Why We Should Be Reading Albert Camus During the Pandemic


Looking at Albert Camus's “The Plague” - The New York Times

The author’s masterpiece, The Plague, will make you think, ask all sorts of Socratic questions of yourself and form resolutions about how you intend to measure your life after getting through this global catastrophe.

It’s amazing how many pandemic books there are, and how thoroughly the idea of a global pandemic had crept into our popular culture well before the current situation. My daughter and I watched the Tom Hanks movie Inferno over the weekend, mostly because we wanted to gaze at the city of Florence. It’s not a great movie, but it is visually stunning in several ways. The plot is not something I gave much attention to when I first saw the film a couple of years ago: a rich Ted-talking eccentric decides to kill off most of the people of the world to save the Earth from over-population and the ravages 16 billion people would mean for other species and the health of the biosphere.

When I first saw the film in 2016, I regarded the plotline (will the vial of lethal germs be released or not?) as nothing but the usual “James Bond” setup for whatever else happened in the film. This time I watched it with greater alertness.

The fact is, of course, that COVID-19 is a serious global nuisance that has disrupted the lives of all Americans in a way that almost nobody could have predicted (well, there is Bill Gates, of course), but it is not the Black Plague, which swept away somewhere between one-fourth and one-half of all Europeans between 1348-1352, or the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia, which killed one in 10 inhabitants of America’s largest city in 1793, or the Spanish Flu, which killed somewhere between 57 and 100 million people worldwide in 1918.

If the coronavirus eventually kills 5 million people worldwide, and a couple of hundred thousand Americans before the vaccines gallop in to save the day a year or 18 months hence, it will have been a comparatively minor event in the history of global pandemics. The moment when it appeared that the hospital and medical infrastructure of New York might collapse has now passed. And though the death toll continues to climb towards perhaps 150,000 American dead by Aug. 1, 2020, the national dread that created a sustained will-we-survive and how-will-we-cope conversation in virtually every household in the United States is mostly over. The question now is when and how (and if) the country can return to what the late John McCain called regular order.

In the past two months I have read more than a dozen pandemic books, from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1721), to Stephen King’s endless The Stand (1978). They are all interesting. If you outline the takeaway insights from these books, written over the span of many hundreds of years, they all make essentially the same points:

  1. Every government starts in denial, moves through some form of coverup, and eventually has to come to terms with the facts on the ground. 
  2. The rich flee to their country estates (or the Hamptons) and whine about all the inconvenience.
  3. The poor (as always) do most of the suffering, not merely because they are poor and have less access to the Maslovian necessities of life, but because they wind up putting themselves into harm’s way to help other people and even help the undeserving rich.
  4. The only sure methods of dealing with the epidemic (before the coming of vaccines) are social distancing, masks and the avoidance of direct body contact, and quarantining — and these do work.
  5. Economic activity grinds to a halt, but new forms of employment emerge, such as enforcing quarantines or monitoring the spread of the disease through contact tracing.
  6. People who have contracted the disease but who do not yet exhibit symptoms are the principal transmitters of the disease to others.
  7. Government has no choice but to subsidize the lives of people who have no savings and cannot work, because the alternative is food riots, looting, and perhaps revolution.
  8. Quacks, charlatans, and mountebanks abound, as always, to exploit exploitable people.
  9. Bad leaders and some portions of the population spend their time embracing and spreading conspiracy theories and searching for some group, some nation, some tribe to blame for the catastrophe.
  10. Social mores, including sexual codes, begin to break down as people slowly adopt an “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you shall certainly die” attitude.
  11. The natural sociability of humanity is such that we invariably rush back into the public square too soon, before the disease has been mastered, thus causing a second or a third wave of infection and death.





Trump faces criticism over lack of national plan on coronavirus


COVID-19 National Health Plan – Primary Care – Central Patient ...

The Trump administration is facing intense criticism for the lack of a national plan to handle the coronavirus pandemic as some states begin to reopen.

Public health experts, business leaders and current administration officials say the scattershot approach puts states at risk and leaves the U.S. vulnerable to a potentially open-ended wave of infections this fall.

