The world has been watching the encroachment of the coronavirus closely ever since it emerged from Wuhan, China. Tens of thousands have been infected in 56 countries and counting, some of them lethally, and the virus appears to have a talent for evading even the most authoritarian quarantines. Supply lines out of China began to tremble, and then to quake, and then to break, until the global economy itself has begun to shake.
It is telling, then, that the first real notice Donald Trump took of the progress of the disease came after the stock market began tanking while he was in India. Put another way, he only started paying attention after capitalism caught the coronavirus, and the economic symptoms have since grown worse.
It is even more telling that he downplayed the probable spread of the disease at a thoroughly incoherent press conference on Wednesday, in which he bluntly contradicted experts from his own government who were standing right next to him in order to paint as rosy a picture as possible.
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Most telling of all, however, was his decision to place the astonishingly unqualified Mike Pence in charge of the U.S. response to the epidemic.
“Mike Pence literally does not believe in science,” said Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in response to Trump’s decision. “It is utterly irresponsible to put him in charge of U.S. coronavirus response as the world sits on the cusp of a pandemic. This decision could cost people their lives. Pence’s past decisions already have. He is not a medical doctor. He is not a health expert. He is not qualified nor positioned in any way to protect our public health.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s statement that Pence’s “past decisions” have cost people their lives refers to the vice president’s time as a member of Congress and as governor of Indiana, when he enabled the worst HIV outbreak in that state’s history. While in the House, he voted to defund Planned Parenthood in 2011. Two years later, the first-year governor allowed the Planned Parenthood facility in Scott County to close. It was the only HIV testing center in the county.
Some 20 percent of Scott County’s 24,000 residents live below the poverty line, and intravenous drug use has been a constant issue. By 2015, an HIV outbreak caused by infected users sharing needles became a public health crisis; at one point, 20 new cases of HIV per week were being reported.
In response, and despite pleading exhortations from fellow Indiana Republicans, Pence dragged his feet on instituting needle exchange. He ignored the scientific arguments for taking that action because he was “morally opposed” to the practice. Eventually Pence relented, needle exchange was allowed, and the HIV outbreak was contained. Two months had passed between the outbreak and Pence’s decision, which he finally came to after days of prayer.
“Trump is a Trojan horse for a cabal of vicious zealots who have long craved an extremist Christian theocracy,” Jeremy Scahill wrote for The Intercept in November of 2016, “and Pence is one of its most prized warriors.” His extremist anti-science roots run deep, ranging from his denunciation of contraception, to his attacks on women’s reproductive health, to his doubts about the connection between cigarettes and cancer. Pence has advocated that LGBTQ people be subjected to so-called “conversion therapy,” another perversion of science that has done incalculable damage.
Pence, in short, is a hardcore Christian supremacist whose first instinct is to deny scientific facts if they brush up against the hard shell of his extremist views. Putting a man like that in charge of a crisis like this, in which science is the best weapon we have, is a gross miscalculation and a wildly irresponsible act.
Yet, of course, in Trumpworld, the less something makes sense, the more it is likely to happen.
Trump is a self-described germaphobe who reportedly makes his aides, or anyone else for that matter, practically bathe in Purell hand sanitizer before entering his presence. His frantic reaction to the Ebola outbreak in 2014 further underscores his fear of disease. Why would a man with such an ingrained terror of disease tap someone as vividly unqualified as Mike Pence to run point during this crisis?
The answer, I suspect, lies in the looming ballot booths of November, and in the wallets people will carry when they vote. From Trump’s perspective, the global coronavirus epidemic is first and foremost a personal political problem. A strong economy is the last, best reason a lot of people have for keeping him around next year, his dubious claims of credit for that economy notwithstanding. If the economy falters because of the spread of the disease, all he will have left is his unswerving base. Putting Pence out front on this issue strengthens his position with those voters.
Despite Trump’s happy claims to the contrary, the horse may be well out of the barn when it comes to containing a large coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. A new case in California appears to be the first in this country involving a patient with “no known travel to a country where a virus outbreak has been taking place, or connection to a known patient,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
More ominously, a whistleblower has reported that officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) “sent more than a dozen workers to receive the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, without proper training for infection control or appropriate protective gear,” according to The Washington Post. “The workers did not show symptoms of infection and were not tested for the virus.”
This, after HHS Secretary Alex Azar informed Rep. Jan Schakowsky during a Wednesday appearance before the House Ways and Means Committee that a coronavirus vaccine may not be affordable for everyone. According to Secretary Azar, the Trump administration is hesitant to place price caps on a vaccine out of concern for private sector investment in the research. In a nation where tens of millions live without health insurance, the potential for price gouging is an immediate threat. Ask anyone with diabetes who has been forced to ration their insulin about the experience.
To make a terrible pun, these facts bode ill for hopes of effective containment.
A wise president would take pains to arm citizens with the facts. A wise president would tell people to take precautions and prepare for possible disruptions in the daily routines of life. In other words, a wise president would say exactly what officials from the CDC said at that Wednesday press conference, right before Trump told everyone the exact opposite.
A wise president would also not gut the agencies tasked to deal with precisely this type of situation, but that horse is also out of the barn and far down the road.
It is a grim irony that Trump’s usual practice of whistling past the graveyard may come to cost him more politically than the outbreak itself if his own actions have exposed the country to greater peril, which seems more certain by the hour.
Mike Pence will be no help in this, and as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, a lot of people are probably going to get hurt because of it. Slapping a muzzle on government scientists, as the administration did Thursday, is a frighteningly poor second step. Tapping Pence to lead this effort was the first.
This article has been updated.