The way we were

Image: Los Angeles Air

Ted Soqui / Sipa USA via AP file

Journaling the coronavirus, Wednesday April 8: deaths climb; more people are fired; some color commentary; airlines in crisis; there’s no going back

Senator Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign today, leaving the road clear for Joe Biden to be the Democratic nominee, the same man who in the midst of a pandemic that is laying bare the horror that is the US healthcare system, says he doesn’t support Medicare For All.  I wonder how many Americans will leave the country after Donald Trump’s second swearing in, which now feels inevitable to me. I hope I’m wrong.

We are entering into the most frightening and dangerous period in the modern history of this country—certainly in my lifetime.  ~Senator Bernie Sanders

After eleven weeks of lockdown, Wuhan is slowly opening for business. But the rest of the world still struggles. In the US in the last 24 hours there have been almost 2,000 deaths, with 771 in New York alone, another sad record. The Cook County Jail in Chicago has become the largest-known source of U.S. coronavirus infections (387). Overnight, 757 people died in Spain; one hundred and fifty Saudi royals are infected. London Mayor Sadiq Khan says the peak of the virus is probably a week and a half away, as his Prime Minister lays in an ICU.

What bothers me most is that people are dying alone. In Spain they found dozens of elderly in nursing homes abandoned to their fate. Funerals limit the number of guests, hospitals limit the number of visitors. A couple in New Jersey died just 24 hours apart in the same hospital, unaware where the other was. In Illinois where I am from, a man killed his wife and then himself because he was afraid they had coronavirus. They posthumously tested negative.

Data has emerged making it clear the coronavirus is disproportionately killing blacks and Hispanics, and it comes as no surprise that the trajectory we’ve established for health among our citizens in good times is amplified in pandemic times. In yesterday’s presser Dr. Fauci (who has already been publicly silenced once) risked his career to come to the lectern to underscore his point about the unacceptability of inequality of health outcomes

Sometimes when you are in the middle of a crisis it shines a very bright light on some of the weaknesses and foibles in our society,” he said, and can I just say HERO.  “Health disparities have always existed and we’re seeing a bright light showing how unacceptable that is, ” he continued, and I can only surmise that by “that” he means “decades of economic inequality and unequal justice that must come to an end”.

“We really do need to address the health disparities in the African American community.”  Dr. Anthony Fauci

Captain of the USS Roosevelt Brett Crozier was fired by a grinning jackal who paid a surprise visit to the Roosevelt afterward to address the crew over the ship’s loudspeakers, sprinkling his remarks with obscenities, accusing Crozier of betrayal and calling him stupid and naive, a stupid naive act of betrayal I am happy to report has resulted in the grinning jackal being forced to resign. So: a good man has lost his ship because a lesser man lost his shit. When Captain Crozier walked through that  gauntlet of slow salutes, America walked with him, up over the gangway and into the Guam night, the future unknown.

Just a day later, I saw on the news yet another gauntlet for goodbyes, this one formed by nurses who lined the hallways of a hospital in salute to a colleague who died of the virus. The sight of them standing quietly in their PPE as the body, covered with a sheet, is wheeled slowly between them – I don’t have words for that.

Who writes this stuff?
President Trump always starts his briefing reading from the notes that were printed off for him in extra large type, sleeved in plastic  and put into a binder. I’d like to meet the person in charge of this exercise, which has “underpaid female staffer duty” written all over it.

Trump Replaced 'Corona' With 'Chinese' In His Briefing Notes On ...

The language is corny and bears little resemblance to the way President Trump actually talks, which is probably why he feels compelled to go off script every two sentences though who am I kidding, even if he wrote it himself he’d be ad libbing because that, apparently, is the nexus of his power i.e. no one ever knows what he’s going to say next, including himself.

