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Donald Trump's reckless behaviour after COVID diagnosis earns him 'super spreader' title

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President Trump leaves Walter Reed medical centre on October 5, 2020. Image: The White House/Flickr

"Don't be afraid of COVID," U.S. President Donald Trump admonished Americans as he left Walter Reed Hospital after treatment for COVID-19. "Don't let it dominate your life." Gone was the pale and shaken leader who had been whisked away from the White House three days earlier, masked, to be hospitalized. He reappeared more confident than ever, swaggering with his seeming invincibility. 

Given his attacks on mask-wearing, Trump's braggadocio can only increase irrational behaviour by his supporters, who have believed his assurances that the virus would "go away" like the mists of morning. They have shunned masks, social distancing, and other self-protection measures, on his say-so. While his illness sounded like karma to his critics, his recovery sounds like a "powerful symbol of America's recovery" to Fox News commentator Steve Hilton.  

On the other hand, critics call out the president's stumbling start, passing the buck, cash grabs in the government's first $3-trillion relief package, and general abdication of responsibility to care for people -- which left the virus free to rage through the population.

Although health inspectors winced at the dozen or more infections traced back to Trump's September 26 gathering in the Rose Garden, "The day was only the latest example of the president and his allies flouting basic safety practices," writes Olga Khazan and Russell Berman in The Atlantic. "And in the absence of preventive measures, the coronavirus spreads easily. "

"An examination of relevant national statistics shows that the Trump pandemic response has led to the unnecessary deaths of more than 100,000 Americans," writes physicist Michael Riordan, in the progressive Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. After comparing the U.S. response to Germany, Japan and Canada, Riordan finds a large "mortality difference [which] can legitimately be called 'American carnage.' Over 1,000 Americans per day were tragically and needlessly dying from COVID-19 this summer -- versus three to seven per day in Canada and Germany, and less than one per day in Japan."

At the time of writing, the U.S. has lost more than 212,000 Americans from COVID-19, accounting for one-fifth the global death toll of 1.06 million. Astoundingly, the ultra-secure White House has become a pandemic hot spot, with a cluster of at least 22 infected residents and staff, and up to 123 front-line workers in the Capitol Complex who have tested positive or were presumed to have had COVID.

The situation raises serious questions about the way the pandemic has seemed to follow the president's movements. While others self-isolate, Trump has organized big events where people crowd together, maskless. His diagnosis came "following a busy week during which the president interacted with people at events in eight states and Washington, D.C.," as USA Today reported. 

Indeed, Trump has been campaigning for re-election since he first took the Oval Office. The president held two large rallies and 20 airport hangar rallies between June and his October 2 hospitalization, in states including Arizona, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia and Nevada. 

Brookings Institute reports that "17 states added at least 1,000 cases per 100,000 population [in July and August] -- of which, 15 voted for Trump in 2016. They were led by Florida, which had a two-month rate exceeding 2,000 new cases per 100,000 residents, followed by Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia."

After Trump's June 20 Tulsa event, several prominent Republicans who attended tested positive for COVID. One was former presidential candidate Herman Cain, who died a scant few weeks afterwards.   

On June 23, Trump held a rally at Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona. Two weeks later, on July 7, Phoenix NBC TV reported the third day in a row with 3,000 new cases, and a record 117 deaths in one day. On September 8, the president held an airport hangar rally in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. On September 25, Winston-Salem saw a sharp one-day spike in reported cases, 5422, up from the typical 1,000 to 1,200 daily cases.

After the September 26 Rose Garden event, at least three dozen people who attended tested positive. They include the president and first lady, both his current and former media spokeswomen, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and three senators.

"How we behave over the next few months will determine whether we have 270,000 dead Americans by the end of this year, or over 400,000 dead Americans," warned Peter Barnes of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College. Proper masking, social distancing, testing and contact tracing could keep the number low. But, says Baylor, "the president has sent a message to the American people: 'Let's go for the 400,000 number.'"

In fact, Trump has entertained so-called solutions such as "herd immunity," which could involve the deaths of two million people or more. His indifference to others' welfare showed again when he attended public events maskless even after he tested positive, and when as a patient with an active disease, he left the hospital and had secret service officers drive him around to wave at his supporters.

Nor did his apparent swift recovery endear him with the public. In the presidential election, his disapproval rating remained over 50 per cent, according to FiveThirtyEight, and his approval rating dropped to 41 per cent. As Abraham Lincoln said, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

Of all the perverse puzzles that 2020 has presented to us, surely this is one of the strangest: a candidate who breaks the health guidelines to share his message and his virus with his loyal supporters, and with the greater public. A candidate, in short, whose reckless behaviour is killing his own voters. Heart specialist Dr. Jonathan Reiner, of Washington D.C., told Don Lemon on his CNN show that he thought Trump had the virus for at least a week before he was tested: "I think he was the super spreader."

So the U.S. president needs a new name, befitting his extraordinary survivor status. What shall we call him? COVID Donald? Typhoid Trump? Benedict COVID? Ha! Here's a name: the Pied Piper of Pandemic. He wouldn't even need extra make-up.

Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local column in Calgary for four years. She was editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004-2013.

Image: The White House/Flickr

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