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Journal of the Plague Year (#6)

Berkeley, CA 4/27/2020 — In 1921, at the age of 39, Franklin Delano Roosevelt felt ill one night after dinner.

He went to bed, but woke up the next morning drenched in sweat, weak, and feeling dizzy.  His doctor recommended bed rest and aspirin. When there was no improvement, a specialist in viral disease was summoned.  He concluded that FDR had what was then called “infantile paralysis.”

In 1915, six years before, two virologists had presented their research on a polio vaccine to a meeting of the American Public Health Association. But their conclusion, that a vaccine was possible, was dismissed because of the deaths of several patients on whom a vaccine had been tested.

Roosevelt had a long, agonizing recovery. His relatively strong, athletic body, his dedicated family, and his great wealth which provided all possible therapy and treatment options, were on his side. As was his ferociously determined dedication to painful physical therapy. It took until 1952 for an effective vaccine to be developed. Meanwhile, Roosevelt, who had recovered, but was left partially paralyzed for the rest of his life, had been elected President four times. It wasn’t until 1955, eleven years after his death, that polio vaccination was widely adopted.

In 1953 there had been 35,000 reported polio cases in the U.S. By 1961 that number had been reduced to 161.

The “Salk Vaccine,” was developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. It was eventually combined with another vaccine, created in the Soviet Union by an American exile, Dr.Albert Sabin. Universal adoption took another four decades. But by the end of the Twentieth Century, polio was officially declared eliminated.

As we suffer through the COVI-19 horror, replete with “Breaking News” every nanosecond, we would do well to remember earlier time frames.

We would also do well, to imagine what our current situation would be like if Donald Trump contracted the coronavirus. Or if, having contracted it, he took a clinically untested malaria medicine for a cure. Or drank a few little drops of bleach.

In any case, we are now in our own time frame. In which a consensus seems to be developing that “herd immunity “ will have to develop before the danger passes from this affliction.

How you feel about this depends largely on where you see yourself in the herd. And whether you can survive your contact with it. Simply stated, “herd immunity” requires that this virus pass through our bodies. You may not know it is happening, or has happened. Or you may become severely symptomatic in days, or even hours as FDR did.

You may also re-contract COVID-19 after having had it, knowingly or unknowingly.

Or a faster acting vaccine may be developed more rapidly this time than in the polio era.

It also helps to know that polio is not the only antecedent for the coronavirus. There was smallpox. And measles. Not at all analogous biologically. But analogous in the sense that these dangerous, contagious diseases, and others, were only confronted, and ultimately controlled, by widespread scientific efforts. And by getting support for those efforts from coherent, well-organized, and well-led government and international organizations That we don’t have any of these now is a deeply ominous development.

That’s going to have to change.

Meanwhile smart and well-educated experts are saying, among other things, that “all must change” if we are to avoid further pandemics. We may well find that such changes will be, if not as bad as the disease, another pandemic of sorts.

One that is already upon us. It might be called “securovirus.” Meaning that “security” can be a plague in itself. One that expands and infects invisibly, until its damage surfaces, too late to do anything about it.

In mid-March, when the virus had begun to spread, seemingly uncontrollably in France, the government decided to restrict peoples’ movements to inhibit contagion.

Unless a person could attest that they were in the street to go shopping, meet a medical practitioner – even exercise within a mile of their residence – they got a kind of traffic ticket. 13.5 million people were stopped and asked for an official permit indicating they were out for an acceptable reason. The fine is $146 for a first offense. Then $500 for a second. When that wasn’t enough, police began to lock people up.

All of this, in the mind of one futurologist. Nathan Wolfe, who runs “Metabiota,” means that in the future there will be “digital immunity passports” which anyone on the street must have. Included in your digital profile – which could be scanned remotely, say by a police car driving past – would be a certification of “viruses people have been vaccinated against.” (Time magazine, 4/27-5/4 2020 “A Tale of Two Futures.”)

“Health officials” (Like who? Your county health department? Or the CIA? Or hackers?) would be able to access more than that. Your location for the past hours, days, weeks, or years – ostensibly to chart “hot spots” for viruses. What web sites you’ve visited. The ins and outs of your bank account. Who’s in on your Zoom sessions. As we’re learning that ghastly Google and Freaky Facebook have done, “data” of all kinds can be “harvested.” And then used for relatively benign merchandising/marketing purposes (“Let’s just for the hell of it figure out if Volvo or Toyota owners buy premium toilet paper.”) Or for “securovirus purposes, tagging each of us for our own “security.”

In the international, borderless world through which viruses travel, a structured response will have to play a role. For right now, it can be argued that governments are more a part of the problem than the solution. In the present instance, where, as Laurie Garrett notes in her excellent article (New Republic, May, 2020), China and the U.S. spent precious months blaming each other for what was happening:

“The Trump Administration’s response to the virus replicated…the way that the Communist Party leadership in China had badly bungled its own initial reaction. Both Trump and the Chinese President Xi Jinping instinctively sought to repress news of the true danger…so as to minimize potential political damage to their regimes…they sought to dismiss the counsel of suspect health professionals and other experts. This politicized deafness to elementary scientific precautions would diminish the critical early phase adoptions of broad-based social cooperation and early quarantines to flatten the curve of newly diagnosed coronavirus cases.

