Just like in Nigeria, where this column described the month of March 2020 as one of missed opportunities in the early fight against Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, February 2020 has been described as ‘a lost month’ in the early fight against the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. This verdict on US was given by the trio of CNN’s Marshall Cohen, Tara Subramaniam and Christopher Hickey in a published article on 18 April 2020 (See: https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2020/04/politics/trump-covid-response-annotation/).
We continue today in the second part of this article to discuss how President Donald Trump of the US handled the fight against COVID-19 pandemic after the two months of January and February, 2020 which we had earlier described in the first part as months of serious blunder.
In spite of this unfavourable but objective characterisation, President Trump had in a calculated manner tried to use propaganda to re-write history of his dismal record on the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been continuing. For example, as of this month of June, Vice President Mike Pence was just doing exactly this by trying to re-write such dismal history. He was speaking during a briefing by the White House Coronavirus Task Force held on Friday, 26 June 2020 as a result of the spikes (to all time high) reported the previous day. By the way, this Task Force chaired by Mr. Pence has been dormant for about two months now, since President Trump stopped the White House briefing on coronavirus angrily because he could not take the heat any longer from highly perceptive journalists.
Going back to our chronological narrative of the continued blunders committed by President Trump on the fight against the virus, the month of March started with a mixed bag of blunders and targeted policy response. First, on the side of blunders, the president diverted attention on 2 March 2020 when he said that a vaccine ‘could come earlier than anticipated’ (report by Aaron Blake of The Washington Post, 21 April 2020) even when Dr. Anthony Fauci (US top most infectious disease expert) had told President Trump earlier that testing of a vaccine would require a year or more. The president was raising a false hope to make people believe that he was working very hard on solving the problem of the pandemic.
Again, in his characteristic attempt, to downplay the seriousness of the coronavirus “he compared it to the common flu, a comparison which at that time had already been debunked by experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci” (see Vox media, June 8, 2020). On March 10 once more, Trump still insisted that the virus would go away and as he put it: “Just Stay Calm. It will go away” (Blake). As we can all see now in this last week of June (well after three months of his statement), the virus did not go away, as the numbers are still climbing embarrassingly higher and higher in such big states as Texas, California, Florida, etc. In fact, according to the CNN news report of 26 June 2020, the US had an all-time high record of 40,000 new infections in a day.
On the good side of actions taken in the month of March, the president announced (on March 11) the suspension of travels from most European countries as the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus as a global pandemic. And subsequently, the president also declared a national emergency on March 13. But even with this, he still slipped into his denial mode when reminded by journalists of what he said about the virus being “under control”. As Blake captured his mind, Trump said “if you’re talking about the virus, no, that’s not under control for any place in the world. … I was talking about what we’re doing is under control, but I’m not talking about the virus” (Emphasis added).
Other targeted policy responses in March include the (a) release of federal funding to fight the virus; (b) release of new guidelines on social distancing to stop the spread of the virus, and states followed by announcing their lockdown, which later got extended to April 30; (c) mutual agreement with the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to close the US-Canada border; (d) official invoking of the Defense Production Act (DPA) in order to push domestic manufacturing industries to produce badly needed medical supplies, (e) closing of the US-Mexico border, (f) the signing of $2.2 trillion stimulus package considered to be the largest in US history comprising direct cash payments to Americans, additional funding for hospitals, and some $500 billion in loans for companies (See Vox media, 8 June 2020).
This relief package was the most single important policy response by the Trump administration as it became a standard for other countries to gauge (or benchmark) their policy response. Despite these positive policy responses, Trump was still involved in mixed messages during this month because of his political calculations. For example, worried about the economic impact of the lockdown, he proposed an early lifting of the lockdown on April 12, Easter Sunday. He pressed hard for this, but the reality on the ground made him to see reason against the proposal.
As the number of cases of infection (1 million cases by April, 28) and deaths (50,000 by April 24) kept rising and hurting his political calculations, President Trump in the month of April adopted an aggressive mind-set and blame-game propaganda against China, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and his main Democratic political rival Joe Biden. His aggressive mind-set and blame-game tactic were well-orchestrated political propaganda survival strategy. The Peoples Republic of China which he praised to high heavens few months earlier (as we reported in the first part of this article) then turned into his worst enemy as he started blaming the same China for not being transparent in both the origin/sources of the virus and the manner the virus was handled. The WHO then was accused (couple of times) of covering up the handling of the virus with China and this led Trump to announce his administration’s stoppage of funding to WHO, a policy that was widely criticised around the world.
The month of April also saw Trump pushing for an early opening up of the economy even when restrictions were still in place until the end of April. This led him to announce his administration’s reopening guidelines which the various states were allowed the freedom to decide how to implement it. However, as a result of lack of firmness by Trump in handing the management of the virus, eight States governed by Republican governors namely Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming resisted issuing a statewide lockdown. By the end of April, the Federal Stay-at-Home Guidelines expired and as it was not extended, the states were therefore allowed to take charge of the lockdown issues.
How did President Trump react to the continued rising of the coronavirus infections and death during the months of May and June, 2020, following the failure of his denial and blame-game tactics to help him score any political mileage? This question and some others will be discussed in the last part of this article by God’s grace.
•Prof. 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: firstname.lastname@example.org