Saturday, March 28, 2020

Coronavirus and our reactions to it reveal our past, present, and future

I thought I’d share with you three things that came across my desk this morning. They examine the past, the present, and our future.

The past

National Geographic reports on How some cities ‘flattened the curve’ during the 1918 flu pandemic. Posted in this blog as Flattening the curve by social distancing - Evidence from 1918.

The present

Let’s ‘Kick Coronavirus’s Ass’. In this nightmarish moment, we’re feeling warm and fuzzy about the cold and calculating Andrew Cuomo.

True - the man is addictive. Perhaps that’s because the alternative … well … offers less?

The future

In the New Yorker Masha Gessen makes the case for why, In the Midst of the Coronavirus Crisis, We Must Start Envisioning the Future Now.

… The measures we are taking to save ourselves from a global pandemic of the novel coronavirus are changing us in fundamental, possibly irreparable ways. By instituting lockdowns and deploying a variety of emergency powers across the country, we are destroying our economy, our social fabric, and our political system. We will never be the same. Whether we change for both the better and the worse, as opposed to the solely catastrophic, will depend on how mindful we remain of the damage we are doing as we attempt to save ourselves from the pandemic.

… what do we do now that so much economic, social, and political damage has already been done? We have to start talking about the damage, and thinking about tomorrow. We have to recognize that what we are doing to avoid being killed by a virus is also killing us as a society. We have to make it a priority to restore the social fabric.

… Direct cash payments to tax-paying Americans, which are included in the government’s relief package, will provide an unexpected nationwide test run of universal basic income; distance learning may pave the way to more accessible and more equitable higher education; the drastic rise in telecommuting could reduce pollution and free up real estate that could be converted from offices to housing. All of this may be true. But how and whether these changes play out months and years from now depends entirely on how we think about both them and ourselves.

For example, will we think of universal basic income as a new approach to distributing resources—one in which society values people for their humanity, and not for what they produce—or simply as a less bureaucratic alternative to welfare checks? Will we think of distance learning as a way to make education more accessible or as a way for colleges to save money on professors and classrooms? For younger kids, might the shift prompt us to stop thinking of school as a place to warehouse children while their parents go to work, and start thinking of ways to engage children in learning? Will we emerge more atomized than ever before, with all casual links severed, accidental connections precluded, and public spaces destroyed—insuring that the new authoritarianism continues—or will we take care to create our public space anew? Will we have the courage to resist trying to restore the world we have lost, with its frenetic pace, its air travel and traffic jams, and its obsession with growth and production?

Our track record is abysmal. We have responded to crises by exacerbating the fundamental problems of society, including the root causes of the crises themselves. Our response to 9/11 sacrificed civil liberties and human rights. Our response to the financial crisis of 2008 created even more wealth inequality. If our response to the coronavirus pandemic follows the same patterns, it will make previous crises look like child’s play in comparison. If we continue to create more authoritarian powers; if we continue to go on nationwide lockdowns, or even effectively stay in one for a year or a year and a half; if we continue to feel virtuous because we’ve stayed home and done nothing (and those of us who managed not to murder their children will feel even more virtuous)—if we do all these things, we will have prevented the worst outcome of the coronavirus, but we may still destroy ourselves in the process.

Trump signs 2 trillion dollar CARES act but guts the oversight provisions

Heather Cox Richardson (March 27, Letters from an American) has some interesting observations on how the 2 trillion bill got passed - and what Trump did to f*ck it up.

Today the House of Representatives passed the Senate’s massive coronavirus relief and stimulus bill, the CARES Act. This $2.2 trillion bill is an attempt to address the massive economic dislocation caused by the pandemic now convulsing America. Lots of people have written to me to ask about all the “pork” that Democrats demanded in this bill and how they were playing with Americans’ lives for their own interests. This, once again, is Republican messaging, not reality.

I’ll just dive into the middle of the process.

Discussions hit a stalemate over a number of things, but primarily over the provision for a $500 billion fund to be used by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to shore up businesses (whose applications to that fund would be secret for six months) with little oversight. This was a nonstarter for Democrats, who pointed out the money could be funneled to Trump’s financial supporters, or even to Trump himself (it did not help that the president refused to pledge that he would not accept bailout money).

