English literature has a long tradition of cruel or feckless characters who become gravely ill near the end of a book and either repent on their deathbed or survive to reform themselves thoroughly. On Oct. 2, the day President Trump went into the hospital for treatment of covid-19, Baylor University English professor Alan Jacobs offered the example of wayward heir Tom Bertram’s reform in Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” and suggested, “That’s what we should most hope when we hear that a thoughtless, unreflective, self-centered person has contracted a serious illness: that he learns to think; that he experiences self-reproach; that he emerges from the illness steadier, quieter, and more useful to others.”
I certainly hope all those things for our president. In the meantime, however, Trump is doubling down on his bad, old ways.
He spent Monday suggesting we don’t need to be afraid of covid-19. On Tuesday morning, he even brought back a golden oldie from March, coronavirus-is-just-like-the-flu. “Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu. Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!”
We could count the ways that this is wrong, and that the president of the United States, who has the best medical experts in the world at his command, ought to know better:
First, going back to 2010, none of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s flu estimates exceed 100,000 deaths; in the worst year, 2017-2018, an estimated 61,000 people died from influenza. This is less than a third of the number of Americans known to have already died of covid-19.
Second, the CDC’s flu estimates cannot be directly compared to America’s covid-19 deaths, because they are just that — estimates. Reported covid-19 deaths are actual counts of people who tested positive for the novel coronavirus and then shortly thereafter died from one of its known complications. Are a few of those deaths mislabeled — as some conservatives like to say “with covid but not of covid”? Undoubtedly; no statistic is perfect. And unfortunately, we don’t collect comprehensive data on influenza deaths. But if we did, virtually every expert agrees that, in apples-to-apples comparison, covid-19 would be many times deadlier than the flu. Moreover, covid-19 is more contagious, because no one’s had it. And, of course, there is no vaccine. So the fact that we live with seasonal flu epidemics every year without taking many precautions is pretty irrelevant to the question of how we should adapt to a pandemic that is at once deadlier and more infectious than influenza.
Third: We got lucky, in a small way, last year — the coronavirus pandemic hit at the tail end of flu season. This fall, we’ll have both at once. If we all follow the president’s lead and refuse to take any precautions, overwhelmed hospitals might buckle, sending death rates for both diseases even higher.
Thus, fourth: It’s more important than ever this year to do everything we can to prevent the flu from spreading. Yet the president didn’t even use his tweet to suggest that Americans get their flu shot to help keep themselves, their fellow Americans and especially our health-care workers safe during the risky days ahead.
All in the White House is as it ever was, only more so. Trump recklessly exposed himself and others to a deadly disease for no good reason except his own vanity — and when he got the disease himself, and was airlifted to a hospital so that an entire staff of doctors could labor to save him from his folly, all the experience taught him is that he could get away with it.
So he has doubled down, encouraging everyone else to do as he did — as if everyone who gets themselves infected at his urging will also be airlifted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, while regulators and biotech break land-speed records to provide cutting-edge experimental treatments on a compassionate-use exemption.
Trump’s will to ignore his own mistakes, to keep on with insanity while hoping for different results, is awesome in the oldest sense of the word. It is unfathomable. Witness the fact that he apparently still nurtures hopes of saving the economy, and his shriveling chances of reelection, with exactly the same strategy that failed in March: convincing Americans that covid-19 is just the flu.
I am a believer in redemption narratives. I believe in deathbed conversions, and reformed reprobates, and all forms of radical forgiveness. I truly believe that no one is beyond hope. And so I believe, as a matter of dogma, that Trump can be better than he has been so far.
But deep down, where such beliefs are suppose to reside, our president’s resolute commitment to wickedness is sorely testing my faith.