How It Beat Us

If you want a deep analysis of how this country screwed up its response to Covid-19 and what we need to do better next time, read this long article by Ed Yong for The Atlantic Monthly. It’s been recommended by intelligent people. I don’t intend to read the whole thing. The first 700 words were enough (by the way, Dr. Fauci says we need to get new cases down to 10,000 a day from the current 50 or 60 thousand or else the fall is going to be very bad):

America has failed to protect its people, leaving them with illness and financial ruin. It has lost its status as a global leader. It has careened between inaction and ineptitude. The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, in the moment, to truly fathom.

In the first half of 2020, SARS CoV 2—the new coronavirus behind the disease COVID 19—infected 10 million people around the world and killed about half a million. But few countries have been as severely hit as the United States, which has just 4 percent of the world’s population but a quarter of its confirmed COVID 19 cases and deaths. These numbers are estimates. The actual toll, though undoubtedly higher, is unknown, because the richest country in the world still lacks sufficient testing to accurately count its sick citizens.

Despite ample warning, the U.S. squandered every possible opportunity to control the coronavirus. And despite its considerable advantages—immense resources, biomedical might, scientific expertise—it floundered. While countries as different as South Korea, Thailand, Iceland, Slovakia, and Australia acted decisively to bend the curve of infections downward, the U.S. achieved merely a plateau in the spring, which changed to an appalling upward slope in the summer. “The U.S. fundamentally failed in ways that were worse than I ever could have imagined,” Julia Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, told me.

Since the pandemic began, I have spoken with more than 100 experts in a variety of fields. I’ve learned that almost everything that went wrong with America’s response to the pandemic was predictable and preventable.

A sluggish response by a government denuded of expertise allowed the coronavirus to gain a foothold. Chronic underfunding of public health neutered the nation’s ability to prevent the pathogen’s spread. A bloated, inefficient health-care system left hospitals ill-prepared for the ensuing wave of sickness. Racist policies that have endured since the days of colonization and slavery left Indigenous and Black Americans especially vulnerable to COVID 19. The decades-long process of shredding the nation’s social safety net forced millions of essential workers in low-paying jobs to risk their life for their livelihood. The same social-media platforms that sowed partisanship and misinformation during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa and the 2016 U.S. election became vectors for conspiracy theories during the 2020 pandemic.

The U.S. has little excuse for its inattention. In recent decades, epidemics of SARS, MERS, Ebola, H1N1 flu, Zika, and monkeypox showed the havoc that new and reemergent pathogens could wreak. Health experts, business leaders, and even middle schoolers ran simulated exercises to game out the spread of new diseases. . . . [They showed that] the U.S. was not ready for a pandemic, [sounding] warnings about the fragility of the nation’s health-care system and the slow process of creating a vaccine. But the COVID 19 debacle has also touched—and implicated—nearly every other facet of American society: its shortsighted leadership, its disregard for expertise, its racial inequities, its social-media culture, and its fealty to a dangerous strain of individualism.

SARS CoV 2 is something of an anti-Goldilocks virus: just bad enough in every way. Its symptoms can be severe enough to kill millions but are often mild enough to allow infections to move undetected through a population. It spreads quickly enough to overload hospitals, but slowly enough that statistics don’t spike until too late. These traits made the virus harder to control, but they also softened the pandemic’s punch. SARS CoV 2 is neither as lethal as some other coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS, nor as contagious as measles. Deadlier pathogens almost certainly exist. Wild animals harbor an estimated 40,000 unknown viruses, a quarter of which could potentially jump into humans. How will the U.S. fare when “we can’t even deal with a starter pandemic?,” Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina . . . asked me.

Despite its epochal effects, COVID 19 is merely a harbinger of worse plagues to come. The U.S. cannot prepare for these inevitable crises if it returns to normal, as many of its people ache to do. Normal led to this. Normal was a world ever more prone to a pandemic but ever less ready for one. To avert another catastrophe, the U.S. needs to grapple with all the ways normal failed us. It needs a full accounting of every recent misstep and foundational sin, every unattended weakness and unheeded warning, every festering wound and reopened scar.

