This is the silent spring. The planet has gone quiet, so quiet you can almost hear it whirling around the sun, feel its smallness, picture for once the loneliness and fleetingness of being alive.
This is the spring of fears. A scratchy throat, a sniffle, and the mind races. I see a single rat ambling around at dusk on Front Street in Brooklyn, a garbage bag ripped open by a dog, and experience an apocalyptic vision of vermin and filth.
Scattered masked pedestrians on empty streets look like the survivors of a neutron bomb. A pathogen about one-thousandth the width of a human hair, the spiky-crowned new coronavirus, has upended civilization and unleashed the imagination.
From my window, gazing across the East River, I see a car pass now and then on F.D.R. Drive. The volume of traffic reminds me of standing on the Malecón, the seafront promenade in Havana, a dozen years ago and watching a couple of cars a minute pass. But that was Cuba and those were finned ’50s beauties!
It is time of total reset. In France, there’s a website to indicate to people the one-kilometer radius from their homes in which they are permitted to exercise. That’s one measure of everyone’s shrunken worlds.
Yet, to write, to read, to cook, to reflect in silence, to walk the dog (until it braces its legs against moving because it’s walked too much), to adapt to a single space, to forsake the frenetic, to contemplate a stilled world, may be to open a space for individual growth. Something has shifted. The earth has struck back. Exacting breathlessness, it has asserted its demand to breathe.
From animal to human the virus jumps, as if to demonstrate the indivisibility of life and death on a small planet. The technology perfected for the rich to globalize their advantages has also created the perfect mechanism for globalizing the panic that sends portfolios into a free fall.
Do things differently at the other end of this scourge, some mystic voice murmurs, do them more equitably, more ecologically, with greater respect for the environment, or you will be smitten again. Next time the internet will collapse. The passage from real world to virtual world to no world will then be complete.
It is not easy to resist such thoughts, and perhaps they should not be resisted, for that would be to learn nothing.
The book was published in 1947, two years after the political plague of Fascism had been vanquished with the loss of tens of millions of lives. Camus’s warning was political. The virus returns as inevitably as the psychotic leader with mesmeric mythmaking talents.
In an election year, it has been impossible to witness the mixture of total incompetence, devouring egotism and eerie inhumanity with which President Trump has responded to the Covid-19 pandemic and not fear some form of corona-coup. Panic and disorientation are precisely the elements on which the would-be dictator feasts. The danger of an American autocratic lurch in 2020 is as great as the virus itself.
This is Trump’s world now: scattered, incoherent, unscientific, nationalist. Not a word of compassion does he have for America’s stricken Italian ally (instead the United States quietly asks Italy for nasal swabs flown into Memphis by the U.S. Air Force). Not a word from a United Nations Security Council bereft of American leadership. Not a word of plain simple decency, the quality Camus most prized. In their place, neediness, pettiness and boastfulness. The only index Trump comprehends is the Dow.
I have experienced physical shock in recent weeks watching leaders like Angela Merkel in Germany, Justin Trudeau in Canada and Emmanuel Macron in France speak about the pandemic. We Americans do not grasp how insidiously Trump has accustomed us to malignancy. A germophobe, he has spread the germ of untruth.
That self-satisfied, nasal and plaintive presidential voice has become a norm. And so merely to hear a sane, caring, scientific response to the virus from other leaders is riveting and reorienting.
The mother of all crises has met the ne plus ultra of presidential ineptitude. “We have it totally under control,” the president says in January. “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear,” is the refrain in February. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump declares in March. He has a good “feeling” about malaria drugs whose efficacy against the virus is untested. He is all over the place on China. And now, against widespread medical advice, and the protests of desperate governors, he wants the United States “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” in a couple of weeks.
I don’t blame Trump entirely for America’s unpreparedness. The American health care system has long been a colossal study in waste. But I do blame Trump for wasting a couple of months in denialism that reminded me of Thabo Mbeki and his criminal dismissal of AIDS in South Africa. I blame him for then leaving state and local governments to fend for themselves, mobilizing federal resources belatedly, weakly and inconsistently. And I blame him for the small-minded America First obsession that made it impossible for him to learn from other countries.
I blame Trump for the fact that my son-in-law, a physician on the front line at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, was for weeks unable to test his patients or himself for infection and still faces shortages. I blame him for the disappearance from view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, America’s foremost agency for fighting infectious disease, now forced to kowtow to Trump’s ego. In this president’s view, the limelight exists for him alone.
The lessons are in plain view. The countries that have fared best are those that have been fastest to test, track and isolate areas of infection, giving them a good idea of the size of the outbreak and the best means to flatten the curve of its spread. Look at South Korea or Germany.
Trump’s United States lost a couple of months. It then tried in the absence of any detailed data to quarantine everyone. That works in Wuhan and a surveillance state but not in a nation of individualists wedded to the idea of self-sufficiency. The test-isolate-track moment was lost. The results have been predictably poor. The economy went into a nose-dive that, a $2-trillion stimulus package notwithstanding, could lead to a depression. And many more could die destitute.
