File photo: Denise Civiletti

As we adjust to our new reality with social distancing, limited in-person interactions and a general withdrawal from community activities for an unknown period of time, it is strong leadership that can continue to bind us together. Our governor, Andrew Cuomo, has shined in his stewardship – telling the truth and demanding sacrifice where necessary. President Trump and Congressman Lee Zeldin have not. Good leadership requires empathy, honesty, transparency and the ability to admit your mistakes so that you can fix them. Especially when a nation’s health is at risk.

Trump’s initial failures in taking the coronavirus crisis seriously continue to impede his ability to effectively gain our confidence or to guide us as a country. As recently as his Friday afternoon press conference, the President still refused to admit responsibility for our testing failures. On Sunday he insisted that the crisis is “under control.” He says this while states and cities are closing public schools, bars and restaurants. He says this while the number of Americans testing positive for the coronavirus is increasing exponentially.

The coronavirus responsible for our current worldwide pandemic, was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) in December 2019. By January 30, 2020 WHO declared the virus to be a global emergency and by February it was distributing tests to over 60 countries. For reasons that are inexplicable, Trump’s administration rejected the WHO test and instead decided to make its own – a disastrous process to date and is likely the cause of a dangerous shortage of tests available in the U.S. We can even cite the Trump administration’s decision in 2018 to fire our entire pandemic response team from the National Security Council without replacing them as limiting our ability to respond to this pandemic.

Epidemiologists and other scientists tell us that the key to containing a pandemic is rapid identification. Failure to test people for the coronavirus has created an environment that is ripe for the virus to spread through our community rapidly and undetected. In fact, we remain unsure just how many of us may be carrying the virus and spreading it to others. Large scale testing is the only way we will contain this health crisis. South Korea, which appears to have its epidemic under control, is testing 20,000 people daily. The U.S. has barely tested half of that number in total. We will never be in front of the problem until we are testing thousands of individuals a day.

As of Sunday night, New York State has 729 cases, 50 in Suffolk County, and 21 of them in Southold Town alone – and these numbers have no doubt grown by the time you are reading this. Our County Executive Steve Bellone has closed all county schools for at least two weeks. In an open letter to President Trump, Governor Cuomo has directly requested help. And, in typical blame-others form, Trump Sunday night tweeted “The individual Governors of States, and local officials, must step up their efforts on drive up testing and testing sights, working in conjunction with @CDCgov and the Federal Government!”

Which brings me back to leadership. Trump’s failures so far are obvious and undeniable – we are missing the boat with testing, and we squandered 45-60 days of advance notice instead of preparing for this pandemic. Instead of warning us of the impending danger, Trump defended his own response and falsely claimed many times that this was nothing to worry about and then, that he had the situation was under control. But all of that is past history and we must move forward. It is not too late for Trump to rise to the challenge of one of the most basic tenets of his office. To lead us through this time of uncertainty. Be straight with the American public about what he got wrong and how he is fixing it. Take responsibility for where we are and vow to make it better. There will be a light at the end of the tunnel, but the person delivering that message must have credibility if Americans are to accept it.

America must unite to get to the other side of this health crisis. I believe in Americans and I have no doubt that we will. But it will be much easier if we have a president who will lead us to that other side.

Perry Gershon is a Democratic candidate for New York’s First Congressional District. He lives in East Hampton.

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