Posts Tagged ‘coronavirus’

Presidential covidiocy

October 4, 2020

In the debate, Trump mocked Biden’s mask-wearing, as he’s done continuously. Trump was probably already infected. 

He also denigrated Biden’s intelligence. Who looks smart now?

All along, Trump pooh-poohed the pandemic, acting, at every stage, like it’s all done or soon will be. However, we can see how contagious this virus is, when even the President, in the White House bubble, gets infected.

But wait. What bubble? Now it’s evident how fecklessly lax the whole White House operation has been, with not only Trump but everyone around him flouting the safety precautions urged by other parts of his own government. A huge spreader was the mask-free Barrett nomination reception. So the infected now include not only Trump, but Melania, Hope Hicks, Kellyanne Conway, campaign chief Stepien, Republican party head McDaniel, Gov. Chris Christie (in Trump’s debate prep), Notre Dame’s President (at the Barrett event), several senators, and many others.

This White House covidiocy was not only recklessly stupid for everyone thusly endangering themselves — and others coming in contact with them — it was irresponsible toward the whole American public, screwing up the administration’s ability to function. Institutions throughout the land have wrestled with how to operate safely. But not the White House!

Along with incompetence, another of its defining characteristics has been untruthfulness, a super-spreader of lies. A Cornell University study reviewing 38 million articles about covid found Trump the “single largest driver” of misinformation. That pandemic of dishonesty infects even this presidential health crisis. At Saturday’s medical briefing, his doctor, Sean Conley, repeatedly evaded questions whether Trump had received oxygen by serially stating times when oxygen was not administered. But Friday morning was excluded from that litany. They also couldn’t get the infection timeline straight.

Trump is in special danger, being 74 and obese — we actually don’t know what other prior health issues he might have. Nevertheless, he may come out of this with flying colors. Thanks, of course, to receiving extraordinary medical care (not, presumably, including hydroxychloroquine or bleach injections). 

Nice for him; others are not so fortunate. Over 200,000 Americans dead so far, with many more suffering long-term if not permanent injury (plus millions losing jobs, and psychological damage). And, while he’s getting that great publicly-provided health care, Trump’s minions are right now asking the Supreme Court to end Obamacare, and thus end health coverage for millions of Americans. 

Most of the covid deaths and other damage could have been avoided had Trump acted responsibly about masking and other precautions, not only personally, but urging everyone to comply, instead of encouraging what became mass covidiocy. Most Americans are, in spite of Trump, doing the right thing. But the minority who refuse, instigated by the covidiot-in-chief, are the cause of the virus still being out of control here, in contrast to most other nations. 

So as to Trump’s own illness, some might say he had it coming. Nevertheless I hope for his recovery. So he can face what else he’s justly got coming, starting with a crushing defeat in November. 

Reopening schools

July 24, 2020

Trump wants schools reopened. Because he cares about kids’ education? (Note, that was a laugh line.) No, of course he cares only about himself, seeing open schools as the ticket to economic rebound, his only hope for re-election.

You might think that in his desperation, he’d do what’s really needed to reopen schools and the economy. His latest briefing took matters a tiny bit more seriously. But just a tiny bit. Even now Trump is still trying to keep federal money for testing and tracing out of pending legislation!

Covid forces tradeoffs between economic and health concerns. Life has great value, but it’s not infinite, and it’s not necessarily crazy to posit that the lives saved are not worth the enormous economic costs — which, after all, themselves affect lives and their quality. Unfortunately, thanks to Trump, we took the economic hit, but because of an atrocious lack of leadership and relenting too fast, got the health disaster as well.

For schools, the tradeoffs skew differently. Keeping them closed cripples the economy by forcing parents to stay home with kids rather than work. (This is Trump’s real animus.) But the damage to children’s education could actually be lifelong, with the missed classroom time never made up. Zoom lessons are not the same. The impact on poor children, less able to participate remotely, is all the greater. They will fall further behind, widening inequality. And out of school they’re more likely to suffer abuse, malnutrition, and mental problems.

The World Bank estimates that losing five months of school will cut the lifetime earnings of affected children by $10 trillion, equal to 7% of current annual GDP.

Against these huge detriments, the health risks are smaller than for other societal sectors. Studies indicate that children are much less susceptible to infection than adults, and way less likely to die. And infected children seem to be less contagious. One reason is that they’re shorter. The virus-laden droplets they eject tend not to reach higher altitudes where adults can ingest them.

So I too actually want schools reopened. But it entails serious risks that must be seriously addressed.

Much unlike Trump (who simply threatens to force schools to reopen, ready or not), Joe Biden has presented a careful comprehensive plan for reopening schools while minimizing the risks. His plan follows CDC guidelines. (Which Mike Pence said schools should feel free to ignore. Yes, our national covid response coordinator actually said that.)

