Activist and Researcher Gregg Gonsalves on how to heal America after Trump's COVID disaster

We need real accountability, says Gonsalves — and we need national health care. But true recovery may take decades

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 19, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Coronavirus Graph (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Coronavirus Graph (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Joe Biden has been president for only three months. In that short time his administration has made remarkable strides in the fight against the COVID pandemic and the economic and social devastation it has caused to the United States and the American people. The Trump regime's approach to the pandemic was one of incompetence, negligence, sabotage, lies, conspiracy theories, cruel indifference and outright democide, all filtered through political sadism and authoritarianism. By comparison, the Biden administration has responded to the plague with science, reason, expertise and genuine care and concern for the well-being of the country and its people.

Unfortunately, Biden's leadership does not change the fact that more than 550,000 Americans are now dead from the coronavirus pandemic — and that many or most of those deaths did not need to occur. Even as this season of death begins to wind down — or so we hope — it has revealed the nation's character in ways both spectacular and grotesque.

Americans often overlook or forget that the U.S. is part of a global community. Pandemics do not respect borders in an interconnected global economy and culture. The nativism and racism of Trumpism and his "America First" cadre did little if anything to protect America and the world from the coronavirus plague. Such regressive values and beliefs made the pandemic worse, in fact, by hindering America's willingness to cooperate with its allies and international partners to defeat the disease.

The Republican Party and the contemporary conservative movement frequently claim to be "pro-life." During the pandemic they have once again revealed their true nature as a death cult, where at almost every key moment Trump and other Republican leaders, as well as their followers, made decisions that caused more death, suffering and calamity from the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout across society.

American society is profoundly unequal in terms of race, class and gender. The coronavirus pandemic further revealed and exacerbated these fissures and divides, and has also accelerated the power and growth of the surveillance society and the corporate oligarchy.

Many of the worst traits of American society, including racism, nativism, gun culture, conspiratorial thinking, anti-intellectualism, irrationality, narcissism, hyper-individualism and other anti-social ideas and behaviors have also been made worse by the Age of Trump and the pandemic. These divides have become increasingly political and ideological as Trumpists, Jim Crow Republicans, and other members of the right wing have transformed basic questions of public health and the common good into battlefields for white identity politics and a culture-war struggle between "freedom" and "political correctness."

To be fair, the pandemic has highlighted some of the American people's strengths as well. Despite threats of right-wing terrorist violence, the attempt by Trump and his supporters to nullify the election, and the illness and death from the coronavirus pandemic, many tens of millions of Americans voted to defend America's multiracial democracy in the 2020 election. The risks were especially great for Black and brown people, who — as at many other key points in America's history — organized, voted and stood up against white supremacy at the polls and other areas of public life to save democracy for all people.   

In their self-sacrifice, risk-taking, generosity of spirit, civic responsibility and true patriotism, many Americans expanded their circle of community, friends and family to help others survive the coronavirus pandemic and all the pain and suffering it has caused.

But where do we go from here? To explore that question, I recently spoke with Gregg Gonsalves, a leading expert on public health, social inequality and health outcomes. He is co-director of the Global Health Justice Partnership and assistant professor of epidemiology (specializing in microbial diseases) at the Yale School of Public Health. Gonsalves is also a leading HIV/AIDS activist, having worked for more than 30 years with such organizations as the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, the Treatment Action Group, Gay Men's Health Crisis and the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa.

In this conversation, Gonsalves reflects on the vast harm caused by the pandemic and the Age of Trump, and how it will require a broad approach to healing American society. He explains how full recovery from the coronavirus pandemic will require a national reckoning and steps towards substantive justice that should include a truth and reconciliation committee.

Gonsalves also warns that the coronavirus pandemic has caused intergenerational trauma and pain in terms of health, the economy, social capital and in other ways which will impact the United States and its people for decades to come.

Toward the end of this conversation, Gonsalves shares his hopeful vision of a more progressive American future, in which the Biden administration may be able to sustain the momentum and public support gained from its forceful efforts to defeat the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 550,000 Americans are dead from the coronavirus pandemic, and the real number is likely much higher. It appears that there will be no accountability for this disaster. The whole situation is enraging. How are you handling your emotions? What do we do with our collective anger and pain?

There are several elements at play here. This year, 2021, is quite different from last year. There are vaccines. Trump is no longer president. Last year I was a ball of anger, and rightly so. Every time I would think that I was overreacting to the situation I would realize that perhaps I was not reacting enough — and that the amount of rage the American people were feeling should have been greater. If so, many more lives could have been saved from the pandemic. To be fair, many people did the right thing and stayed at home at various points during the pandemic. It could have been a lot worse. However, we can look around the world and see how many other countries such as New Zealand and Australia did much better in terms of stomping down on the virus and putting systems in place to buffer the pain and suffering caused by the pandemic and efforts to stop it.

