Saturday, March 28, 2020

Playing With Matches In A Paper House

Today, 28 March 2020, as I write this, the United States of America has for the last few days been the world leader in confirmed coronavirus cases.  What's worse is that even though the number of confirmed cases has climbed to over 116,000, the growth rate continues to be exponential, as seen here.  The site captured in the last link also shows that the COVID-19 death rate continues to climb exponentially.  In light of these events, I thought it might be helpful to provide a short list of things we now know about the course of coronavirus infection in humans.
  • We now know that of all people who become infected with COVID-19, approximately 80 to 81 percent will develop mild illness and fully recover.  However, 19 to 20 percent will develop severe disease, with five percent developing "critical disease" according to this source.
  • We also know that while early reports stated that young people were significantly less likely to develop severe disease than older people, later data has shown that young people are still at significant risk of developing severe disease.  This source reports that nearly 40 percent of those hospitalized in the United States for COVID-19 were under 55 years old.  The majority of hospitalizations in New York are for people under 50 years old.  And there are sources such as this which present the personal stories of strong, accomplished young athletes who have been seriously sickened by COVID-19.
  • We know that the death rate as a percentage of total cases of COVID-19 has been climbing in the United States.  When the first outbreaks occurred, the U.S. death rate was from 1 to 1.5 percent.  However, the latest percentage for New York City is approximately 1.7 percent.  (Click this link and then do the math.)  What happens when the health care systems of the various states are overwhelmed is another matter.  Consider, for instance, what would happen to the 19-to-20 percent of an infected population who develop severe disease, yet who don't have access to health care because their health care systems have been overwhelmed.  Then the U.S. death rate might almost certainly exceed 5 percent, and might even go as high as 10 percent.
We also know a few things about Donald Trump, the terrible titular leader of the United States in these terrible times.  We know that Trump had access to an Obama-era disease management playbook written by the National Security Council as a sort of "lessons-learned" document describing how the Obama administration successfully managed the Ebola outbreak of 2014-2015.  We also know that Trump disregarded it.  And we know that Trump was warned by intelligence analysts in January 2020 of the potential severity and impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.  He chose to ignore and downplay those warnings.

As I look at the ways in which Trump and his cohort have tried to spin this crisis, I have found myself asking questions, such as, what drives Trump?  What are his strategic motivations?  What is his long-term thinking?  (Sometimes I ask these same questions about either one of my two cats as I see them staring off into space.  But they are cool and not sinister, whereas Trump is evil.)

To the extent that he thinks at all, Trump seeks to rebuild White "great power" autarky as it existed over 100 years ago.  However, it was never really "autarky", was it?  What really happened was that the great colonial powers, after they had exhausted their own resource base, sought to keep themselves great by stealing the bodies, lands, and stuff of all the other peoples on earth, laying claim that "this piece of land which we 'discovered', along with its people, now belongs to this particular Northern nation."  This has been the motivation behind American military and economic interventions under Trump, as well as his thwarted desire to build a wall to keep the nonwhite nations of the earth from coming to the United States in search of that which was stolen from them.  But it has also been the motivation behind the efforts of the United States and Russia to neutralize and destroy any independent power centers that are not European or Slavic.  Hence, Trump has sought to "weaponize" the coronavirus in a soft-power sense by calling it "the Wuhan virus" or "the Chinese virus" in his bid to demonize and other-ize people of Asian descent.  Unfortunately, there are knuckleheads in the United States who have followed his lead and perpetrated recent hate crimes against Asian-Americans.  But this response is typical of the narcissism which says, "If there's any imperfection among us, it can't possibly be with me!  It must belong to someone else!"  Such a response is not helpful, because it ignores the fact that white people can transmit the coronavirus just as easily as anyone else.  Consider Boris Johnson, Rand Paul, and the flocks of high school and college students who went to beaches in Florida on spring break, got infected by each other, and brought the COVID-19 infection back to their fellows at their home campuses.

But while we can acknowledge the possibility that Trump "thinks" in some sense, it is also true that he "feels" - that is, certain situations produce in him strong visceral reactions.  As a narcissist, therefore, he cannot handle having to deal with predicaments that are beyond his control, predicaments which require a collective response shaped by many diverse points of view, a response that patiently takes a long view, a response that acknowledges that there are no quick fixes, a response that is humble and open in the face of difficulty.  The current COVID-19 outbreak is just such a difficulty, and Trump has acted like a fish out of water in the face of it.  Thus he has tried desperately to spin this crisis into something where he can be seen as decisively in charge, the leader of the cavalry coming over the hill with a promised quick fix.  This is what is behind the gaggle of questionable "medical experts" seen on Fox News who have backed Trump's assertions that the coronavirus was no worse than the "seasonal flu" or who have pushed questionable remedies such as chloroquine as a cure.

(Trump's obsession with chloroquine deserves special mention.  The only reason he heard about the drug at all in connection with COVID-19 is because of a certain French microbiologist with sketchy credentials and practices, who contacted Fox News and told them that he had successfully treated COVID-19 infected patients with the drug.  Note that chloroquine has never been used as an antiviral drug.  Note also that the Chinese government ran a study of their own which showed that chloroquine had no effect on the course of COVID-19 in patients.  Lastly, it should be mentioned that at least one person has died from trying to self-medicate using a form of chloroquine found in fish tank cleaner.)

And now, Trump has already long since tired of trying to act "presidential" in the face of a crisis which does not offer quick fixes.  (He and his friends are also tired of losing money to a crisis which they let get out of hand.)  Hence, he wants the United States to return to being "open for business" by Easter, with no restrictions on travel or gatherings (or, most importantly, shopping!).  That brings up some interesting possibilities.  Right now, his approval rating is hovering around 50 percent.  Say that represents 150 million Americans.  Say that they also do what he says and return to "life as normal" starting on Easter.  This means abandoning social distancing and self-isolation.  Say also that 70 percent of these people wind up becoming infected with COVID-19.  That would equate to 105 million people.  To make the numbers easier to deal with, let's say 100 million.  Out of these 100 million, 20 million will get sick enough to require hospitalization.  But long before we reach the 20 million mark, the health care systems throughout much of the United States will be overwhelmed.  That means that between 5 and 10 million could die.

The COVID-19 outbreak will cause an inevitable contraction of the American economy.  If the people of the United States do the right thing and continue to aggressively self-quarantine and self-isolate, the only thing we will lose is money - and we will be taking the shortest route to recovery in the process.  If we try to push our re-opening too soon, our economy will contract for another reason - the economic and social disruption that results from millions of us dying.  In seeking to re-open the country for business by Easter, Trump is playing with matches in a paper house.

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