Trump’s Role in the Death Toll

April 2020, editorials

He was warned, again and again.

David Leonhardt


The United States and South Korea each had their first confirmed case of the coronavirus around Jan. 20. They each suffered their first death in late February. If anything, South Korea appeared to be slightly ahead of the United States, with more cases and more deaths, in early March.

But then the two countries began following very different paths.

From the beginning, South Korea took the virus extremely seriously, with widespread testing, tracking of cases and quarantining. The results have been impressive: Only about 220 deaths so far, and not a single day with more than a dozen deaths.

The situation in the United States, of course, has been radically different. About 2,000 Americans have been dying each day since early last week, and the United States now has the highest death toll of any country: more than 22,000 overall. In the chart above, you can see the number of new deaths each day for the two countries, adjusted for the population of each.

How did this happen?

There are multiple reasons that the virus has had such a different toll in different countries. But one of the reasons for the large toll in the United States is clearly President Trump. Over the weekend, The Times published a long story documenting the many warnings that he received throughout late January, February and much of March, about the likely severity of the virus and the need to take action.

He rejected those warnings, again and again. He chose a path of denial, rather than a path of aggressive response, as South Korea did.

In late January, several officials — including Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services, and Peter Navarro, the trade adviser — told the president that the virus would likely do great damage unless the country responded. On Feb. 21, Trump administration officials conducted a meeting during which they discussed the need to close schools, cancel large gatherings and take other measures. On Feb. 25, a top disease expert in the government went so far as to make a public warning, only to be sidelined for doing so.

Each time, Trump’s response was a version of “stop panicking,” as The Times story explains.

He now conducts daily briefings where he tries to rewrite history, claiming that he knew it would be a serious problem all along. That is simply false. There is a long trail of evidence (including his own words) showing that he chose inaction over action, overruling the advice of scientists, public health experts and even some of his own advisers.

Hundreds more Americans are likely to die of the virus again today. For that, the president bears substantial blame.

The America we need

The Opinion section’s project on what a post-coronavirus America should look like continues today, with the philosopher Michael Sandel arguing for moral renewal and Melissa L. St. Hilaire, a home care aide in Miami, describing what she’s seeing and what workers like her need.