Today, for the first time in weeks, no new confirmed COVID-19 cases were reported in China, outside Wuhan. No new cases have been added in Hubei in three days. Quarantine conditions are being removed across the country, and should be lifted soon in Hubei.
South Korea, the hardest-hit country outside China thanks to the bizarre antics of a Christian evangelical cult, has largely contained the disease in a single city. That city, Daegu, now accounts for 90% of the active cases. Hong Kong has experienced only three deaths and fewer than 200 transmissions. Taiwan has seen fewer than fifty cases and only a single death.
Across Asia the coronavirus pandemic is winding down. More people have recovered from the virus there than currently have it. So far, approximately .006% of the Chinese population has contracted the disease as life returns to normal. About 3000 have died in China. Rapid response, sensible containment measures, and a science-based approach have limited the impact of the disease in the region.
COVID-19 carries some strange characteristics. Death rates in the Chinese city of Wuhan have hovered near 5%. Elsewhere in China mortality rates have been steady at about .7%. Italy has suffered nearly six thousand cases with more than 200 dead. Meanwhile Germany, with nearly a thousand cases, has yet to see a single fatality. The virus, which has spread rapidly in the US and Iran, barely made a dent in crowded, bustling Hong Kong. Why should the same virus, infecting a biologically similar host, display such remarkably different disease progression in different developed countries?
What if nature has evolved a pathogen that preys on societies more than individuals? This virus seems to thrive or fail based less on the biological traits of its individual victims than on the social and political ecosystem those hosts inhabit. In that respect, it’s more like typhus or tuberculosis. COVID-19 is a rampant killer. COVID-19 is also a mild illness sitting somewhere on the spectrum between the common cold and the flu. The same disease can be a lethal threat or a cough based largely on the strength of your public institutions.
Do you live under a government that can identify a COVID-19 patient, pinpoint the apartment building where they live, notify vulnerable people who may come in contact with that person, and quickly distribute necessary testing kits to health care providers? If so, life will continue more or less as normal, as in Germany, with little economic impact and a public health burden barely distinguishable from a normal flu season. If not, then you may be in for serious event that could alter your country’s demographic composition. Nature is not just cruel; she is endlessly creative.
A disease that kills disproportionately based on the relative dysfunction of a society is very bad news for Americans. US stock markets shed more than $6tr in value last week. While Asia is already emerging from this test relatively unscathed, we still have no plan in place to respond. Call it the MAGA Flu, because there’s reason to believe that COVID-19 was born to thrive under Trump’s demented leadership.
Almost two months after US officials were first briefed on the COVID-19 outbreak, a competent, career official at the CDC finally broke with the Administration, publicly acknowledging the severity of the crisis for the first time. Dr. Messonnier’s comments on February 25th, acknowledging that a broad US outbreak was now inevitable, sent markets into a tailspin and sent Trump into a screaming rage. Local outbreaks of the disease, which never should have happened and did not occur in recent pandemics, had already begun in several parts of the country. Our chance at containment had already been lost.
Messonnier’s statement was set against the comically inept Senate briefing by acting Homeland Security Secretary, Chad Wolf on the same day. Wolf is a career Congressional staffer and recent lobbyist who fell into this interim role because the President has failed to fill this seemingly important job for almost a year. In his briefing, he had no answer for tough questions like “how many cases have there been?” When asked, “how is the virus transmitted?” his answer was, “a variety of ways, including human to human.”
Fear not, for the President had already on January 31, announced the formation of a task force to coordinate the US response to COVID-19. This elite team includes such seasoned, pandemic response specialists as:
Joseph Grogan, a lobbyist for pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences.
Ken Cuccinelli, former Virginia AG and anti-immigration activist whose appointment to a top immigration post was just ruled illegal, and his orders invalidated.
Stephen Biegun, lobbyist for Ford and current deputy Secretary of State.
Chris Liddell, former CFO of the talent agency, William Morris Endeavor.
Matthew Pottinger, former soldier, journalist, and hedge fund manager appointed to the NSC by the illustrious Michael Flynn.
Derek Kan, a former regional manager at Lyft and advisor to Mitch McConnell. He came to government direct from a position in a biotech startup called Genapsys.
