This Is An Emergency!

At a time of national crisis, it is important that we do everything possible to make sure that the important people without whom our society could not function are safe. I refer, of course, to our politicians, especially our distinguished members of Congress. Where would we be without their wisdom? How could we stagger on without their selfless dedication to the commonweal? Now that the Wuhan virus is cutting a wide swathe through our country, something must be done to protect these great men and women, many of whom are so dedicated to our welfare that they have stayed in Congress for decades—decades, just for us. 

As I write, the news has just come in that a total of 60 people—60!—have died from the scourge of the Wuhan virus. No wonder people feel like the procession of flagellants in “The Seventh Seal.” This really is a pandemic akin to the Black Death. 

Do you realize that in this country you have a 0.000000155963303 percent chance of contracting and dying from this dread disease? Especially if you are over 80 and in poor health. We must take action, and we must take action now, to preserve the lives of all those who govern us, who set our taxes, who impose all those rules and regulations that make everyday business such a joy to conduct.

They who entertained us with months of television drama trying to impeach the president: what would we do without them? This morning, I received a robocall from the mayor of our town, warning about the dread effects of the Wuhan virus. In order to counter the assault, he was essentially shutting down the local government, canceling all events on city property, and banning gatherings of more than 100 people. 

Did you know that in addition to 100 senators there are 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives? Yes, that’s right. There they are crowding together in the Capitol building, shaking hands and breathing on one another and their thousands of aides. It’s unsanitary. It’s unsafe. It’s a national emergency. For the good of the country, and especially for the good of our leaders, the men and women without whom we would be lost, we must prorogue Congress. 

We must do it today! And since we do not know how long this plague will last, we must do it indefinitely. All members of Congress must self-quarantine, they must shelter in place in their Washington flats, until we put this health nightmare behind us, which might be never. 

Do-or-Die Time

I just got a notice from one of my favorite groups of restaurants in New York. We are all, the notice said, “navigating uncharted territory with no preexisting roadmap or compass.” Yes, this might be like the Black Death, except worse. “Nothing matters more than the safety and health of our team members, guests, and communities,” the notice said. Accordingly, they have made the “difficult decision to temporarily close our restaurants until we believe it is safe to re-open.” Who knows when that will be. Next month? Next year? Never? 

Edvard Munch, where art thou? This is the moment for your iconic image: “The Scream.” Some 19 people, all over eighty, all with serious underlying health issues, all in the same nursing care facility, have died from the Wuhan virus out West. At least, they had the virus. Maybe they died of something else. Anyway, this is an emergency. 

One of the silver linings of this latest example of what Charles Mackay diagnosed as “the madness of crowds” is that the people who will be blamed when it is over are the people who stoked the insanity from the start.

This is spring break time for many schools and colleges. All across the land, the bulletins have gone out: do not come back after the break! Stay home at least for two more weeks. Many institutions—Stanford, Princeton, Harvard—are going on-line only for the rest of the semester. Why stop there? No two people should ever be in the same room again. We can’t be too careful. Close all the universities permanently. Turn the dormitories into hospital wards. Haven’t we been told that our hospitals are about to be overwhelmed? Patients will be lying on gurneys in hallways. If there are any gurneys left.

We should convert all the desks in every college and university classroom into makeshift cots. American derring-do can make it happen. Besides, once tuition-check paying parents realize that the tender props and supports of their old age can learn just as much at home as they can at their expensive colleges, and can do so without fear of progressive indoctrination or consciousness-raising in anti-American sentiment, I wouldn’t be surprised if that many parents will opt not to send their sons and daughters back to school even when they do open. 

Irrational Exuberance Redux

Well, we’ve been through worse before. Remember the panic of 2009 when the H1N1 virus cut a devastating path through the U.S. population? There were 115,000 cases in the United States, 15,000 hospitalizations, 3,500 deaths. [UPDATE: I understated the severity of the 2009 H1Ni flu. According to the CDC, in the US there were some 60.8 million cases, 274,304 hospitalizations, and 12,469 deaths.] Our entire society ground to a halt. All airplanes were grounded, subways and buses stood motionless in their garages and depots, schools closed, as did restaurants, gyms, and grocery stores. Lawmakers everywhere blamed President Obama for the historic tragedy. 

Just kidding. None of that happened, nor should it have. So what’s different this time? 

One thing is the market. A week or two back it got spooked. Panic begot panic and we saw an historic sell-off. And here’s the thing about widespread irrationality: At some point, the only rational response is to give in and act irrationally yourself. If you are really worried that the grocery stores will be stripped bare, you had best queue up and grab all the swag that you can now. Who knows when or if the shelves will be restocked? 

Writing to A. C. Benson in 1896, Henry James said that he had “the imagination of disaster—and [sees] life as ferocious and sinister.” What would James say today? 

I believe that Donald Trump has shown exemplary leadership during this episode. He banned flight from China at the end of January, just as the House impeachment folly was beginning its denouement. At the time, Joe Biden, among many Democrats, condemned him for his “racism” and “xenophobia.” Then the panic got going and they blamed Trump for not taking the crisis seriously enough. 

I’ll bet they’re sorry now. Trump’s declaration of a national emergency on Friday sparked the biggest market surge ever: nearly 2,000 points in about an hour. I suspect that the rise was due not so much to the declaration of an emergency as his announced mode of dealing with it: the critical player was not going to be Congress but private enterprise. 

All Good Things Must Come to an End

When will sanity return? It’s hard to say for sure. What Heather Mac Donald calls “virus porn” exercises an irresistible attraction on susceptible souls. They are secretly, or not so secretly, ecstatic. They want the drama to go on forever. Ordinary citizens can stay home from work, students are actually forbidden from going back to school, and of course, for anyone in political power, the Wuhan virus has been a godsend. Now they can do what they like doing most—order other people around—and seem like heroes for doing so. 

Consider the town of Champaign, Illinois. They just held an emergency meeting to deal with the “Impact of the COVID-19 Virus.” The city council proposed to grant extraordinary powers to the mayor, which include:

  • Banning the sale of firearms and ammunition;
  • Banning the sale of any alcohol;
  • Closing of all bars, taverns, liquor stores, etc.;
  • Banning the sale or giving away of gasoline or other liquid flammable or combustible products in any container other than a gasoline tank permanently fixed to a motor vehicle;
  • Directing the shut-off of power, water, gas, etc.
  • Taking possession of private property and obtaining full title to same;
  • Prohibiting or restricting entry and exit to and from the city. 

I asked a friend who lives nearby whether this was a joke. “Apparently not,” was her answer. 

All good things come to an end, of course, even crises. For one thing, people grow tired of any given emergency. There is only so much emotional energy around to fuel panic. Eventually, it runs out, and the panic, like a fire, gutters. 

Then, too, the word that is on the lips of the wise today—“denominator”—will soon be on everyone’s lips. That number in this country is about 327 million.

The incubation period for this latest Chinese import is typically five or six days. It can be a bit shorter, or a bit longer. But the places first affected—China, South Korea—have already seen a marked drop in new cases. We will in a matter of days. There has been a great hue and cry for more widespread testing. If that happens, the number of diagnosed cases will go up, maybe dramatically. What won’t go up much is the number of fatalities. 

Panics are a species of moral intoxication. Like the physical kind, they are typically followed by a hangover. Not an upset stomach or headache, but a feeling of chagrin and resentment about one’s own gullibility, which quickly translates into irritation and resentment directed at the people who fueled the panic in the first place. 

One of the silver linings of this latest example of what Charles Mackay diagnosed as “the madness of crowds” is that the people who will be blamed when it is over—which it will be, and soon—are the people who stoked the insanity.

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