By Trudy Rubin
His angst is understandable, and not just because the stock market crash endangers his election prospects. The collapsing economy and soaring unemployment are terrifying, even to those lucky enough to still be receiving salaries.
As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo rightly said this week: "We have to start to plan the pivot back to economic functionality. You can't stop the economy forever."
So where to look for a roadmap back to a working economy without fueling an even greater virus outbreak? The obvious answer is South Korea ― the one sizeable democracy that has flattened the coronavirus curve without shutting down its economy or resorting to draconian Chinese-style lockdowns.
Yet, the two keys to Seoul's success are things Trump still refuses to do: facilitate massive testing for the virus, and ensure the health system gets everything it needs.
"Testing is central," South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told the BBC, "because it leads to early detection, minimizes further spread and it quickly treats those found with the virus." Testing can reveal those with mild or no symptoms who are carriers and require them to self-quarantine, thus preventing spread.
South Korean officials, chastened by the country's bad experience in 2015 with the MERS virus, pressed private companies to develop test kits in late January, as soon as China released the genetic code of the virus.
The tests were distributed by the hundreds of thousands by early February. Government officials opened hundreds of testing centers, including drive-thru stations and walk-in centers, where health workers administered throat swabs.
With more than 300,000 tests, South Korea has a per capita rate more than 40 times that of the U.S., reports the New York Times. As for health workers who do the testing, the Korean government ensured that they had the equipment they needed.
"The government intervened to prevent profiteering and asked (private) companies to supply equipment at a certain price," says Chae Su-chan, a former member of the National Assembly of Korea and economist at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. "Hospitals and medical providers have no problem getting masks."
Since the Seoul government moved quickly on containing the disease, "they did not require companies to shut down," Chae told me by phone from Seoul. "Many big companies switched to remote work, and many small companies decreased activities because of the slowdown, but they were not forced to do so."
Restaurants could stay open, but asked customers to sit at a safe distance, Chae added, as he headed to his institute's cafeteria, where diners sit side by side, avoiding face-to-face contact.
Now that new cases have sharply declined, South Korea's economy can rev back up ― while the country keeps testing to avoid a resurgence. Schools are supposed to reopen April 6.
"If Korea did it, surely the United States, with all its resources, can find the right strategy," Chae suggested. You would surely think so ― until you looked at Trump's response so far.
After banning travelers from China on Jan. 31, Trump downplayed the virus and wasted crucial weeks when he could have facilitated testing. Now, with medical workers overwhelmed by new cases while short on masks, gowns and ventilators, testing becomes even harder. Nationwide, there is a critical shortage of swabs and lab components.
Inexplicably, the president steadfastly refuses to use the Defense Production Act to mobilize private U.S. companies to produce what is needed, telling governors to fend for themselves. He is forcing first responders into battle without protection.
Cuomo ― whose fact-filled briefings stand in stark comparison to Trump's chaotic stage shows ― has ramped up testing in New York state. But he has had to scour the world for health equipment. "I need 30,000 ventilators," Cuomo told CNN, "and FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) is sending 300."
No White House attention to the South Korean model here.
If we want younger people to return to the workforce, along with the healthy and those who have recovered, and to do it without sparking future outbreaks, we need to test massively across the country. And we need well-equipped health workers and easier procedures.
"We have got to double down and triple down on testing," says Democratic Rep. Max Rose, from hard-hit New York City. "We have to ID nonsymptomatic carriers," he told MSNBC. "That's the only way we'll be able to (revive) this economy."
Ironically, the president called South Korean President Moon Jae-in this week to inquire about buying medical equipment. I wish (but have scant hope) that he was also seeking advice on how to imitate the South Korean model, which would require him to enable states and cities to test, test, test.
Trudy Rubin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her commentary was distributed by Tribune Content Agency.