Donald Trump has all but abandoned a public health strategy of societal restrictions to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and opted instead to push for a restart of the US economy, a move that experts have warned is premature and risks handing a “death sentence” to many Americans.
The US president has praised governors of states that have started to loosen restrictions on social distancing and business activity, even though he has admitted that people will suffer as a result. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes,” Trump said on Tuesday. “But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.”
Public health experts have pointed out that Covid-19 infections and deaths are mounting dangerously in much of the US.
New York has drawn attention as a global hotspot for the virus but has now flattened its rate of infections whereas large parts of the country are still to reach their own peak. When New York is discounted, the US is still on an upward trajectory of new infections.
More half of the 50 states are forging ahead with plans to reopen some businesses, even though none meet the White House’s own key criteria of a steady decline in new cases over a 14-day period. The uneven progress of the virus means that places such as Minnesota, Nebraska and Puerto Rico are recording an alarming increase in cases, with other states in the midwest and southwest also rising, such as Texas and Arizona, even as New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have started to force infection rates slowly downwards.
“Typically pandemics occur in waves across different places, so people shouldn’t think we are getting out of the woods just yet,” said Irwin Redlener, a physician and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness.
“A lot of places haven’t got the brunt of this yet. The worst is to come, it’s inevitable. The public health restrictions make a difference and when you lift them you will see consequences. A premature opening will be a death sentence for people.”
The US has so far recorded more than 71,000 deaths as a result of Covid-19, the largest total of any country, with a leaked internal White House report projecting that deaths could climb to about 3,000 people a day by June.
Despite this, the Trump administration’s focus has shifted to restarting economic activity, a stance followed by several Republican-led states and cheered on by rightwing media, including Fox News.
While New York City has proven vulnerable to the spread of Covid-19 due to its dense population, more sparsely populated areas of the US are starting to see a surge in infections, leading to fears that under-resourced rural hospitals may struggle to cope with residents who are often older and less healthy than those in urban centres.
The situation has proved a dilemma to governors who fret over economic collapse and a possible spate of suicides and mental health problems should lockdowns stretch indefinitely.
Trump’s own response to the pandemic has included him dismissing concern over it as a hoax, claiming erroneously it would vanish by April and then, in a stunning press conference, pondering aloud the possible merits of injecting bleach into the lungs to treat the virus.
Doctors and bleach manufacturers have strongly urged people not to take this highly dangerous action.
From, at one point, calling himself a “wartime president” who would fight the virus, Trump has apparently withdrawn somewhat from the battlefield, conceding it is now “possible” that many more Americans will die as public health restrictions are relaxed.
The chaotic response to the pandemic was further highlighted by reports, confirmed by the US vice-president, Mike Pence, that the White House was planning to winding down its coronavirus taskforce – only for Trump to say the following morning that the group will continue “indefinitely”, but with a focus on reopening the economy. Anthony Fauci, the US government’s top infectious disease official on the taskforce, has admitted that the testing regime has been lacking and that the lockdown of public activity came too late.
The administration’s greatest missteps, according to critics, have consistently centered around testing. The US failed to develop and distribute an effective Covid-19 test in the early days of the outbreak and is now falling well short of the half a million tests experts say is needed every day to safely allow people to tentatively resume the normal rhythms of life. There is also no systematic process to trace infected people in the US to help curb surges in new cases.
“It’s painful to understand how badly we’ve messed up the process of developing rapid tests in large numbers,” said Redlener. “We aren’t even close, less than 2% of the population has been tested, we don’t even know the prevalence of the virus.
“There’s been nothing like the misinformation and incompetence we’ve seen around Covid-19 in American history. Colleagues of mine overseas are in disbelief. I never thought I would long for the days of Richard Nixon, but here we are. It’s frightening,” he added.