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The American VirusEliot Weinberger
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Vol. 42 No. 11 · 4 June 2020

The American Virus

Eliot Weinberger

5592 words

Week one:​ 3-9 May. Along with toilet paper, which remains scarce, condolence cards are sold out, though birthday cards are plentiful. Popular images include a trail of footprints in the sand and an angel with its forehead pressed into the crook of its arm.

As confirmed American coronavirus deaths pass 67,000, the president declares, in an interview with Fox News held inside the Lincoln Memorial, where events are traditionally banned: ‘They always said nobody got treated worse than Lincoln. I believe I am treated worse.’ A Twitter wit writes that, for the massive marble sculpture looming above, ‘It was the second worst thing Lincoln ever watched.’

Internal White House documents predict three thousand American deaths a day by the end of May. The president tweets: ‘Getting great reviews, finally, for how well we are handling the pandemic.’ He retweets that the Trump Turnberry golf course has been named by Golf World magazine as the best golf course in the UK and Ireland for 2020.

The Senate reconvenes, but not for further pandemic legislation or to consider the more than six hundred bills that have already been passed by the Democrat-controlled House, which the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has ignored. Instead, he is eager to approve a young ultra-right protégé of his, previously rated ‘not qualified’ by the American Bar Association, as a lifetime judge. Although the majority of the one hundred senators are elderly and at risk in such a large gathering, the Capitol’s attending physician says that he does not have enough coronavirus tests for all of them.

Republicans continue the fight against voting by mail. (The president has said that if this were universally allowed, ‘you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,’ though he himself mails in his ballot.) In Wisconsin in April, the Republican-majority Supreme Court had demanded that voters appear in person, leading to a spike in infections. In Texas, which permits voting by mail for the ill, the attorney general rules that fear of Covid-19 is an ‘emotional reaction … and does not, by itself, amount to a “sickness”’.

Signs at the many protests at state capitols against the lockdown, where crowds wave Confederate and ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flags and (legally) carry assault rifles:

fake crisis
covid-19 is a lie
my rights don’t end where your fear begins
fauci is not our president
my body my choice
jesus is my vaccine
keep texas free from tyranny
give me liberty or give me covid-19
socialism sucks
sacrifice the weak: reopen
arbeit macht frei
i want a haircut

In the ten days after the Republican governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, reopens gyms, spas, hair salons, tattoo parlours and other essential services, confirmed coronavirus cases in the state rise by 42 per cent.

Ohio representative Nino Vitale explains why he is opposed to face masks: ‘We’re created in the image and likeness of God. When we think of image, do we think of a chest or our legs or our arms? We think of their faces. I don’t want to cover people’s faces … That’s the image of God right there and I want to see it in my brothers and sisters.’

As part of the Republican strategy to inflame anti-Chinese sentiment as a rallying point for the presidential election and distraction from the pandemic, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo (who, like many Republicans, calls Covid-19 the ‘Chinese virus’), says: ‘There is a significant amount of evidence that [the virus] came from that laboratory in Wuhan. The best experts so far seem to think it was manmade. I have no reason to disbelieve that at this point.’ When it is pointed out that the director of national intelligence has said that the scientific consensus is that the virus was not artificial or genetically modified, Pompeo says: ‘That’s right. I agree with that. Yeah. I’ve seen their analysis … I have no reason to doubt that that is accurate.’

Asked by an interviewer what lessons have been learned from the coronavirus, the president replies: ‘Now, the one thing that the pandemic has taught us is that I was right.’ He explains: ‘You know, I had people say, “No, no, it’s good. You keep – you do this and that.” Now those people are really agreeing with me. And that includes medicine and other things, you know.’

The US has 4 per cent of the world’s population but more than 30 per cent of its confirmed coronavirus cases and 25 per cent of its confirmed deaths. As the death toll passes seventy thousand, it is announced that the president is planning to disband the Corona Task Force, whose doctors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx have been prominent in daily briefings. According to Vice President Mike Pence, ‘it really is all a reflection of the tremendous progress we’ve made as a country.’ He does not say that it is a reflection of the task force’s insistence that much more testing and social distancing is needed, counter to the White House emphasis on reopening the country. After a public outcry, it is decided to allow it to continue. The president says: ‘I had no idea how popular the task force is.’

