Joining the Herd?

Sweden’s Coronavirus Strategy Will Soon Be the World’s

Lockdown protesters shout ‘be like Sweden’ — but Swedes say they are missing the point

As Europe emerges from lockdown, the question hangs: was Sweden right?

If you thought the politics of coronavirus couldn’t get any crazier, think again. Trump has totally copped out of any pretense to manage the crisis, while the U.S. leads the world in cases and deaths. If so many people weren’t dying, this could be high comedy: see Sarah Cooper above. Did you ever have a nightmare with humorous overtones?

The right wing has begun praising Sweden’s approach after years of vilifying its liberal government. The left wing wants to keep everyone locked down. Wisconsin opens up completely with no protections. Armed protestors get nasty in Michigan. People are fed up with staying home and the economy is suffering badly. So hoping for immunity is apparently a last resort.

Sweden’s opening up is based on the idea that eventually the populace will develop immunities to the virus, a herd immunity of maybe 60 percent, though that will require voluntary social distancing and other restrictions that the Swedes seem to be buying into. Yet the country has been criticized for “exceeding the per capita death rates of other Nordic countries and in particular, for failing to protect its elderly and immigrant populations. People receiving nursing and elder-care services account for upward of 50 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Sweden . . . .”

So the Swedish response is really a mixed bag, though one site opines that “the economic and social costs of lockdowns are enormous.” It has taken a careful government response to slow the spread of the virus, though this hasn’t been entirely successful. The fact that many Republicans are now praising Sweden is based on a total misunderstanding of the policy and its outcomes. Tucker Carlson praising Sweden is truly high comedy. Nor would the policy work in the U.S., which has large populations of immigrants and low-income people. In Sweden everyone is covered by a healthcare plan.

The idea of herd immunity makes many people skeptical and afraid. And yet, to follow the Swedish argument, we have to “find ways of living with this virus. There is no sign of a vaccine on the immediate horizon. We cannot ruin the world economy indefinitely. Better to concentrate on protecting our health services against it, should it return.”

The Swedish model will certainly not work everywhere. In Sweden there is a high level of trust between the people and the government. That is absolutely not true in the U.S. or, for that matter, the U.K. And the Swedes have a much healthier population that comes from a better healthcare system. They don’t do so well at helping at-risk people.

The U.S. is learning that it ultimately can’t manage a general lockdown. It can’t even manage to produce enough swabs. The country is going to be forced into adopting a kind of herd immunity because, as Trump’s folly has shown, there’s no other workable choice.

Defying the Gods of Nature

How Climate Change Is Contributing to Skyrocketing Rates of Infectious Disease

The Covid-19 ‘Infowhelm’

 There Is Still No Plan

This is a picture of plastic on the sea floor, a rape of nature and another instance of hubris—that ultimate kind of human arrogance—here putting the stuff out of sight, out of mind.

Some of our oldest and greatest human stories involve hubris—meaning, for the Greeks, “excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods.” I like writing about hubris because it never goes unpunished, at least in the Greek myths. Pride always goeth before a fall, and our fall could be a long drawn-out catastrophe.

We are now in the process of committing one of mankind’s greatest acts of hubris ever in challenging the gods of nature. Climate change may be the final act in response to man’s defiance of the natural world. The punishment is going to be severe beyond our imagining. COVID-19 is a signal warning, its spread enabled by climate change.

A catastrophic loss in biodiversity, reckless destruction of wildland and warming temperatures have allowed disease to explode. . . . The diseases may have always been there, buried deep in wild and remote places out of reach of people. But until now, the planet’s natural defense systems were better at fighting them off.

The hubris embodied in our myth of perpetual progress and growth has led modern capitalism to this state. Our myopic focus on extraction, deforestation, paving, overfishing, carbonizing (the list goes on) has made us blind to what we are doing to nature and what this disrespect will lead to. One who does understand this is Amitav Ghosh, whose book The Great Derangement I reviewed here last year.

For Ghosh, the imaginative, psychological and cultural failures keep us from talking about climate change or confronting it. So does our concept of time as something linear, progressing, moving always forward. In fact, progress is the spurious idea behind modernity, which fostered the separation of mankind from nature.