… [In the end] the Democrats got their primary concern taken care of in the Senate bill: it would have oversight of the $500 billion fund for businesses. An independent inspector general and an oversight board would oversee the dispersal of funds.

They also got a number of other items in the bill, making it look in many ways like a normal appropriations bill, with both parties getting appropriations for things they prioritize. … The idea that this was some sort of Democratic coup is belied by the fact that this was a bill written without Democratic input in the first place. It is also belied by the fact the bill passed the Senate by a bipartisan vote of 96–0.

Then it went to the House. Since the House had disbanded on March 14 to protect its members from the novel coronavirus, it was expected that the bill would pass by voice vote in the House, meaning that it would have unanimous consent and the members would not have to come back for a roll call vote. But a single representative could block that, and one did, Thomas Massie (R-KY), who demanded that his colleagues return to Washington, D.C. to vote. He could be voted down by a quorum, and was, as members of the House returned to vote against him, and hoo, boy, were they angry that he had demanded a grandstanding vote that would threaten their health. House members came back into the chamber to make a quorum, standing apart from each other, and attacked Massie for the arrogance that made them take airplanes and meet in close quarters against medical advice. Still, it was former Secretary of State John Kerry who had the last word. He tweeted: “Congressman Massie has tested positive for being an asshole. He must be quarantined to prevent the spread of his massive stupidity.”

The House then passed the bill and sent it on to the president who signed it.

But.

And with King Donald there always is a “but”.

When Trump signed it, he included a “signing statement.” These used to be quite innocuous statements in which a president would thank the people involved in writing the bill, or talk about how important a bill was. President George W. Bush began to use these statements to challenge the content of a bill without being forced to veto the entire thing, saying, for example, that he would not honor certain portions of it. And that’s what happened tonight. Trump issued a signing statement saying he would ignore the law’s provisions for an independent inspector general overseeing the disbursal of funds for corporate bailouts. His argument is that such a provision intrudes on the rights of the executive to block information from Congress. If this holds, it would erase the Democrats’ key victory in the negotiations over the bill.

So now who is against transparency and who is playing politics with our lives?

It is not the House Democrats, but rather the president, who is playing politics with this massive relief bill that was so painstakingly negotiated. He remains eager to gather power into his own hands.

I’ve got a label for it: Narcissistic Personality Disorder. See my other posts today on Trump’s mental disorders.

In other news, tonight Trump told reporters he would not talk to the Democratic governors he thought were insufficiently grateful for his help fighting the coronavirus. “All I want them to do—very simple: I want them to be appreciative.”

Flattening the curve by social distancing - Evidence from 1918

Social distsancing
Evidence from 1918 for social distancing.
Weekly deaths per 100,000 from 1918 pandemic
above the expected death rate.
Shaded bar is duration of social distancing.

National Geographic reports on How some cities ‘flattened the curve’ during the 1918 flu pandemic. Social distancing isn’t a new idea—it saved thousands of American lives during the last great pandemic. Here’s how it worked.

From left to right, top to bottom:

“Philadelphia waited eight days after their death rate began to take off before banning gatherings and closing schools. They endured the highest peak death rate of all cities studied.” 748 deaths per 100,000 during 24 weeks.

“After relaxing social distancing measures, San Francisco faced a long second wave of deaths.” 673 deaths

“New York City began quarantine measures very early—11 days before the death rate spiked. The city had the lowest death rate on the Eastern Seaboard.” 452 deaths

“St. Louis had strong social distancing measures and a low total death rate. The city successfully delayed its peak in deaths, but faced a sharp increase when restrictions were temporarily relaxed.” 358 deaths

For data on more cities consult the National G report.

And here’s an instance of what happened when social distancing was not implemented.

PHILADELPHIA DETECTED ITS first case of a deadly, fast-spreading strain of influenza on September 17, 1918. The next day, in an attempt to halt the virus’ spread, city officials launched a campaign against coughing, spitting, and sneezing in public. Yet 10 days later— despite the prospect of an epidemic at its doorstep—the city hosted a parade that 200,000 people attended.

