It’s past time for a pandemic testing strategy

By Onkar Ghate and Elan Journo

Months of statewide lockdowns across the country were meant, in part, to buy time to ramp up testing and contact tracing with regard to the spread of COVID-19. Now, amid an upsurge of cases in Florida, Texas, Arizona and elsewhere, we still have nothing like a strategic approach to testing and tracing. 

“Test, isolate and track” should be the government’s mantra in a pandemic. To protect individual rights, its basic task is to detect carriers of severe infectious pathogens, to neutralize their ability to transmit the pathogen to others, and to identify people to whom the carrier might have exposed the virus. 

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When Tribal Journalists Try to ‘Cancel’ Ayn Rand (Part 2)

The New Republic article about Rand, which we looked at in Part 1, stood out not primarily because of what it said about her, but in how it conveyed its message. The article put a tribal prejudice toward Rand above facts and logic. That same mindset is on display, even more starkly, in Amanda Marcotte’s Salon article, “Right-wingers finally got their Ayn Rand hero as president — and it’s this guy.”

Let me stress, again, that my goal is not to change your mind about Rand and her ideas, nor primarily to correct the many errors and misrepresentations in these articles (though I’ll point out some of them along the way). Instead, the point is to explain how the two articles are fundamentally uninterested in convincing any active-minded reader. Their aim, rather, is to affirm a preset narrative about Rand. These are worse than mere smears, because their tribal mindset represents the abandonment of rational persuasion as the goal of intellectual discussion.

Marcotte’s point is captured in the subtitle: “Conservatives finally have a leader who lives by Ayn Rand’s selfish philosophy, and he’s an embarrassing clown,” the clown being Donald Trump. But whatever you might think of Rand or of Trump, this is a claim that’s far from self-evident. It requires a real argument. Marcotte’s article offers no argument. It’s written for an audience that already partly or fully shares Marcotte’s preconceptions.

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When Tribal Journalists Try to “Cancel” Ayn Rand (Part 1)

Inaccurate, misrepresented, and even willfully distorted reporting on Ayn Rand’s ideas has been common in the media since she first gained public prominence. That fact came up in a conversation she had with the editor of The Ayn Rand Lexicon, a kind of mini encyclopedia of her philosophy, Objectivism. The editor, Harry Binswanger, relates that Rand became increasingly enthusiastic about the Lexicon project, in part because it could serve as a corrective and eliminate any excuse for the continual misrepresentation of her philosophy. Rand quipped to him, “People will be able to look up BREAKFAST and see that I did not advocate eating babies for breakfast.”

But articles that misrepresent, or outright distort, Rand’s ideas continually find their way into print. Rarely are they worth a response. Two recent articles about Rand — one in Salon, the other in the New Republic — are different. It’s not because of what these articles say about her, but in how they say it.

Both articles raise worthwhile questions — at least, nominally. One asks about the appeal of Rand’s ideas among young people; the other is on the relation between Rand’s moral ideal of selfishness and President Trump. Both articles, moreover, cite sources, name facts, and even include some actual reporting — all in support of their highly unfavorable conclusions. Which is putting it mildly.

What’s remarkable about these essays is not that they’re sloppy, error-filled, slanted, or smears. They are. (And I’ll indicate a few, though by no means all, of their errors and misrepresentations.) Rather: what marks these essays out is that they exemplify a pernicious mindset, a mindset that’s wreaking havoc on our cultural-political life. It’s a phenomenon wider than how people engage with Ayn Rand — but when she’s the subject, that mindset is often starkly apparent.

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The Curious Attacks on Bill Gates

In a widely viewed 2015 TED talk, Bill Gates warned of the risk of a global pandemic for which we were unprepared. Now that we’re actually in the midst of a global pandemic for which we are woefully unprepared, Gates has spoken out against the US government’s inadequate response, and his philanthropic foundation has pledged $250 million to help with the manufacture of promising vaccines for the novel coronavirus.

