• Time to Get Back to Work

    May 8, 2020 // 2 Comments »


     
    If America has a fast forward button on it someone should push it ahead to November. We won’t be done with the virus until we’ve done with the election. Between prudence and overreaction lies politics.

    We bleat about wanting decisions based on science. Then we do the same dumb red-blue thing, even counting the corona dead differently (nothing left certain but taxes now) to make the numbers seem better or worse depending on the shifty politics of better or worse. Something that should not be about Trump at all is All About Trump.

    There is no other country in the world so driven by politics so devoid of science. It’s killing us. Other countries have good leaders, some not so good. But look at us. Our nation is held hostage to protests and counter-protests, lockdowns and open bowling alleys. There is no other nation where so many are convinced their leader is actively trying to kill them with his virus response, even imagining he wants them to drink bleach.

     

    The MSM portrays protesters against government restrictions as dangerous, Trump death cultists who’d rather end up in an ICU that skip a haircut. It is an echo of the things that lost 2016 for the Democrats. The people don’t want haircuts. Such flippancy insults the righteous anger over lost livelihoods. They want to feed their families. They want thought-out targeted restrictions instead of politically driven over-reaction and fear mongering. It’s about deep emotional waters, sense of self, a whole lot more than just how the economy will help Trump win or lose. Many also are concerned that their lives, including the right to assemble, to worship, and to protest, are being controlled by leaders they don’t trust while a media they abandoned years ago mocks them. Beaches open in a red state are #FloridaMorons; in a blue state it’s #SurfsUp.

    But they see this time the Brooklyn elites are going a step further, beyond the deplorable label, to wishing them to catch the virus, figuring the infection will teach them a lesson before they vote wrong again. Wishing death on people you disagree with. It’s almost like cheering for a guy who drives his car into a crowd of BLM protesters.

     

    Elsewhere, medical professionals say the protestors have no right to put others’ lives at risk, and think it is just more than OK to physically stop the rallies. That’s called “the heckler’s veto” by the Supreme Court and is not allowed under the 1A, even if you’re a hero ER nurse or just an abortion protester blocking the door to a clinic. Stopping someone from protesting by shouting them down, driving a car into their crowd, or otherwise trying to stop them from exercising their rights (including the right to hold a dumb opinion or one you disagree with) is disdainfully unconstitutional.

    The medical professionals and their Muppet chorus of journalists sound like some soldiers who felt their sacrifice was made cheap by people who protested the war. Thank you for your service. It does not however allow you to choose which people can exercise their rights. When you choose to serve you serve those you define as worthy and those you don’t. It’s bigger than you, doc.

    Government is not supposed to be able to take away freedoms, even if it’s for “our own good.” Governments always invoke safety and security when they are taking away rights (see the Patriot Act.) The invoke the majority over the minority. It’s an old playbook, joined in this century by our 1A nannies on social media, who electronically block efforts to organize. If you’re screeching about how rights don’t matter when lives are at stake, the same old safety vs. liberty argument people always use, you’ve got company. The KKK used that argument to block blacks from marching, claiming it was a safety issue.

    Protesting against the government taking away your right to assemble is about as fundamental a civil right as you can get. The argument restrictions are needed to keep us safe (“we’ll get the virus!”) are about as fundamentally wrong as you can get. Yet authorities in California will no longer issue permits for anti-lockdown protests at any state properties, including the Capitol.

    Agree? Just remember what you’re saying now about these redneck inbreeding gun nuts the next time someone claims a march permit can’t be issued in the interest of public safety to a group you support. Hint: It’s the same thing. Rights are rights. Because you know what else can spread rapidly if “left unchecked?” Tyranny. Justice Louis Brandeis held free speech is not an abstract virtue but a key element of a democratic society. He ruled even speech likely to result in “violence or in destruction of property is not enough to justify its suppression.” In braver times when Americans challenged the safety vs. liberty argument, the Supreme Court consistently ruled in favor of free speech, reminding us democracy comes with risk. But that was another world ago, before we measured human worth in RTs.

     

    There is science which should be informing decisions. The irony is that while claiming a small rally in Denver will cost lives, or Florida will kill people by opening its beaches, the same voices remain silent as NYC keeps its subway running 24/7. The timing of the public beach versus public transportation debate came as a new study detailed NYC’s “multitentacled subway system was a major disseminator — if not the principal transmission vehicle — of coronavirus infection,” “seeding” the virus throughout the city. Without a superspreader like the subway it can be contained locally. It is tragic when the virus rips through a nursing home or meatpacking plant (it is a virus after all, it will go viral), but all of those together barely touch a week’s body count in New York. Shut down mass transport.

    We can put most people back to work with limited risk; the protesters are right. The virus kills a very specific patient. About half the dead are over age 65. Less than one percent of deaths were under age 44. Almost 94 percent of the dead in any age group had serious underlying medical issues (about half had hypertension and/or were obese, a third had lung problems.) The death toll in NYC under total lockdown: 22,000. Death toll in much more densely populated Tokyo with “smart” lockdown: 93.

    About 22 percent of New Yorkers already have the virus antibody and thus expected immunity. A logical conclusion — large numbers already have or had the virus, and that it is harmless to them — is simply ignored. Quarantine/social distancing is for those most vulnerable so we can stop wrecking all of society with cruder measures. Hospitals should separate patients by age. No need to keep kids from school, especially if that means isolating them inside a multigenerational household. Let them wear soggy paper masks to class, even tin foil on their heads, if it makes things easier. Online classes are lame and America doesn’t need a new generation dumber than the current one.

    The New York-New Jersey area, with roughly half the dead for the entire nation, practices full-on social distancing while Georgia was one of the last states to implement a weaker stay-at-home policy. Yet as Georgia re-opens, the NY/NJ death count is over 27,000. Georgia is 892. NY continues adding around 500 bodies to the pile every day, even with its bowling alleys closed.

    We judge risk versus gain for every other cause of death. We wear condoms. We watch our diets. Time to do the same for the virus. As for lockdowns, we may not even be judging them accurately. Some 22 states have had fewer than 100 deaths. Only 15 states had total deaths for the entire duration of the crisis higher than NYC’s current 500 a day. The original goal of lockdowns, to buy time for the health care system (and most resources were never needed due to over-estimates of the viral impact), has passed. If the new goal is Virus Zero it will never come. If the real goal is harm Trump we’ll have to put up with this without serious discussion until November.

    A Stanford doctor nails it: “Strictly protect the known vulnerable, self-isolate the mildly sick and open most workplaces with some prudent large-group precautions. This would allow the essential socializing to generate immunity among those with minimal risk of serious consequence, while saving lives, preventing overcrowding of hospitals, and limiting the enormous harms compounded by continued total isolation.”

    We are fretting and frittering away our national muscle watching TV about a bigamous tiger keeper. There are too many who want this isolation to continue indefinitely, a pathetic nation whose primary industries for its young people are camming and GoFundMe. We focus on the virus deaths, but the Reaper keeps a more accurate tally: deaths from despair, from hunger (two million new people became food insecure in NYC since the virus), financial losses (26 million Americans have filed for unemployment), mental health issues, and abuse (domestic murders during the viral months in NYC  outstripped the total from 2019.) In some ultimate irony, parents are postponing vaccinations for fear of bringing their kids to medical facilities.

    It is the reaction to the pandemic that exhausts us, not the pandemic itself. So when someone claims it is Money vs. Life they miss the answer: It’s both. It should not be taboo to discuss this. The debate needs to be about human life in full.

     
     

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    Fear and the Virus: We’re All Momo Now

    May 2, 2020 // 3 Comments »


     
    The COVID-19 virus turned us into a nation of Momo’s.
     

    Momo is my old rescue dog. She has BB-like pellets embedded under her skin. She jumps at noises and shivers uncontrollably when I pull my belt from my pants at night. She didn’t have to tell me that story but she did. She invents new fears all the time; like out of nowhere today it was a spray can rattle, last week it was the the coffee machine beep. Momo never gets back to normal.

    I don’t think most dogs are self-aware enough for suicide, but Momo might be. Before we got the right kind of leash she would slip off and dart into traffic. There were some close calls. For a dog afraid of everything she has no fear of being run over, so you tell me, because one definition of suicide seems to fit: fearing the consequences of living above those of dying.

