As I write this, the official American death count from the COVID-19 pandemic has exceeded 40,000; by the time you read it, it may well have spiked to 50,000. There is no way to know what the real toll is since different states, counties and facilities have their own protocols for assigning cause of death. There is no standardized method. There is also no way to know how many cases of the coronavirus there are, since at least 25 percent of them appear to be asymptomatic, and testing for the virus remains grossly inadequate.
None of this had to happen. China, where the virus first appeared, suppressed the news for weeks. It is not certain, but it is possible that prompt Chinese action could have confined the virus to China itself. Draconian quarantine procedures stemmed it, but only after it was already spreading across the globe.
Once the virus had traveled the Silk Road China paved for it, few nations reacted promptly or effectively. It wasn’t as if the world hadn’t been warned. Serious viral outbreaks have escalated in the 21st century, partly as a result of population growth and interaction. We know too that viruses are typically spread by animal carriers, and that the destruction of animal habitats by humans and climate change gives novel diseases a free ride. We’ve done virtually nothing about these problems except make them worse.
And then there is the problem of Donald Trump.
It’s true that China kept the news of COVID-19 under wraps. But the U.S. had intelligence about the outbreak almost from the beginning. The news should have set off alarm bells at every level of the federal government and led to urgent consultation with other nations and our own states.
No such thing happened. Attempts to flag the leader’s attention failed until, after China admitted an emergency shutdown that had quarantined nearly 800 billion people, Trump suspended flights from China. By that time, an estimated 430,000 potential carriers from China had landed in the U.S. This was not only too little too late, but also porous: 40,000 more passengers arrived through loopholes in the weeks that followed. The consequence was obvious. By the time the first infected person was reported here, the country was fully seeded with the fastest-spreading virus since the Spanish Influenza of 1918. That virus killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide, or what would have been 200 to 400 million at today’s population levels.
The Spanish Flu cost 675,000 American lives, relatively low by world standards. Today, we have lost more people to COVID-19 than any other country. That distinction may not last as poorer and more populous countries feel the full impact of the virus, but we won’t lose it any time soon if Donald Trump is in charge of dealing with it. He is not just an enabler of the virus — he has now become its cheerleader as well.
There are two things you cannot afford in a pandemic. One is sheer ignorance. The other is the deliberate exploitation of a disaster for other purposes. Trump has exhibited both from day one — or what should have been day one if anyone in the most dysfunctional government in American history had sounded the necessary alarm. What made it dysfunctional was that, for Trump, its only essential function was to promote the power and glory he believes to be his due and which he feeds on as voraciously as the virus does on its human hosts. Trump’s host is the American body politic.
This is not news. Trump has infested us since his first day in office, attacking truth wherever it appears, from the free press to science labs. Truth, for him, is only what he wants to hear, and what he wants to hear is the praise that feeds his pathological narcissism. All else is fake news, whether it is a bad poll or a burning planet or a spreading pandemic.
The best way to deal with news you don’t want to hear is to tune it out. If you can’t do that, the next thing is to reject or distort it. When that doesn’t work, you simply suppress it.
Donald Trump actually works the other way around. Egged on by a cabal formerly known as the Republican Party, he hollowed out vital government agencies, replaced competent officials with groveling sycophants and silenced all voices that did not amplify his own. The result was that the country that should have responded first to COVID-19 was among the last and most laggard. Our front-line defenses, including the Center for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration, failed catastrophically. When Trump finally spoke, misspoke and lied about the crisis already overwhelming us, there was no one in his entourage to challenge him. There still isn’t, and there won’t be. Ask Anthony Fauci, a decent and responsible physician now co-opted as a frontman for Trump’s daily roadshow.
When Trump announced the first case of COVID-19 in the U.S., no one pointed out that a single reported case meant thousands of unreported or incubating ones. When he said the number was only fifteen and surely headed to zero, no one corrected him that the exact opposite was true, and that if unchecked the virus would increase exponentially and kill millions. The absence of a federal alarm bell sowed confusion, slowed reaction at the state level and left local authorities without vital medical equipment — equipment that is still lacking, despite Trump’s power to command their production.
As Trump’s ego waxes and wanes at any given moment, so do the fluxions of his sense of power. One day, his powers are “total.” The next, it’s up to 50 state governors to fend for themselves; the next, he foments rebellion against them. The word for this is tyranny, for the characteristic of the tyrant is not that he orders people to do whatever he wants but that he has no control over himself. Thus, the only truth Trump ever speaks is when he denies responsibility for anything.
Donald Trump has been laying waste to our body politic for more than three years now. The result has been the steady erosion of democracy. Now, what’s at stake is literally life and death. Writing recently in The New York Times, two respected epidemiologists calculated that Trump’s actions, and inactions, have been responsible for 90 percent of Coronavirus deaths in the country. He will surely cause many more.
We are fighting not one plague now, but two. We need a vaccine for the first. We have one for the second already, even after the failure of impeachment. It’s called the 25th Amendment. Those who serve us should invoke it.