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Trump's Response to Coronavirus Recalls Reagan Ignoring AIDS

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“[The virus] … may have already spread to five continents (North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Australia). In this period, between 100,000 and 300,000 people could have already been infected.”

“The virus has proliferated in parts of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East in recent days, with the death toll rising in Iran, infections in South Korea passing 1,200, and the first suspected case recorded in Latin America.”

Which statement is about AIDS and which is about the coronavirus?

There’s something out there. It’s dangerous and percolating, spreading, infecting, and frightening. Health officials are scrambling to figure out the root cause of the virus, how it is transmitted, how to stop the death toll from rising, and what populations can do to protect themselves from becoming sick. Isolation of the sick is suggested, with some of the recommendations discriminatory. Who is patient zero? The U.S. government initially drags its feet, the president is dismissive of it, and experts fear that health are professionals and the administration are not prepared to deal with the consequences.

Are we talking about the onset of the AIDS epidemic or the coronavirus?

For the record, the first quote is about AIDS, the second about the coronavirus.

With AIDS, the initial reports about the spread of a mysterious disease began in the early 1980s, and it proliferated quickly, fatally, but not at first indiscriminately. Misinformation and fear were the hallmarks of its ominous arrival in the United States. People who were suspected of being sick or, more harshly, gay people who were assumed to be carrying the disease were labeled like deadly pariahs. There were calls to quarantine those who were ill. It was decimating populations with its potency. Health care workers treating the mysterious illness donned hazmat uniforms, bodysuits, and masks.

We had a president and government that were disinterested, dismissive, and disoriented. Only after repeated warnings from health officials and activists did the Johnny-come-lately administration start to pay attention and take action, and in many cases and for many victims and their partners, families, and friends, it proved to be way too little and far too late.

Does this sound familiar or eerily reminiscent?

During his “everything is great” press conference this week about how the government will address the coronavirus, Donald Trump made the situation sound as if a few people have minor cases of a cold or flu and added alarming flashes of humor.

He went on to talk about how Democrats were ruining the stock market, the primary debates, and other nonsensical nothingness that had nothing to do with the somber issue at hand. When asked to explain the paltry $2.5 billion his administration is requesting to combat any outbreak of the coronavirus, he seemed to make a joke out of the whole thing, enlisting his childish terms of “Crazy” Nancy and “Crying” Chuck, belittling them for addressing this situation thoughtfully with their request of a robust and urgent $6.5 billion.

Then on Thursday, he said the coronavirus would disappear because a miracle would happen. How do you respond to something like that? Just another joke to Trump.

That’s what the Reagan administration did when it was first questioned about AIDS — make it a gag. During a press conference with Ronald Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes, Lester Kinsolving, a political talk radio host in Baltimore, became the first White House correspondent to ask questions about the deadly epidemic. That was in 1982, before HIV had been identified as the cause, and Kinsolving kept asking questions until President Reagan finally acknowledged the disease in 1985, by which time 5,000 people had died. When he asked the questions, Speakes made little of the crisis but made a big deal about poking fun at the journalist, at one point joking that Kinsolving had an “abiding interest in the disease” because he was “a fairy.”

“Crazy.” “Crying.” “Fairy.” Seriously?

It seems belittling nicknames and not taking life-and-death situations earnestly are a common denominator for the Reagan and Trump administrations. And Trump’s obfuscating about the coronavirus, his unwieldy explanations, and his contradictions of his own health experts might be more dangerous than the actual disease, according to many health professionals. What also is causing jitters is putting Vice President Mike Pence in charge of managing the government’s response to the coronavirus. Trump proclaimed that Pence led some kind of miraculous (maybe that's where Trump got “miracle” from) health care program while he was governor of Indiana.

As we all know and heard, if Pence treats the coronavirus like he did HIV, then we’re sunk. First, he’s no doctor or medical expert, so as the coronavirus “czar” (although Trump doesn’t like that word, perhaps because Russian czars weren’t as strong as Russian autocrats), he has no background leading a bunch of doctors and scientists who are trying to save lives. And now all these medical professionals, including Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Anthony Fauci, must report to him if they want to say anything in the media? Does this not sound reminiscent of how China handled communications about the disease?

Will Pence even understand what they’re communicating to him? And remember, he will then take their vital information, soften it up considerably, make sure it doesn’t “piss off the boss,” and then report back to Trump that “everything is fine.” Maybe that's what happened Thursday. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said to Pence, “Danger, warning, imminent,” and Pence took a Trump Sharpie, crossed those words out, and wrote “miracle.”

Pence apparently didn’t listen to his own health professionals in Indiana when he brazenly slashed the state’s health care budget and, because of “moral” objections, delayed a needle exchange program, allowing HIV infections to soar. Again, it was a joke to him; at least that’s what Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves, who conducted the research linking the Indiana HIV outbreak to Pence’s policies, tweeted. He said the decision to name Pence the “Corona Czar” “speaks to a lack of seriousness by the White House” and that Pence “totally botched HIV outbreak in Indiana.”

The similarities are stark between Reagan’s amiable response to AIDS and Trump’s blithe reaction to the coronavirus. They both lackadaisically nodded at the impending health threat, addressed it publicly for the first time with inappropriate comments and witticisms, and originally earmarked measly sums of money that were woefully inadequate to fight off a global menace of a lethal virus.

“It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the head of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC.

The same statement could have been made in the early 1980s about AIDS, and it never was. God help us this time moving forward, and let's hope the miracle in this case is that the government can actually do something to stem the coronavirus at the start, which would be far more than it did at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.

John Casey is a PR professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.

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