Donald Trump, makes for the most exceptional and compelling reading in the backdrop of his Administration’s efforts to deal with the coronavirus. His repeated assertions from January onwards that the coronavirus “will miraculously go away” has led to the American public being less prepared than it should have been and his Administration being slow off the block. It’s a good thing to have a POTUS brimming with confidence it’s another to have one brimming over with baloney.It can cost lives and by last count, a million plus Americans have been infected with the novel coronavirus and over 60,000 have sadly died.
Despite promulgating social distancing guidelines Trump has undermined and ignored them repeatedly. Within 15 days of announcing the guidelines he was protesting against them saying “the cure cannot be worse than the disease”. Trump expressed his dismay at how the ‘fake news’ media was creating panic in the markets. Consequently, a large segment of the American population believes their President and is simply itching to reopen the country with a devil’s may care attitude. Trump is even instigating his own populace to come out against lockdowns. Some say that’s with an eye on the battleground states for the November re-election
Trump set up the Coronavirus Response Task Force, headed by US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Notably (and thankfully) Dr Anthony Fauci, the long standing head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was also appointed to the task force.
On January 31 he blocked travel from China but Americans and certain qualified foreign nationals were kept out of its ambit. This left a gaping hole open for the novel coronavirus to enact its dance of death in the US when this was not backed up with aggressive testing, contact tracing, and quarantine measures for almost 40,000 Americans who returned from China on around 1300 flights or more before the January 31 order. With this the Trump administration had definitively missed the window to act early and decisively.
Surprisingly the richest and most powerful nation on the planet suffered from a basic third world deficiency; it had no test kits for coronavirus in its initial days of response! Refusing to use the WHO approved kit, the US CDC went along with its own newly created kits only to find them returning unreliable results in huge numbers. This had its corresponding impact on the rampant spread of the coronavirus. Precious time had now been lost.
It has emerged that Jared Kushner,the President’s son-in-law,who with no known (or even unknown) experience of managing an epidemic or a national crisis was actually the one exercising max influence over a disconnected POTUS. It was the competing power centre created by Kushner and his team of analysts which was primarily responsible for feeding Trump the “virus will miraculously go away” narrative. When Governor Cuomo announced that New York would need 30,000 ventilators Kushner famously played it down and debunked those numbers only to be proven wrong by the deaths that followed. Describing Kushner’s role the New York Times wrote a piece titled ‘Jared Kushner is going to get us all killed’ and labelled his amateur foray into epidemic management as “dilettantism raised to the level of sociopathy”!
The WHO designated the novel coronavirus a pandemic on March 11 and on the same day Trump announced a travel ban from Europe (barring Ireland & the UK) and then on March 13 he declared a National Emergency. By this time Vice President Mike Pence was heading the Coronavirus Task Force.Trump started joining the Task Force’ daily media updates and as is his wont, started dominating the interaction reducing Pence to a bystander’s position.
Around this time something bizarre happened in ‘Trump Land’. There was a Trump meme taken out on March 09 by the White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino, captioned “Nothing can stop what’s coming” and showing a smiling Trump playing the violin with his eyes blissfully closed. An obvious comparison to Emperor Nero, who presided over the burning down of Rome while famously doing nothing but playing the fiddle.
The co-relation was obvious but Trump failed to get it, baffling everyone he even retweeted it with a comment “Who knows what this means, but it sounds good to me!”
To add insult to injury, someone tweeted to Trump the exact meaning of the meme and what it being retweeted by him spoke of the collective intellectual capacity and comprehension of the Trump Administration regarding the situation confronting the US. To put things in perspective while Trump had been playing golf on Mar 08 at his Florida Club, community spread of the novel coronavirus had been confirmed in California and around 550 cases had been reported from 34 states with more than 30 fatalities and yes, global markets and the Wall Street were also in a virus induced free fall. And Trump still managed to say “..it sounds good to me!”
In the coming days the meme fulfilled its ominous prophecy.
By end of March the coronavirus outbreak had struck the US with all its might and New York was the epicenter when its death toll vaulted from a mere single death in the beginning of March too over a 1000 within the same month.
Trump now became even more desperate and incoherent in his response. His running battles with Governor Anthony Cuomo of New York over ventilators and other medical needs became an international embarrassment. It was obvious Trump was still unable to take the events for their worth and get his act together. Once the epidemic hit hard Trump changed tack and even attempted to alter the narrative by claiming that he knew well before anyone (including the WHO!) that the coronavirus was a pandemic!
By now Trump’s daily briefings were his main area of focus. He realised that a strong night time TV performance makes for even stronger optics in the American political dynamics.
