John Galt Is Impotent In A Pandemic


Abrupt change.



Whatever term you might choose to use, there’s no disputing that if the epidemiologists are correct, the COVID-19 pandemic will be the largest, most impactful world event since 9/11. How we respond to the pandemic will define our society, likely for generations to come.

The response to 9/11 was close to exactly the opposite of what I would consider best. Instead of asking why small groups of people felt so ostracized and minimized that violence was their last resort and then acting to address the root causes, the US chose to demonize and further ostracize Muslims in generally, thereby creating a much larger and endless supply of new terrorists to fight. Over a million people died, many more millions were displaced and an entire generation of US military lives were wasted. But a handful of people got filthy rich off it.

The business and political worlds of today live for these discontinuities. Back when I was running an agricultural biotechnology startup, we were instructed that Monsanto and their spin-offs were so successful because they stood ready to respond to market discontinuities in their areas of operation. Regular, 1-3% annual changes in markets were for chumps. Giant change is what mattered, and so be it if mom and pop seed operations were obliterated by consolidating the entire seed industry. Likewise, in business generally in that era, the rise of the big box store was seen as a John Galt-like hero development as the parasitic small stores disappeared. Today, Big Bezos seems to be feasting off even those big boxes.

On the political front, Naomi Klein laid out in excruciating detail in Shock Doctrine how various disasters have been exploited by the political class to advance the interests of the oligarchy. Both civil rights and economic opportunity for huge portions of the population have been eroded.

Naomi Wolf warned us a few days ago to be on guard against deterioration of our rights in the COVID-19 outbreak:

Today, CNN reports on ongoing discussions between the Trump Administration and the airline industry. It appears that at least some in the industry are concerned that data collection being demanded under a public health guise will be used “for other purposes”:

The US aviation industry and the Trump administration are in a pitched battle over the response to the coronavirus pandemic, three sources familiar with recent calls between officials from several government agencies and US airlines have told CNN.

In a series of contentious conversations, agency officials and aviation executives have clashed over the administration’s demand that airlines collect new kinds of data from passengers to help officials track potential virus carriers.

Okay, on the surface, I’m all for public health officials being able to access information quickly on who was sitting near whom on a flight with an infected person and quickly contact those who need to self-quarantine and get tested. But how do we make sure that data doesn’t wind up being misused? Also, it appears that the Trump Administration also wants the airlines to collect information on recent other travel by passengers:

This industry official says it took the US aviation industry two years to meet post-9/11 requirements, which also involved data collection.

Airlines are concerned that the Federal Register gives no clear end date on the data collection and worry that the US government could continue forcing them to collect it “for other purposes.”

“It seems they want us to do this for forever and we are pushing back,” the first source familiar said. The airlines — particularly their lawyers — are worried about what Customs and Border Protection officials will do with the information.

Yeah, I wouldn’t trust the Trump Administration on that, either. I will leave it to Rayne to address what seems to be a real argument between the administration and the industry on just what information the airlines already have and whether their existing technology can provide it to the government. And Marcy can address whether it’s feasible or even possible to have any kind of effective firewall between public health officials and intelligence, criminal or immigration investigators when it comes to access to this information. There are serious competing interests here and recent experience suggests it won’t be resolved in favor of civil rights for many groups of people.

But what of the COVID-19 disruption? Rayne’s post yesterday provided much of the stark data. This tweet thread from Eli Pariser even goes so far as to suggest that we are just days away from the point at which Italy shut down large regions:

When hospitals are completely overwhelmed, there will be no Galt’s Gulch where heroes can wait out the outbreak. If we really see 20, 30 or even more than 50% of the global population being infected, the concept of isolation breaks down. No heroic action can be taken, because every single individual will be at risk for infection.

This impotence against the virus is because public health, in the end, is a social exercise. Will the outbreak become the discontinuity needed to convince the US to join the rest of the civilized world in making health care a social effort rather than a perk reserved for the very rich? If this doesn’t do it, it’s hard to imagine how it will ever happen.

