Pondering the disconnect between coronavirus death toll, election results

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St.  Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. Contact him at [email protected].


Death’s a funny thing. It can focus your mind, but it also can set your head spinning. It can even do both at the same time, as did to me over the weekend.

After several days of following the grim and grimmer news about our surging coronavirus pandemic, I started wondering about the significance — or insignificance — of birthdays in such a time. Mine comes up next month.

My brain then did a quick calculation I had not requested. It told me that I will turn the same age that my dad, Joseph, was when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the incurable progressive deterioration of the nervous system generally known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s  disease. He died five years later.

Whether pondering a global health emergency or a profound, personal loss, it’s been a big year for death. Worldwide, as of this past Monday, 54.6 million of us puny humans have been invaded by the microscopic SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and the COVID-19 illness it causes. About 1.3 million of us have died from it. On Friday the 13th, the world added more than 651,000 new cases.

In the United States, about 11 million of our fellow Americans have been struck by the coronavirus since last spring, the most recent million of them added during last week alone. The numbers of new cases are rising in 48 states, including Missouri and Illinois. COVID-19 has killed more than 246,000 Americans over the past 8½ months.

In our metropolitan region, about 41,000 people in St. Louis County, to take one example, have come down with COVID-19 to date, and almost a thousand of them have died.

So here’s one of the many things I don’t get:

Each COVID casualty connects with family members and lovers and good friends and neighbors and co-workers and people they don’t even know but whom they encounter and interact with on visits to grocery stores and coffee shops and workout centers and hardware stores and curbside-pickup restaurants and gardening and hobby supply shops and heaven knows where else.

That means the death of just one person actually can send ripples of grief, anger, fear, confusion, concern and helplessness through tens and even dozens of other people touched by the loss of that one person in large and small ways.

So at some point, don’t the vibrations from these concentric circles of loss for these thousands of people percolate up from our hearts and cross into the political realm, especially in a presidential election year?

And doesn’t the righteous sorrow of the grieving at some point cut through the mudslide of lies and distortions that spews nonstop from the mouth of President Donald Trump — more than 22,000 documented examples so far since taking office? 

And doesn’t that, in turn, expose his flagrant neglect of duty, his evasion of responsibility, his pathological fear of public failure and his cruel indifference to Americans dying or getting terribly sick and suffering long-term disabilities —  in attempts to avoid damage to his already tissue-thin pretense of strength and leadership?

So if this is the case, how is it that with all of the death ravaging our world, country and communities, and people trying their best to honor the dead with humanity and decency, Trump still managed to attract the votes of 73.1 million Americans in losing his presidency to President-elect Joe Biden’s 78.7 million votes?

Post-election reporting and analysis of county-level results in the United States by a team of journalists at BuzzFeed News looked into this and found no real evidence that voters who had supported Trump in 2016 were moved to vote against him in this election because of his dangerous mishandling of the pandemic and the continuing misery that has caused hundreds of thousands of Americans and their families. 

“If anything,” the report says, “Trump did better in counties where more people have died of COVID-19.”

In a provocative and persuasive piece for The Atlantic, staff writer James Hamblin argued that Trump repeated lies over and over in his public statements and social media posts to convince his 2016 supporters that only he was telling the truth. Hamblin, a medical doctor who also lectures at the Yale School of Public Health, summed up the strategy this way: 

“Trump’s primary approach to the pandemic has been to tell people what they would like to be true. … ‘Everything will go back to normal; everyone will have amazing treatments; there will be a vaccine very soon; the disease isn’t that serious, anyway.’ Like any competent quack, Trump focuses on a winning vibe, not a factual case.” 

Hamblin was not using “quack” in the strictly medical sense. The word’s original meaning, he said, was akin to “fraud,” which seems remarkably apropos. 

“The narratives and tactics Trump used to persuade people to trust him as a sole beacon of truth – amid a sea of corrupt, lying scientists and doctors – draw on those of cult leaders, self-proclaimed healers and wellness charlatans as much as those of authoritarian demagogues. They have proved effective over centuries,” Hamblin wrote.

And when it comes to quacks, charlatans and demagogues, it is never a good idea to underestimate Trump’s skills or his capacity to apply them when he perceives a potential personal/financial benefit.

My dad didn’t live long enough to see Trump as president, but I think Joe Mink would have had no tolerance for Trump’s dishonesty and bullying; his racial, ethnic and religious prejudices; his mockery of people with disabilities; his disrespect for Gold Star parents whose children died while serving in the U.S. military; and his demeaning of women, strong women, especially.

Joe Mink was smart, funny, loving, supportive, wise, generous and sensitive to the feelings of others. He lived his life and founded and operated his own wholesale business on principles grounded in honesty, fairness and truth. Watching and listening to him, talking with him and sometimes working with him, I saw the plain proof of his belief that cheating your customers, suppliers, employees and even competitors is not required for success. It is, rather, a recipe for failure in business and failure as a human being.

Joe would have immediately seen through Trump the phony, and he would not have been amused or impressed. He would have been intrigued, though, by James Hamblin’s essay in The Atlantic about Trump the quack.

Our outgoing president, on the other hand, might have benefited from knowing my dad.

Everyone else did.