US President Donald Trump has had a busy month. And we're only six days in.
On Thursday night, Trump apparently tested positive for the virus before news of the positive test swept the planet on Friday. On Saturday, we heard the news that the US President was to be dramatically transported via helicopter to the Walter Reed Medical Centre where he apparently received a bunch of treatment including supplemental oxygen, a strong steroid, an experimental antibody treatment and some antivirals.
Just a few days and a very stupid motorcade later, Trump now reckons he’s beaten the virus; sending the following victory tweet this morning.
Don’t be “afraid” of COVID-19, he reckons. Don’t “let it dominate” your life. So what kind of message is he sending to the 210k people who died from the disease in the US alone, or the one million people who have died from it worldwide? Were they just too afraid of the virus? Did they “let” it dominate them? Had they tried just not dying?
Trump is tapping into a long history of talking about illness through the language of war; as something that can be dominated or beat just through sheer force of character. Maybe the US’ status as the most individualistic country on earth makes it a shoo-in for that kind of narrative, but it seems to extend beyond North American shores. In April 2020, the UK’s foreign secretary Dominic Raab, India’s PM Narendra Modi and many others called the UK’s then-infected PM Boris Johnson “a fighter”. Nevermind the world-class medical team that even Boris admitted had saved his life.
Trump is “battling as tough as only President Trump can,” Erin Perrine, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign reportedly said on Fox News. Even Trump’s official Whitehouse physician, Dr Sean Conley, was careful to praise Trump’s improvement as though he was doing a performance review. “Over the past 24 hours, the President had continued to improve. He’s met or exceeded all standard hospital discharge criteria,” Dr Conley said. Ooh, met or exceeded. There's a man showing that virus who's boss!
As American writer Susan Sontag explained in Illness As Metaphor back in the '70s, the problem with these narratives is that it puts both the responsibility for getting the disease and recovering from it on the patient. This means that patients who get sick from COVID-19, or even die, are positioned as people who "lost" a battle; they didn’t fight hard enough, they didn’t try enough, and they got beat.
Which is obviously bullshit. “Funnily enough,” Deborah Orr writes in The Guardian, “it’s not comforting to be told that you have to go into battle with your disease, like some kind of medieval knight on a romantic quest. Submitting to medical science, in the hope of a cure, is just that – a submission. The idea that illness is a character test, with recovery as a reward for the valiant, is glib to the point of insult”.
We don't know what will happen with President Trump. His weird press conferences are helmed by white-coated doctors who have probably been briefed to make his situation look better than it is, but even they’ve admitted he’s "not out of the woods yet". We don't really know how sick he is, how sick he is at the moment or whether the illness will get worse.
But here's what we do know: his gung-ho show of bravado is unlikely to swing things either way.
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