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We are willing to get our hair mussed

I watched baseball on Monday night. For a few minutes, after a weekend with temperatures in the high 70s and the national pastime on my TV, it finally felt like spring. I wasn’t in the stadium, but it looked like a beautiful day for a game. Then again, I honestly don’t know how warm it is in Busan this time of year.

I also didn’t know I was such an NC Dinos fan, but they’ve won just as many championships as the Mets in the past 30 years, so it feels right.

Seven weeks ago, the United States and South Korea were in a very similar place in terms of COVID-related fatalities, with each country recording around 90 of them. Today, the United States has more than 70,000 deaths. South Korea has less than 300. And it has baseball.

Before you assume my priorities are out of order, I’m not jealous that South Korea has baseball. I’m jealous that its government was so effective at implementing widespread testing, contact tracing and containment, that even without fans in the stands, the country believes conditions are safe enough that one could actually play a professional baseball game.

South Korea has a population of roughly 51 million people. That is dwarfed in size by the U.S., which is home to approximately 331 million, but you don’t have to pass your first-year Stats course to see the ratio of COVID deaths in each country is not exactly similar. The U.S. has roughly 6.5 times the population of South Korea and yet deaths from COVID in this country are greater by a factor of around 233. This cannot be explained away by population density — the Seoul and Busan metro areas are home to around 32 million people combined — nor is it a conceivably reasonable exponential increase when taking a virus’ R-naught into account. It is also not the result of some euphemistically coded phrase like Asian collectivism or a cultural passivity that True Americans just won’t stand for.

This is about effective crisis management, a willingness to see through hard choices, and, most importantly, testing. When we compare the U.S. to countries like South Korea one thing becomes very clear: The United States still does not seem to have any semblance of a coherent, nationwide testing strategy.

If that sounds familiar that’s because a) you must really like my articles, and b) it is. I wrote those exact words in an Oppy column a month ago, and despite efforts in densely-populated areas like New York or Los Angeles that have flattened the curve significantly, here we are four weeks later still wondering when the U.S. will have adequate testing capacity.

I say this as someone who has actually been tested twice. I first developed symptoms for COVID nearly a month ago, but given the limited number of tests available, I was initially told by my municipal health department that my symptoms were not severe enough. Let’s put aside the fact that states should never have had to be in a position to ration tests. By the time enough tests became available, I felt mostly recovered, but signed up anyway. Unsurprisingly, my results came back negative. This week, the mayor of Jersey City announced that antibody tests were now available. While there is widespread concern over just how reliable those tests are, I made an appointment immediately and am now waiting for the lab’s conclusion.

As the country nears its third month with major economic and population centers locked down, COVID testing has increased to roughly a quarter million tests per day. This has put the U.S. closer to countries like South Korea and Italy, and is a marked improvement from March, when the U.S. had tested a grand total of five people for every 1 million in the country. However, given the testing gap for much of the virus’ early spread and the likely proliferation of the virus among symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers alike, current testing rates in the U.S. are still not enough to inform any kind of sound containment plan. In some cases, states have begun testing multiple patients in the same batch in an effort to stretch available kits.

Expert opinions vary anywhere from 500,000 to multiple millions on just how many daily tests are needed to genuinely get ahead of the spread, but most seem to agree coordinating that effort must come from the top. In that regard the President continues to be far better at testing patience than testing patients.

Instead of a focused, coordinated federal effort to bring testing and containment efforts up to snuff, the Trump administration has prioritized reaping rewards of a solution before it’s even found one. The biggest goal of federal officials seems to be reopening public life consequences be damned, believing a perceived return to normalcy will clear up lingering doubts of Trump’s fitness for a second term while jumpstarting the economic prosperity seen as his strongest reelection argument.

That is an abject fantasy world. The White House is already at odds with the CDC over recommended reopening guidelines it deemed too restrictive. Meanwhile, Trump’s announcement this week that he would wind down the Coronavirus task force, an attempt to give the impression of a completed job well done, was met with significant public outcry forcing the President to walk back his announcement. In many cases, states desperate to reopen businesses are doing so while epidemiological statistics indicate new infections are still on the rise. New epicenters of the virus continue to pop up, meaning a disregard of social distancing measures would likely spark a second wave of COVID infections later this year. The presumed economic benefit also assumes people will immediately feel comfortable leaving their homes in mass numbers, which is naive at best.

The only way to truly get a handle on this crisis and bring us back to normal life is to aggressively continue to ramp up testing, possibly through the Defense Production Act, and to implement an overarching federal plan to enact extensive contact tracing and isolation. In addition to producing antibody tests on a mass scale, they need to be reliable, but even for that logical requirement, the FDA instead chose to allow unlicensed testing kits to enter the market because their mere existence would make Americans feel better, effective or not.

Donald Trump has spent his life projecting a veneer of success without being successful. Before taking office, he tried to present a veneer of seriousness without being serious. His administration’s guiding principle for more than three years has been to project a veneer of competency without being remotely competent. The guidance they are giving now is designed to project a veneer of triumph by returning to normalcy, even as federal officials are aware thousands may die needlessly as collateral damage. 

Apparently, Trump’s top advisor is Buck Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove. I literally have more faith, with good reason, that a llama will be more helpful in solving this crisis than the President.

South Korea has baseball. Germany is cautiously loosening restrictions and beginning to open stores. Australia and New Zealand appear to have effectively defeated the virus. Greece’s disciplined approach has been so successful, the country is actually preparing for an influx of summer tourists. The United States, with its vast federal system of governance and densely-populated metro areas, was always going to struggle to contain an outbreak. But this was not our country’s best potential effort. It does not make sense to pretend not only that it was, but that we are also ready to get back to how it was three months ago.

Life is not normal right now. It will not be normal for some time. The best way to ensure life in America continues to not be normal is to pretend that isn’t the case. We need serious, sober leadership. We need pragmatic, scientific guidance. And for goodness’ sake, we need more testing.

I take no joy in being so pessimistic. I want to walk my dog without wearing a mask. I want to eat in a restaurant. I want to go to class. And as someone who typically goes to about 15 games a season, yes, I admit it. I want to take the subway out to Queens and watch the Mets’ bullpen blow late leads as only it can. That would feel normal.

Right now, the only thing that feels normal to me is that by July the Mets, yet again, will not be first place. For once, they truly don’t have themselves to blame for it.

Photo Credit: Associated Press

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