Not Deadly Enough

Here in Coronaland, we have been awash in so many depressing COVID-19 statistics that we have nearly become inured to their real-world meaning.  Nonetheless, like the virus itself, some numbers still have the power to take your breath away and stop you dead in your tracks.

That was certainly the case last week, when a study by Columbia University estimated that some 36,000 fewer people would’ve died had the United States—and New York in particular—enacted social distancing measures one week earlier than it did—and an additional 18,000 could’ve been saved had those lockdown procedures begun seven days sooner than that.

The implications of these staggering figures are clear enough:  First, in retrospect, the authorities were catastrophically slow in responding to the initial COVID outbreak.  And second, should the country re-open too fast and too sloppily—as it now threatens to do—there is every reason to assume the next wave of infections will be as bad as—or worse than—the first one.

On the first point, I would advise caution in judging our leaders for their slow-footedness more harshly than is strictly necessary, bearing in mind how little they (and we) knew at the time and how wholly unprecedented the notion of sheltering-in-place was once the trigger was finally pulled.

To be clear, I am not referring here to Donald Trump, whose willful, callous indifference to the entire problem—including the withholding of critical supplies to states that urgently needed them—has been a singular failure of leadership in every imaginable context.

However, when it comes to the state and local leaders making the real on-the-ground, hour-by-hour assessments—particularly New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio—it is worth reminding ourselves that on March 8—one week before its lockdown began—the city of New York had a total of 142 known infections of COVID-19 and zero known deaths.

Ask yourself:  Without the benefit of hindsight and with human nature being what it is, would it really have been feasible for either Cuomo or de Blasio to have stepped in front of a microphone on March 8—or any date prior—and ordered the residents of the nation’s largest metropolitan area to lock themselves inside their homes, suspending all but their most essential life activities, in order to prevent the spread of a virus that, at that moment in time, had not killed a single person within the five boroughs and showed no obvious signs of becoming a once-in-a-century epidemic?

Yes, even at that relatively early date, infectious disease experts had warned of COVID’s high level of contagion—as had been seen in places like China, Italy, Iran and elsewhere.  Nonetheless, for an American political leader to unilaterally shut down his own state or city—immediately and profoundly upending the life of every man, woman and child living there—on the mere presumption that things could get real bad, real quick, would have been an enormously large pill for any sizeable population center to swallow.  Frankly, there just wasn’t enough carnage to convince us it would’ve been worth it.

Thus was the Catch-22 by which many public officials were constrained:  The only way to avoid extreme casualties from the virus was to take extraordinary measures, yet the only politically palatable means of enacting those measures in the first place was to passively allow some of those casualties to occur, thereby proving how dire the situation actually was.  While obviously not the official plan, that was effectively how the tragedy unfolded.

And now—100,000 U.S. deaths later—we are seeing this very same dynamic playing out in the minds and Twitter feeds of millions of Americans who are fed up with being confined mostly to their apartments with nothing to do, itching to resume life as it used to be.

The argument today—if only implicitly—is whether the nationwide economic disruption of the past two-plus months was, at long last, a good idea.  Whether putting the country in a state of suspended animation was an overreaction and a folly, rather than smart public health policy that saved countless lives.  Whether (to put it bluntly) the loss of 100,000 of our fellow citizens to an insidious virus was essentially unavoidable and thus not worth the trouble of kneecapping our GDP and driving unemployment rates through the roof.

As with the initial lockdown advisories, the debate invites a vicious paradox:  A six-figure death rate might lead the lay person to believe—falsely—that the mitigation efforts were futile or counterproductive, rather than an indication that the mitigation efforts worked.

As horrific as the COVID fatalities have been with social distancing practices in place, the fairly obvious truth is that a less draconian version of them—let alone none at all—would almost certainly have produced an exponentially higher death toll—possibly above 2 million souls, according to an early projection by Imperial College London—and, conversely, that better overall adherence to such practices would have yielded marginally more tolerable results.

