Diary from Trumpland

COVID-19 hits White House but Trump causes anxiety with his uncontrolled adventurism

Print edition : November 06, 2020

President Donald Trump at the campaign rally held on the South Lawn of the White House on October 10. Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times

White House physician Dr Sean Conley giving the media an update on Trump’s condition, at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre in Maryland on October 5. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP

Trump pulling off his face mask when he returned to the White House on October 5 after a three-day stay at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre. Photo: Erin Scott/REUTERS

President Donald Trump contracts and seemingly recovers from COVID-19, but this experience does not stop him from playing down the severity of the disease for his fellow citizens, most of whom do not have access to the treatment he had, or disregarding the protocols of his public health officials.

On October 2, the White House admitted that United States President Donald Trump, and his wife, Melania, had contracted COVID-19. The news came from a tweet that Trump sent in the middle of the night. In the morning, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that Trump faced only mild symptoms. By the afternoon of that day, Trump was taken to the hospital, although there was no transfer of power to Vice President Mike Pence. After some chaos surrounding the announcements of his doctors, it was said that he was given a polyclonal antibody cocktail. "As of this afternoon, the President remains fatigued but in good spirits," the White House physician Dr Sean Conley said. Trump joined over seven million U.S. residents who had tested positive for COVID-19; by then, over 210,000 U.S. residents had died from the disease.

Days after Trump went to hospital, an internal government memorandum showed that at least 34 people who work in the White House had tested positive for COVID-19. People who work closely with Trump had the disease as did other officials who had been alongside Trump during his busy schedule of campaign stops, announcements for the Supreme Court replacement and the debate with Joe Biden, the Democratic hopeful. Many of Trump’s staff have refused to wear masks in a stubborn gesture of disbelief in the virulence of the virus. At the September 29 debate with Biden, Trump said: “I don’t wear masks like him. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from it, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve seen.” The braggadocio got the better of Trump as the virus sneaked in and infected his body. A mask might have helped him.

On October 5, three days after he was admitted to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre, in a bold move, Trump walked out of the hospital and returned to the White House. In a dramatic gesture, he ripped off his mask and said, “Don’t be afraid of it”, meaning the virus, and that he—a man who is 74 and obese—is feeling “better than 20 years ago”. From the White House, he released a video in which he said, again brashly: “We’re going back to work.” These statements of disregard for the virus and the need to return to work go against the medical community’s warnings that the coronavirus spreads easily and that the chain of infection can be broken by taking simple precautions. It is this advice that Trump has tossed aside; the dramatic announcement of his infection and his return to the White House were used as photo opportunities for his re-election campaign. This was not an opportunity to educate the public on the severity of the infection, but it was a good way for Trump to do what he has done since he decided to run for President: campaign.

Also read: COVID-19 in the U.S. | Corona in Trumpland

Courage rather than regret defined his attitude. It is important to remember that China informed the U.S. about the new virus in late December 2019, that the first known U.S. case was identified on January 20, and that the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a public health emergency on January 30. Trump, meanwhile, continued to say that the U.S. had the virus under control, “totally under control” he told CNBC news on January 22 and “well under control” he said at a speech in Michigan on January 30. In early February, Trump told the journalist Bob Woodward that he felt that the virus was “deadly stuff”; this was not what Trump was saying in public, and Woodward, recklessly, did not disclose what Trump said to him until his book was released in September. Mirroring what the WHO said at that time, Trump told Woodward: “It goes through the air…. You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And, so that’s a very tricky one…. It’s more deadly than your, you know, your, even your flus.” In public, Trump said the opposite; on 26 February, for instance, at a White House coronavirus task force briefing, he said: “But that’s a little bit like the flu. It’s a little like the flu that we have flu shots for.” But this is little like the flu.

The WHO announced a pandemic on March 11, and on March 15, Trump admitted at a White House coronavirus task force briefing: “This is very contagious—this is a very contagious virus. It’s incredible. But it’s something that we have tremendous control over.” During that 24-hour period, 702 COVID-19 cases were reported in the U.S.; on April 4, 35,099 cases were reported in the U.S. The day after this spike, Trump said at the task force press briefing: “We’re starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.” In fact, the daily number would rise to the alarming level of 75,682 on July 16. By contrast, China’s total number of COVID-19 cases is 85,557.

Failure of U.S. public health system

Almost nothing was done to manage the spread of the virus from January to July, a period characterised by Trump’s reckless statements about masks and hand sanitisers and by the failure of an already anaemic U.S. public health system to keep track of cases and their spread. Rather than develop a plan to break the chain of infection, Trump and his team continued to spread malicious stories about China’s role in the propagation of the virus. On July 20, Trump tweeted: “We are united in our effort to defeat the Invisible China Virus.” The U.S. government response to COVID-19 seemed more firmly linked to its hybrid war against China than to the global effort, led by the WHO, to quell the virus. In early June, Trump went to war against the WHO, blaming it, and the Chinese government, for bringing forth the virus. Just when all efforts should have been made to create a global strategy, the U.S. government decided to threaten the WHO’s funding and began to malign the organisation’s global leadership against the pandemic.

Also read: Diary from Trumpland | U.S.' China obsession

Denigration of basic information, a pattern of the Trump presidency, defined the days after the announcement that Trump had tested positive for COVID-19. His doctors would not say when he was last tested, which means it was not clear whether he was infectious at a rally in Minneapolis on September 30 and at a fundraiser in New Jersey on October 1. There was no announcement that those who had been around him had been traced and tested, no confirmation that the government was taking the spread of the virus seriously even in this case. On October 7, Trump made a video in which he spoke of the illness and his “recovery” as a “blessing from God”, with no scientific sense that he would likely still be contagious and, because of his comorbidity factors, would still be in danger from the virus. Being under the influence of a strong steroid, such as dexamethasone, would impact his body and his mind, but Trump disregarded this in his reckless commentary. His falsehoods went to such an extent that Twitter announced it would stop retweets of misleading content from U.S. politicians, which everyone knows to mean Trump himself.

On October 8, Trump held a rally on the White House lawn. He had been itching to return to the campaign trail earlier, and so this was the compromise. He ripped off his mask again and made terribly disparaging remarks about Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris. In this appearance and during an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News, Trump appeared to gasp for air. This led to speculation that he had not recovered completely from the virus. But he is simply not willing to slow down or follow the protocols of his public health officials. I’m back because I am a perfect physical specimen,” he said in alarming language on Fox News. Even with regard to his own treatment, Trump played fast and loose with the facts. In the video message on October 7, Trump said that he was healed by Regeneron, which is in fact not the name of a drug but of the biotech company that makes the polyclonal antibody cocktail he took. Regeneron rallied in the stock market, but the company itself hastened to say that its drug was experimental and would not be able to treat more than a few hundred thousand patients by the end of 2020. It is only able to have 50,000 doses of the antibody now. This is the number of people that test positive every day, so the drug is not going to be available to everyone; Trump said that everyone afflicted with COVID-19 should get it. What might have helped Trump is simply not available to the general public. Whether it actually healed him will be clear in the weeks ahead.

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