Donald Trump
Credit: The White House/Flickr

Of the many controversies around the official reporting of COVID-19 infections and deaths, one of the biggest and most intractable is calculating how many people are suffering and dying of ailments that would have been successfully treated without the extra stress on the healthcare system. Fewer people are calling 911 (likely from fear of going to the hospital or burdening the system), stroke victims are being treated by machine only in some hospitals, and preventive care and non-essential surgeries at clinics around the country are being canceled or delayed.  The impacts on care for “normal” issues are unknown. What we can do is look at overall deaths compared to the statistical baseline. The news on that front is not good: in New York City, for instance, people are dying at twice the usual rate.

Insofar as the Trump administration’s bungled response to the pandemic is to blame for the United States becoming the world’s worst coronavirus disaster zone, all of this suffering and death can be laid at their feet.

But one very specific crisis isn’t just vaguely the Trump administration’s fault, but rather directly. As Trump has sought out a magic bullet to solve the problem for him, he and the conservative media complex have been obsessing over the drug hydroxychloroquine. Hydroxychloroquine has no proven efficacy against COVID-19, and any potential benefits require much more study than has been done. But the right-wing has been pushing it as a miracle cure, partly as an escape hatch so that they can “reopen the economy” and partly to grasp at any straw that they can use later this year to portray themselves and Trump as a genius if it turns out to have any beneficial impact. It’s a low-risk, high-reward play for them politically: if hydroxychloroquine has no use against COVID-19, everyone will have forgotten about their temporary obsession by October. But if it has some benefit, they’ll exploit it to exaggerated effect.

The fact that Trump appears to be financially invested in a drugmaker that manufactures it may or may not be part of the equation, too.

The problem, of course, is that in the meantime people who actually need hydroxychloroquine are getting hurt by shortages of the drug caused by the president’s admirers gobbling it up. Not surprisingly, they tend to be the economically marginalized and people of color–individuals that Trump and conservatives have very little concern for. As Maya Harris writes in the Atlantic:

Millions of Americans find themselves vulnerable to COVID-19 because of underlying health challenges, but this pandemic has unearthed particularly deep fractures along our nation’s racial and gender fault lines. This is especially true of lupus. Roughly 1.5 million Americans live with lupus, and we are overwhelmingly female and disproportionately black or brown. For black women like me, lupus tends to take hold at a younger age with more serious, life-threatening consequences. For us, the coronavirus could very well be a death sentence…

Not long ago, Donald Trump started talking and tweeting about hydroxychloroquine, which I have taken for most of my adult life, as if it were a miracle drug—a “game changer” for treating COVID-19, the president insists. Immediately, thousands of people began hoarding it, causing shortages that have resulted in lupus patients—and their doctors—struggling to get the supply they need. The more Trump pushed the unproven remedy from the White House podium, the more I wondered: Did he not care that the Food and Drug Administration hadn’t approved the drug for COVID-19? Was he that desperate to contain a crisis of his own making?

It’s not just people with lupus in America. Hydroxychloroquine is principally an anti-malarial drug essential for the survival of hundreds of thousands of people, particularly in the developing world. India was forced to cut by half the supply of the drug to the United States due to high demand from the president’s followers, so that others actually suffering from malaria could be saved from death.

What this administration and the conservative movement) are doing with respect to the pandemic isn’t for public health reasons: it’s for explicitly corrupt and blatantly political reasons. Their decisions and obsessions are consequently endangering and killing people. The hydroxychloroquine obsession is no exception.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.