Trump refuses to debate: The COVID-19 misinformation campaign continues

In a country where so many have been forced to adapt to a newly virtual world, the President of the United States refuses to do so. While people across America have shifted their lives online, President Trump said a virtual presidential debate would be “a waste of time.”

The Commission on Presidential Debates made the right decision by changing the second debate to a virtual format. Holding the debate in person would cause unnecessary health risks for all those involved, especially after Trump, the person one would think is the most protected from contracting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the entire country, contracted the virus. The virus spread rapidly to the people around him, including his family, government staff, campaign staff and others. Hosting an in-person debate less than two weeks after Trump tested positive would have been wholly irresponsible.

Trump’s refusal to participate in a virtual debate is yet another attempt to minimize the severity of the pandemic. He said at the beginning of the year that the COVID-19 virus is no worse than the flu, promising it would miraculously disappear. Time and time again, the President disputed the findings of experts, shamed people for wearing masks and violated the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines on national television, politicizing basic safety measures like social distancing that never should have caused concern. Trump himself said in an interview with Bob Woodward that he always wanted to downplay the virus, and his own battle with coronavirus has not stopped him from doing so. 

In refusing to debate former Vice-President Joe Biden virtually, Trump is again sending the message that we are wrong if we are concerned about COVID-19. In any other situation, no rational person would suggest that two elderly men should meet indoors, with several other people around, when one of them was just hospitalized with the coronavirus weeks earlier. After months of being told by medical professionals, including those within the Trump administration, that those who tested positive for COVID-19 should quarantine themselves for at least two weeks after their diagnosis, hosting the debate in person would have sent a message to the nation that the pandemic is not something to be worried about. That is precisely the dangerous message the President is trying to send, and his refusal to debate that night made that clear.

We saw that the candidates ultimately had competing town halls, airing simultaneously on two different networks. The content of the town halls was similar to that of events held this year by the two campaigns. What sets these events apart was NBC’s decision to allow Trump primetime coverage, despite his refusal to debate Biden. In hosting an in-person event with President Trump on the same night the debate would have taken place, NBC further legitimized the President’s misleading claims about the pandemic. As one of the most well-known news organizations in the country, NBC furthered the President’s COVID-19 misinformation campaign with their decision.

With more than 200,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, we should not be politicizing the response to this tragedy. President Trump’s decision to do so is unconscionable, and until it stops, we can only expect this crisis to continue.