Hope vs. Reality, or the Vaccination Blues

From The New York Times:

In April, with hospitals overwhelmed and much of the United States in lockdown, the Department of Health and Human Services produced a presentation for the White House arguing that rapid development of a coronavirus vaccine was the best hope to control the pandemic.

“DEADLINE: Enable broad access to the public by October 2020,” the first slide read, with the date in bold.

Given that it typically takes years to develop a vaccine, the timetable for the initiative, called Operation Warp Speed, was incredibly ambitious. With tens of thousands dying and tens of millions out of work, the crisis demanded an all-out public-private response, with the government supplying billions of dollars to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, providing logistical support and cutting through red tape.

It escaped no one that the proposed deadline also intersected nicely with President Txxxx’s need to curb the virus before the election in November.

“Hey, if Operation Warp Speed ‘curbs the virus’ by October, the 200,000 dead will be forgotten and I’ll win a beautiful victory, the biggest win ever!”

Thus our president is hoping. 

I hope his staff doesn’t disappoint him by sharing this from The Washington Post.

In the public imagination [and between the president’s ears], the arrival of a coronavirus vaccine looms large: It’s the neat Hollywood ending to the grim and agonizing uncertainty of everyday life in a pandemic.

But public health experts are discussing among themselves a new worry: that hopes for a vaccine may be soaring too high. The confident depiction by politicians and companies that a vaccine is imminent and inevitable may give people unrealistic beliefs about how soon the world can return to normal — and even spark resistance to simple strategies that can tamp down transmission and save lives in the short term.

Two coronavirus vaccines entered the final stages of human testing last week, a scientific speed record that prompted top government health officials to utter words such as “historic” and “astounding” . . .

As the plotline advances, so do expectations: If people can just muddle through a few more months, the vaccine will land, the pandemic will end and everyone can throw their masks away. But best-case scenarios have failed to materialize throughout the pandemic, and experts — who believe wholeheartedly in the power of vaccines — foresee a long path ahead.

“It seems, to me, unlikely that a vaccine is an off-switch or a reset button where we will go back to pre-pandemic times,” said Yonatan Grad, an assistant professor of infectious diseases and immunology [at Harvard].

Or, as Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen puts it, “It’s not like we’re going to land in Oz.”

The declaration that a vaccine has been shown safe and effective will be a beginning, not the end. Deploying the vaccine to people in the United States and around the world will test and strain distribution networks, the supply chain, public trust and global cooperation. It will take months or, more likely, years to reach enough people to make the world safe.

For those who do get a vaccine as soon as shots become available, protection won’t be immediate — it takes weeks for the immune system to call up full platoons of disease-fighting antibodies. And many vaccine technologies will require a second shot weeks after the first to raise immune defenses.

Immunity could be short-lived or partial, requiring repeated boosters that strain the vaccine supply or require people to keep social distancing and wearing masks even after they’ve received their shots. And if a vaccine works less well for some groups of people, if swaths of the population are reluctant to get a vaccine or if there isn’t enough to go around, some people will still get sick even after scientists declare victory on a vaccine — which could help foster a false impression it doesn’t work.

A proven vaccine will profoundly change the relationship the world has with the novel coronavirus and is how many experts believe the pandemic will end. In popular conception, a vaccine is regarded as a silver bullet. But the truth — especially with the earliest vaccines — is likely to be far more nuanced. Public health experts fear that could lead to disappointment and erode the already delicate trust essential to making the effort to vanquish the virus succeed.

The drive to develop vaccines is frequently characterized as a race, with one country or company in the lead. The race metaphor suggests that what matters is who reaches the finish line first. But first across the line isn’t necessarily the best — and it almost certainly isn’t the end of the race, which could go on for years.

