• GDP shrank 5 percent in the first quarter. Who says government can’t get anything done if it sets its mind to it?
• Presidents running cautiously for reelection run Rose Garden campaigns; cautious challengers run front-porch campaigns. Then there is the basement campaign of Joe Biden, presumptive Democratic nominee. During the coronavirus lockdown, Biden has been confined to quarters, issuing made-at-home videos, lost in the pandemic freak-out. This turns out to be a blessing for him. Biden on the stump can be rambling, goofy; his supposed moderation has been shredded by concessions to his party’s noisy left wing. His ideal strategy was outlined by a supporter of William Henry Harrison almost two centuries ago. “Let him say not one single word about his principles, or his creed — let him say nothing — promise nothing. . . . Let the use of pen and ink be wholly forbidden as if he were a mad poet in Bedlam.” Biden visible is Biden with an array of weaknesses, personal and ideological. Biden invisible is generic Not-Trump. His lead over Trump in the polls so far attests to the power of the strategy.
• If Biden were to become the 46th president, he would be older at his swearing-in than Ronald Reagan was the day he left office. Biden’s choice of running mate therefore assumes great importance. He has promised to pick a woman. There is a push on to make sure she is a black woman. Kamala Harris would tick that box if she had not hit Biden so savagely when they both sought the nomination. Stacey Abrams, failed and flaky gubernatorial candidate from Georgia, also offers herself. Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, would mollify the party’s left, though no one else. Amy Klobuchar could appeal to a battleground state (Minnesota) and demographic (moderates) but risks offending the left and identity politicians for just those reasons. Not to spoil the handicappers’ fun, the party swung so impressively behind Biden after his come-from-the-grave victory in South Carolina that perhaps he will have a free hand.
• At this point, one has no choice but to conclude that the material difference between the accusations leveled at Brett Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford and the accusations leveled at Joe Biden by Tara Reade is that Reade’s charges implicate a Democrat. How else can one explain the treatment that the press has given Joe Biden? When, back in 2018, Brett Kavanaugh was in the crosshairs, the mantra was “Believe women,” and the inspiration for the coverage was Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Then, the mere fact of the accusation was considered sufficient to demand that Kavanaugh withdraw. Then, adamant denials and heartfelt appeals to the presumption of innocence were cast as “privilege.” Then, nothing was too fanciful to print. And now? Now, media restraint is imperative, lest a career be ended by a falsehood. It does not seem to matter much that the evidence against Joe Biden is stronger than was the evidence against Kavanaugh. Nor, apparently, is it important that Biden has spent years insisting that women who accuse men of sexual misconduct must be believed as a matter of course. There’s an election to win. Time’s up on #TimesUp.
• President Trump’s coronavirus briefings, a near-daily exercise since March, began as a good thing for him and possibly for the country. They allowed him to do what he likes best, hold a stage; and they offered, in theory anyway, an opportunity for Americans to be informed. Yet Trump could not dial down those aspects of his persona — aggression, carelessness, vainglory — that are peculiarly unsuited to the moment. He mocked political rivals, speculated about medical silver bullets, and boasted about his ratings as doctors and nurses struggled and the sick and the dying lined hospital hallways. The climax was a riff on the possible uses of disinfectants and UV light: not, as his enemies said, urging people to drink Lysol, but spinning ideas that should never have been uttered aloud. In the deluge of mockery that followed, Trump insisted that he had been sarcastic: an obvious untruth that only undercut him (are you being serious or sarcastic now, Mr. President?). Did we say “climax”? No, because after a brief hiatus, he was back. He cannot stay away. He must be the bride at every wedding. It is what the Greeks called “nemesis.”
• President Trump said he would impose a 60-day moratorium on immigration to reserve jobs for Americans during the crisis. Immigration hawks complained that the executive order ended up having large loopholes after business interests lobbied the White House. The truth is that any short-term order, loose or tight, will have only marginal effects: The crisis has already shut down most immigration. An immigration system that is better geared to our economic needs — or just looks as though someone designed it on purpose — will have to be accomplished through legislation.