The plan’s key elements are clear:

• First, schools can’t reopen where the virus is not under control. That requires masks, social distancing, and intensive testing and tracing. (On all these, America is still an underachiever.)

• The most vulnerable (mainly older) teachers and school personnel must be specially protected.

• Good supply of masks and PPE.

• Reduced class sizes, staggered schedules, and other measures to prevent crowding.

• Giving schools the money needed to meet added costs for PPE, sanitizing, reconfiguring classrooms, etc.

• Communication with parents, giving them confidence they can send kids to school in reasonable safety.

• Where schools cannot provide full in-person teaching, much more is needed so all students, but especially disadvantaged ones, can fully participate in remote learning programs.

Some further thoughts: with all the unemployment, shouldn’t we hire some people to help bring kids up to speed on learning? And shouldn’t we consider shortening if not eliminating next summer’s vacation?

Other countries have implemented plans like Biden’s with good results. I note that the elementary schools I’ve been supporting in Somaliland seem to be doing great at working with (very poor!) children stuck at home. Surely we should expect as much for America’s kids.

Find the details of Biden’s plan here:  www.fsrcoin.com/98.html

(As a contributor I received it from his campaign. As a former Republican donor, I get all their e-mails too. The contrast is stunning. The Biden ones are always sober, serious, fact-based, inspiring confidence. The Republican messages are an hysteria of wild falsehoods.)

Covid-19: The March of Folly

July 3, 2020

From the start, Trump repeatedly assured us the virus was under control; no big deal; everyone could get tested; it would go away miraculously; and applauded his own performance as “tremendous” and “incredible,” etc. All lies.

Our record on this is in fact the worst of any advanced nation (bar possibly Brazil, with a Trump clone president). Had we acted smartly and swiftly like others, the virus could have been contained without the economic apocalypse that became necessary due to Trump’s dithering. And the economic pain turned out to be for nought, because we were too lax about it, reopening too soon, so the virus is now out of control anyway. Rising in at least 40 states.

We’ve just hit a new one-day record of over 50,000 confirmed cases. So far totaling over 2.7 million. Except that the CDC says that’s an undercount by a factor of ten. Because most cases (lacking sufficient testing) are never properly diagnosed. So it’s really closer to 30 million — increasing fast. Deaths (at least 127,000, but also surely an undercount) are actually falling — for now — apparently due to a learning curve on treatment, and older people being more careful. But coming weeks and months look very dire.

It’s Trump’s fault. A total failure of leadership; indeed, of sanity. Denial of reality. Ignoring science. Promoting harmful quack cures and other misinformation. Continued under-testing. His administration crafted detailed shutdown guidance and then shelved it. The limited suggestions they did provide were neutered by Trump’s encouraging morons to rebel against restrictions. Politicizing it all. Mask wearing became demonized as a badge of wimpy Democrat socialists — virile freedom-loving ‘Murricans don’t wear no frickin’ masks.

We’ve seen the video of the jerk refusing to heed a Costco mask requirement. He said, “I woke up in a free country.” Hello, “freedom” does not mean flouting reasonable public health rules. You can go maskless at home, but have no right to risk other people’s lives. This is called living in society.

Tens of millions have lost jobs, millions sickened or killed — and you’re outraged at having to wear a mask??

Most Americans thankfully have more sense, and have been great about acting responsibly, despite Trump’s irresponsible anti-leadership. But he’s undermined their good efforts by empowering the mask rebels, like that Costco fool, who spread the virus. What is so hard about understanding that even without symptoms you can infect others? Predictably, in states (mostly red) that were late and half-hearted about precautions in the first place, and relaxed them even as Covid cases rose, with Trumpsters heedlessly packing into bars and other gathering places (including his rallies) without masks, the disease is now surging.

And whereas states like New York, the worst hit, got it under control by tremendous efforts, with infection and death rates falling dramatically, that’s likely to be undone because they can’t control traveling anti-mask assholes who will re-spread the infection. Thus Europe has banned travel from the U.S.

And what’s the administration’s posture now, with the disease surging? Trump is hoping his voters can somehow be blinded to the catastrophe, which he himself actually worsens by holding super-spreader campaign events. Mike Pence is meanwhile declaring victory, saying the “panic” about Covid is “overblown,” and we’re in better shape now than at the start. While he (and of course Trump) still refuse to push masks.* In lieu of such precautions, Pence recommends prayer.

Indeed (and unsurprisingly, given the irrationality at religion’s core), the worst of Covid folly is seen in churches. Too many pastors insist on continuing live worship services, usually without masking or distancing. These have repeatedly proven to constitute Covid-19 anti-personnel bombs. Some claim God will protect them. As if he’s ever spared his flocks from the afflictions he’s visited upon humanity. While others never miss an opportunity to say God is punishing us for something (abortion, gays, etc., pick your fetish). Some hold that trying to prevent infection is thwarting God’s will.

