Opinion | America and the Coronavirus: ‘A Colossal Failure of Leadership’ – By Nicholas Kristof – The New York Times

By 

Opinion Columnist

“One of the most lethal leadership failures in modern times unfolded in South Africa in the early 2000s as AIDS spread there under President Thabo Mbeki.

Mbeki scorned science, embraced conspiracy theories, dithered as the disease spread and rejected lifesaving treatments. His denialism cost about 330,000 lives, a Harvard study found.

None of us who wrote scathingly about that debacle ever dreamed that something similar might unfold in the United States. But today, health experts regularly cite President Trump as an American Mbeki.

“We’re unfortunately in the same place,” said Anne Rimoin, an epidemiologist at U.C.L.A. “Mbeki surrounded himself with sycophants and cost his country hundreds of thousands of lives by ignoring science, and we’re suffering the same fate.”

One role of journalism is to establish accountability, and that’s particularly important before an election. Trump says he deserves an A-plus for his “phenomenal job” handling the coronavirus, but the judgment of history is likely to be far harsher.

“I see it as a colossal failure of leadership,” said Larry Brilliant, a veteran epidemiologist who helped eliminate smallpox in the 1970s. “Of the more than 200,000 people who have died as of today, I don’t think that 50,000 would have died if it hadn’t been for the incompetence.”

America Wrote the Pandemic Playbook, Then Ignored It.  The U.S. spent 15 years preparing for the coronavirus. Why did we handle it so badly?

There’s plenty of blame to go around, involving Democrats as well as Republicans, but Trump in particular “recklessly squandered lives,” in the words of an unusual editorial this month in the New England Journal of Medicine. Death certificates may record the coronavirus as the cause of death, but in a larger sense vast numbers of Americans died because their government was incompetent.

As many Americans are dying every 10 days of Covid-19 as U.S. troops died during 19 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economists David Cutler and Lawrence Summers estimate that the economic cost of the pandemic in the United States will be $16 trillion, or about $125,000 per American household — far more than the median family’s net worth. Then there’s an immeasurable cost in soft power as the United States is humbled before the world.

“It’s really sad to see the U.S. presidency fall from being the champion of global health to being the laughingstock of the world,” said Devi Sridhar, an American who is a professor of global health at the University of Edinburgh. “It was a tragedy of history that Donald Trump was president when this hit.”

The United States has made other terrible mistakes over the decades, including the Iraq War and the War on Drugs. But in terms of destruction of American lives, treasure and wellbeing, this pandemic may be the greatest failure of governance in the United States since the Vietnam War.

America Was the Leader in Pandemic Preparedness.

The paradox is that a year ago, the United States seemed particularly well positioned to handle this kind of crisis. A 324-page study by Johns Hopkins found last October that the United States was the country best prepared for a pandemic.

Credit for that goes to President George W. Bush, who in the summer of 2005 read an advance copy of “The Great Influenza,” a history of the 1918 flu pandemic. Shaken, Bush pushed aides to develop a strategy to prepare for another great contagion, and the result was an excellent 396-page playbook for managing such a health crisis.

The Obama administration updated this playbook and in the presidential transition in 2016, Obama aides cautioned the Trump administration that one of the big risks to national security was a contagion. Private experts repeated similar warnings. “Of all the things that could kill 10 million people or more, by far the most likely is an epidemic,” Bill Gates warned in 2015.

Trump has accused the Obama administration of depleting stockpiles of medical supplies so that “the cupboard was bare.” It’s true that the Obama administration did not do enough to refill the national stockpile with N95 masks, but Republicans in Congress wouldn’t provide even the modest sums that Obama requested for replenishment. And the Trump administration itself did nothing in its first three years to rebuild stockpiles.

We in the media also blew it: We didn’t do enough to warn about the risks of pandemics.

Trump argues that no one could have anticipated the pandemic, but it’s what Bush warned about, what Obama aides tried to tell their successors about, and what Joe Biden referred to in a blunt tweet in October 2019 lamenting Trump’s cuts to health security programs and adding: “We are not prepared for a pandemic.”