For his foresight and willingness to help combat the pandemic, Gates deserves admiration. Instead he faces suspicion, attacks and vilification. Why?

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Unsung Heroes of the Pandemic: Scientists

Which teams played in the last Super Bowl? Can you name one character from the Star Wars movies? Who is Kim Kardashian’s husband? Likely you answered at least one of those questions correctly. But the following may well stump you: Who developed the X-ray? Who performed the first organ transplant? Who developed the vaccine for smallpox? or whooping cough? or measles?

It’s a curious fact that most of us know way more about sports and pop culture, than about the pioneers of scientific research. But the benefits we’ve all reaped from their work is incalculable, and it’s clear that our way out of this global pandemic will depend crucially on scientists working to understand, track, and combat the novel coronavirus.

One inspiring story, from the pandemic’s early days, has stuck with me. The story of Dr. Helen Chu and her colleagues in Seattle is the stuff of a Hollywood thriller, except it actually happened. They are among the unsung heroes in our midst.

Chu and her colleagues were in the middle of a flu study in the Seattle area, when they learned about the first confirmed American case of coronavirus infection, in Washington state. They quickly realized that they could help assess the spread of the virus. For their flu research, they had been collecting nasal swabs from patients in the Puget Sound area. By running a new test on those samples, they could figure out how widely the novel coronavirus had spread.

With incredible speed, they managed to devise a new test. Because of government regulations, however, they were not approved to run it. So, they petitioned federal regulators to get approval. Days, weeks went by. When they did get an answer it was No.

But they decided to run the test anyway. Turns out the virus had established itself on American soil, undetected. In Dr. Chu’s words: “It’s just everywhere already.”

Chu and her colleagues were caught in a potentially career-ending dilemma: if they disclosed their findings, they would run afoul of regulators, but if they withheld their findings, people might well die. “What we were allowed to do was to keep it to ourselves,” Dr. Chu told the New York Times. “But what we felt like we needed to do was to tell public health.”

The morally right thing to do, they concluded, was to share their discovery with local authorities, and they did so. The next morning, public health officials were able to identify an infected teenager, with mild symptoms, just as he was walking in to school.

Despite having brought to light such critical information, Chu and her colleagues were told by regulators to stop testing. Keep in mind that all this unfolded even as the Federal government’s own tests were found to be defective and testing generally was severely constrained, greatly delaying the rollout of wide-scale testing necessary for tackling the virus.

What I admire about Dr. Chu and her colleagues is not only their ingenuity in creating their own test, but also their courageous willingness to defy irrational man-made obstacles. The ordeal they went through, simply to share essential information about the virus, is a damning indictment of regulators. It’s much to the credit of Chu and her colleagues that they put facts and truth above all else, in the name of protecting human life and advancing our knowledge of this virus. 

They’re not alone. Scientists around the world have pushed aside other projects to focus on this virus. On an unprecedented scale, they’re collaborating across borders and time zones to identify this virus’s characteristics, its behavior within the body, its spread within communities, its Achilles’ heel — so that it can be stopped.

The global race to develop a vaccine for this coronavirus is itself inspiring. Some projects are running multiple trials in parallel, rather than one after the other, to accelerate the process. From the one hundred or so vaccine projects underway, the one based at the Jenner Institute at Oxford University stands out for its size. That effort grew out of the research of Dr. Adrian Hill, who directs the Jenner Institute. Thanks in part to an emergency approval from the UK government, the project will begin scheduling a trial with more than six thousand people in May.

It remains to be seen whether this approach (or one of the many others in development) will prove effective, and if so, for what patient profile. Developing vaccines is a slow process, with a low success rate, at the best of times. But it’s heartening to see so many bright minds focusing with such vigor on tackling the coronavirus.

When it is finally overcome, how will we look upon the scientists who contributed to that victory?

In the last century, after developing a vaccine for polio, Dr. Jonas Salk became a household name. New York offered to hold a ticker tape parade in his honor. But in gaining that widespread recognition for his scientific accomplishment, Salk has been something of an outlier.

