Baby Talk

Palm Sunday is a good day. It commemorates the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-9) when palm branches were placed in his path, But then things went bad. There was his arrest on Holy Thursday and his crucifixion on Good Friday. That would turn out to be a bad week, and this Palm Sunday would be the same:

The US surgeon general said this week is going to be the “hardest and the saddest” for “most Americans’ lives,” describing the upcoming grim period of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States as a “Pearl Harbor moment” and a “9/11 moment.”

“This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it’s not going to be localized, it’s going to be happening all over the country and I want America to understand that,” Vice Admiral Jerome Adams said on Fox News Sunday.

This will end badly:

Officials are warning the next two weeks will be crucial in the fight to stop the spread of the virus. Early Sunday, the nationwide death toll had gone up to at least 8,503 people, with at least 312,245 infected, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

While speaking at Saturday’s coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, President Donald Trump said that this week and next will probably be the toughest in the fight against coronavirus and that “there will be a lot of death.”

And some of those deaths will be stupid:

On Sunday, Adams said his message to the governors who have not yet issued stay-at-home orders would be to consider even just a temporary shutdown.

“If you can’t give us a month, give us a week… give us what you can,” Adams said.

This doesn’t have to spread so fast! You can help! Even a little temporary shutdown would help!

That wasn’t going to happen:

Just eight US governors have decided against issuing statewide directives urging their residents to stay at home as the outbreak escalates.

The governors, all of whom are Republican, have offered a variety of explanations for why they have not followed the lead of their colleagues from coast-to-coast.

In doing so, they’ve collectively ignored the stay-at-home pleas of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, who said in a CNN interview: “If you look at what’s going on in this country, I just don’t understand why we’re not doing that.”

Fauci needs to understand that they’re not listening to him at all:

Absent a nationwide order, which Trump once again on Saturday declined to give, a patchwork of rules has emerged in all corners of the country that offer conflicting guidance for how citizens should protect themselves and their families from coronavirus.

“We have a thing called the Constitution, which I cherish,” Trump said Saturday, praising the decision of the governors.

They were rebels, bad boys doing what they think is right, no matter what anyone else thinks, and Trump thinks that’s pretty damned cool, and harmless enough. After all, he added this – “If I saw something wrong, if I saw a massive outbreak, of which there’s not, I would come down very hard.”

So everyone should relax, but the Brit’s version of Donald Trump was in trouble:

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was admitted to a hospital Sunday for tests, his office said, because he is still suffering symptoms, 10 days after he was diagnosed with COVID-19.

Johnson’s office said the admission to an undisclosed London hospital came on the advice of his doctor and was not an emergency. The prime minister’s Downing St. office said it was a “precautionary step” and Johnson remains in charge of the government.

Johnson, 55, has been quarantined in his Downing St. residence since being diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 26 – the first known head of government to fall ill with the virus.

Johnson has continued to preside at daily meetings on Britain’s response to the outbreak and has released several video messages during his 10 days in isolation.

In a message Friday, a flushed and red-eyed Johnson said he was feeling better but still had a fever.

There’s a bit of karma here:

Johnson’s government was slower than those in some European countries to impose restrictions on daily life in response to the pandemic, leading his critics to accuse him of complacency. He imposed an effective nationwide lockdown March 23, but his government remains under huge pressure to boost the country’s number of hospital beds and ventilators and to expand testing for the virus.

Ah, but this was not complacency:

The U.K. would suppress the virus “but not get rid of it completely,” while focusing on protecting vulnerable groups, such as the elderly. In the meantime, other people would get sick. But since the virus causes milder illness in younger age groups, most would recover and subsequently be immune to the virus. This “herd immunity” would reduce transmission in the event of any winter resurgence.

That was the theory, and then the medical community asked Johnson if he understood that this would mean that hundreds of thousands of his citizens would soon die horrible deaths, to protect the herd. You do understand that, don’t you?

He did. He dropped the idea. But he’d lost a month of mitigation of any sort, and he’d caught the bug himself. That’s karma, but one must carry on:

News of Johnson’s admission to hospital came an hour after Queen Elizabeth II made a rare televised address to the nation, in which she urged Britons to remain “united and resolute” in the fight against the virus.

“We will succeed – and that success will belong to every one of us,” the 93-year-old monarch said, drawing parallels to the struggle of World War II.

“We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again,” she said.

