The Common Factor: Coronavirus And The Beirut Explosion–Negligence


Leonard Zwelling

         Back and forth. The arguments come to me through my email and on the blog. It’s all Trump’s fault. Biden is senile and would be a disaster. The coronavirus is just a bad flu year and we should have kept everything open. No, we should have shut everything down and we are reopening too fast. Since I seem to have both extreme liberals and extreme conservatives who read my blog, it should come as no surprise that I get competing criticism of whatever I say. But as the very lengthy piece by David Leonhardt in The New York Times on August 7 summarizes, the United States really did handle the coronavirus crisis miserably. We have had a disproportionate amount of death, overwhelmed health care systems, a shortage of PPE and a political debate about mask wearing let alone bars and large parties. The United States and its leadership made a mess of this primarily because the leadership was slow to meet the moment, ineffective when it did (the early China travel ban was a good idea, but it was far too porous), and bombarded the citizenry with mixed messages even up to this day about the use of masks, the need to avoid mass gatherings and the benefits of social distancing. Many other countries did far better than we using a number of different strategies from the drive to herd immunity in Sweden to the lockdown of New Zealand. America dawdled and thus we have suffered far more than we should have. Fewer than 300 Australians have died of Covid-19. Had the US suffered a proportionate blow, we would have had 3300 deaths not 165,000.

         What has also become apparent is that the rush to reopen caused our fatalities to rise and the only real way of opening the economy was to control the virus. New York may have finally figured this out, but Arizona and Texas certainly have not.

         In essence then, the leadership of the federal, state and local governments of the United States couldn’t make up their minds about how to deal with this and the central government in DC was less than useless. The federal government ignored all the warning signs and now we have a catastrophe.

         A similar catastrophe has now occurred in Beirut on top of the struggle the city was having with coronavirus. Since 2014 ammonium nitrate fertilizer was sitting in a warehouse near the harbor. All the government and port officials knew it was there and that it was a time bomb waiting to go off. This week, a fire in the area ignited the explosive and a mushroom cloud ensued. At the time of this writing over 150 are dead, 5000 injured and over 10% of the citizens of Beirut are homeless. This can be linked directly to neglect and an unwillingness to rise up and meet the challenge of a threat to the citizens of Lebanon.

         As a leader, you simply cannot prepare enough for disaster. A good leader should expect things to go wrong and do everything in his or her power to find trouble and defuse it before it explodes. A pandemic was a known threat to the people of American and the world. The Chinese knew this and let it happen anyway. They should be severely punished for their negligence whether or not the virus emanated from a secret lab in Wuhan. The Chinese could have stopped this. Mr. Trump had the right idea to shut the borders. He should have done it effectively, but alas he did not and has since then shirked the need to lead from not wearing a mask himself to encouraging commerce and school openings prematurely.

         I am sure that there will be an investigation in Beirut as to who was responsible for the presence of the ammonium nitrate all these years and why it wasn’t dispersed to safety. It will be negligence at the bottom of the problem. You can bet on that.

         Leadership must include vision and will. A good leader can see into the future and plan accordingly for both success and disaster. From 9/11, to Katrina, to the coronavirus, leaders in the United States have been doing poorly and I fear given our choices on November 3, it is not likely that things will be getting better any time soon.

         Whoever the next Director of Homeland Security happens to be, he or she should have published the national disaster plan for pandemics, climate events and terrorism 90 days after Inauguration Day. Even better, the two presidential candidates should tell us their plans now. So far, Mr. Trump has failed his test. Whether Mr. Biden would be any better is impossible to know, but I would sure like to be able to compare their plans before I vote for either of them.

         The first question of the first debate ought to be:

         To Mr. Trump: What would you have done differently now that you can look back on America’s response to the virus?

         To Mr. Biden: What would you have done to reduce the disease and death suffered by the people of America?

         Compare and contrast.

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