In spite of the upward trajectory of coronavirus cases and deaths in the West, Donald Trump is talking about lifting the restrictions introduced barely two weeks ago and re-opening America for business. This amounts to having made a calculation that a certain heavy loss of human life is preferable to damage to the US economy.

Trump’s political opponents have said that it is unacceptable to put a dollar value on human life, but that is precisely what the president seems about to do. Social Darwinists will say – in private at least – that a cull of ‘useless eaters’ (i.e. the aged, the chronically sick, the severely disabled, and the infirm) is unavoidable, and that it will relieve the economy of a huge burden (i.e. the costs of their pensions and health care), thus facilitating economic recovery from the ravages of coronavirus. Few among the general public, for whom the above are not abstract socio-economic categories but include well-loved family members (siblings, parents, and grandparents) and close friends, will agree.[1] Which is probably why even the most dedicated social Darwinists do not care to make the argument publicly. But it will certainly be made behind closed doors in the corridors of power. And not a few governments, if only they can think of a plausible way of presenting the policy as something other than what it is, will be tempted to adopt it and thus to limit the economic cost by driving up the number of deaths.

From the first, Trump’s public statements on the coronavirus pandemic have comprised his customary mixture of outright falsehoods, wild exaggerations, misleading statements, self-aggrandizing boasts, and utter imbecilities. Ordinarily, this makes little difference: the USA in general, and Washington in particular, have adjusted their expectations to the abysmal realities of Trump’s presidency. But these are not ordinary times. They are times when clear, decisive leadership is called for, and when qualities like integrity, rationality, judgment, compassion, empathy, and reliability are needed. Trump has none of them. The people who voted for him are about to be brought face-to-face with the consequences of their irresponsibility. They cannot run or hide from a global pandemic. And viruses notoriously do not respond to threats, lies, bullying, or distortions. Trump can say and do whatever he likes. But he cannot change the facts. And the central fact about coronavirus is that the US is now the epicentre of this pandemic, and it isn’t going away any time soon – not even with a $2 trillion dollar boost to the economy.

The implications of this are frightening. We are in the grip of a pandemic which we are very far from understanding. We do not know how infectious the coronavirus is, or what the mortality rate is. We know that it is much more readily transmissible than influenza, and that its mortality rate is higher. But beyond that, there are very few facts of which we can be certain. It seems, on the face of it, that flu has a mortality rate of 0.1% and coronavirus of approximately 1%, but even this may be a distortion: there may be many unreported cases of coronavirus where the symptoms were mild, so the mortality rate may be significantly lower than the official figures indicate. No-one knows for sure. And there are many more unknowns: for example, why some people are severely affected while others suffer only mild symptoms (and some are asymptomatic); whether it can be caught more than once; why some people relapse, and even die, after having appeared to make a partial recovery; why the effects of the virus are worse at night than during the day; why men are more susceptible to the virus than women, and why men over 50 seem the most susceptible of all; whether the coronavirus will abate when the weather turns warmer; how long it will take to acquire a herd immunity…all these and many other questions remain to be answered. As I write, teams of doctors, specialists, and scientists all over the world are searching desperately for the answers. Meanwhile, Donald Trump indulges in happy talk and groundless assertions that a miracle cure is practically at hand, or that the coronavirus will soon be brought under control so that America can re-open for business.

A television documentary, Trump and the Virus, has contrasted Donald Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus with (1) previous presidents’ responses to emergencies which occurred on their watch – e.g. Roosevelt’s to the great depression and George W. Bush’s to 9/11, and (2) other world leaders’ responses to the present pandemic, highlighting Trump’s inconsistency, his incessant lying, his lack of basic understanding, his ignorance of the facts, his evidently moronic intellectual level,[2] his peddling of misinformation, his penchant for self-congratulation, his claim that the crisis was unforeseeable (on the contrary, it was both foreseeable and foreseen), his refusal to accept responsibility for anything that has gone badly on his watch, and his insistence on claiming all the credit for anything that has gone well.

The programme also highlighted some of the USA’s endemic problems: e.g. weak federal government, a culture of excessive individualism and extensive gun ownership (significantly, the purchase of guns has increased enormously since the pandemic began – as if a virus could be stopped at the point of a gun),[3] inadequate healthcare (there is very little public healthcare provision, and an astonishing 80 million Americans, out of a total population of 327.2 million, have either no health insurance at all or manifestly inadequate health insurance), widespread poverty and homelessness, and huge economic inequalities.

These problems are plain for anyone to see. Anyone, that is, except Americans themselves, too many of whom are in denial. Some believe the coronavirus is a hoax. Others believe it is real, but that they will be somehow immune. Yet others have joined private militias in the belief that the virus will lead to a general breakdown of law and order, which they will have to restore by force of arms (although it is not clear under whose authority they will be acting). None of these beliefs is even remotely rational. It all adds up to a picture of a society in meltdown. Contrast that with the responses of China, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, where governments quickly ascertained the facts, got on top of the situation, took the necessary stringent measures, and rigorously enforced them. In all those states, the pandemic was successfully contained and fatalities were kept to the unavoidable minimum. In the USA, health experts have soberly predicted that casualties might be well in excess of 100,000.

Trump and the Virus posed the question whether this will be seen in retrospect as the moment when the USA surrendered its global leadership. But that ship has sailed. The USA surrendered its claim to global leadership (insofar as it ever had one) on the very day it elected Donald Trump as its president. China now has a stronger claim to moral leadership than the USA. But what this really underscores is the folly of looking to any state or national leader for moral leadership. To provide such leadership is a function of religions, not of politics. And those who reject religions are thrown back upon their own philosophical resources.

[1] It is notable that many of the older generation themselves chafe against the restrictions imposed by government and aver that they would rather take their chances by living as normally as possible. They believe that they have lived full lives and would rather die bravely than cower in their houses before the coronavirus. However, they are overlooking the fact that, by living ‘normally’ and ignoring restrictions, they are placing others at risk of contracting Covid-19 from them. Their invocation of the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ is based on an inappropriate analogy and therefore misplaced.
[2] For probative evidence of this, see the transcripts of virtually every Trump rally held, every press briefing given, or extempore speech delivered since he was elected president.
[3] Many Americans apparently see their chief priority as defending their rights against other citizens, or even against the federal authorities, rather than protecting themselves and their families against the virus.

Jon Elsby is a writer and critic, and is published by CentreHouse Press [jonelsby at centrehousepress dot com]