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A Pandemic of Questions

Terry H. Schwadron

April 20, 2020

Before we celebrate the start to money-making again, might we take a step back and just look at what we know and don’t know about this coronavirus outbreak and our responses?

Even the timing of these emergent Trump loyalist protests are confusing –coming just as they are as states are now starting to do, well, pretty much what protesters against rules are calling for. But the bigger question, of course, is whether the information to date has just not sunk in for these protesters. Do they really think their areas or their families are beyond the reach of pandemic?

There indeed are states with lower outbreaks than New York and New Jersey and larger cities, but despite all the caveats, there increasingly seems a serious, if false, choice floating between safe health practices and re-opening the economy. And it seems weird to “celebrate” economics while we have tens of thousands of deaths and a looming situation to make it worse.

One reason is because Donald Trump and the White House briefings repeatedly underscore big numbers of providing field hospital beds or masks or tests, without reflecting how big the need is. So, are three million tests a lot or a little — it depends on whether you’re trying to collect credit or stop a pandemic. Apparently there are tests available, and lab time to process them, just not enough chemical re-agents or swabs in the right place at the right time to use them.

My ears hear the myriad questions and hesitations seemingly being given short shrift over the actual management and operational details that never seem to get resolved.

Some of the contractions that make my head throb:

Deaths. We are declaring we are “beyond the peak” while New York City continues to count deaths in the hundreds, and while medical folks are continuing to expand the distances and protections needed. Nursing homes are open to business, but closed to family visits, and deaths are running high and seemingly uncontrolled.

Testing. Everyone except the few, but loud virus-doubters is repeating continuously that testing of all sort is the necessary gating issue to re-opening, but there is no federal plan to invest, direct, coordinate testing — except to say that it will be done best by state and local health officials. Dr. Deborah Birx, coronavirus coordinators for the president, clearly describes that there are operational lapses but never seems to resolve them. Also, she remains strangely quiet about protests to open states from social distancing recommendations that she — and a reluctant president — distributed as guidance to the states.

Tests II. There seem to be dozens of different tests, including those that are totally ineffective and others that are fraudulent, in development or early manufacture for diagnosis and for immunity, to say nothing of the search for vaccines. But there seems to be no direction or useful information from the government about what works best or at all and when and how to get it to states now tasked with administering them. Waiting for people to be sick for a test seems nuts in a situation where people are walking around contagious without symptoms.

Disease spread. We’re talking about re-opening but preparation for handling new hotspots as they emerge seems nowhere in sight. A single meat-packing plant in South Dakota had a single infection that spread quickly to 600 employees, leading to shut-down orders. Is that small town ready for 600 patients, or are we just inviting this disease to smaller towns in the 29 states that Donald Trump thinks are somehow less contagious.

How We Got Here. Donald Trump is leading the anti-China, anti-World Health Organization chorus with plenty of support, it appears, among Republican loyalists, blithely rewriting the history of delay and inaction during January and February now definitively detailed in emails and administration communications. So, we understand that Trump is using this crisis for personal political gain. But have we learned anything from two months of inaction to better prepare for the next round of this disease in the fall? We will not be able to avoid any useful examination of how we got here without it all feeling partisan.

Meanwhile, major news outlets are tattooing the landscape with a steady stream now of what actually happened during those early months. Yes, Trump announced his travel ban from China, but only after a half-million people had arrived and with 40,000 arrivals thereafter from China. It was from news outlets rather than the government that we found that the coronavirus genome reflects animal beginnings, not a manmade start. During those early weeks while Trump went golfing and held nine political rallies denouncing the “hoax” of the virus, memos show the U.S. government urged American manufacturers to make and send medical equipment to China, as both humanitarian and business effort. The list on odd decisions goes on and on.

Blame. Trump blames WHO for delays in telling him there was a problem, and for believing the Chinese, when the record shows he wasn’t listening to people who also were telling him and also was praising the Chinese. Only it turns out that there were more than a dozen U.S. scientists at WHO headquarters who apparently were regularly briefing the White House. Trump blames predecessor Barack Obama for not properly preparing for pandemics, when it was Trump himself who eliminated pandemic planners from the White House, cut CDC staffing and eliminated a pandemic specialist located in China. Trump blames Democrats and the news media for not recognizing pandemics, right during the period when Trump was calling pandemic reactions a hoax and going to Florida to play golf. The administration refuses to own its failures to move quickly and assertively in recognizing a response to disease. The question is why we would accept that the government has done the detailed work necessary to opening up the country.

Total Control with no Responsibility. We’ve had the Donald Trump declarations that he has “total authority” in all matters coronavirus, as well as the Total Responsibility with No Control message from the governors affected by Trump’s wavering on follow-through. Even within the areas where Trump claims to show leadership, the operational issues are always being pushed to private companies, to officials who prove most loyal, but always to someone other than himself. Missing is any sustained attempt to actually address outstanding needs, wherever they may fall.

The protests and new waves of misinformation. Protests from self-identified Trump fans are increasing in number and volume, even if they still involve those organized by outwardly partisan Trumpists. Those people include Atty. Gen. William P. Barr, of course, who job you would think would be to support government-ordered stay-at-home orders. Instead, he calls them “draconian,” and is giving life to street protests against rules that are needed for public health but that squeeze individual decision-making. Still it’s a odd mix of I-object-to-rules thinking and I-want-to-go-to-work statements and there-is-no-virus people.

What of the Future? Where are the questions about lessons to be harvested? Understandably, we’re still in the problem phase here. But I’m not hearing senators or the presidential campaigns dealing with the knotty questions that already have arisen.

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www.terryschwadron.wordpress.com

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Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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