Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness. (Desmond Tutu)
Sitting on my deck in my usual early May (71˚ day/43˚ night) evening outfit of down jacket and flip flops, needing some succor from corona-madness, searching the stars for that moral arc of the universe MLK spoke of—long, but bending toward justice—it occurred to me that we need three things to survive difficult times of unknown duration: Hope, humor, and the faces of those we love. While we’re waiting for that long arc to bend, I offer you something of each.
Hope: The Associated Press Keeps the Lights On
It reads like an apocalyptic political thriller. Okay, maybe more of a pandemic potboiler. Anyway: The good guys try desperately to get the truth out, slugging their way through a mind-numbing series of roadblocks set by the bad guys, who are equally anxious to bury that truth. It’s a real story though, one with far-reaching consequences—one we might never have known if it weren’t for the power and integrity of a free press. As The Washington Post reminds us daily: Democracy dies in darkness.
Thanks to the Associated Press, democracy, however hamstrung at the moment, is still kicking at those who would turn out the lights.
April 30: With more than 55,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, TheRUMP announces the end of federal social distancing guidelines. Over. Done. Time to re-open. Open everything. You can always drink a gallon of bleach if you’re worried.
Heads are scratched. Hmm. What happened to the CDC? Weren’t they supposed to issue some kind of rules for when and how to go about this re-opening thing? Well, yes they were, and yes they had, in fact, created such a document, a 63-page report: Guidance for Implementing the Opening Up America Again Framework. Detailed recommendations for making site-specific decisions on when, how, and whether to open businesses, schools, religious houses, and other public places. Advice for when to shut down again in the advent of inevitable COVID-19 flareups.
But a (not-so) funny thing happened on the way to releasing this important doc with its emphasis on coordination among state and local jurisdictions (because COVID-19 bleeds rapidly across borders in an America on the move). The report appeared to be stuck in that cyberspace pipeline where documents float in obscurity until they magically disappear. Instead, the White House issued its own Opening Up America Again guidelines. With recommendations to re-open public places and businesses in accordance with federal and local “regulations and guidance”, whatever those might be. Oh yeah, and maybe monitor employees for COVID-19. If you have tests. If it’s not too much hassle.
That might have been the end of it if the AP hadn’t gotten curious about the CDC’s uncharacteristic silence and done some digging. If they hadn’t granted CDC officials anonymity to speak truth. If they hadn’t followed a flow of internal emails. But they did. And here are the highlights of what they found:
April 10: CDC director, Robert Redfield, shares the guidance doc via email with the WH task force, a group that includes not only TheRUMP, his assistant for domestic policy Joseph Grogan, Deborah Birx, and Anthony Fauci, but also epidemiology “luminaries” Jared Kushner and Kellyanne Conway.
April 14: CDC officials send the doc to the Office of Management and Budget, standard operating procedure for agencies seeking “final WH approval for documents an agency has already cleared.” [My italics]
April 17: Ignoring the CDC report, the WH releases the plan mentioned above. It’s up to state governors and local officials to figure out this re-opening stuff.
April 24: Redfield resends the CDC doc to Birx and Grogan. Would they please review it so it can be published on the CDC website?
April 26: All is still silence from TheRUMP admin. More pleading from the CDC. More waiting.
April 27: An OMB staffer passes along a message from the WH: “They have given strict and explicit direction that these documents are not yet cleared and cannot go out as of right now. This includes related press statements or other communications that may preview content or timing of guidances.”
April 30: The CDC finally gets word from TheRUMP’s Task Force, just hours before the federal guidelines on social distancing expire. In an email, Quinn Hirsch, from the WH’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), tells the Department of Health and Human Services—note the circumnavigation here to avoid the Task Force directly addressing the CDC—that the guidelines need to be “more cross-cutting and say when they should reopen and how to keep people safe.”
“Fundamentally,” Hirsch writes, “the Task Force cleared this for further development, but not for release.” CDC Chief of Staff Kyle McGowan laments the guidance report will “never see the light of day,” three unnamed CDC officials tell the AP.
May 7: BOMBSHELL. The AP publishes 17 pages of the CDC’s 63-page report obtained from an unnamed federal official. White House reaction is swift (if less than honest). A mad scramble ensues to fast-track approval and release the guidance. At least some part of the guidance. Or something similar to the guidance. At any rate, the AP obtains an email that confirms the WH ordered the CDC to refile the shelved report just hours after the story broke.
