The Week of Saturday, March 21 through Friday, March 27, 2020 [#36]
The Week’s Most Notable:
Looking back, this was one of the most important weeks in American history. That’s a big statement. Nevertheless, this was the week when the coronavirus situation began to feel really serious. The facts and figures had a monumentally bad look. We haven’t seen anything like this since the Second World War. The coronavirus crisis is nowhere near its peak. We know already that the huge number of cases have overwhelmed our health-care system, but will there be hundreds of thousands or millions of cases? Likewise, will there be tens of thousands or millions of deaths? We know that the economy has taken an enormous hit: Millions are unemployed, much of the economy is shut down, and we have no idea when it can be safely revived – hence the unthinkable sum of money, $2.2 trillion Democrats AND Republicans are throwing at coronavirus relief. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a remarkable speech to her nation, “So let me say that this is serious. Take it seriously.”
We have a “Partisan Pandemic,” the first in U.S. history. In most times of great national threat and tragedy, the country pulls together – we seek unity. Not this time. In the beginning, January and early February, Trump denied the existence of a coronavirus threat and attacked media and Democrats as purveyors of a colossal hoax. His 40% of the population, the Trump/GOP base, followed that line. By mid-February, when it became impossible to sustain the hoax claim, Trump shifted for about two weeks into supporting what doctors and epidemiologists recommended, such as quarantine, self-isolation, and social distancing. This spooked Trump’s base and simultaneously shut him off from the oxygen of his political rallies. This week, rather than denying the crisis entirely, Trump shifted to blaming Democrats, especially Democratic governors, and media for exaggerating the crisis. This attack became part of his “get back to work quick” policy. Right-wing media took his lead in every possible direction – from a return to coronavirus denialism, to attacking Democrats and experts such as Doctor Fauci – casting blame for a fake emergency created by liberals. And thus, the country was divided, badly led, and apparently cannot muster an effective national response to one of the worst crises in its history.
Saturday, March 21
[Coronavirus] Globally, Pandemic Hits 300,000 Cases, 13,000 Deaths – Every day the world watches the morbid statistics, wondering how bad it will get. Italy is still the hardest hit and is now under a nationwide lockdown. During the week many nations followed its example.
[Coronavirus] Senate Adjourns for the Day without a Coronavirus Bill – As predicted, Democrats went after the Republicans’ first draft of the bill as being far too generous to corporations, and not nearly good enough to support the workers cast adrift by the economic crisis. At this point, it is expected the bill will exceed $1 trillion.
[Coronavirus] FDA Approves Rapid Coronavirus Test – Cepheid, a California company, has developed a test for coronavirus infection that can be processed in 45 minutes, as opposed to days. This announcement became part of the Trump press conference happy talk. It is good news but (1) the test won’t be ready for distribution for a couple of weeks, (2) it will be several more weeks before it can be produced on a large scale, (3) it is a commercial product and must go through distribution channels that do not yet exist, and (4) this product, along with others as they are developed and manufactured, are not part of any national scheme to organize and distribute to locations where they are most needed. Unfortunately, good news like this needs to be tempered.
Sunday, March 22
[Coronavirus] China and Iran Claim U.S. Created Coronavirus – Wanting equal time for conspiracy theories, it’s not surprising that other countries theorize that the U.S. military created the virus and planted it in China. As always, lack of credible evidence is no problem for conspiracy theories.
[Coronavirus] In India 1.3 Billion People Observe Curfew – The government used the 14-hour lockdown (all but essential businesses and government offices) in hopes of breaking the chain of infection. The national lockdown was immediately expanded to three weeks.
[Coronavirus] Senate Coronavirus Bill Fails to Advance – By late Sunday the bill was up to $1.8 trillion largely on efforts by Democrats to improve the sections for unemployment insurance and support of small to medium-sized businesses. However, Democrats were very unhappy with the open-ended “$500 billion slush fund” for corporations and refused to approve the bill.
[Coronavirus] Rand Paul Tests Positive for Covid-19 – One of the most outspoken “coronavirus hoaxers” has ironically been infected and is under quarantine. He joins a number of other congresspeople, some of whom were infected by him.
Monday, March 23
[Coronavirus] Trump Shifts to Promoting Rapid Reopening of Businesses – In what amounts to yet another major change in direction, Trump used the rhetoric “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself” to go against the recommendations of experts and push for a rapid end to travel and work restrictions. It was clear Trump was reacting to the stock market crash and the prospect of a very serious recession. He has joined the right-wing movement to promote the economy over the health and the lives of vulnerable citizens.
