Deborah Birx tried to protect us from the pandemic

Last June, the U.S. public-health physician Deborah Birx and her chief epidemiologist Irum Zaidi began a road trip across America to see first-hand the path of the pandemic.

Birx, who made her career combatting HIV and AIDS, had been appointed to the vice president’s task force overseeing the country’s response to COVID-19. As we now know, the task force, like most of the federal response, suffered from next to no leadership by the president.

The idea for the road trip came to the women after the White House brought in Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist who asserted that masks did little to stop the spread of SARS-1. As if that weren’t enough to disqualify him, Atlas also advocated for allowing the virus to move freely through the population with the aim of spurring so-called herd immunity.

We know this thanks to the reporting of Lawrence Wright, whose New Yorker issue-length account of America’s mistakes and struggles in confronting the virus may be the most comprehensive first draft of history of a pandemic ever reported.

As the task force began to dissolve amid the dearth of leadership and absurdity of Atlas’ views, Birx and Zaidi decided to hit the road. As Wright tells it, the idea was inspired by the duo’s travels together across Africa meeting with local leaders about HIV and AIDS.

In the months to follow, Birx and Zaidi crossed the U.S. eight times, visiting 43 states. In that time, reports Wright:

Birx corralled politicians, hospital executives, and public-health officials, often bringing such leaders together for the first time. She took charts and slides from state to state, promoting a simple, consistent message about masks, social distancing, transparency, and responsible leadership. She was the only federal official doing so.

The duo encountered governors like Jim Justice of West Virginia, who had mandated wearing of masks and who at press briefings read the names of West Virginians who had died of COVID-19. “West Virginia represents exactly what we want to see across the country — a commonsense approach based on the data,” said Birx.

In South Dakota, Governor Kristi Noem, who had refused to issue a mask mandate, “couldn’t find time to meet with Birx,” reports Wright.

Wright’s account deserves to be read in its entirety. Especially as the U.S. records nearly 23 million cases of COVID-19 and deaths from the disease are averaging about 4,400 a day. “The U.S. is already by far the most affected region of its size on the planet,” The Washington Post noted on Wednesday.

Throughout their travels, Birx and Zaidi found that both Democratic and Republican governors had the same complaint. “Many people wouldn’t listen as long as Trump refused to set an example,” Wright reports.

Trump incites violence against America

The seal of the U.S. Senate includes a scroll inscribed with “E Pluribus Unum” emblazoned on the wall above the desk at the center of the chamber. 

The inscription, which translates to “Out of many, one,” formed one of the most striking images to emerge from Wednesday’s assault on the U.S. Capitol by a Trump-fueled mob. In it, a member of the mob can be seen seated at the desk, the Latin on the wall behind him. 

Throughout four years that will finally end on January 20, Trump has embodied a sentiment of his own design; in his America, one matters more than many. The president’s baseless claims of election fraud are the latest manifestation of that belief. 

American democracy counts on coordination. The storming of the Capitol highlights the vulnerability of our federal system to those who aim to get their way by exploiting its gaps.

As the rioters forced lawmakers to suspend the counting of electoral votes that marks a mandate of our constitutional democracy, the federal and state lines that delineate it showed amid a scramble to summon reinforcements for police who guard the building.

Trump refused to call on the rioters to retreat. The District of Columbia endures without sovereignty of its own and a governor who can summon help. If fell to the city’s mayor and the governor of Virginia to call in the national guard.

The lack of federal leadership paralleled Trump’s abdication during the pandemic, throughout which he has forced the states to fend for themselves. The president has left the states to procure their own protective equipment, to develop their own tests and tracing, to carry out (or not) their own campaigns to promote wearing of masks and other non-pharmaceutical measures, and, most recently, to vaccinate people. 

By refusing to call on Americans to cover their faces (not to mention refusing to wear a mask himself), Trump ensured that many more Americans would be sickened by COVID-19 and die. Universal use of masks in the U.S. might have saved as many as 130,000 lives, according to researchers at the University of Washington.

The pandemic and the protests converged on Wednesday. As the rioters overran the Capitol, news emerged that a luxury nursing home in Florida offered scarce doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to its donors and board members. Even as elderly people at risk from the virus camp out across the state in the hope of receiving a vaccine. 

It’s not as if we didn’t see it coming. Trump defended violence by white supremacists in Charlottesville when he remarked there “were very fine people, on both sides.” He tried to coerce the leader of Ukraine to dig for dirt on Trump’s opponent. On Saturday, Trump asked the top election official in Georgia to find votes that would swing the state to Trump and overturn the outcome of the election.

With his attack on our democracy, Trump has pushed federalism to the breaking point. The Capitol houses not only a coequal branch of government but the first among equals according to the Constitution.