The White House has in recent days sought to cast itself as in control of the pandemic response, with President Trump touring a distribution center to tout the availability of personal protective equipment and press secretary Kayleigh McEnany detailing for the first time that the administration did have its own pandemic preparedness plan.

Still, the White House lacks a national testing strategy that experts say will be key to preventing future outbreaks and has largely left states to their own devices on how to loosen restrictions meant to slow the spread of the virus. Trump this week even suggested widespread testing may be “overrated” as he encouraged states to reopen businesses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday night issued long-awaited guidance intended to aid restaurants, bars and workplaces as they allow employees and customers to return, but they appeared watered down compared to previously leaked versions.

Some experts said the lack of clear federal guidance on reopening could hamper the economic recovery. 

“A necessary condition for a healthy economy is a healthy population. This kind of piecemeal reopening with everyone using different criteria for opening, we’re taking a big risk,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

The lack of coherent direction from the White House was driven home this week by damaging testimony by a former top U.S. vaccine official who claims he was ousted from his post improperly.

“We don’t have a single point of leadership right now for this response, and we don’t have a master plan for this response. So those two things are absolutely critical,” said Rick Bright, who led the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority until he was demoted in late April.

The U.S. faces the “darkest winter in modern history” if it does not develop a more coordinated national response, Bright said. “Our window of opportunity is closing.”

From the start, the White House has let states chart their own responses to the pandemic.

The administration did not issue a nationwide stay-at-home order, resulting in a hodgepodge of state orders at different times, with varying levels of restrictions.

Facing a widespread shortage, states were left to procure their own personal protective equipment, ventilators and testing supplies. Trump resisted using federal authority to force companies to manufacture and sell equipment to the U.S. government.

Without clear federal guidance, state officials were competing against each other and the federal government, turning the medical supply chain into a free-for-all as they sought scarce and expensive supplies from private vendors on the commercial market.

“The fact that we had questions about our ability to have enough mechanical ventilators, and you had states basically bidding against each other, trying to secure personal protective equipment …  it shouldn’t be happening during a pandemic,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.

Internally, the administration struggled to mount a unified front as various agencies jockeyed for control. Multiple agencies have been providing contradictory instructions.

At first, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar led the White House coronavirus task force.

Roughly a month, later he was replaced by Vice President Pence. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was later tasked with leading the response to get supplies to states, while senior White House adviser Jared Kushner led what has been dubbed a “shadow task force” to engage the private sector. Now, FEMA is reportedly winding down its role, and turning its mission back over to HHS.

The CDC has been largely absent throughout the pandemic. Director Robert Redfield has drawn the ire of President Trump as well as outside experts, and he has been seen infrequently at White House briefings.

“I think seeing the nation’s public health agency hobbled at a time like this and looking over its shoulder at its political bosses is something I hoped I would never see, and I’ve been working with the CDC for over 30 years,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of public health at Georgetown University.

“I think that people will die because the public health agency has lost its visibility and its credibility and that it’s being politically interfered with,” he added.

The administration recently has taken some steps to improve on the initial response to the pandemic.

Ventilator production has increased, and the U.S. is no longer seeing a shortage of the devices. 

Testing has improved dramatically as well, though experts think the U.S. needs to be testing thousands of more people per day before the country can reopen.

The administration also unveiled plans to expand the Strategic National Stockpile’s supply of gowns, respirators, testing supplies and other equipment, after running out of supplies early in the pandemic.

Adalja said the administration’s positive steps are coming way too late. 

“It’s May 15, we should have been in this position January 15,” he said.

McEnany on Friday for the first time detailed the White House’s preparedness plan that replaced the Obama-era pandemic playbook, an acknowledgement that Trump’s predecessor did leave a road map, despite claims to the contrary from some of the president’s allies.

She did not give many specifics on the previously unknown plan. Instead, McEnany declared the Trump administration’s handling of the virus had been “one of the best responses we’ve seen in our country’s history.”

Yet as states look to reopen businesses and get people back to work, the White House is taking a back seat as governors set their own guidelines for easing stay-at-home orders and restrictions on social activities.

The White House in April issued a three-step plan for states to reopen their economies, but it has largely been ignored by states and by the president.

