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On Wednesday, US Vice-President Mike Pence peddled an extraordinary fantasy about Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. Pence’s tale of heroic, decisive leadership was so completely at odds with reality that pretty much the only words he spoke that lies were “a,” “and,” and “the.”

And most media organisations did, indeed, point out the falsehoods.

Yet what seems to me to be missing from much of the commentary on the Republican carnival of disinformation is an acknowledgement that Trump’s worst hour came not during COVID-19’s initial surge but weeks later, when he did all he could to push America into a reckless — and maskless — reopening.

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And he’s doing it again. Speaker after speaker at the Republican National Convention referred to COVID-19, if at all, in the past tense. Their not-so-subtle message was that the pandemic is over. But it isn’t, and the Trump administration is still failing to protect the American people.

If I had to pick a single day when America lost the fight against the coronavirus, it would be April 17. That was the day when Trump proclaimed his support for mobs — some of whose members were carrying guns — that were threatening Democratic state governments and demanding an end to social distancing. “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” he tweeted, followed by “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd amendment.” (That last bit reads an awful lot like an incitement to armed insurrection.)

A vast national catastrophe

In so doing, Trump, in his eagerness to see good economic numbers, chose to disregard warnings from health experts that returning to business as usual would lead to a new surge in infections. And while the Democratic governors he targeted mostly ignored his taunts, many Republican governors, especially in the Sunbelt, rushed to remove restrictions on restaurants, bars, even gyms.

The result was a vast national catastrophe.

As in the early days of the pandemic, Trump and those around him wasted crucial weeks denying what was happening and refusing to take action. On June 16 an op-ed article by Mike Pence declared that there wasn’t a coronavirus ‘’second wave.” (Spoiler: there was.) Four days later, Trump held an indoor rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, without social distancing and with very few people wearing masks, in an apparent attempt to convey the sense that things were fine.

There’s every indication that the Trumpists want to do the same thing now that they’ve done twice before: deal with a deadly pandemic by pretending it either doesn’t exist or is already going away.


Of course, things weren’t fine. Here’s one way to see how fine they weren’t: On the day Trump issued his LIBERATE demands, around 33,000 Americans had died from COVID-19. The total now is around 180,000. That is, the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths in the United States have occurred since Trump effectively tried to sound the all-clear.

To be fair, some of those additional deaths would surely have happened even if Trump had done what he should have done: urged states to impose and maintain strict limits on indoor gatherings, called for social distancing, encouraged Americans to wear masks instead of ridiculing the practice and so on. But many, perhaps most, of those deaths could have been avoided.

Promised economic rebound falls short

Furthermore, the cost of Trump’s fecklessness went beyond the unnecessary loss of life and the long-term health damage that, it seems increasingly likely, will afflict many of those who survived COVID-19. The promised economic rebound is also falling short. Reopening produced a brief surge of returning jobs, but most states have now either paused or reversed their reopening, and employment growth appears to have slowed drastically.

And then there’s the effect on education. By abandoning the fight against the coronavirus in the spring, Trump and company made it impossible for the nation’s children to have anything resembling a normal school year in the fall.

Germany, whose response to COVID-19 has been infinitely better than America’s, has managed to reopen its schools more or less normally, amid constant testing and quick actions to contain potential outbreaks. For America, that’s an impossible dream, and the damage we’re doing to basic education will scar the nation for decades to come.

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Now, the US situation appears to have improved a bit over the past couple of weeks: closing bars and mandating masks seem to have led to a decline in new infections and deaths. But these tentative, fragile gains could easily be squandered by a return to irresponsible policy.

And Trump and company appear to have lost none of their eagerness to do the wrong thing.

It’s not just the speeches at the RNC. Trump loyalists are back to hawking miracle cures, with the FDA making claims about the virtues of administering blood plasma that baffled experts. And on Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — probably in response to political pressure — made the shockingly irresponsible suggestion that people without COVID-19 symptoms abstain from testing.

In other words, there’s every indication that the Trumpists want to do the same thing now that they’ve done twice before: deal with a deadly pandemic by pretending it either doesn’t exist or is already going away. And the third time will definitely not be the charm.

— Paul Krugman is one of America’s foremost public intellectuals. He is a Nobel laureate and teaches economics at the City University of New York