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A pandemic of lies, xenophobia, and toilet paper

From slack leadership and conflicting messages to disparities in wealth and health care, this crisis is revealing the ugly fault lines in this nation.

Ecuador's Health Minister personnel gives gel alcohol to those entering the Carondelet presidential palace, as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19, in Quito, on Tuesday.RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump is so vain, he thinks the coronavirus is about him.

To be precise, he thinks it’s all about his reelection campaign, and how the virus will affect his political fortunes, not its impact on the country. Predictably, his administration’s handling of this still-burgeoning crisis is rigidly on-brand — denials and lies, served with his usual slab of ineptitude.

Meanwhile, some Republicans, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are now referring to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus,” for the city in China where the virus was first recognized. In a tweet, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy called it “Chinese coronavirus.” The intention here is clear: to shift attention from the Trump administration’s all-thumbs response, and brand China as the cause of the virus.


Even before this bigot pivot, fear of the virus has been having a devastating effect on Chinatowns nationwide and has increased prejudice against Asians and Asian Americans. Last week on an MBTA platform, I saw a young Asian man, wearing a surgical mask, verbally harassed by an older man who, with profanity and epithets, repeatedly called him “a plague.”

World Health Organization officials may not be ready to classify Covid-19 as a pandemic, but we’re being consumed by a pandemic of lies, xenophobia, and incompetence.

Oh, and toilet paper panic.

If a crisis reveals who we are, then the prognosis isn’t too good. This moment recalls “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” a classic “Twilight Zone” episode. After a possible meteor and unexplained power outage, hysteria erupts among small-town residents. Convinced there is an alien among them, they quickly turn on one another in a spiral of accusations, prejudice, and violence.

Now shoppers are duking it out over toilet paper. Store shelves that once stocked disinfectants and hand sanitizers are empty. People are likely snapping up these items to resell them online because nothing says “we’re all in this together” like price gouging.


Others are resorting to homemade hand sanitizer recipes — have they never heard of soap and water? On Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York showed off gallons of sanitizer made by the state — using prison labor. (Many inmates aren’t even allowed to have hand sanitizers due to its alcohol content.)

But hey, at least Cuomo has been in New York as the crisis ramped up in his state — unlike Governor Charlie Baker who was enjoying a Utah ski vacation as cases in Massachusetts rose sharply last weekend. (He returned Monday night and declared a state of emergency Tuesday afternoon.)

From slack leadership and conflicting messages to disparities in wealth and health care, this crisis is revealing the ugly fault lines in this nation. America defines itself by its strength, but in times like these, its fragility is what’s most apparent. Based on the false notion that it will all work out because, in America, arrogance propels a lack of preparedness. And, as usual, this approach ignores society’s most vulnerable.

When officials say those experiencing possible symptoms should consult their health care provider, they forget those who don’t have one. They overlook that not everyone has paid sick time or a job that permits them to work from home. For many children, food received during school hours is their only daily meal. What happens if schools are closed? And do their families have home computers so they can keep up with their lessons remotely, if it comes to that?


What may be an inconvenience for some can prove disastrous for others.

Instead of a president calmly steering us through an unpredictable storm, we’re burdened with a tower of babble who lies to the public, undermines scientists and health experts, shuns recommendations, shakes hands along rope lines, and promises more rallies.

With more than 4,000 deaths worldwide, we’re not only battling the coronavirus, but racism, greed, and an administration with a zealous disregard for anything that does not directly benefit Trump. For him, it’s truth and facts that must be eradicated.

His callous actions are no less endangering than the coronavirus itself. And if its spread, enabled by Trump’s lies, continues, even your hoarded stacks of toilet paper won’t protect you.

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Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.