The virus disproportionately kills the elderly and the infirm, and the people who care for them, the incarcerated, the poor, factory workers, African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. Business-minded Republicans, reviving Social Darwinism, appear willing to sacrifice them to resuscitate the economy. (As the lieutenant governor of Texas said, ‘There are some things more important than living.’) Libertarian Republicans don’t want the ‘nanny state’ telling us what to do. Precautionary measures such as face masks are seen as typical liberal weakness. A poll shows that far more Democrats wear masks when leaving home than Republicans.

On his first trip in many weeks, the president flies to Arizona to inspect a Honeywell plant manufacturing masks, which he tours not wearing a mask while loudspeakers on the factory floor blare ‘Live and Let Die’ by Guns N’ Roses. Asked later by a reporter why he wasn’t wearing a mask at the mask factory, he says that he was indeed wearing a mask, but not when reporters were around.

The story does not end: Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses tweets that Steve Mnuchin is an ‘asshole’ after the secretary of the Treasury tells Fox Business that it is ‘a great time for people to explore America’. Mnuchin, apparently preoccupied with checking his popularity on social media in the midst of the economic collapse, finds it necessary to tweet back: ‘What have you done for the country?’ Unfortunately, he is no more adept at Twitter than other skills, and he includes an emoji for the flag of Liberia, which is somewhat similar to the flag of the United States. Rose tweets back: ‘My bad I didn’t get we’re hoping 2 emulate Liberia’s economic model.’

The president complains again that he had inherited ‘broken tests’ – perhaps a kind of crockery – from the Obama administration, though Covid-19 did not exist at the time. As is well known, he did inherit teams and agencies, individual experts and a detailed handbook for dealing with possible pandemics, which were, respectively, disbanded, fired and ignored.

Children rarely have serious cases of the virus, unless they have underlying conditions, but – like a plot from science fiction – it is discovered that they may be completely asymptomatic and healthy, yet carry high viral loads, making them extremely infectious.

Throughout his presidency, Trump has had a favourability rating of around 40 per cent. (He is the only president never to have gone above 50 per cent.) Now, despite the tens of thousands dead and the tens of millions unemployed, his favourability rating is still around 40 per cent. It was thought that after he recommended injecting bleach as a cure for the virus, many people would change their minds, but they didn’t.

In a poll, Republicans say they believe that the death toll is lower than reported. Fox News claims that the numbers are wildly exaggerated and that many of the deaths were caused by pneumonia or flu. The president agrees. He has previously accused hospitals of inflating the number of Covid-19 deaths in order to collect more money from Medicare.

Several nurses are gathered in the Oval Office to watch the president sign a proclamation honouring National Nurses Day. The president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners says: ‘PPE has been sporadic, but it’s been manageable and we do what we have to do. We are nurses and we learn to adapt.’ To which the president snaps: ‘Sporadic for you, but not sporadic for a lot of other people.’

The procurement and distribution of personal protection and other medical equipment was the domain not of federal emergency, public health or even military officials but of a team of young volunteers from venture capital firms led by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. On the VIP list of those to be given ‘communications priority’ were Mar-a-Lago members, Fox News commentators and Republican donors. Kushner, an unsuccessful real estate developer, is also in charge of bringing peace to the Middle East, reforming the criminal justice system, overseeing the building of the Mexican border wall, diplomacy with China, the 2020 re-election campaign and the creation of an Office of American Innovation dedicated to entirely revamping the way the government works. His efforts at procurement have been disastrous, and there is a continuing nationwide shortage.

With the schools closed, 45 per cent of men say they are spending more time home-schooling than their wives. Three per cent of women say their husbands are spending more time home-schooling than they themselves are.