54 replies
    • BobCon says:

      In addition to “killing” viruses it contacts, soap helps in another key way. If you’ve ever seen a toddler’s hands, you get an exaggerated example of why good washing with soap to get hands really clean is better than surface sanitizing.

      All of the crud that is on everyone’s hands — usually at lower levels than a toddler, but still a bunch — that crud is a safe harbor for viruses that can emerge later. Thorough washing gets all of that off of you and safely down the drain.

    • FunnyDiva says:

      I found that tweet thread quite valuable. Confirmed that soap really is best if you can get it.
      Last night I remembered that Castile Soap comes in individually packaged wipes.
      And where have I seen these? Oh, my primary clinic and local hospital, handed out for cleansing prior to collecting certain specimens.

      As soon as I get a chance I’m going to see how they work when I’m out and about/on the road. Not being able to rinse might become an issue, but I’m willing to do the experiment.

    • Valley girl says:

      Thanks Ed for re-posting that thread- I haven’t been able to keep up with all the comments.

      Something I haven’t seen mentioned wrt to hand-washing: keep your nails clipped short. That’s my 2-cents, anyway.

      I remember reading several years ago that (female) nurses with acrylic nails risked spreading infections b/c they weren’t washing their nails well enough. Probably no longer a problem in medical settings. But that factoid led to my suggestion above. I know that I can end up with quite a lot of dirt or whatever under my non-acrylic nails for no obvious reason. Maybe a testament to my poor house-keeping skills, but that’s my confession, I hope for the public good.

      • e.a.f. says:

        People might also consider giving up wearing their rings, watches, and bracelets. Stuff gets under rings and the soap and water may not.
        If your piercings aren’t totally closed or the skin opens up from time to time, take them out and let the skin heal.

        Even if the virus isn’t in your area you might want to start practising the protocols. You’ll be “trained” when the shit hits the fan. Practising social distance is another. We aren’t used to it.

  1. BobCon says:

    In the last big economic crisis, there were grownups in the Bush administration who were willing to work with Democrats and deliver GOP votes in Congress for TARP in 2008.

    There is nothing like that now, and none of the supposedly savvy big time pundits want to talk about how much the GOP’s toxic partisanship is going to sandbag meaningful responses.

    What makes it even worse than 2008 is that financial disaster could be stabilized primarily by moving money, making promises, and applying relatively narrow regulatory action. This economic crisis needs public health intervention, and economic and political reporters are refusing to consider the effect that Trump and his team are having on the public health side, and how that is at the heart of the market reaction.

    These idiot pundits and editors can be endlessly savvy about Elizabeth Warren’s consultant earnings, but can’t muster an ounce of insight into the GOP’s institutional incompetence.

  2. drouse says:

    My fear is that we are going end up with worst of both worlds. Chinese style social control combined with Russian style criminal capitalism.

    • BobCon says:

      I would not be surprised if we see a repeat of the dynamic around the Patriot Act, where the media defaults to the position that civil liberties being gutted is a foregone conclusion.

      The debate will only focus on process questions — will we have a mandatory universl DNA database and government preapproval of all air travel, or just the DNA database and limited preapproval. We won’t get any debate on whether any of it is worth it in the first place.

  3. Ken Muldrew says:

    The situation in the US is reminiscent of a common trope that appeared on Usenet sci. groups in the mid 90s: the brick test for solipsism. When someone would loudly proclaim that scientific knowledge was socially constructed and therefore no more valid than, say, religious scripture, they would be asked to take the brick test. To wit: a brick would be thrown (with gusto) towards the head of the person espousing solipsism. If he ducks before contact, then his lack of sincerity is demonstrated for all to see. If he doesn’t duck, then either he revises his beliefs (after regaining consciousness) or his beliefs are proved correct. It was a thought experiment, obviously, because nobody ever volunteered to have their beliefs tested in this manner. The Trumpalos, however, seem to have reached a level of confidence in their worldview that has convinced them to step up to the plate. There is now a huge brick heading for their heads (ours too, sadly) and it looks like they’re not going to duck.