We cannot afford an Easter opening - unless we want to do the Philadelphia thing for the whole nation. And that would trigger a catastrophic Trumpidemic.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Venting about Ventilators in the Age of the Trumpidemic

After considering a $1 billion price tag for ventilators, the White House had second thoughts

Days ago, the White House was nearing a deal with GM and Ventec Life Systems to produce up to 80,000 ventilators. Then they realized it’d cost over $1 billion. Now, despite the urgency, the government is dragging its heels while the president yells at GM and Ford on Twitter.

That was the 12:30 PM headline from Wired Science. In the context of signing off on a 2 Trillion stop gap measure, Trump balks at a 1 billion cost for ventilators. WTF? Run the numbers. The billion is just 0.0005 of the total 2 trillion bill.

This is now, more or less, and hour and a half later reported in WaPo:

The president invoked the Defense Production Act to force General Motors to make ventilators, after weeks of resistance. “I just haven’t had to use it,” Trump had said Thursday, insisting companies were volunteering the necessary efforts. But Friday morning, Trump raged on Twitter at GM chief executive Mary T. Barra, claiming she had backed away from an agreement to make tens of thousands of ventilators, and he invoked the act a few hours later.

Trumpidemic Tales - those of us at greatest risk are expendable

This morning (March 27) I posted Why I think Trump’s ‘feeling’ about the coronavirus may kill me. One view of that post is that I engaged in mere hyperbole. My hysteria is unwarranted ( so goes the apology for Trump’s willingness to sacrifice people for a stock market tick).

Pardon me as I double down.

The right wing, you see, is perfectly content to let the old and infirm die off so that (1) the stock market and larger economy will improve thus (2) stroking Trump’s malevolent mental maladies.

With regard to (1), the right-wing connection between killing off the elderly and jacking up the economy, I recommend this post by Max Boot at the Washington Post Now we know: The conservative devotion to life ends at birth. Here is some of what he wrote.

After watching so many on the right deny the science of climate change for so many years, I am not remotely surprised to now see so many “conservatives” denying the reality of the novel coronavirus. I am, however, shocked to see that the “pro-life” movement is so willing to sacrifice the lives of the elderly and ailing in a sick attempt to restart the U.S. economy while we are struggling with more coronavirus cases than any other country. Apparently, the right-wing devotion to life ends at birth.

The Republican reaction initially was to write off concern about the virus as a “hoax” designed to embarrass President Trump. There was a brief turn in mid-March, when both Trump and his media boosters began to take the virus a bit more seriously. But now Trump and the right-wing media are coalescing around the theme that “the cure is worse than the disease” — meaning that, after trying social distancing for a week or two, we should all get back to normal and pretend people aren’t dying around us.

Fox News host Laura Ingraham, for her part, touted Trump’s miracle cure, claiming: “Lenox Hill in New York among many hospitals already using hydroxychloroquine with very promising results.” As a HuffPost reporter noted, this was based on false information from a man who doesn’t actually work at Lenox Hill Hospital. In fact, a small Chinese study just concluded that hydroxychloroquine is no more effective than standard treatment for the coronavirus. More research needs to be done, but it is highly irresponsible to tout this anti-malaria drug as a “gift from God,” as Trump has done. An Arizona man even died from ingesting fish tank cleaner containing chloroquine phosphate in hopes of preventing covid–19.

Vastly more irresponsible — in fact, downright terrifying — is the willingness of some right-wingers to argue that we should sacrifice the lives of seniors to restart the economy. This notion was put forward most explicitly by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) on Fox News and amplified by other right-wing commentators. “You know, we don’t shut down the economy to save every single life that’s threatened by a widespread disease,” said Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume. “We just don’t.” A Daily Wire host said we should accept “way over 35,000” deaths to “preserve our economy.”

I thought I was hardened to the depravity of the Trumpified right, but even I am astonished by the callous willingness to risk large numbers of innocent casualties — as if the economy can function while the medical system is overwhelmed and people are (rightly) terrified of being infected.

