Trump’s Covid-19 Diagnosis Will Likely Become a Referendum on the Virus Itself

His outcome will impact the American election — but not necessarily how you’d think

I don’t write about politics very often. But I do write about Covid-19 quite a lot — what we know about it scientifically, how people are responding culturally, what the experience is like for me personally and artistically, and much more.

Now, with the news coming out this morning that US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have tested positive for Covid-19, politics and the virus are intersecting.

Of course, politics and the virus have always been intersecting. There’s the often bitterly partisan debate around masks, connections between the virus and efforts towards mass surveillance, and the crushing disparities in who gets Covid-19 — and who gets sickest from it. Even an article that I wrote about cats and coronavirus got over 1,600 views and led to people calling me some not-so-nice things on Facebook.

So what does Trump’s diagnosis mean for the virus, and for American politics? Early coverage has focused largely on his diagnosis’ destabilizing effects. Should Trump remain in the election? Is he fit to govern? Who else needs to get tested now, and how will other positive tests affect Trump’s base of supporters and those with whom he’s had contact?

Most likely though — whatever happens next — Trump’s diagnosis will have one major impact: it will become a referendum on the virus itself.

Trump and his administration have long insisted that the virus is, overall, nothing to worry about. This is a view echoed by many of his followers, including some commentators who have gone so far as to suggest that we should all be trying to get the virus, to build herd immunity to it. On the other side of the political spectrum are those who argue that aggressive lockdowns early in the pandemic saved millions of lives.

Whether it’s fair or not, Trump’s diagnosis will be seen as an evaluation of the virus’ overall impact and importance. It’s ludicrous to judge the impact of a global pandemic on the outcome of one case, and the experience of one person. Yet it’s something society has been doing for millennia. People love symbols. And Trump is about the most potent symbol around — for citizens on both sides of the political spectrum.

We do have some precedent for a world leader getting Covid-19. The United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson got the virus earlier this year and nearly died from it, saying that his outcome “could have gone either way”, and crediting medical staff with saving his life. Brasil’s Jair Bolsonaro got the virus, too, and remained defiant about its impact.

Trump does have some risk factors for a more serious case. Most notably, at 74 years, Trump is much older than Bolsonaro, who is in his fifties. According to the CDC, age is one of the most significant factors in predicting Covid-19 outcomes. A 74 year old is more than 200x more like to die of the virus than an 18–29 year old, whereas a 50–64 year old is merely 30x more likely. Overall levels of exposure are also significant — if Trump attended a lot of events where he was exposed to the virus, his overall viral load may be higher than a typical person’s.

Still, the most likely statistical outcome is for Trump to ride out Covid-19 without needing to be hospitalized. According to Riskcalc.org, which uses data from published research to predict Covid-19 hospitalization risk, a moderately overweight, 74 year old white man has only a 5.5% risk of hospitalization following a positive Covid-19 diagnosis.

It’s possible that Trump could have a reaction to the virus which changes his opinions about its severity. Conservative radio host Erich Muller famously declared that intelligence agencies’ use of waterboarding was not torture, and agreed to be waterboarded on the air to prove this. After only 6 seconds of having the technique used on him, he reversed his stance and declared it “absolutely torture.” Personal experience is a potent driver of major change.

But it’s also very statistically likely that he will weather his illness without major symptoms or effects. The question we should all be asking ourselves now is: “what would that outcome look like?”

A positive outcome for Trump could easily be seen as validation of his choices and practices around the virus, from eschewing mask wearing to taking the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. It could also be seen as a reflection on the virus' relative seriousness--or perceived lack thereof.

That’s not fair for a variety of reasons. Trump is White. As President, he’s sure to get the best medical care and most aggressive, expensive treatments currently available. He’ll be able to readily self-isolate. Those opportunities aren’t available to many who contract the virus, both here and abroad. Trump is not a representative case. Yet inevitably, his case will become representative of the virus overall.

Any major illness of a sitting American president is sure to be destabilizing in the short term — especially if they appear not to take their illness seriously. But if Trump rides out the virus with little effect, that could have even more profound impacts on public perception of Covid-19, and Trump’s prospects for reelection.

Those who are tempted to say the political equivalent of “I told you so” about Trump’s laxity towards the virus and the inevitability of his diagnosis should ask themselves what an emboldened trump — if he makes it through the virus with few ill effects, and can speak firsthand about its lack of impact — would look like come November.

People on both sides of the political spectrum have already begun to reach out and send best wishes for Trump’s speedy recovery. What happens next is largely up to biology — and to some extent, medicine. What seems certain, though, is that Trump’s outcome (good or bad) will become symbolic of the relative significance of Covid-19 itself.

His experience over the next few weeks could well decide the outcome of the American election. And it could dramatically alter how the world views and responds to virus in the year (and years) ahead.

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography. tom@gadoimages.com

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