April 25, 2020

Channeling Littlechap in the Time of Coronavirus

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

 It’s just awful, this cacophony of blather from partisan cable-tv personalities, talk radio commentators, biased and malevolent trolls on social media, and the shameful and just plain appalling rank ignorance of some public officials. This is no time for the country to be channeling Littlechap, the politically ambitious pretender, in Anthony Newley’s 1961 hit show, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.

Okay, there are many serious political officials trying to lead us through this nightmare. There are responsible Governors such as Hogan (R-Md.), Newsome, (D-CA) DeWine (R-Oh), Pritzker (D-Il), Inslee (D-WA), Cuomo (D-NY), Whitmer (D- MI) and, of course, many others.  Drs. Anthony Fauci, Deborah Brix, Jerome Adams, and others, however, have their work cut out for them as they try to provide rational and useful information during the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, they are all relegated to roles as bit players on the Daily Trump Show, that breathtaking dust-off between President Trump and those Governors and journalists who have the temerity to ask serious questions and speak solid but troublesome truths.

And this week when our top infectious disease professional, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said “we aren’t there yet” with respect to the level of testing we need if we are to safely open the country, the President of the United States responded, “if he said that, I disagree.” Well, give President Trump credit for sharing his learned opinion with the people. Who’s Dr. Fauci, anyway?

Deflection rules the day.

China and the World Health Organization (WHO) led us astray, the President’s acolytes on talk radio and cable tv tell us. Actually, a deep dive into the available record tells a, somewhat, different story. China did, indeed, initially try to limit the damage and manage news to the public. Nonetheless, China informed our Center for Disease Control (CDC) within barely a week of confirming that a virulent, but still small, viral outbreak (27 cases) had been identified in Wuhan, a city of 12 million.

Officials in China, during the last week of December last year, confirmed that a small number of patients had turned up at Hubei Provincial Hospital with similar lung distress symptoms that were not consistent with previously known cases of pneumonia. China informed the United States CDC of this outbreak and of its severity between January 1st and January 3rd of the New Year. So, the US Center for Disease Control in Atlanta was notified of these first cases of what would soon be identified as Covid-19 within four to six days of these patients presenting themselves to the hospital in Wuhan China. On January 7th, 2020, the US CDC established a Covid-19 incident Management Structure. So, we knew something serious was unfolding remarkably soon after the first cases were being studied in China. China also, simultaneously, forwarded the information about this new viral outbreak on to the World Health Organization.

While there is a lot about which to criticize both China and the World Health Organization with respect to their public statements in the early days of the outbreak, keeping the news from the United States and the rest of the world is not a valid criticism. One might wonder whether President Trump would have directed our CDC to inform China and WHO had such a limited viral outbreak of unknown origin infected about two dozen people in, say, New York City, as quickly as China informed our CDC and WHO of just such an outbreak in Wuhan. Given how long it took the President to even acknowledge that we had a major problem percolating in America, there is room to doubt whether he would have announced such a problem to the world had the first few cases come to light here instead of there.

Think about it. Wuhan is somewhat larger than New York City and much smaller than the New York Metropolitan Area. Barely two dozen cases of what we now know as Covid-19, or Coronavirus, had been identified at the time the Chinese CDC contacted the Director of our CDC to inform him that a contagious virus of unknown origin had been identified in Wuhan. Now, it is true that China was also trying (and failing) to limit the news of the outbreak and trying to mitigate rumors, and doing so within China in a fairly heavy-handed way. But China did inform the United States as well the World Health Organization very quickly and very early once the contagion was confirmed and identified

Political partisans and point-of-view cable-tv and talk radio personalities are exhausting the public as they hyperventilate with coverage either critical of the President or defensive of the President. And, of course, President Trump provides fodder for the media on a daily, if not hourly, basis. His daily briefings, sometimes informative but too often breathtakingly inane, boggle the mind.

A public that needs solid information really doesn’t need the President of the United States hawking an unproven and potentially dangerous drug, or pronouncing the adequacy of inadequate levels of testing in the United States. Nor does the public need the President’s childish attacks on governors who dare to suggest any inadequacy in the availability of materials needed for testing.

Also, it does not inspire confidence to have President Trump speculating at his Coronavirus briefing about the efficacy of inserting UV light or sanitizing compounds into the human body, and then denying saying what millions of people saw and heard him say, or aver that he was only kidding once he realized (or was told) just how ridiculous what he had said was. The catatonic expression on Dr. Brix’s face gave eloquent testimony of her opinion of the President’s ramblings, as President Trump waxed inanely about UV light and disinfectants being introduced into the human body.

That being said, President Trump cannot reasonably be blamed for the botched rollout of testing in the United States. The CDC declined to utilize tests developed in Germany which were immediately offered to the United States by the World Health Organization. CDC decided to develop and distribute its own test, and, to make a much-reported story short, the test kits distributed by CDC turned out to be unreliable. This was tragic and resulted in about a six-week delay in testing in the United States—a very critical delay. As the delay in testing dragged on in the United States and the number of Covid-19 cases grew, the urgency for testing was simply compounding geometrically in the country.

