Every four years, partisans on both sides of the political fence ramp up their rhetoric and remind their supporters, “Vote like your life depends on it.”
This year those words are literally true.
More than 220,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and cases are surging again. But the Trump administration has walked off the field indifferent to the fact that hundreds of Americans are dying every day from COVID-19 — and that tens of thousands more will probably lose their lives in the weeks and months to come
The numbers are terrifying. Over the past week, the United States has been averaging 59,269 cases per day — a 34 percent increase from two weeks before. Last week, there were more than 75,000 new cases, the 11th time in the last month that the country set a daily record, and hospitalizations are on the rise. Spikes are being seen in the Midwest and Rocky Mountains, and while earlier cases were clustered in cities, rural areas are beginning to bear the full brunt of COVID-19. In short, things are about to get a lot worse, particularly as the weather gets colder and more people are forced inside.
It’s one thing for the White House to do nothing about the pandemic and play down its impact — that’s been the modus operandi since the spring. Now the president is actively making things worse. Recovered from his bout with COVID-19, he is campaigning around the country, holding mass rallies where masks and social distancing are the exception, not the rule.
He is undermining the best tools we have to fight the pandemic — wearing masks and socially distancing. In a town hall last week, he openly questioned whether wearing masks is beneficial in stopping the spread of the coronavirus. Now he is attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci, the most trusted public health expert in the country, calling the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases a “disaster.” He also said, “People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots." The president has even taken to deriding his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, because Biden will “listen to the scientists.”
While most people are rightly appalled by these attacks, for those who incomprehensibly still trust the president, the effect could be tragic. Listening to the president over Fauci has the potential to be deadly.
It also is increasingly clear that Trump has adopted the crackpot theory of his top scientific adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas — who is not an epidemiologist — that the only way to fight COVID-19 is by allowing it to spread naturally until the country reaches herd immunity. For that to happen, approximately two-thirds of the country would need to be exposed to the coronavirus. It’s now around 10 percent. According to Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, achieving herd immunity could mean the death of a half-million Americans.
Atlas’s presence on the White House coronavirus task force, which is largely dormant, is emblematic of Trump’s refusal to take any affirmative steps to fight the pandemic. With the apparent blessing of the president, Atlas is blocking efforts to expand testing and has taken to Twitter to argue that masks don’t work — a view so outside the public health mainstream that Twitter removed the tweet for violating its guidelines regarding spreading misinformation. This is the man who is whispering in the president’s ear about COVID-19. But, of course, Atlas has the president’s ear because he is saying things that Trump wants to hear. Combatting a pandemic is hard work. It requires discipline, honesty, and leadership — attributes the president doesn’t possess.
Instead, Trump is pinning all of his efforts to stop the pandemic on the silver bullet of a vaccine, which he seems to hope will get him reelected. But we are months away from mass distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, and in the meantime, tens of thousands will probably die.
If Trump is reelected, this tragedy will continue. Considering the extent to which Trump has politicized the coronavirus vaccine, it’s far from clear that such a medical breakthrough will be broadly embraced by Americans. It feels unimaginable to suggest that who the next president is could have such a direct impact on whether we live or die. But that’s where we are today. For America in 2020, voting for president is truly a life-and-death decision.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.