Voting in the Time of a Pandemic

Alan Zendell, April 7, 2020

Since becoming president, Donald Trump has in some ways been remarkably consistent. He has thumbed his nose at the rule of law and ignored the Constitution. He has attempted to nullify Congress’ oversight obligation and attacked every federal judge who declared one of his executive actions unconstitutional. He bristles at any suggestion that anyone has the right to hold him accountable.

In more subtle ways, he couldn’t be more inconsistent. He postures like a high stakes poker player, holding his cards close to his vest, lying, exaggerating, and contradicting himself, while claiming to have the most transparent administration in history. The master of insult and artless vulgarity knows no bounds when attacking people who disagree with him; yet, in recent weeks, in the heart of the coronavirus pandemic, he told Governors that if they didn’t treat him nicely, he wouldn’t talk to them. And he accuses every journalist who asks questions that challenge his decisions or address his misstatements of being nasty and not doing their jobs.

Trump is most inconsistent in the matter of state versus federal responsibility and authority. The most contentious issue in the early days of our democracy was the debate over the rights of individual states versus the reach of the federal government. This has been a constant issue during the coronavirus pandemic though Trump is neither a states’ rights advocate nor a federalist.  He possesses no political ideology beyond the accumulation of personal power. 

Even ardent Libertarians agree that the Executive has an essential role in the defense of the nation. We generally think of that in military terms, but since the administration decided to take it seriously, last week, it has been describing the fight against the pandemic as a war. Trump refers to the mobilization of resources and personnel as a military operation; yet, while he strutted as the all-knowing master of the situation, he  reneged on his responsibility to individual states, claiming it’s Governors who should be held accountable. (Remember, accountability is the most obscene word in Trump’s limited vocabulary.)

The state Governors have been the pandemic response leaders, as Trump and the federal bureaucracy in general were caught flatfooted and remained weeks behind in every decision. Trump accepted no personal responsibility for assuring that states in crisis, notably New York, but soon to be followed by others, had the resources necessary to protect their citizens. Facing rising demands and opposition, he reluctantly allowed FEMA (which he called useless early in his presidency) and the Army Corps of Engineers to do their jobs and redeployed two Navy hospital ships to help, actions for which he now claims full credit.

The conflict between state and federal authority during the pandemic took a bizarre turn yesterday, when Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers (D) issued an executive order to postpone today’s presidential primary election and extend the deadline for absentee voting. The Republican legislature got the State Supreme Court to stay the decision, and the U. S. Supreme Court ordered the election to occur as scheduled. The federal court, with Trump appointees in the majority, argued that Evers’ decision would disenfranchise some voters.

I have no idea what that means, especially in light of other court decisions in which blatant attempts by some states to strike minorities from voter rolls were upheld. But what is more interesting is that the Wisconsin decision occurred three weeks after Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R)  took essentially the same action because in person voting violated CDC and state pandemic guidelines for social distancing. The difference between Ohio and Wisconsin was that Ohio’s Republican legislature supported the governor’s decision, and when a federal court rejected it, DeWine ordered his Director of Public Health to issue a emergency declaration which executed DeWine’s order, ignoring the judicial decision.

Clearly, the Republican agenda changed since March. On the surface there’s no apparent reason why Republicans care when the Democratic primary is held or who votes in it. Joe Biden led Bernie Sanders in the polls, and the outcome wasn’t likely to be affected by Evers’ order. So why take the unusual step of rushing a Supreme Court decision in hours?

The New York Times suggests that the Wisconsin case “stands as a first test case in what both national parties expect to be a protracted fight over changing voter rules to contend with the pandemic…” Many Democrats want Trump to issue an emergency declaration authorizing mail-in voting next November in the event the pandemic still poses a major health threat. Republicans believe that would allow more people to cast ballots, and conventional wisdom says that would benefit Democrats.

If you think COVID-19 has been exciting, wait until the voting rights battle heats up. Don’t let yourself be lulled into apathy after surviving the virus. The fight over the November election could be the greatest threat our democracy has ever faced.