The First Alarm Bells From Wuhan

When the health commission of Wuhan, China, announced on Dec. 31 that it had identified 27 cases of a puzzling pneumonia, Taiwan acted with lightning speed. Concerned that this might be an outbreak of SARS, Taiwan dispatched health inspectors to board flights arriving from Wuhan and screen passengers before allowing them to disembark. Anyone showing signs of ill health was quarantined.

If either China or the rest of the world had shown the same urgency, the pandemic might never have happened.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control issued a notice about the Wuhan outbreak on Jan. 1, but not much else happened for a time. In China, President Xi Jinping issued orders on Jan. 7 for handling the coronavirus, but they were inadequate. If, at that time or soon after, Xi had ordered a more modest version of the Wuhan lockdown that was to come, it is possible that the virus could have been stifled before it spread around the globe.

Instead, Wuhan held a banquet for 40,000 people on Jan. 18, and by the time the lockdown was ordered on Jan. 23, some 5 million people had already left Wuhan for the Chinese New Year. In hindsight, two points seem clear: First, China initially covered up the scale of the outbreak. Second, even so, the United States and other countries had enough information to act as Taiwan did. The first two countries to impose travel restrictions on China were North Korea and the Marshall Islands, neither of which had inside information.

That first half of January represents a huge missed opportunity for the world. If the United States, the World Health Organization and the world media had raised enough questions and pressed China, then perhaps the Chinese central government would have intervened in Wuhan earlier. And if Wuhan had been locked down just two weeks earlier, it’s conceivable that this entire global catastrophe could have been averted.

The Defiance of Science

Perhaps the original sin of America’s response to the coronavirus came with the bungling of testing.

Without testing, health officials fight an opponent while blindfolded. They don’t know where the virus lurks, and they can’t isolate those infected or trace their contacts.

But the C.D.C. devised a faulty test, and turf wars in the federal government prevented the use of other tests. South Korea, Germany and other countries quickly developed tests that did work, and these were distributed around the world. Sierra Leone in West Africa had effective tests before the United States did.

Trump supporters note, correctly, that within the United States, the states with the highest mortality rates have been Democrat-led: New Jersey has had the most deaths per capita, followed by New York. It’s true that local politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, made disastrous decisions, as when Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City urged people in March to “get out on the town despite coronavirus.” But local officials erred in part because of the failure of testing: Without tests, they didn’t know what they faced.

It’s unfair to blame the testing catastrophe entirely on Trump, for the failures unfolded several paygrades below him. Partly that’s because Trump appointees, like Robert Redfield, director of the C.D.C., simply aren’t the A team.

In any case, presidents set priorities for lower officials. If Trump had pushed aides as hard to get accurate tests as he pushed to repel refugees and migrants, then America almost certainly would have had an effective test by the beginning of February and tens of thousands of lives would have been saved.

Still, testing isn’t essential if a country gets backup steps right. Japan is a densely populated country that did not test much and yet has only 2 percent as many deaths per capita as the United States. One reason is that Japanese have long embraced face masks, which Dr. Redfield has noted can be at least as effective as a vaccine in fighting the pandemic. A country doesn’t have to do everything, if it does some things right.

Yet in retrospect, Trump did almost everything wrong. He discouraged mask wearing. The administration never rolled out contact tracing, missed opportunities to isolate the infected and exposed, didn’t adequately protect nursing homes, issued advice that confused the issues more than clarified them, and handed responsibilities to states and localities that were unprepared to act. Trump did do a good job of accelerating a vaccine, but that won’t help significantly until next year.

Trump’s missteps arose in part because he channeled an anti-intellectual current that runs deep in the United States, as he sidelined scientific experts and responded to the virus with a sunny optimism apparently meant to bolster the financial markets.

“It’s going to disappear,” Trump said on Feb. 27. “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”

The false reassurances and dithering were deadly. One study found that if the United States had simply imposed the same lockdowns just two weeks earlier, 83 percent of the deaths in the early months could have been prevented.

