As Donald Trump found himself under such harsh criticism for having no plan for handling the coronavirus pandemic as the death poll approached 200,000, he concluded that revealing he has one, however appalling, is better than having none at all.
Washington only does one thing at a time and Trump is thrilled to change the subject to ramming through a Supreme Court nominee. But out in the country, death has a way of focusing the mind and more than 70 percent of Americans believe Trump is not doing enough to stop the killing.
Time then for Trump to reveal that he’s doing something other than downplaying the virus (to keep us from panicking, but let’s be serious). He divulged The Plan. “It’s going to disappear — I still say it.” He went on. “You’ll develop herd—like a herd mentality.” He meant immunity, not mentality, but hey. “It’s going to be—it’s going to be herd-developed, and that’s going to happen. That will all happen.”
Yes, and as the economist said, eventually we’re all dead. Herd immunity is a fancy term for letting Mother Nature, at her most terrifying, have her way. It relies on standing down as the virus tears through the population purposely unimpeded. When enough people get sick and die, a broad immunity occurs. At the current 2.97 percent rate of fatalities in a country of 300 million, that could mean nine million lives sacrificed to, arguably, save the rest. Using the World Health Organization’s conservative .65 percent, a figure that assumes a lower fatality rate due to undetected asymptomatic infections, leaves a mere 1.4 million Americans dead.
Even at the lower estimate, that’s a high price to pay. But with polls showing the virus is his greatest vulnerability and that voters are holding his inaction against him, Trump knows he needs to say more than “I’m not responsible, call your governor,” and “If we didn’t test so much we wouldn’t have so many cases.” Time to say the quiet part out loud: I’m doing nothing for a reason, and a “phenomenal” job of it, to boot.
The beauty of herd immunity for Trump is that it doesn’t take time from his busy TV-watching schedule to pursue it. To the contrary, herd immunity does the pursuing. It’s free, rewards passivity and works silently—at White House meetings, his convention and rallies, where taking precautions might send the signal that something’s gone terribly wrong.
Herd immunity also plays into Trump's world view: let markets cure shortages, a simple solution is the best one, short briefings are better than long ones. Olivia Troye, the White House aide who organized the coronavirus task force briefings and just quit, described Trump, at the rare meeting he attended, complaining about his coverage, the unfairness the virus was causing him, and, on the bright side, that at least he’d no longer have to shake hands with disgusting people. The White House quickly added Troye to the long list of “disgruntled” employees, like the ones who accused him of calling the American soldiers buried in Belleau Woods suckers and losers.
Herd immunity also justifies blocking the CDC, the crown jewel of public health agencies in the world, from doing its job. Political appointees Alex Azar and Michael Caputo, now spending unplanned time with his family, overrode the CDC on school reopenings and recently put out a ridiculous advisory that people exposed to the virus don’t need a test, consistent with Trump’s belief that there is way too much testing going on for our own good, by which he means his.
To formally nip action in the bud, Azar's issued a sweeping memo last week ordering that agencies within his department, for instance, the FDA, issue no new rules about, for instance, vaccines, unless he authorizes it. Or, to be thorough, about anything else—e coli in your lettuce, anyone? The CDC quickly ran afoul of that power grab and was quickly reined in when it posted guidance Friday stating that airborne viral droplets could travel beyond the 6 feet previously thought and attention should be paid. By Monday, droplets—and science itself—were back on indefinite leave.
Finally, there’s an explanation for all this inaction. It’s herd immunity and it explains Trump watching as Dr. Anthony Fauci presents a three-tiered plan for reopening the country but immediately telling friendly governors to ignore it. It accommodates nihilism: Have the Post Office load up 650,000 masks but not deliver them. Contradict Dr. Robert Redfield’s sworn testimony—that mask wearing is essential, more effective than a vaccine that won’t be available on Trump’s timetable—right after he gives it. The doctor was confused, said Trump, and he had radiologist Dr. Scott Atlas, whom he brought to the White House after hearing him discuss herd immunity on Fox, promise 100,000 doses of an unspecified vaccine in November and millions next year. Dr. Redfield was under oath; the president and Atlas were not.
Well before Trump talked about herd immunity on ABC, his doctor friend, Mehmet Oz, road tested it on Fox. Oz, who has the credentials of an actual M.D. but chooses to practice quackery on TV, has a smooth bedside manner, a huge female audience, and a lot to sell. If you started drinking too much red wine a few years ago, you may have heard Oz preaching the anti-aging virtues of the resveratrol in it. He loves a diet, the more extreme the better. He was early to preach the charms of hydroxychloroquine.
There was an uproar after Oz told Hannity that a mortality rate of 2 to 3 percent was an “appetizing” trade-off for jump-starting the economy and opening schools. When Oz defended himself by explaining he wasn't targeting children, we moved on to other outrages, overlooking that he was saying to expose everyone, as Trump just reiterated on national television.
Those who would let Trump get away with shooting someone on Fifth Avenue are all-in on herd immunity, whether they realize it or not. As for the rest of us, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, said after Trump’s endorsement that herd immunity “is a terrible strategy that no serious medical professional thinks is a good idea.”
This month, we again commemorated the 3,000 lives lost on 9/11, the lasting sadness from that tragedy standing in sharp contrast to our collective failure to grieve the loss of more Americans in half a year than were lost in all the wars of the last half-century. Perhaps 200,000 dead is too many to absorb, no wall tall enough for that many photos, no field big enough for that many flags.
We need a president who will mark the passings, although that may be too much to ask of Trump who only stopped briefly on his way to tee time at this golf club in New Jersey to see his dying brother.
The first in-person voting has begun, each ballot cast a small act of democracy and a moment to remember the dead. It’s also an opportunity to elect a president who will grieve with us. We know why Trump has never shed a tear. For him, everything’s going according to plan.