Our Opinion: Where is the leadership?
Oregonians face a crisis the likes of which few of us have seen in our lifetimes.
The entire world is in varying states of paralysis as a highly contagious disease with no known cure sweeps across the globe. Although it started in Wuhan, China, late last year, its spread has become worldwide. As of now, Italy is the hardest-hit country by the virus. But some projections suggest the impact could be even worse in the United States.
Our leaders knew this was coming. While Chinese authorities initially tried to suppress news of the outbreak in Wuhan, by January, it was clear that this was a new disease, it was spiraling out of control, and it was likely to spread to other countries — including the United States, one of China's largest trade partners.
And yet up until a few weeks ago, in the public consciousness, the novel coronavirus was something happening "somewhere else." The News-Times reported a few times on the plight of Kent and Rebecca Frasure, a local couple from Forest Grove who were passengers on the cruise ship Diamond Princess; they were stuck in Japan after Rebecca tested positive for the virus. By the time they returned home, nearly two weeks ago, we were consumed with news of the virus here on the home front, including a case at South Meadows Middle School in Hillsboro.
The situation has evolved rapidly. As the enormity of the challenges we face has come into focus, what sociologists call the "Overton window" — the range of ideas considered to be commonly held or "mainstream" — has accelerated.
When the first case was announced in Oregon on Feb. 28, here in Washington County, that was a wake-up call. But even then, the idea that we'd have to close schools, cancel sporting events, ban large gatherings, and shut down dining in restaurants and bars seemed far-fetched to many.
When a student at South Meadows Middle School tested positive for the virus on March 8, at a press conference, the superintendent of Hillsboro schools and the public health officer for Washington County assured community members that there was no need to close schools. Precautions were being taken. Students would be encouraged to use good hygiene. Classrooms would be disinfected. The official guidance from the state government was to keep schools open if at all possible.
That was the week everything began to snowball, and it's been snowballing ever since.
On March 11, the NBA abruptly shut down after All-Star Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus. Several other players have since tested positive as well. Other major sports leagues, including the MLS, followed suit.
About 96 hours after that press conference in Hillsboro, on March 12, the Tigard-Tualatin School Board voted to close schools immediately and re-open March 30. Gov. Kate Brown had begun the day by insisting at a press conference that schools should remain open. With Tigard-Tualatin and other schools publicly breaking ranks, late that night, Brown reluctantly announced schools would close through the end of the month.
And that's how it's gone since then. The fight against the coronavirus has been led at the local level.
It took multiple colleges and universities, including Pacific University in Forest Grove, announcing they would cancel in-person instruction for the spring term and move to digital learning for Brown to, on March 18, finally issue an executive order to say the same.
Cities like Portland, Beaverton and Sherwood declared moratoriums on evictions during the coronavirus emergency. It took until this past Sunday for Brown to do so statewide.
Over the weekend, far, far too many cars made their way west on Highway 26 to enjoy some sunshine at the Oregon coast. Some coastal cities went so far as to declare emergencies and order tourists to leave. Seeing the calls of "social distancing" ignored by so many, mayors of cities across the Portland metro area and elsewhere in Oregon publicly called on Brown to stop simply recommending that Oregonians stay home if possible during the outbreak, but order them to do so. This has become commonplace in other parts of the country. Places that did this before Oregon include Nantucket, Massachusetts; Leavenworth County, Kansas; and Tupelo, Mississippi.
Our governor should not be slower to act than the city government of Tupelo, Mississippi.
To be fair, the Brown administration hasn't done nothing. The governor finally did issue that stay-at-home order on Monday — better late than never. The state worked with local hospitals in the Portland area to broker a deal under which they will function as a unified regional health system to give them a better chance at handling the strain of coronavirus cases. The state also called on the federal government to provide personal protective equipment and other aid to shore up the system.
That brings us to an even bigger indictment.
The Trump administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been catastrophically inept. First, the administration all but ignored the disease percolating in China for weeks, failing to gird for the virus' arrival on our shores. That lack of early preparedness is a major contributor to why the situation has become so dire so quickly here.
While countries like South Korea, Japan and Singapore took note of the virus in China and ramped up their testing, tracing and prevention regimens to be ready for it, the United States decided to go its own way, refusing to use tests that had been approved by the World Health Organization and doing little to even warn the public of the danger.
As recently as late February, Trump administration officials like Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, were talking up the American economy and encouraging Americans to invest in the stock market. Since then, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has fallen by several thousand points, and Americans' retirement savings and college funds have been devastated. We can only hope they will bounce back once the economy comes back to life.
President Trump himself has repeatedly downplayed the threat the virus posed, likening it to the flu and suggesting it would go away on its own "like a miracle." At one point, Trump boasted that the United States only had a handful of cases, and they would soon go down to zero. Now there are over 50,000. In a similar vein, Trump publicly opposed allowing patients on the Grand Princess cruise ship to be evacuated to U.S. hospitals, explaining, "I like the numbers being where they are."
Now Trump and some of his allies appear to be growing bored and impatient with social distancing measures — despite the fact the United States has yet to order a nationwide lockdown like many other countries, including India, have done. While we share the president's concern about the effects of a protracted shutdown on businesses and livelihoods, we seriously doubt that scrapping short-term efforts to contain the outbreak and allowing potentially hundreds of thousands or millions of Americans to die is a viable path to economic revitalization.
Congress has to come in for criticism here as well. In the most abhorrent example of congressional misconduct during the crisis, at least two U.S. senators dumped stock they owned after a closed-door briefing on the approaching danger in February. But the general dysfunction of our elected representatives has far wider-reaching consequences.
Hospitals need billions of dollars to keep paying the bills at a time when we desperately need them to stay open. Everyday people who have been laid off or furloughed due to widespread business closures need help paying their bills, too. Small businesses need to be propped up so they can weather the storm. Travel-dependent businesses like hotels and airlines could be forced to lay off thousands more employees if they don't get a lifeline. Landlords and property managers, for as much criticism as they get, depend on income that's now jeopardized as many of their tenants have lost their own income; they need help, too.
Yet the Senate has dragged its heels, not only objecting to provisions in a rescue package passed by the House but also making clear it will operate on its own schedule. More recently, senators spent the weekend squabbling over partisan issues and accusing one another of "playing politics" instead of forming a bipartisan working group to figure out how to spend close to $2 trillion — wasting both time and political capital. At a time when time is of the essence, not only do lawmakers appear incapable of putting aside their differences, they don't even seem to share a sense of urgency.
We hate to be so negative. This is a difficult situation for every American and every Oregonian. This isn't the type of crisis that many of us expect or know how to prepare for. But it's striking, to us, to see Washington County first out ahead of the state and federal governments with an emergency declaration; it's striking to see a midsize city like Beaverton taking the lead on halting evictions; it's striking to see small communities across the country readier to act in the interest of their residents' safety than our state's chief executive; it's striking to see a solipsistic president and a gridlocked legislative branch put their own political agendas ahead of being honest with the American public and giving their best effort to help as many people as possible survive this disaster.
We urge you, once again, to do your part: Stay at home if you can, take extra caution if you cannot.
But we need and expect our leaders to do their part as well. Call or write to them, if you can. Tell them we're waiting for them to step up. And we're running out of time.
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