It was hard not to think of the end of that old Stanley Kubrick movie but Donald Trump was not going to be upstaged by that old woman. He could offer hope too:

President Donald Trump on Sunday again doubled down on an unproven therapy for the novel coronavirus: hydroxychloroquine.

Without citing evidence, he said it’s a “great” and “powerful” anti-malaria drug “and there are signs that it works on this, some very strong signs.”

He had the miracle cure:

For people without heart problems, Trump recommended combining hydroxychloroquine with azithromycin, a common antibiotic. He said azithromycin “will kill certain things that you don’t want living within your body.”

Yet there is little reliable evidence that the drugs – either alone or in combination – are effective at treating the novel coronavirus.

Still, Trump said: “What do you have to lose? What do you have to lose?”

And if you have a bad heart, well, something else will come along. This will cure you, or take it and you’ll never get this bug in the first place:

For doctors, nurses and first responders, Trump suggested the drugs could be taken as a preventative. “They say taking it before the fact is good, but what do you have to lose?”

Experts do not suggest taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventive for Covid-19 because there is no evidence yet to suggest it protects against contracting the virus.

“They say take it,” said Trump, without citing any experts or sources. “I’m not looking at it one way or the other, but we want to get out of this. If it does work, it would be a shame if we didn’t do it early. But we have some very good signs.”

Trump said people would have to go through medical professionals to get approval, “but I’ve seen things that I sort of like. So, what do I know, I’m not a doctor. I’m not a doctor. But I have common sense.”

And he said he was thinking about taking hydroxychloroquine himself now, lots of it, to prove his point. He’d never get sick at all. And really, this was about freedom itself:

The President said, “I see people are going to die without it,” so “what really do we have to lose.” He added, “I am saying to do what you want.”

Some did question that approach:

When pressed by CNN’s Jeremy Diamond on why the President is not letting the science speak for itself, the President said that hydroxychloroquine “may not work and in which case, hey, it didn’t work, and it may work,” but he said he does not want to wait a “year and a half” to find out.

One reporter asked whether doctors and hospitals would be free from blame if hydroxychloroquine does not help coronavirus patients. Trump said that the drug can “help them, but it’s not going to hurt them.”

Experts say the drug, while generally considered to be safe, can come with side effects – including nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and skin rashes.

And there’s the possibility of cardiac arrest. Yes, he’s not a doctor, and his comment about common sense seemed odd, and there was this:

At the news briefing, Trump also said the US Food and Drug Administration feels good about the drug, adding, “As you know, they’ve approved it, they gave it a rapid approval.”

In fact, the FDA has not approved hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of Covid-19.

The FDA issued a limited Emergency Use Authorization to facilitate the distribution of the drug from the national stockpile, but the agency explicitly said in its authorization letter: “Chloroquine phosphate and hydroxychloroquine sulfate are not FDA-approved for treatment of COVID-19.”

Did he lie? Did he not understand what the FDA has said? Or was he doing the queen one better in offering a nation hope? Or was he mad? No one would know:

When the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, was at the podium, CNN’s Jeremy Diamond tried to ask him to weigh in on hydroxychloroquine – but the President jumped in and refused to let Fauci answer.

Fauci shrugged. Trump is the president, he’s not. Trump is a multibillionaire, he’s not. Fauci is also used to this:

On Saturday, Trump also made comments touting the drug as a preventative for coronavirus. He said that lupus patients – who are often treated with hydroxychloroquine – seem less likely to contract Covid-19, and that “there’s a rumor out there” and “there’s a study out.”

“Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. Why don’t you investigate that?” Trump asked.

At the briefing, though, Fauci said, “We don’t have any definitive information to be able to make any comment.” He also said the relationship between lupus and Covid-19 is currently under investigation.

That’s a nice way of saying that the president is a fool, but Jonathan Swan at Axios has great sources and told the inside story here:

The White House coronavirus task force had its biggest fight yet on Saturday, pitting economic adviser Peter Navarro against infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci. At issue: How enthusiastically should the White House tout the prospects of an antimalarial drug to fight COVID-19?

This drama erupted into an epic Situation Room showdown. Trump’s coronavirus task force gathered in the White House Situation Room on Saturday at about 1:30 pm, according to four sources familiar with the conversation.

So, Swan is comparing notes from four independent sources who saw this:

Vice President Mike Pence sat at the head of the table. Numerous government officials were at the table, including Fauci, coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx, Jared Kushner, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, and Commissioner of Food and Drugs Stephen Hahn.

Behind them sat staff, including Peter Navarro, tapped by Trump to compel private companies to meet the government’s coronavirus needs under the Defense Production Act.

