“I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead. We’re going to go through a very tough two weeks.”
With these words, on Tuesday afternoon, President Trump sounded a new and welcomed tone on the coronavirus.
But make no mistake, hard days lie ahead because of the president’s botched, selfish, and incompetent response to the coronavirus crisis. A change in tone can’t change that catastrophic reality.
Trump’s calls for vigilance are a bit like declaring it’s time to close the barn doors after the horses have escaped — and the barn is on fire and it’s threatening to burn the entire farm down.
Tens of thousands of Americans (and possibly more) are likely to die because of the president.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Trump’s public statements and actions have followed a similar trajectory: They have been dishonest, misleading, fantastical, and dangerous. It would blow over soon, he said early on. It would go away when the weather got warmer. “The coronavirus is very much under control in the USA,” he tweeted. It wasn’t.
The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2020
While thankfully there’s no more talk of re-opening the economy on Easter, the damage has been done. America has become the epicenter of a global pandemic.
Consider that the United States and South Korea reported their first coronavirus cases on the same day — Jan. 20. More than two months later, South Korea has just under 10,000 confirmed cases and 169 deaths. By comparison, the United States has more than 216,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 5,000 people have died. Taking into account population differences (the US has 327 million people and South Korea has around 51 million people), the number of cases is more than three times greater than South Korea — and the death toll is nearly four times as great.
These horrific numbers could have been avoided with genuine presidential leadership.
After the initial case was diagnosed in January, South Korea immediately began aggressive testing and quarantines. Private companies were encouraged to develop diagnostic tests. Within a month drive-through screening centers had been set up and thousands were being tested daily.
In the United States, Trump refused to focus on the issue. Two days after that initial positive case he declared "We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming from China. It’s going to be just fine.” When Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was first able to talk to Trump about the coronavirus on Jan. 18, Trump wanted to talk about a recently announced vaping ban.
Into February, Trump was still stubbornly resisting bureaucratic efforts to deal with the emerging crisis. The weeks lost in ramping up testing were a lost — and unforgivable —opportunity to save lives.
Trump’s obstinance is bad enough — but the delay was also undoubtedly influenced by Trump’s diktat that testing should not be a priority. The more testing that was done, the more positive results there would be and that was an outcome the president did not want.
Keeping the numbers low in order to avoid spooking Wall Street and negatively affecting Trump’s reelection became the administration’s focus.
Those presidential-created obstacles did more than prevent essential equipment from getting to communities in need — it seeded a deadly message of doubt, particularly to Trump supporters.
Researchers at the University of Washington look at five critical social distancing policies and the varying implementation between states. They found that states “with Republican governors and Republican electorates” delayed each of these initiatives "by an average of 2.70 days.”
While more than 30 states have issued stay-at-home orders, a host of states have either not made such state-wide declarations or done partial orders. Nearly all are helmed by Republican governors. In Arizona, GOP Governor, Doug Ducey prevented cities and counties from putting in effect stay-at-home orders. He didn’t issue his own statewide decree until this week. Last week, the Republican governor of Mississippi Tate Reeves overruled city and county social distancing measures. Under pressure, he announced a stay-at-home order on Wednesday that will go into effect Friday.
Trump is not directly responsible for these delays, but did Trump’s suggestion that the disease was no worse than the flu give cover to Republican governors who preferred to delay social distancing efforts? Did it encourage them to drag their feet? It’s hard to argue otherwise. With the combination of misinformation spread on Fox News (particularly during a crucial period in late February and early March when the outlet’s anchors were playing down the threat from the coronavirus), will more Americans in red states test positive for the coronavirus and die needlessly? Almost certainly.
Trump has also publicly suggested that Democratic governors who don’t show him proper veneration will have to get in the back of the line for medical supplies. And there is emerging evidence that Republican states are having their requests for ventilators and protective equipment met while blue states are getting the short end of the stick. How many people, simply because they live in a blue state, are going to die because of this president’s petty cruelty?
It’s not an easy thing to accuse a president of being personally responsible for the deaths of Americans, but with Trump and the coronavirus, it’s simply a fact.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.