Washington| Donald Trump has put Americans on notice; hiding from the pandemic is no longer an option.
“We did everything right, but now it’s time to go back to work,” Mr Trump said before departing the White House to tour a mask-making factory in Arizona on Tuesday (Wednesday AEST), hours after an influential coronavirus tracker watched closely by White House officials almost doubled the likely total death toll.
“If we did this a different way,” Mr Trump said, referring to social distancing measures in place since mid-March, “we would have lost more — much more than two million people.”
In excess of 134,000 people are now expected to be killed by August 4, up from 72,000 anticipated just 24 hours earlier, with experts warning that new outbreaks could push that number even higher as the economy reopens.
The remark is the first time Mr Trump has so bluntly spelt out the raw choice facing America as it confronts the crippling cost of maintaining the vast economic and fiscal cost of the nation’s containment strategy even as infections and deaths continue to surge after almost two months of lockdowns.
It also comes as part of a broader shift over the past week in strategy by Mr Trump and the White House.
Rather than holding daily prime-time coronavirus taskforce briefings, which until recently have shone a spotlight on the pandemic’s negative newsflow, Mr Trump and his top cabinet officials are instead focussing on touting the economic benefits of the eventual recovery and blaming China for the global outbreak.
The Trump administration is also planning to wind down within a month the coronavirus taskforce that the President announced in late February because of “the tremendous progress we’ve made as a country,” said Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the body.
The shifting strategy coincides with a flurry of weak polls for Mr Trump and a cascade of shocking economic indicators, including what many fear will be a devastating non-farm payrolls report for April. Friday’s (Saturday AEST) release will show an unprecedented 20 million people or more who’ve lost their jobs. In a normal month, payrolls rise by around 200,000.
Meanwhile gross domestic product is shrinking this quarter by an annualised 17.6 per cent, according to the Atlanta Fed’s real-time GDP Now model, which was updated on Tuesday. It also added a caveat: the number doesn’t “fully capture” the impact of the COVID-19 virus crisis.
Polls suggest the economic gloom and concerns over Mr Trump’s handling of the pandemic response continue weigh on voter sentiment.
A Monmouth poll showed that 42 per cent say he has done a good job, while 51 per cent said he has done a bad job. Last month, those figures stood at 46 per cent and 49 per cent respectively.
“The month to month shifts are well within the poll’s margin of error, but the overall trendline suggests that the public is growing less satisfied with Trump’s response to the pandemic,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
The President is also under renewed pressure from an influential group of conservatives whom Mr Trump has called “never-Trumpers”. These conservative political operators who have vowed to destroy his chances at the November 3 elections.
In a bizarre series of outbursts that have had the effect of drawing additional social media and internet attention to Mr Trump’s critics, the President lashed out at the makers of a political attack advert that plays on former President Ronald Reagan’s famous 1984 “Morning in America” re-lection campaign pitch.
Sponsored by the anti-Trump super political action committee, The Lincoln Project, the video – called “Mourning in America” and released on Monday – blames the President for the galloping death toll.
Set to dystopian scenes of run-down houses and groups of workers wearing masks lining up for unemployment payments, the video’s narrator says that under Mr Trump’s leadership “our country is weaker, sicker and poorer”.
“And now, Americans are asking, ‘If we have another four years like this, will there even be an America’.”
An incensed Mr Trump blasted the Lincoln Project, whose members include attorney and husband of White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway, George Conway, and former Republican ad maker and author Rick Wilson, as failed “Republicans in Name Only”, also known as RINOs.
“They don’t know how to win, and their so-called Lincoln Project is a disgrace to Honest Abe,” Mr Trump wrote on Twitter. “They’re all LOSERS, but Abe Lincoln, Republican, is all smiles!”.
Dozens of US states have started easing lock-down provisions and allowing businesses to gradually reopen even as the daily COVID-19 virus infections continue to rise at just shy of 30,000 people, with around 2500 deaths per day.
The lack of a sharper improvement, which experts blame on an easing of social distancing restrictions, prompted the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) to project as many as 3000 deaths a day by June 1, which is close to the previous peak rate reported in mid-April.
White House economic advisor Kevin Hassett said the latest IHME projections are a reminder that every state governor will need to judge the “costs and benefits of the actions that they take”.
“We all hope for the best and trust the guidelines… on how to open up safely; that if followed closely we can open up and not see a massive increase.”
“But this is a disease that has surprised us negatively over and over and I think it’s correct for governors everywhere to exercise extreme caution as they open up”.
Unlike much of the rest of the world, where the numbers have fallen steadily, America’s case load continues to be stuck on a high plateau.
“This is a really difficult public policy issue because it involves hard trade-offs,” said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont.
“Lockdowns may save lives but at a severe economic cost.
“Opening up will get people back to work and help keep households and businesses solvent, but at the cost of more COVID cases and deaths.”
Mr Stanley said governors across America appear to be “ignoring the noise” of those objecting to restarting their economies because their health care systems are better placed to handle a second wave and that pressure to get people back to work is becoming intolerable.
“Cases and deaths probably will rise in some places, but in my view, the data suggest that it is time to at least try to get on with our lives,” he said.
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