The Morning Jolt

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The Competing Risks of Reopening

A man crosses a nearly empty Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan during the coronavirus outbreak, March 25, 2020. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

On the menu today: the much-less-discussed risks and human costs of the country remaining in full lockdown; the eye-popping, jaw-dropping leadership failures in New York City; and at long last, a look at something lighter: whether Star Trek: Picard lived up to the hype.

Why Is It So Hard to Understand Competing Risks?

Over in Politico, John Harris writes that everyone is willing to accept some deaths in the return to normalcy, whether or not they can bring themselves to openly admit it — which he contends represents the end of the conservative argument against “moral relativism”:

Like [Colorado governor Jared] Polis, I am willing to accept that some people must die in order to accommodate the return to whatever the post-pandemic version of normal is. Perhaps unlike Polis, I have a strong preference that “some people” doesn’t end up including me. I’ll extend the same wish for anyone who happens to be reading this column. The fact that the governor—like his Republican counterpart in Georgia, Brian Kemp, like Nancy Pelosi or Donald Trump—doesn’t know specifically who will die of coronavirus makes their choice of how fast to open less excruciating but no less profound in its moral implications.

I don’t think that Harris is accurately defining moral relativism, but even beside that point, he glides over the fact that people will die if we are to continue the lockdown, too.

Pediatricians across the U.S. are seeing a steep drop in the number of children coming in for appointments right now — only about 20 percent to 30 percent of the volume they would normally see this time of year.” This means kids aren’t getting the vaccinations that they normally would.

Cancer patients needed to postpone most non-life-and-death treatments for about seven weeks: “The new order comes as a relief to cancer patients, many of who had to either postpone surgeries or find alternative treatment options for the time being. While some more urgent surgeries were allowed to proceed following the March 13th executive order, such as surgeries to treat particularly aggressive cancers, many patients — notably, many breast cancer patients, who are able to treat their disease temporarily with hormone-regulating medication — were forced to delay their surgical procedures.”

That spiking death rate in major cities reflects the spread of SARS-CoV-2 — but it also could reflect people who would otherwise go to a doctor or hospital staying home out of fear of catching the virus at the hospital, and paying the ultimate price:

Experts say it’s possible that some of the jump in at-home death stems from people infected by the virus who either didn’t seek treatment or did but were instructed to shelter in place, and that the undercount is exacerbated by lack of comprehensive testing. It’s also possible that the increase in at-home deaths reflects people dying from other ailments like heart attacks because they couldn’t get to a hospital or refused to go, fearful they’d contract COVID-19.

. . . In other parts of the U.S., 911 calls for medical assistance have dropped. In Seattle, an early epicenter of the pandemic, data shows that EMT and paramedic calls dropped by more than 25% in the first 10 days of April compared with the same time frame last year. It’s unclear how much, if any, of that drop is due to people being fearful of interacting with the health care system.”

Dr. Harlan Krumholz wrote in the New York Times earlier this month, “I have heard this sentiment from fellow doctors across the United States and in many other countries. We are all asking: Where are all the patients with heart attacks and stroke? They are missing from our hospitals . . . We actually expected to see more heart attacks during this time. Respiratory infections typically increase the risk of heart attacks . . . Times of stress increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Depression, anxiety and frustration, feelings that the pandemic might exacerbate, are all associated with a doubling or more of heart attack risks.”

For seven weeks, this country minimized human activity in order to stop the spread of the virus, a remarkable sacrifice to help protect the most vulnerable — with the asterisk that there’s always the chance that those of us who don’t think we’re so vulnerable . . . turn out to be vulnerable.

The Biggest Failures Came in Our Biggest City

Delays and unheeded warnings, a mayor bellowing to “the Jewish community” that “the time for warnings has passed,” the mayor’s wife heading up the recovery panel, decomposing bodies found in U-hauls and tractor-trailers, politicians constantly fighting with public-health officials . . .

“There’s always a bit of a split between the political appointees, whose jobs are to make a mayor look good, and public-health professionals, who sometimes have to make unpopular recommendations,” a former head of the Department of Health told me. “But, with the de Blasio people, that antagonism is ten times worse. They are so much more impossible to work with than other administrations.”

Ask yourself: Is it really Florida and Georgia that are beset by the worst leadership in this crisis? Are there a certain number of people who would prefer to discuss the controversial decisions of Republican governors, because the failures and bad decisions of the most prominent Democratic mayor in the country are so glaringly consequential?

Finally, Something Much Lighter: Assessing Star Trek: Picard

Over the last two months, this newsletter has covered some dark and depressing topics: catastrophic economic projections, problems in our food supply chain, the lies of the Chinese regime. Trust me, dear readers, I never expected to find myself researching the use of anal swabs to collect virus samples from bat guano.

With April nearly complete, let’s turn to something lighter: Did the return of Patrick Stewart to his role of Jean-Luc Picard live up to the hype?

Patrick Stewart is as good as he ever was, meaning Picard the character is as good as ever. Picard the television series . . . was more of a mixed bag. The show felt like a meal where each of the component ingredients was fine but didn’t quite bake correctly. It was one more screenwriting draft away from really gelling.

