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Of all the cornucopia of tone-deaf and offensive remarks made by the president of the United States in almost four years in office, one proposition he made to the American people last week must surely rank among the top 10.
“Don’t be afraid of Covid,” he said in a tweet. “Don’t let it dominate your life.”
Donald Trump posted those words at 2.37pm on 5 October from the luxury of his four-room suite in Walter Reed medical center. He was surrounded by a team of a dozen world-class doctors infusing him with a unique cocktail of experimental drugs for Covid-19 that would have cost an ordinary American hundreds of thousands of dollars to procure.
About an hour earlier, data scientists at Johns Hopkins University released their latest figures for the pandemic. They showed that at least 7.5 million Americans had contracted the disease, and that 209,881 had died – a death rate towering over most developed countries and 2,000 times that of humble Vietnam.
At that same moment, more than half of US states were reporting upticks in infection rates that are almost certain to spike further as winter sets in. Meanwhile, the New England Journal of Medicine was preparing to publish a brutal editorial that would hold the Trump administration directly responsible for tens of thousands of needless Covid-19 deaths, concluding that “anyone else who recklessly squandered lives in this way would be suffering legal consequences”.
As the president said, don’t let Covid dominate your life, don’t be afraid.
Jonathan Reiner, a professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University medical center, had a visceral reaction when he heard those words. “I was angry. So 210,000 Americans have died, most of them alone. I’m sad to say that they were almost certainly afraid,” he said.
Over the past two weeks, the president and his cohorts have shown a reckless disdain for basic health protections that overshadows even the administration’s past negligence in its response to coronavirus. This time, though, the virus has reared back to bite not just the wider American public but also the inner cadre of the Trump administration.
According to a leaked Fema memo, the number of White House staffers, Republican US senators and top conservative dignitaries who have tested positive for the disease has reached 34. That includes at least 10 members of the Trump administration, headlined by the president and first lady, senior advisers Hope Hicks and Stephen Miller, and five members of the White House press team.
Beyond that, three Republican senators have gone down with the disease. The positive test of Charles Ray, the US coast guard admiral, has sent seven out of eight of the joint chiefs of staff – the country’s top military brass – scurrying into quarantine.
It’s hard to know when the current White House Covid outbreak began, because officials have refused to divulge when Trump received his last negative coronavirus test. Given the symptoms that he clearly displayed on a fundraising trip to New Jersey last week, it seems highly likely he was already infected at the first televised presidential debate with Joe Biden at which several members of the Trump family and crew turned up ostentatiously unmasked.
The maskless theme stretched further back to a series of events at the White House the previous weekend, which appear to have acted as incubators – or super-spreaders – of the illness. On Saturday 26 September, about 250 of the elite of the Republican party gathered shoulder-to-shoulder in the Rose Garden to mark Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the US supreme court, with a smaller indoors reception held earlier in the Diplomatic Room.
The next day, 27 September, senior military officers gathered indoors in the East Room of the White House to mark Gold Star Mother’s Day. All of these events were largely without masks, in a brazen violation of recommendations from the administration’s own public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
At the Rose Garden event, guests were also in aggressive violation of social distancing protocols, spending time in close proximity and even hugging each other. Trump also attended debate preparation sessions in the run-up to his encounter with Biden that took place in a cramped indoor space – again maskless.
The sessions involved Hicks, Miller, Trump’s presidential campaign manager Bill Stepien and the former governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie. All later tested positive.
It is hard to overstate the willful indifference towards the health and safety of those around them – and of themselves – that such behavior entailed. In a wider sense, it also exuded a disregard for the security of the American people, sending a message that health protocols are for wimps, even within the beating heart of the US government.
As Carol Anderson, professor of African American studies at Emory University, put it: “The Republicans are suicide bombers aimed at our ship of state.”
Public health experts were even more aghast by the White House decision to forgo any effort at contact tracing of the Rose Garden event. Alongside testing, contact tracing is the basic building block of any effort to contain the virus, allowing officials to identify who has been exposed and get them into isolation; without contact tracing, the disease is as free to roam as a wild horse on the Texas plains.
