WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s a “foreign” virus, he says — one that can be fought by closing the nation’s borders to dangerous foreigners carrying scary disease.
President Donald Trump has turned to a familiar playbook as he tries to grapple with the spiraling coronavirus outbreak, blaming immigrants for the country’s problems and casting the global health pandemic as another case of the U.S. against the world.
It’s an approach that public health officials say ignores the new reality of a situation that is fueling panic and confusion and fundamentally altering the American way of life.
But it’s business as usual for an isolationist president who once proposed barring Muslims from entering the country and has worked throughout his presidency to fortify the nation’s borders and find novel ways to keep out those he deems unworthy, diseased or unsafe.
The pattern was especially jarring during Trump’s rare Oval Office address to the nation Wednesday night. Instead of calling on Americans to lock arms with other nations to take on a common foe, Trump instead pointed the finger. He blamed Europe for fueling the virus’ continued advancement — even as the U.S. has struggled to provide basic testing, local cases skyrocket and pockets of disease increase.
Trump credited his decision to restrict travel from China for keeping the U.S. case count low and then announced he would be extending his ban to some of America’s closest allies as he took the unprecedented step of sharply restricting travel from much of Europe to the U.S.
“The European Union failed to take the same precautions and restrict travel from China and other hot spots,” Trump said. “As a result, a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travelers from Europe.”
To be sure, infectious disease experts agree that limiting travel from countries badly affected by a virus can help stop its spread. The impacted region is home to several countries that have been struggling to contain mass outbreaks. And 70% of new cases worldwide are in Europe, Vice President Mike Pence said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
But public health and homeland security officials say that, at this stage in the outbreak, a different focus is warranted, given that the virus has already spread throughout most of the continental U.S., with hotpots already established in states including New York, California and Washington. The virus is now spreading person-to-person, within U.S. communities across the nation.
“There’s little value to European travel restrictions,” concluded Trump’s former national security adviser Tom Bossert, who called the president’s move a “Poor use of time & energy” in a series of tweets.
“Earlier, yes. Now, travel restrictions/screening are less useful,” Bossert wrote on Twitter. “We have nearly as much disease here in the US as the countries in Europe. We MUST focus on layered community mitigation measures-Now!”
Bossert added that if the U.S. does not implement aggressive mitigation measures like shutting schools and halting public gatherings to try to halt the virus’s spread, the U.S. could, ironically, “end up infecting or reinfecting Europe.”
European Union officials were quick to slam the president’s “unilateral” decision, declaring the virus a “global crisis, not limited to any continent” that “requires cooperation rather than unilateral action.”
“As you know, it’s a virus that’s gone pandemic. It’s all over the world, knows no borders, knows no nationalities,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told Trump Thursday. “And I think we all need to work together in the world on this.”
More than 127,000 people in more than 110 countries have now been infected by the virus, with the vast majority in four countries: China, South Korea, Iran and Italy. More than 4,700 people have died worldwide.
Most people infected by the new virus have only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, though symptoms can be severe, including pneumonia, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. Recovery for mild cases takes about two weeks, while more severe illness may take three to six weeks, according to the World Health Organization.
Throughout his presidency and long before, Trump has painted immigrants — especially non-whites — as posing a public health and safety danger. In his speech launching his 2016 campaign, Trump cast Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, and he has repeatedly used disparaging language that dehumanizes migrants, saying those who enter the country illegally “infest” it and casting their arrival as an “invasion.”
Trump has said he wants to limit immigrants from “s—-hole nations,” declared a national emergency to fund construction of a border wall to keep out migrants, pushed asylum-seekers back over the border and tried to dissuade people from seeking asylum with a policy that ended up separating more than 2,500 children from their parents at the border in 2018.
Trump tweeted Tuesday, “We need the Wall more than ever!” as he shared a message from a conservative supporter who claimed a border wall would halt the spread of the “China Virus spreading across the globe.”
That history has prompted Democratic lawmakers to warn that immigrants might not come forward to seek tests for the virus or medical care in the face of potential infection.
“Immigrants afraid of seeking medical care. It’s downright dangerous during a public emergency,” tweeted Rep. Pramila Jayapal, whose district includes hard-hit Seattle.
Through it all, Trump has declined to align himself with fellow world leaders fighting the same crisis, with no global working group, no teleconferences and no words of brotherhood.
“I will never hesitate to take any necessary steps to protect the lives, health and safety of the American people,” Trump said in his address. “I will always put the well-being of America first.”
One nation, alone.