It has become difficult to make sense of all this because we are deluged daily with data and information. With coronavirus we are met with “dizzying numbers of disease prevalence, fatalities, ventilators, unemployment claims; models predicting time to hospital overload, time to reopen for business.” Trump doesn’t even bother with a plan for getting the virus under control. Coronavirus has eliminated any safety net, and as many thousands of Americans die, Trump has set himself to take no responsibility—an act of utter hubris.

The consequence of the data dump also applies to climate change as the onrush of climate data provokes “everything from anxiety, numbing, and complacency to hubris and finger-pointing.” It’s overwhelming and so we proceed with business as usual. As Ghosh revealed, we are now meeting the limits of human understanding and our response is “out of sight, out of mind.” This, as the old stories tell us, cannot continue.

Hard Truths about Climate Change

Climate math: What a 1.5-degree pathway would take

How McKinsey Destroyed the Middle Class

Op-Ed: The McKinsey I hope the world gets to know

Do we really have any chance to come to grips with climate change? Like many of us, I go back and forth on that one. Some recommend throwing out the whole capitalist system. If that seems a bit unlikely, you’d need to know how to redirect the system and what it would really take to decarbonize global business.

A pretty convincing roadmap for that is provided by McKinsey, the firm some love to hate. The critics hate its high-pressure culture, its stress on process, its success. But the business of America is still business, and McKinsey’s leaders have recently tried to transform their firm’s role to reflect the totally changing world we’re living in. I almost went to work for McKinsey in 2006, which would have been to the delight of my capitalistic forebears, but that didn’t happen and I’m grateful.

Anyhow, McKinsey recently issued a report on Climate Math that challenges business to meet the demands for a 1.5-C degree warming limit. This is very much worth your reading so you can understand in some coherent detail the challenges in achieving that goal.

 . . . With further warming unavoidable over the next decade, the risk of physical hazards and nonlinear, socioeconomic jolts is rising. Mitigating climate change through decarbonization represents the other half of the challenge. Scientists estimate that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would reduce the odds of initiating the most dangerous and irreversible effects of climate change.

The report offers five necessary and difficult steps to get to that goal. “The good news,” they say, “is that a 1.5-degree pathway is technically achievable. The bad news is that the math is daunting.”

None of what follows is a forecast. Getting to 1.5 degrees would require significant economic incentives for companies to invest rapidly and at scale in decarbonization efforts. It also would require individuals to make changes in areas as fundamental as the food they eat and their modes of transport. A markedly different regulatory environment would likely be necessary to support the required capital formation.

The report traces five needed interdependent “shifts” in areas that we all know, with varying means and prospects of achieving reform:

    • reforming food and forestry
    • electrifying our lives
    • adapting industrial operations
    • decarbonizing power and fuel
    • ramping up carbon capture and carbon sequestration activity.

Each of these areas plays out in three scenarios the report envisions, not as predictions but as “snapshots” to get where we have to go.

All the scenarios, we found, would imply the need for immediate, all-hands-on-deck efforts to dramatically reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions. The first scenario frames deep, sweeping emission reductions across all sectors; the second assumes oil and other fossil fuels remain predominant in transport for longer, with aggressive reforestation absorbing the surplus emissions; and the third scenario assumes that coal and gas continue to generate power for longer, with even more vigorous reforestation making up the deficit . . . .

Relying so much on reforestation seems to me dubious at best, despite the report’s qualifications. The final pages state in bold type, “It is impossible to chart a 1.5-degree pathway that does not remove carbon dioxide to offset ongoing emissions. The math simply does not work.”

The challenges here are immense and the report does not shy away from them. But finally we are getting serious analysis of how feasible (or unlikely) the 1.5-degree goal is.

American Morons

Frank Rich: The Casualties of a ‘Wartime Presidency’

Twitter names Trump the ‘Tide Pods’ president after he suggests disinfectant injections

Cuomo blasts McConnell’s ‘dumb, vicious’ and ‘ugly’ opposition to ‘blue state’ coronavirus bailouts

Before we get into our homegrown examples, consider that the British aren’t exempt. When asked for his response to America’s decline as a global power, Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European history at Oxford University, replied: “I feel a desperate sadness.” Oh dear, Tim, let me apply a damp towel to your forehead.

