Undeniably Grim Times

T-Bone Walker wrote the song but B. B. King sang it best:

They call it Stormy Monday but Tuesday’s just as bad
They call it Stormy Monday but Tuesday’s just as bad
Wednesday’s worse, Lord and Thursday’s all so sad

The eagle flies on Friday and Saturday I go out to play
Yeah, the eagle flies on Friday and Saturday I go out to play
Sunday I go to church and I kneel down and pray

And this is what I say, baby, “Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy on me…”

That could be America’s new national anthem in these Trump years, and appropriate on a Monday when the markets crashed and the nation ground to a halt and everyone was told to stay inside and hide for six or eight weeks. Oh, it wasn’t that bad, but it was close to that, although the man at the top did not see that at all:

President Donald Trump gave himself a perfect score when evaluating his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic at a White House briefing on Monday.

When asked by a reporter what grade he would give himself, the president said “10” on a scale of one to 10. He dodged a related question about whether the “buck stops” with him, and said it “normally” would, but this pandemic is “unprecedented.”

This was a clarification. The man at the top is always responsible for everything below him, with that one exception, the unexpected:

Last week, he said he wouldn’t take any responsibility for the significant delay in the country’s coronavirus testing capabilities. But while the president attempted to project confidence, his administration issued a strict new set of federal guidelines designed to dramatically restrict Americans’ daily activities to slow and contain the coronavirus’ spread.

At the press briefing, Trump announced that the federal government is recommending Americans avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, homeschool their children, avoid nonessential travel, and avoid bars and restaurants.

What? Suddenly he was implying that he wasn’t quite perfect after all, because things weren’t wonderful after all. The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker notes the change:

President Trump for weeks dismissed the danger of the novel coronavirus. He distracted himself by stoking unrelated feuds and nursing grievances. He shared little concrete information about the spreading pandemic, and much of what he did share was false.

Governors and mayors, as well as leaders of businesses large and small, stepped into the leadership vacuum to make difficult decisions affecting their constituents, employees or customers. In the absence of unambiguous guidance from the president for the citizens he was elected to lead, the frustration of governors boiled over.

And then on Monday, nearly eight weeks after the first coronavirus case was reported in the United States, Trump conveyed that he at last recognizes the magnitude of the crisis that is threatening lives across the nation, disrupting the economy and fundamentally upending the daily rhythms of American life.

“We have an invisible enemy,” Trump said at a news conference Monday, where he presented a notably changed demeanor and tone from his previous coronavirus briefings.

Who was this man and what had he done with the real Donald Trump? But this was Donald Trump:

The president – who six days earlier promised “it will all go away,” and as recently as Sunday advised Americans to “just relax” – suggested Monday that the outbreak could last until July or August.

He said that? And what was this about a feud with the governors? Jonathan Martin covered that:

President Trump told a group of governors on Monday morning that they should not wait for the federal government to fill the growing demand for respirators needed to treat people with coronavirus.

“Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment – try getting it yourselves,” Mr. Trump told the governors during the conference call, a recording of which was shared with The New York Times. “We will be backing you, but try getting it yourselves. Point of sales, much better, much more direct if you can get it yourself.”

The suggestion surprised some of the governors, who have been scrambling to contain the outbreak and are increasingly looking to the federal government for help with equipment, personnel and financial aid. Last Wednesday, Mr. Trump directed his labor secretary to increase the availability of respirators, and he has generally played down fears of shortages.

And of course that pissed them off:

Governors Jay Inslee of Washington, whose state is at the epicenter of the domestic outbreak, and Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico both reacted angrily to the administration’s slow response to the crisis.

“If one state doesn’t get the resources and materials they need, the entire nation continues to be at risk,” said Ms. Lujan Grisham, a Democrat.

Trump shrugged that off:

In a tweet touting his “very good” conference call on Monday with state governors on the coronavirus outbreak, President Donald Trump took a swipe at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

“Cuomo of New York has to ‘do more,'” Trump wrote.

