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our leaders

Sunday March 22, 2020: in which we learn the importance of math literacy among our leadership; talk of the National Guard; the steepening US curve


We had word on Friday from a source, the National Guard and military will be deployed to enforce a nationwide lockdown, in effect beginning Monday and for at least a week, possibly a month. Possibly it’s a hoax as there was no mention of any of that yesterday during the White House coronavirus pandemic briefing, where VP Mike Pence said “we are in Day 6 of Day 15 of our slow-the-outbreak” response, suggesting that in 9 days we will be at some milestone of measurement on how we did to slow the outbreak.  He asserted testing is expanding rapidly while at this moment “only 19,343 have tested positive.” It’s a bit maddening to hear that optimistically emphasized “only” knowing that the vast vast majority of symptomatic people who are not old or with co-morbidities or healthcare related jobs are not being tested, even if they present with fever and a dry hacking cough.

The VP announced that the shortage of surgical masks will be over in “a few weeks” (notably only after the 15 day slow-the-outbreak effort is concluded). As South Korea is hailed for its swift effectiveness in flattening the curve due to testing, testing, testing, the US faces a critical inability to test.  In response, our Coronavirus Czar (the same one who proclaimed we have ‘only’ ~19k infections!) ordered people not to seek tests.  He then noted he and his asymptomatic wife were not exposed to his newly infected staff member, and though the White House doctor told him there was no reason to be concerned, he reports that his and his wife were tested and are predictably negative, with absolutely no irony.

In the middle of his remarks he urged people to not go to church, but to also not stop their donations to the church. Forty percent of Americans have no savings and live paycheck to paycheck and can barely keep their a roof over their heads, now are jobless and wondering how to pay for rent and food and they are being urged – by the government no less – to donate to tax-exempt religious institutions. You can’t make this stuff up.

Meanwhile this morning, a Washington Post article reports that officials are saying the battle to contain the virus is lost and the country is moving into a new phase of the pandemic response which makes VP Pence’s repetition that we’re on Day 6 of a 15 Day effort kinda confusing.

During the briefing, healthcare institutions were urged to place orders for the equipment they need (even if it means not buying American) and assured they would be reimbursed. Dr. Ben Carson stepped to the podium to say people with mortgages would not be evicted. There was no mention of the 50 million people who rent, nearly 40% of the adult population.

There are many public officials, both Democrat and Republican, calling for direct payments to Americans. It would be the height of irony for this administration to be the one that goes down in history – the right side of history – implementing a social democratic solution to this crisis.

It is much more anxiety producing to have a lack of leadership in such a situation than I imagined it would be.  We watch as officials tell us not to worry, tell us working is ok, tell us to socially distance but don’t order restaurants or bars closed, so naturally they are full, while scientists have beat the drum steadily, loudly, and without pause: the danger is coming, the danger is nigh, the danger is here.

Recently it was reported that a pandemic readiness team created in response to Ebola and in anticipation of something just like the novel coronavirus was disbanded by the Trump administration.  Pressed by reporters, Trump defended his decision in terms that should have raised an outcry but didn’t, saying  “Look, I’m a businessman, I don’t like to see people sitting around paid to do nothing.”  Never mind that this logic taken to its natural conclusion would mean communities don’t hire firefighters until a fire breaks out.

It is well documented that the US healthcare edifice is not able to accommodate the sudden surge in hospital admissions stemming from a pandemic. In reality, no healthcare system is: the coronavirus is an equal opportunity infection, there is no immunity.  Unless we take precautions, we’re all going to get it. Thus we get our real-time lesson in the importance of planning, that hidden facet of preparedness whose importance is often discovered only when it is absent.  In our case, planning meant simply, employ measures to stop the spread, i.e. “flatten the curve” of infection.  We knew the measures (testing, isolation, lockdown) but refused to enforce them, limply adjuring social distancing while madly citing the fact that people need to keep working to keep making money to keep paying their bills.

Never has the precarity of late stage capitalism been more on display.  All over America, people kept going to work seeding infection throughout the population because they couldn’t afford not to.

The performance of this administration at the podium has really put the issue of communications front and center in American life. When Dr. Fauci (In Dr. Fauci We Trust!) facepalms while the President calls the State department the “deep state’ department, an entire nation takes note. No one knows what the impact of the virus will be on the economy but I can tell you one thing, it is the beginning of the end of the bullshit narrative.  By contrast, California Governor Gavin Newsom has been an early, steady and reassuring communicative presence to his constituents, outlining the plan for protecting the homeless, expanding care capacity, and imposing shelter in place edicts.  He is clear, repetitive, serious but undramatic.

Tomorrow is Monday. Every day I wake wondering, how bad has the news gotten?  Less than 40% of Fox news viewers report being concerned about the coronavirus. Somehow I don’t think watching that channel will have the same chilling effect on me.

Good things:  A friend, worried about her policeman husband who reached retirement age three years ago, suggested now might be the time; his response was truly the best of us: “You can’t just retire in the middle of a national emergency.”

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