Public events such as the South by Southwest festival in Austin and the Indian Wells, Calif., tennis tournament are being canceled. The whole of Italy — 60 million people — has been shut down. Public gatherings are prohibited — no weddings, no funerals, no church services. Could this augur what is to come in America?
The stock market is in free fall; on Monday, its rapid decline triggered the circuit breakers that are employed to slow mass sell-offs. I know that my 401(k) balances aren’t doing as well as they were just a few weeks ago. I just hope that my family, friends and colleagues stay healthy. My partner and kids are relatively young, so we should be okay, but I have aged parents and in-laws who are in high-risk categories, so that’s worrisome.
I live in New York, which now has more confirmed coronavirus cases (142 and counting) than any other state, including Washington. A friend whom we saw recently came down with flu-like symptoms. My son played basketball with a friend who now has a 104-degree fever. Are they suffering from coronavirus? No one knows, because almost no one can get tested. South Korea, with a population of 51.4 million, has already conducted 196,000 coronavirus tests. As of Saturday, the Atlantic could only confirm 1,895 tests out of a U.S. population of 327 million.
I find myself paranoid — or is it prudent? — every time I leave the house. Every subway car, every restaurant, every store is full of hitherto unsuspected microscopic dangers. I have become wary of doorknobs; I try to either push with my elbow or grip the knob with a glove or napkin. I don’t know whether to fly on a long-scheduled vacation Saturday, especially after the official who runs New York-area airports came down with the coronavirus. Being trapped in an airplane for many hours raises the danger of infection but being cooped up at home for the next few weeks will be depressing. Grocery stores and drugstores have been visited by what looks like a plague of locusts; everyone is hoarding everything. I have resisted the impulse until recently, but I finally gave in and ordered a bunch of packaged goods that we probably don’t need. If only I could buy more hand sanitizer …
There is still a sense of normalcy in most restaurants I have visited recently — all but the Chinese restaurants are full. I can’t decide whether those who are still dining out cheek by jowl with strangers are suffering from dangerous complacency or displaying a commendable desire to “keep calm and carry on.” We simply don’t know how bad the current situation is and what is to come.
There is so much uncertainty about the disease that it’s unclear if the mortality rate is 3.4 percent, as the World Health Organization says, or if it’s considerably lower, as our president has claimed based on a “hunch.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website is useless; checking it Monday morning, when the news media are reporting more than 500 confirmed cases, I saw that it listed only 164 cases.
Panic is spreading even faster than the coronavirus because there is no leader to reassure a jittery public. President Trump had no credibility coming into this crisis, and he has stayed true to incredible form with, as MSNBC notes, his many “Mission Accomplished” moments. Feb. 2: “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” Feb. 26: “You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” On Friday: “We closed it down; we stopped it.”
Trump and his crew have been equally Pollyannaish in trying to bolster the markets: Economic adviser Larry Kudlow urged investors on Friday to buy stocks because he claimed the coronavirus was “relatively contained.” On Monday, Trump was blaming “Fake News” for the stock market collapse, even though investors were reacting to genuinely bad tidings.
This is a time that calls for the candor and reassurance of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats.” Instead, we have a president who is emulating “Baghdad Bob” — the Iraqi minister of information who was claiming complete victory even as Saddam Hussein’s regime was collapsing in 2003.
I am sure we will muddle through this somehow; we always have, and what choice is there? But I am increasingly doubtful that Trump’s reelection campaign will survive this debacle. At this fraught moment, however, the president’s political prospects seem like the least important thing we have to worry about.