A “sacrament” at Florida’s mis-named “Church of Health and Healing” is a bleach solution offered as a miracle cure. And Louisiana’s Rev. Tony Spell has even been bussing in people to attend his Covid-19 spreadathons, so they can carry the virus all over the state. But no worries — Spell (who heads the also misnamed “Life Tabernacle Church”) explains that to a pure religious person, death looks “like a welcomed friend.”

But at the pearly gates, will St. Peter say, “No mask, no admittance”?

Hopes are pinned on a vaccine to beat this thing finally. But wait, not so fast. Did you forget the anti-vaxxers? The campaign against Covid vaccination is already underway. We’re told the whole pandemic thing is really a huge plot by Bill Gates to use vaccines to sneak microchips into us.

Religion. Trump. Masklessness. Anti-science. Conspiracy theories. It’s all a package. God save us from this lunacy.

* Some states are only now finally mandating masks. On June 1, Trump himself did finally tell Fox News he’s all for masking, saying it makes him look like the Lone Ranger. (Whose mask didn’t cover his nose and mouth.) But meantime Trump has also said people wear masks just to show disapproval of him, and that masks are ineffective. Science says different. But who cares about science?

Trump’s death rallies

June 16, 2020

Many Trump supporters still think covid-19 is a hoax.* Now he invites them to stake their lives on that.

He’ll hold a rally June 20 in Tulsa, Oklahoma; later in Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina. The main thrust is to show America back in business. Evoking Admiral Farragut — “damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

For the Tulsa rally, the New York Times reports, Trump campaign officials foresee no social distancing or mask wearing, because Trump doesn’t want to be seen with people doing that. And because such precautions “would be unnecessary because the state is so far along in its reopening.”

Most states are reopening. Some, like New York, cautiously, keyed to falling infection and death rates. Others — mostly red states like Oklahoma — willy-nilly, actually disregarding the disease’s trends, rising in many of them.

In Oklahoma the virus is not receding. And remember that Trump supporters are the most likely to ignore the threat, to have already heedlessly exposed themselves to it, and hence are the most likely to be walking covid bombs.** A rally with thousands of such people crammed closely together, indoors, with no protective masks, is called, in the lingo, a “super-spreader” event. Or let’s just call it insane.

That epitomizes Trumpdom.  Here we see this con man’s narcissistic vanity trumping even the very lives of his fans. Plumbing new depths of depravity, he draws them  literally to their deaths. (They’ll be required to sign waivers, promising not to sue.) And still they love him.

Insane.

But this is Trump’s political strategy in the face of the health and economic apocalypse his fecklessness surely worsened. Act like it’s all over with. Even as the death toll rises. Damn the torpedoes!

And even this may not be a bridge too far for Trumpsuckers already cocooned in the alternate reality he spins with Fox News’ help. If Fox simply stops talking about covid carnage, it won’t be happening. Except to those actually dying. It’s said doctors bury their mistakes. Trump is trying something similar.

* Coin World reports a widespread conspiracy theory that Australia’s $10 bill proves it’s a hoax, orchestrated by billionaires and governments to force vaccinations on the public. Pointing to design features they say picture the virus, and show Bill Gates at his desk. Those actually, Australia’s Reserve Bank says, show the country’s wattle plant, and the writer Mary Gilmore, so identified on the note. Also, it was introduced in 2017!

** The big annual national coin show slated for Pittsburgh in August has not (yet) been cancelled and organizers promise plenty of precautions. But I will likely skip it, sadly, because it will draw Trumpsters who blow off precautions and thus irresponsibly endanger others.

The biology of the pandemic

June 14, 2020

My Capital District Humanist Society recently had a talk (over zoom) on the biology of the pandemic. It was a good scientific overview.

The speaker, Ricki Lewis, is an Adjunct Professor at the Alden March Biocenter; author of numerous scientific books and papers.

She began with a Joshua Lederberg quote saying humanity’s biggest threat is viruses; and by harking back to the great past fear over polio (another virus); as well as the once-common childhood illnesses Measles, Mumps and Chicken Pox; all now defeated by vaccines (at least until anti-vaxxers came along).

SARS-CoV-2 is the name of this virus. Covid-19 is the illness it causes. It’s common for viruses to jump to humans from other animals. Particularly bats; they’re a quarter of all mammals, can harbor viruses without dying, and spew them all over. This is a natural enough explanation for Covid-19’s source. Lewis noted that no part of its genome matches anything in labs, though she couldn’t rule out its originating in a lab without human intentionality.

A virus is not a living thing, being much simpler than a bacterium or other kind of cell. It straddles the boundary between the biological and the chemical. Now, our genetic material is DNA; DNA is a molecular template for making RNA; and then RNA makes proteins. The genetic material for a virus can be either DNA or RNA. That genetic core, in a virus, is encased in a capsule of fatty stuff. “Coronavirus” gets its name from its crownlike exterior of spikes that lock into what are called ACE2 receptors on the outsides of our living cells. That enables the virus to inject its genetic material into a cell, and grab its chemical innards to make copies of itself. Then the cell bursts, spewing out more viruses.

