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.
There’s so much to say but my mind keeps going back to New Year’s Eve, when we watched the ball come down and knew the story of 2020 was the presidential election and whatever stray harassments history throws our way. No one that night guessed—no one could have guessed—that in the next few months we’d have a world-wide pandemic, an economic catastrophe and fighting in the streets. The point is not that life is surprise or history turns on a dime, it’s that we’ve been battered. We’ve been through a lot. And with economic and cultural indexes down, with the world turned darker and more predatory, we will go through more. We thought we’d be telling our grandchildren about the spring of 2020. Actually we’ll be telling them about the coming 10 years, and how we tried to turn everything around.
The painful irony of the protests and riots is that for a few days everyone was in agreement. We all saw the nine-minute tape. We saw the casual brutality as the dying man begged for mercy and the cop didn’t care. In the past there were arguments about similar incidents. Not this time. Most everyone concedes the problem—that black men are profiled and cannot feel safe in their own country. Walking while black, driving while black—Tim Scott of South Carolina has been stopped for trying to impersonate a U.S. senator, which is what he is. In an interview a few years ago he told me that seven times in his first six years in Washington he’d been pulled over for “driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood.”
Following the killing of George Floyd, America would totally accept protests and demonstrations, would understand expressions of anger and pain.
What Americans wouldn’t accept was looting, violence, arson. They wouldn’t accept that shopkeepers just out from lockdown were pulled from their stores and beaten. They won’t accept this because they will not accept more battery.
We’re now supposed to hate cops. No. Hate bad cops, help good ones. A great cop does as much to help society as a great doctor or nurse, and is in the line of fire. In New York, one officer was mowed down by a hit-and-run driver; another was stabbed in the neck; two were shot. One cop was shot in Las Vegas and four in St. Louis, where the police chief said someone randomly shot at a police line. Also in St. Louis a 77-year-old retired police captain, David Dorn, black, on the force 38 years, was shot and killed during the looting.
There is a phrase among medical professionals, “moral injury.” Health-care workers who are strung out, stretched to the breaking point, suffer from moral injury.
So do a lot of cops. A lot of black men, too. The thing for all of us now is to keep our moral poise and intellectual balance, try to be fair and make things better. Some cops failed to do that this week—unnecessary roughness, targeting journalists. Some really came through. Among them were the police who were face to face with demonstrators and took a knee. This has been criticized as obsequious, bowing to the mob. No, it is how we are saved, by showing love and sympathy. It happened from New York to Los Angeles. Yahoo News reported on what happened in Flint, Mich., when Sheriff Chris Swanson told protesters, “I took off the helmet and laid the batons down. Where do you want to walk? We’ll walk all night.” Protesters cheered. In Fayetteville, N.C., there was a standoff between demonstrators and the police. The officers, some 60 of them, took a knee before marchers on Murchison Road. The department later said they wanted to show “understanding” for “the pain” many civilians are feeling. Witnesses said some officers and protesters had tears in their eyes.
To the extent things were contained this week, that’s how it happened.
That’s the big story, what happened in America.
As to the president, this week he altered his position in the political landscape. Something broke. He is no longer the force he was and no longer lucky. In some new and indelible way his essential nature was revealed.
It got out that faced with protests around the White House, he hid. Or perhaps let the Secret Service, which might have struggled with realistic threat assessment, talk him into going into the White House bunker. (Mr. Trump later said he was simply “inspecting” it.) He tweeted that he was protected by the “most vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons.”
On Monday, he spoke in the Rose Garden. “I will fight to protect you,” he said. “I am your president of law and order.” This was unsubtle, and seemed more aimed at protecting his political prospects than your safety and property.
Then, upset that people might be getting the impression he was a physical coward, he set out to prove he is brave. Protected by a phalanx of police, Secret Service, sharpshooters and what looked like a Praetorian Guard with shields, he marched to St John’s, the church of the presidents. Aides said it was a Churchill moment. And it was just like Churchill during the blitz, if Churchill secretly loved rubble. Upon arrival with his friends, the people who work for him, he brandished a Bible like—who in history?—the devil?
In all this he gave up the game and explicitly patronized his own followers. It was as if he was saying: I’m going to show you how stupid I know you are. I’ll give you crude and gross imagery and you’ll love it because you’re crude and gross people.
And some would love it. But not all. Not most, I think.
He has maxed out his base. He’s got his 40% and will keep it, but it isn’t growing. His polls are down, he has historically high negatives. As for suburban women, they’d crawl over broken husbands to vote him out.
He is proud of his many billionaire friends and think they love him. They don’t. Their support is utterly transactional. They’re embarrassed by him. When they begin to think he won’t be re-elected they will turn, and it will be bloody and on a dime.
This will not end well. With his timing he’d know it. He should give an Oval Office address announcing he’s leaving: “America, you don’t deserve me.” Truer words have never been spoken in that old place. And he won’t be outshone by his successor. Network producers will listen to Mike Pence once and say, “Let’s do ‘Shark Week.’ ” But you know, America could use a shark week.
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.
- Iran-Contra Was a Better Class of Scandal
- The truth is, once we had information from Israel that we could trust the people in Iran, I didn’t have to think thirty seconds about saying yes
- The U.S. government had violated its own policies on antiterrorism and against arms sales to Iran, was buying our own citizens’ freedom in a manner that could only encourage the taking of others, was working through disreputable international go-betweens . . . and was misleading the American people—all in the guise of furthering some purported regional political transformation, or to obtain in actuality a hostage release