Trump and Biden Are Both Misleading Us About COVID-19
During last night’s presidential debate, President Donald Trump implied that his response to the COVID-19 pandemic saved 2 million or so lives. “As you know, 2.2 million people, modeled out, were expected to die,” he said. “We closed up the greatest economy in the world in order to fight this horrible disease.” Trump also mentioned “what we’ve done in terms of goggles and masks and gowns and everything else, and in particular ventilators.” Thanks to these policies, he said, “we’re rounding the corner,” and “it’s going away.”
The recent rise in newly identified COVID-19 cases—which exceeded 74,000 nationwide yesterday, according to Worldometer’s count—suggests the virus is not in fact “going away.” And given the Trump administration’s disastrous handling of the virus tests that were crucial to curtailing the epidemic in its early stages, the notion that the president deserves any credit for reducing COVID-19’s impact—let alone for saving “millions” of lives, as Republicans claim—is debatable, to say the least. So is the idea that he was responsible for the lockdowns that all but a few states imposed last spring. Even if you think those lockdowns had an important impact on COVID-19 mortality, the decision to impose them was made by governors, not by Trump.
Still, there is a big difference between the current tally of 223,000 deaths and the 2.2 million that Trump says were “expected.” Doesn’t that contrast suggest he did something right? Only if you think that worst-case scenario was at all plausible to begin with, which it wasn’t.
That projection, which Trump embraced at the end of March, was based on a counterfactual “no intervention” scenario that assumed Americans would carry on as usual in the face of the epidemic. That was demonstrably not true, since individuals and businesses were already responding to the threat posed by the virus through voluntary precautions such as limiting travel, avoiding crowds, reducing social interaction, working at home, and canceling events. The projection also assumed an infection fatality rate higher than the current “best estima
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