Many on the right sound like characters from “Dr. Strangelove.” (“Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.”) R.R. Reno, the editor of the “theocon” publication First Things, writes that “there are many things more precious than life” and laments that “fear of death and causing death is pervasive.”

But for a truly “sick” response it’s hard to top the Federalist. This right-wing website published a piece urging a “somewhat unconventional approach to COVID–19,” namely infecting volunteers to boost their immunity. In a similar vein, the Wall Street Journal editorial page ran an article urging the “deliberate infection” of first responders. I wonder what Christell Cadet would think of that. At last report, this 34-year-old paramedic in New York City was hooked up to a ventilator, fighting for her life, after contracting covid–19.

I wish I could dismiss these commentators as an inconsequential, lunatic fringe. But they have the ear of a president who wants “packed churches” on Easter. If churches really are packed on Easter, those same houses of worship should be prepared to hold a lot of funerals by Memorial Day — if, that is, funerals are even permitted during a pandemic.

Scriber won’t be among any of those congregations on Easter Sunday but that does not mean that I won’t suffer from those pestilential conflagrations as they disband and send their members out into our communities. Think of “Amen” as a pronouncement of a death sentence for their friends and neighbors.

Now with regard to (2), Trump’s mental maladies, I recommend this piece from rawstory, Psychoanalyst explains the bizarre and dangerous reason Trump lacks ‘the ability to cope with’ reality. Here are excerpts.

Dr. Justin Frank literally wrote the book on Donald Trump’s mind and behavior. In “Trump on the Couch,” Frank tracks Trump’s life from childhood to adulthood and reveals a man who is mentally unfit in many ways — from his intelligence, values, emotions and temperament down to the deepest parts of the psyche — to be president of the United States of America.

Trump’s lies, delusions, greed, corruption and malignant narcissism have thrown the United States and the world into peril as this unstable president has confronted the coronavirus pandemic in increasingly erratic fashion. It’s a crisis of science and empirical reality that he cannot simply wish away or ignore, much as he has tried.

In this conversation, Frank told me that Donald Trump is essentially a sociopath who has no feelings of care, concern or empathy for other human beings. More frightening still, Frank raised the possibility that Trump is not capable of feeling guilt or remorse. Not only will Trump feel no responsibility for the thousands if not millions of Americans who may die in the coronavirus pandemic, Frank said, he is likely to blame Barack Obama and the Democrats for the carnage. Trump’s followers, Frank warned, now perceive him as an infallible deity, and will obey his commands — even at the risk of their own lives.

On Monday he also tweeted that the cure may be worse than the disease, and that social distancing can wreak havoc on our economy. Will he end social distancing because he needs the attention at his rallies?

President Trump himself is a public health risk. What I mean is that his paranoid behavior risks America’s physical and emotional health. Because he is obsessed with the press being out to ruin him, he cannot accurately assess reality — even the reality of his own intelligence services. He ignored the threat of coronavirus when presented with it on Jan. 24. He didn’t even think much about it because it didn’t fit with his delusional belief system about “fake news.”

… Trump could not perceive the dangers of the virus and therefore he is ill-equipped to respond to the pandemic. Because Donald Trump lies about reality so much, he does not have the ability to cope with it.

… Donald Trump could see dead bodies lying in the street from the coronavirus and step over them. Trump would say to himself, “Why are all these people lying around? How did that happen?” Trump would never think that he had anything to do with all of the deaths.

One of those deaths could be yours or mine.

To repeat: “President Trump himself is a public health risk.”

So, don’t go to church. Stay home and worship in your own way. Stay home and stay safe.

(Tnx to Paul McCreary.)

Presidents Bush and Obama - America needs your leadership - NOW!!!

Trump needs Bush and Obama
Two and a Half Men

An Open Letter to George W. Bush and Barack Obama America needs your leadership now—more than ever.

(From A.B. STODDARD March 27, 2020)

Following is the letter in full (block quotes suppressed).

