U.S. President Donald Trump told the American people Monday not to worry about the novel coronavirus as he left a top military hospital where he spent days being treated for COVID-19.
That message was denounced by health experts and politicians who bemoaned Trump’s dismissal of a virus that has now killed over 210,000 Americans — many of whom were unable to access the same high quality care the president received at Walter Reed Medical Center.
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“Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life,” Trump tweeted as he announced he was leaving Walter Reed, where he was taken to Friday after revealing he had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“I feel better than I did 20 years ago!” he added.
Trump then doubled down on his message in a video recorded at the White House shortly after his return from the hospital.
“Don’t let it dominate your life. Get out there, be careful,” he said.
“We have the best medicines in the world, and they’re all (happening) very shortly and they’re all getting approved. And the vaccines are coming momentarily,” he added — once again doubling down on claims a vaccine could arrive within weeks.
The leaders of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have estimated a vaccine won’t be available for wide public distribution until 2021.
Zain Chagla, an infectious disease expert at McMaster University, said the president’s messaging struck the wrong tone as the pandemic continues to spread across the country.
“I don’t even know what to say about that,” he said when asked about what kind of message the tweet sends.
“It’s a pretty powerful message to tell the American people — “don’t be afraid” — when 200,000 people have died before he even tested positive. It’s polarizing.”
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Chagla said many in the medical community had been hopeful that Trump would understand the severity of COVID-19 after going through it himself.
He pointed to the change seen in British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who appeared visibly shaken back in April when he spoke to the British people following a bout with the illness that put him in intensive care.
Johnson recently stepped up public health measures in the wake of a second surge in cases, after facing criticism for being slow to act on the initial lockdown in March.
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Trump has spent eight months downplaying the severity of the virus, which he has admitted to both in public and in private taped conversations with journalist Bob Woodward. He has gone back and forth on telling people to wear masks while almost always refusing to wear one himself.
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He’s also regularly mocked political opponents who do so, including Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Upon his return to the White House Monday, Trump quickly removed his own mask upon entering the building — where several staff members and other close contacts have tested positive and dozens more are in self-isolation while awaiting their own test results.
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Colin Furness, a University of Toronto professor who specializes in infection control epidemiology, said Trump had an opportunity to change his followers’ behaviour as well as his own.
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“He could have framed this a patriotic duty to wear a mask. He could have taken credit for getting a mask on 300 million Americans. There’s so many things he could have done,” he said.
“People really listen to him. He (suggested) drinking bleach and people did it. It’s astonishing what he can get people to do or not do. His own need, it seems, to project power and strength is going to cost a lot of American lives. It’s appalling.”
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Furness and Chagla both said Trump is also in no position to relate to most Americans’ experience with COVID-19. Studies have shown a higher mortality rate among racialized and lower-income communities — many of whom do not have access to high quality health care, if any.
Trump has also received experimental treatments, including antibody cocktails and the antiviral drug remdesivir, that remain out of reach to most people in any country, let alone the U.S.
“In terms of global standards, no one is getting better health care than (Trump) is,” Furness said. “For him to say this is fine, this is great, is really disingenuous.
“We also don’t know if he’s truly recovered,” he added. “He’s probably still seriously ill, and he may have all kinds of permanent damage. He may not still survive this. So he’s desperate, I think.”
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Many Democratic politicians also had harsh words about Trump’s rhetoric.
“It’s political season, so I’m not surprised,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose state is one of the hardest hit in the country in both cases and deaths.
“To minimize, to negate, to dismiss this pandemic as anything but what it is — a deadly pandemic, a deadly disease that’s impacting lives, destroying families as well as our economy — I don’t think advances the collective cause of bringing this country back together,” he added.
Minnesota congressional candidate Ilhan Omar, whose father died from COVID-19, said the comment was “an evil thing to say” and that Trump is “unfit to be President.” Others called it “deeply insulting” and “irresponsible.”
When asked during a NBC News town hall about Trump’s comments and the removal of his mask at the White House, Biden said there’s still “a lot to be concerned about” amid the pandemic and implored Trump to send the right message.
“I would hope that the president having gone through what he went through, and I’m glad he seems to be coming along pretty well, would communicate the right lesson to the American people: masks matter,” he said.
“I hope no one walks away with the message thinking it’s not a problem. It’s a serious problem. We have four per cent of the population and 20 per cent of the deaths.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have been largely silent about Trump’s comments, only praising the president for being able to leave the hospital.
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