Above: “Bring out your dead” plague scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).
Covid-19, the novel coronavirus is a new virus. There is no human immunity to it. There is no demonstrably successful treatment for it. There are no antibiotics or a vaccine for it. Some people will suffer only “mild” symptoms (a misnomer) and will survive. For others, it will be a death sentence.
This country failed miserably at the “containment” phase of the virus to keep it out of the U.S. But containment is only a short-term response to buy time to prepare for what comes next, because a virus eventually cannot be contained in a global economy.
Before the Virus Outbreak, a Cascade of Warnings Went Unheeded by the Trump administration:
[A pandemic] scenario, code-named “Crimson Contagion” and imagining an influenza pandemic, was simulated by the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services in a series of exercises that ran from last January to August.
The simulation’s sobering results — contained in a draft report dated October 2019 that has not previously been reported — drove home just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.
The draft report, marked “not to be disclosed,” laid out in stark detail repeated cases of “confusion” in the exercise. Federal agencies jockeyed over who was in charge. State officials and hospitals struggled to figure out what kind of equipment was stockpiled or available. Cities and states went their own ways on school closings.
Many of the potentially deadly consequences of a failure to address the shortcomings are now playing out in all-too-real fashion across the country.
[T]he full story of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus is still playing out. Government officials, health professionals, journalists and historians will spend years looking back on the muddled messages and missed opportunities of the past three months, as President Trump moved from dismissing the coronavirus as a few cases that would soon be “under control” to his revisionist announcement on Monday that he had known all along that a pandemic was on the way.
Now we are in the “mitigation” phase of dealing with this viral contagion. The Epic Failure of Coronavirus Testing in America:
The World Health Organization, for weeks now, has been making an emphatic plea to countries around the world: Social distancing is crucial to stopping the spread of coronavirus, but it is only half of the equation. To suppress and control a pandemic of this magnitude, countries also must find and isolate every person infected with Covid-19 — including those with mild cases of the disease [or who are asymptomatic] who don’t turn up in doctor’s offices or hospitals.
For just as long, however, officials in the United States have said something very different: If you suspect you’re infected, stay home. Even those who live in close quarters with someone who faces a higher risk of becoming severely ill or dying from the infection, have been discouraged from seeking testing unless they are having difficulty breathing.
There are valid if dismaying reasons for this guidance. A string of failures at the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have led to intractable delays in making diagnostic tests for coronavirus widely available in the United States. The same failures have sown confusion about where and how to get tests and have forced clinicians to make tough choices about how to ration the tests that are available.
But there is no question that the W.H.O.’s approach works better. Every region that has managed to get a coronavirus outbreak under control has succeeded thanks to a combination of social distancing and aggressive efforts to test as many people as possible. South Korea, for example, has tested some 274,000 people since February. The United States has tested just 82,000, the vast majority of them in the past few weeks.
Epidemiological testing — where the contacts of infected people are identified, tested in turn and isolated as needed — is the only way to fully break the chains of transmission, says Adhanom Ghebreyesus Tedros, head of the W.H.O. Without it, the virus will come roaring back as soon as social distancing guidelines are relaxed.
With cities and states ordering shelter in place and stay at home “lockdowns” last week, the federal government was forced to make similar recommendations in order to not be outflanked by the nation’s governors and mayors, because optics is everything for the Trump administration.
But now the Trump administration is already wavering from its recommendations because they are more concerned about making money than the loss of human life. “What’s a couple of million dead Americans, when we are talking about making money?” American lives are just collateral damage in what really matters to Republicans: saving Wall Street.
Bloomberg News reports, Trump Weighs Easing Stay-at-Home Advice to Curb Economic Rout:
President Donald Trump began talking privately late last week about reopening the nation, despite the swiftly rising number of coronavirus cases and against the advice of health professionals, because he’s worried about the economic damage from an extended shutdown, according to people familiar with his thinking.
The shortage of testing kits has made it difficult to assess the full spread of the virus, but Trump and a contingent of his aides, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, want to ensure that the economic damage from a nationwide “social distancing” campaign doesn’t outweigh the potential toll from the virus itself, the people said.
“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!” Trump tweeted late Sunday.
Note: Trump repeated this today at the daily coronavirus task force press briefing.
The president started talking about how to get people back to work around Thursday, two of the people said, only three days after he helped roll out a 15-day plan from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stem the rise of cases by encouraging most people to stay at home. That campaign would end about March 31.
The discussions centered on what to do after the 15-day period ends, and how to test and isolate everyone who’s sick so healthy people can return to work. It’s likely the CDC guidelines would be relaxed rather than scrapped altogether, one person said.
“At the end of this 15 days, we’re going to get with our health experts, we’re going to evaluate ways in which we might be able to adjust that guidance for the American people,” Vice President Mike Pence said after a videoconference with governors at the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Monday. “We’ll look at where we are and we’ll evaluate, based on our health experts, what steps might be possible.”