• President Trump has assembled a task force called the “Opening Up America Again Congressional Group.” It has 100 members, from House and Senate, of both parties. All of the Republican senators are included — except one: Mitt Romney. Arguably, he is the best-equipped member of the whole Congress to serve on the task force, given his experience and abilities. He had great success in management consulting and private equity. He led the Salt Lake City Olympics, and indeed saved that event. He was governor of a state, before he arrived in the Senate. He understands free enterprise, government, and the tricky intersection between those two spheres. In short, Romney could be useful on a task force like the president’s. His exclusion says a lot about the president.
• The White House has been attacking Voice of America for being soft on China, and calling on the Senate to confirm Michael Pack, its nominee to run the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA. Wrong reason, right man. Voice of America has broken important stories about China’s corruption, incompetence, and oppression. Pack, whose nomination has languished in the Senate for years, is a sterling choice. He is an unabashed conservative; more to the point, he is a top-drawer artist whose award-winning documentaries over a decades-long career have covered an array of subjects, from Hyman Rickover to the battles for Najaf and Fallujah in the Iraq War to George Washington and Alexander Hamilton (in profiles hosted by Richard Brookhiser — if Pack’s filmography has a partisan bias, it would be Federalist). Let VOA do its job, and let Pack show his stuff.
• Calling in to Fox & Friends, President Trump stressed our alliance with the Soviet Union during World War II. “They were our partner,” he said. “Germany was the enemy. And Germany’s, like, this wonderful thing.” Yes, Germany is a wonderful thing — as are Italy and Japan. The transformation of these countries into liberal democracies is one of the great success stories of the 20th century. The Soviet Union, true, was our wartime ally — because the Nazis double-crossed the Soviets, breaking the original alliance. On Fox & Friends, Trump went on to say that Germany “takes advantage of us on trade,” etc. Yet we “talk to” Germany, our wartime enemy, and not to Russia, our wartime ally. Since then, Trump has issued a joint statement with Vladimir Putin marking Elbe Day — the day in April 1945 when U.S. and Soviet troops met at the Elbe River in Germany. “The ‘Spirit of the Elbe’ is an example of how our countries can put aside differences, build trust, and cooperate in pursuit of a greater cause.” Not really. The Soviets, of course, proceeded to lock Eastern Europe under Communism for 45 years. Today, Putin’s Russia invades foreign countries, murders critics, interferes in our elections, and so on. There is, in other words, still too much of that old spirit over there.
• For more than three years, Michael Flynn waged a strange battle to clear his name after pleading guilty to lying to FBI agents and then declining a judge’s invitation to withdraw the plea. But there has always been something very wrong about the case. The retired army general, fleetingly President Trump’s first national-security adviser, was investigated during the Trump transition by anti-Trump officials at the FBI and Obama Justice Department. There was no criminal predicate: Flynn’s communications with the Russian ambassador, which set off the whole affair, were proper. Former FBI director James Comey broke protocol by having agents brace Flynn at the White House on his first day on the job. Though they had a recording of his conversation with the ambassador, they didn’t play it for Flynn — just grilled him to elicit perjury. Still, they didn’t think he lied. The case sat for months until Special Counsel Mueller’s aggressive prosecutors pressured Flynn to plead guilty. Now, the Justice Department has finally disclosed that they withheld key exculpatory evidence and threatened to prosecute Flynn’s son if he refused to plead guilty. Attorney General Barr is reviewing the case. The just result would be vacating the plea with prejudice.
• At a press briefing in April, New York governor Andrew Cuomo said that the number of new coronavirus cases in the state appeared to be leveling off. Likening the tenuous and hard-won progress to dieting-induced weight loss, he said, “The number is down, because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Faith did not do that.” He repeated the point in an interview with CNN: “Our behavior has stopped the spread of the virus. God did not stop the spread of the virus.” It was not the first time that Cuomo, a Catholic, has seemed to unite a muddled conception of basic tenets of his own faith with an animus toward believers whom he regards as extremist rubes. Most of those inclined to pray for God’s mercy and protection during this crisis, and to thank Him when efforts to combat the virus meet with success, understand that He acts through human beings, and don’t take their faith as a license for recklessness in the face of infectious disease. Cuomo needn’t fear that prayer will crowd out action, or that God will be unwilling to share the credit.
