What’s left to put down on paper or post online about the pandemic?
When all is said and done, this will be the best covered, most analyzed outbreak in the history of humankind. The torrent of words, footage, graphics, talking heads, health experts, pols, podcasts, optimists, pessimists, and futurists is as overwhelming as the prospect of having to spend another day sheltering in place. All this as the chorus swells from those who say they are limiting their news intake or avoiding it altogether because the content is too negative.
How do you pretty up a pretty dicey situation, especially when positive news day is a day in which more people are admitted to hospitals although fewer deaths are reported? When the curve has been flattened between a tinch and a skosh? We can indulge in the ostrich syndrome and pretend the world away for a few moments; we can limit our reading, viewing, or blogging. But out there, in the ether, a silent, invisible virus still is taking a leisurely stroll across the globe. And it may return for encores.
If newspapers are the first page of history, then this past week would be one where, after 45 years in the business, I would be sorely tempted to shout “Stop the presses!” There is, after all, something left to be said that hasn’t been said so far, and in a word, it is “Yikes!” (There are other words that have more astringent qualities, but since this is a family newspaper with Jewish values, those expletives will have to remain deleted.)
The jaw-dropping, cringe-inducing moment came, quite naturally, from the White House. Donald John Trump, indulging in one of his more fanciful riffs during the daily briefings, mused aloud about whether an injection of household disinfectant or a concentrated burst of ultraviolet or some other light source would be a quick, easy, and imaginative way to cripple or even cure covid-19. Just the week before, Trump had been throttled and undercut by government and private health experts on the use of hydroxychloroquine coupled with an antibiotic. All experts agreed that not enough testing had been done on the combination, and that side effects could be dangerous.
So it was time to push a new pseudo-science, the cure du jour as it were. Trump mangled his syntax as he worked through the injection-disinfectant-light triptych, and he looked to his right, where Dr. Deborah Birx, his White House pandemic coordinator, was sitting. In importuning tones, Trump asked if it were possible to investigate his approach. It’s hard to blanch while sitting down, but Dr. Birx managed it. Her body language turned to Esperanto as she struggled to say that she had never heard of the light approach. Trump left her twisting in the wind as he took back the mic and continued bloviating. (Dr. Fauci, who has become nearly extinct at the briefings, must have thanked his lucky stars.) The next day, in true Trumpian fashion, the shaman-in-chief denied ever seriously proposing such an approach and asserted he did it only “sarcastically,” to prank the “fake news” press corps.
Apparently, he pranked well enough to force government agencies to immediately issue warnings against such foolery, after their switchboards lit up with queries. And the boardrooms at Clorox and Lysol must have gone ballistic quickly enough for executives at those two staid corporations to put out immediate caveats saying that under no circumstances should their products be used internally; they are cleaners, not cure-alls.
I can only imagine public health and science pioneers like Joseph Lister, Florence Nightingale, Louis Pasteur, and Selman Waksman listening to this claptrap and looking for the nearest beaker or Erlenmeyer flask in which to deposit their reaction. Actually, I was given pause for a moment deciding on the week’s cheesiest story, but Bleachgate won by two furlongs over Mitch McConnell’s suggestion about letting the states go belly up in bankruptcy court.
After experiencing an initial minimal uptick in his ratings for handling the crisis, Trump’s approval metrics plummeted and now he trails Joe Biden in key battleground states. This bodes badly for him, since no president in times like these has seen his popularity curve flattened to such an extent. Trump’s desperation to fashion a winning narrative from covid-19 has fallen flat at each mistruth. His 40 percent diehard cadre of supporters notwithstanding, the web of misstatements, rants, and erratic decisions has begun to entangle him. Where his facial expressions once exuded arrogance or disinterest, he now shows concern, verging on fear. His sourness is sky high, his willingness to bail on the governors quite evident.
Some day (not too far off) historians will take the full measure of this chief executive. My hunch is that he may become the new basement standard, displacing James Buchanan at the bottom of the heap. Surely, he is hurtling past Millard Fillmore, Warren Harding, Franklin Pierce, and Richard Nixon. (All right, substitute Herbert Hoover for Nixon.) He remains unrepentant for not alerting the country to the scope of the pandemic for weeks on end. And he obviously believes that Americans can’t take their medicine, especially when it’s swallowing bad news. So why not substitute pseudo-cures like bleach or blasts of light.
Beam me up, Scotty!
Jonathan E. Lazarus is a former editor at the Star-Ledger and a proofreader for the Jewish Standard.