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OPINION | Murky crisis meets all-too-certain pundits

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JUST two weeks ago, Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, was the object of more than the usual derision he gets from much of the media.

Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, had said his state would need 30,000 ventilators to deal with an expected surge in critical cases of Covid-19, and he pleaded with the federal government to supply them. Existing supplies — augmented already by a small number of transfers from the federal stockpile, other states and elsewhere — were going to be insufficient.

Mr. Kushner was reportedly behind a decision to push back against the request, telling officials that internal White House calculations suggested that New York would need far fewer. “People who have requests for different products and supplies, a lot of them are doing it based on projections which are not the realistic projections,” he later told a White House news conference.

Immediately, the usual crowd brought down a wall of contempt on Mr. Kushner. The TV comedian Seth Meyers was typical. “Oh, you’re doing your own projections? Did your parents just buy you a TI-84?” he asked sarcastically on NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” “You’re not qualified to do anything, let alone tell New York how many ventilators they need.”

This week, as evidence mounted that New York had probably reached the peak of the current wave of the corona-virus outbreak, the total number of ventilators in use in the state seems to be fewer than 10,000. Even that seems to be more than is needed. On Wednesday, Mr. Cuomo announced he was transferring some of New York’s — now mercifully superfluous — ventilators to other states.

No fair person would blame Mr. Cuomo. Two weeks ago, the modeling seemed to suggest that in the worst scenario, the state might indeed need many more ventilators. In asking for 30,000, the governor was perhaps indulging in what might be called the “Art of the Deal” (medical supplies version), pitching for 30,000 in the hope he might get half that.

The predictable media pile-on — puffed up, thundering, brooking not the slightest possibility of error or self-doubt — is less forgivable. It points to a disconnect that bedevils our national conversation: the high level of uncertainty about the scale, lethality and likely duration of this crisis, and the even higher level of certainty with which the world’s exponentially expanding commentating class talks about it. It’s become commonplace to assert that the Trump administration has botched the crisis, with lethal consequences. One historian was quoted approvingly in Foreign Policy magazine comparing Mr. Trump’s apparently willful refusal to respond soon enough to the crisis to Stalin’s refusal to heed warnings about Hitler’s planned invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 — a decision that, it could be said, resulted in the deaths of 20 million Soviet citizens.

But these rigid assertions — ubiquitous not only in commentary but in much of the reporting today — rest on a soft bed of rapidly shifting facts and data.

We are all familiar by now with a large source of uncertainty: How lethal is this virus? In assessing the fatality rate, we have little confidence in official numbers for either the numerator or the denominator. The number of deaths could be much higher or lower than published, and the number of cases could turn out to be any multiple of the official published number. But a larger uncertainty relevant to any reasonable judgment on the government’s response is the future path of the virus. Most epidemiologists think that, like all viruses, this one can eventually be defeated only by either a vaccine or by a community spread so extensive that we develop herd immunity.

A vaccine seems at least a year away, and no one thinks we can remain locked down for that long. That means that, over time, even with scaled-up testing and partial re-openings, most Americans are going to get the virus. If this is right, the question of whether the government could somehow have stopped more people getting it by acting sooner is surely subordinate to the question of how we responded when people did contract it. And while mistakes clearly were made preparing for this, we won’t know for some time whether the U.S. experience was better or worse than that of other countries.

But that would require patience, balance and reasoned judgment. There’s no danger of any kind of epidemic in those fields.

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