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Trump's magical thinking won't stop the coronavirus pandemic

In the disaster movie “Airport 1975,” a flight attendant takes over the controls of a Boeing 747 airliner after the pilots are killed when a small plane crashes into their cockpit. A 747 pilot on the ground instructs her by radio how to keep the plane circling. A passenger on the plane hears what happened from another flight attendant. “You mean the stewardess is flying the plane?!” He gulps a glass of whisky.  

That’s how I felt last week listening to President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE, whose background is real estate and not medicine, promoting a malaria drug to end the coronavirus pandemic. He claimed that the drug, called chloroquine phosphate, or chloroquine, “was approved very, very quickly” and “could be a game changer.”

In the middle of a frightening pandemic, Trump may have misled the American people about a cure. Indeed, the FDA promptly pointed out that chloroquine is not approved as a treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and that, before any such approval, clinical trials will first have to demonstrate its safety and effectiveness for that use. Such trials may require a year to 15 months, or even longer, and involve hundreds and even thousands of patients. 

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Trump’s exaggerated claim was actually dangerous. After listening to him, a husband and wife in Arizona who thought they had COVID-19 symptoms ingested a substance similar to chloroquine. The husband died and the wife barely survived. Doctors and health organizations around the world, as though they didn’t have enough on their hands, had to issue warnings not to self-medicate for COVID-19.

At least in “Airport 1975,” the flight attendant carefully followed the instructions of the pilot on the ground. Trump relies on magical thinking instead of the advice of the nation’s leading infectious disease experts.    

How else to explain Trump’s proposal to have businesses across the country “opened up” and the “churches packed” by Easter Sunday, April 12? Easing the preventive lockdowns and other measures, one might think, would only be done after careful assessment of the course of the pandemic, the continuing need for those measures and the risk-reward of scaling them back. Here is the data that Trump relied on: “I just thought it was a beautiful time.”  

Something like this was tried in Philadelphia in the midst of the emerging Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. Philadelphia held a war bond drive attended by 200,000 Philadelphians, who had been re-assured by the city that the illness was confined to military personnel. In the next three weeks, hundreds of thousands became sick and thousands died. Philadelphia’s embalmers were so overwhelmed that the city had to appeal to the federal government to send more. The unburied, rotting corpses caused secondary infections.  

It was reassuring to hear Senator John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Overnight Defense: Pentagon set for tighter virus restrictions as top officials tests positive | Military sees 11th COVID-19 death | House Democrats back Senate language on Confederate base names Trump keeps tight grip on GOP amid divisions MORE (R-S.D.), the second highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, recently emphasize that, on the issue of whether to open up the country by Easter, “I think you have to listen to the medical experts on an issue like this . .  . that’s got to be driven by the data, science, evidence.”  

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Let’s hope that Trump’s recklessness is ultimately stopped by a combination of sensible senators like Thune, take-charge governors such as Larry Hogan (R-M.D.) and Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoMayor of Denver apologizes for holiday travel after advising residents to stay put Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Denver mayor flies to Mississippi for Thanksgiving after advising against travel MORE (D-N.Y.), and the credibility of experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (“you don’t make the timeline, the virus does”).

In case you were wondering what happened in “Airport 1975” (spoiler alert), of course the flight attendant does not land the plane. Instead, a U.S. Air Force helicopter lowers a top pilot (played by Charlton Heston) into the 747’s cockpit, whose windows were shattered in the collision. He takes control and brings the plane down safely.  

This country has some of the best pandemic experts in the world. We should all, including the president, be paying very close attention to them.

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.