And then it was on:

The New York governor fired back shortly afterward.

“I have to do more?” Cuomo tweeted. “No – YOU have to do something! You’re supposed to be the President.”

Trump deleted his tweet and re-posted it an hour later, presumably to correct a typo in the original tweet.

Cuomo responded with a new retort.

“Happy to do your job, too,” he tweeted. “Just give me control of the Army Corps of Engineers and I’ll take it from there.”

The governor’s tweet included a link to his New York Times op-ed in which he urged Trump to allow New York to use the Army Corps of Engineers to assist in creating temporary medical centers in the state.

That may have changed Trump’s thinking. Maybe he should be more presidential:

Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (D) explained the challenge for state or municipal leaders to make decisions about a widespread public health crisis without the broad data and technical expertise of the federal government.

“If you’re a governor, you deal with earthquakes and tornadoes and flooding and blizzards,” McAuliffe said. “They’re in your state, you’ve got the information and you make a calculated decision about what’s in the best interests of your citizens. But something like this, a pandemic, you’re only relying on the federal government.”

And there’s a precedent here:

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin drew a parallel from today to the Great Depression in the early 1930s, when President Herbert Hoover was so lacking in leadership and unwilling to commit federal aid to help those suffering that it fell to governors to protect their citizens. That was when a New York governor named Franklin D. Roosevelt rose to national prominence by talking about the government’s responsibility to lift up society and launched the first public works programs for unemployed citizens. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932.

“We have to have this national leadership right now, which the country is crying out for,” Goodwin said.

She added, “Why is it that most of the presidents we remember the best had moments of crisis, whether it’s George Washington or Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt? It’s because they were able to communicate to the people what the crisis was, to make the people feel inspired to be part of working it out through empathy, taking responsibility and setting an example, and then to mobilize every resource in the country.”

It could be that Trump finally got it. Maybe that’s why he was a new man by the time the press conference started. Or maybe, as the New York Times reported, he was forced to change his tune by the new grim reality:

Sweeping new federal recommendations announced on Monday for Americans to sharply limit their activities appeared to draw on a dire scientific report warning that, without action by the government and individuals to slow the spread of coronavirus and suppress new cases, 2.2 million people in the United States could die.

That sort of thing can concentrate the mind:

To curb the epidemic, there would need to be dramatic restrictions on work, school and social gatherings for periods of time until a vaccine was available, which could take 18 months, according to the report, compiled by British researchers. They cautioned that such steps carried enormous costs that could also affect people’s health, but concluded they were “the only viable strategy at the current time.”

In short, there was no other choice than to do what they did:

The White House guidelines urged Americans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. That is a more restrictive stance than recommendations released on Sunday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said that gatherings should be limited to 50.

The White House also recommended that Americans work from home, avoid unnecessary shopping trips and refrain from eating in restaurants. Some states and cities have already imposed stricter measures, including lockdowns and business closings.

Different steps, intended to drive down transmission by isolating patients, quarantining those in contact with them and keeping the most vulnerable apart from others for three months, could cut the predicted death toll by half, the new report said.

Blaming Obama or Hillary for this or that wasn’t going to cut the predicted death toll, so it was time to trust the Brits, or to blame the Brits:

Asked at a news conference with President Trump about what had led to the change in thinking by a White House task force, Dr. Deborah Birx, one of the task force leaders, said new information had come from a model developed in Britain…

“What had the biggest impact in the model is social distancing, small groups, not going in public in large groups,” Dr. Birx said. “The most important thing was if one person in the household became infected, the whole household self-quarantined for 14 days, because that stops 100 percent of the transmission outside of the household.”

Dr. Birx’s description of the findings was consistent with those in the report, released on Monday by an epidemic modeling group at Imperial College London. The lead author of the study, Neil Ferguson, an epidemiology professor, said in an interview that his group had shared their projections with the White House task force about a week ago and that an early copy of the report was sent over the weekend.

