Wise to the Lies?

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S1: The following program may contain explicit language and.

S2: It’s Monday, August 10th, 20 20 from Slate’s The Gist, I’m Mike Pesca with us at over five million coronavirus confirmations and over two hundred sixty thousand deaths. There’s not much we’re doing, right. We did run for cure the PSA tests. Terrible, noncontact. Please. You know how to tell that we utterly failed on contact tracing.

S3: The fact that people are still calling it contract tracing, contract contact tracing, contract tracing is what we need to contract contact tracing along with contract tracing, the contract tracing program.

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S2: That was CNN, NPR and Bloomberg, not Bloomberg, the network. Bloomberg, the former mayor, he tried he really tried in announcing an initiative back in April with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. I mean, he’s Bloomberg, he thinks and contracts. We get it. As for the rest of us, contract tracing and contact tracing, of course, easily transposed the R after the T in tracing. It tempts the speaker into inserting it after the T in contact. So your contact becomes a contract that wouldn’t be upheld by any court of law. Gaffes occur. Mistakes are made. But the reason this catches my ear is that one, I am personally a bad pronounce war of words, the exact sort of thing I would do. I probably have done a quick burn the archives, but also the less we use a phrase and the less common a phrase is, the more we are prone to get it wrong. Even hard to pronounce words aren’t actually hard to pronounce if you’re familiar with them. Visitors to New Orleans are flummoxed by Tchoupitoulas. Inhabitance rolls off the tongue like Antananarivo to the Malagasy. By the way, that is the Demming him for the residents of Madagascar. The Malagasy take a survey of the people in your life as to how they pronounce the first name of the junior senator from California. I mean, Senator Harris, it’s of course, Comilla, but you’ll hear people say Kamela or Carmilla, maybe not as much as before she ran, but that was prevalent. You know, if she’s the VP pick, fewer and fewer people will say anything but Comilla. And if she’s the vice president, people will have forgotten that they ever pronounced it incorrectly. Even hard names aren’t that hard if you try if you give a little effort. I have been noticing within the bubble that the NBA announcers are making a concerted effort to identify the reigning MVP as Giannis Antetokounmpo rather than Giannis or the Greek Freak. After all Antetokounmpo is not all Greek and that freak. I’m not good at it but I try here some tape of me try and to 10 Kumpa. No that’s not it. Hold on and to to Kumbo. Yes Antetokounmpo got to pause a little to get the Kampo going. I think to honor the MVP we should not just call him by his first name and I think those who say contract tracing are bad people are ignorant people. They’re really a reflection of the fact that America isn’t trying. We’re not trying to contact Trace. You’ll know we’re getting contact tracing right when we start saying it right. Or in the case of those at the important decision making positions in government saying it at all on the show today, Donald Trump, he actually didn’t have a terrible weekend. I mean, he lied and promised things he couldn’t deliver and deliver things that weren’t his to promise. But there was some insight to his usual incompetence. I will inform you have the usual knee jerk dismissal might not apply. But first, our guest today is Ed Young, the science writer for The Atlantic, who has established himself as something of the dean of coronavirus, reporting his recent article on how the pandemic defeated America forms the spine of this interview. And we don’t stint on analyzing the failures of the president. That said, if you want the definitive piece on this, the most damning and thorough accounting of every time Trump bungled the response, I commend you to Will Saletan article in Slate today. You suspected that it was all as bad as you thought, but the sheer tonnage of botched executive response is breathtaking. And sadly, with this virus, I often mean that literally. I just wanted to mention that as sort of a political supplement to this, the largely science driven conversation.

