By now, “unprecedented times” is a trite phrase used to describe our global crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus, which has altered life as we knew it. But the word “unprecedented” means “never before seen or experienced.” Certainly our world has survived pandemics and epidemics, many which inflicted greater devastation than the current crisis. Our elderly survived polio and scarlet fever, while our very elderly also survived the Spanish Flu and diphtheria. Pandemic survivors hardly consider our current situation unprecedented, nor would our ancestors. But that’s not to say that circumstances surrounding this pandemic are not unprecedented. We simply need to match the term to the events it accurately describes.
When a president puffs out his chest and refuses to wear a mask in defiance of his own administration’s recommendation, such an arrogant act is unprecedented. Especially for a president who is himself elderly and obese, two conditions that place him at high risk for COVID-19.
Within weeks, two White House staffers test positive for coronavirus, the nation’s leading health experts enter quarantine, and a government spokesperson announces a mandatory mask policy for everyone in the White House. Everyone, except of course, the nation’s leader. That is unprecedented, too.
A president treats the pandemic as if it’s a war and lashes out at China, the country where scientists believe the virus originated. He resorts to calling it “The Chinese virus,” and insists the virus originated in a Chinese lab, despite U.S. intelligence reports dismissing this claim. He threatens to retaliate, stating “there are many things I can do.” He further expresses paranoia when he associates the origin of the coronavirus with the 2020 presidential election. “China will do anything they can to have me lose this race.” That is irrational and counterproductive and jeopardizes the international cooperation necessary to stop a pandemic.
A president whose country has led the world in providing disaster aid over the last century—from WWII reconstruction to world hunger, and from AIDS to Ebola— suddenly withholds annual funding to the World Health Organization. He denies resources intended to solve a global crisis as his own country suffers the greatest losses. That is both naive and unprecedented.
A president with overactive thumbs threatens to fire-by-tweet his top health advisor—a real doctor— because he refuses to endorse an anti-malarial drug that the president — with no medical training — is convinced will treat the virus. No clinical trials and no supporting data. Such rejection of medical expertise by a world leader to advance an unproven drug is not only unprecedented, but dangerous.
A president insists amid a pandemic that anyone who wants a test can receive one. This, despite a shortage of test kits and swabs and lab facilities that prevent symptomatic Americans, and even some medical personnel, from getting tested. His testing-for-all claim is delusional as well as unprecedented.
A president announces his desire to end the quarantine on April 12th, Easter Sunday, a decision not based on data, but because, “I just thought it was a beautiful time.” He makes his announcement as COVID-19 cases in New York City double every three days. Selecting the most important Christian holiday of the year to call off a pandemic is unprecedented, not to mention presumptuous. What happens if the country isn’t monotheistic? What happens if the virus is neither Christian nor Republican?
Governors and mayors wring their hands as their residents die from COVID-19 daily, only to have a president tweet that states are responsible for securing their own medical supplies. The same president enters into bidding wars with individual states to bolster the federal government’s own stockpile of emergency protective gear. He then proceeds to warn governors that “they need to be appreciative” of the personal protective equipment the federal government provides them. This is a most concise example of the term, “unprecedented.”
A president threatens to deny federal assistance to certain states because of alleged financial mismanagement before the pandemic. The governors of those states just happen to affiliate with a political party different from their president. The same week, that same president requests his own financial relief on a $350 million personal loan with Deutsche Bank. Self-serving and unprecedented.
A president wishes to turn away a cruise ship from an American port as it seeks medical care for passengers and crew who test positive for the coronavirus. He says he “doesn't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.” A presidential numbers game played at the expense of human lives. That should have every politician not only social distancing, but political distancing as well.
A president suggests administering household disinfectants “through an injection or a cleaning” to treat patients infected with the coronavirus. If Lysol sanitizes counter tops and removes stubborn stains from a toilet bowl “in a minute, one minute,” then it certainly should cleanse the blood of any virus. President Trump’s suggestion is absolutely reckless, not to mention, unprecedented.
Collectively, these presidential acts define “unprecedented.” Clearly, choosing our words carefully, like selecting a qualified president, is critical to our country’s health and security. We need to be more vigilant with our word choice as well as with our ballot choice. Our current pandemic is not unprecedented, but our current president is.