Former President Donald Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was a public health disaster. Now a new report in one of the world’s most respected medical journals is attempting to quantify the human cost.
The report, published by the Lancet, faults the Trump administration’s lack of preparedness around personal protective equipment (PPE) and its “non-existent oversight of infection control practices” for the deaths of nearly 3,000 healthcare workers alone.
But perhaps most damning of all, the Lancet found that roughly 40 percent of the nation’s COVID deaths—as many as 188,000 people out of nearly 470,000—could have been avoided, something that the researchers directly blame on Trump’s pandemic response, or lack thereof.
“Even the best of countries have had deep problems with COVID, but we think there’s substantial shortfall because of Trump,” Dr. David Himmelstein, a primary care doctor, professor at the CUNY School of Public Health, and one of the report’s lead authors, told VICE News.
Reasons for that shortfall, according to Himmelstein, include Trump’s well-documented downplaying of COVID, his boosting of unproven crank treatments like hydroxychloroquine, and the Trump administration’s de-emphasis on public health, which included eliminating a pandemic unit within the National Security Council in 2018, less than two years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S.
The failure to respond effectively to COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people of color, increasing the life expectancy gap between Black and white people by more than 50 percent. Overall COVID mortality rates are as much as 3.6 times higher for people of color than non-Hispanic white people, according to the study.
Aside from the terrible initial response to COVID, Himmelstein also placed blame for the nation’s struggling vaccine rollout at Trump’s feet.
“We had a good eight months warning there would be a vaccine, and there was no planning for how to get it out,” he said. “We have now, in many parts of the country, people desperately looking for appointments… Planning would have averted that kind of waste and scrambling.”
The Lancet report alleges that Trump’s impact on public health was disastrous even before the pandemic. There were 22,000 extra deaths related to environmental and occupational factors in 2019 than there were in the last year of former President Barack Obama’s presidency, which the commission attributes to federal regulatory rollbacks.
But the report’s authors say the problem goes way beyond just the former president.
“We started out really looking at what Trump had done, and he has certainly done a lot wrong,” Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, another lead author on the report and a distinguished professor at the Hunter College School of Public Health, told VICE News. “But we looked at the health of the American people…and what we found is that it’s been four decades of government failure to support policies that support human health.”
The authors suggest an overhaul in the country’s public health infrastructure to fix the problem. In addition to giving the CDC more tools to fight systemic racism, they recommend transitioning to a Medicare for All system like the one championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders. (Himmelstein and Woolhandler are co-founders of the Physicians for a National Health Program, a doctor-led group advocating for Medicare for All.)
President Joe Biden has opposed such a bill, claiming it would cost too much. And until Medicare for All becomes a reality, Himmelstein said the U.S. should try to get to universal coverage regardless.
“At the minimum we need a universal healthcare program,” Himmelstein said. “It would be far more expensive, but if President Biden refuses to do single payer, we think the funding to do it in less efficient ways would be worthwhile.”