On Oct. 15, 1982, President Reagan’s press secretary was asked about a newly discovered virus that was in the midst of devastating certain subsections of American society. The room laughed, the questioner persisted, and the official White House response to the disease was “I don’t have it, do you?”
The virus was HIV, and that reaction would set the tone for the federal government’s reaction over the ensuing decade. They ignored the deadly disease as it ravaged communities from coast to coast, because the people who were being killed were people they didn’t care about. Largely gay, often urban and poor, sometimes sex workers—these were not lives the White House felt mattered, or at least not enough to protect.
Fast forward 28 years, and President Trump’s administration has perfected the Reagan model of pandemic response.
At first they ignored the virus, only taking action if it could be done in a jingoistic fashion. They declined to institute a national test and trace program when one could have still saved us. They waved it off, claiming it might disappear on its own or suggesting mass suicide via bleach injection if we were worried about it. Then once they realized it was disproportionately killing Black, Brown, and poor communities, they encouraged states to lift lockdowns—knowing full well this would spread the virus—and steadfastly refused to promote masks that might have helped at least slow the devastation.
And when the deaths skyrocketed again (as every epidemiologist, virologist, and human with an ability to gather news from anywhere besides QAnon fanboards knew they would)? President Trump did Reagan proud, declaring “it is what it is.”
As if having a 9/11’s worth of excess human death every 2.5 days was just a fact of life. One happening outside the realm of administration actions and consequences.
So it’s worth remembering as “decent” Republicans loudly proclaim they want to return to a pre-Trump era of compassionate conservatism, that none of this has ever been terribly compassionate. Not to the most marginalized communities, and not to the groups that were abandoned by their country in the ‘80s and are being abandoned by their government right now.