Just one year ago, I was sending videos of my then-seven-month-old daughter, Lua, to my mom in Texas. My daughter, husband and I were making the best of our extra time together in our one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. Lua was just starting to eat solid foods and she’d kick her legs up and down in excitement every time the spoon filled with pureed prunes approached her mouth. My mom would be filled with such joy every time she received a clip of her only grandchild — the grandchild she wasn’t sure she’d ever have.
In a CNN documentary that aired on Sunday night, Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force under Donald Trump, said the former President’s response to the virus caused hundreds of thousands to die. “There were about 100,000 deaths that came from that original surge,” she said. “All of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially,” she added, referring to almost 450,000 deaths.
My mom was 64 years young and had dreams of retiring at 65 so she could travel and spend more time with her family. She had been a respiratory therapist for nearly 30 years and her joints and muscles were in constant pain after being on her feet so much. Her job and financial needs limited her ability to take time off. So, I liked the idea of retirement for my mom, and I liked the idea of her spending more time with my daughter.
In June 2020, my mom told my cousin about a confrontation she had with a woman who was visiting a patient my mom was caring for. When asked to put on a mask, the woman said, “If my president doesn’t wear a mask, why should I?” I believe that encounters like this — and the complicit actions of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and then-President Trump — played a role in Covid-19 spreading throughout my mother’s hospital department soon after that. My mom died of the virus a few weeks later on July 4th.
In the middle of a Covid-19 surge, my husband, daughter and I drove 2,000 miles from New York to Brownsville, Texas, to attend my mom’s memorial and burial. I wrote about that experience in a CNN op-ed last year.
What I didn’t write about was how, at the same time as I was grieving my mother’s loss, some members of my family were accusing me of insulting the administration, politicians and so-called experts by speaking out about their mishandling of the pandemic. Another close family member of mine, who showed up to my mom’s funeral with Covid-19 and who was also a Covid-denier, told others that my mom didn’t die of Covid-19 but, rather, from the bacteria she inhaled while wearing a mask all day.
With every new Covid-19 revelation, I think about that time and everything I lost as a result of the government’s inaction and active denial of the devastation Covid-19 was causing. It played in my mind when it was revealed that Trump, as evident in his taped conversation with Bob Woodward, knew in early February that the virus was far more deadly than a severe flu, and that it was airborne and transmissible through community spread. He also knew we didn’t have the stockpiles of personal protective equipment big enough to protect the public, let alone health care workers like my mom who was reusing her surgical masks for weeks on end. Instead of using the powers of his office to improve the situation, he chose to lie to the public, downplay the threat and ignore the warnings of the scientific community again and again.
Birx may feel anguish for not speaking out earlier but the reality is, she knew all of this, too. She was, in essence, a Trump enabler. Despite knowing about his malicious incompetence that was killing hundreds and thousands of Americans, the doctor talked to the press daily, lied by omission, and stood by while Covid-deniers in the White House derailed the response. Birx helped facilitate the Trump administration’s campaign of disinformation by, at one point, granting him undeserving praise, going so far as to tout his comprehension of scientific literature.
While her honesty provides clarity, it doesn’t offer solace for those who lost loved ones during the past year. These preventable Covid-19 deaths happened on her watch. She was the White House pandemic coordinator. This was her job. She should be held responsible for not stepping up and doing the right thing while in power.
Birx’s comments come across as an attempt to gain forgiveness for her silence and position herself as the victim. It seems she’s trying to resuscitate her reputation by noting the lessons we learned from this monumental failure in government. But more than 550,000 Americans are dead and many more will die. There will never be justice for those who have died because of the decisions Trump has made and she let him make without publicly protesting. Her silence was inexcusable and learning how to do things better next time doesn’t bring my mom back.
We are more than a year into this nightmare and people are still questioning science and public health guidance. People are still dying. Americans have been pushed into direct conflict, sometimes physical fights breaking out between those believing in science and facts versus those who thought their First Amendment rights were being taken away when asked to wear a mask and socially distance.
The lesson I learned is that Trump and his enablers are failed leaders whose behavior caused millions of people to die and suffer needlessly and that they should be held responsible.
I have no doubt that my mom, Isabelle Hilton Papadimitriou (“Obie”), and countless others would be alive today had then-President Trump and his administration put the interests of the American public ahead of his focus on reopening the economy so that he could strengthen his reelection bid. Birx confirmed in stark and no uncertain terms what was already the worst kept secret in Washington: The administration’s pandemic response was riddled with dysfunction.
On April 1, my mom would have been celebrating her 65th birthday. This is the year my mom would have been looking forward to retirement. This is the year her dreams of spending more time with her family would have come true. Instead, we’ll bake her favorite chocolate cake for an empty seat at the table and imagine her big, beautiful smile when we sing “Happy Birthday” to our forever hero.
When the history of the American pandemic is written, my daughter will ask how things got so bad. I will tell her that it was an age of failed leadership, a collapse of moral courage by those who should have spoken out, a distrust of science, and a time when people stopped caring for each other. I will make sure she knows that her grandmother, “Abuelita Obie,” deserved so much better and she should still be alive today.