Imagine you get on an airplane and the pilot announces: “Folks, we have two faulty engines. But we know you’re eager to get to your destination. So we’re going to take off and try to fix the engines in flight. We figure the risk of a crash is worth it, because we don’t want you to get bored waiting at the airport.”
If you were a passenger, you would be terrified. That is exactly how I feel as an American when I hear President Trump say he wants the country “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” i.e., April 12. The president has done many foolish and ill-advised things. But until now he has mainly been a threat to our liberties. Now he is threatening our lives. Nothing that Trump has done to date will be remotely as destructive as trying to reopen the economy while a pandemic continues to rage out of control. He is going to spike the curve, rather than flatten it.
The United States is about to overtake Italy as the country with the largest number of active coronavirus cases. As of Tuesday, we had more than 50,000 confirmed cases (the actual number is far higher) and about 700 deaths. The number of infected people continues to double every three days, meaning we will have more than 100,000 cases by Friday. Yet what Trump is hearing from the right-wing echo chamber — and now translating into policy — is that the cure is worse than the disease. As Fox News host Laura Ingraham tweeted: “A global recession would be worse for our people than the Great Depression.”
To revive the economy, some on the “pro-life” right are shockingly explicit in their willingness to sacrifice the lives of the aged and infirm. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said on Fox News that senior citizens should be “willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren.”
This is like something out of a dystopian science fiction movie (“Logan’s Run,” to be exact): kill our elders so that our children may enjoy a better life. I want to scream: You are not going to sacrifice my older friends and relatives on the altar of the Dow Jones industrial average! But leave aside the profound immorality of this very concept; it is also inherently impractical.
In the first place, the risk is not confined to older Americans. A report last week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 38 percent of Americans hospitalized for the coronavirus were between the ages of 20 and 54, and 12 percent of those in intensive care were between 20 and 44. Reopening schools and workplaces now, or even a couple of weeks from now, risks a massive tragedy for young and old alike.
Right-wingers take refuge in the dubious claim that the coronavirus mortality rate is “only” 1 percent and claim, as Trump did on Monday, that traffic accidents are more deadly. Not quite. There were 36,600 fatalities on U.S. roads in 2018. A study from Imperial College, London, which helped convince Trump to institute his social distancing plan on March 16, predicted that, if left unchecked, covid-19 could kill 2.2 million Americans. The study’s authors concluded that strict social distancing, along with identifying and quarantining the infected, would be necessary to substantially reduce the toll.
That is why India and the Britain, both run by Trump’s fellow right-wing populists, have just mandated national lockdowns. The United States has not gone nearly that far even though epidemiologists say it’s imperative to implement a national shutdown for at least 14 days. Roughly half of our population has been told to stay home — and even those orders have not been strictly enforced.
To urge people to go back to school and work by mid-April, as Trump wants to do, would be to risk not only a human tragedy but an economic one as well. The economy cannot function while the medical system is overwhelmed.
In fact, it’s highly doubtful that most governors will lift their shutdown orders or that most people will be willing to return to crowded workplaces, restaurants or theaters while the health risk is so high. As Bill Gates said, “It’s very tough to say to people, ‘Hey, keep going to restaurants, go buy new houses, ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner.’”
But Trump doesn’t care. He is doing what he does best: shifting the blame. As he said: “I don’t take responsibility at all.” By calling for the economy to reopen, Trump will put the onus on governors, mayors and CEO’s to keep it shut. That way he can seek reelection by saying the recession isn’t his fault.
But in the process Trump will risk the lives not just of those credulous enough to believe his pronouncements — such as the Phoenix man who died after taking chloroquine phosphate, which Trump has touted as a miracle cure for the coronavirus — but of the whole population. It will be much harder to enforce even statewide lockdowns if the president is saying it’s safe to go back to work. Perhaps there has been a more irresponsible presidential decision in U.S. history, but I’m not sure what it is.