In retrospect it was not only Donald Trump, and it was not just Bolsonaro in Brazil. There are many countries that did not do what was best to stop the pandemic. There is so much anger, grief and sadness. The pandemic has caused a cataclysm of enormous proportions. More than half a million people have lost their lives so far to the pandemic here in the United States. What does it mean to go through a generational calamity like that? Few Americans have any experience with such a thing.

What does accountability look like? I believe that there should be a truth and reconciliation commission. There should be public hearings about the decisions made by the Trump regime, about the pandemic and other matters. How do we as a country and society move forward properly if there is no accountability?

We do need accountability. This is beyond putting people in the hot seat and bringing people to justice. If we cannot have an honest and transparent reckoning of what happened last year and what's happening now with the pandemic, then there is no way we will be able to conduct a proper diagnosis which will reveal how to stop another pandemic disaster such as the one we as a society experienced last year.

Yes, we need a truth and reconciliation commission, which is the best way to go about this business so that it does not turn into some sort of witch hunt. The commission needs to be independent. There is a strong pressure to just move on from these events. The pressure is political and personal. People are just tired. People do not want to hear any more about how this all came to be, with Trump and the events last year. But we cannot just sweep it all under the carpet. A truth and reconciliation commission is not intended to drag people out into the public square for a flogging. It is to have an accounting and itemization of all the ways we went wrong, so as to figure out how to keep it from happening again.

If such a commission were ever convened, what are two questions you would contribute?

We need an independent inquiry on the Trump administration's response to COVID-19 because the policies embraced by the former president resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans since the pandemic began. However, it's the manner in which these policies were accomplished, silencing scientists, suppressing the data or manipulating it, spreading misinformation, interfering in the work of agencies, which all needs to be documented in detail. How did it happen? How did our systems of governance and accountability fail so terribly, to allow the entire U.S. government to be put in service of policies that led to so many deaths?

The Trump regime and its allies and enablers were engaged in acts of structural violence against the American people, in terms of the pandemic and other ways. See the abandonment of Puerto Rico after the hurricane and a general disregard for the lives of Americans who did not vote for Trump and the Republicans. But there are many Americans who because of their class background or skin color or other forms of privilege cannot even conceptualize the very idea of structural violence and state-sponsored violence being committed by Trump and his regime against the American people.

It is slightly worse than what you are describing. Of course, for people who have experienced structural violence, whether they are people of color or they are queer and trans people, those who are living with disabilities and other groups, they understand the dynamic.

There are in fact plenty of white people who have experienced structural violence, but they do not acknowledge or conceptualize it in those terms. The art of the con is distraction. In so many ways racism has been used to divert and distract people by focusing their pain on other groups. As Jonathan Metzl explains in his most recent book "Dying of Whiteness", there are plenty of people who are dying of whiteness and they don't even know it.

How will the trauma of the pandemic impact future generations?

There was recent research which shows that for everybody who dies from COVID-19, there are half a dozen or more people who are in that direct network of grief. Take 500,000 or more people here in the U.S. who have died from the pandemic and multiply that out by five, six, seven, eight, nine or more people. These are the people in the direct circle of grief, such as mothers and fathers, sisters, daughters, grandparents, etc. Extend it out another circle to people who were best friends or long-term co-workers, and you have a cascading effect of grief and trauma that is going to impact people for a long time. The pandemic and its effects have ripped apart the social fabric in so many ways. It is going to take a lot to stitch that back together.

America's infrastructure impacts the country's social fabric as well. Contrary to what many Republicans and other members of the white right would like to believe, racism and other forms of social inequality are in fact baked into the infrastructure of the United States. This is shown through disparate health impacts from the pandemic across different groups and communities.

Pete Buttigieg recently discussed how racism is built into American highways. Of course it is. Urban renewal, the American highway system, figures such as Robert Moses and others destroyed communities of color. If you read the interchange between Buttigieg and his critics, and you consider Robert Moses, it's clear that he set up the parkways on Long Island to keep African Americans away from the suburbs and beaches and parks. But more importantly, this root shock of displacement and urban renewal fractures families and communities, and makes them vulnerable to many diseases, both psychological and physical. There are many ways in which social policy presents serious complications for health and well-being.

New research shows that Black children are more likely to lose a parent or other primary caregiver from the pandemic, compared to white children. In terms of stress and trauma how is that going to impact future generations?

