The Slatest

Trump’s Next Propaganda War: Who Gets Counted in the Coronavirus Death Toll

Trump raises both arms as he speaks at a podium during the daily coronavirus briefing.
By election time, the know-nothing president will need to recast his performance during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as an unqualified success. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

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The fog of pandemic can make time slow down to the point of stillness. Yesterday already feels distant; last week, a lifetime ago. When these normal markers of daily life and understanding are distorted, it can be hard to keep your bearings. The sense of disorientation that we all feel has been exacerbated by the avalanche of misinformation coming from the president of the United States, and it’s not likely to stop. Every time Donald Trump steps to the podium, it’s an assault on the memory. The timeline gets muddled, responsibility less clear. This, of course, is intentional. The coronavirus was once no more than the flu; then it was the invisible scourge, a war that the president sniffed out from the very beginning; now it’s creeping back to flu-like territory again—something that can’t possibly keep us from our highest calling here on earth: to go to work. There was a critical shortage of ventilators, but then there never was. Everything was “perfect” all along. The country was ramping up testing because there weren’t enough tests. Now, every American could always get tested, even though they can’t at the moment. Watching President Donald Trump say the exact opposite thing—and then dress down a reporter for pointing it out—is, on the best of days, exhausting. During a pandemic, it can feel crushing. And that is the point.

But it’s not going to stop. And the outline of the coming, perhaps biggest information battle of all, is starting to emerge: the death toll. There are already wild discrepancies in the number of “confirmed” cases and “confirmed” deaths that likely don’t reflect the actual reach and impact of the virus. This week, in New York alone, thousands of additional deaths were attributed to the virus from people who died at home but never got tested or passed away before receiving their results. People die every day, of course, for a million reasons, but the some 3,000 deaths were on top of those daily averages during normal times, and caused the state’s death toll to spike by more than 50 percent to over 10,000. This is surely not the last instance of a death toll correction upward.

The discrepancies in cases and casualties are even greater when stretched out across borders. Some countries have far more capacity to test and treat victims of the virus—and interest in doing so—while others have sent people home and hoped for the best. Further complicating matters is that how a coronavirus death is defined is also a matter of interpretation. China’s definition of a coronavirus-related death has swung back and forth. In the U.K., only deaths in hospitals of people who have already tested positive for the virus count in the national tally. That excludes a potentially huge segment of the population affected by the virus, not least of all nursing homes, where vulnerable populations have been ravaged elsewhere. In Italy, where the mortality rate is suspected to be far higher than reported, grief has given way to anger. In Spain, who gets counted has already morphed into a divisive political issue.

This fight is coming to the White House. Yesterday during his briefing, Trump already hinted at his displeasure that New York had incorporated the new fatalities into its count. This is the same president who in the very early days of the virus didn’t want to allow a cruise ship (of Americans) to come ashore because it would inflate the number of confirmed cases in the country. Trump likes easy metrics as stand-ins for success: the stock market stand-ins for the economy, approval ratings for governance, and TV ratings for value and importance. Trump will need a similarly digestible number that can fit on a chyron in order to recast his performance during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as an unqualified success. The impact of the virus so far on the American people, their lives, and the American psyche is complex. Trump will be looking for a single number to declare himself a success: the American death toll from the virus. That could, of course, be a fair representation of the government’s work—of all Americans’ work—to combat the virus, but only if it’s counted in good faith. From what we’ve seen from this president, that seems unlikely.

With an election coming in just six months’ time, Trump will need, first, to reopen the economy. To do that, he needs improved numbers to show progress and assuage Americans’ fears. By all accounts, there has been progress due to Americans staying home. But once the economy starts to reopen, Trump’s responsibility for the death toll is more directly linked, which will provide all the incentive he needs to begin to undermine the data on—the reality of—how many Americans have died. So expect Trump to simultaneously pick the recent and terrifying worst-case projections that suggested hundreds of thousands, if not millions of deaths, and do everything he can to keep the official death count down. Keep that number down is the goal—the fewer Americans who die from the coronavirus, the better—but only if it reflects lives saved, not lost loved ones redefined out of the tally. It seems unlikely Trump will care about the distinction. Either way, the toll will be real.

For more on the impact of COVID-19, listen to Thursday’s Political Gabfest.