May 8: Gobbledygook is employed to explain this sleight-of-hand switcheroo. When asked what happened to the original CDC report, White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Deborah Birx said, “No one has stopped those guidelines. We’re still in editing.”
And more gobbledygook … It was a “touchstone document,” one federal official said. More of a blueprint for “other groups inside the CDC who are creating the same type of instructional materials for other facilities.” Yeah.
In a statement, circulated by the WH—possibly with a bit of arm-twisting?—Redfield is quoted: The process is “an iterative effort to ensure effective, clear guidance is presented to the American people.”
May 13: Senator Charles Schumer (NY-D) calls for the immediate release of the CDC’s full report. “America needs and must have the candid guidance of our best scientists unfiltered, unedited, uncensored by President Trump or his political minions.” Sen. Mike Braun (IN-R) blocks Schumer’s resolution, saying the CDC’s guide would bog down the economy.
May 14: The CDC releases new guidance docs on reopening—a series of watered-down, one-page mini-reports. No mention is made of reopening states in phases after prescribed benchmarks have been met. After a sustained decline in COVID-19 cases. Many states re-open with abandon.
May 20: The AP reports that U.S. health officials have “quietly released” 20 new pages of reopening guidelines. The new pages provide more detail, but the language doesn’t mandate. Instead, it suggests: as feasible, if feasible. “This administration has shown time and time again that it has a problem with science,” an unnamed veteran CDC official tells CNN. “We are giving them science and they don’t seem to want it. We are allowed to release what they allow us to release.”
That same day, the AP also reports that “Republican political operatives are recruiting ‘extremely pro-Trump’ doctors to go on television to prescribe reviving the U.S. economy as quickly as possible, without waiting to meet safety benchmarks.”
This is far from the final chapter, but without a free press, we would never have known about any of the WH’s machinations to bury the original CDC report. Without a free press, we would not know that some states are under-reporting COVID-19 cases—endangering their citizens—to boost TheRUMP’s ratings. Without a free press, the whistleblowers and inspectors general being fired at a brisk clip would “disappear” in anonymity. A free press shines a light into all those dark corners—and we are on serious overload here—a hope that democracy may yet survive.
Humor: Red Hair is a Funny Thing
The thing you should know about red hair is that it’s a very specific color. Paraphrasing (liberally) Tolstoy’s happy/unhappy families trope: Brunettes are all like, but every redhead is red-haired in her own way.
Back when COVID-19 was new—new to us, at least, the U.S. having a rather solipsistic view of world events—Good Groovin’ Buddy (don’t ask) and lifelong friend, Mimi, made an arresting observation on Facebook: We are about 2 weeks away from knowing everyone’s true hair color. Lots of good-humored bon mots greeted this post, but glancing at my calendar, with its crossed-off appointment at a hair salon now shuttered, I realized the time for some definitive action was upon me.
A trip to the supermarket turned up a dozen or so “touch-up” color kits, all in the blonde or brown range, except for a box of something called “ultra violet.” Hmm. Not quite that desperate. Masked and gloved, I moved on to CVS with the same results. I now had about an inch of gray.
Thing #2 to know about redheads: Red hair does not gray gracefully. No salt-and-pepper sultriness, no ashy-blonde mystique. For redheads, it’s more Margaret Thatcher battleship gray.
So, I made one last foray, to Walgreen’s this time, and there I found a touch-up kit that “matches dark auburn shades.” Voila! Feeling pleased with my persistence, I bought both boxes they had and advised the cash register dude to order more.”I’ll be back!” I assured.
I feel compelled here to point out that “matches” is a word with almost as many shades of meaning as there are shades of red.
Anyway, that was March 23, and for the past two months now, I’ve been sporting a two-toned looked. From the roots out—about four inches—my hair is not unlike those incredible descriptions of wine: A hint of wild berries, with undertones of passion fruit, and a neon finish. After that, it’s tired auburn, sun-bleached and sort of blehh. But in the “curious” era of COVID-19, I find I don’t care. I have more essential things to attend to, like staying alive. Vanity is an anachronism that belongs to a world we may or may not ever see again.