Dear President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama,

The moment you have sought to avoid for nearly four years is here. We are witnessing one of the worst crises to ever confront the United States and one of the worst government failures in the history of the country you served and love.

Together, you have a collective 16 years as president, during which you dealt with a number of crises: the September 11 attacks, two wars, the collapse of the financial system, and the Ebola and H1N1 outbreaks. Faced with these events, you marshaled the vast forces of our government, trusted our best experts, told hard truths, led capable teams on complex missions to tackle these emergencies, and called upon our citizens to unite in patriotic spirit to ride out the storm together. Neither of you were perfect presidents—you both would be the first to admit that—and you each have your detractors.

But both of you knew what the job of the president is in times of crisis and how to manage the basic blocking and tackling of government responses.

President Donald Trump has now proven what many of us long suspected: He has not done any of this, because he cannot do it. He lacks the most basic capabilities required of a president in this moment.

America doesn’t just deserve better. We need better.

And you can help.

This is the time for you to join forces and publicly demand that the government create a plan to manage the COVID–19 outbreak.

The United States is now a worldwide epicenter for the virus. We have outpaced the rest of the world even though we had a long lead time to prepare for it and were one of the last large countries to be struck by it.

But the scariest part is that we are leading the world in total number of cases and the wave has still not crested here: The pace of infections is still accelerating.

These are not political talking points. They are facts. Because COVID–19 doesn’t care where you live in or what party you vote for. In a pandemic, there are no red or blue states—only infected states.

These facts have developed for one reason and one reason only: They are the catastrophic consequences of President Trump’s leadership. He denied the threat the virus posed for weeks. He ignored months—years—worth of warnings and calls to action to move faster on testing capacity and to stockpile essential medical supplies.

And even now, with the evidence of his failure everywhere around us, President Trump continues to push for an arbitrary, dangerous end to the suppression measures which have been enacted by state and local authorities.

You both know that Trump’s response has failed and that continued failure could result in damage which will extend not for years, but decades, to come.

So it is time for you to step forward publicly, rally Americans of both parties to heed the recommendations of public health officials, and demand that the current executive leadership do better.

I know you are both loathe to do this and believe that former presidents should not criticize sitting presidents. Under nearly every other circumstance, that impulse is a wise one. But in this particular situation there is an ongoing disaster where a course-change by the current leadership could effect a material change in America’s outcome. And the only two men in America with enough moral and political leverage to make a difference are the two of you.

Please do not wait another day.

President Obama, you have tweeted encouraging messages about social distancing, which were clearly meant to counter Trump’s sudden case of Social Distancing Disgust. That was helpful, but not enough.

President Bush, you don’t tweet. (And God bless you for that. May you be a beacon to the world on this score.)

But what we need from the two of you is more than tweeting. We need you to publicly stand together and speak out.

Yes, we know President Trump will be dismissive of anything you recommend. As he said recently, he hasn’t reached out to his predecessors because he doesn’t think he would “learn much.” But it may prompt him, begrudgingly, to act—if for no other reason than to want to control the optics of looking like he’s doing something.

For now, Trump is basking in his mother’s milk—polling—which shows the public approves of his handling of the outbreak. These have convinced him that all is well. But what the polls don’t tell—and what the current numbers of diagnosed cases do tell—is what’s coming next.

President Trump plans to “revise” social distancing guidelines next week to “open up” economic activity in places he would like to classify as “low risk.” He has telegraphed that shelter-in-place restrictions—which seem to be working in slowing the progress of the virus—are a plot to defeat him at the polls in November.

On Wednesday he tweeted that “The LameStream media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope it will be detrimental to my election success. The real people want to get back to work ASAP.”

On Thursday he claimed that “the mortality rate is way, way down.” It’s unclear what he means by this—precise language is not his strong suit—because we don’t have a clear handle on the mortality rate from COVID–19. There seem to a number of deaths occurring from coronavirus-like symptoms that aren’t being classified as COVID–19 deaths because the patients weren’t tested. Further, the mortality rate varies by age and by access to healthcare. You are more likely to die from COVID–19 in a setting where healthcare resources are maxed out than if you are the only case in the hospital ward.