Or perhaps you need an injection of bleach, recommended Thursday by El Cheeto as a possible cure for Covid—which of course could kill you. Every day the snake-oil salesman seems to lay out a new cure or remedy in his medicine shows. “So supposing we hit the body with a tremendous, whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light and I think you said that hasn’t been checked but you’re going to test it. And then I said supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way.” Deborah Birx, the president’s chief medical toady, sat on her hands for this one. Fauci was not in the room.

These incoherent gibberings are probably known to most of you. Here are a couple of classics. In late February he said, “It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for. And we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.” And on March 13: “Yeah, no, I don’t take responsibility [for the pandemic] at all, because we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations, and specifications from a different time. It wasn’t meant for this kind of an event with the kind of numbers that we’re talking about.”

This week McConnell really endeared himself to the governors when he recommended the states go bankrupt if they couldn’t pay their bills. His office said there will be no “blue-state bailouts.” What a kindly old gent Mitch is. Governor Cuomo responded: “15,000 people died in New York, but they were predominantly Democrats so why should we help them?”

The morons are not only in Washington. The great wizard Elon Musk pronounced in March, “The coronavirus panic is dumb.” And now Frank Rich tells us that

in Oklahoma, there’s Carol Hefner, a co-chair of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, who told the Times that because her state gets “a lot of wind” and is topographically flat, it is “in a much better position than many of the other states to go ahead and open back up.” Surely the Flat Earth Society has never had a better spokesperson.

The best explanation for opening up came from the mayor of Las Vegas, Carolyn Goodman (please, no relation) who said it’s time to open the casinos: “Assume everybody is a carrier. And then you start from an even slate. And tell the people what to do. And let the businesses open and competition will destroy that business if, in fact, they become evident that they have disease, they’re closed down. It’s that simple.”

Finally, Brian Kemp, the loony governor of Georgia, whose recipe for reopening the state you should hear firsthand. Even Trump got unnerved by that.

Testing, Testing, Testing

Not Even the Coronavirus Will Unite America

The US economy can’t reopen without widespread coronavirus testing. Getting there will take a lot of work and money

Trump refuses to lead a country in crisis

It doesn’t take a genius to understand that reopening the economy depends on a program of massive testing. One wonders why it takes a new coronavirus task force of business brains (sans Mitt Romney) to figure this out.

“States can do their own testing,” Trump said. “We’re the federal government. We’re not supposed to stand on street corners doing testing.” Well, there is no way the states and their governors can coordinate and provide the millions of tests per week required. It seems undeniable that any reopening of the economy will result in big spikes in the virus, and who knows how many deaths. Q.E.D.

The Rockefeller Foundation, a major player in health care funding, has a testing proposal.

“It’s going to [initially] cost at least $100 billion and upward of $500 billion over the long haul,” said Eileen O’Connor, senior vice president for communications, policy and advocacy at the Rockefeller Foundation.
The foundation’s plan, which will propose that the cost be financed directly and subsidized by the federal government, estimates that 20 million to 30 million tests each day would need to be performed to get many Americans back to a more normal life.

Their plan will target health care workers first, then food production workers, then truckers. “After that, the goal would be to have tens of millions of tests done every day to have the country fully return to work.” The very idea of implementing such a plan seems totally beyond the thinking of the Trump administration.

At the same time, bureaucratic screwups have made things worse. Nature magazine tells us that their “investigation of several university labs certified to test for the virus finds that they have been held up by regulatory, logistic and administrative obstacles, and stymied by the fragmented US health-care system.”

And the public is so polarized that even a brutal pandemic can’t bring it together. Writing in The Atlantic, Dominic Tierney proposes that nothing short of a powerful human enemy, a Kaiser, a Hitler, will unify the country.

Every aspect of the crisis is colored by partisanship, including beliefs about which information sources to trust and views about who is worthy of federal aid. Even the act of social distancing is political—another way to show tribal colors—as liberals urge people to stay at home and conservatives chafe against government restrictions. The evangelical Liberty University has decided to welcome back thousands of students . . . and has instructed professors to hold office hours in person.

