Things We’re Finding Out about the Pandemic

So far, Covid-19 has been characterized more by what we don’t know than what we do. That has allowed reporters to write either scary or reassuring articles, depending on what they assume about the unknown. This week I went looking for articles that give the unknown its due respect, and explain a lot of the artifacts in the data that might look like trends, but aren’t.

A good place to start is Ed Yong’s “Why the Coronavirus is So Confusing” in The Atlantic.

Terminology: “SARS-CoV-2 is the virus. COVID-19 is the disease that it causes.” It’s like HIV and AIDS. The epidemic — how the disease develops in a community — is yet a third thing.

The fatality rate isn’t a property of the virus. The reason the death rate (or case-fatality rate or CFR) is so hard to pin down is that it only becomes an objective quantity — number of deaths divided by number of cases — in retrospect. The CFR describes how the epidemic unfolded in a particular place; it’s not some inherent property of the virus.

The CFR’s denominator—total cases—depends on how thoroughly a country tests its population. Its numerator—total deaths—depends on the spread of ages within that population, the prevalence of preexisting illnesses, how far people live from hospitals, and how well staffed or well equipped those hospitals are. These factors vary among countries, states, and cities, and the CFR will, too.

We’re not really sure how the virus causes the symptoms of the disease. We know what a human body looks like after Covid-19 has attacked it. We’re not sure how to separate that into (1) damage the virus does, (2) collateral damage the immune system’s response causes, and (3) side effects of treatment.

The disease seems to wreak havoc not only on lungs and airways, but also on hearts, blood vessels, kidneys, guts, and nervous systems. It’s not clear if the virus is directly attacking these organs, if the damage stems from a bodywide overreaction of the immune system, if other organs are suffering from the side effects of treatments, or if they are failing due to prolonged stays on ventilators.

Others viruses might also have more wide-ranging effects than we know, but we just haven’t seen enough cases to notice them.

“Is COVID-19 fundamentally different to other diseases, or is it just that you have a lot of cases at once?” asks Vinay Prasad, a hematologist and an oncologist at Oregon Health and Science University.

Science doesn’t go straight to the right answer. The back-and-forth nature of the early scientific debate (asymptomatic people can’t spread the disease; yes they can) throws a lot of people, but it’s not that unusual.

This is how science actually works. It’s less the parade of decisive blockbuster discoveries that the press often portrays, and more a slow, erratic stumble toward ever less uncertainty. “Our understanding oscillates at first, but converges on an answer,” says Natalie Dean, a statistician at the University of Florida. “That’s the normal scientific process, but it looks jarring to people who aren’t used to it.”

The upshot is that if your whole view of the virus depends on one study by one lab, you should maybe take a wider look.

Uncertainty is a strength, not a weakness. In politics, the guy who is loudest and most sure of himself tends to win the argument. But expertise doesn’t work that way; real experts understand just how far their expertise goes, and recognize past some point, other kinds of expertise become more important.

The idea that there are no experts is overly glib. The issue is that modern expertise tends to be deep, but narrow. Even within epidemiology, someone who studies infectious diseases knows more about epidemics than, say, someone who studies nutrition. But pandemics demand both depth and breadth of expertise. To work out if widespread testing is crucial for controlling the pandemic, listen to public-health experts; to work out if widespread testing is possible, listen to supply-chain experts. To determine if antibody tests can tell people if they’re immune to the coronavirus, listen to immunologists; to determine if such testing is actually a good idea, listen to ethicists, anthropologists, and historians of science. No one knows it all, and those who claim to should not be trusted.

In a pandemic, the strongest attractor of trust shouldn’t be confidence, but the recognition of one’s limits, the tendency to point at expertise beyond one’s own, and the willingness to work as part of a whole.

The flu comparison is even less appropriate than the numbers make it sound. In Scientific American, Dr. Jeremy Samuel Faust concludes that the comparisons we hear about flu deaths vs. Covid-19 deaths are misguided.

When reports about the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 began circulating earlier this year and questions were being raised about how the illness it causes, COVID-19, compared to the flu, it occurred to me that, in four years of emergency medicine residency and over three and a half years as an attending physician, I had almost never seen anyone die of the flu. I could only remember one tragic pediatric case.

He began asking other emergency-medicine doctors, and found that their memories match his. They remember lots of opioid deaths, gun deaths, and traffic-accident deaths — which are supposed to happen in similar numbers — but not flu deaths. Flu death totals, he came to understand, are not counted deaths — deaths of particular people whose doctors write “influenza” on their death certificates — they’re extrapolations based on models. The models assume that many people die of the flu outside of hospitals, and aren’t officially counted.

In the last six flu seasons, the CDC’s reported number of actual confirmed flu deaths—that is, counting flu deaths the way we are currently counting deaths from the coronavirus—has ranged from 3,448 to 15,620, which [is] far lower than the numbers commonly repeated by public officials and even public health experts.

In other words, (and I’m commenting here, not quoting or summarizing Dr. Faust) the flu death totals we usually hear are more comparable to the Covid-19 death totals we’re starting to get from excess-death demographic models — which show much higher numbers than the 65,000+ you commonly see reported. But if we compare counted Covid-19 deaths during the second week of April to counted flu deaths during the worst week of an outbreak “we find that the novel coronavirus killed between 9.5 and 44 times more people than seasonal flu”.

What happened in Belgium? If you study those country-by-country death totals, the one that always stands out is Belgium, which has 677 deaths per million compared the US’s 204 or Italy’s 475. What horrible lesson, you might wonder, should we learn from Belgium’s disastrous handling of the epidemic?

Maybe none.

Belgium’s high numbers have less to do with the spread of the disease and more to do with the way it counts fatalities. Its figures include all the deaths in the country’s more than 1,500 nursing homes, even those untested for the virus. These numbers add up to more than half of the overall figure.

The curve has flattened, but hasn’t turned downward much yet. Check out the Washington Post’s graphs of deaths and new cases per day. The peak in deaths was 2,874 on April 21 (assuming we ignore April 14, when New York City created a blip by reclassifying 3,700  previous deaths). But deaths have been in the neighborhood of 2,000 a day for the last two weeks. Trends are harder to detect due to a Sunday/Monday effect, when deaths are lower for some reason I don’t understand. (Sunday April 26 had “only” 1,087 deaths, but yesterday had 1,558.)

The numbers also depend to a certain extent on how they’re being collected. The WaPo numbers come from Johns Hopkins, and list 2,461 on Wednesday, 2,097 on Thursday, and 1,723 on Friday. But the WHO has a different way of collecting deaths and assigning them to days. They announced that 2,909 people died in the US on Thursday, a new high.

If you look at things Monday-to-Monday, as I do, there is a downward trend. 68K today, 55K last week, 40K and 22K the weeks before. So new deaths per week have gone from 18K to 15K to 13K.

As for where the numbers might be going next, 538 collects the projections of a variety of models about how many deaths we’ll see in the next three weeks. From the 65K deaths already recorded by May 1, some models predict as few as 72K deaths by May 23, others as many as 103K deaths. But if social distancing is abandoned too quickly and a second wave starts, all those projections go out the window.

When (and even whether) a vaccine shows up is anybody’s guess. A good summary here is Stuart Thompson’s article in Thursday’s NYT. If the normal vaccine-development timetable holds, a vaccine is years away, or maybe even decades. (There’s still no HIV vaccine, for example, after more than 30 years of looking for one.) But lots of things are being done to speed up the normal timetable, and maybe they’ll work.

There is a process to finding and producing a vaccine, but not one that can be easily predicted.

Clinical trials almost never succeed. We’ve never released a coronavirus vaccine for humans before. Our record for developing an entirely new vaccine is at least four years — more time than the public or the economy can tolerate social-distancing orders.

But if there was any time to fast-track a vaccine, it is now.

The main way you speed things up is that you do everything at once. Rather than take the most likely vaccine candidate, test it, and then test the next one after the first one fails, 95 different vaccines are being worked on at the same time. Some of them are probably very bad ideas.

What if a promising vaccine actually makes it easier to catch the virus, or makes the disease worse after someone’s infected? That’s been the case for a few H.I.V. drugs and vaccines for dengue fever, because of a process called vaccine-induced enhancement, in which the body reacts unexpectedly and makes the disease more dangerous.

That’s why you don’t just dream up a formula and start injecting it into the general public. Normally, there are three phases of testing, with time in between for analysis. But for Covid-19, you might start one phase before the previous one finishes. You also might start prepping a factory for production before you’re sure a vaccine works.

If you do all that and you get lucky, you might have a vaccine in mass production by August 2021.

The most aggressive timetable has been put forward by a group at Oxford, which is talking about availability in September, 2020. That would be a million doses, not the billions ultimately needed. But a lot has to go right before that happens. Human trials started this week. Right now all we know is that it works in rhesus macaques.

Whatever we’re returning to, it’s not “normal”. Another Atlantic article, Uri Friedman’s “I Have Seen the Future—And It’s Not the Life We Knew“, looks at the early signs of post-lockdown life in countries that are ahead of the US: China, South Korea, Denmark, and a few others. The very resemblance to normal enhances the strangeness of it.

In China, Friedman reports, reactions bifurcate as everyone anticipates the possibility of a second wave or a new plague. Some remain constantly on their guard, while others take a live-now approach: You’d better do whatever you can while you can, because it might all be taken away tomorrow. In general, the Chinese are saving more and spending less, frustrating planners who hope for a quick economic recovery.

Denmark seems to have the opposite problem: When the government reopened daycare centers and schools, many Danes took it as an all-clear signal. “[Just] because the schools open, doesn’t mean you should stop washing your hands,” says a University of Copenhagen professor.

Temperature screening at City Hall in Seoul

The NYT has a similar article:

In Hong Kong, tables at restaurants must be spaced at least five feet apart and customers are given bags to store their face masks during dining.

In China, students face temperature checks before they can enter schools, while cafeteria tables are outfitted with plastic dividers.

In South Korea, baseball games are devoid of fans and players can’t spit on the field.

… Libraries in Hong Kong are reopening, but visitors are allowed to be inside for only an hour at a time.

Hair salons in Sydney, some of which had closed because of the virus or financial pressures, are back in business with abundant supplies of masks and hand sanitizer. At some, magazines are no longer handed out to customers.

… In Sydney, schools are reopening in phases, holding classes one day a week for a quarter of the students from each grade and gradually expanding until the end of June.

We can hope that our opportunities increase over the coming months. But normal? Well, not exactly.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week I want to focus more on what we do and don’t know about the virus and the pandemic, and less on the politics of it (though of course the politics can’t be ignored). So the featured post does not have “Trump” in the title, and may not mention him at all. He’ll turn up in the weekly summary, but there’s no need to dwell on him.

