Monday, March 30, 2020


USS Reagan
USS Theodore Roosevelt
April 2 update:
The commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Captain B. Crozier, has just been fired by US Navy officials for going public about coronavirus onboard his vessel.
April 5 update: 
Captain Crozier has tested positive for the virus raged across his ship.
April 9 update: 
Stars and Stripes reports that over 400 sailors on the USS Theodore Roosevelt have gotten the virus. 
April 13 update: hundreds of sailors who tested positive in hospital, the 1700 who tested negative are isolated in hotels on Guam.

 Crozier enjoys the support of his sailors

According to US Coast guard as reported by AP on April 4:"there are 114 cruise ships, carrying 93,000 crew members, either in or near U.S. ports and waters. That includes 73 cruise ships, with 52,000 crew members, moored or anchored in U.S. ports and anchorages. Another 41 cruise ships, with 41,000 crew members, are underway and close to the U.S."

Dozens of cruise ships around the world have been impacted by coronavirus outbreaks, and many of them have been implicated in spreading the disease, but what about the big naval ships that ply the seas?

Whether a ship's mission be dedicated to national defense or drinking and dancing at sea, a big ship is a contained environment with an inherent risk of onboard contagion. Once the virus strikes, there's no way to get away, no place to hide.

Some of the earliest infection clusters in the US and elsewhere can be directly traced to tourists living it up aboard ships during the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even as the news of the sick ship Diamond Princess riveted the world, cruise ships continued to promote their profitable business and passengers continued to insist on their right to "get away from it all" at sea.

Pleasure-seekers were still boarding the behemoth floating hotels with elevators and casinos even after the coronavirus had hit five continents in pandemic proportions.

At least 32 passenger cruise ships have been jinxed by the coronavirus in the last month or two. Brittany Chang at Business Insider put together a useful list of impacted cruise vessels noting itinerary changes, denial of port detours, delayed docking and reports of infection spread as of March 25, 2020.

Zaandam looking for a port to put in to

The drama of the coronavirus-stricken Zaandam cruise ship, initially denied entry to the Panama Canal, has only heightened in the last few days. It's having a hard time finding a port to dock in because it carries four dead and numerous coronavirus infected passengers.

Passage through the Panama Canal was reluctantly granted on March 30. The ship is now heading to  Florida where it hopes to dock shortly.

Meanwhile, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis wants nothing of it. About Zandaam's scheduled Florida visit he snapped:

“We view this as a big, big problem and we don’t want to see people dumped in southern Florida right now.”

It's not unreasonable for a state official to have concerns about a big cruise ship with coronavirus raging onboard dock in one's jurisdiction, but it is rich in irony coming from DeSantis, a Trump intimate known for his recalcitrant refusal to close Florida's beaches during spring break even as other states were closing schools and businesses and issuing shelter-in-place and stay-at-home mitigations to slow the spread of the virus.

Partying during a pandemic, Florida-style

Spring break involves a great deal of drinking, crowding and careless behavior, and in giving the green light to this, DeSantis jeopardized the public health of his entire constituency. What's more, spring break revelers hail from all over the East Coast, which served to spread contagion on the rebound when they all clambered home, as the telephone tracer map below shows:

Tracing travels of spring break revelers

Thus it was height of hypocrisy for DeSantis to complain only a few days later about New Yorkers "bringing" the disease to Florida when it already had a nasty outbreak of its own and was indirectly hastened the spread elsewhere.

Despite the facts, Florida has been slow to act, choosing instead to point the finger elsewhere. Even after California, Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, New York and other states had put strict social distancing measures into effect, Florida was still just fiddling around.

Zaandam cruise with sick and dead aboard stranded at sea
The fate of the unlucky Zaandam remains unknown, but now passage through the canal means it is no longer stuck in the Pacific and can hope to find an Atlantic port willing to permit docking and disembarkation, most likely in Florida.

It seems only fair that all additional costs associated with a safe and controlled disembarkation and necessary quarantining should be borne by the wealthy cruise ship owners, not the receiving port.

On the other side of the world, the MV Artania, initially denied entry to Australia (which has over 500 cruise-related coronavirus cases) will now be evacuated by air from Perth to Frankfurt via Phuket.

A twist on the cruise ship as floating petri dish meme is the fate of naval vessels around the world, including the nuclear-powered carriers.