A basic principle of public health is the primacy of accurate communications based on the best science. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who holds a doctorate in physics, is the global champion of that approach. Trump was the opposite, sowing confusion and conspiracy theories; a Cornell study found that “the President of the United States was likely the largest driver of the Covid-19 misinformation.”

Instead of listening to top government scientists, Trump marginalized and derided them, while elevating charlatans: One senior health department official, Michael Caputo, who had no background in health, was ousted only after he denounced government scientists for “sedition” and advised Trump supporters, “If you carry guns, buy ammunition.”

Trump recruited as a Covid-19 adviser a regular guest on Fox News, Dr. Scott Atlas, who is not a specialist on infectious diseases but a radiologist who is an expert on magnetic resonance imaging. You wouldn’t want an epidemiologist reviewing your MRI scans, and it’s equally odd to have a radiologist managing a pandemic.

A conservative commentariat echoed Trump in downplaying the virus and deriding efforts to stay safe. Brit Hume of Fox News mocked Joe Biden for wearing a large mask, and the right-wing website RedState denounced “the public health Gestapo” and called Dr. Anthony Fauci a “mask Nazi.” A University of Chicago study found that watching the Sean Hannity program correlated to less social distancing, so watching Fox News may well have been lethal to some of its fans.

Echoes of the Soviet Union

Americans have often pointed to the Soviet Union as a place where ideology trumped science, with disastrous results. Stalin backed Trofim Lysenko, an agricultural pseudoscientist who was an ardent Communist but scorned genetics — and whose zealous incompetence helped cause famines in the Soviet Union. Later, in the 1980s, Soviet leaders were troubled by data showing falling life expectancy — so they banned publication of mortality statistics. It was in the same spirit that Trump opposed testing for the coronavirus in the hope of holding down the number of reported cases.

Of course, science sometimes gets it wrong. Many experts opposed closing borders, while Trump’s move to limit travel from China now appears sound — although 45 countries imposed such travel restrictions before the United States. Likewise, Fauci said on March 9: “If you’re a healthy, young person, if you want to go on a cruise ship, go on a cruise ship.”

Inevitably, science errs, then self-corrects. But Trump was not self-correcting.

Most striking, Trump still has never developed a comprehensive plan to fight Covid-19. His “strategy” was to downplay the virus and resist business closures, in an effort to keep the economy roaring — his best argument for re-election.

This failed. The best way to protect the economy was to control the virus, not to ignore it, and the spread of Covid-19 caused economic dislocations that devastated even homes where no one was infected. Eight million Americans have slipped into poverty since May, a Columbia University study found, and about one in seven households with children have reported to the census that they didn’t have enough food to eat in the last seven days. More than 40 percent of adults reported in June that they were struggling with mental health, and 13 percent have begun or increased substance abuse, a C.D.C. study found. More than one-quarter of young adults said they have seriously contemplated suicide. Diane Reynolds, who runs an excellent addiction program called Provoking Hope, estimates that relapses have increased 50 percent during the pandemic.

So in what is arguably the richest country in the history of the world, political malpractice has resulted in a pandemic of infectious disease followed by pandemics of poverty, mental illness, addiction and hunger.

The rejection of science has also exacerbated polarization and tribalism. As I write this I’m on our family farm in rural Oregon. Trump is popular in this area, and his contempt for science has contributed to a dangerous unraveling, even talk of civil war. An old school friend shared this conspiracy theory on Facebook:

Create a VIRUS to scare people. Place them in quarantine. Count the number of dead every second of every day in every news headline. Close all businesses …. Mask people. Dehumanize them. Close temples and churches …. Empty the prisons because of the virus and fill the streets with criminals. Send in Antifa to vandalize property as if they are freedom fighters. Undermine the law. Loot …. And, in an election year, have Democrats blame all of it on the President. If you love America, our Constitution, and the Rule of Law, get ready to fight for them.

