Americans need to be prepared, and leaders need to restore their credibility.
I want to get back to the pandemic, which is not at the moment being seen for what it is. It is taking place within a very different context. It has been subsumed by the Upheaval, the culture-shaking event we are undergoing as a nation.
States have begun to reopen, people are going out. Covid-19 feels like yesterday’s story—we don’t want to think about it, we’re barely out of the house. But it’s tomorrow’s story too.
The first wave is still here. It never went away. We have every reason to think another, newer, possibly different wave will come in the late fall (different in that the strain could be more lethal, or less).
We have to keep this in mind and have a plan. Public officials especially should be thinking about one.
Outbreaks continue. Some 800 Americans a day are still dying. The number of new cases in Arizona, California, Florida, Tennessee and Texas is up. Alaska, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Puerto Rico and South Carolina are also experiencing increases. Angela Dunn, Utah’s state epidemiologist, said last week that the state’s “sharp spike in cases,” is “not explained easily by a single outbreak or increase in testing. This is a statewide trend.”
Nationally there have been more than two million confirmed cases. The true number of cases may be higher for many reasons, including that, as the Journal reported this week, some testing sites were shut down during protests. Reported deaths are approaching 115,000. The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, told Congress that the demonstrations may turn out to have been “a seeding event.”
It had been assumed the summer would offer a respite, and that seems likely in many places, maybe most. New York, hard hit early on, is experiencing a decline in cases. Coronavirus doesn’t like sunlight, fresh air or warm temperatures. It prefers coolness and poor ventilation in enclosed places, meatpacking plants being the most famous example.
Flus and colds tend to recede in the summer and return in the fall and winter. The 1918 influenza epidemic hit America hard in the spring, but its second, deadlier wave came in October.
Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitchtold the Journal of the American Medical Association that he thinks warmer weather is likely to reduce transmission rates by about 20%: “That’s only enough to slow it down, but not enough to stop it.”
Among its mysteries: Why such a case-to-case range of severity? Do the infected who become seriously ill fully recover? Are there “long-term durable effects”? And the illness is “shining a bright light on something we’ve known for a very long time,” Dr. Fauci said, which speaks of the greater vulnerability to and harder impacts on African-Americans and other people of color. It has been a “double whammy” for black people.
“Oh my goodness,” he said, “Where is it going to end?”
Markets often tell you how bright investors are viewing the future. CNBC reported Thursday that “the so-called stay-at-home trade” stocks “bucked the market’s overall negative trend . . . amid growing concerns of a potential second wave of new coronavirus cases.” Netflix and Amazon were up, and so was Zoom Video Communications.
Obviously a vaccine would change everything. Dr. Fauci told Yahoo Finance that “it is very difficult to predict” when and how success will come, but he is, as always, “cautiously optimistic” there might be an answer by the end of this year or the beginning of 2021. Yet “there is no guarantee at all that we are going to have a safe and effective vaccine.”
It is not unhelpful in life generally, at least in historical matters, to expect the worst. You’ll never feel disappointed. If the worst happens your bleak worldview is ratified. If it doesn’t you’re pleasantly surprised.
If you expect the worst on coronavirus you’ll think personal caution and carefulness are absolutely essential this summer, and a hard time is coming late this fall and winter.
Which gets us to the governors, who again will be galvanized.
They were right to take strong action early on in the crisis. There is no doubt that the lockdowns saved many, many lives and allowed hospitals to hold their ground. Some governors moved late, some made big blunders, such as in the New York nursing-home disaster. But at the beginning of the crisis, in the face of federal dithering and denials, they were at least doing something.
Then they got carried away. They received too much adulation, enjoyed the role of savior too much, and the lockdowns became longer. Told we were grateful someone was taking responsibility, they became micromanagers of human life. Briefings became self-aggrandizing and Castroesque in length.
If a big fall wave comes it will arrive in a very different context. The shocked and cooperative citizens of March are the battered, skeptical citizens of June. They saw the inevitable politicization of the process. They saw the illogic and apparent capriciousness of many regulations. They suffered financially and saw little sympathy for their plight. They were lectured and hectored. There was no governmental modesty in it.
There will be exactly zero appetite this fall for daily news conferences in which governors announce the phased, Stage 2 openings of certain sectors that meet certain metrics that some midlevel health-department guy seems to have pulled out of his ear. That was the past three months.
What’s the plan if things turn difficult? People won’t want and may not accept a second lockdown, even in the face of a more lethal iteration of the virus. They will likely in a crisis accept increased calls for voluntary social distancing, mask directives, bans on big events, not that we have big events. But—what else?
The governors gained great stature and authority in March and April and began to lose it in May, as did some in the medical and scientific establishments, who became inconsistent in their advice regarding safety and crowds. What early on seemed nonideological came, inevitably, to look like activism.
But we’re going to need all of them again in the fall. They can turn now to where they started—speaking forcefully of the latest, most reliable facts, of how to save lives, of what history tells us about our predicament. Trouble is coming in the fall, and the country is going to need advice, and to trust the advice-givers.
We are only in Act I. Act II is coming. That’s usually the point in the drama when the deepest complications ensue, and demand resolution.
We Need Time to Absorb All This
Everyone is thinking through the reality of the coronavirus pandemic and how to rise to the occasion.
This is a quick piece that touches on where we are, where we may be going, and an attitude for the journey.
The screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan once said the films of Akira Kurosawa were distinguished by this dynamic: The villain has arrived while the hero is evolving. That’s what made his films great, the sense of an implacable bad guy encountering a good guy who is alive, capable of changing, who is in fact changing because of and in order to beat back the bad guy and make things safe again.
The villain is here in the form of an illness. A lot of the heroes of this story are evolving every day into something we’ll look back on months and years hence and say, “Wow, LOOK what she did.” “What guts that guy showed.” People are going to pull from themselves things they didn’t know were there.
But now, at this stage in the drama, most of the heroes are also busy absorbing. We are all of us every day trying to absorb the new reality, give it time to settle into us.
It’s all so big. We are discovering the illness as we experience it. We don’t know its secrets, how long it lasts, how long its incubation, whether you can be reinfected.
As for the economics: As the month began we had functional full employment. By the time it ends we will not, not at all. In the past week layoffs and let-gos have left state unemployment claim websites crashing. This is not “normal job disruption”; it is a cascade. The Treasury secretary reportedly said unemployment could hit 20%.
The market gains of the Trump era have been all but wiped out. Investors are selling gold. From this paper’s editorial Thursday: “American commerce is shutting down right before our eyes with no end in sight.” Flights are empty, hotel occupancy plummeting.
Where we are is a hard, bad place, stupid to deny it. Where we’re going looks to be difficult.
It’s a cliché to say we haven’t ever had a moment like this (a plague, a crash), but it’s true. As for New York, twice in 20 years we’ve been ground zero, epicenter of a national tragedy. Will we get through it? Of course. But it will change things, and change us, as 9/11 did.
The governmental instinct is right: stabilize things while everyone’s absorbing. Whatever is done will probably be an unholy mess. Do it anyway and see where we are. In the long term the best plan—the only plan—is one that attempts to keep people in their jobs. Meaning look to European models on how to help businesses hold on to their people.
There are a million warnings out there on a million serious things. We add one: Everything works—and will continue to work—as long as we have electricity. It’s what keeps the lights on, the oxygen flowing, the information going. Everything is the grid, the grid, the grid.
A general attitude for difficult times? Trust in God first and always. Talk to him.
Every time America’s in trouble I remember Adam Smith’s words. He wrote there’s “a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Especially a very great and prosperous one with a brilliant system and a creative citizenry.
And see this: We are surrounded by nobility.
Mike Luckovich had a cartoon this week of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Only it wasn’t Marines—it was a doctor, a scientist, a nurse and a first responder anchoring Old Glory in this rocky soil. It was hokey and beautiful and true. In the next few weeks and months they’ll get us through and we should thank them every way possible. That includes everyone who can’t work at home, the cops and firefighters, the garbagemen and truckers, the people who stock the shelves and man the counters. A nurse told me Thursday that hospital workers all see themselves as sitting ducks for infection, but no one’s calling in sick. A journalist friend said maybe this will reorder things and we’ll start to pay people according to their real importance to society.
A personal note. As this is written I have been sick for two weeks. It started when I was finishing a column on Rep. Jim Clyburn—I got a chill and noticed the notepad on my knee was warm. The next night more chills, took my temperature: 101.
It may be a poorly timed ordinary virus, one of the dozen floating out there in America on any given day, or it may be the more interesting one.
But everything you’ve heard about the difficulty of getting a test is true. “There are none,” said my doctor. If he sent me to the emergency room, I wouldn’t meet their criteria. You can have every symptom, but if you answer no to two questions, you won’t be tested. The questions are: Have you traveled internationally? Have you recently been in contact with someone who tested positive?
My doctor instructed me to go home, self-quarantine, rest, report back. A week in, the fever spiked up, the headaches were joined by a cough and sore throat, and I called the local government number, where they couldn’t connect me to anyone who could help.
Everyone I dealt with was compassionate and overwhelmed. On day 12 my doctor got word of testing available at an urgent-care storefront on First Avenue. When I called I was connected to a woman in Long Island. She asked for my symptoms. Then: Have you traveled internationally? Have you had recent contact with anyone who’s infected? No and no. She said, “It’s OK, I’m sure they’ll accept you.” I could hear her click “send.” She paused and said, “I’m so sorry, you don’t meet the criteria.” By now we had made friends, and she was disappointed for me.
I said, “Let’s think together. Twelve days sick, almost all the symptoms, part of an endangered demographic.” Silence. Then a brainstorm. At this point I have known a person who’s tested positive; I saw him a while back; no one has defined “recently” because no one knows the incubation period.
I said: Can we do the interview again? She said, “Let’s go.”
She went down the list of questions, and when she said, “Have you recently had contact . . .,” I said, “I believe I can say yes.”
She said, “All right.” Silence as I listened to her tap the keys. “You meet the criteria,” she said, with the sweetest excitement.
And so Tuesday night I made my way (mask, gloves) to the urgent-care storefront, where I was tested by a garrulous physician’s assistant who said his office, or New York health authorities, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will get back to me with results in three to seven days. (Yikes.)
At this point I suppose it’s academic. If it’s positive, they’ll tell me to continue what I’m doing. But if hospitalized it would save time—presumably I wouldn’t have to be tested again. Also it would be nice to think I wasn’t just home sick, I was home developing fighting Irish antibodies spoiling for a fight.
I just want to get out and help in some way. Isn’t that what you feel? We all just want to pitch in.