[Coronavirus] U K Reverses Policy– After more than two months of unofficially following a policy that favored developing “herd immunity” and doing little or nothing to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Boris Johnson announced a three-week national lockdown. An Imperial College of London study that predicted more than 500,000 deaths in the UK if nothing was done, apparently prompted the sudden change in approach. [The same study predicted the U.S. might have as many as 2.2 million deaths, if nothing is done.]
[Afghanistan] U.S. to Cut Afghan Aid – Apparently angered by Afghan leaders’ failure to support the tottering Afghanistan peace initiative, Secretary of State Pompeo announced an immediate cut of $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan, with another $1 billion cut next year. These cuts may or may not have punitive effect, but probably won’t help programs intended to keep the Taliban at bay.
[Coronavirus] Tokyo Summer Olympics Postponed – A new date is uncertain but probably next year.
Tuesday, March 24
[Coronavirus] Trump Wants Economy Reopened by Easter – When Easter arrives it will be important to recall Trump’s pitch for saving the economy in less than three weeks by reversing lockdown policies. Put bluntly, this will not happen; no one with knowledge of the situation believes the U.S. will be ready to “go back to normal” by Easter. Most places deep into the crisis, such as New York and Chicago, will not even have reached the top of the infection curve – to say nothing of the many areas (such as Los Angeles, Detroit, and New Orleans) just entering their major case increases. Unfortunately, Trump’s support of this idea will reignite the right-wing defiance of coronavirus mitigation efforts, making about 40% of the American public more vulnerable to illness and death, and more able to spread the virus to everyone else.
Wednesday, March 25
[Coronavirus] U.S. Insists on Using “Wuhan Virus” and Derails G7 Statement – Indicative of a minor but troublesome detail of Trump/right-wing propaganda was the insistence on calling the coronavirus (Covid-19) the “Chinese Virus.” It’s interesting that Trump was using this slur on China at the same time he was praising it for their progress on his trade deal.
[Coronavirus] Using Coronavirus Crisis as a Cover for Other Actions – In a pattern that will likely be repeated many times, Texas attempted to ban all abortion procedures based on reclassifying them as “elective” at a time when elective procedures are being canceled because of the coronavirus crisis. Inevitably, the crisis will also be used to cover such things as election procedures, executive powers, police authority, surveillance procedures, and various legislative actions. [New case in point: the EPA has announced rollbacks in many anti-pollution rules “to help the economy in a time of crisis.”]
Thursday, March 26
[Coronavirus] Record 3.3 Million Americans File for Unemployment Benefits – It is the largest weekly number ever registered and stands as an indisputable sign of the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis and its effect on the economy. Estimates stand at about a 20% unemployment rate by the end of the year with a 50% drop in gross domestic product, deep in recession territory.
[Coronavirus] The Great Ventilator Flap – In a combination of political wrangling, medical crisis, and ideological confusion, Trump finally invoked the Defense Protection Act to force General Motors into producing ventilators. Earlier in the week Trump had hoped to announce that GM would be making 80,000 ventilators but cancelled the announcement when he learned they not only wanted a billion dollars but that it would take months. (Note: 80,000 ventilators would save thousands of lives. The U.S. has been known to spend at least $2 billion on a single military airplane, the B-2 Spirit.) The ventilator issue is just one aspect of the massive logistical problems with medical supplies.
[Coronavirus] Trump Floats Reopening Low Risk Counties Idea – As part of the “get back to work ASAP” push the administration will issue guidelines for categorizing counties as high, medium, or low risk for Covid-19 outbreaks with an eye to relaxing mitigation measures. The idea has no legs: counties are a poor way to measure pandemic spread, and even if they weren’t, there is no testing data sufficient to make any such informed decisions.
Friday, March 27
[Coronavirus] Congress Passes $2.2 Trillion Coronavirus Bill, Trump Signs– It is the most expensive bill in history. Its key elements are: individual payments-$560 billion, public health-$153.5 billion, state and local governments-$339.8 billion, small businesses-$377 billion, big corporations-$500 billion, education-$43.7 billion, safety net (food security programs)-$26 billion. Work has already begun on follow-up bills, which will be contingent on learning more about the severity of the U.S. and worldwide recession. This kind of money, with Republicans ditching almost every long-held aversion to government spending, is absolute proof of how serious the coronavirus crisis really is.
