News Brief: Coronavirus, U.S. Response, New Delhi Riots

Feb 27, 2020
Originally published on February 27, 2020 6:55 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The message from the Trump administration on coronavirus is twofold - things will get worse here in the United States, but also it will be under control.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The president stood in the White House briefing room yesterday to announce a new approach to the virus. Several health officials joined him. CDC Deputy Director Anne Schuchat said the United States should expect some troubling news.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ANNE SCHUCHAT: Our aggressive containment strategy here in the United States has been working and is responsible for the low levels of cases that we have so far. However, we do expect more cases.

INSKEEP: And shortly after that press conference, a new mysterious case of coronavirus was announced in California.

GREENE: And that's where I want to begin with NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Hey there, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, there.

GREENE: OK. Let's talk about this new case here in California and what the significance of it could be.

STEIN: Yeah. So the CDC, right after this briefing ended last night, reported that someone in California who doesn't appear to have traveled to any country where the virus is spreading or was exposed to anyone who might have caught the virus overseas had tested positive for the virus. That means this could be the first instance in the United States of what officials call community spread - you know, in other words, that they caught the virus in this country with no connection to any other country - that it could have spread here.

There's been 60 reported cases of coronavirus in this country so far. All the other cases have been people who caught it in China or on that cruise ship, except for two close relatives of two of those people who brought it back from China. So this would be very concerning, you know, because it's exactly what health officials have been worried might start happening - that the virus could start spreading in this country. Now, the CDC says it can't completely rule out that this person might have had some contact with a traveler they don't know about. But so far, that doesn't seem to be the case.

GREENE: OK. Well, then the question on all of our minds, of course, is - what do we know about this person and how the person may have gotten the virus if not through someone abroad?

STEIN: Yeah. So California health officials say the person lives in Solano County, north of San Francisco, and that this person is receiving care at the UC medical center. And according to the hospital, the patient was transferred there from another medical center. And doctors suspected the patient might have COVID-19, this disease the coronavirus causes. But since the patient didn't meet all the criteria for the coronavirus, they weren't immediately tested by the CDC.

And in the meantime, the hospital, you know, has treated other patients with viruses like this or took all the necessary precautions to protect doctors and nurses. But after this patient did finally test positive, the hospital asked a small number of hospital workers to stay home and monitor themselves.

GREENE: OK. So this could be the beginning of what's known as community spread in the United States, although it sounds like there's some uncertainty here. But that obviously raises the question of how prepared we are in this country to deal with the coronavirus. What did you feel like you learned from the Trump administration when, you know, the president and others talked about the approach yesterday?

STEIN: Yeah. So the president, you know, he took a very kind of low-key approach to this and, you know, was - tried to be very reassuring, saying, you know, things are under control. But the president announced that Vice President Mike Pence would be taking over in charge of coordinating the nation's response to the outbreak.

Until now, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has been chairing the coronavirus task force. Now, he'll stay in that role. But Trump says he picked Pence because of his experience handling health care issues, especially when he was governor of Indiana, and that he will hopefully, you know, help coordinate this across government agencies, including, like, the Transportation and Education departments.

GREENE: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks so much.

STEIN: You bet, David.

INSKEEP: Now, the administration is facing scrutiny as concerns increase over the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. Reporters asked the president yesterday why he seems to be contradicting Centers for Disease Control officials who say the coronavirus outbreak here is only a matter of time. Here was the president's response.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't think I have. They've said it could be worse. And I've said it could be worse, too.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You said you don't believe it's inevitable. This contradicts what the CDC...

TRUMP: I also think - no, I don't think it's inevitable. I don't think it's inevitable.

GREENE: All right. I want to bring in NPR senior political correspondent Domenico Montanaro, who's been following the president's response here. Hi, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, David.

GREENE: OK. So this could be a big moment for the president if, indeed, this virus spreads and Americans start looking for some level of reassurance and confidence.

MONTANARO: Oh, definitely. I mean, you know, the president's gotten a lot of criticism for this confused messaging before this on coronavirus. You had the CDC sounding the alarm. They were saying that the spread was inevitable. You had Trump downplaying this. And really, in a lot of these situations, I mean, I kind of think of it as being on a plane and facing turbulence and you're in stormy weather. You want the pilot to be calm but also...

GREENE: Pilot to say, everything is OK; don't worry.

MONTANARO: No - but also serious and telling you to take your seats, right...

GREENE: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...And put those safety belts on and make sure everyone does it.

