The first time most of us learned that President Donald Trump was thinking about relaxing existing measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic was on Sunday night, just before midnight. That’s when his tweet shouted in all caps, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.”
He went on to say he would make a decision at the end of the current 15-day period of CDC guidelines recommending social distancing.
The idea to change course may have come from his favorite network, Fox News, where a Sunday morning host suggested that when it comes to fighting the coronavirus, “The cure is worse than the disease.” The question for the rest of us is, can we trust Trump to make a decision of this magnitude? To be blunt, the question is whether relaxing restrictions will lead to illness and death for large numbers of Americans.
Trusting Trump with this decision is all the more unnerving because we have seen him at the White House podium behaving irresponsibly. His performances have included not just the usual self-serving boasts and the cringe-inducing attacks on the media and his political enemies, but something else; something new and disturbing.
For days Trump has used the daily briefings to promote an unproven medical combination to fight Covid-19, declaring, “I’m a smart guy,” and explaining he has “a feeling,” that the combination works. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s foremost expert in infectious diseases, has repeatedly taken to the microphone to say there is no proof the medications work, and still Trump persists. As a result, public health officials, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and a state health commissioner have had to waste precious time to clean up the President’s misinformation. Three people in Nigeria have poisoned themselves following medical advice from this real estate developer-turned politician, and so many have bought the medications that shortages have developed for those who have lupus and other illnesses for which the medications in question have been proven effective.
That’s just one reason why it is disturbing to hear Trump apparently preparing to disagree with public health experts again, this time not just on whether we should take some pills, but on whether we should disregard the opinion of the world’s top epidemiologists and let Americans return to work en masse while a pandemic is raging.
To be fair, it’s understandable that the President is concerned. The stakes are enormous, not just for him personally and politically — this is after all an election year — but for everyone in the country. Trump, rightly, is deeply concerned about what’s happening to the economy. He’s not alone. Soaring unemployment, higher than during the Great Depression, and a crushing economic contraction, could occur as a result of efforts to stop or at least slow the spread of a pandemic that threatens to kill millions.
But, does it make sense to lift restrictions while the virus is raging across the world, including in the United States?
On Monday morning, as Trump added kindling to his Twitter fire — retweeting ideas from a devoted follower that only high-risk people take precautions and everyone else return to work, WHO warned that the pandemic is accelerating. That’s true worldwide. The number of confirmed cases in the US, as testing gains traction, is exploding. More than 40,000 cases at this writing — surely many more as you read this — more than 500 dead –100 of them in one day — and the numbers are on track to continue growing exponentially.
It took a long time for Trump to acknowledge that Covid-19 is a major threat. But the toll we have seen on the economy and on the stock market — until now his favorite gauge of presidential prowess — is making him rethink his decision to listen to the experts, however reluctantly.
In his Monday evening briefing, Trump was simultaneously defiant and dismissive. When asked if any of the doctors on his team agree with the idea of easing guidelines, he cracked, “If it were up to the doctors, they may say let’s keep it shut down. Let’s shut down the entire world.” So, no, they do not agree.
Trump was flippant about the risks. “You look at automobile accidents, which are far greater than any numbers we’re talking about,” he suggested by way of justification, “That doesn’t mean we’re going to tell everybody no more driving cars.”
Car accidents are not contagious. If every car accident produced two or three more accidents, and the curve projected that millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of Americans would smash their cars in a matter of just a few weeks or months, with hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions dying, you bet we would tell people to stop driving until we figure out how to solve the problem.
The virus can be stopped by keeping it from spreading. That’s how we suffocate it. That’s how we reignite the economy. Widespread testing, including for antibodies to see who has already had it and has immunity, could make all the difference.
Trump’s wish to see the economy return to growth is shared by the American people. But the cause of the economic crisis, as none other than Sen. Lindsey Graham noted, is the virus. This is a cause and effect situation. To save the economy we need to stop the virus. Trump already tried to stop it by denying it was a problem.
The new plan he is considering could prove just as ineffective and just as deadly. The decision on how to move forward should be left in the hands of the experts.
Editor’s note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review.