“Show me what democracy looks like,” chant protestors who call on America to right its racial and other injustices. The rioters who stormed the Capitol on Wednesday showed what an assault on democracy looks like when fueled by malevolence and a motive to weaken the nation.

Najee Harris leaps over tall tacklers in a single bound

Najee Harris hurdles football players the way runners hurdle, well, hurdles.

On Friday, the Alabama running back notched what may be the highlight of the new year when he went up and over Notre Dame cornerback Nick McCloud on the way to the Crimson Tide’s 31-14 victory over Irish. 

Harris, who attended Antioch High School in California, was the most-recruited football player in the class of 2017. Now everyone knows about the athleticism of the 229-pound senior, who stands six feet two.

He’s also been hurdling defensemen for some time. On Saturday, I scrolled videos of Harris running with a football, including this video of him hurdling his way downfield in high school. 

Some highs from 2020

This has been a year unlike any that most of us have experienced. I’m thankful for everything, even if I didn’t always like being stuck in place. (Though I liked it plenty.) That said, here are some of my highs from 2020:

An N95 mask that Krista gave me

Eating blueberry swirl ice cream with Krista (she had lemon)

Playing in the yard with Puppy

Kisses from Tesse, rubbing her belly

Sneaking blueberries to Saxa

Hugging Olympus

Walking arm-in-arm with Krista along the path at Ballito while the ocean sprayed in our faces

Planting lavender in the garden

Lockdown levels 3, 2 and 1 with Krista (level 5, not so much)

My Bean flannel sheets

Having a big beard (and looking forward to another one after I am vaccinated)

Catching up each day with Mom

Coronation chicken salad sandwiches with Krista, Pete and Sue at the South Africa/England cricket match

The Daily Mini crossword

A new eyeglass prescription that improved my vision

Thinking about the advice Dad might give me whenever I felt stressed, and feeling calmed by it

Getting three clients, up from one in 2019

Other people wearing masks and social distancing

My New Balance running shoes

Subscribing to home delivery of the Mercury, the Sunday Times (SA) and The New York Times

FaceTime with Matt

Noise-cancelling headphones

Daily walks

Listening to “Circles” by Mac Miller

Talking Congress with Andrew

Reading “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain

Zoom with Stacy, Dan, Maddie and Josh

The story pitches I was proud of even if they didn’t get published


Saturday’s headlines are for the ages

The front page of The New York Times on Saturday showed history happening in something approaching real time. In an instant one could see the end of an effort by Donald Trump to, as the headline put it, “subvert the vote,” together with a turning point in the effort to end the pandemic.

The headline splashed across the top of the page proclaimed that the Supreme Court on Friday tossed out a lawsuit by Texas that sought to overturn the results of the presidential election. The ruling effectively ends an effort by Donald Trump to change the outcome. 

Just below appeared the news that the Food and Drug Administration had authorized Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use. The authorization clears the way for millions of people most at risk from the coronavirus to begin receiving the jab.

One commentator likened Saturday’s front page to those proclaiming the end of World War II. Though the latest milestones did not, fortunately, follow the use of a nuclear weapon, the ruling by the Supreme Court exploded an effort by Trump to overturn the results of the presidential election.

In an unsigned, one-page ruling, the justices said that Texas lacked standing (that is, a legally recognizable harm) to object to the ways that four states — Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — conducted their elections. 

The Trump Administration and more than half the Republicans in the House of Representatives backed the lawsuit, which asked the justices to consider the case as part of the Court’s so-called original jurisdiction.

The Constitution authorizes the Court to hear disputes between states directly, without the requirement that the dispute come through the appellate courts. In such instances the Supreme Court functions essentially as a trial court in which the justices weigh evidence and arrive at a verdict. 

Texas had asked the court to delay certification of the voting by the Electoral College because “unconstitutional irregularities” in the four states made it impossible to know who “legitimately won the 2020 election.”

Each of the four states filed briefs attacking the lawsuit. “Texas has not suffered harm simply because it dislikes the result of the election, and nothing in the text, history, or structure of the Constitution supports Texas’s view that it can dictate the manner in which four other states run their elections,” Pennsylvania told the Court.

The justices agreed, writing that Texas “has not demonstrated a judicially cognizable interest in the manner in which another state conducts its elections.” For their part, Justices Samuel Alito and Thomas said that the lawsuit fell within the Court’s original jurisdiction “but would not grant other relief… and express no view on any other issue” in the lawsuit.

The Supreme Court blocks New York’s COVID-19 restriction on religious services

The Supreme Court late on Wednesday blocked the governor of New York from enforcing restrictions that sought to restrict attendance at religious services in areas of the state that officials say are witnessing clusters of COVID-19.