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S1: Up next with Ed Young of the Atlantic, Mike Lee, the great British director, does so many excellent movies and they’re all about you, almost all about working class people. And there have slices of documentary. But someone once said about a Mike Leigh movie, if you miss one, don’t worry. They’re like buses. A new one will. Be coming round sometime soon. Now I think of the work of Ed Young in the same way only when he writes an article in The Atlantic, it’s like you’re hit by the bus. He was he’s been covering the pandemic adroitly, adeptly, at great length. And the impact of his articles. I mean, they’re just when you hear that an Ed Young article is out, stop and read it at young staff writer at the Atlantic Cover Science. We’re going to talk about his latest, How the Pandemic Defeated America. Thanks for coming on, Ed. Hi. Thanks for having me. So you make an analogy of rock with many different cracks in it. And a pandemic is like water. It will find its way to each of the cracks in the Rock of America. Certainly has a lot of cracks and deficiencies in terms of its health care. But how big is the biggest crack or the one that gets the most attention? The failure of leadership of a president? Because in the past, even with all the underlying conditions that America has, a president has been able to marshal resources, rally the public, or just make good decisions and steer us out of, say, something like Ebola. So if America is Iraq and cracks or things like health care that is denied so many people and things like a low percentage of the budget spent on health care is presidential leadership or poor presidential leadership, something like a huge sledgehammer right in the middle of the rock.

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S4: So, you know, to clarify, Ebola was a much easier problem, a pandemic like this, a fast spreading respiratory virus that can travel through the air between people. It was always going to be a much harder problem. But that being said, one of my sources has made this point to me that we have now than the experiment where assuming everything else about America is the same. What happens when you have incompetent leadership at the top? And, you know, we’ve seen the results and the results are catastrophic. So Donald Trump does not bear sole responsibility for what is happening right now. Far from it. But he plays a central role in it. So he cannot be absolved of responsibility, nor should his many failures be used as an excuse to ignore all the rest of the cracks in that rock, going into some more detail by repeatedly misleading the American public, by spreading misinformation and falsehoods about the virus and how America is fairing, Trump has certainly eroded the sense of purpose and added to the confusion around the pandemic by filling his administration with sycophants and with people who are not experts and then not listening to actual experts. When the time came, Trump really hampered America’s ability to understand what was going on and to prepare for it adequately. You know, by sidelining the CDC, arguably the greatest public health agency in the world, Trump has effectively neutralized one of America’s most potent defenses against a pandemic. All of this is true, but it doesn’t remove the need to talk about the brittle health care system, the long standing inequalities that flow from the country’s history of racism and colonialism, of overstuffed prisons and the understaffed nursing homes of all of these things that people in different sectors have been talking about as problems for a very long time and that are now manifesting in the pandemic, we need to deal with all of it.

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S1: Trump included one more observation about Trump, and it comes from your essay in eighteen, which was when you tackled the idea of how a Trump administration might address a pandemic. And of course, it was prescient. And what you did essentially was look at the past pandemics, that or the past outbreaks of infectious diseases that the United States has dealt with and then just mapped it on to the attitudes and sometimes the policies that Trump had expressed. There are, you know, sentences in there like incoming national security adviser Mike Flynn has evinced a penchant for conspiracy theories. So that’s that’s just an interesting observation to think about. But there was one central observation, which was that so often in the past, the reason that a United States president would act swiftly, decisively and maybe not perfectly, but at least with purpose against such a pandemic was altruism. Like you couldn’t make the case that it was necessarily in Barack Obama’s national interest to fight Ebola, but he did just because of this not even questioning sense of, well, of course, it’s the right thing to do. And I don’t know if you highlighted that in this essay, but reading the two, it seems to me that that is a fundamental aspect of the Trump administration that has been lacking.

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S4: Yeah. I agree, you know, much has been said about Trump’s narcissism, his egotism, my colleague Adam Servoz wrote, I think what is the defining essay of the Trump administration, which is called the cruelty, is the point. Trump is inarguably a cruel person who lacks empathy for others. And yes, I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that that contributes to the response, the anemic response that we are seeing. Adam also wrote a piece about how the pandemic was a problem until Trump realized who it was affecting. And I think that’s a really smart piece of analysis to the fact that the virus has disproportionately hit black and brown and poor people across the US is inextricable from the political response to it. We cannot disassociate the fact that Trump and Trump ism is about neglecting these marginalized communities from the fact that those same communities have been hardest hit by the virus and are now still are suffering the greatest fallout from federal inaction.

