I write this on Thursday, March 12, 2020. My planet is being ravaged by a worldwide pandemic, declared only yesterday by the World Health Organization. No one yet knows what the end will bring, but I leave this document in the hope that it may eventually be recovered by persons who will benefit from a contemporary report.
Perhaps they will find it in the rubble of a crumbled Manhattan. Maybe a long-untouched virtual computing cloud will be examined by those clever enough to reconstruct it. These words may succumb to entropy and never be found at all. But I have to try and explain what happened. Somebody has to try.
In December 2019, a new severe acute respiratory syndrome virus was first reported in Wuhan, Hubei, China. It was transmitted among people via respiratory droplets, similar to influenza, but the elapsed time between exposure and symptom onset was as long as fourteen days. So by the time a patient exhibited fever, cough and shortness of breath, other nearby infections were likely already present. Most patients would exhibit flu-like symptoms and recover. But the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) seemed to be about ten times more lethal than influenza. Most deaths, at least initially, were among people over 60; the vast majority of fatalities had pre-existing health conditions, including cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
Within weeks the virus had spread beyond China, beyond the far East. Different countries tried different responses, but our interconnected world was unable to stop the spread of this virulent strain. The most useful tactic seemed to be finding ways to slow it down, so that the overtaxed healthcare infrastructure would have more time to catch up. Countries with national health services were able to mobilize mass testing more quickly and dampen the rate of spread by emphasizing proper hygiene, the avoidance of crowds, and other social distancing.
Then there was the United States, the origin of this report.
The nation, oddly, had elected a vain, narcissistic television game show host to its highest office. His governing style was to foment chaos by pitting his countrymen against one another. He did this by demonizing real and perceived enemies, casting doubt on the veracity of the free press and the government bureaucracy, and — aided by the country’s most partisan tv network — spewing forth cascades of lies and misinformation until it became a chore to distinguish the truth, even impossible for about a third of the country.
The pandemic arrived in America in an election year, and the president was desperate to win re-election. Legal technicalities associated with his office had so far shielded him from the most serious consequences of his sordid actions, but as a private citizen he would again be subject to a torrent of temporarily postponed litigations, perhaps even criminal indictments. So he was frantic.
The president’s guiding philosophy had always been to take all credit and deflect all blame; to never concede and never apologize. His orientation had always been to himself above all others, coupled with a fierce xenophobia. So his first instinct was to portray the virus as a foreign threat that could be battled by closing borders. At a February 26 news conference, he claimed there were only 15 cases in America. “The 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero,” he said.
As the virus marched inexorably forward, he falsely tried to slam his hated predecessor for regulatory restrictions that did not in fact exist. He falsely blamed his political opponents and the media for exaggerating the severity of the threat (the reporting turned out to be accurate). He even repeated on social media the theory that coronavirus was a secret biological weapon deliberately wielded by the Chinese.
The president had always used one particular metric to gauge the strength of the economy: the Dow Jones Industrial Average. When it slid 2,000 points in two days during the last week of February, he ignored investors’ fears of a global pandemic and instead blamed it on poor response to the most recent Democratic candidate debate. He was not puzzled by the logical conclusion: if investors noticed weak opposition to the incumbent, thus implying his re-election, why in the world would they sell? And never mind that the debate took place after the second day’s closing bell. The eleven-year bull market that he had inherited from his predecessor had finally come to an end on his watch.
Just as inept was the president’s spectacularly uninformed medical knowledge. Early on, he advised that the virus “miraculously goes away” in April. He said WHO’s early calculation that 3.4 percent of reported cases of the virus had died was a “false number.” Based on “my hunch,” he put the true figure at “way under 1 percent.” During one meeting, he seemed surprised to learn that influenza can be fatal. He falsely claimed spread of the virus was not “inevitable,” that cases in the United States were “going very substantially down” — and that they “are all getting better.” He said there could be “hundreds of thousands of people that get better just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work” — the single worst piece of advice they and their colleagues could possibly receive. He said scientists were “very close to a vaccine,” within “months” — at least an entire year ahead of all legitimate researchers’ forecasts.
In case anyone doubted that the president’s main concern was his prospects for re-election and not human lives, he declared he would prefer to keep the thousands of passengers and crew of a cruise ship off the California coast aboard the vessel rather than bring them ashore for quarantine. “I like the numbers being where they are,” he said. “I don’t need the numbers to double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”
Then, last night, after the WHO pandemic declaration, he decided to speak to a nervous nation. “The virus will not have a chance against us. No nation is more prepared or more resilient than the United States,” he said unconvincingly. All around him, schools were closing, sports leagues were suspending or postponing their seasons, workers — including those in government — were being urged to do their jobs at home. New York canceled its huge St. Patrick’s Day Parade and banned all gatherings of more than 500 people, including Broadway shows. Late-night talk programs were planning to tape indefinitely without studio audiences, and college basketball’s “March Madness” games would not be played at all. The entire world was preparing to move into a strange new era, where public gatherings are dangerous and it becomes rude or even gauche to shake hands. The president’s rosy picture of the outbreak was now a laughingstock, but nobody was laughing.
In his Oval Office address last night, desperate to be seen to be doing something, the president disturbed Europeans by announcing a 30-day travel ban — the U.K. was exempted for some reason, perhaps the existence of president-owned golf courses — and added that the prohibitions would also “apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo.” An hour later, he backpedaled: “Very important for all countries & businesses to know that trade will in no way be affected by the 30-day restriction on travel from Europe.” (The president also said in his speech that health insurance industry leaders had agreed to waive all co-payments, not only for coronavirus testing but also for treatment. That was not so.) This morning in a statement, the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission called the outbreak a “global crisis, not limited to any continent, and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action. The European Union disapproves of the fact that the US decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation.” Of course, despite any travel ban, the virus was already here. Stock futures started plunging even while the president was speaking last night, and this morning the market lost 7% so rapidly that, for the second time this week, a rare “circuit breaker” trading halt was imposed to prevent an even more precipitous slide. The Dow continued to sink and closed off almost 10%. If the president’s intention was to calm anyone down, he only managed to emphasize how rudderless the United States has become, and dismayed the rest of the world even more.
So here we are, hunkering down against the inevitable. We’re not afraid of dying, that’s not it. Even if the virus goes on a rampage in our tightly packed city, most of us will only get sick and recover. But as the cancellations and restrictions continue to feed on one another, how long will it be before vital services are threatened? How long before we run out of food — or are unable to transport it onto the island? What about ATMs? Is this essentially a hurricane that’s going to last for weeks and weeks, or will life miraculously return to normal in April? The notion of facing feral groups of investment bankers is absurd until you think about it a bit too long. How anxious should I be? Here on March 12th, I don’t know. You in the future, maybe you do. But if the worst has happened and the inflection point of 2020 has been lost to deep time, maybe these small details can help you piece it back together.