Donald Trump voiced hope that America would be back to normal by Easter, but then said the date was more symbolic than based on health data. (Reuters: Yuri Gripas)
If a week is a long time in politics, it’s an eternity during a pandemic.
Last week, this column described Donald Trump as a changed man: factual, decisive, upfront.
It seems the transformation was temporary.
This week, the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson turned the health policy equivalent of the Titanic around.
He ordered his nation to hide in their homes after his advisors initially suggested “herd immunity” would see them through.
Over the same short period of time, Mr Trump was doing his second U-turn in as many weeks.
He suggested Americans could be set free and attending “packed churches all over the country” on Easter Sunday.
@TVNewsHQ Watch: President @realDonaldTrump tells Fox News Town Hall he would “love to have the country back up and running by Easter.”
Indeed, on the very day the World Health Organisation warned America it could soon become the global epicentre of the pandemic, Mr Trump pushed for the US economy to be “opened up and raring to go” in just over two weeks.
“Our people are full of vim and vigour and energy,” he told Fox News viewers.
“They don’t want to be locked into a house or an apartment or some space. It’s not for our country. We’re not built that way.”
Larry Brilliant, a veteran of the eradication of smallpox, told the New York Times ending the lockdown so early would be “an error of epic proportions”.
Modelling suggests a nationwide lifting of restrictions by Easter would see 118 million Americans infected by October, resulting in more than 1.2 million dead.
That doesn’t take into account the complete breakdown of the health system that would occur, increasing the mortality rate substantially.
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Mr Trump insists the health of American citizens is forefront in his mind.
While Mr Trump says he wants packed churches by Easter, most priests are sticking to drive-through confessions for the foreseeable future. (Reuters: Tom Brenner)
And his own White House advisors have watered down the suggestion of a nationwide lifting of restrictions.
Instead they’re suggesting it could be possible in pockets where infection rates are low — and only if much better data becomes available through widespread testing.
But the President has fallen back on misleading comparisons with the flu and fatal car crashes.
@realDonaldTrump The LameStream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed
It seems keeping Americans alive during the most dangerous pandemic in a century isn’t the only thing Donald Trump has to consider.
Coronavirus has become a partisan issue
A national Gallop poll last week showed 73 per cent of Democrats feared exposure to the coronavirus, compared with just 42 per cent of Republicans — a whopping 31 per cent difference.
That could be partly attributed to the misinformation initially pedalled by Fox News, which leans heavily toward the Republican side of politics.
But it probably has more to do with geography.
A locked-down playground in Washington, one of the US states hardest hit by the pandemic. (Reuters: Lindsey Wasson)
The early stages of the outbreak have had a much heavier impact in Democrat-leaning states like New York, Washington and California.
As the Atlantic points out, Republican-leaning states have displayed noticeably less urgency about the outbreak because most of them haven’t been seriously impacted … yet.
Republican Governors and members of Congress have been urging the President to put the economy first.
“We don’t shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways,” said Republican Senator Ron Johnson.
“Getting coronavirus is not a death sentence except for maybe no more than 3.4 per cent of our population [and] I think probably far less.”
Three-point-four per cent of America’s population is 11 million people.
Despite his apparent willingness to accept those deaths, the Senator is right about one thing: the impact on the economy can’t be ignored.
Americans are facing economic peril
In the past fortnight, unemployment insurance claims in the United States have jumped 1,500 per cent.
That’s not a typo.
More than 3 million Americans filed new unemployment claims last week.
That’s nearly five times the highest level of claims seen during the global financial crisis of 2007.
As the world fixates on Wall Street’s daily convulsions, the broader economy of the richest and most powerful nation on earth is crumbling before our eyes.
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It’s a prelude of what might be coming for Australia, which has been about 10 days behind America in terms of city-wide shutdowns, according to data from mobility apps like Citymapper.
The instantaneous loss of income is frightening for anyone and especially so in a nation where around half of American families claim to be living paycheque to paycheque.
With schools closed, students who rely on free lunches are now relying on donations from teachers and volunteers for meals. (Reuters: Kevin Lamarque)
The US Senate has now passed the biggest economic rescue package in history.
Worth $US2.2 trillion ($3.6 trillion), it’s worth half the entire annual budget of the United States and about 10 per cent of America’s annual entire economic output.
And here’s the thing: it’s not aimed at stimulating growth.
Mailing $4,000 cheques to millions of families and significantly boosting existing unemployment benefits is primarily aimed at staving off homelessness and hunger.
What the experts are saying about coronavirus:
The unprecedented support for business large and small, had to come with something for workers and the unemployed.
Bailouts for business but not workers in the wake of the 2007 global financial crisis helped give rise to the Tea Party on the right, which fell in behind Donald Trump.
It also inspired the occupy Wall Street movement, which helped bolster support for Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.
That seething anger remains in the hearts of millions of Americans.
Republican senator Richard Burr dumped stocks in hospitality businesses while receiving private coronavirus briefings. (Reuters: Jonathan Ernst)
And it can’t have been soothed by news that Republican senator Richard Burr, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, dumped up to $US1.72 million in stocks in mid-February, while receiving daily briefings about the coronavirus threat.
He’d previously expressed confidence in the country’s preparedness for a COVID-19 outbreak.
The President has the power to foment or contain unrest
Standing in the corner of the Oval Office, there’s an elephant armed with an AR-15.
The threat of a social unrest is very real in the minds of American policy makers and police chiefs.
An angry nation, heavily armed and cooped up through summer without income, is a dangerous proposition if there’s any real sense of scarcity on the streets.
Look what happened in New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina when a slow emergency response left thousands trapped with little food or water.
The slow response to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in New Orleans in 2005 caused tension between locals and authorities. (Reuters: Jason Reed)
Now the entire state of Louisiana is facing a new and potentially more serious disaster, recording per-capita the third highest rates of COVID-19 infection in the country, behind New York and Washington state.
In Louisiana, poverty is rife, the quality of healthcare is among the worst in America and levels of immune-compromising HIV are high.
Nationwide, the fear of looting, or worse, must be forefront in the minds of the President’s security advisors as they watch lines at gun shops stretch around the block and businesses boarding up their shopfronts.
Gun shops in the US have reported a boom in sales as panic spreads over the coronavirus pandemic. (Reuters: Patrick Fallon)
Perhaps that’s why members of Congress started discussing the next economic rescue package even before this week’s record-breaking stimulus was out the door.
And perhaps that’s part of the reason the US President insists the coronavirus cure, involving months of social distancing accompanied by economic collapse, can’t be allowed to be worse than the problem itself.