Would a normal president have made a difference in preventing COVID deaths?

This Ross Douthat column gets at something I’ve found myself wondering: How many lives could have been saved in the United States if a normal president had been in the White House?

A Columbia study showed that 36,000 people would not have died if the shutdown had started a week earlier, and 54,000 if it had started two weeks earlier. But might they have died later on during the summer surge?

The real problem has been Trump’s complete lack of seriousness and empathy. Maybe the death toll wouldn’t be all that different. But we wouldn’t feel completely abandoned.

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Boston Globe employees told to work at home for the rest of the year

Boston Globe employees were told Wednesday that employees should continue to work remotely through the end of the year, although they may choose to come in to the office for no more than two days a week after Labor Day. What follows is the top of the memo from the Boston Globe Media Partners executive team, which I obtained from a trusted source.

Hello all,

On behalf of the Executive Leadership Team and Safety Committee, we want to provide some important updates and clarification on opening the Boston Exchange Place / 53 State Street office, as well as the Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. offices. We have talked before about how the Boston office would reopen after Labor Day to serve as an optional amenity for people who needed a break working from home, and that it would still be limited to not more than two days per week. We want to emphasize that while we greatly miss being together, not only are you not expected to return work in person, but we do not want or need for you to come in.

We are arranging the office to be safe for people who want to use it on a limited basis, but the preference is that you continue to work from home.  We have been monitoring the pandemic and will continue to respond based on state guidelines, but in the meantime, we are extending this phase of limited, optional-only use of the office through the end of the year.

To be clear, we want the Boston offices to be as empty as possible for the remainder of 2020. While we realize that there could be an expectation that managers may want you to show up in person, or that you may miss out on an opportunity if you are not in the office, we want to dispel that notion by emphasizing that managers do not and must not expect you to return to the office for the remainder of the year. If you have concerns or questions about this, please talk to your manager or reach out to your HR partner to discuss.

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Trump was losing bigly even before COVID, economic collapse and BLM protests

Trump’s FiveThirtyEight approval/disapproval ratings.

According to a number of recent national polls, Joe Biden has moved out to a sizable lead over President Trump — so sizable that, if the election were held now, Biden would probably win the presidency by a substantial margin, since his lead is large enough to overcome Trump’s structural advantage in the Electoral College.

What I want to address here is the assumption some observers are making that Biden wouldn’t be ahead by nearly as much (or even at all) if it weren’t for COVID-19, the resultant economic catastrophe and the Black Lives Matter protests.

Yes, those would be huge challenges for any president. But with COVID, in particular, a compassionate, reasonably competent response wouldn’t have necessarily hurt Trump and might have even helped him. Look at Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who continues to receive high marks for his response to the pandemic, according to a new Suffolk University poll.

Likewise, the reason that the Black Lives Matter protests represent such an existential threat to Trump is that he’s a stone-cold racist who’s responded by advocating violence and embracing Confederate symbols — and no one outside his base wants to hear that anymore.

The reality is that any president’s re-election campaign is a referendum on the incumbent. And Trump has been historically unpopular from his first days in office. Biden’s lead merely tracks Trump’s approval/disapproval rating. It’s currently at 41% approve/55% disapprove, according to the FiveThirtyEight averages, and that’s right in line with most of his presidency.

Biden may be uninspiring to many, but he’s a consensus figure who’s bound to attract nearly all of the voters who disapprove of Trump. It’s not like anyone is going to hold their nose and vote for Trump because Biden scares them. If you look at the FiveThirtyEight graph, you’ll see that Biden would have been far ahead of Trump at almost any point in the past three and a half years.

The triple threat of COVID, the economy and protests against racism have made Trump’s re-election that much harder. But the dynamic is the same as it ever was.

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Wall St. Journal’s newsroom calls out opinion section over Pence’s COVID falsehoods

The Wall Street Journal’s excellent newsroom is calling out its often-nutty opinion section. The Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus reports that an op-ed by Vice President Mike Pence earlier this week in which he praised the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 had some, uh, problems:

Mr. Pence wrote that as of June 12, Project Airbridge had delivered more than 143 million N95 masks, 598 million surgical and procedural masks, 20 million eye and face shields, 265 million gowns and coveralls and 14 billion gloves.

