As someone with a generally sunny, positive disposition, I wasn’t overly concerned with the coronavirus. At least I wasn’t until the president told Americans not to be overly concerned and that he had everything under control.
When an epic liar, who twists the truth just for practice, tells you that you don’t have much to worry about, you know what you do? You start worrying, that’s what you do. In Trump’s willingness to say or do anything to minimize the global threat of the coronavirus in order to prop up the stock market—his singular measure of success (aside from crowd size)—he is deserving of the Murray Hamilton Award. There isn’t really a Murray Hamilton Award. But there should be. Murray Hamilton is that wonderful character actor who played the mayor in Jaws. You remember him—he’s the one who ignored the evidence of a great white shark off the coast of his seaside town, Amity Island, because he didn’t want to close the beaches on the lucrative Fourth of July weekend.
So the moment the president—who, for the conspiracy-minded, grew up a few miles from Corona, Queens—opened his mouth, the worrying began. When he handed the thankless job of managing the federal response to the virus to Vice President Mike Pence—a man with an appalling record on health crises—there was yet more cause for concern. A few days after Trump’s initial, and somewhat disturbing, press conference on the virus, he announced that he might close the border with Mexico—this at a time when the U.S.’s southern neighbor had registered exactly one person who had fallen ill. Perhaps Trump’s uninformed attitude toward the potential threat of the virus is a form of self-denial. He is, after all, in the sweet spot for coronavirus victims: 73 years old and with a legendarily poor diet.
So the moment the president opened his mouth, the worrying began.
That the Northern Italian area around Milan—one of the great design and production centers in Europe—is a veritable hot zone in the coronavirus crisis is both mystifying and understandable. Italians are travelers. At one time, they controlled much of the world, remember. And if you know them at all, you know that they are like agitated ants. They can’t sit still for a moment. Always on the go. Always with others. Patient Zero in that country is believed to have been in contact with more than 600 people in the short period of time between when he was infected and when it was detected. That’s the thing about Italians. They are always moving. Always on the phone. And always driving like maniacs. It’s a miracle any of them are alive. I once took a horrifying drive to Capalbio along the coast with a minor industrialist at the wheel. It was getting dark, and as we hurtled down windy, narrow, two-lane country roads that would qualify as a single lane in the U.S., he was at the wheel, holding his cell phone with one hand and gesturing with the other.
Italy is taking its bad luck with its trademark, just-get-on-with-it sangue freddo. You have to admire them, given that the fatality count jumped 50 percent in a single day last week. La Scala is closed. And a lot of major hotels will be deserted in the coming days. Italian schools and universities throughout the country have been locked up until the middle of the month. The schools were shut not so much because children are in danger but because, as any parent knows, schools are virtual petri dishes for all manner of disease and infection. The Italians are facing other sacrifices. No kissing. No hugging. No hand-shaking. In public places in some parts of the country, no standing within a meter or so of another person.
In Japan, they’ve canceled those little conveyor belts that carry sushi around in restaurants. In London, Parliament may be closed for up to five months. More importantly, the release of the new Bond film was postponed from early next month to the late fall. Perhaps the producers saw fit to follow the line of thinking in the film’s title: No Time to Die.
Russia—which has reported a suspiciously low number of cases—announced that it is closing the entry ports along the 2,600-mile border it shares with China. It will also begin random temperature checks of passengers on the Moscow subway.
Russia—which has reported a suspiciously low number of cases—announced that it is closing the entry ports along the 2,600-mile border it shares with China.
Italy did crown its first hero of the crisis, Gennaro Arma. He’s the Neapolitan captain of the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship on which more than 700 people contracted the virus and were put under a two-week quarantine. Arma did the best he could in the situation. He handed out chocolates on Valentine’s Day. And he read poetry over the P.A. system. (Whether he knew it or not, he was taking a cue from another great Italian, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who read the Sunday funnies over the radio during a newspaper-delivery-union strike in 1945.) Arma stayed on the boat until the last passenger had disembarked. Newspapers hailed him as the “anti-Schettino”—a reference to Francesco Schettino, the hapless captain of the Costa Concordia, which he ran aground off Isola del Giglio in 2012.
The virus has already spread to the U.S., and its attendant economic hardships will follow. It really is only a matter of time. New York is surprisingly blasé about the whole thing. But the moment a notable from the city’s media-fashion-theater-entertainment-banking complex gets the virus, the hysteria will jump-start. When it does, New Yorkers may be in for a rude surprise. Dr. Matt McCarthy, a staff physician at New York Hospital, told CNBC this week, “I’m here to tell you, right now, at one of the busiest hospitals in the country, I don’t have [the test kits] at my fingertips…. That is a national scandal.… They’re testing 10,000 [people] a day in some countries, and we can’t get this off the ground.”
Bloomberg News reported that the wealthy may be especially affected by the virus. Couples who rarely spend proper time together will now be forced to stay at home—perhaps even during the day! According to Mitchell Moss, who teaches urban policy and planning at New York University, “This is going to destroy the marriages of the rich…. All these husbands and wives who travel will now have to spend time with the person they’re married to.” So that’s a thin silver lining. Another is the fact that China has experienced a dramatic drop in pollution levels since the lockdown of industrial hubs in Hubei Province and elsewhere in the country. (Although some of that decline has been attributed to factory and business closures in celebration of Lunar New Year.) Finally, also encouraging was the news that men with ornate facial hair may have to shave in order to properly wear protective masks.
Less than a week after his bumbling news conference about the coronavirus, Trump called in to his rabid Fox pal Sean Hannity’s television show. This was after the World Health Organization set the coronavirus death rate at 3.4 percent. Trump’s response: “I think the 3.4 percent is really a false number.... You know, all of a sudden it seems like 3 or 4 percent, which is a very high number, as opposed to a fraction of 1 percent. But again, they don’t know about the easy cases because the easy cases don’t go to the hospital. They don’t report to doctors or the hospital in many cases. So I think that that number is very high. I think the number, personally, I would say the number is way under 1 percent.”
Trump continued: “Now this is just my hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because a lot of people will have this, and it’s very mild. They’ll get better very rapidly. They don’t even see a doctor, they don’t even call a doctor. You never hear about those people, so you can’t put them down in the category of the overall population, in terms of this corona flu and/or virus. So you just can’t do that.”
Aside from the primitive language skills, this is all somewhat horrifying. And it begs a question. What happens when you put the most complicated governmental machine on earth in the hands of an ignorant, narcissistic imbecile? And then you throw a curveball like the coronavirus into the equation. Well, we’re about to find out. And then Trump gives his response rating at A+++. What sentient adult grades himself that way? Honestly, it’s enough to test anyone’s generally sunny, positive disposition.