Polls say Trump’s popularity has edged up a little since the virus struck. The best way to think of that is he’s still a singularly unpopular wartime president. He is beatable. So is the virus, if America puts its shoulder to the wheel with seriousness of purpose.
In “The Plague,” the doctor at the center of the novel, Bernard Rieux, reacts to the pestilence with active fatalism. He treats everyone, even the dying, with equal attention. He is asked by a journalist to define decency and responds that he cannot in a general sense but knows that for him “it consists of doing my job.”
I have been on leave working on a novel. In these times, one may be tempted to ask, why be a journalist if one merely hurls countless words into a gale of stupidity that sweeps them away? The answer, I think, is that the words are not pointless, even if they may be ineffective in the moment.
“The only way to fight the plague is with decency,” Camus writes. Because decency in the face of pestilence redeems not just the individual acting in this way, but all of humanity. The virus, and it is both pathogenic and political today, requires everyone to defeat it. Without relenting, however hopeless the effort may seem. As Camus writes elsewhere, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
In this silent spring, the forsythia has bloomed and the magnolia buds are bursting. Nature, as Rachel Carson chronicled in her “Silent Spring,” published 58 years ago, is telling us something.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, the Dow plummeted from its September peak of 381.17 to a low of 41.22 in July 1932. Because so few Americans owned stocks, it took three years for the financial collapse to cycle though the rest of the economy. Unemployment only gradually increased, to a peak of about 25 percent in early 1933. Gross domestic product fell steadily, ultimately declining by about 30 percent.
The economic crash caused by the coronavirus, if anything, will be sharper and steeper. If we set out to deliberately destroy an economy, requesting most people to stay home is a very effective way. The virus itself is disrupting production, but the necessary public health response to the virus is economically catastrophic — and if government doesn’t act massively to offset the damage, the collapse will worsen.
As airlines, hotels, restaurants, theaters, auto production lines and much of retail shut down while people self-quarantine, there will be enormous layoffs. Households reduce their purchases to bare necessities, causing more shutdowns and more job losses. A ravaged stock market adds to the downdraft.
The financial crash of 1929 turned into a decade-long depression because government was too slow and too timid to counteract the broader impact. Will we repeat that epic mistake?
But none of these measures is remotely sufficient, given the scale and rate of likely economic collapse. We could easily see G.D.P. decline by Great Depression levels, and at a much more rapid rate than in the early 1930s. And the lessons we need to take are not from the 1930s, but from the 1940s.
Even after eight years of the New Deal, the economy was still not out of depression by 1940, as critics of Roosevelt never tire of pointing out. Unemployment was still over 14 percent when World War II broke out.
It was the war, and the astonishing mobilization for war, that finally cured the Great Depression. During each of the four war years, the government borrowed an average of more than 20 percent of G.D.P. for the war effort, and at its peak spent more than 35 percent of G.D.P. on the war, raising the difference from taxation. As a byproduct, America rebuilt production capacity, went on an invention spree and modernized its economy. We lived off that investment for much of the postwar boom.
After Pearl Harbor, in the first six months of 1942, the Department of War entered about $100 billion of military production contracts — more than the entire G.D.P. of 1939. As half-idle factories roared back to full production, retooling from autos to tanks and planes, unemployment melted to under 2 percent by 1943.
Direct public spending is more effective than other forms of fiscal relief because every nickel gets spent and jobs are created directly. What is today’s equivalent of the World War II buildup, minus the war?
First, we need huge investment in hospitals and medical supplies. We need to reclaim supply chains for products like N-95 masks and ventilators that have been moved abroad. Government has the authority in an emergency to produce these needed materials itself if contractors can’t be found. In World War II, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation underwrote more than $20 billion in war production plants. Some of these were called GOCOs, for government-owned, contractor-operated. Upgrading our capacity to deal with the public health crisis could be phase one of the plan.
Second, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the United States will need $4.5 trillion for deferred maintenance of basic public infrastructure by 2025 — roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, power grids, rail lines, tunnels and public buildings. Take the train from New York to Washington and you will see a living museum of 19th century infrastructure.
Modernizing some of this will take advance planning, but there are trillions of dollars in projects that state and local government could begin this year or next. All that’s missing is the federal money. These projects will of course take trained workers, and a big part of the World War II model was investment in worker skills.
Third is the need for massive investment to slow down global climate change and prepare for expected storm surges and coastal flooding. We need to replace carbon-based energy sources with clean and renewable ones. We need to upgrade commercial buildings and homes to make them far more energy efficient.
“Smart” power grids can save costs and make the economy more resilient to climate change. We will need to spend a lot of money on flood barriers. With fossil fuel companies devastated by crashing prices and the toll on fracking and shale, this is a particularly good time to invest in green energy alternatives. If government is going to spend huge sums to keep the economy afloat, we should get something tangible beyond mere survival.
