April 7, 2020 was the day everything changed in America. And hardly anybody realizes it.
The most unreported story of the pandemic, the one that seems destined to be overlooked as histories are being written, is what Trump did when he learned the Covid coronavirus was largely killing Black people and mostly sparing Whites.
The moment he came to that realization he completely altered the U.S. response to the pandemic, leading to the unnecessary death of 300,000 to 400,000 Americans.
Deaths that he and his advisors apparently believed (correctly) would be, outside of nursing home residents, disproportionately Black and Hispanic people.
It’s an amazing story and the evidence is easily found. But even the new COVID report just last week from the House of Representatives only briefly touches on it, without making a specific charge of intentional racism.
Here’s how it played out. Through January of 2020, COVID was limited to a few clusters in the United States.
Trump — who hadd privately told Bob Woodward the disease was a “killer” that “rips you apart” — kept downplaying its severity and assuring Americans there was nothing to worry about.
On January 30 the World Health Organization declared the outbreak “a public health emergency of international concern.”
Louise and I joined two of my brothers and several of their and our kids on a family cruise the next day; when we left the ship and flew home on February 8th most of us were sick – we still don’t know if it was COVID – and the 3,700 passengers and crew of a different ship, the Diamond Princess, were getting headlines around the world, quarantined off the coast of Japan for two long weeks with hundreds of cases of COVID.
March 2020 was the month when things went to hell here in the United States. On March 5th there were 129 known cases and only 11 deaths in the United States: just 33 days later, hospitals were using refrigerated trucks as morgues and over 10,000 Americans were dead of COVID.
Fear ran through communities and stalked our homes. We were washing our groceries with bleach after picking them up at the store’s parking from people wearing masks, goggles, and gloves. We bought up all the air filters in the country. We worked from home when we could. We isolated ourselves from other people as much as was humanly possible.
Within those few weeks in March and early April, serious COVID outbreaks were showing up across the Northeast and Trump — who had two years earlier shut down both of the two federal pandemic task forces Obama had put into place (with Republican assistance) after the Ebola scare — charged Mike Pence and Jared Kushner with responding to the crisis.
Trump put medical doctors on TV daily, the media was freaking out about refrigerated trucks carrying bodies away from New York hospitals, and doctors and nurses were our new national heroes.
By March 7th, U.S. deaths had risen from 4 to only 22, but that was enough to spur federal action. Trump’s official emergency declaration came on March 11th, and most of the country shut down during the following week.
The skies and highways fell silent, the Dow collapsed, and millions of Americans were laid off but saving lives was, after all, the number one consideration.
Jared Kushner put together a task force of mostly preppie 30-something white men he knew from college to coordinate getting PPE from Trump buddies and companies close to Republican members of Congress into hospitals.
They even had a plan for the Post Office to distribute 650 million masks — 5 to every American household — to slow the pandemic.
But then came April 7th, when The New York Times ran a front-page story with the headline: Black Americans Face Alarming Rates of Coronavirus Infection in Some States.
It hit conservative media and Donald Trump like a lightning bolt. Most of the non-elderly people dying from COVID, the report found, were Black or Hispanic, not White people.
As The New York Times reported on April 7th:
“The coronavirus is infecting and killing black people in the United States at disproportionately high rates…
“In Illinois, 43 percent of people who have died from the disease and 28 percent of those who have tested positive are African-Americans, a group that makes up just 15 percent of the state’s population. African-Americans, who account for a third of positive tests in Michigan, represent 40 percent of deaths in that state even though they make up 14 percent of the population. In Louisiana, about 70 percent of the people who have died are black, though only a third of that state’s population is.”
Republicans responded with a collective, “What the hell?!?”
Limbaugh declared solemnly that afternoon:
“With the coronavirus, I have been waiting for the racial component.”
And here it was:
“The coronavirus now hits African Americans harder,” Limbaugh proclaimed, “harder than illegal aliens, harder than women. It hits African Americans harder than anybody: disproportionate representation.”
It didn’t take a medical savant, of course, to figure out why, and it had nothing to do with the biology of race: it was purely systemic racism. African Americans die disproportionately from everything, from heart disease to strokes to cancer to childbirth, and are also over-represented in low-paid public-facing service jobs where they would more easily catch COVID.