How can one even imagine a program of adequate testing within this kind of tribalism? As the poet said, thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.

Camus Updated

Albert Camus, The Plague

 Gordon A. Craig, Politics of a Plague

 David Wallace-Wells, The Coronavirus Is a Preview of Our Climate-Change Future

I’m rereading the great Albert Camus novel The Plague (La Peste), and there’s no fiction more timely than this. It’s Camus’s best work, the story of how plague comes to a small French-Algerian city in the 1940s with consequences more frightening than today because so much about the blight was then unknown.

Among other things, it is the story of how ordinary people do extraordinary things when under pressure. Of course we think of our health care workers of today: the priceless virtues and commitments of all those who care for the sick under dreadful conditions.

The plague in Camus is a metaphor for the Nazi holocaust. But it also represents the “abstraction” in all our lives, those rules, habits, and forces that control us, keep us in line and, even, give satisfaction as the townsfolk march to work every day, go to the movies, drink in cafés and live out their pedestrian lives.

The town of Oran is a grim, featureless place, and Camus stresses the climate’s effect on its inhabitants. “It must be the weather,” they say: the blue sky, the piercing sun, the heat that keeps people indoors, “socially distant.” Reading from our perspective, it could be a metaphor for climate change. The plague transforms the city into a charnel house. And “the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good.” It hides in furniture, clothes, bedrooms, cellars, always to reemerge without warning.

Like cholera and COVID-19, plague is a disease of society, as if a God were taking vengeance. In Camus’s novel, the plague exposes all our shortcomings—political, social, moral, economic—and so it is with COVID-19. Our very isolation forces us to contemplate the vacuous defects of our institutions and the precariousness of our lives.

We have been living in a bubble of denial about pandemics and certainly about climate change. We discover that we cannot insulate ourselves from the natural world, though that seems to be the goal of our culture. As David Wallace-Wells put it: “Nature is mighty, and scary, and we have not defeated it but live within it, subject to its temperamental power, no matter where it is that you live or how protected you may normally feel.”

My isolation is pretty comfortable. Boring, but comfortable. Yet it forces me to think of what others are enduring. I think of the trenches being dug to bury the nameless, unrecovered dead. I think of those who expire in a ventilator isolated from all.

Being in Mexico, I think of these words of Camus:

Thus the first thing that the plague brought to our town was exile. . . . It was undoubtedly the feeling of exile—that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.

In our present isolation, we are thrown back on that “sensation of a void within” for much of the day, trying to make sense of the abstraction of a pandemic that is all too real. It’s an effort to wrap our minds around the inscrutable nature of something so distant and basically unknowable.

The Trump Administration Will Be Our Downfall

The Trump administration’s botched coronavirus response, explained

An outbreak of incompetence

Covid-19 Is Twisting 2020 Beyond All Recognition

Do yourself a favor and stop listening to the president’s press conferences. How much more waffling and incompetence can you take? “Wear a scarf if you like,” he said the other day. After weeks of fumbling, the CDC has recommended face masks for all. “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it,” said Mr. Vanity. “Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens—I just don’t see it.” Who can bear to listen to this daily testimony to blather? He can’t even bring himself to issue a national stay-at-home order.

People are fed up, as a slew of recent articles demonstrates: I’ll give you excerpts from a few of these.

Jennifer Rubin, ex-Republican writer for the Washington Post, is one of the more fiery anti-Trumpers. Today she wrote:

One has the sinking feeling that things are going from bad to worse. Trump and the feds declined to act swiftly, in particular failing to get widespread testing up and running. Now they are failing to remedy the dire medical crisis that their negligence brought on.

She tasks the administration for much that’s gone (or is going) wrong—messed-up stimulus disbursements for small-business loans; the Navy brass who fired the captain pleading for help for his thousands of sailors fighting the virus on board his ship. Rubin concludes:

The chaos, confusion and incompetence at the federal level magnify our daily anxiety and uncertainty. We have lost control of our lives, and those supposed to lead us through this ordeal are deepening our national trauma. Years of contempt for expertise, for competent government and for truth itself on the right now haunt us all. God help us.