In short, as with so many things, we cannot assess the effectiveness of a given action without considering the alternative—the proverbial road not taken—which in this case would’ve been for all of us to carry on our lives semi-normally, allowing the virus to “wash over the country” (in the president’s words) and hope all the scientific models were wrong.

That, in effect, is the decision many of us have collectively made by opting to resume certain social activities—and the industries that provide them—for the sake of enjoying the summer warmth that is just beginning to settle in.  Despite all we have learned over the last several months—how COVID spreads, who is most vulnerable and what it does to the human respiratory system—we are betting that, with enough social distancing and mask-wearing (or not), we can simply ride out whatever’s coming next and hope the consequences aren’t as dire as they were (and still are) the first time around.

It’s a hell of a gamble for a first-world country to take, and we shouldn’t expect it to end well.  To paraphrase Boss Jim Gettys in Citizen Kane:  We’re going to need more than one lesson.  And we’re going to get more than one lesson.

American Idols

“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo woo woo.”

In a strong field, that may well be the finest lyric Paul Simon has ever written—and for reasons that have nothing at all to do with the late former Mr. Marilyn Monroe.

Americans need their heroes—be they in sports, entertainment or maybe even politics—and they feel acutely vulnerable and adrift when those idols seem to vanish from the scene. This is particularly true in times of extraordinary distress and upheaval, such as (to pick a random example) a global public health emergency, when inspiring moral leadership is so urgently required.

For liberals who’ve been trapped in an existential funk since November 2016, one such hero is of course Barack Obama, the last U.S. president to exhibit any sort of compassion for his fellow human beings, who, unlike his wife, has made himself relatively scarce since exiting the White House more than three years ago.

That was until last weekend, when Obama made highly-anticipated dual virtual appearances before college and high school graduating classes of 2020—the latter televised in prime time—during which he intoned, “More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.” The speeches did not include the word “Trump,” but we’re not stupid.

Whether by accident or design, these commencement addresses came on the heels of “leaked” remarks by the former president in a “private” conference call that saw him loudly and explicitly castigating the current administration both for its abysmal response to the coronavirus outbreak and its corrupt handling of the Michael Flynn case—words so forceful that Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, responded, “I think President Obama should have kept his mouth shut.”

As a matter of political timing, Obama’s sort-of reentry into the cultural bloodstream is quite obviously related to the sort-of beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign, and the presumed crowning of Obama’s former wingman, Joe Biden, as the Democratic Party nominee. And certainly the party’s de facto standard-bearer has every right to publicly advocate for his hoped-for inheritor and the values he represents.

Beyond that, however, we, the people, have every reason to question whether McConnell had a point. That is, whether Obama’s broader commentary on the Trump administration is either wise or becoming of a member of the nation’s most exclusive club—namely, those who once had access to the nuclear codes and enjoy Secret Service protection to this day.

Indeed, the question of how ex-presidents should behave in retirement has been a matter of debate since March 1801, when John Adams opted to flee Washington, D.C., on horseback in the dead of night rather than attend the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson the following morning. In our own time—as with virtually everything else—the issue has broken along partisan lines, with Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton maintaining high profiles and busy schedules deep into their post-presidential years while Republicans like the Georges Bush have made a point of receding serenely into the background, content to have their records speak for themselves and their successors left to run the country in peace.

Old fogey-at-heart that I am, I’ve long had a soft spot for the latter approach to elder statesmanship, admiring of the discipline it must take not to gloat at everything the new guy is doing wrong.

In fact, Obama himself vowed to mostly adhere to the hands-off approach to ex-presidenting, telling reporters in January 2017 that, once Trump took office, he would refrain from open criticism except for “certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake.” In retrospect, considering the object of his prospective ire, perhaps that was Obama’s dry way of saying he had no intention of keeping his mouth shut and should not be expected to do so.