    Momo knows there are bears in the woods. But her fears have gotten the better of her and she can’t separate real dangers from the rustle of leaves in the wind. Soon enough the grass near the woods has gotten too close and before you know it better to just stay on the couch, alongside the rest of America.
     
    We have been practicing to be Momo. With 9/11 we took one terrible day and turned it into a terrible decade. There were real threats, we all saw the Twin Towers fall. But that was… it? We faced a collection of bumbling terrorists with underwear bombs that didn’t work and shoe bombs that didn’t work and dirty bombs that never existed, plus of course the handful of successful homegrowns closer to disgruntled and mentally ill than Islamic and jihadi. If things to be afraid of didn’t exist we’d be forced to invent them. That might help explain how fast all that terror stuff just kinda faded away when it wasn’t needed anymore. ISIS who?

    But before that we convinced ourselves of threats abroad that needed lashing out at (Momo has never snapped at anyone. It’s a flaw in this analogy.) That is handy, the lashing out justified by fear, because it means we don’t have any obligation toward self-examination for killing millions of civilians, torturing people to madness, upending nation after nation, yadda yadda. We were scared, you guys! Sure, maybe we’re a little embarrassed for jumping under the table mid-Iraq War when Mom dropped the plate in the kitchen but nobody is going to tell the U.S. of A. it wasn’t justified at the time.

    We entered the Age of Trump in the worst of circumstances. Not only were we Momo-ized by 15 years of color-coded smoking guns being a mushroom cloud (and kudos to the author of that Bush-era catch phrase for the retro invocation of the Cold War) but we had honed social media to allow Momo’s across the country to encourage each others’ fears – “Hey, you guys afraid of the smell of pencils? I’ll just leave that here.”

    We reprogrammed into one big Crisis News Network, every story reported with a flashlight held under the announcer’s chin. Throw in Americans’ seeming need to be the victim, a nation of special needs people who all have to board first. If you live every day certain you’ll die if they serve one gluten it is easy to get spooked about something actually real. And don’t forget how over-protected we want to be, wiping down the gym like prepping for surgery and reading trigger warnings and dressing like cosplayers with ineffectual soggy cloth masks — this fetish of imagined fears doesn’t stop reality as much as it leaves us poorly prepared to deal with it.

    Then we get this Trump guy as a Bond-level super villain who was going to end democracy, make us speak Soviet, send the economy into a tailspin, trigger wars with China, Iran, and North Korea when he wasn’t trying to make peace with them which was somehow just as dangerous. Anyone who wasn’t a Nazi was a Russian ‘bot. Clearly a guy like this is to blame for not stopping cold a global pandemic at our shores. Social media allowed us to micro-personalize fear. Trump was going to end my rights (LGBT, abortion, something about toilets, guns, religion, concentration camps, fill-in-the-blank based on what is hiding under your bed.) We could have signature fears.

    You can actually watch it happen in real time. Over on Twitter people noticed Trump retweeted something about liberating Michigan, and using their online law degrees, determined that was the commission of an actual crime of “inciting violence.” A dozen others then tattled to Twitternannyman @jack saying Trump should be banned to save us all. That brought out the historians who decided Trump was trying to start a civil war, which was the trigger for the Constitutional experts to demand the 25th Amendment be used to remove Trump from office that afternoon before the war began. From a retweet to the apocalypse in under three minutes. UPDATE: Nothing happened. All the fears were pointless.
     
    But anyway Nothing Would Ever Be the Same Again and that was just for mostly made up stuff. Now we have enough of a real thing. Will we recruit Rosie the Riveter to beat the Nazis? No, we’ll just quarantine until our skin will become translucent for lack of sunlight. The face of this is Karen telling someone self-righteously they need to wear a yellow HAZMAT suit to Safeway or they’ll have her kid’s blood on their hands. People always find a new way to fear not enough — not enough tests, not enough ventilators, not enough beds, not enough food, whatever’s next. It doesn’t matter the fatal shortages did not materialize yet. The virus could mutate! There’s a second wave coming! Best to stay tense, dog, you will never get back to normal.

    C’mon, just between us, forget about Trump for a minute. Does a virus falling well behind super killers like car crashes and cancer really really really demand upending literally everything in our life? Shutting down schools? Throwing 22 million people out of work? Stopping down our most basic rights? And if anyone says yes, explain why we didn’t do it for past pandemics like H1N1. Imagine George W. Bush deciding post-9/11 no one could go to work or school for “national security reasons,” that we could not protect all those locations from the terrorists or something. It seems silly in retrospect but we’re doing it today. We’re so afraid we no longer can distinguish between prudence and over-reaction. It just seems easier to stay at home than to see if the woods really have bears in them.

    We are somewhat lucky. The most powerful people in our nation just want money. Jeff Bezos has no inherent desire to harm us directly. We still have some value to him, as temporary workers until the robots come and of course to order things. A mild uptick in the market saw Jeff’s net worth leap $24 billion dollars in one day. Fear is currency, and profiting off the pandemic the new status symbol.

    Politically, more luck. The next president has limited ambitions. Trump seems content thinking he’s in charge and busting chops, and Joe Biden’s ambition is to um, something. They’re not the kind of people who would really run with this fear thing. They seem content with the status quo of fear, enough to make people compliant, but not so much that they end up chasing each other with pitchforks. But imagine a bad boy in charge like Dick Cheney, Richard Nixon or John Brennan, a strong man to protect us, an evil man who understands the power of fear.
     
    I’ve been fortunate enough to live in a number of different countries. They have problems, sometimes serious ones similar to ours. But they don’t seem to have Momo-ized, where they can no longer tell the real dangers from the shadows, or judge the right amount of caution from the panic that shuts down the point of living.

    Maybe this is because less is uncertain for them. Most have health care, social nets, pensions, day care, stuff like that. Their people start the day worrying less in general than most Americans. Maybe that has something to do with this. For now, it’s hard to feel excited living in a nation of paranoid agoraphobics passing their remaining time slathered in Purell scolding their neighbor for forgetting his mask when out walking Momo. It’s not a healthy way to live.

      

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    Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio?

    April 18, 2020 // 11 Comments »


     

    The talk in New York is about when to return to normal. But that misses the point; normal never really left, it just changed clothes. We traded economic disparity expressed through poverty for economic disparity expressed through viral death. The real problem isn’t when we’ll return to normal, it is that we will.
     

    All the energy that made this city more than livable, made it desirable, is gone. It’s just a big, empty place now, all the seams showing. The closed stores still have St Patrick’s Day decorations. Time stopped in March. I am a native New Yorker by birth, seven years now returned. I don’t know how many times we can all stand on the ledge and not jump. From 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, Super Storm Sandy. This feels more like the gray of post-war East Germany than the white hot panic of late WWII Berlin.

    New York state has more corona cases than any other country in the world. About half of all U.S. deaths are here in the broader New York area. Sure, there are other hot pockets but while NYC counts the bodies in the thousands there are some states still in single figures and most others in the hundreds. The stars may soon again hold benefit concerts for us, echoing post-9/11’s “ferocious tenderness of how desperately America loves New York.” When the city talks in its sleep what many remember most is the kindness people showed toward one another that blue September, little courtesies of holding doors and allowing someone to cut the line, half smiles from total strangers in a place where such vulnerability could previously have made you prey.

    Not with the virus. We snap at each other, enemies now, each a potential carrier. This is a not a city which lends itself to personal space without a flash of aggressive eye contact. Walk without a mask and someone will snap at you. Two guys hissing something in Spanish at an Asian woman. Lines to enter the food store with everyone watching like North Korean border guards for sneaks. SNL and late night never mocked Bush in the immediate 9/11 aftermath. If we ever were one we are not now. Because we are for certain not all in this together as Governor Andrew Cuomo said: “Everyone is subject to this virus. I don’t care how smart, how rich, how powerful you think you are.”

