Trump on coronavirus: Time for Americans to get back to work
President Donald Trump asks a question to Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, during a briefing on March 23, 2020. | Alex Brandon/AP

As the number of coronavirus cases skyrockets across the country, Donald Trump is saying the country should reopen the economy in weeks, not months. Without citing a shred of evidence, he is claiming that the shutdown can cause more deaths than the pandemic itself.

His claims sharply contradict everything the public health experts are saying. Dr. Zeke Emanuel, a biochemist and a top medical adviser to President Barack Obama, is among those issuing sharp warnings about the soaring infection rate.

He said yesterday that 49,000 official cases registered now across the U.S. mean that there were actually ten times that number—490,000 infections already ten days ago—and likely millions now, with the country headed toward several million possible deaths.

The sudden push by Trump to re-open everything as the rate of infection soars has been joined by GOP governors, lawmakers, Fox News, and The Wall Street Journal—all reeling from what happens when millions of workers stay home. Their profits stop rolling in, and they cover that fear with all kinds of excuses, including “saving our grandkids.”

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said on Fox News yesterday that older people should be willing to die to protect their children and grandchildren. And, as such, people should get back to work quickly.

Less than 12 hours after he made those remarks, there were reports that young people all over the country are getting sick as well. In New York City, at least a quarter of those now hospitalized are under 49.

“We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem,” Trump told reporters at a briefing yesterday. “We have to open our country because that causes problems that, in my opinion, could be far bigger problems.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this morning that the rate of infections climbed dramatically overnight in his state which now has at least half the almost 50,000 officially documented cases of COVID-19 in the country.

Emanuel is only one of hundreds of specialists and health experts across the country insisting that unless Americans drastically cut any and all social interaction by refraining from going to work and isolating themselves, the health care system in the country will be overwhelmed and crash. This is what happened in Italy, causing many more deaths, experts believe, than otherwise would have occurred.

Deaths in Italy surpassed deaths in China, which has reported several days now of no new additional cases of the virus. They are projecting that Wuhan, where the pandemic started, will begin to be re-opened on April 8. China has had that city locked down completely for two months.

The former U.S. Ambassador to China, Max Baucus, in an interview today on MSNBC, praised that country’s success in dealing with the pandemic. When he was asked whether that success was the result of “authoritarianism” in China, he said that it was not. The Chinese government depends for its existence, he said, on approval of the population. “That is why they do things that benefit and help the people,” he said. “If you know the Chinese system, you know this is a driving factor.”

Trump has also been saying that many parts of the country—“just watch this on television”—they are “not having the problems that some are having.”

While the pandemic has hit New York the hardest, all the reputable health officials warn that it is certain to spread to parts of the country currently less affected.

As reflected in the editorial position of The Wall Street Journal, the ruling class in this country is getting increasingly frightened over what happens when workers stop working. When they cease even temporarily to be exploited by their bosses, the ruling class profits start to disappear.

The food and the materials and all the wealth the workers create does not disappear overnight, however, and there is enough, in a fair distribution system and with a proper stimulus program geared to protect workers, to tide people over during the shutdown. What will be is missing, however, is the high rate of profits enjoyed by the corporate class when the workers are on the job. This, more than anything else, explains the right-wing push for a quick end to protective health measures. For Trump, the horror is compounded by his fears that the economic crash is hurting his re-election chances.

“Life is fragile, and economies are fragile,” Trump said, insisting he could protect both.

While he acknowledged there were trade-offs—“there’s no question about that”—he claimed that, if closures stretch on for months, there would be “probably more death from that than anything that we’re talking about with respect to the virus.”

The battle now is between the corporations fearful of losing their profits and the medical and public health advocates and the workers they represent who say the shutdown and even more extreme action is needed to prevent catastrophic loss of life numbering in the millions.

“We can’t shut in the economy. The economic cost to individuals is just too great,” Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser, said in an interview Monday on Fox News Channel. “The president is right. The cure can’t be worse than the disease, and we’re going to have to make some difficult trade-offs.”

At yesterday’s press conference, Trump contradicted his medical experts by saying, “I’m not looking at months, I can tell you right now,” when questioned about when he would end his so-called “15 Days to Slow the Spread Campaign.”

Trump, of course, has not issued any orders to keep anyone home or to shut anything down. He has done nothing. All the action has been taken by the governors, mayors, and, in some cases, other local and county officials. People have expressed relief that in large states like California, New York, and Illinois, there are Democratic governors who have, unlike Trump, taken strong action to protect public health.

Observers note, however, that those actions can be jeopardized or become less effective if Republican governors like those in Texas or Florida, for example, go along with Trump’s plans. People traveling from those states into the protected ones could undermine the latter’s health protection efforts.

Trump said he would be waiting until the end of the current 15-day period of recommended closures and self-isolation to make any decisions, which would be March 30. Vice President Mike Pence said the CDC is exploring the issuance of new guidelines that would allow workers to return to work “by wearing a mask for a certain period of time.”

No one asked him for a status report on testing. He had promised already that three weeks ago there would be millions of tests available. So far, only 300,000 have been tested across the country. Now he is promising “self-testing” kits, but none of those have appeared anywhere.

Health experts warn that if Trump does not cease counterposing public health to economic health, he will be deepening the disaster. “If the U.S. stops social distancing too soon, you will have more deaths and more dives in the stock market,” said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University lawyer with extensive public health expertise.

Doctors note that the pandemic could come back with a vengeance at the very time everyone is back to work and out in the public sphere.

If you don’t flatten the curve and minimize those who are getting infected (before people go back to work), the amount of sickness could cripple business, doctors are saying.

Even Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, widely acknowledged as one of the nation’s leading Trump sycophants, said Trump should follow the advice of the health professionals, not The Wall Street Journal.

“There is no functioning economy unless we control the virus,” he warned on Twitter. “Try running an economy with major hospitals overflowing, doctors and nurses forced to stop treating some because they can’t help all, and every moment of gut-wrenching medical chaos being played out in our living rooms, on TV, on social media, and shown all around the world.”

Other economists warned that if Americans return to work too soon, there could be recurring outbreaks that would only worsen a recession.

Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at the consultancy firm RSM, said lifting restrictions after 15 days would be “potentially a profound policy mistake” because it could lead to a second or third wave of outbreaks that would do even more harm to economic growth.

“We got one shot to get this all right,” Brusuelas said, noting that Trump has a great deal at stake personally, given the upcoming election in November. “The last thing one would want to do from an economic policy perspective is to elevate one’s electoral interests above that of the economy or, most importantly, public health.”

Austan Goolsbee, an economist at the University of Chicago and a former adviser to President Obama, says there is no real tension between containing the outbreak and preserving the U.S. economy. He has repeatedly emphasized that halting the outbreak is needed so that growth can resume as companies feel comfortable hiring and consumers ramp up spending.

“Anything that slows the spread of the virus is by far the best thing to restore the economy,” Goolsbee wrote on Twitter.

Dr. Emanuel suggested the public won’t trust an “all clear” signal unless medical and public health experts endorse it. “If people think, ‘Wow if I go to Disney World, I might die,’ they are not going to go to Disney World,” he said.

AP contributed to this story.


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.