The real problem, in any case, is that Donald Trump is such a singularly appalling individual that remaining silent on his odious reign could reasonably be seen as a dereliction of duty for any self-respecting public figure—particularly one so devoted to appealing to the so-called “better angels of our nature.” In other words, the sheer awfulness of Trumpism—even compared to that of, say, George W. Bush—is sufficient to override the usual protocols of discretion among past presidents. These are not ordinary times, and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

But here’s the thing: Part of the job of statesmanship is to be disingenuous every now and again for the sake of preserving the national fabric. Whatever one might think about Donald Trump, he is the duly-elected leader of our country for at least another eight months and maintains unshakable popularity among a not-insignificant chunk of our fellow citizens. As a head of state, he is entitled to a baseline deference that reflects the majesty of the office he holds, which transcends the character of whoever happens to hold it at a given moment in time.

When a retiring president passes the baton to his immediate successor, he is conferring legitimacy upon the most important public job in the United States—a hand-off in a constitutional relay race that has continued uninterrupted since George Washington peacefully ceded power to John Adams on March 4, 1797.

By then turning around and glibly musing to the nation’s schoolchildren that the sitting commander-in-chief has no Earthly idea what he’s doing, he risks ever-so-slightly chipping away at that legitimacy, rhetorically lowering the presidency to just one more partisan player in a vulgar federal political food fight, rather than the figurehead of the greatest republic the world has ever seen.

I say this in the full knowledge that Obama’s characterization of the Trump White House as a raging dumpster fire of incompetence is objectively, obviously correct. Nor am I under any illusion that the courtesy I am asking of Obama for Trump was ever extended to Obama himself at any point during his eight-year stint in the Oval Office. In effect, I am demanding a double standard whereby when the Republicans go low, the Democrats go high—a strategy that never seems to bear much fruit in the long run, however noble it may sound.

The plain truth is that there will be no good answer to this question until we have a new commander-in-chief. That the catchphrase of erstwhile conservative Rick Wilson, “Everything Trump touches dies,” extends to the presidency itself. That Trump is the exception to every rule, but once he’s gone, maybe we can return to life as it used to be, almost as if he never existed in the first place. Maybe.

In the meantime, with a pandemic raging and an economy cratering, the nation must turn its lonely eyes to someone, and while Joe DiMaggio is no longer available, I can think of at least one other Joe who is.

Checkpoint Charlie

Charlie Baker, the governor of Massachusetts, has consistently ranked among the two or three most admired statewide leaders since he was first elected in 2014, with job approval ratings in the high-60s to low-70s. Not bad for a Republican in an extremely Democratic state. (Indeed, he has historically polled higher among Democrats than Republicans. But that’s another story.)

Since the novel coronavirus upended life as we thought we knew it, forcing all 50 states to place their economies in a state of suspended animation, Baker’s popularity has only grown. According to a Suffolk University poll released last week, some 84 percent of Massachusetts residents approve of Baker’s stewardship of the COVID-19 plague—a stratospheric figure even in the context of a national emergency that has seen virtually all governors’ popularities spike. (Overall, 71 percent of Americans approve of their own governor’s handling of the pandemic.)

While there are many possible explanations for the extraordinary goodwill toward Baker by his constituents, I’d offer two as the most self-evident: He is smart, and he is boring.

By smart, I don’t just mean that he has a bunch of fancy degrees from a bunch of swanky universities. Rather, I mean that when he is presented with a problem—be it a faulty public transit system or a contagious, deadly virus—he takes it upon himself to base all major decisions on data, experts and the proverbial facts on the ground. As a former healthcare CEO and state budget chief, he knows his way around a spreadsheet as well as anybody and will happily rattle off statistics until your eyes roll all the way into the back of your head.

