The long Memorial Day weekend gave the pandemic an indelible visual image: President Trump, wearing a ball cap but no mask, enjoying himself on his Northern Virginia golf course. Last week, you will recall, Trump declared it was “essential” that Americans be able to spend Sunday at church services. He chose to head for the links instead.
Primary blame for those 100,000 deaths must go to the killer itself — the novel coronavirus that spreads so easily, overwhelms defenseless immune systems and turned New York hospitals into charnel houses. But not all of covid-19’s victims had to die. Some responsibility must be laid at the feet of a president who ignored the threat until it was too late, who failed to mount an adequate response and who still, after so many lonely deaths and socially distanced funerals, insists that the enemy will somehow just magically disappear.
Would lives have been saved if a more compassionate, less narcissistic leader had been at the helm? Obviously, we’ll never know with certainty. But it’s hard to imagine any other president, at least in my lifetime, avidly promoting the use of a drug, hydroxychloroquine, that studies suggest does more harm than good to those seriously ill with covid-19. It is hard to imagine any other president issuing guidelines for states to reopen their economies, then hectoring governors to ignore those very guidelines and reopen anyway. It is hard to imagine any other president stubbornly refusing to model the behavior his medical experts recommend — wearing a mask in public — because he “didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.”
And it is hard to imagine any other president whose insatiable need for ego gratification forbids those medical experts from speaking plain truth. On “Fox News Sunday,” anchor Chris Wallace asked Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, whether Trump should wear a mask in public both for safety and to set an example. Her response should have been a simple “yes.” Instead, she felt compelled to offer an embarrassing word salad:
“I’m not with him every day and every moment, so I don’t know if he can maintain social distance,” she said. “I’ve asked everybody independently to really make sure that you’re wearing a mask if you can’t maintain the six feet. I’m assuming that in a majority of cases, he’s able to maintain that six-feet distance.”
He doesn’t even try, as Birx well knows and as Americans can readily see. By the simple act of wearing a mask, Trump could provide a valuable, lifesaving public service. He prefers to indulge his personal vanity.
It is shocking and unacceptable that the U.S. response to the pandemic, in terms of deaths per capita, has been among the least successful in the world. There’s nothing we can do about that now. The focus has to be on what happens next — and I fear that Trump is leading us past the 100,000 marker toward even more unnecessary suffering and death.
Clearly it is not tenable to keep the economy in its induced coma, with unemployment now at the highest level since the Great Depression. We must begin to reopen. But since the virus will not simply go away, since there is no cure or vaccine for covid-19, and since we have no protective herd immunity, going back to the old “normal” is not a reasonable option. We need to move gingerly toward a new normal that minimizes the toll: distancing, hand-washing, face masks, avoiding crowds, fewer handshakes and air-kisses and hugs, more of those awkward Zoom meetings we’ve learned to endure.
But the election is coming, Trump is in campaign mode, and the only political technique he has mastered is the driving of wedges. He has made it a political statement not to wear a mask or respect social distancing. According to polls, most Americans are willing to follow the advice of medical professionals. Enough may follow Trump’s lead, however, to guarantee that the rate of infection and death remains higher than it has to be.
The offense is not just that many of the 100,000 lost American lives might have been saved; it is also that more needless death is surely to come. Donald Trump stands indicted.