On the day the confirmed death toll reaches 75,000, Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign manager with an evidently shaky memory of Star Wars, tweets: ‘For nearly three years we have been building a juggernaut campaign (Death Star) … In a few days we start pressing FIRE for the first time.’ Widely ridiculed, he complains that the ‘Death Star’ name for the campaign is an invention of the media.

The president does not like testing, as more testing reveals more infections and increases the numbers: ‘By doing all this testing we make ourselves look bad.’

The new press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, clarifies: ‘Yeah, well, let’s dismiss a myth about tests right now. If we tested every single American in this country at this moment, we’d have to retest them an hour later, and then an hour later after that. Because at any moment, you could theoretically contract this virus. So the notion that everyone needs to be tested is just simply nonsensical.’

A report by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, ‘Guidance for Implementing the Opening Up America Again Framework’, is blocked by the White House for recommending that schools, churches and businesses move gradually towards reopening. Roger Severino, a Christian evangelist who is now the director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights, says: ‘Governments have a duty to instruct the public on how to stay safe during this crisis and can absolutely do so without dictating to people how they should worship God.’ The attorney general, William Barr, defending churches that are insisting on holding services despite lockdown orders, is invoking a law authorising him to sue to eliminate any ‘pattern or practice’ of unconstitutional conduct – in this case, against ‘freedom of religion’. The law, which the president had previously attempted to repeal, was passed in the Clinton years following the notorious beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers and was intended to prevent racial profiling by police officers.

In the vast bureaucracy of the Department of Health and Human Services, the person in charge of overseeing the pandemic response in its many agencies was, before this, a breeder of Australian labradoodles.

As the confirmed death toll passes 78,000, the president tells a group of Republican lawmakers that the coronavirus ‘will go away without a vaccine’. Although there may be ‘some flare-ups’ viruses ‘die too, like everything else’.

It is revealed that the largest American manufacturer of face masks had repeatedly contacted the government in January, saying that it had been flooded with orders from abroad, and offering a million masks a day to the US. He received no response.

The president says: ‘I learned a lot from Richard Nixon … I study history.’

With the high rate of infections and deaths among Native Americans, Doctors without Borders is sending teams into the Navajo Nation, where healthcare is gravely inadequate. In South Dakota, the Cheyenne River Sioux set up checkpoints to bar non-essential outsiders from their reservation. The Republican governor, Kristi Noem, like most Republican governors, has declared her state ‘open’ and threatens legal action. The tribal leader, Harold Frazier, says: ‘Ignorant statements and fiery rhetoric encourage individuals already under stress from this situation to carry out irrational actions.’

In the West Wing of the White House, where face masks are not worn and distancing is not practised, the president’s valet (who serves him his cheeseburgers and Diet Cokes), the vice president’s press secretary (known mainly as the wife of Stephen Miller, the anti-immigrant architect of immigration policy) and Ivanka Trump’s personal assistant all test positive.

The headline across the front page of the New York Times is: ‘us unemployment is worst since depression.’ That morning, the president tweets, along with the usual attacks on the FBI, Adam Schiff and the Obama-Russia conspiracy, and praise for a Trump golf course: ‘Why is it that all of the political pundits & consultants that I beat so easily & badly, people that charged their clients far more than their services were worth, have become so totally “unhinged” when it comes to your favourite President, me. These people are stone cold crazy!’ It is unclear what exactly prompted this. He also tweets his new campaign slogan, ‘Transition to Greatness’, which presumably does not refer to the transgender community.

California announces that it will send mail-in ballots to all voters for the presidential election and for an immediate special Congressional election. The president tweets: ‘They are trying to steal another election. It’s all rigged out there. These votes must not count. SCAM!’ (In fact, the Democratic candidate loses.)

Sports return to America, with an Ultimate Fighting Championship in Florida. This is a presidential favourite and the event opens with a video message from him: ‘Let’s play. You do the social distancing and whatever else you have to do. But we need sports. We want our sports back.’ He does not explain how social distancing may be practised in Ultimate Fighting.

