Google Scrambles To Make The White House Seem Competent

U.S. President Donald Trump, surrounded by members of the White House’s coronavirus task force, discusses the national emergency at a Saturday press conference. (Photo: Jim Watson, Getty)

Google has announced that it’s partnering with the White House to create a national U.S. coronavirus website, which is totally related to whatever the hell the U.S. administration was talking about at Saturday's press conference. There, President Donald Trump vastly oversold and misattributed an upcoming, supposedly Google-run project to build a “nationwide” U.S. coronavirus screening site to direct people to nearby “drive through” testing depending on their symptoms.

In reality—as Google clarified in a frantic tweet just hours later—such a tool is barely in its trial stages at Verily, Google’s sister-company under the Alphabet umbrella, and it will only be useful for people in the San Francisco Bay Area for the foreseeable future. It purportedly wasn’t even intended to be publicly available until White House staff dropped the ball.

A person familiar with the matter told the New York Times that Verily’s pilot program (not a website—that’s still yet to be announced) is planned to launch Monday and can direct Bay Area residents exhibiting flagged symptoms to a total of three testing locations. While still absolutely commendable, don’t get me wrong, that’s still significantly different and scaled-down from what Trump and co. were selling.

But no worries, because Google’s purportedly working on something vaguely similar, so it turns out the president was right all along, hooray! Please pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

“Google is partnering with the US Government in developing a nationwide website that includes information about COVID-19 symptoms, risk and testing information,” the search giant’s communications and public affairs team tweeted Saturday evening.

Which sure sounds like it’ll just be aggregating all the information already currently readily available at the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s website. Google’s also added a “home page promotion” Sunday called Do the Five that you might have already noticed today; again, just repeating the same tips public health officials have been doing for weeks now (wash your hands, cover your coughs, keep your hands off your face, etc.) in pithy list form.

Neither of which, mind you, resemble anything like a tool where users anywhere in the country can enter their symptoms into a questionnaire and receive feedback about whether they need testing and where to get it, as explained Friday by White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and her inexplicable accompanying flowchart for a site that does not exist.

Apparently, this ongoing shit show (chart included) can be traced back to the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Man, that guy sure has been having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.

According to a recent New York Times report, Kushner met with Verily’s CEO this week to discuss how the company could contribute to the administration’s fumbling coronavirus response, which so far has been ripe with top-level miscommunications, casual xenophobia, and massive testing delays.

The CEO gave him a rundown of Verily’s developing project to screen users and direct them to nearby testing centres, with tentative plans to roll it out beyond California eventually, and it seems Kushner and the rest of the U.S. coronavirus response team ran very, very far with this information.

Yes, in case you haven’t heard, the administration’s purportedly tasked Kushner with finding “relevant parties” to queue in the president on how to handle this whole “global pandemic” business.

Earlier this week, he proved himself particularly competent at the task by employing one of the most time-honoured scientific fact-finding methods: a Facebook poll.

Given the widespread criticism of Trump’s response, it seems he jumped at the chance to show off some tangible product of his constant boasting to tap the private sector for help handling the outbreak. At a press conference Saturday afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence attempted to walk back expectations, admitting that it’d be limited to the Bay Area, at least at first. Though he was still erroneously maintaining that “he couldn’t be more grateful to all the people at Google putting this together,” which totalled 1,700 engineers according to Trump’s earlier statements.

In actuality, Kushner and Alphabet’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, spoke about the website for the first time Friday evening, an administration official told the Times. Likely the impetus for all the coronavirus-related developments Google announced the next day that may or may not have been in the works before Trump’s gaff.

As for that chart, it was a rushed proof of concept from Kushner’s team, so no one from Verily nor Google had any hand in it.

And while that brings to a close many of the questions that have been plaguing me about it this weekend, I still have a few I need answered. Namely, why is “drive through” in quotes, and why—with technically two correct ways to spell it—did they choose neither?

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