A lot of the articles that my social media universe brings to my attention express knowledge of one sort or another: The virus is like this; this tactic works and this one doesn’t; there will or won’t be a vaccine by such-and-such a time; this treatment is or isn’t a breakthrough; and so on. But I went looking for articles that give due respect to our ignorance, or that point to something we think we know, but really don’t. (Those stats people toss around about annual flu deaths aren’t nearly as solid as they look, for example.) And looking at countries that are ahead of us in dealing with the pandemic shows that whatever they are getting back to, it isn’t “normal” by any means. “Normal” is still quite a ways off, if we ever get there at all.

The point is not to cheer you up or get you down, it’s to build a stock of knowledge carefully, so that we don’t whipsaw back and forth between “It’s going to be OK” and “Millions of people will die.” Anyway, that should be out sometime this morning. (I’m being vague because I’m still making decisions about what’s in or out.)

The weekly summary will, of course, get into the politics of the lockdown, those armed yahoos trying to intimidate legislators, the accusation against Joe Biden and his response, the Republican president who did look like a statesman this week, and so on, before closing with a great piece of lockdown art: over 100 Julliard students, faculty, and alumni coming together virtually to play and dance their way through “Bolero”. When it came to my attention, I thought, “No way I’m watching the whole nine and a half minutes.” But I did.

I’ll try to get the summary out between noon and 1 EDT.

Speculation and Circumstances

Due to recent speculation and social media activity, RB (the makers of Lysol and Dettol) has been asked whether internal administration of disinfectants may be appropriate for investigation or use as a treatment for coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). As a global leader in health and hygiene products, we must be clear that under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route).

The Reckitt Benckiser Group

This week’s featured posts are “Why the Country Isn’t Rallying Around Trump’s Flag” and “Trump is Still Eating Souls“.

This week everybody was talking about states reopening

As I pointed out last week, no state truly fulfilled the criteria that the federal guidelines set out for beginning to roll back stay-at-home orders or other lockdown provisions. But Georgia allowed a variety of non-essential businesses, like barbers and nail salons, to open on Friday. Some of them did, but others decided not to. Restaurants and movie theaters will be allowed to open today.

A few other states are reopening a few types of businesses, and most states have announced a planning process that will lead to reopening at some undetermined future date.

Even if government allows it, reopening is a complex decision for a business to make. Of course you want to get your revenue stream started again. But are you telling your workers and your customers that you don’t care about their health? And if social distancing requires a restaurant to reduce its number of tables or a theater to reduce its seating, does its business model still work?

Everybody wants life to go back to normal, when you could go out to the mall without worrying about dying on a ventilator. But “back to normal” requires more than just unlocking the mall.


Also last week: I predicted that Trump would throw Republican governors under the bus. Thursday, a headline in the WaPo read: “Donald Trump Just Threw Georgia’s Governor Directly Under the Bus on Coronavirus“.


A reopen-the-economy protest in Arizona backfired when ICU nurse Lauren Leander showed up and silently observed. She was one of four healthcare workers at the rally. Healthcare workers have shown up at similar rallies around the country.

That poor guy with the flag, unable to intimidate one skinny little female. He’ll have to go home and order a big new gun to restore his manhood.


Congress passed another half-trillion in money for small businesses and hospitals. The one saving grace of Trump’s presidency is that deficits only matter when a Democrat is in office.

and the death totals rising

Friday, the United States recorded its 50,000th coronavirus death. This morning, we’re up to 990K cases and 55,506 deaths. That’s up from 40K deaths last Monday and 22K the week before. So the new deaths this week were slightly down, from 18K to 15K. Unless the trends slow down a lot faster, we’ll pass 60,000 deaths before the next Weekly Sift comes out on May 4.

If you remember, 60K has been tossed around as the likely total number of American deaths from this entire pandemic. That we’re sailing past it with considerable momentum should make everyone stop and think.

The IHME, [IHME Director Christopher Murray] said, will update its estimates next week to reflect a gloomier future amid indications that states like Georgia will begin to reopen — and boost the odds of a prolonged pandemic.

“We had presumed, perhaps naively, that given the magnitude of the epidemic, most states would stick to their social distancing until the end of May,” Murray said. “That is not happening.”

Another milestone likely to be passed in the next few days: 58,209, the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War. We passed the Korean War total of 36,516 a week or so ago without much fanfare.


Confession time: I have been an economic pessimist for at least a year, so I happened to be in a relatively good position when the stock market collapsed. I lost money, of course, but I also had some cash to reinvest at the new low prices. I went looking for companies that would still be able to sell their products, and one I picked was Tyson Foods, the meat company. I was still buying chicken, so I figured everybody else must be also.

A couple weeks ago, when stories of the virus outbreaks at meat-packing plants started to surface, I realized that I had inadvertently joined the ranks of the villains: People were dying to make me money. Meat-packing plants are set up to crowd workers together, so if one of them gets sick, it spreads quickly.

So I sold the stock (at a profit, which feels weird). Anyway, yesterday Tyson took out full-page ads in major newspapers to emphasize how important it is to keep their plants open. They’re vital to the nation’s food supply and so on (which is true, but is only part of the picture). The letter from their chairman is very precisely worded, so he at least appears to care about the health and safety of his workers. But it’s hard not to be skeptical of lines like: “The government bodies at the national, state, and city levels must unite in a comprehensive, thoughtful, and productive way to allow our team members to work in safety without fear, panic, or worry.”

It kind of sounds like, “If we only kill a few workers, regulators should let us get away with it.”


From an editorial in National Catholic Reporter:

The question for the church in the United States is whether we will come out of this austere moment able to admit the role Catholics and their leaders played in electing and enabling a man who, far from being pro-life, has proven himself a distinct danger to life on several levels. …

This awful moment has laid bare the high cost to the U.S. church of 30 years or more of accommodation to a culture of political expediency and an attempt to diminish the community of faith’s responsibility to the common good. Single-issue voting relieved too many of us of the responsibility to engage deeper political and historical realities. The questions we’re left with are urgent.

The reckoning is upon us.


Dr. Fauci gets his wish: Brad Pitt plays him on SNL.

 

and injecting disinfectant

which you SHOULDN’T DO, under any circumstances. (Not that you ever would.)

In “Trump is Still Eating Souls“, I talked about the Thursday briefing where Trump suggested this, focusing not on why he said such a stupid thing (I think we all know the answer to that) but why none of the medical people corrected him before any damage was done.


If Republicans want to do some whataboutism here, they can point to stupid things Joe Biden has said, of which there are many (though I don’t remember any quite this bad). Words tend to pile up in Biden’s head, and sometimes they come out in an order that doesn’t make sense. Even Barack Obama, who generally thinks clearly on his feet and speaks off-the-cuff in well constructed paragraphs, once flubbed by saying he had visited “57 states“.

The difference is that Biden and Obama have enough strength of character to own up to their mistakes and laugh at themselves. (So could both Presidents Bush. It’s a character thing, not a red/blue thing.) So no Obama apologist had to argue that there really are 57 states, or deny what the tape clearly recorded, or insist that the President had intentionally exaggerated for effect. Instead, Obama confessed, “I understand I said there were 57 states today. It’s a sign that my numeracy is getting a little …” at which point an aide interrupted and ushered journalists out of the room.

But Thursday-into-Friday the White House and the entire Trump propaganda machine had to turn itself inside-out denying the obvious fact that the President had said something asinine and harmful. At first, Fox News just didn’t comment on it. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted that the media was to blame for taking Trump’s comments “out of context“. (They hadn’t.) Then Friday, Trump gaslighted the country: His suggestion was “sarcastic”, a sarcasm so subtle that no one — not Birx, not Bryan, not McEnany, not Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham — had recognized it up to that very moment.

But now that’s the official explanation, so all those whose souls Trump has eaten have to parrot it. If anybody says anything else, they are the ones who are being absurd. “How can any adult believe, seriously believe, that he was saying, ‘Hey, people should inject Clorox into their body’?” Fox News host Greg Gutfeld asked incredulously.

That’s how gaslighting works: How can any loyal subject truly believe that the Emperor is walking down the street naked? That’s just crazy.


If Trump’s “sarcasm” didn’t appeal to your sense of humor, try Randy Rainbow’s “A Spoonful of Clorox“. What have you got to lose?

And while we’re singing, here’s The Liar Tweets Tonight by Roy Zimmerman and The ReZisters, featuring Sandy Riccardi, in collaboration with the Raging Grannies of Mendocino.

 

and the immigration ban

A new executive order shuts down the green-card process for 60 days. Ostensibly this has something to do with the pandemic, but that explanation isn’t credible. Really it’s Trump using the virus as cover for something he wanted to do anyway.

and this just in: Russia helped Trump win

One casualty of the Trump-era news cycle is that by the time evidence comes in and reasonable people have a chance to weigh it, the whole subject feels like ancient history.

Case in point: The Senate Intelligence Committee has concluded that all Trump’s talk about a “hoax” or “coup” or whatever is baseless. The intelligence community’s assessment of the Trump/Russia thing was right. Russia did intervene in the 2016 election, and did it for the purpose of making Trump president.

For years, President Trump has derided the assessment by American intelligence officials that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election to assist his candidacy, dismissing it without evidence as the work of a “deep state” out to undermine his victory.

But on Tuesday, a long-awaited Senate review led by members of Mr. Trump’s own party effectively undercut those allegations. A three-year review by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee unanimously found that the intelligence community assessment, pinning blame on Russia and outlining its goals to undercut American democracy, was fundamentally sound and untainted by politics.

and you also might be interested in …

This week I learned: The word quarantine comes from the Italian word for forty. During the Black Death in the 1300s, thirty days was the accepted standard period to isolate a ship from a plague-infested area. If that had held up, we’d be having trentines. But sometime during the 1400s, another ten days got tacked on for reasons no one remembers.


Nobody really knows what’s going on in North Korea. Maybe there’s some problem with Kim Jong Un’s health, or maybe he’s dead. But maybe he’s fine.


Crisis has a way of hastening along trends that were happening anyway. Wednesday, the NYT raised the possible end of the big department store. The decline has been going on for a while; Sears, K-Mart, and Penney’s had already closed large numbers of stores before the virus hit. For years, the growth in retail has been online, and even the top-line department stores were struggling to remake themselves. Now their time may be up.

The NYT article says:

The entire executive team at Lord & Taylor was let go this month. Nordstrom has canceled orders and put off paying its vendors. The Neiman Marcus Group, the most glittering of the American department store chains, is expected to declare bankruptcy in the coming days, the first major retailer felled during the current crisis.

The whole industry is eating its seed corn.

At a time when retailers should be putting in orders for the all-important holiday shopping season, stores are furloughing tens of thousands of corporate and store employees, hoarding cash and desperately planning how to survive this crisis…. The resort season has been canceled entirely, and fall orders have been put on hold, raising questions about what inventory will be left if and when shops reopen and consumers return to stores.

Department stores are typically the anchors of big malls; you want to look for something in Macy’s, and since you’re there you window-shop at Yankee Candle and get lunch at the Panda Express in the food court — neither of which would have been worth the trip otherwise.

