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The Trump Coronavirus Fake-out

The “president” has taken the nation on a long down-escalator ride to reverse the progress of the last seventy years—the post-World War II era, roughly speaking—dismantling, for example, progress in civil rights, progress in environmental protection, and progress in foreign alliances and diplomacy. 

Then, along came the coronavirus. After complaining that the media were hyping the coronavirus threat—another “hoax” to make him look bad—he ordered travel restrictions on January 31, including banning foreigners from entering the US if they had recently traveled in China.

Aside from the travel restrictions, Trump took no action to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak in the US. Instead, he continued to downplay the threat, repeatedly saying it was “totally under control.” On February 26, he said there were only 15 people infected in the US and they were all getting better: “within a couple of days” it would be “down close to zero.” The next day he said: “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.”

The president objected to allowing the passengers on the cruise ship Grand Princess to come ashore in San Francisco because that would raise the number of people in the US infected with the virus: “I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus had become a pandemic. There were more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people had died from the disease, “COVID-19.”

The US lagged behind other countries in testing for the novel coronavirus. As of March 20, the US had performed about 300 tests per million population, far below the rates of testing in other countries. In the same time-frame, for example, South Korea had performed over 6,000 tests per million, Australia more than 4,000, Italy more than 3,000, Germany more than 2,000 and the UK more than 900 [data from the website Our World in Data].

A new vocabulary developed to describe our plight. We were advised to “shelter in place,” to practice “social distancing” and to “self-quarantine.” No one could say how long these measures would be in place. There was no vaccine and there were no anti-viral drugs known to be effective in treating COVID-19. Development and testing of a vaccine was expected to take 12 to 18 months.

On March 13, the Dow Jones Industrial average closed at 23,185.62 after a record high closing of 29,551.42 set on February 12. Ten days later, on March 23, it closed at 18,591.93, down by 20 percent.

The loss of shareholder wealth can largely be attributed to the coronavirus and public health measures that were put in place to “flatten the curve” (reduce the rate of infection). Advice to avoid public gatherings of ten or more people, to practice “social distancing” (keeping at least six feet away from other people), and to stay at home unless going somewhere was absolutely necessary, resulted in an abrupt drop in consumer spending with no end in sight. Stock values plummeted as investor uncertainty prevailed, but only by flattening the curve could we hope to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed with critically ill COVID-19 patients.

After Senate approval of a $2 trillion spending bill (including a $500 billion loan fund for big businesses), the Dow spiked on March 26 to close at 22,552.17, but the market was likely to remain volatile in the months ahead as the virus continued to ravage economies worldwide.

It was nearly impossible to take it all in. It was disruption on a global scale, something that we had not experienced before in my lifetime. In an odd way, our voluntary isolation brought us closer as a human family as people around the world on every continent faced the same risk of infection from the same microscopic lethal army. There was no effective weapon anywhere in the world to combat the virus. For now, the only effective strategy was to isolate ourselves. We could reduce the risk by denying the human hosts that the virus depended on to propagate and spread.

On March 16, the Trump administration announced a 15-day plan to address the spread of the virus, including advising “older persons” and people with underlying health conditions to stay home and away from others. The administration advised everyone to avoid gatherings in groups of more than ten and to avoid discretionary travel, restaurants, bars, and visits to relatives in nursing homes.

Just 7 days later, in a midnight “tweet” on March 23, the president declared: “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” Later that week, he told Fox News: “I think Easter Sunday [April 12] and you’ll have packed churches all over our country, I think it would be a beautiful time. And it’s just about the timeline I think is right.”

Of course, it was too early to know whether the administration’s earlier social distancing guidance was having the desired effect of slowing the spread of the virus. The incubation period of the virus (the period between becoming infected with the virus and the onset of symptoms of COVID-19) could range from 2 to 14 days, according to the CDC. The reported number of COVID-19 cases in the US had grown tenfold from 4,226 on March 16 (when the guidelines were announced) to 44,183 on March 23 (Trump’s tweet-date).

Whether the cure is worse than the problem depends entirely on what you perceive “the problem” to be. The president, it seemed, had concluded that COVID-19 was no worse than seasonal flu: “we’ve never closed down the country for the flu.” If you think it’s no worse than the flu, then maybe you can believe that it would be “beautiful” to pack churches for Easter with coronavirus spreaders.

The coronavirus was not the flu. A presidential proclamation would not make it so. True to form when confronted by facts incongruent with his imaginary world, the president tried to rebrand the coronavirus as fake news. The problem could not be worse than the cure. He would bamboozle his base but he would not be able to fake out the virus.

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A Thanksgiving Story

This story is not about politics or religion. In the end, it is a story about remembering that we are connected despite our tunnel-vision anxieties about how divided we have become as people. Kindness is a virtue that does not belong to any faction or faith. It is a true story about a small thing.

