COVID-19 - Calm Before the Storm

31 Mar 2020

It’s March 31, 2020.

Virginia, DC, and Maryland officially issued stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic yesterday.

There are currently around 800,000 confirmed infections. 3,800 people across the world have succumbed to COVID-19 in the past 24 hours. Over 250 people died in New York today. The number of US deaths has exceeded that of 9/11.

The US economy is attempting to recover from a drastic, sharp crash. Oil prices and world indices are in a constant state of turmoil. The Federal Reserve is funneling trillions of dollars into the economy in an effort to save it.

The USA is just beginning to grapple with the realities of the pandemic.

I’m writing this post because our world is changing at a rapid rate in a way that no one has ever seen. I want to take a moment to remember the sentiment of this time in history, because I think we will feel very differently about things in a few months.

I also want to make a very clear point in this post: I believe that America has essentially fucked this one up.

Let me back up a little bit. Anyone paying attention to the news in February knew that this “coronavirus” thing was causing a ruckus in Wuhan, China.

I run a popular Warhammer website and I had planned on attending one of the largest tournaments in the world (Adepticon, in Chicago, Illinois) in late March.

On February 27, I posted the following to Twitter.

Given the news I was reading, I was getting very nervous about going anywhere, much less a conference center with over 6,000 people in attendance. I am a healthy-looking 30 year old, but my immune system is compromised.

What stunned me were the replies I got. One person suggested that it was simply a “panic” and that the global death toll of the flu was far higher than COVID-19. Another poster suggested that since I would be in Chicago, I was better off worrying about gun violence. Neither poster seemed concerned about the coronavirus in the slightest.

I cancelled my Adepticon plans on March 4th, and began my own self-quarantine the next day.

“It’s just the flu!”

One of the constant themes of this virus’s emergence is the “just a flu” line of reasoning. You see, influenza kills people every year, lots of them. So do car crashes! In fact, many people die of many things each year, and certain people really wanted to compare the coronavirus to those numbers constantly.

But wait, you say, what about - Exponential growth? High rate of infection? 10-30x higher rate of mortality? 20% of infections requiring hospitalization?

These numbers did not phase your average keyboard warrior. They were sure, you see, that the media was simply ginning up panic about a big fat hunk of nothing.

Besides, remember SARS? Ebola? H1N1? We got through those! Why would this be any different?

I remember breaking down the H1N1 numbers for nonbelievers - pointing out that H1N1 infected 60 million Americans, killing 12,000.

I would talk friends, family, and internet strangers through the numbers - if COVID-19 infected 60 million Americans (same as H1N1), we could lose anywhere from 1-3 million people (remember, the mortality rate in February was difficult to pin down, it was generally estimated at 1-5%).

Most people were not phased. Either by blind faith or ignorance, it seemed that many people were convinced that this too would pass.

Many people, in fact, told me to “stop watching the news.” The consensus was that my coronavirus fears were far overblown. It was a Chinese problem, not an American issue.

Are we crazy?

My girlfriend Amanda and I went into self-quarantine voluntarily on March 5th. Amanda normally goes into work every day, and she switched to working at home in order to avoid bringing the virus home to me. I work from home ordinarily anyways, but I stopped my daily errands and cancelled all upcoming social events.

I am lucky to work at Capital One, which has responded tremendously to the COVID-19 crisis. Long before other companies in the area took action, and before any local governments issued guidance, Capital One swiftly shut down branches and moved most of our 50,000 workers to remote roles. Capital One also increased the pay of any associates who remained in the office - a sort of hazard pay.

I can honestly say that I am very proud, and blessed, to work at such a company.

I take immunosuppressants every day for a kidney transplant I received in 2008. I am one of the “pre-existing condition” people that are at risk from COVID-19.

Amanda and I were isolating ourselves because we read about Italy and Spain and the havoc that the virus was wreaking on those countries. We read about the overflowing hospitals, the lack of ventilators, and the hundreds of deaths per day. We read about the quarantines, lockdowns, and most of all, the lamentations of the Italian people that they had ignored the warning signs and locked down too late.

By March 5th, Amanda and I had switched entirely to online ordering. We stocked up on canned goods, non-perishables, and enough groceries to last us a few weeks.

There were days when we felt absolutely insane. We would talk to our family and we could tell they were treating us with kid gloves, like we were easily-panicked sheep and needed to be calmed down. I would ask other people I talked to if they were ready to be locked down - they would laugh, deflect, or just tell me I was overreacting.