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Lest We Forget . . .

Alan Zendell, April 3, 2020

At a time of crisis with Americans dying at an exponentially increasing rate, I’m torn between possibly worsening our country’s divisiveness and persisting in telling necessary truths. The Trump administration daily makes that choice easier by continuing to shirk its responsibility to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was the first national figure to say it, and yesterday, the Boston Globe editorial board echoed her: the President is going to have the blood of Americans on his hands. We don’t yet know how many, but if we trust the consensus of epidemiologists and other infectious disease experts, Trump’s deliberate refusal to act for three months may cause up to two million unnecessary deaths.

For three years, Trump’s missteps did not have immediate life and death consequences, although parents of children who died in captivity on our southern border might disagree, and farmers who saw their livelihoods wrecked by Trump’s trade war might feel the same. But as the number of pandemic-related deaths doubles every two or three days, we cannot tolerate lies, alternate facts, or political spin.

The ongoing disconnect between the President and every competent medical expert is unlike anything we’ve seen in a century. Each day wasted without a consistent national approach to mitigating the spread of the virus costs lives; yet, we continue to see Trump having to be dragged kicking and screaming to tell the truth. In an administration in which facts are variable commodities, it’s essential that we document everything, lest people forget in November.

More than half of us questioned Donald Trump’s fitness to lead the country, concerned that someone driven by lust for wealth and power who suffers from a serious narcissistic personality disorder couldn’t be trusted in a crisis. Trump has demonstrated how right we were to be concerned every day since COVID-19 erupted in Wuhan, China. Our intelligence services understood the severity of the problem in Wuhan in December. Trump was informed of the likely consequences more than three months ago. He even bragged last week that he knew there would be a pandemic before anyone else.

But Trump doesn’t like inconvenient truths. He has spent his life in business avoiding them, leaving a trail of lies, litigation, and financial devastation in his wake. His fraudulent populism masks a more important truth. Trump cares about working people, the poor, and the middle class only in terms of capturing their votes. His allegiance is to corporate America and those Americans among the most wealthy who will do anything to preserve their fortunes. When he was told that COVID-19 was likely to come to America and kill millions, his first and only consideration was preventing panic in the financial markets.

The likelihood that millions of Americans could die if he ignored the experts never stood a chance in Trump’s priorities. It was a bothersome abstraction at best for a man who consistently prefers his own uninformed opinions to well established science and experience. Trump hates being told he’s wrong, and the COVID-19 crisis has shown him at his worst. Concern for the lives of the people he swore to defend was never a consideration until the results of his criminal malfeasance started to be felt.

Doctors Fauci and Birx told Trump what we’d face. They explained that if cases doubled every two days there would a thousand times as many in twenty days and a million times as many after forty days. But most people think linearly. Concepts like exponential growth are not intuitive for them. Thus Trump remained focused only on being re-elected, and it was impossible to convince him that action was urgent, if preparing the country was likely to crash the economy.

He thinks of himself as a high-rolling gambler, but there was a lot more at stake this time than failing hotels in Atlantic City. A president who is totally lacking in compassion who considers everyone who disagrees with him an enemy cannot possibly lead in a crisis that requires him to choose between his own self-interest and the nation.

Donald Trump could have handed Dr. Fauci the podium. He could have told the truth and begun averting the worst case in January. According to all the mathematical models, that might have meant the difference between 100,000 and 2,000,000 American deaths. Choices are rarely as black and white as this one, yet he dragged his feet and completely failed to protect the country.

We won’t know how many lives will be lost as a result of Trump’s malfeasance for months. I intend to tell the truth every day, lest we forget when it’s time to hold him accountable on Election Day.

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After Sheltering in Place – What’s Next?

Alan Zendell, March 28, 2020

As one of the more vulnerable senior population, I’ve been thinking about what will happen after the corona virus pandemic runs its course, at least in its initial wave. One of the most challenging aspects of managing a pandemic is a lack of meaningful data. That occurs in two principal ways.