It’s a symptom of a racially rigged economy and a healthcare system that only responds to money, which America has conspired to keep from African Americans for over 400 years. Of course Black people are going to die more frequently from coronavirus.
But the New York Times and the Washington Post simultaneously publishing April 7th front-page articles about that disparity — followed by it leading or making the news that night on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox — echoed across the rightwing media landscape like a Fourth of July fireworks display.
Tucker Carlson, the only prime-time Fox “News” host who’d previously expressed serious concerns about the dangers of the virus, changed his tune the same day, as documented by Media Matters for America.
Now, Tucker said:
“[W]e can begin to consider how to improve the lives of the rest, the countless Americans who have been grievously hurt by this, by our response to this. How do we get 17 million of our most vulnerable citizens back to work? That’s our task.”
Those “vulnerable citizens” Tucker wanted to get back to work appear to be disproportionately minorities. As last week’s report from the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus noted:
“Essential workers who needed to work in person, and their family members, were significantly more likely to contract the coronavirus early in the crisis. These essential workers disproportionately earned low wages and were more likely to be people of color.
“Black and Latina women were particularly ‘overrepresented as essential workers’ at greater risk of coronavirus infection ‘with Latina women making up 22% of women grocery store workers and Black women making up 27% of women home health aide workers’…”
On the other hand, salaried workers — overwhelmingly white — were telecommuting. For over a year I did my show from home, for example, as did all my peers at SiriusXM and in most media operations around the country. Everywhere people could work from home, most employers were making accommodations.
But Trump wanted the rest of the economy to recover from the election-year shutdown shock, and that meant getting “essential” workers like transit drivers, store clerks, and people in slaughterhouses back to their jobs. Particularly if they were Black or Brown.
Brit Hume joined Tucker’s show and, using his gravitas as a “real news guy,” intoned:
“The disease turned out not to be quite as dangerous as we thought.”
Left unsaid was the issue of for whom it was “not quite as dangerous,” but Limbaugh listeners and Fox “News” viewers are anything but unsophisticated when it comes to hearing dog-whistles on behalf of white supremacy.
Only 12,677 Americans were dead by that April day, but now that Trump and his rightwing media knew most of the non-elderly dying were and would be Black and Hispanic, things were suddenly very, very different.
Now it was time to quit talking about people dying and start talking about getting those Black and Brown people back to work!
On April 12th, Trump retweeted a call to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci and declared, in another tweet, that he had the sole authority to open the U.S. back up and would announce a specific plan to do that “shortly.”
On April 13th, the ultra-rightwing, nearly-entirely-white-managed U.S. Chamber of Commerce published a policy paper titled Implementing A National Return to Work Plan.
The next day, Freedomworks, the billionaire-founded and -funded group that animated the Tea Party against Obamacare a decade earlier, published an op-ed on their website calling for an “economic recovery” program including an end to the capital gains tax and a new law to “shield” businesses from lawsuits.
Three days after that, Freedomworks and the House Freedom Caucus issued a joint statement declaring that “[I]t’s time to re-open the economy.”
Freedomworks published their “#ReopenAmerica Rally Planning Guide” encouraging conservatives to show up “in person” at their state capitols and governor’s mansions, and, for signage, to “Keep it short: ‘I’m essential,’ ‘Let me work,’ ‘Let Me Feed My Family’” and to “Keep [the signs looking] homemade.”
One of the first #OpenTheCountry rallies to get widespread national attention was April 19th in mostly-white New Hampshire. Over the next several weeks, rallies filled with angry white people had metastasized across the nation, from Oregon to Arizona, Delaware, North Carolina, Virginia, Illinois and elsewhere.
One that drew particularly high levels of media attention — complete with swastikas, confederate flags, and assault rifles — was directed against the governor of Michigan, rising Democratic star Gretchen Whitmer.
This was around the time things started to seriously change, as long-standing rightwing networks began to awaken and coordinate with each other. They reached out to members of Congress and the Senate and found allies. Trump explicitly encouraged them and later pardoned the worst among them.
Suddenly things began to change.
NBC News, when they’d gotten hold of April emails from within the White House, ran the headline:
“Trump Administration Scrapped Plan to Send Every American a Mask in April, Email Shows.”