Five of the court’s conservative members granted requests from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and two Orthodox Jewish synagogues to block the attendance limits, which capped at 10 the number of people who could attend a service in an area classified as “red” and at 25 in zones the state designated as “orange.”

Both the diocese and the synagogues noted that the restrictions targeted religious services more harshly than they did businesses deemed by the state to be essential, all of which could operate without limits on the number of people who entered their premises.

As such, the regulations violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, contended the religious groups, which asked the court to block their enforcement.

“The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty,” wrote the majority, which included recently confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett. “Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”

The majority noted that the churches and synagogues subject to the order had honored protocols recommended by the state (including wearing masks and forgoing singing), which the majority added could point to no instances in which the religious services risked the spread of COVID-19 more than a store in Brooklyn that might have hundreds of people shop there on a given day.

Justice Gorsuch concurred. Writing that squaring the governor’s orders with the First Amendment “is no easy task,” Gorsuch underscored what for him showed the extent to which the state’s order treated religious groups differently:

It turns out the businesses the governor considers essential include hardware stores, acupuncturists, and liquor stores. Bicycle repair shops, certain signage companies, accountants, lawyers, and insurance agents are all essential too. So, at least according to the governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pickup another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians. Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?

“Even if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic, it cannot become a sabbatical,” Gorsuch wrote.

At issue in the appeal is the requirement of government neutrality toward religion. Rules issued by the government that treat religious groups differently must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.

The majority acknowledged that the state has a compelling interest in stemming the spread of COVID-19 but that the restrictions in New York were far more restrictive than needed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at religious services hosted by the groups that sought to block the governor’s order.

For their part, the court’s three liberal members noted in dissent that the governor’s order had changed since the appeal was filed; that the churches and synagogues are no longer within the red or orange zones — that the houses of worship are now in yellow zones, where they can hold religious services at up to 50% of capacity.

Though the state remained free to reimpose red or orange zones in areas where the churches and synagogues are located, the diocese and synagogues also remained free to refile their requests for court review, the dissenting justices noted.

“The nature of the epidemic, the spikes, the uncertainties, and the need for quick action, taken together, mean that the state has countervailing arguments based upon health, safety, and administrative considerations that must be balanced against the applicants’ First Amendment challenges,” they said.

The GOP ditches democracy

Subsumed by the news since the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 3 is a study released in the closing weeks of the campaign that finds the Republican party has withdrawn from upholding democratic norms.

The finding came from the V-Dem Institute at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, which since 1970 has studied shifts in political parties around the world. In the GOP’s illiberalism, the study finds, the party resembles the authoritarian party of Hungary’s Viktor Orban that has made Hungary country the only non-democracy in the European Union.

The Republican Party has displayed its anti-democratic drive without hesitation over the two weeks since the election. The party’s congressional delegation, with a handful of exceptions, has joined President Trump in refusing to acknowledge the results. Ditto for many Republican governors. Republican support for Trump’s claims are “delegitimizing democracy,” former President Barack Obama told CBS News.

Unearthing Trump’s motivation comes down to, as Steve Coll noted in the New Yorker, “what’s in it for him.” Trump may see a second term as the best hope for shielding himself from both prosecution and hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. “It’s the office of the presidency that’s keeping him from prison and the poorhouse,” Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale, told the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer.

For their part, Republicans seem to be acting out of fear for their own for survival (thanks to Trump’s sway with their base) and a determination to hold power. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, may hope that by insisting that Trump has every right to contest the results (notwithstanding any evidence of irregularity in the voting), he’ll encourage Republicans in Georgia to turn out for two Senate run-off elections that will decide whether McConnell retains his job.

For years now, Republicans have relied on partisan gerrymandering, the structural advantage the Senate confers on rural states, and other anti-Democratic devices to achieve what they’ve been unable to at the ballot box. A majority of Americans, for example, support abortion rights. So Republicans focus on filling federal courts with judges who oppose such rights.

If nothing else, the GOP’s refusal to accept the result of the election (while embracing results of elections won by its members) shows that democracy is as difficult as ever. Seventy-two million Americans voted for Donald Trump.

Misinformation matters. Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to say that social media sites likely censor political viewpoints. “It’ll take more than one election to reverse those trends,” Obama told the BBC, referring to what he termed “truth decay.”

Finding ways to show Americans what we have in common would help, too. In a memo last week, four leading progressive groups analyzed what went wrong for congressional Democrats, who nearly lost their majority in the House of Representatives. The underperformance touched off a debate between the party’s left and members who blamed the left for the results.

