The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Amid the worst of the pandemic, our mad king rages only about himself

President Trump during a round of golf in Sterling, Va., on Sunday. (Al Drago/For The Washington Post)

This is becoming like Greek tragedy. The nation is on fire with covid-19, cases and hospitalizations are soaring to unthinkable new highs, and our leader does nothing but rage and moan about his own punishment at the hands of cruel fate.

If it is true that “those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad,” then President Trump is finishing his shambolic term in office as Mad King Donald. Cumulative U.S. covid infections leaped from 10 million to 11 million in just six days, signifying uncontrolled spread. Hospitals are crowded with nearly 70,000 covid-19 patients — more than ever before — and medical systems, especially in the Great Plains and the Mountain West, are wavering under unbearable strain. The morgue in El Paso is so overwhelmed with bodies that inmates at the county jail there are being pressed into service as helpers, pending arrival of the National Guard. Yet Trump spent Monday morning on Twitter, pitifully howling “I won the Election!” about a contest he clearly and decisively lost.

We have reached the point in the pandemic that epidemiologists warned about months ago. They begged Trump to do everything he could to push infection rates as low as possible before autumn arrived and cooler temperatures forced people indoors, where the virus is transmitted much more easily.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Rather than heed the scientists, Trump listened only to the sirens of his own vanity and ambition. He marginalized the experts of his coronavirus task force, declining even to meet with them for the past several months. Instead, he found faux experts whose advice was more to his liking, chief among them Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist — not trained or experienced in fighting epidemics — who on Sunday called on the people of Michigan to “rise up” against a three-week curb on social gatherings announced by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D).

Trump wanted the economy up and running, with everything back to the way it was, in time for the election. His insistent pushing toward this unrealistic goal disastrously turned the adoption of sensible public health measures into a political wedge issue. Republican governors who wanted to remain in Trump’s favor had to accept his framing of the issue: Restrictions were bad, “freedom” was good. Those governors’ constituents are now paying a terrible price.

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A responsible president would have used his megaphone to urge all Americans to wear masks and practice social distancing; would have understood and explained how full cooperation with burdensome shutdowns earlier in the year could allow some institutions, including schools, to return to more normal functioning in the fall; and would have valued patience and resolve over instant gratification.

Moderna announced on Nov. 16 that a preliminary analysis showed its experimental vaccine was nearly 95% effective in preventing the novel coronavirus. (Video: Reuters)

And a president who was compos mentis never would have made the nonsensical claim that the United States had more covid-19 cases than other countries only because we did more testing. Rather, a president grounded in reality would have insisted on a vastly expanded, nationwide testing program as a way to hasten our safe return to offices, stores and restaurants.

The Trump administration did one thing right by pushing hard for rapid development of vaccines. Two drug companies — Pfizer and Moderna — have announced highly encouraging results from formal trials, and the federal government’s commitment to purchase millions of doses means these vaccines, assuming they are proved to be safe, will be available in record time.

But Moncef Slaoui, co-chair of Trump’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine effort, said Monday that, under a best-case scenario, roughly 20 million doses of the two vaccines will be available per month, beginning in December. And initially they will go only to high-risk groups. There are 330 million Americans, meaning that most of us may remain vulnerable to covid-19 for some time.

The United States is once again averaging more than 1,000 deaths a day. A smaller percentage of covid-19 sufferers perish now than did back in the spring — doctors and nurses know much more about how to treat severely ill patients — but this remains a deadly disease. If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who works at your local hospital. They’ll tell you.

President-elect Joe Biden has no magic wand to make covid-19 go away. But he does understand that no attempt to return to normal life can succeed unless we first get the virus under control, and that controlling covid requires following the advice of public health professionals.

At the moment, however, there is nothing Biden can do. The Mad King, clinging to the fiction that he has not been deposed, will not even allow federal officials to begin sharing data with Biden’s incoming coronavirus team. The theme of his failed reelection campaign should have been “Make America Sick Again.”

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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