I took Dad to the hospital on a Thursday afternoon and he died early on a Friday morning. Full of morphine and out of oxygen, Dad took his last breaths apart from his family, without the solace of my mother’s touch and without the presence of his loving sons and grandchildren. After his death, the pandemic prevented my family from holding a funeral and sharing our grief with other loved ones, friends and our community. Too many Americans know Dad’s COVID-19 story all too well: the families of more than 190,000 people who have died of the disease in the U.S.
Some things, however, Americans did not know about the COVID story until Wednesday. On Wednesday, I learned that my dad died because of President Donald Trump’s silence. And on Wednesday, the world learned of Trump’s inexcusable failure to do his sworn duty to protect the American people.
According to Bob Woodward’s new book “Rage,” Trump knew on Jan. 28 that COVID-19 posed a critical national security risk. On that date, the president received a warning from his National Security Council. And in a recorded phone call with Woodward that took place on Feb. 7, Trump made clear his understanding of the grave health risk associated with the virus. Trump shared his knowledge with Woodward, but said nothing to the American people.
Trump knew. Trump was silent. My dad died because Donald Trump stayed silent.
Dad died on March 27. That put him somewhere around the 1,330th U.S. COVID fatality. At 84 and with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Dad fit the high-risk profile for mortality from this awful disease. Though I cannot be positive, he probably caught the coronavirus due to exposure in the airport in either New York or Madrid on March 14.
Mom and Dad loved to travel together. Dad loved art, architecture, and great food. In the spring of 2019, I told Mom and Dad I received a Fulbright in Spain. They responded immediately with a plan to visit. Mom meticulously planned the trip; Dad prepared to enjoy every minute of his first time to Spain. They bought their plane tickets and made their hotel reservations. This time, they also purchased travel insurance, something they had never done before. They insured their trip because they knew that there were many reasons that they might need to cancel. After all, they both used walkers and Dad took medicine every day to treat his COPD.
When we heard about a new respiratory virus emerging from China, we took notice. Dad’s COPD put him at risk for these kinds of flu-like viruses. As a family, we decided to keep the travel plans in place, knowing we could cancel them at any time without cost. We vigilantly watched the news as we learned of the first U.S. cases in January and first deaths in February.
In February, while working on my Fulbright in Madrid, I carefully watched the progression of the disease in Europe and paid special attention to Spain. My wife planned to accompany my parents, and she and I spoke every day about the possible risk of the trip. My brothers, aunts, and uncle back home became anxious. They urged my parents to reconsider the trip. On March 4, two days before their departure, my brother Dave made one more plea to my dad to cancel. Dad kindly but unhesitatingly responded that he intended to go to Spain.
Ultimately, however, the decision belonged to me. Without the aid of my wife and me, Mom and Dad could not make the trip. They depended on us to get around and relied on my Spanish to make the most of the trip. I obsessively checked the COVID numbers during the days before they arrived. On decision day, March 5, Spain had 259 cases and four dead from the virus. The social scientist in me concluded that, in a country of 47 million, my parent’s trip held acceptable risk. Based on the information available to me by my government and my own research, I greenlighted the trip. My parents and wife arrived in Barcelona on March 6.
The first four days seemed to ratify my decision. On Sunday, Dad visited the Sagrada Familia and declared it the most beautiful example of modern architecture he had ever seen. While in Barcelona, we also visited the Picasso Museum, a joy-filled experience for him. We traveled to Madrid and on Tuesday purchased a three-day pass for the Prado. That afternoon Dad ordered a guided tour of the museum to make sure he saw the greatest hits of the enormous collection.
Dad tasted dozens of tapas and delighted in the open-air dining so iconic of Madrid. By Wednesday, Spain began shutting down. We never used our other day passes to the Prado ― it closed due to the spreading virus. On Saturday, March 14, my wife and parents returned to Barcelona for their flight back to New York’s JFK airport.
My dad wanted to go to Spain. He insisted on it. However, he relied on me to make the final risk assessment. He went on the trip, enjoyed every moment of it, and died as a result of it. Since my father died, the reality that my choice to greenlight the trip led to my dad’s death has haunted me. How could it not?
I made the decision based on the best information available to me at the time. But, Trump had much better information. He knew the virus was deadly and likely to spread rapidly. In his own words to Woodward, he said COVID-19 was much more deadly than the flu. Trump had information from the government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health at his disposal. His own national security team reportedly warned him. And still, Trump was silent.
I am an American and so was my dad. We both held the expectation that our government should provide us with reasonable protection. If our government had told us it was unsafe to travel, we would have listened. I made my decision on the information made available to me, but the president did not provide me or other Americans with the critical information we needed.
One highly respected medical expert, William Haseltine, estimates that Trump’s one-month delay from calling for a nationwide shutdown resulted in 180,000 deaths in the U.S. For me, this is personal. Very simply, had the Trump administration shared the nature of the emergency to us in February, my parents would not have gone to Spain in March.
I have become numb to the lies, malfeasance and incompetence of the Trump administration. Trump’s narcissism, complete lack of empathy and consistently immoral behavior need no more elaboration. However, this failure ― the failure to inform the public ― cost lives. This failure killed my dad.
I long ago abandoned any hope that Trump was fit for the office to which he was elected. He failed and continues to fail to approach the bare minimum of competence we expect from a president. Each time I persuade myself that this president cannot be worse, new information proves me wrong. Seemingly, there is no bottom for this man. And now my dad is gone.
I guess it should not surprise me that Trump wasted a month before focusing on the pandemic. I guess it should not surprise me that Trump did not use his enormous power to mobilize the immense forces at his disposal. I guess it should not surprise me that this incompetent, immoral, egotistical man chose not to provide critical information to the American people when it could have done some good.
Had Trump warned the public about the true dangers of COVID-19, I would have made a different decision and canceled my parent’s trip to Spain. Instead of the Sagrada Familia and the Prado, they would have hunkered down in their one-bedroom apartment on the 16th floor of a 30-story high-rise in Dallas (a building in which there have been only two cases of the disease and zero deaths from it). Mom and Dad would be sitting beside each other drinking coffee and sharing newspapers. They would be reading their books and watching their shows. My dad would be bringing my mom supper on a little tray.
I guess it should not surprise me that Trump’s silence would kill my dad. But it did.
Dr. Hargrove serves as Professor of Organizational Behavior in the John L. Grove College of Business at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. His primary research interests include psychometrics, social sustainability, stress and positive organizational cultures. All of his teaching and consulting focuses on making organizations fair, meaning-filled and healthy workplaces. He believes that the social contract demands that organizations create cultures that treat employees with dignity and provide an environment in which all workers can thrive.