Sudden change of course for a big carrier at sea
Aircraft carriers, like the big, hulking cruise ships, can carry as many as 5000 people on board but in decidedly less luxurious conditions. A working ship that includes nuclear power facilities, many dozens of jets, live bombs and needs to devote most of its upper deck for use as a dangerous runway, is focused on function, not the "experience" it provides for its sailors who work, sleep and eat in tight quarters.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Reagan are two carriers known to have suffered outbreaks and both will be docked for the interim. As the coronavirus spreads, military preparedness will be impacted around the world. It can be surmised that future reports on outbreaks involving naval vessels and land forces will be subject to tight information control and censorship if operational capacity comes to be questioned.

USS Theodore Roosevelt stricken in the Pacific
The US Navy, the world's most awesome armed armada, and arguably one of the most intimidating killing machines assembled in the history of man, is now at risk of being idled on account of a microscopic virus.

Outbreaks are an ever-present risk both at sea, where there is no escape from fellow shipmates and in port, where barrack-like conditions and host country contagion come into play.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt has over 200 positive cases to date and the testing continues. However, in a turn worthy of a third-rate authoritarian government, the US Navy has fired Captain B. Crozier who brought public attention to the plight of his sailors. Crozier, went public as a last resort because he was getting no help for his men. Sadly, he lost his command due to the Trump administration desire to control the narrative from afar.

The mighty carrier is now likely to remain idled in port at Guam, instead of strutting its stuff in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the Pacific.

USS Reagan at sea
The USS Reagan, based in Yokosuka, Japan, might also be said to be an ill-starred ship. It has lost a jet to a dangerous skid off the deck and once found its condensors clogged with 1900 pounds of jellyfish, impacting the vital reactor coolers. Positioned off the east coast of Japan during the tumultuous week of March 11, 2011, it suffered the indignity of sailing through part of the poisonous radioactive plume created by the meltdown of the Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

Fukushima's toxic plume
Dozens of sailors suffered symptoms of radiation poisoning even after the ship changed course and complaints linger. Now the enormous USS Reagan has again been struck, this time with a virus as stealthy and invisible as radiation, and arguably more dangerous to everyday operations.

Testing is underway for thousands of sailors on the USS Reagan, but an outbreak of the coronavirus in home port of Yokosuka complicates mitigation.

The only bright side in this saga of ships and COVID-19 comes with the news that hospital ships have just arrived in New York and Los Angeles respectively to offer medical aid to cities suffering from the outbreak.

The shocking decline of health conditions on the Diamond Princess as it was docked in Yokohama Japan where it saw its coronavirus case count jump from a mere handful to over 700 in short order suggests a ship is not a good place to deal with this particular illness.

USNS Comfort enters NY harbor
Mindful of this problem, the off-shore hospital ships are being set up to deal only with non-coronavirus related issues and strict testing is required for all on board, medical staff and patients alike.

As general practice hospitals in New York, LA and other big cities are by necessity being reconfigured as coronavirus care centers due to the enormous case load and fear of secondary infections, it certainly is reassuring to imagine coronavirus-free facilities, such as hospital ships docked offshore, to complement land facilities that are stressed out and over-taxed by the virus.

USNS Mercy heads to LA

The symbolic value of ships coming to the rescue is considerable, but how much of a practical difference they will make remains to be seen. If numbers continue to climb, and strict social distancing measures are not respected, there are not enough ships in the world to save us.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020


In this column from February 19, 2020 I argue that Japan was not ready for the Olympics because Prime Minister Abe was willing to sacrifice public health for the sake of public relations.

A little over a month later, events have conspired to Abe to pull the plug and leave open the possibility of rescheduling the "non-negotiable" Olympics.


Time running out on Tokyo Olympics

Japan needs to rethink the Olympics. The most pressing reason to postpone or cancel the 2020 Tokyo summer games, which are due to start in late July, is a raging public health crisis of unknown dimensions.

The second most important reason to put the Olympics on hold is the Japanese government response to the public health crisis to date: it has shown itself to have feet of clay.
If the Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked in Yokohama Port under quarantine, is a litmus test of Japan's ability to exercise compassion and competence in an emergency involving thousands of people from around the world, the Abe government has failed miserably.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo continues to dither while a ship docked in a Japanese port is ravaged by a dangerous virus; nearly 500 infected at latest count. Mr Abe and his political associates continue to proclaim the Olympics will not be delayed, but that is just wishful thinking.
How can a country move forward with plans to "welcome" the world to the Tokyo games when it can't even deal with a single cruise ship stranded in Tokyo Bay?

Ever since right-wing firebrand Ishihara Shintaro was mayor of Tokyo, the 2020 Olympics have been a pet project of Japan nationalists seeking to burnish a flawed legacy. They hold the vain hope the 2020 games will be as transformative as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics famously were, again heralding an era of national pride.

