It's been a week since President Trump publicly reversed months of insistence that the virus would peter out to advocate for broad distancing measures. It was a positive, important step that offered a chance to limit the number of both direct and indirect deaths, a step that Trump himself admitted was probably the best path to righting the stumbling economy.
“The best thing I can do for the stock market is we have to get through this crisis,” he said then. “That’s what I can do."
That resolve didn’t last long. During Monday’s briefing, Trump repeatedly made clear that he was eager for the distancing measures — and, by extension, the business closures and economic fallout — to end as soon as possible. He had originally proposed a 15-day period of distancing that was the start of a months-long fight against the virus. On Monday, he suggested that the United States might be ready to return to near-normal in a matter of days.
Repeatedly, he was pressed on the obvious question such a plan raises: Isn’t he then risking American lives?
“We have two very, very powerful alternatives that we have to take into consideration,” Trump said, later articulating them: “Life is fragile, and economies are fragile.”
He was cheered, he said, by the mortality rate of the virus being lower than what had been estimated. The World Health Organization once pegged the mortality rate at 3.4 percent, though Anthony S. Fauci, a key member of the president’s coronavirus task force, had more recently indicated that it was closer to 1 percent, about 10 times worse than the seasonal flu. (To date, The Washington Post has counted about 43,000 confirmed cases of covid-19 with 533 deaths, a mortality rate of 1.24 percent.)
Trump suggested the rate was actually lower still.
“The mortality rate is a big thing for me because I think we're very substantially under 1 percent now,” Trump said on Monday. “It's still terrible. It's still the whole thing. The whole concept of death is terrible. But there's a tremendous difference between something under 1 percent and 4 or 5 or even 3 percent. So that's something that we're learning now."
At multiple points Monday, Trump had directly downplayed the potential death toll from the coronavirus by comparing it to the flu.
“We have a very bad flu season on top of everything else,” he said. “It's very bad. It looks like it could be over 50,000. And certainly this is going to be bad. And we're trying to make it so that it's much, much less bad. And that's what we're doing."
Later, he sought to use another comparison to contextualize the number of covid-19 deaths.
“You look at automobile accidents, which are far greater than any numbers we're talking about,” he said. “That doesn't mean we're going to tell everybody no more driving of cars. So we have to do things to get our country open."
Fewer than 40,000 people die in car crashes each year. That’s fewer than the number of gun deaths, though Trump chose not to highlight that comparison.
On the surface, these comparisons seem fair. If 100 times as many people die of the flu — 50,000 vs. 530 — isn’t that the more significant threat? For a few reasons, the answer is no.
We can dispatch with the comparison to car crashes quickly. The problem with the coronavirus isn’t that we have 530 deaths now, it’s that the virus is on a trajectory that will lead to far more deaths down the road. If the number of car crashes was doubling every four days and if 1 percent of them resulted in a fatality, it’s safe to assume that the government would shut down roads until it could figure out how to slow the death toll.
The comparison to the flu fails for some different reasons. The flu emerges seasonally, but many people in the United States are resistant to spreading it either because they’ve received an inoculation or because they have existing antibodies against it. The challenge with the coronavirus is that it’s new — there is no vaccine, and no one has antibodies. It can spread easily without bumping up against people who won’t carry it. That leads to a much broader and faster expansion in the community. Couple that with a higher mortality rate, and things get exponentially worse: broader spread, more deadly. Throw in the strain on hospitals that even non-deadly covid-19 cases can impose, and we get another level at which people’s lives are at risk.
We can put this simply. If the flu is killing 50,000 people this year and the coronavirus is 10 times as deadly, even if the coronavirus spreads no further than the flu and even if hospitals aren’t overwhelmed with covid-19 cases, the death toll from the new virus would be 500,000 people.
That Trump used the obviously bad car-crash analogy reveals what he’s going for. For some time, he’s used the boogeyman of limiting cars to attack Democrats who support stronger measures to address climate change. He understands that cars are seen as a given by a lot of Americans and that, just as they’d shake their heads at the idea of replacing their cars with mass transit, they’d see nothing wrong with letting cars stay on the roads even though they obviously cause deaths.
What Trump is doing is rationalizing the decision he supports. He’s minimizing the risk posed by the virus by drawing unfair, shoddy comparisons to calm concerns about the threat the virus actually poses. He’s returning to his old position on the virus, in fact. On March 9, before he embraced forced social distancing, Trump tweeted the same comparison to the seasonal flu.
So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 9, 2020
Two weeks after he tweeted those figures, there are 79 times as many confirmed coronavirus cases and 24 times as many deaths.
As part of his effort to justify rescinding the closures that have slowed the economy (and which, we should note, have shuttered his personal businesses), Trump went a step further, arguing that the economic slowdown would itself prove deadly to many Americans.
“You’re talking about tremendous disruption economically,” he said. “You’re talking about massive depression, massive numbers of suicide. … What I’m talking about is people suffering massive depression because they had a fantastic job and now they have no idea, you know, what’s going on.”
He hastened to add that legislation in Congress would lessen that concern, which, of course, is the point of that legislation.
“But there's never been anything like this,” Trump added. “No, I'm talking about where people suffer massive depression, where people commit suicide, where tremendous death happens."
It’s obviously the case that people who are struggling economically might lapse into depression and harm themselves. Notice that Trump simply conjures up a vague sense of the scale at which they might happen: “tremendous death.” He’s asking Americans to consider whether that “tremendous death” is worth preventing a death toll that’s so far nowhere near the number of deaths from car crashes each year.
The answer experts would give, of course, is yes — both because the “tremendous death” is unquantified and because the pace at which covid-19 deaths are occurring is accelerating. About one-fifth of the deaths the virus has caused directly came in the 24 hours before Trump’s news briefing.
Given that older people are more likely to die from covid-19, Trump is essentially asking that the country allow tens of thousands of elderly people (at least) to die and that thousands more who are younger join them. (About 30 million people under the age of 60 suffer from conditions that put them at higher risk of dying of covid-19.) He’s asking that those lives be sacrificed in order not to cause too much damage to the economy.
That’s not our framing for what Trump is suggesting. That’s what Texas Lt. Gov Dan Patrick (R) said in backing Trump’s plan during an appearance on Fox News on Monday evening.
“I’m going to do everything I can to live. ... Our biggest gift we give to our country and our children and our grandchildren is the legacy of our country, and right now, that's at risk. ... I think we can get back to work,” Patrick said.— Felicia Sonmez (@feliciasonmez) March 24, 2020
By all outward appearances, that’s the plan Trump hopes to put into place.