Some lines that jump out at me for their weirdness or their transparent strategy:

  • “We’re gonna beat it with the grit and heart for which our country is known.”  Grit and heart sounds like a new drama on ABC, only it would be called Grit & Hart and it would be about two civil rights lawyers, or two detectives, or two blue collar guys being roommates.
  • “We intensify our military campaign against the virus.” Our president cannot resist upping the ante on the drama of the pandemic, referring to it as a war, perhaps not realizing that the US has such a bad wartime record of late, it’s a really uninspiring metaphor. Will we win the war on the pandemic like the war on drugs?
  • “The signs are our strategy is totally working.”  This is comedy gold, right there.
  • “We’re going to be winning this war and we’re going to be winning it powerfully.” Hey, a win is a win, it doesn’t matter if we win it gently, sweetly, smartly, or daintily, does it?
  • “We’re pressing forward on the scientific frontier of the war.” Oh look, now war is a science thing.
  • “The early China move was a good move. The early Europe move was a good move. Closing it down was a good move – there’s been a lot of good moves.” The president continues to sell us on his decision to block flights from Wuhan and Italy as the defining moments of his administration, when he, despite flying blind and in denial of science and underplaying the danger of the virus itself, got these two decisions right, in the exact same way a clock that no longer works will be right twice a day too.

About twenty-five percent of each presser is devoted to a section I call “reviewing the hits”, i.e. repeating activities that were mentioned at the last presser as if they are newly underway. The flights loaded with supplies, the Army Corps of Engineers building field hospitals, governors working hard, the ventilators ready to go out….Every day we hear about these activities anew, in tones of reverence and awe.

Ten percent of each presser is just repetition of certain pet phrases that I don’t feel like typing anymore, so I’m going to start using acronyms. In the same way your favorite soap opera occasionally will announce at the beginning of an episode “The actress playing Erica Kane today will be played by Kathy Smith” the ghost of Susan Lucci persists so you barely notice the stand-in isn’t the real thing, I don’t think the acronyms will stop you from getting the gist of any single episode:

  1. Like they never thought possible will become LTNTP
  2. Like never before will be referenced as LNB4
  3. The likes of which has never been seen will be denoted TLOWHNBS

Guarantees and governors
Another five percent of each presser is getting digs at Governor Cuomo. I’ll give this to President Trump, he is an expert at the oblique sideswipe. “Hospitalizations not being as high as some people thought, we’ll see if we continue to be right about that.”

“We’ve conducted 1,870,000 tests – think of it! We’re down to a five minute test,” the president marveled, even repeating the number a few times. We’ve been promised tests that are beautiful and perfect like the phone call was perfect, everyone who wants a test can get a test, meanwhile NO ONE I KNOW can get a test, but that’s because I don’t know celebrities, politicians and professional athletes (or tigers) – if I were one of their number, I would be able to say EVERYONE I KNOW has gotten a test.

If you can’t get a test you might have a bad governor, and if you have a bad governor you are in luck, the president is on the case, just project the bad governor call for help into the Gotham night sky:

I will protect you if your governor fails, if you have a failing governor I will protect you.  ~President Trump

Who the president is mad at
The president is mad at the WHO “for calling every shot wrong” and so is going to put a hold on money spent with the organization. President Trump ousted Glenn Fine, the acting Defense Department inspector general since before 2016, and the recently appointed chairman of a new Pandemic Response Accountability Committee with control of an $80 million budget to police how the government carries out the $2 trillion relief bill. President Trump has replaced Fine’s oversight of all that money with Sean O’Donnell, the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general.

He’s mad at the reporter who asked him about the HHS Inspector General’s report, he’s mad at so many reporters I can’t remember the specific topics, just his reactions: What a nasty question, What a horrid thing to ask, You’re fake news, You’re the worst reporter.  Afterwards, CNN called the presser “a troubling spectacle coming at such a wrenching chapter of national life.” Yep.

Presidential hashtag
“To honor and celebrate patriotism and citizenship use the hashtag #AmericaWorksTogether,” the president urged. I look forward to the memes. The world will end not with a bang, not with a whimper, but a meme.

A reporter asked about hazard pay and again president Trump said that it was a good idea “but let’s get through this first” which suggests he doesn’t understand the meaning of hazard pay at all.  Last night I watched the PBS News Hour with Judy Woodruff, where they interviewed some EMTs. They both talked of the difficulty of seeing so much death, of crying uncontrollably in their cars. Their eyes had the wide, shocked expressions of children. One of them told us what he made – $37,000 a year, which necessitates he hold two other jobs. Also, he’s uninsured. If he gets sick, his treatment could cost upwards of $20,000 according to recent analyses by Kaiser. Seems like that hazard pay for someone who risks their life daily that others may live is needed sooner, not later, can we get an amen?

