Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

COVID-19 Is Not a Black Swan. Trump Is the Black Swan.

The problem isn't that America couldn't plan for a pandemic. It's that we couldn't plan for a president so incompetent that he failed to follow the most basic protocols for fighting a pandemic.
March 26, 2020
COVID-19 Is Not a Black Swan. Trump Is the Black Swan.

1. Testing. Testing. Testing.

I know, I’m a broken record. But this cannot be said often enough:

When it comes to managing an outbreak, testing is the foundation on which everything else rests.

And the ability to test widely and quickly is of maximum importance at the beginning, before the outbreak reaches critical mass.

The U.S. seems to be finally catching up to the rest of the world in terms of testing capability as a matter of raw numbers, but in terms of total testing capacity relative to the populace, we’re still far below where we need to be.

And that 12 week period between the revelation of outbreak in Wuhan and the arrival of COVID-19 in America is time we cannot get back.

Please understand that this lag period is the defining mistake in what is happening right now in America. Everything would be different—everything—if the government had rushed production of effective testing that could be processed on-site.

And please understand that what I’m talking about isn’t a moonshot. It’s the basic blocking and tackling of epidemiology.

See this section from the Atlantic’s big piece on what the COVID-19 endgame is going to look like:

As my colleagues Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer have reported, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed and distributed a faulty test in February. Independent labs created alternatives, but were mired in bureaucracy from the FDA. In a crucial month when the American caseload shot into the tens of thousands, only hundreds of people were tested. That a biomedical powerhouse like the U.S. should so thoroughly fail to create a very simple diagnostic test was, quite literally, unimaginable. “I’m not aware of any simulations that I or others have run where we [considered] a failure of testing,” says Alexandra Phelan of Georgetown University, who works on legal and policy issues related to infectious diseases.

The testing fiasco was the original sin of America’s pandemic failure, the single flaw that undermined every other countermeasure. If the country could have accurately tracked the spread of the virus, hospitals could have executed their pandemic plans, girding themselves by allocating treatment rooms, ordering extra supplies, tagging in personnel, or assigning specific facilities to deal with COVID-19 cases. None of that happened.

Let me read the key part to you again:

“I’m not aware of any simulations that I or others have run where we [considered] a failure of testing,” says Alexandra Phelan.

People have been saying that you can’t plan for a once-in-a-century pandemic—there is no playbook for that kind of disaster.

This is not true. There is literally a playbook for pandemics.

What you can’t plan for is the possibility of a government seeing the pandemic coming and refusing to follow basic protocols for managing the crisis.

The black swan here isn’t COVID-19.

It’s Trump.

2. Stimulus

I have found it very hard to get worked up over the various failings of the Democratic and Republican stimulus bills.

Politicians are playing politics with government money?

Legislators are trying to lard up a giant spending plan with items that have nothing to do with the task at hand?

Instead of passing a clean bill in a heartbeat, elected representatives engaged in brinksmanship that delayed relief?

I’m shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on here.

But here is the real reason I don’t much care about the small failings of the bills, or the process. and am not interested in calculating the exact apportionment of blame: The big problem is that neither side’s proposals were big enough.

Not even close to big enough.

This is not a $2 trillion problem we are facing. It’s probably not even a $5 trillion problem. The entire American economy, more or less, needs to be backstopped because we cannot begin an economic recovery until the pandemic is in a place where it can be managed. And we are not yet close to that point.

So here’s the real problem with both the Democratic and Republican plans: We’re going to be back here doing this again, soon.

There is a weird fallacy in people’s thinking that sees the economic problems as being caused by the social-distancing and the lockdowns.

That is incorrect.

The underlying economic problem is the virus.

Any attempt to “fix” the economy before we’ve gotten control of the pandemic will fail. And it will fail not because of lockdown orders or social distancing, but because a free society cannot sustain a high-energy economic order with a pandemic raging in the background.

The point of the stimulus isn’t to stimulate the economy, but to act as a tourniquet that keeps families and businesses alive until we get the source of the traumatic injury under control.

And this tourniquet isn’t big enough.

3. Commie Crypto

A fascinating NYT piece about the guy who built a cryptocurrency for Nicolas Maduro:

Just after midnight one Tuesday in early 2018, the vice president of Venezuela commandeered the nation’s TV airwaves. Looking composed despite the hour, in a blue suit and red tie, he announced that the government was about to make history by becoming the first on Earth to sell its own cryptocurrency. It would be known as the Petro.

Three blocks away, in the vice president’s sprawling offices, Gabriel Jiménez was sitting blearily at an enormous glass conference table, pounding away at a laptop. Powerful air-conditioners chilled the air to a crisp. Lanky, with big black glasses set between a scruffy beard and a receding hairline, Mr. Jiménez had spent months designing and coding every detail of the Petro. Now, alongside his lead programmer, he was racing to make it operational, despite the fact that basic decisions had still not been made.

Just after the vice president signed off the air, his chief of staff burst into the office, furious. Mr. Jiménez couldn’t understand — something about typos on a website, an embarrassment to the nation. The chief brought in two guards, armed with military rifles, and told Mr. Jiménez and his programmer that they were forbidden to leave. If they made any attempt to communicate with the outside world, they would be on their way to El Helicoide. It was a distinctly Venezuelan symbol of terror: a futuristic mall project, with car ramps between stores, converted into a political prison and center of torture. . . .

“The actual goal of the project was to change the economic model of the oppressive regime,” he told The Times recently. “This was my mission and my gamble, in a bet that ended costing everything I had in my life: my friends, my partners, my reputation, my love, my company and my country.”

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.