“The nature of the mall is if you lose a big anchor like a Macy’s, you have co-tenancy issues and you have more pressure on the mall traffic, which was already a big issue,” said Oliver Chen, an analyst at Cowen. Co-tenancy clauses typically allow other tenants to demand rent reductions if certain key chains depart. Mr. Chen said that could accelerate the ongoing divide between top-tier malls and the second- or third-choice malls in certain areas.

Shares in the biggest mall-owner, Simon, have fallen from a high of $180 to $53. The shares currently yield 15%, a number indicating that the market believes a large dividend cut is coming.

In related news, private equity firm Sycamore Partners is trying to wriggle out of its poorly timed acquisition of Victoria’s Secret.

and let’s close with something inspiring

Voices Rock Canada offers a choir of women physicians singing “Rise Again“.

Trump Is Still Eating Souls

I really don’t want to talk about injecting Clorox, but I kind of have to.


To start with: Don’t do it. Disinfectants work by killing living things. You are a living thing. Complete the syllogism.

With that out of the way, the thing to focus on here isn’t that Trump said something monumentally stupid Thursday. He does that; it’s usually not quite this bad, but he says stupid things fairly regularly. On the whole, I think I’d rather have him saying incredibly, ridiculously stupid things rather than run-of-the-stupid-mill things — like that you should take dangerous drugs that haven’t been tested yet — because fewer people are likely to believe him and do harmful things to themselves or others. (Though apparently some did believe him this time too.)

No, the really scary thing about the inject-disinfectant story is what happened next. DHS Undersecretary William Bryan (who had just talked about the effectiveness of sunlight and bleach in killing coronavirus on surfaces — not inside the body) was still standing near the podium, and Dr. Deborah Birx was sitting a few feet away, and neither jumped in to protect public health by telling people not to do what the President just suggested.

Within a minute or two, Bryan was asked a question by a reporter, and he didn’t backtrack to tell people not to inject themselves with bleach. Even later, when a reporter specifically asked “But I — just, can I ask about — the President mentioned the idea of cleaners, like bleach and isopropyl alcohol you mentioned. There’s no scenario that that could be injected into a person, is there? I mean —”, Bryan said “no” in a deflecting way, not calling it out.

No, I’m here to talk about the findings that we had in the study. We won’t do that within that lab and our lab.

In other words: “No, that’s not my department”, not “No, that’s a really bad idea.” Later, on Fox News, Birx did this bit of spin.

When [President Trump] gets new information, he likes to talk that through out loud and really have that dialogue and so that’s what dialogue he was having. I think he just saw the information at the time immediately just before the press conference and he was still digesting that information

Assume that’s true for a second: It’s still political malpractice. Imagine any previous president “digesting information” about a crisis on national TV in real time. Picture George W. Bush — not my favorite president — digesting what his generals are saying about Iraq and spitballing whatever crosses his mind. “Couldn’t we just nuke them? We’re going to wargame that, right?”

I can only assume that both Bryan and Birx have made the same calculation: Protecting public health is less important than protecting the President’s fragile ego. Admitting that Trump said something stupid is a good way to get fired — and then maybe no one in the administration would care about public health.

And so Bryan and Birx have been corrupted by the soul-eating process James Comey described a year ago: First you don’t interrupt when Trump lies about trivial things like his inauguration crowd. Then you give in to peer pressure and flatter him in public.

Next comes Mr. Trump attacking institutions and values you hold dear — things you have always said must be protected and which you criticized past leaders for not supporting strongly enough. …

It bothers you, at least to some extent. But his outrageous conduct convinces you that you simply must stay, to preserve and protect the people and institutions and values you hold dear. Along with Republican members of Congress, you tell yourself you are too important for this nation to lose, especially now. … Of course, to stay, you must be seen as on his team, so you make further compromises. You use his language, praise his leadership, tout his commitment to values.

And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul.

Why the Country Isn’t Rallying Around Trump’s Flag

There is a substantial national consensus and someone needs to speak for it.
Unfortunately, our current President can’t.


The bullhorn speech. The highest presidential approval Gallup ever reported was published on September 24, 2001. Just ten months before, George W. Bush had lost the popular vote to Al Gore, resulting in a bitter dispute over Florida, and a widespread belief among Democrats that his presidency was illegitimate. In the poll published on September 10, Bush’s approval rating had been a lackluster 51%, barely higher than the 48% who had voted for him in November. But now, suddenly, 90% of Americans approved of his job performance.

Bush was the same man he had been two weeks before, but something historic had happened in the meantime: On September 11, the United States suffered a humiliating and horrifying attack. In New York, the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell, killing almost 3,000. In Washington, the Pentagon had been damaged. A fourth hijacked airliner, rumored to have been targeted at the Capitol, had been brought down by a self-sacrificing passenger uprising.

Three days later, Bush stood in the WTC rubble.

The president, who had been in office less than eight months, grabbed a bullhorn and started thanking the fire fighters and other first responders at the scene, telling them that they were in the country’s prayers. Someone in the crowd shouted that he couldn’t hear the president, and Bush replied with the words that made history.

“I can hear you!” he declared. “The rest of the world hears you! And the people – and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” The crowd reacted with loud, prolonged chants of “USA! USA!”

In this electric moment, Bush captured the mood of the country, delivering just what the American people wanted a combination of gratitude for the rescue workers’ bravery and diligence, defiance toward the terrorists, and resolve to bring the evil doers to justice.

Rally round the flag. Other peaks of presidential approval reflect similar moments of national unity. In 1991 and 1945, the common emotion was pride and relief at the successful conclusion of a war. The first President Bush garnered 89% approval after the surprisingly one-sided victory over Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War. President Truman reached 87% approval after the surrender of Nazi Germany. Perhaps the moment that most resembled 9/11 was Pearl Harbor, when a similar sense of national determination pushed FDR’s approval up to 84%.

Crisis has a way of uniting Americans around their president. Past mistakes and doubts are put aside. Had W ignored the terrorist threat before 9/11? Had his father’s uncertain policy led Saddam to believe he could get away with invading Kuwait? December 7, 1941 was not just a “date that will live in infamy”, it was also a shocking defeat for the Navy that Roosevelt commanded, and was soon followed by the defeat of American ground forces in the Philippines.

So if you had wanted to disapprove of any of those presidents, you could justify it. But somehow none of that mattered. The nation yearned to be united, and there was only one president to unite around. Lingering disagreements and disappointments would have to be transcended until the current challenge had been met and overcome.

Over time, this pattern has baked itself into the American psyche so deeply that it has a name: the rally-round-the-flag effect.

What about now? Right now, we’re in another national crisis of historic proportions. More than 50,000 Americans have died of Covid-19, almost all of them in the last month. Hundreds of thousands are sick, and nearly every American has felt the impact of stay-at-home orders intended to “flatten the curve” and blunt the upward trajectory of death.

We’re mourning, we’re hurting, we’re frightened, and we’re angry. So why isn’t the rally-round-the-flag effect working for President Trump?

One theory is that the country’s partisan divide has gotten so wide that it’s impossible to cross over and support a leader of the opposite party. But that doesn’t explain why the effect is still working at the state level, for governors of both parties: Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York, whose televised briefings have made him a national figure, scored an 87% approval rating in late March. And Larry Hogan of Maryland and Ohio’s Mike DeWine are Republican governors with similarly stratospheric ratings: 84% and 83%, respectively.

All those states (especially New York) have been hard-hit by the virus, and you could easily imagine people deciding to blame the governor rather than support him. But that’s not what’s happening. Past disputes are being forgotten. Past oversights are being forgiven. New Yorkers, Marylanders, and Ohioans want to be united, and they only have one governor to unite around. So that’s what they’re doing.

Trump’s problem isn’t us, it’s him. We’re still capable of uniting; he’s just not capable of leading us.

The country tried to unite around Trump. In early April, when he had finally stopped trying to happy-talk the virus into vanishing “like a miracle”, and proclaimed himself a “wartime president”, his disapproval fell below 50% for the first time since early 2017, and his approval rose near 46%, an all-time high.

Democrats were beginning to get seriously depressed about the fall election. In a true rally-round-the-flag moment, it wouldn’t matter that he had been consistently wrong about the seriousness of the virus, or that he had failed to prepare either the government or the public for the battle we are now in. It wouldn’t matter that the economy, which Trump had counted on to be his ticket to a second term, had collapsed. We’d all be in this struggle together, and he’d be leading us.

But that trend fell apart pretty quickly. By this week, Trump’s 538 polling average was back in familiar territory: 52.4% disapproval, 43.4% approval — with the trend line decidedly negative.

Why?

How it works. Sometimes we talk about the RRtF effect as if it were a knee-jerk reflex: There’s a crisis, so I’ll support the president. But it’s actually a more complex process than that.

The first thing to notice is that ordinary politics is divisive, while crisis politics is unifying. Ordinarily, our national political conversation is about issues we disagree on: Should abortions be easier or harder to get? Should government do more to help people, or just get out of their way? Do refugees and immigrants continually revitalize our nation, or do they steal opportunities from the native born? Do whites and men have unfair privileges they need to relinquish, or have they yielded too much already?

We’re a two-party system, so we tend to divide into relatively equal sides.

But when a crisis hits, most of us suddenly find ourselves on the same side. When the planes hit the World Trade Center, everybody became a New Yorker. When Nazi Germany surrendered, parties broke out all over America.

Being on the same side, a lot of us find ourselves thinking the same things. After 9/11, a huge majority of Americans were all thinking: “We can’t just let something like this happen to us. We have to find who did it and stop them. We have to make sure nothing like this happens again.”

But at the same time, a crisis makes us feel small in our individuality. It was paralyzing to imagine being in the WTC when the planes hit. What could you have done? And if people on the other side of the world were plotting similar attacks right now, what could you do about it?

That combination of factors creates an opportunity for a leader: When Bush picked up that bullhorn, he spoke for us, and spoke with the strength that we had together rather than the weakness we felt as individuals. (There’s a long conversation to be had about how he misused that strength, but that’s a different topic.) He didn’t say, “Listen to me!” He said “I hear you!” and he promised to channel our unified will into powerful action.

That’s what 90% of America approved of.

The consensus today. If you listen to cable news shows or watch the President’s coronavirus briefings, you might imagine that the virus is an ordinary-politics divisive topic. But it really isn’t. Pretty much everybody is thinking and feeling and wanting the same things.

  • We’re afraid of getting sick and dying, or of passing the virus on to our more vulnerable loved ones and watching them die.
  • We wish we could do something.
  • We’re bored and frustrated with staying at home, but we’re willing to keep doing it if it actually helps.
  • We sympathize with people who have lost relatives or friends without being able to visit them in the hospital or hold their hands.
  • We’re worried about our financial future.
  • We’re rooting for our doctors and scientists to figure out how to beat this thing.
  • We concerned about the long-term effects on our communities. (Will our local shops and bars and restaurants and theaters and stadiums ever reopen? Will they be recognizable when they do?)
  • We miss the lives we used to have.
  • We worry that people will do stupid things to make it all worse.
  • We admire the people who are risking their lives to take care of others, and we feel responsible for the people (grocery workers, meat-plant processors, delivery people) whose jobs require them to take risks on our behalf.

