John Oliver returned to Last Week Tonight on Sunday with a searing roast of Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis, which has forced most late-night hosts to work from home. “We’re no different,” said Oliver before a white background, “as my home is – and this is true – a blank white void full of sad facts.”
Oliver has now opined three times on coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, most recently two weeks ago. Much has changed even since then, and not for the better. The US now has more confirmed cases than any other country, and Trump “has only recently seemed to realize the gravity of the situation”, said Oliver. “As recently as a month ago, he was saying we have it ‘very much under control’, adding, ‘Stock market starting to look very good to me!’ before abruptly shifting gears to claim that he felt it was a pandemic long before it was called one and then, just last week, making this grand declaration: ‘I’m a wartime president. This is a different kind of war.’
“Yeah, I guess it is different – it’s like World War II, only the enemy is invisible,” Oliver said. “Or like the Vietnam war, only this time, Trump is actually taking part.”
And yet, America’s “wartime president” maintained until late Sunday night that the country would reopen in time for Easter, which Oliver called “objectively way too soon” and “irresponsible”, since “we wasted so much time that we could’ve spent preparing, the virus is now widespread. And thanks to how we have massively botched the rollout of testing for the virus, we still don’t know exactly how bad things are. So strict social distancing measures are our best shot at slowing this outbreak.”
Oliver also rebutted arguments made by several conservative pundits and politicians last week, including Texas’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick; the Fox News anchor Brit Hume; and the radio personality Glenn Beck, that seniors should sacrifice themselves for the economy. “I’m in no way minimizing the economic suffering caused by the shutdown, and we should do everything we can to mitigate it,” said Oliver. “But the idea that people should sacrifice themselves for the economy is absurd.”
To those people, particularly Beck, who viewed senior sacrifice as a noble cause for the good of the economy, Oliver had one message: “You get that the coronavirus is not the Hunger Games, right? You can’t volunteer yourself as tribute. And what you’re doing is actually much darker: you’re actively volunteering others, including people of all ages with health conditions, to die.
“There are – and I cannot believe I have to say this – significant drawbacks to hundreds of thousands of people dying,” Oliver continued, such as the fact that the carnage “also tanks the economy. So relaxing social distancing right now isn’t just trading one bad outcome for another; it’s trading one bad outcome for both bad outcomes. It’s shitting on your cake and choking on it too.”
It’s thus critical that the American people get a “clear, consistent message about the severity of the threat that we’re currently facing”, Oliver argued, yet Trump has made several mistakes: floating the Easter end date, for one, or dismissing calls from New York for more ventilators and pitting states against each other for medical supplies.
“This was always going to be hard,” Oliver said. “But it actually didn’t need to be this hard. And that is why it’s so profoundly disheartening that we’re being led through this crisis by a man who may be less equipped to deal with this historical moment than anybody in recorded history.
“For once, something has come along that is more toxic and more threatening than this president, and somehow, he’s got fucking stage envy,” Oliver raged. “And look, I know this isn’t exactly the first time that I’ve criticized Donald Trump, but I can’t tell you how much I was rooting for him to do this better.”
Oliver concluded with sobering words of uncertainty: “I wish I could honestly say that we’re going to be fine, but I don’t know that. Most of us will. But not all of us. And the number who won’t is very much up in the air right now,” as the virus has exposed “some central vulnerabilities in our medical system, our political system and our national psyche”, he said.
“But, at the same time, this virus has exposed some reserves of real strength in this country” – the heroism, kindness and ingenuity of grocery store workers, deliverers, community members and especially healthcare workers. So we have to help them, Oliver concluded. “The more strictly that we all follow social distancing guidelines to the maximum extent that we can, the easier it will be for our healthcare workers to do their jobs. It is the only way to counteract an appalling federal response that inspires a mixture of anger, bafflement and disgust.”