Dr Owain Williams By: Dr Owain Williams
Lecturer in IR and Human Security
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05 Oct 2020 : Agent Orange

Teaching has started online and boy it is busy. Students are attending online teaching faithfully. Almost all groups are isolating and many of my students, especially the first years, are reporting positive test results for COVID. It is very depressing, and I feel so sorry for them arriving for the first weeks of university only to weather an infection and all the uncertainties of having COVID alone and in a new city. Saying that, all of them were determined to leave home, but were promised much more than this experience. There are 76 UK universities with COVID outbreaks as of Sunday 4th October. It is not going well.

The elephant in the room today and much of last week is the USA and Trump. Yesterday, on the 4th October, the infected POTUS was reportedly bored of isolation in hospital. He took a SUV drive-by of his supporters in the streets of Washington and waved with a mask firmly on. Of course, the car was packed with secret service, all these masked and in googles. Sharing a car with an infected man and being forced to do so because of a whim. In many ways this single act and the debacle that followed the Rose Garden announcement of the new Supreme Court justice both sum up the administration and the man. We have the intersection of chaos, lack of regard for others, hubris, self-belief, displacement and denial, and supreme selfishness. The list is long.

Meanwhile, Washington and the inner circle of the administration are gripped by panic, turbulence and fear, with the breakdown of the very basic chains of national security and governance, all apparent. There seems to also be the sense that the game is up for Trump’s election. He goes for a ride.

We also find that despite testing positive he continued to attend a number of events. Adoring funders at the Bedminster golf club circulate unmasked. Contact tracers are now struggling to find them – some 200 people – and their exposure will in turn threaten others. The Rose Garden event itself saw chairs packed tightly with no attempt to distance, many of the attendees not wearing masks. This is gross denialism and hubris in spades. White House staff have become infected and yet the administration has refused to publish just how many. Secret service personnel are furious with the President for repeatedly risking their health. Added to this, we have a growing list of key members of the administration team infected. Senators Thom Tillis and Mike Lee, Chris Christie, Hope Hicks, Nicholas Luna, Bill Stephen, Ronna McDaniel. These are all core operators for Trump. His team is in tatters from COVID.

Trump’s whole treatment and case trajectory is also typically chaotic. It is clear that those treating him are messaging progress through his own filter. So far, he has received oxygen, a polyclonal antibody and the steroid Dexametahsone, this normally reserved for severe and critical cases of respiratory failure. He is also been given remdesivir. This is a powerful cocktail of drugs by any standard with reported side-effects including disorientation. The polyclonal treatment of which is even therapeutically approved for COVID treatment in the USA. The patient is also reportedly progressing and could be released from hospital on Monday 5th. This despite the fact that many of the worst declines in patients with COVID are being seen 7-10 days post infection. Trump is far from out of this yet, but might be released nonetheless. Not for the first time in the pandemic, the chaos he generates and projects more widely, coupled with his illness, are seeing Article 25 being bandied about in the press and social media. Unless he recovers or suffers any further decline he may still be removed.

Against all of this, there is still the election looming for the POTUS. Biden is reportedly 25 points ahead according to one poll today in the US. In the seniors his vote appears to be collapsing and this may be one of the key predictors of a loss. Polls also report that the majority of American view his infection as his own fault. But of course it is. Unfortunately, his leadership and choking of the public health infrastructure in the US, combined science denialism and chaotic messaging, have also led to the infection of many millions. He has repeatedly disparaged masks as we know, as well as the gravity of the virus itself. In the USA there are still 50,000 new infections nearly each day. The epidemic is actually surging in many states just as the USA heads into winter. The man is a catastrophe.

Elsewhere in the Northern hemisphere a second wave is now clearly ramping up. The UK is rudderless and in serious trouble. We still have no viable and consistent system for testing and tracing. We discover only yesterday that 15,000 positive test results cases were not uploaded to the data system. This means that contact tracers could not access data and follow ups and warnings could not be issued. The figures have now been updated. The UK will have to go into lockdown very soon as there is clearly rising infection, uncontrolled community transmission and insufficient infrastructure to support any of a range of alternate strategies being vaunted, such as age specific shielding. An utter chaotic mess. The Tories are now riven with open warfare about the abilities of Johnson, this fuelled by outcomes as much as rapidly declining standing in opinion polls, with both libertarian and concerned factions targeting the Prime Minister. The university sector is only one of the more recent debacles among many.

But there are also spikes in a range of other countries. The Czech Republic, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland (doggedly sticking to opening up despite spikes in cases) and specific areas of France, particularly Paris, are all weighing up imminent lockdowns and high levels of alert. We are in for a torrid winter in Europe.

India has surpassed 100,000 official deaths this weekend, joining Brazil and the USA in this. India now has 6.5 million infections. Indonesia continues to rise steeply as well, with one of the world’s lowest rates of testing. All these countries responded badly to COVID in the spring,  all governed elites who publicly minimised the risks the virus presented. This is all old news now, but the trajectory is worth restating. Poor leadership, the waste of time in building up a basic public health response, science denialism and horrendous public messaging, early opening up in the absence of planning and capacities, second waves and prolonged first waves. Mass deaths and infections. Brazil is still seeing over 8,000 cases per day and Bolsonaro continues to push back against reality, seemingly oblivious having cleared his own infection.

Will Trump learn from his own infection and will his last months in office see a new concerted response to the viral crisis in winter? Perhaps not.

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