I could go on, but you can probably extend that list yourself.

The arguments we’re having on social media (or that other people are having for us on TV) are mostly artificial. When we talk about reopening businesses, my worry that stupid people will make it all worse may conflict with your desire to get out of the house and your worry that we’ve been wrecking our financial future, but we share all those concerns. Literally everybody wants to restore normal life safely, but none of us know exactly how to do that. We all wish we did.

That consensus creates the opportunity that many governors are using to raise their popularity: They hear us. They’re speaking for us. And they speak with the power we have together rather than the weakness and fragility we feel as individuals.

Why not Trump? The singular virtue that made Trump’s political career is that he has the best-defined personal brand of anyone who has ever run for president. People sometimes say, “You know what he thinks” or “You know where he stands”, but neither of those is actually true. (In reality, he likes nothing better than to get on both sides of an issue and then claim victory no matter how it comes out. Last week I pointed out how he was doing that in regard to reopening the economy, but you can see the same pattern many places. Like China, for example: He’s an anti-China trade warrior, but he also brags about his great relationship with President Xi.)

The real underlying truth is “You know who he is, and he never changes.”

“Who he is” is a divider, not a uniter. The heart of his 2016 campaign was to channel the resentment and anger of rural whites who feel like America has slipped away from them. His whole public persona (and I suspect his personality) is based on resentment. Wherever he goes, he has to define enemies: the Deep State, the fake-news media, Crooked Hillary, Shifty Schiff … it never ends. He recognizes no loyal opposition; those who are against him (or just not for him ardently enough, like Jeff Sessions) are “horrible people”. He couldn’t forgive John McCain, even in death.

Unifying politicians have a way of co-opting their enemies — the way W co-opted the so-called liberal media in the run-up to the Iraq War — but Trump must defeat his. They must visibly surrender and pay tribute to his victory. President Obama found diplomatic roles for George W. Bush to play, as Bush in turn had made use of Bill Clinton. But it’s impossible to imagine Trump asking Obama’s help — despite (or perhaps because of) all the countries where Obama continues to be popular. Obama would have to bend the knee and beg first, and even then Trump would probably refuse (as during the transition, he accepted Mitt Romney’s submission, but refused to offer him a post).

So even trying to speak for the country’s consensus would break Trump’s brand. Who would the enemy be? How could he hold a press conference without demonizing the reporters? How could he be smarter than everyone if he agreed with everyone?

On a deeper level, it would also run counter to his psychology. Look again at Bush’s bullhorn speech. “I hear you,” requires a fluidity of ego that Trump does not have. He is himself, and he is right, and he is better than everybody else. Speaking for the consensus requires putting yourself to the side. Trump will never, ever be able to do that.

Instead, we have the spectacle of his daily briefings, where the reporters are enemies and the doctors are rivals whose loyalty he must constantly assess. The dead are not individuals to mourn and the bereaved are not objects of sympathy or empathy. They are possible sources of blame, and so they must be removed from the spotlight as quickly as possible. There is only one spotlight, and only one person it should illuminate. The opinions that are validated must be his opinions, which he came to first, before anyone else. They can’t be yours or mine or anybody’s but his.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Being basically a hermit by nature, I’m enduring lockdown fairly well. (It also helps that I’m doing OK financially, I don’t have small children to keep occupied, and my major activity — this blog — can proceed more-or-less undisturbed.) Even my week in solitary, when I thought I might be infected, passed fairly pleasantly.

But I’m starting to notice more and more signs of depression in my social-media universe. Occasionally I hear someone try to say something uplifting, but even that comes out depressing. It’s sort of like when a soldier tries to raise his companions’ courage, but really just reminds everybody how scary the situation is. (“We may not have anything that penetrates their tanks’ armor, and poison gas is indeed a terrible way to die, but are we afraid? No, we are not! We may be running out of food and bullets, but we have as much spirit as we ever did!”)

So I’m wondering if I’ve been underestimating the toll this experience is taking on people in general. If you have observations on this that you’re willing to put out on the internet, please leave a comment.

As I’ve pointed out before, news keeps going into reruns: more people are dead, Trump said something stupid, yada yada yada. It would be easy to put out the same weekly summary week after week, just updating the links to the current instances of the continuing narratives. (Although Trump really outdid himself this week with the injecting-disinfectants comment. Try as I might to let that go, I ended up writing about it.) So it’s a challenge to approach the news with a what-did-we-learn-this-week attitude.

This week, the featured post looks at the question: Why isn’t the rally-round-the-flag effect working for Trump? During a crisis, presidents generally see their popularity rise — even if the bad news could just as easily be blamed on them. For example, FDR’s navy suffered a crushing defeat at Pearl Harbor, but the next month he had an 84% approval rating. The current crisis gave Trump’s approval a bit of a blip — from the low 40s to the high 40s — but it dissipated in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, governors of both parties are seeing a more typical rise: Democrats like Andrew Cuomo and Republicans like Mike DeWine have scored numbers in the 80s. What’s up with that?

That post still needs some work, but it should be out by 10 or 11 EDT.

The weekly summary looks at a few states starting to reopen, and a lot of states starting to announce reopening plans. As always, I’ll update the numbers on cases and deaths. (The models that predicted 60,000 total deaths are looking way too optimistic now. We should blow through that number in a few days.) As I said, I can’t ignore the disinfectants controversy, but I’ll approach it from the why-didn’t-anybody-jump-up-and-correct-him angle rather than rage for the Nth time at how ignorant Trump is. Stupidity at the top is old news, but the corruption of the supposedly apolitical parts of the government is the ongoing story.

Some really funny song parodies are going around, and come out amazingly quickly.

And then there are stories that either have nothing to do with the virus, or are tangential to it: The Senate Intelligence Committee validated the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference to help Trump in 2016; Stephen Miller finally got his immigration ban; nobody knows what’s going on with Kim Jong Un; the big department store chains might not reopen; and a few other things. And I’ll close with a virtual choir of Canadian women doctors singing an inspiring song. Let’s say that appears by 1.

Off the Table

You don’t want to think, “If I go to the movies, I might die.”
We’ve got to take dying off the table.

– Jim Cramer, CNBC analyst (4-16-2020),
commenting on reopening the economy

This week’s featured post is “Trump’s Guidelines Aren’t What He Says They Are“.

This week everybody was talking about the lockdown protests

I say a little more about this is the featured post, which includes that photo from Columbus that looks like something out of The Walking Dead. But here’s a meme that makes a more explicit connection with the zombie mythos.


One thing to remember about these demonstrators: They may not represent anyone but themselves.

Americans overwhelmingly support continued social distancing measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic despite the impact on the U.S. economy, a new poll finds.

In the Politico/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday, 81 percent of respondents say Americans should “continue to social distance for as long as is needed to curb the spread of coronavirus, even if it means continued damage to the economy.”


The virus is highlighting the difference between symbolism and reality, which ripples through America in so many places.

One thing no end-the-lockdown protest can do without is the American flag. These Tea Partiers see themselves as patriots, because they identify with the symbols of patriotism. They wave their flags, put flag decals on their bumpers, and tell anybody who will listen how proud they are to be Americans.

But they aren’t patriots at all in any real sense. If you ask them to do anything for the common good — stay home, do without a haircut, wear a mask in public, pay taxes — it’s too much. Their vision of America is that the government builds us roads, delivers our mail, protects us from criminals, educates our children, and sends helicopters to pluck us off the roof when the flood comes, but in return we wave flags and otherwise don’t have to do anything we don’t want to do. JFK’s idea that we should ask what we can do for our country — that’s tyranny. All that “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” crap — we don’t do that any more.

I can barely imagine how World War II would have played out if my parents’ generation had felt that way about the government rationing food and gas, or forcing Ford to build tanks and planes rather than new cars. There would have been riots, and probably America would have lost the war. History played out differently because the men and women of the GI generation were patriots in their actions, not just in their symbols and self-identifications.

Something similar is happening within Christianity. If Christianity is fundamentally an identity to you, then absolutely you had to symbolize your identity by going to church on Easter, and any government order trying to stop you was tyranny. The more obstacles public health officials put in the way of gathering together with hundreds or thousands of your fellow Christians, the more determined you are to do it.

On the other hand, if your Christianity is about following the teachings of Jesus, then the thought that you would make a big show of your Christian identity even if it costs your neighbor his or her life — that’s absolutely abhorrent.

and whether the virus is peaking

As of this morning, the US has reported 40,620 deaths from Covid-19. The number of deaths per day seems to leveling off at about 2,000. So if we’re going to achieve those “optimistic” predictions of “only” 60,000 deaths, the per-day totals have to start dropping significantly and soon.

The good news from New York is that the number cases in the state definitely looks to be past its peak. However, the peak of the graph looks rounded rather than spiky. If that’s the case nationwide, there’s a lot of death yet to come.

Something we have to bear in mind is that the virus is on a different track in different parts of the country, and that the models assume continued social distancing. If states start allowing people to congregate again, the graphs could go to a new peak.


One thing that’s driving me nuts about the discussion from the states that don’t have a large number of cases yet: If a state like New York or New Jersey had it to do over again, they’d lock down sooner, before the caseload took off. States like Wyoming and Idaho still have the chance to do that, but are acting like biology works differently for them.


CNN points to four good examples: Taiwan, Iceland, South Korea, and Germany.


But we’re also seeing examples that the virus can rise again if social-distancing restrictions are relaxed.

In Singapore, which is battling a resurgence of cases, the country reported 728 new cases today, a record daily high, according to the health ministry. None of the country’s cases since Apr 9 have been imported

China is also seeing a new wave of infections — not anywhere near its old peak, but the worst in five weeks.


The question of immunity remains open. It stands to reason that a person who beat the virus once, and who retains at least a few antibodies tuned to it, has a good shot at beating it again. But whether that person has a genuine immunity, such that the virus can’t even get a foothold that allows it to infect someone else, that’s still unknown. And if there is immunity, is it for life or just for some period of time? Since no one had this virus before December or so, the sell-by date of whatever immunity anyone has is a mystery.

Keep that in mind when open-the-economy folks start talking about antibody tests that “certify” someone’s immunity to the disease and make it “safe” for them to go back to whatever work they were doing. That might be true, or it might not.

and electoral politics

Hard to believe that a week ago, we still didn’t know who had won in Wisconsin: Biden won the presidential primary, but the big news was that the Republican voter-suppression effort failed. Wisconsinites turned out to vote in record numbers, and the incumbent conservative supreme court justice lost. Hats off to all the voters who either got their absentee ballots in on time or braved the virus threat to go out and vote in person.


Last week we knew that Bernie Sanders was withdrawing, leaving the nomination to Joe Biden. This week the Democratic Party began to close ranks around Biden. He was endorsed by Sanders, by Elizabeth Warren, and by Barack Obama.