Mismanagement of the virus has not only sickened millions of Americans but has also poisoned our body politic.

Taking a Threat Seriously

A pandemic is a huge challenge for any country. Spain and Brazil have both had more deaths per capita than the United States, and Europe now has slightly more new infections per capita than the United States.

Still, it’s not reassuring for the country that a year ago was considered best prepared for a pandemic to hear: We’re not quite as bad as Brazil!

During World War II, American soldiers died at a rate of 9,200 a month, less than one-third the pace of deaths from this pandemic, but the United States responded with a massive mobilization. By 1945, a Ford assembly line was turning out one new B-24 bomber every hour. Yet today we can’t even churn out enough face masks; a poll of nurses in late July and early August found that one-third lacked enough N95 masks.

Trump and his allies have even argued against mobilization. “Don’t be afraid of Covid,” Trump tweeted this month. “Don’t let it dominate your life.” Attorney General William Barr compared stay-at-home orders to slavery.

Instead of leading a war against the virus, Trump organized a surrender. He even held a super-spreader event at the White House, for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, and that’s why the White House recently had more new cases of Covid-19 than New Zealand, Taiwan and Vietnam combined.

It didn’t have to be this way. If the U.S. had worked harder and held the per capita mortality rate down to the level of, say, Germany, we could have saved more than 170,000 lives. And if the U.S. had responded urgently and deftly enough to achieve Taiwan’s death rate, fewer than 100 Americans would have died from the virus.

“It is a slaughter,” Dr. William Foege, a legendary epidemiologist who once ran the C.D.C., wrote to Dr. Redfield. Dr. Foege predicted that public health textbooks would study America’s response to Covid-19 not as a model of A-plus work but as an example of what not to do.”  -30-

Opinion | Trump’s Not Superman. He’s Superspreader. – By Thomas L. Friedman – The New York Times

By 

Opinion Columnist

Credit…Julio Cortez/Associated Press

“The most important question today is not what President Trump has learned from his bout with Covid-19. Trump is one of those leaders who never learns and never forgets, as the saying goes. The most important question is what have we as citizens learned — and, in particular, what have Trump’s supporters learned?

Because the debate over Trump himself is over. The verdict is in: He cast himself as Superman, but he turns out to have been Superspreader — not only of a virus but of a whole way of looking at the world in a pandemic that was dangerously wrong for himself and our nation. To re-elect him would be an act of collective madness.

But while I see it that way, and maybe you see it that way, will enough Trump voters see it that way? That will depend on Joe Biden’s ability to help them see all the big and small things where Trump has been so fundamentally mistaken.

The list of “small” things is long: Caution in a pandemic is not a sign of weakness, but of wisdom. Face masks in a pandemic are not cultural markers, just common-sense protection that says nothing other than “I’m a responsible person who wants to protect myself and my grandparent, myself and my customer, myself and my co-worker, myself and my neighbor from an invisible pathogen.” “

Opinion | Trump’s Diagnosis Is a Wake-Up Call for Americans – by Nicholas Kristof – The New York Times

“. . .  A second point is also straightforward: Let’s learn from the president’s infection. Let’s make this a wake-up call that leads to mask-wearing and social distancing, saving lives.

The United States has lost 208,000 people to the pandemic in part because we as a country didn’t take the virus seriously. We’re seeing a rise in new infections, which now exceed 40,000 a day, roughly twice the level of early June, and many epidemiologists warn that it will most likely get worse. One reason for the uptick in numbers is increased testing, but another is simply that people in the United States and all over the world are suffering pandemic fatigue.

We’re sick of isolation. We crave human contact. We want hugs. We are social animals, and the virus exploits that instinct.

I’m now in Oregon, and I sense that we are all becoming more lax, particularly in parts of the country where the virus never hit hard and people didn’t lose friends or see refrigerator trucks parked outside hospitals. That laxity is lethal.

The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation predicts that 363,000 Americans will have died of Covid-19 by Jan. 1. That would amount to more Americans dying in nine months from the virus than the total number of combat deaths over four years in World War II.

