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At Monday night’s White House press briefing on COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, President Donald Trump announced he was seriously considering ending nationwide mitigation efforts and reopening American businesses.
"We're not going to let the cure be worse than the problem," Trump said, echoing the slogan he wrote in an all-caps tweet Sunday night. The president told reporters he was unsure when life would go back to normal but estimated it could be "a lot sooner than three or four months."
“The whole concept of death is terrible,” the president said. “But there’s a tremendous difference between one percent and four or five.”
And during a Fox News town hall on Tuesday, Trump said he would love to have the country reopen on Easter, April 12. The decision on whether the country turns back on will be made at the end of a 15-day period that we’re currently eight days into.
Joining the president, a growing chorus of American television pundits, business leaders, tech investors, cryptocurrency enthusiasts, and right-wing influencers have decided to convince the American people that possibly dying from the coronavirus is a small price to pay for economic health.
“The whole concept of death is terrible.”
No clearer was this utilitarian calculus articulated than by Texas Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight on Monday night following Trump’s White House briefing. Patrick suggested that Americans over 70 would be happy to die for the good of the country's economy.
“Those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country,” Patrick said. “No one reached out to me and said, 'As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that America loves for its children and grandchildren?' And if that is the exchange, I'm all in.”
Patrick wasn’t the only prominent Republican to use Carlson’s show to come out in favor of Trump’s Lord of the Flies coronavirus plan. Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy told Carlson’s audience that the collapse of the economy was more dangerous than COVID-19, which has infected 396,249 people worldwide as of Tuesday and killed 17,252. As Patrick and Kennedy spoke, the United States faced its deadliest day since the beginning of the outbreak, with more than 100 deaths in one 24-hour period.
“Look, for a small segment of our population, it’s true: The coronavirus can kill you. For a small segment. But you know what else can kill you? Poverty. Hunger. Losing the entire economy,” Kennedy said during the same episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight. “And we have to stop thinking about the next election and try to think a little more about the next generation and what we’re going to leave to them, which is going to be the little end of nothing if we let this economy collapse.”
On Tuesday morning, after Fox had repackaged Trump’s “don’t let the cure be worse than the problem,” the president tweeted to pressure Congress and assure his followers that senior citizens would be protected — although he did not explain how.
“Our people want to return to work. They will practice Social Distancing and all else, and Seniors will be watched over protectively & lovingly,” the president tweeted. “We can do two things together. THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM! Congress MUST ACT NOW. We will come back strong!”
The president also retweeted conservative commentator Ann Coulter, who promoted a Haaretz article titled “'Trump Is Right About the Coronavirus. The WHO Is Wrong,' Says Israeli Expert.” In her tweet, Coulter downplayed the mortality rate of COVID-19.
“If given the choice between dying and plunging the country I love into a Great Depression, I’d happily die.”
The wave of economy-first, public safety–second messaging isn’t just happening on the president’s Twitter feed and his favorite news channel. Right-wing influencers and the new class of coronavirus influencers — typically men who work in the tech or finance sectors and use charts and Medium posts to play amateur epidemiologists — have, too, fallen in line with the president.
“This is a hard tweet to write: The best plan to protect vulnerable elderly is to gather all above 70+ years, except for those with essential skills like doctors and military and some elected officials, and create safe zones in military bases to protect them from Covid-19,” tech investor Shervin Pishevar tweeted, and then deleted, on Monday. Pishevar is best known for denying he engaged in sexual harassment at an Uber party in 2014 because, as another person at the party put it, he "had a pony's leash in one hand and a drink in the other."
“If given the choice between dying and plunging the country I love into a Great Depression, I’d happily die,” right-wing radio host and Federalist contributor Jesse Kelly tweeted.
The Federalist, a right-wing news site, and its writers have been especially vocal about ending mitigation measures for the sake of the economy. The site has published two different articles arguing that a depression would be worse than stopping the coronavirus.
“It seems harsh to ask whether the nation might be better off letting a few hundred thousand people die,” Jonathan Ashbach argued on Tuesday. “Yet honestly facing reality is not callous, and refusing even to consider whether the present response constitutes an even greater evil than the one it intends to mitigate would be cowardly.”
As one viral tweet put it, “So we're doing The Trolley Problem but the most important thing is to save the trolley.”
While it's true that many Americans do not face a lethal risk from the coronavirus, it is also true that many do. Former labor secretary Robert Reich, in a tweet, railed against the push for Americans to return to work while COVID-19 is still raging.
"Dangerous and irresponsible," he wrote.
Following Trump's Fox News town hall Tuesday, the hashtag #NotDyingForWallStreet started trending on Twitter. "24 years ago, I gladly volunteered to give my life for this country if necessary to defend the Constitution," one user wrote. "I’ll be damned if I’m going to be chosen as a human sacrifice by a man who spits on the Constitution daily to satisfy the god of American greed."
Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University and host of the podcast This Week in Virology, told BuzzFeed News it wasn't clear to him if the trolley could be saved.
“If this wave gets enough motion behind it and the president tells everyone to go back to work, many states probably won't do that,” he said. “So we'll have a fragmented country. ... Then we'll have a massive wave of deaths.”
Several governors are already charting another path. "When people are dying and people don't feel safe, the economy is not going to come back. We have to #FlattenTheCurve so that when the wave comes, it's not as big as it would have been and we are prepared for it," Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine tweeted Tuesday.
During New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's coronavirus briefing on Tuesday, the governor pushed back against Trump’s plan: “No American is going to say accelerate the economy at the cost of human life — because no American is going to say how much a life is worth. Job one has to be to save lives."
“We’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable,” Cuomo said. "And we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life. The first order of business is to save lives, period, whatever it costs."
COVID-19 is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The relationship between the disease and the virus was misstated in an earlier version of this post.