His comments came as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths in the US accelerate rapidly and the World Health Organisation warns that the country could become the next centre of the pandemic.
Veering away from recent rhetoric emphasising the seriousness of the virus, Trump favourably compared the loss of life linked to COVID-19 to the regular flu and car accidents.
“We lose thousands and thousands of people a year to the flu,” Trump said. “We don’t turn the country off.
“We lose much more than that to automobile accidents. We didn’t call up the automobile companies and say, ‘Stop making cars, we don’t want any cars anymore.’ We have to get back to work.”
He continued: “Our people are full of vim and vigour and energy.
“They don’t want to be locked in a house or an apartment or some space.
“You can destroy a country this way, by closing it down…”
Trump said there would be “thousands of suicides” if the US economy was allowed to fall into a deep economic recession.
“More people are going to die if we allow this to continue,” he said of the restrictions on commerce implemented to slow the spread of the virus.
He said Americans could continue to practise social distancing while returning to work, but did not explain how this would be possible.
Trump does not have the ability on his own to “re-open” the US economy. The toughest measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus in the US – including stay-at-home orders – have been taken by state and local leaders.
Last week Trump launched a “15 days to stop the spread” campaign, which includes guidelines to limit social gatherings to 10 people, work from home if possible and avoid discretionary travel.
But, with stock markets plummeting and unemployment claims soaring, Trump has grown increasingly impatient about the costs involved with stopping the spread of the virus.
Trump’s statements contrast starkly to those of other global leaders who have implemented draconian measures to slow the spread of the virus and are urging their citizens to take it seriously.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday banned his 1.3 billion citizens from venturing outside of their homes and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has put his country into lockdown.
Some of the President’s usually reliable Republican allies have also broken ranks with his approach.
“There will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what’s necessary to stop the virus,” Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney tweeted.
Scott Gottleib, who was appointed to run the Food and Drug Administration, said: “There’s a strong and understandable desire to return to better times and a functioning economy.
“But it should not be lost on anyone that there’s no such thing as a functioning economy and society so long as COVID-19 continues to spread uncontrolled in our biggest cities.”
Late Wednesday, AEDT, senators and Trump administration officials reached an agreement on a $US2trillion ($3.3 trillion) stimulus package to avoid an economic collapse.
The deal includes jobless benefits as well as money to states and businesses.
Matthew Knott is North America correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.