• Cuomo also says it’s “offensive” for Mitch McConnell to have said that the federal government should not provide funding for state pension systems and that states should be allowed to declare bankruptcy instead. McConnell, note, was not ruling out the possibility of more federal aid to states to help them through the coronavirus crisis. He was drawing a line between such aid and a bailout of irresponsibly managed pensions. It is the right line, and holding it, judging from the shrieks McConnell elicited from the press and politicians in both parties, will be an ordeal.
• The $2 trillion relief bill passed by Congress in March created the “Paycheck Protection Program,” a Small Business Administration loan program for which businesses with fewer than 500 employees were permitted to apply. The loans are forgiven so long as the recipient continues paying its employees and uses the money to cover basic expenses. Reasonably, Congress wanted to deliver the money to businesses as quickly as possible, so it decided to keep the program’s eligibility requirements minimal. But plenty of businesses that don’t meet the intuitive definition of “small” — including chain restaurants, hedge funds, and the Los Angeles Lakers — received PPP loans while the money ran out. (Many of these returned the loans after public outcry.) Congress re-funded the program on April 27 and will likely need to do so again soon. When it does, it should ensure there are basic safeguards attached. Advocates say the program is being unfairly attacked, but the PPP’s being worth fixing is all the more reason to fix it.
• Ivy League colleges felt compelled to turn down funds from the federal coronavirus-relief bill. Considered apart from the broader debate about federal funding for higher education, leaving the money on the table was the right call. The question in that debate is what taxpayers get in return for subsidies. The purpose of the relief bill was to help those who need it during an emergency — and these colleges manifestly do not.
• Evangelicals are sometimes accused of being “obsessed” with sex to the neglect of charity, but when Evangelical relief organization Samaritan’s Purse set up a COVID-19 field hospital in Central Park, it was the group’s opponents who seemed most obsessed with sexual questions. Members of the Reclaim Pride Coalition, a gay-rights outrage shop in New York City, picketed outside the field hospitals where volunteers risked life and limb to provide treatment to overflow COVID patients of every color, creed, and sexual orientation from the nearby Mount Sinai Hospital. One protester asked, “How was this group ever considered to bring their hatred and their vitriol into our city at a time of crisis when our people are fighting a pandemic?” Who’s doing the “hating” here, exactly?
• To San Francisco’s food-delivery market, where demand is very high because of the city’s aggressive coronavirus lockdown, local authorities are applying the same great thinking that has made their city impossibly expensive for middle-class people. With restaurants shut down and many locals unable to safely visit grocery stores or takeout restaurants (think of the elderly and those with compromised immune systems), app-based food-delivery services such as Uber Eats and Grubhub have provided a lifeline. But the city government is seeking to impose price controls on these firms, capping the commissions they charge to restaurants for their services. San Francisco is solving a non-problem (many of these firms have been cutting or waiving fees for consumers and restaurants, especially small businesses), and the most likely effect of its regulations will be to shift costs from restaurants to consumers. Restaurants use these app-based services because they are efficient and effective. (It is more economical for several firms to share a stable of drivers than for each to maintain its own delivery work force, and the apps provide an important marketing boost.) Consumers use them for convenience — and, at the moment, because of health concerns. Government price-fixing leads to artificial scarcity and invariably reduces consumers’ choices. San Francisco is home to a great many innovative and highly intelligent people, and we are confident that they can figure out how to deliver a pizza without being micromanaged by the people who have so misgoverned San Francisco that it now looks like San Francisco.
• A doorman named Louis Puliafito may well be elected to the state assembly in a New York City district that includes the city’s Upper East Side. This area was once known as the “Silk Stocking District” for its wealthy conservative residents, but as Upper East Siders have gotten even richer, they have also grown more Democratic, like the rest of New York. This might seem likely to impair Puliafito’s candidacy, because (a) he’s a Republican and (b) he’s a doorman. But his expected opponent, the incumbent Democrat Rebecca Seawright, has been disqualified from the ballot for turning in signature petitions without proper cover sheets. That’s not always a problem in New York, but a few years back Seawright’s husband, a high official at the city’s university system, got on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s wrong side, and when that happens the Board of Elections gets real technical. So for the time being, Puliafito is the only candidate. Seawright could still win on appeal or run a third-party candidacy, but we’re rooting for Puliafito.
