We Are Not…

Democratic politicians have been going on and on of late about the United States’s, and more specifically President Trump’s, rotten response to the coronavirus.  But as I had written about New York City and the coronavirus in May, there are factors in play beyond the actions of our leadership.

We are the United States.

We are not China:

Besides being the origin of Covid, China is an authoritarian state, with government control over pretty much everything.  We yowl about how President Trump wants to get rid of the free press (not true, but that’s in issue for another day), but in China, there is no free press.  Our cell phones surveil us in the name of better advertising; their cell phones surveil them so that miscreants can be thrown in jail.  They tell us they’ve had 85,351 coronavirus cases as of this morning: that’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.  We’re up to 7.2 million: still number one, although we may be overtaken by India at just under 6 million.

We are not New Zealand:

New Zealand is an island nation, separated from the rest of the world by thousands of miles of open ocean, well aware of how they are biologically separate.  They can enforce quarantine at the border, and if cluster of cases pop up, they can apply lockdowns to suppress the infection, with an immediate goal of ending the restrictions and returning to normal.

We are not South Korea:

Korea isn’t isolated, particularly from China.  But they were able to mount an effective response to the virus.  To do this, they had an agile government and business response, and a culture that respects its government and can accept the notion of continuous, automated surveillance in the name of public health.  The result has been effective contact tracing that focuses public health efforts where they’re needed.  We were told at the outset of the emergency about Korea’s wonderful testing program.  To date, they’ve done enough tests to cover less than 5% of the population.  Our figure is over 30%.

We’re not Ghana or Liberia:

The poorer nations of Africa have done better at containing Covid than most of the richer nations of the world.   Some of them have more public health experience, having dealt with far deadlier viruses; some of them admit the use of hydroxychloroquine, which is in common use against malaria.  But a big factor is that relatively few people travel there, few enough that quarantining and contact tracing really works.

But we’re the United States:

  • We’re not an authoritarian state (yet!).  We have a free press that can report the truth, except when it’s politically incorrect.  They can report what the government says, or not, as they see fit, and shade it with derision when they see fit.  They’re also free to exaggerate and spread fear rather than enlightenment: whatever sells newspapers.
  • We’re not isolated from the rest of the world.  In normal times, thousands of travelers entered and left the United States every day.  We initially chafed at the notion of closing the borders before embracing it.  This is a big difference, because we let the virus in and let it take root, because…
  • We’re not agile.  We’ve done about as well as can be expected in making plans and ramping up testing, but we’re collectively pretty rotten about anticipating problems.  Governor Cuomo shut down New York in stages, from 13 to 22 March.  If he had done it all at once on 13 March, it would have made little difference: people were already staying at home and not going out.  (And the virus was already spreading.)  If he had done it all at once on 13 February, there might have been a difference, but there was no sense of urgency back then.  Moreover, in the absence of a ‘genuine’ emergency, any government proposal that affects people’s livelihoods will be subject to intense lobbying and complaint.
  • We’re not trusting of our government, at least many of us aren’t.  I’ve written in these pages about the apparent futility of embarking on a contact tracing effort after the virus is already in the community: it appears useful only as practice for some more nefarious form of tracking and control.  I’m sure I’m not alone.
  • We’ve decided that hydroxychloroquine is a bad idea, even though it has been recognized as effective against other coronaviruses, and has been successfully used against Covid in other parts of the world.
  • And another thing: the United States is considerably larger than New Zealand, South Korea, Ghana, or Liberia: large enough that the virus will propagate through the states at different times, at different rates, with different effects.  There is no single policy that will work everywhere.

The benefit of hindsight suggests that we might have avoided all this trouble if we had closed our borders and kept everyone else out from, perhaps, sometime in January.  But even if we had known what to do back then, and the consequences of inaction, would we have done it?

Masks

OK, I wasn’t smiling. But it illustrates the concept….

When the coronavirus first emerged as an issue in February, I contemplated whether it would be useful to wear a mask.  Some people in New York City were wearing them, and the prices and availability on Amazon suggested supply issues.  It didn’t seem worth the bother.

In March, as the emergency heated up, my wife asked me about getting masks.  Our leadership at the time said that masks weren’t necessary for most of us, and we should refrain from using or acquiring them to save them for health care workers who really needed them.  Most of the masks were (and are) made in China, and the supply chain had been disrupted.  Overall, it didn’t seem worth the trouble, and as the drug stores all had signs advising ‘No Masks Available,’ I let it be.

On closer examination, the blue masks that were commonly worn by health care workers and now making a broader appearance aren’t meant to protect the wearer from the environment.  The original use case for the masks, which is also true for Covid, is that it contains the wearer’s emissions, which may carry the virus even though the wearer has no symptoms.  Health care workers commonly work with people whose immune systems are compromised, so they wear the masks to protect their patients from whatever microbes they may be carrying.

If you want to protect yourself from the virus with a mask, you need N95 or better, and if you’re a guy, you need to be clean-shaven.  When I got tested for Covid a couple of months ago, the doctor performing the test appeared in a bunny suit with a full face covering, which is probably as good as one can do while still being in the same room.