    That is not true. The virus is highly concentrated in the poorest Hispanic and black neighborhoods of Queens and the Bronx. The viral death rate for Hispanics is 22 people per 100,000; for blacks 20 per 100,000 while the rate for whites is 10 per 100,000. For whites even that is deceptive, given the hot spots in the isolated Hasidic Jewish enclaves of Brooklyn versus the paucity lack of white deaths in the high-income areas. Poorer people are more likely to die at home than in a hospital, and so the surge in at-home deaths, most never tested, suggests the death rate for the virus is being under-counted. Overall the virus is twice as deadly for Hispanics and blacks than whites in NYC.

    In New York we speak hundreds of languages but not to each other. A map of viral cases neighborhood-by-neighborhood tells the tale. America’s most diverse city, America’s most sanctimonious city about that, is also one of her most segregated on the ground.

    New York City is also the most economically unequal city in the country. It is home to 70 billionaires, more than any other American city. Living among those billionaires (NYC is also home to nearly one million millionaires, more than any other city in the world) the city also has the largest homeless population of any American metropolis. The number of New Yorkers who live below the poverty line is larger than the population of Philadelphia or Phoenix, and would be the country’s 7th largest city. The billionaires fund the social services and the poor clean the homes and scavenge the trash of the billionaires.
     

    The reasons are the same reasons. Poor neighborhoods are served by the city’s miserable public hospitals, not its world-class private ones. A virus patient in the ravaged Bronx is twice as likely to die as one in a “nice” neighborhood. The problem is the quality, not the quantity, of healthcare. “We are watching, in real time, racial disparities and the pandemic of poverty,” one assemblyman said.

    Poor people suffer from comorbidities (86 percent of the dead have one), particularly the ones of bad diets like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Hypertension is 3x more prevalent, and diabetes 5x more, in the South Bronx than in well-to-do lower Manhattan. Influenza, which has already killed about twice as many people this season as COVID-19, follows a similar pattern.

    The Elmhurst neighborhood in Queens is “the epicenter within the epicenter,” according to the mayor. Some 64 percent of its residents are Hispanic, and the median household income is three-quarters of that of the metro area. Nearly 11 percent of households there are multigenerational. The grouping of young (who carry the virus without symptoms) and elderly together helps drive the higher infection rates.

    Park Slope, Brooklyn, has some of the city’s lowest rates of COVID-19, 56 percent below average. Two-thirds of its population is white and the median household income is one and a half times greater than average. Less than two percent of households are multigenerational. But when the Surgeon General specifically admonished people of color to stop drinking and using drugs during the pandemic to power up their immune systems he was called a racist.
     

    This is the normal. The economic disparity driving the viral load in NYC was here long before the virus; COVID-19 was superimposed on that sordid base. What is happening now, the deaths, was always happening, albeit slower. This mocks what pundits are calling the big question, how to balance the city’s health and the city’s economic needs, when to re-open for business. Economic inequality has been killing people all along, and keeping poor people from working by decree only makes them poorer and eventually sicker. It is a slow death as opposed to the quick countable deaths from the virus.. Tom Hanks will thank the food delivery guys for their service on SNL but we still won’t pay them a living wage.

    One of the things blamed in NYC was the late decision to close the public schools. Many wealthy private schools closed on their own in early March. The mayor kept the massive public school system open until the middle of the month not for educational reasons, but because it doubles as a social service center for poor children, including 114,000 who are homeless.

    More than half of all public students get their meals at school, and for the homeless kids it is the only place they can wash clothing and clean themselves. Birth control and STD testing for kids from strict Hispanic Catholic homes mostly happens surreptitiously through the schools. The schools provide daycare so poor people can work, and are the last hope to keep a few children out of gangs and offer them a break from abusive homes. “Given the alternatives, schools are a safer place for many kids,” one teacher said. Closing the schools was a “last resort,” judged a better option than hiding from the virus at one point. The uptick in child violence and domestic violence in general New York is experiencing now was understood to be coming, collateral damage.

    The city made up its mind a long time ago. During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic which killed 30,000 New Yorkers, the Health Commissioner demanded public schools be kept open, believing the risks of gathering kids together were outweighed by the benefits of giving them a break from their crowded and unsanitary tenement apartments. The Commissioner also noted working immigrant parents had no time to care for their kids, better to have them looked after at schools. As he put it, sick people don’t go to the theater when they feel bad but they do go to work.

    Same for the subway system, still running 24/7, a remarkably effective way to spread the virus. As in 1918, poor people can’t work remotely. NYC kept the public schools open, and keeps public transport running, then and now, knowing it would spread the virus, because the alternative hardships seem worse.
     

    I’ve lived in the developing world and you get used to this. You have and they don’t, way it is, beyond one man’s blame and seemingly any man’s fix. The biggest barrier to some sort of “re-opening” in NYC is to figure out how to express that in palatable terms for 2020. Not that we weren’t already already doing it for the last hundred years, but now we need to make rules to govern our apartheid of dollars that sound OK in the Sunday Review section. The rest is just logistics.

     

    BONUS

    New York is not alone. In Chicago, more than 70 percent of the deaths related to the coronavirus were among black residents, though blacks make up only a third of the city’s population. In Michigan, black residents make up just 14 percent of the population, but over 40 percent of the COVID-19 deaths.

    It was always sort of this way, but maybe a slightly better version of it. Up until the 1970s or so, New York had always been about The Deal. You put up with the filth, the crowding, the lack of empathy, and she’ll throw you a bone. If you really make it, the luxuries of the world are available at your fingertips. In the middle, for the plumbers and the clerks, a spring afternoon at the stadium with a hot dog and a beer (or nowadays more commonly, a churro) reached at heaven. For the immigrants, from the 19th century Irish, Germans, Jews, and Italians to today’s Dominicans and Vietnamese, work until you’re running, burned, and near blind, and we’ll educate your kids so they don’t have to.

    We did away with The Deal when we switched to more disposable workers. A janitor I know tells the tale. His father came to New York from Puerto Rico a few Americas ago. Dad worked nights until he bought a house in Queens. Miguel’s brother is out of work with a high fever, but the real worry is dad, diabetic and elderly and living downstairs. Miguel cleans for rich people and “can’t get sick” because he’s now holding the family purse. He’s angry his kids have to “online school,” because he wants them to make the move, third generation, up and out, and online isn’t going to be enough.

     

     

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    The Monsters Are Due on Pennsylvania Avenue

    April 11, 2020 // 3 Comments »


     

    “There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own…”
     

    That’s the closing narration to a classic Twilight Zone episode, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street. A summer’s day turns darkly paranoid as a group of neighbors convinces themselves strange doings are part of an alien invasion. Worse yet, one family among them may be aliens in disguise. Their fears escalate until a neighbor is shot and the former friends descend into a mob. The episode ends on a nearby hilltop where real aliens are watching the riot on Maple Street while manipulating the neighborhood’s electricity to encourage the violence. They comment on how simply fiddling with consistency leads people to descend into paranoia, and that this can be exploited to conquer Earth. The message is clear: while there is a real threat, the worst damage is done by ourselves, driven by the search for someone to blame.
     

     
    And oh yes in 2020, in what the NYT calls this “land of denial and death,” we search for someone to blame. Paranoia does not require much grounding in real life. So while a global pandemic unfolds, affecting over 150 countries, the blame for what is happening rests with one man. China, Spain, Canada, wherever, have no Trump. They don’t have America’s grossly commercialized medical system, or the economic inequality, or the the presence/lack of border controls, to exacerbate the virus. Yet they have the virus, statistically flexible enough to be worse than the U.S. where needed (China and Iran, they lie) or better than the U.S. to prove some point (South Korea tests more, Denmark has socialized medicine.)

    The Boston Globe has it clear: Donald Trump “Has Blood On His Hands” over coronavirus. The idea that a global pandemic is not “anyone’s” fault is unthinkable and Trump is a ready foil. The MSM has spent three years seeding our thoughts Trump is deadly. He was a Russian spy selling our secrets even as the #Resistance lead by Alec Baldwin practiced shouting “Wolverines!” He brought us to the brink of civil war, or nuclear war with North Korea, Iran, and China, enroute to climate change death. So what if the MSM got the details wrong — it wasn’t Russiagate or white nationalism or Ukraine — it was, we found it, this.
     
