Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Let's Not Take Counsel From Our Fears

We’re finally beginning to look past the virus. Some expect “things” will eventually be back to normal but I’m not one of them, not after what we’ve been through. It’s been unprecedented. The world and the United States have been through many epidemics but this one will have changed us the most by far. Why? It’s not the virus itself so much as the response to it and foremost is damage our response has inflicted on our economy. Ultimately that may kill more people than the virus does.

Do whatever he tells you. What can go wrong?
Americans are ambivalent. The “We’re all in this together” feeling has been nice. We all pulled together to defeat a common enemy much as we did in World War II, but that’s changing. We’re trying to get to herd immunity and that’s a good thing too, but if we also get herd mentality that’s not, and we're seeing two herd mentalities divided along political lines. The blue herd believes we need to be guided by government and the red herd believes we need to think and act for ourselves.

Last month our very-blue Governor Janet Mills closed Maine’s golf courses and beaches because that’s what they did in Massachusetts and those people might come here. Today she said her shutdown will continue through May for most things. Restaurants must stay closed until June — hotels and campgrounds until July. She won’t open northern Maine counties with few if any cases though federal guidelines would allow that. 

Governor Janet Mills telling us what to do last Tuesday
Maine mirrors the nation with an urban/rural political divide both politically and virally. Our two southern counties of York and Cumberland contain nearly half the population but almost all virus cases. Southern Maine is overwhelmingly leftist. Rural northern Maine is largely conservative. A rhetorical question someone asked me: If Montana had half of all the Covid 19 deaths, would we shut down New York City? Similarly, if Maine’s rural Aroostook County had 95% of Maine’s virus deaths, would Governor Mills shut down Portland?
Virus response was handled from Washington at first. President Trump listened to his medical advisors — not soon enough for his chronic critics — but he eventually followed their recommendations. The USA did what most other countries did: we shut down. Then we learned the models used by those medical advisors were faulty. Only then did authority devolve to the governors. Now governors are taking different courses and that’s good, but it begs the question: should we be allowing the decision-making process to take place at an even lower level? 

As I mentioned in a last week’s column, that’s what Sweden has done. Ordinary Swedes make their own decisions about how to react, and it appears to be working. According to NPR, Sweden’s Ambassador to the USA recently announced: “We could reach herd immunity in the capital as early as next month.” That’s the goal, right? We cannot rely on getting a vaccine. That will take over a year at best and there’s little likelihood our economy would survive that long a ahutdown.

Doctor Murphy
Writing Monday in the New York Post, Covid-positive, Bronx ER Doctor Daniel Murphy advises: “I’ve worked the coronavirus front line — and I say it’s time to start opening up.” He was swamped with Covid-19 patients early on, and then noticed the virus peaked at 1:00 pm on April 7th when “the number of arriving COVID-19 patients dropped below the number discharged, transferred or deceased.” He was that specific.

“This was striking,” he continued, “because the community I serve is poor. Some are homeless. Most work in ‘essential,’ low-paying jobs, where distancing isn’t easy. Nevertheless, the wave passed over us, peaked and subsided. The way this transpired tells me the ebb and flow had more to do with the natural course of the outbreak than it did with the lockdown.” This scenario supports the Israeli mathematician I mentioned in last week’s column who said the virus goes through an 8-week cycle regardless of whether there’s a shutdown or not.

Israeli Mathematician Yitzhak Ben-Israel
Our president, governors, and mayors may discover very soon that they’re not in charge of what people do. A tailor in NYC today defied orders and reopened his shop. Nearby businesses admire his courage and declared they will open too. After Governor Mills announcements today, Maine businesses may follow suit. That would be very American. Early in this process we all took counsel from our fears, which many Americans historically warned against including Andrew Jackson, Stonewall Jackson, and George Patton. Let’s remember that as we restart our economy.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Have We Overreacted?

Up to now people worldwide and here at home have largely cooperated with government shutdowns, but things are changing. The economic cost has been unprecedented. More people have lost their jobs than did in the Great Depression. Small businesses people spent their lifetimes building have been severely hurt and some have been destroyed. Trillions in stock values have gone “Poof.” Almost every American life has been disrupted in some way. Backlash has begun around the country with demonstrations at various statehouses where Democrat governors ordered the strictest, most-extended shutdowns.

As we’re learning more about this virus, some are beginning to question whether it was all necessary. Sweden, for example, has allowed businesses and most schools to remain open and left it up to individual citizens how to respond. They’ve come under criticism from across Europe including from neighboring Norway, a very similar country in nearly every way, which shut down much as America has. Sweden wagered that most citizens would eventually get the virus anyway and it would achieve herd immunity more quickly while other countries extended their vulnerability.

By some calculations, Sweden has had more deaths than Norway per capita, but Covid-19 mortality statistics are worked out differently across the globe. Here in America, for example, deaths of people who never tested positive for Covid-19 are nonetheless counted as victims of the virus. Those who did test positive but who may have died of more serious co-morbidities are still counted as victims of Covid-19. As I wrote in last week’s column, our shutdown was largely prompted by a virus model by Neil Ferguson out of Oxford University that has since proven way overblown.