Dozens of governors have begun easing restrictions on businesses and social activities without meeting the White House guidelines. Trump has been urging them to move even faster, backing anti-lockdown protesters in Michigan, Virginia, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

Even scaled-down guidance from federal agencies is critical for providing a road map for state and local leaders, and for businesses considering how best to resume operations, said Neil Bradley, chief policy officer with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“We need guidance because it helps instill confidence about the right types of approaches to take, but when you begin to move away from guidance and into either regulations or very strict approach, then that’s increasingly going to be unworkable in lots of different locations,” Bradley said.




Blaming China Is a Dangerous Distraction


Blaming China is a dangerous distraction - myRepublica - The New ...

Nobody denies that Chinese officials’ initial effort to cover up the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan at the turn of the year was an appallingly misguided decision. But anyone who is still focusing on China’s failings instead of working toward a solution is essentially making the same mistake.

LONDON – As the COVID-19 crisis roars on, so have debates about China’s role in it. Based on what is known, it is clear that some Chinese officials made a major error in late December and early January, when they tried to prevent disclosures of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, even silencing health-care workers who tried to sound the alarm. China’s leaders will have to live with these mistakes, even if they succeed in resolving the crisis and adopting adequate measures to prevent a future outbreak.

What is less clear is why other countries think it is in their interest to keep referring to China’s initial errors, rather than working toward solutions. For many governments, naming and shaming China appears to be a ploy to divert attention from their own lack of preparedness. Equally concerning is the growing criticism of the World Health Organization, not least by US President Donald Trump, who has attacked the organization for supposedly failing to hold the Chinese government to account. At a time when the top global priority should be to organize a comprehensive coordinated response to the dual health and economic crises unleashed by the coronavirus, this blame game is not just unhelpful but dangerous.

Globally and at the country level, we desperately need to do everything possible to accelerate the development of a safe and effective vaccine, while in the meantime stepping up collective efforts to deploy the diagnostic and therapeutic tools necessary to keep the health crisis under control. Given that there is no other global health organization with the capacity to confront the pandemic, the WHO will remain at the center of the response, whether certain political leaders like it or not.

Having dealt with the WHO to a modest degree during my time as chairman of the UK’s independent Review on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), I can say that it is similar to most large, bureaucratic international organizations. Like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United Nations, it is not especially dynamic or inclined to think outside the box. But rather than sniping at these organizations from the sidelines, we should be working to improve them. In the current crisis, we should be doing everything we can to help both the WHO and the IMF to play an effective, leading role in the global response.

As I have  before, the IMF should expand the scope of its annual Article IV assessments to include national public-health systems, given that these are critical determinants in a country’s ability to prevent or at least manage a crisis like the one we are now experiencing. I have even raised this idea with IMF officials themselves, only to be told that such reporting falls outside their remit because they lack the relevant expertise.

That answer was not good enough then, and it definitely isn’t good enough now. If the IMF lacks the expertise to assess public-health systems, it should acquire it. As the COVID-19 crisis makes abundantly clear, there is no useful distinction to be made between health and finance. The two policy domains are deeply interconnected, and should be treated as such.

In thinking about an international response to today’s health and economic emergency, the obvious analogy is to the 2008 global financial crisis. Everyone knows that crisis started with an unsustainable US housing bubble, which had been fed by foreign savings, owing to the lack of domestic savings in the United States. When the bubble finally burst, many other countries sustained more harm than the US did, just as the COVID-19 pandemic has hit some countries much harder than it hit China.

And yet, not many countries around the world sought to single out the US for presiding over a massively destructive housing bubble, even though the scars from that previous crisis are still visible. On the contrary, many welcomed the US economy’s return to sustained growth in recent years, because a strong US economy benefits the rest of the world.2

So, rather than applying a double standard and fixating on China’s undoubtedly large errors, we would do better to consider what China can teach us. Specifically, we should be focused on better understanding the technologies and diagnostic techniques that China used to keep its (apparent) death toll so low compared to other countries, and to restart parts of its economy within weeks of the height of the outbreak.

And, for our own sakes, we also should be considering what policies China could adopt to put itself back on a path toward 6% annual growth, because the Chinese economy inevitably will play a significant role in the global recovery. If China’s post-pandemic growth model makes good on its leaders’ efforts in recent years to boost  and imports from the rest of the world, we will all be better off.