All three endorsements demonstrated how different politics is during the lockdown. In a typical year, each would have been the occasion for a major rally: Biden and the endorser standing together with hands raised in front of a cheering crowd. This year, each happened via video messages.

and you also might be interested in …


Karleigh Frisbie Brogan is a grocery worker writing in The Atlantic. She appreciates all the attention she and her colleagues are getting during the coronavirus crisis, but the “hero” talk doesn’t sit well with her.

Unlike medical personnel and emergency responders, we didn’t sign up for potentially life-threatening work. We can’t check the temperature of people entering our store or maintain a safe distance from one another.

… Cashiers and shelf-stockers and delivery-truck drivers aren’t heroes. They’re victims. To call them heroes is to justify their exploitation. By praising the blue-collar worker’s public service, the progressive consumer is assuaged of her cognitive dissonance. When the world isn’t falling apart, we know the view of us is usually as faceless, throwaway citizens. The wealthy CEO telling his thousands of employees that they are vital, brave, and noble is a manipulative strategy to keep them churning out profits.

I have immense gratitude for my job. I love my co-workers like family. I respect the company that has employed me and given me excellent health-insurance benefits for more than 16 years. The anger I have is not toward my boss, or my boss’s boss, or even that guy’s boss. It’s toward an unfair system that will never change if we workers don’t question the motivations behind such mythmaking.

In spite of the we’re-all-in-this-together rhetoric, we’re actually not. Some of us can work at home, or are securely retired and can continue our normal activities (like writing this blog) with a few restrictions. For us, a trip the grocery store is like a mission behind enemy lines. We gear up and make plans for as efficient a strike as possible.

But people in other parts of the economy, typically working class and less well paid, enter that danger zone (or one like it) every day because they have little choice. If they’re heroes, it’s in the same way that drafted soldiers can be heroes, even the ones who wouldn’t have volunteered and would go home if they could. They’re carrying on, and doing what they have to do. The other workers we now recognize as “essential” — all the people who make Amazon packages magically appear on your doorstep, for example — are doing the same.

The one useful interpretation of the hero rhetoric is that it’s a promissory note we need to honor when this is all over. I don’t want to hear protests that workers don’t deserve a $15 minimum wage or health insurance or a chance to go to college. The drafted heroes of World War II got a GI Bill of Rights when the war ended. These heroes deserve something similar.


If you think Trump’s afternoon briefings are bizarre to watch, imagine what it’s like to participate in one. Brian Karem reports on Tuesday’s, where Trump responded to his question by threatening to walk out of his own briefing.

It was probably the most surreal thing I’ve seen in close to 35 years of attending White House news conferences. … The president of the United States was playing victim to a reporter he knows from past exchanges is going to ask him a tough question and not back down even if the president tries to bully him. Suddenly I had the power to make him leave? Please. It’s part of the Trump plan. He has turned the daily briefings into mini Trump rallies, complete with a propaganda video in Monday’s episode. Demeaning the media is a recurring theme, as is blaming everyone else for his problems. Trump may claim to have total authority, but in truth he loves to play the total victim.

Some have suggested that reporters should modify their behavior to keep Donald Trump from getting angry. I firmly disagree. As Helen Thomas told me when I was younger, “Just ask the question.” We are not responsible for the reaction our question elicits; we are merely responsible for the questions we ask. Trump’s behavior is on him and no one else. He is petulant, angry and dismissive because that is who he is, not because he’s the victim of some rude reporter asking him pointed questions.


Whether the Post Office is forced into bankruptcy or privatization by the current crisis is still up in the air. Bizarrely, it has turned into a partisan issue, with Democrats wanting to save the Post Office and Republicans willing to let it collapse. Trump reportedly threatened to veto the first stimulus bill if it included a post office bailout.

With local businesses shut down, the Post Office has lost some of its most lucrative business — delivering fliers for local stores and restaurants. It’s estimated to be losing $2 billion a month, and is projected to be insolvent by the end of September.

What’s weirdest about how the politics play out is that the parts of the country that will be most damaged by a collapse of the Post Office are the conservative rural areas.

Businesses like FedEx and UPS don’t build offices in remote rural areas, like deep in Wyoming or in the mountains of Colorado, because it’s simply not profitable. They often rely on the Post Office for last-mile delivery; the agency delivers mail for them from major transportation hubs to the final delivery destination, often in secluded areas.

This ultimately means that without the USPS, FedEx and UPS won’t have the resources to deliver to remote rural areas, nor will they likely make investments to do so since they’ll lose money in the process. Instead, people will have to bear the burden of traveling to the companies’ offices in larger towns to meet their mailing needs. For Mary Meyer, who lives in Bucyrus, Ohio — a town with a population of about 11,000 — the closest UPS customer center is 16 miles away in Marion.

and let’s close with an expression of values

This “Emptying Sacred Spaces” video was made in a variety of houses of worship in Maryland, and includes statements from leaders of many different sects. The mood is sad and somber, while at the same time hopeful and meaningful. A religious community may make its home in a particular place, but it is so much more than that place.

Trump’s Guidelines Aren’t What He Says They Are

Trump’s rhetoric is quite different from what his “Opening Up America Again” plan actually says. The confusion he’s creating doesn’t help fight the virus or boost the economy. (Quite the opposite.) But it will allow him to claim credit for good outcomes while avoiding responsibility for bad ones.


Thursday, the White House released the long-awaited guidelines Opening Up America Again. It was rolled out in a quintessentially Trumpian way, one that will allow him to claim credit for any successes and blame someone else for any failures. This sleight-of-hand is achieved by a simple trick: What the document says is very different from what Trump says about it.

He says it’s a plan by which parts of the country can start relaxing stay-at-home orders almost immediately — even before his previously stated goal of May 1. But if you read the document (and how many MAGA-hatters will bother?) it lists a set of criteria not much different from those put forward by public-health experts all over the world — or by Joe Biden a week ago: a downward trend in cases, a rebuilt stockpile of medical equipment, extensive testing even of those with no symptoms, and exhaustive contact-tracing of those who test positive.

Since no state is anywhere near achieving those criteria, none can use these guidelines to justify opening up anytime in the near future.

You might expect all this open-up/stay-closed confusion to hinder both the economy and the fight against the virus — and you’d be right — but jobs and lives are not the point. The primary goal is to allow Trump to claim vindication no matter what happens.

  • If a state reopens its economy soon and everything works fine, then Trump takes credit for all the jobs gained, because he told them to reopen. Even better, he overruled both Democrats and scientists, who were wrong when he was right. The stable genius wins again!
  • If a state relaxes its lockdown rules, sees a spike in infections and deaths, and has to lock down again, it’s not Trump’s fault that the governor misapplied what was clearly written down in the guidelines. Blame that loser, even if he’s been a loyal Trumpist like Ron DeSantis or Greg Abbott.
  • If a state doesn’t reopen soon, then any economic or psychological distress caused by the continued lockdown is also the governor’s fault, and Trump is the champion of the suffering people trapped in their homes. Liberate Michigan!

It’s a neat trick. Let’s look a little deeper at how it works.

What he says. First off, here’s what Trump is saying:

I think 29 states are in that ballgame, not open enough for opening, but I think they’ll be able to open relatively soon.

Of course “not open enough for opening” is already a big enough loophole to excuse whatever happens. But when asked, he also wouldn’t name any of the 29 states. So no rigorous fact-checking is possible. If you point to, say, South Dakota, which appeared to be in good shape until a sudden explosion of cases this week, he can easily absolve himself with something like: “I didn’t say South Dakota.”

And when is “relatively soon”? Well, on a phone call to the governors, he said:

Some of you are in very, very good shape to open quickly and, if you’d like, according to the guidelines, you could open before the date of May 1.

Once again, though, he didn’t say who “some of you” are. So if any of you open up and it goes badly, you’re not the ones he meant.

And who’s standing in the way of people getting their jobs back, going to the church potluck dinner, or starting the baseball season? Why Democratic governors, of course. Organizations allied with Trump have sponsored anti-lockdown rallies (where some protesters openly carry rifles), and Trump has endorsed them, tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!“, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!“, and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!“. [1]

In Lansing, gun-toting white male Trumpists raise the patriarchy’s battle cry against women in power: “Lock her up!”

So if you’re facing real hardship during this crisis — or if you’re just bored and resent that you can’t get your hair cut — Trump wants you to know that he’s on your side. If it were up to him, the economy would be booming again. People would be gathering in bars, flying coast-to-coast, and buying standing-room-only tickets for country music festivals. [2]

And the virus? Oh, never mind all that. Trump’s propaganda network is telling his base that the virus is no big deal — pulling false statistics out of their butts, and using the merely 60 thousand deaths predictions of the most optimistic if-we-lock-down models to argue that we don’t need to lock down. [3]

What the guidelines say. In contrast to what Trump himself implies, or the things said explicitly by his mouthpieces at Fox News, the administration’s guidelines take the virus seriously. They set criteria for opening that no state can currently meet, and which probably won’t be achievable for some while.

The guidelines have three phases. To enter Phase 1 (or to progress from one phase to the next), a state has to meet (and then maintain) these criteria:


SYMPTOMS

Downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses (ILI) reported within a 14-day period

AND

Downward trajectory of covid-like syndromic cases reported within a 14-day period

CASES

Downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period

OR

Downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period (flat or increasing volume of tests)

HOSPITALS

Treat all patients without crisis care

AND

Robust testing program in place for at-risk healthcare workers, including emerging antibody testing


In other words, the virus has to have been in retreat for two weeks, and you have to be prepared for the possibility that loosening restrictions will lead to a new outbreak. But that’s not all. The “Core State Preparedness Responsibilities” section assigns key responsibilities to the states. This is, in essence, a second set of criteria. If you can’t do these things — and no state currently can — you’ve got no business opening up.


TESTING & CONTACT TRACING

  • Ability to quickly set up safe and efficient screening and testing sites for symptomatic individuals and trace contacts of COVID+ results
  • Ability to test Syndromic/ILI-indicated persons for COVID and trace contacts of COVID+ results
  • Ensure sentinel surveillance sites are screening for asymptomatic cases and contacts for COVID+ results are traced (sites operate at locations that serve older individuals, lower-income Americans, racial minorities, and Native Americans)

HEALTHCARE SYSTEM CAPACITY

  • Ability to quickly and independently supply sufficient Personal Protective Equipment and critical medical equipment to handle dramatic surge in need
  • Ability to surge ICU capacity

PLANS

  • Protect the health and safety of workers in critical industries
  • Protect the health and safety of those living and working in high-risk facilities (e.g., senior care facilities)
  • Protect employees and users of mass transit
  • Advise citizens regarding protocols for social distancing and face coverings
  • Monitor conditions and immediately take steps to limit and mitigate any rebounds or outbreaks by restarting a phase or returning to an earlier phase, depending on severity

In short, Opening Up America Again says exactly what nearly all the experts (and Biden) have been saying: We need to be doing lots more testing (about triple what we’re doing now, according to one Harvard report), including testing people without symptoms, so that we can figure out who has the virus and spot new outbreaks quickly. Healthcare workers and nursing home workers need antibody testing that is only just now becoming available, and may not be available in the needed quantities for some time. We need to be set up to do extensive contact-tracing, so that we track down everybody who might be infected (again, whether they have symptoms or not).

