By Paul V. DeMarco
We’ve just marked the 20th anniversary of one of the worst days in American history. We remember the horror and heroism of that day and all those we lost. We also recall the strong sense of unity that Americans showed in the aftermath of the attack: the countless Americans who gave blood, held vigils, and supported the grieving. Over the next several months, our national mood gradually returned to a bickering normality as the divisions that we had put aside resurfaced. But many of us recollect with pride how we as a nation responded to that dark day.
In the winter of 2020, Americans became aware of another assault, not as sudden, but one we quickly realized would dwarf the number of casualties from Sept. 11. COVID was a second attack on the homeland. It could have been framed as such by our President Trump and used to galvanize the nation.
To be fair, George Bush had it easier than Trump. All of us over a certain age can tell you where we were on 9/11. Few of us can remember where we were when we first heard the word “COVID.” But the difference between the men is that Bush responded quickly to solidify the national moment. The image of him with a bullhorn exhorting weary first-responders as they sifted grimly through the rubble at Ground Zero is iconic. “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you!” he told them.
The COVID pandemic, of course, did bring us together in many ways. The images of medical teams clapping for COVID survivors being wheeled out of the hospital, neighbors banging pots and pans to celebrate healthcare workers, and nurses with tears in their eyes after losing COVID patients have created a sense of shared struggle. Too many of us have a mental scrapbook of the family and friends we have lost. Mine includes three of my patients. For more than a year and a half, we have been arranging our lives around the virus, caring for one another, and grieving together.
But the unity we have shown during COVID has been despite Trump, not because of him. He had several opportunities for an “I can hear you” moment, but he missed them all. He initially tried to wave away the pandemic and then downplayed its seriousness. Despite the bubble in which he exists, he managed to contract COVID. And because he spent years denigrating the mainstream media, many of his supporters ignored medical experts’ advice to wear masks and get vaccinated.
When he was hospitalized, the nation held its breath. Fortunately, he recovered quickly and returned to the White House after only three days. He released a video that evening in which he could have changed course and brought us together. Here was a moment to trumpet American exceptionalism. What if he had said “I’ve been too cavalier about the coronavirus and I paid for it. I might have died like so many other of my fellow Americans. If a president can end up in the hospital, so can you. Even if you are young and at low risk, take precautions for the elders in your life. Let’s demonstrate American greatness by ending the pandemic quickly.”
But instead he rambled. He minimized. He talked about what a good leader he was. The line that made the headlines was “One thing that’s for certain: don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it. You’re going to beat it.”
In the subsequent 11 months, approximately 400,000 Americans have died.
Another misstep in Trump’s messaging was his failure to publicize his own vaccination. Many high-profile politicians including Mike Pence, Joe Biden, and Kamala Harris widely distributed images of their vaccinations, as did a host of athletes, musicians, and other celebrities.
Donald and Melania Trump were vaccinated sometime in January prior to leaving the White House, and released no photos. This is surprising since Trump’s Operation Warp Speed was a spectacular success. It was the Manhattan Project of public health, something about which Trump and all of America can be proud. Our nation’s ability to simultaneously develop and produce a vaccine saved precious time and countless lives.
But Trump has undercut the success of Operation Warp Speed by his half-hearted endorsement of the vaccine. Since losing the White House, he has continued to send mixed messages. At a rally on August 21 in Cullman, Alabama, he was booed when he suggested that the crowd get vaccinated. He quickly backpedaled. “You’ve got your freedoms, but I happened to take the vaccine.” In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published on Sept. 3, he said he “probably won’t” get a booster shot.
We will never know how much better it could have been. A different approach by Trump, or a different president, could have prevented much suffering. In an interview with Bob Woodward on Feb. 7, 2020, Trump indicated that he knew early on how deadly the virus was but didn’t want to stoke panic. That was a grave miscalculation. Unlike Bush, he underestimated the American people, and for his lack of confidence, we have paid dearly.
Paul DeMarco is a physician who resides in Marion, SC. Reach him at [email protected]. A version of this item previously appeared in the Florence Morning News.