COVID-19: Trump epitomises everything a President should not be during a pandemic

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On January 20, both South Korea and the U.S. reported their first case of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Two months later, the U.S. has surpassed China and has the most number of cases in the world, while South Korea has largely contained the spread. President Donald Trump can now only hope that “one day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear”.

On January 20, both South Korea and the U.S. reported their first case of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Two months later, the ground situation is vastly different in the two countries. While the U.S. is grappling with the exponential increase, South Korea has largely contained the spread. On March 27, with 85,486 cases, U.S surpassed Spain (57,786) and even mainland China (81,786) to have the most number of cases in the world; Italy (80,589) too is very close behind China. Meanwhile, South Korea (9,241) has more than eight times fewer numbers than the U.S.

The availability of reliable testing kits in large numbers played a critical role for the striking difference in case loads in the two countries. While South Korea approved the first coronavirus test on February 7 when there just a few cases, the U.S. floundered. In early February, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) distributed about 1,60,000 tests to labs across the country. But only about 200 of CDC tests were used due to problems, essentially stalling testing in February.

The narrow criteria for testing suspect cases also made it extremely difficult to identify the silent spread of the virus in the community. It was only on February 27 that CDC expanded the criteria allowing doctors to test hospitalised patients with symptoms compatible with COVID-19 and other vulnerable populations.

When tests weren’t available and the testing criteria remained narrow, President Donald Trump did nothing to get the tests from WHO or allow companies to produce them. Instead he lulled people into believing that virus spread in the country was under check. Unfortunately, the top priority for Mr. Trump is not public health but the stock market and his re-election prospects. He epitomises everything that a President should not be, particularly during a pandemic.

On January 22 when the WHO was meeting to decide if the coronavirus outbreak was an international public health concern, in a television interview Mr. Trump emphatically said “We have it totally under control”. Three days later he tweeted the same message and repeated it even on March 15 when there were 3,000 cases in the U.S. On March 9, he tweeted saying the coronavirus “risk is low to the average American”.

To make matters worse, Mr. Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence, who made the Indiana HIV outbreak worse, to lead the coronavirus task force. Worse, government health officials and scientists have been gagged; they are required to seek Mr. Pence’s approval before speaking about coronavirus.

Mr. Trump has often waged a war on science. For a person who does not believe in evolution, who thinks global warming is a “total, and very expensive, hoax” and believes that vaccines cause autism, the pandemic suddenly made him fall in love with vaccines, much like last year during the peak of measles outbreak. He had apparently urged pharma companies to come up with a vaccine quickly saying “do me a favour, speed it up, speed it up”. In response, a strongly worded editorial in Science says: “Do us a favour, Mr. President. If you want something, start treating science and its principles with respect.”

So what does one do when the number of cases starts climbing? For Mr. Trump, it is simple — deflect blame by changing the narrative. First he called coronavirus as Democrat’s new hoax. Then he blamed China and referred to SARS-CoV-2 as China virus. When the term angered Chinese officials and others, he defended it saying, “It’s not racist at all. It comes from China, that’s why.”

On March 21, accusing China of being secretive he said he wished “China would have told us three to four months earlier”! But according to the Washington Post, intelligence agencies had sounded an alarm about the threat posed by coronavirus outbreak in China in January and February but the President continued to downplay the risk and failed to act.

He is well known for undermining experts, scientists, institutions and the media. But shutting down the National Security Council directorate at the White House tasked with preparing for a pandemic has come to bite him at a most crucial time. For now, he can only sincerely hope that “one day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear”.

Published in The Hindu on March 27, 2020