U.S.: Growing rate of disaffection

Despite a surging second wave of COVID-19 infections in several U.S. States, President Donald Trump claims that the crisis is being handled well. He is hoping that the infection rate will become stable long before election day in November. But if the rate goes up, it is likely that Trump will dig deeper into the cultural wars and provoke more divisions.

Published : Jul 06, 2020 16:06 IST

President Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20.

President Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20.

THE COVID-19 pandemic seems never-ending in the United States, where a burst of cases from Florida to California threatens to send the numbers of infected well over the three million mark. Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is the point person for the fight against COVID-19 in the U.S., said that he would “not be surprised” if the U.S. saw 100,000 new cases every day. Florida, a new epicentre, saw 11,458 cases on one day in early July, and it is expected that more people might die of the disease in Florida than in China. Dan Gelber, Mayor of the city of Miami Beach in Florida, told FOX News: “‘We have a very serious health care issue. We have over 1,400 people in our hospitals right now. Our intensive care is increasing. Our people on vents is increasing. We can’t just ignore that.” Florida’s authorities said that by early July 90 per cent of ventilators were used; there was simply no surplus capacity as the number of those infected continued to increase.

President Donald Trump has not taken the coronavirus seriously right from the time when he was first informed about it in January. He has consistently underplayed its severity, suggesting at each turn that the U.S. is doing better at containing the virus than anyone else. Such claims are evidence free, but Trump and his associates constantly repeat them. He has oscillated between blaming China for the virus and saying that the numbers are high in the U.S. because of high rates of testing; neither of these claims are true. As each day’s infection totals outdid the previous one in early July (all above 50,000), Trump bragged that the unemployment numbers had fallen, saying that this “proves that our economy is roaring back”. “The crisis is being handled,” he said. “Some areas that were very hard hit are now doing very well.” “Some were doing very well,” he said regarding the disease, “and we thought they may be gone, and they flare up, and we’re putting out the fires.”

The out-of-control areas in the U.S. are mainly the Republican-controlled States of Arizona, Florida and Texas. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, a close ally of Trump, has made it a priority to reopen the economy despite the challenges the spread of the disease have thrown up. DeSantis, like other Republican Governors, has made light of the guidelines of the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. These Governors made light of the virus and did not mandate an effective lockdown in the first place, which is why a new wave has broken out. It is this second wave of infections that has startled some of the Republican Governors, such as in Arizona and Texas, and they have now mandated the use of masks and urged people not to flout the basic rules of physical distancing. Although early cases seemed to be most dangerous for people over 60, the new wave of cases has struck younger people who, even when they recover, will suffer serious ailments for the remainder of their lives.

No antidote is available. Claims about herd immunity cannot be sustained as nowhere near 70 per cent to 90 per cent of the population has been infected (and such a high infection rate would mean overrun hospitals and many fatalities); furthermore, it is not clear that herd immunity would work because it is not clear whether the antibodies generated by the infection protect one from reinfection. Nor is there any sign of a vaccine any time soon. This means that the basic protocols of physical distancing will have to remain in effect for several months. As economic activity resumes, it will become imperative to take physical distancing measures seriously; only now, months into the pandemic, are political leaders in the U.S. accepting them. Only 17 of the 50 States mandate the use of masks in public, and Trump refuses to wear one on a regular basis (Vice President Mike Pence, who used to scoff at masks, is now regularly seen with one). A study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (University of Washington) says that if 95 per cent of the people in the U.S. wore face masks in public, 33,000 deaths could be prevented between now and October 1.

Elections and the economy

For Trump, his re-election prospects guide every action. He seizes upon any sign of buoyancy in the stock market or in the job market as a vote of confidence. The virus has dampened his enthusiasm, drawn him into political depression. His lack of understanding of the basic science is not relevant here; what motivates him is his understanding of the U.S. electorate and of how best to channel the crucial sections he needs into his corner. Standing for the idea of “freedom” is attractive to the demographic sections that Trump will require to win in November. “Don’t tread on me” is their libertarian slogan, which means in this case that they will not want to follow any government advice on social behaviour (including the use of masks). Across the country, such people have said that wearing a mask is a violation of their constitutional right to be free and that they are not to be muzzled like a dog; this is the kind of sentiment that Trump has galvanised into what is effectively a campaign slogan.

Economic indicators are mixed, but Trump is selective in his twitter feed; he exaggerates anything that shows that the U.S. economy is bouncing back. This amplifies the genuine sensibility in the country for a reopening; the modest cash transfer from the government is simply not near as good as the wages that millions of workers have lost. Rather than make a claim for a large cash transfer, Trump suggests salvation can be found through the end of the lockdown. This is at the heart of his impatience, the knowledge that if suffering continues to increase, he might not get re-elected.

Uninspiring candidate

Thus far, Trump’s lead over his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, is slim. Biden, a singularly uninspiring candidate, has nonetheless benefited in the polls from the suffering induced by the pandemic and by Trump’s incompetent leadership in this period. But there is still time, and Biden’s difficulties will only increase. His lukewarm response to the protests against the symbols of enslavement and the Confederacy show that he is at a great remove from the social movements of the times; his near absence from the conversation about COVID-19 leaves the field open to Trump’s incredible statements. In early July, however, Biden surfaced with a strong speech against Trump. “You know the steps you’ve taken so far haven’t gotten the job done,” Biden said. “Fix the shortage of PPE [personal protective equipment] for our health care workers before you tee off another round of golf.” But such jibes are not a daily feature, leaving Trump room to dance around with his own misleading statements. There is no effective challenge to Trump from the Democratic Party, which might defeat him in November because of his own startlingly poor leadership.

Typical of Trump, he oscillates between the sunshine of a recovering economy and the darkness of his cultural message. Rather than address the issue of the wave of police violence over the past several years, Trump has suggested, gloomily, that U.S. culture is under threat from liberalism and anarchism. This was the message of his Make America Great Again slogan. He returns to that theme, pointing fingers at those who have been bringing down statues of racists and accusing the activists of being against the traditions of the U.S. This is the sum total of Trump’s message: open up the economy, close down culture. He hopes that the infection rate will become stable long before the U.S. citizenry casts its votes. But if the rate goes up, it is likely that Trump will dig deeper into the cultural wars and provoke more divisions in a country that is suffering from an unending pandemic.

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