In a speech from the Oval Office at the White House Wednesday night, President Donald Trump laid out new, aggressive policies designed, he said, to combat the further spread of the disease Covid-19—which, earlier Wednesday, the World Health Organization officially designated a pandemic. Among those new policies: a ban on travel from Europe (but not the United Kingdom), effective Friday, and low-interest loans to small businesses adversely affected by the disease. The president also said he’d ask congress for more money, $50 billion, to fund those loans, and that he’d push back the April deadline for federal taxes. “Because of the economic policies we have put into place over the last three years, we have the greatest economy anywhere in the world by far,” President Trump said. “This is not a financial crisis. This is just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome together as a nation and a world.”
These are major policies to undertake during a crisis. That makes sense; it’s a major crisis. At least 126,000 people around the world have contracted the disease, and more than 4,600 are dead—38 in the United States. But the policies don’t exactly address the pandemic—at least not in the way public health experts and scientists have been hoping the government would. These policies are more crisis-adjacent. As the disease-response expert Jeremy Kondynyk said on Twitter immediately after the speech, “economic measures are necessary, but they’re treating the symptoms.”
Research suggests that China’s ban on letting people leave Wuhan, the city where the virus emerged, came too late to slow down the progress of the virus within China, but slowed transmission by up to 80 percent elsewhere. Asian countries that banned immigration from China earlier this year did seem to slow the progress of the disease, but they were also testing people for infection internally and building out their public health systems. People looking back at other outbreaks, though—like SARS and MERS, or Ebola—tend to find that travel bans don’t work at all. They especially don’t work after community spread of the virus has begun—which it has, between people already in the United States. The barn door’s open, the horses are in the field somewhere. Also, travel is still OK from the United Kingdom, which not only has sustained Covid-19 infections (including the Health Minister) but is likely to announce that it is moving from a containment phase to “delay,” which means social distancing and self-isolation of sick people. Their horses have left their barn, too.
At first, it seemed like banning travel from Europe meant more than just people. “There will be exemptions for Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings,” President Trump said. But, he added, “anything coming from Europe to the United States is what we are discussing.” When the president spoke, he seemed to include cargo in the ban, which could have caused even bigger problems. The kits for testing whether someone is infected with Covid-19 have been in drastic short supply, and only a few thousand Americans have gotten tested so far (by contrast, something like 10,000 South Koreans get tested every day). The supplies for manufacturing those kits, “primers” made from the genetic material RNA, are running low, and at least some of those come from European pharmaceutical companies. But the Department of Homeland Security quickly issued what must be considered a clarification—just people, not US citizens, not stuff. A White House statement confirmed it didn’t cover cargo, too.