A reporter asks if there is a plan to track the side effects of hydroxychloroquine, to which the president snaps “The side effects are the least of it, with people dying all over the place.” He then gives a ten minute anecdote – excuse me, “beautiful story” about a woman interviewed on “one of the shows” as he puts it (meaning, Fox – this example being the odious heiler Laura Ingraham) who was on the verge of dying and then recovered completely thanks to taking the president’s recommendation to try hydroxychloroquine.

In other news, the president has a “small personal financial interest” in Sanofi, a French drugmaker that produces a brand-name version of hydroxychloroquine. Since the FDA green-lighted hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine to test as coronavirus treatments the federal government has stockpiled millions of the pills.

Powerpoint rules
With eight months to go in his term, someone in the Trump administration finally decided to employ power point, and we see data presented in slides. At first I am hopeful. When people don’t have to match their remarks to a visual,  they feel free to talk on and on as evidenced by the daily presser. Slides force speakers to be more economic with their words and impose a sense of timing on the whole presentation. Pros know, two minutes of remarks per slides is the upper limit of most people’s attention/retention span. Slides push the presenter to present only what people need to see, and cut down on narrative repetition, the escapable flaw of these pressers that has become a feature. Slides also have the built in advantage of having a last slide, forcing a summary of points/takeaways on the presenter.

Sadly the appearance of slides was not a harbinger of a better presentation and in fact does nothing to stop the boring recitation of the numbers we can all see for ourselves now, as Mike Pence enthusiastically drones through every word and number, which is a repeat of the president droning through the same stats yesterday.

“I share these details in the hope that healthcare workers looking on are encouraged,” the Vice President intones. Apparently no one has considered that healthcare workers are not glued to their screens watching these never ending pressers, they are working (as Pence himself likes to remind us) round the clock while also worried about their health with the lack of testing and PPE, not to mention that of their family, not to mention how they’ll cover rent, and what about hazard pay or at least overtime, what about child care reimbursement? This administration is so out of touch it doesn’t even know how to offer reassurance that doesn’t anger, disgust or terrify.

Dr. Birx took the lectern and spoke in tropes. Dr. Fauci evinces trust in her so I will not write her off, but it must be said that almost everything she says should be relegated to a slide, or background info appearing on a website. It’s very tiring to listen to her, especially coming after the president. Maybe that’s the problem – by the time he finishes his remarks, one is so stunned with boredom and outrage and incredulity that the next speaker taking the microphone might as well be a bee buzzing in a flower. By then, I’m aggravated and bored at the lack of data, the jargon, the elliptical responses, the failure to contextualize anything in the terms of the most important information which is: how much progress are we making on testing? what’s the growth of testing? when is the projected date everyone can have a test exactly?

Surprisingly, Dr. Birx used her time at the podium to put out an open call for Abbot M2000s, saying 80% are idle and are needed urgently, now. “There are over a million test kits sitting ready to be run,” she says, and I wonder if that means that she is saying half of the 1,870,000 tests that President Trump repeatedly referred to are not yet processed?  Here is another place where powerpoint could help a lot, they really need a slide behind Dr. Birx as she speaks, a place for the owners of these critical, idle M2000s to go and self-identify they have them, for starters.  It’s doubtful anyone listening is going to pluck out this open call from two hours of nattering.

Medicare/Medicaid administrator Seema Verma took the stage to let us know that hospitals are getting accelerated payments this week to the tune of $64 billion due to what she elliptically revers to as “lost revenues through increased expenses” meanwhileI don’t know a single American who has received a $1200 payment, the extra $600 from unemployment, or any small business loan.

It won’t be long before the national conversation turns from death to money. Airlines, for example, are running out of money; on the brink of financial collapse, they say they cannot afford to give customers refunds for canceled flights. Let’s break this down, shall we: a business is taking money in advance for a service, will not perform the service, but wants to keep the money of customers so the business can stay solvent while continuing not to perform services, while the customers lose some of the last remaining dollars they have for food and rent.

