Though we’re in unprecedented times, President Trump has been making spurious claims with astonishing speed and confidence, even if professionals on his team disagree with him.
While poking fun at his bogus assertions might be a form of catharsis, with an ever-growing glut of misinformation on the web, it’s important to realize the gravity of false claims about COVID-19 and the very real effects they can have on people’s well-being.
So as his reckless words are impacting millions in the States and around the world, I thought it only fair to counter them with a healthy dose of fact-checking.
Claim #1: Ingesting disinfectant might do “a tremendous number on the lungs,” killing the virus in infected people.
When: April 23, 2020
Following a presentation on how heat and disinfectants can weaken the virus, Trump decided to give his two cents at a White House task-force briefing:
“So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous—whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light,” he pondered, turning to coronavirus-response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, who was clearly working to stay composed.
He continued rambling, “And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?”
At the beginning of March, “calls to poison centers increased sharply,” undoubtedly due to a surge in dumbfounding propositions such as this one. Let’s be clear: once the virus has started multiplying within the human body, contact with chemicals and external heat won’t weaken it. If you think gargling salt water will “drown the virus” (which I’ve heard many, many times), that’s your prerogative, but even the aerosol from bleach can cause lung damage, so think carefully about which paranoid relatives (or ignorant global leaders) you trust for medical advice.
Claim #2: This pandemic is the “worst attack” the U.S. has ever faced—one “worse than the World Trade Center.”
When: May 6, 2020
Choose your words carefully, Donald.
“I view the invisible enemy [coronavirus] as a war,” he said to reporters in the Oval Office. “I don’t like how it got here, because it could have been stopped.”
Don’t get me wrong, I understand his word choice. The word “attack,” alongside his allusions to war, invokes a sense of urgency. But in a period when minorities are being used as scapegoats, from anti-black discrimination in Guangzhou, China to a global surge in hate crimes against Asians, maybe don’t choose a word that connotes premeditated malintent? Just a suggestion.
Claim #3: The U.S. is testing more people than any other country “by far!”
When: March 30, 2020
In response to a question about America’s lagging coronavirus response, Trump boasted, “We have done more tests, by far, than any country in the world, by far.”
America has a population of roughly 330 million, and when he made the statement, 973,134 people had been tested. That’s less than 1 in 345 people. Compare that to South Korea, who had tested 1 in 129 of their population as of the same date. So while technically this statement is true, it feels like a joke.
BTW, the USA does do more than other countries. They spend significantly more per capita on health costs than places with universal healthcare (think Sweden and Switzerland) yet support far fewer people. They produce more prisoners than any other nation, yet their crime and recidivism stats barely blink at the superlative. Since Trump has all these things to brag about, I don’t get why he stuck with tests.
Claim #4: The FDA approved a drug for treatment in “record-setting time.”
When: March 19, 21, 23, (etc.), 2020
On the morning of Saturday the 21st, he tweeted, “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine. The FDA has moved mountains- Thank You!”
This claim became his selling point at briefings, but—funny story—the FDA never approved the drugs to treat COVID-19. In fact, they had never even been through a controlled clinical trial, as noted by America’s favorite doctor, Anthony Fauci.
Still, his comments pushed demand for hydroxychloroquine through the roof, forcing people with rheumatoid arthritis and lupus to ration or go without medication. And when a trial of the drug was finally carried out on veterans with the disease, results showed increased mortality rates amongst those who’d been treated with hydroxychloroquine. That’s when he shut up about it (though he started self-medicating).
Claim #5: New York hospital staff are stealing lots of personal protective equipment
When: March 29 and 30, 2020
If anyone’s hoarding PPE, it’s the federal government.
“Is it going out the back door? And I’ve reported it to the city and let the city take a look at it. But when you go [from] 10,000 masks to 300,000 masks… There’s something going on.”
Earlier that month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo described anecdotal cases of mask theft in local hospitals, but he was describing thieves trying to stockpile, not large-scale crime orchestrated by hospital workers themselves.
Cuomo explained that demand was high because hospitals were “preparing for the apex,” and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy tweeted, “Of all the rotten, despicable things Donald Trump has done since taking office, blaming health care workers for the lack of masks is like top 3.”
Let’s bear in mind that hospital supply would be a lesser issue if the government had coordinated PPE provision, rather than forcing states to bid against each other “eBay-style” on the open market. Not only is this strategy wildly inefficient, but FEMA has actually outbid states multiple times, leaving them with no way to procure supplies.
Adding fuel to the fire, FEMA and the Trump administration have been accused of illegally seizing PPE from private distributors and either allocating them as they see fit, or adding them to the national stockpile. One medical distributor, who sold supplies to nursing homes and hospitals, called FEMA “rat bastards” and “a bully at the lunch room” after 500,000 of his N95 respirators were confiscated. He was making miniscule profits and was never compensated.
Someone’s at fault here, Trump, and it isn’t our health workers.
Claim #6: Coronavirus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology when an intern got infected and passed it to her boyfriend, who spread it to the infamous wet market.
When: April 16, 20, (etc.), 2020
At a daily press briefing, Fox News correspondent John Roberts addressed Trump, asking:
“Multiple sources are telling Fox News today that…because of lax safety protocols, an intern was infected, who later infected her boyfriend and then went to the wet market in Wuhan where it began to spread. Does that correspond with what you have heard from officials?”
The President’s view of the falsified conspiracy theory? “Well I don’t wanna say that, John, but I will tell you that more and more we’re hearing the story and we’ll see.” A few days later, he said, “A lot of people are looking at it—it seems to make sense.”
To be clear, Trump acknowledging these theories at all is a risky move. You can’t just accuse countries of what are essentially international crimes against humanity, even under the guise that they were “a mistake” and due to “incompetence.”
But again, let’s lay out the facts— both sides make pretty interesting arguments.
For believers in the lab-origin theory, the initial claim was that China engineered the virus as a bioweapon to compete with the U.S. After analysis of the virus showed no evidence of lab manipulation, they pivoted—it had accidentally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
To heighten the drama, while the Institute has the highest international level of bioresearch safety (known as BSL-4), these measures aren’t officially enforced, and back in 2018, American science diplomats sent cables to Washington warning that their research on bat coronaviruses was dangerous and risked “a new SARS-like pandemic.”
Paired with China’s lack of transparency on their investigation into the virus, and a general anti-China mentality pushed by Trump and his administration, it’s understandable why so many fearful Americans would cling to the lab-origin theory. But while you can string together this evidence to form an opinion, professionals have repeatedly refuted such claims.
Dr. Anthony Fauci actually chuckled while discussing them, calling it a “circular argument”: “If it isn’t manipulated in the lab and you’re trying to say it escaped from the lab, then how did it get in the lab? It got in the lab because somebody isolated it from the environment.”
So maybe we can trust the experts—I mean, they seem to have a clue.
The President even somewhat acknowledged his lack of omniscience, saying, “I’m not a doctor. But I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what,” while gesturing toward his head. Very nice.
By Simisola Fagbemi
Visual by Alexa Flores