Declaring himself the “war time” President ,Trump delivered bombasts, rants about his impeachment, blame China/ WHO/ Obama and almost anyone else (even coronavirus) and rage against the likes of Andrew Cuomo. He peddled as many falsehoods from his bully pulpit as he could and when criticised by the media persons and under pressure responded by labeling it “fake news”/ “lamestream” media. He even played a video titled ‘Why Donald Trump is great and the media awful’! On one occasion he played a presentation showcasing his exemplary, inspirational and decisive leadership in the times of coronavirus right from January onward, carefully skipping out the parts where he continuously downplayed the virus threat.
Trump experienced delusional euphoria during the White House briefings in coming out with bizarre and unfounded claims about magic cures or unrealistic feel good assertions, such as the one about a coronavirus App being readied by Google, the obsessive ‘hunch’ which resulted in the endorsement of Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ-an anti- malaria drug) as a magic cure for covid19, its a small matter of detail that HCQ has some serious side effects and one of them being cardiac arrhythmia which can cause death, But all that Trump could say , in a rasping tone, leanig into his audience, was “What have you have to lose?But Hydroxychloroquine..try it,if you like”!
Such was Trump’s obsession with HCQ that the US FDA was under severe strain to fast track approvals for its use as a covid19 drug. Things apparently came to pass when sane voices were misconstrued and individuals raising legitimate questions about the efficacy of unproven treatment protocol were unceremoniously fired from their positions,as it happened with Rick Bright, erstwhile Director of the Biomedical Advanced R&D Authority. Bright, in a whistle blower complaint, has contended that he was removed after he stood firm on not giving into the Administration’s pressure to make “potentially harmful drugs (HCQ) widely available”.
And of course the vaccine claim when Trump said on March 07 that “Very soon, we’re going to come up [with a vaccine]”,course is as big a certainty as Boris Johnson being anointed the Queen of England!
The briefings had two seminal moments. First, when he erroneously claimed to have “total authority” as the POTUS. Obviously in contravention of the US Constitution on being pushed back on his claim Trump got into an ill-tempered spat with all and sundry, prompting Andrew Cuomo to quip that it seemed the POTUS was simply “spoiling for a fight” (War time President?).Trump had to later climb down on his constitutionally misplaced notion.
If this was not damaging enough the second incident was when he touted his magic solution of injecting ultra violet light and disinfectant into patients to clean out the novel coronavirus! Trump received massive flak for this gaffe and later returned to say in his defence that he had been irritated by the journalists and was simply being sarcastic! (Uh huh?) Well tell this to those hapless (helpless?) Americans who believed their President and took him up on his suggestion!
Trump is known to make some ‘serious’ scientific interventions from time to time like looking at a solar eclipse without UV Glasses, declaring global warming a hoax created by the Chinese as a ploy to destroy US manufacturing, concluding that windmill noise causes cancer (ouch!), physical exercise is a drag on human energy and the one about nuking a hurricane to disrupt it! But injecting disinfectant in a covid19 patient? Like what, Lyzol, Dettol or Phenol? I wonder whats coronavirus’ take on this one? I am sure i will get its reactions once it stops laughing.
These briefings were a perfect forum for a showboat of a President. But woe behold, they attained epic proportions in showcasing Trump’s dysfunctional response to the epidemic. They became repetitive and if at all Trump shared information, most times his aides needed to clarify them subsequently or even retract. Contrary to Trump’s expectations the briefings contributed immensely to the sense of chaos and confusion already prevailing and hurt his ratings too.
Trump was now urged to stop attending the briefings or to limit his exposure to under 30 minutes of ‘scripted’ interaction. He accepted reluctantly, missed out on a couple of briefings and declared that they were ‘not worth the time and effort’! But was soon back again.
A leading American daily has published an analysis of a month’s worth of Trump briefings and it says he made roughly 600 utterances in self-praise , 110 blaming others and only “fleetingly” referred to the staggering death toll due to coronavirus.
Just touching upon Trump’s voodoo like cure of ‘disinfectant injection’, here in India too we had some bizarre voodoo-ish magic treatment for covid19 being championed. Most were benign though,such as singing bhajans (hymns), spraying cow urine (with some deodorant please), then a certain Swami Chakrapani declaring coronavirus an incarnation (?) of Lord Narsingh (??) and recommending erecting a corona statue and some suggested overcoming mental illness to fight the virus, but the dung pie for the cutest suggestion went to Chakrapani when he revealed that “gau bhakts” (cow worshippers) are immune to coronavirus (How does he know so much?)!
