More than 185,000 people have already died from the coronavirus in the US. If you ve checked the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 dashboard as frequently as I have for the last several months, the growing death toll may have started to look like numbers on a broken digital scale counting up to some interminable figure. Its persistent climb demonstrates the eerie psychological trick large numbers play on our minds: "If only one man dies ... that is a tragedy. If millions die, that s only statistics."That quote, attributed to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, has been made all too real by President Donald Trump in the context of the pandemic in 2020.
What initially appeared to be the Trump administration s ineptitude when it came to responding to the country s worst public health crisis in a century has since morphed into something far more sinister — a seemingly purposeful effort to turn the Covid-19 pandemic into white noise as Trump amplifies the clatter of his own fearmongering with unfounded or distorted claims about crime and lawlessness.
Trump continues to put his political aims ahead of the public health crisis, contributing to projections that show the US death toll from coronavirus could exceed 315,000 by December 2020.
Several events in the past few weeks reveal Trump s problematic approach to this pandemic. First, he appointed Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist, a doctor who specializes in imaging the brain, as a Covid-19 adviser. That s like appointing a plumber to build your roof because, well, plumbers and roofers both work on houses. Atlas is not an infectious disease expert and has little relevant experience in this space. His top qualification for the job in the Trump administration s eyes seems to be that he s appeared on conservative cable news shows in praise of the President s "handling" of the pandemic.
Despite scientific consensus to the contrary, Atlas has questioned the use of masks and said that children cannot spread the virus. Most astoundingly, he s argued that the country would reach herd immunity more quickly if more people are infected, and that death counts could be limited if protective measures focus on the most vulnerable. In a Fox News interview in June, he said, "The reality is that when a population has enough people who have had the infection, and since these people don t have a problem with the infection, that s not a problem. That s not a bad thing."But thousands of young people under the age of 45 have died from the coronavirus in the US, and that strategy failed in Sweden, where less than 10% of the population has tested positive for antibodies — well below the 70-90% required for herd immunity. In advocating for such an idea, Atlas is essentially shrugging at the risk that thousands potentially die from the virus (On Saturday, Atlas said, "I have never advised the President to push a herd immunity strategy. I have never told the task force that I advocated a herd immunity strategy." He went on to clarify that he supported social distancing measures and protecting the vulnerable, adding, "I am advocating opening things, but opening safely, with mitigation ... We must understand something: prolonging a lockdown is enormously harmful.")
Atlas is one of the few doctors willing to oppose the scientific and medical consensus on the public health failure of the administration s inaction, while covering it with the fig leaf of his medical school degree — and this may be precisely why Trump is such a fan.
But it gets worse. Last week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new guidelines arguing that people who are not experiencing Covid-19 symptoms should not get tested for the virus, even if they have been exposed. But the virus can be transmitted by asymptomatic carriers. Indeed, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country s leading infectious disease expert, estimated that about 40% of people who carry Covid-19 do not exhibit symptoms — yet they can still spread it.
These recommendations aren t just unfounded; they run directly in opposition to the science. We need more testing, not less. So why the new guidelines? The White House pressured the CDC to issue them, according to a federal health official who told CNN, "It s coming from the top down."
In exerting this pressure, the Trump administration may have created the perfect excuse for its failure to ramp up testing to levels necessary to mitigate the virus. Rather than increasing testing capacity to meet the needs of Americans, the administration seems to have persuaded the CDC to revise down the need for testing to meet the current testing capacity.Finally, US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn is under scrutiny for rushing through an emergency use authorization for convalescent plasma under pressure from the White House and against the public advice of experts at the National Institutes of Health.
But Hahn s own comments this week seem to show the full extent of his politicization in the role. He said that his agency would consider emergency use authorization or approval for a Covid-19 vaccine before Phase III clinical trials are complete, practically inviting pharmaceutical companies to apply for FDA authorization or approval. Already, observers worry that safeguards will be cast aside to accelerate the timeline for a vaccine to produce an "October Surprise" for Trump just before Election Day. Trump himself has lent credence to that worry, saying he expects a vaccine could be ready before November 3.
It should go without saying that vaccine development should be dictated by science s timeline, not a politician s. The issue is one of trust: According to a recent Gallup poll, approximately one-third of Americans say they would not get a vaccine if it were available today. But to reach the immunity we need to end the spread of the coronavirus, epidemiologists estimate that between 70-90% of the population will need to be immune. With a third of Americans already uneasy about a vaccine, there s little room for error.
And if Americans lose trust in the process used to create that vaccine, it could bring the number willing to be vaccinated below that critical threshold. Hahn s words could further fuel this skepticism.
Trump has done something worse than give up; he s prioritized electoral politics above public health — and at the potential expense of American lives. Meanwhile, as his administration has forced its political agenda upon apolitical agencies that are supposed to be leading with science, Trump himself seems to be doing everything he can this week to divert attention away from the pandemic.On Tuesday, he went to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot seven times in the back by the police. Trump did not meet with Blake s family during his trip, and said during a roundtable event that systemic racism is not a problem in the US — and that journalists should be focused on the "tremendous violence" in cities like Portland instead.
Trump s betting on former President Richard Nixon s 1968 strategy by stoking racist fears among White people in the suburbs. But Nixon wasn t an incumbent running against the record of his own administration. Trump is. Whether he likes it or not, this is Trump s America — the "American carnage" he warned the country about in his inauguration. And the death toll is more than 185,000 and counting.