These days, the world is full of teachable moments. The latest is President Donald Trump announcing he tested positive for covid-19 in a late night tweet.
There will be breathless coverage in the coming days about Trump’s health and which officials and oligarchs he may have passed the virus to, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the real story: The Trump administration has created the exact conditions that made it possible for the president to get the virus. It has ignored science and subjected Americans to suffering as a result. His contracting the virus is an exclamation point on the fact that we need both science and compassion to push through not just the pandemic, but also the coming decades of climate crisis.
At this point in the pandemic, there is an abundance of evidence that certain behaviors reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission, including wearing masks, social distancing, and not spending a ton of time indoors with other people who aren’t doing those things. Those precautions help reduce the spread of an airborne virus.
They’re also precautions that Trump, his family, and his administration have flagrantly ignored. At the debate Tuesday night, his family refused to wear masks despite being told they were required. Trump mocked Biden during the debate for wearing “the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.” Photos on Wednesday, the day advisor Hope Hicks tested positive for covid-19, show Hicks and other administration members walking in close proximity without masks. Now, here we are.
Transparency about contracting the virus is another key way to stop the spread, allowing contract tracers to spring into action and those who have come into contact with someone who is infected to quarantine. Yet the White House didn’t say a word voluntarily about Hicks testing positive. Instead, it was Bloomberg reporter Jennifer Jacobs who broke the story based on sources inside the administration. CNN correspondent Kaitlin Collins reported that officials knew of Hicks’ positive test and her having been in proximity to Trump on Thursday, yet the president still attended a fundraiser that day, putting more people in danger. And don’t even get me started on the workers at the fundraiser or on Capitol Hill who have less means than oligarchs to care for themselves but were still recklessly exposed to the virus.
It’s basically a textbook example of eschewing every piece of solid scientific advice, all out of ignorance or perhaps to prove a political point that our president is a tough guy.
There’s a symmetry to Trump contracting the virus as the West Coast burns at a record-setting pace. Just as public health experts have warned that ignoring mask and other guidance could put people at risk, so, too, have climate scientists warned that continuing to pollute the atmosphere could lead to more catastrophic fires. If there is one thing that has become strikingly clear this year, it’s that undertaking risky behavior scientists have warned against will result in catastrophic outcomes.
There’s another symmetry: Trump fell ill the same day new data was released about the uneven economic recovery taking place. Billionaires have raked in $845 billion since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, new unemployment claims totaled 837,000 last week and the recovery appears to be stalling, particularly for Black men and women. Trump enjoys access to wealth and the best healthcare in the world, but his policies and Capitol Hill Republicans’ digging in their heels while letting expanded unemployment benefits lapse are leaving millions of Americans exposed to both disease and economic ruin. That includes a disproportionately high percentage of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities that have been hit hard by the virus and economic downturn.
The coronavirus has been like a neutron star, compressing the horrors of modern conservative government in the U.S. into an impossibly compact space. Trump coming down with covid-19 fits neatly at the center. It doesn’t have to be this way, and frankly, it’s untenable to continue on this path.
Addressing covid-19 will require using science guide decision-making. That means having leadership who model best practices and set clear guidelines for how we beat the virus. But beyond science, this moment also acutely shines a light on why we need compassion to be part of the equation, too. On an individual level, wearing a mask is about doing something to protect people around you. We need that same ethos reflected in policy-making, with a government that protects its citizens from both illness and economic devastation.
The template for success in a climate-constrained era is remarkably similar. Next month, Americans will have a chance to chart that course.