“The realistic scenario is probably going to be more like what we saw with HIV/AIDS,” said Michael S. Kinch, an expert in drug development and research at Washington University . . . “With HIV, we had a first generation of, looking back now, fairly mediocre drugs. I am afraid — and people don’t like to hear this, but I’m kind of constantly preaching it — we have to prepare ourselves for the idea we do not have a very good vaccine. My guess is the first generation of vaccines may be mediocre.”

Unquote.

In other words, reality isn’t reality TV.

Other Lives Matter

Charles Pierce of Esquire starts with Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964:

The great modern conservative project, launched by the Goldwater campaign . . . and perverting itself and the Republic by tiny degrees ever since, has finally reached its inevitable end-point in the kind of president* that project had, by those same tiny degrees, made inevitable. This is the moment transcendent, this is the moment revealed. The great modern conservative project turned itself, by those same tiny degrees, into an authoritarian opposition to a democratic republic and all its institutions. Steadily, it abandoned decency, civility, science, reason, and simple humanity. And here we are . . .

A crippled nation, literally a sick nation, watching a feckless (or worse) administration* taking actions that actively make the public health situation worse, watching Pinochet tactics in the streets, and promising to bring those tactics to a number of American cities in advance of a national election, with all that implies and entails. And doing so by relying on policies drafted and implemented by a previous Republican administration [George W. Bush’s] back in the days when this president* merely was a guy presiding over a televised freak show, and not creating one out of the country he was elected to lead. It took long, hard, relentless work by hundreds of conservative politicians, judges, journalists, consultants, billionaires, think-tanks, and foundations to bring the country to this miserable pass.

Akim Reinhardt, writing for Three Quarks Daily, starts with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980:

Reagan’s advanced age and patriotic message rang true with older voters, while his bold (and ultimately false) promise of a quick yet fiscally responsible cure to stagflation attracted worried and struggling Americans. His electoral hammering of incumbent Jimmy Carter signaled the return of ideals that had not held sway since the 1920s: an unregulated free market economy, and the exaltation of individualism . . .

The Reagan Revolution resuscitated pre-Depression American conservativism . . .  . Under Reagan’s leadership it emerged as a right wing coalition of low tax free marketeers; small government individualists; white racists . . . resentful about civil rights; Cold War hawks; and fundamentalist Christian evangelicals.

The Reagan Revolution deeply affected American politics, economics, and culture. Americans are still living in the world it remade. Newly committed to free market economics, fetishizing individualism while demonizing government, and slowly absorbing the disaffected whites in the aftermath of civil rights, the Republican Party immediately began winnowing its moderate wing and completely eliminating its liberal wing, eventually transforming itself from a center-right party to an increasingly far-right party. . . .

American society has always celebrated individualism, arguably more so than any other nation. But that vaunted individualism was usually tempered by grand historical epochs that limited untrammeled self-interest through means both good and bad.

That is no longer the case.

Victorian culture’s dubious emphasis on personal restraint has long since withered. The generation of adults who survived the Great Depression and WWII are almost entirely gone. The Cold War ended nearly 30 years ago, its coercive demands for unity and conformity now a distant memory. Today’s senior political leadership is drawn from a cohort that, even as far back as the 1970s, was derided as the Me Generation.

Healthy democratic institutions and shared governance need citizens and politicians to maintain at least a modest concern for and deference to the greater good. Unfettered self-interest has the potential to spawn no-holds-barred competitions that supplant the public interest with a single-minded focus on acquiring power and wealth. And the delicate balance between collective and personal self-interests, with its sloshing equilibrium, had tilted to one end long before Dxxxx Txxxx took power.

Now the Vice Lord rages from his gilded bully pulpit as his crooked, broken regime reaches a lurid nadir of unfettered self-interest. He and his have willfully ignored, discredited, attacked, and destroyed longstanding norms of common interest. Through blase cronyism and nepotism, naked corruption, and the profound incompetence that inevitably accompanies such crimes, they have widened the cracks in an imperfect and vulnerable political cultural that was already struggling to bind us together.

