COVID-19 and the case of the President

Amy Cabrera Rasmussen, Professor of Political Science at California State University, Long Beach

This week, something happened that has the potential to change some of how we understand the pandemic: the President of the United States tested positive for COVID-19.

At this point, the better part of a year into the public health crisis, it may seem that we have learned everything about COVID-19 that is possible to understand. We have been under varying levels of stay-at-home orders and have seen the economy and perhaps our own livelihoods suffer.  We all have found out a great deal about the virus’ transmission and some practical ways to reduce our risk of exposure.

Most significantly, more than 7.5 million Americans have tested positive and over 210,000 of our fellow Americans have lost their lives.  Those people and their families were forced to understand things first-hand.

PRESENT YET INVISIBLE

Yet, many Americans have been spared a direct encounter with the virus.  They may not know anyone– let alone a close family member or friend– who has been infected or lost their battle with the illness.  They may have jobs that permit them to weather the pandemic more safely at home without interrupting their wages and ability to pay their bills.

And because of the highly contagious nature of this virus, very few of us have been able to “see” the worst of it unless we are on the front lines.  Medical staff members work in areas that are largely closed off from the media and anyone who is not themselves sick.  Those of us in the general public don’t see what being on a ventilator is like, what the side effects of medicines are, how one might feel as they say goodbye to loved ones through a telephone.  Even traditional funerals and other moments of shared grieving have been off-limits.

Without direct or personal experience, things can remain somewhat abstract and distant for many people.

It is not surprising then, that in this context, how one has come to think about the virus has taken on a political tone. Some argue for government to take measures that prevent infections and respond to the hardships people are facing: whether it be evictions, job loss, or access to education.  Others have been more skeptical or even critical of precautionary measures and emphasized the importance of getting back to some sense of normalcy with less of a role for government actions.  Even whether one wears a mask in public has come to be an indicator of one’s political views.

BREAKING THROUGH

But then, this week, something happened.  A close presidential advisor tested positive, then the President and the First Lady’s diagnosis was announced by a late-night tweet.  Our attention was drawn to the dramatic moment of the President taking off on Marine One en route to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, then to the updates provided by his large medical team appearing on the hospital steps in white coats.  We were provided additional visuals of his time in the presidential medical suite, a short drive to wave to supporters, and eventually his return by helicopter to the White House.  There are likely to be further moments captured on camera for all Americans to see.

For many Americans, the President’s COVID-19 diagnosis, how he is treated, and how he “handles” the virus can make the pandemic concrete.  Sometimes big, noteworthy events like this can reshape the opinions of the public and government officials, and in so doing, provide an opening for effective policy solutions to be crafted.

That said, we are in unusual times.  Especially now, people may continue to just view events through whatever lens they were seeing the world through previously.  Any new information is just folded into whatever logic or feeling one already had about the issue.

But if anything could break through the complexity and abstract sense of the virus to create what might be as close to a national shared experience of COVID-19 as could exist, the President testing positive would likely be it.

For these reasons, it is worth considering what possible meanings will be taken from this event by the American people (not to mention the President himself!).  There are a few areas in which this might play out:

HOW THE VIRUS SPREADS

As the days went on, we learned about the potential sources and sites of the President’s infection—including who else was at risk of a positive test result.  First, additional White House staff, Republican party and presidential campaign personnel, then several Senators and public officials, members of the press, and others.  At the time of this writing, the list is expanding daily.

Those affected are high-profile individuals, known by name to many in the country.  There is video and other evidence that will be investigated by the press and public health experts.  This is likely to be the most detailed analysis of an outbreak that we have yet seen gain mainstream attention.

It may let people better understand the types of activities and contacts that increased risk of exposure to the virus.  It may also affect how people understand their own behavior and risk.

HOW COVID-19 AFFECTS THE HUMAN BODY AND CAN BE TREATED

The symptoms visible in the President, the decision by doctors to airlift him to the hospital, the discussion on every evening news show (and all day on cable channels!) provides an opening for people to discuss what is known about what happens when one faces infection.

The president is older and has greater preexisting health issues than many Americans do.  While all of us are at risk in some ways, his case is likely to play out differently than it will for many others.

The President also received a cocktail of medications that was unlike any commonly provided to COVID-19 patients thus far.  Unfortunately, at the moment, the treatments he received are either experimental, expensive, or not readily available—or all of the above.  But what is known about his treatments will still likely inform our sense of what could help us if we were to become sick.

Those who have suffered but survived, or have cared for family members who have fallen ill will be able to share their experiences with the President’s case as comparison—usually in ways that make clear it is not the norm.  Our minds appreciate this kind of shared reference point.

POLICY IMPLICATIONS

Finally, the most dramatic moments of the President’s infection trajectory are likely to also impact our understanding of public policy–government responses to social problems.  In particular, it is likely to affect our understanding of the administration’s handling of COVID-19. The President’s failure to avoid personal infection could shape how people see his handling of the virus as a whole. This could have implications for his standing in the polls, ability to participate in the debates, and even the outcome of the election, as the virus and its impact on the economy are weighing heavily on people’s minds as they cast their ballots.

It might also impact our understanding of health care more generally– and the government’s role in ensuring access.  As President, Mr. Trump has his own dedicated medical team, a suite at Walter Reed reserved for his use, a helicopter to airlift him to and from the White House.  He does not have to pay for his treatment; due to his position, that is the responsibility of the nation and its taxpayers.  Seeing the president’s level of access to care is likely to shape people’s views about the Affordable Care Act, and additional reform measures.  Should all Americans have at least some version of the care he received?  Or is that reserved for people of power, influence, or wealth?

We will all take lessons from a high-profile national event like the President’s infection with the coronavirus.  The meaning we take from the President’s case will likely be informed by who we are and the context in which we live our lives, as well as our preexisting political outlook. What the majority of Americans end up taking from this moment could affect the full toll of the pandemic on our lives and the nation.


This series is also available at Guide for Politics, a public facing blog that explains and contextualizes contemporary politics and policy, providing ideas for reflection and action.

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Amy Cabrera Rasmussen is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at California State University, Long Beach, where she teaches courses on U.S. politics and public policy. Her research examines policymaking on issues such as health and the environment, and she has been a long-time participant in a local environmental coalition in her native Southern California.  She is also one of the founding directors of the APSA Institute on Civically Engaged Research.

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