Saturday, May 16, 2020

America is a country to be pitied, but not respected - and why that is.

Yesterday there were 35 new cases of COVID–19 in Pima county Arizona. Today there are 54.

In case its not obvious from the numbers: the curve is not flattening. Those who cry out for reopening at any cost will get their wish. But are they willing to pay that cost in human lives?

How did we get here? This morning I offer you a trifecta of answers to that question. The common theme is in order to get away from the “here” we need to consign T-Rump to the oblivion experienced by T-Rex, politically speaking, of course.

It is a long read so grab your coffee and get started.

(1) A country to be pitied

Eugene Robinson, Washington Post Columnist, thinks that The United States is a country to be pitied.

Only a handful of nations on Earth have arguably done a worse job of handling the coronavirus pandemic than the United States. What has happened to us? How did we become so dysfunctional? When did we become so incompetent?

The shocking and deadly failures by President Trump and his administration have been well documented — we didn’t isolate, we didn’t test, we didn’t contact trace, we waited too long to lock down. But Trump’s gross unfitness is only part of the problem. The phrase “American exceptionalism” has always meant different things to different people — that this nation should be admired, or perhaps that it should be feared. Not until now, at least in my lifetime, has it suggested that the United States should be pitied.

No amount of patriotism or pride can change the appalling facts. The pandemic is acting as a stress test for societies around the world, and ours is in danger of failing.

I’m used to thinking of a nation such as South Korea as a kind of junior partner, a beneficiary of American expertise and aid. Yet the U.S. death toll from covid–19 exceeds 85,000 while South Korea’s fatalities total 260. That is not a typo. How could a nation with barely half our per capita income have done so much better? Washington has been Seoul’s patron and teacher for more than six decades, yet somehow we apparently have unlearned much of what we taught.

Much closer to home, Trump’s boasting about how his border wall is supposedly helping protect Americans against the virus is a joke. Mexico’s reported death rate from covid–19 is a small fraction of ours (though the numbers may be higher than the official count). In the border town of Nogales, Mexican authorities are using disinfectant spray to sanitize visitors arriving from Arizona.

How could it be that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which I always thought of as the premier public health agency in the world, so completely botched the development of a test for the novel coronavirus? We have by far the biggest economy in the world, and we believe we have the most advanced science. Yet for the first months of the pandemic, as the coronavirus silently spread, we were essentially blind. By the time we had eyes on the enemy, it was too late.

We have managed to slow the spread of the virus, but I worry we lack the social cohesion to stay the course. On Wednesday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court invalidated Gov. Tony Evers’s (D) extension of his stay-at-home order. By evening, bars in some Wisconsin cities were packed — no social distancing, no masks. In Milwaukee and several other jurisdictions, however, orders by local officials kept the bars closed. What are the Wisconsin cities that remain closed supposed to do? Set up roadblocks to keep outsiders away?

The Florida Keys have done just that: Since March 27, checkpoints have been in place to keep visitors from entering the island chain — which has seen just 95 cases of covid–19 and only three deaths. The America I know, or thought I knew, is one of restlessness, free movement, open roads. Until there is a vaccine, post-covid America may be very different.

Thanks to Trump, we have no coherent national plan to survive the pandemic. But also thanks to the federal government — and I include Congress as well as the president — we lack the kind of sturdy economic safety net that protects unemployed workers and shut-down business owners in some of the hardest-hit European countries — nations that once looked up to the United States as a model. In the Netherlands, for example, the government is granting employers up to 90 percent of their payroll costs so they can keep paying their workers rather than resort to furloughs or layoffs. That kind of continuity ought to speed recovery when reopening becomes safe.

Here, nearly 40 million workers have filed for unemployment.

The European Union is working with the World Health Organization and other wealthy nations such as Japan and Saudi Arabia in a crash program to develop a covid–19 vaccine, with initial funding of $8 billion. The United States has decided to go it alone with its own vaccine program, “Operation Warp Speed.” In the past, one might have bet on U.S. ingenuity and drive to win the race. But given our failure in testing, would you still make that bet now? And why is there a race at all, rather than a U.S.-led global effort?

The covid–19 pandemic has exposed the depth of America’s fall from greatness. Ridding ourselves of Trump and his cronies in November will be just the beginning of our work to restore it.

(2) The rise and fall of the CDC - and a revival?

The Lancet, the venerable British medical journal, published this stunning editorial, Reviving the US CDC, concluding that: Americans must put a president in the White House come January, 2021, who will understand that public health should not be guided by partisan politics.

The COVID–19 pandemic continues to worsen in the USA with 1·3 million cases and an estimated death toll of 80 684 as of May 12. States that were initially the hardest hit, such as New York and New Jersey, have decelerated the rate of infections and deaths after the implementation of 2 months of lockdown. However, the emergence of new outbreaks in Minnesota, where the stay-at-home order is set to lift in mid-May, and Iowa, which did not enact any restrictions on movement or commerce, has prompted pointed new questions about the inconsistent and incoherent national response to the COVID–19 crisis.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flagship agency for the nation’s public health, has seen its role minimised and become an ineffective and nominal adviser in the response to contain the spread of the virus. The strained relationship between the CDC and the federal government was further laid bare when, according to The Washington Post, Deborah Birx, the head of the US COVID–19 Task Force and a former director of the CDC’s Global HIV/AIDS Division, cast doubt on the CDC’s COVID–19 mortality and case data by reportedly saying: “There is nothing from the CDC that I can trust”. This is an unhelpful statement, but also a shocking indictment of an agency that was once regarded as the gold standard for global disease detection and control. How did an agency that was the first point of contact for many national health authorities facing a public health threat become so ill-prepared to protect the public’s health?