During a Mother’s Day Zoom confab, my daughter asked why I don’t just buy a full hair color kit and do my entire head. Excellent question, and I have an excellent answer: To date, there are no full color kits in any shade even bordering on red (except the above-mentioned “ultra violet”) in my local “essential businesses.” So, I cycle and walk and food-shop in the public sphere with my head of many colors. Like my parents’ long-ago two-toned mauve-and-ivory Chevy Bel Air, it’s destined to become a classic.
Happy Faces Save Lives
When my husband had a liver transplant ten years ago, I camped out for a week at his bedside in the hospital, absent only for a quick bite in the cafeteria or a brief catnap in the visitor’s lounge. In the following weeks, I made the 90-minute drive twice daily, going home each night for a shower, a snooze, and a cat feeding before returning to the hospital. Ed told me he listened every morning for the sound of my step in the hallway. “Love is the greatest healer of all,” one of his doctors said. “The medical profession knows that.”
But now, on COVID-19 wards across the country, family members cannot visit. And caregivers’ smiles are buried behind whatever mask/scarf/headgear arrangement they can rig, while ER doctors dress in something resembling hazmat suits, their faces helmeted and shadowy. Virus-infected patients, struggling to breathe, see no human faces at all. And faces matter.
If you’ve ever had your car break down during rush hour on a busy road with no shoulder (I have! I have!). If you’ve ever been trapped in a flood, or awoken to the smell of something burning and realized it’s your house or apartment building. If you’ve gotten lost in some remote area, with no map and no cellphone reception. Then, you know the tremendous joy and relief at seeing the faces of those who arrive to help: To safely direct traffic around you until the tow truck comes. To airlift you from rising waters or rescue you from fire. To guide you back home. Faces. We look to them for love, for understanding, for shared laughter. When we’re in deep trouble, we seek faces for reassurance, hope, help. And in extremity, when there is no more hope, we seek faces to not be alone in our final moments. That’s what makes Robertino Rodriguez’s “smile badge” so brilliant. And so life-saving.
In April, Rodriguez, a respiratory therapist at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, posted on Instagram “Yesterday I felt bad for my patients in ER when I would come in the room with my face covered in PPE. A reassuring smile makes a big difference to a scared patient. So today I made a giant laminated badge for my PPE. So my patients can see a reassuring and comforting smile.”
A full-face smiling photo of the caregiver behind the mask. Such a simple concept, yet so profound. The idea quickly went viral in the medical community.
“These patients come in with a cough, shortness of breath, or fever and the question on their minds and everyone’s mind is, ‘Do I have COVID?’” says Peggy Ji, an ER doctor in Los Angeles. “I can only imagine how intimidating it is seeing a team of nurses, respiratory therapists and doctors entering their room in full PPE gear…” Ji now wears a cheerful Polaroid of herself to help her patients connect with the human inside the “walking spacesuit and mask in front of them.”
Derek DeVault, a Los Angeles nurse, saw Rodriguez’s post on Instagram and immediately recruited his co-workers to do the same. “[I] thought it was a beautiful way to bring ease to our patients during this stressful time,” DeVault noted on Instagram, beneath a photo of himself and his colleagues sporting their smile badges.
Dr. Joseph Varon, chief of medicine at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, and his staff all have smile badges attached to their gowns when they interact with patients. Giving patients hope, Varon believes, is half the battle, and a friendly face can accomplish that. If a patient loses hope, it doesn’t matter how many medications they receive, he says, “they’re going to go. So my goal is to avoid losing people to this coronavirus any way we can.”
I started this section with the story of Ed’s liver transplant. How I stayed by his bedside day after day. How he listened each morning for my footsteps in the hall. What I didn’t tell you was how much I needed to be there, too. Needed to see his face. To hear his breathing. To hold his hand and feel that connection—physical, emotional, visual—unbroken.
Ed’s doctor was right: Love is the greatest healer of all. And it’s just possible that when we help heal others—by giving them hope, by making them laugh, by standing with them though masked and social-distanced—we heal ourselves.
I leave you with a song I’ve been listening to over and over lately. Somehow, it addresses so much. May it offer you some kind of succor, too.
Stay hopeful. Stay well.