The commercials used to try to sell us products. Lately, as the nation settles into its second month under a coronavirus cloud, they are trying to sell us hope. Maybe I’m falling prey to the frustration that everyone else seems to be feeling, but lately, I’m not buying.
JP Morgan Chase offers the message that, “We will get through this, together.” And I have no doubt that JP Morgan Chase will be all right. I’m just not so sure about the rest of us.
Have you watched some of the news conferences? It has become increasingly clear that leadership in this country has about as much idea of how to manage COVID-19 in the long term as it did about how to prepare for it. That is to say, it has no idea. There is no plan for it, or at least no plan that can be articulated in a cogent way. Nor do they know how or even when to restart the economy. And just as alarming, there is no plan for that, either.
As anyone who has ever had a car break down on the highway will tell you: It’s easy to get the thing stopped. Getting it running again requires people who know what they’re doing.
And much of the U.S. media seems to have little interest in anything but the current day’s clicks or views. They leap at the first shiny or outlandish thing they can find. They have no answers, so they now are engaged in the time-honored task of assessing blame.
Spoiler alert on that: Everybody is to blame. The World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the president and his administration, politicians from both parties at the federal and state levels, and even the media. I saw a columnist — who I like, by the way -— Tweet a link to a New York Times story about the inaction of President Donald Trump, despite warnings, and post, “This is terrible. We could have saved lives. We didn’t act. I know who’s responsible. Do you?”
Well, I don’t know that it’s that simple. Four days prior, the same newspaper he was citing published another article about the failures of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to take earlier action or to heed early warnings. But he didn’t share that story with his followers or any pithy comment on who is to blame.
We’ve descended into partisanship, which you always knew we would. Facebook has returned into a collection of people publishing their wildly incorrect statistics to promote their wildly incorrect notion that their side can do no wrong and the other side can do no right. Period. (Unless they’re posting senior pictures of themselves from decades before in “support” of high school seniors who are missing proms and graduations and other senior evens. Another spoiler alert: I have a high school senior at home. It doesn’t help. How could it? Instead of using them as an excuse, just say you want to post another photo of yourself and move on!)
Where was I? Oh, yes. The fault, dear Brutus, is not (only) in our stars, but in ourselves. We are so easily distracted, and our media have become expert in exploiting that distraction, and our politicians have learned, too, that distraction can sway loyalty. It’s how we can allow our attention to be so effectively diverted.
And that, when you come down to it, is what caught us when this virus hit. Impeachment was a distraction, you’d better believe it. How could it not be? The president, who is the embodiment of distraction, was fixated on it. The speaker of the house pursued it with a single-minded determination even though it had virtually no chance of success. Most of us, via the media, were far more interested in the inability of officials to calculate results of the Iowa caucuses than we were the nation’s inability to deal with a pandemic.
That’s not to let anyone off the hook so easily. The president knew enough about this threat to impose a travel ban from China on Feb. 2, but did precious little in the way of real preparation after that, ignoring numerous warnings while making reassuring public statements that had no basis in fact. And the speaker, meanwhile, did a walking tour of San Francisco’s Chinatown on Feb. 24 and told a local news station: “You should come to Chinatown. Precautions have been taken by our city. We know there is concern about tourism throughout the world, but we think it’s very safe to be in Chinatown, and hopefully, others will come.”
Let’s just call it like it is: The vast majority of our government leaders dropped the ball. Some of them raised crucial alarms early. Not nearly enough of them were heeded. And Trump, where the buck will always stop, whether he accepts it or not because he is the president, realized far too late that the thing he expected to ride into a second term — the economy — has given way to the thing that will define his legacy: his handling of this virus.
But it’s important to note he is not alone in his failures (nor his successes, as I’ll soon note). The WHO initially downplayed the severity of the outbreak. The CDC botched the early testing, leaving the U.S. unable to get out in front of the outbreak.
By the time COVID-19 hit the front pages and lead stories of U.S. news outlets, the enemy was already through the gates.
We weren’t ready. If we were a team (sorry, can’t completely shake the sportswriting) we’d all be running laps.
“We underestimated this virus from day one,” Cuomo said. “… We’ve been playing catch-up from the start.”
It was a multi-system, multi-party, multi-agency failure. It is a target-rich environment if you’re looking for people who failed. Some more than others, but just about everywhere, nobody was ready.
Whew. I just wanted to get that out of my system.
