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A transformed Trump finally confronts the coronavirus reality

At most other times in American history, this would have been unremarkable. In the Trump era, it was a revelation. The President finally seemed to grasp the magnitude of the moment.

Until now, it had been left to medical experts like Anthony Fauci to provide the public with accurate information about the health risks posed by the virus.

And it had been left to state governors and city mayors – both Democrats and Republicans – to take the actions required to contain the virus’s spread throughout America.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, took bold action on Sunday (Monday AEDT) by ordering the state’s bars and restaurants to close that day.

He was followed a day later by the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, who jointly announced that all bars, casinos, gyms and spas must close.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been widely praised for his leadership during the crisis, rolling out drive-through testing centres and calling on Trump to mobilise the army to create special field hospitals to deal with the looming surge of patients.

Trump, meanwhile, has responded to the crisis more as a threat to his own re-election chances than a public health emergency.

He’s speculated that the number of US cases would soon drop down to zero, given misleading information about the availability of testing and hyped up the strength of a deteriorating economy.

On Monday he belatedly got real, describing the virus as a highly contagious “invisible enemy”.

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He acknowledged the US economy may fall into recession, but said his top priority was public safety.

“We’re not thinking in terms of recession, we’re thinking in terms of the virus,” he said.

To be sure, the new federal guidelines – which are only recommendations, not rules – are nowhere near as tough as the measures being implemented by state and city officials.

But Trump’s change in rhetoric alone could save lives.

A poll released over the weekend by NBC News found alarming partisan differences in how Americans have responded to the outbreak.

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The poll found 56 per cent of Democrats believed their day-to-day lives would change in a major way because of the outbreak compared with just 26 per cent of Republicans.

Only 40 per cent of Republicans were worried about someone in their family catching the virus compared with 68 per cent of Democrats.

The divide reflects the way outlets such as Fox News and right-wing talkback hosts such as Rush Limbaugh have covered the virus – as a politically motivated crusade by progressives to destroy Trump.

This was especially dangerous given the audience for these outlets is full of senior citizens, the age cohort most at risk of dying if they contract COVID-19.

The President at last sent a clear signal to his supporters and conservative media figures that the risks of the virus are real – not part of a left-wing “hoax”.

It’s unclear if Trump can sustain this change in tone for long – within hours he was on Twitter, making inflammatory references to the “Chinese virus”.

But at least for a brief moment in time, America had the communicator-in-chief it needed.

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