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Corona Diaries – meanwhile, over in the land of the plague, the home of the flea….

March 20, 2020

Wherever you are in the world, it’s easy, and natural, to be engulfed in your own national crisis to the exclusion of everything and everywhere else.

But just as the pandemic has reminded even the most insular of us that we (speaking of Britain now) are neither independent nor in control, it’s interesting to watch that realisation sink in elsewhere. Especially so in countries where people widely resist the idea that they can’t determine their national destinies alone.

And particularly in America. Thanks to the extraordinary diversity of media sources available online, from the New York Times to the steaming cesspits of Twitter, you don’t have to be living in the States to get a reasonable idea of current developments.

The most recent story to get my attention is that several Republican senators allegedly sold large quantities of stocks and shares after the Senate received a confidential briefing on the coronavirus and before that information was made public. This sounds like a classic case of insider trading. If the senators in question are forced to resign, that would temporarily give the Democrats a majority in both houses of Congress.

The procedure for replacement of senators who resign varies from state to state. In most cases, the state governor nominates a temporary replacement to serve until a special election is held. But if the governor is a Democrat, and the resigning senator is Republican, can the governor nominate another Democrat for the seat, thus creating a shift in the balance of power in the Senate?

Though there are plenty of ifs and buts yet to be resolved, the implications are enormous.

The second bit of recent news is that the US government is urging its citizens, wherever they are in the world, to come home before travel restrictions make their repatriation impossible. Ho hum. If I was a US citizen living in, say, Germany or Singapore, where the authorities, backed by well-funded and sophisticated health systems, seem better able to deal with the outbreak than most of their neighbours, I would think very carefully before returning to a country as woefully unprepared, incompetently-governed and ill-equipped as the United States. Harsh words, I know, but mild compared to some of the opinion expressed within the country, not least by some of its scientists and doctors.

Then there are the students on their spring break making whoopee in Florida and blithely ignoring advice on social distancing. There have been videos of one or two of them saying words to the effect of “if it happens, it happens. No big deal”.

There are two possible reasons to explain their behaviour. First, that they’re genuinely ignorant about how seriously ill they could become if infected. For that you can blame the mixed messages coming from Trump and other sources such as Fox News. The second possibility could be rooted in research on adolescent development. This appears to show that the part of the brain that assesses risk remains underdeveloped in males until they reach their mid-twenties. Which in turn might explain their liking for extreme sports. So are we seeing a new sport – Riding the Virus? If enough kids are prepared to ignore the risk of infection, peer pressure does the rest.

A further problem is that people make judgements based on their lived experience. If I’ve never had the virus, and I don’t know anybody who has, I’m more likely to dismiss anything that contradicts what I see in front of me. But by the time my lived experience changes by seeing people I know become horribly sick, it’s too late to change my behaviour, because the virus is out there among my circle and replicating like crazy.

The next interesting – if that’s the appropriate word – factor in the US is the balance of power to make decisions related to the pandemic between the federal and the state governments. This is most likely proving a life saver where some states are taking decisive action, as is the case in New York and California, and where the federal response is weak and confusing. By contrast, in countries such as China, Italy and Spain (and the UK when we get round to it) central governments are making decisions for the whole country without challenge.

In the US, the federal government is able to take a range of decisions unilaterally, such as allocation of federally-controlled resources such as the military. But thanks to the delicate issue of state’s rights, over which a bloody civil war was fought, it’s the state’s prerogative to impose lockdowns.

Is the distribution of power to federal, state and (not to forget) city administrations helping or hampering America’s response to the pandemic?

Just as important for the long run, is Trump’s response fatally weakening his chances of re-election, as well as the future Republican control of the senate? Or, if the crisis has abated by November, will sufficient numbers of his supporters believe his inevitable claims to have beaten the virus to assure him a second term?

What’s more, as Trump goes around pointing the finger at China by referring to the “Chinese virus”, what of the post-pandemic relationship between the US and China? And if Trump finds his support tanking by October, what are the chances that he will find a reason to take precipitate action against Iran? Nothing like a war to bring about a change in electoral fortunes.

So many questions yet to be answered – good reasons to keep a close eye on American politics over the next eight months.

Another fascinating story is Trump’s attempt to subcontract for large sums of money the development of a vaccine to a German institute, in return for “exclusive use” for the US of the end product. An entirely logical move if you treat the running of a country as a business, as Trump does. And there is a precedent, though in different circumstances. After all, at the end of World War 2, America managed to recruit an entire cadre of German scientists, led by Werner von Braun, to kick-start the US space programme. The spoils of war, you might say.

But in the middle of a global crisis, making such a blatant America First move to the detriment of an allied country, not to mention the rest of the world, is just one reason why you should be very careful before you allow a business person, especially one as amoral as Trump, to run your government.

Much as I admire and respect so many aspects of American life, not least the instinctive generosity and boundless optimism of its people, I still deplore the corrosive effect that Trump and his followers are having on their country. At such a time, another president would their utmost to unite the country. This one, however much he tries, is continuing to divide it.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this is not America’s finest hour.

From → Politics, UK, USA

4 Comments
  1. I saw an online comment from an American whose daughter is in France. He was saying that he’d told his daughter to stay where she was because, even when you take the situation in France into account, she is probably better off there than she would be if she went home.

    As for the students in Florida, it does seem that there are as many people under-reacting to this crisis as there are overreacting. On one hand there are the panic-buyers rushing to supermarkets to stock up on stuff that they really don’t need and on other side there are people flatly refusing to take any of it seriously at all. Age may well be a factor, but as a species we do seem to struggle to respond rationally to novel events.

    I can’t believe that Trump will not be trounced at the next US election. He is failing so visibly that I don’t see how even his most ardent supporters can get behind him… But then, we’re back to the issue of people behaving rationally.

    • Thanks for your comments Paul. Yes your point about the locusts is well made. What can you catch from stuff handled by other while shopping, from shopping trolleys or even bank notes and coins? Thank goodness for contactless cards. They could have been made for a pandemic! S

      • That’s a good point about what you can catch from objects. Before we went into lockdown here in Belgium, shops were already asking people to use cards rather than notes and coins — and I know of a couple of shops locally that are only accepting card payments.

        The other thing I have seen mentioned is petrol pumps. Several people have pointed out the risk and recommended that we all wear gloves when refuelling.

      • Ah yes. I used a golf glove when I refuelled on Wednesday. S

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