How we live now

Journaling the coronavirus: Friday May 9, the end of the beginning of the coronavirus, the beginning of the end of life as we’ve known it?

My dad turned 84 on May 1. His friends used to tease him that his birthday was Mayday, which is also the international distress signal. Dad was in the Air Force in his twenties. No coincidence, they say, your birthday signals trouble. My dad was glum on his sixtieth birthday; his father died before I was born, his brother died thirty years ago – he’s been the last male in his family for awhile. I marvel that here he is in his eighties, mom too. Do you *feel* 80, I asked mom, and her answer was cheering: Mentally, I feel about 50, she said. They’ve had knee replacements and cataract surgeries but otherwise are much as they’ve always been, if a little smaller. I used to be super scared of my dad – he was a yeller. Age has brought both of us to peace and understanding. I once thought I’d stay mad at him forever; now we say “I love you” when we hang up the phone, proving humans can not only change but flourish. They have a beautiful garden that attracts scads of hummingbirds and squirrels, and birds of all types. A fox has been spotted fancy-footing past the edge of the woods that borders their backyard. Cardinals visit all year long, even in winter they are bloody bright in the bare-limbed trees and snow, reminding us that another summer and baseball season are ahead.

It’s a small life, in a small house in the middle of a bunch of corn fields; the nearest town does not have a stoplight, or a fast food franchise. It is a quiet life, where you are expected to keep your dog from barking late at night when people are sleeping, where in the summer the frogs are so loud you sometimes have to close the windows. It’s a peaceful life, one that is full of family and gratitude and, finally, after all these years, a measure of peace and grace. They have made it through the bitter waters into the sweet. They have hoed their tough row, and raised a family that has scattered out into the world and done more good than harm. They are hard workers and never shirkers, thrifty without spoiling their enjoyment of life.

If we went to their house now, my birthday card would be magnetized to the front of the refrigerator, sure as my mom’s white tile floor will be clean enough to eat off. I’m sharing this because theirs are among the lives potentially cut short by not wearing your mask, spreading your germs in a chain that finds its way to the Home Depot where dad buys his flowers, the only place he ventures other than the store, what with their compromised immune systems. My dad went to the doctor for his six month check up and reports he is still the doctor’s favorite diabetes patient, for how well he manages the disease. It’s been a point of honor for dad to never need insulin. Take it from me, the doctor told dad. I’m a microbiologist and this thing is with us for at least thirty-six months. My mom was glum; she’s a huge baseball fan, a member of Cardinal country (Go Cards!). We can all watch from home! she says, with spirit. She misses listening to an MLB game on the back porch as the evening battens down to dark and the lightning bugs stutter into view. I miss it too, joining them in the warm still night, talking about this and that (but only between innings and commercials), the June bugs banging softly against the screen window, attracted by the light over the sink.

There are 1.3 million infections and more than 79,000 deaths from COVID-19. Globally those numbers are 3.9 million infections and 275,000 deaths.

The Re-opening
The initial death projections of 50,000-60,000 have increased to 70,000-100,0000, but this increase seems to be taken with a shrug – suddenly there are more dead and we’re opening the country, full speed ahead. The model that the White House has been using has upped its death tolls to 134,000 based on the re-opening assumptions. A draft government report projects.Covid-19 deaths in the United States will rise to more than 3,000 a day by June 1, with new confirmed cases surging to about 200,000 daily.The CDC provided guidelines for the states to re-open, but when it became clear none of the states would be ready for weeks they began re-opening anyway, in some cases even while new cases are trending upward, positive test results are on the rise, or both.

“With so many places opening up before we see indicators of meaningful, sustained transmission declines, there is substantial risk of resurgence.”

~Kimberly Powers, infectious disease epidemiologist, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“I’m viewing our citizens as warriors,” President Trump says, and I am amazed no reporter denounces this drafting of an unwilling constituency into a war whose casualty rate is so high because of a torpid federal response.

I was listening to a constitutional lawyer on a podcast recently who predicted lawsuits over President Trump invoking war powers to declare meat an essential industry, ordering workers back to work. What he said struck me so much I wrote it down: “If I have to work when to do so might mean my death, then I am not a free citizen of a republic” which is an interesting way to put it, as it highlights the actual issue of freedom, when all the militia protester falderal is peeled away.

