These same problems, which could be forecast in mid-March and have since occurred in New York and other cities as health workers in America went into crisis mode, were not mentioned, as Trump tried to summon a fantasy world in which Presidential decisions had protected the nation from a bullet, as the virus spread across the nation, without any sense of national direction or policy. While Trump vaunts his abilities as a public communicator, the utter lack of empathy radiating from the Oval Office in the national emergency, far more habituated to disdain the failure of others than to construct a testing system in the United States–which, in early March, had not even begun, unlike in the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan South Korea, and, of course, China, although the United States had rejected World Health Organization testing kits for coronavirus infections.
Trump had adopted a massive offensive of denial of danger of what he cast as a partisan plot, even as hundreds of thousands left Wuhan daily for all to see–although genetic analysis of viral strains reveals the greatest load of viral strains that arrived in New York were from Europe, mostly Americans who were allowed to bring the virus “home” as travelers were only asked if they visited China and Iran, the only sites the State Department had identified as dangerous, based on sovereignty more than risk–and a rush of Americans returned from Europe after his declaration of travel restrictions–again casting urgency of limiting global travel in national terms, rather than risk as of mid-February, and ensuring the nation–anbd introducing Italy into a level three “high risk” category only on February 28, after the northern Italian lockdown was extended to a second week.
Linking the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 to “China” seemed both as old a strategy of displacing agency and origin of a disease in with man-made toponymy that blossomed in the Renaissance definition of sexually-transmitted syphilis as the “mal francese” by Italian writers or “Italian disease” in France, or the “Polish disease” in Russia, or “Christian disease” among Turks, and Scots as the “Spanyie pokis” in an age of far more reduced global mobility, when identifying neighbors with disease whom one experienced collective contact with–mercenaries flooding the peninsula during the Italian wars, and missionaries flooding the Holy Land–with the disease’s probable origins in the New World, or the global contact it provoked. If syphillis was convincingly contracted among French invaders of Naples. the broad brushstrokes of contamination have been replaced by global vigilance and obligations of transparency, but invoking sovereignty or sovereign leadership that were deployed in Trump’s address to the nation seem of limited relevance to understanding the virus’ pandemic spread.
Why was there such a lack of international cooperation, and was it do to the continued denial by the President that “so far we have lost nobody to coronavirus in the United States” at the end of February, as if he read data visualizations as a sports competition; after the first American did, he assured the nation that “healthy individuals should be able to fully recover” promoting a sense of vigor as if the robust bodies of Americans had nothing to fear, omitting inequalities or disparities in our national health and adhering to national terms. But presumptive positive cases of infection in our borders could no longer be denied. Nor could he claim to have shielded the nation from, even as he patted himself on the back for closing borders that did little to pause the global creep of the disease. The exponential growth of infections within the United States should have been the focus of Trump’s address to the nation.
Only four days after the President of the United States had attempted to assure the nation “The risk is low for the average American,” separating the nation from the world, as the Dow tumbled over 2,000 points in a day, Trump did a real 360 to assume a sense of gravity as the lack of preparation of the American health system for the outbreak of a novel Coronavirus for which no course of action existed. He had earlier accused Democrats of having self-servingly fabricated “far beyond what the facts would warrant,” but the explanation of the state of events no longer held on a global stage. It seemed poll-tested. Democrats were far more concerned than the Republicans, and we wondered if COVID-19 was to emerge as yet another fault line to divide the United States, more than an object of national concern–cringing at its consequences.
Although the most recent polls of mid-March showed a dangerous convergence and narrowing of a gap between Democrats and Republicans in their level of concern for the globalizing coronavirus, COVID-19, Trump relished the public spectatorship the crisis placed him in, and he summoned strength to maintain composure hand clenched, his gravity punctuated as his thumbs jumped with some insecurity at assuming a role of such gravitas, as he assumed a deep gravelly baritone of persistence, unlike his usual taste for animated gestures, featuring a travel ban to Europe and some assistance to small businesses.
This was a concession. For President Trump had cast the coronavirus as purely a distraction, at rallies and public speeches, shoehorning the global pandemic into purely national terms. But Trump agreed to social distancing as a collective policy to the global pandemic. But the illusion that containment in hotspots of the virus’ arrival in late February already assumed new proportions as its spread through asymptomatic individuals was realized, late in the game, and the problem of mapping the contagion grew, replaced by questions of when a lockdown would begin emerged.
But was Trump even trying to respond to the global scope of the disease? Probably not. He had dismissed advice of the leader of his Coronavirus Response Team in mid-February about the pandemic’s dangers, dismissed as alarmist, as if limiting travel from China was recognized as hardly providing a credible buffer to the pathogen’s spread, and the sense of buffer it provided could hardly be guaranteed to be the sort of “wall” he imagined: a pandemic hosted by individual bodies, rather than confined to a metric that was “counted” by bodies, suggested that pathogens were swirling about the country, in ways that the simplest visualization readily affirmed. But only days before he addressed the nation, and even before the World Helath Organization declared a pandemic, the massive shock of the biggest fall in oil prices in almost thirty years must have triggered scenarios and narratives in Trump’s personal memory, of a Carter Presidency, that raised alarms which called for something like the rollout of a new Reality TV show of Presidential leadership, although the only script he really had was of remapping national boundaries and security.
The problem was, of course, that the pandemic was global, or globalized, and the value of national boundaries was more akin to static than a wall of defense that Trump had promised in late February campaign rallies. The problem of enlisting the tired logic of borders was possible only by removing charts from the maps, treating them as free floating signifiers, and rallying the crowds by false claims of empowerment that bracketed the virus’ global spread with a yellowing picture of global grandeur.
The lack of national differentiation in a simple Tableaux visualization seems to create a picture whose interconnected nature could not be denied, but was difficult to process, and indeed to present what that might mean for a constituency schooled in America First. The early February attempt to assuage anxiety while accepting credit that “We pretty much shut it down in coming from China” was not only demonstrably false, but the rise of infections, absence of testing, and proximity to anything like a vaccine was evident.
To be sure, the problem of processing seemed to recapitulate an epistemic divide of infection diseases, setting them up against each other as competing paradigms, as the notion of miasmatic contagion that Trump had long cast immigration was in competition with acknowledgement of the nature of an infectious disease–and a virus that was transmitted in ways we were yet in the process of fathoming, as the ability to detect the relation between confirmed cases of infections and those able to transmit the virus was not even clear. The same advisers who described Trump as “subdued” as he tried to connect the relation of responses to the virus to the danger of economic damage as he seemed only to focus on the danger the novel coronavirus assumed a reality for his electoral prospects in the future may have increased his inability to process the disease as a threat to the public good in and of itself that he had allowed to sneak up on the nation of which he was nominally in charge. As if such leadership was not part of the bargain, Trump suggested (he knew it was not true) that testing was about to begin, and would be soon available, that America had the best health care system in the world, that this was the safest place to be in a pandemic–even if all of those assurances have increasingly been questioned, and were already quite uncertain.
Why was the nation that provided such great health care without any testing kits to provide to its populace, and indeed had a health care system hardly able to provide care to all, having left much of its population without adequate health insurance, and no means to track the level of infections within its borders? Could the economy stay afloat in ways that would enable social distancing to continue, and allow workers to continue receiving paychecks in the pandemic, or would Trump push the nation into the oblivion of bankruptcy, believing he would be able to navigate out of it, as he had in his own businesses in the past? Were we finally feeling, in other words, the consequences of a President without experience in public office, more able to manipulate economic fictions than accept responsibility?\