    Look, Trump did away with the “Pandemic Response Team” in 2018. If we had had that Team they would have swatted the virus away. Except there was no Team. What was fired was one man, Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer, who was actually only a bureaucratic coordinator on the NSC. Ziemer was originally a George Bush anti-malaria appointee after his naval aviation career, an evangelical Christian, with little real-world experience with a pandemic. Not a doctor, not a specialist. No matter his team and its duties were reassigned inside the NSC to a new biodefense directorate. And no matter Ziemer still works for the government, at USAID, in case anyone needs his expertise. And no matter he and his position did not exist in 2009, when by most MSM accounts the U.S. successfully handled the swine flu virus.
     
    Well, maybe it is because Trump cut funding to the CDC and NIH! Except that did not happen. The president’s budget proposals called for reducing funding even as Congress said no every time. Joe Biden claimed Trump “tried to defund the NIH” even as lawmakers enacted increases. Not that it matters much, but Trump never called the virus a hoax, though he did call Democratic efforts to tar him with inaction a hoax. And a Johns Hopkins study in 2019 ranked the U.S.  the best-prepared country in the world to handle a pandemic.
     
    But Trump didn’t test! Of course testing has ramped up quickly to the point where the U.S. has tested more people than other countries and is leading the world in deploying the new, faster, antibody test. But blame requires focus on an initial couple of weeks, mid-impeachment proceedings, when testing was not available in large quantities. One typical headline claimed, “The U.S. Badly Bungled Coronavirus Testing.” But the problems were old news almost as soon as the stories were written. Within a week, nearly a million tests would be available. The initial testing rollout of a CDC-designed test kit to state and local labs was unsuccessful because it contained a faulty reagent. CDC quickly backed away from a policy position limiting full testing to its own labs for statistical and quality control purposes, and commercial, university, and state labs gained approval to use their own tests.
     
    The CDC’s actions were standard procedure, and for good reason. When a new disease emerges CDC normally gets the ball rolling because it has the expertise and the biosafety laboratories to handle dangerous novel pathogens. Typically there are few confirmed viral samples at the outset, which researchers need to validate their tests, and CDC has the capability to grow the virus for this critical quality assurance step. You lose that if you allow everyone to test simultaneously. It’s not a “blame,” it is science.

    As for the technical problem with the original CDC kits, here it is: “The key problem with the kits is what’s known as a negative control. CDC’s test uses the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay to find tiny amounts of the SARS-CoV-2 genome in, say, a nose swab. To make sure a test is working properly, kits also include DNA unrelated to SARS-CoV-2. The assay should not react to this negative control, but the CDC reagents did at many, but not all, state labs. The labs where the negative control failed were not allowed to use the test; they have to continue to send their samples to Atlanta.” The CDC has been supplying reagents through the same place for a decade. So if you want to blame Trump for stirring in the wrong DNA in the kits, whatever, go ahead.
     
    Oh, you want someone to really blame? Well, there’s two pandemics’ worth of it to go around.

    But what about the ventilators? The U.S. tried to build a new fleet of ventilators, but the mission failed, leaving us in the present situation. Left out of the discussion was that the failure took place under the Obama administration, following the H1N1 pandemic. It was understood then some 70,000 ventilators should be stockpiled. Yet through a failure of oversight by the Obama administration the project ultimately produced zero ventilators. Last year the Trump administration approved a new design to kickstart the project, with deliveries to start in the summer.

    But didn’t we once have more ventilators? Yes, in California, but Governor Jerry Brown sold them. In 2006, citing the threat of avian flu, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had the state invest $200 million in a powerful set of medical weapons. He created a truck-borne system of some 50 million N95 respirators, 2,400 portable ventilators, and 21,000 patient beds. Then in 2011 the new Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, cut off the money to maintain the stockpile. The ventilators were given to local hospitals and health agencies without any funding to maintain them. Many were resold to dealers who shipped them abroad. The N95 respirators were allowed to expire without being replaced.
     
    New York, once again Ground Zero for a national tragedy, may not have enough ventilators. After learning in 2015 the state’s stockpile of medical equipment had 16,000 fewer ventilators than New Yorkers would need in a severe pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo could have chosen to buy more ventilators. Instead, he asked his health commissioner to draft rules for rationing the ventilators they already had.

    Governor Cuomo also recognized, but failed to do anything about, a shortage of masks and other protective gear. On March 6, weeks before Trump raised the issue, Cuomo stated people were stealing the equipment out of hospitals in New York. “Not just people taking a couple or three, I mean just actual thefts of those products,” Cuomo said. “I’ve asked the state police to do an investigation, look at places that are selling masks, medical equipment, protective wear.” There is no evidence he or the police ever followed up, directly resulting in a shortage today. Cuomo did not restate his order to investigate even after a warehouse with pallets of black market masks was reported.

    Despite the crisis, Cuomo continues to pursue $2.5 billion in Medicaid cuts to NY’s hospitals alongside limiting their expansion to save more money. That will end up being a lot of ICU beds missing if needed.

    Elsewhere in New York, city mayor Bill De Blasio’s decision to keep public school open through mid-March, well into the pandemic, is seeing its gruesome legacy play out in Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, where multi-generational households are among the hardest visited by death.
     
    What about Congress? Public health experts testified on in 2018 and 2019 asking for over a billion additional dollars as part of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, explaining programs created after 9/11 to ready the nation’s health system for any kind of disaster had since been stripped down to dangerously low levels. Congress cut the funding. That decision is “among several key moments over the last few years where experts warned of the likelihood of something like current pandemic and government leaders did not do enough to prepare.”

    The point is not to absolve Trump. The point is not to blame others. There exists among too many an ugly need for things to fail, so we can blame someone. That glee cruel because the desire for a scapegoat coincides with much suffering.
     
    You never defeat a disaster, whether a hurricane in Puerto Rico or a virus. You mitigate it. Success is measured by how well those natural processes are pushed back beyond civilization’s walls and by how much suffering is relieved along the way. The process almost always follows the same path: recognize the disaster (easier with earthquakes, harder with a virus), determine what is needed (time consuming and ever-evolving with the goal being the right help to the right places in order of priority), procure and transport (can take time), and allow the mitigation efforts to go to work. Disaster management specialists know it will never be fast enough, as the response starts in deficit. But a tipping point will take place, and people will start to receive the help they need.
     
    The press conferences, clogged with ritual passive aggressiveness, grow wearisome, do not inform and entertain only in the way slowing down at a car wreck does. It’s not Weimar, it’s not Rome, but it is time to grow up; we’re all on the Diamond Princess now. We’ll have an election soon enough, and the people can decide for themselves what the MSM and Democrats have been trying to force on them for more than three years. Until then, focus on fixing the problems for our neighbors, not the blame.
     
     

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    What We Lost in the Pandemic

    April 4, 2020 // 11 Comments »


     
    A lot of change has taken place in a very short period of time in America, almost all of it undebated and unchallenged, in response to what still has a long way to go to justify it. But the virus is killing us all! Stop. It is not only possible to hold two ideas in mind at once, it is vital. The virus is a threat. At the same time we are immersed in making fundamental changes to society willy-nilly that will outlive the virus.
     
    Only two weeks ago I had an hourly-paid part-time job, my hours subject to my boss’ needs and whims. That made me a lot like the 60 percent of the American workforce who are also hourly employees, not to mention those working as independent contractors, adjuncts, and the massive undocumented labor behind our farms, hotels, and restaurants. The government ordered most of us to stop working and we did. Nobody is entirely sure if “the government” can actually just do this, but it did. Almost none of us can work from home. We wait like baby birds for the government to drop checks into our mouths. Overnight we went from workers, albeit workers at the failing edge of economic inequality, to dependent on government handouts. As the balance of power between Americans and their government changes dramatically, 60 percent of us approve of Trump’s handling of the crisis.

