The coronavirus has mutated into ideological variants. Its virulence is now worse than before, this time from our own doing. Fighting it as a united front was battle enough, exhausting and deadly. Fighting it while battling an uprising of premature abnegators undermining, defying and deriding virus-suppression measures will further scuttle what had already been a disastrous national response, with appalling and continuing shortages in tests and personal protective equipment, with the spreading of flawed tests and contradictory messaging, and with nonexistent federal-state-local coordination. As tea party-like danses macabre take to the steps of state capitols to “reopen America” while a president eggs them on, the virus is exploiting a widening gap between science’s warnings and ideology’s flaunting.
What has already been an unnecessarily large wave of mass deaths will be unnecessarily prolonged, masked by the false comforts of lesser spikes on the back side of an apex that has nothing to do with the virus’ undiminished threat. We are moving from a natural disaster to a man-made one, from statistically unavoidable deaths to deaths willed by indifference, ignorance, selfishness, and the now murderous political calculations of a single man. Every country is facing this pandemic. Only the United States is at war with itself because of that single man taking cleavers and flails to a nation’s lungs.
The black plague upon us that’s been the Trump administration for 1,200 days went turbo-bubonic a few days ago when Dear Leader junked the 10th Amendment and again mistook the narcissism in his mirror for leadership, declaring himself the ultimate authority on when to reopen America. Who needs facts, science and 35,000 corpses when you have Trump.
It took a few days for this latest unpresidential derangement syndrome to seem like it was working itself out, so that by Thursday Bubo-in-Chief was punting the decision back to governors as his transformation of America into the Houston Astrodome circa 2005 pivoted to fresher scapegoats: the World Health Organization, China, no doubt Hillary’s emails and Obama’s ancestry in Wuhan’s Islamic neighborhoods when he had room to mutter to himself.
Or so we thought. No sooner had he had a moment of lucidity, when he not only agreed to let governors call their own shots but issued a set of cautious guidelines on reopening, than, his eyes on the year’s electoral map, he was back to tweeting incendiary calls fomenting uprisings against governors’ stay-home orders in Democratic states (“LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” and so on). We’ve become so inured to the sleazy treachery, the pandering to mobs, the contempt for statesmanship or anything resembling solidarity in a time of crisis that we shrug this off as so many more symptoms of a presidency we all knew would be pestilential from day one. Why bother with surprise.
By then Bubo’s latest moronic messaging about how the American economy can magically restart had caused its share of copycat idiocy in a few states and localities, among them one of our own county commissioners emasculating our county administrator into unilaterally lifting a ban on park and trail uses in an alleged “experiment” late last week. The county took that pandering decision despite howls from all three city managers, despite opposition from city police chiefs and the sheriff, despite the opposition of the county health chief, whose facts and science are apparently less valid than a commissioner’s desire to suck the marrow out of Trump’s bubos. Not much later, the all-clear sounded for beaches, too.
Did I mention that we now have more corpses in a few weeks than we had in three years of war in Korea, when you could at least legitimately blame the Chinese? Well, yes, but how about this bugle call: just 700 or so deaths so far in Florida, and really only two in Flagler, so aren’t we doing swell? Not only should the county reopen its trails and parks. Maybe it can sublet the parks for those funerals that are so difficult to hold these days. Imagine the tourism draw for funerals in Volusia, where deaths have been a bit more problematic. Some of the pavilions at Bing’s Landing are just begging for coffins and eulogies, not to mention the “Focus on Flagler” blather to turn this pandemic to our advantage and get us moving again (as long as the coffins have wheels).
Arrogance and chaos define the federal response to the pandemic. Too bad some local officials are so eager to replicate it, on Friday going full-bore propagandistic with a press release that literally boasted of increasing Covid-19 testing “significantly” in Flagler without resulting in as significant an increase in positive cases--as if it were some sort of sport or marketing feat. Never mind the traumas and devastation the significantly fewer cases are enduring, never mind those to come or those who died. The county’s numbers, of course, were false. So it goes when a government’s PR machinery is hijacked by backslapping, though for so many weeks there it seemed as if the county had put a premium on soberness and seriousness, to all of our benefit and to the benefit of county-city cohesion. Someone fell off the wagon.
A cohesive local response was critical because we had three years of catastrophes to know that the federal response couldn’t possibly be anything but cataclysmic in the face of an actual disaster. Even if the president had acted sooner, even if he’d transitioned into Cassandra in January, he walked into this pandemic with the credibility of a flea and the capabilities of a dead rat the flea would have jumped from. Whatever horrors other countries experienced, we’ve become the scourge’s true world champions of avoidable deaths, the federal government reminding us at every turn how much we’re on our own. We get it.
Of course we want the nation reopened. Our livelihood depends on it, and lockdowns are unsustainable. But it’s not just Trump who’s deluding himself about when and how to re-open America. It won’t be his decision. It won’t be governors’ or superintendents’ decisions, or even the decisions of public health and emergency management directors. It certainly won’t be that of Trump clones playing commissioner on Facebook, especially in counties where not even local governments could stay on the same page more than a few weeks.
The decision is going to be made by individual Americans in their own time, sometimes at great risk to themselves and others, knowing that while the coronavirus remains a mystery in many respects, living with it is not a mystery. That reality has been mapped out. We now know that no society can “reopen” without massive testing for the virus, massive contact tracing, and massive testing for antibodies. Despite months of crisis, none of that is available.
In the absence of more testing for the disease or its antibodies--a continuing catastrophe all its own--the choice will be driven by the needs of millions who can’t afford impositions of idleness (assuming they even have a job to go back to), and it’ll be driven by the luxury of choice for those who still have a choice, or those who contracted and survived the virus, though it’s not yet known if that immunity is dependable or how long it lasts.
The apex has nothing to do with individual lives. It has to do with pressures on our health care system, and whether it can handle a crunch. The crunch has passed. The virus hasn’t, nor will risks of deaths that have made the coronavirus the leading cause of death in the United States these last weeks. If the calculus is that we’re willing to put up with deaths as long as our healthcare system can handle it, we should say so, because that’s where we’re headed when we talk of “reopening,” also knowing that--drizzles of disingenuous analogies aside--this calculus is nowhere near the lesser disruptions or death rates from the seasonal flu, car crashes, guns, ladders and other risks of daily life.
So for most Americans the apex of the disease has little to do with any of that. The only curve that matters is a sense of assurance that even accepting a measure of risk, there’s a safety net out there to catch you if things go wrong. But what we keep learning is that the net is an illusion, the way rapid testing is still an illusion, the way unemployment checks have been an illusion for most affected Floridians, the way cohesive public health policy has been an illusion, especially with Bubo-in-Chief declaring his own Mission Accomplished moment from within sight of graves soon to be dug. For most Americans it’s not about recovery from the pandemic but avoidance—avoidance of this “American carnage,” to recall the phrase Trump so carelessly spat in his inaugural address, and that has now become his truest epitaph.
It’s his carnage now. Most of us would rather it not be ours.