The group has also shared its fatality estimates with the CDC, Dr. Ferguson said, including that eight to nine percent of people in the most vulnerable age group, 80 and older, could die if infected.

“We don’t have a clear exit strategy,” Dr. Ferguson said of the recommended measures. “We’re going to have to suppress this virus – frankly, indefinitely – until we have a vaccine.”

“It’s a difficult position for the world to be in,” he added.

That was enough cover for Trump. He could drop the cheery nonsense. He wasn’t giving in to the liberal fools or the deep state or Andrew Cuomo. This was said with that famous Winston Churchill Oxbridge British accent:

The report, which was not released in a peer-reviewed journal but was authored by 30 scientists on behalf of Imperial College’s coronavirus response team, simulated the role of public health measures aimed at reducing contact.

“The effectiveness of any one intervention in isolation is likely to be limited, requiring multiple interventions to be combined to have a substantial impact on transmission,” the authors wrote.

Dr. Ferguson said the potential health impacts were comparable to the devastating 1918 influenza outbreak, and would “kind of overwhelm health system capacity in any developed country, including the United States,” unless measures to reduce the spread of the virus were taken.

And that was enough for Trump:

The study’s authors said their research made it clear that people in the United States might be advised to continue with draconian restrictions on their daily lives for far longer than Mr. Trump and the task force indicated on Monday.

“The major challenge of suppression,” the British scientists concluded, is the length of time that intensive interventions would be needed, given that “we predict that transmission will quickly rebound if interventions are relaxed.”

The authors said that so-called mitigation policies alone – isolating people suspected of having the virus at home, quarantining their contacts and separating the most vulnerable people from others – might reduce the peak demand on the health care system by two-thirds and deaths by half if applied for three months. But that would still result in hundreds of thousands of deaths and in health systems “overwhelmed many times over,” they said.

And that was that. Trump would be cheery no longer, but there was this:

The researchers said that the long-term “social and economic effects” were likely to be “profound,” and that the measures were not guaranteed to succeed and could themselves have “significant impact on health and well-being.”

“No public health intervention with such disruptive effects on society has been previously attempted for such a long duration of time,” they added. “How populations and societies will respond remains unclear.”

The long-term social and economic effects were likely to be profound? They were immediately profound. It was a really stormy Monday:

Financial markets imploded again on Monday, as increasingly alarmed investors feared that the global economy could experience a downturn rivaling the cataclysmic recession after the financial crisis a decade ago.

Even President Trump’s boundless enthusiasm for the American economy has wilted in the face of what promises to be a widespread economic slowdown, as he acknowledged on Monday that the country might be heading toward a recession.

The air of inevitable decline was palpable. A day after the Federal Reserve unleashed a major effort to shore up market confidence, the S&P 500 plunged nearly 12 percent on Monday – the latest in a series of big drops since the pandemic knocked it from a record high and the worst one-day decline since 1987.

Was a recession inevitable? Trump said that was quite possible, but he’d worry about the pandemic for now. He didn’t sound like himself, but things were undeniably grim:

From still-closed factories in China – where the outbreak first emerged – to Western nations where millions of people are living in a state of semi-house arrest, most of the engines that keep the global economy aloft have simultaneously sputtered to a halt.

Some of the first snapshots to capture the gravity of the outbreak’s effect on economic activity appeared on Monday, suggesting that industrial activity has fallen off both in parts of the United States and in China.

Factory activity in China, the world’s second-largest economy, dropped 13.5 percent last month from February 2019. Fixed-asset investment, which touches on construction of buildings, roads and railways and was long the driver of Chinese growth, fell roughly 25 percent.

And one of the first bits of data for American economic activity in March, a gauge of manufacturing activity in New York State, showed the worst one-month plunge in the index’s history, falling to its lowest level since 2009.