    Perhaps the clearest example of what just happened took place among teachers. Teachers from K-College worked frantically on their own time to eliminate the need for classrooms and move instruction online. Something that might have been rejected as unacceptable six months ago, or expected to take years under normal circumstances, was done at no new cost overnight. No consultants, no arguments from parents or unions, just worker bees radically transforming the American educational system. It won’t take long after this is done for institutions to realize they don’t need so many teachers, classrooms, janitors, etc. anymore. The infrastructure now assembled can be used so one teacher can instruct hundreds or thousands of kids. Why have ten math professors to teach ten sections in ten rooms when one person online can more or less do it? So teachers, thank you for your efforts to iron out the bugs in a mass proof-of-concept experiment. Don’t worry in the future when you’re out of work; there are always alternatives in the free market system. A porn site is offering the unemployed big bucks as cam girls during the pandemic.

    A live classroom teacher (doctor, therapist, consultant, etc.) may someday become yet another luxury available only to a select few. Quality will be what you can afford. That is part of what corona is doing, helping people adjust to a new standard. Remember once most white collar jobs came with a private office with a door, a dedicated secretary, and a formal lunch hour, never mind a pension. Manufacturing jobs paid a living wage, with union benefits and a picnic each summer to honor the American worker. Stuff happens, ya’ know?

     

    For the second time in about only a decade, we are seeing our homes endangered. Rent payments are hard. As mortgage payments slip the banks are sniffing around like hyenas. Some people will fail on rent payments on the same homes they used to own. Occupy Wall Street? No, occupied by Wall Street.

    Like good boys and girls a lot of us did invest our money after the 2008 economic crisis, yet anyone contemplating retirement or college in the near term just saw 20 percent of all that go away. Again. The bailouts are here, in the trillions, again, for the airlines and other businesses. Of course the stock market will go back up, it always does. What occurs in the space between it going down and going back up is the wealthiest Americans, having money in reserve, buy cheaply once-expensive stocks you were forced to sell at the bottom to feed your family. In a few years you’ll start buying in again, you know, when you get back to work, to push up prices and fuel the rich folks’ gains. The wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-2008 financial crisis growth while the bottom 80 percent, whose wealth was in their homes not stocks, became poorer as their missing homes did not “grow.” Their wealth, such as it was, was a Potemkin vision in the form of their homes which they actually did not own. The last recession represented the largest redistribution of money in a century.

    What about 2020? Since over half of all Americans now own no stock, the wealth in 2020 will be sucked out of the so-called 10 percent, the remains of what was once the upper middle class. They are the only ones who actually have money for the hyper-wealthy to take. The bottom 90 percent are basically too poor to steal from (except our labor; see above.) A month ago the richest 10 percent of Americans owned 84 percent of the total value of the market. The One Percent are in the process of taking from the Nine Percent below them right now. Fair enough in a way; much of the Nine Percent’s wealth was harvested out of the 2008 crisis.

     

    At least in 2008 it was just our money they took. I sit here in NYC under a multi-layered federal, state, and city state of emergency. I am still sort of free to go out, but since most stores, bars, restaurants, theatres, gyms, etc. are closed by fiat, freedom of movement is an illusion, like prisoners circling the rec yard. Adding to the people who now tell me what I can and cannot do, the manager of my local grocery has made up his own rationing rules, choosing which products and which quantities he allows us to purchase.

    Freedom of assembly is gone. No more questions about whether Milo can speak on campus. No more Pink Pussy Hat marches. A month ago if anyone said that to a BLM group, the riot would have been followed by a Supreme Court First Amendment case. In 2020 only three people nationwide have legally challenged anti-assembly orders. Before the virus we made fun of George W. Bush, who in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 seemed to downplay the severity of it all by telling Americans to go shopping, to visit Disney World. That seems generous to a population now cowing in their bedrooms. We are being conditioned to reject the comfort and solidarity of being in the presence of others; one media outlet explains to little JoJo’s and Yorki’s how to report large gatherings to the authorities via an online form.

     

    Politically the progressive movement disappeared with the proverbial whisper, not a bang. Is Bernie still in? All that talk about a brokered convention, third party stuff, whatever, it is gone. Frightened people (they were scared about Bernie’s ideas long before the virus but the end came quick once the virus arrived) want to pull the blanket over their heads. Joe Biden’s campaign slogan seems to be “I Won’t Do Much,” or more succinctly, “Better Things Aren’t Really Possible.” Joe is the political equivalent of an Obama tribute band. You’ve seen them, imitators who look a little like the Rolling Stones. They play only the best hits, competently but not skillfully, showing how wide the gap is between someone who can pull “Honky Tonk Woman” from the ether and someone who can just play the cords with enthusiasm. It’s a way to make a living and for Joe Biden telling everyone things will look like the 1958 it might just be enough. Protip: don’t wager too many dineros on the political future of AOC and The Squad. Even Tulsi endorsed Biden on the way out.

     

    Orwell in 1984 never really explained how it all came to be. He wanted to shock readers with a dystopian society whole on page one, something that felt like it always was and thus always will be. For us, however, living in this time, the evolution is of some interest. Orwell was also an amateur. He imagined freedom as something people would fight for. He did not envision how easy it would be to manipulate fear into learned helplessness such that Americans would in the space of a week voluntarily give up most of their freedoms, along with their actual jobs. Orwell envisioned the need for a Ministry of Truth when in fact all it took was a handful of deaths, some prolefeed — worthless entertainment for the masses about whether calling it “Chinese flu” was racism — and a dash of sky-is-falling articles for the majority not only to go along with the new authoritarianism, but to demand more. Fear is the problem and empowering government is the solution. You have to give some things up for a safe good society. If not, you’re selfish, a thought crime.

    Of all the bell curves, the one of interest is when the cure becomes worse than the disease. When do we as a society cross the line where measures of social control are no longer affecting the spread of the disease but are damaging the life we live. Of course many of the draconian steps taken these past weeks will be pulled back. But some will stick. And the lessons learned by the darkest corners of American life will be jotted down. The same thing happened after 9/11, when frightened by terrorism, Americans gave up their rights to privacy and freedom from search with great enthusiasm. Somewhere Dick Cheney is saying to himself “we could have taken it so much further, we just didn’t realize it would be so easy.”

    Hey, Dick, check it out — we have voluntarily given up our livelihoods and jobs, freedom of assembly, and transferred most of our speech to social media monsters who can edit or block it as they wish. We are heading toward more dependency on government money to eat. Access to medical care, once limited by having “good” insurance, is now limited by medi-bureaucratic decisions — committees who will decide who gets to see a doctor. Remember how even the rumor of such “death panels” under Obamacare set people afire? We understand better now, sorry grandma.

    Unintended consequences? Doubt that. This did not just happen, our governments made it happen near enough to overnight and we wanted them to do that. No one wants to die. But think ahead to how we are going to live.
      

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    Looking for Jim Jones Amid COVID-19

    March 30, 2020 // 12 Comments »


     
    I’m not worried about the guy coughing next to me. I’m worried about the ones who seem to be looking for Jim Jones.
     
    Jim Jones was the charismatic founder of the cult-like People’s Temple. Through fear-based control, Jones took his followers’ money and ran their lives. He isolated them in Guyana, where Jones convinced over 900 followers to commit suicide by drinking cyanide-laced grape Kool Aid. Frightened people can be made to do literally anything. They just need a Jim Jones.
     
    So it is more than a little scary Never Trumper and MSM zampolit Rick Wilson wrote Twitter to his 753k Twitter followers “People who sank into their fear of Trump, who defended every outrage, who put him before what they knew was right, and pretended this chaos and corruption was a glorious new age will pay a terrible price. They deserve it.” The Tweet was liked over 82,000 times.

    The NYT claims “the specter of death speeds across the globe, ‘Appointment in Samarra’-style, ever faster, culling the most vulnerable.” Others are claiming Trump will cancel the election to rule as a Jim Jones. “Every viewer who trusts the words of Earhardt or Hannity or Regan could well become a walking, breathing, droplet-spewing threat to the public,” opined the Washington Post, which suggested they should be placed on hiatus. And the rest of you, drink the damn Kool Aid and join in the panic enroute to Guyana.

    In the grocery store in Manhattan just after the announcement of the national state of emergency was pure panic buying. I saw a fight broke out in one aisle after an employee brought out a carton of paper towels to restock the shelf and someone grabbed the whole carton for themselves. The police were called. One cop had to stay behind to oversee the lines at the registers and maintain order. To their credit the NYPD were cool about it. I heard them talk down one of the fighters  saying “You wanna go to jail over Fruit Loops? Get a hold of yourself.” Outside New York, sales of weapons and ammunition spiked.

