Ever since we learned that there are ways to limit the spread of the Covid-19, we have understood that mask-wearing was intended not only to safeguard our own wellbeing but to insure the safety of others. Social distancing was not simply a means of personal protection but a civic responsibility that might protect the most vulnerable – and, as it has turned out, the otherwise healthy young people who, tragically, have succumbed to the virus.
Even if we don’t believe in science, even if we don’t believe in the virus, even if don’t believe in the efficacy of wearing masks, we might, it seems to me, have adopted some version of Pascal’s famous wager. Though the existence of God cannot be definitively proven, posited the 17th-century philosopher, it would be wise to assume and behave as if God does exist: an attitude with no downside (except the fear of sin) and a host of likely benefits (heaven). Regardless of our stance on the course and prevention of the pandemic, why not take the gamble: wear a mask, keep our distance – and protect the lives of other people? But this response presupposes that we care about the lives of other people.
Donald Trump, his advisers and many of his fans have made it abundantly clear that they do not. And now, as they say, the chickens have come home to roost. Trump was hospitalized with Covid-19. The first lady has been infected, as have a several of Trump’s close associates – Chris Christie, Kellyanne Conway, and Kayleigh McEnany, among others. It’s striking that we’ve heard so little about the severity of their symptoms, now that Donald Trump effectively appears to have become the nation’s only Covid-19 patient. At least 11 people have tested positive for the virus after a 26 September gathering convened to celebrate the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for supreme court justice. The party, which began in the Rose Garden and moved indoors, is now considered to have been a super-spreader event.
We’d like to believe that suffering instructs and ennobles; that our grief, fear and pain increases our sympathy for the grief, fear and pain of others. But again, Donald Trump seems to be ineducable, impervious to shame, guilt, or any sense of personal responsibility, unaffected by anything except vanity, selfishness and reckless self-regard. Certainly, the experience of having his blood oxygen level drop so low that supplemental oxygen was required must have been alarming, and yet the president continues to believe that bluster is the best medicine.
At a moment when our need for truth and transparency has never been so great, the president and his cohorts continue to lie, to get caught in lies, and to lie again to cover up the previous lies. The administration refuses to follow the CDC guidelines concerning the all-important contact-tracing that might prevent the Rose Garden event – and Trump’s subsequent appearances – from becoming even more of a public health disaster. It’s been suggested that one reason for this reluctance (an explanation supported by the disparities in the earliest press briefing given by Trump’s physician, Dr Sean Conley, outside Walter Reed hospital) is that the president may have been untruthful about the timing of his diagnosis and willfully exposed others to the virus – a behavior that, in many states, is considered a misdemeanor or even a felony. If that turns out to be true, it will be yet another crime for which Donald Trump is likely to go unpunished.
Unaffected by his illness, undaunted by his own experience, the president’s insistence on putting his own bombastic self-display above the welfare of others reached a new low on Sunday, when he decided to order up in his armor-plated, hermetically sealed SUV and be driven past his supporters outside the hospital, to “pay a little surprise to some of the great patriots we have out on the street”.
One imagines that it was even a greater surprise to the secret service agents, at least two of whom can be seen in the vehicle with the president. According to the understandably horrified Dr James Phillips, an attending physician at Walter Reed, the risk of virus transmission in that SUV was “as high as it gets outside of medical procedures … Every single person in the vehicle … might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater. This is insanity.”
Does Trump care? Apparently not. Nothing – not illness, not danger, not the prospect of death – can diminish his posturing, his hubris, his sense of invincibility, his unconscionable lack of concern for others. Waving and smiling, somewhat wanly, at his fans, he cemented his position as – according to a recent study – the number one source of misinformation about the dangers of the virus. And that may be yet another way in which he and his supporters are super-spreaders, discrediting science, widely circulating the idea that we have absolutely no responsibility for the life and safety of our fellow humans and for the planet on which we live – an attitude that may prove to be even more dangerous, more catastrophic the deadliest plague.
Now, insisting that he be discharged from the hospital, claiming to have beaten the virus, ignoring the fact that – unlike most Americans who have suffered the disease’s devastating effects – he has received state of the art medical care, he has not only mocked the suffering of those who have lost loved ones but effectively insured that more people will continue to spread, and fall victim to, Covid-19. And that may be yet another way in which he and his supporters are super spreaders, discrediting science, widely circulating the idea that we have absolutely no responsibility for the life and safety of our fellow humans and for the planet on which we live – an attitude that may prove to be even more dangerous, more catastrophic than the deadliest plague.