Neil Ferguson caused panic
We don’t yet know if Sweden’s bet will pay off. While its death rate is twice Denmark’s, it’s only half of France’s according to Vanity Fair last Friday. An Israeli study published last week indicates that the virus goes through all human populations in eight weeks regardless of whether a country shuts down or not. President Trump’s Covid-19 Task Force pats itself on the back for saving thousands of lives with its shutdown policies, but are they correct? If the Israeli model proves true, what’s the likelihood that Trump would ever admit he was wrong? In an election year?

Even less likely to admit it would be mainstream media. All through March and April, they’ve done little but spread fear and criticize Trump for not shutting down early enough or strictly enough. Some Libertarians have suggested that neither federal nor state governments have legitimate authority to shut down the country and lawsuits have been filed to challenge them. We have so far used computer models and algorithms to predict the path Covid-19 would take, but now we’re seeing evidence that many models were flawed.

No major media figure nor political leader has dared question whether this has all been necessary. Did total shutdown increase the likelihood of a second viral wave in the fall? We don’t know. Will Sweden’s milder approach decrease that likelihood? We don’t know that either. Political leaders with their medical advisors have been forced to make decisions based on incomplete data. To what degree will they be held responsible if subsequent data prove them wrong? We don’t know, but it’s a safe bet that political partisans will point fingers if they believe it will help them electorally.

As testing for both the virus and antibodies to it are administered more widely, we’re learning unexpected things. So far — and we still have a long way to go — we’re learning that many more of us have been exposed to Covid-19 than expected. It looks like upwards of 30% of Americans may have antibodies but few if any symptoms. Would this be good news or bad news?

Usually I watch Fox’s Bret Baier deliver the news at 6:00 PM weeknights, but he’s often preempted of late by President Trump and his virus team. Trump hogs the podium and repeats things so much that I’ve been switching over to CBS, ABC, and NBC. What strikes me most about network anchors there is their melodrama, especially when reporting on the virus, and wonder if it’s genuine or affected. I suspect the latter.

Swedish leaders and their medical advisors have withstood withering criticism for their outlier policies both from within Sweden and from across the globe. Whatever the outcome, they won’t avoid repercussions. It might be continued condemnation, but it might ultimately be praise. We don’t know yet. How much criticism will this smalltime columnist receive for even suggesting that American politicians and media may have overreacted at enormous cost to our economy and our day-to-day lives? We don’t know, but I’m sure I’ll find out very soon.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

To Open Or Not To Open

This week I was determined to write about something other than the virus, but couldn’t make myself do so. More than two decades ago — way back in the 20th century as a matter of fact — I promised myself  I would write columns only about what was most on my mind any given week. I’d write only about what I wanted to write about, not what various editors wanted. That isn’t conducive to furthering a career as a columnist, but it s good for my equilibrium.

Often I start writing about something and as my fingers move around the keyboard, I’ll end up somewhere else and I think, “Where did that come from?” Writing is a way of thinking things through. What starts as a vague idea turns into something coherent as one constructs logical sentences with subject, verb, and direct object, then sequence them into paragraphs. So, what’s on my mind this week? The same thing that’s on everyone’s mind: the virus, but more specifically our individual and collective reactions to it. We’re all wondering when our lives will return to what they were, if they ever do.

Social distancing is easier for my wife and I as we spend most of our time with people to whom we’re closely related. I have a big family: six siblings, three children, six grandchildren, in-laws, as well as nieces and nephews too numerous to count. Several are in the health care professions and some of them are working directly with the virus. I worry about them and pray too. We exchange information I use to hone the working hypothesis to understand event around me. This is a new thing we’re dealing with, hence the moniker “novel” corona virus. Leaders from all over the political spectrum thought at first that this was just another flu. They made statements they now wish they didn’t. We all thought it killed only the elderly and weak, but have since learned that is not always true.
My daughter sent me this
Only three months ago, the World Health Organization said virus didn’t spread human-to-human. Now there are calls to defund the WHO and demands that its director resign. Only weeks ago someone at Oxford University projected over two million dead in the United States. According to the March 16 New York Times, that lead to the near-total shutdown of our lives and economy. Now we hear that projection was way overblown, but the restrictive policies we’re still living under are all based on that. So where do we go from here? Back to how we were?

Some say not until we have a vaccine, but that’s a year out at least. When we get herd immunity? We may be closer to that than we think with so few in California being hospitalized. Were they exposed earlier? We won’t know until they’re all tested. Should we have shut down earlier or has this all been an overreaction? We don’t know without more data. Who can reopen the country? The president alone? The governors? Both together? Democrat governors have been more restrictive than Republican governors. The left wants to maintain the shutdown. The right wants to open up. We had a total economic collapse but we may have a patchwork recovery.

