Breakingviews - Donald Trump is rising risk factor in virus battle

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the U.S response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic during an address to the nation from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 11, 2020. Doug Mills/Pool via REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters Breakingviews) - Donald Trump is becoming a growing risk factor in the virus battle. The U.S. president’s address to the nation on Wednesday night sparked more market panic. A $50 billion pledge for small businesses hit by Covid-19 is good, but his speech lacked public-health remedies, was full of mixed messages and focused on a Europe travel ban. He’s missing both diagnosis and cure.

Trump’s primetime speech followed his administration’s trend of inadequate and confusing responses since coronavirus cases started rising in the United States. He is barring all travel to America by, as the Homeland Security Department later clarified, foreign nationals from Europe’s Schengen area that includes Italy, France and Germany for 30 days starting on Friday. Green-card holders will be exempt.

The commander-in-chief, a self-confessed germophobe, also took to Twitter to backtrack from his televised comments that a “tremendous amount of trade and cargo” from Europe would not be allowed into the country. Were such an embargo imposed, the economic ramifications would be severe. Major U.S. stock-index futures fell sharply after his speech.

A welter of critical information and measures to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 was missing from his address, too. One major problem is an inadequate supply of tests to diagnose the disease, meaning only a fraction of Americans have been checked. Meanwhile, cases now total more than 1,000 and certain regions are becoming overwhelmed. Yet he didn’t discuss how testing would be expanded or how the government could support local officials and hospitals.

His economic measures fell short, too. Trump intends to ask Congress to provide $50 billion for low-interest loans to small businesses and said there would at some point be emergency relief for workers who are ill or quarantined. But he failed to provide details on the latter, while he used his call for a payroll-tax cut to chide Democrats even though lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are sceptical of its usefulness.

Trump did, though, devote time to one of his main tactics, superlative-laden bragging, whether about America’s preparedness, its economy, its healthcare system or its talented doctors. His administration’s actions so far fall well short of such pronouncements. For a president who cares deeply about the markets, he’s become a threat to investor performance.


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