Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is living in Italy as his wife Calista serves as U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican.
I don’t envy him.
Gingrich is at the epicenter of the worst outbreak of COVID-19 outside of China and has words of warning for America about the spread of this disease.
There are some significant lessons from Italy for Americans who want to get through this pandemic with minimum loss of life and economic damage.
President Donald Trump was right to cut off travel from China as soon as it was clear how big the pandemic was going to be. He saved American lives and bought time for America to be more prepared as the pandemic developed.
When you realize that the current 1,016 deaths in Italy with a population of 60 million would be the equivalent of 5,400 deaths in the United States instead of the 41 deaths we have had so far, you can see what milder, slower and less aggressive responses might have cost in lives. Then we would have needed to move to truly draconian measures of isolation and shutdowns.
By the same standard, Trump was exactly right to ban travel from Europe. In fact, he was following the advice of his best medical experts.
Gingrich knows that Trump’s response — despite what his hysterical opponents are saying — saved lives. It hasn’t been a perfect response and everything hasn’t gone like clockwork, but as more became known about COVID-19 and the outline of the problem became clearer, Trump increased the level of the federal response.
But Gingrich believes more has to be done to contain the coronavirus. And we’ve got to start thinking and planning for the economic fallout from the disease both here and in Europe.
We should be planning for a worst-case pandemic and using the kind of intensity of implementation which served us so well in World War II. Getting enough ventilators, masks, intensive care units, treatment medications and aggressive community-wide testing are the minimum steps to saving lives and stopping the pandemic.
The Pence-led Coronavirus Task Force has begun to pull things together, but it should have a planning group that creates a worst-case projection and then devises the steps necessary to smother the pandemic and minimize its impact.
The economic impact of the pandemic will hit Europe much harder than the U.S. Planning for that eventuality might mitigate the worst of the economic effects and help our own economy.
As Trump and the Congress consider what we must do to keep America growing and prosperous, they have to recognize that we may need to grow strongly enough to help pull Europe out of a deep recession by this fall. We can’t just think about what is happening economically in the United States. A collapsing Europe would have huge impact on the entire world economy, including America.
We do not need a “stimulus” package or a “recovery” package. We need an economic growth package that stimulates and invests in the kind of development that grows a bigger, better, more productive, more competitive American economy for the future.
As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated, the Congress has to stay in session until it passes the program necessary to both defeat the pandemic and regrow the American economy.
Gingrich is right to be worried for the U.S. And, as he points out, Italy is especially vulnerable to COVID-19 due to it being the oldest population in Europe. The average age of COVID-19 victims has been 81 in Italy.
But the U.S. has its own vulnerable population: the housing crisis on the West Coast has created a homeless population particularly vulnerable to the disease.
There are tens of thousands of homeless people in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. If the coronavirus ever began spreading among those folks, who already suffer from malnutrition and other health problems, the losses could be catastrophic.
There is still great misunderstanding about COVID-19 that isn’t being helped by people constantly referring to the disease as “no worse than the common flu.” The mortality rate of the disease is 10 times higher than the flu. And even if you’re young and healthy and get sick, you could still end up in the hospital. In fact, that’s what’s bedeviling Italy. Yes, it’s true they don’t have enough beds in critical care, not enough respirators, or other emergency life-saving equipment, but they’re also running out of hospital beds for people who are seriously ill and will probably recover — as long as they get the care that a 21st-century hospital can give them.
The steps being taken by states and cities where COVID-19 has broken out are prudent and necessary. And they’re the absolute minimum that should be done. Gingrich is warning that we better hope that what’s being done is enough to contain the outbreak. Otherwise, far more restrictive and draconian measures will become necessary.