The healthcare system needs to have slack capacity and rebuilt stockpiles of protective equipment. Key systems like public transportation need to be reconfigured for safe use. Industrial plants (like the meat-packing plant that triggered the South Dakota outbreak) need to be reconfigured to protect workers.

The guidelines also say that public behavior can’t return to normal; you still need to keep away from people when you can and wear masks when you can’t. Keep washing your hands constantly, and self-quarantine if you feel sick.

Businesses that want to reopen need to keep limiting business travel, and shut down or regularly disinfect common areas where workers might otherwise congregate. The guidelines recommend temperature checks at the door for workers and perhaps customers as well.

Does any of that sound like the vision Trump has been putting forward in public? No, of course not. But if states loosen up their stay-at-home orders and something goes wrong, you can bet Trump will point to these Biden-like guidelines as what he really proposed, and completely forget all his contrary statements. “I never told you to do that,” he’ll say. And Fox News and right-wing talk radio will back him up: “None of us ever said to do that.”

And if that butt-covering action requires throwing some Republican governors under the bus — I’m looking at you, Ron DeSantis of Florida — Trump will be more than willing to do it. Whether in business or politics, backing Trump’s play has always been a risky strategy.

The phases. A state needs two weeks of good testing to start Phase 1, then two more weeks to get to Phase 2, then two more to get to Phase 3. So if nothing at all goes wrong, no state can get back to anything resembling normal for six weeks.

In Phase 1, lots of stuff stays closed: schools, day-care centers, camps, bars. Nursing homes and hospitals are locked down against visitors. Gyms, churches, and arenas can open only if “strict physical distancing protocols” are maintained. (Picture a stadium or theater with about 1/10th of the seats occupied and no concession stand.) Out-patient elective surgeries are OK, but not ones that require hospitalization. Businesses should still encourage telework, and redesign their on-site processes for social distancing. As for individuals, you shouldn’t socialize in groups of 10 or more, and keep your distance from people even then. Avoid non-essential travel. Vulnerable people should stay home, and if you live with vulnerable people you need to be able to isolate yourself from them.

In Phase 2, schools can reopen, the limit on social gatherings rises to 50, and you get to travel non-essentially again. Common areas at work should still be closed, and telework continued. Elective surgery with hospitalization is OK. You still can’t visit Mom at the nursing home. Bars can reopen “with diminished standing-room occupancy”, whatever that means. Social distancing protocols for large venues can now be “moderate” rather than “strict”. Vulnerable people should still stay home.

In Phase 3, vulnerable people can come out if they’re careful, and everybody else should minimize time in crowds when not avoiding them altogether. Workplaces can resume “unrestricted staffing”. Bars and gyms can go back to more-or-less normal, but large venues should still maintain “limited” social-distancing practices. You can visit Mom again, if you’re “diligent regarding hygiene” (which Mom always nagged you about anyway).

States are on their own. By listing those “Core State Preparedness Responsibilities”, the Trump administration is denying any responsibility for its failure to create the prerequisites for reopening. Testing, contact tracing, building up PPE stockpiles — those are state responsibilities. So the states shouldn’t count on the federal government to help them get ready to reopen.

But some governors made it clear they are not ready to break out the roadmap, saying they badly need help from Washington in expanding testing.

[New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo, whose state is the most lethal hot spot in the nation and is still seeing over 600 deaths a day, accused the federal government of “passing the buck without passing the bucks.”

“The federal government cannot wipe its hands of this and say, `Oh, the states are responsible for testing.′ We cannot do it. We cannot do it without federal help,” the governor said.

However, Trump will incite citizens to demand — perhaps violently — that their states reopen whether they are ready or not. [4]

Governors out on a limb. In spite of the fact that no state fulfills the prerequisites for Phase 1, several states are announcing some kind of reopening.

Despite Florida hitting a new high for new Covid-19 cases Friday, beaches in Jacksonville, Florida reopened for limited hours. (“This is really a crazy bad idea,” said one resident.) CNN did not see much social distancing. The NY Post reported: “Aerial photos show hundreds of people packing the sand to swim, stroll, surf and fish. Many were without masks.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott appears to see the trap Trump has laid for him, and so far is doing the same thing Trump is doing: talking in favor of aggressive reopening, but not yet committing himself to anything specific.

Instead of kicking off a full restart, the Texas governor announced that a group of medical and economic experts will guide him through a series of incremental steps aimed at slowly reopening the state’s economy. The group’s aggressive name, the “Strike Force to Open Texas,” belies Abbott’s surprisingly cautious framework. Plans to restart business won’t come until April 27, and Abbott stressed they will be determined by “data and by doctors.”

But unlike Trump, Abbott has no one to pass the buck to. And his base, which belongs more to Trump than to him, is getting restless.

Through the week, as Abbott’s public messaging made it sound less likely that he would announce a grand reopening, he began taking fire from members of his own party who say he’s moved too slowly to reinvigorate the economy and has been overly deferential to public health experts. On Thursday for example, Don Huffines, a former Texas Republican state senator who represented Dallas County, wrote a blistering op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman, excoriated Abbott for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Some Republican governors — Mike DeWine in Ohio for one — are standing by their lockdown decisions without waffling. And they are not immune to the Trump-inspired protests, as this Pulitzer-worthy photo from Columbus makes clear.

Attack of the MAGA zombies in Columbus. The woman on the left is a Republican candidate for the Ohio state senate.

But they also must know that Trump will shamelessly throw them under the bus if reopening leads to a new wave of deaths. He has already laid the groundwork to do just that.


[1] If any of this leads to actual violence, of course, that’s not Trump’s fault either. It never is.

Trump advisor Stephen Moore calls these protesters “modern-day Rosa Parks“, because staying home and watching Netflix for a month is exactly like living your whole life under Jim Crow.

And one more thing: None of these demonstrations around the country were more than a few hundred people. Would a similar number of liberals demonstrating for a liberal cause get this much attention? I doubt it.

[2] This vision, of course, is a complete fantasy. The economy can’t recover if we don’t beat the virus.

It’s worth noting that no one has locked down the airlines, but traffic has drastically dropped off anyway, because people very sensibly don’t want to spend hours trapped in a small space with possible carriers of the virus. Iowa has been one of the slower states to respond to the virus, and is not usually considered a hub of liberal hysteria, but The Des Moines Register reports:

Facing a 95% reduction in passenger traffic, Des Moines International Airport officials have closed a terminal, shut down services and delayed projects — including a planned Allegiant Air crew base — to save money during the coronavirus pandemic.

The unprecedented decrease in travelers while Iowans are practicing social distancing follows three years of record-breaking traffic at the state’s largest airport.

Bill Gates makes the point like this:

It’s very tough to say to people, “Hey, keep going to restaurants, go buy new houses, ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner. We want you to keep spending because there’s maybe a politician who thinks GDP growth is what really counts.”

And Thursday morning I heard CNBC’s Jim Cramer say:

You don’t want to think, “If I go to the movies, I might die.” We’ve got to take dying off the table.

[3] Bill Bennett and Seth Leibsohn write:

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Washington state is now projecting 68,841 potential deaths in America. It is also estimating lower ranges than that. The flu season of 2017-2018 took 61,099 American lives. For this we have scared the hell out of the American people, shut down the economy, ended over 17 million jobs, taken trillions of dollars out of the economy, closed places of worship, and massively disrupted civic life as we know it.

But National Review’s Rich Lowry (not usually one of my favorite writers) notes that the lockdown might have had something to do with keeping the death toll down to where it is, and then elaborates:

Consider the perversity of [Bennett and Leibsohn’s] reasoning a different way. If we had shut down the country a month sooner and there had been, say, only 2,000 deaths, then on their terms they’d have an even stronger argument, i.e., “We did all this, and there were only a couple of thousand fatalities?”

In other words, the more effective a lockdown would have been, the more opposed Bennett and Leibsohn would be to it.

[4] Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who is often likened to Trump, is taking one more step: He’s appearing at anti-lockdown demonstrations that openly call for a return to military rule.

Political observers say the protesters were right-wing Bolsonaro supporters who called for military intervention on behalf of the president because they view the country’s supreme court and legislature as obstacles to his campaign against pandemic lockdown measures, despite the fact that the country has more than 35,000 confirmed cases and over 2,300 deaths as of April 19.

“Now it is the people in power. It’s more than your right — it’s your obligation to fight for your country,” Bolsonaro said, standing on a pickup truck outside the Army headquarters. “We don’t want to negotiate anything. We want action for Brazil.”

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week’s news was dominated by two trends: the apparent turning of the corner in New York’s battle against coronavirus, and Trump putting pressure on state governors to relax their lockdown orders, even though their predicted peak may still be weeks off. That pressure came from below, as well as above, as Trump-inspired and Koch-organized anti-lockdown protests were staged in states across the country.

This week’s featured post focuses on the blatant contradiction between Trump’s rhetoric and the “Guidelines for Opening Up America Again” that his administration released Thursday. His rhetoric is aggressive about reopening, claiming that 29 states are nearly ready to relax restrictions, and that some should start before May 1. But the guidelines are cautious, listing prerequisites about testing and contact-tracing that no state is anywhere near fulfilling.

If you want to be catty about this (and I guess I do) the guidelines are for people who read, and the rhetoric is for people who watch Fox News. I’m sure the protesters chanting “Lock her up!” against Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer have no idea just how closely her position lines up with the administration’s published guidelines. (BTW, this urge to lock up powerful women — what’s that all about, anyway?)

The post will be called “Trump’s Guidelines Aren’t What He Says They Are”, and its main point is that he has set himself up to take credit for any good that comes from relaxing lockdown rules, but dump blame on the governors for anything that goes wrong. Faithfully pro-Trump governors like Ron DeSantis in Florida or Greg Abbott in Texas shouldn’t imagine that he won’t throw them under the bus if relaxing the lockdown leads to a new wave of deaths. It’s not like he’s planning to take responsibility himself; he never does. (Abbott, at least, seems to understand the trap Trump has set for him. But it’s not clear he has a way out.)

That post should be out shortly. The weekly summary will discuss the numbers, good and bad, and the basic division this crisis is showing us between what is real and what is symbolic. (Flag-waving is symbolic, staying home is real patriotism. Crowding into church on Easter is symbolic, looking out for your neighbor’s health is real Christianity.) A lot of that needs to be written yet, so I’m not entirely sure what will be in it; I have to go through my bookmarks. Let’s say the summary comes out around noon EDT.

Sorry about your Mom, but … the stock market!