    Panic seems to be something we turn on and off, or moderate in different ways. Understanding that helps reveal what is really going on.

    No need for history. Right now, in real time, behind the backs of the coronavirus, is the every-year plain old influenza. Some 12,000 people have died, with over 13 million infected from influenza just between October 2019 and February 2020. The death toll is screamingly higher (as this is printed corona has killed just 69 Americans.) One does not hear much about that. Why?
     
    Bluntly: more people have already died of influenza in the U.S. than from coronavirus in China, Iran, and Italy combined. Double in fact. To be even more blunt, no one really cares even though a large number of people are already dead. Why?
     
    The first cases of the swine flu, H1N1, appeared in April 2009. By the time Obama finally declared a national emergency seven months later, the CDC reported 50 million Americans, one in six people, had been infected and 10,000 Americans had died. In the early months Obama had no HHS secretary or appointees in the department’s 19 key posts. No commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, no surgeon general, no CDC director. The vacancy at the CDC was especially important because in the early days of the crisis only they could test for the virus; states weren’t allowed until later (sound familiar?) The politically-appointed DHS secretary, not a medical doctor, led the federal effort. Some 66 percent of Americans thought the president was protecting them. There was no panic. Why?

    Of course Trump isn’t Obama. But if you really think it is that black and white, that one man makes that much difference in the multi-leveled response of the vast federal government to a health crises you don’t know much about the federal bureaucracy. In fact, most of the people who handled the swine flu are now working the coronavirus, from rank and file at CDC, HHS, and DHS to headliners like Drs. Andrew Fauci (in government since 1968, worked Obama-ebola) and Deborah Brix (in government since 1985, prior to her current role with Trump-corona was an Obama-AIDS appointee.)

    Maybe the most salient example is the aftermath of 9/11. Those who lived through it remember it well, the color threat alerts, the sneaky Muslims lurking everywhere, the sense of learned/taught helplessness. The enemy could be anywhere, everywhere, and we had no way to fight back. We panicked like never before. But because the Dems and Repubs were saying basically the same thing, there was a camaraderie to it (lead by Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg, where are they now?), not discord. But the panic was still very real. Why?
     
    Why? We panicked when people took steps to ensure we would. We were kept calm when there was nothing to gain by spurring us to panic (the swine flu struck in the midst of the housing crisis, there was enough to worry about and it could all be blamed on the previous administration.) The aftermath of 9/11 is especially clarifying. A fearful populus not only supported everything the government wanted to do, they demanded it. Nearly everyone cheered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and not believing the government meant you were on their side, either with “us” or against us. The Patriot Act, which did away with whole swaths of the Bill of Rights, was overwhelmingly supported. There was no debate over torture, offshore penal colonies, targeted assassinations, kidnappings, and all the other little horrors. The American people counted that as competent leadership and re-elected George W, Bush in the midst. Fear and panic were political currency.

    Jump to 2020. Need an example of how to manipulate panic? Following fears of a liquid bomb, for years after 9/11 TSA limited carry-on liquids to four ounce bottles. Can’t be too careful! Yet because of corona they just changed the limit for hand sanitizer only (which with its alcohol content is actually flammable, as opposed to say shampoo) to 12 ounces. Security theatre closed down alongside Broadway tonight.

    False metrics are also manipulative because they make fear seem scientific. We ignore the low death rate and focus on the number of tests done. But whatever we do will never be enough, never can be enough, the same way any post-disaster aid is never delivered quick enough because the testing is not (just) about discovering the extent of the virus. For those with naughty motives, it is about creating a race we can’t win, so testing becomes proof of failure. Think about the reality of “everyone who wants one should get a test.” The U.S. has 331 million people. Testing 10 percent of them in seven days means 4,714,285 individuals a day for seven consecutive days while the other 90 percent of the population holds their breath. Testing on demand is not realistic at this scale. Selective decision-based testing is what will work.

    South Korea, held up as the master of mass testing, conducted at its peak about 20,000 a day. Only four percent were positive, a lot of effort for a little reassurance. Tests are valuable to pinpoint the need for social distancing but blunt tools like mass social distancing (see China) also work. Tests do not cure the virus. You can hide the number of infections by not testing (or claim so to spur fear), but very sick people make themselves known at hospitals and actual dead bodies are hard to ignore. Tests get the press, but actual morbidity is the clearest data point.
     
    There will be time for after-action reviews and arguments over responsibility. That time is never in the midst of things, and one should question the motives of journalists who use rare access to the president to ask questions meant largely to undermine confidence. If they succeed, we will soon turn on each other. You voted for him, that’s why we’re here now. Vote for Bernie and Trump wins and we all literally die. You bought the last toilet paper. You can afford treatment I can’t. You’re safe working from home while I have to go out. Just wait until the long-standing concept of medical triage is repackaged by the media as “privilege” and hell breaks loose in the ERs. We could end up killing each other long even as the virus fades.

    At the very least we will have been conditioned to new precedents of control over personal decisions, civil life, freedom of movement and assembly, whole city lock-downs, education, public information, and an increasing role for government and the military in health care. More control by authorities over our lives? Yes, please! Gee, it’s almost as if someone is taking advantage of our fears for their own profits and self-interest. Teachers who just digitized their classes at no cost to their employers and created the online infrastructure to eliminate classrooms, don’t be surprised if less of you, and fewer actual classrooms, are needed in the virus-free future.
     
    There are many reasons to take prudent action and not downplay the virus. There are no good reasons for fear and panic. The fear being promoted has no rational basis compared to regular influenza and the swine flu of 2009. We have a terrifying example in 9/11 of how easily manipulated fearful people are. Remaining calm and helping others do so is a big part of what your contribution to the disaster relief is going to be. As John Kennedy said, “We cannot expect that everyone will talk sense to the American people. But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense.”
     
    That’s one way to see this. Too many right now however seem to be looking for Jim Jones.
      

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    Fearing Fear Itself, Now That’s Something to Be Afraid Of

    March 14, 2020 // 11 Comments »



     

    This is not about downplaying something serious. It is about preventing mistakes that will make things worse.

    Nothing is more viral than fear. Fear  — fight or flight — is a terrible way to make decisions that call for time, science, and rational thinking. Want to screw up a public health crisis? Let fear drive.
     

    Democrats, conditioned by years of faux-narratives to believe everything Trump does is “an existential threat to America,” are about twice as likely as Republicans to say the coronavirus poses an imminent danger. Our political party should not affect how we respond to an epidemic, but it does.

    “Our hyper-polarization is so strong that we don’t even assess a potential health crisis in the same way. And so it impedes our ability to address it,” said Jennifer McCoy, a Georgia State political science professor. “I am not scared of Covid-19,” a Canadian infectious disease expert wrote, “I am scared about the loss of reason and wave of fear that has induced the masses of society into a spellbinding spiral of panic.” “COVID-19 is infecting our minds, not our lungs,” says Psychology Today. Trump Derangement Syndrome, and whatever its opposite is, might actually help kill us this time.
     

    Fear makes for poor public health decisions. Remember the 1980’s?

    In 1981 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported five cases of a strange pneumonia. The disease didn’t even have a name until the next year, and wasn’t isolated in the lab until 1984. By the end of the decade 27,408 people died from AIDS. It would go on to kill over 500,000 Americans. Yet while a horrible disease and a miserable way to die, in retrospect “the problem with AIDS was really two epidemics — the real health epidemic and the epidemic of the mind.” The New York Times concluded “in the 1980’s, fear spread faster than AIDS.” America paid a price in lives.

    The fear was countable. In the mid-80’s 60 percent of Americans wanted HIV+ people to carry a card noting their status; one in three said employers should fire employees who had AIDS. Some 21 percent of Americans said people with AIDS should be isolated from the rest of society in leper colonies. Even a professional medical journal wrote dramatically “A specter is haunting our streets — the specter of AIDS, a remorseless and incurable disease whose nature, transmission and effects still contain elements of mystery.”
     

    Those mysteries are always the most dangerous elements in shaping public health policy via fear, and with AIDS, centered on exaggerating the problem.

