Monday, March 16, 2020

Frank and Bold

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.

- President Franklin Roosevelt
First Inaugural Address (3-4-1933)

This week's featured post is "Interesting (but not necessarily important) Questions and Answers about the Pandemic".

This week everybody was talking about the continued spread of COVID-19

Last Monday, I reported that the US had 564 confirmed coronavirus cases and had suffered 22 deaths. Today, the latest numbers I can find are 3602 cases and 66 deaths. If you just look at those raw numbers and imagine that everything stops here, it wouldn't be a crisis worth the response it's getting. But if you look at the trajectory -- deaths tripling in a week and cases up more than six times -- you begin to understand.

But since we have a continuing shortage of testing kits, the number of cases is suspect. Everyone believes the number is higher, and some experts believe it is MUCH higher.

Like Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton:

"Just the fact of community spread, says that at least 1 percent, at the very least, 1 percent of our population is carrying this virus in Ohio today," Acton said. "We have 11.7 million people. So the math is over 100,000."

And Johns Hopkins Professor Marty Makary:

“Don’t believe the numbers when you see, even on our Johns Hopkins website, that 1,600 Americans have the virus,” he said. “No, that means 1,600 got the test, tested positive. There are probably 25 to 50 people who have the virus for every one person who is confirmed.”

He added: “I think we have between 50,000 and half a million cases right now walking around in the United States.”

As he has been doing regularly for some time now, Vice President Pence promised yesterday that millions of test kits are going to be available very soon. Tests from WHO were available by the end of February, but the US decided not to use them. So the virus got a 2-3 week head start.

The public discussion of COVID-19 sounds very different if your immune system isn't in good shape.

When news of COVID-19 started to spread, there were two popular responses. The first was to rush to the store, buying N95 masks and hand sanitizer until shelves were bare. The second was to shrug and comfort the masses because mostly immunocompromised people—people like me—would die.

Trump officially declared a state of emergency on Friday, but he continues to lag behind the pace of the virus. Sunday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called on Trump to make a national policy for closing businesses.

When one state unilaterally closes businesses, people typically cross state lines to look for open businesses elsewhere. If the purpose is to keep our citizens home and out of crowded spaces, such inconsistency in state policies is counterproductive. There should be a uniform federal standard for when cities and states should shut down commerce and schools, or cancel events.

And he asked for the Army to help outfit temporary hospitals that will be necessary when our current hospitals are full.

States cannot build more hospitals, acquire ventilators or modify facilities quickly enough. At this point, our best hope is to utilize the Army Corps of Engineers to leverage its expertise, equipment and people power to retrofit and equip existing facilities — like military bases or college dormitories — to serve as temporary medical centers. Then we can designate existing hospital beds for the acutely ill.

Additional hospital beds aren't necessary yet. But if we wait until they are, it will be too late.

and canceling everything

A week ago social distancing was an idea that some of us were starting to take seriously and some of us weren't. This week the places you might have been planning to go began to close: first the NBA, and then March Madness and just about all the other sporting events. Then Broadway theaters, conferences, meetings of more than X people, schools, and so on.

Yesterday, the governor of my state, Massachusetts, closed the schools, stopped restaurants from serving anything but take-out, and banned gatherings of more than 25 people. Similar orders were given by governors of several states, like Ohio and Illinois.

My church "met" virtually over the internet yesterday. When my town held an election Saturday, the monitors sat behind two tables rather than one and pointed to a ballot rather than handing it to me. People waiting to vote were instructed to stay six feet apart.

Nothing symbolizes France more than the cafes. But Prime Minister Édouard Philippe just closed them all. BBC reports:

In Spain, people are banned from leaving home except for buying essential supplies and medicines, or for work. ... Italy, which has recorded more than 1,440 deaths, began a nationwide lockdown [last] Monday.

CNBC's Jim Cramer pointed out an important difference between how the pandemic is hitting factory workers and professionals: "You can't build an airliner at home."

An article from August that is even more relevant now: Andy Borowitz displayed a picture of Donald Trump under the headline "Unskilled Man Fears He Will Lose Job in Recession".

and the Democratic nomination

The big question after Biden's wins Tuesday in Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, and Idaho was: Is it over?