Thirty-five per cent of households with children now do not have enough money for food. The president promotes a $500 million project to paint the border wall black.

WeekTwo: 10-16 May. The president is notable for avoiding the symbolic gestures American presidents usually make in times of crisis: expressions of sympathy, phone calls to bereaved families, visits to hospitals, ordering flags to be flown at half-mast to honour the health workers and first responders who have died. Normally, former presidents are asked to join in displays of unity. Trump has ignored them, so Clinton and Obama announce elaborate online events to honour the Class of 2020, who will not have graduation ceremonies this year; and Bush, who rarely speaks publicly, releases a slick video with music and images of health workers and ‘ordinary’ citizens in masks. He says: ‘Let us remember how small our differences are in the face of this shared threat. In the final analysis, we are not partisan combatants. We are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God. We rise or fall together and we are determined to rise.’ To which the current president tweets in reply: ‘Oh bye [sic] the way, I appreciate the message from former President Bush, but where was he during Impeachment calling for putting partisanship aside. He was nowhere to be found in speaking up against the greatest Hoax in American history!’

As the confirmed death toll reaches eighty thousand, with at least 1.3 million infected, the president unleashes scores of tweets and retweets, almost entirely about the Mueller investigation, which ended more than a year ago: ‘The biggest political crime in American history, by far!’ and ‘obamagate!’ (the one exception is a brief ‘happy mother’s day!’).

The Obama-Mueller-Comey-FBI conspiracy has recently been revived – if it ever went away – now that the attorney general has dropped his case against the former national security adviser Michael Flynn, even though Flynn has already twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. This move by the traditionally non-partisan Department of Justice leads more than two thousand former DOJ employees to sign a petition demanding Barr’s resignation. For the president and his allies, it means a complete exoneration of Flynn, and there is talk of bringing him back to the White House.

In a leaked conversation with former staff members, Obama calls the coronavirus response ‘an absolute chaotic disaster’. The primary White House economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, complains: ‘I don’t understand what President Obama is saying. It just sounds so darn political to me.’ Mitch McConnell, reinforcing the stereotype of the white Southerner telling the black man he ought to know his place, says: ‘Obama should have kept his mouth shut.’

Half of all Americans receive health insurance through their employers. If the unemployment rate continues at 20 per cent, it is estimated that as many as 43 million will lose their insurance. The administration is continuing to pursue a case before the Supreme Court that will, in the president’s words, ‘terminate healthcare’ under the government alternative, the Affordable Care Act (aka ‘Obamacare’).

In Wisconsin, at least 72 people who attended an anti-lockdown rally – where speakers declared that they were unafraid to die to reopen the economy and demonstrators held signs calling the pandemic a hoax – have tested positive.

The president tweets: ‘Coronavirus numbers are looking much better, going down almost everywhere. Big progress being made!’ This is not remotely true. He tweets: ‘Great credit being given for our Coronavirus response, except in the Fake News. They are a disgrace to America!’ He tweets ‘obamagate!’ over and over. He has sent out more than one hundred tweets and retweets in the last 24 hours.

It is obvious that the actual number of Covid-19 deaths is far greater than the confirmed death toll. In New York City, for example, the number of deaths from all causes between 11 March and 2 May was 24,172 higher than the norm for this period; 13,831 were confirmed by testing to have been caused by Covid-19, while a further 5048 were categorised as ‘probable cases’. This leaves 5293 deaths – 22 per cent of the total excess deaths – unexplained. Last month, 26 per cent of Americans knew someone who had been infected; now 40 per cent do.

The president hates the post office, which he calls ‘a joke’, and is attempting to severely cut its funding to the point where it would be privatised. The source of the president’s antipathy is apparently that Amazon, like most bulk shippers, pays a reduced rate for postage. Amazon is owned by Jeff Bezos, who – besides being a genuine multibillionaire, unlike the president – owns the Washington Post, a major purveyor of ‘fake news’. (The Post’s running tally of Trump’s lies since the inauguration is now at 18,000.) Lately, the president has tied this to the Republican campaign against mail-in ballots. After all, it is the post office that delivers the ballots.