My wife had been following events in Korea, and since I was reluctant to run out and buy masks, she made up her own, following instructions on YouTube, from paper towels, adhesive tape, and elastic strapping.  Apparently, the Korean government had donated much of the country’s mask supply to China, so Koreans needing masks had to improvise.  My wife’s masks were comfortable and didn’t look overly dorky; I still carry a couple in my bag in case the mask I’m wearing gets soggy or otherwise troublesome.

In my travels on the Internet, I came across the Origin Maine Defender mask (no longer available), a gaiter made of stretchy synthetic fabric into which one can insert additional filter media (I used a paper towel).  I wore them for work: they were a bit uncomfortable and got soggy if I was exerting myself and sweating.  But thin gaiters aren’t really very good at containing one’s emissions, so I can’t recommend that alternative.

Later in the spring, we got a few dozen bandanas in different colors.  I gave some to my son, who wore them as bandanas.  My wife and I wear them folded up, with elastic strapping to hold them in place.  They’re colorful (my wife and I like to wear matching colors when we’re out together), comfortable, more effective than the Defender gaiter, and cheap.

New York rules (I’m reluctant to call them ‘laws’ because they’re rooted in executive orders from Uncle Andy, and not passed by the state legislature) require masks on public transit, in places of business (except while actually eating at a restaurant), and outdoors when social distancing can’t be maintained.  I’ll wear a mask while walking on the street, but take if off to ride a bike.

I doubt the mask actually does anything.  My wife and I tested negative a couple of months ago, and we haven’t felt any better or worse since then.  Beyond that, of all the thousands of Covid tests performed in New York State over the past month, less than 1% came back positive.  However, if indulging a little public paranoia will help us get back to normal, I’m all for it.

Meanwhile, the supply chains have gotten back to normal, and cheap Chinese blue masks are once again available.  As an employer, I’m required to have masks available for my employees, so I have a couple of boxes in the office.  But I’ve never worn one myself.

Tyranny with your Dinner?

Out in the wider world, things are slowly getting back to normal, almost:

  • Buses are back to the normal routine of getting on the front end of the bus and paying the fare, but the white line beyond which passengers are not permitted to stand when the bus is in motion has been relocated to keep passengers from standing too close to the driver.
  • Museums are reopening, but one must make a reservation before visiting.
  • Blink, the gym I used to frequent before the emergency, has reopened.  But the showers are closed, and one is encouraged to make a reservation.  I can resume my membership, or keep it suspended until the end of October.  I think I’ll wait.

Meanwhile, a proper meal inside a restaurant is still prohibited in New York City.  There’s outdoor dining, which is OK while the weather is nice, if one doesn’t get caught in a public protest (‘shame on you for flaunting your dining privilege!’), but will likely not be so wonderful come November.  One can also cheat a bit, and go outside the city (Hoboken is a few minutes from Greenwich Village on the PATH train), but that’s a so-so substitute.

Uncle Andy (Governor Cuomo) and Uncle Bill (Mayor DeBlasio) were maundering earlier this month about how resuming indoor dining would be ‘too risky.’  After raging at President Trump and insisting that they would make decisions driven by science and data, they fumbled about uselessly.  Governor Cuomo feared that indoor dining would bring about a resurgence of Covid… unless, perhaps, we allocated 4,000 police officers to mind people’s behavior in restaurants.  (In fairness, this is the same Uncle Andy who predicted dire consequences without 30,000 ventilators for the anticipated Covid victims of New York State.)  While I first came across this item on a conservative news feed, I checked a couple of more mainstream news sources to make sure it was real.

The Labor Day weekend felt close to normal.  My wife and I had lunch in Little Italy: there were fewer people in the streets than in past years, but it was comfortably busy.  We could get a seat on the subway returning home, but not a socially distant seat like in past weeks. 

A couple of days ago, Uncle Andy relented and put forth a plan for indoor dining in New York City, to take effect 30 September.  Restaurants would be limited to 25% capacity, with tables at least six feet apart, no seating at the bar, temperature checks at the door, and masks required to be worn when not seated.

But the worst part, to my view, is that one member of each party must identify himself for contact tracing.  If someone visits the same restaurant and later turns up positive, the Covid police will show up at my door demanding to know who I’ve been hanging out with for the past month.

The icky part is that restaurants with indoor and outdoor dining spaces (October is still mostly nice for outdoor dining in New York City) will probably collect contract tracing information from everyone, not just the indoor diners.  Choosing to eat outdoors to avoid contact tracing probably won’t work.

Oh, yes: New York City will provide ‘a team of 400 enforcement personnel’ to ensure compliance.  Not quite 4,000 cops, but it’s still onerous and stupid.

The saddest part is the response from the restaurant community reported on the New York State Web page.  The Restaurant Association and the owners of various restaurants are unanimous in praising and thanking Uncle Andy for his wise leadership.  Alas, he has them all by the throat.