Yeah, it kind of is. 538's model now rates Biden's chances of being nominated above 99%. His delegate lead is not prohibitive in itself. (NPR's delegate tracker shows Biden with 890 to Sanders' 736, with 1991 needed.) But he also leads in the four large states voting tomorrow.

Biden has a 38 percentage-point advantage over Sanders in Florida — at 65 percent to 27 percent — according to a Gravis Marketing survey released last Friday. ... Biden also leads Sanders in Illinois by 21 percentage points, according to an Emerson poll; by 22 points in Ohio, according to an Emerson survey; and by 17 points in Arizona, according to a Univision/ASU poll.

With California already in the books, it's hard to see where Sanders turns this around. He needed a knock-out in the one-on-one debate last night, and he did not appear to get one.

For what it's worth, my take on the debate was that both candidates showed a command of the situation far beyond our current president. Biden's headline-making pledge to select a woman as VP left me with a well-duh response. Of course a male Democratic nominee will need a female VP.

The Sanders supporters who keep implying Biden suffers from dementia need to stop. He fumbled some words (as did Sanders), but looked plenty sharp Sunday night.

and the economic fallout

When I watched Trump's press conference Friday, the Fed had just announced it was cutting interest rates to zero. Trump thought this was fabulous news. ("I think people in the market should be very happy.") I thought it looked like panic. Somebody at the Fed must have just seen some truly scary projections about economic activity.

Apparently, I'm a more typical investor than Trump is. This morning the Dow is down around 2000 points, wiping out all the gains from Friday.

One of the things I find most puzzling in Trump's thought process is how short-term it is. He really cares about the hour-to-hour swings in the market, and tries to influence them. But if he says something misleading that gets a rise on Friday, by Monday everybody knows and the market goes the other way. So what was accomplished?

Ditto for the way he's been slow-walking the news about the virus. If all this were happening in late October, I could see the sense (but not the morality) of trying to happy-talk people past the election. But by November we'll all know how this came out. Some number of people will be dead, and we'll all know what that number is. What's the point of trying to massage our expectations?

This isn't a partisan thing; it's Trump. All other presidents of either party have asked themselves "How do I make things come out right?" Trump asks: "How do I keep my illusions going for a little longer?"

"I don't take responsibility at all" was said in response to a very specific issue (the delay in virus-testing), but it's going to be the epitaph of the entire Trump administration. When the definitive history of this period is written, that will be the title.

The House and Secretary Mnuchin agreed on an aid package to help people who are victims of either the coronavirus or of the economic contraction it is causing. The Senate will take up the bill this week, after taking a long weekend off. The Senate's lack of urgency is a bit disturbing.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said in a statement that he hopes the Senate “will approach this with a level head and pass a bill that does more good than harm — or, if it won't, pass nothing at all.”

Let it never be said that I will turn down a good idea just because it comes from Ted Cruz:

If you can buy a gift certificate from a local small business—a restaurant or a toy store or a hair salon—now is a good time to do so. Small acts of kindness, of love in our communities, repeated a million times over, that’s how we will make it through together.

and you also might be interested in ...

The world doesn't stop just because we're preoccupied with something else.

Putin in January unveiled a major shake-up of Russian politics and a constitutional overhaul, which the Kremlin billed as a redistribution of power from the presidency to parliament.

But Putin, 67, who has dominated Russia’s political landscape for two decades as either president or prime minister, made a dramatic appearance in parliament on Tuesday to back a new amendment that would allow him to ignore a current constitutional ban on him running again in 2024.

Speaking of Putin, Trump says he's "strongly considering" pardoning Michael Flynn. Pardons are the final stage in Trump's obstruction of justice regarding his Russia connection. The two big questions in my mind at the start of the Mueller investigation were (1) Why did so many Trump campaign people have so many interactions with Russians? and (2) Why did they all lie when they were asked about it?

We never got answers.

and let's close with something adorable

There appears to be an empty bucket right over there, but all six puppies want to be in the same bucket. Be sure to watch all the way to the big finish.

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