Roar writer Hanna Pham on her return to the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic and the false sense of security conveyed by President Donald Trump.
On March 14, 2020, President Trump launched an uncoordinated response to COVID-19 by instating a European travel ban, meaning that non-Americans from Europe would not be allowed to enter the United States. As the reality of the coronavirus started to set in, I felt the need to return home, as classes began moving online and cases in the UK rose.
Correspondingly a slew of measures were enacted in the United States: a national emergency was declared, states began issuing lockdown orders, and social distancing guidelines were released. With the seriousness of the pandemic setting in for both the federal government and the American public, I expected to arrive in the United States to a near-empty airport and strict regulations to curb the spread of the disease. Despite overwhelming denial of the severity of the coronavirus in January and February, Trump assured everyone that a “perfectly coordinated” response to the COVID-19 pandemic was afoot.
But as I arrived at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, my temperature was not taken, masks were not given out to curb infection, and there were no markings on the ground to ensure social distancing. To my chagrin, it was as if I was travelling with no global pandemic on the rise. Travelers from abroad were packed together in mobile lounges just be transported to immigration and a mandatory coronavirus “screening”.
In South Korea, screening meant a two-week quarantine with regular testing, food, and lodgings provided by the government. Screening in the United States meant filling out a paper form indicating you had not travelled to Iran or China in the past two weeks before being handed a pamphlet listing the symptoms of the coronavirus and a half-assed suggestion to self-isolate for two weeks.
So, I did just that. I self-isolated in my room, away from my family for two weeks. As it turned out, one of my friends had tested positive for the coronavirus, so the isolation was not done in futility. But as an American who had arrived home from an emerging hotspot and who had confirmed interaction with an infectious person, it seemed like common sense that I should get tested. My mother and I relentlessly called every possible location where I could get tested. Each place called us back with differing rejections. Tests were only available for healthcare workers and the elderly; You had to be sick enough to be admitted into the hospital to get a test; A doctor’s note was needed proving the severity of your illness. However, each reason came under the same umbrella problem—there simply were not enough tests.
President Donald Trump’s insistence that “Anybody that wants a test can get a test,” in mid-March was, like all of his administration’s claims in combatting the coronavirus, a lie. As celebrities seemed to have ample access to tests and the Trump administration were getting tested every day, the average American was left with an unfounded promise of a test and a loosely regulated stay-at-home order.
A month after my two weeks in self-isolation came the arrival of an antibody test, designed to tell whether or not a patient had been previously exposed to the coronavirus. At first it seemed a promising tool to allow those who had recovered to return to work or inform others that they were at risk. Yet, just like the diagnostic test, the antibody test came with a slew of problems. Not only was there an initial lack of tests, but their accuracy was questionable—the best versions had 90% accuracy in detecting coronavirus antibodies. But like many others, it was my only option in finding out if I had been an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. The news that I tested negative for a previous infection did not come with a sense of relief.
Regardless of the outcome of my test, it should not have taken two months at the height of a pandemic to get a test that was likely inaccurate. But when analyzing the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus, my experience falls in line with their objectives — to give the American people a false sense of hope regarding the availability of diagnostic testing, a shaky reassurance of safety from antibody testing, and most importantly, the illusion that the Trump administration has control of the pandemic.