Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Reality


Illustration by Todd St. John from The New Yorker (Jane Mayer's prescient piece of October 2017 on the prospect of a President Pence).


Vice President Pence, more than 210,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since February. The US death toll as a percentage of our population is higher than that of almost every other wealthy nation on Earth. For instance, our death rate is two and a half times that of Canada, next door. You head the administration's Coronavirus Task Force. Why is the U.S. death toll, as a percentage of our population, higher than that of almost every other wealthy country? 


I want the American people to know that from the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of Americans first. Before there were more than five cases in the United States, all people who had returned from China, President Donald Trump did what no other American president had ever done. And that was he suspended all travel from China, the second largest economy in the world. Now, Senator Joe Biden, Biden opposed that decision. He said it was xenophobic and hysterical, but I can tell you, having led the White House Coronavirus Task Force, that that decision alone by President Trump bought us invaluable time to stand up the greatest national mobilization since World War II.

Not only did Pence completely ignore the question, but as everybody ought to know by now, Biden was right to call the Trump travel restriction on travelers from China only (admitting US citizens and permanent residents and not imposing any quarantine on them) "hysterical" and "xenophobic", given the way it focused on a single Yellow Peril population (after 5 cases had been confirmed in the US and more in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, France, Italy...), too late and too restricted to be effective at stopping the coronavirus, which was already spreading in New York; spreading, in fact, through travelers from Europe, but hidden for weeks because of the Trump administration's failure to develop adequate testing, rejecting the advice of the WHO (consistent with Trump's xenophobic hatred of international organizations in general). 

Trump failed to impose restrictions on travel from Europe until mid-March, when the Italy-fed epidemic in New York had begun to rage—there were probably over 10,700 hidden infections already by 1 March as well as 2,300 China-originating cases in Seattle, 9,300 in San Francisco, etc. Some 430,000 people traveled from China from January through April, 40,000 of them after Trump instituted the ban, so it had virtually no effect. It did not "buy us invaluable time".

In South Korea, in contrast, restrictions were imposed only on travelers from Hubei province in China, but the government followed WHO recommendations and developed testing capacity to the point where by mid-March they were able to test between 12,000 and 20,000 people per day. This is the best example of a non-xenophobic, non-hysterical response.


And you know, the vice president is the head of the task force and knew, on January 28, how serious this was. And then, big thanks to Bob Woodward, we learned that they knew about it. And then when that was exposed, the vice president said when asked ‘Well, why didn’t y'all tell anybody?’, he said ‘Because the president wanted people to remain calm’. 



You know there's not a day gone by that I haven’t thought of every American family that’s lost a loved one. And I want all of you to know that you'll always be in our hearts and in our prayers. But when you say what the American people have done over these last eight months hasn't worked, that's a great disservice to the sacrifices the American people have made.


I’m referring to your president.

Whose sacrifices are less notable.

The Reality

By Michael Pence

The reality—if I may,
if I may finish, Senator, the reality
is Dr. Fauci said everything that he
told the President in the Oval Office,
the president told the American people. Now
President Trump I will tell you his boundless
confidence in the American people and he always
spoke with confidence that we'll get through this
together. But when you say it hasn't worked—
when Dr. Fauci, and Dr. Birx, and our medical
experts came to us in the second week of March,
they said if the President didn't take the
unprecedented step of shutting down roughly
half of the American economy that we could
lose 2.2 million Americans. But that's
the reality.

I don't know that I've ever seen a politician who can lie with the fluency and aplomb of Mike Pence, even Mitt Romney, though he has even less charm, with his old-Republican sorrowful head-woggling and the face of an undertaker working your guilt feelings to get you to spend fifty large on the funeral, though some people seem to enjoy that

