Merkel’s Frankness and Clarity Beats Trump’s Virus Bluster
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Donald Trump and Angela Merkel were never destined to hit it off, but with the coronavirus sweeping the globe, the depth of their differences—in style and substance—has never been more apparent. The pandemic has amplified the two leaders’ most fundamental traits: for Trump, a proclivity to bask in the limelight and a loose relationship with the facts; for Merkel, the frankness and clarity of a scientist who takes comfort in data.
So far, the German chancellor’s approach has been the clear winner. Merkel’s popularity at home has soared after she consistently delivered sober messages about the toll the virus would take on Germans’ lives. She has urged an international, multilateral response to the pandemic.
Trump has taken a near-opposite approach. In the early days of the outbreak, he insisted his administration had it “under control,” and for weeks he continued to downplay the impact the virus was set to have on the U.S. When asked about how his optimism conflicted with the increasingly visible devastation of the pandemic, he said, “I’m not about bad news.” Now, that denial is threatening to cost him the White House in the November election.
In March and early April, as coronavirus infections and deaths mounted in the U.S., Trump’s approval rating plunged 6 percentage points, according to a Gallup poll. He now trails Democratic rival Joe Biden in key swing states, including Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, other surveys show.
Although she is fighting to defend her legacy on managing successive financial crises and the refugee crisis, reelection isn’t a concern for Merkel, who announced last year she wouldn’t seek a fifth term as chancellor. That could ease the pain of delivering a tough message. But she has always employed a methodical approach to her job, a style Germans have especially come to appreciate during a pandemic.
Her approach hasn’t been flawless. Early in the crisis, the German government issued an export ban on medical masks, which suggested an every-country-for-itself attitude. And like Trump, Merkel has suffered some criticism for not responding more quickly to the global outbreak.
But Germany has maintained one of the lowest coronavirus mortality rates in the world, and the number of confirmed cases is growing at just over half the speed as in the U.S. Key among the reasons for the nation’s success, public-health experts say, has been testing. As the outbreak took hold, Germany launched an aggressive testing regime to track it. That data helped identify infected people more quickly, limiting the spread and enabling early medical interventions that kept sick people from deteriorating.
While testing has been the foundation of Merkel’s success, it has become Trump’s Achilles heel. The U.S. has struggled to set up a robust testing regime, starting with a botched rollout of faulty kits from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after the agency declined to use tests from the World Health Organization. The lack of data has made it more difficult for public-health experts to track the virus and has obscured the scale of the outbreak. On March 13, when asked about the testing fiasco, Trump said: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
There have been more than 973,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the U.S. and more than 54,000 people have died, as of April 27. Germany, with a population roughly one-quarter the size of the U.S., has had about 6,000 deaths from the virus.
Trump’s message has remained riddled with inconsistencies, reversals, and more optimistic claims about the outbreak that public-health officials contradicted. He declared at an April 23 news conference that coronavirus “might not come back at all” in the fall and winter—and if it did, it would be in “smaller doses we can contain.” Moments later, Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert on the White House coronavirus task force, took the podium and said: “We will have coronavirus in the fall.”
Speaking at the same briefing, Trump went on to say he “disagreed” with a decision by Georgia’s governor to begin allowing some businesses—including movie theaters and nail salons—to reopen. The comments were a jarring reversal from a president who for weeks had urged states to relax social distancing measures that have pushed more than 22 million Americans into unemployment, repeating a mantra that the cure for coronavirus shouldn’t be worse than the disease.
More than 50% of Americans now disapprove of Trump’s response to the outbreak, compared to 46% who approve—a gap that has widened this week, according to an analysis of polling data by fivethirtyeight.com. The Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago published a poll on Thursday finding that just 23% of Americans consider Trump a trustworthy source of information on the virus, whereas 52% trust their state and local leaders.
By contrast, according to a poll by public broadcaster ARD, Merkel is once again Germany’s most popular politician, with an approval rate of 64%. And last week, she was again delivering a tough message.
“We’ll have to live with this virus for a long time,” Merkel told Germany’s parliament ahead of a European Union summit. She warned it is “not the end phase but still just the beginning.”
Merkel also called on the Bundestag to increase German contributions to the EU “in a spirit of solidarity” as the region grapples with the outbreak. That sentiment has resonated in the international community while Trump has instead sought to blame China, where the outbreak started, and the WHO.
In an April 16 videoconference with leaders of the Group of 7, Merkel was joined by other leaders in countering Trump’s scathing critique of the WHO by making clear that the organization was doing important and valuable work during the pandemic.
Merkel gave a taste of her scientific knowledge during a news conference on April 16, when she lectured Germans about a quantitative measure of how quickly the virus spreads, known as the reproduction factor. She explained how a factor of 1.2 means that 1 in 5 coronavirus patients infects two others, not just one, and that a small uptick could quickly overwhelm the nation’s hospitals. “This is thin ice,” she said. “This is really a situation in which caution is the order of the day and not foolhardiness.”
Trump’s own discourses on science and medicine have proved disastrous.
He was criticized by doctors and scientists on Thursday after a riff at a news conference in which he suggested that sunlight and disinfectant could be used to treat coronavirus patients. U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams felt compelled to tweet an admonition on Friday that Americans shouldn’t attempt to medicate themselves or loved ones. Trump said on Friday that he was speaking “sarcastically.”
Trump has repeatedly noted that he is “not a doctor.” That hasn’t stopped him from promoting two antimalarial drugs, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, as a remedy for coronavirus, even though no clinical evidence shows they are effective. At Trump’s urging, the government procured millions of doses of the drugs, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency order last month allowing them to be prescribed to hospitalized coronavirus patients.
But on April 24, the drug agency warned of potentially serious heart problems from the drugs and said they shouldn’t be used in coronavirus patients outside clinical trials or close monitoring in a hospital.
Trump’s response to the pandemic is certain to be the defining issue of the 2020 election. Last week, talk of Trump’s impeachment, lingering questions about his relationship with Russia, or his handling of the economy were nowhere to be seen. Instead, Biden tweeted: “I can’t believe I have to say this, but please don’t drink bleach.”
Read more: Wuhan’s Return to Life—Temperature Checks and Constant Anxiety
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.