Well, this can pass off as plausible in a deeply rural and ‘underdeveloped’ India but the ‘disinfectant injection’ claim kind of tops it all and that too coming from the POTUS! In India too someone came close to this when some migrant labourers were hose sprayed with disinfectant but even we couldnt come up with the injection bit. In that sense I wish Trump had conferred with Chakrapani and made the ‘corona statue’ suggestion instead!
Apart from being unable to drive the national response Trump’s record of working the nuts and bolts of the anti-coronavirus effort with the States is way below the Mendoza Line. He’s essentially let the State’s be on their own and has constantly berated Governor’s for asking for more and more help. And on occasions where he has stepped in to help he’s boasted about it and anointed himself the “king of ventilators”!
Trump has indulged in tremendous blame shifting and a common refrain has been that the Obama Administration had a poor record in dealing with the Swine Flu epidemic. This is debunked easily as unlike Trump, Obama did not wait for the WHO to declare a pandemic before announcing a public health emergency. And that just over 12,000 Americans died of Swine Flu while the figures for covid 19 are 60,000 and counting. Its no surprise when that, as widely reported by the BBC and other leading news papers on the transcript of a leaked call, Obama referred to Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis as a “chaotic disaster”.
His other two pet peeves are the WHO and China.
Trump has been seething at the WHO for initially resisting and decrying his January 31 decision to block travel from China. The UN Agency had then questioned this move. Terming the WHO “China centric” Trump accused the WHO of being slow in declaring the PHEIC and the subsequent Pandemic. He really got after the WHO around April 7, after a veiled attack by the WHO upon his administration’s use of economic sanctions in times such as the present Pandemic and Trump’s penchant for “stigmatisation and discrimination” emanating out of his “china virus” comments. By April 15 Trump had suspended over USD 500 million to the organisation’s budget. This was unprecedented and more so in the present scenario and reflected extremely poorly on Trump’s sense of judgment and US commitment to International Institutions and global protocols.
WHO Chairman Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has been under the lens for initially recommending against China travel bans, not informing the World on time about human to human transmission , not doing enough to call out China for its initial holding back of critical information and then for giving glowing accolades to China for its management of the crisis and lastly for being slow at declaring a PHEIC. The fact that the WHO declared a PHEIC only after the return of its Chairman from China has given rise to the speculations of collusion with China. These rumours gained traction after Trump waded in. And then a report by the German news outlet, Der Spiegel, quoted the country’s Federal Intelligence Service as having established that China “urged” the WHO to “delay a global warning” about the coronavirus outbreak in a call between Xi Jinping and the WHO Chairman has further fueled the controversy afresh.
The process of declaring a PHEIC is complicated and once it is declared it has certain obligations for the member states to go along with in terms of stocking, procuring and catering for humongous quantities of medical supplies. In Apr 2009 the WHO declared the swine flu as a PHEIC and a Pandemic but it fizzled out by July – August 2009. The WHO now came in for intense criticism from developed countries for declaring a PHEIC and Pandemic without due thought and in connivance with pharmaceutical companies and that its actions “unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade”. Later that year 14 nations opened an investigation against the WHO and charged it with collusion with pharma companies and fraud!
Trump asserts that the reason why the US is seeing a raging epidemic is the absence of an early Pandemic announcement by the WHO.While the PHEIC accusations might still stick the rest of it won’t as it flies in the face of logic.Global spread of the virus was there for all to see and Trump and other world leaders were being regularly fed information about its virulence and lethality. They are supposed to and should have taken due measures to prepare their nations and support systems.
The WHO for its part defends itself by saying that it provided ample warnings to the world and that it declared a PHEIC when a mere 82 cases were known worldwide and no deaths and then designated the outbreak a Pandemic when there had been merely a little over a 120,000 cases worldwide. However, analysis of the WHO’s response after the 2009 controversy suggests that it has inhibited the UN Agency. There may even be some Chinese influence in the whole mix but it doesn’t absolve any state or leader of their own shortcomings.
As of now the WHO is on the wrong side of Trump and if this was a game of Kabaddi or Hu tu tu (as it is known in Western India) Trump has affected a successful ‘raid’ on the WHO.
China too has come under severe attack by Trump, and for once he has to be backed for his stance against the Communist State not having been above board in keeping the world informed about just what exactly was unfolding in Wuhan since late Dec ’19. Having suppressed whistle blowers, passage of information and taking measures such as shutting down the very lab which gave out the genome sequence of the novel coronavirus, China has a lot to explain. Trump has promised an investigation and he and his ‘go to’ man for conspiracy theories, Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, have gone on record to say that there is overwhelming evidence of the novel coronavirus being man made and that it escaped from a Chinese Lab in Wuhan. Whatever the reality or the outcome of this investigation, Trump has found easy targets in China and the WHO to deflect blame for his own fiascoes.
