Under difficult circumstances – some of them self-inflicted – and with varying degrees of success, governments are responding to worst public health crisis in a century.
All of them have made missteps, some of them obviously avoidable and tragic. Instead of denying the threat of the virus early on, President Trump should have been rallying the country. Other errors have occurred because, like everyone else, governments are navigating without a map. This is alien territory and there are going to be mistakes.
Here, there is good news, though. When people speak up, governments have responded, sometimes quickly. It’s a heartening affirmation of the power of democracy and the willingness of public officials to backtrack, whether from acknowledgment of error or fear of reprisal.
Most prominent of these in recent days was the Trump administration’s rapid reversal on an issue regarding the distribution of the $1,200 stimulus checks to be mailed to American taxpayers. At first, the Treasury Department said that Social Security recipients who don’t normally need to file a tax return would be required to do so before they could receive a check.
It was a crazy decision that stood to do grievous harm to a particularly vulnerable population. Legislators from both parties raised a storm of protest and the department quickly changed its mind. That was both necessary and wise.
And on the subject of Social Security, administrators of the federal program had planned to continue to require health examinations for thousands of Americans seeking disability payments, putting them at heightened risk of contracting or spreading Covid-19.
The Social Security Administration changed course after The News reported that a group of Buffalo attorneys raised concerns about the safety of their clients who had been directed to attend the medical evaluations at a Hertel Avenue clinic in order to obtain disability benefits. Local influence made a difference across the country.
New York State backed off its own dubious decision last week after first deciding that the real estate industry counted as essential and that agents could once again show houses to potential buyers. Given the economic influence of the housing industry and its downstream sectors, it’s easy to see why the state may have wanted to encourage its continued operation. But after a fierce backlash from real estate agents, the state reconsidered and restricted those close encounters to the virtual kind. Fewer houses will be sold, but more agents and buyers will stay healthy.
In New York City, the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort is docked but for days allowed only a handful of patients on board. The plan was for it to house only non-coronavirus patients but Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has asked President Trump to allow those patients on board. On Monday, he agreed.
One decision that still needs changing is Trump’s narrow use of the powerful Defense Production Act. While he has invoked it in some cases, after first resisting, a number of state officials say he could use it to establish a centralized system to track the parts, production and distribution of tests and medical goods.
Washington, New York and other states – Florida finally, though belatedly, issued a stay-at-home order – have shown a willingness to rethink decisions sometimes made in the swirl of events. All governments, from Erie County to Washington, should remain flexible in a dangerous and disorienting environment in which we are all groping for the exit.
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