He put his finger on something, and that is that many of the real ‘warriors’ of this virus are actually non-citizens, the front line workers in American meat processing plants, so far more than 20 of which have had to close down because of coronavirus outbreaks that have infected more than 4,900 workers, with about two dozen deaths. As a result, there are now limits to the amount of meat you can buy at the supermarket (2 items per customer) and 20% of all Wendy’s stores –  1,043 restaurants – had to take hamburgers off the menu. And here we are, in just the second inning of the ballgame.  

With the virus still spreading and a vaccine available soonest next year – and maybe not even then – I keep reading reportorial comments like “the president has decided that for life to resume for many, some may have to die.” I wish they’d stop talking like that, because I worry it normalizes the idea of a lot more people dying, that there’s nothing we can do about it. “We can’t stay home forever,” my mom said. “I guess we’ll just have to take our chances.” She’s right that we can’t stay home forever, but it’s not a binary – the other choice isn’t “take our chances”, and I want the media to stop saying that. Re-opening the country is not about “taking our chances” but finding a new, cautious, noninfectious normal We can definitely re-open the country and take as few chances a s possible. We can stay socially distant; we can avoid gatherings of more than 10. We can wear masks, and many can work from home (like Facebook and Google which just announced their entire companies will work from home until the end of the year). In other words, we can keep making a lot of different, conscious efforts to keep the infection rate low, remembering that people like my mom and dad, who just want to sit in their backyard and enjoy the chatter of the cardinals and the squirrels. Eight in ten of those who die are in the same age bracket as my parents, their generation, I guess you could say. Haven’t they been through enough, isn’t it worth a mask if it prevents them even from a fear of dying with an astronaut helmet, alone in a hospital full of other dying old astronauts? I’m getting a si from tutti Italiani, I bet.

“Hopefully that won’t be the case,” President Trump said on Wednesday when asked if deaths would rise as a result of reopening now, before we’re ready. But then he added that “It could very well be the case.” Right there, that’s a missed opportunity. Had he followed it up with “But it doesn’t have to be, if we’re very cautious. If we continue to socially distance. If we continue to wear masks as a default. If we gather in groups of less than 10. If we ask our employers if we can work from home. If we take every precaution we can take, including protecting our most vulnerable, establishing strict testing protocols in our nursing homes and VA hospitals to stop hot spots from developing…if we do these things until we get a vaccine, working together to save American lives, we can come through this stronger than ever, an example to the world of the unique American spirit of surviving the toughest challenges with grit and determination,” people would take notice and follow suit, just like they take notice of his failure to wear a mask. Solidarity around actions like this will help us get back to ‘normal’ sooner, with less damage, and maybe even a renewed sense of solidarity that’s gone missing these last four years.

“As states reopen, and we give the virus more fuel, all bets are off. I understand the reasons for reopening the economy, but I’ve said before, if you don’t solve the biology, the economy won’t recover.”

~Erin bromage, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

A Texas salon owner defied state and local authorities and opened for business on April 24th and was sentenced to a week in jail and a $3,500 fine, becoming a conservative media darling. The lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, got so carried away he offered to submit to house arrest in place of her going to jail. Since we’re all under house arrest anyway, it seemed mostly like a symbolic offer.

A California planning commissioner, Ken Turnage – once named Antioch citizen of the year – declared that nature should “take its course’; society, he says, should adopt a herd mentality. Think of the savings, he urged and no, I am not making this up. ”We would have significant loss of life, we would lose many elderly, that would reduce burdens in our defunct Social Security System, health care cost (once the wave subsided), make jobs available for others and it would also free up housing in which we are in dire need of,” he said with the most unexpected, Life of Brian spin on plague this side of the century. For a wonder, he did not break into a rousing chorus of “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life”. Sadly for him, no one was on board with sacrificing the elderly outright, and he was asked to resign.

This is the conflict Americans face – keep their businesses open and try to earn a living to pay rents that aren’t going away, or stay home and try to keep some nameless, faceless old people living. It’s a real conundrum but a false binary, and by framing it as this binary, people are going to be more reckless than they otherwise would have been. The false binary would feel less compelling if the stimulus was reserved exclusively to help small businesses, and not big publicly traded companies like Ashford Hospitality Trust which received $30 million, Ruth’s Chris Steak House which received $20 million and Shake Shack which received – and is now returning – a $10 million PPP loan. I for one would way rather see ALL the salon owners get four months of expenses’ worth of forgivable loans, and I know for a fact the majority of Americans agree with me. So where is all that PPP that should have protected this salon owner from having to open up during a still-dangerous time? It is not finding its way to small businesses, based on the reports of small business owners repeating their desperate stories on the news, night after night. The restaurant famous for Egg Creams in New York is closing, the exact kind of business that should be rescued, the kind of business that makes New York, New York.

