Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were masters of slapstick comedy as film stars in the 1930s and 1940s. Invariably, they’d wind up in some kind of jam, like locked outside a hospital in a rainstorm, and Hardy would complain to Laurel, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.” It became a catch phrase for many of their movies. 

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy

I find their famous line going through my mind a lot these days, except the movie we’re all starring in is much more a tense drama of the raging Covid-19 pandemic than a comedy. Our movie started with a seemingly localized outbreak in China late last year of a strange new coronavirus, causing a disease named Covid-19. Unfortunately, the localized outbreak quickly spread. One piece of good news was that scientists in many places developed a cheap easy-to-produce test kit, which was quickly turned out in quantify and used to quarantine sick people and contain the virus in Asian countries like South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, and then in Germany. 

But most European countries, especially Italy and Spain, didn’t take the virus especially seriously, and it spread like wildfire.  Italian professionals warned us in the U.S., but our president made light of it, suggesting that America would somehow be different from the rest of the world. “And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it,” he said on March 10. “And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” Within a week of that statement, there were 170,000 known cases worldwide, and 6,500 deaths, according to a new CDC study on the pandemic’s rapid spread.

In the five weeks since our prophet predicted American deliverance, Covid-19 has literally exploded into a full-scale pandemic: The U.S., with less than 5% of the world’s population, has nearly one-third of the world’s, get this, 2.3 million cases. More than 30,000 Americans have died over the last five weeks, which is more than half those killed in the Vietnam war that dragged more than dozen years in the 1960s and 1970s, and there’s no end in sight. 

Test kits that might have helped the U.S. isolate carriers of the virus, like in South Korea and Taiwan, never appeared in the quantities needed, apparently because the president didn’t want to know the full scope of the pandemic’s effect on the U.S. In a desperate effort to keep the virus from infecting millions, American governors enacted stay-at-home orders and recommendations. As restaurants and bars shut down and the travel and entertainment industries ground to a halt, America’s economy went into free fall, leading to more than 20 million unemployed, in a quick reenactment of the Great Depression of the 1930s. 

And that’s the pivotal point the movie is at right now.  What do we do? Lock everyone down and you kill the economy. Open things up, and you likely fan the pandemic and kill many thousands more. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.” 

In an old-fashioned Hollywood movie, a knight in shining armor would ride in with a magical cure, or vaccine protection. Failing that, the president would get over his aversion to bad numbers, show leadership by accepting some responsibility, and call on the nation to support him in this critical moment as we undertake a herculean effort to implement universal testing, and get this thing under control quickly so we can more safely unlock the economy. 

He would assume at least some blame for the “nice mess” we’re in, and ask for the people’s help to get the testing mess fixed, per Peggy Noonan, former speech writer for the original Hollywood prez, Ronald Reagan, writing in The Wall Street Journal

“Our federal government has to stop making empty and misleading claims about testing. Leave to history how much the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration were allowed to screw up. Since then, White House announcements on testing have been all showbiz. Tests are always coming in 10 days, they’re in the pipeline and being shipped next week, we’re scaling up. Wednesday Mike Pence crowed at the daily White House briefing: ‘We have conducted and completed 3,324,000 tests across the nation.’ That’s barely 1% of the population three months into a crisis. That’s not an achievement, it’s a scandal. President Trump said, ‘We have the best tests in the world.’ If so, poor world. 

“There’s a complete disconnect between the numbers with which Washington mesmerizes itself and facts on the ground…Testing is a national responsibility because a pandemic is a national problem. From the beginning it needed to be priority No. 1. It was never priority No. 1. If it had been, we’d have tests. The federal government’s lack of integrity has been destructive. No opening of America will be sustained until it’s got right.”

But this isn’t old-fashioned Hollywood. This is new-fangled social media hysteriaville, and the battle cry coming from the Internet is: enough of this stay-at-home nonsense and government overreach, let’s risk our lives to get the economy going,  “herd immunity” or bust. Egging everyone on is the prez, who declared earlier in the week that he possessed dictatorial power to make it all happen: “When somebody’s president of the United States, the authority is total.” 

By this weekend, he was tweeting in states with Democratic governors, calls for armed revolt (otherwise known as sedition when it comes from an elected official): “Liberate Minnesota!”, “Liberate Michigan!”, “Liberate Virginia and save your great Second Amendment. It is under siege!” 

So now that everyone’s on the edge of their seat, we have no idea how this movie ends. An economic depression reminiscent of the 1930s? Mass illness a la plague days of the Middle Ages? Either way, it wouldn’t be a surprise ending if the president were to use that fake authority he says he has to declare martial law in October or early November, and cancel the presidential election. Then we really could complain about “the nice mess you’ve gotten me into.” Except complaining will probably get you arrested and tortured, or shot on sight.