Yet the institute’s model also suggests that if 95 percent of Americans just wore masks (the level in Singapore), then nearly 100,000 lives could be saved between now and the end of the year.

Think about that. As a country, we’re still seared by the nearly 3,000 deaths in the 9/11 attacks. But the institute’s model warns that by the end of December, we’ll be losing that many each day.

Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who early in his career helped eradicate smallpox, argues that we can crush this virus as well. We’ve seen the toolbox that other countries employed to do so: universal mask use, social distancing, testing, contact tracing and so on.”

Opinion | A Cataclysm of Hunger, Disease and Illiteracy – by Nicholas Kristof – The New York Times

“We think of Covid-19 as killing primarily the elderly around the world, but in poor countries it is more cataclysmic than that.

It is killing children through malnutrition. It is leading more people to die from tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS. It is forcing girls out of school and into child marriages. It is causing women to die in childbirth. It is setting back efforts to eradicate polio, fight malaria and reduce female genital mutilation. It is leading to lapses in vitamin A distribution that will cause more children to suffer blindness and die.

The U.N. Population Fund warns that Covid-19 may lead to an additional 13 million child marriages around the world and to some 47 million women being unable to get access to modern contraception.

In short, a pandemic of disease, illiteracy and extreme poverty is following on the heels of this coronavirus pandemic — and it is hitting children hardest.”

David Lindsay:   This column makes me uncomfortable in several dimensions. The following comment in the NYT covers the elephant in the room:

USA

11m ago
Times Pick

Rampant overpopulation sets the stage for poverty, malnutrition, disease spread, and societal breakdown. Mr. Kristof needs to do more than mention population control in passing. He needs to address the cultural and religious factors that prevent women and the fathers of their children from limiting the number of children they bring into the world, often with no means of providing them with food or shelter. The pandemic will eventually be brought under control. Overpopulation is a far more widespread, destructive, long-term catastrophe.

6 Replies129 Recommended

Opinion | How Did the ‘Best-Prepared Country’ Become a Horror Story? – By Nicholas Kristof – The New York Times

By 

Opinion Columnist

“What would America be like today if President Trump had acted decisively in January to tackle the coronavirus, as soon as he was briefed on the danger?

One opportunity for decisive action came Jan. 28, when his national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, told Trump that the coronavirus “will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.” Trump absorbed the warning, telling Bob Woodward days later how deadly and contagious the virus could be, according to Woodward’s new book, “Rage.”

Yet the president then misled the public by downplaying the virus, comparing it to the flu and saying that it would “go away.” He resisted masks, sidelined experts, held large rallies, denounced lockdowns and failed to get tests and protective equipment ready — and here we are, with Americans constituting 4 percent of the world’s population and 22 percent of Covid-19 deaths.

There’s plenty of blame to be directed as well at local officials, nursing home managers and ordinary citizens — but Trump set the national agenda.

Suppose Trump in January — or even in February — had warned the public of the dangers, had ensured that accurate tests were widely distributed (Sierra Leone had tests available before the United States) and had built up a robust system of contact tracing (Congo has better contact tracing than the United States).

Suppose he had ramped up production of masks and empowered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to lead the pandemic response, instead of marginalizing its experts.

Suppose he had tried as relentlessly to battle the virus as he has to build his wall?

If testing and contact tracing had been done right, then we would have known where hot spots were and large-scale lockdowns and layoffs might have been unnecessary.

The United States would still have made mistakes. We focused too much on ventilators and not enough on other things that might have been more useful, like face masks, blood thinners and high-flow nasal cannulas. Because of mask shortages, health messaging about their importance was bungled. Governors and mayors dithered, and nursing homes weren’t adequately protected.

But many of our peer countries did better than we did not because they got everything right but because they got some things right — and then learned from mistakes.

Because of Covid-19, Trump called himself a wartime president, but he didn’t heed his generals and never ordered ammunition. In World War II, a Ford plant was configured to turn out one new B-24 bomber every hour, yet today we display none of that urgency even though Americans are dying from the virus at a faster pace than they fell in World War II.”

