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Another president, another mishandled pandemic

Former President Ronald Reagan, who took office in 1981, largely ignored the AIDS epidemic until his second term.
Former President Ronald Reagan, who took office in 1981, largely ignored the AIDS epidemic until his second term.Andrew Selsky/Associated Press

In the 1980s, President Reagan reacted to the AIDS pandemic with indifference. President Trump has reacted to the coronavirus pandemic with incompetence.

Both responses are lethal.

More than 30 years ago, throngs gathered in the streets nationwide and yelled “Shame!" at an administration that did little as our friends, lovers, neighbors, and family members perished. Their immune systems ruined, their bodies ravaged by opportunistic infections, some sacrificed their last days and weeks to verbally indict Reagan.

In 1981, the Centers for Disease Control identified the first case of what became known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Reagan would not publicly mention the disease until his second term, which began in 1985. By then, thousands were already dead.


So we staged “die-ins,” lying down on concrete and asphalt to represent those lost. We read aloud the names of those gone, giving human dimension to the statistics. Yet Reagan turned his back because among those most affected were gay men. Their suffering was of no consequence to a president who considered homosexuality “an abomination.”

Reagan had blood on his hands. With the coronavirus, so does Trump.

When Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director general, declared Covid-19 a pandemic Wednesday, he said that in assessing the outbreak, “we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction.”

It was as if he was speaking directly to the current White House occupant.

“We’ve tested five people for every million,” Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, said on CNN. This nation’s sluggish response to the virus, he said, is “crazily behind” other countries such as South Korea, which is testing about 10,000 people per day. This nation is nowhere near those numbers.


As of Thursday, there were more than 1,300 confirmed cases, and 38 deaths in this country. Worldwide, more than 4,200 people have died.

Of course, Trump’s response should have been swifter, but it’s hard to react decisively to something while insisting it doesn’t exist. He first claimed that worrisome headlines about the coronavirus were just another “hoax” concocted by “the media” and Democrats to derail his re-election chances.

For weeks, his minions have regurgitated that warped message, as have the presidential bullhorns of right-wing media. Trump has continued his own uninformed spew, claiming the virus “is contained” (it’s not), and that testing is readily available to all who want it — that’s also a lie. He even suggested that people who feel sick should go to work, which is dreadful advice even when the world isn’t in the midst of a pandemic.

As usual, his supporters absorb every lie and scoop of misinformation as gospel. They’re probably refusing to wash their hands just to own the libs.

In a crisis, our country deserves decisive leadership, reliable information, and compassion, especially for the most vulnerable. Instead we’re getting Trump’s standard-issue bombast, chaos, and mendacity. In his Oval Office address Wednesday, he should have come clean about what is being done to address the lack of testing. He never mentioned it. He could have called out the xenophobia-driven hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans. Instead, he called the disease “a foreign virus,” a line likely penned by racist gargoyle Stephen Miller, the president’s chief speech writer.


Trump could have publicly urged GOP senators to pass a Democrat-proposed bill to give workers affected by the coronavirus up to two weeks of paid sick leave. He didn’t — but hey, he did add Jared Kushner to the White House coronavirus team, giving his son-in-law yet another position for which he is manifestly unqualified.

So far, coronavirus isn’t the death sentence many faced in the first decade of the AIDS virus, but it’s also too soon to tell. There is still so much unknown about the virus, yet this is abundantly clear — when presidents fumble responses to pandemics, people needlessly die. And like Reagan, Trump also made cuts to the CDC budget that would have better prepared its officials to challenge the pandemic’s spread.

Yet there is one significant difference. Easy transmission of Covid-19 all but guarantees we won’t be gathering in massive crowds to condemn Trump’s inaction, as so many once did with Reagan. The public denunciation will have to wait until November.

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Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.