In a roundtable with essential workers on the first night of the Republican National Convention, President Donald Trump once again referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus.”
“I don’t want to go through all the names because some people may get insulted,” he said.
Trump didn’t dwell on China for very long ― and no wonder. In that country, which Trump has repeatedly blamed for COVID-19 in racist terms, the local transmission rate of the coronavirus has been close to zero for so long that life has mostly returned to normal.
Wuhan, the city where the virus was first detected, recently held a pool party teeming with thousands of revelers. Restaurants, bars and movie theaters have reopened throughout the country. College students in Beijing are headed back to campus.
China, a country of 1.4 billion people, has had approximately 85,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and fewer than 4,700 deaths.
In contrast, the United States, a country of 330 million, has led the world with over 5.7 million confirmed cases of the disease, and over 177,000 known deaths. A disproportionate number of the fatalities have been people of color. In dozens of states, infection rates are at or near peak levels. Businesses across the nation are still shuttered or operating below capacity, while the unemployment rate remains higher than it ever was during the Great Depression.
By almost every salient measure used to gauge a country’s well-being, the United States under Trump has utterly failed its coronavirus test.
But the first night of the RNC presented a largely unrecognizable version of this reality. In a series of speeches and interviews with Americans affected by COVID-19, the RNC falsely showcased a president who’d grasped the scope of the crisis early, marshaled the nation’s resources, cut through bureaucratic red tape, accelerated useful treatments and set the U.S. on a path to recovery.
“From the very beginning, Democrats, the media and the World Health Organization got coronavirus wrong,” a voice-over declared in one of the first clips played at the convention, sampling quotes from Democratic lawmakers in February saying the situation was still under control. “One leader took decisive action to save lives: President Donald Trump.”
Very little of this programming was accurate. As Dr. Vin Gupta, a global health policy expert, put it on MSNBC: “To say that 170,000 souls lost in our country up to now is success, by any measure, is fantasy. It’s disrespectful to the families who have lost loved ones, to front-line clinicians who put their lives at risk. It’s just fantasy. It’s propaganda.”
Until polls suggested Trump’s handling of the pandemic could hurt his chances of re-election, the president had broadly ignored or downplayed the threat of COVID-19. Throughout the first several months of the pandemic, Trump repeatedly compared the coronavirus to the common flu and incorrectly predicted it would “miraculously” disappear by April when the weather warmed up. He bragged about restricting U.S. borders to travelers from China and much of Europe — even as his administration failed to expand testing or secure proper protective equipment for front-line workers. At the same time, Trump-aligned lawmakers repeatedly blocked economic relief measures that would have made it easier for Americans to stay home and avoid spreading the virus.
The shortage of personal protective equipment has remained a problem. In April, medical workers lacking proper gear turned to GoFundMe to raise money for their supplies. Just last month, nursing home workers said the federal government sent them garbage bag-style plastic gowns without hand holes, masks with breakable straps and child-sized rubber gloves. A database made available last week has tracked more than 900 deaths of health care workers lost on the front lines of COVID-19.
Trump used dozens of press conferences and rallies to downplay the dangers of COVID-19 — even months into the pandemic, even after more than 100,000 Americans had died. He hyped the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure for COVID-19, despite a lack of medical evidence and the risk of severe side effects. He was so insistent in his dismissal of public health guidelines around preventative measures that he wasn’t seen wearing a mask in public until July ― a simple protective move that state leaders had already been requiring of their residents for months.
The president’s optimistic remarks about the crisis have often been at odds with reality. During a June speaking engagement in Arizona, which had just seen a 94% increase in new cases, Trump declared this was “hopefully the end of the pandemic.” More than 50,000 additional Americans have died since then.
The testing capacity of the United States is also at a breaking point. As parts of the country reopen, the volume and accuracy of rapid tests are essential to doing so safely. But as multiple states have reported, the testing supply chain is nearly overwhelmed, as it has been through much of the pandemic in the U.S. “This is very bad,” Michael Mina, a Harvard epidemiology professor, told The Atlantic. “If you don’t get results back in a day or so, outbreaks really can’t be stopped without isolating and quarantining all contacts preemptively.”
On Monday, the first night of the GOP convention, the party offered two health professionals speaking slots to praise Trump’s response: an oral surgeon — whose only experience with COVID-19 was that he and a colleague contracted it — and a nurse who thanked him for expanding access to telehealth.
“As a health care professional, I can tell you without hesitation, Donald Trump’s quick action and leadership saved thousands of lives during COVID-19,” said Amy Johnson Ford, a registered nurse who worked as a crisis COVID relief nurse in Texas and New York. “And the benefits of that response extend far beyond coronavirus.”
Ford praised Trump extensively for removing regulatory hurdles to telehealth during the pandemic — a commonsense move that any president, regardless of party, would likely have done under similar circumstances. What Ford didn’t mention is that millions of uninsured Americans cannot afford any medical treatment, whether it’s in person or over a video call.
There was no one to praise Trump’s national guidelines on social distancing or his robust testing program, because those things don’t exist. In the absence of real wins, a clip at the RNC lauded Trump for his effort to fast-track a coronavirus vaccine, which is still in a trial phase. While the U.S. clings to the promise of a quick vaccine, other countries have nearly eradicated the disease with the same social distancing measures Trump won’t enforce.
Another speaker, small-business owner Tanya Weinreis, described Trump as a leader who answered her prayers by providing her with a Paycheck Protection Program loan, from a $650 billion loan program established by Congress on a bipartisan basis.
Weinreis did not mention that Republicans blocked the extension of a $600 weekly federal unemployment benefit, the COVID-19 economic relief measure that most directly affected out-of-work Americans.
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