In the absence of a safe and effective vaccine or curative treatments for COVID-19, control of the pandemic rests on collective public action. Public health authorities have been promoting a variety of physical measures that everyone should try to undertake to decrease the spread of the virus.
For example, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone should "Wash your hands often.... Avoid close contact ... Stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arms’ length) from other people. Do not gather in groups. Stay out of crowded places and avoid mass gatherings.... Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others." These measures are meant both to protect the people employing them, and those exposed to them.
Many have complied, "flattening of the curve" in some areas, but causing large economic dislocations. Until vaccines or treatments are available, however, it might only be safe to relax the stringency of physical prevention measures if it were possible to quickly diagnose and isolate new cases, and find and isolate their contacts. However, that is not yet possible in most of the US.
Thus it has been disconcerting to see top government leaders publicly spurning the currently recommended physical measures. We recently discussed how the US Vice President excused his failure to wear a mask at a public event by his recent negative test for coronavirus, obtained via his access to a frequent testing regimen at the White House that is far more extensive than anything available to the population. We wondered at the time whether this extraordinary access to testing at the White House may shield the top of the US executive branch from the realities of the epidemic, perhaps partially explaining their less than vigorous response to it.
We also speculated that this extraordinary access was being used by President Trump and associates to promote his propaganda that the pandemic is under control, and use this deception to justify prematurely "reopening" the economy. However, by relaxing prevention measures, this would risk amplifying a still uncontrolled pandemic.
Now media reports suggest that the push to "reopen" is central to the administration's political plans. At the same time, the administration may find that reality can only be denied for so long.
The Maskless Visit to A Mask Manufacturing Facility
As reported by the New York Times on May 5, 2020:
In his latest show of support for returning to normal life even as the coronavirus continues to spread, Mr. Trump took a day trip to Phoenix to visit a Honeywell International plant that manufactures N95 masks
In heavily political remarks to Honeywell employees after a tour of the factory, the president said that 'our country is now in the next stage of the battle' against the virus and that 'now we are reopening our country.'
Yet at this mask factory,
Mr. Trump wore safety goggles as he toured the 500-employee plant, which previously manufactured aerospace equipment. But he did not wear a mask, despite signage near the factory floor announcing safety guidelines that included an admonition: 'Please wear your mask at all times.' Other members of Mr. Trump’s entourage, including the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and the national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, also did not cover their faces.
The CDC strongly advises every American to wear a mask. The President visits a mask factory, makes political remarks, but he and his entourage fail to wear masks.
Avoiding Masks as a Propaganda Ploy
A column in the Washington Post on May 6, 2020, suggested that this was quite deliberate:
At the Honeywell plant that Trump toured, many employees of the company wore masks. Trump’s video showed those employees wearing masks — in fairness, his team didn’t try to hide this — but he and the executives did not wear them, as the video also shows.
It appears this may have been in violation of company policy. CNN’s Jim Acosta tweeted that a sign in the facility said face masks were required.
Furthermore, the article suggested that Trump used his extraordinary access to COVID-19 testing to try to enhance his personal protection to enable this deliberate action. Starting with a statement from Honeywell:
Following White House recommended protocol, a small number of individuals directly interfacing with the President on Tuesday were tested for COVID-19 immediately prior to the event, received negative test results, and were permitted to not wear masks during portions of the visit based on that medical screening. All others present were wearing masks and social distancing in accordance with Honeywell’s site policy.
That strongly suggests the White House initiated this outcome: Honeywell executives, following the White House’s lead, got tested and cleared before interacting with Trump, which they did without masks. Trump aides traveling with him also didn’t wear masks.
Many of the others (such as those in the audience) wore masks, in accordance with Honeywell policy.
That means Honeywell executives might have violated their own company policy, in keeping with what Trump and the White House wanted, obviously for staging purposes.
The article went on to explain the deception involved:
Trump is almost certainly not wearing a mask at such events to send a message to the country that we’re approaching normalcy. That’s likely why Trump and Vice President Pence have been lately holding other events without masks and proper social distancing.
Another reason this matters: As David Nakamura reports, Trump and Pence are able to do this because they have special access to a rapid testing mechanism. Indeed, the White House has defended these mask-free events on precisely that basis.
It’s not surprising that Trump and his entourage have such special testing access, given that he’s president. But this still raises the question of whether Trump is exploiting this access to mislead the country into believing things are normal when the rest of the country lacks this access to testing and thus doesn’t enjoy the safety or quasi-normalcy Trump does.
