President Donald Trump holds a copy of the president's coronavirus guidelines brochure at a coronavirus (COVID-19) update briefing on Monday, March 23, 2020, in the White House. Image: Shealah Craighead/White House/Flickr

Yesterday, I wrote that free-market fundamentalism will make it difficult for the U.S. to handle the COVID-19 crisis effectively. Later the same day, Donald Trump proved my point. 

On Monday evening, the U.S. president told incredulous journalists that the “cure” for the COVID-19 pandemic — massive social distancing — has been causing too much damage to the United States’ economy and will have to end in a matter of weeks, or perhaps days, but certainly not months. 

Just a few days earlier the president had told reporters — hewing to expert medical opinion — that the measures to contain the virus might have to last into the summer. 

Now — in the words of Trump’s chief economic advisor, Larry Kudlow — the U.S. administration has decided “we’re gonna have to make some difficult trade-offs.”

Kudlow, who appears to be the chief advocate for Trump’s new economy-before-health policy, previously worked as a Wall Street financial analyst and as a chain-smoking, opinionated, mid-level official in the Reagan administration. But he made his name as a loud and boorish stock market tout on the business television network CNBC. 

When reporters asked Trump what Kudlow meant by “difficult trade-offs,” the president tried to brush it off, muttering something about Wall Street bankers having to be careful about touching door handles. 

Shortly after that, we got an honest — if chilling — answer from the 69-year old Republican lieutenant-governor of Texas, Dan Patrick. In an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, the Texas politician and ardent Trump supporter said he worried more about the economic inconvenience to his grandchildren than his own chances of dying from COVID-19. As a senior citizen, he was “all in,” Patrick said, with the president’s plan to get Americans back to work again.

Carlson wanted to make absolutely sure he had heard correctly. The Fox host point-blank asked Patrick if he was prepared to die, if necessary, in the interest of the economy. The answer was an unequivocal yes. 

Doctors be damned, says Trump

In his unhinged news conference, Trump admitted that his medical advisors were not onside with his new let’s-all-get-back-to-work-and-let-the-devil-take-the-hindmost policy. Indeed, two of those advisors, Surgeon General Jerome Adams and Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, were notable by their absence. 

Earlier on Monday the surgeon general, a Trump appointee, had issued the grave warning to all Americans that the pandemic was about to “get bad.” 

Confirmed cases in the U.S. are now over 46,000, more than half the total Chinese number. The U.S. population is about a quarter of China’s. On Monday, there were over 100 reported coronavirus related deaths in the U.S., the highest number for a single day since the pandemic began. Thomas Bossert, who served as Trump’s homeland security advisor, says we can now expect the U.S. to top the list of countries with most cases in one week.  

Deborah Birx, the U.S. coronavirus response coordinator, was the only doctor on stage with Trump at Monday’s news conference. She tried to skate around questions on the advisability of Trump’s idea that the U.S. should quickly end the measures in place to slow the spread of the disease.

Birx talked about the need to make decisions based on data, as South Korea did in its successful effort to fight the virus. 

The South Koreans did not resort to generalized quarantine-type measures. But they did something else on a large scale that the Americans have proven themselves incapable of doing. They tested massively, scrupulously tracing the contacts of those who had tested positive, and then acted accordingly. 

Trump talks about reaching a decision on ending the shutdown measures in a matter of days. Birx, on the other hand, talks, very carefully, about using data to determine if there might be a possibility of a more geographically targeted approach in the U.S.

But the key word here is data. It is not possible to imagine that within a matter of days the U.S. will have anywhere near the necessary data, in the form of test results, to know how dangerous and widespread the virus actually is in that country. 

A Wall Street consensus rules

At his news conference, the president blathered about the high rate of deaths from the conventional, seasonal flu, about traffic accidents, and even about the possibility that the slowdown in the economy could lead to a spike in suicides. People die in car accidents, he said, but we don’t stop driving. He referred to a notion of American exceptionalism, based not on that country’s supposed republican and democratic origins, but its economy, “the biggest the world’s ever seen.”

Some U.S. big business people have made similar arguments, notably Lloyd Blankfein, chairman of the giant investment banking firm Goldman Sachs. Within a very few weeks, the billionaire banker said, those with “lower risk” should return to work. In fact, although there are some dissenting U.S. business voices such as that of Neil Bradley of the U.S. chamber of commerce, there is growing consensus on Wall Street and among the right-wing economists who have Trump’s ear that U.S. anti-virus measures have been too severe and that the administration went overboard in heeding professional and expert medical advice. In the president’s words: “If you ask the doctors, they would keep the economy shut down for one or two years. We can’t do that.” 

The dissonance between Canada and the U.S. has never been greater. 

On the same day Trump was announcing that the economy takes precedence over people’s lives, the Canadian prime minister was scolding fellow citizens who refuse to follow strict social distancing guidelines. 

Justin Trudeau does not like the images he has seen of crowded parks in cities such as Montreal and Vancouver and he made it clear on Monday that the government was open to considering more coercive measures if persuasion does not work. Leading figures at the provincial level, such as Quebec’s premier François Legault, take the same view.

Troops in the streets ordering people around is not something we need in this country. 

But nor, based on all scientific and medical evidence, is it anywhere near time to get back to business as usual. 

The fact that Trump’s U.S. might be about to do that poses a grave threat not only to the health and well-being of the American people, it threatens the U.S.’s vast neighbour to the north as well. 

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image: Shealah Craighead/White House/Flickr

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...