Navarro is the eccentric isolationist economist who has never run anything in his life. He has theories. Democrats and even some Republicans have begged Trump to assign a military logistics expert to oversee production and distribution of all this medical stuff, but Trump won’t budge. Navarro is his man, and Navarro was feeling his oats, and Navarro attacked the FDA guy:

Toward the end of the meeting, Hahn began a discussion of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which Trump believes could be a “game-changer” against the coronavirus.

Hahn gave an update about the drug and what he was seeing in different trials and real-world results.

Then Navarro got up. He brought over a stack of folders and dropped them on the table. People started passing them around.

“And the first words out of his mouth are that the studies that he’s seen, I believe they’re mostly overseas, show ‘clear therapeutic efficacy,'” said a source familiar with the conversation. “Those are the exact words out of his mouth.”

The FDA was lying! He had proof! And it went downhill from there:

Navarro’s comments set off a heated exchange about how the Trump administration and the president ought to talk about the malaria drug, which Fauci and other public health officials stress is unproven to combat COVID-19.

Fauci pushed back against Navarro, saying that there was only anecdotal evidence that hydroxychloroquine works against the coronavirus.

Researchers have said studies out of France and China are inadequate because they did not include control groups.

Fauci and others have said much more data is needed to prove that hydroxychloroquine is effective against the coronavirus.

Navarro didn’t give a damn about control groups:

Fauci’s mention of anecdotal evidence “just set Peter off,” said one of the sources. Navarro pointed to the pile of folders on the desk, which included printouts of studies on hydroxychloroquine from around the world.

Navarro said to Fauci, “That’s science, not anecdote,” said another of the sources.

Navarro started raising his voice, and at one point accused Fauci of objecting to Trump’s travel restrictions, saying, “You were the one who early on objected to the travel restrictions with China,” saying that travel restrictions don’t work. (Navarro was one of the earliest to push the China travel ban.)

Fauci looked confused, according to a source in the room. After Trump imposed the travel restrictions, Fauci has publicly praised the president’s restriction on travel from China.

Yes, Navarro was losing it, so someone had to step in:

Mike Pence was trying to moderate the heated discussion. “It was pretty clear that everyone was just trying to get Peter to sit down and stop being so confrontational,” said one of the sources… The principals agreed that the administration’s public stance should be that the decision to use the drug is between doctors and patients.

And that was that, and Swan concludes this:

Most members of the task force support a cautious approach to discussing the drug until it’s proven. Navarro, on the other hand, is convinced based on his reading that the drug works against the coronavirus and speaks about it enthusiastically.

Some of Trump’s favorite television hosts, including Fox’s Sean Hannity, and friends including Rudy Giuliani, have also been touting the malaria drug for the coronavirus. Trump has made no secret who he sides with.

Trump believes Peter Navarro, not Anthony Fauci. Or he really wants to believe Peter Navarro. Or he really wants to believe something good. Or he wants to look good. Or it’s something else. Dan Drezner is that professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts up in Boston and he sees this:

In January, when Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar first tried to brief President Trump about the coronavirus threat, the president got distracted and wanted to talk about vaping instead. That same month, Trump told a CNBC reporter that he was not worried about a pandemic; by March, he was claiming, “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” After declaring a national emergency, Trump fumed about the images of empty airports and grounded planes on television. He has publicly compared his poll numbers with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s. He has responded to anodyne questions from reporters by saying they are “nasty” and demanding that journalists “be nice.”

In other words, not even a crisis as massive as the novel coronavirus has stopped the president from behaving like a cranky toddler.

That’s the operative theory here, in historical context:

The elevation of a toddler to the Oval Office intersected with a trend that predates Trump and has made the problem worse: the increasing agglomeration of power in the hands of the president. In the half-century since Watergate, presidents from both sides of the aisle have beaten back formal and informal constraints. They have resisted congressional oversight, cowed judges into submission and disciplined bureaucrats into obeying their every whim. Increasing political polarization has facilitated presidential power grabs by enervating congressional oversight, increasing the political loyalty of Cabinet officers, and eroding the norms and unwritten rules of the presidency.

As these problems mounted, the presidency was redesigned to be occupied by the last grown-up inside the Beltway.

And then Trump was elected. True, his brand of immature leadership is not the only reason the United States lags behind South Korea in its pandemic response, including testing and containment. Organizational inertia and garden-variety bureaucratic politics matter as well.