But nobody can possibly be seduced by his manner into believing that Trump "took the unprecedented step of shutting down roughly half of the economy", which as president he has no authority to do anyway, instead of steadfastly fighting state governments over their efforts to shut it down, pushing Republican governors to leave it as late as possible and reopen far too early, protesting all along against masking and social distancing and encouraging others to protest with him, which is responsible for much of the terrible persistence of this plague in precisely those states and others (from California to Wisconsin) where there are enough people who agree with him. Even in Brookly, asYair Rosenberg writes persuasively at The Tablet,
despite what you may have heard from public officials or the media, this latest coronavirus spike is not a specifically ultra-Orthodox problem. As Bklynr’s editor Liena Zagare has argued, the NYC zip codes with rising infection rates are far from exclusively Jewish neighborhoods—what actually unites them, Jewish and not, is that the areas voted for Trump and are uniquely susceptible to his misinformation about the virus. “Those of us residing ‘south of the park’ know full well—this rise is not just because of what some of our Haredi neighbors did or did not do,” writes Zagare. Hasidim are just an easy scapegoat for this broader political problem


Because the reality is that we're going to have a vaccine, Senator, in record time, in unheard of time, in less than a year. We have five companies in phase three clinical trials. And we're right now producing 10s of millions of doses. So, the fact that you continue to undermine public confidence in a vaccine if the vaccine emerges during the Trump administration, I think is unconscionable. And Senator, I just asked you, stop playing politics with people's lives. The reality is that we will have a vaccine, we believe, before the end of this year, and it will have the capacity to save countless American lives. And your continuous undermining of confidence in a vaccine is just, it's just unacceptable. And let me also say, you know the reality is when you talk about, about failure in this administration, we actually do know what failure looks like in a pandemic. It was 2009. The Swine Flu arrived in the United States. Thankfully, it was, ended up not being as lethal as the coronavirus. But before the end of the year, when Joe Biden was Vice President of the United States, not seven and a half million people contracted the swine flu, 60 million Americans contracted the swine flu. If the swine flu had been as lethal as the coronavirus in 2009 when Joe Biden was vice president, we would have lost 2 million American lives.

Pence used the phrase "the reality" 11 times in the course of the debate (Harris used it once too). But the reality is that the H1N1 virus started out being less lethal than the SARS-CoV-2, it didn't "end up" that way. It was apparent to Trump, certainly, by 7 February, when Xi Jinping told him over the phone that

coronavirus is “more deadly than your, you know, your — even your strenuous flus.... This is five per — you know, this is 5 percent versus 1 percent and less than 1 percent, you know. So, this is deadly stuff.

Even as he told the Republican governors (10 Feburary)

Now, the virus that we're talking about having to do — you know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat — as the heat comes in. Typically, that will go away in April. We're in great shape though. We have 12 cases — 11 cases, and many of them are in good shape now.

In fact the difference was far greater than 5% vs. 1%:

And the other reality is that there almost certainly won't be a vaccine before the end of the year, not one that's been adequately tested for safety and effectiveness (at a rate comparable to that of the annual flu vaccine, 40 to 60%), and certainly not one in more than very limited distribution in the US, especially in light of the administration's recently repeated refusal to join the 170-country Covax effort, which offends against the American way with its principle of equal distribution. Of the four projects with US participation that have made it into the phase 3 trial stage, just one, Moderna's messenger-RNA collaboration with NIH, seems to have a chance of any finishing trials before the end of the year. Trump doesn't like hearing it

[CDC director Robert] Redfield said [in a Senate hearing 16 September] the vaccine will be provided first to people most vulnerable to covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, and supplies will increase over time, with Americans who are considered at lower risk offered the shot more gradually. For it to be “fully available to the American public, so we begin to take advantage of vaccine to get back to our regular life,” he said, “I think we are probably looking at late second quarter, third quarter 2021.”

Hours later, Trump sought to knock down Redfield’s predicted timeline from the White House press briefing room, saying at a news conference, “I think he made a mistake when he said that. . . . We’re ready to distribute immediately to a vast section of the country.”

—but it's true. You could hear Pence realizing his lie was too much of a whopper and trying to mitigate it in mid-sentence during the debate:

The reality is that we will have a vaccine—we believe, before the end of this year

—well, not exactly the reality, but we do "believe" it, and who are you to argue with a person of faith?

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