Is Trump's illness a coronavirus wake-up call for Americans?

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Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·6 min read
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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and subsequent transfer from the White House to Walter Reed Medical Center have thrown the American government and upcoming presidential election into uncertainty.

At this point, it’s unclear how severe the president’s symptoms will become or whether the virus will prove life-threatening. It’s also too early to tell how large the growing list of high-ranking officials to test positive will be. Any questions about how the outbreak in the White House might impact Trump’s reelection chances, the effort to confirm his new Supreme Court nominee or even the basic functioning of the U.S. government likely won’t be answered for several days, if not longer.

More than 209,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, the most of any country in the world. Trump’s diagnosis comes at a time when the number of daily coronavirus cases in the U.S. has started to trend upward after declining over the course of the summer. Public health experts fear the situation could become worse during the colder months of fall and winter.

Despite the severity of the outbreak, a significant portion of Americans don’t necessarily see the virus as a reason for serious concern. Mitigation measures like masks, business closures and social distancing rules have been met with intense opposition throughout the pandemic.

Why there’s debate

The news of Trump’s infection — after he spent months downplaying the risks of the virus to both himself and the general public — could serve as a wake-up call for people who haven’t taken the virus seriously, some experts say. The enormous amount of attention the story is receiving may also be a reminder to stay vigilant for people who have become more lax due to “pandemic fatigue.”

The diagnosis may also influence the actions of lawmakers. State and local leaders might cite Trump’s infection as a reason to delay reopening businesses or establish new prevention rules. Personally experiencing the virus could also change Trump’s behavior and rhetoric about the seriousness of the pandemic.

Opinions about coronavirus are deeply split along partisan lines, with Republicans much more likely to say they aren’t concerned about the risks of infection. More than 7 months into the pandemic, many people have become so entrenched in their views that even something as significant as the president being infected won’t sway their views, some experts say. There’s also the possibility that Trump, if he avoids life-threatening symptoms, could double down on his messaging that the virus isn’t a big deal.


The threat of the virus has suddenly become real to skeptical people

“The immediate reaction of a lot of people will be, ‘My goodness, if the president of the United States can get it, maybe I can too, and I’m going to be more cautious. I’m going to wear a mask more often. And I’m not so keen on opening up the economy and going out to restaurants and bars again.’” — Stuart Varney, Fox News

The pandemic is now at the center of every American’s mind

“If the coronavirus pandemic had become background noise for some people, Trump’s diagnosis made it unavoidable. “ — Jason Abbruzzese and Denise Chow, NBC News

America is too divided for public opinion to shift in any major way

“The pandemic could have been a great unifier — a widespread and life-altering tragedy that inspired a notion of shared national purpose, as at other moments of crisis in the country’s past. And perhaps in another moment, in another place, a president falling ill would have seen citizens keeping vigil regardless of partisan affiliation. But the coronavirus … has deepened divisions rather than united the country.” — Jennifer Medina and Trip Gabriel, New York Times

People will be more careful

“I think we’re also going to see many people say, ‘Look, this just shows that the downplaying of the virus and the behavioral measures that help reduce its spread were a gross error on the part of the White House and Republicans and Republican governors — and that we have to recommit ourselves to protective behaviors until we get a vaccine.’” — Bioethicist Arthur Caplan to Scientific American

The impact on public perception will depend on how sick he gets

“Whether Trump’s diagnosis will reshape his response to the coronavirus is unknowable at this point, and the same goes for whether it will change how the country perceives his leadership during the pandemic.” — Jen Kirby, Vox

The situation is a reminder of vulnerability to infection

“I’m hoping as distressing and difficult as this is, it can serve as as wake-up call for our country. Public health is about what do we do together, understanding everyone is vulnerable. Our health is our most precious gift. That’s what empathy is all about, understanding that everyone is vulnerable.” — Public health expert Howard Koh to Quartz

Trump may turn out like other politicians who take the pandemic more seriously after getting ill

“For many politicians, living through the virus has also been a turning point, forcing them to reexamine their own views on the pandemic that has shaken their governments and sickened their constituents.” — Sarah Mervosh, Jack Healy and Patricia Mazzei, New York Times

The message will be muted if Trump and the White House downplay the severity of his symptoms

“A key driver of COVID-19 denial among Trump voters has been verbal cues from Trump, such as questioning the severity of the disease and mocking mask wearing. My guess is Trump will minimize his symptoms both to portray an impression of physical strength and downplay the severity of COVID. … So I’m not optimistic [that his test result] will make much difference.” — Science communication expert John Cook to Atlantic

There’s an opportunity to shift public perception of the virus, but Trump may not take it

“Trump’s illness also provides him with an opportunity to change the trajectory of the conversation on coronavirus, something he has badly needed. He can now cast himself with the people he governs, and offer at least a thimble-ful of humility.” — Scott Jennings, Los Angeles Times

Other lawmakers may change their decision making

“I think there could be a bunch of real, important health outcomes from this …

1. GOP governors and mayors may be a bit more hesitant to lift COVID restrictions; 2. Democratic mayors and governors may cite Trump’s positive test as part of their messaging on keeping restrictions in place; 3. Republican voters may become a bit less dismissive of COVID, in part because GOP elites take it more seriously; 4. Overall, this news could be important and have a positive impact in terms of Americans taking the virus more seriously.” — Perry Bacon Jr., FiveThirtyEight

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Cover photo: AP