By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
2020 was our never-ending year of political chaos, personal anxiety, and social isolation. Each and every one of us has had to endure our share of it. Nor did our trauma end with a solitary sip of champagne marking that midnight moment between 2020 and 2021. The chaos has followed us into this new year, even as three effective vaccines and a competent Administration have emerged to fix it.
During this past year, we’ve seen continued police and vigilante murders of innocent African-Americans, and resulting protests around the nation. And while peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters, observing COVID-19 protocols to the degree possible, were attacked by law enforcement in the nation’s capital, armed, maskless white supremacists and militias were permitted to invade the state capitol buildings in Lansing, Mich., in order to intimidate legislators at work. We have seen white militia-type terrorists even attempt to kidnap and kill Michigan’s courageous Governor for simply trying to protect that state’s citizens from COVID.
We saw a concerted effort to subvert the 2020 election. The COVID pandemic caused an increase in people mailing their ballots rather than voting in person. Attempting to prevent those ballots from reaching the polling stations in time, Trump’s Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, slowed the mails. We were subjected to Trump’s pre-election ranting that he would only lose if the election were rigged. After the election, we saw intimidation of vote counters and threats to state officials, aimed at changing or discounting votes already cast.
We have--in real time, live and in color—watched an insurrectionist attack on the U.S, Congress (for which the siege of Michigan’s Capitol may well have been a trial run). And we have seen congressmen and senators enable, support, and excuse that insurrection. We watched two expertly presented impeachment prosecutions of Donald Trump fail only because feckless, Republican senators, lacking any honesty, integrity or sense of honor, refused to consider the evidence.
Most of us have watched this public chaos while huddled in our homes, going stir-crazy with the isolation COVID has necessitated: adult children unable to see or hug their elderly parents; grandparents unable to spend time with their grandchildren; husbands, wives and children sheltered together for months, their nerves frayed—not to mention the effect scholastically and emotionally on children unable to go to school or play with friends; and the even greater isolation of those who live alone.
Some of us are essential workers who must brave the outside world and risk catching the virus. Others are small business owners constantly wracking our brains to figure out how to stay in business without customers coming into our stores. And while we all have been doing what we must, many of Trump’s adherents have denied the dangers and spread COVID by refusing to wear masks and attending superspreader events as if they were college kids on spring break in Fort Lauderdale.
From beginning to end, Donald Trump, impresario of our COVID-19 mess, not only neglected appropriate action to stop the spread of the virus, but undercut others’ efforts to do so. Again and again, he demonstrated that his sole interest was how acknowledging the problem would affect the economy and the stock market, thus his perceived ability to win the 2020 election.
The Trump Revue
In January, Trump claimed the “epidemic” amounted to just one person coming in from China—or maybe, he allowed, it was five people, all recuperating successfully.
In February, his talking points were “There’s a theory that, in April, when it gets warm, historically, that has been able to kill the virus…” and “it’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.”
In March, when 21 passengers and crew on the Grand Princess cruise ship sitting off San Francisco’s coast tested positive for COVID, Trump expressed his preference that the ship’s 3,500 passengers be kept on board for testing because “I don’t need to have the numbers [of confirmed U.S. coronavirus cases] double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.” Trump didn’t want the reported number of confirmed COVID cases to go up. He didn’t care about stopping its actual spread or curing those sick with it, only how additional numbers counted on U.S. soil would make him look.
Once the fact we had a pandemic on our hands could no longer be dismissed, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) at the National Institute of Health (NIH) advised us to wash our hands frequently and, in the absence of soap, use hand sanitizer containing at least 70 percent alcohol. They urged us to forego touching our mouth, nose or eyes, stay home, or if we had to go out, stay six feet away from others, and of course, cover our coughs and sneezes. This set off a race to hoard hand sanitizer, soap and, unaccountably—toilet paper—as if we were about to be stranded on a desert island for six months.
But, at first, the CDC and NIAID did not advise us to use masks. In fact, they told us that because the viral particles were so small, masks would not provide any protection. That might have been a well-meant lie. I believe that the CDC and NIAID may have been afraid that the public would buy up and hoard N95 masks and surgical masks, just as we were doing with toilet paper and hand sanitizer. In that case, hospitals and medical workers would not have the N95 and surgical masks they desperately needed to safely care for their patients.
In April, the CDC and NIAID changed their tune, telling us masks could provide some protection for others when we coughed or sneezed, but not for our own protection. Dr. Fauci urged us to wear masks to protect our grandparents and others whose health was vulnerable.
Later, in November, the CDC and NIAID reversed course yet again, stating that masks would provide some protection to wearers too, and urging us to make or purchase close-fitting cloth masks. (I had suspected this all along. It seemed only common sense that blocking germs from traveling through a mask outward would also block others’ germs passing inward. In any case, wearing a mask could do no harm.)
Dr. Fauci and those speaking for the CDC were possibly motivated by the legitimate fear that panic buying would affect first responders’ access to masks. Or they may simply have been giving us new information as knowledge of mask performance evolved. But their repeated changes in position gave Trump an opening to cast doubt on mask effectiveness.
