, 05.03.2020 09:44 AM

The future, no future

The New York Times‘ Frank Bruni is the writer I’ll never be. Here, in its entirety, is his column in today’s paper, about the woman above, the one who foresaw it all – and what she foresees next.

Don’t expect to feel very hopeful by the end.

I told Laurie Garrett that she might as well change her name to Cassandra. Everyone is calling her that anyway.

She and I were Zooming — that’s a verb now, right? — and she pulled out a 2017 book, “Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes.” It notes that Garrett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, was prescient not only about the impact of H.I.V. but also about the emergence and global spread of more contagious pathogens.

“I’m a double Cassandra,” Garrett said.

She’s also prominently mentioned in a recent Vanity Fair article by David Ewing Duncan about “the Coronavirus Cassandras.”

Cassandra, of course, was the Greek prophetess doomed to issue unheeded warnings. What Garrett has been warning most direly about — in her 1994 best seller, “The Coming Plague,” and in subsequent books and speeches, including TED Talks — is a pandemic like the current one.

She saw it coming. So a big part of what I wanted to ask her about was what she sees coming next. Steady yourself. Her crystal ball is dark.

Despite the stock market’s swoon for it, remdesivir probably isn’t our ticket out, she told me. “It’s not curative,” she said, pointing out that the strongest claims so far are that it merely shortens the recovery of Covid-19 patients. “We need either a cure or a vaccine.”

But she can’t envision that vaccine anytime in the next year, while Covid-19 will remain a crisis much longer than that.

“I’ve been telling everybody that my event horizon is about 36 months, and that’s my best-case scenario,” she said.

“I’m quite certain that this is going to go in waves,” she added. “It won’t be a tsunami that comes across America all at once and then retreats all at once. It will be micro-waves that shoot up in Des Moines and then in New Orleans and then in Houston and so on, and it’s going to affect how people think about all kinds of things.”

They’ll re-evaluate the importance of travel. They’ll reassess their use of mass transit. They’ll revisit the need for face-to-face business meetings. They’ll reappraise having their kids go to college out of state.

So, I asked, is “back to normal,” a phrase that so many people cling to, a fantasy?

“This is history right in front of us,” Garrett said. “Did we go ‘back to normal’ after 9/11? No. We created a whole new normal. We securitized the United States. We turned into an antiterror state. And it affected everything. We couldn’t go into a building without showing ID and walking through a metal detector, and couldn’t get on airplanes the same way ever again. That’s what’s going to happen with this.”

Not the metal detectors, but a seismic shift in what we expect, in what we endure, in how we adapt.

Maybe in political engagement, too, Garrett said.

If America enters the next wave of coronavirus infections “with the wealthy having gotten somehow wealthier off this pandemic by hedging, by shorting, by doing all the nasty things that they do, and we come out of our rabbit holes and realize, ‘Oh, my God, it’s not just that everyone I love is unemployed or underemployed and can’t make their maintenance or their mortgage payments or their rent payments, but now all of a sudden those jerks that were flying around in private helicopters are now flying on private personal jets and they own an island that they go to and they don’t care whether or not our streets are safe,’ then I think we could have massive political disruption.”

“Just as we come out of our holes and see what 25 percent unemployment looks like,” she said, “we may also see what collective rage looks like.”

Garrett has been on my radar since the early 1990s, when she worked for Newsday and did some of the best reporting anywhere on AIDS. Her Pulitzer, in 1996, was for coverage of Ebola in Zaire. She has been a fellow at Harvard’s School of Public Health, was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and consulted on the 2011 movie “Contagion.”

Her expertise, in other words, has long been in demand. But not like now.

Each morning when she opens her email, “there’s the Argentina request, Hong Kong request, Taiwan request, South Africa request, Morocco, Turkey,” she told me. “Not to mention all of the American requests.” It made me feel bad about taking more than an hour of her time on Monday. But not so bad that I didn’t cadge another 30 minutes on Thursday.

She said she wasn’t surprised that a coronavirus wrought this devastation, that China minimized what was going on or that the response in many places was sloppy and sluggish. She’s Cassandra, after all.

But there is one part of the story she couldn’t have predicted: that the paragon of sloppiness and sluggishness would be the United States.

“I never imagined that,” she said. “Ever.”

The highlights — or, rather, lowlights — include President Trump’s initial acceptance of the assurances by President Xi Jinping of China that all would be well, his scandalous complacency from late January through early March, his cheerleading for unproven treatments, his musings about cockamamie ones, his abdication of muscular federal guidance for the states and his failure, even now, to sketch out a detailed long-range strategy for containing the coronavirus.

Having long followed Garrett’s work, I can attest that it’s not driven by partisanship. She praised George W. Bush for fighting H.I.V. in Africa.

But she called Trump “the most incompetent, foolhardy buffoon imaginable.”

