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Photo edited by Mariah Wilson; photo of Donald Trump courtesy of Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The public implications of presidential illness: Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis in perspective

By Christian Lowry, October 28 2020—

The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the world, and the United States in particular. The consequences have defied previous imagination. To date, over 8 million cases have been diagnosed. By the end of June, the United States was home to a comparatively small 4 percent of the world’s population, but 25 per cent of its confirmed cases. A survey of 5,412 American adults carried out by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in August indicated that the added societal effects of contagion, unemployment, overwork, bankruptcy, lack of public assistance, unanticipated caregiving and loss of loved ones has been nothing short of staggering. The CDC survey discovered that 11 per cent of U.S. adults contemplated suicide during June. For essential workers and unpaid caregivers, the figures were 22 per cent and 31 per cent, respectively. Thirteen per cent reported turned to drug or alcohol abuse to cope with pandemic-related stress. The pandemic took another sensational turn on Oct. 1, it was revealed that U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump tested positive for novel coronavirus.

However, Trump has not suffered from COVID-19 in the same way his constituents. For example, the official presidential residence, the White House, is equipped with an urgent care facility. The president had a helicopter at his disposal and spent most of his recovery in a private suite at the Walter Reed Medical Center, a top military hospital. He received experimental treatments not available to the public, including remdesivir. Trump also has a mobile medical staff assigned to him, and his expenses are paid for by the federal government. One would expect billionaires to be able to pay even the most exorbitant out-of-pocket costs on their own, as the 8.5 per cent of Americans without health insurance are expected to.

Of course, it is important for a country’s leadership to receive the highest quality of care, certainly if a nation has an interest in the continued rule of an able leader. That a president should receive publicly-funded medical assistance is not at issue. The fatal flaw in Trump’s apparently successful recovery from COVID-19 is that he took a path that he has vociferously exhorted policymakers and ordinary Americans to reject.

Regardless of how Trump chose to be treated, some have said he ended up at the path intentionally, as an act of self-sacrifice and courageous leadership. Fox News host Greg Gutfeld claimed that Trump had allowed himself to be infected to “walk out there on that battlefield with you, and not sit somewhere in a basement and tell you how you have to get back to work, but not go out himself” and that “he was doing it for us.” Of course, the only reason there was a proverbial “battlefield” to walk on was because of the Trump administration’s stupefying inaction during the first few months of the pandemic, as well as its insistence on an early reopening of the economy.

Whether true or not, Trump’s diagnosis will likely not shore up his failing support ahead of the presidential election on Nov. 3. He appears to have few options in the way of electoral strategy. On Oct. 18, Biden’s average lead over Trump in major polls was 8.9 percentage points. At roughly the same time during the last presidential election season, Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton’s average lead in major polls was only 3.2 percentage points, and she won the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points.

An even greater implication of Trump’s diagnosis and recovery is a renewed emphasis on the importance of a nation-wide, publicly-funded healthcare system, which would provide comprehensive care as often as needed, without any distinction between rich and poor. It is becoming more and more evident by the day that the American people cannot afford the nation’s current private health care system. There was mounting evidence even before the onset of the pandemic that the system had failed the country. In September 2019, a Gallup poll of 1,099 U.S. adults indicated that 13 per cent had a friend or family member pass away after being unable to afford necessary medical care. 

In Canada, with a provincially-administered universal health care system, the per capita cost of health care in 2018 was $4,974 USD, compared to $10,207 USD in the United States. In some countries, it is even lower. Canada significantly outperforms the United States in such indicators as life expectancy at birth, crude death rate, infant mortality, and maternal mortality. In the midst of a global pandemic, the value of such a system cannot be overstated. People are not afraid to seek necessary medical care for fear of being impoverished, nor are they turned away for lacking health insurance, nor enslaved for years by gargantuan medical bills. The government does not need to turn a profit or compete against other insurance providers, and can use its status as the sole buyer of health insurance to drive down prices as needed. Having a right to life means having a right to the means of life, including affordable medical care, and only a publicly accountable body can deliver. 

The fact that Trump and other leading figures in the United States government make use of public health care instead of the privatized, Social Darwinist model set aside for ordinary Americans should be evidence enough that public health care is a feasible policy option. If universal health care is good enough for the President of the United States, who falls into multiple at-risk categories for severe coronavirus, then it is surely good enough for the people over whom he reigns. Despite the handicaps of our own system in Canada, we should remember these facts and be thankful for our lot when politicians and billionaires urge us to walk the failed path of our disorderly southern neighbour.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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