You know, the president, because of his tweeting and his own personal volatility, that makes it difficult. And there's a lot of people who are never going to trust him as their pilot. But that's partially probably why he decided to put Mike Pence there - because he's such a controlled messenger. And for the most part, Trump, during that press conference, got out of the way of public health officials and even swatted down some potential conspiracy theories about whether the CDC was trying to inflate numbers or the risk to hurt his reelection.

GREENE: OK. So maybe he's putting Pence there because people have more confidence - I mean, it also sounds like Pence has experience, as governor, with health care that may put him in a good position to respond to that. What is that experience?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, the thing is, though, Mike Pence is a very controversial pick to put here. There was an outbreak in 2015 of HIV in his home state among intravenous drug users that is really causing a lot of critics to look at this and say they - you know, raises some eyebrows and wonder if this is the smartest person to put there. I mean, at one point, according to USA Today, the number of people who had contracted HIV in one rural county exceeded the number of people infected with HIV through injection drug use in New York City the entire previous year.

GREENE: Wow.

MONTANARO: The CDC and other health officials urged making clean needles available. But state law and Pence - his moral opposition - really initially prevented that. Two months after the outbreak began, he said he was going to go home, pray on it. Two days later, he finally issued an executive order to make those clean needles available. So look, he's not a scientist. And I think that's one thing that a lot of people are nervous about if this does spread.

GREENE: And Democrats, we should say, are already critical of the president's response here.

MONTANARO: Definitely. They want him to ask for more money from Congress. Trump said, fine, if that's what you want. And Trump - look - said, the stock market may have gone down, but it's Democratic presidential candidates' fault, too, which is a really controversial thing to say.

GREENE: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thanks a lot.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. Three days of violence in New Delhi have left at least 34 people dead.

INSKEEP: It started with peaceful protests against a citizenship law in India that excludes Muslim refugees. The protests became a confrontation between Hindu and Muslim groups. Today seems more quiet than other recent days, which allows time to ask what went wrong and what role the police might have played.

GREENE: And NPR correspondent Lauren Frayer joins us now from NPR's India bureau in Mumbai. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So what is the latest we're hearing from Delhi at this point? Things have calmed down?

FRAYER: It feels like a sort of nervous calm right now. Schools are still closed in this one area of New Delhi where the riots happened. Markets are still shut. Firefighters are roaming sort of deserted streets. We've seen Muslim homes, mosques burned - a few vehicles still smoldering.

It's important to note that this is contained in one area. I was covering President Trump in Delhi earlier this week, and you'd never have known that such riots were raging on the other side of town. Today families are lining up at morgues to claim bodies. The death toll keeps rising. But it does seem like most of those people were killed more than 36 hours ago, and their bodies are just being identified now.

GREENE: Well, as Steve mentioned, I mean, some questions about what role police may or may not have played here - what are police saying at this point?

FRAYER: You know, it's remarkable how we don't actually know exactly how this violence began - who fired the first shot or threw the first stone. Here's what police are doing today. This is the Delhi police commissioner. His name is O.P. Mishra.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OP MISHRA: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "We're here to protect you," is what he's saying. And that's him out on the streets, patrolling personally with a microphone. He's kitted out in a flak jacket and helmet. And he's telling people not to be scared. He's telling shops to reopen. But you know, for the past three days, Delhi Police have been accused of not protecting people. There have been reports that they beat up human rights lawyers, destroyed CCTV cameras. They may have even egged on the attackers.

The attackers are believed to be mostly Hindus, the victims mostly Muslims. Remember India is about 80% Hindu and 14% Muslim, so Muslims are the biggest minority group here. It's interesting to note, the Delhi Police fall under the Home Ministry, and that is headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-hand man. His name is Amit Shah. And he's been accused of inciting violence against Muslims himself in his own speeches and on Twitter. And in fact, he's the author of this citizenship law that started all this, that prompted an outbreak of nationwide protests late last year.

GREENE: Well, if there are questions about police here and the police are headed by someone close to Modi and you have dozens of people dead, I mean, could this be a real stain on the legacy of Hindu nationalists and on Modi himself?

FRAYER: Yeah. So it's still really early. I mean, we're barely 36 hours out of the major violence. But I have to say, probably not. I mean, this has happened before. The most bloody Hindu-Muslim riots in recent memory happened in 2002 in Gujarat, where more than a thousand people were killed - mostly Muslims. Modi was the chief minister of that state at the time. He was accused then of failing to halt, maybe even inciting violence. He denied wrongdoing, went on to be elected prime minister.

And so there's a chilling lesson here - that sectarian bloodletting has not hurt Modi in the past. In fact, it may have helped him rile up support among his Hindu nationalist base.

GREENE: All right. That is NPR's Lauren Frayer reporting in Mumbai. Lauren, thanks so much for all of your coverage of this and for this morning.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.