Still, the Trump White House’s inadequate handling of the outbreak highlights his every toddler-like instinct.

That’s easy enough to see:

The most obvious one is his predilection for temper tantrums. Some advisers describe an angry Trump as a whistling teapot that needs to either let off steam or explode. Politico has reported on the myriad triggers for his tantrums: “if he’s caught by surprise, if someone criticizes him or if someone stops him from trying to do something or seeks to control him.”

Se we get this:

Trump’s temper has flared repeatedly as the pandemic has worsened and the stock market has tanked. Multiple reports confirm that Trump was irate with prescient statements in late February by Nancy Messonnier, a senior official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who warned that a coronavirus outbreak in the United States was inevitable at a time when Trump was insisting he’d prevented one by banning travel from China. A report in Vanity Fair quoted “a person close to the administration” saying that Trump was “melting down” over the pandemic. He pitched a fit after his Oval Office address in early March was widely panned. His temper has acted as an obvious deterrent for other officials to contradict Trump’s happy talk about the pandemic: In early March, Defense Secretary Mark Esper ordered his overseas commanders not to take any action mitigating the coronavirus that might surprise the president.

That might explain why that aircraft carrier captain was deep-sixed:

For Trump’s staff, crisis management revolves around managing the president’s temper, not managing the actual problem.

But wait, there’s more:

Trump, like most toddlers, also has poor impulse control. Some White House advisers reportedly refer to it as the “shiny-object phenomenon” – his tendency to react to breaking news rather than focusing on more important issues. This is a problem for competent governance. As White House counselor Kellyanne Conway noted back in 2017, “The hallmark of leadership is a deliberative process, not an impulsive reaction.”

During the coronavirus outbreak, Trump’s access to Twitter has exacerbated his impulsiveness. He has tweeted out statements that aides have scrambled to interpret or reverse-engineer into existence, on topics including whether he would invoke the Defense Production Act to force manufacturers to make ventilators. Health experts have reportedly tried to get him to focus beyond the immediate bad news cycles of rising infections and look at the larger picture of “flattening the curve” and preventing a much bigger health disaster, to little avail. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) complained on the record about Trump’s erratic public statements, noting that “he at times just says whatever comes to mind or tweets, then someone on TV is saying the opposite.”

That’s been a problem for more than three years, as has his limited attention span:

One former high-ranking government official told me that a 45-minute meeting with the president was really 45 different one-minute meetings, in which Trump would ask disconnected, rapid-fire questions such as “What do you think of NATO?” and “How big is an aircraft carrier?” One book reported that Trump would interrupt his first chief of staff to pepper him with questions about badgers.

That inability to focus laid the groundwork for the bad pandemic response. During the transition, the Obama administration prepared a tabletop exercise to brief the incoming Trump team about how to handle an influenza pandemic. The president-elect did not participate, and a former senior official acknowledged that “to get the president to be focused on something like this would be quite hard.”

And there’s this:

Trump’s inability to sit still has been on display recently. His aides have questioned whether he has the capacity to focus on what will be a months-long emergency. White House staffers acknowledged that the one time he tried to read a prepared speech from the Oval Office was an unmitigated disaster. Multiple reports confirm that he has grown restless while confined on the White House grounds. He has crashed staff meetings because he does not know what else to do.

And there’s this:

As the coronavirus crisis metastasized, Trump fired his third, and hired his fourth, chief of staff. His fourth national security adviser shrunk his staff by more than a third before the outbreak – including shuffling the National Security Council’s planning for pandemics into a larger sub-office, diluting its power within the White House. Two-thirds of the senior positions at the Department of Homeland Security are vacant or filled with acting officials. Civilian vacancies at the Pentagon are at record highs.

Much like frazzled preschool teachers, the remaining competent people staffing Trump are clearly past the point of exasperation. In response to an interview question about why he failed to correct Trump at a news conference, Anthony Fauci, who’s been running the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for decades, responded: “I know, but what do you want me to do? I mean, seriously… let’s get real, what do you want me to do?”

Now everyone is asking that question:

Any parent of a badly behaved toddler can identify with what Fauci is saying. Fortunately for parents – but unfortunately for all of us – no household up to now has had to cope with a toddler with the sprawling powers of the modern presidency.

The surgeon general said this week is going to be the “hardest and the saddest” for most Americans’ lives, a grim period that actually may go on and on. The president says there will be a lot of death. But so be it. America can handle this. But all the baby talk may be too much to bear.

What have we done?

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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