• When Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich lost his wager with Julian Simon — Ehrlich bet on the Malthusian view that a growing population would tax resources, sending commodity prices higher — die-hards in his camp argued that Simon had been the beneficiary of unforeseeable technological advancements. Decades later, partisans of “peak oil” were embarrassed by a world positively awash in petroleum. This defied their pet theory, which held that worldwide oil production would soon peak and decline, sending fuel and energy prices soaring. They, too, then cited unforeseeable technological advancements to explain their inaccuracy. In a free economy, there is nothing more predictable than unpredictable technological advances. The disruptive trend in energy prices has, in fact, run in precisely the opposite direction: With global demand tanking because of worldwide coronavirus lockdowns and storage facilities overflowing, oil prices briefly turned negative during trading in April. (Storage costs money, and some big oil traders were willing to pay to get the stuff off their hands.) In our time, we have problems of scarcity in certain goods (especially highly regulated and state-dominated markets such as health care and education) and problems of abundance in others. There is so much oil being produced in the world that the OPEC cartel could not successfully conspire to keep prices higher — even with President Trump promising American cooperation and offering to subsidize Mexican cooperation. Oil prices are historically volatile, and the current crash will be disruptive to many U.S. businesses. But problems of abundance are the right problems to have.
• “The Trump administration is considering cutting back on sharing intelligence with partner countries that criminalize homosexuality as part of a push by the acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, to prod those nations to change their laws.” So begins a report in the New York Times. We will make the elementary point that we share intelligence not because we like other countries but because we are pursuing the U.S. interest and trying to keep the world as safe as possible from war and other calamities. Saudi Arabia not only bans homosexuality — even as its rulers and elites practice it robustly and notoriously — it slices up critics of the government with bone saws. Yet we must deal with bad actors, until nations beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks.
• Trump has halted funding to the World Health Organization following its bungled response to the coronavirus pandemic. During a 60-day investigation of Chinese influence on the agency, the White House will redirect funding to other public-health programs. Not only was the WHO unprepared for the coronavirus, it willingly undermined public-health efforts in order to placate the CCP. The more the World Health Organization capitulates to Chinese soft power, the less effective — and the less deserving of our support — it will be.
• Bowing to pressure from Beijing, the European Union has gutted a report on coronavirus disinformation and propaganda. The original report, characterized by the New York Times as “not particularly strident,” noted the fact of a “global disinformation campaign,” corrected baseless claims of racist slurs directed at the WHO chief by French officials, documented a Serbian-based bot network spreading Chinese propaganda, and contained a standalone section on the state-sponsored disinformation campaigns organized by China and Russia. All of that was cut from the final report. The European Union is not only failing to see to the interests of its own members (of which France is still one, we believe) but is in effect cooperating with Beijing’s disinformation campaign by helping to minimize it. Which is to say, the European Union is helping to cover up a crime of which it is the victim. Beijing’s dishonesty and its plain incompetence in this matter present a genuine danger to the world at large, with consequences that we are all now paying, from the United States to Europe and around the world. If the European Union is to be a credible partner for diplomatic, economic, and military cooperation, then it is going to have to learn to stand up for itself.
• Boris Johnson is still recovering from COVID-19. Before his infection, Johnson was seriously considering allowing the Chinese telecom giant Huawei a significant part in developing the U.K.’s 5G network. Some Conservative members of Parliament already opposed this; now, even more do. Their suspicions are justified. Huawei claims to be a private company, free from Chinese-government interference. But Chinese law compels the company to reveal its data to the government if they are requested, and U.S. intelligence believes that Huawei maintains a covert backdoor in its technology to access the information of users. Which is why the company is already at the center of surveillance scandals in Poland and Germany, and severely limited in its 5G operations in the U.S., Australia, and Japan. The U.S. Department of Justice has also accused Huawei of intellectual-property theft, among other crimes. Even before the coronavirus, the U.K. would have been wise not to consider working with Huawei. If the outbreak causes the country to reconsider, that should be counted among its few silver linings.
