Biggest threat to the U.S. is the lack of trust, not COVID-19
Chris Hawke

Editor's note: Chris Hawke is a graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a journalist who has reported for over two decades from Beijing, New York, the United Nations, Tokyo, Bangkok, Islamabad and Kabul for AP, UPI and CBS. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

The illness of U.S. President Donald Trump has thrown the country into a state of confusion. It is unclear whether the president's condition is serious or not. He has released a video saying he is "feeling well," but his own chief of staff described his condition as very concerning.

Anxiety about Trump's health is heightened by his unconventional relationship with facts and downplaying the virus in particular. In today's America, people hardly know what to believe. My Republican friend says that if Trump survives, it will prove that COVID-19 is a hoax — by which he means an epic overreaction that caused more harm than good. After all, if an overweight man in his 70s with potential underlying health conditions can survive this infection, it really can't be much worse than the flu.

Many Democrats thought that the news of the president, his wife, and many other top officials catching the virus would rattle Republicans enough to drive home the severity of the epidemic and the importance of wearing masks and other public health measures. However, Republicans continue to march and rally around the country without wearing masks, with GOP officials and voters doubling down on their position that people are overreacting. Wisconsin Republican Party Treasurer Brian Westrate said: "If the leader of the free world can get this, I think it's kind of silly for the rest of us to pretend a 3-dollar handkerchief from Walmart is going to protect us."

To these people, the coronavirus is comparable to a severe flu year or the number of traffic fatalities each year. In a broad sense, these skeptics have a point. In 2017, 56,000 Americans died from influenza and pneumonia, and 170,000 died from accidents of various kinds. COVID-19 has officially caused the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans so far, with scientists predicting another 100,000 or 200,000 dead by the end of the year.

The U.S. leads the world in total numbers of both confirmed infections, with more than 7 million, and death toll with more than 208,000. /CFP

The U.S. leads the world in total numbers of both confirmed infections, with more than 7 million, and death toll with more than 208,000. /CFP

This is worse than flu or traffic accidents, but it is viewed in the same order of magnitude. COVID-19 is likely to be the third greatest cause of death in the U.S. this year. The leading causes of death in 2017 were heart disease at 647,457 and cancer at 599,108. To my Republican friend, these are just risks we have to live with.

The root of the problem underlying the U.S. response to the coronavirus is a lack of trust. Trump and his supporters don't trust scientists, and don't trust the ability of government officials to implement change. It follows that they don't trust masks or lockdowns. The establishment wing of the GOP and many Democrats decided long ago that the people who became Trump supporters are living in an alternate reality – "a basket of deplorables" as Hillary Clinton so colorfully put it.

In recent decades, both Democrats and Republicans have by and large improved life for the so-called "coastal elites" and educated people, while ignoring the declining financial and social status of many of the people who went on to become passionate Trump supporters, including white men who did not attend college. And after years of having their interests put last in everything from global trade agreements to health care policy, these people no longer trust officials or experts. They are filled with glee as Trump tears down a system that holds them in such little regard.

If Joe Biden becomes the next president, a good place to start would be a nuanced government response to COVID-19 that acknowledges their arguably selfish and shortsighted – but nonetheless valid – concerns about the financial and social impact of health measures like lockdowns. U.S. leaders and scientists must speak with one voice on issues like wearing masks, and devise a policy that protects people and businesses from both the financial and health risks of the pandemic.

Sowing cynicism, quack theories and distrust for short-term political gain is a far more dangerous threat to the U.S. than the coronavirus. However difficult, the U.S. government and elites must regain the trust of Trump's base in order to tackle the serious, complex dangers the nation faces, even if the effort takes decades and does not help politicians' usual goals of winning short-term political advantage or generating direct economic growth.

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