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US vote: How the virus upturned the campaign

AFP/Washington
Filed on November 1, 2020
This combination of pictures shows Joe Biden and Donald Trump during competing campaign events. AFP

Some of the moments when the pandemic upended the contest, including Trump’s hospitalisation and how the party conventions became virtual events.

Covid-19 has not only wreaked havoc on the US presidential election schedule — it has dominated the campaign.

AFP looks back at some of the moments when the pandemic upended the contest, including Donald Trump’s hospitalisation and how the party conventions became virtual events.

The pandemic robs Democratic candidate Joe Biden of one of his key attributes: a personal connection with voters.

For two months he confines himself at home, in his basement in Delaware.

His Republican opponent and incumbent Donald Trump derides him as “Sleepy Joe” and his campaign accuses Biden of “hiding” in his basement.

But Biden stresses he is taking the kinds of precautions necessary, and his approach later proves to be a stark contrast with Trump’s — who will be harshly criticised for his downplaying of the illness.

Looking to revive his campaign, Trump holds a large rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20. It is the first indoor political rally since the start of the pandemic and is widely criticised.

The discovery of six positive cases in the organising team on the morning of the rally does not deter the plan to hold it.

Participants have their temperatures checked and masks are distributed, but the majority of those attending the rally do so with their faces uncovered.

Weeks after the rally, cases jump in Tulsa and local health officials say it is “more than likely” that major events are a contributing factor.

On August 20, the Democratic convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is cut down to a two-hour event involving Zoom, video clips and pre-recorded messages followed by silence, when usually there would be cheers and applause from thousands of participants.

On August 25, keen to upstage his opponent, Trump appears in person to inaugurate the Republican convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

But after long resisting any change to conventions as big festive occasions, Trump finally accepts a broadly virtual format, with the exception of his appearance on the opening day.

On September 22, the US marks a grim milestone: topping 200,000 virus deaths.

“Due to Donald Trump’s lies and incompetence in the past six months, (we) have seen one of the gravest losses of American life in history,” charges Biden.

Trump insists the US is already “rounding the corner” — while betting on the swift approval of a vaccine.

Then, on October 1, a bombshell just one month before the vote: Trump announces he has tested positive for the virus.

The candidate who until then had toured the country and met thousands of supporters, often without facemasks, is hospitalised and his campaign grinds to a halt.

Trying to turn the president’s hospitalisation to his advantage, the Trump team claims it gives the Republican candidate first-hand experience of the virus, something Biden does not have.

In the nine days Trump receives treatment in hospital, Biden is the sole candidate and has the stage to himself and visits some battleground states.

First Lady Melania Trump and the couple’s son Barron also are infected, while Biden running mate Kamala Harris briefly puts her campaign on hold when a staffer tests positive.

On October 10, Trump declares himself immune from Covid-19 despite a lack of scientific clarity on the issue.

Eventually, a long list of people connected to the White House contract the virus, from White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany to former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Marc Short, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff.

After Trump’s illness, a second debate between the two candidates scheduled for October 15 is canceled when the president refuses to participate in a virtual format.

The third and final scheduled debate goes ahead as planned on October 22.

With the pandemic hitting a US economy that until then had been flourishing, Trump is robbed of his key campaign issue.

The country in nine months has gone from full employment to a jobless rate of 7.9 percent in September, having peaked at 14.7 percent in April.

Amid pre-election posturing, Congress reaches an impasse over a fourth virus relief package designed to help millions of Americans.

Just five days before the election, figures show an annual growth rate of 33.1 percent in the third quarter, but the jaw-dropping statistic reflects the economy’s rebound from such a low base and economists warn underlying factors do not bode well.





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