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"We have it totally under control," Donald Trump said about the coronavirus in late January, adding, "It's just one person from China." In a call with Republican senators, he said confidently, "Just stay calm. It will go away." At a February news conference, he predicted, "One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear." At a rally in New Hampshire, Trump was even more precise, saying, "Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away." The president occasionally tempered his placid attitude with some real-world action, like when he ordered travel restrictions after coronavirus was already established in several states—a move that some public health experts have called "remarkably pointless."
As of the first day of April, the outbreak has not "miraculously gone away." According to Johns Hopkins, the U.S. has 189,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, on track to double the number of cases in the second worst hit country, Italy. There have been 4,081 confirmed deaths, with 850 of those coming on Tuesday, the biggest single day death toll yet for America. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said the pandemic is "the most challenging crisis" the world has faced since World War II.
When Trump delivered his Tuesday press briefing on the outbreak, he was unusually serious. "I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead," he said, adding, "This could be a hell of a bad two weeks. This is going to be three weeks like we’ve never seen before." He produced charts showing an estimated 100,000 to 240,000 deaths in the U.S. "We lose more here potentially than you lose in world wars as a country," Trump said.
Anthony Fauci, an infectious disease expert and member of the White House's coronavirus task force, warned that the number of deaths will keep increasing for some time, even if social distancing is working: "In the next several days to a week or so, we’re going to continue to see things go up. We cannot be discouraged by that. Because the mitigation is actually working, and will work." The New York Times noted that Trump showed "none of the carefree dismissiveness that characterized his reaction to the virus in February and early March."
But Trump is also working a PR angle. At a briefing on Sunday, he admitted for the first time that the U.S. was facing at least 100,000 deaths, but he did it with a slightly more upbeat spin. "So you’re talking about 2.2 million deaths, 2.2 million people from this. And so if we could hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000. It’s a horrible number, maybe even less —but to 100,000. So we have between 100,000 and 200,000, and we altogether have done a very good job," he said.
He repeated that figure, 2.2 million people dead, 16 times in that one Sunday briefing. That's the total death toll that the U.S. would be facing if absolutely no mitigation efforts were in place, according to a mid-March report from the U.K.'s Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team. While Trump is trying to pitch 100,000 deaths as "a very good job," he's comparing it to the 2.2 million estimated deaths that would come from the U.S. doing nothing—not exactly a high bar.
Trump isn't the only Republican trying to downplay the severity of 100,000 to 200,000 deaths. In a Sunday op-ed for USA Today, Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson wrote that while dying a preventable death from COVID-19 is scary, it's important "to put things into perspective." That perspective is, we're all going to die anyway: "Every premature death is a tragedy, but death is an unavoidable part of life."
But the problem facing the country isn't a philosophical acceptance of the concept of mortality—it's that Trump seems more concerned with saving face than saving lives. While many states are struggling to meet the demand for both tests and life-saving equipment like ventilators, Trump has alternated between blaming the shortages on others and pretending the shortages don't exist. And when the federal government has tried to get supplies to states, it's badly botched the deliveries—Oklahoma, for example, requested 16,000 face shields and received 120,000; North Carolina requested 500,000 medical coveralls and received 306. According to the Associated Press, many hospitals are reviewing their own guidelines to know which patients to prioritize when, not if, it becomes impossible to save them all—the kinds of decisions Italian doctors were making weeks before.
Since the pandemic reached the U.S., Trump has claimed often that "nobody" could have predicted the outbreak could be this bad, and that it "came out of nowhere." But infectious diseases experts have been warning about pandemic preparedness for years, and the American response to it has been particularly disastrous and negligent, from disbanding the White House global health outbreak unit in 2018 to not having a backup plan for testing kits (which failed at first). Trump was warned repeatedly by his own public health officials that the coronavirus threat was serious. Ignoring the problem has failed, so now the president wants credit for responding to it at all.
How one young doctor at a Seattle lab tried to get out in front of the coronavirus crisis by inventing his own test. And why the absurdity of his struggle should make us all afraid.
Originally Appeared on GQ