The Great Distractor

President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force on April 10, 2020 at the White House. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
April 23, 2020 11:18 a.m.

One of the many things Donald Trump has done badly for the country in recent months is focus this debate – largely around himself – about whether to ‘open up’ or not. This argument is good for generating intractable arguments. But it’s not terribly productive. Jeremy Konyndyk, a former Obama administration official involved in the US ebola response and other international aid efforts, suggests this analogy. Your house is on fire. You can shut the windows to deprive the fire of oxygen. That will slow it down. But eventually you’ll suffocate. We’ve now got a public debate which amounts to whether to be incinerated or suffocate. What we need is the fire brigade to show up and hose down the house. The fire brigade, as Konyndyk explains, is a system of widespread testing, contact tracing, isolation for the infected and beefed up hospital capacity to make an interim new normal possible.

This is very hard work to do.

It would be too much to say that’s not happening. Various states are groping toward a version of that. Some is happening at the federal level. But it’s not happening anywhere fast enough. Nor is it being done on an organized national basis. We’re largely distracted by this open vs don’t open food fight in which the President is on one side or another each day depending on his mood and who he’s talked to in the previous few hours. Different parts of the country will require different approaches. But having each state devise their own strategy is as ridiculous as leaving it to individuals to make their public health decisions. Life in general is a constant mix of cases in which we are either individuals or parts of a much larger social organism. In a time of epidemic disease we are emphatically in the latter category.

TPM Reader TB flagged another key point for me. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) has now become that comic figure, the dutiful party lickspittle who in his eagerness to ingratiate gets just slightly out ahead of a mercurial paramount leader and then gets cut off at the knees for having zigged when he was supposed to zag. Rep. Doug Collins (R), Trump’s biggest impeachment cheerleader who lost out when Kemp effectively sold an open Senate seat to Kelly Loeffler is now getting revenge by savaging Kemp as disloyalty to Trump. But TB notes that when you actually look at the ‘open up’ plan that got Kemp in all the trouble it’s still pretty severe.

It is the measures that businesses have to take when they re-open. There are many things you can say about them, but they don’t look anything like a return to “normal”. And this from a governor who even Lindsey Graham and now Trump are saying is going too far. It also contains one key provision that I predicted – number 8 – “implementing teleworking for all possible workers”. It makes me think that workers like me, who, to be totally honest, have virtually no need at all to go into the office in order to get their work done, will be working from home for a very, very long time.

I’ve looked at some other reopen plans and a related element is big headlines about reopening followed by strictures that make the headline seem wholly unrealistic or impractical. So, yes, you can reopen your hair salon but staff and customers must remain at least six feet apart at all times. Pushed down to the details many of these reopening plans are not so much reopening plans as wishing away the contradictions. Yes, reopen! But with fine print that makes it completely impractical.

Strangling economic life isn’t just or so much to flatten the curve. It is to buy time to devise and implement a workable new normal. But that’s hard. A food fight is Donald Trump’s comfort zone: get the good people lined up against the bad people and start yelling. Innovating, testing, experimenting, working through problem is emphatically not his comfort zone. And thus here we are.

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