Were we overreacting? We were wiping down deliveries with Lysol wipes and avoiding touching anything outside. Amanda and I frequently asked each other - “Is this weird? Are we being weird?”

Our families continued to travel, continued to fly, continued to go shopping, continued to go to parties. I started to feel like I was annoying everyone I talked to - I would beg them to stay home and stop going out, they would tell me that they felt fine and don’t worry about it. Besides, they didn’t see any sick people.

It started to feel personal at a certain point. I am immunosuppressed, I am at risk of dying, I am forced to stay in my home until this ends. Why weren’t people responding to this? Why were they going out and potentially spreading or contracting the virus? I felt like society at large had essentially cast me to the side (along with the elderly).

I eventually learned that word had spread - Davis is panicking, just humor him when he calls.

The only thing that helped was talking to our friends in Germany. Their country was far more responsive and aware of the threat, and they were placed under strict lockdown in mid-March. Talking to them, and listening to their Chancellor speak, set our minds at ease. Yes, a horrible pandemic was coming, but at least their country recognized the severity!

You’re not as smart as you think

I have thoroughly judged people on how they reacted to this event. Unlike any other event in history, this event allowed me to observe a few things about people.

For example: How concerned were people about the looming virus? How quickly did they respond? How seriously did they take it? How long did they continue to go shopping, or go out to dinner, or go to bars?

After all, anyone could see it coming. We all had access to the same media reports, expert epidemiologist warnings, and infection/death counts.

Everyone had ample time to prepare - we first heard about the virus in January, and the severity of the spread became very clear by mid-February.

But what happened?

A vast amount of Americans finally decided that they should stock up on goods in late March - only to arrive at grocery stores that were completely out of stock.

LOL, Toilet Paper!

Of particular concern to many people was how much toilet paper was being purchased. Yes, yes, it’s very funny how people buy a lot of toilet paper. Our friends in New Zealand and Germany report the same behavior. Apparently, people everywhere tend to stock up on toilet paper in a disaster. A ton of jokes circulated around social media about people rationing toilet paper. I’m sure you saw them.

Let me tell you something, and this is going to sting a tiny bit.

If you are one of the people that went to a grocery store to stock up, and then commented on how the shelves were empty and people were clearly overreacting: You are part of the problem.

Yes, you. If you arrived at a grocery store with empty shelves, by definition, you were late. You were late to recognize the problem. You were late to recognize that you needed to stock up.

Let’s not pretend you went to the grocery store to get just a few items. You went to the store to get what you needed for a couple weeks of lockdown. And you were beaten to it by your fellow citizens. You. Are. Not. Good. At. This.

If you arrived at a cleaned-out grocery store, with a global pandemic bearing down on you, and it was empty, it means that you incorrectly judged the severity of a once-in-a-century phenomenon. You somehow ignored the warnings of governments and experts around the world until it was too late.

Turns out, a lot of people aren’t good at it

There’s a very fascinating concept in American culture and politics that many people base their entire political beliefs around.

The idea is that a single person is a rational, thoughtful, actor. The best way to enable good behavior from most people is to free them of the restraints of an overbearing government - when given the choice, citizens will independently make rationally-driven decisions.

That’s the core idea. That idea informs a lot of conservative views of the world. That idea is precious in a free democracy. And I subscribe to that idea for the most part, by the way.

But my faith in that idea has been shaken to its core by watching my fellow Americans over the past two months.

What I have seen is:

  • Outright denial of scientific evidence
  • Dismissal of a worldwide pandemic
  • Lack of preparation
  • Extreme selfishness
  • Widespread ignorance (and headstrong, stubborn ignorance at that)

There has been a distinct lack of personal responsibility on the part of many in the past month.

We have learned that without government intervention, many individuals will carry on with dangerous behavior that risks their lives and the lives around them. This is a sobering discovery for me, and probably many other people.

Caveat: I know a ton of people who reacted appropriately, in a timely fashion, and I commend them for doing so. But this post is not really about those people.

Is it really their fault?

I don’t want to make this a political post. I don’t talk about politics on my blog because… what would it accomplish?

But it is impossible to talk about February and March of 2020 without mentioning Donald J. Trump.

At a time when America needed a strong leader and swift action, we were instead given Mr. Trump.