In their memo, the progressive groups call for an economic message that connects with working people of all races.  “Too often Democrats keep issues of economic justice and racial justice in separate siloes,” they wrote. “Data has shown that an explicit multiracial, populist message mobilizes and persuades voters. We need a Democratic Party dedicated to economic and racial justice and that names the Republican Party’s racism as a class weapon.”

Trump was a strongman without a strategy. Someday our democracy may confront one who has their act together. Now would be time to get ready.

Biden beats Trump

The coupe de grace to the presidency of Donald Trump came on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, around 11:30 a.m. Eastern when the news arrived that Joseph R. Biden Jr. was projected to win Pennsylvania.

The streets here on a sunny morning in Harlem filled with the sound of horns and cheering. Strangers high-fived and hooted. A jazz duo played.

Biden will become the 46th president. Kamala Harris, the vice president-elect, will become the first woman (as well as the first Black person and the first person of Indian descent) elected to that office.

By the time Pennsylvania put Biden over the top with 279 electoral votes, the reckoning that the election held for Trump had been underway for several days, as the counting of votes proceeded in a handful of battleground states.

In an irony of Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic, two-thirds of votes cast in this election arrived by mail. Democrats disproportionately voted by mail.

Trump could have urged his supporters to vote by mail as well, but in an act of self-sabotage, the president went out of his way to denigrate absentee voting. The CNN anchor Jake Tapper noted that politicians running for reelection typically try to make voting easier for their voters to turn out.

By midweek, the weakening of Trump’s hold on power had begun to embolden other actors in the democracy. Facebook moved with speed to take down a group that protested under the hashtag #stopthesteal. Twitter masked as many as one-third of Trump’s tweets for spreading misinformation.

Fox News, Trump’s go-to network, showed what the Guardian newspaper called “an unaccustomed display of objectivity” when it declared, over protests from the White House, Biden the winner in Arizona. Editors at The New York Post, another Trump ally, reportedly told staff to toughen their coverage of him.

For his part, Biden spoke to reporters for roughly two minutes on Thursday. “Stay calm. The process is working. The count is being completed. And we’ll know very soon,” said the former vice president.

He didn’t need to say more. The voices that mattered belong to voters. They’ve spoken.

The candidates deliver their closing arguments

The closing minutes of the second and final presidential debate seemed to pack the entirety of the campaign into two minutes.

The setup came in a question from moderator Kristen Welker, who asked both President Trump and his rival Joe Biden what they would say in their inaugural address to Americans who did not vote for them.

Trump, who went first, did not answer the question. Instead he predicted that if the former vice president were elected, “you will have a depression the likes of which you’ve never seen, your 401(k)s will go to hell, and it will be a very sad day for this country.”

When his turn came, Biden said he’d choose “science over fiction,” “hope over fear,” “deal with systemic racism,” ensure that “everyone has an even chance,” and create “millions” of new jobs in clean energy. The former vice president said he would represent all Americans “whether you voted for me or against me.”

The moment marked the last chance for each candidate to deliver a closing message to a national audience; the campaign equivalent of the final minutes of a soccer match when the sides scramble furiously to score.

Trump’s argument may be one of necessity: His concealing, dismissing, mismanaging and ultimately losing control of the pandemic has left him pointing to the stock market, which in the closing days of the campaign hovers at pre-pandemic levels, as a proxy for his performance.

That someone who played a successful businessperson on TV now clings to a financial market as a political life preserver brings its own irony. To the extent stocks have held their ground, they’ve done so thanks in part to a pandemic-induced lowering of interest rates by the Federal Reserve. In another twist, the central bank’s chairman was, at least until COVID-19 arrived, a regular Trump target.

Though stocks might hold sway with some of the roughly one-third of Americans who have a 401(k) plan, there aren’t enough of them to reelect a president. Even in normal times, share prices are hardly a proxy for prosperity. And the times are anything but normal. More Americans lost their jobs in two months last spring than during the Great Depression and the recession of 2008 combined.

For his part, Biden, if you untangle the syntax, sought to unite. The economy matters there, too. The fault lines laid bare by the pandemic include widening inequality, which the pandemic threatens to accelerate without a Biden administration and its allies in Congress finding a way to rebuild a safety net that has frayed beyond repair.

In a New York Times/Siena College poll earlier this month, 91% of likely Democratic voters said they support a new $2 trillion stimulus package to extend unemployment insurance, send stimulus checks to most Americans, and provide financial support to state and local governments.

Predictably by now, the survey divided sharply on partisan lines. With one exception: The proposed stimulus also commanded support from a majority (56%) of likely Republican voters.

Whether measured in lives ended or upended, the pandemic’s toll grows by the day. The coming together that Biden is offering may be taking shape already.