We do not need to discuss epigenetics in order to understand how a person's situation at present can have long-lasting effects on one's genes. Children who face trauma pass things down through culture. The opportunities that kids have today are dependent on the wealth of their parents before them, for instance. Inheritances in their many forms are passed along, for good or for bad, across generations. This is the story of intergenerational social mobility and life chances.

What does all the anxiety, distrust and fear around the COVID vaccines reveal about American society?

Last year was epic in terms of the mistrust and misinformation that was spawned across the United States. It does not matter which side of the political aisle one is on, there was this feeling that someone was deceiving and tricking you. It could be Trump or Pelosi, depending on one's political values and beliefs. There was a huge campaign of disinformation from Trump's White House. We saw this with "fake news," for example. And now we're in 2021, and there is skepticism about the vaccines and many people do not know what to believe. These are people who are otherwise sensible in many other aspects of their lives, but are very nervous about what it means to put a vaccine into their bodies, given all the mixed messaging. We need to build a culture of trust. Unfortunately, we have had the opposite of that over the past four years.

During this season of death, I have been thinking a great deal about the landmark docudrama about AIDS and HIV, "And The Band Played On." In the near future, what do you think artists will focus on and reveal about the coronavirus plague?

These cataclysms have a tendency to capture artists' imaginations. The artists are going to start to tell us what they saw. We are going to see a mirror up to ourselves about what this all meant.

What would sewing back together America's social fabric look like, as a practical matter? What would you focus on repairing?

This is a task that will take a generation or more to accomplish. The legacy of white supremacy in the U.S. has a 400-year history, which has had a strong influence on how our health care and social welfare systems have been set up in the 20th and 21st centuries. Writers like Jim Downs, in his "Sick From Freedom: African American Sickness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction," and the New York Times' Jeneen Interlandi in her essay for the 1619 Project, "Why doesn't the United States have universal health care? The answer has everything to do with race," point to the ways in which universalizing care in the U.S. has been impossible because the exclusion of African Americans from these programs has been the not-so-secret motivation of many in power, and that is still true in the U.S. today.

Furthermore, since the 1980s we have been told that the market would provide, and in the words of Ronald Reagan, "the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" That is, the state has no role in our lives, particularly in the realm of care, which is to be purchased or given away by charitable organizations. Democrats like Bill Clinton did us no favors by yoking the Democratic Party to this kind of thinking in his own pledge to end welfare as we know it, with his welfare reform bill that in the long run reduced the incomes of the poor and expanded extreme poverty in the U.S. The U.S. spends more on health care than our peer nations around the world, yet has worse health outcomes. Betsy Bradley at Vassar has suggested that some of this has to do with the weak nature of our social protections in the U.S., in that we cannot address the social determinants of health with a paltry welfare state. Unless we confront this legacy of Reaganism and its Clintonian appeasement, we will never even catch up to our peer nations, because we'll never make the investments necessary to get there.

What would justice look like for the 550,000-plus dead from this disaster? For their families and communities?

This is a critical question. Many are dead because of the policies the Trump administration pursued. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands. What is justice in this context? There is clearly no appetite for holding President Trump accountable. Two attempts at impeachment resulted in acquittal in the Senate, and it's unlikely that he will ever be held accountable for what he did to fuel the fires of the pandemic in the U.S. This is why a truth and reconciliation approach is vital — we need to know what happened in detail, and perhaps the best way to do that is to tell people to come forward to tell us what they did, without fear of retribution. Believe me, I am so angry about what happened over the past year or so. But I am more interested in knowing how it all happened, how it was allowed to happen. I want it to all come out into the open — the lies, the misinformation, the bullying, the corruption and graft — for all to see, to know who didn't simply remain silent but actively assisted in pushing these policies along.

Given the myriad forces at work in this moment, one that feels truly transformative both in terms of possibilities for positive change and also great right-wing backlash and destruction, what do you see as opportunities for transformation in American society?

I came into 2021 with the idea that we were getting a middle-of-the-road, Clintonian Obama restoration. Instead, we have a president in the form of Joe Biden who wanted a $2 trillion COVID relief bill. Now he wants another multi-trillion-dollar bill for infrastructure and other issues. Biden is articulating a progressive vision that was probably last seen with President Johnson. We are witnessing what is potentially a generational shift by the oldest president in American history, where the United States could finally leave the Reagan era behind. But we must be aware of how incredibly powerful the reactionary forces are.

I'm more hopeful than ever over the past few months. I'm ready to fight for this more progressive vision being offered by Biden. We should all be ready to fight for it, because as a society we cannot go back to where we were last year, or anything like it.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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