Trump’s Election Day message on Covid-19: My only mistake was bad PR

President Donald Trump is closing his 2020 presidential campaign by arguing that his only mistake in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic was mishandling “public relations.”

“We got hit with the ‘China virus,’” Trump said on Tuesday during a stop at his campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. “We’ve done an incredible job with respect to that — other than public relations.”

Trump cited his administration’s initial projections that 2.2 million people would die in the US due to the coronavirus. Because 230,000 have died in the US instead, Trump said his administration actually saved 2 million lives. He also cited an “incredible job” on developing treatments for the disease.

It’s the message that Trump has pushed in the past several months: essentially, that it’s not his fault, and he did his best. As he said in the final debate, “I take full responsibility. It’s not my fault that it came here. It’s China’s fault.” He also argued then that he’s saved millions of lives.

The data, however, suggests the US could have done much better.

The US’s death toll remains the highest in the world in total numbers. America is fourth for Covid-19 deaths, when controlling for population, among the world’s 36 developed nations, with almost six times the death rate as the median developed country. If the US had the same death rate as Canada, over 140,000 more Americans would likely be alive today.

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There’s no reason it should have played out this way.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, a 2019 ranking of countries’ disease outbreak preparedness from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Nuclear Threat Initiative had the US at the top of the list. Although the report warned that “no country is fully prepared for epidemics or pandemics,” it at the very least suggested that the US should have done better than most other countries.

“What this outbreak gives you is the same problem for every country around the world,” Clare Wenham, a global health policy expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told me last month. “So you can really see the impact of different policies that were launched.” The US’s performance “is a testament to failures of the Trump administration.”

Experts, citing the growing body of evidence, have landed on a few key policies that are critical to fighting Covid-19: social distancing, aggressive testing and tracing, and widespread masking. But Trump has rejected all these approaches — demanding that states open up early and quickly, punting testing and tracing programs down to local and state governments, and mocking and questioning masks.

One caveat to all of this is Europe: Once generally praised for its Covid-19 response, it’s now seeing a surge in coronavirus cases, similar to the US’s ongoing autumn surge. Trump has cited the rising case numbers in Europe to argue that the pandemic is “worldwide” and thus that America’s failures aren’t unique or preventable.

But many developed countries — including Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea — have suppressed the virus and avoided another surge so far by embracing those measures recommended by experts. Even within Europe, Germany, which embraced strong action against the virus early on, is still doing much better than its peers and the US.

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The problem in Europe, instead, is that much of the continent made the same mistake as the US: As countries grew increasingly fatigued and complacent with the virus, they reopened far too quickly and aggressively, letting the virus get out of control again. As Wenham told me, “The numbers [in Europe] got low — much lower than the US. So people did become more confident.”

Unlike the US now, though, European nations are responding to their surges with serious action, including lockdowns, mask mandates, and more testing and tracing. Trump, by contrast, hasn’t altered the country’s approach to the pandemic, instead leaving major policy changes to local and state governments with far fewer resources than the federal government.

In that sense, the ongoing surges in the US and Europe may merely expose yet another version of Trump’s failure with the pandemic: While other countries have taken the virus seriously, and are continuing to do so, Trump still resists stronger action.

But Trump’s closing argument doesn’t acknowledge any of this. If you ask the president, his only mistake was simply not putting the right public relations spin on his botched response.