Back by popular demand the need to regroup and relax in these crazy times, I’m reblogging a post I penned back in early 2016. When Obama was still in the White House. When we had a pandemic-preparedness plan, and no pandemic. Before many of us understood what a MAJOR DISASTER really looks like. Nevertheless, I hope you find something of value here. Keep well. Don’t drink the bleach. And stay the hell out of refrigerated trucks.
“Life is just one damn thing after another,” American writer Elbert Hubbard once observed. Ah, if only it were that simple. In my experience, life is usually dozens of damn things, converging all at once like a bad pile-up on the Interstate. But somehow, we’ve got to manage all the craziness bombarding us, so I’ve put together a little blueprint for meeting the challenge.
Two things to know here: 1) Life is always chaotic. 2) As humans, we are always trying to order this chaos. But how do you manage a thing like life? As with some fantastical dragon of yore, it seems to sprout two new heads for every one you slay. Revisions of one book teeter atop a stack of research for the rough draft of another, e-mails pile up in the Inbox, there’s nothing in the fridge for dinner, you’ve got a dental appointment, and your body is threatening mutiny if you don’t get to the gym soon. Over it all, dust settles on every surface and rolls in drifts across the floor like tumbleweed. A good day is when nothing arrives in the mail requiring your immediate attention.
Prioritizing, that mantra of you-too-can-be-organized gurus, is useful and arguably an absolute necessity when you’ve got a deadline (especially the sort involving contracts, lawyers, and money). But let’s be practical—sooner or later, someone’s gotta unload the dishwasher.
Posit #1: It is not possible to do everything at once. It is not even possible to always do the most important thing first. If you’re rushing to get edits done and the pipe bursts under the kitchen sink, are you going to finish Chapter 12 or call the plumber and start mopping?
This is where perspective comes in handy.
In the 2015 film, The Martian, during a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets struck by debris, then lost, in a whammy of a dust storm. The biometer on his spacesuit is now busted and quits chirping, leaving the rest of his crew to assume he’s dead. In peril themselves, they boogie out of there. Watney regains consciousness to find himself alone, on Mars, with no working communications gear, a length of antenna lodged in his gut, and a limited supply of food in “the Hab” (the crew’s martian living quarters). His only hope is to survive until the next scheduled crew lands at the Schiaparelli crater 2000 miles away in four years.
I would argue that life doesn’t get more challenging than that.
Posit #2: If you’ve got most of your body parts, a working mind, and you haven’t been stranded on another planet, then there’s hope.
But it helps to recognize and respect our human limits. Multi-tasking, that great savior of the ‘80s, turns out to be more myth than fact. Our computers may be able to open 12 windows at once, but we cannot. And trying to do so just results in a lot of stress, silly mistakes, and badly-burned dinners.
Which leads to the necessity of developing some basic life philosophy about our limitations and how to deal with them.
Basic Life Philosophy
When I was raising kids and teaching school and writing a book and doing the cooking, laundry, et cetera, I realized I would go right smack out of my head if I didn’t figure out some way to juggle the chaos. As with most things, necessity proved to be the mother of invention. One evening, with dinner bubbling on the stove, two dozen cupcakes baking in the oven for a fundraiser, and a pile of federal tax forms waiting on my desk, my daughter informed me we needed to do a science experiment that night for her class project the next day. She began listing the many items we would need. Wiping a strand of hair from my (tired) face, I gave her one of those smiles parents employ to keep from committing hara-kiri before their children’s eyes. “One disaster at a time,” I told her. Thus was born my succinct philosophy for managing the impossible.
Posit #3: You don’t need a 48-hour day (though if you know where one can be obtained, please write me immediately!). You need to exercise your power of choice.
A few weeks ago, I was feeling overwhelmed by all the stuff that needed doing RIGHT NOW. And a tad cranky about how this was affecting the overall quality of my life. In a fit of take-charge/can-do, I made a list titled “Life Crushers.” (Okay, I was feeling very cranky.) On it were 11 items that felt like five-ton weights around my neck because it seemed: 1) I had to do them and there wasn’t time; 2) I wanted to do them and there wasn’t time; 3) I was just generally consumed with anxiety about them.