And she’s shocked that America isn’t in a position to lead the global response to this crisis, in part because science and scientists have been so degraded under Trump.

Referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and its analogues abroad, she told me: “I’ve heard from every C.D.C. in the world — the European C.D.C., the African C.D.C., China C.D.C. — and they say, ‘Normally our first call is to Atlanta, but we ain’t hearing back.’ There’s nothing going on down there. They’ve gutted that place. They’ve gagged that place. I can’t get calls returned anymore. Nobody down there is feeling like it’s safe to talk. Have you even seen anything important and vital coming out of the C.D.C.?”

The problem, Garrett added, is bigger than Trump and older than his presidency. America has never been sufficiently invested in public health. The riches and renown go mostly to physicians who find new and better ways to treat heart disease, cancer and the like. The big political conversation is about individuals’ access to health care.

But what about the work to keep our air and water safe for everyone, to design policies and systems for quickly detecting outbreaks, containing them and protecting entire populations? Where are the rewards for the architects of that?

Garrett recounted her time at Harvard. “The medical school is all marble, with these grand columns,” she said. “The school of public health is this funky building, the ugliest possible architecture, with the ceilings falling in.”

“That’s America?” I asked.

“That’s America,” she said.

And what America needs most right now, she said, isn’t this drumbeat of testing, testing, testing, because there will never be enough superfast, super-reliable tests to determine on the spot who can safely enter a crowded workplace or venue, which is the scenario that some people seem to have in mind. America needs good information, from many rigorously designed studies, about the prevalence and deadliness of coronavirus infections in given subsets of people, so that governors and mayors can develop rules for social distancing and reopening that are sensible, sustainable and tailored to the situation at hand.

America needs a federal government that assertively promotes and helps to coordinate that, not one in which experts like Tony Fauci and Deborah Birx tiptoe around a president’s tender ego.

“I can sit here with you for three hours listing — boom, boom, boom — what good leadership would look like and how many more lives would be saved if we followed that path, and it’s just incredibly upsetting.” Garrett said. “I feel like I’m just coming out of maybe three weeks of being in a funk because of the profound disappointment that there’s not a whisper of it.”

Instead of that whisper she hears wailing: the sirens of ambulances carrying coronavirus patients to hospitals near her apartment in Brooklyn Heights, where she has been home alone, in lockdown, since early March. “If I don’t get hugged soon, I’m going to go bananas,” she told me. “I’m desperate to be hugged.”

Me, too. Especially after her omens.

18 Comments

  1. Ronald O'Dowd says:

    As much as COVID-19 has proven itself to be highly contagious and therefore menacing, the number one contributor to infection, serious and even deadly illness is individualism, whether expressed by one person or a collective unit of individualists. Those are the people in front of government buildings, on the beaches and in the parks. And they all share the same trait: social distancing is not for them. Well, Good Luck with that.

  2. Ronald O'Dowd says:

    Vaccines are not a panacea. Far from it. If developed, how are they supposed to keep up with the mutation cycle? If they can provide baseline protection or limited immunity, great. But don’t expect vaccines to wipe out this pandemic because they can’t and won’t.

  3. Ronald O'Dowd says:

    P.S. Every reasonably talented writer thinks his or her stuff is garbage. I absolutely loathe my first drafts.

  4. Peter says:

    I’ll bet the original Cassandra whined a lot about not getting enough hugs too.

    This is savory meat for gloom addicts like NYT readers, Ivy league profs, Hollywood directors etc. Meanwhile, over in flyover country, naive optimistic crewcuts are working out problems in their studies and labs and whispering “Return to Normal? Can do!”

    • Ronald O'Dowd says:

      Peter,

      I’ll believe that one when I see it. Remember, we aren’t talking a universal polio-type vaccine, or standard routine vaccinations for infants and children. Far from it.

      • Peter says:

        Far be it from me to play Candide to her Cassandra, but it’s been all of two months, Ronald. Don’t you think it’s a little early to be attributing dark clairvoyant powers to an “award-winning journalist” whose dystopian views amazingly correspond to the traditional editorial positions of the New York Times? There have been at least three pandemics in the last hundred years that killed many more than the coronavirus so far, and nobody remembers them or attributes transformative cultural changes to them. The 1919 flu pandemic lasted two years and killed as many as two hundred times more than as the Co-vid. When it was over (without a vaccine), we got the Roaring Twenties, the flapper era and an an explosion of technological development and cultural renewal. The truth is nobody has a clue what’s in store for us, and that includes her.

        But I can see how this will be good for NYT readership and revenue. It’s a tried and true formula. Take a liberal dose of American leftist self-flagellation, add a very large measure of Trump-bashing and serve on a table decorated in sombre, hell-in-a-handcart colours. It’s the perfect recipe for Boomer progressives starting to go squirrely from the effects of self-isolation.

