By Elena Cleaves

President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 experience is one of recklessness, a privilege the rest of us can’t afford. While Trump continued to travel, go mask-free, and hold large events after being diagnosed and later recovering, Americans were forced to attend virtual funerals and quarantine in isolation. Elderly family members in nursing homes and assisted care facilities are facing increased rates of depression and loneliness due to extended isolation, all of which are factors leading to increased risk of suicide. Why do our leaders get to live carelessly while the citizens they’re hired to serve are suffering alone?

The name of the individual interviewed for this article has been changed as he prefers to remain anonymous.

Brian, 43, and a resident of the Kansas City, is especially fed up with the carelessness by leaders as his own family has taken to extremes to protect each other. After a lifetime of consistent weekly visits with his grandmother, a bond now resembling that of a mother and son, the decision to put her in a nursing home at the beginning of the year was difficult. Continuing Sunday visits eased the transition, but when nursing homes locked down in March and stopped accepting visitors, he understood and did his best to navigate. As we enter November with no end in sight, though, he and his grandmother are losing their patience.

On the Inside Looking Out

Quarantine inside a nursing home is different than the bread-baking, Netflix-binging frenzy millennials experienced over the initial stir-crazy months. Folks in nursing homes are prevented from participating in social activities, including evening meals in common areas, and have mostly been contained to their bedrooms alone with little to do to keep themselves entertained.

While Brian and his grandmother understood the necessity for the precautions at the beginning, relying solely on Zoom and phone calls for connecting with elderly family is just unrealistic. Between her age, mental health status, and the overwhelming frustration and desire to connect, attempting to talk through a screen – and even through windows of the nursing home at times– are simply not enough. Nearly a month ago she had finally had enough and the family decided to take her out to visit for a few days. Of course, this required tests for everyone before and after the visit, masks and distancing precautions during, and a mandatory two-week quarantine to her bedroom when she returned to the home. While visits may be a temporary improvement, they aren’t a sustainable solution as his grandmother continues to beg, “When is this going to be over?”

A COVID-19 Funeral

Perhaps most heartbreaking is how the family was forced to deal with the death of Brian’s father. Due to the visiting restrictions in nursing homes at the time of his death, Brian’s family decided not to pass along news to his grandmother that her son had passed, as they didn’t want her to hear the news alone and from a staff member. Event restrictions also delayed the funeral – siblings and spouses alone exceeded the 10-attendee capacity limit. The family waited to hold the funeral until restrictions had eased and they were able to hold 50 people, though choosing which people to include or exclude from a funeral still proved an impossible task. Ultimately the service, held in June, was not what the family had hoped for with everyone in masks, afraid to be near each other, coming and going quickly. “It wasn’t the celebration we wanted for him.”

The family finally told Brian’s grandmother during a visit a few weeks ago, an experience he recalls as “absolutely devastating.” A woman who spent the last nearly 40 years visiting with family weekly has now not only been isolated several months at a time, but has lost her son, and not even known until months later. Meanwhile, politicians overseeing both our state and our country are downplaying the virus, ignoring the very precautions they urge us to take. American families are delaying funerals while American politicians are causing them.

“The people in power don’t care about the people who put them there.”

President Trump failed to gain control over the pandemic and has instead downplayed the virus, despite having knowledge of COVID-19’s severity in March. He has blasted fake and harmful treatments that have resulted in death complications, he has denied accountability with scapegoating and racism, and he has stood by while more than 225,000 have died. While people face COVID-19-related health complications and loss of insurance due to job or income loss amid business closures, they also face Trump’s determined threats to repeal the Affordable Care Act, stripping millions of access to health care.

As Trump contracted COVID-19 and outbreaks ravaged the White House, Americans thought we might finally see a day of reckoning. Instead, Trump received high quality and rigorous treatment and ultimately mocked the lives lost to the virus as he recovered, urging Americans not to be dominated by the virus. Of course that’s easy to say when he only paid $750 in taxes yet received constant urgent care, testing, and experimental cures inaccessible to the general public.

Even in our own state, leadership has proven to put personal gain over peoples’ lives. Governor Mike Parson contracted COVID-19 in September and has attended multiple events since, including a visit to a local restaurant this week, without a mask or social distancing. “It’s like the people in power get to do whatever they want,” Brian says, frustrated. “Nothing has changed for them.”

The people who employ elected government officials, the people who pay their salaries, the people who put them in those offices – they are the ones who have to follow the rules and make sacrifices. The COVID-19 pandemic this year has lifted the veil of Obama-era hope to confirm our deepest fear. As Brian warns, “The people in power don’t care about who put them there. Right, left, middle. At the end of the day, they only care about the optics of things; they don’t care about us, they care about their parties, their agendas. I don’t trust the system anymore. Who’s going to listen to the will of the people?”

Carelessness is a Privilege

Politicians like Trump and Parson can afford to be reckless with COVID-19 and continue about their normal lives unaffected because they’ve proven to themselves and everyone else that if they do catch it, they have the money, power, and access to treat it. They have rendered themselves untouchable, above the grasp of a virus ravaging racial minorities and low income and homeless communities. We have somehow been left to fend for ourselves, individuals forced to fight back despite having elected leaders for the exact purpose of providing relief. Yet rather than agree on a relief plan to provide financial, housing, and health care aid to its people during a crisis, the government instead prioritized rushing the confirmation of a Supreme Court judge likely to help overturn several controversial cases, including repealing the ACA.

As long as leaders act in their own selfish interests and peddle misinformation about COVID-19 based on their privileged experiences, the pandemic will continue. “Fake news” and constant scapegoating of media has ruined the trust of Americans and led those supporting Trump to value his word over all others’. Americans need leadership that follows science and evidence, not a political agenda, to get a handle on the spread of the virus and establish a relief plan, or lives will continue to be unnecessarily lost.