We have a hierarchy of defenses. First are simply physical barriers, like skin. Then there’s “innate immunity,” mainly white blood cells tasked with combating invaders in general, through what we call “inflammation.” The third level is “adaptive” immunity, when the body manufactures antibodies specific to a particular invader. But that takes a while. Lewis noted that Blood Type O seems to block the covid virus better than other types; whereas Type A is overrepresented among the victims. She also said that Africans may be suffering less than us from covid because their immune systems are already revved up due to all the various illnesses they’re exposed to.

We get infected mainly by taking in viruses in droplets spewed out in coughs or sneezes, or just breathing, by infected people. That’s why masks help a lot. Lewis discussed the possibility of getting sick from touching surfaces where Viruses have come to rest. While this can happen, she didn’t think it’s much of a factor.

Most who get infected with the covid virus suffer only mild symptoms, or none. It’s actually better from the virus’s point of view if it can do its thing without killing the host; hence Lewis saw some possibility that covid could mutate its way into such relative benignity. Meantime, however, it does make a minority of victims very sick. A lot in the body goes wrong. We have endothelial cells that kind of hold things together; and they “come apart at the seams.” The alveoli in our lungs, which transfer oxygen into our blood, fill up with “stuff,” and blood oxygen plummets. You also get blood clots, heart attacks, strokes, and organ failure. Your own immune system goes haywire trying to fight this, resulting in a “cytokine storm” with nasty positive feedback loops. (Also, those who recover from a bad covid episode seem to be left with a range of problems that will be long-lasting.)

As for treatment, the drug remdesivir seems to inhibit virus replication, somewhat hastening recovery. But Lewis was skeptical about a vaccine, saying we don’t actually know if that’s even possible, and anyhow it would take a lot longer to deploy safely than optimists currently contemplate. Meantime “herd immunity” would deprive the virus of enough potential victims to keep itself going; that would happen once about 70% of the population has been infected and are presumably immune; though we don’t yet actually know they are immune from reinfection. And we’re a long way from herd immunity levels. Reopening economies could accelerate that, with a “second wave” of infections. Lewis said she initially expected that in the fall, but now thinks it could come within weeks due to the George Floyd protests likely having spread the virus.

The anti-democratic pandemic

May 8, 2020

The 1980s and ’90s saw a global democratic surge. Strongman rule ended in practically all of Latin America, much of Africa, and elsewhere. Communism collapsed. China, while still a dictatorship, at least became economically free. It all culminated in publication of my 2009 book,The Case for Rational Optimism.

Then tyranny made a comeback. What really happened was its practitioners raising their game, perfecting techniques for neutering democratic accountability and suppressing opposition. With sufficient pushback this could not succeed. But they also perfected techniques to dupe enough people to support them.

Turkey, Hungary, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Thailand, Tanzania, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Egypt. India’s masses cheer on Modi’s increasing authoritarianism. Sri Lanka brings back the Rajapaksas. Chinese love Xi as he inexorably tightens the screws.

For autocrats always seeking pretexts to grow their power, Covid-19 is a golden opportunity. Everyone recognizes that governments do need extra tools to combat the virus. People scared by it are less fastidious about such power grabs, and distracted from opposing them as might normally occur.* And while such measures might be called temporary, good luck with that once the crisis ends. Authoritarians are not known for relinquishing powers.

At least eighty-four countries have enacted such “emergency” laws. Notable is Hungary, where Viktor Orban was already a textbook exemplar for the mentioned autocrat’s playbook, parlaying the support of a minority of voters to irremovably entrench his regime. Now the parliament has handed him power to “rule by decree.” Temporarily of course. Don’t hold your breath.

Contagion concerns have scotched large gatherings everywhere. Nice for autocrats who hate mass protests — like Hong Kong’s in 2019. When in 1997 Britain returned the territory to China, the deal supposedly guaranteed, for 50 years at least, continuation of Hong Kong’s free institutions. The protesters saw Beijing as reneging on that deal. Now a bunch of leading figures in the democracy movement have been jailed. Meantime, Article 22 of Hong Kong’s “Basic Law” bars China from interfering with its internal affairs. But now China’s “Liaison Office” in Hong Kong asserts it’s not bound by Article 22. Beijing is betting that a world focused on the pandemic will shrug.

Lockdown rules are made in Heaven for dictators, a perfect excuse to lock up opponents. Fighting the virus also entails what would ordinarily be seen as privacy violations — giving countries like Russia and especially China yet more pretexts to ramp up their Orwellian surveillance states.

Free flow of information is vital to democracy and inimical to tyranny. Here again the bad guys are taking advantage of coronavirus, to clamp down. Some countries now outlaw “fake news,” with harsh penalties. What’s “fake” is decided by the governments. It really means news they don’t want their people to hear.