Once we OPEN UP OUR GREAT COUNTRY, and it will be sooner rather than later, the horror of the Invisible Enemy, except for those that sadly lost a family member or friend, must be quickly forgotten. Our Economy will BOOM, perhaps like never before!!!

– President Donald Trump (4-8-2020)

This week’s featured post is “Republican Shenanigans in Wisconsin“.

This week everybody was wondering if we’ll turn a corner soon

Day by day, it’s striking how little of the news actually seems new. On any given day you’re likely to hear:

  • The Covid-19 case and death numbers are higher.
  • Healthcare workers are worried about running out of protective equipment.
  • Trump said something false about the virus.
  • Somebody you’ve heard of died.
  • We discovered another warning Trump received (and ignored) in January or December.
  • More people lost their jobs.
  • There’s a new report about how dysfunctional and disorganized the federal response is.
  • The stock market made some big move up or down, — down 2% this morning — for reasons that don’t seem to have anything to do with the economy.
  • Trump made some new assault against democracy or transparency.
  • Some idiot pastor is gathering his congregation together, in defiance of statewide orders that he’s decided to take personally.
  • Trump touted some untested drug as a miracle cure.
  • Somebody else you’ve heard of died.
  • Some economist insisted we have to “open up” the economy and some public health expert said that would be a disaster, but neither defined what “opening up” actually means.
  • Some government expert who contradicted Trump might be fired.

Somebody should turn all these into a daily Bingo card. Fill the square when you hear the story.


So anyway, let’s get started: The numbers are higher. The US has surged past Italy to have the most coronavirus deaths of any country in the world. As of early this morning, we had 560K cases (505K active) and 22K deaths.


Reasons for optimism:

  • A model at the University of Washington says that the daily number of new cases in the US peaked April 5-7, and that the number of active cases (infections minus recoveries and deaths) will peak around April 20. Of course, different regions of the country are at different stages, so the peak where you are could be earlier or later.
  • Another model says deaths in New York peaked April 9.

Trump’s announcements are meant to sound good in the moment, not to stand up to a month of scrutiny. So it’s practically cheating that NPR took a one-month-later look at the promises made when Trump declared a national emergency. He followed through on a few things, but most of the promises are still hanging. Remember all the big retail chains that were going to offer drive-through testing? And test-yourself-at-home kits? And the Google website that was going to coordinate everything?

A PBS Newshour article takes a similar look at the empty promises.

Two weeks ago, Trump brought word of an innovative diagnostic test that can produce results in minutes instead of days or a week. … New Hampshire, for one, received 15 rapid-test machines but 120 cartridges instead of the 1,500 expected. Only two machines can be used. “I’m banging my head against the wall, I really am,” Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said Wednesday. “We’re going to keep pushing on Washington multiple times a day to get what we need.”


So Easter has come and gone without “reopening the country” as the President was talking about two weeks ago. He’s still talking about it.

A senior White House official said there’s a lot of internal energy pushing for May 1, because that’s the end of the White House’s “30 Days to Slow the Spread.”

But you have to bear in mind that this is Trump; he and his people say stuff because it sounds nice, not because some thought process has led to this conclusion. Undoubtedly that’s the case with Stephen Moore, the guy Trump wanted on the Federal Reserve Board before Republican senators noticed that he’s a complete idiot:

“May 1 has to be a hard deadline for getting things open and running,” said Stephen Moore, an economist and former Trump campaign adviser, who advocated for reopening parts of the country on a rolling basis, beginning with less impacted areas. “There has to be a calibration of the best medical advice plus the best economic advice.”

So far May 1, or whatever date they eventually come up with, is just a number on a calendar. There is no set of criteria that will be met by then, and there is no plan for how to proceed. (Trump is putting together a new task force to make a plan. Reportedly Ivanka is on it, so it’s bound to be an all-star team.)

So at some point Trump will announce with great fanfare that the economy is restarting now. And then nothing will happen, because he’ll be stepping down on a gas pedal that isn’t connected to any fuel line.

To the extent that there’s been real thinking about how to restart the economy, it’s not coming from the administration. Fortunately, a lot of people outside the administration are saying the same things about the conditions that have to be met. (I was one of them two weeks ago. Joe Biden was another yesterday.)

  • It’s not enough to flatten the curve or even to see it start to slope downward. The number of cases needs to fall by a considerable amount, so that the health care system has slack to absorb a possible second wave of cases. That slack would include not just beds and ventilators, but also rebuilt stockpiles of protective equipment.
  • Testing needs to be so widespread that we find new cases quickly. Things are getting better, but our testing capacity still is nowhere near what it needs to be. We have tested about 8K out of every million people, while Germany has tested 16K per million — and they’re not ready to reopen their economy either.
  • The public health system needs to ramp up an enormous bureaucracy to track new cases and find their contacts before they can spread the infection further. In Wuhan, the Chinese government “dispatched 1,800 five-person teams to track down every contact to warn them they were at risk.” Over the whole US, this effort could require tens of thousands of people. But as yet there is no federal effort to do this, and Massachusetts is the only state I’m aware of that has started a program on a realistic scale.
  • An antibody test needs to be able to identify people who have recovered from the virus and presumably are immune for some period of time. Those tests are just starting to become available now.

The point is to allow people go out in public and trust that the odds of meeting someone who is contagious are low. The idea that all this can be accomplished by May 1 is just absurd; anyone who mentions a date like that has no idea what they’re talking about and is not worth listening to. June 1? Maybe. We’ll see how things develop.

Once we get to that point, the economy can reopen piece-by-piece, taking baby steps. In China, Starbucks began by allowing one-person-per-table seating. Businesses where everyone has been working from home might allow groups of, say, five people to come in and work in the same office, taking care to avoid contact with other working groups. Each step has to be monitored to see if it starts a new outbreak; if it does, everyone needs to step back and plan again how to take that step forward safely.

Getting “back to normal” is going to require a vaccine, which isn’t happening for maybe a year.


There have been a lot of good what-went-wrong articles. The NYT pulls together the various warnings Trump ignored in January, and then how slowly the White House moved afterward. The New Yorker looks particularly at the protective equipment issue.


As far as I know, there are no national statistics of Covid-19 deaths broken down by race. But the limited statistics we do see indicate that blacks are dying of the virus at a rate much higher than whites. It’s not hard to come up with a speculative list of factors that would make them [I’m uncomfortable classifying blacks as a “them”, but being white, I can’t say “us” either] more likely to be exposed to the disease, and to fare worse once they have it:

  • To the extent that black people form an economic underclass, they are more likely to have jobs where they deal directly with people and can’t work from home.
  • Being on average more urban and poorer than whites, blacks are more likely to rely on public transportation.
  • Being raised in inadequate housing makes them more likely to have a history of asthma.
  • Racial disparities in nutrition, health care, and work environments leave more of them with pre-existing conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and heart or lung disease. Worse, those conditions are more likely to be undiagnosed or untreated.
  • A combination of poor medical services, distrust of the medical services available, and concerns about expense lead to later and less aggressive medical intervention.

If you’ve ever struggled to understand the term intersectionality, look at that list. Some of it is racial, and some is due to class. Some is structural; some is cultural. Much of the problem is systemic rather than a result of active, conscious prejudice by some individuals against other individuals. But it all works together to achieve a malign result.


With so many people wearing masks, I’ve been joking that this is a good time to rob a bank. Turns out, if you’re wearing a mask and you’re black, that’s not a joking matter. Two black men posted a video of a security officer escorting them out of a WalMart for being masked.


The Denver Post describes how the crisis creates a new avenue for Trump’s corruption:

President Donald Trump is treating life-saving medical equipment as emoluments he can dole out as favors to loyalists. It’s the worst imaginable form of corruption — playing political games with lives. For the good of this nation during what should be a time of unity, he must stop.

Trump prevented Colorado’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, from obtaining 500 ventilators, claiming them for the federal government instead. A few days later, incumbent Republican Senator Cory Gardner tweeted that Trump:

has approved National Guard assistance in Colorado in response to #COVID19, following the request of members of the Colorado congressional delegation.

And Trump himself told the Colorado who they had to thank for this “favor”:

Will be immediately sending 100 Ventilators to Colorado at the request of Senator Gardner!

In other words, Colorado is down 400 ventilators in all, but the lack is Polis’ fault for being a Trump opponent, and what ventilators the state does get is due to having a Trump ally as senator. This seems to be a general pattern, which Josh Marshall describes like this:

Basically the White House won’t share anything about what framework is used on the confiscation or distribution side of this equation. The most they’ll say is that they’re using some version of ‘big data’ to do it in a totally coherent, awesome way. But the details we get make it sound like the oldest sort of system: distribution by friendship networks, patronage, the generosity of the powerful in exchange for future considerations. Who knows Jared? Who knows someone who knows Jared? Who’s Trump like? At minimum a significant amount of the lifesaving goods appear to be distributed on that basis.


Wonder how other countries are seeing the United States now? Here’s a view from India.


Mira Johnson recounts her family’s flight from the virus in a graphic short story.

and talking about the end of the Democratic nomination race

Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign Wednesday, leaving the nomination to Joe Biden. Biden’s path to the nomination has been an odd one, resembling John McCain’s in 2008: He was the early front-runner, then looked like he was going to fall out of the running, and finally came back to win. The difference from McCain is that Biden is trying to oust an unpopular president. McCain was trying to keep the White House Republican in spite of an unpopular president. Where the economic disaster of 2008 worked against McCain, the current economic/public health disaster should favor Biden.

I keep meaning to do a what-we-learned-from-the campaign article, but other stuff keeps getting in the way. But a number of good articles came out about why the Sanders campaign failed to win the nomination: in Vox, 538, Washington Post, New York Times, and Washington Monthly.

A few things stand out to me:

  • Sanders over-estimated his support in 2016. He got a lot of anti-Clinton votes that he interpreted as endorsements of his policies.
  • He under-estimated the loyalty that black Americans, especially older ones who remember the Civil Rights era, feel towards the Democratic Party. Villainizing the Party was not a good move. He should be trying to move the Party left, not burn it down.
  • His belief that class interests trump everything else just didn’t pan out. A lot of the working-class rural whites who supported him when he was running against a woman voted for Biden this time.

I can never tell how typical the Sanders supporters on my Facebook feed are. But I’m struck by the amount of denial of the fact that the voters did not agree with them. I see a lot of conspiracy theorizing about the DNC and the big donors and so forth. But if Sanders had gotten the votes, he’d have gotten the nomination. He didn’t get the votes.


Biden holds a pretty solid lead over Trump in national polls, but the race looks closer when you look at the Electoral College. Biden needs to take either Wisconsin (where he currently has a 1-point lead) or Florida (currently 1 point behind).


Here’s how Matt Yglesias analyzes Biden’s VP options, given that Biden has already said he wants to pick a woman. I think a non-white woman would be better, given the necessity of motivating a high non-white turnout.