Weirdly, I felt better as soon as I finished the list. Looking it over, I began to see choices rather than musts. I could work on two books simultaneously, or focus solely on the revisions for one, or take a break from writing. I could allot one day a week to deal with routine house stuff, tackle it in small doses daily, or wait until we have our next party. I could blog twice a month, once a month, never again. I made a list of 3-4 alternatives for each life-crusher. In most cases, my choices reflected my original goals, but the exercise helped me to see that I had more control and flexibility in my life than I’d realized. And that very little has to be done by any particular date.
Posit #4: You can slow the merry-go-round any time you want, rearrange the horses, or get off it completely. Yes, there are consequences for your decisions. Choice is not about escaping consequences. It’s about deciding what things you’re willing to pony up for and how high the price you’re prepared to pay.
At the close of The Martian, Matt Damon’s Watney (safely back on Earth) explains the reality behind their dreams to a class of wannabe astronauts. “At some point,” he tells them, “everything’s going to go south on you. You’re going to say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now, you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin … You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”
Hey, it’s one disaster at a time. It’s what we all do. It’s really all we can do. Even in COVID times.
Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. (John Donne, 1624)
In his 1858 run for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Abraham Lincoln famously said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln lost the seat, but was elected president two years later, and his “house divided” speech, considered by many as too radical at the time, gained immortality. Perhaps because it speaks an incontrovertible truth.
A house divided against itself cannot stand.
America, the fabled melting pot, the grand experiment, is flailing on multiple fronts and failing (or to be accurate, continuing to fail) millions of Americans—Blacks, Latinx, and Native Americans, who together make up a third of the U.S. population. That’s 100,000,000 people. Riffing on Lincoln’s metaphor, if a third of your home was suffering neglect, left to rot and, worse, taking continual direct hits, how would you rate the stability of the whole? Would you not grieve for the damage? Do your best to repair it? Prevent a recurrence?
A quarter of a millennium after America declared itself a nation, we are still struggling with what a nation is. Is it a loose collection of tribes—racial, economic, ethnic, religious—with different needs, competing interests, and no intersection? Is it a miscellany of states, blue, red, and trending purple, urban vs. rural? And if we fail to be a nation, a house standing resolutely, every nail and plank and shingle as vital to the whole, as equally worthy of care and respect, then what fate awaits us?
Who Divisiveness Serves
When the authors of the Declaration of Independence penned that famous line, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, they weren’t advocating for the equal rights of men without property, or women, or African Americans be they slave, indentured servant, or (in rare instances) free, and certainly not the Native tribes whose land had been stolen by white Europeans, continued to be stolen by white Americans, and today is abused/stolen by primarily white-managed companies, like Energy Partners and its parent-company Sunoco in the case of Standing Rock Sioux and the Dakota Pipeline.
Turns out that a divided house is highly profitable for those with big $$$, the propertied class, and that picture hasn’t changed since Thomas Jefferson. The ten richest people in America today are still men, and still white. As the French say, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. And since the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, with its absurd notion that corporations are people, these rich white men, and hundreds more like them, have been able to openly buy government officials who will vote their interests. TheRUMP. Moscow Mitch. A majority in the Senate. Governors. And lots of State Secretaries (who oversee voter rolls).
These same white men own or have a controlling interest in companies that largely employ Black and Latinx people in low-paying jobs. Think warehouse workers for Amazon or meatpackers for Tyson Foods. A 2015 analysis showed that only 3.3% of Amazon’s Black workers held “professional” positions, and only one of their 110 top execs and senior officials was Black, while more than 85% of the company’s Black workers had unskilled jobs. Meat-packing plants, like the ones owned by Tyson Foods, largely employ Latinx and Black workers in grueling, low-paying (the unions that once paid white packers a living wage are long gone), and increasingly dangerous jobs. More than 4,500 Tyson workers have contracted COVID-19.
A History of Oppression: Nothing New
The history of exploiting and controlling people of color for profit by the powerful and white in America is as old as the nation. And then some. Early European settlers brought not only guns and new diseases, but a concept of ownership that was truly foreign to Native tribes: the idea of private property, that an individual could have legal and exclusive rights to a particular piece of land. The Europeans’ (often violent) usurpation and conversion of Native lands to private holdings drove Native peoples further and further from everything they knew, including the burial grounds of their ancestors, until they were forced onto reservations under the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851. The reservation system not only left Native Americans with the least desirable land, it banned them from leaving the reservation without government permission.
