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From place to place

SoVaNow.com / May 06, 2020
How all over the place has America’s coronavirus response been? Recently, a sharp-eyed reader passed on an item from Feb. 7 — an official statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailing the work of the State Department in “facilitat[ing] the transportation of nearly 17.8 tons of donated medical supplies to the Chinese people, including masks, gowns, gauze, respirators, and other vital materials. These donations are a testament to the generosity of the American people.” That shipment came as China was battling the first wave of the epidemic, now pandemic, that has crippled life around the world. Compare and contrast Pompeo’s congratulatory words back then with the headline posted just yesterday afternoon by the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “We need it now’ – state supplies of protective gear not reaching private ambulance companies.” Oops.

February’s not-so-fast and where’s-my-mulligan response by the State Department to the disease that now has America in its deadly clutches is only one example of how flummoxed the U.S. has been by this menace from the get-go. Remember when we were all being advised by the CDC and the Surgeon General not to wear face shields, because coverings would do no good? Bygones, I guess — wear those masks, folks! Even the CDC (now) says it’s the right thing to do. If not for your own protection and safety, then do it for the sake of others.

I suspect the official guidance not to wear masks was motivated more by a fear of running out of protective supplies than by a faulty early — and ever-evolving — understanding of how the novel coronavirus spreads through the population. There’s still so much we don’t know about this virus, and it would ridiculous to think scientific researchers could unravel its many mysteries on a dime. These things take time, patience and support. It’s frustrating but let’s be fair in our expectations here.

On the other hand, it’s not too much to expect our leaders to pay attention to medical science, or, if that’s too difficult, simple arithmetic. The U.S. is losing nearly 2,000 people to COVID-19 per day. Despite an air of budding optimism about the ability to reopen the economy, cheered on by Wall Street bookies and Fox News propagandists, the situation with the disease isn’t really improving. The U.S. was up to 1.2 million people infected and 71,000 dead as of Tuesday. We’ve already blown past the less-than-useful benchmarks that pandemic naysayers laid down for minimizing the impact of COVID-19 — numbers such as annual highway deaths (around 38,000), seasonal flu deaths (anywhere from 11,000 to 60,000 per year over the past decade) and Vietnam War casualties (around 58,000). America’s deadliest conflict, by far, was the Civil War, which claimed half a million lives. What does everyone say, that we don’t go there?

The newest move in the virus two-step is to insist that America go back to work like nothing has happened or is happening or will happen, simple as that. I’m reminded of the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of the Lord of the Rings movies, when the various peoples of the world were summoned to the Council of Elrond to plot the destruction of the evil ring and it fell upon Boromir, Captain of Gondor, to state the obvious: “One does not simply walk into Mordor.” (Google informs me this has since become a meme, and that I am old.) One does not simply reopen the economy because Donald Trump or some knockoff lunkhead governor of Georgia or Florida deems that it must be so. At the very best, people generally might shift from a posture of deep and abiding fear (justified, in my opinion) to a sense of extreme caution about mixing in crowds or stepping into a crowded restaurant. This ain’t graduate-level behavioral economics we’re talking about here, folks.

CNN’s Stephen Collinson, who writes consistently excellent works of analysis on the org’s website (spare me the 24-7 programming on CNN or any channel, for that matter), put the matter succinctly in his latest piece, titled “The price of reopening the economy: tens of thousands of American lives.” I highly recommend reading the entire thing, not only for how well it summarizes the latest modeling on virus deaths should restrictions be lifted on day-to-day activity, but for how fairly Collinson assesses the high cost of keeping the U.S. on lockdown. “There is no doubt that Trump and state and local leaders are facing terrible choices after weeks of social isolation and economic damage,” he writes. “But Trump has declined to initiate a national conversation about the hideous compromises ahead.” If you believe this criticism is somehow unjustified, please keep in mind our president once assured everyone the coronavirus was no big deal, it was China’s problem (he even praised the Chinese leadership for its handling of the situation), and predicted that only a few people, maybe none, would ever die in the U.S. That’s quite a track record of disastrous complacency and ignorance.

Look, you can find true expert opinion elsewhere, but the path ahead for overcoming the pandemic seems fairly straightforward, and an excellent illustration of Ronald Reagan’s wisest remark ever: “There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.” The simple but not easy way out of this disaster — the only way to reopen the country with the confidence of the masses making it truly possible — is to muster the moral will and national treasure to do something we haven’t even begun to accomplish, which is to make on-the-spot testing and contact tracing for the virus available everywhere. We desperately need ubiquitous testing at local grocery stores and neighborhood pharmacies, which is something that the White House has promised in the past, only to retreat and put the onus onto the states. The chaotic, half-rhymes-with-vast response by the federal government to the pandemic has been a disaster unto itself. We don’t have the luxury of dealing with two cataclysms at once.

So, a prediction: Even if the doors do fly open to commercial operations, it’s going to be next to impossible convincing people to go along with the program, and the high probability of a rising (and accelerating) death toll won’t help matters. The economic impact of our current stay-at-home, social distancing approach to combating COVID-19 has been likened to putting a patient into a medically-induced coma, with life support systems in place to keep her alive. In real life, these support systems translate as unemployment benefits, emergency small business loans, stimulus checks, Federal Reserve interventions, and so on. It’s ugly but it mostly works (a more expansive approach would work better). There’s no point bringing the patient out of the coma if there’s no plan in place for treating the underlying disease. We have no such plan in place. Is it really so difficult to understand, what in all likelihood will happen next?

“How many deaths and how much suffering are you willing to accept to get back to what you want to be, some form of normality, sooner rather than later?” asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the administration’s point person on the covid pandemic, in an interview this week on CNN. “I feel I have a moral obligation to give the kind of information that I’m giving. People are going to make their own choices.” At the risk of being presumptuous, I have an idea for what some people will choose to say: That it’s all fine, as long as the death and suffering lands at someone else’s feet. But how does anyone outside of the ultra-rich and uber-privileged skirt such risks? Until we get an answer to that question, the path forward will resemble a jaunt into Mordor indeed.

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