Sunday, June 7, 2020

Is the Coronavirus Winning? Or Are We?

Trump's new fence has become a democratically created memorial on Black Lives Matter Plaza. Photo by Brian C./Popville.

Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, chronicles the sad story of "Why the Coronavirus Is Winning", step by step from the error of liberals to the error of liberals:

In the first stage it was liberals and portions of the public health establishment (including, fatefully, key decision-makers in New York City) who treated the virus as something to “be spun or narrativized away,” trying to define the real contagion as xenophobia or racism rather than the disease itself.

By the time this effort at reality-denial collapsed, the baton of narrative delusion had been passed to President Donald Trump, who spent crucial weeks behaving as though the power of positive thinking could suffice to keep his glorious economy afloat.

Eventually the plunging stock market and the rising infection rate forced even Trump to adapt somewhat to reality. But the next delusion belonged to some of his conservative supporters, who embraced the idea that the economic carnage was just the result of misguided government policy — even though many stay-at-home orders only happened after steep drops in dining and shopping and travel, not before — and that if the government simply spoke the right magic words of reopening, something close to normal life would immediately resume.

Now finally, amid the wave of protests against police brutality, the baton of words-against-reality has been passed back to the public health establishment, many of whose leaders are tying themselves in ideological knots arguing that it is not only acceptable but essential, after months circumscribing every sort of basic liberty, to encourage mass gatherings to support one particular just cause.

That first link is to a tweet of a couple of days ago by somebody called Ari Schulman, to the effect that "In January, 'the real contagion is racism' was an ideological mistake that cost precious time and untold lives", so it seems to be a reference to some people (including me) telling other people that it was safe to eat in Chinatown restaurants, which cost no time or lives at all, at least in New York, where the virus was entering from Europe. 

I haven't seen any evidence anywhere that Chinese restaurants in the United States played any role in the spread of disease anywhere, for that matter. On the West Coast, it seems to have been introduced by people evacuated directly by the US government from Wuhan on 29 January and not put under quarantine until after Trump banned foreigners traveling to the US from China. All the Covid cases in California were among people returning from China trips and their immediate contacts until 26 February, when the first community transmission case occurred, with a woman from Solano County (whose diagnosis had been delayed because she didn't meet the testing criteria imposed by the federal government, which was thus responsible for every single major failure in the first two months: failure to stop the deflection of public concern to Mott Street restaurants (where there was no danger of infection), to non-Americans returning from China (when it was US citizens and permanent residents who brought the disease back), and to China to the exclusion of other countries (through which New York because the American epicenter)—not to mention the failure to maintain the Obama-era pandemic response plan, the team of experts who would implement it, or the national strategic stockpile of equipment, and failure to work with international partners on putting together a testing program for the disease, and Trump's personal insistence for 70 days that there was no problem since his talented friend Xi Jinping had everything under control.

All these misjudgments were made before New York's first diagnosed case (in a woman traveling from Iran) appeared 1 March, and while the state and city governments certainly made their mistakes 
“Excuse our arrogance as New Yorkers — I speak for the mayor also on this one — we think we have the best health care system on the planet right here in New York,” Mr. Cuomo said on March 2. “So, when you’re saying, what happened in other countries versus what happened here, we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.” (J. David Goodman, New York Times, 8 April)
it was under the complete lack of guidance and support from Washington. De Blasio finally moved to close down the school system against the resistance of the SEIU on 15 March, when he was also eager to issue a shelter-in-place order, under the influence of San Francisco mayor London Breed, but Cuomo wouldn't allow the latter for another crucial week, until 22 March, which was certainly the most fatal decision for the city, and not made by a city official at all.

While in Washington and Oregon and California correct decisions were made by liberal governors and mayors in the teeth of the Trump administration, sometimes in defiance of it (the innovative Seattle Flu Study work on Covid testing was begun 25 February without federal approval after it had been refused for weeks, which is why it was shut down on 9 March, and FDA was still—successfully—fighting Seattle's Covid testing program as late as 15 May). So it's really hard to see what Douthat thinks he's talking about there in terms of the timeline.

