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America is in crisis. The richest and most powerful nation on earth, which boasts that its doctors and medical facilities are second to none worldwide, looks to be fighting a losing battle with Covid-19.
According to Dr Robert Redfield, head of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus “has brought this nation to its knees”. Without greater investment, alongside more widespread testing and tracking, health professionals faced an uphill struggle, he said, adding that in difficult circumstances “we’ve done the best we can.”
Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, who leads the official White House Coronavirus Task Force, told a Congressional hearing in Washington DC that, contrary to claims made by President Trump, the virus was not “fading” or “dying out”. On the contrary, surges in the rates of infection in a number of states, including Florida, Texas and Arizona, meant that the next couple of weeks would be critical in bringing the disease under control.
More than 123,000 Americans have so far died from Covid-19, and there are fears that the total will reach 150,000 before the end of the summer, by which time a second wave of infection is expected to hit. Already, up to 80% of hospital beds in Arizona – a key Republican state – are occupied by patients suffering from the virus. What happens when that total reaches 110% is anybody’s guess.
In fairness, it should be noted that while the absolute number of deaths in the US is the highest in the developed world, the per capita rate of infection is comparable to that in other developed countries. Yesterday the UK, with a population one fifth that of the US, posted an official total of 43,000 deaths, a mortality rate equivalent to 215,000 in America. If the US experienced the same rate as France, which thus far has recorded just under 30,000 fatalities, the total number would be 150,000. Across the West only Germany and Japan have performed significantly better.
That said, it is the fact that Covid in America is surging when numbers elsewhere are falling that gives cause for concern. And it is in relation to what happens next that the position adopted by President Trump is crucial.
Up to now, Trump has steadfastly refused to take Covid seriously. Back in late January, when it became clear that the virus, originating in the Chinese city of Wuhan, was crossing continents, the President banned flights from China – a fact of which he has never since ceased to boast. Beyond that, he has shown little sustained interest in the pandemic, regarding it as secondary in importance to securing a second term in office.
Even then, if he had left the fight to health professionals, led by Dr Fauci and Dr Redfield, America might well have prevailed earlier than most. But he didn’t. Instead, he regards the crisis as no more than “fake news”, dreamed up by the Democrats to increase their chances of replacing him with former Vice President Joe Biden.
Throughout the emergency, Trump has pooh-poohed the experts, calling the virus “kung flu,” refusing to wear a mask, even suggesting remedies of his own. These have included the discredited Hydroxychloroquine (“Try it, what have you got to lose?”) and – most horrifyingly – the injecting the veins of coronavirus patients with domestic bleach.
On a number of occasions, he has said that the coronavirus should “go away,” either “magically” or “miraculously”. Failing that, he told a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, testing should be cut back so that the number of cases at least appeared to be falling. What really mattered, apparently, was that the economy should fully reopen as quickly as possible, allowing millions of Americans to return to their places of work and, grateful for his leadership during the crisis, vote for him in November.
Trump’s unprincipled approach to the pandemic cannot be overstated. Where Boris Johnson and his opposite numbers in Italy and Spain can be faulted for some of the decisions they took, in Johnson’s case awakening too late to what was happening, no one doubted their determination to save lives and defeat the virus.
Not so in the case of the world’s most powerful man and America’s commander-in-chief. Trump certainly wants Covid to be defeated (the victory would surely be his alone), but not if it means an America still in lockdown that blames him for everything that has gone wrong – and turns in desperation to his Democratic rival.
It would not be putting it too strongly to say that the President would rather that thousands of his fellow citizens risked death in the weeks and months ahead, provided it gains him a political advantage.
It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that he demanded that state governors and mayors do all in their power to reopen shops, places of entertainment and, most of all, factories.
In May, the number of people out of work in America hit 137 million, for all but a fraction because their places of employment had been shuttered. To Trump, who likes to boast of high job numbers and even higher stock numbers, this is anathema, the very antithesis of Keeping America Great.
The irony that good stewardship of the nation at a time of crisis might actually have secured him a second term seems not to have occurred to him. Such is his narcissism that he regards himself as the real victim of Covid-19. In the same vein, he sees Black Lives Matter as a campaign directed at him, to which he has to respond by standing up for “tough” policing and federal protection of Confederate monuments.
Meanwhile, the virus continues to consolidate its hold in America. In New York and New Jersey, whose governors took a strong stand, ignoring the noises-off from Pennsylvania Avenue, it is in retreat, albeit only just.
But in as many as a dozen other states, all with Republic governors, it is on the rise, taking advantage of commercial re-openings that were too much, too soon. Come the winter, when a second wave of the virus – Covid-20 – is expected to strike, those same Republican governors have vowed not to reimpose a lockdown. As a result, if the experts are right, the divide between Red State and Blue State will become a medical reality as well as a political one.
By then, the occupant of the Oval Office will either be Donald J Trump or, much more likely, Joe Biden. But the damage will have been done. Where are FDR and Teddy Roosevelt when you need them?