    Given that most early cases surfaced inside communities already viewed as modern day Sodoms, many sought to exaggerate the crisis from a quasi-religious point of view; God was smiting the gays. And some of those homosexuals were coming for your kids! Tragically, too many felt the more who died of AIDS the better, and played up the deaths as “Judgement.” The rest of us, God-fearing, were safe. Homophobia manifested as fear crushed human compassion. It’s almost like hoping the current economy goes into a deep recession, destroying the savings of millions of Americans, so Trump’s chances of reelection fall. Or one politician hoping the virus infects those at MAGA rallies.

    The Reagan administration, with its political debt to newly-empowered evangelical voters, was indifferent at best toward using Federal funds to study or prevent AIDS. Congress agreed; in 1987 it banned the use of federal funds for AIDS prevention and education campaigns that “promoted or encouraged, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities.” Years were lost as the virus spread, and who knows how many died because of the delay in funding.

    The rest of us were not innocent. In the mid-to-late 1980s “AIDS hysteria” was a familiar term in the media and public life, and popular comedians made crude jokes that today would never be sanctioned. A study found “health care trainees and professionals have demonstrated that their level of empathy and caring for HIV/AIDS is negatively affected by the knowledge that the person being treated is homosexual.” A 1985 Time magazine story, “The New Untouchables,” focused on an incident in New York where parents refused to send their children to a school after one student was identified as HIV+. “What about somebody sneezing in the classroom? What about the water fountain? What about kids who get in a fight with a bloody nose? They don’t know!” said one frightened parent.

    Gay activists also sought to drive public opinion through fear. You Mr. Whitebread can catch it too! The fear of a “heterosexual breakout” was employed to coax a Middle American audience toward political awareness. The gay community also sought to exaggerate the extent of the crisis as spur to action, primarily more government funding. In 1988, after New York revised its estimates of HIV+ citizens significantly downward, members of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (Act Up) were arrested at a sit-in at the Health Department. Hecklers trailed the Health Commissioner demanding he resign. His home was picketed and spray-painted. There were death threats against him. Yet statistical studies some 30 years later showed even his lower numbers from the 1980s overestimated the extent of the epidemic by some 50 percent. The Commissioner had been right to tamp down the threat.

    More radical methods also sought to fight the religious narrative. Act Up disrupted Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, where demonstrators desecrated the communion wafers and chained themselves to pews while 4,500 protested outside. A demonstration outside Boston’s Holy Cross Cathedral during an ordination ceremony had Act Up members, some in drag, tossing condoms at newly ordained priests.

    Activists justify their use of fear as the only way to have focused attention on the disease. But that ignores the tragic results of their actions. While funding did increase, much of the government’s early AIDS-prevention budget was used to raise awareness among hetero college students, women, and others who faced relatively low risk. Money was diverted away from the gay communities that needed it the most.

    Even today, AIDS and other fear-mongered diseases soak up a disproportionate share of research funds. Diseases that account for 84 percent of deaths in the U.S. receive less than half of NIH funding. Cancer and HIV/AIDS in particular receive a disproportionately large amount, while chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity receive less funding relative to the costs they impose on society. The squeaky wheel gets the grease irrespective of good public health policy, and the language of those squeaks is fear.
     

    The worry is always the unknown, and on Day One of any epidemic involving a new virus nearly everything is unknown, and near nothing known. Mistakes get made as protocols and procedures are created (in reality, field tested) on the fly. Japan, with an excellent universal health care system and a non-partisan public health bureaucracy, miserably mishandled a cruise ship quarantine, turning the boat into a virus incubator. But while mistakes will be made, protocols will improve. People once believed they should not shake hands with a gay person, or share a public toilet, for fear of catching the disease. As fear forms around the unknown, people, both well-meaning and not, fill the space as science races to catch up. Charlatans promote fake cures. Black marketers run up prices. There will be political hay to be made whether you are driving a pro- or anti- agenda. Things will be unknown until they are known, and no one knows when that is — another unknown.

    “AIDS is grim enough without exaggeration,” cited one prescient editorial of the day. “Why has the truth disappeared so far from view? Perhaps because the chief interpreters of the data want to reflect their own messages. Public health experts see a unique chance to reduce all sexually transmitted diseases. Medical researchers demand $1 billion in new Federal spending against AIDS, hoping to refurbish their laboratories. Government epidemiologists, seeking to protect homosexuals and drug addicts, fear the Reagan Administration may acquire the notion that these are the only people at risk. Moralists see a heaven-sent chance to preach fire, brimstone and restricted sex. Homosexuals have no desire to carry the stigma of AIDS alone.”

    While fear as a manipulative tool, especially as a political manipulative tool, is nothing new, the coronavirus panic appears at a new place in America. Social media lets too many people Joker-like pour fuel on fires, with no interest in putting them out. MSM, which once at least spoke of their job as information gathering, now pursues an unambiguous political agenda when it is not just peddling raw anxiety as a profit center. We are ever more diverse and ever more separated, life divided into subreddits. We live exhausted, on knife’s edge, lip deep in cynicism, decline, illegitimacy, and distrust. We never find time to exhale. It isn’t safe anymore for us to have common fears.

    The bottom line? Fear is a powerful motivator. But fear is a miserable alternative to science and rational thinking, and a terrible tool to employ when fighting an epidemic. Only when science replaced fear did AIDS subside to where today the disease is a manageable element of public health.
     

    So wash your hands. Use sanitizer. Ask questions. The virus is dangerous. But keep fear in check. Ask yourself why Dr. Oz is part of NBC News’ “Coronavirus Crisis Team.” As you encounter information that focuses on worst-case scenarios, seems to exaggerate or downplay unknowns, uses terms like surge, crash, skyrocket, tumble, leaves out conflicting information to create a unipolar stance, is more White House gossip than science, anything that starts with Report: ask yourself if the primary purpose seems to be peddling fear — to sell you a product, to get you to click (you’re the product being sold), to influence your vote (same.) If so, socially isolate yourself from that source.

    And stop reading political journalists to learn about a health issue. I write this from New York, under a declared state of emergency. Yet for all the headlines announcing this new state, one has to dig deep to find the primary motivation for the declaration was simply “a more expedited purchasing and testing protocol.” It’s more about a better bureaucracy now than something with sirens and flashing lights now.

    The numbers will go up until they start going down (it is a virus after all; new cases are declining in China and South Korea) but keep the numbers in perspective. There is nothing investors fear more than uncertainty. Right now, that is all there is and volatility in the markets will continue until uncertainty, and then fear, back off. Lack of testing can artificially hide infected cases but deaths are harder to hide. Before you blame someone or something, figure out how to blame away the virus in China, Italy, Iran, and elsewhere where they don’t have Trump, and do have universal healthcare, sick leave or whatever other partisan talking point is being pushed.Panic is easy, a measured response hard.

    Don’t let fear take from you what the virus is unlikely ever to even threaten.

     

    BONUS!

    Fear as a political tool is common in the modern ear. Never mind fact-checking, the most powerful political ads are built around emotion, with no facts to check. Two of the most well-known are the 1964 “Daisy” TV commercial, which with barely a word said drove voters terrified of nuclear weapons to vote for LBJ over Barry Goldwater.

    In 2008 Hillary Clinton employed a nearly-identical ad against Barack Obama, the famous “3am Phone Call.”


     
     

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    Propaganda and the Coronavirus

    March 9, 2020 // 30 Comments »


     
    “Um, is it Colonel Vindman in the Russian Tea room with the coronavirus?”

    “Very funny. Now everyone settle down. Welcome back to Propaganda and the Death of Media 101 in case you’re in the wrong class, and its, um, March 15, 2024. Now we were discussing the role of propaganda and the media in trying to influence the re-election of Donald Trump by tying his leadership to a global pandemic. Propaganda in these cases seeks to diminish people’s view of a leader’s competence. The ultimate goal is to get you to vote him out.