Let’s change that. It will be a sign of moral progress when — instead of overlooking or taking them for granted — we fully appreciate the many unsung scientific heroes of this pandemic.


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Unsung Heroes of the Pandemic: Creators of Our Digital Age

Emergency rooms are jammed with COVID-19 patients, fighting for their lives. Doctors, nurses, and front-line healthcare workers are receiving much-deserved praise and appreciation, even though (as I argued in earlier article) they’re still under-valued.

Reflecting on this crisis, I’ve come to have a deeper appreciation for another group of heroic individuals. We rely on their tireless work and achievements every day, but all the more so as millions of us are subjected to stay-at-home orders. But they are unsung.

Call them the builders of our digital age. Thanks to them, the lockdowns are more tolerable than they otherwise would have been.

Thanks to Gmail and Dropbox and Slack and Microsoft Teams, many people are able to keep their work moving forward. Thanks to Zoom, businesses can stay connected, students can attend classes, countless families and friends can socialize, and children can goof around with friends that they used to meet on the school playground. Thanks to Netflix and YouTube and Disney Plus and Hulu and Spotify and Apple Music, there’s an abundance of entertainment on hand. Thanks to Amazon and Instacart and the multitude of local app-based food delivery services, you can have household supplies and groceries and takeout left outside your door.

These apps and online services rely on a technological foundation built decades ago. Bill Gates envisioned a future with a desktop computer in every home. We’ve long surpassed that. In many homes, the computers, smartphones, and tablets outnumber the human occupants. Getting online used to mean connecting a computer to a phone line using a slow, screechy modem and dialing up an internet service provider; now broadband internet is pervasive and we stream movies to our iPhones.

Try to imagine being stuck at home during a pandemic like this one — in the pre-digital age, with none of the tools and apps and services we rely on. To contemplate that is to begin to appreciate the enormous value created by the builders of our digital age.

Who are they? Among them are industry-shaping leaders such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Serge Brin, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg. Their startups, now globe-spanning corporations, were made possible by the foresight and risk-taking of investors and venture capital firms. Innumerable coders and computer scientists and network engineers go to work every day to grow these businesses and keep their systems running.

Keeping these apps and networks and platforms operational under ordinary circumstances is an achievement. Doing so amid the pandemic, with surging demand from millions more people self-isolating at home, is an even more impressive feat. Comcast, one of the nation’s largest broadband providers, reported that use of voice and video conferencing traffic on its network was up 212% in March. For Zoom, the number of daily active users has surged since December, up 340%.

We’re leaning more heavily than ever before on the achievements of the creators of the digital age. Let’s take a moment to recognize the benefits we’ve reaped so far and express our appreciation.


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Unsung Heroes of the Pandemic

The pandemic is showing that, all around us, there are under-appreciated heroes.

Legions of them work in hospitals. What’s become clear in New York and elsewhere is that doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers are up against battlefield-like conditions. The lack of widespread testing, the desperate scarcity of ventilators and dwindling supplies of personal protective equipment, such as face masks, have made their work far more difficult and greatly increased their risk.

The horrifying stories multiply by the day: doctors having to re-use their masks; hospital staff using garbage bags to improvise gowns; doctors having to weigh whether to imperil their own lives to save patients. Here, from the vantage one E.R. physician, Dr. Colleen Smith, is a look inside hard-hit Elmhurst Hospital in New York.

A possible sign of what’s yet to come is evident in Spain, which also has an acute shortage of masks and protective gear. Nearly 14% of all COVID-19 cases in Spain are medical professionals, many apparently infected on the job. One E.R. nurse in Spain has decried the fact that, lacking adequate protective equipment, she and her colleagues have been turned into “health care kamikazes.” (Some doctors in the U.S. are writing and updating their wills.)