On February 24th, at the start of the worst economic crashes in American history, Mr. Trump said this:

The Stock Market, which did not look very good to me, would fall about 30% farther in the following 20 days, erasing nearly all of the gains made since his election.

On February 26th, Mr. Trump gave a briefing where he downplayed the number of infected, compared COVID-19 to the flu, and chided the Democrats for asking for too much money (the Democrats requested over 8 billion dollars).

Trump: As most of you know, the — the level that we've had in our country is very low, and those people are getting better, or we think that in almost all cases they're better, or getting. We have a total of 15.
Trump: The flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year. That was shocking to me. And, so far, if you look at what we have with the 15 people and their recovery, one is — one is pretty sick but hopefully will recover, but the others are in great shape. But think of that: 25,000 to 69,000.
Reporter, Feb. 26: During the Ebola crisis, you said you wanted a "full travel ban." You said Obama was a "stubborn dope" not for doing it. You said, "Just stop the flights dummies!" ... So how does that square with what you're doing right now?

Trump: Well, because this is a much different problem than Ebola. Ebola, you disintegrated, especially at the beginning. They've made a lot of progress now on Ebola. But with Ebola — we were talking about it before — you disintegrated. If you got Ebola, that was it. This one is different. Much different. This is a flu. This is like a flu. And this is a much different situation than Ebola.

Note: Three weeks later, on March 14th, Mr. Trump would declare a travel ban on the European Union.

Trump: We were asking for two and a half billion, and we think that's a lot, but the Democrats, and, I guess, Senator Schumer wants us to have much more than that.

... If they want to give more, we'll do more. We're going to spend whatever is appropriate. Hopefully, we're not going to have to spend so much because we really think we've done a great job in keeping it down to a minimum. ... We're requesting two and a half. Some Republicans would like us to get four, and some Democrats would like us to get eight and a half. And we'll be satisfied whatever — whatever it is.

Mr. Trump complained bitterly for a few days about the Senate Democrat’s request for over $8 billion.

One month later, on March 27th, he would sign a 2.2 trillion dollar package designed to save the economy from a rapid collapse.

On February 28th, one day after I told Twitter I was nervous about going to Adepticon because of COVID-19, Mr. Trump said the following.

One of my people came up to me and said, 'Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia. That didn't work out too well. They couldn't do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything, they tried it over and over, they've been doing it since you got in. It's all turning, they lost, it's all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax. But you know, we did something that's been pretty amazing. We're 15 people in this massive country. And because of the fact that we went early, we went early, we could have had a lot more than that.

A lot of people used this soundbite to accuse Mr. Trump of calling the virus itself a hoax. I think that’s unfair - he clearly did not mean that the actual virus did not exist.

But that does not absolve the President of the United States for characterizing concerns of a global pandemic as a Democratic hoax.

A few days later in early March, the President said this when asked if he would allow sick passengers from the Grand Princess cruise ship to dock in the US.

"I would rather because I like the numbers being where they are ... I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault. And it wasn't the fault of the people on the ship either, okay? It wasn't their fault either and they're mostly Americans. So, I can live either way with it. I'd rather have them stay on, personally."

He also added:

"Anybody right now, and yesterday, anybody that needs a test gets a test. They're there. And the tests are beautiful.... the tests are all perfect like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect. Right? This was not as perfect as that but pretty good."

We know that is false due to test shortages and rationing around the country. But Mr. Trump was not deterred.

On March 9th, Mr. Trump compared COVID-19 to the flu, a comparison that every expert in the field had cautioned people against making.

On March 16, three days after issuing a National Emergency declaration, Trump had an about face. Suddenly, he believed in the severity of the pandemic - and in fact, he always had.

"I've always known this is a, this is a real, this is a pandemic, I've felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic"

And then on March 22nd, the President abruptly began speaking about the need to get Americans out of quarantine and back to work, citing that the nation wasn’t built for this, we needed to get back to work.

Trump then unveiled a plan whereby Americans would go back to work by Easter. He imagined full church pews on Easter.

Update, April 12th: I woke up today (on Easter) to the news that over 2,000 Americans had died of COVID-19 in the past 24 hours. Over 20,000 have died in America so far. We now lead the world in COVID-19 fatalities.

Fox News, eager to do their part, began hosting guests who posited that perhaps it was okay to let the elderly die in order to preserve the economy.