Free flow of cash is vital to dictators’ hold on power, to keep their enablers sweet. The unprecedented amounts being dispensed to fight the virus and its economic damage offer unprecedented opportunities for corruption. Hardly was the ink dry on America’s $2 trillion coronavirus package when Trump fired the inspector general tasked with watching where the money went.

And of course the pandemic offers an ideal excuse to fiddle with elections in the name of protecting public health and safety. This has already become a contentious issue in America, with fights over mail voting. Many are properly worried that a Trump facing defeat might pull something egregious.

A final point. Populist movements, rebelling against “establishments” — Germany’s AFD, Italy’s League and M5S, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Trump of course — are at odds with democratic values. Their supporters feel ill-served by traditional democracy. But in years ahead, the massive costs associated with Covid-19, together with reduced tax revenues — while the economic pain of high unemployment persists — will confront governments at all levels with nasty choices. There will be anger, apt to intensify the populist hostility toward conventional politics, and the allure of demagogic would-be strongmen promising to bust up the system.

The virus will in due course subside. Recovery from its economic damage will take longer. And the damage to democracy could last longer still.

* This is not an endorsement of America’s anti-lockdown protests. We’re still a democracy (for now), and government’s most basic remit is protecting people from harm by others. That includes protection against fools who disobey directives to contain the spread of disease. No one ever has the “freedom” to harm others.

Reopening? Your money or your life

May 2, 2020

Jack Benny’s famous bit: A mugger demands, “Your money or your life!” Benny hesitates. Then says, “I’m thinking it over!”

Between economic sacrifices and sacrificing lives, we really had no choice. Couldn’t tolerate seeing hospitals overwhelmed and people dying for lack of care. We opted to accept the economic pain, and it’s proving to be immense. Now we’re confronting the issue of reopening. The federal government no longer endorses shut-downs. In fact, an America that once would have led a global response now won’t even lead its own states. Some (mostly Republican) are already relaxing restrictions, others planning for it.

I have a bad feeling about this.

In many places, notably New York, the restrictions succeeded in flattening the curve, with illnesses and deaths trending downward. Elsewhere they’re actually still rising. Many states aren’t testing much, so are flying blind. In any case, relaxing invites a new virus explosion. At the outset, The Economist foresaw repeated cycling between lockdowns and disease spikes until either there’s a vaccine or until something like 80% of a population has experienced infection. Creating “herd immunity,” where the virus dies out for lack of enough infectable victims.

We’re nowhere near that. On the other hand, reopening could make sense if the number infected were low enough that testing and contact tracing could feasibly contain new outbreaks. Unfortunately we’re in between those two infection levels. Ours is sufficiently high that to reopen safely would require testing and contact tracing on a massive scale, well beyond existing capabilities. Ramping that up enough could cost hundreds of billions. It would actually be worth it, as against the cost of economic shutdown in the trillions. But the Trump administration is not biting this bullet; hardly even tonguing it.*

A compromise approach might conceivably be reasonable: relaxing hard lockdown restrictions while still urging carefulness — masks, social distancing, hand-washing, etc. Perhaps gaining much of the benefit while avoiding much of the cost.

This resembles Sweden’s approach. They never locked down, but did push social distancing and the like, while also taking more rigorous measures to protect the most vulnerable. The idea was to arrive at herd immunity at limited cost in both lives and economic damage. Sweden’s death rate does exceed that in otherwise comparable countries, but it’s not out of control, and may actually represent a reasonable balance between fighting the virus and protecting the economy.

But America is not Sweden, whose citizens have a very high level of social consciousness and trust their government. America’s government is widely viewed with hostility. Certainly its president inspires zero trust in anything he says. He’s even issued lockdown guidelines while encouraging people rebelling against them. Protesting with their “Trump 2020” banners, guns, and Confederate flags — and no social distancing. These nitwits may be a small minority. But even if most Americans act more sensibly, too many (thanks to Trump’s inconsistent messaging) are irresponsibly complacent about Covid-19. Relaxing restrictions will exacerbate that. Enough foolish people and the virus can spread like wildfire.

So the danger of a big resurgence is very high. What’s our Plan B for that? Lock down again? The public’s willingness will be limited, having suffered it once and relishing their escape. And closing the economy again is the last thing Trump will want as the election nears.

During tough wars voices always say we should just declare victory and go home. Trump’s strategy may be something like that. Reopen the economy, swagger about his imaginary tremendous victory over Covid-19, and basically ignore its recrudescence. The administration may use various wheezes to actually avoid reporting infections and deaths. Even now they’re much undercounted. Trump and his dupes are masters of reality-denial. Many Americans will avert their eyes.

