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The Coronavirus Monsters on Main Street

Like a bad Twilight Zone trip, we are frantically searching for someone or something to blame, and Trump gets the brunt.

Twilight Zone episode: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street. (Columbia/Screenshot)

“There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own…”

That’s the closing narration to the classic Twilight Zone episode, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street. A summer’s day turns darkly paranoid as a group of neighbors is convinced that a street-wide power outage and attending strange occurrences are part of an alien invasion. Worse yet, they start believing that one family among them may be aliens in disguise. But which one? 

Their fears escalate until a neighbor is shot. The episode concludes with real aliens watching the riot as they manipulate the neighborhood’s electricity to encourage the violence. They comment on how easily people descend into paranoia, and how this can be exploited to conquer Earth. The message is clear: while there is a real threat, the worst damage is done by ourselves, driven by the search for someone to blame.

So in 2020, in what The New York Times calls this “land of denial and death,” we search for someone to blame. Paranoia does not require much grounding in real life. So while a global pandemic unfolds, affecting over 150 countries, the blame for what is happening appears to rest with one man. But China, Spain, Canada, wherever, have no Trump. They don’t have America’s grossly commercialized medical system, or the economic inequality, or the presence/lack of border controls, to exacerbate the virus. Yet they have the virus, statistically flexible enough to be worse than the U.S. where needed (China and Iran, they lie) or better than the U.S. to prove some point (South Korea tests more, Denmark has socialized medicine).

The idea that a global pandemic is not “anyone’s” fault is unthinkable and Trump is a ready foil. The media has spent three years seeding our thoughts he is deadly. So what if they got the details wrong–it wasn’t Russiagate or white nationalism or Ukraine–it was this, we finally found it.

They say that Trump did away with the “Pandemic Response Team” in 2018, which would have swatted the virus away. Except there was no Team. One man was fired, Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer, who was actually only a bureaucratic coordinator on the NSC. No matter that Ziemer was originally a George Bush anti-malaria appointee after his naval aviation career, with little real-world pandemic experience. No matter that he wasn’t a doctor or scientist. No matter his team and its duties were reassigned inside the NSC to a new biodefense directorate. No matter Ziemer still works for the government, at USAID, in case anyone needs his expertise. And no matter he and his position did not even exist in 2009, when by most MSM accounts the U.S. successfully handled the swine flu virus.

Well, maybe this is all because Trump cut funding to the CDC and NIH. Except that did not happen. The president’s budget proposals did call for reduced funding, but Congress said no every time. Trump never called the virus a hoax, though he did call Democratic efforts to tar him with inaction one. And a Johns Hopkins study in 2019 ranked the U.S. the best-prepared country in the world to handle a pandemic.

But Trump didn’t test! Of course testing has ramped up quickly to the point where the U.S. is leading the world in deploying the new, faster, antibody test. To blame Trump requires focus on an initial couple of weeks, in the middle of impeachment proceedings, when testing was not available in large quantities. One typical headline claimed, “The U.S. Badly Bungled Coronavirus Testing.”

The problems were old news almost as soon as the stories were written. Within a week, nearly a million tests were available. The initial roll out of a CDC-designed test kit was unsuccessful because it contained a faulty reagent (the CDC has been supplying reagents through the same place for a decade). CDC quickly backed away from a policy position limiting full testing to its own labs for statistical and quality control purposes, and commercial, university, and state labs gained approval to use their own tests.

The CDC’s actions were standard procedure, and for good reason. When a new disease emerges CDC normally gets the ball rolling because it has the expertise and the biosafety laboratories to handle novel pathogens. Typically there are few confirmed viral samples at the outset, which researchers need to validate their tests, and CDC has the capability to grow the virus for this critical quality assurance step. You lose that if you allow everyone to test simultaneously. It’s not inaction, it is science.

Still want someone to blame? Well, there’s two pandemics’ worth of it to go around.

The U.S. tried to build a new fleet of ventilators, but the mission failed, leaving us in the present situation. The failure took place under the Obama administration following the H1N1 pandemic. It was understood then some 70,000 ventilators should be stockpiled. Yet through a failure of oversight by the Obama administration the project ultimately produced zero ventilators. Last year the Trump administration approved a new design to kickstart the project, with deliveries to start in the summer.

But didn’t we once have more ventilators? In 2006, citing the threat of avian flu, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had the state invest $200 million in a powerful set of medical tools. He created a truck-borne system of some 50 million N95 respirators, 2,400 portable ventilators, and 21,000 patient beds. Then in 2011 the new Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, cut off the money to maintain the stockpile. The ventilators were given to local hospitals without funding to maintain them. Many were resold to dealers who shipped them abroad. The N95 respirators were allowed to expire without being replaced.

New York, once again Ground Zero for a national tragedy, may not today have enough ventilators. After learning in 2015 the state’s stockpile of medical equipment had 16,000 fewer ventilators than New Yorkers would need in a severe pandemic, America’s Governor and Crisis Daddy Andrew Cuomo could have chosen to buy more ventilators. Instead, he asked his health commissioner to draft rules for rationing the ventilators they already had and spent the money elsewhere.

Governor Cuomo also recognized, but failed to do anything about, a shortage of masks and other protective gear. On March 6, weeks before Trump raised the issue, Cuomo stated people were stealing the equipment out of hospitals in New York. “Not just people taking a couple or three, I mean just actual thefts of those products,” Cuomo said. “I’ve asked the state police to do an investigation, look at places that are selling masks, medical equipment, protective wear.” There is no evidence he or the police ever followed up, directly resulting in a shortage today. Cuomo did not restate his order to investigate even after a warehouse with pallets of black market masks was reported.

Despite the crisis, Cuomo continues to pursue $2.5 billion in Medicaid cuts to NY’s hospitals alongside limiting their expansion to save more money. That will end up being a lot of ICU beds missing if needed.

Elsewhere in New York, Mayor Bill De Blasio’s decision to keep public school open through mid-March, well into the pandemic, is seeing its gruesome legacy play out in Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, where multi-generational households are among the hardest visited by death.

What about Congress? Public health experts testified in 2018 and 2019 asking for over a billion additional dollars as part of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, explaining programs created after 9/11 to ready the nation’s health system had since been stripped to dangerously low levels. Congress instead cut funding.

That decision is “among several key moments over the last few years where experts warned of the likelihood of something like the current pandemic and government leaders did not do enough to prepare.” The point is not to absolve Trump. The point is not to blame others. There exists among too many an ugly need for things to fail to encourage that. Such glee is cruel because the desire for a scapegoat, often for a political aim, coincides with much suffering.

The recent press conferences, clogged with ritual passive aggressiveness, grow wearisome. They do not inform, and entertain only in the way slowing down at a car wreck does. It’s not Weimar, it’s not Rome, but it is time to grow up; we’re all on the Diamond Princess now. We’ll have an election soon enough, and the people can decide for themselves what the media and Democrats have been trying to force on them for more than three years. Until then, focus on fixing the problems for our neighbors, not the blame.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. 

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