I’ve waited almost a month this time between updates, the reasons being (aside from having other responsibilities) that I saw no basic change in the situation, no real news that I felt a need to help explain, and my own general discouragement with the situation. Also, I always want to be able to offer hope, something we all badly need more of.
There is certainly news now. Hope is also the name of the former teenage model who rose to become the communications director of Fox News and then one of the closest aides to the President of the United States. Yesterday it was announced that she had tested positive for COVID-19, and that she had symptoms. Since she had been in constant close contact with President Trump, he and his wife, the First Lady, also a former model, were carefully tested and as of early this morning, both have the virus.
I mention the modeling because Mr. Trump has always tried to associate with beautiful women, and beauty carries with it a certain aura of superiority and invulnerability, but the virus doesn’t see it that way. Hope Hicks has symptomatic COVID-19, and Melania Trump is carrying, probably has infected others with, and may soon have symptoms also caused by SARS-CoV-2. They have joined the ranks of some seven million other Americans who could not avoid this infection.
The President also has thought himself invulnerable and has consistently acted as if he believed it. He has minimized the virus and failed to take or encourage needed precautions. Now the virus has proved him wrong. He has not only failed to protect the 208,000 Americans who have died from the virus and the millions more who have suffered in surviving it—some of whom will suffer for many years to come—but he has failed to protect his 31-year-old trusted and trusting aide, his wife, or himself.
There is a German word you may know, Schadenfreude, which English speakers appropriate for a certain emotion that English has no singular word for. It means literally something like damage-joy,* or taking pleasure in someone else’s suffering. It’s a natural human reaction, and if we are honest with ourselves, when we see others suffering we often have the fleeting thought, It’s not me.
Taking joy out of the suffering of people at the apex of American power is as wrong as it would be to celebrate the illness of anyone else, and as an MD I would be violating my oath if I felt that way. So I do all I can to suppress these unethical sentiments, and suppression starts with knowing myself, knowing that such feelings may be there.
But I have to say objectively that there is hope, the other kind of hope, in the fact that these people are now infected, and that others at the top are being tested, quarantined, and may become infected and even ill. There is poetic justice, surely—not the same as Schadenfreude—in the very powerful people who have failed to provide and even discouraged TETRIS (Testing, Contact Tracing, and Isolation) being put through this basic process themselves and, unless they are utterly stupid, being grateful for it.
But where is the hope here? It lies, quite simply and I think strongly, in the fact that the scores of millions of people who have believed the lies these people told them—the virus is no big deal, it only affects a few people, it will disappear like a miracle, we already have a cure in hydroxychloroquine, you can inject disinfectant, masking shows weakness, a vaccine is a few weeks away, we have turned the corner—these many millions of believers will now watch the leader who has lied to them, and those closest to him, directly face the consequences of his own mendacity, ineptitude, and forceful opposition to science.
I hope—I hope—that many lives will now saved by the example, this time unwilling, set by the most prominent man alive, the same man who has up to now set the wrong example and thereby caused scores of thousands of needless deaths. At a minimum, I hope that he will not go to Wisconsin, the state with the worst reversal of fortune and the fastest rise in cases, and speak to crowded rallies of mainly unmasked people, as he had planned to do this weekend. Those cancellations alone will save lives.
I hope that, going forward, many of those who worship President Trump as a savior, almost a god, will now see that their idol has clay feet, that the virus is not overblown, and that they should start to listen to someone other than him if they want to protect their families and themselves, as he failed to do. This is not taking pleasure in the fact that he and those closest to him are infected. It is simply expressing the hope that lives will be saved by this new example—or more exactly, counterexample.
As the graph shows, we are turning a corner. We have probably entered the second wave, without ever as a country really leaving the first behind. With five percent of the world’s population we have a fifth of the world’s cases and a fifth of the world’s deaths, largely because Mr. Trump has been a never-ending superspreader of misinformation about the pandemic of COVID-19. Maybe now he will, against his will, become a source of truth.
Recall that the second wave of the pandemic of 1918-19 was much larger and more devastating than the first. That may or may not happen this time. To a large extent, it’s up to us. I hope that by this time next year we really will have turned the kind of corner that puts this behind us, but what happens between now and then depends on what we have learned and what we do.
Don’t be among the college students who have already played a large role in starting the second wave. Don’t go to parties or mix in crowds. Keep your distance even in small groups, even in pairs, unless you have quarantined together. Wear a mask wherever you may encounter other people. Wash your hands for a count of twenty frequently. Get a flu shot or risk getting and spreading both infections at once.
We will get through this, and as I have said before, if you do the right thing you will live to brag to your children and grandchildren about how you survived and how you protected others. Your stories will help them get ready for anything, because they will learn how you were ready for this.
*I had mistakenly translated schadenfreude as “shadow-joy.” I mistook schaden (damage) for schatten (shadows). Thanks to Shebardigan and Misha Pless for correcting me.
PS: Please don’t rely just on me. The best resource on what is happening specifically in the state of Georgia is Dr. Amber Schmidtke’s Daily Digest. More generally, I recommend the following: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation COVID-19 Update, aka The Optimist; for the science of viruses, especially the new coronavirus, This Week in Virology (TWiV) podcast; Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s podcast, Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction; COVID-19 UpToDate for medical professionals; and for the current numbers: Johns Hopkins University (JHU); Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME); Our World in Data (OWiD); The New York TimesCoronavirus Resource Center (NYT). For uncannily accurate warnings, follow @Laurie_Garrett on Twitter. With thanks to Prof. Craig Hadley, I also strongly recommend this COVID-19 Forecast Hub, which aggregates the data from dozens of mathematical models, and this integrative model based on machine learning, which has outperformed most others in its projections.