“I haven’t touched my face in weeks,” Trump said during a COVID-19 briefing at the White House.
Photos show that’s false. He’s touched his face many times over the last week, including at a meeting with pharmaceutical execs on Monday, where he struck a thoughtful pose for the cameras.
Taken on its own, it’s a harmless falsehood. Who cares if he lied or joked about touching his face?
But Trump is in the middle of the biggest public health crisis of his presidency, and he’s spent much of his time downplaying the threat and over-inflating his own achievements.
Trump has repeatedly tried to paint the coronavirus in classically Trumpian terms, calling it a “hoax” and a plot by the “Fake News Media” and the “Dems” to sink the stock market and his presidency.
He also tried to diminish the threat in his public remarks on Wednesday.
The virus “is affecting the airline business, as it would,” Trump said after the airline meeting. “A lot of people are staying in our country, and they’re shopping and using our hotels in this country. So from that standpoint, I think probably there is a positive impact, but there is also an impact on overseas travel, which will be fairly substantial.”
Later on Wednesday, Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity that the World Health Organization’s recorded death rate for COVID-19 was “false.”
“I think the 3.4 per cent number is really a false number,” he said. “Now, this is just my hunch.”
Trump then cited “conversations with a lot of people” who told him that there might be many mild cases that go unreported, and declared that he thinks the number is “way under one per cent.”
Tens of thousands of people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since it first emerged in Wuhan, China, late last year. Hundreds have died, stock markets have dipped and consumers in many countries have rushed to stock up on supplies amid concerns of mass orders to stay indoors. Face masks and hand sanitizer are hard to find in many countries, and some nations are even running out of toilet paper.
Frightened people have also been trying to re-think their physical behaviour in light of the virus, which spreads through infected water droplets and enters the body through the eyes, nose and mouth.
Public health officials around the world have encouraged people to find no-contact alternatives to the handshake. They’ve also encouraged citizens to wash their hands frequently and to avoid touching their faces as much as possible.
Of course, it’s easy to forget about little things like not touching your face, as many have pointed out on social media.
“Realizing basically all I do is touch my face,” actor Seth Rogen tweeted on Tuesday.
“It’s a very difficult habit to break because we all do it, and oftentimes we’re not even aware we’re doing it,” Dr. Vanessa Raabe, an assistant professor in the department of medicine at NYU Langone Health, recently told the New York Times.
She recommends keeping tissues handy to use whenever you need to touch your face, and keeping your hands busy so you don’t do it compulsively.
However, it’s nearly impossible to expect everyone to follow that advice, according to Dr. Timothy Scarella, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
“I think that to ask people not to touch their face is kind of ridiculous,” Scarella told NBC News. “It just can’t happen.”
He added that it’s human nature to second-guess something when you’re told not to do it, and anxious people are particularly vulnerable to such behaviour.
“People are saying: ‘Wait a second. Did I just touch my face? Or did I not? I don’t think I did, but maybe I did when I wasn’t thinking about it.’ And, honestly, maybe they did,” he said. “People with a lot of health anxiety or anxiety in general often engage in this kind of recursive, ruminative kind of checking.”
Even health officials aren’t perfect, as the head of the Santa Clara County Public Health Department revealed last Friday.
“Today, start working on not touching your face,” Dr. Sara Cody said at the televised news conference. “Because one main way viruses spread is when you touch your own mouth, nose, or eyes.”
Moments later, she licked her finger to turn the page on her speech notes.
So yes, Trump has touched his face many times under the coronavirus outbreak — and so have you. But that doesn’t mean you should stop striving to be the Avoider-in-Chief, just like Trump.
—With files from The Associated Press