As an increasing number of people who work in or pass through the West Wing test positive, the White House reluctantly begins to initiate health measures, including masks and the testing that is largely unavailable in the rest of the country. The president and vice president, however, still refuse to wear masks.

At a press conference, when asked by a woman journalist why the White House is still promoting reopening the country while it itself is in a form of lockdown, the president evades the question and then says: ‘I understand you very well – better than you understand yourself.’

Asked what is, according to his tweets the day before, ‘the biggest political crime in American history’, the president says: ‘Obamagate. It’s been going on for a long time.’ Asked what specific crime he means, he replies: ‘You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody.’

Standing under an array of American flags and two huge banners that read ‘America Leads the World in Testing’, the president declares that the US is testing 300,000 people a day, which is not true, ‘unmatched and unrivalled anywhere in the world and it’s not even close’. When asked by an Asian-American woman journalist why he considers this ‘a global competition’, rather than focusing on the lag in testing here and the Americans who have died (whom he almost never mentions), the president replies: ‘Maybe that’s a question you should ask China. Don’t ask me, ask China that question, OK?’ When she asks why he’s telling her, specifically, to talk to China, he abruptly walks out.

In the event that a vaccine is created, the question of how that vaccine will be delivered to hundreds of millions of people has barely been addressed. There is a global shortage of the river sand used to manufacture the medical-grade glass needed for the vials. Most syringes and latex caps are made in China or India, which may prefer to keep them for their own citizens. American manufacturers say that, if they started working overtime now, it would take 18 months to produce enough syringes. Luckily, the number needed may be less, as a third of Americans are unsure whether they would take a vaccine and 20 per cent of Republicans say they would definitely refuse.

It is discovered that small children are becoming seriously ill, and some are dying, from a new illness that is not Covid-19 but is connected to it in an unknown way. Besides severe respiratory conditions, the virus is also causing strokes in otherwise healthy, low-risk adults and permanent organ damage in some who have recovered.

Eighty-two per cent of Americans believe in God. Sixty-two per cent of them believe that the virus is a message telling humanity to change; 55 per cent believe that God will protect them.

As the death toll reaches 82,000, the president spends his morning on Twitter praising the border wall and attacking the usual Democratic politicians, television commentators, a television comedian (‘Ratings way down, show sucks!’), ‘obamagate’ and ‘fake news’. Watching the Morning Joe show, he accuses Morning Joe, who has been critical of the president, of homicide – a popular conspiracy theory in certain corners of the internet. (In 2001 a young woman on Joe’s staff died of an apparent heart attack; Joe was in another city at the time.) Made aware of the tweet while still on air, Morning Joe looks into the camera and tells the president to turn off his television and go to work.

In testimony before the Senate, where many of the Republicans pointedly do not wear masks, Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, admits that the failure even to attempt ‘containment’ in late January, February and March – as South Korea and other nations had done – led to ‘mitigation’ (shutting down the country). This, of course, is contrary to the version of events continually reiterated by the president, who claims he saved ‘millions of lives’ by banning visitors from China. What he does not mention is that the ban was instituted after the major airlines had stopped flights of their own accord; that exceptions to the ban were made for forty thousand returning Americans, who were not tested or quarantined on arrival; and that the virus was already present in the US, having come from both China and Europe.

Redfield is followed by Dr Fauci, who confirms that there are now at least 25,000 new infections and two thousand deaths in the US every day: ‘Do we have it under control? No.’ He agrees that the death toll is certainly higher than reported, and expresses doubt that schools will be able to open in the fall. If lockdowns are ended too soon, ‘there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control.’ (The previous day, the president – who has said that he models his scowling demeanour on Winston Churchill and has been given of late to wartime rhetoric – declared: ‘We have met the moment and we have prevailed.’)

Fauci’s testimony is not well received by Republicans. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson calls him an ‘unelected official’ whom the ‘Democratic establishment is clamouring to give even more power.’ Later he says: ‘This guy, Fauci, may be even more off-base than your average epidemiologist.’

