Faced with rising deaths from COVID-19, Donald Trump has identified the ultimate threat to America: social distancing.
Ever the religious sentimentalist, Trump claims that ending life-saving mitigation measures by Easter “would be a beautiful timeline.” As so often, our leader’s intellectual and moral vacuity is at once ominous and perverse. Forget that the resurrection was preceded by a crucifixion: Trump’s literally irreverent proposal to serve as our national Easter Bunny causes public health experts to shudder.
The consensus among them—beginning with Dr. Anthony Fauci—is that all nonessential public gathering places should be shuttered for many more weeks. Reports the New York Times: “None of the analyses… modeling the spread of the coronavirus in the United States suggest that there will be a resolution of the pandemic anywhere close to Easter. Dr. Fauci himself has said it was possible that the country would see a peak in the number of cases around May 1.”
Similarly, Dr. Peter Rabinowitz of the University of Washington predicts: “Things are going to get worse before they get better. This is no time be planning to relax the U.S. social distancing measures.”
The underlying medical reality is simple: We cannot discard mass social distancing until we have mass testing—as exemplified by the relative success of South Korea in managing the pandemic. And while the absolute number of tests being conducted in America is up, the rate of testing relative to the population is still woefully small. In South Korea they’re conducting 6,148 tests per million people; in the United States, the current number is 314.
Writing in Foreign Policy, Dr. Devi Sridhar lays out the five commonsense reasons why testing is essential:
- It encourages those who test positive to self–isolate
- It enables public officials to break the chains of transmission by locating the virus and those who may have been exposed
- It helps authorities properly allocate resources and personnel
- It identifies hotspots where the spread is most severe
- It allows experts to model the scope and course of the pandemic
Without testing, America will resemble the parable of the blind man who tried to divine the nature of the elephant by feeling its tail.
Yet Trump proposes that preventive strictures currently slowing the pandemic while America plays catch-up on testing are, well, un-American: “Our people are full of vim and vigor and energy. They don’t want to be locked into a house or apartment or some space. It’s not for our country, and we are not built that way.”
This from the president who, according to the Washington Post, dismissed increasingly grave warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies about the danger posed by the coronavirus. Confronted with these reports, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley resorted to hyperbole, misdirection, and whitewashing Trump’s neglect—while larding partisan bile with a generous helping of McCarthyism:
President Trump has taken historic, aggressive measures to protect the health, wealth and safety of the American people—and did so, while the media and Democrats chose only focus on the stupid politics of a sham illegitimate impeachment. It’s more than disgusting, despicable, and disgraceful for cowardly unnamed sources to attempt to rewrite history—it’s a clear threat to this great country.
The unvarnished truth, which Trump barely denies, is that the president subordinated any concern for the lives of others to fears that a stalled economy will doom his reelection campaign.
A more humane and foresighted man might consider that a premature cessation of social distancing might decimate millions of Americans and crater the economy beyond reckoning. But Trump is a creature of the here and now—and, of course, the me.
One can already see the resulting rends in America’s shared understanding of this crisis—damage which Trump aggravates daily and which our fraying social fabric can ill afford. Polling consistently shows a stark partisan split over the virus: its seriousness; its threat to life and health, and its impact on the country writ large.
This unhealthy schism is deepened by an epidemiologically-inevitable geographic divide which will result from the spread of the virus itself. The case-tracking website maintained by Johns Hopkins shows that the four states with the greatest number of confirmed infections are largely Democratic: New York, Washington, California, and New Jersey. The next tier includes both red and blue states with at least one large city which attracts trade and tourism—and, therefore, whatever ills visitors may bring. Unsurprisingly, the states with the fewest number of confirmed cases are the most rural, underpopulated, and isolated from the stream of commerce—and all are heavily Republican.
These divisions could diminish our national willingness to accept what public health officials strongly believe will save lives—and, by extension, the economic life of our country. Perhaps as the virus spreads, so will a collective sobering which brings us closer together.
But by then Trump may have exploited these fissures in doing his worst—thereby inflicting terrible and unnecessary damage on the country he swore an oath to protect.
For all of us, including those for whom the holiday is sacred, to resurrect a pandemic for Easter would combine a grotesque sacrilege with unspeakable tragedy.