According to FEMA data, through June 18 the program had delivered 1.5 million N95 masks, 113.4 million surgical masks, 2.5 million face shields, 50.9 million gowns, 1.4 million coveralls and 937 million gloves. The total number of those supplies is about 7% — or one-thirteenth — of the numbers cited in Mr. Pence’s article.

We talked about the Journal’s decision to publish Pence’s dubious propaganda Friday on “Beat the Press” (above). At the time, I thought the problem was more a matter of absurdly optimistic spin in the face of rising infection rates in many states rather than factual inaccuracies. I may be been giving Pence too much credit.

I still think Sen. Tom Cotton’s recently op-ed in The New York Times was worse, since he falsely claimed antifa involvement in Black Lives Matter protests in order to justify military attacks on Americans.

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COVID Diary #8: Plans for the fall semester could be upended by another surge

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

One of the best parts of moving back to West Medford five years ago was that we were able to reduce our dependence on driving. When one of our cars died, we decided not to replace it. Now my wife drives literally 10 minutes through residential streets to get to her job, and I rely on public transportation, supplemented by Lyft and an occasional Zipcar.

COVID has upended that. As all of us at Northeastern ponder how we’re going to return to campus this fall, I’m wondering how I’m going to get there. Will I feel safe on the commuter rail and subway? What about possible virus left behind by previous Lyft riders? I’ve thought about riding my bike, but that’s not a comprehensive solution — I’m not going to do it when it’s raining or dark, and I don’t want to wrestle with cars and trucks on a regular basis, either.

As for what Northeastern is going to look like this fall, that still feels a bit up in the air, even though plans are being made to open on time in September. I’ll be teaching one class entirely online. The other will be taught using what’s being referred to as the hyflex model — or, in Northeastern-speak, “NUflex.”

With hyflex, you’re dealing with three separate groups of students. Some of them are in the classroom with you. Another group — maybe they had visa problems, maybe they’re on quarantine — joins the class via video conferencing. And a third group watches a recording of the class at a later time, possibly because of illness or time-zone differences. It sounds like quite a challenge. Our student newspaper, The Huntington News, has the details.

Some faculty members at Boston University are up in arms over the idea of returning to campus at all, according to The Boston Globe and CommonWealth Magazine. I haven’t heard any similar dissension at Northeastern, but maybe I’m not listening in the right places.

What I do know is that COVID is surging nationally once again — and the numbers in Massachusetts don’t inspire a lot of confidence, either. People make plans, but the virus makes its own, abetted by human folly. We’ll see whether anyone is actually back on campus this fall. I hope we are, but it’s hardly a given.

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Pandemics and White House demagogues: How Wilson and Trump made everything worse

Woodrow Wilson in 1914. Photo via the Library of Congress.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The pandemic was spread not just by germs but by politics. The virus would have killed many Americans in any case. But a demagogue occupied the White House, and measures that could have reduced the number of victims — a ban on large gatherings, for instance, as well as an honest reckoning with the public — were discouraged at the highest levels. In the end, a tragedy that was the result of natural forces was made immeasurably worse by human failure.

You may think I’m describing President Donald Trump’s response to COVID-19. In fact, I’m referring to Woodrow Wilson and the influenza pandemic of 1918. According to John M. Barry’s 2005 book “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” a considerable amount of suffering and death could have been prevented were it not for Wilson’s messianic mobilization for war.

“America had never been and would never be so informed by the will of its chief executive, not during the Civil War with the suspension of habeas corpus, not during Korea and the McCarthy period, not even during World War II,” Barry writes. “He would turn the nation into a weapon, an explosive device.
“As an unintended consequence, the nation became a tinderbox for epidemic disease as well.”

One example of how Wilson’s embrace of total war worsened the pandemic will suffice. In Philadelphia, the inept public health director, Wilmer Krusen, refused to take action even after the flu began to rip through the city — spread, as was so often the case, by troops being shipped around the country.