How things play out for America in the days and weeks to come depends on its leadership and the ability of the States and the Presidency to work together and take the people along. So far with the way the reopening of the country is being planned – without coherent messaging – and the way the anti-lockdown protests are being encouraged, without due preparation for the inevitable second wave, does not bode well for the country and its people.During a Congressional hearing Anthony Fauci has made his reservations plain on the issue of opening up the nation prematurely especially schools since previously unknown impact of covid19 on children is only beginning to emerge now. But Trump dismissed Fauci’s reservations as well as trivialised the threat and vulnerability to children by saying that the coronavirus has “had very little impact on young people”. Another unfounded belief of the ‘commander-n-bleach’ with even more serious ramifications.
There’s a lesson in this for the rest of the world as well and for electorates to be careful about whom they elect to high offices. Trump, Boris Johnson and Bolsonaro are all disruptive leaders relying on machismo and populism and been found to be severely restricted with their abilities to govern in times of coronavirus and it isnt a mere coincidence that their nations are reeling under the impact of the Pandemic.
If nothing else,Trump should have known better than playing down an epidemic as he lost his Grandfather to the pandemic of 1918.
Before signing off, observing the absurdity playing out in the Trump Administration it reminded me of the blundering Doctor Evil and his dysfunctional world in the Austin Power movies. It seems as if Trump’s team dealing with the coronavirus has a one on one replacement for each character on Dr Evil’s team.
Trump of course as Dr Evil.. Especially since the position was vacant twice over after he fired the ‘@realDr Evil’ (remember the Mike Myers spoof) and the pretender Steve Bannon and for his ham handed approach to the unraveling crisis. But other than his established ‘scientific credentials’ his other qualifying acts make a splash by any standard-
– Like Dr Evil ranting about “why cant I get some frickin’ respect”
-When he gives the “why am I surrounded by idiots” look to Anthony Fauci during his infamous briefings.
-When he says he has saved “billions” of American lives (!) out of a population of 330 million, that is so Dr Evil declaring “why make a trillion when you can make a billion!”
-When in an inspired moment he suggested the “disinfectant injection” as a cure for coronavirus that was again so close to Dr Evil asking for “Sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads”
Mike Pence as the trusted aide ‘No2’ who quietly brushes and evens out the blips of his boss and works behind the scenes to make the ‘Virtucon’ (read White House) functional again!
Jared Kushner just has to be Mini-me (twice as evil?) ,minus the midget part, but then he more than makes up for the dwarf attributes with his intellectual abilities!His masterpiece of an assessment of the Trump Administration’s response to the epidemic that “This is a historically new challenge, and we’ve really risen to the occasion,…When history looks back on this, they’ll say, man, the federal government acted really quickly and creatively, they threw a lot at the problem and saved a lot of lives” gets him the ‘Mini me’ part with ease. (Cant help but think of the reaction of those who ingested the disinfectant! I sure don’t want to be in the same room as them when they read this quote!)
Mike Pompeo as Fat b@….d, for he is the ‘go to’ man for conspiracy theories, be it asserting ‘imminent threat’ from Iran and laying on ‘enormous evidence’ about the coronavirus outbreak being man made in China or even when hard evidence has to be discounted, like bailing out Mohammad bin Salman in the Jamal Khasoggi murder.
Guilliani as ‘Random Tasks’ is one of the easiest picks for a casting director.
The most difficult part of Scott Evil actually goes to Anthony Fauci, who though not the biological son of Trump (and Thank God for it), has risked Dr Evil’s wrath for having rightly pointed out the latter’s bungling and almost got fired for it. He even said that the Trump Administration “could have saved lives” and it’s so close to Scott Evil telling his dad “you never kill him (Austin Powers) when you get the chance, and you are a big dope”.
Laura Inghram, Fox News, gets a walk in role for Frau Fabrissina for her long standing loyalty to the ‘Dear Leader’ and more so since her impassioned defence of Trump’s ‘disinfectant injection’ remark. And when she says that the Administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was “..for too long” driven by “it seemed like unelected doctors” she kind of sews up the role for the sequel too. (Btw Laura, who other than seasoned doctors should drive policy during a pandemic? Voodoo doctors? Or morons ranting from the Rose Garden?)
The role of Dr Evil’s pet cat ,Mr Bigglesworth, goes to White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany as she qualified for the part after her statement that “President Trump’s swift and unprecedented action has saved American lives,”!
Well, lets leave the alternate star cast to their own devices for now.
We have a laughing coronavirus to deal with.