One is that much of what we think we know about the virus comes from past experience with other, similar ones. But as epidemiologists and virologists continually remind us, each virus is unique, and inferring the future behavior of this new one is risky.

There’s been a lot of speculation about a “second wave,” or a seasonal revival of COVID-19 next winter. That’s based on anecdotal evidence from previous epidemics like the Spanish Flu of 1918, in which the second and third waves killed most of the 675,000 Americans who perished from it. That number is huge, but we must keep in mind that medicine has advanced greatly in the last hundred years, and 1918 was the year of our greatest involvement in World War One. Many of our medical professionals were overseas and the constant movement of millions of troops in the United States and Europe made it impossible to slow the spread of the disease.

Will COVID-19 be as deadly? We don’t know. Initial data suggest a far lower fatality rate than the Spanish Flu, but possibly a higher rate of infection without quarantines, sheltering in place, and other distancing measures. That’s extremely significant since our population has more than tripled since 1918, and the population density of our urban centers has increased dramatically. We don’t really know what will happen next season or if COVID-19 will mutate into something either more or less dangerous than itself.

Another source of uncertainty is the number of reported active cases. Our data always lag reality. We won’t have an accurate timeline of how many people were infected until after the pandemic passes. Our country wasted so much valuable time in being able to test large numbers of people, we have no idea how many are infected.

As I write this my television screen tells me that nearly 112,000 Americans have tested positive for the virus. But that number could be low by orders of magnitude. Tens of millions have undoubtedly been exposed by now, but we probably won’t know definitively for years. CDC projections suggest that half our population, more than 160 million people may contract COVID-19. As Bill Gates said earlier this week, the only way to know for certain is to test every American.

Need a reality check? If COVID-19’s fatality rate in the United States is one percent and 160 million people are infected, that implies 1.6 million deaths.

My wife and I are sheltering in place, as directed by our governor. I’m guessing we may have to continue to do so until at least Memorial Day. After that, what will normal look like? Say the spread of the virus is reduced to zero by July. We end social distancing and start interacting with friends and family again. But half the population will already have the virus in their systems – viruses in our bodies never go away, they just become dormant. Will that pose a risk for people who followed the rules and remained virus-free?

Since I’m basically ignorant about everything medical, I consulted with a physician I trust (my daughter-in-law.) She assured me that even if I touch, hug, and kiss people who are still hosting the virus, I won’t catch it from them unless they are actively symptomatic. I have complete confidence in her, but there’s still the caveat that although we know that’s true for other viruses, we won’t be certain about this one until after the fact.

Another thing we discussed was “herd immunity,” which is a designation that is easily misinterpreted. Herd immunity occurs when so many members of a community have weathered the virus and developed individual immunity, there’s no place left for it to spread. From the point of view of people who haven’t been exposed, that means there’s no one left to catch it from. Big sigh of relief number two – except that this conclusion too is based on assuming that COVID-19 behaves the way previous viruses did.

All things considered, all of us elderly folks who continue to follow the rules and shelter in place, limiting the likelihood of exposure for the next few months can be reasonably assured that when life returns to something like normal next summer, we can hug each other without fear of dying. At least until the anticipated second wave hits, but I’m confident we’ll have a vaccine by then.

No one knows for sure, but life always has its uncertainties.

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The Coronavirus War – Trump Against Everyone Else

Alan Zendell, March 27, 2020

The most remarkable aspect of the coronavirus crisis is President Trump’s refusal to accept the reality of the pandemic. We’ve seen his character and leadership flaws since the day he took office. We’ve shaken our heads over his narcissism and lack of compassion, his self-absorption to the detriment of the welfare of the American people.

We probably shouldn’t be surprised. This is the president who twisted the arms of senators in his own party to pass a health care bill that would have deprived twenty-five million low income Americans of insurance coverage. He is the president who labeled poverty-stricken central American refugees seeking a safe haven for their families murders and drug dealers, and then directed his Border Patrol Agents to incarcerate their children in cages.