Many Americans have expressed their gratitude for the work of doctors and nurses. Take a look at Twitter or Facebook. In New York City, residents stood at their windows to applaud and cheer their tireless efforts. Elsewhere, individuals and companies have collected supplies of masks and donated them to local hospitals.

But if only such appreciation were universal. What’s been stomach-turning is the evident devaluing of doctors and nurses by some administrators of certain hospitals and by government authorities. It is the responsibility of government authorities to prepare for this kind of situation by ensuring adequate supplies and resources, but we’re seeing what happens when the calls for crisis-preparedness go unheeded.

There’s still another kind of devaluing of doctors and nurses. Consider the college students who flocked together on the beaches of Florida or Mexico on spring break, or the New Yorkers who reportedly arrange pandemic potluck dinners in crowded apartments. They choose not to voluntarily social-distance. They may decide to be fatalistic about their own health—“if I get corona, I get corona!”—but it’s reprehensible to do that and then when they get sick to expect that doctors and nurses, lacking adequate protection, treat them in the E.R. Imposing such a risk on healthcare workers is to disregard their lives.

The ugly premise behind such indifference is that doctors and nurses—individuals who spend years upon years mastering oceans of scientific knowledge and continually honing their life-saving skills—somehow owe us their lives and work. It’s as if they’re our servants, and we don’t have to care what happens to them. The expectation is that they’ll always show up to work, even at the cost of their own health and the well-being of their families. But this is an inverted kind of blackmail, a form of exploitation that counts not on vices, but on the virtues of doctors and nurses. It’s precisely because of their love for their work and dedication to patients that so many of them show up every day.

This same premise, evident in the UK’s National Health Service, long ago wormed its way into America’s government-controlled healthcare system. For decades, we saw the imposition of control after control, minutely regulating the judgment of doctors and nurses, making their jobs harder—with the expectation that they will endure anything to save lives. The pandemic, some people clamor, validates the case for moving to some form of state-run healthcare, like Medicare-for-All. But the opposite is true. Embedded in such systems is a basic disregard for the lives, judgment, and freedom of doctors and nurses.

That’s also what underlies the alarming suggestion by New York mayor Bill de Blasio for a national draft of doctors and other medical workers to serve in hospitals, beginning with New York.

Doctors and medical workers are the “forgotten man” of socialized medicine, with harmful repercussions for us all. Such callousness toward them is a moral travesty.

One lesson we can already draw from this crisis is that we need properly to recognize the tremendous value of doctors and nurses. Another is that rather imposing further controls or nationalizing healthcare, we need to move toward liberating them and their industry. Despite the outpouring of praise and gratitude so far, we’re only just beginning to appreciate them fully.

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In this Pandemic, We’re All Paying the Price of Trump’s War on Truth

By the hour, we are learning more about the spread and lethality of the novel coronavirus. Even as the Covid-19 pandemic has drastically upended our lives and economy, it has also brought into sharper focus the dire consequences of putting in the nation’s highest office someone who’s at war with the truth.

Even ardent supporters of Donald Trump acknowledge that he spins, exaggerates, stretches, invents facts. Remember his inauguration ceremony? In Trump’s telling, it had a record-breaking turnout. In fact, it did not.

Such habitual twisting of the truth unnerved both opponents and voters who reluctantly voted for him, but Trump’s ardent supporters shut their eyes to its meaning. A favorite rationalization: it’s a character flaw of little consequence. Yeah, he’s a braggart, but what difference does it make how many came to the inauguration, really?

What about the foreseeable outcome of having someone who habitually twists the truth in the Oval Office during a crisis? Many evaded that nightmare scenario. Now we’re living it as the coronavirus pandemic rages.

In January, while intelligence agencies and health officials warned the Trump administration about a looming crisis, the president shut his eyes to the problem and insisted — as if wishing made it so — that we have nothing to worry about.

Asked on Jan. 22 if he was concerned about a pandemic, Trump said: “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control.” He added: “It’s going to be just fine.” Dismissing the risk, he misled the American public into a false sense of security.

