We could only see the abiding fiction of the overly frayed relation of government to nation, a relation at which Trump had assiduously hacked at for years with abandon, now suddenly seemed like something that we missed desparately and wondered where it had gone. Afraid to mention restrictive actions or quarantines to his base, he merely implored the nation to follow local authorities, knowing that there was no way that a reduced hamstrung government and public heath agency could confront a viral outbreak of this scale, occasioning numerous administration officials qualify and correct the policies that he had announced soon after he had finished speaking, trying to remap, or better shoehorn, the global pandemic into purely local terms, by asking his audience to listen to local authorities–presumably because there was no longer a national one.
What was most striking in the address to the nation was what wasn’t present in it, rather than what was–an emphasis on traveling less; social distancing; immediate travel bans; washing hands; self-quarantining; and a healthy does of grim steadfast resolve. There was no mention or explanation of the critical national shortage of coronavirus test kits, the homeless communities without medical care, all taboo topics for a President desperate to be seen as a leader, with little appetite for planning policy. It felIt taboo to mention health insurance, health facilities, or cautionary statements about false rumors on twitter–a topic of sensitivity!–or the coming changes to our imagined abundance, its lid already being ripped off by frenzied mass-purchases of food and household supplies, or the inevitable stresses on local water systems as a result of requisite repeated hand washing, and an overload of capacities for storing waste.
We were left with dizzying anxiety at the utter inability to conceive of what the future might bring, and little sense of guidelines to move ahead with calm save from being directed to dismiss our concerns. President Trump may have aspire to calm, but he was challenged in trying to occupy a stage persona he had never really inhabited or valued. While he became U.S. President by reveling based on his gut over more than seven years, it became evident that there was no ship of state, as we were all passengers, strapped in on the same pilotless rudderless voyage he was, into entirely unknown water, without any necessary resources to cope. His imperial declaration of a restoration of peace in the face of the virus seemed preposterous, an echo of social media declarations of the need to insulate the United States from Ebola, on Twitter, in ways that led to his apoplectic abundance of all caps–“STOP THE FLIGHTS!” in 2014–to unseat President Obama’s public authority as if to unsteady Obama’s projection of calm and resolve–
–his habitual recourse to alarmism tinged with indignation to conceal minimal knowledge of infectious disease beyond his own deep sense of fears. Even if the so many more Americans were already infected with Coronavirus than Ebola, its viral transmission was entirely different, and, despite assuring Americans that the folks at the CDC were amazed how quickly he “got it” by his preternaturally precocious adeptness at statistics and epidemiology, his twitter fingers could assure the nation and get the markets to once more rise.
The vain hope seems to be repeated, in increasingly abacadabric fashion, before the graph of economic-freefall on a truly terrifying scale that he had never imagined was even possible, but which China, his economic competitor, had succumbed, in ways that planted clear doubts in anyone who tried to argue that the virus was willed or manufactured but he Chinese government to inflict global chaos on America: this chart was our future, not only as a spillover, or a shift in markets and production, but as a blow to household wealth and economy o fthe sort that would put his own continued residency in the Oval Office into question–perhaps the only thing that Trump really cares about, anyways.
Was he just having a hard time containing his fear? Was that why the hands were grasped so tightly, the voice seemed reduced to a drugged somnolence? The backstory was one of clear cause and effect. Having relentlessly cut the CDC budget, dismantled the pandemic task force assembled by his nemesis, his predecessor Barack Obama, he wanted to demonstrate that it was, in fact, useless, and all we need is common sense–not experts! It was truly unclear who the declaration of ceasing flights from Europe was aimed at, especially as no control over visiting European travelers had been at all in place for months, save perhaps taking temperatures of some arrivals at JFK. Echoing the bans on travel that he had enacted in the names of national safety–using nations as the basis to parse non-national groups of terror, as if this made sense–
As if he reacted to being informed told that “Europe” had displaced China as the site of the contagion’s transmission, he had addressed the nation by introducing the very sort of cordon sanitaire of the sort that he imagined would inspire assurance. Restricting airplane flights out of Europe, as if this was the same situation as restricting flights from Africa to protect the nation against Ebola, seemed sufficient to restore balance and tranquility ended the grim task of delivering a pubic address before he got back to bed or to twitter–as he soon did, issuing a set of delayed corrections–or whatever it is he does, or maybe just wash his hands and get ready to hunker down, after checking on his personal supply of hand sanitizer that is being probably stockaded in the White House basement in bulk.
How did he even gain his bearings? Was he bemoaning the fact that he had gutted the CDC and the staff he needs to ascertain the scale of the virus’ impact and presence, or did he just want to affirm that he could control it all, single handedly? As there is no Chief Data Officer or Data Scientist any more in the United States, able to help coordinate the Precision Medical Initiative, since Obama’s team of cybersecurity advisors resigned en masse; Donald Trump has shown an easier way to guide the nation, more akin to building a wall, rooted in the nerve endings in his gut, free from being laden by claims to expertise, even this time it was with our allies, and was performed without advance notice.