The creators clearly wanted to create a Farscape/Firefly/Guardians of the Galaxy “crew of misfits” around Picard, and that’s a fun concept. But from the first episode, Picard’s decision-making makes little sense. Retired and on bad terms with his old bosses at Starfleet, Picard finds himself suddenly facing a ticking-clock life-and-death crisis, unlike any he’s faced since his retirement. And he . . . spends time assembling these misfits, instead of calling up the crew and de facto family that we watched him lead for seven years on syndicated television. Geordi and Worf get mentioned once, and I don’t think Dr. Crusher or Guinan get mentioned at all. This is like the late Norman Schwartzkopf recruiting for a commando raid by just seeing who’s hanging around the unemployment office. Even odder, Picard reaches out to “Raffi,” the one former crewmate who he already knows hates his guts. There’s something of a partial explanation later once we finally see Riker and Deanna; the pair are still coping with the death of their son, and it explains Picard’s initial reluctance to involve them. But . . . he does anyway, at least for one episode.

Once assembled, Picard’s new gang is generally fine; perhaps the most fun concept is that Captain Rios’s private-ship maintenance crew is a multitude of holograms that all look like him but speak with different accents. (The engineer hologram speaking with a Scottish accent was a great shout-out to the original series’ Scotty. I’d like to think that Starfleet honored Montgomery Scott by requiring all engineers to speak with that accent.)

The sudden and then considerable presence of Jeri Ryan’s old Voyager character Seven of Nine feels like either an effort to serve the fans, or test-marketing a spinoff series. Other than the fact that both her and Picard were former Borg, there wasn’t any particularly good reason to include her character; the two characters have never met onscreen before, but the show seems to presume that they have some sort of know-each-other-by-reputation built-in relationship.

It might have worked better to have the crew recruit Picard rather than the other way around. Our gang of misfits finds out about some terrible plot that’s way beyond their ability to stop, Starfleet thinks it’s a bunch of nonsense, leaving them no choice but to turn to the retired, semi-disgraced Picard.

Some will see the moral and institutional decline of Starfleet depicted in Picard to be a heavy-handed metaphor for the way most in Hollywood see the Trump era. But I found this mood of disappointment and disillusionment to be pretty fitting for the national moment and beyond the usual partisan cheerleading from the entertainment industry. You don’t have to be a Trump-hater to wonder if America has fallen short of its professed values. The decision of Starfleet to not help the Romulans, as their sun was about to go supernova, feels like an apt comparison to the Obama administration’s refusal to get involved in the Syrian Civil War — or Rwanda, or the Balkans, or any other time our country has lamented a faraway massacre but dragged its feet or declined to get involved. And those of us who watched enough previous Star Trek shows and movies know that in the preceding decades, the Federation has been invaded twice by the Borg and suffered serious casualties both times, and then nearly lost a war to the Dominion, as depicted on Deep Space Nine. This is a society that should be feeling insecure, wary, and less certain of that its values work because of recent difficult and traumatic events — a situation that many will find comparable to our own. The utopia of the Federation makes for boring storytelling; it’s much more interesting to see how people can hold onto their values and ideals when their circumstances challenge them the most.

Picard clearly aimed to tackle big questions such as “what does it mean to be alive” and “who defines what is really alive?” (If you squint, the villains’ insistence that synthetic beings — basically vat-grown, flesh-and-blood robots — could not possibly count as ‘alive’ looks a little like a pro-life critique of abortion.) But the first season wrapped up those questions a little too neatly and quickly in that final episode. Our protagonists witness the brief appearance of a near-omnipotent ancient malevolent race of sentient artificial life capable of wiping out “trillions” of lives . . . and once the immediate threat ends, they shrug and move on.

The problem was that this series wanted to have its cake and eat it, too. It wanted to give Picard his noble, self-sacrificing death, and to have its titular character around for another season. It wanted to depict a paranoid, fearful Federation in decline, and to have Riker show up with a state-of-the-art fleet to save the day. It wanted to have Dr. Jurati — whose name is more or less the way telemarketers greet me — accept the consequences for her cold-blooded murder of an innocent man, and to also remain a happy part of the crew. A bit like The Rise of Skywalker, the Picard series kept walking up to the precipice of a huge and consequential change, and then lost its nerve and backed away quickly.

When Patrick Stewart first announced he would be returning for this series, he told an audience of fans, “he may not be the Jean-Luc that you recognize and know so well. It may be a very different individual; someone who has been changed by his experiences. Twenty years will have passed — more or less exactly the time between the last movie and today . . . It will be, I promise, I guarantee, something very, very different.”

The finished product of Picard feels like a struggle between two visions — between one of a Star Trek series showing a beloved character in an extraordinarily different set of circumstances in his life, and a reboot that would amount to Star Trek: The Next Generation, Part Two. The fans wanted to see Data, and Riker and Troi, and to see Stewart saying “engage!” And they got it! Which . . . doesn’t quite mesh with the series theme of accepting change.

By the way, series creators, the insertion of four-letter words in Picard does not make the show ‘edgy.’ I always figured that the absence of profanity from previous Star Trek series meant that those words had fallen out of use in the intervening centuries.

ADDENDUM: It appears this April will be the most-read month in Morning Jolt history. Thank you for the privilege of being part of your day.

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