At the same time, Wilson’s propaganda chief, George Creel, exerted enormous pressure on Americans to buy Liberty Bonds in order to pay for the war effort — an outgrowth of Creel’s chilling mantra, “100% Americanism.” The newspapers didn’t dare question the official line, which was that the flu was no big deal. And so Philadelphia went ahead with a parade to promote Liberty Bonds, an event that turned out to be a major vector in the spread of the disease.

All told, about 20,000 people died in the Philadelphia outbreak — and, as described by Barry, death from the 1918 flu was gruesome, with victims turning deep blue as their lungs became unable to process oxygen and with blood pouring out of every orifice.

In all, about 675,000 people in the U.S. died from the 1918 flu (the equivalent of nearly 2 million today), and perhaps as many as 50 million worldwide.

By failing to level with the public, according to Barry, Wilson made a bad situation much worse. Barry writes that “as horrific as the disease itself was, public officials and the media helped create that terror — not by exaggerating the disease but by minimizing it, by trying to reassure…. In 1918 the lies of officials and of the press never allowed the terror to condense into the concrete. The public could trust nothing and so they knew nothing. Society is, ultimately, based on trust; as trust broke down, people became alienated not only from those in authority, but from each other.”

And here’s where the parallels to our current situation are especially telling. Trump wanted to minimize COVID in order to save the stock market — not, as Wilson would have it, to make the world safe for democracy. Nevertheless, both Wilson and Trump played down the seriousness of the invisible enemy that had invaded our shores. As reported by The Washington Post, Trump dithered for more than two months — a time when the threat was becoming increasingly clear, and when steps could have been taken to minimize COVID’s spread.

According to scientists at Columbia University, some 36,000 lives could have been saved in the U.S. if social-distancing had been put in place just a week earlier — on March 8 instead of March 15.

Moreover, although the press isn’t under the threat of censorship today as it was in 1918, Trump has what is essentially his own media outlet — Fox News — which has been spreading disinformation from the start of the pandemic and cheering on the mask-disdaining anti-shutdown protesters who invaded statehouses a few weeks ago. Pandemic disease has become just another manifestation of the partisan divide. The result: More than 110,000 Americans have died, one-quarter of the worldwide total.

The analogies between 1918 and 2020 aren’t perfect, of course. Despite Wilson’s many flaws, he probably couldn’t have avoided entering World War I. The response to the influenza could have been managed better, but there were limits to what could be done during wartime.

Trump, on the other hand, has been an active impediment to anti-COVID measures by spouting false information about drugs and (lest we forget) bleach, by refusing to wear a mask in public and by interfering with state efforts to obtain medical equipment and supplies.

Also unlike 1918, the media are reporting plenty of uncensored, reliable information. The problem today isn’t censorship; rather, it’s a parallel universe of right-wing media more dedicated to advancing Trump’s political prospects than to the truth.

Now we are in the midst of our darkest period in many years, as we deal not just with COVID and economic calamity but with the Black Lives Matter protest movement, a long-overdue response to racism following the police killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, and of the deaths of numerous other Black men and women at the hands of police and racist vigilantes. As others have observed, we are simultaneously reliving the pandemic of 1918, the depression of the 1930s and the turmoil of 1968. A better, more just country may come out of this, but that doesn’t make the moment any easier to process.

One aspect of Barry’s book struck me as both unlike and yet resonant with the present crisis. At root, Barry tells a medical detective story, going into great detail about the lives of a small handful of scientists who attempted to find a vaccine and a cure for the flu. Modern medicine was in its infancy then. When a treatment for diphtheria was developed in 1891, it was the first time in history that any disease had been cured. A quarter-century later, the number of eminent scientists called to work on the 1918 influenza outbreak could be counted on two hands.

And they failed.

Today we know so much more — yet our experts have been groping for answers, too, changing their guidance on face masks and warning us that they may fall short in their frantic search for a vaccine and/or a cure.

Barry quotes one of the 1918 researchers, Victor Vaughan, as saying in disgust: “Doctors know no more about this flu than 14th-century Florentine doctors had known about the Black Death.”

