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Just this week, something startling occurred. We heard the unvarnished truth about Covid-19 in the United States from a major public health official, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s principal deputy director Anne Schuchat. She is not a political appointee, has been at the agency since 1988, occupied many leadership roles since then, and has been at the forefront of the US response to pandemics like SARS and H1N1 influenza. The CDC’s career scientists have largely been silent since the early days of the current crisis, when Vice President Mike Pence and other senior administration officials took charge of the American effort against Covid-19, under tight control by the president and his son-in-law Jared Kushner.
What did Dr. Schuchat say that was so remarkable?
We’re not in the situation of New Zealand or Singapore or Korea where a new case is rapidly identified, and all the contacts are traced, and people are isolated who are sick, and people who are exposed are quarantined, and they can keep things under control. We have way too much virus across the country for that right now, so it’s very discouraging.
In other words, the Covid-19 epidemic in the United States is out of control, erupting on a massive scale in many different places across the country, and attempts to rein it in will be difficult. Schuchat’s remarks, which were made in an interview for a podcast with the Journal of the American Medical Association’s editor in chief Howard Bauchner, are sobering. Schuchat points to the wishful thinking and denial that have characterized the American response, saying, “We are not even beginning to be over this.… As much as we’ve studied [the 1918 flu pandemic], I think what we’re experiencing as a global community is really bad and it’s similar to that 1918 transformational experience.” Even the hopes that the summer would bring some relief are disposed of by Dr. Schuchat: “In terms of the weather or the season helping us, I don’t think we can count on that.”
In some ways, we’re back to square one. The number of cases recorded in one day hit a record of 42,161 on Sunday, more than 5,000 cases above the previous record set in late April. In addition, the five highest numbers of total daily cases of new infections have happened just over the past few days, with cases rising to double what they were two weeks ago. Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany—in what may be the greatest epidemiological understatement of the pandemic—said on Monday, “We’re aware that there are embers that need to be put out.”
Not to be outdone by McEnany, Pence said last Friday: “We have made truly remarkable progress in moving our nation forward…all 50 states are opening up safely and responsibly.” Of course, all of this is what scholars of totalitarianism would call the “Big Lie”—a lie so brazen that it’s almost hard to believe anyone would have the temerity to utter it aloud. As philosopher and scholar of the language of fascism Jason Stanley (a Yale colleague) tweeted on Sunday: “Not just Trump—also Bolsonaro, Modi, and Putin—all of them see the world through a friend-enemy distinction. Reality can’t be thought of that way so they will invariably deal poorly with it. These leaders have their own reality in which they can do no wrong.”
Why are Schuchat’s comments so important right now? Because, as George Orwell is often erroneously to have remarked, “in a time of universal deceit—telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Separating truth from lies about the epidemic is crucial at this moment. As Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University, explains, Trump’s denial of his disastrous handling of the response to Covid-19 will be “one of the biggest propaganda battles in American history.” On current evidence, the press isn’t immune to the president and his party’s manipulations of facts. Even august newspapers like The New York Times get bamboozled easily—as Joan Walsh recently noted in The Nation. This susceptibility, Columbia Journalism Review points out, allows “bad actors to launder disinformation.”
Over the weekend, for instance, The New York Times ran a story titled, “After Asking Americans to Sacrifice in Shutdown, Leaders Failed to Control Virus.” While the Times story points out the administration’s missteps, it soon pivots to blame public health experts and seems to excuse Trump’s failings by comparing the pandemic’s toll in the United States to that in other countries, suggesting that no leader has been able to fend off the virus successfully, with resurgences happening even where the response has led to far fewer cases and deaths. It’s that “genuflection to fairness,” that “scrupulous passivity” that Joan Didion long ago labeled the “deferential spirit” in American journalism. In this version of bothsidesism, the truth and the lie get equal billing out of some impulse to soften the blow on the administration lest the paper get blamed for partisanship.
Contrast the Times story with a piece published by The Washington Post on the same day: “With Trump leading the way, America’s Coronavirus Failures Exposed by Record Surge in New Infections,” which pulls no punches, simply remaining focused on the actions and policies of the administration—the single major actor in the pandemic, with the force and power of the US government behind it—showing how it has driven the country’s response to, and failure on, Covid-19.
Schuchat’s comments on where we are now make depressing reading and listening. However, over the past few weeks, the torrent of lies and misinformation has been so overwhelming that, frankly, I’ve begun to think that there was no way to keep from being dragged down under the waves of bullshit coming at us in all directions. Schuchat’s comments were a hand reaching out, pulling us back to reality, telling us, “Yes, this is happening. You have every right to be afraid, angry, sad.” Because we are in the midst of a once-in-a-century cataclysm, affecting a series of generations who haven’t seen anything quite like it before.
Yet the path forward remains clear. In terms of public health, it’s set out in the hymnal many of us have been singing from for some time: more social distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing, test-trace-isolate, and yes, probably more lockdowns—with the proviso that these need to come with real economic and social support for ordinary Americans, not bailouts for corporations and the rich. Responding to this pandemic is going to be much harder now, and will require far more resources than we needed only a few weeks ago. We’ve also got to stop the lies, challenging every one of them, whether from the administration or from news sources that parrot them or give them any safe harbor out of some misplaced desire to be fair and balanced, setting truths and falsehoods thus on equal footing.
Right now we’re all at the mercy of Trump and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP governors—and we can’t wait until January 2021 to do this work. That means an unprecedented civic mobilization to push them as far as we can now. It means getting on the phones, on e-mail, visiting local offices (masked up!), and it means lots of direct action and civil disobedience.
My good friend and ACT UP comrade Peter Staley once put a giant condom on the late Senator Jesse Helms’s home that said “Helms is deadlier than a virus.” Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Ron DeSantis, Greg Abbott, Doug Ducey, Jared Kushner, Alex Azar are far deadlier than a virus. We’re going to have to get creative. The Helms action was outdoors and took only a few people to make it happen. Attempting something like it today would be low-risk for Covid-19 transmission, particularly if activists wear masks.
There are lots of ways to peacefully ratchet up the pressure on these men. We’ve just got to take that step now to save our lives and the lives of those we love and care for, just as we did in the most horrible days of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. What we know now is that, in Schuchat’s words, “We are not even beginning to be over this.” The dead will keep piling up, unless we attempt the extraordinary. We don’t have to ask what we would have done in the darker moments of human history. Our test is here, now, today. Act up. Fight back. Fight Covid-19.