The Morning Jolt


We Need Straight Answers from China

Mr. Qiao wears a face mask and speaks to his family while they take pictures at Jingshan Park in Beijing, China, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, February 6, 2020. “We know the situation of the coronavirus is severe. But the epicenter is far away, so we think it should be fine here … It’s a God-given chance to enjoy this family moment with snow and without work,” said Mr Qiao. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Today brings the New Hampshire primary, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but the news out of China regarding the coronavirus is getting really ominous. Oh, and Nevada Democrats are starting to get nervous about how they’re going to count the votes in their caucus later this month.

Nothing to See Here, Just Beijing and Shanghai Going into ‘Lockdown’

Continuing the theme that what’s going on with the coronavirus is significantly more important than the political squabble of the day . . .

Shanghai is a city of 24 million people, the most populous urban area in China and, depending upon your measuring stick, possibly the second-largest city in the world. Beijing also has around 24 million people, arguably the third-largest city in the world. For perspective, the largest city in the United States, New York City, has about 20 million people in its metropolitan area.

Those two cities, with close to 50 million people, are going on a form of lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Measures unveiled by the authorities in Beijing and Shanghai on Monday include stricter controls on the movement of residents and vehicles, compulsory mask wearing and shutting down leisure and other non-essential community services.

The lockdown-style measures appear to be aimed at controlling possible community transmission of the virus as the country goes back to work at the end of an extended Lunar New Year holiday.

Last week, megacities such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Tianjin, Hangzhou and Chengdu announced similar restrictions. Apart from Hubei, authorities in Liaoning and Jiangxi provinces have also imposed provincewide measures.

The system includes a citywide registration system for entries into Beijing.

Do they have 50 million surgical masks in the city?

Maybe this is just a paranoid and authoritarian regime reacting the way paranoid and authoritarian regimes do. Or maybe the Chinese government is genuinely freaked out. Maybe they’ve found good reasons to be genuinely freaked out.

All of us are forced to try to figure out how bad the pandemic is based on what the Chinese government is telling us. Densely packed cities seem like really difficult places to contain the spread of a virus:

Of the 102 cases confirmed in the city, at least 33 of the patients worked or shopped at a department store in the city’s Baodi district, or had close contact with employees or customers, according to the city’s health authorities. Officials estimated that 11,700 customers had visited the shopping complex, which they did not identify, during a period in late January. The authorities said that those customers would be quarantined, and that the store itself was sealed and disinfected.

In addition, emergency measures were imposed over sections of the district — home to nearly one million people — with all but two entrances and exits sealed off in certain residential areas and security personnel on round-the-clock patrols. Residents in some areas were allowed to leave their homes to buy supplies only once every two days.

Over on the New York Times op-ed page, social psychologist David DeSteno concludes, “Most people don’t possess the medical knowledge to know how and when to best address viral epidemics, and as a result, their emotions hold undue sway. Rather, the solution is to trust data-informed expertise. But in today’s world, I worry a firm trust in expertise is lacking, making us too much the victim of fear.”

Okay, but the advice to “trust data-informed expertise” includes two catches in these circumstances. While I trust American health officials, few of us trust the Chinese government much at all, and all of us have many reasons to not trust them. Right now, the Chinese government controls a lot of the information about how the coronavirus is affecting their country. (Incidentally, why is there smog over Wuhan if most of the factories are closed and there are so few vehicles on the streets?)

Second, the message from those international health experts we’re supposed to trust changed quickly.

On January 22, the World Health Organization’s emergency committee convened under Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, and the committee “expressed divergent views on whether this event constitutes a [Public Health Emergency of International Concern] or not. At that time, the advice was that the event did not constitute a PHEIC, but the committee members agreed on the urgency of the situation and suggested that the committee should be reconvened in a matter of days to examine the situation further.”

Eight days later, they agreed that it did constitute an emergency, but were quick to add, “The committee emphasized that the declaration of a PHEIC should be seen in the spirit of support and appreciation for China, its people, and the actions China has taken on the frontlines of this outbreak, with transparency, and, it is to be hoped, with success.”

Now, eleven days later, Ghebreyesus declared, “we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg,”

“we don’t properly understand its transmissibility or severity,” and “with 99 percent of cases in China, this remains very much an emergency for that country, but one that holds a very grave threat for the rest of the world.”

