Bookman: COVID-19 tests in short supply; making it worse, so is the truth

President Donald Trump visited Atlanta's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention March 6 as the coronavirus outbreak worsened. At the CDC he declared "Anybody who wants a test can get a test." Official White House photo

Two weeks ago, President Trump stood outside the Centers for Disease Control here in Atlanta and promised the nation that “anybody who wants a test can get a test” for the coronavirus that has since shut down America’s economy and has its people shuttered behind closed doors.

As we know, that was a lie, a monumental lie told at a moment when public confidence and faith in government was absolutely critical. But what’s truly astounding is that now, two weeks later, it remains a lie. The tests that have been so fundamental to the success of other nations in tracking, containing and reducing coronavirus remain in very short supply here in the United States. In fact, we have by far the lowest rate of testing of any developed country in the world, and we are paying a very heavy price for it.

Sure, famous athletes and celebrities can get tests, but ordinary Americans still cannot. Members of Congress and the administration can also get tests, but in many parts of the country, even first responders and front-line health-care providers exposed to the virus can’t get tested to determine whether they can safely return to the fight.

And of course, it’s not just the tests. We are far from the peak of this pandemic, yet hospitals are already running critically low of even basic supplies such as masks, gloves and other protective equipment, equipment that other countries are somehow managing to supply while we are not.

But what is really in short supply is the truth.

In addition to the lies about testing, we were told that Google would soon launch a website to help Americans self-diagnose their illness. The website doesn’t exist. We were told that Walmart and other companies would be establishing drive-through testing in parking lots. They do not exist. We were told that “we’re very close to a vaccine;” we are not. We were told the FDA had approved a new “game-changer” drug therapy; it has not. We were told the number of cases would be falling to zero; they have since skyrocketed. We were told the virus had been contained, “almost air-tight;” it has not. We were told it was a great time to buy stocks; it was not.

For weeks if not months, we have been fed happy talk and happy tweets when we should have been confronting our challenge and mobilizing as other countries have done. The most striking evidence of our failure is the fact that South Korea and the United States reported their first cases of coronavirus within a day of each other. In South Korea, the epidemic is almost fully under control, without the need for draconian shutdowns and economic despair. Here at home, it is raging like a fire through bone-dry grassland, growing in intensity and scale.

And again, it is raging because the truth has not been told. The smart ones in Washington who knew kept silent (and in some cases called their stockbrokers). The dumb ones spoke loudly, often, emphatically and wrongly.

In the absence of leadership at the national level, state and local leaders have been forced to step in, and many have proved up to the task. Here in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp and his team have performed well so far, but the tools available to Kemp at the state level simply don’t meet the scale of the challenge that we face.

Think back on those honored by history for their leadership in times of crisis. In his first inaugural address, in the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt told the country that “this is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” and that’s just what he did.

“(Stock) values have shrunken to fantastic levels,” he told frightened Americans. “Taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.”

And yet, that honesty worked. Because FDR described the truth so bluntly, in terms they could recognize, the American people were ready to believe him when he also told them that “this is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously.”

Almost a decade later, Roosevelt was equally blunt in his “day of infamy” speech, admitting to his radio audience that at Pearl Harbor our nation had suffered “severe damage to American naval and military forces,” with the loss of “very many American lives.”

“There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger,” Roosevelt told his people.

And again, because he had told them the truth, his people believed him when he promised that “no matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”

We don’t have that kind of leadership now. We have a man who says “I take no responsibility at all,” who even as hundreds are dying, even as thousands may be dying, rates his own performance a 10 out of 10 and tells us that everything is going fine, everything is being handled, things could not be going better.

This does not end well.