The Dawes Act of 1887 added further insult to injury by giving government the right to divide reservations into small allotments of land for individuals within a Native tribe. This, it was touted, would help the Native peoples to “assimilate” to the American (White, Christian) culture more quickly. In reality, the Act cut the land Native Americans owned by more than 50 percent to make way for the railroads.
At the same moment Native tribes were being shunted onto reservations, African-Americans were deep in their own troubles with the powers-that-be. In what is widely considered to be the worst U.S. Supreme Court decision for Black Americans (and there have been some real doozies), Dred Scott v Sandford (1857) ruled that the Constitution had never intended to grant American citizenship to Black people, enslaved or “free.”
Eleven years and one very bloody Civil War later, the Fourteenth Amendment overturned Dred Scott, granting citizenship to everyone born in the U.S, which is good, of course, but the gap between a legal right on paper and the living/recognition of that right in reality—well, it can be a mighty gap.
Even before Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox, schemes were being hatched about what to do with the newly-freed slaves. General Sherman seized 400,000 acres—largely rice farming area—along the coastline of Georgia and South Carolina under Field Order 15, and settled 40,000 of the roughly 4 million freed slaves there. Immediately, white Confederate farmers cried foul, claiming the land belonged to them. Andrew Johnson, now president after Lincoln’s assassination, overturned Field Order 15. Black farmers must return the land to its “rightful” white owners.
So, again, where to put these people who are “other”? Recall the fate of Native Americans—do we detect a pattern here? Congress responded with the Southern Homestead Act of 1866, which opened 46 million acres of federal land in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi for purchase by both newly-freed Blacks and poor white farmers. But many aspiring Black farmers were frustrated in their quest to own a piece, even a bite, of the pie. Not only did extreme poverty put purchase out of reach, but the land often proved unsuitable, difficult to locate, and if they overcame these troubles, they still faced white hostility and violence.
In fact, violence against Black Americans was rising everywhere. The Ku Klux Klan emerged within months of the Civil War’s end. And Jim Crow laws flourished with one aim: to enforce pre-war segregation and a social contract that gave all the rights to whites, including the right to lynch a Black person without consequences. More on this in a bit.
Fear and Hatred: The Tools of Divide and Conquer
Divide and Conquer: It’s as old as the history of sovereigns seeking to control a population for their own benefit and continued dominance. AORTA (Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance) calls divide-and-conquer one of the “most infuriatingly effective tricks in the book” and cites among its key tactics: Creating a narrative that blames each group for the other group’s problems. This works to foster mistrust amongst groups and to obfuscate the systematic inequalities of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy.
“These aren’t people. These are animals,” TheRUMP said of immigrants seeking asylum at the U.S. southern border. “Working-class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal immigration,” he claimed. “Reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools, hospitals that are so crowded you can’t get in, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net.”
Defending his Muslim Ban, TheRUMP declared, “You look at the migration, it’s young, strong men. We cannot take a chance that the people coming over here are going to be ISIS-affiliated.” This despite the fact that most Muslim immigrants are fleeing ISIS terror and the bloody Syrian civil war.
Jokes about the Trail of Tears. References to Haiti and African nations in general as “shithole countries.”
They’re stealing your jobs, threatening your safety, plotting to overthrow your rightful (white) dominance. It’s the mantra used by the wealthy, white, and powerful to preserve a status quo that benefits them immensely.
So, why do so many white Americans—especially those from the poor and working classes—fall for these lies over and over, even when they’re exposed as myth? Author Ron Breazeale, Ph.D. points out that “promoting and often clinging to [these positions] is based on emotion,” not reason or fact. “Fear and anger distract people and distort their thinking.”
And one of the greatest fears is the fear of becoming “the absolute bottom.” Before the end of the Civil War, poor southern whites could comfort themselves with the fact that though they weren’t wealthy plantation owners, they were at least “better” than the Black slaves picking cotton. After emancipation, this assumption was less certain. The newly-formed KKK spoke to these people’s anxiety.
