Jonathan P. Baird: How the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic failed

For the Monitor
Published: 10/11/2020 6:20:17 AM

For many months President Donald Trump has downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic. Not long ago, he said the virus “affects virtually nobody.”

What a difference a week makes. He has said “the end of the pandemic is in sight.” It is “right around the corner.” The virus “will simply disappear.” All this was before his personal experience with the virus upended those assertions.

Trump has minimized the need for health measures like masks and social distancing. Only very occasionally did he ever wear a mask, and he openly mocked people who wore them. At the presidential debate, playing Mr. Macho, he mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask.

For Trump supporters, wearing a mask was seen as anti-Trump. Not wearing a mask was a point of pride. Trump rallies have featured large packed crowds where no one social distances or wears masks. The stupidity of politicizing a public health measure like mask wearing remains underappreciated by at least a swath of the public.

Trump provoked a national movement against mask mandates. The internet is full of videos of people not wanting to wear masks in stores. Trump’s anti-mask attitude has endangered his own staff, who have been strongly discouraged from masking. He treats masks like they are a sign of weakness.

In the context of a pandemic, treating the need for masks as an individualist civil libertarian issue is perverted. What about the idea of sacrifice for the common good? Can we as Americans still transcend the private interest for the good of all?

Republicans have repeatedly appeared at political events without wearing masks. Most recently, witness the Amy Coney Barrett superspreader White House event. Back in March the CDC had told the White House and everyone that the routine wearing of masks reduced spread of the virus, but Republicans have not paid heed.

Rather than listening to genuine experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, Trump relies on unqualified medical sources like Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist with no background in infectious diseases. Dr. Atlas has downplayed the importance of masks. He has also argued for less testing and for an outlier theory of herd immunity. NBC News reported that Dr Robert Redfield, the CDC director, was overheard on a commercial plane flight talking about Dr. Atlas, saying, “Everything he says is false.”

For Trump, re-election has been the top priority and he has demanded that states reopen too quickly. Trump has believed that restarting the economy boosts his re-election possibilities. Of course, he is not alone in trying to minimize and disappear the pandemic. Many Republican governors, like Rick DeSantis and Greg Abbott, have followed his lead.

Trump has hawked hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, as a miracle cure for coronavirus. He also suggested injecting disinfectant. By all reports, contrary to his drug advocacy, he is not taking hydroxychloquine now. He is taking remdesivir.

Regarding the coronavirus, Trump has engaged in magical thinking. Science and public health have been set aside in favor of spin and quack cures. Trump has acted like he was some kind of Superman not subject to mere viruses. But then, he got the virus. Superman is now Clark Kent.

Part of the magical thinking was the fantasy that the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic has been effective. Trump gives himself very high grades for pandemic response even though we now have almost 210,000 deaths, and deaths and infections are spiking up. It is estimated there will be 300,000 deaths in America by the end of the year. This staggering death toll is a catastrophe of the first order.

The United States has 4% of the world’s population and 22% of the COVID-19 deaths. Spinning this record as anything but an unmitigated disaster takes chutzpah.

Unlike countries such as Germany, South Korea, and New Zealand, countries that all took masking and social distancing seriously, the United States has failed to implement national policy based on public health principles. Left in the dark, states compete and go their own way with no uniformity.

In being asked about the pandemic, a Vanderbilt University Medical Center doctor, Dr William Schaffner, has said, “The U.S. response – I exaggerate not – is a textbook example of how to do it wrong.”

Compared to European countries, Japan, and South Korea, the United States matches up poorly on the pandemic. Those countries all took science and public health seriously. As a result, they have suffered far fewer casualties and they have been able to get back to something close to normal faster.

What would it mean to listen to science now? We would stop pretending COVID-19 is a minor threat that is under control. We would take masking and social distancing seriously as a mandated universal national policy. We would not reopen restaurants and bars before it is safe.

As has been pointed out, if we had taken the threat of COVID-19 seriously and we had a national policy mandating masks and promoting social distancing, thousands of those Americans who died from the virus would be alive now.

There are deeper reasons for our terribly flawed pandemic response: inaction by Trump in the early months, mixed messaging, relying on the private rather than the public sector, and the spread of misinformation about the virus.

Cornell University researchers released a study analyzing 38 million articles about the pandemic in English language media around the world and they found “Trump made up nearly 38% of the overall ‘misinformation conversation,’ making the president the largest driver of the ‘infodemic’ – falsehoods involving the pandemic.”

It did not have to be this way. It would be progress if we recognized, contrary to Trump’s arguments, that the end of the pandemic is not right around the corner. Happy talk is lies.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at


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