Watching Fox News and various conservative pundits try their hand at spreading this idea was horrifying. It was an uncomfortable few days of reading opinion pieces that weighed Grandma’s life against the S&P 500.

Update, April 12th: I updated this article on Easter to add the video above. I think it does a terrific job of showing how Fox News was used to continually downplay the dangers of this virus.

Luckily, the “kill all of the elderly to save the economy” plan didn’t catch on. A few days later, Mr. Trump moved his Easter date to April 30th, then lashed out at the media for asking if the Easter date was a mistake.

Reporter, March 30th:Mr. President, given that you’re announcing that you’re extending these guidelines, was floating Easter a mistake, do you think? And —

Trump: No.

Reporter: — does this — can you tell us why and then —

Trump: It was just an aspiration. We actually will be hitting, potentially — and this was with our meeting before — on Easter, we probably — they — well, that could be a peak. That could be a peak period. That could be the peak. Sadly to say, that could be the peak number of deaths before it starts coming down. ... So that was an aspirational number. I didn’t say “Easter.” I said, “It would be a great thing, if we could do it by Easter.”

So much for that plan.

Attacking the media

Mr. Trump has never been a fan of the media. We already knew that. But his propensity for attacking the media reached a fever pitch during February and March.

As recently as March 25 (6 days ago!), Mr. Trump still seemed unconvinced that the country needed to take drastic steps to stop the spread of the virus.

Mr. Trump has derided and demeaned the media at every opportunity during this crisis. That is to be expected from Mr. Trump. But the media was the only source of truth during this time - due to the confused ramblings of Mr. Trump, the federal government’s official stance on COVID-19 wavered between “not a problem at all” and “somewhat worrisome” for months.

Contrary to the President, I believe that the media saved countless lives by continuing to emphasize the severity of the situation. It is shameful that Mr. Trump continues to attack them.

Quite an achievement

Trump apparently realized the severity of the pandemic over the weekend in late March. He held a somber press conference (after ripping into the media on Twitter and comparing his press conference ratings to the Bachelor and Monday Night Football (holy shit, that is an actual sentence)) in which he revealed to the American people that if we maintained strict social distancing and enforced quarantines for the next two months, we might be able to get the number of deaths down to 100,000 - 200,000!

Mr. Trump was very pleased to have averted disaster - he quoted models that stated that with no attempts at reducing infections, we would have lost 2 million people to the virus.

Mr. Trump, statesman that he is, crowed happily about how he had reduced the projected number of deaths to a mere couple hundred of thousand. Obama, after all, had never reached such numbers.

Trump:And so, if we could hold that down, as we're saying, to 100,000 — it's a horrible number, maybe even less, but to 100,000, so we have between 100 [thousand] and 200,000 — we altogether have done a very good job.

Top-down failure

It’s very easy to get mad at people for not being prepared. For not taking it seriously enough. For dismissing things as a hoax. For blaming the media.

But when the President of the United States is fueling the indifference and eagerly fanning the flames of ignorance, I cannot bring myself to blame individual citizens. Their executive branch utterly failed them.

To be clear - any President would have had a terrible problem on their hands with COVID-19.

But it’s hard to think of someone worse-equipped to lead a nation through a genuine existential crisis than Donald Trump.

It certainly does not help that Mr. Trump, as the head of a cult of personality, adamantly downplayed and dismissed the threat of the virus at every available opportunity. The tens of thousands of deaths that will occur in the next few months are in large part due to his complacency.

For better or worse, there are many in America who hang on the President’s words. They admire him. They see him as an oracle, a tough, no-holds-barred truth-teller. They distrust the media.

And they were misled for months by their President. Some of them will die as a result.

As of the time of this writing, the USA had 164,000 confirmed infections, 3,173 deaths, and approximately 625 people are dying every day. We know that the rate of death doubles every few days. We will soon have casualties on the scale of 9/11 every single day.

Mr. Trump will preside over the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. He will likely preside over more casualties than the Korean war, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan conflicts combined.

In a war where the only way to survive is to stay away from each other, our President encouraged the opposite.

In a war where tanks and bullets are replaced by ventilators and hospital beds, our President loudly raised doubts about the number of supplies needed in New York. He was late to invoke executive powers that could have helped our national stockpile of medical equipment grow. His administration had disbanded the executive Pandemic Response Team years earlier to cut costs.

