4 May 2020 – Monday – #50

My weekly phone call with my Mom popped my euphoria bubble. I still was elated from Saturday’s hour of outdoor exercise and looking forward to last night’s walk. I was excited to chat with Ruben about when Covid-19 restrictions would be relaxed so that I finally could visit his place for dinner, the dinner we planned two months ago but have postponed until travel is allowed. It seemed like things Covid-19 were going the right way.

Then, near the end of yesterday’s catch up with Mom, she wondered if she might spend the rest of her life in Covid-19 lockdown.

That was both startling and reassuring. Startling because, of course, she’s right. Covid-19 might go on for a few years and Mom, who’s in her mid-eighties, doesn’t have actuaries on her side if it takes 3-5 years to find a Covid-19 cure or vaccine. On the other hand, it was reassuring to know Mom still has her marbles and she’s rational about what’s going on in the world. I know she reads the news from the 100 news flashes she emails every day. Now I know she’s digested what all the news means, too.

That call triggered some Big Thoughts.

Well, that and a couple op-eds I read last night. In one op-ed, Laurie Garrett, whom the New York Times dubs the Cassandra of Covid, says that Covid-19 is at least a 36 month event. The interview is worth a read. Here’s what stood out to me.

“I’ve heard from every C.D.C. in the world — the European C.D.C., the African C.D.C., China C.D.C. — and they say, ‘Normally our first call is to Atlanta, but we ain’t hearing back.’ There’s nothing going on down there. They’ve gutted that place. They’ve gagged that place. I can’t get calls returned anymore. Nobody down there is feeling like it’s safe to talk. Have you even seen anything important and vital coming out of the C.D.C.?”

Laurie Garrett from New York Times, “She Predicted the Coronavirus. What Does She Foresee Next?,” 2 May 2020

This description of the US CDC Covid-19 lack of response crystallized my thinking about America’s current leadership. First Big Thought: there is no US leadership and there won’t be for at least a year. The US leadership vacuum ends either after a new administration moves into the White House and gets up to speed or, if Trump unfortunately is re-elected, after the world already has figured out Covid-19 without US assistance.

The world is moving ahead without America. It can’t wait. Trump’s current Chinese fireworks are just that. He is diverting attention to China because he has no idea what he’s doing in the US. It worked! People are arguing about China furiously on social media.

I don’t want to engage in the argument because it feeds the distraction. I will point out, however, that if you are a fervent believer that Covid-19 came from a lab in Wuhan, if you believe Chinese science is far enough ahead of the the rest of the world to create or somehow filter out Covid-19 for its virulence, there are far more important discussions to have with China than how they managed the Covid-19 outbreak. Discussion like, what else is in that Wuhan lab.

I’m mad about Trump’s China stupidity because it means Mom probably will spend the rest of her life in lockdown. My contact with her may be limited to visits with gloves and masks for the rest of our time together on the planet.

How is Trump helping in the US? Aside from blaming China, what is his actual Covid-19 policy? He is encouraging governors to relax lockdowns prematurely.

Andy Slavitt backs out New York Covid-19 statistics from the rest of the US. This is an important cut because New York statistics have dominated overall US statistics.

What is clear is that, while New York has reduced R to less than one (R < 1) with its lockdown, that’s not true elsewhere. R > 1 in the rest of the US. Covid-19 cases are not declining in many major metropolitan areas. It is the wrong time to relax Covid-19 restrictions, yet states like Texas, Georgia, and Florida are opening up for business. Based on Slavitt’s analysis, we should expect US Covid-19 hospitalization and deaths to increase even more rather than flatten by the end of May. The signal should emerge by the week of 18 May. We’ll know for sure by June.

I hope I’m wrong, but I can trust that Trump is erring on the side of making money, not saving lives. He has a history of making risky bets with other people’s money and losing. With Covid-19, he’s making risky bets with other people’s lives.

The other editorial I read last night that fed my Big Thoughts was about herd immunity. In it, Carl T. Bergstrom and Natalie Dean discuss the merits of natural herd immunity. Before UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson caught a touch of Covid-19, he advocated for natural infections to create herd immunity. Some very smart friends of mine agree. Of course, the anti-vaxxers agree, too.

