Trump’s COVID-19 Bungling


The COVID-19 virus will go down in history as Trump’s Virus. Not just because he got infected but because of the way he’s bungled this from the onset. Trump got off to a bad start with his effort to put public relations over public health. He painted a rosy picture for state’s governors on February 10, 2020.

Now, the virus that we’re talking about having to do — you know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat — as the heat comes in. Typically, that will go away in April. We’re in great shape though. We have 12 cases — 11 cases, and many of them are in good shape now.

Note this as after telling Bob Woodward just days prior (February 7, 2020):

This is deadly stuff… It goes through the air, that’s always tougher than the touch. You don’t have to touch things. Right? But the air, you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.

Early in the U.S. outbreak, scientists were determining the methods of transmission and initially did not want the public competing with medical staff for surgical masks. On April 3, 2020 Trump announced the CDC guidance to wear cloth face coverings, but downplayed it as he announced it.

The C.D.C. is advising the use of non-medical cloth face covering as an additional voluntary public health measure. So it’s voluntary. You don’t have to do it. They suggested for a period of time, but this is voluntary. I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.

Perhaps it was vanity, in a follow up he was stubborn about the guidance applying to him.

I just don’t want to be doing — I don’t know, somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk, the great Resolute Desk. I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I don’t know, somehow I don’t see it for myself. I just, I just don’t.

Touring a Ford plant on May 21, 2020 he again put public relations above public health.

I wore one in the back area. I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.

Responding to Fox News host Chris Wallace on July 19, 2020 he downplayed masks again in defiance of his public health experts.

I don’t agree with the statement that if everybody wears a mask, everything disappears.

At the Whitehouse on August 2020, he was wishy washy about masks.

My administration has a different approach: We have urged Americans to wear masks, and I emphasized this is a patriotic thing to do. Maybe they’re great, and maybe they’re just good. Maybe they’re not so good.

And there are more examples of Trump minimizing the importance of mask wearing and social distancing as contagion reductions. In fact, his campaign has been more focused on rallies and public showcases than public health. Like a Leper Messiah, Trump’s campaign has left a wake of virus infections behind it.

Trump had an opportunity to get ahead of it with a nationally coordinated plan in April but declined to.

It’s going to be up to the governors. We’re going to work with them, we’re going to help them, but it’s going to be up to the governors. … I think you’re going to see quite a few states starting to open. And I call it a beautiful puzzle. You have 50 pieces, all very different, but when it’s all done, it’s a mosaic. When it’s all done, it’s going to be, I think, a very beautiful picture. (April 16, 2020)

As a result, the response has been a piecemeal game of whack-a-mole. If Trump had rallied the country around an eight week combination of mask and social distance mandates as well as restaurant dining room and bar closures in April, the country would have beaten back the virus by the summer and in doing so saved at least 130k lives, probably many more.

The fact is, Trump had advance knowledge of how deadly and contagious the disease was very early but consistently downplayed it and therein made it far worse than it should have been. Opportunities to turn it around have been repeatedly squandered.

Trump and his supporters are reticent that he did everything he could to control the virus. Let’s look at that closely.

There’s the “Trump closed down China” claim.

Before there were more than five cases in the United States, all people who had returned from China, President Donald Trump did what no other American president had ever done, and that was that he suspended all travel from China. (Mike Pence October 7, 2020)

Yes, Trump implemented travel restrictions from China on February 2, 2020; very early in the outbreak before it was clear to the rest of us that the epidemic was turning into a pandemic. But note that the restrictions were applicable to “all aliens who were physically present within the People’s Republic of China” and did not apply restrictions on returning U.S. citizens. In fact, after that restriction was put in place 279 flights from China had arrived to the U.S. as of April 4, 2020 representing around between 125k and 150k passengers. Those arrivals were subject to inconsistent screening. Much of it relying on simply answering questions; given the public knowledge at the time, people were unlikely to answer with honest disclosure if they thought they could avoid quarantine. In retrospect, much of the early outbreak in the New York area are thought to have originated in Europe, so “the China ban” was at best only partially effective.

The Trump administration deserves credit for the Operation Warp Speed effort that has facilitated unprecedented research and development. The ramp up of ventilator production was also laudable. However, given how mired the COVID-19 response was in denial and downplaying, it’s difficult to grant any credit. A week before the election, the United States is suffering multiple 9/11’s worth of COVID-19 deaths every week. It’s been clear going back to April. Much of the death and economic destruction that the country has suffered would have been unnecessary if Donald Trump had been a leader for this moment. But that’s just not who he is.