Perhaps the turning point of the Beijing Olympics of 2008 is a more apt comparison, given the upsurge of social control, information control and the discordant noise of nationalism.
Among other things, Mr Abe also sees the Olympics as a way of proving to the world that the Fukushima nuclear mess -- Japan's answer to Chernobyl -- is not a cause for concern.

This is ironic because the messy aftermath of the triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami and meltdown) of March 2011 has been seized upon by Mr Abe and his allies to tighten their grip on power.

Fukushima is an environmental tragedy, but the fact is, it cannot be fully contained, so the struggle has shifted to containing information.
Former prime minister Koizumi Junichiro has called Mr Abe "a liar" for sugar-coating the disaster. Mr Abe had statistics about evacuees were reclassified and altered to make things look more positive. He reassured the Olympic Committee that things at Fukushima were "under control", which is to say he had the flow of information under control, not the toxic, radioactive leaks.

In 2019, Mr Abe's cabinet shamelessly made a move to dump a million tonnes of "harmless" contaminated water into the open sea.
Mr Abe's ability to control information is bolstered by an "official secrets act" that criminalises journalists and whistleblowers for reporting leaked information, including radiation leaks. He has exonerated those most responsible for the nuclear mishap -- big players in the electric power industry -- and put the burden on the taxpayer, reminiscent of the US bailout of Wall Street bailout in 2008.

Only instead of toxic default swaps, it's a swapping of feel-good stories for news of toxic doom.

Japanese consumers are justifiably nervous about food sourced near the Daiichi Nuclear plant, but Mr Abe is willfully pushing to include food from Fukushima at the Tokyo Olympic Village to "prove" it isn't tainted.

Nor is it mere coincidence that Mr Abe's government wants the Olympic Torch Run to commence just 20 kilometres from the damaged Dai-Ichi reactor.

Fearing negative news, hundreds of Japan evacuees from Wuhan were quietly dumped at Haneda Airport without mandatory quarantine. Some took the train home. The Abe government also made a point of asking the World Health Organisation (WHO) not to include the feverish passengers on Diamond Princess in Japan's national case toll, presumably in order not to dampen "Olympic fever".

Mr Abe's icy silence regarding the stricken ship was broken with a silly string of excuses for not being able to test everyone. Hong Kong tested and cleared an entire cruise ship in less time than it took Japan to test a tenth of the passengers.

Even as the coronavirus started to spread among Japanese who had not travelled to China in mid-February, a gala Olympic torch event was held in the streets of Tokyo. Even as public health experts warned of a crisis brewing, it was business as usual for tourist festivals, including the uniquely vulnerable "10,000 naked man festival" in Okayama, which brings to mind the ill-fated "feast for 10,000" held by officials in Wuhan.

The Japanese government's failure to test all cruise passengers meant even those American passengers "lucky" enough for US evacuation on Monday travelled on planes chartered by the US government in tight spaces with infected passengers.

There are many well-equipped military bases in Japan, dozens under the flag of the Rising Sun, dozens more under the Stars and Stripes.
With so many bases nearby, why is land quarantine not an option?

To portray Mr Abe's cavalier treatment of the imperilled humans trapped aboard the Diamond Princess as racial or national prejudice is not fair; half of the passengers are Japanese.
But it is not wrong to suggest that the stigmatised human beings aboard that ship are being subject to intense prejudice, despite the fact that many of them happen to hold Japanese passports.

When it comes to stigma and exclusion, Japan can be ruthless to natives and non-natives alike. The tradition of "village outcast" (mura hachibu) in rural Japan has been updated to "shunned to the window" (madogawazoku) in modern offices.
This seems to be the fate of those left on the Diamond Princess, though not all of them have windows to sit by.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus continues to infect human beings regardless of race, creed and myths of national origin. Timely intervention makes a difference, as does common sense and common decency.

Unfortunately, we live in a time of toxic nationalism, intolerance and failed leadership. Not just Japan, but China and the US too. Similar dynamics can be seen at play in smaller countries as well, whether it be Thailand and Cambodia, or England and France.

Any leader who insists that "the show must go on" while doing nothing to help people in real distress proves a fundamental unworthiness to run the show.

Philip J Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics.
Philip J Cunningham
Media researcher
Philip J Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics. He is the author of Tiananmen Moon.

Thursday, March 19, 2020


photo of Trump's speech notes taken by journalist Jabin Botsford

Presidential briefing in Brady press room


A stealthy, highly-contagious virus has caused a precipitous drop in the US stock market and sent shudders through a stalled economy.  With factories and stores closing down, lights being dimmed from Broadway to Las Vegas and hospitals overwhelmed with critically ill patients, the American mood is confused, resentful and laced with fear. Lockdowns of hard-hit areas and shelter-in-place orders for major cities are essential to containing the outbreak but add to the growing psychological stress.

