The TV is on CNN, everything is coronavirus, and national attention is on my hometown, Seattle. Washington Governor Jay Inslee — he who ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president on the promise to fight carbon dioxide — is fighting an entity much more immediately dangerous. As I write, Inslee has declared a ban on all public meetings, public or private, of 250 or more, in the county in which I live. I’m a libertarian, but in matters of pandemics, I bow to the inevitability of state power.
The inevitability of it, if not the complete effectiveness. This is clear if you listen to officials on TV talk about the coronavirus. Whenever the holders of power over public health get on TV, they begin a kind of ritual, like baboons picking lice out of each other’s fur. The ritual is the effusive assertion that the official standing next to them (especially if that official controls a lot of money) has been doing a fantastic job. President Trump talked that way at his first press conference, as did Vice President Pence when he came to Olympia, Washington. All these politicians and political-public-health people do it, nearly as over the top as the actors and actresses at the Oscars. Here in the Coronavirus State it doesn’t feel like anyone has done a fantastic job. Everyone is scrambling to catch up with a microscopic bug.
And did you expect better? I didn’t. I never expected even an adequate job from government officials or from the private sector either, at least in the beginning. CNN’s earnest talking heads are rabbiting on about Trump not being ready, the rest of the government not being ready, about test kits being short, surgical masks short, blah, blah, blah. Ground zero for the infection of the United States is a nursing home 15 miles from my house, in the town of Kirkland. (If you shop at Costco, you will be familiar with that name.) The media people say that the employees at the nursing home weren’t ready, that when they found out about the virus they didn’t use the proper protective gear, implying that their ignorance and sloppiness let the sickness spread to dozens of patients.
Well, hell. Of course the nursing home people weren’t ready. Why would they be? Were you ready? And you might say, “Yeah, but I’m not a nursing home. They’re in the health care business.” Nursing homes are in the feeding-old-people and helping-them-in-the-shower business. You can’t expect them to be ready for a microscopic invasion from China. And you think the county health department, or the state, should be ready? In theory, sure. They are supposed to manage this sort of thing, be right on top of it, master it, kill it, and protect us all. But pandemics don’t often happen, and other problems do. Health workers are good at fixing those problems because they deal with them all the time.
Mostly we prepare for what we know. Several years ago, my wife slipped on the front porch and shattered her ankle. After that I put in a handrail. She had mentioned a handrail before, but it wasn’t urgent, and I hadn’t put one in. A few miles from my house a schoolboy was hit and killed by a car while crossing a busy street where there was no crosswalk. After that, the city put in a crosswalk. That is how we get crosswalks. It’s unfortunate, but it’s how people are. Recently I put in a grab bar in the bathtub. No one had fallen in that tub, but I thought I had better put one in. I can pat myself on the back for being “proactive” this time, but falling in the bathtub is a common thing for older people. Global pandemics are not. We’ve had a few of them now, and if we start having them every year or so, we will be ready for them.
As I write, Trump has just taken network time to address the nation, banning travel from continental Europe for 30 days. He seems more focused on the problem than he was, and more realistic — and of course, the talking heads on CNN still take him to task for not answering every concern they have. In Seattle the school board has just closed the public schools. And so we lurch forward.