The New York Times has done an excellent job of visualizing how much outright economic damage, suffering, and death has been generated by Trump’s failure to act at the time when that action could have had a consequential effect.
With no vaccine, no existing immunity, and no therapeutic treatment, there is only one way to fight COVID-19, and that’s to break the chain of transmission. The whole purpose of social distancing is to reduce the number of people who are infected by someone who has the disease. It’s necessary at every point, but it’s most effective when it happens early. After all, the best way to make sure that someone doesn’t spread COVID-19 is to keep them from being infected in the first place.
The R0 value, or the rate of transmission, for COVID-19 is estimated to be around 2.5. That means that in an environment without social distancing, each person will infect 2.5 others, and each of them will in turn infect 2.5 others, and so on. Because there is no immunity to this disease, everyone is a potential carrier, so a single case can become 100 in just five generations of passing the virus along. If social distancing happens late in that chain, 100 might become 98. But if it happens right at the start, the whole chain of infection is ended.
When people talk about social distancing “just buying time,” they’re absolutely correct. Because time is everything in responding to a pandemic. Time is lives.
All through January as the numbers in China soared, Donald Trump sat back and assured Americans that it could not happen here. All through February as it became obvious that the virus had no regard for national boundaries and a pandemic was inevitable, Trump golfed, and rallied, and dismissed any possibility of a threat. Even in the opening weeks of March as South Korea bent the curve on the outbreak there through diligent testing and a coordinated response, Trump did nothing to either slow the spread of the disease in the United States or to prepare the nation for the fight ahead.
It wasn’t until March 16 that the White House released suggested guidelines for social distancing. By that time there were already 4,000 cases in the United States and the idea of stopping the chain at the beginning was long gone. The mathematics of exponential increase are unrelenting, and so is the consequence of Trump’s inaction: Had Donald Trump acted just two weeks earlier, over 90% of the deaths in the United States could have been avoided.
March 2 was the day that the United States hit 100 cases. It was clear there was community spread on both coasts. If Trump was still harboring some idea that closing “the border with China” had somehow protected the nation, that idea was clearly ridiculous by that point. But Trump did nothing. And then nothing. And then still more nothing.
By March 9, the United States hit 1,000 cases even with an inadequate testing program that was clearly making it impossible to determine the real scope of the disease. Had Trump moved at that point, he could have saved 60% of all the lives now projected to be lost. Trump still did nothing.
In ethics classes, students are commonly faced with what is called the “trolley problem”—an issue in which inaction will result in more deaths than action. Usually, the dilemma presented by the problem comes in the form of lives that will be lost through action weighed against lives lost through inaction. But Donald Trump was handed a problem where on one track, tens of thousands were sure to be plowed down by the oncoming train of a coming epidemic. On the other rail was only a small slice of his overwhelming ego.
And, as he has every single day of his miserable life, Trump showed that he valued his own ego above any number of human lives.