For the past three days, President Trump has publicly embraced the view that the measures taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak should not come at the expense of the U.S. economy.
After initially going along with the social distancing recommendations of the medical experts on his coronavirus task force, and praising the decisions of governors in states that had instituted lockdowns to keep COVID-19 infections from worsening, Trump signaled a new approach in a Sunday night tweet.
WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2020
During Monday’s task force press briefing, which was not attended by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading expert on infectious diseases in the country, Trump employed an analogy to make the case that the benefits of public health were outweighed by the disruption and losses suffered by the U.S. economy.
“You look at automobile accidents,” Trump said, “which are far greater than any numbers we’re talking about. That doesn't mean we're going to tell everybody no more driving of cars.”
Trump’s concern about the economy is understandable, but the point made by many commentators that the crippling recession facing the country will result in an elevated number of deaths is belied by studies of the Great Depression that found no clear connection.
Still, Trump has become the first head of state to address this calculus head on, and his Monday press conference came as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered a forceful address announcing his decision to lock down his country in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which he called “the biggest threat this country has faced for decades.”
On Tuesday, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a lockdown of that country’s 1.3 billion people to try to prevent an inundation of its health care system, Trump continued to press his point that a better strategy would be for Americans to return to work while somehow adhering to social distancing protocol.
Our people want to return to work. They will practice Social Distancing and all else, and Seniors will be watched over protectively & lovingly. We can do two things together. THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM! Congress MUST ACT NOW. We will come back strong!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 24, 2020
Trump’s view has been cheered on by some in his administration, including White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow.
“I think that public health includes economic health. That's the key point and it's not either/or. It's not either/or. And that's why we're taking a fresh look at it,” Kudlow said.
But as Johnson told the British people on Monday, the choice of not instituting harsh lockdown measures guarantees a higher number of deaths due to the spread of the coronavirus, as well as from ailments that an overburdened health care system might have otherwise treated.
“Without a huge national effort to halt the growth of this virus, there will come a moment when no health service in the world could possibly cope, because there won’t be enough ventilators, enough intensive care beds, enough doctors and nurses,” Johnson said.
The death calculus has long been part of the coronavirus story, just as it was during the 2002 outbreak of the SARS virus that killed 774 people around the world, the 2009 H1N1 pandemic that killed at least 18,036 people or the 2013 Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed 11,323.
While Trump pointed out Monday that seasonal flu could kill 60,000 Americans this year, a British report released earlier this month predicted that as many as 2.2 million U.S. residents could die from the coronavirus. That projection, in conjunction with a steep rise in the number of cases reported in the U.S. despite inadequate testing, was more than enough for some governors to begin instituting lockdowns.
Following Trump’s Monday press conference, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick went on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program and made the death calculus personal, saying he would be “all in” on risking his own life to keep “the whole country” from being “sacrificed.”
“And you know, Tucker, no one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in,” Patrick said. “And that doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that. I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me — I have six grandchildren — that what we all care about, what we love more than anything, are those children. And I want to live smart and see through this, but I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed.
“Let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living, let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves.”
“So you’re saying, this disease could take your life, but that’s not the scariest thing to you,” Carlson interjected. “There’s something that would be worse than dying.”
“Yeah,” Patrick agreed.
Tx Lt Gov Dan Patrick says grandparents would be willing to die to save the economy for their grandchildren pic.twitter.com/wC3Ngvtsbj— Andrew Lawrence (@ndrew_lawrence) March 24, 2020
Since Sunday, 200 new cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Texas, bringing the state’s total to 826. While just nine Texans have died so far from the virus, the number of deaths in New York stands at 210, and 25,665 cases have so far been reported. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo reacted with exasperation to the logic of easing lockdowns at this stage.
My mother is not expendable. Your mother is not expendable.— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) March 24, 2020
We will not put a dollar figure on human life.
We can have a public health strategy that is consistent with an economic one.
No one should be talking about social darwinism for the sake of the stock market.
Public health officials have also questioned the wisdom of rushing Americans back to work. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, for instance, agreed that the country faced a decision, but made the case that unless the virus is halted, there can be no economic rebound.
But there's no functioning healthcare with hospitals overwhelmed, no return to work with people terrified of a virus raging uncontrolled. There are two ways to end this. Let a vast swath of people catch covid which is unthinkable, or break the epidemic. We must choose the latter— Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) March 24, 2020
Even some Republicans who are normally supportive of Trump cited Gottlieb and questioned the logic of abandoning the containment strategy for the virus.
There will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what’s necessary to stop the virus. https://t.co/AchwfXtuLi— Liz Cheney (@Liz_Cheney) March 24, 2020
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine also made clear his view that the government’s first priority should be saving lives. “Protecting people and protecting our economy are not mutually exclusive,” DeWine said at a Tuesday press briefing. “The fact is, we save our economy by first saving lives. And we have to do it in that order.”
It’s unclear whether Trump has tempered his view on how fast to try to return the country to normal. At Monday’s briefing he spoke of making a decision in a week’s time, but in a Tuesday interview with Fox News, he vowed to have the economy “opened up and just raring to go by Easter.”
For other Republicans, that time line was an acceptable compromise in the debate over the coronavirus cost-benefit analysis.
I am glad the debate is now balanced and the understanding of the mid- to longer-term health consequences as a result of suicides, domestic violence, deprivation, and lives of poverty as a result of a prolonged lock down are being taken into account.— Senator Bob Corker (@SenBobCorker) March 24, 2020
Cover thumbnail photo: Evan Vucci/AP
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