Editorial: We need to hear from real experts on COVID-19

The coronavirus is here, with 22 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New York State as of Thursday and more than 160 nationwide. So far there have been 11 deaths, nearly all in Washington State. More cases, perhaps a lot more as testing ramps up, will be discovered in New York and across our region.

We don’t yet know — and cannot predict — the consequences, but they surely will be profound. Experts on contagious diseases are talking about the very real possibility of a pandemic, which means the virus will spread throughout the entire country, sparing no state or region.

A number of companies are responding by making sure key employees can work remotely from home; some firms are canceling business-related travel for employees; and large events that draw crowds into tight spaces are being discouraged. One expert on a news show Monday night suggested people avoid air travel, where passengers sit cheek by jowl, at least until widespread testing is fully underway and we know the scope of this disease.

We’ve already seen how worry has impacted the stock market, where many of us have our retirement savings. But the ripple effects will be far wider. A number of factories manufacturing thousands of products that Americans consume daily are all but shuttered in China. Severe interruptions in the supply chain for countless products, including critical medicines, are certain. Many financial experts are predicting a worldwide recession. And keep in mind, something like 70% of the American economy is driven by consumer spending.

Smaller ripple effects will affect businesses across Long Island, including some here on the North Fork, that receive raw materials from abroad. But, as individuals, we will all feel some part of it.

What we do know is that this is another moment in our history when politics needs to be put aside to allow experts in the field to step forward. We should hear from them daily, with frequent updates, hard data and guidance on how we can protect ourselves and our loved ones. This is not a time for politicians to grandstand and pretend how smart they are and how truly awful the other side is. Partisan politics cannot own this moment.

Of course, we’ve already seen this happen. Some supporters of President Trump have charged that the virus has been “weaponized” by his enemies to help defeat him in November. His opponents say he is an incompetent leader who, as the situation developed in China, failed to act aggressively.

A week ago, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) slammed acting Department of Homeland Security chief Chad Wolf for being uninformed on the virus and its possible future spread. When Mr. Wolf could not estimate how many Americans might become infected, Sen. Kennedy shot back: “Yes, sir, but you’re the head of Homeland Security and your job is to keep us safe. Don’t you think you ought to check on that?”

Put the experts at the podium to speak to the country and sideline the political appointees who have their jobs for reasons other than their expertise. This is not their time.

But, still, the national conversation over conspiracies continues, and not just about the coronavirus and how it plays into presidential politics. Sen. Bernie Sanders said Monday that the “establishment” is out to get him and make sure he is not the Democratic nominee for president. In a very deep-state voice, he chastised, among others, The Washington Post, Wall Street, the billionaire class and the pharmaceutical industry for supporting former Vice President Joe Biden over him.

They — whoever “they” are — oppose him because he supports the working man, he said. President Trump went further, saying a “coup” is underway to stop Mr. Sanders’ momentum. Mr. Trump also described the media coverage of the virus as a “hoax.” 

Yes, it’s an election year, but do we need this added drama right now, at this moment? 

We need to speak with one voice about a spreading virus that experts say has a 3.4% mortality rate, compared to the simple flu, which is just 1% and still kills hundreds of thousands of people each year worldwide. Those who defend the president by saying this virus is no worse than the common flu have it wrong.

We deserve better, and we especially deserve competence and expertise at this moment in our country’s history. Let’s ditch the conspiracy theories once and for all.