Reiner described the lack of contact tracing as “inexcusable”. The only explanation for such an aberrant decision, he now believes, is that the White House feared that the exercise would discover the individual who was the source of the outbreak, “patient zero” – and that it would turn out to be Trump himself.
“Not to carry out formal contact tracing of a large event like the Rose Garden is the height of irresponsibility,” Reiner said. “The virus has a reproductive number of about 2.5 which means that each infected person infects two and a half others. So if there are about 30 people infected in the Trump circle, multiply that by 2.5 and then again by 2.5 – that’s how quickly the virus could spread.”
It’s not only the elite of Trump World who have been put in harm’s way by the flagrant disrespect for basic health guidelines flaunted this week. There are also the hundreds of people who serve the elite of Trump World – the “forgotten people” as Trump describes them – who have been equally imperiled.
The most vivid example of this phenomenon was the two Secret Service agents who drove Trump, spewing coronavirus from every pore, in an armored presidential limousine so that he could wave to supporters outside Walter Reed. Trump was wearing a cloth mask, not an N95, which would have offered greater protection to the agents who risked their own health by accompanying the president in a hermetically sealed vehicle.
“The president placed the health of his Secret Service agents at risk for a photo op. Why would you do that?” Reiner said. “Secret Service agents didn’t sign up to take avoidable risks – and this was entirely avoidable.”
The day after his Walter Reed jaunt, Trump discharged himself from hospital and returned to the White House. Before he stepped back into the building, he removed his mask for the benefit of the cameras – so endangering the many cooks, cleaners, maintenance workers and other “forgotten Americans” who labor every day to serve him inside the residence.
The gesture provoked a furious response from Everett Kelley, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union for federal workers in the US. “The actions of Donald Trump over the last few days have been typical of his administration’s approach to the virus. At nearly every turn, the mismanagement of the federal response by the president and his appointees has put workers’ lives at risk,” he said.
Perhaps the most egregious of all the recent spectacles was Trump’s decision to travel to his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, on 1 October. He flew there on Marine One, the presidential helicopter, hours before he was given his positive result for coronavirus but significantly hours after the White House learned that Hicks, one of Trump’s closest aides with whom he had been travelling, had been infected.
Yet no one at the fundraising event was warned of the exposure, and no masks were worn. Among those put at potential risk were up to 200 Republican supporters, 19 major donors paying up to $250,000 each for the privilege of spending an hour cooped up indoors with the president, and a further 19 staff employed by the Trump Organization who served the guests.
During the course of the event, several mandatory regulations set by New Jersey’s governor were openly flouted, including the number of people allowed to congregate in an enclosed space, the presentation of food buffet-style in contravention of social distancing rules, and the sheer fact that Trump had not informed participants that he had been exposed to the virus and should be quarantining. This summer, a health worker who was looking after older people in a residential home in Camden, New Jersey, was charged with five criminal counts of endangerment because she did not tell the people in her care that she had developed symptoms of Covid.
According to several eyewitness accounts, Trump also showed symptoms of Covid in Bedminster, yet appears to be above the law.
The events at Bedminster were of great personal interest to Sandra Diaz. Until 2014, she worked for four years as a housekeeper at Bedminster keeping Trump’s personal residence on the property spotlessly clean as he demanded.
Diaz was at that time one of many undocumented immigrants who Trump employed (she now has permanent US resident status). For her efforts, she received no health coverage from the Trump Organization.
Last week when she watched the US president bragging about how well he had done after contracting Covid-19 under the state-of-the-art experimental treatment he was receiving, she thought back to her time as a low-paid uninsured undocumented Trump employee at Bedminster. She thought too of the 581 people who have died from the disease in her New Jersey county and wondered what would have happened had she been infected without access to any treatment at all.
“A lot of people have died from this virus in my town,” she said. “A lot of families have lost fathers, mothers, brothers, uncles.”
Diaz has two friends who are still working at Trump’s golf course, a housekeeper and a landscaper. She spoke to them after the president’s fundraising visit last week, which netted Trump’s re-election campaign $5m.
“My friends are really scared,” she said. “They are really poor people, and when poor people get sick they lose their jobs and the hospitals don’t have beds. Donald Trump, he doesn’t think about them. He just thinks about himself.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘He just thinks about himself’: America’s reckless, ill president | US news