Sadly for the human record, scapegoating often arises in reaction to disaster. After the devastating Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, ethnic Korean residents of Tokyo were rumored to be a cause of trouble and were massacred in the thousands. The punishing economic conditions of Germany after World War I is frequently cited as a key factor leading to a rise in anti-Semitism so toxic and pervasive that it led to genocide.

There is hardly a nation left on earth that has not been hit with the novel coronavirus COVID-19 so international cooperation is essential. However, the tribal fears invoked in border barriers, lockdowns, shutdowns and quarantines have put the very project of globalization on the defensive. Thousands of jets have been idled, trains run empty, highways are free of cars while the world’s great tourist sites are ghost towns.

Though there is a documented benefit to be found in social distancing and reduced flow of traffic, the erection of draconian border controls, travel shutdowns and the rise of physical barriers and closed down travel links have been mirrored by doors being closed in the minds and imaginations of worried people everywhere.

Only scientists can definitively answer questions about the origin of COVID-19, but the city of Wuhan is indelibly tied to public awareness of the disease because the first wave of the epidemic erupted there. Leaving aside the thorny question of where the microscopic coronavirus came from, except to note that most scientists consider it to have been a freaky but otherwise natural zoonotic transfer of virus from animal to man, the blame game is best saved for later.

Wuhan was the first city to hit by the microscopic invader on a massive scale. With over 3000 dead and tens of thousands ill, and millions more confined to their rooms for the duration, the suffering and anguish has been palpable.

Yet the regrettable human tendency to discriminate quickly gelled and took root, and soon people around China became wary of compatriots from Wuhan. By the same weak leap of logic, when the disease spread from China to Thailand, Japan, South Korea and other neighboring countries, the world began to turn a jaundiced eye to China.

It’s not fair, and scientists and medical doctors know that better than anyone else, but politicians have their agendas and popular prejudice cannot be waved away with a magic wand. That’s why international organizations such as WHO called on experienced medical professionals to assign a name to the disease that did not reflect on race or location. 

COVID-19 and, alternately, SARS-COV-2 are not catchy terms, but usefully neutral with embedded with information useful to scientists.

By the time COVID-19 was coined, the more general term “coronavirus” was in such widespread use as to become the default term for describing the viral illness. Even if it lacks the precision of the official name, coronavirus is unobjectionable as a shared reference.

However, far from China’s shores, other names were being concocted to describe the perilous pathogen, and terms like “Wuhan flu” and “Wuhan coronavirus” (which was used by the New York Times) began to be bandied about.   

US Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas has throughout the crisis made statements designed to inflame and arouse anti-China sentiment by inserting the word "Chinese" in whatever negative context he can. Although Cotton’s hatred for China predates the outbreak and is rooted in a rigid anti-communist worldview, he has exploited the epidemic by conflating his political enemy with the hated virus.

Despite the incendiary rhetoric of a few hot heads, references to the virus designed to indict China as a co-conspirator faded in February, and the mainstream press, New York Times included, was careful to stick to the scientific term COVID-19 or the more general term, coronavirus.

But in early March a new wave of stigmatizing language entered the national dialogue by close associates of President Trump. Manipulative populism and playing to the hidden prejudice of a conservative political base came into play. It was no longer loud-mouth radio hosts and red-neck politicians talking that way and as such is not easily dismissed.

America’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, started to use the terms “Wuhan virus” and “Chinese coronavirus” in official statements in the first week of March, giving political cover to closet racists anxious to pin blame on China.

President Donald Trump’s two-month long pretense that the virus was nothing more than the common flu was finally shaken by an undeniable outbreak in the US. 

Unwilling to take blame, he found it useful to deflect criticism away from his own negligence. He started by making withering use of the term “foreign virus.” This incendiary term came short of tagging China directly, but by then the narrative of presumptive guilt had been well-established and his own supporters were implicating China with increasing frequency.

Trump’s March 11, 2020 use of the term “foreign virus” was eagerly picked up by his political base, and social media use of the term “surged into the tens of millions” according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Elsewhere, prejudice was becoming more overt. A White House aide joked about the China connection, telling CBS White House reporter Weijia Jiang that it was the “Kung Flu.”

Around the same time, reports on social media and elsewhere describe an uptick in anti-Asian abuse and violence. 

New Yorker writer Jiayang Fan reported in a tweet that she was accosted with vile, racist language when she stepped out her front door to take out the garbage. It left her feeling afraid to even walk down the street to go shopping.

