The coronavirus or Covid-19 is spreading and we are anxious, more so every day.
How anxious are we? Last week the Walmart in Lockport, New York, sold out its re-supply of hand sanitizer in less than an hour – at 7 a.m. Empty shelves that once held boxes of protective masks can now be found from Rite Aid to Amazon across the country.
Illness is on the way, a deadly one for some. In what numbers we don’t know, but potentially very large ones.
We have a choice in times like these. We can listen to people who don’t know what they are talking about and say whatever stupid thing comes into their head, or we can listen to people with actual expertise. In this case that means listening to the scientists who are studying the disease and the public health professionals who understand what it takes to slow its spread.
Unfortunately, in the midst of this crisis, one of the people who seems most willing to say whatever comes into his head is also the person ultimately responsible for protecting us from that crisis, the President of the United States.
At a campaign rally in South Carolina (long after the realities of coronavirus were well-known), President Trump declared it “the new hoax” invented by Democrats to harm his reelection.
Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) increased its death rate estimate for the virus to 3.4% (meaning that 34 people die on average for every 1,000 infected). Afterward on Fox News, Mr. Trump once again declared himself more knowledgeable than the scientists. “Well I really think 3.4% is really a false number. Now this is just my hunch, personally I think the number is way under 1%.”
Let’s put it this way. When one of my molars cracked a few weeks ago I did not seek treatment from some guy on Facebook who said he had “a hunch” about how to drill a tooth. I went to my very capable dentist, the one with the diploma from the State University of New York in Buffalo on his wall.
Even Mr. Trump’s most ardent supporters can’t possibly believe it is OK for any president to substitute fantasy for fact in the midst of a massive global health crisis with thousands of lives at stake.
And to be clear, this is not just another round of foolish words out of the president’s mouth. Those words reflect Mr. Trump’s ongoing bungling of the crisis.
As the disease was spreading like wildfire, Trump officials willfully ignored pleas from WHO scientists to start testing people who might have it. That allowed the circle of the infected to spread even wider, and many more Americans will die as a direct result.
The president has worked hard to downplay the urgency, he wrongly declared that a vaccine was just months away, and he left us unprotected by dismantling the public health unit in the National Security Council because he didn’t think it was important.
As it turns out, a $21 billion cement wall at our southern border is not nearly as vital to our national security as a solid team of public health professionals scanning the world for mutant bacteria. Pointing all this out is not "politicizing" the crisis, it is a demand that the president stop screwing around with a matter of life and death.
Now more than ever, it is a good time to ask the question: Where else are the president and his hoax culture ignoring the warnings of scientists? How about his decision to allow more dumping of poison chemicals into our water? How about his relentless dedication to fiction over science on the growing threat of global climate change?
Scientists at NASA and beyond have been warning us for more than a decade that human activity such as the burning of fossil fuels is heating our planet and thrusting us into unchartered territory for extreme weather, drought and rising seas.
What has Mr. Trump said in reply? “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make American manufacturing non-competitive.” Later he added, “It’s freezing in New York, where the hell is global warming?”
Again, these are not just foolish words that mean nothing. They are the basis of his policies, from weakening auto-emission standards to pulling the U.S. out of the global climate accord signed by 196 other nations.
Be it a deadly virus killing thousands, or climate impacts like the fires in California and Australia, the question for us is the same: When it matters most, who do we trust, the scientists or the foolish politicians pedaling conspiracy theories for political gain? None of the treatments for the coronavirus include pretending that it does not really exist.
A rising global pandemic is also a deadly reminder about the importance of putting our faith in science, not in fools. It is as basic as this: Don’t get your teeth worked on by a guy who thinks he knows something about dentistry because he once saw a drill.
Jim Shultz is a resident of Lockport, New York, and the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jimshultz.