“The Darkest Winter”
I was starting to feel slightly optimistic.
Yes, it’s true that over 80,000 people had already died, but mourning the dead and being outraged at their deaths doesn’t preclude optimism. And as I watched Dr. Fauci’s testimony on Wednesday before Congress, I allowed myself to feel better. Aside from the usual political grandstanding, there were several thoughtful questions posed by the senators, and thoughtful answers given in return. I started to think, “This has been a shitshow so far, but at least there are some reasonable people doing good work.” Things have been bad, but they could get better.
Four things have happened since that testimony that have not only evaporated that hope, but convinced me that this may get significantly worse.
Dr. Rick Bright’s Testimony
Dr. Rick Bright was the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, until he was removed from that position. On Thursday morning, he testified before Congress about his experiences and his removal. I listened to all of Dr. Bright’s testimony. I also read his whistleblower complaint. In both, he outlines that his resistance was to administration officials flooding states with hydroxychloroquine before its safety could be established. Yes, he signed an emergency authorization for hydroxychloroquine, but to test its efficacy and safety. Administration officials attempted to go around the traditional process, and when Dr. Bright objected, he alleges in his complaint that he was transferred. The government found cause to investigate his claim of retaliation, by the way, and an investigation is ongoing.
It took three hours of testimony, 80+ pages of the complaint and several news articles to piece that together. Meanwhile, the President responded to these serious allegations with this:
Yes, he leaked because he was silenced and punished.
In his testimony, Dr. Bright also shared several examples of the failures of the Trump administration in preparing for the onset of the coronavirus. Even with those failures, the Trump administration could acknowledge those mistakes, learn from them and do better to mitigate the coronavirus going forward.
Instead, President Trump attempts to discredit a public health official in the middle of a public health emergency, and categorically dismisses his concerns without acknowledging them. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar assures us that they’ve already done what Dr. Bright insists needs to happen, despite the evidence to the contrary. How can our leaders learn the lesson if they refuse to even concede that mistakes were made?
That refusal to learn from mistakes is going to run right into human lives this fall. Despite statements from leadership to the contrary, Dr. Bright is concerned that a coronavirus resurgence may occur at the same time as seasonal influenza, and overwhelm hospitals. That’s where the eye-catching headlines about this winter potentially being “the darkest winter in modern history” come from.
I want to focus on that phrase for a moment. It sounds wild, right? Like something out of a movie or fantasy book series. It sounds so wild that many people might be tempted to shrug it off. But I listened to Dr. Bright talk for three hours. He’s a boring speaker- so boring that I almost stopped watching his testimony. He does all of the equivocating about blame and responsibility that career bureaucrats do when politicians ask them questions. There’s no pizzazz or wow in his public speaking style. He just talks.
That’s all to say that, from my admittedly brief time viewing him, he does not strike me as someone who uses flashy phrases or doom-filled language often as rhetorical devices. I think he’s using those words because that is his true assessment of what could happen in the fall. He’s in the position to know- he worked inside the administration and saw what was happening (or not happening, to be more accurate). Trump’s refusal to acknowledge mistakes and change unfortunately make me think Dr. Bright may be right.
Elon Musk revealing himself to be the asshole he is has been one of the few positives from the pandemic. But even I didn’t think that he would defy a stay-at-home order, or that the local government would accede to his demands shortly thereafter.
Yet that’s exactly what happened last week. Elon Musk reopened his Tesla factory on May 11th, in violation of Alameda county’s stay at home order. He acknowledged it himself when he tweeted that he hoped only he would be arrested.
The shelter-in-place order which Musk defied does in fact call for penalties:
Which begs the question: why wasn’t Elon Musk arrested?
Not only was Musk not arrested, but on Tuesday, May 12th, he and Alameda county struck a deal to allow for the plant to open. That’s one day after Musk broke the order. As the Mercury News notes,
On Tuesday night, Alameda County health officials said they had reached a deal to end the standoff, which would allow Tesla to lawfully reopen the facility as soon as next week. However, employee parking lots at the plant appeared to be full earlier in the day, and Musk tweeted Monday that production was starting against county health orders.https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/05/13/coronavirus-tesla-alameda-county-reach-agreement-to-continue-operations/
Musk was aided in his decision to violate the stay at home order by politicians across the country and the political spectrum. President Trump offered direct support through Twitter. And governors of other states, by taking Musk’s “moving out of California” bait, undermined Alameda county’s ability to enforce its own laws. Both Democrat Jared Polis of Colorado and Republican Greg Abbott of Texas reached out to Musk.
Every parent knows the frustration of trying to enforce rules with a child, only for another adult to undermine you. In the case of competing governors though, the consequences are far more dire than a temper tantrum. Alameda county allowed workers to return to potentially unsafe conditions, under duress, because management demanded it. They were pressured into compliance by governors more interested in pursuing industry and jobs than public health. The alliance between business interests and government, at the expense of workers and the general public, is certainly not new, but rarely is it on such naked display.
In the end, the local government folded, Tesla reopened, and Elon Musk walks away with evidence that his petulance has produced the desired outcome. Keep an eye on that clown throughout the rest of the pandemic.