The President made remarks like “I don’t agree with the statement that if everybody wears a mask, everything disappears,” and “maybe they’re great, and maybe they’re just good. Maybe they’re not so good.” He mocked Democratic presidential candidate Biden for wearing one. As late as October, when Trump finally admitted he wore masks “when needed,” he still pointed to Dr. Fauci’s initial statements, saying of Fauci’s view, “masks are not good—then he changed his mind.”
In addition, throughout the year, Trump attempted to silence or coopt scientists and medical experts. After Dr. Fauci stated that COVID-19 appeared to have a higher mortality rate than influenza, and that “we are dealing with a serious virus,” Fauci told associates that the White House instructed him not to say anything else without clearance.
To all appearances, Trump succeeded in either intimidating or coopting Dr. Deborah Birx. When Trump, at a late April press briefing, posed as possible cures bringing ultraviolet light inside the body or injecting a disinfectant, Dr. Birx looked aghast, but nevertheless sat still and silent behind him. Of course, Birx, formerly known for her expert work related to HIV and AIDS, was now working directly for the White House as its coronavirus response coordinator. It appears that staying in good with her boss was more important to her than speaking up for science and sanity.
It was left to companies like Lysol, emergency health hotlines, and other private entities to rush warnings to people not to inject or ingest any type of cleansing product into the body. It was Dr. Vin Gupta, not Dr. Birx, who very immediately said: “This notion of injecting or ingesting any type of cleansing product into the body is irresponsible and it’s dangerous…It’s a common method that people utilize when they want to kill themselves.”
Trump’s persistent efforts to dismiss the number of COVID deaths, along with his open contempt for masks, egged on his followers to claim masks restricted their personal “liberty,” and to treat those wearing masks as making an opposing political statement rather than trying to keep themselves and others alive.
Trump amplified this twisted politicization of the disease as the 2020 election season progressed.
He claimed that combatting the virus was entirely the responsibility of the states, but simultaneously attacked Democratic governors, claiming he had sent help and they were ungrateful. Because Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer had the courage to publicly call out the federal failure to deliver needed COVID-19 supplies, Trump attacked her with war cries such as “Liberate Michigan,” and “Get your governor to open up your state. And get your schools open.” He continued his venomous attacks even after a plot to kidnap and kill her had been exposed.
Come September, investigative journalist and author Bob Woodward released tapes of February phone conversations with Trump that gave irrefutable evidence of Trump’s full, early knowledge of and deliberate lies about the dangers of COVID-19. If Woodward had released them earlier, hearing Trump’s voice privately speak of COVID dangers while publicly dismissing them might have made some of Trump’s acolytes wake up to his con game, change their behavior and save their own lives. Earlier exposure of Trump’s demagoguery also might have stopped last year’s political insanity before it took full hold, and so prevented Trump from building the makeshift army that attacked the Capitol.
In October, after all of Trump’s public belittling of the disease’s dangers and scorn for mask-wearing, he announced that he and Melania had tested positive for the coronavirus. He was treated at Walter Reed Medical Center, and given eight drugs, including Remdesevir and Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody cocktail, the highest dose of that drug being tested in late-stage clinical trials. At that time, this was not available to the general public. Afterwards, Trump told the rest of us who were not eligible to get that special treatment: “Don’t be afraid of COVID. Don’t let it dominate your life.”
While still under care, Trump briefly left the hospital, exposing his security detail to his disease so he could ride past supporters cheering him. And on his return to the White House, he appeared on the Truman Balcony like a mini-Caesar saluting his troops.
As recently reported by Rachel Maddow, in January 2021, Trump secretly got vaccinated. On the day Trump left office, some 400,000 American citizens had died of COVID-19.
The curtain has finally closed on Trump’s 2020 show—No applause, please!
Now that Joe Biden is President, aspects of American life are calmer. More people seem to be wearing masks and abiding by social distancing. The new Administration is trying to bring the country up to speed on vaccinations. Biden is aiming for 100 million vaccinations within 100 days and all eligible American adults by the end of the summer. So far, there are reportedly 1.8 million vaccinations per day, so perhaps he is on target to reach that goal.
Nevertheless, there is great frustration everywhere because states (and Washington, D.C, where I live) are not obtaining enough vaccine for the demand; it is unclear where one can get vaccinated; the websites for computerized sign ups do not work efficiently; and the rules on who is eligible and when are inconsistent from state to state, and sometimes from day to day even within a jurisdiction. When you cannot even sign up for an appointment, it is exasperating to hear that 1.8 million other people have obtained their first—and perhaps even second—vaccination. Concern whether these vaccines will be effective against new viral strains surfacing here and around the world also looms over us.
We must try to keep in mind that when the Biden Administration came into office, it found that Trump had absolutely no plan in place for vaccine distribution. In going forward, the new Administration has had to start from scratch. So, we need to find the patience to bear with our remaining frustrations and uncertainties while the new government sorts out the many distribution glitches. After the insane degree of tension we’ve experienced this last year, finding that patience is hard. But at least the Trump horror show has ended.
Jessie Seigel is a fiction writer, an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. She has twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work. But, Seigel also had a long career as a government attorney, in which she honed her analytic skills. Of this double career, Seigel would say, “I guess my right and left brains are well balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.