George Pyle: The coronavirus reality check

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference against a backdrop of medical supplies at the Jacob Javits Center that will house a temporary hospital in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in New York. Cuomo sounded his most dire warning yet about the coronavirus pandemic, saying the infection rate in New York is accelerating and the state could be as close as two weeks away from a crisis. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

“I’ve seen firsthand that being president doesn’t change who you are. It reveals who you are.”

-- Michelle Obama

If the Titanic hadn’t struck that sneaky iceberg lurking in the North Atlantic, nobody would have ever known — or cared — that the massive luxury liner didn’t have enough lifeboats.

Nobody would ever have done the analysis to reveal that the shipyard owners, seeking to cut corners and make deadlines, used 3 million cheap rivets, voiding the benefits of a clever design that might have kept the thing afloat long enough for Jack and Rose to make an escape.

The pandemic of coronavirus, for all its horror and pain, is doing us the favor of pointing out many of our society’s cheap rivets.

We already knew, of course, that our president is a blithering idiot. That anything he says is more likely to be a self-inflating lie — or a reflection of his towering ignorance — than a fact.

We have seen that Democrats — in New York, California and Washington state — are the champions so far at mobilizing both government action and the bully pulpit to face the problem. Not, necessarily, because they are smarter or more virtuous, but because they came to the job believing that government is a tool for the betterment of mankind rather than a barely necessary evil that is only there to hold brown people in their place.

The star of the hour is New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, partly because he’s in the media center of the universe and partly because this is something he’s good at.

Under normal circumstances, few would be clamoring for Cuomo to run for president, as some now are, because, under normal circumstances, what we would know about him is that he’s too prickly for national politics and there’s a fair amount of scandal attached to, among other things, his creation of an ethics commission that was blocked from investigating anybody’s ethics.

I met Cuomo, then New York’s attorney general, a couple of times when I was writing for The Buffalo News. He kind of scared me. People who knew him better said he was really a good guy with a wicked sense of humor.

Now it seems to me that, while our president is absolutely worse than useless in a crisis, Cuomo is the kind of leader who spends normal times engaging in normal New York back-scratching politics, almost out of boredom, but who absolutely shines in an emergency.

This plague is also bringing into even greater relief the fact that the modern Republican Party and the right-wing media that supports it has gone from annoying to downright deadly.

Its pundits are ready to throw mama from the train if it will boost the stock market. Its governors are too slow to act. Its senators see massive emergency relief bills as opportunities to sluice billions of taxpayer dollars into the pockets of the already-wealthy as they object to anything that might benefit working folks.

The Republican idea of an emergency relief bill was a secret slush fund of $500 billion to benefit big corporations, but not larger and longer unemployment benefits. Because unemployment benefits encourage people to not work. Which is the freaking point of all this social distancing and shelter-in-place stuff.

Why is this party still here? Why do we continue to buy its Big Lie, which is that our particular form of top-heavy capitalism actually rewards work? When we see more clearly than ever that, the more crucial a person is to maintaining our thin crust of survivable civilization, the less economically secure they are.

The situation makes even more clear than it already was that a for-profit health care system is an astoundingly bad idea because it doesn’t have as its reason for existence the health of the entire community.

We are seeing that individual businesses can step up in time of emergency, as they have in wartime, to stop making whatever it was before and make stuff we really need. And be profitable without price-gouging.

And we are reminded that, in times that try our souls, the free press is both indispensable and its own worst enemy. Just as newspapers large and small are making the point that our journalism is something that people should be expected to pay for, even online, just as our daily product becomes that much more important and in demand, we drop our paywalls and give it away for free.

All the more reason to hope that The Salt Lake Tribune’s new nonprofit model (donate here) will succeed. It is the way to make sure we have enough lifeboats.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, hasn’t worn shoes for more than a week.


Twitter, @debatstate