It could have been (much) worse

It could have been (much) worse: in 2016, I did something I’d not done prior, and hope not to need to do in the future: I put up a naked political endorsement: “Vote for Clinton or Johnson for president,” and, while that obviously didn’t work, shortly after the 2016 election I wrote “Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse,” which says: “In a best-case Trump scenario, he bumbles around for four years doing not much except embarrassing himself and the country, but few substantive political changes actually occur; in the worst-case Trump scenario, however, Trump starts or provokes a nuclear war.” While I had the specific disease vector wrong, this basic worry proved correct: “We haven’t even discussed the possibility of a flu pandemic or some other kind of pandemic. The Ebola crisis was much closer to a worldwide catastrophe than is commonly assumed now. At the start of a flu pandemic the United States may have to lead world in a decisive, intelligent way that seems unlikely to happen under Trump.”

To understate things, we didn’t lead the world, let alone do so in a decisive, intelligent way. We bungled, except for the scientific and technical establishment, and parts of the healthcare establishment. Still, from 2016 – 2020, we had three years that mostly consisted of bumbling and theater, then a fourth year of pandemic, along with attacks on the foundations of democracy. But Trump left office today; a president who has basic respect for democracy is in office; and the pandemic, while horrible, is nowhere near as bad as it could have been. In the first SARS-CoV viral outbreak in 2003, “about 9% of patients with confirmed SARS-CoV-1 infection died.” In the 2012 Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus (MERS-CoV) outbreak, the fatality rate of those infected appears to have been 34 – 37%. To my knowledge, no law of nature prevents a coronavirus from having a 40% or higher fatality rate, along with much higher transmissibility than SARS-CoV-2: the fatality rate of around 1% (assuming developed-world hospital care) is a matter of what appears to be luck. The virus’s transmission is also blocked, relatively easily, via the use of simple face masks: another lucky break. SARS-CoV-2 is highly transmissible, but it’s nothing like measles. Besides coronaviruses, the threat of a flu pandemic remains—although we may be better prepared for a future flu pandemic because of work on mRNA vaccines.

In many ways, the United States hasn’t made important progress in the last four years, but the worst-case scenarios haven’t come to pass either. Nuclear war didn’t happen. Democracy still stands, and works. The big question is whether Trump is an aberration we’ll look back on and go, “What a strange time in history,” with explainers on the unique confluence of factors that led to a con man achieving the presidency—or whether he’s the start of the trend. If you think the “explainer,” path is impossible, try learning about the start of World War I; while there have been many stupid wars throughout history, World War I might be the stupidest, and the least comprehensible to a contemporary audience.

I’ve sought to make The Story’s Story minimally political (a surfeit of political material is available online, most of it about reifying identity and little of it about learning or growing), but extraordinary threats to the basis of democracy itself deserve unusual responses. I hope for much more boring politics that lend themselves to being (mostly) ignored. There is too much written about politics and too little written about art, ecstasy, beauty, and ideas.

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