    • Rayne says:

      Ye olde witch test. Strap the accused to a chair, dunk them. If they drown, they’re not a witch. If they survive or float, burn them for a witch.

      The left+left of center have been on the receiving end of the test for far too long. I’ve stocked up on popcorn for this reversal though I may not survive the pandemic long enough to enjoy all I bought.

      • e.a.f. says:

        oh, you’ll survive, you understand science and actually believe its true.

        of course you’re going to survive. How else will I get through this? This blog will be part information and part entertainment. The siblings accuse me of say its always about me. Its true

        If this epidemic really gets going or rather when, some t.v. stations may not have sufficient staff to keep running or staff may refuse to come in.

        stocking up on popcorn, may be a good idea. chips and cheesies take up a lot of space. Toppings for it will be important. I’ve been told popcorn and honey works nicely.

  4. Peterr says:

    Things do not look good in Lombardy. From the Guardian:

    Hospitals in the locked-down Italian region of Lombardy are beginning to run out of beds as the country recorded its highest day-on-day rise in deaths from coronavirus.

    Twenty days into its outbreak, Italy is grappling to contain the spread of the virus and find space and beds in intensive care units, which are dwindling day by day. To manage the emergency, the sick are being placed in operating rooms or in hospital corridors.

    “I am very concerned,” said Prof Massimo Galli, the director of infectious diseases at Sacco hospital in Milan. “The pressure on hospitals in Lombardy these days is enormous. I am very, very worried about the impact the virus will have on our health system.”

    Ours, yours, their’s, and everyone’s health system.

    • Frank Probst says:

      Whoa. The Guardian is now saying (in its Live Updates feed) that ALL of Italy is being put on lockdown.

  5. Peterr says:

    Looking at the COVID-19 map maintained by Johns Hopkins, I noticed a couple of things.

    1) Getting good numbers from certain places is undoubtedly difficult for political reasons. There are no indications of cases in North Korea, none in Turkey, none in Syria, and Russia is shown as having just 17 cases at present (3 recovered, 14 active). Because North Korea has little to no general visitors from outside nations, it is possible that they truly have no cases, and their xenophobic attitude toward outsiders may help delay the virus’s arrival – but sooner or later, it will get there. Syria’s ongoing war makes getting numbers of any cases unlikely. Turkey, however, strikes me as unlikely as having no cases, and Russia’s numbers also seem incredibly low, given the numbers elsewhere.

    2) For those hoping that summer will bring an end to the spread of COVID-19, the presence of cases in Brazil (25), Chile (8), Argentina (12), Australia (85), and other southern hemisphere countries is not good news. Even if summer tends to slow down the virus, North-South travel is a fact of life and will keep the virus going around the world.

    3) The Middle East has its ongoing problems (Israel-Palestine, Iran-Iraq, Syria, etc.) and the outbreaks there will only exacerbate things. Refugee camps always have issues with illness and disease, and expecting frequent handwashing and other measures to slow things down in the camps is likely wishful thinking.

    As much as Trump and the GOP hate on international agreements and organizations, you’re not going to beat a disease like COVID-19 without dealing with the global implications. Diseases do not care about lines on a map dividing one nation from another.

    • BobCon says:

      India has reported only 40 some, which is impossible.

      They have huge, internationally mobile middle and upper classes, they supply a large number of temporary workers to countries with outbreaks, and they have mega cities with thin public health networks which are prime areas for the spread of the virus.

      And they have an authoritarian leader who has the same instincts as Trump to keep a lid on news to avoid internal opposition.

      • Vicks says:

        We have a case here that is a woman who returned home after traveling in India.
        She certainly could have picked it up on her trip home, but IMHO Karma is going to beat the snot out of leaders that try to deny, lie or blame their way out of this.