In the decades following its founding in 1946, the CDC became a national pillar of public health and globally respected. It trained cadres of applied epidemiologists to be deployed in the USA and abroad. CDC scientists have helped to discover new viruses and develop accurate tests for them. CDC support was instrumental in helping WHO to eradicate smallpox. However, funding to the CDC for a long time has been subject to conservative politics that have increasingly eroded the agency’s ability to mount effective, evidence-based public health responses. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration resisted providing the sufficient budget that the CDC needed to fight the HIV/AIDS crisis. The George W Bush administration put restrictions on global and domestic HIV prevention and reproductive health programming.

The Trump administration further chipped away at the CDC’s capacity to combat infectious diseases. CDC staff in China were cut back with the last remaining CDC officer recalled home from the China CDC in July, 2019, leaving an intelligence vacuum when COVID–19 began to emerge. In a press conference on Feb 25, Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, warned US citizens to prepare for major disruptions to movement and everyday life. Messonnier subsequently no longer appeared at White House briefings on COVID–19. More recently, the Trump administration has questioned guidelines that the CDC has provided. These actions have undermined the CDC’s leadership and its work during the COVID–19 pandemic.

There is no doubt that the CDC has made mistakes, especially on testing in the early stages of the pandemic. The agency was so convinced that it had contained the virus that it retained control of all diagnostic testing for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, but this was followed by the admission on Feb 12 that the CDC had developed faulty test kits. The USA is still nowhere near able to provide the basic surveillance or laboratory testing infrastructure needed to combat the COVID–19 pandemic.

But punishing the agency by marginalising and hobbling it is not the solution. The Administration is obsessed with magic bullets—vaccines, new medicines, or a hope that the virus will simply disappear. But only a steadfast reliance on basic public health principles, like test, trace, and isolate, will see the emergency brought to an end, and this requires an effective national public health agency. The CDC needs a director who can provide leadership without the threat of being silenced and who has the technical capacity to lead today’s complicated effort.

The Trump administration’s further erosion of the CDC will harm global cooperation in science and public health, as it is trying to do by defunding WHO. A strong CDC is needed to respond to public health threats, both domestic and international, and to help prevent the next inevitable pandemic. Americans must put a president in the White House come January, 2021, who will understand that public health should not be guided by partisan politics.

(3) The global pandemic spells political doom for Trump

“Obamagate” Is Niche Programming for Trump Superfans writes Susan B. Glasser in The New Yorker. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump has reverted to a favorite distraction: bashing his predecessor, Barack Obama. (Concluding paragraphs follow).

Since the beginning of his anti-Obama rant on Mother’s Day morning, Trump has tweeted and retweeted attacks on the former President thirty-three times, by my count, with around a dozen of those referring to the vague but nefarious “OBAMAGATE.” On Wednesday, Trump forwarded to his Twitter followers a video, from 2016, of Obama suggesting that Trump could never become President. “Obama was always wrong!” he tweeted. Although he never did spell out what it is, Trump promised his followers at one point, “OBAMAGATE makes Watergate look small time!” It’s as though he sees an attack on Obama as a political get-out-of-jail-free card, with the mere mention of Obama’s name an incantation of such political force that invoking it can miraculously rally Trump’s Obama-hating base.

But is there really political magic for Trump in this? The numbers don’t suggest it. Obama remains broadly popular with the American public, certainly far more so than Trump has ever been.Trump has been attacking Obama vociferously for the past three years of his Presidency, without those attacks demonstrably affecting either his or Obama’s over-all popularity. Why should “Obamagate,” coming as it does in the midst of a true national emergency, be any different? Yet, in seeking to explain the latest Trumpian distraction, Brian Kilmeade said on Fox the other day that this was in fact a strategic move by the President, an effort to reset the fall campaign from a race between Trump and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Obama’s former Vice-President, Joe Biden, into “Obama against Trump.” …

Maybe, but I don’t buy it. Trump has been running this play for a long time already, and it seems to me not so much about electoral politics as it is a reflection of the ongoing temper tantrum that is Trump’s response to the global pandemic—a catastrophe that has upended Trump’s Presidency and may well spell his political doom. It’s about his fury at being impeached, and his rage at having as an enemy a virus that doesn’t give a damn about his Twitter feed.

Trump demands Obama be made to testify in the Senate. In his latest tweet, Trump seems to be ordering Sen. Lindsey Graham to put Obama through a kind of show trial (Zack Beauchamp at vox.com.)

Donald J. Trump
@realDonaldTrump
If I were a Senator or Congressman, the first person I would call to testify about the biggest political crime and scandal in the history of the USA, by FAR, is former President Obama. He knew EVERYTHING. Do it @LindseyGrahamSC, just do it. No more Mr. Nice Guy. No more talk!

Glasser ends:

… Trump’s attacks on Barack Obama, above all else, are a barometer for measuring the level of Trump’s raging insecurity, and what they tell us now is that Trump is having an enormous meltdown, almost certainly connected with his diminishing prospects for reëlection.

This seems to be Obama’s interpretation, too. On Friday, in a phone call with several thousand supporters that was quickly leaked, Obama called Trump’s response to the pandemic an “absolute chaotic disaster” and warned that the “rule of law” was at stake in Trump’s efforts to undo Flynn’s conviction. He then refrained from comment for days as Trump’s latest storm against him raged. Finally, at 2:44 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, Obama responded with a one-word tweet of his own. It said, simply, “Vote.”

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