Thomas B. Edsall, the Columbia professor, frequently offers scholarly political opinion in the New York Times. His critiques are detailed and thorough. Recently, he said, “The current pandemic shows signs of reshaping the American political and social order for years to come.” Trump’s reelection is increasingly in doubt, and partisanship is the major cause.

A new study, Edsall notes, claims that “Partisanship is a more consistent predictor of behaviors, attitudes, and preferences than anything else that we measure.” In other words, the political split in the U.S. largely determines how people respond or fail to respond to the pandemic. That is frightening.

Another piece by David Roberts of Vox documents the “devastating public health consequences” of another partisanship study, which has “Republicans expressing more skepticism and taking fewer precautions, largely following the cues of their political and media leaders (as most people do).” Roberts says partisanship in the U.S. may no longer have any limits:

If a large bloc of the public cannot be convinced of the threat or the need for a response, that bloc can prevent collective action all on its own. It can ensure the virus spreads faster and more widely, no matter what the majority does.

Finally, Vox’s German Lopez presents a historical catalog of how the botched response to the virus “has been a disaster years in the making.” It started with John Bolton’s dismantling of the team in charge of pandemic response in spring 2018 and proceeded through the unbelievable testing failures, the backwaters on “social distancing,” the cutting of funds to critical agencies like EPA, NIH and CDC, and the total foot-dragging on the response to the growing virus threat. Trump has made clear that the lower the numbers, the better his chance of reelection. Now he’s cast his own destiny.

And we learned yesterday that Jared Kushner is now running the coronavirus response. As Rubin said, God help us.

On a personal note: some of you know of my long involvement with jazz music. The past week was especially sad as the coronavirus claimed the lives of three great musicians—Ellis Marsalis, Bucky Pizzarelli and Wallace Roney. I play their music in memoriam. So should you.

Corona Conquers All

America Is Trapped in Trump’s Blind Spot

The coronavirus forces a personal response from all of us, even if we decide to do nothing about it. Yes, there are people out there who party and congregate at the beach, and you find yourself hoping they come down with a bad case of the disease. Or maybe they escape it and survive, justifying their stupid nonchalance. You also find yourself hoping Trump will test positive.

But you can’t get away from personally dealing with a pandemic like this. I want to talk a little about my response and how it necessarily must displace our concerns about the climate. At least for the moment.

I live in Mexico, which is mostly unprepared for the oncoming disease. The next few weeks presumably will show how woefully unprepared we are. I’m personally at greater risk than most—because of my age (85), sex (male) and medical history (asthma, some emphysema). Like most of us, my urge to continue a normal life conflicts with the need to take some real precautions.

So I’m trying to get used to doing all the recommended stuff, like sanitizing surfaces, wearing a mask when I shop, washing hands, isolating. (I haven’t yet taken to wearing the mask but that will be next.) I got a lecture from my friends last night about being more careful about such things. Sometimes you need to hear this from others.

Andrew Sullivan recently wrote about his case. His words apply to me:

I have chronic asthma and consider my somewhat neurotic attempts to avoid this virus a prudent way to spare any hospital a future ventilator I would almost certainly need to survive. And there’s another reason for wearing [masks] outside as a matter of course: You show the world that you’re all-in on restraining the virus. And that helps encourage others to do the same. It’s a bit like those “I Voted” stickers you wear after doing your civic duty. It reinforces a social norm. Plagues, like wars, require some kind of solidarity over the long haul—and masks help visually express that.

Sullivan catalogs a few of the odious things that get drowned out by the virus, like “the constant harping of the woke” with their insistent assertion of their own identities. Isolation and quiet allow for new, reflective experiences. “For a blessed period, the truth matters—not a narrative, not a construct, and not your truth or my truth, just biology and humanity in a dance repeated endlessly in human history between viruses and bodies.”

Listening to the birds sing, for instance, enjoying the presence of a pet, dismissing the phony drama of Trump’s press conferences, just chilling out: these are the benefits of isolation and a kind of quietism. I’m lucky enough to have a great collection of music that will keep boredom at bay.