In his daily COVID press conferences, Baker has only ever measured the state’s success in beating back the virus—and in planning for the future—in terms of raw numbers: tests, cases, hospitalizations, deaths. In the face of recent criticism that the state is moving too slowly in announcing which industries will be allowed to re-open—and how and when—Baker merely reiterates his longstanding view that the mechanics of returning to normal will be determined by the fickle course of the pandemic itself, and thus cannot be gamed out too far in advance. As he has put it on multiple occasions, “We have to respect the virus.”

So far as I can tell, Baker has not wavered from this basic operational and philosophical framework since this nightmare began in mid-March, which is perhaps why his televised daily updates have tended to blend into each other, consisting largely of Baker repeating his previous advisories concerning mask-wearing, social distancing and other best practices for the general public. While he will occasionally introduce critical new information into the mix—such as when he delayed the state’s tentative “re-opening” date from May 4 to May 18, or when he first enumerated the state’s plan for “contact tracing”—he otherwise seems perfectly content to produce as little drama as possible, almost as if he’s allergic to being the center of attention and making more news than is strictly necessary.

That brings us to his other main virtue: boringness. It has been theorized for years—specifically, since November 2016—that Massachusetts voters’ appreciation for Baker—a moderate, mild-mannered technocrat—is primarily a function of their smoldering antipathy toward Donald Trump, and their relief that not all Republicans are as craven, corrupt and creepy as the current commander-in-chief. That Baker’s apparent disinterest in toeing the national party line—not to mention his stated personal distain for Trump himself—is reason enough to have him in the corner office on Beacon Hill.

To a large extent, this theory is correct. However maddening Baker’s incrementalism and deliberativeness might be—particularly with a fast-moving pathogen that is killing our friends and neighbors by the thousands—Bay State residents can at least rest assured he will never be drawn into a Twitter battle with a fellow governor, say, or that he will shape policy based on what he saw last night on Fox News. Or pick fights with journalists he believes are treating him unfairly. Or take all the credit when things go well and none of the blame when things go haywire.

In short, unlike other politicians we could mention, Charlie Baker has never caused the average citizen to wake up in a cold sweat asking themselves, “What in God’s name is he going to do today?”

His is a steady hand in a shaky world, blessedly bereft of the deadly ineptitude of Donald Trump, the self-regarding bluster of Andrew Cuomo, the heavy-handedness of Gretchen Whitmer, or the suicidal recklessness of Ron DeSantis or Brian Kemp.

By no means does this make him perfect—or even the right man in the right moment. If nothing else, the COVID-19 crisis has shown Charlie Baker to be exactly who we thought he was all along: An uber-rational, cool-headed nerd more concerned with the well-being of his constituents than his own prized place in the history books, knowing, as he must, that one naturally leads to the other—that prioritizing public health over short-term economic growth is both a noble and savvy means of teeing up a run for an unprecedented third consecutive term in office, which he has not yet ruled out.

For now, he is a dependable voice of sanity and reassurance in a society in dangerously short supply of both, and that’s good enough for me.

This Thing On My Face

I don’t generally quote from my own Twitter feed—I keep my account private for a reason—but I can’t help digging up a gem from March 3 of this year, when I asserted, “Given the choice, I’d much prefer having coronavirus for a month than wearing a face mask for a year.”

While the exact context of that tweet is lost to history, I was obviously reacting to the growing epidemiological menace of COVID-19, which—as the date of the tweet indicates—was roughly one week away from effectively shutting down the United States until further notice.

Now that we are some six-to-eight weeks into this national self-quarantine (depending how you count) and can take a somewhat panoramic view of the early trajectory of this extraordinary societal experiment, it is worth pausing to notice how fast things have changed, and—more interestingly—how fast we, the people, have changed with them.

Specifically, let’s talk about masks.

While my aforementioned tweet-tantrum about preferring the virus itself to strapping a prophylactic around my face for an extended period can now be dismissed—with some justification—as the whiny, simplistic rantings of a selfish, short-sighted nincompoop, I fully stand by the sentiment as an accurate and rational reflection of my mindset—and the mindset of nearly all of my countrymen—at that particular moment in time.

