Robert Reich: There Has Never Been a President Less Suited for Handling an Epidemic than Donald Trump | Opinion

Last week, the U.S. stock market suffered its largest weekly loss since 2008. A health crisis is rapidly morphing into an economic crisis.

So far, the United States' response has left much to be desired.

Epidemiologists in other countries have used "surveillance testing" under World Health Organization guidelines to track the spread of the disease before large numbers of people turn up at hospitals. But, according to a new report by ProPublica, the U.S. Center for Disease Control lost weeks that could have been used to track its possible spread in America because it insisted upon devising its own test, which turned out to be flawed.

Trump and his administration would rather blame the media and the Democrats, and even question whether the virus is real.

On Friday, Trump accused news outlets like CNN of "doing everything they can to instill fear in people," while some Democrats are "trying to gain political favor by saying a lot of untruths." At a campaign rally Friday evening in South Carolina, he claimed that concern about the virus was the Democrats' "new hoax" after the Russia investigation and then impeachment.

Trump's idea for how to deal with the emerging crisis? He says he's considering another round of tax cuts. As if cutting taxes would somehow motivate people fearful of contagion to venture into shopping malls, movie theaters, and jet airplanes. As if pumping up the stock market is the most important first step. As if Trump's earlier round of massive tax cuts trickled down to average Americans.

Trump is also instructing all government health officials and scientists who have information about the virus to first clear their statements with the White House. Yet controlling the flow of information within an administration that's not especially renowned for truth-telling seems unlikely to increase the public's confidence in what they hear.

Trump has already taken several other steps, all of them backward. He has eliminated a National Security Council position that coordinates responses to pandemics. He has ignored an expert panel's warning that the United States is badly unprepared for global health threats and needs to restore funding to address them, and is requesting that the C.D.C.'s budget be cut by almost 16 percent, and the Department of Health and Human Services budget by almost 10 percent.

Trump is also proposing a $3 billion cut to global health programs, including a 53 percent cut to the World Health Organization and a 75 percent cut to the Pan American Health Organization.

When he's not accusing his enemies of hyping the coronavirus and doing what he can to undermine the nation's and the world's ability to cope with it, Trump and his administration have been making the nation more vulnerable to all sorts of health risks.

He's demanding that anyone receiving public assistance have a job, which presumably will make many people reluctant to stop working if they feel sick. Beginning next month, for example, nearly 700,000 Americans who aren't working will no longer be eligible for food stamps. It doesn't seem to have occurred to the Trumpsters that the likely result is for people with flu symptoms to ignore them in order to keep their jobs, thereby spreading disease.

Trump's obsessive efforts to wreck Obamacare also makes the coronavirus and other contagious diseases more dangerous, for the obvious reason that people without health insurance are less likely to see a doctor. The number of Americans without health insurance has risen steadily during Trump's tenure. A 2018 poll found that 44 percent of Americans didn't see a doctor because they couldn't afford it.

Trump and Republicans have rejected all safety nets—including paid family leave and guaranteed sick leave—that people need to cope with personal health emergencies. This also makes America less prepared for contagion. A recent survey found that 90 percent of Americans still go to work while they're sick.

What Trump and his administration fail to understand, but which the coronavirus should make painfully clear, is that personal health and individual wellbeing are inextricably linked to public health and social wellbeing. This is not a socialist hoax.

A new and especially virulent contagious virus is bad enough. That it is spreading at a time when the United States government is headed by someone who denies it, blames his opponents, and dismantles what's left of the institutions that could contain it, makes the danger far worse.

Robert Reich's latest book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Change It, will be out in March.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​