What we do know is that the total number of “official” deaths will soon eclipse the number of Americans killed on 9/11.

As that number continues to increase—including in states which Trump hopes to carry in November—he may reverse course and tell those “real people” to stay home instead of go back to work. You could help both to focus his mind and give him cover on this.

If Trump could be forced to focus more on the pace of infection, instead of the stock market, he would. But as our infection and death curves spike in the days to come, don’t assume that Trump can focus on the right data.

Neither should you not take comfort in the hope that those around the president will help him do what’s necessary. We cannot count on them. We have all watched as they continue to tolerate his purposeful negligence in this crisis—a combination of magical thinking, denial, impatience, political calculation, and lies.

The posture of the president’s abettors seems to be that he will get it, soon. But he may not, and waiting in hope that he will next week, or the week after, is a dangerous gamble.

What you—and only you—can do is outline a national plan of action, rally public support to it, and force President Trump’s hand.

You can determine the exact specifics of the plan by working with public health experts and economists. It would likely involve a national lockdown for some weeks—the final duration of which to be determined by (1) the infection data and (2) the completion of a nationwide testing system. The lockdown should probably not be eased until we have a testing regime that can easily identify infected people so that they may self-quarantine and also be running random sampling so that we can identify potential hotspots before they flare up. Also: The lockdown should probably not be eased until the supply lines of PPE and other essential healthcare materials are moving efficiently.

The intricacies of epidemiology may be too complicated for the average voter to grasp, but the basic plan for fighting the spread of an epidemic is not.

If you create a plan, and rally support for it among the general public, then you can create the a groundswell of support for it which can then carry Trump into executing it. This need not be done in an adversarial manner. In a perfect world, you two can do the work that he has not been capable of and then give him the space to take ownership of it.

Trump’s own current posture remains both foolish and inhumane. Trump recently remarked that state governors “have to treat us well” if they want help, as if he were a mafia don brokering the allocation of sanitation contracts between his underlings and not a president trying to save the lives of American citizens.

Meanwhile, governors in ravaged states are begging for ventilators that experts estimate we will need roughly a million of, despite the current national inventory of only 200,000. Public health officials also tell the New York Times that a centralized government effort is needed to “referee” the allocation of ventilators to places in the most need, as well as bidding for newly produced ones.

Yet while Trump signed legislation to invoke the Defense Protection Act, he has yet to trigger it. It is mystifying why he has declined to use the available power to supercharge our supplies in the face of such dramatic shortfalls. For instance, New York state requested 30,000 ventilators; the government, provided 4,000 of them. This week more than 100 former national security officials from both parties called upon President Trump to mobilize the law “to the full extent” to provide masks, tests, ventilators, and other critical supplies and equipment, stating the private sector “lacks the ability to process incoming requests, prioritize the most urgent needs and coordinate with other companies absent more concerted government involvement.” In spite of all of these urgent messages and requests and reports from the frontlines of our crushed health care system Trump still questioned the amount of ventilators governors are asking for in an interview with Sean Hannity Thursday.

Outlining a pathway to fix these critical supply chains should be part of your plan, too.

Both of you saw your predecessors working together in their post-presidencies to return to service: George Herbert Walker Bush and Bill Clinton not only raised millions for Asian Tsunami recovery but for the victims of Hurricane Katrina as well. When people were in need, Bush and Clinton stepped back into the public square to help.

Americans are in dire need today. And even though Donald Trump may not want your help, he can’t stop you from proposing plans and uniting Americans in shared interest to meet needs that aren’t being met.

Unlike congressional Republicans, who fear Trump and want to please him, you are former presidents of the United States. I suspect that at one point or another the two of you have discussed Trump and are likely of one mind on his administration. Over the last four years you have stayed silent on the subject, for many reasons—most of them good and wise.

But in the face of so much death and destruction—some of which has already happened; much of which is still to come—there are no good reasons for you to be quiet now.

America needs you. And even though he does not realize it, so does President Trump.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics.

Trump vs. God on Easter Sunday

This is a hoot. Check out the video.