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COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump and the rest of the World (1); By Isaac N. Obasi

President Donald Trump of the United States

Although the United States of America’s (US) population of 330,970,517 constitutes 4.2% of the world’s population of 7.8 billion, it contributes disproportionately 25.3% (i.e. 2,381,361) of total number of coronavirus (COVID-19) infections (i.e. 9.4m), and also 25.3% (i.e. 121,979) of deaths globally (i.e. 482,000), all as of June 25, 2020 (See Johns Hopkins University Mortality Analyses for total number of infections and deaths only via https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/mortality). These frightening statistics of the most powerful nation on earth, should cause its president agonisingly sleepless nights. 

But unfortunately, the current president, Mr. Donald Trump is behaving as if there is no public health crisis in his God’s own country. He has moved from his state of denial of the coronavirus pandemic, to a stage of holding dangerously indoor political rallies attended by large crowds who violate social and physical distancing protocols, and without protective masks which regrettably he also encouraged and still encouraging. Is the health of the world safe with this Trump’s behaviour?  

This column argues that Trump’s behaviour is dangerous not only to the US, but to the rest of the world. The climbing number of the cases of infection in the US at a time when there is a move towards opening up the airspaces around the world is potentially very catastrophic to global public health. The European Union (EU) is presently and rightly considering banning visitors from the US when it opens its land and air borders next month.  

Historically speaking, what do we know about the way President Trump administration (and particularly himself as the president) responded to the containment of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US? Did he as president temporise initially in responding to the public health emergency of COVID-19 pandemic? If he did not initially delay, why then did he change his attitude and also verve in fighting the war against the deadly virus unlike state governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York State and some others who actually understood the deadly nature of the disease? How is President Trump’s political calculation over his re-election affecting his attitude, pronouncements, zeal and commitment in fighting the virus? 

A review of the timeline of Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as chronicled by both The Washington Post (21 April 2020); and Vox media (8 June 2020), reveals a mixture of erratic reactions consisting of both inconsistent pronouncements and what appears to be purposeful policy response. Put differently, the timeline revealed not only the inconsistent behaviour of a president who was not sure of the knowledge-content of what he was saying and doing, but also that of one who was certainly sure of his intension to use the management of COVID-19 pandemic to advance his political interest of re-election in the November 2020 Presidential election.   

Based on hindsight now, if Trump had practised what he acknowledged by allowing the US experts who should be on top of the situation to professionally manage the containment of the virus, perhaps the present COVID-19 trajectory in the US would have been significantly different

As Cameron Peters of Vox Media rightly put it, “there are many reasons the US death toll is so high, including a national response plagued by delays at the federal level, wishful thinking by President Trump, the sidelining of experts, a pointed White House campaign to place the blame for the Trump administration’s shortcomings on others, and time wasted chasing down false hopes based on poor science” (See: https://www.vox.com/2020/6/8/21242003/trump-failed-coronavirus-response). 

Again, as Cameron further reports, although President Trump was (as early as January 2020) warmed about the global danger of the novel virus in daily intelligence briefings by the US national security officials (a fact revealed by the Washington Post in March 2020), he “nonetheless in public comments and tweets…consistently played down the fledgling pandemic even as the first US case was reported in Washington State. He also applauded China’s handling of the virus at several points in January, before taking action to protect the US in the form of a limited travel ban from China on January 31″ (Emphasis provided). It is very important to take note of his commendation of China’s handling of the virus, an opinion which he later changed. 

In that same month of January Trump declared in an interview with CNBC that the COVID-19 is totally under control. “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine”. During the same January, Trump tweeted that his administration would continue monitoring the ongoing development in China. He added that America “has the best experts anywhere in the world, and they are on top of it” (See http://www.alternet.org). 

Based on hindsight now, if Trump had practised what he acknowledged by allowing the US experts who should be on top of the situation to professionally manage the containment of the virus, perhaps the present COVID-19 trajectory in the US would have been significantly different. But Trump sidelined the experts, and continued to politicise the COVID-19 pandemic within and outside his country. For as John Kerry (former US Secretary of State under the Obama administration) pointedly said, Trump’s coronavirus response is a “denial of science, experts and facts” (CNBC, June 10, 2020, (via https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/10/trumps-coronavirus-response-a-denial-of-science-and-facts-john-kerry.html).

President Trump entered February with his false and deceptive mindset that coronavirus was under control in the US, and yet on 26 February 2020 the first case of community transmission was reported by the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC). It was during the same day that the reality of the devastating impact of what he said was under control came to the fore. In reaction, he appointed Vice-President, Michael Pence Chairman of the relatively non-active White House Coronavirus Task Force which he had established earlier on January 29, 2020 following the recording of the index case in the US on 20 January 2020. 

And in his erratic manner, after appointing a Task Force Chairman, Trump announced shortly that the virus would disappear like a miracle. Not long after this statement, he described the coronavirus “as a Democrats’ new hoax”. Yet it did not occur to President Trump that something he denied its existence (a hoax) cannot be expected to disappear like a miracle. Something must exist, before disappearing. This is a clear case of mixed messaging driven by his inordinate (a do or die) political ambition of remaining in power.  

How did President Trump handle the fight against COVID-19 pandemic after these two months of serious blunder? Did he continue to live in denial even as the State of New York became overwhelmed by the catastrophic manifestation of COVID-19 pandemic? We will examine these and other questions in the second part of this piece on Monday, 29 June 2020 by the special grace of God.   

•Prof. Isaac N. Obasi, a public policy expert (& former columnist in the Daily Trust, Abuja, March 2003 to October 2006, & Daily Champion, Lagos, April 2005 to December 2008), is of the Department of Public Administration, University of Abuja. Email: [email protected]      

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