[Coronavirus] Stock Market Yo-Yo Ends in a Downturn – Initially buoyed by the prospect of a massive $2 trillion U.S. economy bailout, markets ended the week more pessimistically as the reality of a worldwide recession begins to take it shape.
[Coronavirus] UK PM Boris Johnson Tests Positive – Johnson joins the list of noted leaders and celebrities affected by coronavirus, including Prince Charles (UK heir apparent) and the death of Terrence McNally (leading U.S. playwright).
[Coronavirus] Ominous Signs: China Re-closes All Movie Theaters – After a week of reopening about 600 theaters, this move, although unexplained, may be a harbinger for a potential second wave of the coronavirus. Simultaneously, China also barred entry of most foreign nationals.
[Coronavirus] Globally, Coronavirus Cases Hit 500,000, Deaths 21,000 – For the first time the U.S. leads all other nations in the number of cases (106,000) with the greatest increases occurring in New York and New Orleans. Incidentally, checking the map, coronavirus cases are spreading to rural America.
Coronavirus Crisis Notes
It was revealed this week that U.S. intelligence agencies informed the Trump administration in January and February of the coronavirus problems in China and their probable spread. The Trump administration and what appears to be a compromised CDC chose not to acknowledge or react to the information. Consequently, more than two months of potential preparation were lost. This is extremely significant for coronavirus testing, where faulty kits, limited laboratories, bureaucratic infighting, and lack of competent leadership meant the U.S. began the crisis unable to test for its scope and severity (flying blind). As we go into April, the lack of testing is still an issue.
When bad ideas are a sign of desperation (or just red herrings). First, Trump suggested that counties be used to determine when coronavirus crisis measures can be relaxed and people sent back to work. As if the virus spread followed county boundaries. Then he trotted out the idea of a regional quarantine, in this case around New York. The governors of the states involved basically said “are you crazy” as there is no way for such a region to function either conceptually or logistically. Trump withdrew the idea a day later. These ideas are so bad, they either are beacons of incompetence or they are the usual distractions thrown out as chum for media sharks.
If you noticed this week is mostly bad news about the coronavirus crisis, that is unfortunately the reality. More unfortunately, many Americans – perhaps the majority – have little or no idea about the crucial details and the epic scale of what happened this week. They also have little idea how Trump’s beliefs and psychology make it impossible for him to respond adequately to the crisis. That’s why at least two polls have shown Trump’s approval rating improving. People living in the Fox/right-wing information bubble never hear the problems, or simply hear the problems spun on to the Democrats. Even the appalling “daily briefings” (qua political rallies) are seen as effective. Given the long-run power of propaganda, it is possible for Trump to sell the “strong leader in a time of crisis” image (which is classic Putin/fascist playbook), plus Implicit racism, all the way to a second term. If this sounds like a Jeremiad, that’s because it is. Referring to Angela Merkel again, “this is serious…take it seriously.”
For the time being election concerns are not foremost in peoples’ minds. For Trump everything he does or fails to do during the crisis goes on his record, which will become issues when campaigning resumes. For Biden this will be a time of dancing the fine line between maintaining public visibility and not becoming sucked into the morass created by Trump. Biden’s already referred to as the “ghost candidate” and people are arguing whether this is good or not. Historically, presidencies can be won by candidates who don’t campaign very much; for example, McKinley sat on his front porch in Ohio while the press and citizens traveled to him. The coronavirus pandemic creates a unique environment where media presentation is paramount and face-to-face campaigning is all but impossible. This could favor Biden: Less improvising means fewer gaffes. Fewer public appearances and a tightly controlled schedule mean less exhaustion. However, Biden’s options are mostly passive. The crisis scenario mostly favors Trump. He controls the narrative. He is the one seen taking action. He and the right-wing propaganda machine have always relied on media impact rather than an authentic connection to voters.
It should be expected that Trump’s main strategy will be to blame the Democrats for the coronavirus crisis. He’s already laying the groundwork for that by attacking Democratic governors for their role in unsuccessful mitigation. Republican propaganda is good at blame shifting, and the Democrats have usually shown themselves to be inept at countering. However, this is a unique situation. Thanks in part to the hundreds of millions spent by Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, the Democrats already have the elements of an effective propaganda machine. Hopefully they will use it.
[The IUY Weekly Journal assumes readers are passingly familiar with names and events. For more details, check with internet search (Google it).]
Quote of the Week
“Only a few weeks ago our future seemed headed toward A Handmaid’s Tale; now it’s feeling more like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.” (Anonymous Tweet)