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S1: So let’s go to some of the specifics. Are you sketch what are the US health system essentially looks like? So the US spends 2.5 percent of its gigantic health care budget on public health, very low. If that number were four or five percent. How might things be different?

S5: I mean, ideally, you’d want it to be a little higher, but anything, you know, every little bit counts. I think public health has long struggled with this problem that it is devalued. Public health is about preventing communities from getting sick in the first place rather than just treating the symptoms of individual patients. It is the world of sanitation and vaccination. And if it has done its job admirably, it has led to all the wondrous health benefits that many of us enjoy the longer lifespan, the freedom from many infectious diseases. But because of that, we take all of that for granted. We relish in the miracle of a normal, healthy day without thinking about the work that went into that. And, you know, if we had a stronger public health system, we might have been able to spot the spread of the virus earlier. We might be able to marshal more resources to testing people who are sick, tracing their contacts to helping the people who are infected to isolate in a more humane way. All of that might have been possible, but instead the US, through its resources to the only way it knew how hospitals at this profit driven health care system that focuses on treating sick patients rather than stopping people from becoming sick in the first place. This is not the only option available to us. I spoke to a woman named Sheila Davis, who heads Partners in Health, a nonprofit that works on public health around the world. She talked regularly to colleagues who work in places like Rwanda, like Peru, countries all around the world who are frankly shocked at the way the US runs its health care. You know, this idea that it’s all focused on hospitals rather than having health being a thing that is threaded throughout communities is just such an anathema to much of the world. And if you could fuse that ethic with the magnitude of wealth that the US has and that it spends on health care, often wastefully, we might see a very different outcome when the next pandemic hits.

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S1: What about the fact that we have a just in time supply chain, which is to say we don’t stockpile masks and PPE, but we know how to get it in time except when we don’t? My question is, is that inherently the wrong way to do it? It certainly hurt here or there are benefits to the just in time supply chain. And the supply chain, when functional, is sort of a miracle of modernity. If you knew that you had this vulnerability of it just in time supply chain, but were able to test efficiently and effectively say and get ahead of the spread of a pandemic with the just in time supply chain still be something that we should rethink.

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S5: Yes, to an extent like obviously, you can’t just have massive warehouses of stuff sitting idle, like all the time. Right. It doesn’t work. That stuff will expire. It will run out like you need resources in the moment to deal with the problems you’re currently facing. So to an extent, that problem of having a long supply chain for things like masks and drugs is an inevitable consequence of this globalized world. That being said, it is clear that the system is nowhere near as resilient as people would like it to be. And I think there are two issues here. Firstly, because the US was so slow in responding to the virus, which is a factor of the Trump administration and its negligence of a. Parties, as we’ve discussed, we weren’t able to fix the supply chain problems or to like Marshall, a better supply chain response early enough. You know, I also wrote a piece about the immune system and how it reacts to covid. The immune system is is weirdly a good analogy here and a sort of metaphor for a better system because it has a ton of redundancies. If one bit of the immune system messes up and goes down, there are other branches that can take up the slack. And that’s what we don’t have with supply chains around the world. There is a certain amount of resilience. But as we’ve seen in this pandemic, if China goes down early and China is the hub for making things like masks and protective equipment, that’s really going to cascade around the world. And it turns out there’s sort of a plan B, but it doesn’t really work. There needs to be a more resilient system with more redundancies, more backups. I think that’s the way to think about it. Like supply chains, international supply chains are probably inevitable, but they’re kind of a black box. We need a better understanding of how they work and we need better backups in case they go down. One of the points I make in the piece is that a lot of the countries that did well with a pandemic through places like New Zealand and Japan and Germany and and all the rest, it’s not that they got everything right. A lot of them did not do one or some of the full playbook of things that people have talked about in pandemic control. But they did enough things right. And so by corollary, the US has failed because we did a lot of things wrong. We just made mistakes across the board.

