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As the coronavirus pandemic gathers steam in the United States—a catastrophe that could and should have been mitigated by timely and aggressive federal interventions at the start of the year—I’m struck by three things:
The first is the sheer awfulness of the pain people are experiencing: the fear of the desperately ill; the loneliness of being unable to visit family members; the existential horror faced by doctors who have spent careers saving lives now planning triage scenarios in which they ration access to ventilators and medicines, limiting visitation rights to hospitals, and in some instances telling pregnant women they will have to give birth without loved ones present.
The second is the heroism—not in pursuit of praise, but simply because it’s what is right—shown by so many ordinary people around the world during these dark days: volunteers continuing to staff food banks, community members checking in on elderly neighbors, inventors working out new ways to mass-produce medical equipment. I’m struck by the altruism of medics coming out of retirement to deliver care, even though they themselves are in a particularly vulnerable age group. An elderly Italian priest with Covid-19 gave up access to a ventilator so that a younger patient might live; the priest died shortly afterward. The story brings me to tears each time I think about it.
The third is the extraordinary way in which pandemic conditions are showing anyone who’s paying attention exactly how craven and soulless Donald J. Trump is.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote this week about Trump’s being so infatuated with boom-time economic numbers that he was constitutionally incapable of seeing the value in anything else. That’s why, despite the fact that his top public health officials are urging strict social distancing, Trump has been all over the airwaves talking about opening up the country for business come early April, and again comparing the outbreak to a bad seasonal flu. (Of course, his conservative allies haven’t been above using the emergency to further their nefarious agendas; witness GOP-controlled Ohio and Texas mandating an end to all abortions in those states, deeming them “elective surgeries.”)
Trump’s pretend-everything-is-normal attitude isn’t just an eccentric absurdity; it’s a dangerous illusion, and it shows just how shockingly ill-informed he is, how incapable of focusing on measures of well-being that aren’t quantified in terms of dollars and cents. Given the current modeling on how the disease is spreading, in early April most if not all of America’s largest cities will be in the grip of a peaking epidemic. If—a huge if at this point—their hospital systems stay afloat, they will be doing so by the skin of their teeth. If Trump uses his presidential megaphone to urge everyone to go about their business as normal, he will be directly responsible for swamping those systems and massively increasing loss of life. That’s a pretty strong, and abhorrent, Signal for the week.
Beyond that, were Trump to arbitrarily end attempts to rein in the epidemic, he would also be ensuring America’s global isolation, its residents unable to visit large parts of the earth for the foreseeable future. After all, given the vast loss of life and economic pain other countries are now experiencing, why would they risk undermining progress in containing the epidemic by allowing in US travelers?
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to insert racially charged references to the “Wuhan virus” into a G7 communiqué this week. It so annoyed his international colleagues that they ended up issuing their own missives rather than signing onto the American one. If Trump’s open-for-business preferences are acted on, they’ll likely be calling it the “American virus” before this pandemic has run its course.
And the Noise? A friend in Brussels, its normal life shut down, told me last week about the eerie wail of ambulance sirens repeatedly puncturing the silence. This week, my friends in a locked-down New York have begun reporting that same terrifying sound.