• Taiwan, barred by China from participating in the WHO, has had remarkable success in combating the coronavirus. In late December, Taipei sent the WHO a request for information about the novel flu-like virus that had emerged in Wuhan; it never received a response. That proved to be a blessing in disguise, as the Taiwanese concluded through their own research that the virus could spark an epidemic. Before COVID made headlines, Taiwan began inspecting travelers entering the country from China and instituted a “test and trace” program to isolate those infected. On January 20, the country mobilized its Central Epidemic Command Center while mainlanders flocked to Wuhan to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Despite deep economic and cultural ties to the mainland, Taiwan was the first country to restrict travel from China. The upshot: Only six Taiwanese have died of the coronavirus, in spite of geography and geopolitics. At the behest of Beijing, multilateral institutions have sidelined the Taiwanese. Taipei may be better off without them.
• As we go to press, Kim Jong-un may be dead. Or nearly dead. Or alive and well. It is hard to get information from the “Hermit Kingdom,” even for the world’s best intelligence agencies. But we know that three Kims have ruled North Korea since the end of World War II — father, son, and son — and there is no apparent Kim in the wings. Kim Jong-un’s children are too young for dictatorship. Could there be a regent? Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, perhaps? Stranger things have happened, but not many: Dictatorship has long been a man’s game. The question of North Korea’s government is an extremely serious one, because this is a government — a “psychotic state,” as Jeane Kirkpatrick said — with nuclear weapons. U.S. leadership should look with clear, unblinking eyes, and partner to the maximum with Japan, South Korea, and anyone else who will help us keep this menace, North Korea, in check.
• Yuri Dmitriev, an amateur (in the best sense of that word) historian, researches the Great Terror of 1936–38, when the Soviet government executed hundreds of thousands of “enemies of the people.” In 1997, Dmitriev helped discover vast killing fields near his home in Karelia, bordering Finland. He spent long winters in local archives to determine, to the extent possible, the identity of the thousands of victims. He served as the first chairman of the Karelia chapter of Memorial, an organization dedicated to the investigation of human-rights abuses in present-day Russia as well as in the Soviet Union. In 2016, a historical society given to whitewashing atrocities of the Stalin era challenged Dmitriev’s findings. Soon afterward he was arrested on charges of child pornography. The case involved his chronically ill foster daughter, unclothed in nine photos among hundreds in a folder marked “Natasha, Medical” on his computer. After more than a year in custody, he was acquitted but then sent back to jail, where he remains, after a court ordered a retrial. Putin complains about the “demonizing” of Stalin, whose outrageous cynicism the current Russian government emulates too successfully.
• Assuming that the pandemic in his country will soon subside, Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte has announced a plan for the incremental easing of lockdown measures. Restaurants, bars, and hairdressers will be allowed to reopen for business on June 1. Public parks and beaches were scheduled to reopen as soon as May 4. Missing from the plan was any provision for the public celebration of Mass. Italy’s Catholic bishops objected. They issued a statement explaining that, in consultation with Conte and other government officials, they had proposed “guidelines and protocols with which to face a transitional phase in full compliance with all health standards.” Conte maintains that “for scientists” the resumption of public worship is “still too risky.” The reopening of restaurants, bars, and hair salons is not? The double standard is glaring, and the bishops are right to call it out.
• It is often the fate of conservatives to dedicate the best years of their careers to stopping bad things from happening. When we ask “what has conservatism conserved,” few can point more clearly to having stopped something bad, when it seemed inevitable, than Phyllis Schlafly. Her tireless energy killed the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. They hated her for it, and they hate her still. Four years after her death at 92, Hollywood now finds it safe to rewrite her story, with Cate Blanchett in the title role of Mrs. America. Not for Schlafly the breathless hagiography treatment given to the likes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The series creators “wanted to be free to imagine these private conversations,” and so did not consult the Schlafly family, which protests in particular its treatment of Schlafly’s husband, Fred, and their marriage. Yet even in caricature, Schlafly’s arguments and the force of her personality are displayed to a new generation. For some critics, that is still too much to bear.
• New documents unearthed to coincide with the series reveal that Schlafly joined the John Birch Society in 1959 and resigned in 1964, asking the group not to associate its increasingly toxic name with her advocacy for the Barry Goldwater campaign. The context was the divergence of the rising conservative movement (including Goldwater and National Review) from the Birchers’ conspiracy-minded leader, Robert Welch. To her credit, Schlafly chose the right side; to her discredit, she long denied having been a member, to the point that the news surprised even her biographer. One blemish on a long career rich in controversy cannot undo what Schlafly accomplished, but blemish it is.