Dxxxx Txxxx is not a shocking aberration. Rather, he is the banal culmination of four decades of runaway self-interest. . . . Forty years in the making, his corrupt presidency symbolizes the heights of unchecked self-interest and shamelessness, made acute by his own mental deficiencies and psychiatric disorders. Txxxx needed a perfect storm to get elected, and then unleashed a storm of runaway self-interest on the White House. He is the extreme, and hopefully also a turning point. The final, loudest wailing of American immaturity and selfishness.

Paul Krugman of The New York Times starts with last week:

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida said something remarkably stupid the other day. . . .

Florida has, of course, become a Covid-19 epicenter, with soaring case totals and a daily death toll now consistently exceeding that of the whole European Union, which has 20 times its population. But DeSantis won’t contemplate any rollback of the state’s obviously premature reopening; he even refuses to close venues that are perfect coronavirus incubators.

In particular, he insists on letting gyms — closed spaces full of people huffing and puffing — stay open. Why? Because “if you are in good shape you have a very low likelihood of ending up in a significant condition.”

Actually, this isn’t true. . . . But [that] is beside the point. The reason we need to close gyms isn’t to protect the people working out, it’s to protect the other people they might infect. Even gym rats have families, friends, and co-workers . . .

Prof. Krugman could have cited a remarkably stupid statement from another Republican governor, Mike Parson of Missouri:

“These kids have got to get back to school,” Parson said in an interview Friday. . . .“They’re at the lowest risk possible. And if they do get COVID-19, which they will — and they will when they go to school — they’re not going to the hospitals. They’re not going to have to sit in doctor’s offices. They’re going to go home and they’re going to get over it.” 

Will their teachers, parents, grandparents, babysitters too?

Back to Krugman:

Five months and almost 140,000 deaths into this pandemic, many Republicans still can’t or won’t grasp the point that choices have consequences beyond those to the individual who makes them [or for whom we make them, like children].

Many things should be left up to the individual. I may not share your taste in music or want to do the same things you do with consenting adults, but such matters aren’t legitimately my business.

Other things, however, aren’t just about you. The question of whether or not to dump raw sewage into a public lake isn’t something that should be left up to individual choice. And going to a gym or refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic is exactly like dumping sewage into a lake: it’s behavior that may be convenient for the people who engage in it, but it puts others at risk.

Again, this should be obvious. It’s common sense; it is also, as it happens, basic economics. Econ 101 has lots of good things to say about free markets (probably too many good things, but that’s a discussion for another time), but no rational discussion of economics says that free markets, left to themselves, can solve the problem of “externalities” — costs that individuals or businesses impose on others who have no say in the matter. Pollution is the classic example of an externality that requires government intervention, but spreading a dangerous virus poses exactly the same issues.

Yet many conservatives seem unable or unwilling to grasp this simple point. And they seem equally unwilling to grasp a related point — that there are some things that must be supplied through public policy rather than individual initiative. And the most important of these “public goods” is probably scientific knowledge.

Some readers may be aware that Senator Rand Paul — who proclaims himself a libertarian — has been doing a lot of sniping at Dr. Anthony Fauci….. What struck me, however, was the way Paul justified his attacks on epidemiologists’ recommendations: by invoking the free-market doctrines of Friedrich Hayek. “Hayek had it right: Only decentralized power and decision-making, based on millions of individualized situations, can arrive at what risks and behaviors each individual should choose.”

Whatever you think of Hayek. . . ., this is bizarre. Decentralized decision-making can do lots of things, but establishing scientific truth isn’t one of those things. And even conservatives used to understand both that expertise matters and that promoting scientific research is a legitimate and necessary role of government.

But conservatives, and Republicans, have changed. The modern American right is all about denying that people have any responsibility for each other, and muzzling experts who try to tell people in power things they don’t want to hear.

And the fact that selfishness and willful ignorance are now guiding principles for much of our political establishment is a large part of the reason America is failing the Covid-19 test so spectacularly.

You’ve Been Robbed

From Paul Waldman of The Washington Post on Twitter:

Even if you’re lucky enough not to have lost anyone or gotten sick in the pandemic, you are the victim of a robbery.