When Rachel Maddow reported on meat-packing plants that were epicenters of mass infection, the conservative Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court pointed out that the virus flare wasn’t coming from the “regular folks” of the surrounding white community: the sick people were mostly Hispanic and Black.
The Republican meme was now well established. Working age White people were far, far less likely to get less sick, more likely to be asymptomatic, or — even if they were unlucky and got sick — most likely to survive a trip to the hospital.
Then came news that bigger outbreaks than we realized were now happening in meat packing plants, places with few white people (and the few whites in them were largely poor and thus disposable).
Trump’s response was to issue an executive order using the Defense Production Act (which he had refused to use to order production of testing or PPE equipment) to order the largely Hispanic and Black workforce back into the slaughterhouses and meat processing plants.
African Americans were dying in our cities, Hispanics were dying in meat packing plants, the elderly of all races were dying in nursing homes.
But the death toll among working age affluent white people (who could telecommute and/or were less likely to be obese, have hypertension, or struggle with diabetes) was relatively low.
It took a lot of pressure off Trump and his Republicans. They could now politicize the virus, and, if they did it right, they could do so publicly with a “wink” to MTG’s white supremacists.
As an “expert” member of Jared Kushner’s team of young, unqualified volunteers supervising the administration’s PPE response to the virus noted to Vanity Fair’s Katherine Eban:
“The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy.”
It was, after all, exclusively Blue States that were then hit hard by the virus: Washington, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
At year’s end, the United States was ranked 5th worst in the world in our response (behind Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Iran); we had about 20% of the world’s COVID deaths, but only 4.5% of the world’s population.
The lasting legacy of Trump’s changes in policy and encouraging COVID skepticism is that today we’re world’s worst in terms of death and sickness, period. He’d thrown his unqualified slumlord son-in-law Jared Kushner at something even a professional would’ve found the challenge of a lifetime.
More people have died of COVID in America, as a percentage or in absolute terms, than any other developed country in the world.
Why? Because Trump and his Republican enablers and co-conspirators were just fine with getting the economy back on track over the bodies of dead Black and Hispanic people, particularly when they could blame it on Democratic Blue-state governors.
Former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s grandson Max Kennedy Jr, 26, was one of the administration’s volunteers, who blew the whistle to Congress on Kushner and Trump. As Jane Mayer wrote for The New Yorker:
“Kennedy was disgusted to see that the political appointees who supervised him were hailing Trump as ‘a marketing genius,’ because, Kennedy said they’d told him, ‘he personally came up with the strategy of blaming the [Blue] states.’”
As that new report released last week from the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus reported:
“In the first half of 2020, African Americans and Latinos had death rates from coronavirus that far outweighed those of whites. While 62% of the population age 45-54 in 2020 was white, this population accounted for only 22% of coronavirus deaths in that age range. …
“Disparities were even more pronounced in some states such as Louisiana, where where in April 2020, African Americans represented 70% of coronavirus deaths despite being only one third of the state’s population.”
And once Trump and Kushner put that strategy into place in April, it became politically impossible to back away from it, even as more and more Red state white people became infected.
As Trump told Dr. Deborah Birx in mid-April and she reported in her book Silent Invasion: The Untold Story…:
“‘We will never shut down the country again. Never.’ His pupils hardened into points of anger… I felt the blood drain from my face, and I shivered slightly.”
Trump’s change — from a policy of prevention to a policy of “herd immunity” once he realized on April 7, 2020 that healthy white people were largely immune from death by the coronavirus — put the U.S. on-course to have the worst COVID death rate in the world. That was the day everything changed.
Over a million Americans have died so far, more than any other nation. Multiple studies show that up to 400,000 of those deaths wouldn’t have happened if Trump had just promoted masks and lock-downs through the year before the vaccine was available and, since then, if he had condemned the anti-vax movement that emerged in the last months of his presidency.
But he didn’t do either. All because he knew the virus disproportionately killed Black and Brown people.
And sure enough, as Congress just reported, a massive number of those deaths were, as a clear result of Trump policy, among Black and Hispanic people.
If that’s not racial mass murder, aka genocide at a Serbian war crimes level, then the phrase has lost much of its meaning.