Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

U.S. President Donald Trump talks arrives to participate in a Fox News 'virtual town hall' event with members of the coronavirus task force in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, on March 24, 2020.JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters

It is not an either/or thing, U.S. President Donald Trump argues. It is not a case of either saving the country from the ravages of the novel coronavirus or protecting it from economic perdition. “You can do both.”

While leaders of other countries are imposing more draconian measures to seclude their populations, Mr. Trump is bent on playing the role of heretic again. His plan is to soon reopen parts of the country for business as usual by Easter Sunday, April 12. In areas where COVID-19 is most lethal, he will keep lockdown restrictions in place for longer periods.

But how can he do this, critics wonder, with a virus that he himself has described as an invisible enemy? Is he dreaming? Or is there method in his madness? If he listened to medical professionals, Mr. Trump says, he would shut down the country for so long it would be devastating. The protracted economic anguish would result in more suffering than from the virus itself, he says.

That’s debatable of course. But if the economic inactivity lasted for months and brought on something resembling the Great Depression, he could well be right.

It is no surprise he is in a rush to end the economic clampdown. His re-election could turn on it. The virus has killed off the enormous stock market gains of his presidency.

To make his case for reopening the country much earlier than jurisdictions such as Canada will, he is playing down the severity of the potential impact of the virus. At press briefings he has pointed to the huge numbers dying from the flu through these months. Likely “50,000!” he estimated Monday. By comparison, when he spoke 520 COVID-19 deaths had been reported in the United States, though the number was rising rapidly. (Of course, the coronavirus has only been in the U.S. since January.)

His plan for easing restrictions will be met with stiff resistance from many state governors. But Mr. Trump is banking on the American public responding favourably to being unshackled. And he may be right in that supposition. People can isolate and keep themselves holed up in their residences for a period of time. But how long will it be before they reach the exasperation point and resume normal activities?

In taking the targeted approach of allowing businesses to open in certain areas, Mr. Trump appears to be taking his cue from Dr. David L. Katz, president of True Health Initiative, who wrote an article for the New York Times with the title “Is our fight against coronavirus worse than the disease?”

Mr. Trump has been invoking that thought frequently. Mr. Katz wrote that data from South Korea showed that as many as 99 per cent of active cases in the general population are mild and not in need of specific medical treatment. The small percentage that do are highly concentrated among those age 60 and older. Governments could focus efforts on this smaller demographic, thus allowing most of society to resume normal activities.

In trying to make the case that a government can only go so far in trying to save lives, Mr. Trump is resorting, as he does on many topics, to extravagant parallels. “You look at automobile accidents, which are far greater than any numbers we’re talking about,” he said Monday. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to tell everybody no more driving of cars.”

He is on safer ground in making the case that testing positive for the virus is hardly a death sentence. When Republican senator Rand Paul tested positive, headlines said the announcement “sent shock waves through the senate.” The reports failed to point out that since Mr. Paul, 57, is not in the seniors category, his chances of survival are probably somewhere in the 98-99 per cent range.

For playing down the impact of the coronavirus, Mr. Trump has been attacked by the news media since day one. “All I see is hatred of me,” he says of the commentaries. He has taken reckless gambles throughout his career, and if he follows through on opening up the country with the virus still at large he may well be taking his most reckless one of all.

In trying to save the economy while limiting the impact of the virus he is trying to have the best – or least worse – of both worlds. If carried out with great care, expertise and efficiency his plan could work. Given that his administration is more noted for dysfunction and malfunction, fears that it could grievously backfire on both counts are well placed.

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe