America braces itself

Journaling the Coronavirus, Wednesday, April 1: in which we brace ourselves, hunker down and rise up all at once


The second post-pandemic shopping trip was different than the first; then, no one wore masks, and shoppers crowded nonchalantly against one another throughout the store.  This time, people kept a careful six feet and nearly every shopper wore a mask; some had gloves. The stores are still decimated; there are no eggs to be had, the cold case formerly full of beverages – milk, juice, etc – is empty.  There are no paper or cleaning products. There are no canned beans or soups or pasta or sauces. If it’s ready-made, it’s sold. It’s like wartime, a friend said, but no, it’s not. There is no violence or threat of it, which is the primary definition of wartime. You can still easily get tea, coffee, fresh vegetables. You can even have them delivered. We are as far from being in wartime as Donald Tump is from being like a wartime President.  

But, things are about to change, and not for the better: if there was one overarching theme in yesterday’s White House briefing, it was: brace yourself.  Way over here on the other coast we in San Francisco have been braced longer than most; our city- and state-wide ‘shelter in place’ orders came sooner than in the rest of the country, and today we learned that it will be extended through May 3rd. Five more weeks of hunkering down is going to change things; supply chains will be interrupted. People will start to hoard.

The daily death tolls climb ever higher: Italy 837, UK 381, Spain 849. The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, Queens, is being converted into a 350-bed field hospital. In Italy, all the cities observed a minute of silence at noon Tuesday to remember victims of the pandemic. Some believe the dead do not leave us right away; I confess I like this thought, that they try for one last glimpse of loved ones, but surely they are too distracted wandering through the empty streets of the world. 

The daily White House briefing follows Governor Cuomo’s briefing in New York and, it must be said, suffers greatly in comparing the two for competence and compassion. President Trump is aware of Cuomo’s rising popularity and gets in little digs throughout his remarks, implying New York is selling federally procured equipment out the back door (“Some people automatically hoard, I don’t want to say their names. Some say they need what they don’t really need”) and suffering from general incompetence, e.g.

New York is having a much harder time. Certain cities are doing an incredible job. They were early and very very firm. But New York is really struggling.

Yesterday’s briefing featured a few major themes:

First theme: there are now visual aids in the form of 2 big flat screen TVs, both with the title page of “The President’s Coronavirus Guidelines”  powerpoint, which now reads “30 Days To Slow The Spread”. I wonder when I see it if anyone dared suggest the new title should be “45 Days To Slow The Spread” because after all, we just completed 15 days; now we’re adding 30 days, for a total of 45, so it’s that or “30 More Days To Slow The Spread”.  Sure, I’m quibbling. It’s the kind of thing you can’t treat casually though. People are easily confused; they half listen, and look down at their phones or their notes or their fingernails instead of up at your crucial power point slides, and so miss half the main point and many of the subtler ones.  Consistency, thou art a jewel.

A reporter asked what we’re all thinking, is 30 days enough? The president said, “We hope so. Everyone wants to get back to work. I think we’ve been very harsh. I looked at 5th avenue and i didn’t see anyone on the street! There was one car! I think the mitigation has been very strong.” 

Second theme: the president is no longer minimizing the seriousness of the pandemic, and repeats the best case of a slew of bad outcomes (100k-220k projected deaths in the US), comparing it to the worst case (1-2.2 million projected deaths in the US) in a way that strongly suggests he is already taking credit for averting deaths, even as the incompetence of this administration is most assuredly causing them.

There was a group that said let’s just ride it out and that was  2.2 million that would have died if we did nothing.”

What group did the president mean, you may be wondering. He told us.

“They were looking at that concept in the UK. They were very much looking at it but all of sudden they went hard the other way. Now Boris is testing positive.” 

The worse case scenario has a grip on the President’s imagination.  “You would have been seeing people dying on aeroplanes and hotel lobbies, death all over,” he speculated. “So from a practical standpoint that couldn’t have been carried out. They have a name for it but we won’t use it but it would have been catastrophic. This is not to be ridden out.” 

I think the “name for it” word he means is genocide? It’s hard to say. To my disappointment, no reporter said “Sir, did you just pronounce it aero-plane?” Side note, pandemic Twitter is funnier and more human than the bloody political abattoir with its full troll patrol it was when we first entered primary season a few weeks and a million years ago. Hearing the president talk so often at the mic and not just Twitter, we’re noticing things, just like we are noticing things about our loved ones being cooped up with them all day listening to them yatter and natter, penned together as we are like ravenous goats getting ready to stampede.

circle back

It was not mentioned even once during this briefing that in South Korea only 150 people have died despite reporting their first case on the same day as the US.  It is crazy-making, to know these facts and hear our president assert, straight-faced, “No one could have predicted this (except the NSA did in November 2019), no one knew how contagious it was, no one has ever seen anything like this.”  And that, in a nutshell is exactly the difference between the US response and the Korean response: different lived realities. Korea remembers H1N1, and learned from it; they were ready for coronavirus.  The US also lived through that reality, but chose not to learn from it, replacing it with something a presidential advisor memorably and smirkingly referred to as “alternative facts”.  Everyone got a lot of chuckles out of that, repeating the phrase often. Living in the reality of alternative facts means pandemics don’t need to be prepared for because pandemics don’t exist and if they did we’d be number one at defeating them because America, because reasons, because power. And it worked, for awhile, til it didn’t.

But this is not 1984; this is 2020, and enough of us are still clear-eyed about the necessity of truth, that mortar between individuals that forms a strong society.

Listening closely, in fact, the “best case scenario” is super unlikely, because it assumes perfect mitigation and even as I type this, there are people meeting in sizable crowds in bars in New York and beaches in Florida. If people aren’t staying in their houses, social distancing, we’re going to experience death rates somewhere between the best case and worst case, which means it’s going to be more than a quarter of a million people dying, a 9/11 every day for more than a year.  The best worst case is 500,000 dead; the worst worse case is 2.2 million. These numbers cannot be absorbed as quickly as they are read. That is something we’re all learning.

But people can stay in their houses, these numbers are not a foregone conclusion, Dr. Fauci reminds us – they are just models, based on the current data. “We’re going to do everything we can to get it significantly lower than that. It’s the number we anticipate but not the number we settle for,” Dr. Fauci says, and so say we all.

Of all the presenters, Dr. Fauci is the most direct, to the point of bluntness  We must brace ourselves, he tells us. We’re going to continue to see the infection rate and the death toll go up and we cannot be discouraged by that, because the mitigation is working. We won’t be able to see it in the trend lines for a couple of weeks, but it is working.

Dr. Fauci makes many direct appeals to us, his tone is pleading, rousing, telling us “Now is not the time to take your foot off the accelerator – press it down on the accelerator!”  It is a funny metaphor to use – accelerate staying at home! accelerate social distancing!  It’s another way of saying, we can’t stop now, we daren’t. He’s right. Would that we listen.

Third theme:  the message the country, or parts of it, may be opened for business in two weeks (i.e. May 1) is being floated. It is subtle but unmistakable.  The President warned we were in for a tough two weeks. When a reporter asked the President if he thought maybe he’d given people the wrong idea how dangerous the virus is by underplaying it early on, his response tells you everything you need to know about this situation: “No, because you don’t want to scare people.” (which is true, but also not an answer) and “It’s going to go away, hopefully at the end of the month.”  This was uttered 16 hours before we reached the global death toll death toll peak of 40,000 and cases in the US are still on an upward trajectory.

An ongoing theme in these briefings: there is a lot of repetition of assurances but they are thin on data, something the researcher in me can’t help noticing.  I always feel a little bad for getting bored but I’m not the only one: in their daily writeup Guardian reporters wrote “We’ll be leaving this press conference soon as nothing much new is being said, and Trump continues to pat himself on the back..”

An infographic that shows the goals of mitigation during an outbreak with two curves. The X-axis represents the number of daily cases and they Y-axis represents the amount of time since the first case. The first curve represents the number of cases when no protective measures during an outbreak are implemented and displays a large peak. The second curve is much lower, representing a much smaller rise in the number of cases if protective measures are implemented.

Dr. Birx went over three mitigation models. The coronavirus task force doesn’t seem like a group accustomed to preparing presentations themselves; obviously, they have minions do that, but here’s the thing, when you get too far away from the machinations of creating a narrative from the data, it shows, in a hundred little ways.  Like, the scale of the chart makes the data too hard to read from a distance of more than one foot. I’m including a representative chart in this post, the one people are most familiar with, the one we’ve in fact all been looking at for more than a week and have come to call it the ‘flattening the curve chart”, so I’m not sure why we’re suddenly seeing it presented at the White House briefing as though it is news – doesn’t the task force read the Times? (lol – joking of course).  Probably they were waiting for the graphic to get back from the printer or something mundane like that. 

funnyFor some reason Dr. Birx is not holding the slide advance controller, so in the middle of an explanation she’ll suddenly say to no one in particular “next slide please…no, not that one, back up…yes”. Throughout her explanation, the camera tried to zoom in on the screen to her left, only to capture President Trump hovering just inside the frame, scowling. The camera panned to the screen on the right only to reveal VP Pence hovering and seriously scowling in the same way. Such details are weirdly dismaying, like being gowned and prepped for surgery and finding the three stooges are your doctors. The stooges are slapstickily reassuring each other that everything’s going well and you’re lying there strapped in hoping they’ll at least drug you enough you won’t feel any pain.

The task force is not good at delivering a single message consistently. I sympathize; it’s harder than it looks. Next slide please, Dr. Brix calls out and we see modeled before us a peak of about 200,000 deaths in mid-April, a model that assumes full mitigation measures are in place which makes me feel the first inklings of real panic. When reporters mention the compliance in Florida, the President asserts that Florida is a different kind of state but is “overall handling things very very well” even as the evening news is full of the story: 29 of 70 spring breakers tested positive after bringing their virus loads home, mostly to the midwest and east coast. 

Pandemics happen in phases that are imposed by the 20/20 view from history, but are also pretty clear as we’re living them.  Right now we’re in the phase they are going to call “community by community mitigation” which I fear will be a future chapter in the definitive history of the virus, entitled: Why COVID Hit The US Hardest of All and describing how pockets of the virus viciously erupted for years after other countries had stamped it out. Goldman Sachs predicts the economy will contract 6.5% this year; some economists are even more pessimistic. James K. Gallbraith has said a full-on debt reset will be necessary. All this and our hospitals have not really even begun to deal with the surge we know is coming, and our leaders say things like “we hope it will be over very soon.”

Fourth theme: testing is still a balls up. This administration likes to cite large numbers without context.  “1.1 million tests were conducted around the country!”  President Trump trumpeted. When one reporter asked simply, When will everyone be able to receive a test?  she was answered

“We’re doing more than anyone in the world is doing, by far, and they are accurate tests” 

By the end of the briefing, it is clear, this administration has no idea where we’re at relative to testing, and there is no goal except (one presumes) as much as we can as soon as we can. But maybe not. A reporter asks about the 27 million tests promised; there is much language exchanged like a volleyball game, but the reporter sticks with the question and gradually we hear the admission that there are not 27 million tests, those were part of “the old system” and are not on their way to a hospital near you, or anywhere, if they even exist, which is not clear.

A reporter is told by Vice President Pence that “there is a difference between sending a test to be administered and a test being done”, a distinction that leaves me remembering Jerry Seinfeld elucidating on the distinction between making a reservation and holding it. How they wiggle with their words.  