Because of Txxxx’s malignant incompetence and the stupidity of his followers, we’ve all been robbed of time we can’t get back – maybe a year or more.

We’ve been robbed of time with loved ones, education for our kids, contact with others, at least a little freedom from this constant anxiety, just the mundane but precious parts of normal life. It is a theft, and it didn’t have to happen this way.

In many countries with competent leadership and a sane populace, the pandemic is under control. Here are new cases yesterday:

Spain: 389
Germany: 361
Canada: 306
Japan: 227
Italy: 191
Netherlands: 64
S. Korea: 53

USA: 50,934

Robbery victims often speak of a sense of violation, one that turns into rage that has nowhere to go. You may be feeling that now. And you should. We all should. We’ve been robbed of so much, even if we’ve escaped the worst.

Maybe you’re not an immigrant or a racial minority or a trans person or someone else Txxxx has attacked directly. Maybe you still have your job and haven’t lost a loved one or gotten sick. But we are all his victims now.

And he should never be forgiven.

[Neither should his accomplices, especially the politicians.

You can use the Search Directory at ActBlue to find Democrats to support.]

A Comment, a Column, and Carnage

“There isn’t any iceberg. There was an iceberg but it’s in a totally different ocean. The iceberg is in this ocean but it will melt very soon. There is an iceberg but we didn’t hit the iceberg. We hit the iceberg, but the damage will be repaired very shortly. The iceberg is a Chinese iceberg. We are taking on water but every passenger who wants a lifeboat can get a lifeboat, and they are beautiful lifeboats. Look, passengers need to ask nicely for the lifeboats if they want them. We don’t have any lifeboats, we’re not lifeboat distributors. Passengers should have planned for icebergs and brought their own lifeboats. I really don’t think we need that many lifeboats and they’re supposed to be our lifeboats, not the passenger’s lifeboats. The lifeboats were left on shore by the last captain of this ship. Nobody could have foreseen this iceberg.”

Someone calling themselves “Citizen” submitted that comment after reading Paul Krugman’s latest column in The New York Times. Krugman wrote:

“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling more and more as if we’re all trapped on the Titanic — except that this time around the captain is a madman who insists on steering straight for the iceberg. And his crew is too cowardly to contradict him, let alone mutiny to save the passengers.

A month ago it was still possible to hope that the push by Dxxxx Txxxx and the Txxxxist governors of Sunbelt states to relax social distancing and reopen businesses like restaurants and bars — even though we met none of the criteria for doing so safely — wouldn’t have completely catastrophic results.

At this point, however, it’s clear that everything the experts warned was likely to happen, is happening. Daily new cases of Covid-19 are running two and a half times as high as in early June, and rising fast. Hospitals in early-reopening states are under terrible pressure. National death totals are still declining thanks to falling fatalities in the Northeast, but they’re rising in the Sunbelt, and the worst is surely yet to come.

A normal president and a normal political party would be horrified by this turn of events. They would realize that they made a bad call and that it was time for a major course correction; they would start taking warnings from health experts seriously.

But Txxxx, who began his presidency with a lurid, fact-challenged rant about “American carnage,” [is] doubling down on his rejection of expertise, this week demanding full reopening of schools in defiance of existing guidelines……

Until early 2020, Txxxx led a charmed political life. All his recent predecessors had to deal with some kind of external challenge during their first three years…..But Trump inherited a nation at peace and in the middle of a long economic expansion that continued, with no visible change in the trend, after he took office.

Then came Covid-19. Another president might have seen the pandemic as a crisis to be dealt with. But that thought never seems to have crossed Txxxx’s mind. Instead, he has spent the past five months trying to will us back to where we were in February, when he was sitting on top of a moving train and pretending that he was driving it.”

Unquote.

After hearing Txxxx speak at his inauguration, former president George W. Bush remarked, “Well, that was some weird shit”. When — not if — Joe Biden becomes president in January, Txxxx’s story about American carnage will have come true.