I mentioned yesterday that New York’s COVID numbers were moving in the wrong direction – albeit from extremely low levels and within the range that could simply be statistical noise. Today they’re a bit better. Let’s hope they keep in that direction. But New York, which currently is doing vastly better than any other state in the country, makes a different point. Even here, where daily cases are in the hundreds and the percentage of positive tests hovers around 1% it is not remotely good enough.
I seldom think anything good about Donald Trump. I hate what he has done to the country. I hold his enablers even more responsible for what has happened on his watch. But today I feel that stew of emotions in a new, deadening way. I am baffled and aghast and angry in a way that feels new.
The US is not experiencing a COVID surge. We are back to exponential growth in the virus just as most of the rest of the wealthy, industrialized world is moving on. COVID is not done for them of course. There are masks and mitigation and distancing and people are still falling ill. Some are dying. But most of these countries have beaten COVID down into low enough numbers that they can get about the business of a new form of social and economic life.
After being the center of the cataclysm, New York State and New York City have become a great COVID success story, showing what’s possible with an aware public, aggressive mitigation and robust testing. But we may be seeing the first hints that the national trends are catching up with this.
One of the many ancillary insights or interesting developments during the epidemic is the creative use of anonymized big data to learn to things about the outbreak. Mobility data tied to cell phone and mapping apps is one example. Not too long after the outbreak began they started surfacing some of their trove of mobility data for people and public officials making public health decisions. (If you haven’t seen it, check it out here.) Credit card use is another. JPMorgan Chase just released a report based on their own credit cards which suggests a strong correlation between “card present” restaurant purchases and new outbreaks.
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This may seem trivial on the surface. But it is a big, big deal. President Trump is trying to use an NDA to stop Omarosa Manigault-Newman from talking about her time working as a government employee at the White House. But the specifics are key. It’s the Trump campaign taking the action, not the White House or the federal government or even Trump personally. So the Trump campaign, a private organization, is trying to use an NDA to block someone from talking about their time working as a government employee at the White House.
The COVID infection numbers from yesterday and indeed since early June are ominous and harrowing. As we note here yesterday was another big record. They are best absorbed visually. Here are the case counts from early March with the original epicenter of New York separated out from the rest of the country.
From the start of the COVID epidemic we’ve been talking about “reopening”, when it would happen, whether it is safe. The President started demanding it about two weeks into the crisis – the churches needed to be full on Easter, the 12th of April. Now we talk about which states have reopened and which haven’t. It’a all wrong. From the start this metaphor has saddled us with distorting language and a distorted concept which has enabled and driven bad policy. It suggests a binary choice when one doesn’t exist. The impact goes beyond semantics.
There is no opening or closing and there won’t be until we have a vaccine or a very effective cure for COVID. There are various mitigation strategies. Does the state push or mandate widespread masking? Does it permit indoor dining? Are bars open? Has it scaled sufficient testing capacity and a robust contact tracing program? The devil and the death toll are all in this particulars. The ‘reopening’ metaphor obscures all of this.
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It now seems likely that President Trump will lose his bid for reelection in November and perhaps by a margin large enough to head off any effort to contest the results and unconstitutionally hold on to power. But even if this doesn’t happen in November it will happen one day. Now is the time to plan for accountability for and recovery from the catastrophe of Trumpism.
One of the most abiding criticisms of the Obama administration is that no one was held accountable for the actions that led to the 2008 financial crisis. Relatedly, but addressing a different set of equities, others criticized Obama for ‘turning the page’ on the manipulated intelligence scandals that led to the Iraq War. These are complicated questions that are beyond the scope of this discussion. But there are at least potent reasons to avoid the cycle which has plagued so many countries in which losing power means vulnerability to political prosecutions and the necessity of exile.
But we often get this part of the civic accountability calculus wrong. Prosecution and criminal punishment play an important role in combating public wrongdoing. But they are not the most important tool. Indeed it often operates at cross purposes to the far more important goal of public exposure.