In Michigan last week we had politicians wearing bulletproof vests when going to work through a gauntlet of armed people calling themselves “American Patriot Rally” protesting lockdown orders. The protest was organized by Michigan United for Liberty group, who I doubt are the same overweight, out of shape, gun-toting bearded guys that seem to populate these protests. Guns are allowed in the state Capitol building but signs and banners are banned, because hanging them might damage the architecture. I kid you not.

Unemployment and insurance
The unemployment numbers came out Friday, the official word is 15% though experts are all pretty much in agreement that the numbers are changing so fast, as more and more people are added to the jobless rolls every minute (Air BnB, Uber just laid off at least 22,700 employees) that it’s really more like 20-25%, and probably even higher than that when you add in the many people who have been furloughed or fired with the understanding if their company comes back online so too will their jobs – such people aren’t counted in the unemployment figures yet, marking themselves ‘absent’.

If you haven’t been fired or furloughed and are still covered by a UnitedHealthcare plan, you will see a discount on next month’s bill. “People are hurting right now, employers are hurting. Individual consumers are hurting.”” is how, UnitedHealth’s CEO David S. Wichmann put it in a call with reporters.. I call that nice of him. I’d be pretty nice if I were him, too, seeing as if I were him I would have made more than $52 million last year, and $18 million the year before that, for a total of $70 million in just two years. It’s a topsy turvy world we’re living in when nurses are being evicted for not paying rent, and this guy could build a mansion out of bricks of thousand dollar bills. I guess that idea is pretty alluring; try to talk to people about sensible policies like universal basic income, and you’ll find all kinds of people preferring to give that up – which is not a ‘handout’ at all but an American birthright – in favor of holding out to be the next David C. Wichmann. Or David Solomon of Goldman Sachs who made $24.7 million last year, getting a 19% pay raise from 2018.

When you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, no one ever says “I want to be a middleman” but maybe we should change that, because being a middle man really pays in America. Being an essential worker really pays to, but in the other direction – instead of getting paid a lot, like middle men like Solomon and Wichmann, they pay a lot, as in, with their lives (though “hopefully that won’t be the case”).

So who decides on these giant CEO pay packages? The boards of directors! How do they decide what is the right CEO pay package? They look at what other boards are paying other CEOs, forming a kind of mobius strip of accountability. All CEOs of major banks had pay packages of more than $18 million in 2010, right after the financial crisis THAT THEY CAUSED, which makes me wonder where those board directors were during the previous two years. Goldman Sachs director M. Michele Burns said “We believe David’s compensation is appropriately aligned with his peers and predecessors. 71% of shareholders voted to approve the bank’s executive pay packages, and a majority of shareholders also voted to re-elect the bank’s 11 board directors. Oh, and I almost forgot – two shareholder proposals that gave investors marginally more power and oversight of the board were opposed by the board and failed.

When I read details like that, knowing what I know about wages stagnating for decades and COVID-19 being many times more fatal among essential workers than billionaires, I am disturbed. Capitalism has become full of these moral perversions, and our need to address it has reached emergency proportions. Even before the pandemic, nervous billionaire Nick Hanauer was warning his fellow plutocrats, if we don’t make things less unequal, the pitchforks are coming. I don’t recommend pitchforks, but if it were up to me, I’d implement a universal basic income to last for three years and study the impacts on our economy so we could constantly self-monitor and add/change policies to reflect the new reality we face until a vaccine is found. Spain is doing it, we can too.

Anchor babies
Neiman Marcus filed for bankruptcy; so has Barneys New York and J. Crew.. They say Lord & Taylor and JC Penney are next but honestly I didn’t even know they were still around, department stores have been struggling for a long time. The experts at Green Street Advisors project more than 50% of the department stores anchoring America’s malls are going to close permanently by the end of next year. There are about 1,000 malls still open in the U.S., with about 60% having stores like Macy’s as anchor tenants. Get ready for a lot of empty abandoned malls.

In other news, the New York City subway system shut down overnight for the first time since it opened 115 years ago while they start what will become a nightly disinfection. How quiet the city will sound. What will the rats make of it, I wonder – surely most of them have never NOT heard the trains at night.