Coronavirus coming here was not Trump’s fault. But the human and economic damage would have been much less had he not refused to listen, in January and February, to repeated cogent warnings urging action. Since then his response has been shambolic in every way. He is directly guilty for tens of thousands of deaths and trillions in economic loss. (Talk about “American carnage.”)

And if we reopen too soon, those sacrifices will have been for nought. We’ll have paid the price without getting what we thought we were buying. “Your money or your life” — we’ll have forfeited both.

* At every stage, lying about our testing capability. Claiming it exceeds that of any other country is blatantly false. In fact we’re nowhere near having testing and tracing capability to reopen without a virus resurgence.

The American Crisis

April 13, 2020

These are the times that try men’s souls. “Try” meant “test” when Thomas Paine wrote those words.

We’re having an extraordinary economic crisis, entwined with an extraordinary health crisis. While America was already undergoing a crisis of the soul. A political and leadership crisis that was also a moral one, testing the very principles this nation stands for.

All this will end. But the world will be different.

We’re not hearing much now about limited government. I’m no government-loving “progressive,” but even libertarians recognize a need for government to protect us in situations like this, organizing and mobilizing a societal response. But unfortunately we’re also seeing why the big modern bureaucratic state is distrusted. It’s not size that counts so much as how you use the thing.

China’s authoritarian regime sneers at governments hamstrung by democratic accountability. China was indeed unfettered in imposing draconian measures to contain the virus. On the other hand, it wouldn’t have been such a big problem if they hadn’t started out silencing doctors who raised the alarm. China also failed to properly alert the world. Thus its regime is very culpable.

So is ours. Even given China’s guilt, the disaster here did not have to happen. Had we done what South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore did — merely acting competently. Instead, America’s government bumbled and fumbled in a disorganized manner for almost two months because Trump refused to heed experts ringing alarm bells. This tragic fact is now well documented by multiple responsible sources. It cost us many thousands of lives, untold other human suffering, and trillions of dollars.

So a key lesson is the importance of competent, intelligent, responsible, sane leadership. That’s up to voters. So far I don’t see that lesson sinking in.

COVID-19 threatens our national security. Trump fetishizes the military, imagining this conveys strength. Actually the bulk of our giant defense budget is oriented toward re-fighting WWII (all those costly aircraft carriers, etc.), not the real threats of the modern world. Like pandemics. Wasting all those resources on useless “defense” actually weakens us. Spending a tiny fraction of that money on defense against threats like COVID-19 could have made all the difference. We didn’t do it.

This American failure is not invisible to other countries, who are suffering in consequence. They expected better. A real blow to our international standing.

Meantime, big government is getting bigger. The crisis prodded Congress into the kind of bipartisan action that seemed unimaginable just weeks ago, expanding government’s role in both size and scope to support the economy in ways also unimaginable weeks ago. We may think this is just a temporary emergency response. The bipartisanship already is fading. But expansions of government don’t have a tendency to reverse themselves. The idea of government relieving businesses of downside risks, and subsidizing paychecks, may stick around, with large implications. Not socialism, exactly; more like state capitalism. And the bailouts seem more accessible to big businesses than small ones, accelerating a trend toward consolidation, as against the more dynamic small-firm end of the business spectrum.

The government is throwing around trillions of dollars very fast and without preparation or forethought. A massive program like this ought to have been preceded by a careful legislative process with input from divergent viewpoints. Of course this is an emergency situation. But oversight is definitely lacking. In fact, Trump’s already fired the inspector general who’d been tasked with keeping tabs on the handouts. Why? It’s hardly paranoid to foresee massive abuse and corruption. Surely there must be an investigation of where all the money is going. Trump will foam at the mouth screaming “witch hunt.”

This is also changing us as a society. Sociologist Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone pointed up a trend toward atomization. That preceded the smartphone era, which has prompted vast handwringing about growing solipsism. Strangely, on one level, it’s all about human connectedness, with people fixated on their phones mainly for stimuli from others. Yet while our Facebook “friend” rosters grow, real friendships contract. (I’m baffled by people obsessing over online content concerning others they hardly know.)

Now we have “social distancing” — as if that hadn’t already been an apt way to describe what was happening. In-person communication being supplanted by virtual communication. If this were a battle between the two, the former has just suffered a devastating strategic reverse. Now it’s actually wrong for us to socialize in person, it’s bad for public health!

Our society is built upon our webs of human interconnectedness, embodied in the term “social capital.” A key element of that is social trust. It’s the very basic understanding that you can walk down the street with no expectation that a passer-by will bash you on the head and grab your stuff. Or, more prosaically, that when you buy packaged food it won’t be poisoned. Et cetera, et cetera. A vast range of ways we trust that society will work as it should. This can’t be taken for granted, it was built up over thousands of years.

Countries where social trust — and, in particular, trust in government and other institutions — is high (like South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore) have seen commensurately high levels of citizen cooperation with public health directives.