Nevertheless, Fox, which urges viewers to ‘put freedom before fear’ and demands that businesses reopen, announces that it will keep its own studios closed for another month. On air more hours are now spent each day discussing Michael Flynn than the pandemic.

A right-wing columnist opines on the president’s refusal to wear a mask: ‘What Trump is really doing is projecting American strength and health at a time when strong leadership is needed … An image of Donald Trump wearing a protective face mask … would be a searing image of weakness. It would signal that the United States is so powerless against this invisible enemy sprung from China that even its president must cower behind a mask.’

The president’s favourability rating among those 75 and older drops from 56 per cent to 34 per cent in a month. Although a majority of them supported Trump in the last election, they are apparently unhappy with the Republicans’ insistence that the elderly sacrifice themselves to save the economy.

The American Association of Poison Control Centres reports that accidental poisonings from bleach and other household cleaners have nearly doubled since the president suggested injecting disinfectants as a cure for the virus.

In an interview, Jared Kushner says that ‘I’m not sure I can commit’ to holding the presidential elections in November. ‘That’s too far in the future to tell.’ He backtracks later when he is reminded of the constitution.

After the director of the CDC criticised the administration before the Senate, Dr Birx demands that the CDC exclude ‘probable deaths from Covid-19’ and retroactively limit the number of reported deaths to include only those whose diagnosis was confirmed by laboratory tests. Birx who, unlike Fauci, is increasingly echoing the president, says: ‘There is nothing from the CDC that I can trust.’

In Texas, militiamen armed with AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, tactical shotguns, camouflage vests and walkie-talkies are establishing armed perimeters to repel the police from businesses that want to reopen despite partial lockdown orders. Outside Crash-N-Burn Tattoo, the team leader says: ‘We go out there because we want peace, but we prepare for war.’ One of the Freedom Fighters of Texas, who are guarding Big Daddy Zane’s bar, says: ‘It’s not for looks. We’re willing to die.’

According to the Federal Reserve, nearly 40 per cent of Americans in households earning less than $40,000 a year were laid off in April. More than 36 million people have filed unemployment claims. The actual number of jobless is unknown, as millions more are ineligible for various reasons. These include undocumented immigrants and – with the typical cruelty of the administration’s anti-immigrant policies – American citizens married to undocumented immigrants.

As the confirmed death toll reaches 85,000, 79 per cent of Republicans say they are confident the virus will be contained in a few weeks.

The Federalist, the intellectual organ of Trumpism, warns against a nation ‘ruled by [a] dictatorship of doctors’: ‘The barbaric, panicky elevation of mere life as the only good worth conserving is becoming increasingly shameful.’ It asks: ‘Is it right for the nation to require our children’s futures be destroyed to keep alive less than 1 per cent of our population? … It seems harsh to ask whether the nation might be better off letting a few hundred thousand people die… Yet honestly facing reality is not callous.’

In Wisconsin the conservative majority on the state’s Supreme Court – which in April determined that voters must vote in person in the state primary, leading to a spike in infections – now rules that the Democratic governor’s lockdown orders, which it compares to the internment of Japanese-Americans in the Second World War, are illegal. Within hours, Wisconsin bars are packed. In Texas, two weeks after partial opening, the daily death toll and infection rate are at their highest.

In an interview on Fox, the president reiterates: ‘Look, there’s nothing good about what happened with the plague, OK? Especially the death. But the one thing is, it said: “Trump was right.”’

On only his second trip in many weeks, the president travels to Pennsylvania, a swing state, purportedly to inspect a medical equipment distribution facility. As usual, he does not wear a mask and, as usual, in a speech to the workers, he attacks the media and ‘Sleepy Joe’ Biden. He says: ‘When you test you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.’