• It used to be said by gridiron enthusiasts that there were only two seasons: football and spring football. But the virus has shut down nearly all football, which is why the NFL draft attracted so much more attention than usual this year. Most grateful of all, perhaps, were the gamblers: Las Vegas sports books reported that they took in five to ten times their usual Draft Day amount from action-starved bettors guessing which players would be taken when, how many would be drafted from specified colleges, and assorted other propositions. We suspect George Blanda and Bronko Nagurski would curl their lips at such shenanigans, but to your true gambler, the only thing worse than betting on pretend football is betting on curling, ping-pong, and assorted varieties of martial arts, which is what many of them had been reduced to. Where there is no football, the people perish.
• We’re going to miss the Land O’Lakes butter logo, with its image of a kneeling American Indian maiden proffering a one-pound package of the product. Years ago, kids were fascinated by the logo’s recursive nature: The package she was holding bore a label with a picture of herself, holding a package with a label with a picture of herself, holding a package . . . In grade school, that’s as metaphysical as it gets. A few years farther along toward adolescence, the fetching girl herself became the main attraction, and now adult dairyphiles see her as a comforting connection to their youth. But not for long, as the farmers’ cooperative that markets Land O’Lakes is observing its centennial by replacing the girl (Mia by name) with an image of, logically enough, a lake. Nothing wrong with that; not all ethnicity-scrubbing amounts to “political correctness,” and after 100 years the farmers are entitled to change their packaging. But we’ll still have fond memories of Mia, who brought a smile to our trips to the dairy case that Breakstone’s bland script never could.
• “A leading climate change contrarian,” reads the headline in the New York Times. We would call him a skeptic: Fred Singer, that giant of the public debate on the question of whether carbon emissions raise global temperatures and lead to environmental disaster. The climate warmed between 1900 and 1940, “before humanity used much energy,” he pointed out. “But then the climate cooled between 1940 and 1975.” His study of the issue was deep. His opinions on it were strong. His way with words and with argumentation won him many careful listeners. As the Nazis bore down on Vienna, he left as a child with his family for England. In the 1940s he crossed the ocean to study at Ohio State and Princeton, where he earned a doctorate in physics. His long career in the armed services, academia, and the federal government was punctuated by his publication of countless articles and more than a dozen books on science, economics, and the intersection between them. A happy, indefatigable polemicist, he fought with vigor but without rancor. Dead at 95. R.I.P.
• Sidd Finch, who threw a 168-mph fastball, turned out to exist only in George Plimpton’s imagination and on the pages of an April Fool’s edition of Sports Illustrated. Bob Feller is reported to have thrown 107.9 mph once, but before radar guns, so who knows? No one could put a sure number on Steve Dalkowski’s fastball either, although the sportswriter Joe Posnanski thinks he might have topped out at 113 mph. “Fastest ever,” said Ted Williams, daunted by Dalkowski in spring training. “I never want to face him again.” After high-school ball in Connecticut, Dalkowski signed with the Baltimore Orioles in 1957 and spent the next eight seasons in their farm system, averaging 1.4 strikeouts per inning and — he was a southpaw, after all — almost as many walks. He tended to throw too high or low, not wide. Still, few batters dared to crowd the plate. Maximum velocity, maximum wildness: It was a disconcerting combination. The pitcher who may have been the fastest in baseball history never played in the major leagues. The character Nuke LaLoosh in the movie Bull Durham is based on his extraordinary legend. Dead at 80. R.I.P.
• One hundred and one years apart, twin brothers Philip and Samuel Kahn each died in a pandemic. This twist of fate and dash of irony were well recognized by World War II veteran Philip when he died of the coronavirus on April 17. Born in Manhattan in December 1919, Philip never knew Samuel, who had died at just a few weeks old of the Spanish flu, but he remained deeply aware of the loss all his life. According to Philip’s New York Times obituary, a family member called the brothers “pandemic bookends.” Philip fought in the Pacific theater during the war, earning two bronze stars for his service. Always an active man, he worked as an electrical foreman in New York City after the war. He is survived by his daughter, six grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. R.I.P.
The Next Phase
Parts of the country are starting to reopen, and it’s a good thing.
