The gong-show of large numbers: Donald J. Trump, the commander in chief, was larger than life and completely in charge.
Late yesterday afternoon, he spoke for almost two hours to a room of socially distanced reporters. Early in his prepared remarks, he provided a critical update:
TRUMP (3/23/20): Let me provide you with an update on critical supplies. FEMA is distributing 8 million N95 respirator masks and 13.3 million surgical masks across the country right now, focusing on the areas with the greatest need. We have shipped 73 pallets of personal protective equipment to New York City and 36 pallets to the state of Washington.Across the nation, grateful citizens emitted sighs of relief, though always into their arms. Based upon quick mental arithmetic, the commander reported the imminent receipt of something on the order of 28 million masks—some "respirator," some "surgical."
In the past 96 hours, FEMA has also received donations of approximately 6.5 million masks. We’re having millions and millions of masks made as we speak, and other personal protective equipment which we will be distributing to medical hot spots.
We’re focused on some of the hot spots across the nation. We’re seeing an outpouring of creativity and innovative ideas widely shared between the federal health leaders, governors and mayors, the scientific community and members of the private sector really working together. Everybody’s working together.
(He was also shipping 109 pallets of personal protective equipment. He announced this fact to a grateful nation, none of whom had any idea how much equipment a "pallet" contains or how much such equipment is needed.)
Back to those 28 million masks! Under the commander's leadership, it seemed that the question of critical supplies was being wrestled to the ground. Unless you read today's New York Times, where a report in the Business section cites a larger number:
BRADSHER AND SWANSON (3/24/20): The Trump administration is signaling it isn’t too proud to buy Chinese masks, gowns, goggles and other equipment. At the same time, said Peter Navarro, a senior Trump administration trade official, it will object to any Chinese effort to turn deliveries into fodder for propaganda that would bolster China’s image at home and abroad.Say what? The commander had alleged the impending receipt of 28 million masks, of two different (unexplained) kinds. But according to the Times report, the country will need 3.5 billion masks over the course of a year!
“My job at the White House right now is to help find whatever the American people need and buy it from wherever we can, and if we need to send a plane to go get it, we’ll get that done using the full force of government and private enterprise,” Mr. Navarro said in an interview.
American officials have estimated that the country would need 3.5 billion masks to cope with a yearlong pandemic. Local health officials in the United States say nurses, doctors and other responders face hazards to their own health as infections mount.
So it goes when we succumb to the gong-show of large numbers. Should they materialize, the commander's 28 million masks would apparently be a drop in the bucket as compared to long-term needs.
That said, 28 million sounds like a very large number of masks! And in the course of a press event which lasted almost two hours, no one asked the commander, or anyone else, to speak to the (very large) difference between millions and billions of masks.
As the commander continued, he shared more good news. He spoke about the apparent large quantities of chloroquine the federal government, under his direction, was "working to help obtain:"
TRUMP (continuing directly): I’m pleased to report that clinical trials in New York will begin existing for existing drugs that may prove effective against the virus. At my direction, the federal government is working to help obtain large quantities of chlororoquine, and you can look from any standpoint tomorrow in New York, we think tomorrow pretty early. The hydroxychloroquine and the Z-Pak, I think as a combination, probably is looking very, very good and it’s going to be distributed. We have 10,000 units going, and it’ll be distributed tomorrow. It’ll be available, and it is now. They already have it. They’re going to distribute it tomorrow morning to a lot of people in New York City and New York. We’re studying it very closely, watching it very closely.They were going to distribute 10,000 units of a certain combination of drugs "to a lot of people." The commander thought the combination "probably is looking very, very good" and "may [even] prove effective."
Very few people watching him speak had any idea what this meant. Is 10,000 units a lot of units, or is it just a little? Beyond that, did the commander have any idea what he was talking about?
As the Q-and-A proceeded, the commander wasn't asked about the 28 million masks. He wasn't asked about the 10,000 units.
His presentation sounded good, and that's precisely where the information flow stopped. Are there rolling fact-checks in today's papers? We aren't sure where they are.
This is all part of the anthropology of our species at this point in time. This is part of what looks like "information flow" within our floundering culture.
At this particular point in time, information flow within our culture works under these constraints:
Donald J. Trump has an other-worldly capacity to continue "selling the car" in any and all circumstances. And at our current state of evolution, the rest of us haven't developed ways to deal with behavior of this type.
Where he went from there: As he continued, Commander Trump went anecdotal:
TRUMP (continuing directly): You probably saw a couple of articles today came out where a gentleman, they thought he was not going to make it, he said goodbye to his family, they had given him the drug just a little while before, but he thought it was over. His family thought he was going to die, and a number of hours later he woke up, felt good. Then he woke up again and he felt really good, and he’s in good shape, and he’s very happy for this particular drug that we got approved in record-setting time.The commander, in record-setting time, had brought Lazarus back from the grave. There has never been anything like it. Lazarus is very happy with the way the whole thing turned out.
There’s never been anything even close to it, and I want to thank the FDA, which has been incredible, and Dr. Hahn, Stephen Hahn, a highly respected man, but they’re doing everything possible to increase production and available supply of these drugs, not only this drug but also others that are coming.
This is an anthropological snapshot. At present, this is part of the way our (allegedly rational) species works.