“The larger political story of the 2020 coronavirus crisis may well prove to be a powerful case study in the way that governments controlled by leaders prone to unilateral decision making and the top-down information regime they rely on to perpetrate their rule are all but guaranteed to create maximum conditions of public health breakdowns.”

Not in China, obviously, but in this country there is a vestigial sense that studying what went on, and is going on, can help make a situation better. And avoid similar bad situations in the future.

But in Washington, there are so many toes to not step on, so many hierarchies to honor, so many Big Names that must be consulted and stroked, that most efforts result in lengthy delays, legal and procedural battles, funding disputes, and all the wearying political pollution built up to impede effective investigation.

Now, for example, we have in addition to a House Oversight and Reform Committee a Congressional Oversight Commission. Each of which has unstated parameters to look into how large (and growing) amounts of money are being dedicated to supposed remediation of economic damage to commerce. (And, in much lesser amounts, to those who have lost their jobs and who, without income, can no longer afford food or shelter.)

“The Buybacks That Ate Restaurants Cash Up” reads one NY Times article, about how KFC, Wendy’s, and Papa John’s asked for money – a lot of money – to supposedly help laid off workers at closed locations. But instead used the money “buying back stock…to bolster its price.” “Bonanza Hides in a Rescue Package,” reads an adjacent headline. “The federal government is giving away $174 billion in temporary tax breaks to wealthy individuals and large companies. Only companies worth $25 million in annual receipts” can qualify for a key break.” Another “break” forgives taxes on stock market gains; it would be for “the top 1 percent” of taxpayers.

To put in context how long investigations into in this delicate field of government favoritism and corporate corruption can take, it is useful to remember the World War II era “Truman Committee.” According to the official history of the U.S. Senate: “As World War II tightened its grip on Europe, Congress prepared for eventual U.S. involvement by appropriating $10 billion in defense contracts. Stories of widespread contractor mismanagement reached an obscure Senator, Harry Truman, who decided to go take a look. During his 10,000 mile tour of military bases he discovered that contractors were being paid a fixed profit no matter how inefficient.” He came back to Washington asking that a special committee be established to look into the situation.

Congressional leaders convinced President Roosevelt to keep the committee under Democratic party control by allowing this obscure back-bencher to chair it. But Truman turned out to be something else entirely. Despite having an initial budget of only $15,000, “the committee held hundreds of hearings, travelled thousands of miles to conduct field investigations and saved millions of dollars in cost overruns.”

Senator Harry S. Truman and others at a meeting of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program (the Truman Committee), held in the Senate Caucus room in 1943. In the foreground from left to right: Senator James M. Mead, associate counsel Charles P. Clark, Senator Harry S. Truman, Senator Ralph Owen Brewster, Senator Joseph H. Ball, and Senator Gerald P. Nye.

Hundreds of executives were indicted. Tens of billions in fines were assessed. Collaboration between corporate America and Nazi Germany was exposed. And Truman became so popular that Roosevelt, seeking an unprecedented (and later unconstitutional in 1951 after the 22nd amendment was ratified) fourth term chose him as his running mate in 1944. Already ill, FDR barely was able to campaign. He died just three months after his inauguration. Truman became President.

Ask yourself: do we have a system now that will allow the formation of an extensive, effective, lengthy investigation? An Elizabeth Warren, for example, could easily follow Truman’s path. But would she be given three years and the funding, that he was, to conduct and conclude it?

So how about the states, which are re-asserting some authority in Washington’s absence? Here in California we have our governor, who has been making daily, usually informative, reports on what the state is up to. He has largely resisted a politician’s natural proclivity to dwell in bathos. (Though there is certainly more than enough material: victims and caregivers all beyond themselves, overextending, suffering, dying.) He is backed up by doctors and scientists who communicate clearly what they know – and what they don’t.

Yet he seems reluctant, or, perhaps, is conditioned by many years in politics, to assert authority. Instead of taking an FDR path of breaking precedent and tradition, Governor Newsom has defaulted. He’s assembled a “Task Force on Job Creation and Recovery.”

It has 93 members, including all four living former governors (Wilson, Davis, Schwarzenegger, Brown) and many wealthy members of the Names Gang, like Shultz, Benioff, Cook and Steyer.

How will they meet? How often? Will they have sufficient budget and staff? Who sets their agenda? Will there be subpoena power? Who will be called on to speak? Who will tell those present to turn off their phones, stop texting, and pay attention?

And will there be a Harry Truman in the room?


  1. Jonah Raskin April 29, 2020

    This is good. The Harry Trumans might be in the mayor’s office in NY and the Governor’s office in Albany.

  2. Walter May 2, 2020

    The fatcats at DNC forced Truman in so as to eliminate Wallace. Truman was nearly unknown to most people. Texas oil boys pulled a coup. repeated in the JFK affair.

    Otherwise, good job!

  3. Sally A Ried May 4, 2020

    What no plea for the rich bailing out the poor, for the Newsome and Pelosi family millionaires and all their donors, and for all the foundations run by Gates and Buffett and Packard to deplete their fortunes to keep the plebs afloat for a few more months?

    Inequality is only a political weapon when used against Trump, never against the California patricians who are contributing way too little to bail the poor out.

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