Dozens, if not hundreds of such hate incidents are now circulating on social media. And it’s only getting worse. Trump, for reasons best known to him, has been a credible defender of China on certain policy points and has generally resisted the vocal deprecation used by intemperate political advisors such as Stephen Miller, Peter Navarro, and Steve Bannon.

But looking weary in the face of mounting criticism of his failure to lead a national response to the pandemic, Trump impetuously joined the chorus of China-blamers ,as seen in this March 18 tweet from his official account:

“I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning, including my very early decision to close the “borders” from China - against the wishes of almost all. Many lives were saved. The Fake News new narrative is disgraceful & false!”

When questioned about his injudicious use of “Chinese Virus” at a press conference later in the day, he doubled down in his use of the term. When Yamiche Alcindor of PBS asked him if using the term “Chinese virus” puts Asian-Americans at risk he bristled. 

“No. Not at all. I think they would probably agree with it 100%. It comes from China.”

Social media use of the term skyrocketed and Trump continues to use it. A photograph taken of Trump's speech notes on the podium reveals the word "corona" crossed out, replaced with "Chinese."

It doesn't get more intentional than that.

The die is now cast for racial tensions to follow. Reasonable people can disagree with Beijing and its policies. Not everyone has to like Chinese food or Chinese culture. But it is inexcusable to blame a disease that knows no boundaries and afflicts all humans regardless of race on an ethnic group or a faraway nation. This is intellectually dishonest and it is a cheap shot to deflect blame and arouse populist support.

It is racist, it is wrong and President Trump owes us all an apology. 

Better yet, resign.

Saturday, March 14, 2020


by Philip J Cunningham

We’re all stuck on the same cruise ship, and there’s a raging virus aboard.  There’s no point in putting out an SOS though, for we are alone in this corner of the universe. At a microscopic level, planet earth is going through a disruptive phase.

Just weeks ago, it was possible to watch the news in bemused horror as the Diamond Princess cruise ship was stricken with an outbreak that led to it drifting in circles in Tokyo Bay. It docked in Yokohama and got locked down with nowhere to go.

An invisible microscopic stowaway was lurking on board, and when it struck, it swept the ship fore and aft, from steerage to first class suites, leaping from one human host to the next.

The invasion of stealthy spherical viruses a mere 120 nanometers in diameter is hard to illustrate, but the larger-than-life ship provided a relatable hook for news coverage.
Already fatigued with the sad scene of humans hidden behind hazmat suits, news consumers were aching for something easier to relate to.

The cruise ship provided a catchy human-interest angle, building on the Hollywood template of compelling dramas contained in a closed setting, most notably the oft-told story of the Titanic.

The Diamond Princess, a mammoth Grand-class ship built in Nagasaki, had over 3700 people on board when the coronavirus struck, and slowly but inexorably the number of infected climbed day by day, eventually reaching over 700 before the ship was abandoned.

Similar dramas were soon playing out on other gargantuan cruise ships, including the Grand Princess, an Italian-built luxury liner holding 2500, which floated in limbo offshore San Francisco before docking in Oakland for medical evacuation. US President Trump, echoing Japan’s Shinzo Abe, expressed the desire that the “numbers” of sick not be added to the national total.

Another unwanted ship, the MS Westerdam, was refused docking rights at several Pacific ports, before getting an unexpectedly warm welcome in Cambodia, while in the Caribbean, the British ship MS Braemar has been bouncing between island ports, rejected and unwelcomed until Cuba agreed to take it in.

Cambodia? Cuba? Compassion comes in strange packages. Socialist countries have offered a hand where capitalist enclaves dare not tread.

The Nile cruise ship River Anuket had a virulent outbreak sickening dozens and is currently quarantined in Luxor.

The busy Yangtse River cruise business was hit early and hit hard, but it took the tragedy in stride. Wuhan is a key Yangtse port and central to many tour itineraries, but prudent cancellations avoided the specter of plague ships drifting up and down the river.

Instead, in a remarkable conversion, Chinese tour-boats known for pampering tourists nobly turned around and anchored in Wuhan to help house Wuhan’s hard-pressed medical workers.

In the case of the Diamond Princess the situation was worsened by corporate greed, political dithering and the spurious claim that it was not under Japan’s jurisdiction.  

Echoes of its plight have rippled through the four seas. At least ten mega ships have been refused port or suffered detours, left for days idling at sea only to face disembarkation delays due to virus fears.

The Diamond Princess case raises troubling moral and philosophical questions that continue to haunt the world today.

When, if ever, is it justified to deny help to a ship in distress?

What country do cruise ship passengers “belong” to?