There was a qualified doctor on the task force, but he was quickly instructed to shut the hell up. Anthony Fauci led the US through remarkably successful responses to Zika and Ebola. He’s a qualified professional who knows what he’s doing. In response to his early comments insisting on a muscular response to the threat, the White House insisted that all communications from task force members should run through the Vice President.
It’s Vice President Mike Pence who is responsible for the Administration’s response to this public health emergency. This is a man who, as Governor of Indiana, turned a minor AIDS outbreak in a small Indiana town into a rural epidemic through the power of his faith. When public health officials begged Pence in 2015 to finally implement a series of measures, including a needle exchange, to contain an HIV outbreak around Austin, Indiana, it took him weeks to finish talking to the Lord, during which time dozens more people contracted the virus.
Pence brought with him to Washington the man who lead his idiotic HIV response in Indiana. Former Indiana Health Commissioner Jerome Adams is now the Surgeon General and has joined Pence on the task force. Up to now, his main project as the nation’s top doctor has been to warn the public of imaginary threats from marijuana.
The President’s official team may be a bunch of opportunists and cranks, but you may yet be counting on the seasoned professionals in our national health bureaucracy to rescue us. Think again. Life under Trump has taken a toll on The Deep State.
Thomas Frieden was the last Director of the CDC to serve under President Obama. Frieden earned his medical degree from Columbia, along with a Masters in Public Health from the same school. He studied infectious disease at Yale, going on to work for the CDC, World Bank and the City of New York on public health issues. He’s gone.
There are three kinds of people left in the Republican Party, racists, religious nuts, and grifters. New directors must be chosen from those three categories. To date, we’ve checked off two of the three.
Trump’s first pick to head the CDC was a crank doctor and failed Georgia Congressional candidate who made a living selling phony anti-aging cures. Rita Rubin at Forbes dug up the archive of Fitzgerald’s old website. It’s excellent reading.
In her previous job heading up Georgia’s Department of Public Health, Fitzgerald partnered with Coca-Cola to emphasize the importance of childhood exercise, rather than diet, on obesity and diabetes. She lasted only a few months at the CDC, when it was discovered that she’d been investing in tobacco stocks. Her replacement has not raised the bar.
New CDC head, Robert Redfield is a bona-fide medical researcher, with degrees from Georgetown and a long career as a tenured professor at the University of Maryland. He’s also a religious nut.
Redfield led an abstinence-only health education program for HIV in coordination with evangelical activists. He wrote the introduction to a 1990 book, titled “Christians in the Age of AIDS.” In it, he blamed the spread of AIDS on “single-parent households.”
Conditions in the agency aren’t good. Trump summarily fired the leader of the US pandemic response team back in May 2018 for no clear reason. There is still no replacement. Tom Bossert, who would have been responsible for pandemic response in the White House, was fired in April 2018, apparently to satisfy some petty vendetta from John Bolton. No one performs that function now.
Having failed to contain the importation of the virus, and faced with an incompetent central authority, the last line of a defense would be a robust public health infrastructure that covers everyone, providing a stable network of quality care. We don’t have that. America has a health infrastructure which has been converted over the past few decades to a wildly expensive for-profit vampire squid, swelling to consume 18% of GDP while life expectancies decline. To even begin to contain this disease, millions of Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck would have to be willing to shell out hundreds of dollars in copays and deductibles and lose work time over a cough. It ain’t gonna happen. MAGA Flu will thrive in our for-profit health care system.
Trump says he’s considering closing the Southern Border to prevent the spread of COVID19. It’s an uncharacteristically generous move which might spare the lives of many Mexicans otherwise threatened by the coming gringo plague. There’s good reason to expect that, COVID-19 will thrive here like nowhere else in the world. From here it’s likely to continue to spread in waves until it settles into the permanent viral ecosystem, like our seasonal flus.
There was no reason for COVID-19 to spread in the US. Despite the hype, the disease is not very contagious, far less transferrable than influenza. With the only potential sources coming from outside the country, it would have been relatively simple, as in previous pandemics, to institute controls on travel from affected countries and test returning travelers. And we had months to prepare.
An Administration built on white nationalist xenophobia and lead by a paranoid germaphobe should have greeted this threat as a gift, a justification for unleashing their worst impulses. They botched this election year political opportunity and turned the US into a petri dish because incompetence takes a toll.
Mike Pence kicked off a meeting of his shiny new task force with a prayer. May God have mercy on him. No one else will.