Like the GIF says: “Well, that escalated quickly.” Nineteen days ago, this wasn’t yet an international emergency. Now it’s a “very grave threat.” I want to trust the experts. But I can’t help but wonder if they soft-pedal any assessment that could irk the Chinese government.

Come On, New Hampshire. Just Give Us Some Clear Results Tonight.

Ryan Lizza is a smart guy, so if he zigs when the conventional wisdom zags and writes that Joe Biden could come back from his lousy start, that line of thought shouldn’t be automatically dismissed.

The former frontrunner who flamed out in Iowa and looked shaky at events across New Hampshire may indeed be on a glide path to an embarrassing defeat. But his advisers argue that he’s also now unburdened by high expectations and in a race without a dominant candidate who can unite the party.

And so Biden will get a second chance if he passes the one 2020 test he set for himself long ago: winning South Carolina. Plausible!

Still, I’ve gone from bullish on Biden through all of last year to bearish. Yesterday on the Three Martini Lunch podcast, Greg and I noted that Biden . . . doesn’t look alright. Maybe he looked pale in the debate because somebody did a bad job with his makeup. We’ve all been watching Joe Biden speak in public life for a long time; we know what a “normal” Biden speech or town hall looks and sounds like. Is he just weary from the campaign schedule? Does he have a winter cold or some other minor ailment?

If the poll aggregation is right, the final result should be Bernie Sanders in first (perhaps by quite a bit), Pete Buttigieg in a respectable second place, and then three campaigns struggling to hit that 15 percent threshold either statewide or in a congressional district: Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren.

The one thing working against Sanders? New Hampshire voters hate to assent to Iowa’s choice. One other thing to keep in mind is that one of the biggest misses on polling history came in New Hampshire in 2008, where all of the late polls had Barack Obama winning solidly, and Hillary Clinton finished with a narrow victory.

Hey, Nevada, the Democrats Really Need You to Get Your Act Together

The Nevada Democratic caucuses won’t have the same problems as the Iowa Democratic caucuses. But that doesn’t mean they won’t have problems. The Nevada Independent:

Campaigns here in the Silver State have been told that the Nevada State Democratic Party won’t be using the same app and vendor that were in part responsible for bungling the results of Iowa’s caucus last week, that the party won’t be using any app at all, and that what the party does plan to use is best described as a “tool” or “calculator.” Beyond that, aides aren’t really sure what’s in store for the state’s Feb. 22 Democratic caucus.

They don’t know how early voting, which was originally supposed to take place on an app on an iPad, is set to work. They don’t know how those votes are going to flow back to early voters’ home precincts to be counted alongside their neighbors preferences just as if they were there on Caucus Day. (A second app was supposed to accomplish that function.) They also don’t know how the Caucus Day results will be transmitted to the party.

Most caucus workers are volunteers; most polling-place workers are getting paid minimal sums or per diems. When those are the terms of employment, you’re going to get a lot of elderly people; you cannot design a system with twentysomething employees of Apple or Microsoft in mind. If the staff that’s on the job best understand pencils, paper, calculators, and phone landlines, maybe you should tabulate the votes with pencils, paper, calculators, and phone landlines!

ADDENDA: Everybody’s ready to burn the Iowa caucuses to the ground, but Charlie Szold, a former spokesman for the Republican Party of Iowa, makes about as compelling an argument as anyone can on why they ought to continue, except, you know, as functional, as the GOP’s have been:

Michael Bloomberg’s B-52 style campaign of carpet-bombed TV ads shows what politics without Iowa could look like: TV ads and national-news hits that bring the sausage-making directly into America’s living rooms, but only through heavy filters. The “authentic” tweets we read are poll-tested; “off-the-cuff” remarks during a CNN town hall are actually written and rewritten by communication staffs; and debates are scripted plays read poorly by amateur actors.

In Iowa (and New Hampshire, I guess) candidates are forced out of their comfort zones into an ersatz statewide House race, where rubber-chicken dinners, zany local traditions, and sharp-eyed citizens await with sharper knives.

. . . Dear Democrats: Do not count on Mike Bloomberg to save you from a Bernie Sanders nomination. Bloomberg is exactly the kind of man that Sanders has been preparing to run against his whole life.


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