President Donald Trump
Credit: White House Photo by Shealah Craighead/Flickr

America is about to enter one of the darkest phases yet of the COVID-19 pandemic.  U.S. coronavirus cases reached a record high yesterday for the second day in a row, topping 79,000 infections. Over 225,000 Americans and counting are dead from the virus. And things are going to get worse. As the days grow shorter and the weather colder, more Americans are trapped indoors longer. Eating outside becomes harder. Students return to dangerous classrooms, and will soon be taking the virus home for the holidays as vectors. And unlike earlier in the year when the spread was mostly confined to cities and factories where much of conservative America could ignore or gloat over it, the pandemic is now truly everywhere: red states and blue, urban and suburban and rural.

If nothing further is done to stop the spread of the virus in dramatic fashion, it will kill hundreds of thousands more. That’s not a possibility. It’s a guarantee.

President Trump has no plan to stop it. He has never had a plan from the beginning. Trump’s approach to the virus since February was to protect his own re-election prospects rather than human lives. He hoped it would go away, doing nothing to handle the virus lest the precious stock market be disturbed or his Gadsden Flag-waving base be discomfited by restrictions.

As the virus ravaged big Democratic-leaning population centers first, Trump and Kushner intentionally sat back and did practically nothing, hoping the virus would cull the number Democratic voters in the fall and that blue state governors would take the blame for the tragedy. Rather than mount an aggressive and cooperative federal response, Trump and Kushner set states to bid against one another for increasingly scarce and expensive supplies, while giving away sweetheart deals to favored corporations and sobering insider information to Wall Street friends while telling the American public that all would be well. After the first wave of relief, Republicans in the Senate and the White House are now refusing to come to the aid of millions of desperate people and small businesses, and intentionally starving state and local governments of resources needed to keep basic systems afloat out of political malice.

And now? During the last debate between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, one on which Trump’s political fate and perhaps even his personal freedom from prison depends, Trump still could not name a single concrete plan to address the spread of the disease. In satiric disbelief, the Biden campaign even created the website, leading to a simple faux error page that says “The Trump plan to defeat the Coronavirus and reopen safely does not exist.” It’s true.

Trump’s “plan” is that we should all “learn to live” with COVID and re-open everything. That would indeed be news to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have already died from it. It would be news to the huge swath of so-called “COVID long haulers” still suffering devastating health complications long after surviving their initial confrontation with the virus. It would be news to all the parents with asthma for whom simply sending their children to class might be a death sentence. It would be news to all the multigenerational families and caretakers of elderly parents who would be bringing the grim reaper to their loved ones’ doors with a single mistake. Short of locking children in cages and deporting their parents with no hope of reuniting them as a racist deterrent, it is as close to distilled sociopathy as one can achieve in public policy.

Under the Trump “plan,” the only possibility that doesn’t end in over a million COVID deaths in America is a vaccine. Trump has been promising a vaccine is right around the corner since early this summer. The ugly reality is that coronaviruses are notoriously difficult to make effective vaccines for, and that it may take years to develop a truly reliable one. The likely best-case scenario is that any COVID vaccine will not be even ready, much less fully distributed, until at least the middle of next year. Distribution is another hurdle: Trump recently promised 200,000 vaccines a day, but even at that pace it would take years to vaccinate the entire country. And that’s assuming that the vaccine is actually safe–certainly an open question given Trump’s attempts to compromise the safety of its development–and that enough Americans would actually take it for real herd immunity to take effect.

Certainly, Americans are already growing weary of pandemic restrictions. Parents are desperate to send their kids to school, tens of thousands of small businesses are struggling to survive, millions of families don’t know where their next meal or rent/mortgage payment will come from. Even those who are financially stable and not enduring simultaneous full-time work and childcare obligations are suffering from social isolation and zoom fatigue. But that’s precisely because Donald Trump and his team did nothing to avert the crisis from the beginning. He and his conservative media allies turning mask-wearing into a culture war signal, and even now his irresponsible campaign rallies spread the deadly virus in their wake.

But there is no return to normalcy that does not begin with a muscular federal response to bring down the infection rate and save lives. It wouldn’t take that much: a federal mask mandate, a commitment to pay bars and restaurants and other similar businesses closed to potential infectious indoor activities, a promise to keep schools funded while remaining closed and to keep parents’ jobs and incomes safe while giving them the flexibility to take care of their children, and a moratorium or forgiveness on rents and mortgage payments for those who are struggling. These, among other measures, would allow people to mostly go about their lives while severely limiting the spread of the virus.

Much of this is in line with the Biden plan for COVID. There is no Trump plan, and by extension no Republican plan generally. If Trump wins, hundreds of thousands of Americans will die of COVID who would otherwise survive to lead full and happy lives. Millions more will suffer economic, emotional and physical hardship. That’s not hyperbole. Those are the real stakes. The next 11 days will determine whether the coming darkness of this fall and winter represents the early hours before a dawn of recovery, or a profound and deadly chasm from which the country may not recover at all.

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.