Opinion: The president has reaped the lies he has sown

Sunday, Oct. 4. As this is being written, the president lies hospitalized for a third day at Walter Reed Medical Center battling the scourges of coronavirus: fever, fatigue, shortness of breath. According to the White House, he tested positive for COVID-19 during the midnight hours on Thursday, Oct. 1. On Wednesday, 24 hours earlier, his close personal adviser, Hope Hicks, had begun exhibiting coronavirus symptoms during the president’s campaign rally in Duluth, Minn. By Saturday, 10 more people in the president’s entourage had tested positive for COVID-19, including Melania Trump, the first lady. They had gathered at the White House Rose Garden a week earlier, on Saturday, Sept. 26, for the president’s nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Pictures show them sitting in the first two rows with the other guests, side by side, without masks.

It is a painful irony that this White House ceremony turned out to be a super-spreader event. Painful, because the explosive outbreak was not a case of bad luck. It was caused by sheer, deliberate and inexcusable recklessness –no masks, no distancing — precisely the kind of behavior about which Dr. Anthony Fauci and the CDC have issued warning after warning since the pandemic began. Painful, because these warnings have been brazenly ignored, mocked and scorned by the president and his administration. Painful, because the finest medical science and scientists have been regularly insulted, condemned and muzzled by the president from advising the nation. And painful, because the president now lies stricken with the very coronavirus that he assured the country was a hoax and would just disappear, as if by a miracle.

As The Atlantic put it, the president has been the super-spreader of COVID-19 disinformation, not the country’s commander in chief sworn to safeguard its security against invaders — military or biological, warring or viral. He and his sycophants in the administration, the GOP, and on Fox News have reaped the lies they have sown. From the very outset, they denied the science, the virus and the actions needed to stem its spread.

In January 2020, the president received a dire warning from his national security adviser, Robert O’Brien: COVID-19 “will be the biggest national security threat you will face in your presidency.” The president chose not to face it. Or tell the American public what he admitted to Bob Woodward on Feb. 7: The virus is “deadly stuff … five times more deadly” than the regular flu. Throughout February and into March, the CDC’s Nancy Messonnier, a member of the president’s coronavirus task force, advocated shutting down the schools and working from home. The president threatened to fire her, tweeting on March 9, “During a flu, nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on.” Tragically, many lives and the economy did not go on.

Absent a national directive, the states, led by California, finally implemented the shutdown on March 19 — at least until the administration instituted its deadly business bargain: In opening up commerce prematurely, Americans kept dying to keep the stock market from falling. By May 1, the death toll reached 63,000. Analyses indicate that had the major cities been locked down a week earlier, 36,000 fewer people would have died. Had it been ordered by the president two weeks earlier, 54,000 lives, or 83%, might have been saved.

The toll now is unconscionable: the U.S., with just 4% of the world’s population, has suffered 20% of the world’s COVID-19 deaths: 210,000 and counting.

Historic events bring historic hopes: First, that the president and first lady recover quickly and fully. So too the 40,000 Americans who will be infected today, tomorrow, the day after, and the day after and the day after, until? Second, that the president be infected with the humility and lessons learned to sacrifice selfish aims to the common good — to turn those question marks into bold, national, strategic solutions. The lessons are clear: The virus is impervious to party, pretense, prevarication or political self-interest. So is epidemiology, medical science and their prognoses for stemming the spread.

Sadly, as of Sunday evening, neither humility, nor selflessness, nor any of the lessons appear to have sunk in. From the hospital the president told the nation, “I get it … I learned a lot about COVID.” Really? Only now? After nine months of briefings from the best medical experts in the world?

But the president doesn’t get it. That became evident when he launched a motorcade photo-op excursion around Walter Reed, waving to supporters along the route. As a Walter Reed attending physician tweeted, “Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary Presidential ‘drive-by’ just now has to be quarantined for 14 days. They might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater. This is insanity.”

— Leonard Krishtalka is a University of Kansas professor and director of KU’s Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum.


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