To make matters worse, private labs and university labs that could provide testing were denied the okay to do so by the FDA, because of testing approval protocols that were totally unresponsive to the greatly escalating need for tests in the face of the rapidly escalating emergency. This was not a lapse in capability for which President Trump can reasonably be blamed. In fact, given the initial screw-ups, the United States has scaled up testing remarkably fast.

Nonetheless, Dr. Fauci was correct when he stated, “we are not there yet,” with respect to required testing levels in order to safely open the country. Public health experts believe we need to test about 150 people per 100,000 per day before we can open safely. We’re currently testing about 45 people per 100,000. To be sure, the testing scale-up in the United States has been impressive, given the hole out of which we had to dig.

President Trump’s contradiction of Dr. Fauci, however, was based on nothing more than his own political calculations and had no relevance whatever to the nation’s testing requirements in order to safely open the country. Despite President Trump’s desire to have the nation believe we are where we need to be with respect to testing, it just isn’t so. We’re barely about a third of the way to where we need to be on testing.

We simply need straight talk, Mr. President. Your daily Coronavirus briefings really are becoming reminiscent of Anthony Newley’s Littlechap in Stop the World I Want to Get Off. Please, no more “Mumbo, jumbo, rhubarb, rhubarb, tickety, bubarb, yak, yak, yak.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

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11 responses to “Channeling Littlechap in the Time of Coronavirus”

  1. Steve Hardy says:

    Hal thanks for a good essay and particularly the job you did clarifying China’s role in the current drama. I take a less sanguine view of the state governor’s top down, one size fits all approach to the lockdown. Business owners are much more knowledgeable about their company’s work environment, age of employees, ability to control distancing and sanitation requirements and are therefore better equipped to develop a plan designed to protect the health of their employees and customers while not destroying jobs and their company. This Cato article does a good job of explaining this https://www.cato.org/blog/top-down-regulations-covid-19

  2. Roberta Conner says:

    Dear Hal:

    I appreciate your summary of the beginnings of the corona virus in China and the timeline of their delayed notification to the rest of the world. To describe all of China’s actions during those early days would be even more enlightening.

    For example, I would love to hear a legitimate reason for China to immediately cancel all internal flights from Wuhan to other large cities in China – while continuing flights carrying tens of thousands of potentially infected Chinese citizens to all other world cities – which cities are now fatally infected. I would also be curious to hear a humane rationale for China to begin hoarding the world’s supply of PPE thereby depriving the rest of the world access to millions of such critical supplies.

    These are not the actions of a country to be trusted.

    • Reply to Ms. Conner: Ms.Conner asks very legitimate and important questions in her comments to this week’s essay. During the month of January, more than 1300 flights from China arrived at seventeen different airports in the United States. They unloaded nearly 400,000 passengers into our country. As might be expected Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York took in most of those travelers, with Chicago, Seattle, and Newark, not far behind. While the United States announced a cut off of all traffic from China on January 30th, fifteen national carriers from other countries had, during the preceding week, already canceled or greatly curtailed service to and from China. In fact, American Airlines didn’t cancel service until January 31st, Delta, February 2nd, and United not until February 5th. Hundreds of thousands of travelers, many Americans, other nationalities, and many Chinese nationals as well, however, were traveling before flights were canceled. The management and uneven surveillance (or lack thereof) of passengers on those flights during the month of January, after news of the outbreak in Wuhan was known, was, more likely than not, the result of chaos rather than chicanery.
      With respect to Chinese hoarding of medical equipment and supplies, the far greater issue was the substandard quality of much of the early shipments of these materials and equipment from China. The fact is that China simply produces most of these supplies, and in addition to satisfying demands within China, the Chinese were suddenly filling orders from countries all over the world. The bigger question is — why was the American stockpile so low. What we’ve found is that the 85 million N95 masks (respirators) we distributed in 2009 during the swine flu pandemic were never replaced, greatly magnifying our reliance on China.
      As is true after all disasters, we will have learned a lot. Hopefully, we’ll never rely on any country for emergency medical supplies to the extent we have relied on China during this crisis.
      Finally, Ms. Conner refers to the Chinese delayed notification (of the Coronavirus outbreak) to the rest of the World. The fact is, China notified the US Center for Disease Control and the World Trade Organization within a week of confirming the nature of the outbreak in China. What our government and WHO did after receiving that notification is another matter, but one which we suspect will be the focus of considerable attention in the weeks and months ahead.

  3. Robert J. Fraiman says:

    Hal, In lieu of the President’s recent comment, not the first time,
    is Amendment 12 of the Constitution a viable solution to remove
    him from office?