The other point is more worth taking seriously, and in fact it's been bothering me for a while: if I'm going to inveigh against everybody spreading the virus, from Hasidic funeral observances in Brooklyn to drunk swimming in Missouri, what am I doing admiring the massive demonstrations that have arisen around the country since the murder of George Floyd? Really? I have a couple of things to say about that. 

First, we've had a moral problem like that from the very beginning of the stay at home regime, though it's not one Douthat would be able to recognize, because it involves working people, mostly people of color, the essential workers who make the whole thing possible. We allow them to go out and endanger themselves to help keep geezers like me alive. I don't do anything to stop that, as if I thought I deserved the sacrifice, I just let them do it. I'm hoping they're able to protect themselves, and very much hoping the House's Heroes Act makes it through the Senate with its $200 billion in hazard pay, because I'm sure they deserve it.

In the same way, I'm hoping the demonstrators are protecting themselves, in ways the Williamsburg mourners and Lake of the Ozarks tipplers did not, and seeing enough evidence that they are, especially in recent days, wearing masks and in many cases gloves and keeping it outdoors and even maintaining a certain amount of distance most of the time, to entertain a belief that the consequences won't be so bad for them (I'm also grateful to my kids for not joining in, which they're doing for us old folks, my daughter in Brooklyn quarantining just so she feels it's safe to visit us).

And I can't help admiring them running the risks they do, that of police violence as well as that of disease, like a nonviolent army that may be accomplishing a kind of miracle, as Franklin Foer claims in an astonishing essay in The Atlantic:
Over the course of his presidency, Donald Trump has indulged his authoritarian instincts—and now he’s meeting the common fate of autocrats whose people turn against them. What the United States is witnessing is less like the chaos of 1968, which further divided a nation, and more like the nonviolent movements that earned broad societal support in places such as Serbia, Ukraine, and Tunisia, and swept away the dictatorial likes of Milošević, Yanukovych, and Ben Ali.
Though he expects it to end with an election in November, not with Trump fleeing to Moscow sometime in the next few weeks, he's seeing this movement as a real revolution, or overturning of a desperate status quo, reminding him especially of the Ukrainian Euromaidan as it developed from mass demonstrations to the gradual participation of the social and governing institutions, starting with Twitter's agonized decision to mark the president's lying or violent messages and culminating with General Mattis signaling the armed forces:

Once Twitter applied its rules to Trump—and received accolades for its decision—it inadvertently set a precedent. The company had stood strong against the bully, and showed that there was little price to pay for the choice. A large swath of S&P 500 companies soon calculated that it was better to stand in solidarity with the protests, rather than wait for their employees to angrily pressure them to act.

A cycle of noncooperation was set in motion. Local governments were the next layer of the elite to buck Trump’s commands. After the president insisted that governors “dominate” the streets on his behalf, they roundly refused to escalate their response. Indeed, New York and Virginia rebuffed a federal request to send National Guard troops to Washington, D.C.* Even the suburb of Arlington, Virginia, pulled its police that had been loaned to control the crowd in Lafayette Square.

As each group of elites refused Trump, it became harder for the next to comply in good conscience. In [Gene] Sharp’s taxonomy, the autocrat’s grasp on power depends entirely on the allegiance of the armed forces. When the armed forces withhold cooperation, the dictator is finished. Of course, the U.S. is far more democratic than the regimes Sharp studied and doesn’t fit his taxonomy neatly. But on Wednesday, the president’s very own secretary of defense explicitly rejected Trump’s threat to deploy active-duty military officers to American streets. It’s among the most striking instances of an official bucking a president in recent decades.

If this is so—and I'm very mindful of the irony of Putin (with his love for publicly hinting that he's the one who pulls Trump's strings) bringing on the kind of popular movement he most fears in the country he most needs—than it's really not for me to scold them, or for Douthat either. It is, as Biden might say, a Big Fucking Deal. Stay safe and healthy, kids! And, as Biden surely would say, God love you!

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