This isn't really optimism, though. It's safer to describe it as a disinterest in addressing negative consequences over the long term. Trump fights no battle that lasts much beyond the following day's sunrise. One effect is to hype short-term victories which will obviously soon be shown to be hollow, like Trump's repeated predictions about how low the death toll from the pandemic would be.
So we get the administration's new approach to the pandemic, one which resembles the final moments of a climactic battle scene in an action movie. The protagonist, after fending off enemy after enemy, sees the finish line in sight. So he puts his shoulder down and makes a mad rush for perceived safety. In this case, the finish line is Election Day. In this case, the enemy is Americans who've died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
An unnamed government official summarized the administration's approach succinctly in an interview with NBC News: “The virus is with us, but we need to live with it."
For Trump, the ability to literally live in the midst of the pandemic is apparently the only metric worth evaluating. He made that point during his July 4 speech in Washington.
“There were no tests for a new virus,” Trump said, “but now we have tested almost 40 million people. By so doing, we show cases, 99 percent of which are totally harmless. Results that no other country can show because no other country has testing that we have, not in terms of the numbers or in terms of the quality."
That “99 percent” claim raised a lot of eyebrows, for some obvious reasons.
The first is that, taking it at face value, it means that 1 percent of cases will not be “totally harmless.” Assuming that Trump means that those 1 percent die, that means that 49,000 new infections each day — about the current rate — will lead to 490 more deaths. If the current rate of infections holds through Election Day, that means 60,000 more dead Americans.
But we can't take this at face value simply because it's obviously not the case that 99 percent of cases are “totally harmless."
Consider data from New York City, the place hardest hit by the virus so far. There, more than 213,000 cases have been confirmed through testing, with 55,170 people needing to be hospitalized. In other words, more than a quarter of those who’ve been infected have ended up in the hospital. If we assume that the number of confirmed cases in the city is only a tenth of the actual figure (as the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates might be the case nationally), that still means that 2.6 percent of those infected have had to be hospitalized. That’s lower than the estimate earlier in the pandemic that 20 percent of those infected would need to be hospitalized, but unless you think that being hospitalized counts as “totally harmless,” it undercuts Trump’s argument.
Particularly when considering the long-term effects of infection, even among those who didn't need to be hospitalized. Some patients report covid-like symptoms for weeks or months, affecting their ability to live their lives as normal. The novelty of the virus means that long-term effects are still being studied, but there are plenty of indicators that, even for those who avoided the most dire consequences of the disease, there has been nonzero harm.
What Trump may not realize is that his assumption that the virus is fatal for only 1 percent of those who contract it reveals one of the major missteps his administration made when it emerged. He says that there was no testing for the virus, given its new emergence. That’s not true, of course: Other countries — including China, where the virus originated — had tests to detect infection. The CDC had a test in January, but due to flaws in production, results were unusable. Trump likes to tout how many tests are being completed now, but the lack of testing early in the pandemic set the United States on its current course instead of the one followed by, say, South Korea.
Assuming that only 1 percent of cases are fatal means, using current numbers, that nearly 10 million cases went undetected. That’s only three times the confirmed total (in contrast to the CDC’s 10-times estimate), but it’s still a reflection of the incapability of the government to track the virus’s spread. Trump’s leveraging that failure to present a 1-in-100 chance of dying as good news.
This wasn't simply a one-off comment by Trump, either.
“The vast majority of people are safe from this,” White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said in defense of the president during an interview on Fox News on Monday morning. “When you look at the deaths that we have, if you’re over 80 years of age or if you have three, what they call co-morbidities — diabetes, hypertension, heart issues — then you need to be very, very careful. Outside of that, the risks are extremely low.”
The risk of death, that is. CDC data suggests that 93 percent of covid-related deaths occurred in people who had underlying conditions ranging from obesity to chronic respiratory issues to Alzheimer’s disease. One in five deaths occurred in someone under 65. It’s not clear whether there’s overlap between those groups: people under 65 who had no co-morbidities.
This data can lead to a sense of fatalism along the lines of, hey, these people were going to die anyway. That’s true only in the cosmic sense that every life ends. A study tracking covid-19 deaths found that those who succumbed to the illness would probably have lived another 11 years on average. In other words, the virus has wiped out about 1.4 million years of life in the U.S. alone. So far.
It also underplays that “co-morbidities” are common. Research from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than 100 million Americans have conditions that put them at elevated risk from the virus, including 29 million people under 60. Many of the youngest people, it’s safe to assume, may not even know that they are at elevated risk.
The alternative to accepting even a “low and steady” rate of deaths (as Trump described the 3,300 deaths that have occurred in the past week) is addressing the pandemic through additional closures and restrictions on movement. The sort of activity that helped push down new infections in April and May — and that Trump prematurely rejected in hopes that the virus was sufficiently contained that normal economic activity could resume. That push to get back to normal is a significant reason the pandemic is getting worse, not better.
But Trump, looking at Election Day, clearly thinks that the economic slowdown from containing the virus will hurt his reelection chances more than a “steady” rate of hundreds of daily deaths from elderly or at-risk people, a disproportionate number of whom are nonwhite. So he puts his shoulder down, picks day-to-day messaging battles that distract from the pandemic, and charges forward.
What he may not recognize is that the death toll may not stay steady — and that he’s farther from the finish line than it might seem.