But polls have shown that Americans’ social trust is eroding. It’s not that people are actually becoming less trustworthy. It’s that more of us believe others are less trustworthy. This can become self-fulfilling if we act in ways that exhibit less trust. The decline in social trust may be partly due to reduced face-to-face interaction. And it’s aggravated by having two political tribes each believing the other consists of bad people who threaten everything that’s good and holy.

And now, we look at other people we encounter in the street, in stores, etc., and view them as literally potential threats to us. “What if that guy has the virus?” What if this kind of distrust becomes ingrained, even after the crisis ends?

Human social virtues in a time of crisis

April 1, 2020

Garrison Keillor once said, if the purpose of one’s life is to serve others, then what purpose is served by the existence of those others? This actually poses a deep philosophical issue. John Donne wrote that no man is an island. Yet each of us experiences existence only within the confines of our own skulls. Experiencing only one’s own feelings, not those of others.

It can be argued that we only ever do seemingly selfless deeds when it rewards us with good feelings. Evolution programmed us to have such feelings — and with empathy for the feelings of others, even if we cannot experience them directly — to make us do things for the common good. Hence even if pure selfishness might seem strictly logical, a degree of selflessness is a fundamental part of our human nature (barring sociopaths who failed to get that software installed). And we measure our virtue largely in terms of our interactions with others. Summed up pretty well by the golden rule. Nobody is perfect but most of us try.

And not just because of our programming. Your rational brain tells you that if you want to live in a society where people treat each other well, it behooves you to behave that way yourself. And if everybody does this, it’s good for everybody. We do what’s right mainly because we know it’s right, and why.

Holding fast to these standards of conduct is especially vital in a crisis like today’s, where the temptations for selfishness are heightened, and so is its ill effect. Where social solidarity is more needful than ever. Americans are largely meeting the test.

Acting rightly does make one feel good about oneself. But that may not be enough. We all have egos, greedy for such feelings, and one way to pump them up is through validation from others. This may seem strange because, again, you don’t have direct access to what others feel. But you’re affected by their behavior, which in turn is affected by their feelings toward you. And our social programming makes our position in society important to us. All this makes us crave the good opinion of others, and suckers for flattery.

Thus if we do good or are successful, we want others to know it. One way is to tell them. But that actually contravenes the golden rule. How so? Well, do you enjoy hearing others’ boasts? Saying “Look how great I am” implicitly tells the hearer, “and you’re not.” Even if unintentionally, self-aggrandizement forces the hearer to ponder the comparison. It’s not nice. That’s why bragging has a negative connotation, and modesty and humility are virtues.* A basic rule of living in society.

Much human behavior seeks to evade that rule. Successful, rich people cannot wear a badge announcing their net worth. But a lot of what they do (and buy) is mainly to advertise to others about their success. Boastfulness by other means.

But some are boastful by boasting. “I am very rich,” Trump has said. “I am very smart.” He’s even boasted of being the most modest person ever. And he tells us he’s doing a great job. Thus his coronavirus briefings (whose TV ratings he’s bragged about). Recently the word of the day, repeated like a verbal tic, was “tremendous.” Then he switched to “incredible.” Maybe tomorrow it will be “fantastic.” And not content to trumpet his wonderfulness himself, he trots out sycophantic flatterers to bubble about it.

What’s truly incredible is a president using a horrific crisis, with thousands dying, and millions suffering deprivation, as an occasion for sickening orgies of self-congratulation.

And contemptible as such braggadocio is, worse yet if the boasts are lies. It’s been factually documented how his failure of leadership delayed forceful action on testing to contain the virus. Doing what other countries did would have saved many thousands of lives and trillions in economic devastation. This reality might have brought forth some humility. A different reality can only be constructed out of lies. Like the simply false claim that we’re testing more than any other nation. (Our per-capita testing rate is certainly way below.)

I have pilloried Governor Cuomo in the past, but his coronavirus briefings are models of what Trump’s are not. No self-praise extravaganzas. No bashing the press and other critics, no demanding obsequious flattery. No lying. Cuomo gives us the unvarnished truth. He takes responsibility. He brings the situation home to us in a very human way we can all relate to. He tells us what needs to be done, what we all must do.

Knowing he’s being unfavorably compared to Cuomo infuriates Trump. But, incapable of learning from Cuomo, he resorts to pot-shots at him: “He had a chance to buy, in 2015, 16,000 ventilators at a very low price . . . he shouldn’t be talking about us. He should be buying his own ventilators.” But instead, said Trump, Cuomo goes for “death panels and lotteries.”

Albany Times-Union columnist Chris Churchill has deconstructed exactly how vile this Trump cheap shot is. It came (surprise) from the internet, a right-wing website, based on a 2015 state task force report on pandemic planning. Churchill read it and interviewed the task force leader — concluding that the attack on Cuomo was “blatantly dishonest.” The report discussed strategies for dealing with a ventilator shortage, but did not recommend buying thousands just in case. Let alone somehow present an option to buy 16,000 “at a very low price.”

