By Gwynne Dyer,
Now is when it gets interesting.
When it was announced last Friday that US President Donald Trump was infected with Covid-19, it was hardly a surprise. His political strategy of playing down Covid-19 required him to be reckless about his own health, and other Republicans were already dropping like flies. Fourteen Republican Senators and Representatives have now tested positive, compared to six Democrats.
Some journalists started speculating right away about what would happen if Trump died from Covid, but that felt premature and kind of ghoulish. The death rate for people in their 70s who are hospitalised with Covid symptoms is 8.5%, but at least wait and see.
Well, he did go to hospital, and he was twice put on oxygen briefly last Friday and Saturday, but that does not mean he’s deathly ill. On the other hand, the fact that they let him go home to the White House on Monday doesn’t mean the doctors are hugely confident either.
Trump would have put immense pressure on the doctors to let him go, since that would let him do some macho posturing about having defeated the virus. They would have shrugged their shoulders and given in, because the realcrisis was not due until later.
And Trump did indeed indulge in some major chest-beating when he got home. “Feeling really good!” he tweeted. “Don’t be afraid of COVID! Don’t let it dominate your life!… I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”
Of course he’s feeling better. He’s on a steroid high, because his doctors have put him on dexamethasone, a steroid medication that is not normally given to patients who are not critical.
The doctors doubtless told Trump that the real make-or-break time with Covid-19 is seven to ten days after symptoms first develop, when some patients suddenly go into a steep decline with severe lung problems. That’s when you get put on the ventilator. But it probably didn’t register.
“Now I’m better, and maybe I’m immune,” he said at the White House. Then he took his mask off on the balcony and, still highly contagious, walked back in among the staff (almost a dozen of whom have already been infected).
If Day 1 for Trump was last Thursday, as his doctors say, then Days 7 to 10 are this Thursday to Sunday. So it’s now reasonable to discuss how those days might define the future of the presidential election, and perhaps of the United States. Tastefully, of course, and with no ghoulishness.
Outcome A: Trump dies. Probability: less than 10% (see above). Consequence: Vice-President Mike Pence takes his place, and loses the election.
Outcome B: Trump gets very ill and is re-hospitalised. He survives, but cannot resume the campaign. Probability: around 10%. Consequence: Joe Biden wins the presidency with a margin big enough that Trump’s people cannot plausibly dispute it.
Outcome C: Trump recovers, and is back out campaigning within a week. Probability: more than 70%. Consequence: he still loses the election, but it’s close enough, and he is fit enough, to lead a campaign from the White House (not necessarily non-violent) to dispute the postal vote.
He is desperate and ruthless, and he comprehensively muddies the waters. Perhaps the United States becomes a banana republic, perhaps not.
And we must recognise the possibility that Outcome C is already inevitable because Trump contracted Covid days earlier, concealed it, and is already safely past Day 10. In which case this entire drama is pantomime.