Now, in full disclosure, I should tell you when I started to take the virus seriously. It wasn’t when my youngest son Henry saw the first reports out of Wuhan and started saying, “This thing scares me,” in mid-January. It really wasn’t even when I traveled to Los Angeles on Super Bowl weekend — though the first west-coast cases had been discovered at that point and they were testing international travelers at LAX.
I started really to think we were in for something on March 7. Yes, that late. I was in Greensboro, North Carolina, for the ACC women’s basketball tournament, and I went downstairs for breakfast in my hotel and started to put a spoon into some oatmeal and heard CNN talking about the virus on the TV next to me, and something just hit me, and I put the spoon back and went back upstairs. Later that morning, I saw a bunch of cars with CDC lettering in the hotel parking lot.
None of us really knew. And even if we had, I don’t think, until we saw people around us sick and dying, that we’d have done anything. They knew in California on Super Bowl weekend that there was going to be a problem, but they still flocked to a makeshift memorial for Kobe Bryant at the Staples Center.
But here’s what I want to end on. Since everyone began to take this seriously — because we’ve had little choice — the response has been pretty good.
And to gauge this, you need to look more at what people do than what they say. Governors advocated for their states, took various measures and got into high gear. The federal government, despite the concerns over PPE and ventilators and hospital beds, appears to have thus far met the demands, if only barely. But barely is good enough. Field hospitals that were built have been little-used. When New York called for additional medical personnel, Trump dispatched them from the military ranks, to the praise of New York politicians.
The system for buying PPE has been messy and unwieldy and doesn’t make sense. Guess what: that’s how government efforts often run. But as I look at the numbers — as best I can find them — at least since this thing broke out, the government has often delivered what equipment the states needed and in some cases more. There have been failures. There has been confusion. There always will be in a crisis. Always.
People make mistakes. Politicians make mistakes. They succeed and fail. The good ones own up to all of that and learn from it.
Here in Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear has generally earned high marks, but the virus has not hit its peak here. There’s been a lot said about comparisons between Kentucky and Tennessee. As of right now, Tennessee has only five more deaths than Kentucky (with a third more population) and has tested three times more people, while taking much less restrictive lockdown measures.
It’s not a competition. But these two states ought to show that there’s more than one way to do a job. Anyway, I’m not interested in a competition with Tennessee. I’ve seen this unfold many times, in too many football stadiums. Right now, Tennessee is putting out more statistical information on the virus and testing far more people. In short (more sportswriting), you can’t say who is doing the better job until you look at the final score.
But this is no game. I’m glad to see politicians of both parties working together despite their differences and often despite a media that wants to accentuate their conflicts rather than examine what has gone right. There’s going to have to be more of it.
“The worst thing we can do in all of this is start with political division and partisanship,” Cuomo said. “The best thing we have done this past 44 days is we’ve worked together and not raised political flags … Even in this hyper-partisan environment, even though it’s an election year, even though the politics is so intense, we said not here, not in this. This is too important for anyone to play politics. It was a no-politics zone. It was just about doing the right thing … We need to get this right.”
Let’s hope. A lot of people have sacrificed a great deal in terms of lost jobs and businesses and even health over our lack of preparation and, in general, our hyper-focus on day-to-day political battles that distracted us from more important things.
Less than two months from that lesson coming back to bite us, to fall into that same behavior again would confirm that we as a people are more interested in arguing than deciding.
The reporting and outlets and politicians I have appreciated the most during all this are those who have come with facts, and with truth, as best as I could determine it, and with the ability to admit mistakes.
I have appreciated states that had the ability to share a large amount of data. Don’t just tell me you need PPE. Show how much you have and how much you think you need. One medical professional giving his or her experience is important, but so is an overall view of where things stand. Too often one is confused for the other.
Our country, right now, needs great logistical minds. It needs leaders who can see farmers dumping large amounts of food, millions of gallons of milk, and find a way to make use of that to the benefit of both the farmers and the nation.
Fifty years ago, this nation sent a rocket to the moon and part of it exploded in space, leaving three stranded astronauts. Somehow, some of the best minds this nation had to offer were able to figure out a way, given the equipment left, to get that crew home safely.
Right now, I am looking around, and I’m not sure who is going to get us home. Because of the faith I have in people, and in us as a people, I don’t doubt that we will get through this, somehow. I’m not sure, as the rhetoric heats up again, we’ll all get through it together.