  4. ELIEZAR BENJAMIEN aka. Leonard Sherman says:

    Hal you said it all and you detailed the history and the present status of the Virus where is been and hopefully where it will go
    I have been a self imposed prisoner in my home and I am going “stir crazy” I am 97 years old and I would like the Warden who lives in the big White House in Washington to Parole me before its to late for me to enjoy fresh air and the freedom of America

  5. Roberta Holland says:

    Thank you, Hal, for another straight forward, straight talking essay of the real facts—interesting and informative.
    You introduced your essay by railing against partisan personalities, talk show hosts, malevelant trolls etc. With an understanding of the importance of a free press and free speach can you think of a time when media on both sides has be so outrageous and agregious? Even in an election year.
    Would you find it interesting or helpful to write an essay on what has happened to our press—its past—its present— has it always been this partisan and mean spirited?
    Heaven forbid, I am beginning to agree with the president–it is becoming fake news. Where do we go for the straight story besides YOU.
    Thank you,
    Bobbi Holland

  6. qua says:

    Unfortunately, we are treating the virus as they did in the 14TH century.
    I am sure this nightmare will be over, but only after a DR. Salk-type discovery, or some research lab coming to the rescue. In the meantime enjoy your surroundings and learn that life is beautiful.

  7. Mike says:

    Sadly Hal, you seem all too willing to absolve China for their failure to alert the world to the transmissibility of this virus. In early February, my friends in associates in China alerted me to the reality that this virus was much more devastating than what the Chinese were willing to acknowledge. And when I learned that this outbreak in china actually started in October, it highlighted the fact that the Chinese government’s failure to understand the magnitude of this virus has caused thousands of people to die.

    Practically speaking, I don’t think anyone here in the United States knows the actual extent to which the Chinese government engaged in a systemic cover-up that severely impacted countries around the world from activating their emergency response capabilities to prevent the catastrophic impact of this virus. And given the brutal repression of the Chinese government, I don’t think we will ever know what actually occurred.

    China has successfully managed to destroy economies around the world. And they manage to do all this without ever firing a single shot or launching any missiles. And for you to overlook the damage that has been inflicted by the actions of the Chinese government suggest a surprising level of naivete.

    Finally, having watched many of the daily press briefings, I have been profoundly disappointed and saddened by the tone of these briefings. Unfortunately, many of the questions have been created in an effort to capture a “gotcha” moment that will serve to embarrass the Trump administration. What is tragic in my opinion is the fact that the President has failed to rise above the moment and instead has chosen to join these reporters in the mud pit. As a result, we’ve all gotten dirty.

  8. Response to Mike: Actually, these essays absolve China of nothing. There is empirical evidence of early cases of Coronavirus probably emerging in China in late November, (not October) but not presenting at hospitals until mid to late December. While, as we have stated, China was heavy-handed in tamping down news of the first cases within China and of downplaying the risk, Chinese public health authorities reported earliest findings to the US CDC and to WHO very early in January.
    We agree with Mike that President Trump’s press briefings have been a disaster, primarily because of his breathtaking ineptitude—not because the press plays “gotcha.” Gotcha is what the press does, especially when a public official serves up so many Gotcha moments. That’s why the “kitchen is hot” and best avoided by those public officials who can’t stand criticism, i.e. the heat.

  9. DAVID M GONG says:

    I’m a recent reader of your thoughtful articles.
    With regard to China’s actions in understanding the reporting to the world the existence of a new Coronavirus strain, without question, it appears that local Wuhan authorities were involved in the suppression of information in the initial days of hospitalization of COVID 19 patients. The medical staff initially involved first thought it was a return of the SARS virus, and Wuhan authorities moved quickly to refute. But as you note, despite these early crude attempts to deal with the new virus on a local basis, the Chinese government alerted the US CDC and WHO in the Jan. 1-3 time frame. What Chinese medical officials most likely did not foresee is the unique transmission characteristics on COVID 19 which we are beginning to understand. A significant % of people who are infected are asymptomatic for days and possibly weeks while spreading the virus. The ease and availability of global travel combined with Covid’s “stealth” transmission are critical factors for the current pandemic. I also believe that had the initial outbreak occur in NY, London, Rome, or Manila, the timing of global awareness of the magnitude of the problem wouldn’t have been much different, or possibly worse, than what actually happened.
    I do think it instructive to analyze the actions of other government officials in response to the virus. Korea is often cited as acting quickly and effectively to protect its citizens. But the US military has more than 20,000 soldiers in South Korea and assuredly had full access to the facts underlying Korea’s testing, tracking, and quarantine protocols. In fact, with military personnel testing positive in February, the US command had raised its coronavirus risk level to “high” in February, when our government officials were downplaying the risks here in the US. A tragic error in my view.
    Singapore and Taiwan, also close allies with the US also took swift actions to limit the spread of the virus in early February.
    While it is true that Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan had direct previous medical experience responding to previous coronavirus outbreaks with SARS, Swine Flu, and MERS, all of the data was available to national health authorities in the US. Why our CDC and other medical institutions were so ill-prepared is a story that will be told many times over in the future.
    The world is scrambling for a vaccine and undoubtedly some will emerge. When it is discovered, how long will it take to produce enough for 7 billion people? And who will get it first?
    If a US effort has the first vaccine, will our officials vaccinate US citizens first, laying us open to “hoarding the vaccine”
    Vaccination protocols are likely best addressed by a multinational organization, such as the WHO. Why anybody can think that defunding the WHO in the middle of a global health crisis is a good idea beggar the imagination.

  10. Karen says:

    As always, Hal, love your insight. Thank you.

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