Argument

Trump Should Self-Quarantine Like Trudeau

Both leaders have been exposed to the coronavirus. But only one is doing the responsible thing.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands before a dinner with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands before a dinner with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on March 7. Alex Brandon/AP

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in self-isolation after his wife came down with flu-like symptoms. Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias is doing the same after his wife, Minister of Equality Irene Montero, tested positive for COVID-19. Nadine Dorries, the United Kingdom’s health minister, tested positive herself and is under self-quarantine at home.

There’s one notable exception to this trend: U.S. President Donald Trump, who downplayed the new coronavirus pandemic for weeks before giving a jumbled address to the nation Wednesday night. Trump has announced no plans to self-isolate, despite having had direct contact with people known to have the coronavirus.

It’s not surprising that politicians seem particularly vulnerable to infection through social contact, given their constant routine of meet-and-greet. The coronavirus has already swept through Iran’s parliament and top leaders. But Trudeau is arguably the highest-profile Western politician to go into isolation since the pandemic began. The decision was made after his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, returned from a speaking engagement in the U.K. and began experiencing mild flu-like symptoms.

“She immediately sought medical advice, and is being tested for the COVID-19 virus,” reads a statement from the prime minister’s office. “She is self-isolating at home awaiting test results, and her symptoms have since subsided.”

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Trudeau followed suit quickly thereafter, canceling a planned meeting with provincial premiers.

“The Prime Minister will spend the day in briefings, phone calls, and virtual meetings from home, including speaking with other world leaders and joining the special COVID-19 cabinet committee discussion,” the statement continues.

It’s a stark contrast with Trump, who has consistently tried to assuage concerns over the pandemic, even as he has implemented drastic flight bans to try to stem the flow of the virus into the United States.

Even though he has postponed future campaign rallies, the president met with Irish leader Leo Varadkar on Thursday. “Stay away from people, wash your hands, and do all of the things we’re supposed to do anyway, it will go very quickly,” Trump promised.

Trump’s approach mirrors that of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who said during a press conference in Florida on Tuesday that the coronavirus “is not all the mainstream media makes it out to be.”

It’s awkward, then, that a top Bolsonaro aide tested positive for the coronavirus. Reports flew around in the Brazillian media Thursday afternoon, suggesting that Bolsonaro tested positive for the virus. His son appeared to contradict those reports, tweeting that “Bolsonaro has been tested for coronavirus and we are waiting for the results. However, he is not exhibiting any symptoms of the disease.”

Photos show the aide, a press secretary, dining with Trump and Bolsonaro at the U.S. president’s Mar-a-Lago resort. One photo shows the now-ill aide, sporting a “Make Brazil Great Again” hat, posing next to Trump.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, the president’s point man on the pandemic, recommended Americans avoid close contact with each other—particularly, to stop shaking hands.

And yet, Pence flouted his own advice. “In our line of work, you shake hands when someone wants to shake your hand. And I expect the president will continue to do that,” he said from the White House on Tuesday.

Trump changed his tune Thursday when meeting the Irish prime minister, telling pool reporters: “We didn’t shake hands today.”

While having ministers and world leaders self-isolate may seem drastic, it may also be the most prudent course of action. Sporting events have been called off, offices have instituted work-from-home orders, and travelers have been recommended to self-quarantine after returning from coronavirus hotspots. Complicating matters is how closely this novel coronavirus mirrors the common cold, which is also prevalent this time of year.

Canada, in particular, has been aggressive on testing and surveilling the spread of the virus, testing more than 6,000 patients already. According to various health authorities, there have been some 120 coronavirus cases in the country—the vast majority, however, contracted the virus abroad before returning to Canada.

Even though Canada has relatively few cases, and even few cases of community transmission—a telltale sign that the virus has not been adequately contained—self-isolation is becoming increasingly common.

Provincial and federal ministers are working from home after attending a mining conference where one attendee later tested positive for the coronavirus. (Trudeau was present as well.) Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the center-left New Democratic Party, is also in self-isolation. The federal government also extended federal sick leave benefits for those will need to work from home. Quebec has even asked all travelers returning from abroad to self-quarantine.

The conversation now turns to just how much politicians ought to do to limit their exposure to the public, and each other. Spain’s lower house has cancelled meetings for the next week after a number of lawmakers also contracted the virus.

The far-right Spanish lawmaker Javier Ortega Smith apologized after holding a thousands-strong rally, where he hugged and kissed his supporters. He tested positive for the coronavirus two days later.

“I said two weeks ago we should have closed parliament to visitors,” Andrew Bridgen, a U.K. member of Parliament, told the Guardian. Bridgen is also in self-isolation with cold symptoms after coming into contact with Dorries, the health minister. “Parliament is like an airport—we have got people coming in from all over the world,” he said.

There are already calls to end U.S. political campaigning—while still holding the elections. Both Democratic Party presidential primary front-runners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have canceled their planned rallies for the foreseeable future.

Self-isolation and quarantine are the most reliable means to prevent widespread community transmission of viruses like COVID-19. Nowhere is that truer than in the halls of power, where world leaders are often glad-handing with supporters, aides, and other politicians. Trump is both incredibly susceptible to contracting the virus and very well-placed to spread it—his germophobic tendencies might help lessen that risk, but they won’t eliminate it.

Trudeau, Iglesias, and Dorries are, given their ages, at relatively low risk for serious complications due to the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says those over 60 years of age are more at risk, while those over 80 are particularly vulnerable. Trump, at 73, can’t take the chance. Maybe it’s time he locked himself away.

Justin Ling is a journalist based in Toronto.

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