30 April 2020
30 April 2020

Photograph: Paula Wolfson

Every night at 7pm, I hear the noise — a welcome cacophony of horns.

My home is on the Washington, D.C. waterfront, meaning I am blessed with exquisite sunsets on the Potomac River, and a nearby marina full of houseboats for neighbors. And in this time of anxiety and fear, we have adopted an evening ritual to help us remember, connect, and find a strange sort of peace.

It starts with a foghorn at a nearby pier, and then the boats join in — blasting their horns one by one.

We do it to thank those who are serving the community during the coronavirus pandemic — the doctors and nurses, ambulance drivers and grocery store workers. We do it to join in one expression of gratitude, hope for the future, and grief for the lives lost.

Other communities have developed their own rituals during the pandemic. People cheer hospital workers from their New York balconies as the day team trades places with the night shift. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — where I was born and raised — downtown office buildings fill their windows with colored lights at night to honor those on the front lines of the battle against the virus, including one display in the shape of a heart.

We are each touched in our own way as we sit and wait for the threat to ease and the “all-clear” to sound.

That may take some time.

America was caught woefully unprepared for this pandemic, despite warnings over the years that something like this was bound to happen some day. The fact we have a president whose governing style is to sow chaos has only made things worse.

We are now learning that months ago — when Trump was assuring us that all would be well —  the CIA was trying to raise the alarm. According to The Washington Post, reports on the spread of the coronavirus appeared in the president’s daily intelligence briefing back in January and February. President Trump either didn’t read the briefing papers or, worse, he didn’t care.

Since then, the disease has claimed more American lives than the entire Vietnam War.

And there is no joy for those who predicted that our interconnected world would one day face a new plague.

Just listen to the words of Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates. In a speech back in 2015, Gates said the world must prepare to take on a potential pandemic:

“If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes.”

Gates knew this was coming. And now amidst all the talk of timelines for “reopening” America, he offers a much needed reality check.

In his GatesNotes blog, he provides an answer to all those who wonder “have we overreacted?” Gates acknowledges that the economic cost that has been paid to reduce the infection rate is unprecedented.   But he says, in essence, we had no choice.

He says wealthier countries are starting to think about how to ease restrictions… but he warns that change must be gradual:

“Some employers will take a number of months before they require workers to come back. Some people will want the restrictions lifted more rapidly and may choose to break the rules, which will put everyone at risk. Leaders should encourage compliance.”

Gates — whose foundation is pouring untold millions into the search for treatments and vaccines —- says as the infection rate begins to drop and more testing becomes available, we will shift from tough restrictions to a “semi-normal state.”

He paints a portrait of restaurants that only seat people at every other table and airplanes where every center seat is empty… schools that are open and stadiums still closed… people spending more of their money but not as much as before.

Gates writes that “ultimately, leaders at the national, state and local levels will need to make trade-offs based on the risks and benefits of opening various parts of the economy.”

Most of our governors appear up to the task — with the exception of a few who ordered their states to begin reopening for business while infection levels were continuing to rise.

But what about the leadership from the White House?

The president’s daily “Trump Show”— also known as the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing —  is a reminder that what we have is a chief executive more concerned with his own re-election than a disease that has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.

The Washington Post analyzed three weeks worth of these briefings and found that the president spent little time talking about those who had lost their lives, instead focusing on attacking his enemies and praising his own actions.

The New York Times did a similar analysis — taking a close look at every word President Trump spoke about the virus between March 9th and mid-April. Again, self-congratulation was the most common theme.

Now, it must be said here that every now and again, Trump does divert from his “no one has ever been as great as I am” theme to offer a bit of medical advice.

A few weeks ago, he promoted a malaria drug for treating COVID-19 that was not fully cleared for use at the time and has since been found to have serious side effects.

But that was nothing compared to his remark late last week, that perhaps doctors should look into ways to inject disinfectant into patients in an effort to kill the virus.


The pushback was strong and swift, and there were even fears that some of the president’s followers might try ingesting commercially available disinfectants in an attempt to keep the virus away.

Trump later said he wasn’t responsible if anyone took the stuff, cancelled the briefings in a huff for a few days, and then went on a twitter rant defending his words and his deeds.

This, as people were dying.

Compare all that with the leadership shown by people like Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio (a Republican) or Gavin Newsome of California (a Democrat) who made hard choices, based on the available science and technology, and stayed with them.

Look too at the leadership of those in the private sector like chef Jose Andres, whose World Central Kitchen is providing millions of meals for hospital workers and Americans who — through no fault of their own — suddenly find themselves slipping into poverty.

And listen to the words of Bill Gates about the new normal we can expect.

In his recent blog post on “re-opening” America, Gates reflects on the impact World War Two had on his parent’s generation. The COVID-19 pandemic, he says, will define this era, and no one who lives through it, will ever forget it.

And to that, let the boat horns sound a collective “Amen!”



Paula Wolfson

Paula Wolfson is a veteran Washington correspondent who has covered three presidents and six presidential campaigns. She was the White House bureau chief for the Voice of America before switching to commercial radio, where she reported on science and health care policy, Recently she returned to her first love and is writing once again on American politics and foreign policy for halimiz.com

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