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S1: Yes. So when you talk about the future, some of your previous work has addressed that directly. I’m thinking of two future events. One is a vaccine, some stages of which seem to be going well. But as you point out, I think in a different piece that the time lag between injecting it into someone’s arm and where we are now is still rather large. But I think about getting the vaccine to enough people. And I was looking at, well, what about the supply chain and having enough syringes? What about I had just been reading that there’s a massive amount of our is it our sailin comes from Puerto Rico and what if that gets hit by another hurricane? And then the third thing is, what about the messaging since the messaging has been so bad, the public health communication, why would we expect that to be better for a vaccine? That’s just a near-term challenge. Do you have anything to add to that?

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S5: Yeah, again, very much agree. My colleague Sara Zhiang has written an incredible piece on exactly this vaccine reality check, I think it’s called At The Atlantic. And I would encourage everyone to read that. I think this analysis is correct, that throughout this pandemic we have and I think just in general, Americans have this tendency to focus on the biomedical solution. We want the drug or the technological fix that is going to solve all our problems. But I think one thing the pandemic should make clear to everyone, I hope, is that that’s only part of the picture. There are so many sociological dimensions to the problems that we face and there must therefore be sociological solutions. So let’s say a vaccine is approved. That is just step one. How do you then distributed across the country and especially how do you distributed to adults and the elderly who are not the typical groups of people who get vaccinated and that’s mostly children? Can a country that has so inefficiently failed to provide adequate protective equipment to its health care workers and its essential workers successfully distribute the vaccine? I’m not sure. Then there’s the misinformation problem that you highlight. You know, will people distrust a vaccine, especially when the project they created, you know, has a title as ostentatious as operation warp speed? Will people reasonably wonder if a vaccine has been rushed before? Safety and efficiency have been adequately proven. And then the third thing, of course, is the inequality piece. If all the communities we talked about, black, Latino, indigenous, elderly, disabled, poor, have been so neglected thus far in the pandemic, are they going to be first in line for the vaccine? I am skeptical. Or will they just be lost again? Will they continue to be underserved? We need to think about all these things now. And I think we can also look to interventions that can reduce health inequalities without needing to wait for a vaccine. We can think about things like broadening health care, offering adequate sick pay, hazard pay. We can think about all these measures that have a strong evidence base behind them will help people take care of themselves. Help. Them prevent themselves from getting infected, help essential workers to do their jobs without risking their lives for their livelihoods. We can do all of that without waiting for the magic bullet from the world of biomedicine. And if we actually do that, we’re going to improve people’s health in general for other infectious diseases or other chronic diseases and against vaccines and against the infections of the future. A vaccine is against sars-cov-2 is only going to protect against this coronavirus, whereas other ways of improving public health and reducing inequalities are going to protect against the coronavirus and everything else, which sounds better to me.

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S1: So the coronavirus our president likes to say has so many names and then he’ll let us in on a couple of racist ones. But it is called the coronavirus. Colloquially, the disease is covid-19 scientifically. You made reference to it sars-cov-2 in peace. In March, you strung together a seven letter one no phrase that got my mind reeling. SARS covid three. What about SARS? covid three back then you were a little optimistic, but I wonder if you think that. Well, I think that Joe Biden should mention this and say not only do we have to defeat this one in my administration, I’m going to be focused on SARS covid three. But what do you think that that will mean? How will that challenge us? Will we be up to the challenge? Will it happen?

