What will it take to shock people out of their routines?

What will it take to shock people out of their routines?

Photo by stnorbert / flickr CC 2.0)

The US is enjoying a nice little simulation of what life is like in a failed state, in the midst of a national crisis. The top of the government has been essentially rendered non-functional, if it ever was. Donald Trump is using the White House solely as a TV room, and has completely disengaged from the coronavirus outbreak. When he said that you wouldn't hear about COVID after November 3, he must have meant from him. Beyond raging at the "medical deep state" for announcing progress on a vaccine after the election, there's been nary a word.

Trump has always been unforgivably lazy, and that's part of why we're in the third wave of this crisis instead of the second. But the consequences are even greater right now, given the skyrocketing numbers of cases and hospitalizations across the country. You may see Trump as a moron but 72.6 million people (and counting) thought he was good enough to be president, and if the coronavirus doesn't exist for him, it doesn't exist for them either. NPR had this heartbreaking story yesterday of an ICU nurse in central Michigan who said she constantly hears regret in her patients, just before they're placed onto ventilators. "I didn't know COVID was real, and I wish I'd worn a mask," they say, struggling to breathe. That's the result of an utter lack of leadership.

That leadership is urgently needed. We had 34,000 COVID hospitalizations across the US a month ago; there are 67,000 and rising now. The system will be at capacity within a couple weeks, on that trajectory; some regions are already there. Thanksgiving is about to "pour gasoline on a fire," as one Biden task force member puts it, with more travel than at any point in the crisis. The medical profession has done exemplary work, and we have strategies and treatments we didn't have in the spring. If people can't get the medical care they need, none of that matters.

Let's put lockdowns aside for a moment, as I'm dubious that any elected official is willing to go there right now. In the spring, New York and other locations set up field hospitals and called in retired health care workers to increase capacity. Outside of mobile morgues in El Paso I don't see any evidence of that happening right now. There's no federal assets or even interest in this basic function of keeping people alive, and not much activity I can see at the state level, particularly in parts of the Midwest that are hit the hardest.

So what can stand in for an absentee government? What's left is personal responsibility, a lot to ask of a public that's adrift. Really we're on our own now. And we can actually make a difference. The public health measures are not unknowable: wear masks, avoid close congregations to the extent possible, don't eat indoors at restaurants or work out indoors at gyms. That would cover an overwhelming majority of this and slow the spread, giving the sick a chance to actually get treatment. With a vaccine in sight, it wouldn't even be an open-ended commitment.

At many moments of the crisis, personal behavior has actually led the way. Restaurant demand was collapsing before any lockdowns took hold. Mask usage has actually been decent, though obviously not good enough. People starting to hoard food again could actually be a positive sign. But the real moment when the public took the lead was during that first phase of lockdowns, where everyone actually paid heed, went inside, and engaged in a collective action, a rare moment for this country.

That came right after the NBA reacted to one positive test from a player by shutting down the season. Tom Hanks' positive test happened around the same time. That was the news needed to get everyone to take things seriously. What is the antecedent to that now? What is going to shock people away from their normal routines?

I mean, it's probably football, our secular religion in America. There is active talk now about the college football playoff being delayed. The majority of the SEC schedule was postponed for this weekend, along with several other games. With quarantine and contact tracing protocols being what they are, it's entirely possible there aren't enough bodies available to finish the season, and at some point you'd expect players to just start opting out. They're not being paid to risk their health, after all.

In the NFL, at least one practice facility is closed, but there's so much damn money involved that you'd have to see a league-wide outbreak before the season is derailed. The college game, though, is probably different. And that's as important, if not more so, to a significant portion of the population.

It's beyond sad that I'm sitting here strategizing over whether we can see enough leadership—or really resignation—among athletic directors and football coaches, because there isn't any in Washington or state houses. But the prospect of 100,000 more people dying before Inauguration Day has me grasping at straws. There's a vast leadership desert in America right now, and I'm looking for an oasis.

Days Without a Bailout Oversight Chair

231.

Today I Learned

  • Elon Musk has it and is blaming the tests, which are antigen tests and admittedly not that accurate. (Reuters)
  • The oldest member of Congress has it. (Washington Post)
  • These billionaire Trump donors have it. (The Guardian)
  • Rand Paul, a doctor (OK an eye doctor), thinks all those people above are lucky duckies because they'll have immunity. (Talking Points Memo)
  • The liberal wonk consensus appears to be that real fiscal relief will only happen by giving Republicans more tax cuts in exchange. (Vox)
  • Avoiding canvassing seemed like the right public health move but may have been wrong for winning the election, Democrats admit. (HuffPost)
  • The mutation of the virus in minks won't be a problem for the vaccine, Dr. Fauci asserts. (CNBC)
  • Thoughts of rage about the third wave. (ProPublica)

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