At a rally on Feb. 10, Trump floated the dubious theory that, with warmer weather, the novel virus “miraculously goes away.” On Feb. 23, he again insisted that “we have it very much under control.”

At a White House briefing on Feb. 26, the president said “the risk to the American people remains very low.” Referring to 15 cases in the U.S., he asserted that that number “within a couple of days is going to be down close to zero.” He added: “We’re going very substantially down, not up” — even as the number of confirmed cases climbed and more countries were reporting cases.

Diagnostic tests for this coronavirus are essential for identifying the spread and lethality of the virus and whether “social distancing” practices are effectively slowing transmission. Touring the C.D.C. facility on Mar. 6, Trump assured the public that “anybody that wants a test can get a test” — when in fact such tests were, and remain, painfully scarce.

Then, after the World Health Organization called the situation a pandemic, on Mar. 17 Trump asserted that “I felt that it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” and that “I’ve always viewed it as very serious” — in brazen defiance of his own past statements and actions.

In a time of crisis we need leaders to communicate openly, frankly, and truthfully. What Trump has done is minimize the problem, peddle false reassurance, and lie. This has inflamed people’s uncertainty, fear, panic.

While Trump refused to face the facts, the U.S. government squandered precious time. Time that could have been spent better preparing hospitals and enabling widespread, rapid testing on the model of South Korea. Result? Lives needlessly lost. And Trump’s denial has wreaked havoc on our daily lives and the economy. For weeks and weeks and weeks the message was “we have it totally under control,” now suddenly tens of millions of Americans are under lockdowns. Innumerable businesses are shuttered, with an uncertain future. Many people have already lost their jobs. The looming economic downturn is potentially catastrophic.

Businesses ruined. Individuals robbed of their livelihoods. Americans sickened and dead, needlessly. The full reckoning will take years to compute.

The lesson here is that you can evade the character of a political leader — shutting your eyes to the facts, wishing them away, inventing feel-good stories. You can tolerate his war on truth, rationalizing it as bragging. And you can tell yourself that, if a crisis erupts, he’ll miraculously face the facts, speak the truth, and handle it honestly. But you cannot escape the consequences of such evasions. Trump’s disdain for facts and truth is blatant, it’s part of his character, and it’s pervasive. So, it’s sheer fantasy to expect him to deal with a crisis honestly, rather than aggravating it.

We’re all now suffering the destructive consequences of installing a person contemptuous of facts in the Oval Office.

The Campaign to “Abolish Billionaires”

Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren are jockeying to spearhead a new crusade. Its premise is that the sheer existence of billionaires is a moral outrage.

“I don’t think that billionaires should exist,” Sanders explained. The crusade’s rallying cry: “Abolish billionaires.” To that end, Warren and Sanders have each proposed special taxes on the ultra-rich.

Central to this crusade is a claim many find plausible. In a New York Times column that went viral, Farhad Manjoo called for “kneecapping the wealthiest among us” because a billion dollars is “far more than anyone might reasonably claim to deserve, however much he believes he has contributed to society.” A burgeoning chorus keeps telling us: “No one deserves a billion dollars” (Tom Scocca); “No one earns a billion dollars” (Jacobin magazine). The implication: everyone who accumulates — not earns, mind you, but accumulates — so vast a fortune must have done so by shady means.

What’s truly corrupt, however, is the campaign to “abolish billionaires.” It’s founded on a smear. It’s not ignorance that leads billionaire-haters to deny the sheer possibility that a billion can be earned. It’s a willful disregard of the facts.

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The Berlin Wall and the Evil of Socialism

Some came with sledgehammers, some just with their bare hands. On the night of Nov. 9, 1989, jubilant crowds began tearing down the Berlin Wall, an infamous barrier dividing families, a city, a nation. Even as we celebrate that iconic moment, the moral meaning of the Berlin Wall is little understood. 

The Berlin Wall was built and murderously enforced in the name of a profoundly destructive political idea, which, alarmingly, many today are embracing. . .

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