What I’m Trying To Say

What I’m Trying To Say


Leonard Zwelling


         In the Wall Street Journal on April 8, Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. makes some important points about the current mess the U.S. is in. And let’s be clear, that mess is not the coronavirus, but America’s response to it.

         And as a digression, let’s not absolve the Chinese or the World Health Organization of guilt. Both were way too slow warning the world of what was emanating from China as thousands spread the disease from Wuhan to all points east, west, north and south.

         First, there can be no doubt that the United States and its federal (and state) governments were ill prepared for an outbreak on the scale of the coronavirus. What’s more, the country and its central authority in Washington, DC are having a heck of a time actually quantifying accurately, how bad this is. Why? Because of a lack of testing that derived from a perfect storm of inadequate lead time and a lack of imagination that such a thing could even happen despite many people in Washington and in Hollywood warning that it could. Mr. Trump cannot get away with saying that “no one could have imagined this.” People did. He just didn’t listen.

         Because of the lack of testing, we don’t know who got the virus or who among these got sick. We probably know who is in the hospital, although who really is dying from covid-19 and who was just so sick with something else they were ill-fated once contracting the virus, is not known. Sources are telling me that everyone who dies in the hospital and might be covid-19 positive is considered a corona death, even if they had disseminated cancer.

         Second, the media managed to make a bigger mess of this than the Trump Administration, something I didn’t think would be possible.

         The news I see on TV is focused on the disaster in New York City. This may or may not be representative of the rest of the country. It does scare the heck out of everyone, but not enough so that everyone is practicing social distancing. If I have to watch one more nightly news broadcast that starts with the corpses in Queens and ends with a feel good story with people singing from their balconies, I am going to scream.

         What I want to know, what we all should want to know are the answers to a few questions—some political, some scientific.

         First, the science.

         Using good population sampling techniques, how many people are infected with the virus? How many of those get sick? How contagious are they and when? What percent of the symptomatic need hospitalization? What percentage of the hospitalized need intensive care? What percent of those needing intensive care die and what is the average age of the deceased? Finally, why? And please, don’t answer any of these questions by giving me an example. As they say in Washington, an anecdote is not the singular of data.

         And, do those infected generate antibodies? Are those antibodies protective? If so, for how long? Are we about to divide up the population into those with antibodies who can go back to work and those without who must stay at home? Finally, when does herd immunity kick in and might that have been the way to deal with this if it turns out that everyone will be infected anyway?

         Why are some people getting better, even those above 70 and why do others, even in their 30s do so poorly? Why, if true, do African-Americans seem to fare worse with this disease? Is this a result of socioeconomic factors, co-morbidities (hypertension, diabetes), or does this have a genetic basis?

         Had we been prepared to handle the pandemic and the testing for it, we would have some of the answers to these questions now.

         So, in answer to my critics (of which I have had a few), what would I have done?

         Surely, I would have listened to my advisors on issues of public health as I would my advisors on national security. They are one and the same. More damage has been done to the country by this virus and our response to it, than would ever have been done by an act of terrorism.

         We should have been ready. Whether I would have been ready is speculative at best, and fortunately for the American people, I wasn’t in charge.

         However, given the hand that Dr. Fauci was dealt, the mitigation strategy he chose was the only one possible. I do not fault him. It is the president who had to weigh that strategy against the economic consequences of the shutdown. Only time will tell if following Fauci was the right course. It was the safest one.

         Now, the politics.

         Yes, Mr. Trump has handled this badly. It was too late to shut down the borders when he finally did. He thinks he did great. He didn’t. By then a full-scale mobilization was necessary in anticipation of a disaster like New York which was inevitable once the word leaked out that Wuhan had a problem. Besides, most of the New York cases had their origins in Europe supposedly. What the world will do with China is another matter, but giving them a pass on not informing everyone else of what was going on earlier is a bad idea. Formal censure in the United Nations would be a good start and maybe put all nations on notice for next time.

         Yes, the federal government should have been shipping supplies to where they were needed and should have had massive stockpiles ready to do that. States cannot vie for themselves despite what Jared Kushner thinks, not that anyone cares what Jared Kushner thinks. What is he an expert on besides losing money in real estate deals?

         Yes, given what little was known in February and March, mitigation was the best that could have been done although isolation/containment of Seattle and New York would not have been crazy. After all, it seems to have worked in Wuhan if we can believe that new videos of reunited people in China. Who knows?

         There is no phrase that I have written more in the last few weeks than that one—who knows?

         In fact, the coronavirus crisis, just like 9/11 was due to a lack of information and a lack of imagination.

         Combine those with a media frenzy that misses the entire story which is how this happened not whether a single nurse or doctor is living in a BnB, and it is no surprise that America performed sub-optimally.

         Now stories are starting to appear about people with non-corona medical needs that are not getting them met due to crowding out. Many hospitals sit at 60% occupancy in anticipation of the “surge.” What about the people who need care now—even from other diseases like heart disease or cancer?

         Everyone wants to be sure that when the dust settles, he or she can say they made the decisions that saved lives. Proving who actually did that will take a great deal of time and a lot of research. Once we start doing research again.

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