LOUSVILLE, Ky. — Until the Covid-19 pandemic, Gill Holland spent six years and $35 million constructing new residences and renovating 19thand 20thcentury wood and brick warehouses in Portland, an historic Ohio riverfront neighborhood that is Louisville’s oldest and one of its most impoverished.
Mr. Holland’s Portland Investment Initiative has purchased over 60 properties and filled them with businesses and residents new to the racially diverse neighborhood, where roughly 10,000 people live.
The project has renovated 241,000 square feet of empty brick warehouses, most built in the 19thcentury, for commercial space. Big tenants include the University of Louisville’s Archaeology Laboratory and Master of Fine Arts program, and a Mercedes Benz auto technician training center. Over a dozen smaller businesses have settled into renovated warehouses, including the headquarters for Heine Brothers Coffee, a locally-owned chain. Farm to Fork, a popular café and catering business, operates in a renovated firehouse built in 1903.
Mr. Holland also purchased and renovated 55,000 square feet of residential space, much of it in single-story shotgun-style and two-story Victorian homes along Portland Avenue, the spine of the redevelopment. He worked with The Housing Partnership, a respected non-profit local housing developer, to build the $3 million Montgomery Apartments. The neighborhood’s first new multi-family residential building in a generation, it already has a waiting list for the 24 units of affordable housing.
In sum, Mr. Holland’s project, the largest real estate investment in Portland in at least a century, is adding new color and awakening civic energy that has been dormant for decades.
The International Society for Infectious Diseases, founded in 1986 and based in Brookline, Mass., is a global network of 90,000 scientists and health specialists from around the world. The Society facilitates the exchange of knowledge about dangerous diseases in people, animals, and plants. One of the celebrated projects undertaken by the society is its ProMed listserv that posts alerts of disease anomalies everywhere on the planet.
On December 30, 2019 ProMed posted an “urgent notice on the treatment of pneumonia of unknown cause” issued by the Medical Administration of the Wuhan Municipal Health Committee. The ProMed alert included details from a report by Wuhan’s City Health Commission that the “South China Seafood Market in our city has seen patients with pneumonia of unknown cause one after another.”
The Wuhan notice and the ProMed alert were the first details about the novel coronavirus made public in China and worldwide. Helen Branswell, an accomplished health journalist on the staff of STAT, a Boston-based news group that specializes in reporting on medicine, spotted the notice. “Hopefully this is nothing out of the ordinary, she tweeted on December 31. “But a @ProMED_mail posting about “unexplained pneumonias” in China is giving me #SARS flashbacks.”
Five days later, on January 4, 2020, Branswell posted the first article in the American media about the Wuhan outbreak, noting that Chinese officials were not being candid about what they know, and questioning the Chinese official assessment that the disease could not be transmitted human to human. ““I don’t find the comments [about human transmission] that I see spread throughout the internet as credible — unless they know what it is,” Ralph Baric, a coronavirus expert at the University of North Carolina, told her.
So began American mainstream media’s reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic, the most important story of our lifetime. Since the first of the year, coverage of the pandemic has displayed mainstream media’s capacity to translate complexity, accurately describe the novel virus’s behavior and spread, and report on health and medical conditions in the U.S. and around the world. Just as significantly, mainstream media penetrated the fog of denial, ideology, misinformation, and obfuscation laid down by the White House and its allies in Congress, Fox News, and other Trump-supporting media.
In sum, mainstream media is playing an essential role in informing Americans about the spread and risk of the novel coronavirus. It is carefully tracking conditions in China, Italy, and Spain and relying on epidemiologists to decipher essential clues about the virus’s behavior. Mainstream media reports resulted in the early and courageous decisions by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to alert the nation of the danger when he shut down the league on March 11, and for the NCAA to cancel March Madness the next day. Mainstream media broke through the president’s effort to politicize the pandemic and pushed him to begin reckoning on March 13 with the consequences, however ineptly, in a disastrous Oval Office address.
In sum, Americans should extoll the mainstream media’s work on the pandemic, the finest run of timely, accurate, necessary reporting on a crisis in memory, if not ever.
