Commentary: Trump joins ‘Ostrich Alliance’ of loser leaders who put politics above coronavirus science

By Trudy Rubin

The Philadelphia Inquirer

“The Ostrich Alliance.”

That is the label a Brazilian professor from Sao Paulo applied to the leaders of Brazil, Belarus, Turkmenistan and Nicaragua who continue to deny the threat that the coronavirus poses to their people.

All share a common disdain for science. Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarussian, calls the disease a “psychosis” and refuses to impose social distancing. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega calls it an “act of God.” President Donald Trump’s buddy, Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro, downplays “coronavirus hysteria” and excoriates state governors as “job killers” for imposing quarantines.

In contrast to the ostrich club, the leaders who have been most successful in combating COVID-19, such as those of South Korea, Taiwan, and Germany, openly respect science and listen to their scientific advisers.

Yet, President Trump openly joined the Ostrich Alliance last week.

Of course, Trump’s disdain for science is no secret. Our country is paying a high price for his weeks-long refusal to take COVID-19 seriously, despite many warnings. He promotes unproven drugs. And he refuses to institute a nationwide plan for antibody testing, which is a vital prerequisite for an economic restart.

But last week, the president’s war on science reached a fever pitch, as he egged on demonstrators who were protesting stay-at-home restrictions at several state capitals.

In my weeks of covering this crisis worldwide, I have never seen anything so shameful.

“LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Trump tweeted. “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” Both are states whose Democratic governors put strict social distancing regulations in place, as have Republican governors in Ohio, Maryland, and elsewhere.

“They want their life back. Their life was taken away from them,” Trump said at his April 19 briefing, as if health regulations were the enemy, not the virus. He was effectively urging demonstrators to ignore the back-to-work guidelines of his own task force, which require a two-week decline in cases before states start to reopen.

That encourages reckless GOP governors such as Georgia’s Brian Kemp, who just ordered the opening of nail salons, massage parlors, gyms, and other close contact businesses, in violation of Trump’s guidelines, without even consulting mayors.

Meantime, the denigration of Democratic governors becomes Trump’s tool to disguise his own failures.

He styles himself a wartime commander in chief. Imagine if Winston Churchill had used his BBC speeches during the Blitz to attack the mayor of London rather than urge his people to stand firm against Adolf Hitler.

But nowhere is the president’s ostrich-like behavior more dangerous than in the matter of tests.

For weeks, Trump has misled the nation on the availability of testing for infected individuals, falsely claiming the United States was doing better at testing than other nations.

Instead of coordinating the distribution of supplies at the national level — as South Korea and Germany did — Trump left governors from both parties struggling to obtain swabs and necessary chemicals and accurate test kits, in competition with each other.

Trump’s response is to criticize governors and call them ignorant. (Perhaps he is jealous that polling shows all governors to be far more popular than he is.)

Nor has the president yet grasped the criticality of ramping testing way, way up in order for Americans to return safely to work.

Most important, say epidemiological experts, there needs to be a national strategy, both to coordinate supplies and personnel and to do a large-scale scientific sampling of the entire population for antibodies. This is necessary to finally understand the extent of the disease, including how many people had it but showed no symptoms, and who may now be immune.

Trump denies such a strategy is needed. He has fought Democratic requests for more money for testing.

Germany, on the other hand, has already started conducting such a study, but then, Chancellor Angela Merkel is herself a scientist.

As for the United States, “We are still totally, absolutely operating in the dark,” says Jennifer Pinto-Martin, executive director of the Center for Public Health Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania. “It is incomprehensible to send people back to work without accurate, consistent testing, contact tracing, and social distancing.”

She adds that for testing to be effective, you need a “consistent set of (national) testing protocols,” with a testing model that takes into account differences within states, along with age, gender, and other factors. If each state goes off on its own, the overall results will be inconsistent, and we will remain ill-informed about the disease.

But far from embracing science, Trump insists mass testing isn’t necessary.

It is more convenient for him to shift the burden to the states, even though that makes a safe return to work impossible. If some states reopen too soon (at his urging), Trump can also blame governors when the virus reemerges.

We all want to get back to normal soonest. But it is unconscionable for Trump to abet the conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, Second Amendment fanatics, and conservative talk show hosts — along with many genuinely fearful citizens — who want to ignore the painful constrictions of science.

By joining the ostrich club, and playing politics with science, Trump is also playing with our lives.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at