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Practically everyone I have encountered in the past few weeks has asked the question: "Have you ever seen anything like this?" They are, of course, referring to the pandemic, the coronavirus.

Increasingly, those encounters haven't been through person-to-person communications; instead, comments or observations are conveyed online, digitally, or through other technological means. Regardless, the answer to the question is, of course, no. We haven't ever seen anything like this. And the answer is emphatic because the pandemic has many dimensions -- public health, economics, business, finance, international relations, sports, entertainment, education and much more. Education is primarily online. My grandchildren in Colorado and Virginia are exclusively in online learning, as are nearly all students in Arkansas and around the nation.

And there's the matter of jobs -- including the position at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The presidential campaign has largely been pushed into the background of public consciousness. At this point we rely on the non-stop media coverage and commentary to keep us informed.

Several key figures have provided press briefings on a regular basis and it is vitally important that we have realistic and accurate information about the ongoing crisis.

Among the most notable of the regular briefings have been those conducted by President Trump and his Coronavirus Task Force (interestingly, the Trump White House had long since abandoned regular press conferences); those by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who emerged as an unlikely unifying folk hero and whose city area has been called the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus; and the daily briefings by Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, with his reluctance to impose a stay-at-home order as almost all other states have done.

The briefings have been characterized by mixed messages. And where there is media, there is politics. Likewise, where there is politics, there is media. This has been fully on display in claims and comments coming from the briefings.

There have been repeated examples of misinformation and contradictions, particularly coming from the White House team. Pledges and promises have been abundant, but some of them have fallen like an out-of-control slalom skier careening down the slope.

Consider the curious case of Jared Kushner and the ventilators. Trump's son-in-law and his analogue in self-certainty was engaged in what appeared to be a dispute with Gov. Cuomo over access to ventilators and other critically needed medical equipment. Kushner and the president maintained that some state governors have inflated what they were requesting from the national stockpile. It became a kind of verbal civil war. Congress created the stockpile of medical supplies in the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Act in 2002, nine months after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Kushner argued at the White House coronavirus task force press briefing that the stockpile's reserves are the property of the federal government, not the states. The Trump administration then changed its description of the stockpile to conform to Kushner's view.

At another briefing, with journalists and the public expecting an update on the coronavirus, the White House opened with a report about Venezuela and breaking up drug cartels.

Then came the confusing and contradictory announcements on masks, with the president declining to wear one.

And relations with China can be intricately complex and ironic, as seen in the decision by China to make available 1,000 ventilators to the United States. Gov. Cuomo praised the Chinese government for its help in securing shipment of the breathing machines.

Obviously, there are past, present, and future aspects to consider and questions about the U.S. handling of the crisis. It is evident official policy and actions have reflected a dysfunctional approach. Current communications have often been garbled and unclear. And there will be many questions to examine and analyze in the days after we have seen the worst of the pandemic. We first have to work ourselves out of this calamitous tragedy, and that requires leadership and working together.

On occasion, President Trump has spoken of the need for bipartisan cooperation. More often, however, he has used the task force press briefings to lash out at journalists and the media.

Trump consistently downplayed or dismissed the burgeoning crisis until it became one of the worst in our nation's history. Earlier, he told the nation that the virus would vanish on its own accord. A few weeks ago he was preaching for packed pulpits on Easter Day, this Sunday

"Because of all we've done, the risk to the American people remains very low," he said at a news conference at the White House on Feb. 26 . He emphasized the small number of cases (15) at that time, adding that "the fifteen within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero."

"We have it so well under control," Trump maintained. "I mean, we really have done a very good job."

Commentary on 04/08/2020

Print Headline: Response to virus a mix of messages

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