S5: Will there be another coronavirus that hits us? I don’t know. Will there be another pandemic? Absolutely. With certainty, there will be another pandemic. If for those of us who are lucky to get through this one, we will probably live through the next flu pandemic, maybe the next pandemic of a new coronavirus or something else that takes us by surprise. This is an era of emergent infections that is a consequence of this world we have built, which has been riddled by climate change, which is facing increasing agricultural use, where humans have intruded into the spaces that were once the domain of animals and the viruses that they carry. So we should absolutely expect more pandemics and we should realize that they could be worse. I know this is a a galling thing for people to hear, given how much our lives have been uprooted by this current one. But sars-cov-2 is not the worst virus we could expect. It is not as transmissible as other known ones like measles, for example. It is not as lethal as other coronaviruses of the past, like SARS, the original SARS and Meurs. So unfortunately, it could be worse and we need to prepare ourselves for that. Will Joe Biden do that? I don’t know. But the challenge is great. And if Biden wins the election, what I would say to him is that he has at least partly run on this idea of sort of reverting back to the good old days. But one argument I make in my new piece is that that’s what led us to this like normal led to this. And so we can’t just return to it. And being prepared for the next pandemic, the next inevitable pandemic is not just a case of making sure vaccine technology is ready or that diagnostic tests can be quickly rolled out or again, any of that technological stuff, although that is important, it is also a matter of fixing the broken foundations across the country, the health inequalities, the cultural state, the way we look after elderly and disabled people, all of those things. If we shore up the foundational problems, then I think we do have a chance of really kicking the next virus that threatens us. But if not, and I worry that we won’t learn the lesson from this, then we’re just going to repeat history again.

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S1: Ed Young is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers science, which he does so in a vital way. Thank you so much, Ed.

S6: Thanks so much for having me.

S2: And now the spiel, I think, or rather fear that the last few days might have been good ones for Donald Trump, it’s too soon for data to emerge that backs that theory up. I think the benefit to Trump might be in the form of a slow accrual rather than one noticeable spike. But, you know, he did say a couple of things that were mocked as ridiculous that might not seem so ridiculous to potential Trump voters. And a few events in the world conspired to his benefit. It seems to me it is also important that the role that media plays to blind non potential Trump voters. As to these developments, I’m not blaming media, but I am describing the phenomenon. So let me explain what the factors are and get into an analysis of how they’re understood and how they might be misunderstood. So on Friday at Bedminster, the members only golf club near the White House, Donald Trump made bold, sweeping announcements detailing what he was going to do for the American people. He would be paying them four hundred dollars, he said. He also vowed to end evictions and made a further pledge to allow American voters to keep more of their money if Democrats continue to hold this critical relief hostage.

S7: I will act under my authority as president to get Americans the relief they need. And what we’re talking about is deferring the payroll tax for a period of months until the end of the year. And I can extend it at a certain period. Hopefully I will be here to do the job. We’re going to do the job. We’ve been doing a job like nobody could. Nobody would, actually.

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S2: Oh, that’s clear. So what’s the president’s intent was discerned? I think we got it. He wants to give us some more money and suspend a certain kind of tax. The analysis of those moves were, I’d say, three fold. One, it was unclear that Trump actually could do it, too. It wouldn’t do as much as those supposed hostage takers in the Democratic Party. And three, the long term consequences of eliminating a payroll tax would jeopardize entitlements like Social Security. Now, all three factors are true. The analysis is accurate. What I just said is accurate and all that deserves to be said. And they were said. But this on Trump’s part is a fundamentally not stupid reaction to the present situation to a Trump voter, the kind of person who is open to and did vote for Trump in the first place. Here’s how it might seem to him or her, but probably him, the Democrats or Republicans are fighting. They can’t get together on a relief package. So the president comes in and tries to get something done. Should the money ever go through? There’s a lot of question about that. And there is also a convoluted requirement that to qualify for the federal funds, you have to qualify for 100 dollars in state funds. But putting that aside, should anyone ever get this relief money that Trump is promising, they will some of those will credit Trump and should the scheme not come to pass, as often happens with the administration’s poorly drawn proposals, some will say, oh, OK, well, Trump tried. Then there was this other portion of Friday’s announcement.

S7: Over the next two weeks, I’ll be pursuing a major executive order requiring health insurance companies to cover all pre-existing conditions for all customers. That’s a big thing. I’ve always been very strongly in favor. We have to cover pre-existing conditions. So we will be pursuing a major executive order requiring health insurance companies to cover all pre-existing conditions for all of its customers.