As the novel disease with no known natural immunity spreads across the map, coloring all the countries of the world in, one after the other, we are all Diamond Princess passengers in a sense, forced to face similar dilemmas.

In keeping with capitalist values, those with more money had cabins with a view.
No views for the crew, however, who were pressed, by precedent and policy, to put their own health on the line to continue cook, feed and deliver food to over three thousand people, making things special for the guests as best they could.

Even after the number of infected leaped to triple digits, it fell to the crew, stuck in tight communal quarters, to go from room to room and deck to deck to “be of service,” maintaining the fiction central to the cruising life, that some people are more special than others, according to wealth and class lines.

When crisis strikes, who takes care of the care-givers?

If a film is ever made about the ill-fated Diamond Princess, it should open with a party scene, a baleful bacchanal full of portent, as slaphappy passengers crowd together in revelry, dancing, drinking and picking away at a sumptuous buffet. Then the happy music shifts to a more ominous theme.

The Diamond Princess tragedy is behind us, but we face many of the same dilemmas, and some considerably more gut-wrenching. 

Who is to be shunned, who is to be saved?
Who is to be of service, who is to be served?
How long can life-sustaining economic activity be put on hold? Who calls the shots? Who benefits, who loses? How long must the lockdowns last?

The planet is our cruise ship, wandering through an empty cosmos. The chance of ever finding a safe port anywhere else is so excruciatingly remote that it forces one to focus on the task at hand. There is only one path to survival and that is through cooperation, humility and restraint. We must be good stewards of the fragile natural environment of this sparkling planet, our only home in all of outer space.

Or as the Chinese saying goes: “those on the same ship must help one another.”

Saturday, March 7, 2020


Alex Azar, the man in the red hat and Robert Redfield

April 7 update:

One month ago today, President Trump visited CDC and said, falsely, “anybody who wants a test gets a test.” Wasn't true then and isn't true now. Today he kicked it to states and hospitals, saying the federal government is "not supposed to stand on street corners doing testing."-Jake Tapper, CNN

March 7, 2020 US President Donald Trump, after hemming, hawing and backing out at least once for fear of picking up germs, made a last-minute visit to CDC in Atlanta on March 6, 2020 where he used an empty lab as backdrop to a press conference flanked by CDC Director Robert Redfield and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar. A summary of the press conference, rich in his own words, follows.

Any resemblance to actual humans is intentional

Addressing the question of why the US was slow in producing a coronavirus test of its own and failing to distribute tests to frantic health officials around the country, the president made an audacious claim that was flatly false:

"But I think, importantly, anybody, right now and yesterday, that needs a test gets a test. They’re there, they have the tests, and the tests are beautiful. Anybody that needs a test gets a test.” 

As if that boastful bit of reality TV style talk was not impressive enough, he added: "They're making millions more as we speak ... and the tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect, the transcription was perfect, right? Not as perfect as that but pretty good."

To invoke the perfection of a contested document at the heart of his impeachment inquiry was to go off topic, but that's par for the course for a man who gets easily distracted. "As of right now, as of yesterday...this, by the way, is the highest level test, the highest level anywhere...we have the tests, the tests are beautiful."

Looking every bit the part of the Three Stooges, the bully in the middle got his way, even when he was not making sense. When his sidekicks weren't complimenting him, they were covering for him. Even the most insane drivel got fixed smiles and earnest gazes of approval from the hirsute Azar on the one side, and the balding Redfield on the other. 

The original and relatively sane Three Stooges

Trump, who probably felt the question and answer format did not leave sufficient time for him to boast about unrelated political accomplishments, changed topics on the turn of a dime, at one point waxing poetic about his political rallies.

"We have no problem filling them, and tens of thousands of people standing outside the arena..."

It hardly seemed like an apt time to be bragging about crowd size, given the epidemic at hand and professional calls for mitigation and crowd control, but bragging about crowd size is something Trump's done incessantly since inauguration. Still it rang tone deaf to brag about crowds at a time when so many conventions and large scale events were being cancelled or curtailed for fear of spreading contagion. 

One of the reporters off-camera in fact wondered if there might not be a risk in having so many people close together.

"It doesn't bother me at all," the president said dismissively "And it doesn't bother them at all." 

The president's response, presumably meant to put everyone at ease, surely had the opposite effect.

The question of the Grand Princess cruise ship stranded off the California coast near San Francisco for want of tests and test results was a difficult one for the president to dodge. 

But in his attempt to address it he showed the same callous disregard for individual human lives as did his Japan "friend" and counterpart Shinzo Abe when the Diamond Princess got stuck offshore Yokohama.