In a war that we could have won early, with strict lockdowns and testing, our President chose to ignore the advice of experts. He publicly fought with his governors when they requested help. He suggested that his Vice President should not talk to governors who were not sufficiently appreciative.

Mr. Trump floated, without evidence, the idea that the mortality rate may be similar to the flu. He chafed at the idea of quarantines - the only thing proven to work in the war against COVID-19 thus far. He lied about the availability of tests, and then shirked all responsibility for the shortages.

Reporter, March 13th:Dr. Fauci said earlier this week that the lag in testing was, in fact, “a failing.” Do you take responsibility for that?

Trump:Yeah, no, I don’t take responsibility at all, because we were given a — a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations, and specifications from a different time.

Mr. Trump has alternated, with dizzying speed, between blaming his predecessor, absolving himself of blame, and casting aspersions at his political and media opponents. He rated his response to COVID-19 a “10/10”. These are hardly the actions of a leader.

Mr. Trump has failed the nation when it needed him most. That much is already clear.

Personal failures

But I must ask, even as our President muddied the waters with conflicting, false, and dangerously misleading statements, what was going on in the minds of some people around me?

When I hopped on Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, Discord, or really anywhere on the internet, I saw a stunning amount of people who continued their daily routines with no modifications. Some of them were purely ignorant, some viewed the virus as a political hoax (and therefore, admitting the severity of the outbreak was somehow “letting the Dems win”), and some people just didn’t trust the media.

This meme was floating around on March 3rd, far before most of America was sheltered in place. I think it is a good time capsule - it displays many of the common contrarian thoughts of the time period.

I know that in the months and years to come, people will selectively revise their personal history of reacting to COVID-19. They will claim they were prepared, that nothing else could be done, that they acted as soon as they could. But I am writing this post, in part, to document that there were large portions of the population who were not ready, who were not accepting of a new reality, and those people caused the outbreaks to worsen - that is a fact.

Virginia issued stay-at-home orders on March 30th. In my opinion, if you were not already sheltered in place by that time, you were woefully unprepared as a citizen. If you are a person who minimized the COVID-19 crisis, or assumed it would just be “dealt with,” or didn’t prepare your stocks of food and supplies long before the government issued proclamations to stay home - you failed.

To the Unprepared

I am now talking to anyone who didn’t take it seriously. I want to tell you something - you were wrong. Not just a little wrong. You were badly incorrect about one of the most significant events of the past 100 years.

If you didn’t take COVID-19 seriously, you are suffering from at least some of the following problems:

  • You do not trust the media enough to believe reports of a pandemic.
  • You do not consume reliable, truthful media.
  • You do not know how to fact check or filter media reports.
  • You rely too heavily on Donald Trump’s assessment of global health issues.
  • You are contrarian to a deadly degree.
  • You are ignorant of the world around you.
  • You are unable to understand exponential numbers or basic percentages.
  • You believe it won’t hurt you, so why bother?
  • You believe you are special.
  • You do not trust experts in their field.

There are probably more reasons for failure than what I’ve listed above.

If you did not voluntarily self-quarantine before a government agency forced you to, please consider that perhaps you have incorrectly shaped your worldview. Something in your life has been set up incorrectly. You should reflect on it, and ask yourself why - and how - you allowed yourself to fail to prepare.

What comes next?

If you’re reading this, I believe there’s a good chance that someone you know will die in the next few months. Someone you know will be hospitalized. Many people you know will struggle with record unemployment. Housing markets will probably crash as landlords of AirBnB properties fail to make payments. The stock market will endure further crashes. A recession, if not depression, is certainly coming.

This is just the beginning. Expect unemployment to reach over 15% of the workforce.

The future looks very bleak, to be honest. It would seem that the global strategy for this virus is to outlast it - with social distancing, sanitizing, and quarantine of the sick, we are hoping we can keep the number of deaths down until we can research and deploy a vaccine. I do believe we will find such a vaccine - the only question is how quickly, and how many will die before we do.

We will, at some point, go back to work, probably in July or August. There will be a wave of re-infections and many more people will die as a result. I think we will settle into a new world of facemasks and physical distance. We will try to ease the country back into working, and we will sacrifice people in the process. Nothing will be normal for the next year and a half.

America could have done better. Our leader failed us. Now, we await the body count.

I hope that going forward, we do better. Hundreds of thousands of lives depend on it.