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S2: I was roundly noted Trump shouldn’t get credit for giving to Americans what Americans already have. Mandatory coverage of pre-existing conditions is guaranteed under the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. the ACA, aka Obamacare. Trump shouldn’t get credit, but you would see why he would want to try to take credit. And there are plenty of persuadable people within his echo chamber who will believe him. And I’m not just talking about the people who are still with him and remain loyalest 100 percent of the way until the last dog is fired. No, I’m talking about people who were in his echo chamber at one time and who are still in it, but are deaf to the echoes of anything that specifically talks about coronavirus. Because I do think even in the echo chamber to the people who have defected from Trump, that talk of coronavirus can’t be Tucker Carlson doorway, but maybe pre-existing conditions can. Trump did spend a lot of time creating an alternative universe where facts are lies and fake is news. This is a decent enough topic to try to use that alternative universe to his advantage. In decent though it may be again, you would hate everyone with an accurate sense of the facts. They’re going to reject this. They’re going to see right through it. They’re going to delight in the mockery of Trump. They’ll be perhaps perplexed that Trump is trying this gambit at all. But I understand why he is trying. His theory is that the lies to some extent. Do work that they do still work now. I don’t think they do work with coronavirus, but does that mean that the entire propaganda operation still has no effect on potentially persuadable Trump voters? Let’s not be so quick to say yeah. Last week on the Hecks On Tap podcast, former Obama political adviser David Axelrod agreed with former Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs that when it comes to coronavirus, the waft of that particular strain of bullshit is too pungent for the public to mistake.

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S3: He thinks he can talk his way through these things. He thinks he can kind of bogarde his way through and just keep pressing and pressing. And it just doesn’t really work. It just does.

S4: Well, especially I mean, I’ve said this from the beginning. Press it every week here. You cannot spin a pandemic because people are living it.

S2: Agreed. But I’ve heard variations on the sentiment which go people are getting wise to the lie, the lie that up is down and black is white and carries bleach. It’s just not working anymore. There’s some evidence that supports that assessment, but only so far as the pandemic goes. It’s quite possible on areas that are abstract or require a little bit of knowledge and sophistication that the public can still be spun. So he’s trying to spin them. And the Big Lie theory says, if you going to lie about something, lie about I will protect coverage of pre-existing conditions. So right now, Joe Biden is out in front in the polls, the polls in swing states, national polls. But he’s not exactly out front on the issues the old saw about when your opponent is self immolating, don’t get in the way. That is true. I don’t think Biden needs to be doing or saying more right now. I just wonder if he and his team actually have the ability to do more to address the nation’s attention if it’s necessary. I further wonder and worry that we have no idea if any of these seemingly desperate Trump initiatives might just connect. Their flaws are so apparent that we, the non potential Trump voter, finds it hard to even sense any appeal there. It seems to me that Donald Trump’s fortunes are entirely tied to the pandemic. That the pandemic doesn’t seem to be greatly improving is very sad from a humanitarian standpoint. It is good from an electoral standpoint if replacing Trump is your objective. But it does also seem to me that if the pandemic never happened, there would be so much fodder for Biden to work with. But it’s unclear if he would be able to do that work. I mean, he might we just have no evidence right now that things Joe Biden says about Trump would stick to Trump. What we do know is that things Trump says about himself do tend to stick.

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S8: And that’s it for Today Show, Daniel Shrader produces the gist, he knows to call those from Gibralter Gibraltarians, but also to use the word distribution’s of those from Djibouti, say it from Seychelles. Producer Margaret Kelly knows to call you Seychelle Wong and Alicia Montgomery, executive producer of Slate podcasts, knows that not only is Cure Abbas, cure Abbas and not cure a body as it might look on the page, but the definition of those from Kiribati’s E Carrabba’s. The gist. We’ve been doing the job like nobody could. Like nobody would. Well, actually one guy did, but he was stupid and poor. And thanks for listening.