Birx, Fauci Advice
The government’s top health authorities have warned that in the absence of any viable medical treatment and without widespread testing for the infection, sustained and economically painful restrictions on daily life are the only way to beat the virus. This group is led by Deborah Birx, the State Department physician tapped to advise Pence on the government’s response to the outbreak, and Anthony Fauci, the influential director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The advice of the medical professionals has so far formed the foundation of the White House’s coronavirus strategy, frustrating some of Trump’s economic and political advisers who think the president shouldn’t lean so heavily on them, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The economy is reeling as cases rise and the death toll mounts. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard predicted the U.S. unemployment rate may hit 30% in the second quarter, along with a 50% drop in gross domestic product. Morgan Stanley said Sunday it expects the U.S. economy to plummet 30% on an annualized basis in the second quarter.
There had been more than 35,000 cases of the disease in the U.S. by Monday and more than 400 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Social distancing didn’t begin with Trump’s guidelines and won’t necessarily end if he lifts them, as governors and municipal leaders have the power to issue “shelter in place” and other orders limiting daily life in virus-ravaged parts of the country. And many companies have ordered employees to work from home where possible, regardless of government directives.
Several states are still moving to tighten restrictions, not loosen them. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said Monday she’s issuing a “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order that will go into effect at midnight. And Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is ordering the closure of all non-essential businesses as of 5 p.m.
But the president has considerable power to influence Americans’ behavior by the tone he sets at what has become daily, televised White House news conferences.
Trump is putting American lives at risk, because he built his reelection campaign around the economy, and a recession or even possible depression is not the economic message that his reelection campaign needs right now. So some Americans are just going to have to die, damnit!
“We’ll get a pretty good idea what we’re doing” at the end of his “15 Days to Slow the Spread” campaign on March 31, Trump said Sunday. “You know there will be a point at which we say: ‘We’re back in business, let’s go.”
Gregg Gonsalves, assistant professor of epidemiology of microbial diseases at Yale School of Public Health, criticized what he called “zero-sum” framing of the debate by people who advocate abandoning social distancing.
“Nobody wants economic devastation nor the loss of hundreds of thousands or millions of lives in the United States. Both are terrible outcomes. We have to stop this either-or thinking,” he said in an interview.
“Epidemiologists are aware of the tradeoffs because they are thinking about them in their own lives,” he added. “But to do a knee-jerk response by removing these measures is short-sighted, short-term term thinking that’s going to get us into deeper trouble.”
‘Drop the Hammer’
Some of the debate over how rapidly Americans should return to work is beginning to play out in public.
Fauci acknowledged that aggressive public health measures can cause too much harm to the economy and “unintended consequences” in an interview with Science magazine published Sunday.
“There is a discussion and a delicate balance about what’s the overall impact of shutting everything down completely for an indefinite period of time,” he said. “If you knock down the economy completely and disrupt infrastructure, you may be causing health issues, unintended consequences, for people who need to be able to get to places and can’t. You do the best you can.”
Former Goldman Sachs Inc. Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein said in a tweet Sunday night that “within a very few weeks” people at “lower risk to the disease” should return to work.
Because taking medical advice from one of the wolves of Wall Street is a good idea — not.
“Is it time to start discussing the need for a date when the economy can turn back on?” Trump’s former economic adviser, Gary Cohn, tweeted on Sunday. “Businesses need clarity. Otherwise they will assume the worst and make decisions to survive.”
Fox News aka Trump TV is all-in on this latest Trump talking point. Anything to protect the stock market: Fox News rallies around the idea that social distancing is worse than COVID-19:
Fox News pundits and the president himself are arguing that the “cure” that will decrease the spread of COVID-19 — shutting down non-essential workplaces and demanding people shelter inside their homes for long enough to suppress the virus — is somehow worse than the “disease” of the novel coronavirus due to its harsh impact on the economy. This is just from the past few days:
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The backlash against increasingly-strict social distancing measures and the potential for mass quarantines arose after a dire report from Imperial College London. As the NY Times notes, “Imperial is treated as a sort of gold standard, its mathematical models feeding directly into government policies.”.
The report projects that up to 2.2 million Americans could die as a result of the spread of the novel coronavirus without such measures.
So, if Republicans and their propagandists in the conservative media entertainment complex get their way, we will soon see our health care system overwhelmed and collapse, as it is doing in Italy, and hundreds of thousands if not 2.2 million Americans dying, as projected by the Imperial College London, because “the cure is worse than the disease.”
And no, saying “We’re back in business, let’s go” is not going to save the economy or Wall Street. Repeated waves of infection and exponential growth of the virus, with millions of Americans sick and dying and unable to work, or nor permitted to work, is not going to save the economy or Wall Street.
Trump and Republicans are opting for the worst case scenario for both crises.
Dante is going to have to create a new ring of hell in his Inferno for these Republicans.