     

    For those of you in the back holding up those tattered Bernie signs, God rest his soul, let’s start with the question of whether the media engaged in propaganda at all. Contrast the sense of panic in 2020 whipped into place with how things played out in 2009 under Obama. The first cases of the swine flu, H1N1, appeared in April 2009. By the time Obama finally declared a national emergency that fall, the CDC reported 50 million Americans, one in six people, had been infected and 10,000 Americans had died. In the early months of the disease, Obama had no Secretary of Health and Human Services or appointees in any of the Department’s 19 key posts. No Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, no Surgeon General, no CDC Director. The gap at CDC was particularly important, as in the early days of the crisis only they could test for the virus; states weren’t enabled until later. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, not a medical doctor, lead the federal effort.

    The first real H1N1 cases appeared in Mexico. The border was not sealed, Mexicans were not forbidden to enter the U.S. Though CDC recommended against travel there, the primary danger cited was kidnapping for ransom. Yet 66 percent of Americans, supported by the media, thought the president was protecting them. Some 4,000 Americans were dead before a vaccine was first distributed.

    The emergency proclamation it took Obama seven months to declare was issued by Trump within 30 days of the current virus being found abroad. He announced a temporary suspension of entry into the U.S. of foreign nationals who pose a risk for the transmission of the coronavirus (CNN criticized “the travel ban could stigmatize countries and ethnicities.”) And yes, Trump encouraged everyone to wash their hands.

    Anybody here remember the media freaking out over Obama’s initial response, which was hand washing was pretty much what was needed? Anyone who did the reading find evidence of national panic throughout the crisis? No. Why did the media cover essentially the identical story so very differently for two presidents? The question is the answer.

     

    Look at the timing in 2020; the crisis came when the media decided it was time for a crisis. Though the virus dominated headlines in Asia since mid-January, American media first relegated the story to the business news. In late February the main “Trump” story was Russiagate II, the revelation (which quickly fell apart) the Russians were meddling again in the election. The Democratic debate at the end of February invoked Putin many times. The virus barely came up.

    Then the NYT sent up the Bat Signal for the new crisis on February 26, the day after the Democratic debate, with an article titled “Let’s Call It Trumpvirus” (subtlety is not required for propaganda.) An effort was born overnight to blame Trump personally for the virus, and essentially declare his chances of reelection done. The critical change was not anything to do with the virus itself, simply with the decision by the media to elevate the story from the business section to the front page. Even a week after that, with American sanity in a tailspin, only two Americans had died, and about half the known U.S. cases arrived with the evacuees from Japan. Of course the numbers quickly went up (that’s why we use the expression “going viral” for your Instagram blowups, kids) but imagine what a graph of actual cases would look like versus a graph measuring panic.

     

    You’ll see in your textbooks another example which shows how propaganda works, the reporting of initial problems with the CDC coronavirus test kits. One typical headline claimed “The U.S. Badly Bungled Coronavirus Testing.” But the problems were old news almost as the stories were written; 15,000 testing kits were released within 48 hours of that story with plans to send out an additional 50,000. Each kit can test 700-800 patient samples.

    The follow-on stories screamed about Trump funding cuts to the CDC, most of which were actually only proposed. Then the stories were merged — Trump cut CDC funding and thus not enough kits were available. Not only were both pieces largely untrue individually (few cuts were made, kits were available), the merging of the two was grossly false. Instead of examining these things for lessons learned in the midst of an unfolding crisis, the media treated them as new bits to mock Trump with, like late night comedians trolling the news for material for their monologue.

    No room was left for people making errors in novel decisions under time pressure, just the jump to “Trump incompetence” instead of doing the real work of looking into the questions. The problem with the testing kits was a highly technical one involving chemical reagents and factory contamination. CDC is a massive institution. Who if anyone there made any “bungled” decisions? Would they have likely made a better decision with different funding? If so, then Congress can act and drop some money on that office. If not, move on, there is work to do. It is how the media acts when they seek to fix the blame, not the problem.

     

    The propaganda surrounding how the government initially handled the coronavirus was also obvious in the false “who is in charge” question the media asked. The vice president was given the role heading up the task force. This is the kind of thing VPs do, bring gravitas, make sure a whole of government approach has the bureaucratic firepower it needs, and so on. The propaganda instead hyper-focused on Mike Pence’s “disbelief in science,” itself more of a chanted mantra than anything established by fact. For “proof” the stories settled on Pence supposedly creating an HIV epidemic while governor of Indiana. The reality is much different. Pence took office opposed to needle exchanges. When dirty needles shared among opioid users in rural Scott County, Indiana were linked to 71 cases of HIV transmission, Pence responded to the new information (sad to see people die, but 71 deaths is all it was and many would have died from their drugs soon enough) by changing his policy and authorizing needle exchange in Scott and four other counties. The reality seems much closer to seeing an ideological stance changed by science than the opposite.


    Pence said at the time “I’m going to put the lives of the people of Indiana first. It’s a commitment to law and order, but it’s a commitment to compassion.”

    Meanwhile, the media largely ignored those Pence chose for the taskforce. One was Dr. Deborah Birx, a career medical professional nominated by Obama in 2014 as the U.S. global AIDS coordinator. She also served as head of the global HIV/AIDS division at CDC, was an immunology researcher at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and an Army colonel. You want to inspire confidence you profile Dr. Brix; you want to sow discord you misrepresent Mike Pence’s decisions years ago.

     

    There’s so many more examples, but our class time is short. Here are a few.

     

    You can report on the elimination of Obama’s pandemic czar but leave out that the position was just a coordination job on the National Security Council with no real power. It sounds scary (one outlet called it sabotage) to see that job go, but in fact the coordination duties within NSC were reassigned to others.

    You can focus on every coronavirus case as proof efforts are failing while ignoring providing perspective by reminding 12,000 people died, with over 13 million infected, from the regular influenza (the one with the vaccine) between October 2019 and February 2020.

    You can focus on time will take to develop a full-on vaccine and ignore the treatments already now in human testing trials.

    You can purposefully confuse accelerating public health measures already underway with America’s lack of universal individual health care. We have plenty of the former, not enough of the latter. But the pandemic is not a solid argument for the latter as it is a problem of public health policy. That’s why even countries with good, free care systems are suffering the virus. Medicare for All would not have changed anything in 2020.

    You can cover the virus as you did Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Everyone was gonna die there until they didn’t. You can follow the now-standard Trump propaganda template: say he won’t do enough, then say what he does isn’t being done fast enough, predict everything will collapse (with Katrina references) and then move on to a new crisis as the reality of the response takes hold.

    You can report on panic selling on Wall Street, or explain how global supply chain problems are not caused by the virus, but by traders’ reaction to the unknowns of the virus. China’s factories closed because the government enforced social isolation, not because the workers were dead. Soon enough Apple products flowed back into our greedy hands, and the stock market found its way back to a new normal.

    You can report store closings, but not their reopenings. By March 1 Starbucks had reopened 85 percent of its stores in China. Apple, over 50 percent. You can emphasize how many Chinese factories were closed in February, or report on their reopenings in March.

    You can misrepresent the use of words like hoax to make the president appear weak.

    You can ignore the drop off in cases inside China. Only a few days after the first cases appeared in the U.S., new ones inside China dropped to 200.

    You can avoid reporting how viruses follow a bell curve. Case counts first rise quickly, the virus claims the “easy” deaths among the elderly, and then environmental factors (viruses must live inside a host; they have limited life outside on surfaces`, typically less and less as temperatures climb. This is why you can’t catch HIV from a toilet seat) and public health measures kick in. Treatment emerges and the virus fades. You can explain to calm people where they are in what looks like a 10-12 week cycle to or you can ignore it to stoke fear of the unknown.

    The bell curve template is clearly illustrated by a look-back to how HIV/AIDS went from a massive public health crisis in America to a manageable problem. As the virus became known, panic took hold. False reporting outran reality. But the bell curve took over; the virus’ transmission became well understood, better testing protocols developed, excellent preventive medicines became available, and treatment regimes now exist which ensure long lives in remission. Knowns displace unknowns. None of this is to minimize the suffering enroute to the current state, but to show there is an established path even for a virus far more deadly than corona.

    Class concluded.

    “Hey professor, is all this gonna be on the test?”

    “No, but it may influence an election. And don’t forget to wash your hands before lunch, something is going around.”
      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    Posted in 2020, Democracy