I have avoided wading into the politics of the pandemic as much as possible, but Trump’s recent pronouncements on the need to keep the economy rolling could have major implications for the course of the epidemic. At this point, it is really the governors of hard-hit states around the country who have stepped into the leadership void and taken strong action to limit the epidemic. To the extent Trump positions himself as the defender of the economy, then, when he agrees to follow the advice of the public health experts and the governors do their own thing, they become responsible for the downturn. If the public health intervention works and the number of deaths is limited, he will be able to say that Covid-19 really was just a bad flu and not worth ruining the economy.
I used to tell my students, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but physicians get paid by the pound.” More broadly put, no epidemiologist ever got to send a bill to someone for preventing their disease. Public health and disease prevention have always been the underfunded, underappreciated cousin of the multi-trillion-dollar medical industry, yet clean air, clean water, and safe food arguably save more lives every year than all the hospitals in America. Understanding that fact requires an understanding of science and this anti-science President has continually sought to disparage the science of public health while undermines and cuts the budgets of the agencies responsible for our safety.
It is profoundly disturbing to see that, in the face of the gross mismanagement of this epidemic at the federal level and the evidence that the elimination of key staff for preventing and responding to emerging diseases may have contributed to the pandemic, a majority of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of it. It seems that his constant targeting of the public health experts throughout this disaster is simply part of his larger campaign to dismiss science and, once again, it seems to be working. For now.
I do believe it is important to find ways to keep the economy moving as much as possible. My post yesterday lays out a way we might move on from the current lockdown that protects public health. We desperately need leadership that respects science, is focused on the truth, understands and can respond to complex situations, and takes a leadership role to inspire the country in difficult times. Unfortunately, this President is constitutionally incapable of any of these things, although I’m never quite sure whether it’s incompetence or evil brilliance. In the end, the virus itself may be the thing that dismantles him. I hope my effort to find a silver lining is not misplaced.