Coronavirus Was All But Ignored in First Three Democrat Debates of the Year

Patrick Goodenough | April 20, 2020 | 3:31am EDT
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Sen. Bernie Sanders makes a point to former Vice President Joe Biden during the Feb. 19 debate in Las Vegas. (Photo by Mark Ralson/AFP via Getty Images)
Sen. Bernie Sanders makes a point to former Vice President Joe Biden during the Feb. 19 debate in Las Vegas. (Photo by Mark Ralson/AFP via Getty Images)

( – The first three Democrat presidential debates held this year – on Jan. 14, Feb. 7, and Feb. 19 – contained a single, passing reference to the coronavirus outbreak that had emerged in China weeks earlier and was starting to spread.

That sole reference came from former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, during the Feb. 7 debate in Manchester, N.H., who said, “The next president is going to face challenges from global health security, like what we’re seeing coming out of China.”

None of the other candidates raised the issue, and neither did the ABC News moderators. The word “coronavirus” was not mentioned. (Neither was “COVID-19,” although the World Health Organization only came up with that name for the disease on Feb. 11.)

Apart from Buttigieg’s comment, China did come up during the Feb. 7 debate, but in the context of climate change (Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Amy Klobuchar) and its mistreatment of Muslim Uighurs (Sanders).

By Feb. 7, China was reporting more than 34,500 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 700 deaths, while 288 cases were reported in 24 other countries – including 12 in the United States – along with the first death outside China, in the Philippines.

That debate came five days after U.S. travel restrictions, barring entry to any non-U.S. national who has visited China in the previous 14 days, came into effect. It also came eight days after the WHO had declared the outbreak to be a “public health emergency of international concern.”

A little over a fortnight before the New Hampshire debate, a Democratic presidential debate was held in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 14.

There were no references during that debate to the outbreak in China, although China was mentioned, in relation to trade (Biden, Sanders), North Korea (Biden) and the economic threat (Klobuchar).

Although Jan. 14 was early in the context of the outbreak, by then the CDC had issued a travel health notice for Wuhan, established a coronavirus incident management system, and issued an advisory to state and local health departments and health care providers. Thailand had just reported the first confirmed case outside China.

Almost two weeks after the New Hampshire debate, another was held, in Las Vegas, on Feb. 19. None of the candidates raised the coronavirus issue, and neither did the NBC News/MSNBC moderators.

China did come up, but again in connection with climate change (Biden, Buttigieg, and Mike Bloomberg).

By Feb. 19, China was reporting more than 74,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 2,100 deaths, while more than 1,070 cases were confirmed in 26 other countries – including 15 in the United States – along with eight deaths outside China (in the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, France, and Iran.)

By Feb. 19, the China-related U.S. travel restrictions had been in effect for 17 days.

‘It never even was a part of their dialogue’

During a White House press briefing on Sunday evening, President Trump drew attention to an observation by Fox News’ Bret Baier that the Feb. 19 debate in Las Vegas had not featured the words “coronavirus,” “virus” or “COVID-19.”

“That was February 19, that’s way after I closed entrance from China into our country,” Trump said.

“I just thought that was a very interesting – because, you know, you hear these people, some of the people, the Democrats, said oh, this, that. It never even was a part of their dialogue. Now they bring it up because you see what happens now. But they didn’t bring it up,” he said. “But I brought it up.”

“Coronavirus” first featured in a Trump tweet on Jan. 24, when he thanked China for “working very hard to contain the Coronavirus.” At the time the CDC had reported two confirmed cases in the U.S.

On Jan. 29, the White House announced the formation of the coronavirus task force, and on Jan. 31 Trump declared the outbreak a public health emergency. When he delivered his State of the Union on February 4, Trump said the administration “will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from” the coronavirus threat.

After Las Vegas, the next Democratic debate was held on Feb. 25, in Charleston, S.C., and for the first time, the coronavirus situation was brought up by a moderator, CBS’ News Gayle King. (By then there were 53 COVID-19 cases in the U.S., but no deaths had been attributed to the disease.)

Among the candidates’ responses, Biden said if he were president he would be putting pressure on China to allow American experts to visit.

“Here’s the deal,” he said. “I would be on the phone with China and making it clear, ‘We are going to need to be in your country. You have to be open. You have to be clear. We have to know what’s going on. We have to be there with you,’ and insist on it, and insist, insist, insist.”

“I could get that done,” Biden added. “No one up here has ever dealt internationally with any of these world leaders. I’m the only one that has.”

Eight days before Biden made those remarks, a 25-person WHO-led team of experts, including U.S. scientists from the CDC and NIH, had finally arrived in China on a mission delayed for weeks by the Chinese government. Back on February 7 the New York Times had reported that China had been ignoring both CDC and WHO offers of help for weeks.

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