We took radical measures at the outset of the epidemic to keep the virus from spreading out of control, and indications as we went to press were that the number of new cases had plateaued nationally. Meanwhile, the country’s hardest-hit area, New York City, appeared to be through the worst of it. And the nightmare scenario that the lockdowns were meant to avoid, the overwhelming of hospitals in hot spots, has indeed been averted.
The debate over the wisdom of the lockdowns will continue for a very long time. There is still much we don’t know about the disease, including the true death rate. But it is unquestionably more virulent than the seasonal flu. We have had 60,000 fatalities, the same as a bad flu season, in a little more than a month, and that’s with much of the country locked down. Studies of excess deaths in Western countries have established that the fatalities aren’t merely a matter of how COVID-19 deaths have been counted. There have indeed been alarming spikes in mortality — in New York City, deaths might be six times higher than the normal level.
If New York is the epicenter of the disease in the U.S., COVID-19 is not exclusively a New York–area phenomenon. Yes, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut account for almost half of the country’s roughly 60,000 deaths. But Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Michigan all have per capita deaths on par with European countries such as France and the U.K. As outbreaks in meatpacking plants in the Midwest have shown, the virus easily spreads wherever there are large gatherings of people in close proximity.
That said, it is increasingly clear that the virus particularly thrives in dense urban settings and may even be more deadly there. The infirm are especially vulnerable to the disease, which is why nursing homes, with large groups of infirm people living together, have been so hard hit. A Kaiser Family Foundation report finds that at least 10,378 residents and staff of “long-term care facilities” have died from COVID-19 since the epidemic began. That report counts data from only 23 states, so the true figure is surely far higher.
All of this suggests that, even in this period of severe lockdowns, we were much too late in closing New York and have been too careless with nursing homes. Going forward, homes that seek to transfer infected residents to area hospitals shouldn’t be declined; in New York, they have been. Health and safety regulations shouldn’t be treated as aspirations; Maryland and Florida are admirably stepping up enforcement.
On the other side of the ledger, the lockdowns have been too geographically sweeping. Not only are the states of our union vastly different, so are areas within states. There is no reason for rural areas of New York and Michigan, where many counties have a couple of dozen cases or fewer, to be subject to the same restrictions as New York City and Detroit. Likewise, statewide prohibitions on elective surgeries have, perversely, emptied hospital beds and idled medical workers in places that have had no COVID-19 surge. (The iconic Mayo Clinic has furloughed or reduced hours of 30,000 staff members.) These procedures, often for serious illnesses such as cancer, need to resume.
Overall, it’s impossible to exaggerate the economic cost of the lockdowns, which have brought on a steep recession that we will probably spend years digging out of. This is why impatience to reopen is an entirely understandable sentiment, even if it is treated by much of the media as heretical. A balance obviously has to be struck. Much economic activity disappeared when people decided, on their own, to change their habits in response to the epidemic. Consumers won’t come back in full force until they believe that the pathogen is under control. But we can’t stay locked down until the virus is entirely vanquished, or we will have destroyed the country to save it.
Fortunately, we have a federal system that allows considerable leeway for states to chart their own policy paths. Texas, Ohio, and Colorado, for example, are all beginning to reopen in stages. We will be able to see what works best. Perhaps Georgia is reopening too fast, too soon. (Trump, who has blown hot and cold on reopening, rebuked its governor, Brian Kemp.) We will find out. Testing, contact-tracing, masks, and prudent distancing all have a role to play in the new normal, but the near-total cessation of economic life in swaths of the country isn’t sustainable.
The best option remains developing a vaccine or therapies, which would allow us to innovate our way out of the public-health crisis. Even in the best-case scenario, though, we won’t have a vaccine before the end of the year. Of potential coro-navirus drugs, Gilead Sciences’ remdesivir is the farthest along. A randomized controlled trial of remdesivir conducted by the National Institutes of Health reportedly showed positive results, but the World Health Organization has issued a conflicting report. Until such trials are completed and definitive research is published, we won’t know for sure which treatments work, if any. In the meantime, health officials should coordinate with the private sector to build manufacturing and distribution capacity in case an effective drug does emerge.
This has been a time of great testing for the country, and it is far from over. But we should welcome the resumption of everyday economic life in the places where it’s happening, and hope we can replicate it elsewhere as soon as possible.
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