When good things happen, Trump is the first to claim credit, even when he had little or nothing to do with them. When something terrible happens, rather than showing compassion and support for those who are negatively impacted he deflects responsibility and looks for others to blame, lest his image be tarnished. He disdains science and ignores the expert advice of people in his administration, preferring is own ignorant opinions, on every subject from climate change to environmental health to foreign policy.

All that was disturbing and potentially dangerous each time it happened, but until now it hasn’t represented an imminent existential threat to millions of people. When Trump was elected, we all hoped and many prayed that he would grow into the job. He hasn’t. He is as petty and vicious, as ego driven and lustful for power, as lacking in decency and morality as those of us who followed his career for decades knew he was.

For three years, we sucked it up and counted the days until the Trump nightmare was over. But now, the unthinkable has happened. The world and our nation face a crisis that could kill millions and forever change the fabric of our society. For the first time since he was elected the physical and economic health of the entire nation require Trump to show leadership and put aside his self-interest. To date he has failed utterly at both.

On virtually every important issue, we’ve seen Trump misrepresent and lie about everything that displeases him. He goes back and forth, bending with whichever wind batters him most strongly, contradicting himself and changing positions daily. Thus it has been since the first day of the coronavirus pandemic.

For months, he refused to take it seriously. First it was China’s problem. Regardless of the fact that people like Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx recognized the threat immediately, Trump simply couldn’t tolerate the universe daring to upset his plans for re-election. Rather than accept the reality that bombarded him from every knowledgeable, competent adviser, he gambled on his hunch that it would all blow over.

Most of us now know that measures like quarantine, isolation, and social distancing could have slowed the virus to a manageable level if they had been initiated in time. The fact that China dropped the ball initially enabled the virus to spread beyond its borders, but there was still time. Epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists knew in January that a full court press was needed to avoid death and suffering for millions; every day wasted getting started would cost lives. But declaring an emergency might have panicked both the general population and the financial markets, and either might have doomed Trump’s re-election.

Instead of acting, Trump and his minions fostered the notion that the pandemic was a media hoax. The American media must be damn powerful to influence the World Health Organization and the overwhelming mass of medical professionals throughout the world. Even with evidence from China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Italy before him, Trump failed to act, and now there are more confirmed cases in the United States than anywhere else in the world.

Trump accepts no responsibility for that. He tells us every day that his administration is doing a perfect job. As death counts rise in Washington State and New York, and the exponential growth curve of infection and death follow the same pattern in New Jersey, California, Florida, Louisiana, and Michigan, Trump now blames their governors for failing to prepare.

Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York, Jay Inslee of Washington, and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan relied on health professionals and proven mathematical models to anticipate the need for masks, protective gear, ventilators, and hospital beds. But the Great Oracle Trump knows better. Today he accused them of grossly exaggerating their needs, because the numbers he pulls out of his ass say they’re wrong.

I wonder who he’ll blame when our death toll reaches one million.

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A Tale of Two Governors

Alan Zendell, March 26, 2020

Do events create heroes or are heroes always with us, emerging as leaders when circumstances require them? Self-proclaimed hero, Donald Trump, believes he is uniquely qualified to lead our country in all things. But as we have repeatedly seen during his administration, declaring oneself a leader is a far cry from being one.

The coronavirus pandemic shined a blinding light on this basic truth. At a time when our nation is desperate for effective leadership, Trump continues to focus primarily on what is good for Donald Trump. He cares about minimizing the effects of the pandemic not in terms of saving lives and reducing the suffering of individuals and families, but by limiting the damage to his re-election campaign.

White House leadership in attacking the pandemic lagged for months because honesty and transparency about the likely spread of the virus would have had an inconvenient effect on financial markets, which Trump relies on to keep his base happy. Even after wasted weeks which could have been used to ramp up the nation’s preparedness and blunt the rate of infection, Trump dispenses confusion and misinformation on a daily basis. Every time he briefs us about the effects of the virus, the nation’s preeminent expert on infectious disease, Dr. Anthony Fauci has to correct and contradict him to prevent him from undermining the efforts of the medical community.