Even with the strategy of social distancing to slow down the spread of the virus, there are still plenty of essential workers on the job — police and fire, first responders, people who keep gas, electric, phone, cable and water systems running. They could be joined by work crews on public infrastructure projects. Ironically, many construction projects have been shut down — partly because construction workers use the same N-95 masks that have been rationed for health professionals.
All of this will add up to several trillion dollars. But do the arithmetic. Total output in 2019 was about $21.4 trillion. If G.D.P. falls by 20 percent — less than the 30 percent that it fell between 1929 and 1933 — that’s an annual loss of over $4 trillion of economic activity. This time, with government deliberately shutting down commerce, it could well fall faster. Only a World War II-scale response can make up that difference.
Where will government get the money? At a time when inflation is close to zero and the government can borrow for 30 years at less than 2 percent, this is precisely the moment to borrow to underwrite a recovery that also modernizes the economy.
The worst thing Congress and the Trump administration could do would be to chase a collapsing economy downward, with aid packages that are too modest at each step of the way, as Herbert Hoover did. We need to get ahead of this collapse now, and we have a superb model in the World War II mobilization.
Robert Kuttner is a co-editor of The American Prospect, a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School and the author, most recently, of “The Stakes: 2020 and the Survival of American Democracy.”
His handling of this pandemic is how history will remember Donald Trump. Fifty years from now historians will not spend much time on Russiagate, Robert Mueller or Dirty Dossiers and alleged pee tapes, nor will massive tax cuts for the rich or the endless petty insults and the litany of lies make much of a mark. In a time of national crisis, the president is failing the most basic tests of leadership. He spends his time in front of the camera attacking the media, spreading disinformation and sowing racism. His response should come as no surprise. These have been the signature moves of his presidency and in normal times, these actions were bad enough, in a pandemic they are destabilizing and destructive.
Who could doubt that Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama or George Bush I and II would have struck somber and fatherly tones in the crisis? They would have attempted to soothe a country in distress and ease the minds of the people — to be sure, much of this would have been bromides. But it turns out, that’s a big part of the job. Trump has from day one completely abdicated the moral authority of the office, perhaps knowing intuitively that his moral compass was so hopelessly bent that it was pointless to try. It would be hard to underestimate the unexpected and deleterious effects this has had on the presidency. As we all isolate and seek shelter, to not have someone who is of good character at the helm only adds to the extreme anxiety, anger and coming heartbreak.
We have seen what real crisis leadership looks like from Gov. Jay Inslee and Gov. Andrew Cuomo — both have been honest, blunt and at times inspirational. Trump is never that. It turns out in a time of crisis a conman is not up for the task. We have had terrible presidents before and will again, but unlike those who came before, Trump has shown us the worst of ourselves. The reflection is not pretty. How people react in stressful situations can tell you a lot about them, for the president to be so ineffectual and dishonest is damning. After the last few weeks, what sane person would want Trump in their foxhole?
There is no moment Trump can ever rise to, he only sinks to his most base nature. The record of his mishandling and deceptions about the COVID-19 virus are clear as day and exactly like how he handles everything else — only this time the scale is so monumental and the threat so critical that it can’t be swept away by the news cycle. For more than three years we have seen him blunder and rage from one drama to the next, some serious and deadly like abandoning the Kurds in Syria, some foolish like the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Through it all, Trump consistently displays a smallness of character, a signature brand of toxic narcissism and a nasty mean streak; his only gifts being an instinctual understanding of his supporters and a mediocre talent to work a crowd like some cheap Borscht Belt comedian. That will not be enough in the face of a pandemic.
Trump knows this is how he will be judged. That’s why he’s growing so unhinged in public. He’s going to his familiar playbook and trying all his tricks. But a virus is not something he can insult or lie his way out of. People are dying. Our economy, seemingly so strong, cratered in a mere ten days. The virus is not Trump’s fault of course, but the dismantling of the pandemic response team at the National Security Council surely is. Ignoring the threat for months also rests on his shoulders. The nation is now on the brink, and how he handles the crisis is his test. It should be clear to all, he’s failing miserably.
WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Calling it a “promising development,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Sunday that alcohol may help people survive the most severe effects of coronavirus briefings.
Noting that millions of Americans have been exposed to the daily briefings of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Fauci said that he had voluntarily submitted to a preliminary trial of the alcohol-based therapy.
“What we have found is that a single dosage before the briefing and as much as a double dosage after the briefing do much to alleviate the most acute suffering,” Fauci said.
The esteemed virologist said that if Americans are able to administer additional doses during the briefings, “Consider yourself lucky.”
But, even as Fauci hailed the benefits of the new treatment, he sounded a note of caution. “The effect of this medication is temporary,” he said. “Sadly.”
Fauci’s findings are in line with anecdotal reports indicating that Americans have been alleviating symptoms in a similar manner since November, 2016.