Ingeborg van Teeseling

Operation Warp Speed: Boldly Taking America Where It Hasn’t Been Before

Any hope of ending the COVID pandemic lies in brave souls of Operation Warp Speed, and their captain, a bad James Kirk ripoff.

 

Have you noticed that Trump and Captain Kirk are starting to look alike? It’s not just the hair and the always slightly puzzled gaze, but especially the eagerness to always go into battle for the good of humanity.

Kirk, a fighter for the United Federation of Planets, Trump the United States of America. Close, right? Kirk living in a mirror universe, Trump an alternate, fake-news reality. Kirk saving the Pelosians from extinction, Trump in competition with Nancy Pelosi. See where I’m going with this?

In March, the Great Orange Leader managed to come even closer to Enterprise when he mirrored Kirk in becoming the only cadet at the Starfleet Academy to earn a commendation for original thinking: he set up Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership to “produce and deliver 300 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine from January 2021.” It was an amazing initiative, and “You know who’s in charge of it, honestly? I am,” our Captain humbly said. He chose a logo that resembled that of the Starfleet and started spending billions of dollars to make sure that the Department of Health and Human Services and especially the Department of Defense could do what was needed.

Most Americans will be immunized by June,” its Chief Advisor, Moncef Slaoui recently said, which figures, because, with 300 million doses available for a population of 328.2 million, there are, unfortunately, going to be some people who have to be sacrificed. Like in “The Conscience of the King,” really, when Governor Kodos killed young Jim Kirk’s father. Anyway, I am losing track of my argument.

I’m not an immunologist, so I have no idea if Operation Warp Speed is going to deliver. It might. It’s got all the money it can eat, 150,000 people are testing five different vaccines, and the bar is set fairly low at 50% efficacy. It also doesn’t really have to come with a lot of doses, because a) The Americans are not sharing with the rest of the world, obviously, and b) According to a September Gallup Poll only half of the nation’s citizens would take a vaccine if it was offered.

 

 

Also, if Star Trek has taught us anything, it is to believe that “Things are only impossible until they’re not.” What fascinates me in Operation Warp Speed is the language it uses. A few days ago, “Alex M Azar II” (I love the fact that American men number themselves) trumpeted in Fox Business that “with the historic public-private partnership between government, military, and private sector, American industry is delivering again.” It was all “unprecedented” and “uniquely American,” a “made-in-America story”; “the requirements for ultimate success: unwavering leadership, ingenuity, determination … can be assembled only in America.” Science didn’t get a mention, of course. Instead, Azar focused on the role of the Department of Defense “applying the same supply chain and logistics expertise that keeps the US military the best-equipped force in the world.”

This is what happens every time members of humankind (or other citizens of the Federation of Planets) have a problem: we tackle it like a war. Even if an enemy is invisible, like a virus (or, in earlier, more innocent days, cancer) we talk in terms of battle, combat, and taking up arms. “Set phasers to stun,” Kirk would order, “resistance is futile.” In our minds, we are all-powerful, top of the food chain. So, when something goes wrong, we resort to what we know.

In Vietnam, COVID-19 posters were made. They looked remarkably Communist, with a male and female health worker in uniform and masked, and, strangely, considering the social distancing norm, holding hands. “To stay at home is to love your country,” it read, with in small letters the old call to rat on less-obedient citizens: “report anyone escaping quarantine.” Daniel Borg from Caves Beach made the Australian version of a war-cry, although based in American symbolism. Rosie de Riveter and Uncle Sam were now ordering us to “wash your hands!” Not long ago, Forbes added to the atmosphere by publishing “seven successful battle strategies to beat COVID-19,” “drawing lessons from the battlefield for this military engagement.” Lesson one: “pierce the fog of war.”

 

I’m not an immunologist, so I have no idea if Operation Warp Speed is going to deliver. It might. It’s got all the money it can eat, 150,000 people are testing five different vaccines, and the bar is set fairly low at 50% efficacy.

 

Of course, it is impossible to fight a war against a virus. But the world is run by big men at the moment, and big men like big battles. They also get big disease, but that is okay, because they can then use that for big words. Like “my blood is the vaccine,” although we don’t know if that Trump tweet was faked or not. That’s what you get when you start messing with language.

At the moment, after too many months, the COVID story is starting to bore us. We want the book finished. We want, as that is called now, “narrative closure.” For that to be possible, the narrative first has to change. We have to go from “we’re all doomed” to “we can fix this, and fast.” It might be untrue, but it gives us our control back. If we do that right, our people will give us the benefit of the doubt and wait with rising up. If we do it wrong, they will tell us to F* off and start ignoring what we say. See Europe. All stories have a beginning, middle, and end.

That’s how we make sense of the world and ourselves. Our priority now is to know where in the story we are. We want hindsight and end dates: World War II 1939-1945, COVID-19 2020-2021. In the absence of real solutions, we apply what we always apply: language. And propaganda. The US Department of Defense has a special website: “This week in Operation Warp Speed.” “Are we there yet, Captain?” “Shields up!” “Live long and prosper.”

 

Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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