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Column: Some of the many possible effects of coronavirus epidemic
08292018 TOM BAXTER
Tom Baxter

There may be no better example of the dizzying speed with which the coronavirus epidemic is affecting our state than this. On Friday, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins went to a good deal of trouble to make it into the entourage accompanying President Trump on his visit to the CDC Friday afternoon.

On Monday afternoon, Collins announced he, like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Rep Paul Gosar, was self-quarantining after coming in contact with someone at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference who later came down with the virus.

In just that wink of time, the list of school closures in the United States has grown to include Fulton County. A story about passengers stuck on an ocean liner out in the Pacific has landed on our doorstep, as a portion of the quarantined passengers arrive at Dobbins Air Force Base. An epidemic that seemed a world away is hitting home fast.

There’s a silver lining in every cloud, the saying goes, and as things have grown progressively cloudier, there have been some heroic efforts to find it.

“Removing 10 million or more 70-year-olds from the population will have almost no effect on the productive capacity of the economy, and will be beneficial to the balance sheets of those corporations which have defined-benefit pension liabilities,” financial blogger Nicholas Jacobs, himself over 70, wrote, urging investors to treat the stock market crash as a buying opportunity. 

“I have to say, people are now staying in the United States, spending their money in the U.S. — and I like that,” Trump said last week on a Fox News town hall.

Neither of these arguments is likely to go well with parents whose children can’t go to school, or worse yet, struck with the virus. But they each say something about the big-picture ways in which this crisis is likely to change the country.

The coronavirus does indeed threaten one age group more than another, and in doing so it may bring to the surface tensions between the generations which have been building for some time. It could make conditions at nursing homes an immediate, rather than an enduring problem. It could also bring to light the vulnerability of the low-wage workforce that supports an aging population.

Whether Trump is right that the U.S. has benefited from people canceling their foreign vacations, his comments reflect an attitude many Americans are likely to have, that the epidemic is an example of why the nation needs to guard its borders closely. For others, the fast-moving disease only shows how useless borders can be, and the conflict between these groups is only likely to deepen as a result.

In the early stages of this crisis, there has been a stark difference between the competence shown by leadership at the state and local level and what we’ve seen from the top.

Gov. Brian Kemp did the right thing to call a late-night press conference to announce the first two cases of the disease in Georgia last week. He got ahead of the story, and he took it seriously. 

Cobb County Commission Chairman Mike Boyce, posting videos to reassure constituents about “our guests,” the quarantined cruise ship passengers being transferred to Dobbins. 

“We are who you are. We are here with you and we’re going to be taking every single measure possible to stay on top of this,” Boyce said.

What if the president had said something like that Friday at the CDC, instead of “I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it?” The stock market would have fallen just as hard on Monday and the numbers stricken by the virus would have continued to rise. But there might have been a perceptible increase in the confidence level with which the nation faces whatever is coming next.

Across the nation, the responsibility for getting communities through all this will fall largely on state and local officials, not on congressmen wearing gas masks and senators in quarantine. Out of those ranks and this crisis there may come a new wave of more grounded, pragmatic political leadership in both parties. And about time. 

Tom Baxter is a veteran Georgia journalist who writes for The Saporta Report.

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