November 11, 2022 - 5:10pm

On the 16th March 2020, Donald Trump entered the White House’s cramped press room. He stood at the podium and looked out over the assembled journalists who were sitting apart in the room, each divided by a couple of chairs.

“I’m glad to see that you’re practising social distancing, that looks very nice,” the President said. With him on the podium stood Anthony Fauci, Deborah Birx and others who had advised Trump on the measures he was about to announce: “very talented people,” he called them. “We’ve made the decision to further toughen the guidelines and blunt the infection now,” Trump said.

From that moment, the U.S. government recommended school closures. Citizens were also advised to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and to wean themselves off pre-pandemic social habits. The strategy was summarised on a sign positioned behind the President: “15 days to slow the spread”.

We now know that those 15 days turned into months, then well over a year. The fear of reopening society deprived children and young adults of in-person education all around the world, perhaps hitting the U.S. most: at its peak, the closures affected at least 55.1 million students in 124,000 public schools across the country.

We also know that the actions taken by the Trump White House were heavily influenced by the infamous report from Imperial College London.

A month and a half after his press conference, Trump doubled down on his lockdown position. In a tweet on April 30, he wrote: “Sweden is paying heavily for its decision not to lock down… The United States made the correct decision!” 

In Florida, however, Governor Ron DeSantis took a deeper interest in the Swedish policy of keeping schools open and resisting sweeping lockdowns. Later in the summer, he even hosted a three-hour roundtable with two Stanford scientists, Jay Bhattacharya and Michael Levitt, as well as Swedish epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff. According to official transcripts, the word ‘Sweden’ came up 21 times. 

And so Sweden and Florida effectively became control groups in the massive experiment that the world had undertaken. The openness of both raised ire in U.S. and international media. Countless stories were written about the perceived irresponsibility of keeping beaches, sports and schools open.

Trump may have later reversed his positions on the Covid measures he advocated during those months, but the damage had already been done. Fauci had been elevated to near-divine status, the media became obsessed with case counts, and it proved almost impossible to reopen schools.

The race for the Republican nomination increasingly looks like it will be a duel between Trump and DeSantis, and their different positions on Covid lockdowns will likely be scrutinised by Republican primaries voters. As we now know, lockdowns had very little effect on the spread of the virus. Sweden’s excess death numbers during the pandemic were among the lowest in Europe, and lower than 43 U.S. states. 

Instead, the lockdowns created a massive education gap among children, damaged their mental health, and, through resulting stimulus packages, stoked the inflation we’re now living through. It is striking that the two main contenders for their party’s nomination took such different approaches during such a crucial period. It will surely be difficult for Trump to run away from his tainted record.

Johan Anderberg is a journalist and author of The Herd, a bestselling history of the Swedish experience during Covid-19.