But this is just like the argument about China and the origins of Covid-19. Why are we even discussing natural herd immunity? Like Trump’s China argument, the herd immunity argument that we need to stop social distancing to save the economy doesn’t make sense on its face. Justifying a non-response to Covid-19 requires throwing away both science and every shred of humanity you have. It puts millions of people to death in order to “get back to normal” and “save the economy.”

Except we don’t get back to normal and we don’t save the economy. Well, I mean, we might on some planet a billion light years from here, but there is no rational prediction that says sacrificing millions of souls leads to a happy ending for the rest of us. The meatpacking and prison industries are continuing to operate as though Covid-19 never existed, but the meat supply chain is breaking and prison hot spots are infecting the communities around the prisons. They are not getting back to normal.

New York Times, “What the Proponents of ‘Natural’ Herd Immunity Don’t Say,” 1 May 2020.

Even if we sacrificed millions of fellow humans and achieved the vaunted herd immunity, then what? Covid-19 infections don’t stop. We’re not even sure that immunity is long lasting for people who have build weak immunity and we don’t understand for sure how Covid will mutate (although, to be fair, that problem doesn’t look bad right now). The risks of throwing away social distancing are enormous and the rewards unclear.

What we do know for sure is that social distancing and hand washing reduces R.

And yet Trump is encouraging Second Amendment wingnuts and anti-vax crusaders to swarm state capitols and demand their governors lift Covid-19 restrictions.

This herd immunity editorial led me to my second Big Thought: there is no US leadership and there won’t be for at least a year. Yeah, I know, I know, that’s the same as the first Big Thought.

My second Big Thought is actually this: I’m learning what it’s like to be a war correspondent.

I don’t know what made me think of Ernest Hemingway after my phone call with Mom. Maybe it was my call later with David, a Venezuelan-American whom I met here in Barcelona before the lockdown, when he was spending a day in transit from Rome to Los Angeles. David is in fashion industry PR. In other words, he doesn’t have a job and is trying to navigate towards what comes next. As David and I thought up business ideas and spoke of the uncertainty he’s faced throughout his immigrant life, we spoke of how Covid-19 is like war, the enormity of the displacement.

Anyway, back to Hemingway. He was a crazy American writer who fought in WWI and later worked as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and WWII. He had four wives, a trait I can identify with. I think Hemingway came to my mind because I read something in the past couple months about Hemingway leaving Barcelona to witness the Battle of the Ebro. That, and I was wide awake at 03:00, ruminating about what I was doing with this blog.

I haven’t read Hemingway since college, but last night I wondered how Hemingway wrote about war. What stories did he chose to tell? How did he sort through the rumors and gossip to find some shred of truth? Who was good? Who was bad?

Writing this blog in the midst of Covid-19 seems like the work of a war correspondent. There are casualties. Uncertainty. Oodles of uncertainty. The displacements are enormous. Friends become enemies, and vice versa. No one knows when it will end.

But it’s also different from the work of a war correspondent because Covid-19 doesn’t distinguish between soldier and civilian and because everyone has front row seats to the disaster. (And because I don’t have an editor.) We may not be watching patients on ventilators die, but we’re wary of trips outside like Covid-19 booby traps lurk everywhere and cautious who we meet as though they could be unwitting Covid-19 spies.

Hemingway filed this New York Times report on 11 April 1938 as Franco’s forces moved toward the sea. How does Hemingway choose this culinary detail? “After watching the progress of the Ebro defense from an observation post, this correspondent came down the steel trail through vineyards and ate a plate of mutton chops, smothered with tomato sauce and onions, with the divisional staff.”

During WWII, Hemingway graduated from war correspondent to accidental soldier.

Hemingway got into considerable trouble playing infantry captain to a group of Resistance people that he gathered because a correspondent is not supposed to lead troops, even if he does it well.

Paul Fussel, “Hemingway on War and Its Aftermath”

I don’t foresee myself leading violent Resistance forces, but I understand why Hemingway felt the urge not only to write, but also to engage in the battle.

While I’m trying to get my hands on Hemingway’s report on the battle of Ebro called The Bombing of Tortosa, I’m going to leave you with this very Spanish Covid-19 video that Ruben passed along. The only set up I want to give is that there is a “secret” Barcelona life in the air shafts of apartment buildings. People put their laundry out to dry and windows are open for ventilation when, as now, the weather is nice. You hear your neighbors’ private discussions and see their underwear drying. It’s very personal.

A dos metros de distancia.

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