Almost daily I watch Coronavirus Task Force press conferences on Fox because mainstream media don’t all carry them live. President Trump dominates, ,endlessly repeating how government response is terrific and everyone is doing a great job “like nobody’s ever seen before.” That’s true in the sense that never before have the president and governors shut down the entire country. Never before have we printed so much money so quickly. Never before have the stock market, GDP, and the employment tanked further or faster.

In this election year, Trump’s ace in the hole was a strong economy virtually guaranteeing his reelection. Since 2016, stories dominating news have been Russian collusion, emoluments, the 25th Amendment, Stormy Daniels, the Ukraine phone call, impeachment — stories that had Democrats and their mainstream media allies salivating. But none of it worked. Six weeks ago, Democrat hopes rested with Bernie and Biden and it didn’t look good for them at all.

Then, as if it dropped from the sky, the novel coronavirus appeared! Trump’s economy tanked and Democrat hopes were renewed. Now Bernie is gone but Biden looks hapless. Some say Democrats and their media allies are quietly pushing Andrew Cuomo to dislodge Biden at a virtual convention this summer. Liberals and conservatives both insist their policy recommendations are solely based on what’s good for the American people and have nothing to do with partisan politics. Some seem to believe that. Others do not.

Democrat governors say they decide when to open up. Trump says he does. We’ll see.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Cooperation Vs Coercion

Last week’s column described how Americans have largely cooperated with government-imposed shutdowns so far. Now I’m wondering how long they’ll continue doing so. I’m concerned about that for several reasons, the biggest of which is: how soon can federal relief money get into the hands of people who are living on the edge? Many if not most Americans live paycheck to paycheck and they have to eat.

While those checks comprise a big part of the trillions headed for needy Americans newly out of work, there are snags. Small businesses are promised loans enabling them to keep paying employees through the crisis so they won’t have to be laid off. The loans, if guidelines are followed, will not have to be paid back. But — and it’s a big but — what are the guidelines? Banks are leery because they remember being subsequently investigated for not vetting loan applicants closely enough during the TARP crisis in 2008/2009.

Locally, Norway Savings Bank has emailed its account holders about its participation in the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) which is funneling the $349 billion authorized as part of the $2 trillion overall COVID-19 relief package. Small businesses can apply as of April 3rd and self-employed people may apply beginning April 10th. That’s good news, and came faster than I feared it might.

Monday I spoke to a small businessman running a retail business in western Maine with about a half-dozen employees. He has so far avoided furloughing anybody but cannot hold out indefinitely, so he called Norway Savings Bank and is waiting to hear back. The bank official he spoke to, with whom it seemed he was personally acquainted, indicated he was swamped with requests. That’s no shock, but how long will it take to process applications? How soon before money is in the hands of the newly unemployed?

Several times over the past few years I’ve written of America’s widening political divide, and it’s a frequent topic on my “Left & Right” community TV show — and that was all before the Corona Crisis. For the most part, those on both sides of the divide have cooperated, but there’s growing tension in spite of our shared danger. It’s in evidence during the daily COVID-19 press conferences which are frequently interrupted by snarky questions from left-wing reporters and angry answers from President Trump.

Though I’m not a golfer, I was miffed when Maine Governor Janet Mills closed golf courses. What’s the point? Golfers can easily maintain social distancing while playing and skip socializing in the clubhouse after. How is that any different from people going out for walks in the neighborhood? What is accomplished by the ban other than pissing off golfers? Tuesday I read in the Portland Press Herald that: “The City of Portland is closing two parking lots adjacent to the popular Back Cove Trail Tuesday to cut down on the number of people using the 3.6-mile path around the cove amid the coronavirus outbreak.”

The same day I read a legal notice in the Conway Daily Sun for arriving summer people in my town of Lovell. Lovell selectmen are telling those people they must: “…immediately self-quarantine for 14 days unless when engaging in Essential Services as defined in Executive Order 19 FY 19/20.”

Okay. I don’t like the tone, but it’s consistent with what most states are requiring of out-of-state visitors and property owners. But then the notice states: “A violation of this order may be charged as a Class E misdemeanor subject to a penalty of up to six months in jail and a $1000 fine.” Thus the tone gets even more authoritarian, but it doesn’t stop there.

It continues with: “This order may be enforced by local government officials pursuant to their authority to regulate the operation or occupancy of buildings.” So, their authority to regulate how structures are built through Planning Boards and Code Enforcement Officers is now extended to enforcing when and how out-of-state property owners may leave their buildings? It goes on still fiurther:”The Selectmen will be monitoring visitors coming into the Town of Lovell and enforcing this Executive Order to protect public health and safety,” 

There’s no police force in Lovell. Will the selectmen be asking the county sheriff, the state police, or town constables to arrest violators? What about people who grocery shop in North Conway, NH? That’s out of state. Must they quarantine themselves after putting their groceries away. Instead of threatening to arrest people, how about just asking them to cooperate? That’s what has worked across the nation up to now.

Which brings me to another point. Am I the only one worried about the increasing power of government to encroach on our basic civil liberties in the name of public health? How easily will they relinquish power when the virus goes away?