“The key element for us is to avoid running out of cash so refunding the canceled ticket for us is almost unbearable financially speaking,”
~IATA Director General Alexandre De Juniac

As if running out of food because you’ve run out of cash is less unbearable, financially speaking. This thinking, equating the life of a business with the lives of actual living breathing human beings, is the kind of perversion of morality that has become common to the point of unremarkability among my fellow Americans.

Getting back to the way we were

 “It’s going to be different, this is not going to disappear.”  Dr. Fauci

The theme of getting back to business is still there, underlying everything. The Vice President smoothly worded it “There is a dual track, some of the best minds are beginning to think about what recommendations will look like, what we will give to businesses and to states.”

Meanwhile Dr. Fauci is cautioning Americans that a true return to normalcy is a ways away, that by the time we get to the fall, we will have this under control enough that it won’t be like it is now…but back to pre-pandemic levels, sorry no.

I am reminded of the movie Poltergeist, when the family in the haunted house calls an expert on poltergeist removal, a tiny, tastefully dressed lady you’d expect to be chair of the neighborhood Welcome Wagon. Horrors ensue, a child is saved, and our psychic declares “This house is clean.”  At this point viewers know NO WAY is the house clean, the movie is only half over, which means there will be a second round of horrors the family will have to go through…something Dr. Fauci keeps trying to warn us about, but are we listening?
Related image

“If ‘back to normal’ means acting like there never was a coronavirus problem, I don’t think that’s going to happen until we do have a situation where you can completely protect the population,” said Dr. Fauci.

Meanwhile experts estimate a vaccine for the novel coronavirus is likely more than a year away, so you can do your own math on back to normal. Others have: Broadway is canceled through June at least. The Lincoln Center has cancelled all performances through August. A superfan of Major League Baseball is proposing a kind of biosphere season only it would be Arizonasphere, bringing all 30 teams to Arizona to play games in the spring-training stadiums with no fans, and with players sequestered in hotels for the duration of the season, tested frequently for the virus, and traveling only to and from the ballparks.  Call me cranky but baseball just isn’t that fun to watch on tv to go through all of this.

In other news the president is spreading fake news about voting by mail faster than a horse can trot.  “Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing, they are cheaters, they are fraudulent,” he trumpeted. “The mailed ballots are corrupt. they are forgeries in many cases.”  One wonders if he is including or excluding his own absentee balloting from the cheater designation. In California we’ve been voting by mail for awhile now; it’s awesome to be able to take your time researching each candidate and proposition before deciding on your vote. Much of the country votes by mail already; for five states, vote by mail is already the primary way they conduct their elections.

Senator I-Have-A-Plan-For-That Warren has unveiled, naturally, a plan to radically reshape voting in these times of pandemic. Let’s hope the practice of vote by mail is already so entrenched the president’s belated attempt to vilify it falls flat.

Finally, the internet is full of pictures of empty cities, our wondrous monuments and skyskrapers soaring into clear, pollution-free skies.  Los Angeles gleams beneath a crystalline blue sky, the giant cumulonimbus clouds flowing above it like the robes of the fabled lost angels themselves, revealed. It turns out the kid was right, Greta was right. One person can make all the difference. One person got COVID-19 and spread it to others and only sixty days later the whole earth looks completely different. The water in the canals of Venice runs clear. Data from a seismometer at a Brussels observatory show human-induced seismic noise has fallen by about one-third. See what one person can do, see the impact of one decision when everyone makes it?

Folk singer John Prine died of COVID-19. What is there to say to that? A unique light extinguished. He was right about a lot of things.

“And all the news just repeats itself
Like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen.”

Good news:  The  Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington School of Medicine adjusted its coronavirus model predictions with all of the new available data and found fewer people in the US will need hospitals, and a lower projected death toll of 60,145. The model predicts the nation will reach peak daily death rates in four days, and peak use of resources in three days. This is very good news.

See past entries in Coronavirus Event


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