Our family has been lucky so far. None of us has come down with COVID-19; maybe none of us will. Could be because we’re being careful, washing our hands regularly, resisting unnecessary errands and wearing masks when we do. It doesn’t hurt that most of us live in Kansas, where the deer and a few antelope still play and social distancing is easy. Elsewhere, a son and his wife live in Shanghai, and a brother and his family live in Germany.
My brothers and I, and our spouses, are more vulnerable to the coronavirus because of our ages (60s and 70s), and another brother and I are at greater risk because of other underlying medical conditions.
Our family’s good fortune aside, almost 100,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus so far, inflicting tragedy and grief far and wide, even in our city. That more haven’t died is a tribute to the medical care provided to people who’ve gotten infected and the medical guidance that has led to the preventive measures most of us take.
But the death toll being as high as it is isn’t just bad luck for other families. It’s a reflection of the abysmal political leadership at the national level, specifically President Donald Trump. He ignored a succession of early warnings from the intelligence community that he seems to despise, as well as from advisers who he does trust such as Peter Navarro, an economist. The president, after initially tolerating Dr. Anthony Fauci, the most credible figure on how to battle the virus, has now begun to tune him out. When Trump finally did react to the virus, he did so inconsistently and with contradictory messages.
At a press conference as the virus was making inroads into our population, he dismissed it as “a hoax.” Later, he said it would “magically disappear.” When asked about accountability, he said, “I don’t take responsibility for anything.” Notably, that’s one of the few times he’s told Americans the truth in discussing the virus.
Calling himself a “wartime president,” he announced that he would take absolute control of the battle against the virus. He retreated when he realized he might have to take the blame for things that might go wrong. So he sloughed the job off to the governors, who already were acting to protect citizens in the leadership vacuum Trump created.
His litany of scapegoats includes China (after praising that country’s response); the World Health Organization (WHO); and of course, U.S. governors, at least those who are Democrats. To shift the spotlight from the inadequate delivery of personal protection equipment to U.S. hospitals, he went so far as to suggest that medical personnel were either hoarding or selling PPE for personal gain. Whatever goes wrong is someone — anyone — else’s fault.
Trump has either ignored or mocked the medical advice that in other countries helped sharply curtail the pandemic’s spread. Against the advice of public health officials, he extolled the virtues of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria treatment, and made an utter fool of himself extolling the virtues of injecting household cleansers and shining intense beams of light into patients. Now, if he is to be believed, he’s taking hydroxychloroquine daily.
Though risky, that treatment shouldn’t be blamed for the mind warps that result in conspiracy theories with which Trump justifies his failures or attempts to transfer the public elsewhere. One example is his recent obsession with “Obamagate,” which he manufactured, possibly between late-night tweets or during one of his many idle mornings. He offers no details about Obamagate, instead saying everyone already knows. In reality, nobody knows.
Before COVID-19 emerged, much of the world assumed the United States would lead the international response to the next International crisis. That’s because for decades the United States has regularly done so, earning admiration in the process. But other nations’ trust in America has eroded over the years, and that trend has accelerated sharply under “America First” Trump.
Other nations, unable to rely on U.S. leadership or assistance, have struggled to cope with the virus. Some have been more successful than others. Unfortunately, some of what other nations have learned from the U.S. experience in recent months is to not follow our country’s lead.
President Trump boasts about the level of coronavirus testing in the United States. He has little reason to. Neither should he boast that our number of cases exceeds 1.5 million because of the testing. Those cases would exist regardless of the testing. Our caseload and death toll dwarf those of other nations at least in part because Trump tried to wish the virus away.
Worse, he still hasn’t fully confronted it. That, he believes, is other people’s responsibility.
Walt Braun retired in 2017 as the Mercury’s editorial page editor.