"I like the numbers being where they are...I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault."

The Diamond Princess, like the Grand Princess was in limbo, needing help and not getting it. Both ships was denied landing rights and experienced delayed docking and delayed testing, at least in part because the numbers would accrue to the port of entry and make the disease statistics for the receiving country look worse.

Trump and Abe are said to share an affection for hamburgers and golf, but it surely goes deeper than that. For starters, they are both willing to put people through hell if they find it expedient politically.

Addressing a question about allowing the passengers to disembark, Trump had this to say: 

"If they take them off, all of a sudden the 240 is gonna be higher number and probably the 11 is probably gonna be a higher number." 

Numbers, not people.

Grand Princess in limbo

The economic impact of COVID-19 has been hitting the US but he didn't want to talk about it. When asked about bankruptcies, Trump was dismissive.

"Oh you'll have things," he answered vaguely, and then changes the topic. "The amazing thing, did you look at the job numbers today?"

Like China's autocrat rulers who must produce economic growth to validate their tight grip on the reins of power, Trump is sensitive to any negative news on the economic front.  Later on in the CDC session, he gets totally off topic, musing about stock market hypotheticals.

"Who would have thought we'd even be having this subject?" he complained, alluding to the coronavirus problem. "We were gonna hit 30,000 on the Dow like it was clockwork, right?"

He downplayed economic impact of the decimated travel industry saying he liked people staying in the States. 

"People are staying in the United States so they are going to spend their money in the United States."  

Throughout, he betrayed a like for talking numbers, as befitting a businessman, and it showed, even when he is talking morbidity rate. 

At one point he suggested the numbers would improve if more people didn't go to the hospital, and then went on to suggest the death rate was perhaps one percent, or even one-tenth of one percent, if one assumed there were huge numbers of unreported cases that "weren't marked down." 

His grasp of the information given to him in briefings was shaky and weak, not that any of the "great" experts standing next to him dared challenge him on the topic. At least infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci had the courage to correct the president, no less than three times, in earlier presentations when Trump falsely claimed that a vaccine would be ready almost immediately.

At the time of his visit to CDC, mayors, governors, regional health officials and doctors were all bemoaning the fact that test kits were not available, or late in coming, or designated for use only in far-gone cases. 

It has been estimated that the cumulative number of verified tests for the entire United States at the time of Trump's visit to the CDC was less than 6,000. 

By then it had also been widely reported that South Korea was efficiently testing 10,000 people a day.

How could that be?

Trump was clearly uncomfortable with the notion that another nation might have done better than the US on this one, and the testing question, though not about South Korea per se, seemed to unsettle Trump with the notion that the US had in some small respect been bested by another country, a country that didn't give him the respect he felt was his due. Trump's political flirtation with North Korea's dictatorial Kim Jong Un was matched by a generally disdainful attitude toward democratic South Korea led by Moon Jae-in.

The idea of not being number one is one of those things that brings out the worst in Trump. Visibly rattled, he chose to play it fast with facts, bully the reporter, and then double down, triple down, on what a great country America is, stressing that South Korea was reliant on the US and looked to the US for help with their science. 

Without ever addressing the gist of the question, he went off on various tangents about how the US was really ahead, even though it might appear otherwise. He got short-tempered and pedantic, saying other countries did "samples," while the US did "tests." He obsessed so much on the comparison of US and South Korean testing ability that the topic, and tangents indirectly related to it, took up the lion's share of the entire press conference.

His first instinct was to parry, deflecting the thrust of the question, saying that South Korea can't be compared to US because "they have a lot of people who are infected, we don't." 

He then took the reporter to task. "As you know, they are allies, even though they've made much better trade deals in the past...We are allies--you have heard that, right?" 

But wait, there's more.

"In fact, they (South Korea) are calling us, and asking these people," he said, gesturing to Redfield and Azar, and perhaps the entire room. "Other countries are calling the same people... and honestly what you should be doing is giving them a lot of credit...they're doing a tremendous a very condensed period of time."


But wait, there's more.

"When you mention South Korea," he growled, as if still miffed at the insolence of the question, then looking at the men flanking him. "They're dealing with us all the time...these are incredible people, you shouldn't be knocking them, you should be praising them."

In effect, the entire response was a reprimand to a reporter who had the temerity to insinuate that South Korea might be ahead on on a single technical question and flipped it around, hinting that the proper role of reporter is to not to ask questions but celebrate the greatness of his team of whom nothing but praise could be spoken.

"In this country we've been very vigilant, we've done a tremendous job of keeping it down....We have the greatest people in the world and everyone is relying on us, the world is relying on us."