    • paulpfixion says:

      The border between China and North Korea was full of traffic before things hit the fan. The chance of NK not having a serious problem is very low.

  6. scott says:

    Americans fully deserving of the shit coming your way

    [Welcome back to emptywheel. Last April I told you to use the same username each time; my bad for not having told you to pick one more distinctive so community members would recognize you. Your Canadian accent doesn’t show up in comments. Thanks. /~Rayne]

    • Alaska Reader says:

      Which only goes to demonstrate how little you understand.
      A pandemic comes for everyone. No one deserves it.

      • e.a.f. says:

        Yes. You allow for a 2 hr. drive but there are plenty of people who do it so regularly, they do it much faster. The City of Surrey is south of the Fraser River, which seperates Surrey and Vancouver. Surrey has approx. the same population as Vancouver, 500K and change. There are approx. two and a half million people in what we refer to as Greater Vancouver. Then as you move a little east of Surrey, you come into an area referred to as the Fraser Valley and that has other smaller cities. The Fraser Valley has a population approx of 300,000. all of this area is strung out along the Canada/U.S. border.

        Any where from Hope to Squamish, people move freely through the area for work and play. The crossings between Washington St. and B.C. are busy. Many go to Washington St. for gas,–cheaper and work. Some companies like Micro Soft started opening offices in Vancouver, because it is so close to Seattle. They were able to bring foreign workers to Canada, and avoid American restrictions on foreign workers.

        There are a lot of Canadians who have seasons’ tickets to the American foot ball games–they even do a Canadian Thanksgiving dinner for them if its game day. Lots go for concerts, basketball games.

        Both cities have large ports so the trucking industry is huge.

        The odd person has mentioned closing the border if the U.S.A. doesn’t pick up on things. Doubt if that will happen. Horgan, Premier of B.C. and Inslee, State Governor seems to get along. All 3 state Governors met with Horgan a year or so again to discuss a high speed rail system from L.A. to Vancouver. B.C. kicked in for the study. There is a regular train service from Vancouver to Seattle.

  7. Bobby Gladd says:

    How long before (utterly useless) mandatory mass rRT-PCR coronavirus screenings of everyone, symptomatic or not? With presumptive quarantine for those failing to comply?


    • Molly Pitcher says:

      I am relieved to see that everyne looks to be wearing PPE, unlike the previous ships arrival.

    • FunnyDiva says:

      Oh. One of those paramedic units says Santa Clara County.
      Looks like everyone in the area is helping out. Good.

        • FunnyDiva says:

          Oh, now that’s good to know, too.
          I moved away 25+ years ago, but even then SC Co was populous and urban. Glad they’re relatively organized to meet this.

          Also, too. Golly guys, it’s only rt-PCR (with extra-serious precautions for handling the specimen). I keep thinking those hospitals that can run rt-PCR for other viruses should get on the horn to UW and see if they can help somehow. Expertise, protocol, sequences, *something*.
          I hope that’s what’s happening and I just don’t know about it.

  8. John Lehman says:

    Perhaps the literary reference is evolving from “John Galt” to “The Masque of the Red Death”.
    My wife and I are both among the vulnerable.

  9. Jim White says:

    Most of you know that my spouse is an academic chemist. We were to travel to Philadelphia on the 19th for her to attend the American Chemical Society semi-annual conference. These meetings are huge, typically drawing 10,000 to nearly 20,000 people twice a year. This afternoon, ACS cancelled the conference.

      • Jim White says:

        It’s a relief. Given my crappy lungs from a couple childhood severe bouts of pneumonia and heart that’s been through two surgeries, I probably shouldn’t be on an airplane anytime soon.