In a rare moment of praise for health workers, the president says: ‘They are warriors, aren’t they? When you see them going into those hospitals and … they’re wrapping themselves and the doors are opening and they’re going through the doors and they’re not even ready to go through those doors. They probably shouldn’t. They’re running into death just like soldiers run into bullets, in a true sense. I see that with the doctors and the nurses and so many other people. They go into those hospitals, it’s incredible to see. It’s a beautiful thing to see.’

Spokespeople for various professional health organisations, besides not finding the deaths of their workers beautiful, point out, in the continuing national shortage of PPE, that soldiers, at least, are armed.

It is discovered that the kits used to test people working in the White House miss a third of positive cases.

The president demands that Obama be subpoenaed by the Senate ‘to testify about the biggest political crime and scandal in the history of the USA’. He still has yet to say what that crime was, though he has suggested life imprisonment for both Obama and Biden.

A reporter asks the White House press secretary what the crime was, and she replies: ‘That is after all the job of reporters – to answer [these] very questions.’ The reporter points out that it’s the job of press secretaries to answer questions.

Changing the theme from Star Wars to Star Trek, the president announces Operation Warp Speed – ‘That means big and it means fast’ – to develop a vaccine. He compares it to the Manhattan Project but says that ‘vaccine or no vaccine’ the country will reopen anyway, diminishing the prospect that we will live long and prosper.

Later in the day, an unusually grinning president displays the flag for his new branch of the armed forces, Space Force. The flag appears to have been inspired by the Star Trek insignia. He reveals that Space Force is developing a ‘super duper missile’.

In a preview of the coming election campaign, Donald Trump Jr calls Biden a ‘paedophile’ on Instagram and posts photos of him hugging children. The photos were taken at swearing-in ceremonies where Biden greeted family members. On Fox News, Eric Trump claims the pandemic is being ‘milked’ by the Democrats to prevent his dad from holding rallies and that, after Election Day, ‘coronavirus will magically all of a sudden go away and disappear.’

Forty-eight states have now reopened or partially reopened, against the advice of the health experts. The president retweets a citizen from Florida: ‘Uh oh, wouldn’t want the Commies in blue states to see us Floridians all out at bars having a good time with no face masks. Might destroy their narrative that everyone’s gonna die if we don’t live in a bubble for ever!’

Obama, in a virtual commencement address to black colleges, says: ‘More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.’ To which the president tweets in reply: ‘obamagate!’ Later the same day, in a televised inspirational speech to high school graduates, Obama invokes kindness, honesty, and respect for others, which is also widely seen as an attack on Trump.

In a Chinese study of the number of people with whom a single infected person has contact, ‘contact’ is defined not only by physical touch, such as a handshake, but by a conversation involving three or more words. In another study, it has been proven that people are most infectious the day before they show symptoms. The World Health Organisation states: ‘This virus may never go away.’

Although the actual numbers are undoubtedly much higher, the confirmed death toll is now 89,000 – 22,000 in the last two weeks – with more than 1,500,000 confirmed infections. The president says: ‘We read about that and we see that and that’s what the news covers. But a very, very small – it’s a very small percentage. It’s a very, very small percentage. I say it all the time: it’s a tiny percentage.’

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Letters

Vol. 42 No. 13 · 2 July 2020

Eliot Weinberger lists ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ as one of the slogans on signs held up at US state capitols during the anti-lockdown protests (LRB, 4 June). The image of this sign that appeared most often in the media featured a comma after ‘Frei’ followed by the initials ‘J.B.’. This refers to J.B. Pritzker, the governor of Illinois, who had refused to end the state’s lockdown. Pritzker is Jewish. A reporter asked one woman holding this sign what she thought of its antisemitic message. ‘I have several Jewish friends,’ she said. The sign next to this one featured a swastika and the phrase ‘Heil Pritzker.’

I am 85. I believe that the majority of people under fifty in the US neither understand the significance of the phrase ‘Arbeit macht frei,’ nor (in my monolingual country) what it means literally. Few in the younger generations will ever have seen photographs of the phrase spelled out in metal, silhouetted against the sky and mounted above the gates of several concentration camps including, most famously, Auschwitz.

Alan Levitan
Boston, Massachusetts

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