The Trump Coronavirus Fake-out

The “president” has taken the nation on a long down-escalator ride to reverse the progress of the last seventy years—the post-World War II era, roughly speaking—dismantling, for example, progress in civil rights, progress in environmental protection, and progress in foreign alliances and diplomacy. 

Then, along came the coronavirus. After complaining that the media were hyping the coronavirus threat—another “hoax” to make him look bad—he ordered travel restrictions on January 31, including banning foreigners from entering the US if they had recently traveled in China.

Aside from the travel restrictions, Trump took no action to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak in the US. Instead, he continued to downplay the threat, repeatedly saying it was “totally under control.” On February 26, he said there were only 15 people infected in the US and they were all getting better: “within a couple of days” it would be “down close to zero.” The next day he said: “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.”

The president objected to allowing the passengers on the cruise ship Grand Princess to come ashore in San Francisco because that would raise the number of people in the US infected with the virus: “I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus had become a pandemic. There were more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people had died from the disease, “COVID-19.”

The US lagged behind other countries in testing for the novel coronavirus. As of March 20, the US had performed about 300 tests per million population, far below the rates of testing in other countries. In the same time-frame, for example, South Korea had performed over 6,000 tests per million, Australia more than 4,000, Italy more than 3,000, Germany more than 2,000 and the UK more than 900 [data from the website Our World in Data].

A new vocabulary developed to describe our plight. We were advised to “shelter in place,” to practice “social distancing” and to “self-quarantine.” No one could say how long these measures would be in place. There was no vaccine and there were no anti-viral drugs known to be effective in treating COVID-19. Development and testing of a vaccine was expected to take 12 to 18 months.

On March 13, the Dow Jones Industrial average closed at 23,185.62 after a record high closing of 29,551.42 set on February 12. Ten days later, on March 23, it closed at 18,591.93, down by 20 percent.

The loss of shareholder wealth can largely be attributed to the coronavirus and public health measures that were put in place to “flatten the curve” (reduce the rate of infection). Advice to avoid public gatherings of ten or more people, to practice “social distancing” (keeping at least six feet away from other people), and to stay at home unless going somewhere was absolutely necessary, resulted in an abrupt drop in consumer spending with no end in sight. Stock values plummeted as investor uncertainty prevailed, but only by flattening the curve could we hope to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed with critically ill COVID-19 patients.

After Senate approval of a $2 trillion spending bill (including a $500 billion loan fund for big businesses), the Dow spiked on March 26 to close at 22,552.17, but the market was likely to remain volatile in the months ahead as the virus continued to ravage economies worldwide.

It was nearly impossible to take it all in. It was disruption on a global scale, something that we had not experienced before in my lifetime. In an odd way, our voluntary isolation brought us closer as a human family as people around the world on every continent faced the same risk of infection from the same microscopic lethal army. There was no effective weapon anywhere in the world to combat the virus. For now, the only effective strategy was to isolate ourselves. We could reduce the risk by denying the human hosts that the virus depended on to propagate and spread.

On March 16, the Trump administration announced a 15-day plan to address the spread of the virus, including advising “older persons” and people with underlying health conditions to stay home and away from others. The administration advised everyone to avoid gatherings in groups of more than ten and to avoid discretionary travel, restaurants, bars, and visits to relatives in nursing homes.

Just 7 days later, in a midnight “tweet” on March 23, the president declared: “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” Later that week, he told Fox News: “I think Easter Sunday [April 12] and you’ll have packed churches all over our country, I think it would be a beautiful time. And it’s just about the timeline I think is right.”

Of course, it was too early to know whether the administration’s earlier social distancing guidance was having the desired effect of slowing the spread of the virus. The incubation period of the virus (the period between becoming infected with the virus and the onset of symptoms of COVID-19) could range from 2 to 14 days, according to the CDC. The reported number of COVID-19 cases in the US had grown tenfold from 4,226 on March 16 (when the guidelines were announced) to 44,183 on March 23 (Trump’s tweet-date).

Whether the cure is worse than the problem depends entirely on what you perceive “the problem” to be. The president, it seemed, had concluded that COVID-19 was no worse than seasonal flu: “we’ve never closed down the country for the flu.” If you think it’s no worse than the flu, then maybe you can believe that it would be “beautiful” to pack churches for Easter with coronavirus spreaders.

The coronavirus was not the flu. A presidential proclamation would not make it so. True to form when confronted by facts incongruent with his imaginary world, the president tried to rebrand the coronavirus as fake news. The problem could not be worse than the cure. He would bamboozle his base but he would not be able to fake out the virus.

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Stay Safe

Wash your hands with soap.

Don’t touch your face.

Keep your distance.

The world is not coming to an end.

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