What’s Really Happening

What’s Really Happening: What You Won’t See On The Evening News


Leonard Zwelling

         There is only one news story right now and it’s not the inexorable progress of the coronavirus to bring the United States to its knees. It’s the fact that most of the media is ignoring what really happened, because what is happening is not the story. It’s how it happened or, more specifically, how we let it happen.

         Let’s try to summarize where we are and have been.

         Probably in November or December of 2019, a new coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China. It may have derived from bats, pangolins, or some other live animal. It jumped into humans at a live animal or seafood market. It may have been a purposeful scourge let loose by a lab in China (doubtful, but who knows?). It may have been an accidental spill of some stuff some Chinese scientists were trying to weaponize. Who knows for sure? No one.

         Nonetheless, this respiratory SARS virus was let loose in Wuhan and managed to run through the local population of 11 million, killing thousands, but then again, who knows? Putatively, it has run its course there and was contained in the province of origin. Putatively. Who can really believe what is coming out of China now? Not me. What certainly came out of China were thousands of people already infected and they spread the new virus around the world.

         Then, probably via Chinese and other travelers from Wuhan, the virus spread all across the globe as these viruses tend to do. This probable scenario was well-described by homeland security experts in the United States in both the Obama and Trump Administrations since at least 2017. These experts were ignored such that our country was hopelessly unready for the pandemic and, not surprisingly, it took hold first in the nation’s largest collection of human Petri dishes known as New York. It’s probably coming to your town soon, but the epicenter is New York City where the hospitals have become war zones and war zones with a shortage of weapons (PPE, ventilators). Why? Because we weren’t ready, especially with testing which would have altered everything had we had it and deployed it, especially among frontline health care workers.

         Then there’s the response of the federal government which has been too little, too late. A “shipping clerk” is exactly what the federal government needed to be to shift resources around the country to where they are needed most. It couldn’t do that. Mr. Trump minimized the threat for much of the first month or so and then, in late March, finally realized that he had a real problem on his hands, but still has not been able to mobilize a meaningful federal response with equipment to hospitals and money to the laid off. The federal role was simple. Coordinate the materiel’s distribution, especially test kits, PPE and ventilators, and stabilize the economy. It did neither.

         But all of that is not the story.

         The story is—who decided what our response would be?


         As Tucker Carlson has been suggesting on Fox News, the public health officials have been given carte blanche power to determine the direction of the country. That direction is called mitigation—social distancing, staying at home and washing hands. But the cost may be higher than the public health officials imagine especially if everyone gets infected anyway and there never was anything anyone could have done about it. All the mitigation strategy is trying to do is extend the period of the pandemic with the hope that the health care system will not be overwhelmed. It seems to be overwhelmed in New York now. Who’s next?

         In the mean time, millions are out of work, cannot pay their bills and may lose their businesses. And Congress and the administration still haven’t gotten those checks in the mail.

         The real story is how we got here. It was dysfunctional. It did not consider the consequences to lives of an economic shutdown and this was always going to be a hard call. Look who’s making it. Scientists without economists. This was always going to be a medical AND a financial crisis. The question was the balance. We opted in one direction. Only retrospectively will we know if that was the right choice–for next time.

         The real story is not the human interest stories on NBC Nightly News. It’s the overall consequences of the choice to shut down the economy putatively to save lives, but with no guarantee that is what will happen. What we need to do is learn for the next time as several pieces in the Saturday, April 4, Wall Street Journal relate.


         Once the coronavirus, a respiratory pathogen, infected people in China, this outcome was destined. People were going to die and governments and their responses would determine who would die and how. That’s the real story.

         I get that it’s a war zone in New York. I get that first responders and doctors and nurses are doing heroic things. China determined that had to happen when it tried to keep its own infection rates a secret.

         Let’s get back to first principles.

         China needs to be held accountable for what happened if what happened can ever be discerned.

         Each government must be held accountable by its own people (at least among the democracies) for how that government responded and that includes in the United States. It is not at all clear to me that the U.S. did well here, although at least we see what a leader looks like. Andrew Cuomo.

         Finally, there ought to be a world-wide post-mortem of how we all responded and how to do this better next time. If that means spending a year building stockpiles of PPE instead of Corvettes, so be it.

         You won’t get the real story on TV. You may in some newspapers. The real story here is not what or how come. It’s how.

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