I’m also lucky enough to live in Mexico, not Seattle and New York where my kids live. Even as we await the plague, it teaches us how to simplify things and put on a new set of glasses.

More on Corona and Climate

Why the coronavirus outbreak is terrible news for climate change

‘This is a yes-we-can moment’: What the coronavirus response means for climate action

Climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’

The relationship is complicated, very complicated. I’m struck with a few of the many comparisons. One is that corona and climate both demand present sacrifice to achieve future goals—fighting the virus in the short term, attacking climate change over an extended time. Some young people find this hard to accept because the burdens fall heavily on them. Their public protests must give way to social distancing, and the internet is no real substitute.

Both crises require a broadening of the concept of community, a fundamental change to demand of a country like the U.S. composed largely of radical individualists. The populace will have to learn to trust in science, or at least accept it. This will not be easy for a people heretofore dominated by consumerism and laissez-faire economics. The impediments will be our so-far limited understanding of coronavirus and the perceived “remoteness” of climate change.

Both corona and climate have penetrated and largely collapsed the idea of national borders. What’s happening in Europe demonstrates that borders don’t stop the disease though lockdowns may slow its progress. Ethnic nationalists look more and more absurd in the face of it. Nobody can dodge the bullet.

On the positive side, the economic slowdown has given the world cleaner air, a major benefit for the 8.8 million people who die from pollution each year. But it’s a wild card:

If countries like China try to revitalize their economy by subsidizing polluting industries like steel and cement, emissions could soar in the coming months. During a period of economic crisis, climate concerns often fade, many analysts have noted. But there’s another scenario: Governments could seize this moment to enact new climate policies. Low oil prices are often a good opportunity to remove subsidies for fossil fuels, which have been increasing in recent years, or raise taxes on carbon dioxide emissions, since consumers are less likely to feel the impact.

Comparing the notional effects of corona and climate, Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, had this to say: “The coronavirus crisis is a better lesson than the financial crisis because, while it is still quite like a creeping crisis, it is like a fast-forward run of the climate crisis. The difference is that instead of it taking place over four decades, it has taken place over four weeks.”

The global pandemic is giving us a preview of what’s to come with climate change. Each sets up a range of harsh choices we must deal with. Climate change and the virus both require us to give way to the experts. But the remedies proposed must also involve community action. The costs will be tangible and immediate but offer us the prospect of remote and abstract returns. That will be an interesting challenge to the human species.

The Virus and the Climate

Coronavirus ‘Really Not the Way You Want to Decrease Emissions’

 For Richer or Poorer: Coronavirus, Cheap Oil Test Climate Vows

How the Wuhan Virus Is Accomplishing the Green New Deal’s Goals

María Medem, New York Times

We’re seeing a slew of articles on how coronavirus is affecting climate change efforts. After reading several, my take is that the outlook isn’t good, but nothing is certain. The consensus of opinion seems to be that

    • emissions will go down in the near term, then rebound
    • mountains of waste will increase
    • reductions from cheap oil and a possible recession will be short-term
    • unstable geopolitics make things totally up for grabs.

It’s not all bad news, but the situation is so fluid that no good predictions are really possible. “One of the greatest hazards for climate policy related to the coronavirus is that governments, international organizations and companies may have fewer resources and less time to focus on other thorny problems.” Yet it could be that the challenges of dealing with the virus may fundamentally change behavior and finally enable us to confront the enormity of climate change. A recession will complicate matters.

Let’s hope real change isn’t pie in the sky: “The focus is on health and supply chains right now. But the process of challenging assumptions and fundamentally altering behavior—illustrated by remote work—can be seized on by climate action advocates once the worst of this health crisis is over.”

To the contrary, Daniel Turner in The Federalist, a conservative bible, argues that the virus is a good stick to beat the Green New Deal with. “Coronavirus is a glimpse of the long-term pain a Green New Deal and environmental radicalism would inflict on America. And besides, grandma would die eventually anyway.” How old is your grandma, Daniel?

The virus pandemic has brought the world to a state of both high anxiety and compassion. Could it be the trigger for finally confronting climate change seriously? One can only hope. All the likely negatives are listed here.