The article suggests that Trump is using optics to contradict his own administration's policy without saying it in so many words:
'Particularly to his supporters, the behavioral choices he makes carry far more weight than virtually anything else,' Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, told me. Konyndyk added that even if Trump and those around him benefit from special testing, 'what’s seen by Americans is, 'don’t wear a mask.'
An AP news story on May 7, 2020 also asserted that the goal is to portray a falsely rosy picture of pandemic control:
Trump has told advisers that he believes wearing one would 'send the wrong message,' according to one administration and two campaign officials not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations. The president said doing so would make it seem like he is preoccupied with health instead of focused on reopening the nation’s economy — which his aides believe is the key to his reelection chances.
The AP story also suggested that going maskless is not only meant to visually convey the message is not only that the pandemic is under better control than it actually is, but to appeal to "the Trump base's" ideology and emotions:
While not yet as loaded as a 'Make America Great Again' hat, the mask is increasingly a visual shorthand for the debate pitting those willing to follow health officials’ guidance and cover their faces against those who feel it violates their freedom or buys into a threat they think is overblown.
That resistance is fueled by some of the same people who object to other virus restrictions. The push back has been stoked by President Donald Trump — he didn’t wear a mask during an appearance at a facility making them — and some other Republicans, who have flouted rules and questioned the value of masks. It’s a development that has worried experts as Americans are increasingly returning to public spaces.
'There’s such a strong culture of individualism that, even if it’s going to help protect them, people don’t want the government telling them what to do,' said Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech engineering professor with experience in airborne transmission of viruses.
At any rate, Trump's push back against the masks the CDC is recommending is propagating among the faithful:
White House aides say the president hasn’t told them not to wear them, but few do. Some Republican allies have asked Trump’s campaign how it would be viewed by the White House if they were spotted wearing a mask.
It appears that President Trump's extraordinary access to health care has not only enabled his lax approach to a lethal pandemic, but has enabled a denial of reality that is influencing people to abandoned social distancing and other such physical prevention measures.
Early in the Trump administration, we noted how the denial of reality had become part of its program:
In 2003 I published an article entitled 'A Cautionary Tale: the Dysfunction of American Health Care,' which summarized the views of health care professionals about the causes of health care dysfunction. One of the major findings was the importance of 'attacks on the scientific basis of medicine.' In turn, I hypothesized that some of these attacks stemmed from the rise of post-modernism, then a fashionable intellectual affectation on university campuses, mainly of the avant garde left-wing. I wrote then:
Postmodernism is 'an attempt to question the fundamental philosophical and political premises of the West. It argues that many of the concepts we take for granted—including truth, morality, and objectivity—are culturally ‘constructed’' To postmodernists, truth is just what the powerful say is true.
Now it seems that post-modernist 'thought' has escaped the confines of left-wing humanities departments, and infiltrated political discourse, and for some unfathomable reason, seems to particularly affect some of those who profess to be conservative. After all, in January, KellyAnne Conway, a senior White House adviser, defended the administration's arguments as 'alternative facts.' (Look here.)
Now the reality of extraordinary access to health care has given Trump a tool to make "alternative facts" seem so real that his followers act on them.
Denying Reality May Not Prevent its Intrusion
Of course, in the real world, reduction in physical prevention measures in the continuing absence of safe and effective vaccines or treatments likely will cause an amplification of the pandemic, and hence more disease, more death, and more health care facilities at risk of collapse. Those who are influenced by Trump's propaganda would not be immune to these dangers. Neither would the people with whom they have contact, including their friends and family.
Reality often strikes back at those who deny. In this case, reality may be striking back quickly. The same day after the AP story above was published, and immediately after I wrote most of the post above, CNN reported that coronavirus had invaded the White House:
A member of the US Navy who serves as one of President Donald Trump's personal valets has tested positive for coronavirus, CNN learned Thursday, raising concerns about the President's possible exposure to the virus.
The valets are members of an elite military unit dedicated to the White House and often work very close to the President and first family.
That night (May 7, 2020), the Washington Post had an expanded report suggesting that Trump was likely exposed to coronavirus:
The infected staffer is one of Trump’s personal valets, the military staff members who sometimes serve meals and look after personal needs of the president. That would mean the president, Secret Service personnel and senior members of the White House staff could have had close or prolonged contact with the aide before the illness was diagnosed.
The report also clarified that there was little observance of physical prevention measures in the White House.
the president likes to meet with many people and is itching to travel more, these aides said.
wider use of masks among staffers close to Trump is expected but will remain optional.
