Trump and Reagan: banes of public health

Monday, October 12, 2020 - 10:48am

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I’m sure you’re all tired of hearing about the COVID-19 pandemic. You’ve been shut in for months, unable to escape the fears and anxieties that come with it. Or you might be the person who went out and spread it to all your frat bros. Regardless, your life has been saturated with the pandemic. Let me be the one to add yet another negative association with the word pandemic. 

President Donald Trump has been very negligent in his approach to the pandemic. He delayed his response, and people paid for it with their money or with their lives. The death toll for the virus is more than one fifth of a million people as of now, and more than 97,000 small businesses have closed down permanently. His refusal to fully acknowledge the magnitude of the problem reminds me of another president who dealt with a different pandemic: President Ronald Reagan is infamous for ignoring the AIDS crisis and causing unnecessary suffering because of it. Trump’s response to COVID-19 has elicited the same feeling, and it makes me sick. 

The AIDS crisis had taken 853 lives in America before any comment was made on it from Reagan and his posse, and their first response was laughter. By the time Reagan mentioned AIDS publicly, “some 13,000 cases” had been reported and more than 5,000 deaths. Former Press Secretary Larry Speakes was asked if he knew anything about the virus, and in turn, responded with laughter. Speakes responded with, “I don’t know a thing about it,” and continued to brush off the problem as if it was nothing. One reporter called it the “gay plague,” to which the entire room erupted with laughter. It took until 1984 for the secretary of the Health and Human Services to announce the “discovery of the virus that caused AIDS,” and another year until Reagan publicly acknowledged the presence of AIDS.

The Reagan administration’s incompetence goes further — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the time constantly battled the administration in matters on the virus. "The inadequate funding to date has seriously restricted our work and has presumably deepened the invasion of this disease into the American population," wrote Dr. Don Francis, a CDC staffer in 1983. Dr. Francis wrote a detailed memo about the status of the fight against AIDS, which was in direct opposition to the previously aforementioned secretary of the HHS, Margaret Heckler. 

At the time of the memo, she had just told Congress that no further funding was needed to combat the disease. “In addition, the time wasted pursuing money from Washington (D.C.,) has cast an air of despair over AIDS workers throughout the country. Possibly worse, it has sandwiched those responsible for research and control between massive pressure to do what is right and an unmovable wall of inadequate resources,” said Francis. Eventually, the AIDS pandemic would be quelled, but not under Reagan. It took until 1996 before the death curve turned downward, and by the end of Reagan’s terms, almost 90,000 people had died from the disease or from complications involving the disease. 

This reluctance to take action when it mattered most reminds me greatly of Trump’s response to COVID-19. Trump knowingly downplayed the virus despite being warned of its severity by close aides, failing to address the necessary precautions earlier on. The constant tension between agencies like the CDC and the president’s administration is also indicative of the divide between public health and political strategy — the infamous rivalry between Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Trump comes to mind.  

Both COVID-19 and AIDS disproportionately affect marginalized groups. AIDS disproportionately affects members of the LGBTQ+ community, in particular gay and bisexual men. It’s hard to overstate the suffering that was caused by homophobia and ignorance relating to AIDS. Minority groups have proven to be disproportionately affected by COVID-19 to an astounding degree. The CDC reports that Native Americans have nearly three times the rate of infection and more than five times the amount of hospitalization of white Americans. Black Americans and Hispanic Americans are 2.6 and 2.8 times more likely to get infected, and 4.7 and 4.6 times more likely to be hospitalized, respectively. Black Americans are twice as likely to die as white Americans. It’s no coincidence, as the virus hurts poorer communities more than it does wealthier ones. AIDS, as the trend goes, also infects poorer communities more than wealthier ones.

There are many similarities between the two health crises, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Reagan and Trump are not too dissimilar, after all. People who pretend there is a degree of separation between Trump and everyone else is, frankly, misguided. The patterns of negligence and incompetence have always been there. 

Trump condones the suffering of marginalized people and the working class in the same vein as Reagan. Trump may not have destroyed poor and urban neighborhoods to specifically target Black Americans and incarcerate millions of young men, but he continually shows little regard for those outside of his base. The patterns have always been there. Trump is not an anomaly. 

Sam Fogel can be reached at samfogel@umich.edu


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