  5. Ronald O'Dowd says:

    And while we’re at it, will those optimistic, good, true-faith genuine real-deal capitalists break with their larger group of crony capitalists and clamour loudly to put investment and money-center bank bigwigs in jail (this time)???

    Maybe they can get the StableGeniusTM to throw away the key!Forgive me if I can’t stop laughing.

    • Fred from BC says:

      Stranger things have happened. Looks like some FBI, DOJ and intelligence types will soon be indicted (can’t wait to see that smarmy prick Comey in an orange jumpsuit, myself). It’s not too much of a leap from them to the bankers…

      • Fred,

        Yes, the Flynn thing is coming back to life. His alleged lying to the FBI is one thing. If people responsible for his file did something improper, illegal or unethical, I’ll bet they’ve already started sweating.

        • Ditto on Hillary but that will be a much harder nut to crack if improprieties or illegalities can be proven. My sense is 50-50 on whether the Trump DOJ can get there.

          • Fred from BC says:

            Agreed. I still say that part of the reason for Trump’s election was the US housing crash and resulting world-wide recession brought on by the “sub-prime mortgages” thing (thanks, Bill Clinton!).

            Millions of average lower-to-middle class people lost everything, but were treated to the spectacle of big banks being bailed out *with taxpayer money*, followed by seeing many of the millionaire executives responsible being rewarded by BONUSES, rather than terminations. I think they looked at Donald Trump as the maverick who might, just might, be the guy to “drain the swamp”.

            (and yes, I’m fully cognizant of the irony of a billionaire New York real estate mogul and Democrat becoming the hero of millions of rednecks…)

  6. Daryl Gordon says:

    https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/05/fbi-set-up-michael-flynn-to-preserve-trump-russia-probe/

    Quick summary of this from a Trump critical author. Trail leads right to Obama through Susan Rice. Without doubt, this is the biggest political scandal ever. Will the truth ever come out?
    ……….

    • The Doctor says:

      Yes, clearly any guy who writes a book entitled “Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency” is “Trump critical”.

      Are you sure it wasn’t Flynn’s tweeting about Pizzagate that got him so egregiously and unjustly framed? Don’t you think it was Hillary and Podesta who ordered Flynn to be arrested because he was blowing the lid off of the secret pedophile ring that Hillary and Podesta were running out of the basement of Comet Pizza? Surely that’s the REAL story here . . .

      • Daryl Gordon says:

        More accurate would be describing McCarthy as “initially critical of Trump “. As for Flynn, the failure to register as a foreign lobbyist is problematic in itself. The article mainly deals with getting Flynn removed by any means so that the illegal surveillance of Trump and the transition team could continue.

      • Fred from BC says:

        “Yes, clearly any guy who writes a book entitled “Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency” is “Trump critical”.”

        Clearly anyone who notices (and is alarmed by) any unethical, underhanded or illegal activities engaged in by the Democrats, the DOJ and the FBI must simply SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP or forever be branded a “Trump lover”, right Doc? Because the truth is just an inconvenience, and utterly unimportant when it comes to the True Believers getting their TDS fix.

        I wonder if you felt the same way about our host when he was expressing many people’s concerns about Justin Trudeau and his sexist, racist and unethical behavior. A few people on the Progressive Bloggers began accusing him of being a “Conservative shill” and were demanding that he be removed from the blog roll and silenced…were you perhaps one of them?

        • The Doctor says:

          Michael Flynn lied to the FBI. That’s a felony. Deal with it Fred.

          I guess you’re also cool with the US National Security Advisor being a paid consultant to a foreign government.

          In other news, I have no idea WTF Justin Trudeau has to do with any of this. But in any event, I’m not a fan of JT and never have been. I think he’s more or less a vapid cheeseball, although I’ve never met the guy. Yet here you are, lamely attempting to accuse me of having views I don’t have and saying things I’ve never said.

          • Fred from BC says:

            “Michael Flynn lied to the FBI. That’s a felony.”

            After he was maneuvered into it, sure. Big deal. The FBI themselves have now been proven to have lied to judges to get illegal warrants (and let’s not even get into Hillary’s people deleting emails and smashing hard drives and cell phones, right?). Why are the Democrats allowed to lie, but not the Republicans?

            ” Deal with it Fred.”

            I have. I’m unimpressed.

            “Yet here you are, lamely attempting to accuse me of having views I don’t have and saying things I’ve never said.”

            Exactly my point here (and thanks for the lead-in):

            “Trump lover”
            “Trump supporter”
            “collaborator”
            “just as guilty as him…”

            So now you know, if you didn’t before, just what that feels like when YOU do it to OTHERS, don’t you?

  7. Many people have smugly predicted the imminent demise of the US. I’ll believe it when I see it. I still believe in the American people, notwithstanding their current political ordeals. If you want a balanced and objective view, don’t watch cable news.

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