The WaPo’s Aaron Blake rates the 11 most likely choices and has Whitmer as third, with Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar more likely.

and the flap between Captain Crozier and Navy Secretary Modly

It ended on Tuesday with both of them having lost their jobs. Modly relieved Crozier of command of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt on April 2, a few days after a letter Crozier had written (reporting the Covid-19 outbreak on his ship) appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Modly then flew to Guam to address the TR’s crew on Monday, saying that if Crozier thought his letter wouldn’t leak, he had been “too naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer. … The alternative is that he did this on purpose.” Modly described that possibility as “betrayal”.

The uproar against Modly’s speech was immediate. He apologized (sort of) Monday evening, and then resigned on Tuesday.

This case is tricky to adjudicate properly. The first thing to emphasize is that Crozier’s heart was in the right place: He was protecting his sailors. The virus was spreading rapidly on the TR — we now know of 416 TR-coronavirus cases, including Crozier himself — and getting the ship to port, off-loading the infected sailors, and quarantining the rest was absolutely the right thing to do. “We are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single Sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily,” Crozier’s letter said.

It’s also important to put Crozier’s actions in the context of the fundamental social contract of the US military (which was explained to me a few years ago by my friend from high school who at the time was a warrant officer in the Marines): Members of the military agree to follow their commanding officer’s orders even at the risk of their own lives, and in return the commanding officer acquires the responsibility to take care of those lives as best he can, given the mission he’s been assigned to carry out.

An officer, then, has to balance his pledged obedience to his commanders against his responsibility to his subordinates. There is a sparse, but also long and honorable, history of US officers risking their careers by defying foolish orders or otherwise crossing a line (like expressing a concern in a way likely to leak out to the public) to protect the people whose lives are in their care. So it’s no wonder that Crozier got such an emotional send-off when he left the ship, and I imagine his sailors will be drinking toasts in his name for decades to come.

The flip side of that, though, is that a career-risking move really does need to be career-risking. The military would fall apart if every officer felt free to appeal to the public whenever he disagreed with some order or policy. The logic here is similar to civil disobedience in the civilian world: I may approve of you protesting some injustice by blocking traffic. But if I am a policeman, it’s still my responsibility to arrest you. There has to be a cost to breaking the law, or else we don’t have laws at all.

So I agree that Brett Crozier is a hero for putting his career on the line to save his crew. And I also think he should have paid a price of some sort. Relieving him of command is maybe a high price, but it’s not unreasonable.

Where Modly went completely off the rails, though, was in going to the TR and denouncing Crozier to his former crew in such terms. (This is, in my mind, a typical Trump-administration stunt. They can’t just win and move on; they have to issue a fuck-you to anyone who got in their way.) He could have stayed in Washington and said nothing. He could have gone to Guam and humbly explained the situation the way I just did: “You are absolutely right to admire Captain Crozier, but I had to fire him anyway to maintain the discipline of the Navy. You will have a new commander now, and I expect you to give him proper respect.”

So while I harbor some reservations about Crozier losing his command, and I hope he lands on his feet somewhere else in the Navy, I have no reservations at all about Modly losing his job. I just wish I believed someone better would get the position next. However, that seems not to happen in this administration. Like Bill Barr replacing Jeff Sessions, Mark Meadows replacing Mick Mulvaney who replaced John Kelly, or Kayleigh McEnany replacing a long line of press secretaries back to Sean Spicer, each new person somehow manages to be even worse than the last one.

and you also might be interested in …

Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general, who forwarded to Congress the whistleblower report that eventually led to Trump’s impeachment, and whom Trump recently fired in apparent retaliation:

It is hard not to think that the President’s loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial Inspector General, and from my commitment to continue to do so


The administration wants public money to bail out airlines and hotels, but not the Post Office.


A US Court of Appeals says that Donald Trump’s accountants must turn over the eight years of tax returns subpoenaed by a Manhattan district attorney. Of course Trump will appeal to the Supremes, and since the case presents a clear choice between the Leader and the Law, God only knows what they’ll do.

Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow reacts: “The issue raised in this case goes to the heart of our republic. The constitutional issues are significant.” You got that right, Jay. The issue is whether there is any way to control corruption, once it reaches the presidency.

One important thing to note is that the case is not about making the tax returns public. If nothing in the returns is relevant to a prosecutable crime, the DA is obliged to keep them confidential. If some part is relevant, it might be quoted in an indictment or appear as evidence in a trial. (I am not sure what the rules are if the returns reveal some other crime within the DA’s jurisdiction.)

So far, for example, we don’t even know exactly what investigation this pertains to. In the decision, writing for the three-judge panel, Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann tells us only that it concerns “potential criminal conduct within the District Attorney’s jurisdiction”. The nature of the subpoena itself indicates that it has something to do with the “hush money” paid to two women, and whether the Trump Organization finagled its accounting to hide those payments.

This section strikes me as the heart of the decision:

The President relies on what he described at oral argument as “temporary absolute presidential immunity” — he argues that he is absolutely immune from all stages of state criminal process while in office, including pre-indictment investigation, and that the Mazars subpoena cannot be enforced in furtherance of any investigation into his activities. We have no occasion to decide today the precise contours and limitations of presidential immunity from prosecution, and we express no opinion on the applicability of any such immunity under circumstances not presented here. Instead, after reviewing historical and legal precedent, we conclude only that presidential immunity does not bar the enforcement of a state grand jury subpoena directing a third party to produce non-privileged material, even when the subject matter under investigation pertains to the President.

Further:

Assuming, again without deciding, that the President cannot be prosecuted while he remains in office, it would nonetheless exact a heavy toll on our criminal justice system to prohibit a state from even investigating potential crimes committed by him for potential later prosecution, or by other persons, not protected by any immunity, simply because the proof of those alleged crimes involves the President. Our “twofold aim” that “guilt shall not escape or innocence suffer”, would be substantially frustrated if the President’s temporary immunity were interpreted to shield the conduct of third parties from investigation.

I interpret much of this as Katzmann feeling the Supreme Court looking over his shoulder. He writes nothing inflammatory or polemic, and repeatedly emphasizes the narrowness of his panel’s decision. (“We express no opinion on … circumstances not presented here.”) If the Supreme Court’s partisan Republican majority wants to reverse this decision, Katzmann can’t stop them, but he is going to give them as little as possible to grab hold of.


The news media is still trying to work out the right way to cover a President who will predictably misinform and lie to the public whenever a camera is pointed at him. Former NBC News executive Mark Lukasiewicz makes some suggestions in Columbia Journalism Review:

Try covering more of what they do, and less of what they say. What President Trump says he has done, or will do, about ventilator shortages is likely untrue and largely irrelevant. What he says someone told him about the situation in New York is equally irrelevant. What is actually happening in New York, what Trump has actually done … these are facts—knowable facts—and these are what matter.

Let truth-telling be a prerequisite for appearing on live TV. Repeat offenders who lie or obfuscate with abandon, no matter their position, should not be put on live again.

As for Trump officials like Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller, Lukasiewicz went on to tell Rolling Stone:

Putting people on live television who you know are going to lie, it seems to me, is journalistic malpractice. I don’t think — for want of a better word — a “traditional” journalist would be sitting at their computer going, “Gee, I need an expert on biomedicine. I think I’ll call that guy who’s lied to me 10 times before and see what he has to say.” No, you wouldn’t call that guy.

Yet there are people who lie to Chris Cuomo or lie to George Stephanopoulos or lie to Chuck Todd and they’re back and they’re back again. There’s something profoundly wrong with that equation.


In the last two weeks, two of my friends (who don’t know each other) have told me about robot projects they’re working on: One is part of a team developing robots that deliver packages. Another is working on robots to replace the pickers who assemble your order at the Amazon warehouse.

Both projects share a vision of goods arriving at your door untouched by human hands. Once that seemed creepy, but a viral pandemic makes it much more appealing. The NYT is seeing the same things I am:

Before the pandemic, automation had been gradually replacing human work in a range of jobs, from call centers to warehouses and grocery stores, as companies looked to cut labor costs and improve profit. But labor and robotics experts say social-distancing directives, which are likely to continue in some form after the crisis subsides, could prompt more industries to accelerate their use of automation. And long-simmering worries about job losses or a broad unease about having machines control vital aspects of daily life could dissipate as society sees the benefits of restructuring workplaces in ways that minimize close human contact.

What this does to employment is a good question.


Actual Trump tweet: “HAPPY GOOD FRIDAY TO ALL!”

Do you think he knows what Good Friday is about? Maybe in November he’ll wish Jews a “joyous Kristallnacht”. Tomorrow is the 155th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. Let’s have a party!


World-renowned mathematician John Conway died of Covid-19 on Saturday. I never met Conway, but he and I were on the same side in a mathematical controversy in the 90s: A Berkeley professor claimed to have proved the Kepler Conjecture (about the tightest way to pack identical spheres in an infinite space), and we believed (correctly, as it turned out) that there were holes in his proof. I had to search a little to find a reference to the letter we wrote to the Mathematical Intelligencer. [J. H. Conway, T. C. Hales, D. J. Muder, and N. J. A. Sloane, On the Kepler conjecture, Math. Intelligencer 16, no. 2 (1994)] One of the other names on that letter (Tom Hales) actually did prove the Kepler Conjecture a few years later.

Conway is most famous to the larger scientific public for inventing the Game of Life, which was a landmark in the development of cellular automata.

but some of you are probably still wondering about my Covid-19 status

Last week I wrote about my week of quarantine and getting myself tested. (Yes, that turned out to be possible.)

Tuesday, my test results came back negative. A number of people have warned me about the test’s false-negative rate, and suggested I continue to act as if I were contagious. However, by the time the test came back, I had gone three days without the original symptom (low-grade fever), or any other symptom I don’t ordinarily have. (I always wake up congested, and cough in the morning.) My doctor and I discussed false negatives, and agreed that my symptoms (which had never amounted to much, even before they went away) did not justify continued quarantine.

In the days since, I continue to suffer the effects of stress and worry, like everybody else. But my temperature is back to its usual sub-normal.

I can report two things about a week of quarantine: First, if you’re already fairly reclusive and live a lot of your life inside your head, quarantine is not that difficult, especially if you have a support crew living somewhere else in the house. (Thanks, Deb and Dawn.)

Second, when I found out I could leave, my reaction surprised me: Rather than bursting out, I felt some reticence I had to overcome. “Is this OK? Am I safe?” After talking to my doctor, I finished the last ten minutes of the basketball game I’d been watching (the final game of the 1977 NBA championship series), called my wife to tell her I was coming, and then warily made my way downstairs.

I can only imagine how people must feel when they get out of prison. It must take an enormous amount of adjustment.

and let’s close with a melancholy tribute

Here’s to John Prine, whose songs have entertained us for decades. John died Tuesday of the coronavirus. He’s most famous for “Angel from Montgomery“, though I first heard one of his songs when John Denver covered “Blow Up Your TV”.

In this less well known piece, “The Lonesome Friends of Science“, Prine sings “I live down deep inside my head.” From now on, he’ll have to live inside the heads of the rest of us.