But Trump’s gross distortion of the facts is kind of beside the point. He’s repeatedly shown he needs no facts at all to slime somebody. And keeping up such divisive dishonesty, even in this time of national trauma, is just ghastly.

Here is the real point, that all this leads up to. I started out talking about our most fundamental human precepts for living among others. How normal people have that software pre-installed, and how crucial it is in a crisis like we face now. When the leadership we choose is someone who has not had that software installed, we are in very deep trouble as a society.

* Certain commenters will jump to sneer about my own modesty. I was tempted to actually talk about it here. But that would be immodest.

As the virus goes viral

March 30, 2020

My first 3/9 post on coronavirus was mocked for underestimating it. That’s a misreading. But I was over-estimating the government’s response. Which could have greatly limited the damage, but failed to.

An in-depth 3/29 New York Times report* details how the Trump administration squandered the opportunity to identify hot spots by testing, and to confine the disease through targeted quarantines — avoiding what became a need for a nationwide lockdown with unfathomable human and economic costs. While other countries were already testing tens of thousands daily, we were still doing fewer than a hundred. We effectively lost an entire, critical month.

Trump’s claim that we’re testing more than any other nation is simply false. Even today, many Americans with symptoms cannot get tested. A Brooklyn ER doctor, in a radio interview Saturday, said her hospital was turning away hundreds daily. While many coming in for unrelated problems are actually testing positive for COVID-19. So it’s likely our count of known cases is just the tip of an iceberg.

The Times documents the leadership failure. The NSC’s pandemic response team, established under Obama, was disbanded under Trump. Bureaucracies acted like bureaucracies. As the crisis metastasized, the FDA was actually tightening restrictions on testing; we were using a test both slow and faulty; were slow to fix that; while refusing a better test on offer from the World Health Organization. (Trump disdains such international bodies.)

The Times report is sickening (no pun here), and makes a mockery of Trump’s daily self-congratulatory briefings. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We now need megatons of cure because we didn’t test swiftly and widely. Even now, a massive crash testing program — which would cost a tiny fraction of the price tag for our economic shutdown — could pay off hugely in limiting the damage. We should test everybody. (At last we seem to have a test that’s cheap & quick.) Then quarantine those infected, and everybody else could resume normal life, knowing they’ll be safe.

We’re still doing nothing like that. The death toll is now projected to exceed 100,000. Trump tells us he’s a hero because it would have been 2 million if nothing at all had been done. But the whole story would have been very different with true, responsible, sensible leadership.

* * *

The Bible tells us those who have will get more, and for those who have not, even what they have will be taken away. (Biblical morality.) Coronavirus is taking from everyone; perhaps reducing inequality by shredding the investments of the rich; but the poorest are suffering most. They’re not the ones with jobs suitable for working from home. It’s mainly lower wage workers losing paychecks. The giant bail-out legislation indiscriminately spews cash, but won’t make whole those thrown out of work.

Our biggest inequality is in education. Born into a poor family in a poor neighborhood, your chances of surmounting are slim because your school likely stinks. Now even those schools are closed. Distance learning may help affluent kids in stable homes. Poor kids in dysfunctional ones, often without computers or even web access, will fall further behind.

* * *

Almost forgotten in the midst of this cataclysm is that we’re supposed to be conducting a national census right now. It isn’t postponed. The Trump administration was already trying to skew it for political advantage, by undercounting people in Democrat-leaning areas, to reduce their congressional representation and electoral votes. One way was to simply underfund the census, making it harder to count people on the margins. They tried to particularly target Hispanics by including a citizenship question to scare them off from participating. The Supreme Court slapped down this proposal, literally ruling it was based on lies.

Trump said the census should count only citizens. The (“phony”) Constitution actually says all persons must be counted. That includes even the undocumented. But despite the Court ruling, the “citizenship” gambit probably succeeded in scaring off a lot of them.

The virus surely makes a full accurate count even harder, with census workers confined to quarters and practicing social distancing.

* * *

Almost forgotten too is that we’re supposed to be conducting a national election. Many primaries are postponed. That might have been a mess had the Democratic race not already been effectively decided. Especially now, Bernie should end his candidacy and urge uniting behind Biden.

Some say Biden’s invisible. Actually he’s not silent, is acting very responsibly, and quite reasonably the media is currently giving little attention to the election. That’s fine. Our campaigns are too long anyway. Biden will be on the ballot in November. Is anybody still “undecided?”

Now, more than ever — now that Trump’s fecklessness has really and truly fucked this nation up — we need that vote.

* https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/28/us/testing-coronavirus-pandemic.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20200329&instance_id=17169&nl=morning-briefing&regi_id=60449143&segment_id=23230&te=1&user_id=0588054855cd59fb97458c82182d229e