the President of the United States on a phone call with a group of state governors on Monday, after one of them—Steve Bullock of Montana—went through how difficult it has been for his state to get ahold of the number of COVID-19 tests they'd need to do "contact tracing." That's one method by which countries like South Korea have found so much success combatting the novel coronavirus: a sprawling testing program combined with an effort to trace where infected individuals have been and who they've come into contact with, in order to contain the spread.
To a certain extent, it's impossible for the United States—with its larger size and federalized structure and a legal regime more hostile to invasions of privacy than South Korea's—to do something so comprehensive. And yet our efforts have been miserably poor, in particular because we scarcely tested anyone for weeks and weeks. South Korea had its first case one day before the United States did in January, yet has administered many times more tests per capita since. South Korea has more experience dealing with epidemics of respiratory disease. But this is also heavily tied to a lack of test kits in the U.S., which the federal government failed to produce or acquire in appropriate numbers, and which has necessitated the most drastic mitigation measures: because we don't know who has COVID-19 and where, everything has to shut down. Testing is also part of the equation to get out of this extended lockdown.
Yet on Monday, the president claimed he's heard nothing about testing problems.
CBS News obtained audio of a call Monday between Pres. Trump and rural state governors about coronavirus. After Montana Gov. Steve Bullock discusses difficulty getting testing equipment, Trump says, "I haven't heard anything about testing being a problem" https://t.co/ScO2YbKZAq pic.twitter.com/YhFPpw7Gni— CBS News (@CBSNews) March 30, 2020
The president's attention span rivals a nine-year-old's, but even he will have heard the near-constant discussions around the insufficient testing over the last few weeks. Even a man who uses a coronavirus briefing in the White House Rose Garden to reward the MyPillow guy with an infomercial is surely aware enough of what's going on around him to know testing is an issue. At the same Monday press conference, he proudly unveiled a new test kit developed by a private firm like it was his first-born son. This is like the president's years-long campaign where he insists that China is somehow "paying us" via the tariffs Trump has imposed on Chinese goods. This is simply not reality: American consumers pay the tariffs. By this point, there is no way Trump actually believes China is paying—he just thinks it sounds good, and if enough people believe it, it might as well be true. Similarly, he finds it easier to play dumb on testing than acknowledge that his administration has failed on it.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee said as much to The New York Times:
“It would be shocking to me that if anyone who has had access to any newspaper, radio, social networks or any other communication would not be knowledgeable about the need for test kits,” Mr. Inslee said. “I can be assured that the White House knows very well about this desperate need for test kits.”
Incredibly, that Times article boasts the following headline: "Trump Suggests Lack of Testing Is No Longer a Problem. Governors Disagree." This is a classic of the Both Sides form, in which saying that one side can point to a preponderance of evidence, while the other side is engaging in insane fantasy, is considered "biased" or "not objective."
The actual truth here is easily verifiable: there are not enough tests, the governors are right, and the president is wrong. This is not a matter of opinion or debate. It is not a contrast of two different approaches to the issue, where we cannot be sure which one has greater merit. One is grounded in reality, the other is completely absurd. To do anything other than say so is a doing a disservice to readers. It also gives cover to bad-faith actors, like the president and his allies, who feast on the Objective Media's fear of accusations of bias to work the referees to their own advantage and pump misinformation into the body politic. You don't have to pretend to believe anyone cares about email protocol.
There is not enough testing, and only the federal government can remedy the situation—something Bullock demonstrated, in this initially non-public call, by recounting what it's like trying to procure scarce supplies when you're on your own as a state. This is an established problem, as states and hospitals have been forced to compete against each other for resources in the absence of federal coordination. Trump's calls for states to take the lead acquiring ventilators is more delusion meant to shift the blame to others when this starts to get really bad in the next week or two. "I don't take any responsibility at all," the president said. The buck stops that-a-way. The way to combat this is for the free press to call it out for what it is, and hold elected leaders' feet to the fire until they get the job done for their constituents. Not everything is a he-said-she-said.
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