Coronavirus response overwhelmed by politics in US

New York: Politics is overwhelming the coronavirus response as the US confronts the threat of the disease turning into a pandemic with the presidential elections eight months away.

US President Donald Trump and his officials have traded accusations with leaders of Democratic Party, while experts weigh the risk of the dreaded disease spreading and the stock markets are tumbling.

Trump tweeted on Friday morning that the Democrats were blaming him for the coronavirus.

Democrat Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called Trump's response to the threat from the disease inadequate and "chaotic and opaque".

He shot back calling her "incompetent" and accused her of "trying to create a panic" and he has been trying with little success to calm the fears.

He said that the US was prepared for it, whether the impact was at a very small level or a large one.

The polarisation bubbled up on Friday when several Republicans members of the House of Representatives and a respected Democrat, Donna Shalala, who is a former Health Services Secretary, walked out of a briefing by officials protesting against a Democratic Representative launching an attack on the administration and politicising the meeting.

There were signs of a thaw developing as risks grow despite the sniping.

"This is not a time for naming calling or playing politics," Pelosi said on Thursday.

US Vice President Mike Pence, who has been put in charge of dealing with coronavirus by Trump, concurred on Friday: "It's important to remember we're all in this together. This is not the time for partisanship.

"This president and this administration is going to work with leaders in both parties." he added.

The dilemma before the country is dealing with the evolving crisis through effective measures but without creating a panic.

According to the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) there were 62 people infected with the strain of coronavirus now named COVID-19 in the US, and of them 44 had contracted it on the cruise ship Diamond Princess and three in Wuhan, the epicentre of the disease in China, and were brought home to the US.

Officials point to the small number of infections to assert that the situation was not yet serious.

But the director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Nancy Messonnier, had warned earlier this week while Trump was still in India, "It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness."

Her suggestions to not hold meetings, shut down schools and switch to telecommuting could bring the nation to a standstill in an election year.

There were signs of panic: The Dow Jones index was down 13 per cent this week, the worst weekly performance since the 2008 when the US fell into the great recession, pulling down most of the world with it.

The market performance and the impact of coronavirus on the US - and global - economy threatens the pillar of Trump's case for re-election, the economic gains.

Trump's acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney accused the media of stoking the fears on Wall Street because "they think this is going to bring down the president."

He added to calm the markets, "turn off the TV for 24 hours."

Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell indicated that the central bank could cut interest rates to prop up the economy if needed. He said it would "act as appropriate."

The economic fallout of the COVID-19 outbreak is the break in supply chain in a world that has placed most of its eggs in one basket - China.

For example, Apple has said that the closure of factories in China has affected its phone availability and Microsoft has warned that there can be a squeeze in the supply of computers.

The outcome of the November presidential election would hinge on how the coronavirus crisis ends.

Symptomatic of the one-upmanship is the fight between Trump and the Democrats over how much should be allocated to fight the disease.A

Trump has asked for $2.5 billion, while Senate Democratic party leader Chuck Schumer has said $8.5 million was needed to prepare the nation for the coronavirus threat - an unusual case of the opposition offering the government more money than it needs asATrump has noted.

Some Republicans, Trump said, have suggest $4 billion and the final outlay will be higher than what he has asked for.

About $1 billion this is expected to be spent on developing a vaccine, which the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci who is in charge of the project has said it would take between 12 and 18 months for it to be available to the people, while Trump has claimed it could happen much sooner.

The charges that Trump is ill-prepared to deal with the crisis flow from the fact that the head of global health at the National Security Council left it in 2018, the year budget cuts to the CDC led to the firing of its entire team dealing pandemics.

Behind the sense of inevitability that COVID-19 would spread in the US is the fact that it is a democracy and an open society where the Chinese measures like imposing mass quarantines through virtual curfews and preventing people from entering or leaving an affected area would be impossible to fully enforce.

While the Trump has imposed total ban on non-citizens and non-residents who had been to China entering the US, he has not extended to other countries, notably Italy, as yet.

The US has not started a wholesale screening of all visitors entering the country either.

It does not have enough test kits and so far only two facilities to test the specimens from people showing the disease symptoms.

As this is an election year, the US will see party polls for selecting the presidential candidate, election rallies and national conventions.

Democrats' demands for stronger actions could well backfire if the suggestions to not hold meetings made by Messonnier, whom they have hailed for being outspoken about COVID-19 dangers unlike Trump, is taken seriously.

(Arul Louis can be contacted at