Michigan Statehouse Closure
I went back and forth on whether this was the worst thing to happen last week. The CDC guidelines edged it out (as you’ll see why below), but I still think this was really, really bad.
The short version is that on May 1st, protesters entered the Michigan state house, some with weapons. Since weapons are allowed in the state house, there was no legal way to remove the armed protesters as legislators worked. A similar protest was planned for Thursday, May 14th. In the days leading up to the protest, the Detroit Metro Times ran a story about online death threats against the Democratic Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, including from people who claimed they would attend the protest. People within the government proposed banning guns inside the state house. Republicans denounced the threats of violence, but declined to ban weapons in the state house. So legislative sessions were cancelled and the state house was closed, despite typically being open on Thursdays. The protest went ahead as scheduled.
I’ve read several articles from several sources to try and make sense of what happened here, because this situation seems like the most fertile for overreaction. No matter how I read the situation though, the reality seems clear: with credible death threats, and no way to legally keep weapons out of the state house, the state government decided to shut down in order to keep people safe.
Extreme right wing elements succeeded in intimidating government, with help from the “mainstream” right. The state attorney general said it would be fine to ban guns in the state house, and yet the Republican-controlled committee which would have implemented that ruling declined. Republicans had the opportunity to put the brakes on this situation and didn’t. As a result, a statehouse which was scheduled to be open, was closed.
Stripping it down even further gets us to this: armed militia, with the help of local politicians, intimidated a local government into closing. Folks, this is literally what democracy is supposed to prevent.
I keep repeating this because I want to stress how FUCKING CRAZY this is. What happens if the protesters return? Will the state house shut down again? Or will the state house simply have people walking around with guns, and America will watch until an incident occurs? Those are scary questions.
Once a little imagination is thrown into the mix, things get way scarier. Open carry as an intimidation tactic is well-known, but now we’ve seen it work in the modern era on a whole new scale. Just as I see this as a concern, there are others who are writing about this as an opportunity (I hesitate to go into the parts of the internet where one would find that writing, but I’d bet anything it exists). The successful use of the threat of force to intimidate political opponents, WITH NO NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES, is extremely dangerous, and sets a tempting precedent for the future.
This is where I fear I might be overreacting. It’s a big jump from what happened Thursday to nightmare scenarios where uncertainty about election outcomes lead to violence in six months. Then again, if you’d told me in November 2019 that I’d be reading about 1700+ Americans dying from a pandemic the same day that armed protesters shut down a statehouse, I’d have called you insane. That would have sounded like a nightmare scenario then. And yet, here we are.
On May 7th, a preliminary version of CDC guidance for ending lockdown orders was leaked to the Associated Press. The document was leaked because it was buried at the White House. Reportedly, a CDC official was told the guidance “would never see the light of day.” The White House Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, said the concern was that the guidance was “overly prescriptive”.
I read the preliminary CDC guidance for how to safely reopen schools. It was thorough, and outlined several steps to ensure that schools can both be open and be safe for students. But don’t take my word for it, look for yourself:
That level of specificity (the section goes for almost three pages) was replaced with this:
The differences between these two sets of guidance is stark. Whereas the preliminary guidance offers specific suggestions for keeping virus spread to a minimum, the released decision tree skips all of that in favor of general questions. People’s lives will depend on this guidance, because schools will rely on it when making decisions. Closing schools helped to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Without proper social distancing and other considerations in the fall, when nearly 57 million kids eventually enter school buildings, things could get really grim.
America’s educators know that. Daniel Domenech, the executive director of the AASA, the School Superintendent’s Association, is recommending that schools follow the leaked guidelines when making decisions in the fall.
As bad as everything else that I described is, this is by far the worst because it demonstrates a lack of preparedness and concern that will exacerbate every other problem we’re facing this fall. The better school guidelines were leaked. LEAKED. If someone hadn’t essentially snuck them out, WE WOULDN’T HAVE THEM. We’d be left to figure out how to open schools based solely on the inadequate decision tree the White House released.
I’m focused on schools here because that’s where I work, but the same dynamic holds true for all the guidance in the draft document. Houses of worship, businesses, childcare programs- all had extensive guidance in the draft, which vanished in the final version. There was an entire section in the draft about protecting vulnerable workers (page 10) which does not exist on the employer decision tree.
I’m not even going to make any dire predictions about the outcome of hiding safety instructions from the American public. If even one person dies because this information was buried, then that’s one too many. The callousness of the White House is unbelievable.
I wrote this not as a harbinger of doom or depression, but because I know how much time it took me to watch all this testimony, read all these articles, and parse all the information that’s running in ten different directions. Hopefully, this information can be helpful to you to have in one place. These are the trends that stand out to me as most important, and I could be 100% wrong in my interpretation of what’s happening today, and what might happen tomorrow.
But writing is what I do, so I have to write something, because the price here is human lives. Those don’t come back if we fuck up. Despite the dark tone of this piece, deaths really have come down thanks to the lockdowns, social distancing and other policies finally kicking in. We CAN make a difference and save lives, but we have to know what’s happening.