COVID19 is Trump’s Chernobyl

HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries stuck in my thoughts longer than I’d have imagined. It’s a historical drama that illustrates how political and cultural rot grows as people come to believe that truth must align with their leaders’ views. If this were only true of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the show would simply be a tragedy. But of late, Chernobyl has taken on the feel of a cautionary parable in light of the President’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic.

On March 27th, as the Coronavirus topped 100,000 US cases, President Trump, tried to explain how he’d talk to a child about the virus. “You can call it a germ, you can call it a flu, you can call it a virus. You know, you can call it many different names. I’m not sure anybody even knows what it is.”

Researchers know the protein landscape of the new Coronavirus’s surface down to the position of individual atoms. We don’t know everything, but thanks to Science, Coronavirus is not an inexplicable mystery. Knowledge mixed with experts who assert truths opposed to the President’s world view or interests are treated as a threat and called “false”.

Last month, the government awarded an unusual $10.2 million contract to a Pittsburgh information technology company, TeleTracking Technologies. Its job is to gather information about hospital capacity and coronavirus death counts, both of which the CDC already produces. In Trump World, there’s a description for this kind of informational resource, “alternative facts.” Our federal government is commissioning alternative facts.

Of course, facts alone don’t make truth. The CDC can interpret data and map data to other factors, creating knowledge. Allowing the White House to have its own data cuts out the people who have made careers of interpreting it. The President can draw conclusions independently, naively – as an amateur might before moving on to a fresh distraction.

This seems to have been his decision approach for taking hydroxychloroquine.  When asked what evidence convinced him to take the Malaria drug, he replied: “Here’s my evidence, I get a lot of positive calls about it.”

But what about the Federal studies by the VA and others that showed it to be a potentially harmful COVID treatment?  “The only negative I’ve heard was the study where they gave it — was it the VA? People that aren’t big Trump fans,” the President said. He went on to say the research was “a very unscientific report” — conflicting with the “tremendously positive news” he gets personally on the drug.

When facts don’t agree with the President’s beliefs, they are not only false but generated by opponents and bunglers.  That’s why mass testing to guide the COVID response is anathema to him; it would lead to others responding to facts before aligning to what he might wish to be true.

On May 6th, the President complained, “The media likes to say we have the most cases, but we do, by far, the most testing,” he said. “If we did very little testing, we wouldn’t have the most cases. So, in a way, by doing all of this testing, we make ourselves look bad.”

And he continued to muse on the inconvenient truth of testing a week later “When you test, you have a case,” Trump said. “When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.”

The President doesn’t believe testing causes cases. But it does cause data, which, if interpreted, can assert facts that lie beyond his control. The President has repeatedly shown a kind of magical thinking started in his religious upbringing, that if you believe forcefully and repeatedly proclaim, that the world will adapt to be as you say and think it should. Trump believes things are better than they seem. Wearing a mask would contradict that. Waiting for a proven prophylactic treatment would too.

“Vaccine or no vaccine, we’re back. And we’re starting the process.” This was an odd pronouncement President Trump made at an event to highlight progress on vaccine research.  He went on to justify the conclusion, “In many cases they don’t have vaccines and a virus or a flu comes and you fight through it,” he added. “Other things have never had a vaccine and they go away.”…“I think the schools should be back in the fall” Mr Trump continued.

Of course, that opinion isn’t based on facts or medical insight. It is how the President wishes to find his world, and expects it to be, facts or not.

In Trump World, truth is subordinate to the President’s decided belief. Masks are for other people, the weak. Testing isn’t necessary, except on those about to meet the maskless Trump. Data and the expertise to interpret it through reason infringes on Trump’s desired function – being the decider of truth.

And so the parable of Chernobyl leaves us a warning today“The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants. It doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl.”

Viruses don’t care about false news, partisanship, or what would be a great story. Physics and chemistry are immune to our wishes. even if repeated like a mantra. Great leaders may think they know the arc of history, but viruses, climate change, and economic reality are facts all on their own.

We ignore these facts at a future cost no one can calculate with certainty today. But the debt of lies or imaginings is real, and we are its inheritors. Strange days indeed.

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