As it happens, it was on the very morning of March 3 that I casually sauntered into the public library downtown—which was open and fully-functioning—to cast my vote in the Massachusetts presidential primary. It was that evening—“Super Tuesday,” as we called it—that Joe Biden took the stage in a very densely-packed auditorium in California to declare victory—a speech briefly interrupted by a small gang of protesters whom Symone Sanders, a senior Biden aide, charged at like a heat-seeking missile and yanked forcibly offstage.

That was the universe in which we all operated in the first week of March: One with lots and lots of people freely moving about to their heart’s desire with nary a care in the world for their health or personal space. While we were all quite aware of the deadly pathogen that had ravaged the likes of China and Italy and had officially migrated into the United States, on the morning of Super Tuesday there was a grand total of 63 confirmed cases in a nation of 328 million, and terms like “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” had not remotely entered the national lexicon.

As such, the notion of large numbers of seemingly healthy Americans walking around in public with face coverings—voluntarily or by government decree—struck most of us as just a hair short of crazy for a good long while—a feeling aided, in no small part, by our country’s own leading health experts, who advised that such accoutrements are unnecessary and possibly counterproductive. Lest we forget the now-infamous February 29 tweet by Surgeon General Jerome Adams, which began, “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.”  (As I said, best to keep your Twitter feed to yourself.)

Smash cut to tomorrow, May 6, when in my home state of Massachusetts—per an order by Governor Charlie Baker—all residents will be required to wear some kind of face covering whenever they are in a public place and unable to keep a safe distance from others. With temperatures in New England already inching into the 70s, that’ll be just about everywhere soon enough.

Life comes at you fast, doesn’t it? What was unthinkable yesterday may well become inevitable tomorrow, and it turns out that near-universal use of makeshift face masks is a signal example of this reality here in Coronaland in May 2020.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been measuring the nature of this pandemic largely from my visits to the supermarket—i.e., the only commercial establishment I’ve patronized regularly in the last month-and-a-half—and I still can’t shake the fact that during a Stop & Shop run in early April, I observed maybe 20 percent of my fellow customers masked up as they carted from one aisle to the next, while on a subsequent trip less than a week later, the figure was probably closer to 80 percent. In a mere matter of days, the act of wearing a mask in shared spaces had swung from being an odd, conspicuous affectation to simple common sense and a public health necessity.

One day, the weirdos were the ones who concealed the lower half of their faces. The next day, the weirdos were the ones who didn’t.

Before you ask: No, I myself did not strap on a mask on that earlier jaunt through Stop & Shop—even though I had a perfectly good one in my pocket, ready for action—and yes, by the latter trip, I changed my tune entirely and all-too-willingly complied.

And why was that? Easy: Because, in both cases, I didn’t want to be the weirdo. Because I didn’t want to be judged and glared at by my neighbors for diverging from the social mores of the moment. Because I just wanted to get through the checkout line and back to my car without causing some kind of confrontation. Because for all my so-called independence and First Amendment absolutism, the truth is that my only real ambition in life is to not get into an argument with a stranger more than one or two times per decade.

It was in that spirit that I decided this past Sunday—the most deliciously summerlike day of the year so far—to pre-empt Governor Baker’s order by a few days and put on my mask every time I go for a bike ride. While I live in a suburban area where keeping a six-foot distance from anything is relatively easy to do, I realized there is no particular downside to modeling responsible behavior for others, and it turns out you get a lot more smiles from pedestrians and fellow bikers with a piece of fabric on your face, precisely because of the message it sends.

That message, roughly speaking, can be boiled down to, “Your life is more valuable than my comfort, and it’s worth the occasional itchiness to ensure I don’t accidentally murder my fellow human beings with an invisible bug that might spew forth from my big mouth.”

Even in a country as thoughtless and selfish as ours, that seems like a solid credo with which to ride out this wave of disruption and uncertainty until we arrive wherever it is that we’re headed.