It’s a lesson in humility and patience that we should keep in mind. After all, the flu pandemic eventually burned out of its own accord. COVID will, too. But coming up with solutions to racism, police brutality and economic injustice, the other unfinished business of 2020, is going to be up to all of us.

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COVID Diary #7: Our worst week as a nation since 9/11 and 1968

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

This was the week that everything seemed to come apart. The death toll from COVID-19 passed 100,000. And yet, briefly, that terrible milestone has been overshadowed by the latest in a long series of reckonings over what it means to be Black in America.

The day began with Omar Jimenez, a Black Latino journalist for CNN, being arrested by white police officers in Minneapolis even as a white CNN reporter stood not far away, unmolested by cops. The journalists were there to cover the protests that have broken out over the killing of an African American man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white officer. That officer, Derek Chauvin, has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. No word yet on the fate of the three officers who stood by and let it happen.

The day ended with televised images across the country, from Minneapolis to Atlanta, from New York to California, as thousands of people protested against racist violence against African Americans. Sadly, some of those protests turned violent. But as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” This week the unheard were intent on being heard — not just on behalf of Floyd, but also many others, including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and, yes, even Christian Cooper, who was not physically injured but who was humiliated by a privileged white woman when he asked her to leash her dog.

And let’s not forget for a moment that President Trump is pouring gasoline on the fire by tweeting out such incendiary calls to violence that Twitter finally had to crack down on him, sparking a confrontation over the First Amendment.

I was struck last night by David Brooks’ demeanor on the PBS NewsHour. I’d never seen him as agitated and upset. I thought he might start crying — and who could blame him? And I was moved deeply by the African American scholar Eddie Glaude Jr. of Princeton University, who was interviewed earlier in the NewsHour by Amna Nawaz. I’ve embedded it above, and you should watch it all. Speaking of Floyd’s killing, Glaude closes with this:

He cried out for his mother. She’s been dead for two years. She’s been dead. He basically told someone to tell my kids that I love them, because I’m going to die. And that man, that moral monster kept his knee on his neck. I didn’t — I couldn’t process it. It broke me.

I’m currently reading John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” his 2004 book about the deadly flu pandemic of 1918. You might think that wouldn’t be the most relaxing thing to curl up with in the midst of the current pandemic. But the 1918 flu eventually ended, which is a good reminder amid what seems like an endless tragedy.

Last week was the worst in our country’s history since 9/11. Before that, you’d have to go back to the war, assassinations and riots of 1968. Back then, our political leadership was not up to the task. Today, the president and his fellow Republicans are actively making things worse.

We have to hope that there will be better days ahead — and, to the extent that we can, work to make those better days happen.

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COVID Diary #6: Three discouraging updates on religious gatherings

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

Rather than writing a personal essay, I thought I’d follow up Diary #5 with some updates on religious gatherings during the pandemic. The early returns are discouraging.

In Mendocino County, California, a church that was apparently doing everything right has ended up fostering an outbreak of COVID-19. According to The Mendocino Voice, only three or four people were at the Redwood Valley Assembly of God Church for a live-streamed service that took place on May 10. Three, including the pastor, have been hospitalized, and the service has now been implicated in the infection of six people.

Ironically, the day after the service Pastor Jack McMilin posted on Facebook a photo of someone holding a sign reading “Why Can We Go to Walmart but Not to Church!??” Still, McMilin can’t be blamed for what happened. Live-streaming is the responsible way to hold religious gatherings these days, and we’ll be tuning in to our church’s service in a few minutes.

• Today’s New York Times — which has published a dramatic front page commemorating the nearly 100,000 Americans who have died — reports that 40 people who attended a service at a Baptist church in Frankfurt have become infected despite practicing social-distancing.

“We followed all the rules,” said a church leader, Wladimir Pritzkau. Ironically, the service was held on May 10, the same day as the Redwood Valley service. Based on the photo accompanying the story, the German service looks as safe as anyone could expect. But it wasn’t — something to think about as religious gatherings resume in Massachusetts.

• Finally, I don’t want to overlook White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s despicable performance at a briefing on Friday. Pressed repeatedly on President Trump’s demand that churches be allowed to reopen, she said, “Boy, it is interesting to be in a room that desperately wants to seem to see these churches and houses of worship stay closed.” Oh, those godless commies in the media.