        • Rayne says:

          Ditto. Lost 10-15% of my lung capacity, still looks like crap in imaging. I’d consider a train but not an airplane because of the air quality in the cabin let alone the inadequate disinfection of surfaces. Give me my own sleeper cabin I can spray down with Lysol. LOL

  10. e.a.f. says:

    Saw Trump on the evening news at the Press Conference. that man is seriously ill. He again stood there and swayed while Pence spoke. Trump is speaking at a level of a 5 year old. Then he was ushered off the podium, leaving the rest to carry on. If they leave this man in charge of the U.S.A. the country is not going to get through this, well parts will with Gov. like Washington State.

    • Rayne says:

      I’d shared that Bedford Lab assessment in my first piece about COVID-19. Bedford’s analysis was based on ~600 cases in Washington state on March 1, arising from an index case in mid-January. The lower cone in Bedford’s handscratched graphic maps out the anticipated progression from index to endemic state in Seattle+Washington state:

      Tracks to another source I’d seen which said we could run out of hospital beds in early May.

  11. Terry Salad says:

    I’m a Bridge player. The American Contract Bridge League is holding their national tournament in Columbus, OH later this month. No indication of any plans to cancel. The website says they are taking precautions — hand sanitizer all over the place. But, the mean age of an ACBL player is over 70 and they typically get around 5,000 players showing up for these tournaments.

    • Geoguy says:

      ProPublica posted an article on March 6 titled “You Might Be Buying a Hand Sanitizer That Won’t Work for Coronavirus.” Apparently the CDC recommends that the sanitizer contain at least 60% alcohol. Some brands don’t contain any alcohol as they use benzalkonium chloride instead.

  12. harpie says:

    O/T on a Primary Day:

    1] Michael C. Taylor, of Sterling Heights, Michigan
    10:44 AM · Mar 10, 2020

    NEW: The *Republican* mayor of a small city in crucial Macomb County, Michigan, just announced he’s voting for Biden over Trump. That’s an Obama-Trump county. I spoke to him just now. He told me many other moderate whites in Michigan will do the same: [link]

    2] Quinton Lucas, of Kansas City, Missouri
    8:18 AM · Mar 10, 2020

    I made a video this morning about the importance of voting and then got turned away because I wasn’t in the system even though I’ve voted there for 11 years, including for myself four times! Go figure, but that’s okay. We’ll be back later today! #Vote #KCMO

    9:13 AM · Mar 10, 2020 By the way, me writing “but that’s okay,” was me being Midwestern and passive aggressive. It’s really not okay. Talked to the election director this AM and will be following up further. If the mayor can get turned away, think about everyone else… We gotta do better.

    • Frank Probst says:

      May I suggest a new thread? This announcement alone would qualify for one, but I think there are many other things that qualify for a new thread rather than simply an update of this one, such as:
      1. What do Eli Pariser’s charts look like right now? The anecdotes coming out of Italy sound BAD, and that’s what we’re trying to mitigate against.
      2. The WHO is finally calling this a “pandemic”, FWIW.
      3. Various universities are trying to shift to online classes, but it’s not really clear where the students are going to go. Are they going to be able to stay on campus? If so, are the cafeterias going to be open?
      4. The Secretary of HHS seems to be clueless about how many tests have been done. This isn’t something that’s hard to do, and it should have been part of the system for every other outbreak in the past. If you need an entirely new system, here it is: When a testing lab gets a package of kits, it also gets a letter that says that at whatever o’clock every day, the laboratory director has to send an e-mail to HHS saying how many tests are in progress, how many are complete and are positive, how many are complete and are negative, how many are complete and indeterminate, and what the current turnaround time for the test is. You may not perform or bill for Coronavirus tests if you can’t follow this protocol.
      5. Whatever additional crazy shit that’s happened since I started writing this that I haven’t seen yet.

    • Rayne says:

      Need to open their graves, cut off their heads, drive a stake through whatever remains of their hearts, rebury them and salt the earth above them. Miserable sick, selfish bastards.

      Welcome to emptywheel, by the way.

      • P J Evans says:

        Get a bottle of that colloidal-silver stuff that’s being pushed as a treatment, and pour some on whatever remains of the hearts, after they’re staked.

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