Now let me write this paragraph of full disclosure and evident caution. Obviously I’m a bit swayed. My career in journalism has been tied to and financially supported to a large extent by mainstream media companies. I’ve reported for the New York Times since 1982; over 1,000 bylines. I reported under contract in 2017 and 2018 for the Los Angeles Times. I’ve reported and helped produce programs for CBS 60 minutes and Frontline, for crying out loud, and appeared numerous times on CNN and NPR.
Seen from the screen of an electron microscope, coronaviruses are a single strand of RNA surrounded by a fatty outer envelope and contained in a crown of spiky hazard. Like Velcro, they are perfectly designed to latch onto host cells and inject genetic instructions that so confuse the cells that they produce more virus to infect more cells to produce more virus.
Typically the consequence of a corona virus attack is an illness familiar to everyone. Coronaviruses cause the common cold.
But the coronavirus is a wild, unpredictable organism. It is capable of adjusting its genetic software and shape-shifting to produce more serious diseases like pneumonia and bronchitis. And just as scientists learned in 2003 during the SARS outbreak in China, with the MERS epidemic in 2012, and again in 2019 with the Covid-19 pandemic, a different tweak of that RNA strand will transform a pathogen that normally causes a seven-day cold into a global killer.
That’s what Chinese medical authorities started to worry about when the novel coronavirus made its presence known late last year. Exactly when the virus appeared has not been precisely identified. Chinese government data made public by the South China Morning Post indicates that the first cases of Covid-19 emerged in Hubei Province, where Wuhan is the capital city, as early as November 17, 2019.
On March 27, as global cases closed in on 600,000 and deaths neared 25,000, with over 2,000 of those deaths in the U.S., President Trump signed the $2.2 trillion economic package to save jobs and businesses and impede an American economic depression.
Between those two dates, the start of the pandemic and the most expensive single statute ever passed by Congress, lies political and diplomatic terrain commanded by the world’s two most powerful nations. It is a landscape of fierce rivalries, missed opportunities, and gross mismanagement that hindered the virus’s containment in China, the United States, and around the world.
Suspicious of each other over trade and other differences, and working at cross purposes through the start of 2020, authorities in China and the United States committed the most grievous villainy in managing a deadly disease. They misled their citizens about how fast the virus could spread and how lethal it could be.
The novel coronavirus put an end to that treachery. Silent, highly contagious, and murderous, its manifestation as the Covid-19 disease erupted into a global pandemic and forced an uninvited reckoning. On Sunday evening, March 29, just 31 days after he accused Democrats of politicizing Covid-19, saying it was “their new hoax,” President Trump said this about the potential that the virus will kill an astronomical number of Americans: “So we have between 100- and 200,000 — we all, together, have done a very good job.”
The Start Every story has a beginning, which is the purpose of this account of the first weeks of the Covid-19 era. It is based on dates, data points, and quotes gathered from news organizations, scientific and medical journals, universities and government agencies.
How and why the virus marauded across America will be uncovered with greater precision in the formal federal hearings and commission investigations that are certain to come. But from the vantage of this journalist, who’s reported on ecological and industrial disasters on five continents, and studied the virus and its consequences, a number of conclusions are apparent. This report is meant to help people gain greater clarity about what happened and provide some explanation for the causes.
Here are a handful of significant findings:
— Chinese authorities, who had hidden the dangers of the SARS virus in 2002 — which killed 774 people around the world — did the same thing with the coronavirus. On January 1, as the number of cases began to multiply, China was desperate to keep information secret. Chinese police detained eight Wuhan doctors who, in the last days of December, took to social media to warn about illness from a new virus. The doctors were directed to immediately stop “sending rumors.”
— Chinese authorities did not accurately report the number of patients infected in the earliest days of the epidemic. On December 31, China alerted the World Health Organization’s China office that 59 people were hospitalized with a suspicious untreatable fever and dry cough. In fact, according to the South China Morning Post, the disease had been identified in 266 patients. Five days later, the virus had infected 425 people in Wuhan.
— From December 31 to January 17, China did not disclose any other coronavirus infections. Wuhan officials instead focused on convening a big and important Communist Party meeting scheduled to run from January 11 to January 17.
— Chinese authorities concluded incorrectly that the infection was not contagious from human to human. That assertion was put to rest on January 13 when authorities in Thailand reported that a case of Covid-19 had emerged in a traveler who had visited Wuhan. Two days later another Covid-19 case appeared in Japan.
