After months of downplaying the danger of COVID-19, President Trump and the first lady tested positive, and on Friday the president was taken to the Walter Reed Medical Center “for the next few days” as “a precautionary measure.”
He’s not the first national leader to be stricken with the virus and, when he recovers, the question may be which example he follows: that of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Bolsonaro, who like Trump had been dismissive of the virus’ impact, was confirmed to have COVID-19 in July, made a relatively speedy recovery, and afterwards continued to dismiss the threat of the pandemic. Deaths from COVID-19 in Brazil, at nearly 150,000, are second in the world only to the United States.
When Johnson, who’d also initially taken a lax approach to the threat, contracted the virus in March, he ended up in the intensive care unit and spent a solid month out of the limelight. Surveys show that government approval, rather than surging after his recovery, began a steady decline. Although British national leadership hasn’t gone to the lengths needed to contain further spread and Britain continues to lead the European continent in case numbers, Johnson’s rhetoric around the virus and public attitudes at large became much more cautious after his own experience with it.
There is a chance that Trump could take that course and start taking the pandemic seriously, and commit to implementing public health measures we know will drive down infections. But if Trump recovers, like many patients, develops only mild symptoms (about 60 percent of people who catch COVID-19 go on to develop symptoms, but only around 20 percent are at risk of severe disease) and recovers smoothly, his brush with COVID could easily bolster his denialism and become more grist for the mill—political fodder to restore voter confidence and support in the run-up to election night. If he talks down the virus, and then loses office, many of his staunchest supporters would likely be that much less willing to heed the advice of scientists and doctors during a Biden administration.
From the very beginning, Trump has denied the severity of this disease. His ignorance of the science and mockery of preventive safety measures has arguably left millions of Americans unnecessarily vulnerable to infection. Instead of enacting a robust testing regime and programs for social and economic assistance, Trump spread harmful misinformation about treatments and discouraged protections as basic as mask-wearing. Rather than holding himself and his government accountable, he has blamed his political opponents at every turn.
This is his last best chance to change that dynamic. If Trump instead maintains this stance even after endangering himself, his family, and his inner circle, the ramifications would be deadly. In a best-case scenario, where mask-wearing is enforced universally across the country, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates we could limit the number of deaths to 273,000 by the end of this year. Still too high a number, but imagine what would happen if Trump recovered and used the momentum to ease the few restrictions we do have in place. According to the same projection, as many as half a million lives could be lost.
There is no telling yet which way Trump's illness will turn nor how he might spin the outcome for political purposes. No matter the direction of his disease or his judgement, there is one thing every American should be acutely aware of with the news today: this virus knows no bounds.
The president and first lady have entire teams of people to sweep every room before they enter and screen every person they meet. The bathrooms they use are meticulously scrubbed and sanitized to ward off disease. And, unlike the majority of Americans, they have immediate and unfettered access to COVID-19 tests. Yet still, their willingness to flout basic health protocols like wearing masks and social distancing may have landed them where they are today, as vulnerable as any among us.
Until we acknowledge our own personal responsibility to stop spreading the virus—until we each do our part by wearing masks, accepting quarantines, and declining invitations to large gatherings—we will never contain COVID-19. Here’s hoping that the president will start communicating that message to the American people.