It all started in May of this year when we visited Mesa Verde National Park. This is the story of the Unfortunate Incident at Mesa Verde.

At the Park Point Overlook in Mesa Verde, a short, paved trail leads up from the parking area to several high viewpoints. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon when we stopped there in May, and the vistas from the top of the mesa were spectacular. And it was very windy up there, too.

That morning, we had gone on a ranger-led tour of Long House, one of the many ancient cliff-dwellings at the park, and I wore my hearing aids so that I would be able to hear our guide better. I was still wearing them later, when we visited the Park Point Overlook. As I took in the view, I was hit with a strong gust of wind, and I felt one of the hearing aids loosen in my ear. I checked them both to be sure that they were firmly in place.

Several hours later, as we walked to a restaurant in Durango, I felt the hearing aid in my right ear come loose again, and when I reached up to check them again, I discovered that there was no hearing aid in my left ear!

We retraced our steps, searching the sidewalk for the missing hearing aid. Back at the hotel, we searched the room and the car—but the hearing aid was gone. I realized then that it must have blown from my ear at Park Point Overlook.

I considered whether to drive back to the park to search, but I decided that it would be hopeless. I had no idea where I had lost the hearing aid. I could not even be sure that the wind had blown it from my ear somewhere at the Park Point Overlook. I blamed myself. Why had I not removed my hearing aids after the Long House tour? I did not need them for sight-seeing. Sometimes it seemed they were more trouble than they were worth.

After a fretful night, I concluded that I could be careless anywhere. I could as easily lose a hearing aid in my own neighborhood as I might on a road trip. It was one of the hazards of having the damned things. They are tiny and light, and if they are fitted well, you are not aware of them in your ears. The lesson was that if you are going to be walking around in a stiff wind, remove the little buggers and put them away in their case.

We were only about halfway through our Wild West Road Trip, and I was not going to let the hearing aid mishap spoil the rest of the journey. We would go on to enjoy being on the road together in the remarkable American west.

In August, two months after our return from the road, I decided it might be time to do something about replacing the missing device. I stopped by my friendly Costco Hearing Aid Center, where they told me that the hearing aid could be replaced but that I should considering buying a new pair because they were “so old” (I had had them for less than three years). Maybe it was time to upgrade to the latest technology. I decided to think about it.

I let three more months pass, and in November, I was about ready to buy two new hearing aids. Yet, when a last wild notion surfaced in my brain, I sent an email to Mesa Verde National Park on the off chance that a hearing aid had been turned in to their lost and found.

Two days later, I got an email response from Ranger Dave (last name omitted for reasons of privacy), who said that he remembered that a hearing aid had been turned in around the end of May, but unfortunately, the park only keeps unclaimed items for three months. All the items that they had received in May had been given to the Methodist Thrift Shop in October. He gave me their telephone number.

I called the thrift shop. The person I spoke with did not know about any hearing aid being donated. They did not have it. I explained to her that the Mesa Verde ranger remembered a hearing aid among the items turned over to the thrift shop. She promised to ask the manager and staff about it. I thanked her, but I knew that I was near the end of the trail and that what I had concluded in May was most likely true: the Mesa Verde wind had carried my hearing aid to its destiny, never to be found.

But a week later, I received an email from Kelly (last name omitted for reasons of privacy), the manager of the Methodist Thrift Shop in Cortez, Colorado. She said that she had my hearing aid and wanted to return it to me! She confirmed that it matched the description I had given to Ranger Dave.

Two days before Thanksgiving, a well-wrapped package from Cortez arrived for me. In it was the hearing aid, not noticeably much worse for wear and working just fine after I installed a new battery.

What were the odds? When the tiny bit of gray plastic flew from my ear, it had to have landed where a sharp-eyed park visitor could see it. That visitor had to look to the ground at just the right moment. He or she had to be willing to stop and pick it up, had to realize what it was, and had to take the trouble to turn it in to the Park Service. Ranger Dave had to remember, five months later, that a hearing aid had indeed been placed in the park’s lost and found in May. Kelly had to remember that a hearing aid was received at the thrift shop in October. The person who answered the phone when I called—and who did not think that the thrift shop had any hearing aid—had to bother to ask Kelly about it. Kelly had to have held onto it and had to imagine that, for someone, it was not just a worthless bit of plastic. And finally, she had to identify it as my missing hearing aid and to pack it so carefully to return it to me.

It is an astonishing series of kindnesses by a team of total strangers who did not know they were a team. This Thanksgiving, I am feeling grateful for these people, thankful that each of them was willing to do “the right thing” without knowing who they were doing it for and without knowing that it would make any difference to anyone. This Thanksgiving, I am appreciating the kindness of strangers, and even though I don’t believe in miracles, this amazing little story comes close.

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