March 10, 2020

The trick to the novel coronavirus is that it spreads exponentially. Today we are seeing states—Washington, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York-- declare emergencies, based on what, on their face, seem like very few cases: just 76 in New York, for example. But those numbers almost certainly will skyrocket over the next week or two. Private labs in New York began testing for coronavirus on Friday and today Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters that public officials couldn’t keep up. They found 16 new cases between Monday and Tuesday. By declaring emergencies now, and trying to enforce social distancing, governors, business leaders, and universities hope to slow down the spread of the virus. This is important because if we can slow it down, we can help to make sure that hospitals are not overwhelmed all at once with people who need attention.

The comparison people are making these days is between Philadelphia and St. Louis during the 1918 flu epidemic. In Philadelphia, the city’s public health commissioner, a political appointee, did not want to hurt public morale by cancelling public events. On September 28, the city held a big parade to raise money for the Liberty Bonds that were funding WWI, and 200,000 people attended. Two days later, people started to die. On October 3, city leaders closed down the city, but it was too late to stop the spread of the influenza. By the end of the season, 12,000 Philadelphians had died. In St. Louis, in contrast, the public health commissioner shut down the city. Drawing the wrath of local businessmen, he shut down schools, sporting events, bars, and movie theaters. People in St. Louis still got sick, but the infection rate was slow enough that the sick got treatment; the infections did not spike. At the end of the season 1,700 people died of the flu in St. Louis, half the rate in Philadelphia.

The novel coronavirus is spreading in America, but we can still slow it down by social distancing and avoiding crowds. Many of us will still get it, but if we can just keep the numbers spread out, we can make sure the sickest of us can get the treatment they will need. We need to avoid that deadly spike. Today #flattenthecurve is all over Twitter.

The administration has dropped the ball. As the New York Times put it tactfully today: “Faced with a public health emergency on a scale potentially not seen in a century, the United States has not responded nimbly.” No testing kits, a determination to downplay the epidemic to make the president look good, a reluctance to shut down public events, and so on. I won’t belabor it here because there seems little point. Trump is unable to handle this emergency, and his administration’s response is confused and inadequate. He seems concerned primarily with making the situation look better than it is, trying to protect the stock market that he sees as key to his own reelection.

It is past time to stop looking to the administration for true leadership. “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away,” Trump’s admonishment today, was not worth much, and the insistence of the president and his supporters that the coronavirus is much like the flu (it is not) is hurting our ability to slow its spread.   

Trump is more interested in stabilizing the stock market than dealing with the virus. Yesterday, he announced he would hold a press conference today to roll out his economic proposals—a “major” economic package-- to help mitigate the crisis caused by the coronavirus and the oil war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. In apparent response, the Dow Jones Industrial Average on the stock market rebounded from its plummet yesterday to regain 1,167 points, or more than 4%. But today no plan was forthcoming, although there were murmurs of federal aid for oil and natural gas producers hit by the oil war, and tax relief for airlines, cruise lines, and hotels hit by the coronavirus. The International Air Transport Association says that airlines could lose as much as $113 billion in revenue as people stop traveling out of fear of becoming infected. United Airlines and American Airlines stocks are both down about 40% this year. Stock market futures for Wednesday are down 518 points tonight.

Trump’s laser focus on helping industry and not workers has lost even former Republicans. This morning Bill Kristol, former Republican stalwart, reflected on Trump’s economic plans and tweeted: “Congress: 1. No bailouts for industries. 2. Targeted help for hospitals and the health care sector. 3. General relief directly to workers and families. The owners of capital have had a good decade and can weather a downturn; it’s labor that deserves a strengthened safety net.” (This prompted one wag to respond: “Wait, who are you?”)

In the Democratic primaries held today, former Vice President Joe Biden has won a number of victories over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Today he won big in Mississippi, Missouri, and, most tellingly, in Michigan, where Biden got 53% of the vote to 37% for Sanders. Michigan matters because it is a sign of being able to win the Midwest, where Trump won in 2016. Biden won black voters, suburbanites, and rural white voters. At this point, it looks like he is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.

I have fielded calls and emails all day from people who are frightened and eager to have someone tell them what is going to happen next and what they should do. One of the things cable news and the internet and cell phones has brought to us is the desire to know RIGHT NOW how things are going to turn out. But no one knows what the final death rate for the coronavirus is going to be, or who is going to win the election in 2020, or what this nation will look like in two years. I certainly don’t.

But that’s what’s so amazing about history. As grim as things seem right now, the future is ours to shape.