We owe a huge debt to the state Governors who have been on top of this crisis since Day One, who eschew self-praise and simply inform, support, and inspire confidence in their citizens.  Several have stepped up and filled the breach, but I’d like to focus on Andrew Cuomo of New York and Andy Beshear of Kentucky.

Cuomo is one of those heroes who has been with us for decades who rose to the challenge as soon as the threat of the virus was realized. Partly as a result of circumstances, as New York State’s cases are spiking ahead of other states’, Americans have watched Cuomo talking to New Yorkers every morning. He focuses on providing information, explaining why his directives are necessary to protect the health and lives. He speaks directly to the people, easily, casually, openly, honestly. There is no ego, no self-aggrandizement, no confusion – in a word no bullshit. He never disparages the president, but he underlines Trump’s inadequacy as a leader every day just by being himself.

Many people in New York now refer to their governor as “President Cuomo,” because he calms them and demonstrates an unwavering focus the needs of his people, while they see exactly the opposite from Trump. And it’s not just New Yorkers. I watch him every morning inspired by his self-effacing truth and courage. At a time of anxiety and insecurity, confronting perhaps the most serious threat our country has ever faced, he convinces me every day that some politicians can rise above petty self-interest and partisanship. His constituents love him with good reason.

A year ago, if you didn’t live in Kentucky, you probably never heard of Andy Beshear. Running for governor in the reddest of states that voted for Trump by nearly two to one in 2016, he was given little chance of defeating incumbent Matt Bevin, an ardent Trump supporter,  which in Kentucky, should have assured his re-election. But his Trump-like attitudes and his repeated attacks on teachers and other state workers, made him vulnerable, should a true leader of the people emerge.

That leader was Andy Beshear, another latent hero who rose to the challenge, who while Kentucky Secretary of State, went to court to prevent Bevins from wrecking the teachers’ retirement system. In doing so he inspired teachers and parents who valued education, without whom he couldn’t have won.  His victory over Bevin stunned the Kentucky Republican establishment.

Beshear is the best kind of populist. His message is unity over divisiveness, concern for people over politics. His daily briefings on the coronavirus don’t receive the national exposure that Cuomo’s do, but his message is the same: honest, caring, inspirational. “There is no ego in any of this…no Democrat or Republican…only us as Americans versus the Coronavirus.” He is revered by red-state Kentuckians, receiving praise from all over the political spectrum and recognized as the kind of natural leader we need in times of crisis.

Memes depicting offers from other states wanting to swap their local treasures for him are going viral all over the internet. My own state, Maryland, offered Pimlico, Cal Ripken, and a bushel of Maryland crabs, the very soul of our state in exchange for Beshear, and we already have an effective governor in Larry Hogan.

Thank God for governors like Cuomo and Beshear. At a time, even before the coronavirus pandemic, when our political system seems in jeopardy of self-destructing from partisanship and divisiveness, they give us hope for the future.

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The Price of a Grandparent’s Life

Alan Zendell, March 24, 2020

Partisan politics is always suspended during a national emergency, isn’t it? We didn’t hear much partisan bickering on December 8, 1941 or September 12, 2001. Our nation had been attacked, and the vast majority of Americans put aside their differences. Nothing unifies us like surprise attacks that kill thousands of Americans. Until now, apparently.

The Trump administration has raised partisanship and divisiveness to an art form. It is so deeply ingrained in its DNA that it can’t be turned off even as it becomes clear that more than a million lives may lie in the balance. That’s because they see everything through the lens of preserving the wealth of billionaires and the corporations that sustain them. To be sure, there are exceptions, but all of the most divisive issues of the past three years – taxes, universal health care, immigration, to name a few – have a single common denominator: avoiding a massive transfer of wealth from the haves to the have nots.

If you wonder whether this battle knows any limits, I refer you to yesterday’s Fox News interview with Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. The interview occurred minutes after President Trump first publicly floated the idea of “loosening” social distancing restrictions so people can go back to work. The looks of horror on the faces of the health care professionals who stand behind him at the podium when he says these things tell us all we need to know. I was shocked, but only for a few seconds, before a light went on.