"240 and 11, that is where we are right now," he said with cold abstraction, talking about the sick and dead as if they were numbers to play around with on the roulette table. "I like these things, my uncle, he taught at MIT, I think for a record number of years, he was a great super-genius."

That Trump had an uncle who was an engineer was about the only thing in Trump's manic response that was not a figment of his imagination. John Trump was a researcher and professor at MIT who did work in the field of electricity generation. 

Not for the first time, Trump made a claim to being smart because he had a smart uncle, slipping back into delusional mode. "I like this stuff, I really get it. People are surprised I understand it."

The only thing he could rightly lay claim to understanding was the surprise in others faces when he tells them he is smart because his uncle was smart and that he could've gone far if he didn't run for president and when it comes to science he doesn't just "gets it" but loves it.  

As for his actual grasp of the topic at hand, he got one thing wrong after another, even when he repeating things he heard at CDC and was talking more or less coherently.

Having established himself a kindred spirit to the doctors and scientists in the lab, he heaps fulsome praise on them. "What they've done is incredible, I love that world and they should be given credit, and the whole world is relying on us."

He then turns back to the testing question, as if it's a bee still buzzing in his head, still annoyed that a lowly reporter had the gaul to mention South Korea in the same breath as the USA.

"You say South Korea? South Korea is very much reliant on the information we are giving them, and they are reliant on the vaccines we will come up with, very soon. These people deserve tremendous credit."

Unable to demonstrate the US was ahead in the moment, he posits a time in the future when South Korea will rely on vaccines made in America.

When asked to address the situation in hard-hit Washington State, Trump lost what little humor he brought into the meeting and got outright mean. He directed his ire at Washington governor Jay Inslee, who is a democrat, and an environmentalist to boot.

"I told Mike (Pence) not to be complimentary to that governor because that governor is a snake."

Wow. Mr. President?

"The governor of Washington, that's where you're having many of your problems...If we came up with a cure today and it all went away and you asked him how did Trump do he'd say Trump did a terrible job. If we came up with a cure right now and everything ended at eight o clock tomorrow morning, he would say Trump did a horrible job, okay?"

Done venting yet? Apparently not.

"No matter how nice you are, he's no good."
Azar and Redfield hold their pious poses as loyal Trump disciples, showing no distress at the gutter talk. 

When the testing question was again raised, Trump went on the offensive.  He made a point of belittling what other countries were doing, if only because it might make the woefully slow US response look more dignified in comparison.

"They're not testing, they're sampling," he snapped. "In other countries, excuse me, there's a difference, I heard what he said, they're sampling people. It's a drive by, they give samples. Can we do that? Yeah, we can do that, but it's not effective like what we've been doing."

Which raises an interesting question. What has he been doing? Besides golfing and running interference with democratic primaries with gratuitous mass rallies, there's little evidence he's been on the case.

But it doesn't stop him from bragging about it.

"We're doing the whole thing in one stop."

Presumably the other countries test only in stages, while his team takes the one-stop approach. 


Redfield comes to the rescue of the incensed president by offering some mumbo-jumbo of his own, all in service of bolstering Trump's ego, saying US is using science, it's strong, they are doing their job, people should have confidence and he even has the nerve to add, "Every confirmed case is a success, not a failure." 

This is wrong on several levels. Racking up a count of sick people is not something one would ordinarily describe as a "success," but one can almost understand why he's desperate to get a numerical count because Trump administration inaction has caused the deadly disease to spread, and testing is precisely where the US screwed up big time.

Yes, even little South Korea did better.

As the three stooges took turns chiming in, there were thousands worried passengers aboard a cruise ship at sea awaiting tests and thousands more Americans on land awaiting tests. Tests the government couldn't provide. Some states had to settle for as few as five tests a day.  New York got more than that, but not nearly enough, as governor Andrew Cuomo roundly pointed out. 

Incredibly enough, Trump who looked distracted when he wasn't the center of attention,  still had a bee buzzing around his head on the topic of comparing the US to South Korea and other countries.

"We're being proactive," he said, after a verbal stumble. "Nobody else is doing that, not by leaving samples," he crowed,  gleeful to make another dig at South Korea's supposedly fast drive-through test option. 

"We're going out and proactively looking to see where there is a problem...we don't have to do that, but we're doing it to see if we can find areas that are trouble spots. I don't even know if I agree with that, you'll find out by sitting back and waiting, but they're trying to find out before, before you'd normally find out....We're the only country that is pro-active, totally proactive and totally equipped to handle it."


Somehow it's less than reassuring to know that a self-styled proactive stable genius has the fate of so many people in his hands.