Yesterday, President Trump tweeted a terrifyingly ignorant message about the coronavirus. “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu,” he wrote, “It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
Well, yes, we only have 546 confirmed cases right now. The problem is that pandemics tend to spread quickly, as people infect other people, who in turn infect other people. Multiplication is not one of the more challenging concepts in epidemiology, but it still seems to be beyond the president’s grasp.
The hopeful interpretation of utterances like these is that Trump is trying to calm the markets by presenting the most reassuring gloss on the facts. But reports from inside his administration are giving a more disturbing explanation: Trump actually believes this.
The Washington Post’s account today reveals a number of extremely harrowing presidential beliefs about the coronavirus. To wit:
1. Trump is still mad he doesn’t get credit for stopping travel from China. “Trump is proud of the initial restriction he imposed on travelers from China and has repeatedly complained that he does not get enough credit, to the point of mentioning it in nearly every meeting, several senior Republicans said.”
That would have been a great move if the virus had been prevented from spreading into the United States. But it hadn’t, and the federal government squandered the time it bought. It is totally baffling why anybody would credit him for preventing the virus from getting here when the virus is here.
2. Trump blames the media for covering the pandemic. “Privately, he brooded throughout the weekend about news stories that detailed the ways his administration squandered precious weeks and bungled its handling of the crisis, with much of the blame falling on the president. ‘He sees the stories as everyone just being out to get him,’ said one administration official.” Don’t expect the president to engage in lots of introspection over his managerial failures.
3. Trump is personally healthier than his opponents. Some Trump friends “have sought to flatter Trump by saying that unlike the two septuagenarians running for the Democratic nomination — Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — Trump, 73, is so healthy that he is not personally at particular risk.”
Right, the president who doesn’t exercise, has to be tricked into eating vegetables like a toddler, and had to use a golf cart rather than accompany fellow world leaders on a short walk is just so monumentally healthy he has nothing to worry about.
4. The coronavirus can’t be a problem if he doesn’t know any victims yet. “Some friends have told Trump that the coronavirus does not seem like a major threat, noting that they don’t know anyone in their communities who has been infected.”
This is another “multiplication, how does it work?” error. The whole problem with pandemics is that they start off infecting a tiny percentage of the population and then spread rapidly.
5. Trump thinks the coronavirus will solve itself. “It’s not that big of a deal,” Trump said at one of the events … “‘What he keyed in on in his remarks is you’ve just got to live your life,’” [Trump donor Doug] Deason said. “‘He’s out there shaking hands.’”
This might be the scariest detail in the story. It is absolutely possible to contain the coronavirus, but it requires a combination of public and private steps to slow down the spread and prevent the medical system from being overwhelmed. It will probably require aggressive government steps to shut down transmission. At the very minimum, it will take widespread adoption of handwashing and social distancing. “You’ve just got to live your life” is literally the complete opposite of the correct response.