There is something called an Abbott test, because it is developed by Abbott laboratories, that has the task force talking in excited tones: a test with results in fifteen minutes, no uncomfortable jamming in the nostrils either. At first it sounds like something that is being developed, but later, Dr. Birx seems to suggest they already exist, saying  “It is disappointing that we have 500,000 of the Abbott tests that are out there and not being utilized, so now we have to figure out how to get awareness up.”  How indeed. 

Fifth theme: Personal protective equipment is still in dangerously short supply .We heard many assurances and lots of specific numbers delivered randomly, like the ventilator distribution the president felt compelled to recite, state by state. I know from the President’s own mouth the ventilator count for Michigan (400), New Jersey (300), Connecticut (150), Louisiana (30), Illinois (450), and New York (4,400), and that “We have five times the ventilators the UK does”, but I have no idea how the US is really doing in its dire shortages of masks, gowns, face shields, and the like. Well, that’s not totally true – I got a pretty clear idea what the state of things are when the president told a reporter who wanted to know how she could get a mask

You can use a scarf, a scarf would be very good. My feeling is if you want to do it there is no harm to it. We’re making millions and millions of masks but we want them to go to the hospitals. We don’t want everyone competing with the hospitals. You can use scarfs or something else over your face.”

Meanwhile, according to Forbes magazine, just yesterday 280 million masks from warehouses around the U.S. have been purchased by foreign buyers and are earmarked to leave the country. The US purchasers can’t provide proof of funds to purchase, a mask broker told the reporter. During the briefings if you listen closely you’ll hear that it’s  Obama’s fault.  “Under the old antiquated system the tests were being processed on a very slow methodical system in the CDC and the state labs…but we’re having a breakthrough working with commercial labs. So now we’ll have something better, faster.”

The facts and assurances we hear cannot be strung together to form a coherent narrative, just a repetition of platitudes sprinkled with factoids: FEMA is contracting around the world with 51 flights coming in with vital medical supplies. We are working with governors on drive through testing. Help is on the way, we’re going to leave no stone unturned. Businesses are stepping up as never before. We just want to assure you we’re going to work our hearts out.

Although Wednesday is April first and roughly four in ten American adults who are renters who have no paycheck and no savings do not know how they are going to pay rent, there was no mention of the economic hardships people are facing. “I think landlords are going to take it easy,” the President speculated, but did not provide any specifics, though the information about how his own organization will take it easy on tenants at Trump Tower and other properties is readily available.

The start of April
We’re told that on Wednesday (April fools day no less) the task force will visit Wal-Mart’s food supply chain and I bet a million dollars they go there physically, even though they don’t need to, continuing to act, like Putin on TV shaking hands twice with the same guy (who has also turned up infected), like the rules of contagion don’t apply to them (“We’re in a handshaking line of business” the Veep seriously instructed a reporter at the beginning of the pandemic). Didn’t these guys read Masque of the Red Death in grade school? Viruses have no class pretensions.

In other news President Trump had calls with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and President Vladimir Putin and gave us a bunch of superlatives describing how the call went, without any specifics.  Did you raise the issue of the cost of oil, asked one reporter to which the president said We’re all going to get together because we don’t want to lose an industry. In some parts of the world water is much more valuable than oil now, he said in evident surprise. 

There was talk of how everybody wants to be in the US right now because of our near-zero interest rates and how it would be a great time to borrow at zero interest to build infrastructure, to redo our roads, our highways, bridges, tunnels when President Trump said apropos of nothing  “I won’t approve the Green New Deal,” calling it spending money on things people just want to have fun with.

Good News: More than 500 paramedics and EMTS, 2,000 nurses and 250 ambulances are leaving their homes and jobs and families all across the US and heading to New York City to provide emergency help, and this makes me so so so proud to be an American.


See past entries in Coronavirus Event

 

One response to “America braces itself

  1. Pingback: Cuomovah here | reliablyuncomfortable·

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