It's one thing to battle an epidemic in an authoritarian state like China, which can isolate an entire epicenter city. It's another in a free nation like Italy, where government curfews and curtailed rights are relics of a tortured history. The world is now finding out what happens when a contagion hits open continental borders and citizens accustomed to free speech and movement.
China bought the rest of the world time with draconian quarantines designed to contain the novel coronavirus. But Western governments will have difficulty containing outbreaks in the same way. And while Beijing can impose news blackouts, Western governments can't, meaning that political pressure can quickly escalate -- and so can financial panic.
Still, in a transparent system, medical experts can expect reliable data that will help them check an epidemic. And calm counsel from elected politicians can go a long way toward quieting public fear — if the leaders are up to it.
The sudden proliferation of coronavirus in Italy has triggered a wake-up call in the US. The virus' spread on this side of the Atlantic is near inevitable, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Tuesday, though only a handful of US cases have been diagnosed so far. The city of San Francisco has already declared a state of emergency.
Three days ago, when Donald Trump left for India, the virus was something nasty and far away. Air Force One touched down in Washington tonight in a howling political gale over his administration's readiness to fight it -- despite Trump's Panglossian prediction that the coronavirus is just "going to go away."
'I'm going to be not at all controversial'
The President can't help himself. At the start of his news conference in New Delhi on Tuesday, Trump warned tongue-in-cheek that he wasn't going to make any news. "It was a fantastic two days. I'm going to be not at all controversial because I don't want to blow the two days ... on one little answer. I'll be very, very conservative on my answers, if you don't mind."
We weren't falling for that. And for good reason. Here's what the President did say in his very uncontroversial news conference:
Democrats are "just not good for our country."
So much for that old tradition of politics stopping at the water's edge.
Liberal Supreme Court justices should recuse themselves from anything "Trump related."
On Harvey Weinstein: "Michelle Obama loved him."