The sweeping hypocrisy of Trump’s shrugging claim that ‘virtually nobody’ young dies from coronavirus
“You know,” he continued, “in some states thousands of people, nobody young — below the age of 18, like nobody — they have a strong immune system. Who knows. You look — take your hat off to the young because they have a hell of an immune system, but it affects virtually nobody.”
“By the way, open your schools,” he added to cheers. “Everybody, open your schools.”
This riff of Trump’s that young people are less affected by covid-19 and, in some states, haven’t died from the disease isn’t new. (For a while, Trump would tell an anecdote about how the governor of New Jersey told him that only one young person had died from the disease.) What is less common from Trump is that flat “affects virtually nobody” claim, apparently centered on younger Americans.
It’s an assertion that’s both dangerously misleading and aggressively hypocritical.
As Trump spoke on Monday, the death toll from the pandemic in the United States was nearing the 200,000 mark, a boundary that Trump repeatedly insisted this spring and summer that we probably wouldn’t near.
It is true, to Trump’s point, that the vast majority of those deaths were among older Americans. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through mid-September indicate that nearly 8 in 10 deaths from covid-19 occurred among those who were 65 and older.
But it’s not the case that “virtually nobody” who is younger has been affected by the disease. About 400 people younger than 25 have succumbed to the virus, making up more than 1 out of every 100 deaths in that age group since February. Among those aged 25 to 64, 8 percent of all deaths in that period were the result of covid-19. Among those 65 and older, 9.8 percent of deaths since February were linked to the virus.
Of course, death is only the worst possible outcome from contracting the virus. The American Academy of Pediatrics compiled data on how the virus affected children across the United States, finding that between 0.2 and 8 percent of kids who contract it end up being hospitalized. Children account for between 0.5 and 3.7 percent of all hospitalizations.
Depending on the state, the group found, between 0 and 0.15 percent of children who contract the virus die.
What remains unknown is the long-term effects of the illness. There are signs that contracting the virus could lead to heart or lung damage that lasts far longer than the infection itself. It has been less than a year since the virus emerged, so it’s impossible to say how young people infected by the virus might be affected as they get older, if at all.
We can say one thing with certainty, though: Even 400 deaths among those 24 and younger — or, say, the 5,500 among those younger than 45 — would not be shrugged off by Trump had they been a function of a terrorist attack or of immigration.
When a man drove into joggers and pedestrians in Manhattan on Halloween 2017, Trump mentioned the incident nearly two dozen times in the following few months. He falsely alleged that the attacker had abused immigration laws to bring a number of relatives to the United States and demanded that the laws be changed.
The attack was a tragedy and an avoidable one. Eight people died.
We can outline any number of examples. When a husband and wife murdered 16 in San Bernardino, Calif., in December 2015, Trump demanded that the United States ban any Muslim from entering the country. When he was elected president, he tried to make that policy into law.
Since 2001, the coronavirus has killed more people younger than 45 than have been killed in terrorist attacks — including the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
There’s obviously a difference between deaths from disease over a multi-month period and deaths in bursts of violence. But it’s also the case that Trump has, in the past, casually pledged to prevent deadly childhood illnesses.
“We will achieve new breakthroughs in science and medicine,” Trump pledged in March, describing what he hoped to accomplish if he won a second term. “Finding new cures for childhood cancer and ending the AIDS epidemic in less than nine years. We’ve already started.”
Cancer is likely to lead to the deaths of about 1,200 kids ages 14 and younger this year and another 540 deaths among those 15 to 19. Covid-19 has killed 400 people younger than 25, a group that Trump describes as “virtually nobody.”
What this comes down to is politics. Trump benefits from railing about immigrants and terrorists as threats to the United States, bolstering his efforts to portray an unusual toughness. He similarly benefits from sweeping, nebulous claims about addressing childhood cancer, a horrible and awful disease.
And he benefits every time he convinces a voter that the coronavirus pandemic is not a big deal. That the people who died were going to die anyway and that everyone else emerges virtually untouched. Months into the pandemic, this sort of wheat-from-the-chaff approach to the death toll is familiar enough that we’re mostly immune to it — to Trump’s benefit. So he encourages it.
By now, half as many people have died of the coronavirus in the past nine months in the United States as were killed in combat the four years of World War II. Virtually nobody was killed on American soil, though, so it’s as if there wasn’t a war at all.