Relatively few staffers who interact frequently with the president wear masks. One who did, deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger, drew snickers from his colleagues, according to aides.
Trump has never worn a face mask in public during the pandemic and has said that to do so while performing his official duties would be unseemly.
Junior staffers often wear masks, but senior-level officials who meet with Trump have generally not worn them, three White House officials said.
Several former White House personnel said they have asked previous colleagues still working at the White House why staff members on the grounds, and especially those in proximity to Trump, were not automatically following a protocol of wearing masks and being regularly tested before this point.
'The president sees it as a sign of weakness to wear masks and so people just haven’t been doing it,' one current employee responded, according to a person familiar with that conversation.
One day later (May 8, 2020), reports of a second White House staffer with coronavirus appeared. This time, the staffer was political, not a member of the military assigned to the White House, and one particularly likely to have been in close contact with the top levels of political leadership. Per NPR,
The White House on Friday confirmed a second case of coronavirus this week, now in Vice President Pence's office, as both the president and his No. 2 have recently begun traveling again.
Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller tested positive for the virus on Friday, after having tested negative Thursday.
Miller is married to Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller, whose fiery anti-immigration stance and public loyalty to the president has made him one of Trump's closest allies.
Per the Washington Post:
Miller is married to Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to Trump who has interacted with him this week, though it remained unclear late Friday whether the couple would both be quarantined at home. The White House said Pence tested negative for the virus as did the aides removed from his plane.
Yet Katie Miller’s positive test raised questions over who else she might have been in contact with. She has attended nearly all of the White House coronavirus task force meetings, led by Pence, in the Situation Room, aides said.So
Here is the double-bind produced by post-modernist reality denial. Now Trump et al either must accept the reality of the pandemic, or assume a real personal risk of being infected, possibly getting very sick, and possibly dying. As the Washington Post, May 8, put it:
'This is a show of bravado. This is a show of ‘I got this. I’m in control,’ ' said one former security official familiar with White House security planning during past administrations.
'He’s tried to minimize this threat from day one. It’s the only way he can laugh in the face of this disease,' said this person, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly address sensitive security matters. “If he backtracks now, and starts wearing a mask, it will contradict the red meat he’s feeding to his base constantly. This is the first health crisis that has been politicized.'
In the bad old days when post-modernism was rampant on university campuses, I suspected that the post-modernists denied reality only as part of a cynical academic pose. I went to a talk by a post-modernist academic who denied the existence of a single external reality. Later I heard her take part in an intensely practical conversation about travel options at the post-talk social hour. I sidled into the conversation and asked if there is no reality, why don't you fall through the apparent but unreal floor into the depths of the earth? She smiled nervously and found someone else to talk to. I suspect no academic post-modernist had sufficient belief in their intellectual position that they would walk in front of an oncoming bus because it was not part of external reality.
So if Trump et al are like the old academic post-modernists, they would quickly start social distancing and physical measures to mitigate the pandemic at the White House. However, maybe they would have to stop laughing at the coronavirus and pay some heed to the need to competently manage the pandemic.
However, at the time I am writing this, I am not sure Trump et al will not step in front of the bus. From the Washington Post, May 8:
President Trump on Friday continued to eschew key public health guidelines from his own administration — meeting with Republican lawmakers and World War II veterans without a face mask — while expressing confidence that he is protected from the coronavirus despite a second White House staffer testing positive this week.
On Thursday, the president met with close advisers, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and campaign manager Brad Parscale, who brought with him five prototype masks featuring the Trump-Pence reelection logo.
Trump was delighted with the campaign swag and approved its distribution for public sale, officials said, and Parscale posted a photo on Twitter of himself wearing the mask.
But that was the only time anyone involved in the meeting had worn any sort of face covering, the officials said.
Three visitors to the White House on Thursday said that few officials inside the complex were wearing masks, and Trump and senior aides did not bring up the positive tests or express safety concerns.
As Trump often says, "we will see what happens."
At least if the Trump does figuratively walk in front of the bus, he and his associates may not be around to laugh at the coronavirus much longer, and there would be a chance the rest of us could leap out of the bus' way on our own before its too late.
As we wrote in 2017:
Facts ... are stubborn things. Evidence is evidence, no matter what politician it might offend. Basing legislation [or action] on the sorts of alternative thinking displayed in the cases above could lead to real life, or life and death consequences for the sick, injured and vulnerable. True health care reform requires clear thinking and the input of people who actually know something about health care.
You heard it here first.