Terry H. Schwadron
March 20, 2020
An odd cocktail of hearing the clash of Donald Trump’s overly simplistic “immediate” cures and treatments with the reality of rising death counts, and the effects of lockdown against infection have me thinking about Time.
Amidst all the uncertainty that has befallen us, we’ve lost sense of how long anything takes to get done, to say nothing of increased complexity in declaring victory over almost any outstanding task.
Trump insists that a promising use of an older malaria drug against coronavirus might provide an “immediate” cure or treatment to reduce some effects of the disease — just as scientists are starting to start formal examination and clinical tests. That process could take months. But, for political reasons or to look like a good leader, Trump has a need to present this one drug, among many, many possibilities, and slashing through the usual drug review as an immediate answer to a long-term problem.
So too are the “immediate” answers from Trump and team to manufacturing shortages. The 3-M company stands ready to start providing millions of protective health masks, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence say publicly, without stopping to hear that the company has sent most of its workers home along with the rest of America. Honeywell, another company making masks, said it could start ramping up in 30 days. Pence added that the construction company can start immediately to give away its protective masks to health workers.
The White House has been pushing its decision to send Navy hospital ships to New York and a West Coast port as an immediate action. Those ships are not normally staffed or equipped, and, as it happens, both are in ports for different levels of repair, allowing for a delay that will be used to recruit and equip for a mission that has yet to be described — because the two ships are not properly fit to handle infectious disease.
So it goes. Immediate means now, or 30 days or some months of clinical trial away.
The only thing that isn’t immediate for Trump is any coordinating help his administration could be providing to states who actually are dealing with the crisis. It’s not immediate for the U.S. Army Corps to help rehab spaces for a patient surge, or to pull the trigger on orders for more ventilators or, until the public health service took over testing, getting tests into the field. Apparently, Trump doesn’t think the government is a purchaser and shipping clerk to the states, although, actually it is.
Meanwhile, my son let me know that his landlord has no give in his definition of immediate when the rent comes due next week. When he asked about delays under the current crisis, the landlord snapped back that he needed his cash, and did not have a crystal ball to deal with the impact of government aid bills or coronavirus lockdowns. Now that’s immediate.
So too are the shortages that hospital workers are reporting of a lack of protective gear. The ventilator gap is a projection about the coming shortages as coronavirus spikes, but only several steps off “immediate.” In the sense that we know it. Immediate to the landlord is a day.
Like parents all over the country, one daughter and her husband are balancing home schooling needs against time for their own work from home. As a family, they now build a daily schedule, and I’m delighted to be part of the new Stuck-at-Home Story Time with Grandpa that now comes in a videocall with my grandchildren. To them, time and “immediate” need is measured in minutes. The other daughter has stretched her time to include not only her multiple projects, but reaching out in letters to isolated inmates.
To workers stuck away from paying jobs, the immediate needs are just that, and the stretch of lockdown time that stretches ahead looks burdensome at best. Some part of the population feels itself stuck in time, trying to best figure out self-amusement in a time of isolation.
At an extreme, time means something totally different to those struck by the illness, or the homeless, the uninsured, the prisoners held in long-term sentences who face contagion running rampant in closed spaces.
This confusion between perception of time and politics is not an accident, of course. For Trump, the goal here is to halt the perception that he is an incompetent manager, a bumbler when we need a leader. So, he insists that he and only he can devise or order fixes, and even better, by simply asserting them to be workable and immediate, magically make them so.
Complex problems and solutions rarely work that way.
Instead, we usually try to plan ahead, in this case, keeping a pandemic response team at the National Security Council, by keeping the scientists and experts near at hand and not demeaning their work, by anticipating issues that should be on the horizon — from automation to climate disruption to future energy needs.
Instead, we have in Trump a president who simply declares that we close a border to stop the immediate threat of Central American migration, that we ignore the wealth gap in the nation to give corporations a better boost toward immediate growth, that we walk away from climate discussions as representing some kind of hoax.
In all those cases, the “immediate” need is singular — for Trump to look good on television, drawing adulation rather than criticism, and an ability to bully his way to an autocratic reelection.
How about this given the current and continuing virus problem: What is Trump is successful in the “immediate” decision after November about declaring our health systems legally null and void — just as the virus starts its work again next winter?
Perhaps we should be demanding that it is exactly the Time to consider new leadership.