Mission not accomplished
Remember at the beginning of the Iraq War, President Bush was pictured in a flight suit with a huge banner behind him that read Mission Accomplished? The Republican Party did learn something from that public relations faux pas; this time, when they prematurely declared victory, they didn’t make a banner. But they are dusting their hands in a ‘welp, on to the next thing’ manner, with Vice President Pence reporting that they will be winding down the coronavirus task force, saying they are “starting to look at the Memorial Day window, early June window as a time when we could begin to transition” away from the task force. As Jared Kushner tells us, “we’re on the other side of the medical aspect of this. The federal government rose to the challenge, and this is a great success story.” I am not sure what it means to expect a doubling of the death toll but declare a success and the medical aspect ‘over’. What constitutes a failure?

Political messaging from party leaders could not be more starkly different. “The president’s delayed reaction caused deaths,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says.

“I’ve created the greatest economy in the history of the world!” the president says. “And now we have open it up. Will some people be badly affected, yes.” So there you have it, plainly stated.

White House news
In other news, three White House employees including the president’s valet and the vice president’s spokesperson, plus the first daughter’s assistant have tested positive for coronavirus. One wonders if a member of the first or second families falls seriously ill, if we’ll hear the same talk of warriors, sacrifice, and the economy. Boris Johnson seemed tempered when he emerged from his Covid experience.

There is a new press secretary named Kayleigh who distributes misinformation with the same bullying confidence of a Fox News reader, who she closely resembles. In her first outing – which was also the first press conference held by a press secretary in more than 18 months (the previous secretary, Stephanie, did not hold a single presser, despite her title) – Kayleigh shared some messages of hope from small business employees that received loans, I guess to prove it was happening somewhere, for someone besides Ruth’s Crhis and Harvard University, who also received loans but apparently are feeling pressured enough to say they are giving them back.

A reporter asks, “Is the president seriously considering retaliatory measures?” on China, and Kayleigh echoes what clearly is going to be her go-to response: “I will not get ahead of the president on that.” She continues “I will echo the president’s displeasure from China,” briskly enumerating its sings: they did not share the genetic sequencing, slow-walked information on human to human transmission and iddn’t let US investigators do their job.

Another reporter asks, Are you leaning into the idea that the coronavirus started in a lab? is the president creating mixed messages? Kayleigh airily tells us “Intelligence is just an estimate, it’s up to policy makers to make the right decision.” I find myself blinking rapidly trying to parse what this might really mean. The reporters are either flummoxed also, or just bored with non-answers, as there is only silence at this rejoinder.

Last year, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the organization led by Dr. Fauci, funded scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other institutions for research on bat coronaviruses. With the backing of NIAID, the National Institutes of Health committed $3.7 million over six years for research, followed by another $3.7 million, 5-year project, bringing the total to $7.4 million. There was a lot of criticism of the research, called “gain of function” research (which involves exploring viruses for their potential for infecting humans) because it creates a risk of starting a pandemic from accidental release. So if the virus came from a US-funded Wuhan lab, I wonder who bears responsibility, and whether such questions are meaningful at this point in time. After all, there is a theory the Spanish flu was really spread by US soldiers from Kansas, and as far as I know, we were never blamed for the subsequent, world-changing loss of the lives and economic prosperity of millions.

“We’ve moved at a speed people are absolutely stunned to see.” 

~President Trump

In other news, young Greta Thunberg continues her School Strike for Climate Change. With clear skies over China, India, Los Angeles and Mexico City for the first time in what seems like forever, maybe more leaders will start listening to the science she is asking them to heed. As Politco notes, “Nobody is happy about what’s causing a 95 percent drop in air travel, but nobody will ever again be able to claim that massive reductions in airline emissions are impossible.” We don’t have to go back to the way it was. We can find new and better ways forward. 

I was listening to a podcast with two economists which I don’t recommend, as their calm, unemotional manner of talking about dystopian scenarios can be unsettling. One of them noted that the mess we’re in is nothing new but merely being revealed by the virus: “We’ve failed our institutions, and now they are failing us.  But it’s nothing to fear, the old way of life passing into new ways. The old ways aren’t serving us anymore.  There are new factors to consider – factors so new, that nothing has prepared us for how different things are going to be. Not since the industrial revolution will society have experienced such a seismic shift in the way things are done.”

With more than 30 million people unemployed, it is certainly true that we will need to come up with a different way of thinking about living: from earning it to living it. What that will look like is as hard to predict as who will win the baseball game at the top of the second inning.

Good News: It’s not good or bad but it is certainly interesting, which in my book is good: the Pentagon recently released three videos of UFOs recorded by the Navy. They’ve been leaked before, lots of people have seen the footage. Unidentified arial phenomena don’t prove alien presence on earth, but the videos are compelling and the pilots are obviously excited and flummoxed at what they are seeing. 

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