— China rejected assistance from the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, which were anxious to provide research and epidemiological assistance, and gain access to medical records and tissue samples to understand the virus’s behavior.
— One reason that China resisted being candid about the virus and not open to American assistance may have been the trade war with the United States. As the virus spread in China, and as American virologists and epidemiologists recognized the threat, the two nations were engaged in the frantic final days of negotiation of a trade pact that was finished on January 15.
— President Trump, as has been well documented, spent January and February dismissing the threat to the U.S. One explanation is that his attention was diverted by the two articles of impeachment approved by the House on December 18, 2019, and by the Senate impeachment trial that began on January 22, 2020.
— Federal doctors and epidemiologists were keenly aware of the expanding Covid-19 threat, as were lawmakers in the U.S. Senate, but were discouraged by the White House from publicly discussing their concerns.
As all of these breaches of responsibility occurred, the novel coronavirus eluded its containment in China like an NFL running back bulldozing a high school defense. On January 23 China locked down Wuhan and reported 800 cases and two dozen deaths. Days later it formally quarantined other major Chinese cities.
Too late. The first case in the United States had been confirmed in Seattle three days prior to China’s lockdown of Wuhan. Authorities in Japan, South Korea, and Thailand announced that the virus had also ruptured their boundaries. Researchers, joined by the global media, began the obsessive Covid-19 count of infections and deaths, aided by online real-time interactive graphic displays . From the first days, both vectors have headed straight up.
Three days ago, March 23, President Trump signaled his intent to relax guidelines on self-quarantining, saying “the cure can’t be worse than the disease.” Health authorities and citizens all over the country (including me) reacted with profound dismay at such a precipitous and apparently dangerous decision.
But across a separate civic and political landscape — call it The Great Divide — the president’s decision to open the economy and tilt away from public safety is evidence of why Trump is revered. His public opinion poll numbers on performance are inching up and Gallup this week said that 60 percent of Americans they polled give him high marks for managing the crisis.
I spent several days this week trying to understand that surprising finding by studying reporting and commentary across the Trump-supporting on-line media community.
I occasionally read and view popular arch-conservative media, and have a working knowledge of its message and rancor. But following what looks to be the most consequential presidential decision of our lifetimes, I wanted to know more about what led to it. I wanted to develop deeper insight into why the president was so confident about the March 23 announcement.
Some of this may be familiar to you in the abstract. A good bit was new to me. My conclusion is that even if the virus really gets out of hand and kills thousands more Americans, Trump could win the 2020 election. His supporters are mobilized and energized to vote in droves. The lapses and insults and erratic behavior that make Trump a loathed figure on the left are precisely the personality traits that solidify his popularity on the right. Democrats are going to need to get ‘way down in the muck and fight as never before to inspire and motivate their supporters to turn out in record numbers to beat him.
One reason, according to billions of words written and hours of video broadcast by Trump-supporting media, is that in their eyes, and through their eyes to the hearts and minds of their faithful audiences, Donald Trump can do no wrong. The president’s supporters, roughly half of voting age Americans, adore him. Not only is he seen as a once-in-a-generation leader, he is superbly adept at commanding the moment just the way they think it ought to be dominated. His supporters see Trump as prepared and capable of not only making the right decisions, but also doing so with joyful acid attacks on people and institutions they loathe – Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, the New York Times and Washington Post, CNN, Democrats, liberals, and most especially Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
A second reason for Trump’s staying power is that his supporters see an attack on him as an insult to them, a hostile misguided rocket strike on their principles and values. Criticism of Trump produces measures of angry, stinging bitterness I’ve never before encountered when reporting on political figures.
“These globalist vultures hate the American worker more than anyone,” Wayne Dupree, a columnist widely distributed on Trump-supporting blogs and web sites, wrote on March 23. “That’s why these ghouls want open borders, migrants, illegal aliens, and things like NAFTA—all of the things that have put us in this vulnerable place with the coronavirus. Globalism kills, and Pelosi and Schumer are the faces of it.”
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, added this the same day: “One of the responses he shut down is another deep state attempted coup, coordinated with their international puppet partners to attack the economy in grand scale of illusion, counting on The People not to look at comparative statistics (tested negative, positive, recovered, dead, total population).”