Fortunately, Reuters reporter Jeff Mason pushed back, saying:

I object to that. I go to church. I’m dying to go back to church. The question we are asking you and would have liked to have asked the president and Dr. [Deborah] Birx is, is it safe? If it is not safe, is the president trying to encourage that, or does the president agree with Dr. Birx that people should wait.

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The Atlantic is growing. So why is billionaire owner Laurene Jobs gutting it?

Laurene Powell Jobs. Photo (cc) 2018 by TED Conference.

There are good billionaire media owners and bad. Laurene Powell Jobs has now crossed the line from good to bad.

The Atlantic on Thursday laid off 68 employees, amounting to 17% of its staff, because advertising and its lucrative events business have cratered. Twenty-two of those employees worked in editorial. At the same time, though, the magazine has added 90,000 paid subscribers (including me) since the beginning of March on the strength of its excellent COVID-19 coverage. To cut now strikes me as the equivalent of consumer fraud.

The big question is why Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, would buy a venerable media property if not to provide it with some runway during a crisis. I get that even billionaires want to build sustainable businesses. But that’s not what this is about. This is a short-term move and an insult to all those new subscribers that Jobs presumably wants to retain — not to mention the staff members who worked so hard to attract those new readers.

Another billionaire owner, the celebrity surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong, recently started slashing and burning at the Los Angeles Times at the first sign of COVID-related trouble, tearing down what he had only recently built up. Again, it makes no sense. If they believed in their strategy before the pandemic, then owners should keep doing what they were doing, provided they can afford it. Jobs and Soon-Shiong can afford it.

Other billionaire owners have taken a different approach. Jeff Bezos has stayed the course at The Washington Post. John Henry has made some cuts here and there at The Boston Globe, but there have been no reports of full-time newsroom staffers being let go, even though ad revenues are down 35%. Then again, Henry wants to hold on to the Globe’s new digital subscribers. Glen Taylor, the billionaire who owns the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, has kept his newsroom intact as well.

There’s an old story that during World War II, when newsprint was rationed, the New York Herald Tribune decided to cut its news coverage so that it could keep its advertising. The New York Times did the opposite — it doubled down on journalism and cut advertising instead. After the war, the Times built a lead that it never relinquished, while the Herald Tribune entered a long decline and went out of business in 1966.

It’s a lesson that Jobs, Soon-Shiong and other billionaire owners ought to ponder. The pandemic will end at some point. If they’re unwilling to sustain their media properties through these bad times, you have to wonder why they bought them.

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COVID Diary #5: Gov. Baker gives the go-ahead for houses of worship to reopen

St. Nicholas Church, Transylvania, Romania. Photo (cc) 2014 by fusion-of-horizons

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

Every Sunday evening for the past couple of months, we get together with three other couples from our church via Zoom. Our church has been holding virtual services on Facebook Live, YouTube and local access. They’re doing a great job, but the audio is less than optimal and, needless to say, being together is the main reason why most of us attend services.

Last night we started talking about what church might look like as the shutdown starts to ease. Our 10 a.m. service tends to be cheek-by-jowl. How could we maintain social-distancing? Would we go?

A short time later we got a partial answer. According to new guidelines from Gov. Charlie Baker, houses of worship will be allowed to open as long as they are at no more than 40% capacity. Those attending will have to wear face masks and stay at least six feet away from anyone who isn’t a family member. I would imagine that singing and communion will be banned, too.

This strikes me as pushing the envelope. We attend an Episcopal church, and according to our diocese, churches will remain closed until July 1. I take that as a date when we will reassess, not necessarily reopen. My other denomination is Unitarian, and the Unitarian Universalist Association is telling congregations that they should be prepared to be closed until May 2021.

Through this crisis, Gov. Baker has taken a cautious, data-based approach, but this feels like giving in to loud voices among the religious community who want to reopen regardless of the health implications. I’ll be interested to see what medical experts have to say, but we’ll be sticking with Facebook Live for the foreseeable future.

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