By running the gamut on inaccuracies, mistakes, and deceptive statements that bordered on lies–“we have been in frequent contact with our allies” while foreign leaders were so cut off guard that they expressed disapproval at a move Trump took so “unilaterally and without consultation.” To be sure, we saw a greater concentration of COVID-19 cases in Europe, but isn’t the problem containing its spread at home?
Trump’s address looked over the utter absence of any infrastructure or preparation that would facilitate ending of international flights, and stocks cratered as most all health officials noted that banning flights was not only useless but the worst possible response at at time when attention should focus on testing and making tests available throughout the nation, and ensuring their distribution to vulnerable populations, even as we returned to mantras of social distancing that appeal to self-preservation and individual survival, even if they are cast as a collective need.
The address buried endemic suspicion of funding pandemic preparedeness among Republicans legislators for infectious diseases like the Swine Flu or SARS, given the pressing fears of pandemic infections. National readiness for epidemics was long reduced and in critical ways. In cutting pandemic funding by almost a billion and calling it “pork” just before the H1N1 outbreak, Republicans effectively hamstrung national response–even as Canadian Health authorities sensibly created a reserve of 55 million N95 masks, at little cost, in a bid for preparedness, while the United States faces a worrisome shortage of masks, ventilators, or medical readiness. If H1N1 killed over 12,000 Americans, and 150,000 worldwide, the declaration of that global pandemic for which few had immunity posed questions of vaccine distribution and preparation, creating a basis for coordinating national responses to viral outbreaks of global scale as international emergencies, demanding that all nations heighten readiness and surveillance for influenza-like viral outbreaks never before observed in human subjects, and to which resistance is weak.
Much as we have learned that Britain concealed its failure of a major test of pandemic readiness that the government ran three years ago, in worries of hindsight of H1N1 that the National Health Services faced, whose results were kept secret, the concealment of longstanding opposition to preparation for pandemic resources was near systematic. Although WHO had sought to map national focal points in a web of viral transmission crossing national borders, Trump reverted to affirming the power of national authority to secure the country. The stunning absence of any update on epidemiological investigation of transmission, human to human or human to surface, and indeed periods of incubation, and best practices, was as dizzyingly disorienting as the lack of a coordinated response to the virus, as the sense it was commensurate only with authoritarian measures of closing borders, eliminating pathways, and dangers was clouded in an absence of a more medically expert briefing.
Not only was access to asylum immediately suspended, but refugees detained as they seek asylum without clean soap and water or masks, let alone hand sanitizer or facilities for hand washing, in the pandemic; to the contrary, conditions for the virus’ spread were encouraged by crowded conditions that hinder social distancing. Poor sanitary conditions seem to have prepared for a disaster waiting to happen–all too similarly to the crowded conditions among incarcerated populations–as notifications from the CDC war removed from migrant facilities, before Trump’s address, and.calls to release those incarcerated most at risk, migrants in detention who were identifiably at risk were ignored. The impossibility of social distancing has led to increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in the staff and among detained in migrant centers, where no clear advice or policy to deal with outbreaks of infection exists save isolation. Are such sites constructed as possible Petri dishes of future viral contraction and communication, waiting for infection to explode?
If these are the sites where infections grow concentrated, the very sites of confinement will pose real dangers to the nation and general public far greater than Mexican migrants ever posed, and a far more substantive threat than the dangers that Donald Trump associated throughout his political career with “illegal” migrants crossing the southwestern border. Trump’s did not speak to incarcerated populations; he seemed to remap the spread of disease by magical thinking. His rhetoric of border building and national safety had only escalated, shifting from the migrant to th e pandemic, seeking to pivot campaign promises “to protect Americans and protect this country,” as the former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement put it, to shutter the southern border and suspend asylum. Even as the number of reported cases of infection crested above a thousand, confirming the home-grown nature what he sought to externalize the “Chinese virus” already had planted local seeds.
The global nature of the pandemic was impossible to process through border-drawing, but the limited repertoire of responses and logic seem to have led Trump to redraw borders repeatedly. By only revealing the extent to which Trump has consistently intimidated his own advisors from ever speaking to him, and refused obstinately to process their advice, we had a clear sense that the image of stern-faced gravity was worse than an Emperor Has No Clothes moment; as it showed him a Chief Executive more out of touch than ever imagined, cut off from the world behind walls of his own making behind which he had long lived. Trump urged us to create still more protective barriers to staunch the floodgates, even as COVID-19 was in all of our neighborhoods–as we were forced to await the requisite period for contraction and incubation to realize the uptick in the number of cases of the virus being already contracted. Did Trump’s cabinet suppress or forgo the possibility to create better national monitoring, allocation of resources, and local preparation to limit the virus’ spread.