Till May 3, more than 3.5 million Coronavirus positive cases have been reported globally with almost 2,50,000 lives lost to this Pandemic. 33 per cent of COVID-19 cases, and about 28 per cent of the fatalities (68,633) are reported from the US at the time of writing this article, according to John Hopkins University.
Thus, it has lost more lives to COVID-19 than its combined losses during Pearl Harbor (2,403) in 1941; 9/11 (2,977) in 2001; Hurricane Maria (2,977) in 2017, Afghan War (2,445) and Vietnam War (58,220).
Nearly 40 per cent of all COVID-19 cases and almost 48 per cent of all fatalities are reported from New York and New Jersey, the two epicentres of the outbreak. While many countries are grappling with the pandemic, it has nearly destabilised the everyday lives of the American population and its public health system. It will also single-handedly impact political fortunes of many leaders and herald political shifts.
Fortunes and shifts will be decided on two key aspects however: Did the leader respond to this pandemic effectively? And if the leader has a post-pandemic plan in place to reboot the country, reeling from an unprecedented loss of lives and the deep global recession being predicted by the IMF as worse as “the Great Depression.” It is early to conclusively analyse a problem this complex.
However, we focus on the first question, and argue that it is perhaps Trump’s nationalism that failed the US and interfered in developing an effective response strategy to this pandemic. The Trump administration failed to address the COVID-19 pandemic in a manner that would lessen the direct loss of human life as well as indirectly prevent the loss of livelihoods for the majority of Americans.
According to the Department of Labour, nearly 30 million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March, and other federal estimates project a staggering loss of 47 million jobs with the unemployment rate hitting close to 32%. Many commentators have critiqued Trump’s lacklustre response and his downplaying the Coronavirus on nearly three dozen occasions, calling early warnings as being alarmist, and going as far as even calling it “Democrats’ new hoax”.
Trump, touting the use of an anti-malaria drug (Hydroxychloroquine) flies in the face of the scientific community which has constantly warned against its use citing the lack of reliable evidence in treating COVID-19. While promoting a non-tested drug, the President might have claimed that “I’m not a doctor. But I have common sense”, perhaps missing Voltaire’s caveat, “common sense is not common,” and that it promotes a culture against science and medicine.
Less said about his prescription of using disinfectants and UV lights, the better. He dispenses medical advice with the intent of maintaining a highly particular, hyper-nationalistic definition of “American,” a definition rooted in suspicion of everything and anything even to the point of violence towards those that question his personal authority on the matter.
The death threats against the country’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci serves as an example of this cult of personality Trump has cultivated over four years. Trump’s nationalism also places himself at the centre with his actions promoting only his brand rather than the welfare of the American people - a trend seen in other majoritarian leaders that tend to cater to populist measures rather than an approach grounded in scientific problem solving.
Trump has viewed COVID-19 pandemic as yet another business venture applying typical busi- ness modeling – downplay liabilities while talking up assets. For this reason, the US government did not widely test in order to artificially deflate the infection rate in the initial days. This left state and federal public health organisations powerless to predict where outbreaks would occur and deploy resources where needed to contain the spread.
However, today the US is testing at a much higher rate of 21,742 per million population which is less than Russia (29,465) or Germany (30,400) but higher than South Korea (12,509), UK (17,771) and France (16,856). Trump focused on only the advertising portion of the business model and not the actual resource management like any good business would do. To assuage the cult of personality created around Trump’s nationalist narrative, the lieutenant gov- ernor of Texas went as far as to suggest that “Older people would rather die than let COVID-19 harm the US economy.”
Public single payer healthcare like in Germany allowed for wide testing in order to manage their resources for adequate care. They have a mutual trust between the government and the people that their needs will be met so people stay home from work without fear of losing their jobs or losing their homes if they seek medical help and can’t immediately pay for it.
Trump’s nationalistic response is also rooted in first, deflection of blame by calling COVID-19 a ‘Chinese virus’ much against the WHO best practices adapted to ‘minimise unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people,’ and second, now halting the country’s 20 per cent funding contribution to the WHO, accusing it of ‘bungling the response and failing to communicate the disease’s threat.’
Despite the current hyper-nationalistic swing across many majoritarian states, we must not lose sight that objective realities do exist, and exist well beyond the artificial faith and positivity jar- goning that populist leaders sell through grand marketing campaigns of promoting a cult of personality and propagan- da politics.
That reality is reflected in the loss of the lives of more than 100 doctors, families who have lost their loved ones and a death count on a ticker brought upon by this pandemic. There is no rudder to steer the ship of state. Some governors like New York’s Cuomo and California’s Newsom are trying to set off in the best lifeboats they can, trying to save all Americans under their administration and not just a select few from the sinking ship of the Trump administration.
(Manish Madan is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Stockton University, New Jersey. Laura Zucconi is Professor of History at Stockton University, New Jersey)