Farmville, Va., covid outbreak linked to ICE flights bringing agents to protests – The Washington Post

September 11, 2020 at 4:07 p.m. EDT

The Trump administration flew immigrant detainees to Virginia this summer to facilitate the rapid deployment of Homeland Security tactical teams to quell protests in Washington, circumventing restrictions on the use of charter flights for employee travel, according to a current and a former U.S. official.

After the transfer, dozens of the new arrivals tested positive for the novel coronavirus, fueling an outbreak at the Farmville, Va., immigration jail that infected more than 300 inmates, one of whom died.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency moved the detainees on “ICE Air” charter flights to avoid overcrowding at detention facilities in Arizona and Florida, a precaution they said was taken because of the pandemic.

But a Department of Homeland Security official with direct knowledge of the operation, and a former ICE official who learned about it from other personnel, said the primary reason for the June 2 transfers was to skirt rules that bar ICE employees from traveling on the charter flights unless detainees are also aboard.

Source: Farmville, Va., covid outbreak linked to ICE flights bringing agents to protests – The Washington Post

Face mask study shows neck gaiter may be worse than no covering at all – Allyson Chiu – The Washington Post

August 11, 2020 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
PLEASE NOTE

The Washington Post is providing this important information about the coronavirus for free. For more, sign up for our daily Coronavirus Updates newsletter where all stories are free to read. To support this work, please subscribe to the Post.

As the number of novel coronavirus cases continues to rise nationwide, the recurring message from many public health experts and doctors has been simple: Wearing masks saves lives.

“We are not defenseless against covid-19,” Robert R. Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in July. “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting.”

But as face coverings have become increasingly commonplace in American life, so have questions about efficacy — and now a group of researchers from Duke University are aiming to provide some answers.

Source: Face mask study shows neck gaiter may be worse than no covering at all – The Washington Post

The Nation Wanted to Eat Out Again. Everyone Has Paid the Price. – The New York Times

“Across the United States this summer, restaurants and bars, reeling from mandatory lockdowns and steep financial declines, opened their doors to customers, thousands of whom had been craving deep bowls of farro, frothy margaritas and juicy burgers smothered in glistening onions.

But the short-term gains have led to broader losses. Data from states and cities show that many community outbreaks of the coronavirus this summer have centered on restaurants and bars, often the largest settings to infect Americans.

In Louisiana, roughly a quarter of the state’s 2,360 cases since March that were outside of places like nursing homes and prisons have stemmed from bars and restaurants, according to state data. In Maryland, 12 percent of new cases last month were traced to restaurants, contact tracers there found, and in Colorado, 9 percent overall have been traced to bars and restaurants.

It is unclear what percentage of workers transmitted the virus among themselves, or to patrons or whether customers brought in the virus. But the clusters are worrisome to health officials because many restaurant and bar employees across the country are in their 20s and can carry the virus home and possibly seed household transmissions, which have soared in recent weeks through the Sun Belt and the West.”

The Unique U.S. Failure to Control the Virus – By David Leonhardt – The New York Times

“Nearly every country has struggled to contain the coronavirus and made mistakes along the way.

China committed the first major failure, silencing doctors who tried to raise alarms about the virus and allowing it to escape from Wuhan. Much of Europe went next, failing to avoid enormous outbreaks. Today, many countries — Japan, Canada, France, Australia and more — are coping with new increases in cases after reopening parts of society.

Yet even with all of these problems, one country stands alone, as the only affluent nation to have suffered a severe, sustained outbreak for more than four months: the United States.”

Two on the Aisle

NYC and Connecticut Theater News and Reviews

Inconvenient News Worldwide

On World Affairs: Politics, the Environment, the Drug Wars, and the Arts

Mereconomics

Providing more on Environmental and Resource Economics

InconvenientNews.Net

Politics, Economics, the Environment, the Drug Wars, and the Arts

The WordPress.com Blog

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.