“Unfortunately this is the new reality,” economic analysts with the investment bank Jefferies wrote. “This report is a harbinger of what is to come.”

That new virus had wiped out the Chinese economy for many months, and they couldn’t fix that, and now it was doing the same thing here, and we can’t fix that:

JPMorgan Chase economists recently wrote that “the coming collapse in consumer spending will pull first-half growth into negative territory.”

But the continuing collapse in financial markets suggests that investors think the reality could be beyond the powers of central banks such as the Fed to stop.

On Sunday, the Fed cut interest rates to near zero and pledged to buy hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of government bonds and mortgage-backed securities with freshly created money. For the last decade, variations of such programs, known as quantitative easing, have set off huge rallies in stock markets and other risky assets, as investors saw those efforts as a green light to take bigger risks.

Not any more – on Wall Street, stocks plummeted 7 percent after the start of trading, triggering a 15-minute trading halt. It was the third such halt over the last week. The sell-off continued after trading recommenced, undoing the 9.3 percent surge in the S&P 500 on Friday, when a White House news conference promised greater efforts to increase testing for the virus.

“The Fed has a lot of tools in its tool kit. A vaccine isn’t one of them,” said Rick Rieder, chief investment officer of global fixed income at BlackRock.

And that added up to the stormiest of stormy Mondays – economic collapse and tens of thousands of deaths on the way. And there were the long-term social effects too:

Across California, as the coronavirus marches through communities, life as everyone understands it in the Golden State is changing dramatically, hour by hour, minute by minute.

The state has begun enacting extreme measures to halt the coronavirus outbreak. On Monday, six counties around Silicon Valley, one of the hardest-hit areas in the nation, announced a shelter-at-home order that begins Tuesday, which Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose said was the strongest directive yet in the United States. Residents, including those living in San Francisco, were told not to go out for three weeks except to meet “essential needs.”

This was a complete lockdown. Clear the streets. No one steps outside. That’s how the Chinese finally fixed things in Wuhan, adapted to California:

A day earlier, Gov. Gavin Newsom had told all residents older than 65 to stay in their homes. He called for the closure of bars, nightclubs and wineries, and restrictions on restaurants. He banned visits to hospitals and nursing homes unless patients were on the edge of death. He announced plans to buy hotels to house some of the state’s 150,000 homeless people.

But above all, clear the streets:

Residents are being ordered to stay home except for essential reasons, which include buying food; people can also leave for outdoor activities including “walking, hiking or running” and caring for a pet.

Mayor Joe Goethals of San Mateo put it this way: “I’m asking people to go home with their families and to stay there until they are told otherwise.”

Otherwise, too many will die, but the price of all this will be high:

With a $21 billion budget surplus, plus a rainy-day fund of close to $16 billion, Mr. Newsom said he was confident the state could manage the economic fallout from the crisis. “We are well positioned from a cash perspective to get through this,” he said, “more perhaps than any other state.”

But at the ground level, the pain is coming fast. Drivers have been laid off and forced to sell their trucks. Those who are still working are putting off oil changes and maintenance to stay afloat.

“We’re picking and choosing which bills to pay,” said Gio Marz, 30, a truck driver who hauls containers from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to warehouses in Southern California.

Restaurants are closing, and real estate agents say buyers are pulling their offers because sagging stock portfolios have left them spooked and shriveled the amount of cash they have for down payments.

Even the most optimistic economists are forecasting a recession.

But we’re not so special out here in California:

Governments around the globe scrambled to deal with the spread of the coronavirus, which has sickened at least 176,500 people worldwide and contributed to more than 7,350 deaths. Canada shut its borders to anyone who is not a citizen or permanent resident, while the European Union ordered a halt to all nonessential travel. In France, President Emmanuel Macron banned all social and family gatherings, placing the country in an unprecedented lockdown.

That makes for one really stormy Monday. But there will be more of these particular Mondays. That’s the new grim reality.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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