The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s covid-19 inaction killed Americans. Here’s a counter that shows how many.

By the time the president announced ‘new guidelines for every American to follow,’ the U.S. was already the world leader in its rate of coronavirus infection

President Trump looks at an assembly line machine manufacturing protective masks. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

The National Debt Clock hangs above New York City’s Avenue of the Americas as a persistent reminder of a clear message: The United States is recklessly living beyond its means, and this will have grave future consequences. In the same symbolic spirit, it is time for the establishment of a national “death clock” to measure the cost in human lives of President Trump and his team’s reckless handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Reports show that as early as January, the president was advised by both his own experts and the intelligence services of the need for urgent mitigation measures against the spread of the virus. Instead, he engaged in petty political feuds and Pollyannaish predictions minimizing its significance. Finally, on March 16, he reversed his previously dismissive stance and announced “new guidelines for every American to follow.”

But by then it was too late; The United States was already the world leader in its rate of covid-19 infection and has since become home to one-third of the world’s cases and five times as many as any other country.

Live updates: Trump admits reopening states may cost lives, as U.S. death toll surpasses 70,000

Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has stated that, had the guidelines been implemented earlier, a crucial period in the exponential spread of the virus would have been mitigated and American lives saved. Leading epidemiologists have put a finer point on this, estimating that 50 to 80 percent of covid-19 deaths in New York and approximately 90 percent of all American covid-19 deaths can now be attributed to the administration’s delay between March 2 and 16.

This suffering cannot be forgotten. As of today, tens of thousands of Americans have lost their lives as a consequence of the administration’s failure to act sooner, so it’s no wonder the president excoriates reporters who ask him why he waited so long to implement the guidelines. Trump’s fallback when he is under scrutiny is to deflect, attack, and distract. But will this work when his decisions have led to a loss of American lives? How will the President be held responsible?

It’s all in the branding, that stuff Trump himself does so well when he applies derisive nicknames to his rivals or attaches the name of a foreign power to a global pandemic. Accountability needs a brand, and the National Debt Clock is a helpful precedent. It demonstrates how to plant a symbolic flag in the numbers — one that can’t be knocked over by bluster or misleading campaign videos. This pandemic is ongoing, and the lives already unnecessarily lost demand we seek more responsible crisis leadership. Just as the names of fallen soldiers are etched on memorials to remind us of the cost of war, quantifying the lives lost to the president’s delayed coronavirus response would serve a vital public function.

Trump’s career is built on finding shortcuts. Against the virus, there are none.

Designing a death clock must be based on mathematical models. Trump and his defenders may wish to assign blame to other countries, individuals, and institutions. His detractors, on the other hand, may wish to assess the consequences of his statements, decisions, and actions earlier than March. But a death clock must not reflect conjecture and needs to exist outside the news cycle, identifying only that portion of deaths which, according to experts, have resulted directly from the president and his team’s delayed response.

Conservatively, according to epidemiologists, had the Trump administration simply implemented mitigation guidelines by March 9, approximately 60 percent of American covid-19 deaths could have been avoided.

To let the numbers speak for themselves, my team and I have constructed an online counter at, estimating the toll of the White House’s delayed response. The site displays both the number of people who have died in the country from covid-19 and an estimate of that portion whose lives would have been saved had the president and his administration acted just one week earlier.

What a powerful statement it would be if this clock could be displayed on billboards and projected on buildings in cities and small towns across America. This would begin to honor those who lost their lives and, in their memory, demand more responsive and responsible leadership.

Trump cites numbers like you wouldn’t believe. And probably shouldn’t.

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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