The elitist extremist faction among Trump’s advisers haven’t let up at all. For days we’d already seen the Senate locked in a partisan impasse over a two trillion dollar bailout bill. The divide was clear. Democrats wanted the bulk of the money to go directly to displaced workers and their families during the coronavirus crisis, and to assure that everyone afflicted by the virus received treatment free of charge. Republicans argued that saving employers was a higher priority because without them there would be no jobs. We’ve heard that argument repeatedly since Reagan was president.

The battle in the Senate was familiar. We’d seen it play out dozens of times since partisanship rose to its current level with the election of Barrack Obama. But Trump elevated it to an unprecedented level, one that is completely lacking in compassion and moral value. Trump is proposing to triage the lives of Americans, primarily those who are elderly or already compromised, against what he calls “saving the economy.” That is as bald-faced a lie as anything Trump has ever said.

It’s not about saving the economy. It’s about preserving the wealth of what Bernie Sanders refers to as the ruling class. This isn’t about some self-named Socialists stealing their money. It’s about whether that ruling class is willing to sacrifice millions of American lives to preserve their wealth. Trump is proposing to triage the lives of Americans against the disruptions to our economy caused by the need to stop the spread of the virus.

Trump believes human lives can be measured in how many billions of dollars of wealth can be preserved per death. That’s what the Fox interview with Dan Patrick was about. Fox News had been primed for the shift in tone from the White House. Within minutes they, through Lt. Governor Patrick, were pitching the idea that grandparents ought to be willing to sacrifice their lives to preserve the economy for their grandchildren! As if it were a binary choice.

The Great Depression didn’t destroy our economy. Franklin Roosevelt didn’t worry about whether the economy would fall apart when millions of Americans were hopeless and starving. Our economy is not the stock market. It’s farms and factories and trucks and human labor. Trump trying to convince his base that taking steps that could increase the number of virus-related deaths by millions is a fair price to pay so that corporations don’t lose money is criminal malfeasance, as vile as the holocaust in its own way.

Fox News asked Patrick what he thought of Trump’s idea. Patrick said, “if that’s the exchange, I’m all in. I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me.” Really? He thinks millions of grandparents are willing to volunteer to die of the virus, or that their families would be willing to sacrifice them?

Even without compassion, the truth is that millions of dead Americans would be far more devastating to our economy than crashing financial markets. Another truth is that Trump knows his incompetent response to the virus since January has placed his re-election in jeopardy. He has no other priority.

By the way – Trump is a grandparent, too.

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A Doctor’s Admonition for Surviving the Coronavirus

Alan Zendell, March 15, 2020

Today, instead of rephrasing other people’s views, I am re-publishing something posted on Facebook by Caroline Chang, a nationally recognized physician practicing in Rhode Island. I’ll let Dr. Chang speak for herself, except to comment that the case numbers shown in the table are those that have been officially reported. As Mike DeWine, the Governor of Ohio said this morning, the actual number of cases could be up to one hundred times those that have been officially reported. That means you can tack two zeroes (00) onto the bottom line numbers recorded in the table and be a lot closer to the truth.

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Honestly the medical community is in disbelief at the number of Americans continuing to socialize and live life and even travel as usual. We MUST all do our part or else we will be where Italy is, likely in a week. Yes this means no playgrounds, birthday parties, play dates (yes even with “healthy” families and sanitizing), no gym, no restaurants, minimize store trips. Minimize all non-essential outings period. Denial will only make a very scary situation much, much worse.

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For all those who insist on going out and “living your best life”- we are on the fast track to a complete lockdown if you don’t stop going out and socializing. We are about 6 days away from when Italy ordered a complete lockdown which means not leaving your house except for essential items, businesses closed, no contact with anyone except those in your immediate household for WEEKS.

If you want to help small businesses – buy a gift card online or by phone to use later.

#flattenthecurve #publichealth #dontbeselfish #forthegreatergood

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