The pandemic’s epicenter is shifting, and Trump still refuses to act responsibly; Republican governors need to decide if they will.
|Illustration by João Fazenda|
Since the coronavirus first took hold in this country, Donald Trump has heedlessly promoted the idea that it can be treated solely as a political, or even a cultural, problem. Part of the tragedy of the pandemic is that, until now, many people in less affected areas of the United States believed him.
In a speech last week to thousands of mostly maskless young supporters in a megachurch in Phoenix, Trump claimed that Democrats are “trying to do their best to keep the country shut down” - not to fight covid-19 but to sabotage the economy, and thus his electoral prospects.
They’re also trying to “rig” the election by means of “the China virus.” He called the disease other names, including the more blatantly racist Kung Flu (it’s not a flu), and professed to find its real name “odd”: “I said, ‘What’s the nineteen?’ ” (The virus was identified in 2019, but the notion that there were eighteen previous covids figures in certain conspiracy theories.)
Most fantastically, Trump spoke of the pandemic as if it were a thing of the past, even as the number of new cases rose, last week, to horrific levels, particularly in Texas, Florida, California, and Arizona. Last Friday alone, the U.S. saw more than forty thousand new cases.
At a congressional hearing on Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, of the National Institutes of Health, said that trends this summer will produce a “baseline” for determining how severe a second wave may be in the fall and winter, and whether the country can rely on containment measures or will have to resort to another round of widespread closures of businesses and schools. The shifting of the epicenter of the pandemic from Northeastern, Midwestern, and urban areas that are largely governed by Democrats to states in the South and the West, many of them red or purple, along with blue California, is a reminder of a point that Dr. Ashish Jha, a Harvard public-health expert, has been making since March: the coronavirus doesn’t care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. Nationally, the number of deaths has fallen, thanks in part to new insights about treatments. But the rising numbers of cases, coupled with the listlessness of the Administration, suggest that the respite may be brief, and that we are squandering whatever advantage was gained by the ebb in the states first affected.
The political leaders in New York, the worst-hit state, unquestionably made mistakes. But the political geography of the pandemic’s early course seems to have lured some Republican politicians into complacency, as if a maga cap could be a protective talisman, or as if, when it comes to covid-19, bad things could happen only to subway-riding city dwellers. Some even acted as if the virus’s depredations could be tolerated as long as they fell most heavily on low-income, elderly, or marginalized people. Those tendencies have served their states badly, and the country, too. Senator Mitch McConnell’s statement, in April, putting coronavirus-relief packages in the category of “blue-state bailouts” provided one milestone in the G.O.P. response; the recent effort of Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, to downplay his state’s staggering number of new cases—nearly nine thousand on a single day last week - by pointing to infections among “overwhelmingly Hispanic workers and day laborers” was another.
Community leaders in Florida reacted to DeSantis’s remarks with anger, particularly since the Governor had not answered calls for protections for agricultural workers. His rationales for pushing ahead with the state’s reopening, which had already been rushed, have been growing frantic. DeSantis had until recently persisted in arguing that the high numbers are a statistical illusion produced by more testing. Trump is still making that claim. At his now infamous rally in Tulsa, he said that he’d told his team to cut back on testing; he and a spokesperson disagree about whether that was a joke. In truth, while there has been an expansion in testing, it is not nearly enough to account for the recent spikes. People in Arizona, Florida, and Texas have been waiting for hours at testing stations that cannot keep up with the demand; meanwhile, the Administration has announced that it will end federal funding for thirteen such sites across five states.
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There are now more than five thousand new covid cases a day in Texas, and last week Governor Greg Abbott announced a pause in that state’s rapid reopening in an attempt to “corral” the virus, and ordered bars and restaurants to limit service. But that effort is being hampered by an executive order that he issued in April, preventing local authorities from enforcing a mandate for individuals to use masks. Some hospitals in the state, meanwhile, are nearing I.C.U. capacity. Adults are being admitted to Texas Children’s Hospital, in Houston, to provide space for covid patients in other facilities.
That is an ominous echo of the early situation in New York City, where at the peak eight hundred deaths were attributed to covid in a single day; one of the lessons that emerged from that crucible is that people who might be saved die when hospitals are too crowded. (Another lesson: wearing masks in public works.) There are similar indications that I.C.U.s are at risk of reaching capacity in Arizona and Alabama, and soon may be in Florida and the Carolinas, too. Roy Cooper, the Democratic governor of North Carolina, rejected Trump’s demand that the Republican National Convention, scheduled to take place in Charlotte, be held without social distancing; at DeSantis’s invitation, Trump will now accept the nomination in Jacksonville, Florida.
There is something frighteningly sad about the fact that many Republican leaders may stop seeing the pandemic through the lens of Trumpism only when the virus starts hitting more of their constituents. Trump himself won’t change; he used his trip to Phoenix as an occasion to inspect a new piece of border wall, and, at the rally, he talked about its beauty and claimed that California was secretly begging him to build more of it as, somehow, a way to stop the virus. As he spoke, you could hear him trying to jam the pandemic into the nativist, xenophobic rhetorical framework that helped him get elected in 2016.
But politics means accountability, too. Between now and November, politicians in many states will need to decide where their responsibility lies: in heeding Trump, or in listening to the desperate doctors who tell them that they are running out of hospital beds. More than a hundred and twenty thousand people in America have died already, and the reckoning is far from over. ♦
Published in the print edition of the July 6 & 13, 2020, issue, with the headline “The Shifting Pandemic.”
Amy Davidson Sorkin has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2014.