(Originally published here by South China Morning Post on October 13, 2020)
Donald Trump had a point about Covid-19 when he told Americans not to fear the disease, a remark that sparked an immediate backlash and accelerated the rapid worsening of his re-election odds.
Although there’s no scientific evidence that the pathogen itself is mutating into something less deadly, coronavirus death rates are falling. That’s because treatment methods and procedures for identifying Covid-19 deaths have improved.
We understand Covid-19 now better than we did earlier this year, which should allow us to avoid the kind of lockdowns we had to endure as we watched apocalyptic waves of death spread from Tehran to Florence to New York.
Given all of this, rational action should replace fear as we wait for effective vaccines to be rolled out in the coming months.
Trump could have owned this message. He had an opportunity to use his Covid-19 infection to bring some voters outside of his ardent supporters on board in the final stretch of the election.
He looked triumphant as he stood before the cameras and gave us the thumbs up on the White House’s South Portico, just three days after being airlifted to a medical facility with diminished oxygen levels. This kind of strongman message appeals to Trump’s own deranged ego and his base.
He might have also appealed to some of the educated moderate Republicans, whom he has alienated throughout his tenure. There are plenty of other key voters – for example, senior citizens in the key battleground state of Florida, who might well have been inspired if the president had suggested that we all work together.
But all anyone will remember about this mini-production of a strong hero overcoming a hidden enemy is that Trump made the removal of his mask the money shot.
While his new message could have been: “Fear not the virus; with common sense, we’ll beat this and be stronger”, it instead became a middle finger aimed at everyone who is trying to do just that – as if we needed any further proof that Trump will never attempt to reach beyond his base of angry people who refuse to acknowledge the basic responsibility they have for protecting the health of their communities.
Adding insult to injury, we learned from The New York Times that the White House blocked an order by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to make face masks mandatory for anyone travelling on public or commercial transport.
How was this not already mandated? How did we get to the point where the Washington health department had to issue a call to White House staffers and anyone who attended the September 26 super-spreader event at the mansion to “contact your local health department for further guidance/questions regarding your potential need to quarantine”?
It’s pointless now to waste ink dissecting the depravity of Trump’s comments and actions. That’s as useful as performing an autopsy on a charred body at the site of a plane crash to determine the cause of death.
After four years of watching his scorched-earth approach to governing and campaigning, we know from the many accounts from his family members not employed in the White House, former aides, women who have accused him of sexual assault, and from the mouth of his own sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, that Trump is a “cruel” person.
So the US is potentially facing its biggest crisis in modern history, given that most major polls show a Biden victory that’s well within the margin of error, and the incumbent leader has made it clear that he won’t go quietly if those polls reflect the outcome of the November 3 election.
Trump’s cruelty means that he will use any means at his disposal to disrupt the election process. His 50,000-strong volunteer army of “election observers” will be sure to make just as many accusations of voter fraud.
So when it comes to fear in America, Trump has given the country something more legitimate than Covid-19 to worry about.