Having worked in communities where poor, barely-educated whites formed the bulk of the population, I’ve observed this anxiety firsthand. Rather than being sympathetic to or forming an alliance with their Latinx and Black neighbors—“class-mates” economically speaking—they freely spouted racist remarks, most often in comparative terms: At least, they [whites] had standards. They knew the meaning of work. No one was giving them a hand out. Desperate for someone to climb on the backs of, for someone to look down on. I’m not the bottom. I’m not the bottom.
Easy to play on those fears. Easy to divide whites and people of color, thus assuring a cheap, exploitable, often non-unionized working class, and a political landscape not subject to popular socialist uprisings.
Racial Justice is Economic Justice
The tangle that is economic injustice is thick and difficult to unravel, but education is a great place to start. As a former first grade teacher, I can tell you that schools are both the place where inequalities are perpetuated and the opportunity for those inequalities to be overcome. Many, if not most, students in affluent communities enter school with all the perks that foster success: good nutrition; a surfeit of cultural experiences (largely white culture, though this is s-l-o-w-l-y changing)—trips to museums, concerts; lessons in music, dance, theater; parents who regularly read aloud to them. Perks that students from impoverished communities—where many parents juggle multiple minimum-wage jobs just to survive, and have little time for reading stories or cultural outings, and no money for lessons—can’t match.
If we want to break the chain of poverty, we must mandate that all public schools, regardless of location or student population, are housed in clean, spacious, well-equipped buildings, and adequately staffed by credentialed teachers, ESL and reading specialists, counselors, nurses, and administrators committed to racial justice. No cops. No use of court referrals to handle discipline of kids in school. No school-to-prison pipeline.
Financing such a mandate must be a combination of federal and state dollars—with the proportion of federal monies greater in states with less revenue, and lower in states that are tax-affluent—but the control must remain predominantly local. Impoverished schools handed over to state control have not improved outcomes for kids. They have merely silenced the voices of community educators and parents. And those voices are vital in communities of color.
Many people forget that school board elections were some of the first democratic processes in which African Americans were able to engage themselves as candidates for positions of public governance. In representing their communities on local school boards, African Americans were immersed within the political processes of city and county governance, which provided training for elevated levels of government service. (The Southern Education Foundation)
Truly great and equitable public schools for all children is the first and most important step toward economic justice. Access to free college or trade schools is the second. Imagine a world where we could all develop our personal talents and pursue our interests, our passions. And now some (affluent, educated, usually white) crank is sure to say, “Whoa, we need someone to work the Slurpee machine at the 7-11. Someone to flip burgers at Mickey D’s. We can’t all be leaders. Some of us have to be followers.” When I hear this, I think, “So why don’t you volunteer?”
We live in a world where automation is advancing daily. How many of the low-wage, no-benefits, dead-end jobs could be done by robots? I mean, we have robots assisting in surgery, so surely they could “learn” the Slurpee machine. And for those jobs that can’t be mechanized, we must pay a true living wage to every worker, say $25 an hour. Not in five years time, but now, with an annual COLA. For the people who harvest our fruits and veggies. For the janitors and the folks who stock the shelves, for childcare workers and Amazon warehouse employees. Economic justice is really equality of opportunity. And to guarantee that equality, you need legal justice.
Racial Justice is Legal Justice
It’s interesting—and chillingly telling—that when Nazi lawyers were casting about for a framework to construct what became the Nuremburg Laws, they studied America’s Jim Crow laws which segregated Blacks from whites, and brutally (even murderously) discriminated against the former.
It is equally horrifying that 75 years after American soldiers, Black and white, risked and sacrificed their lives to defeat Hitler’s Germany, the most deadly effect of Jim Crow—lynching—is still not a federal crime. Some 200 attempts at legislation in the past 100+ years have failed, even though more than 4,000 Black Americans were lynched from 1877-1950, in the heyday of Jim Crow. Even though these vigilante murders occurred up to the close of the 20th century. Even though they are still occurring, for what is Ahmaud Arbery’s murder if not a lynching?
The good news is the House did pass a bill in January making lynching a federal hate crime, citing in its findings: (15) Having concluded that a reckoning with our own history is the only way the country can effectively champion human rights abroad, 90 Members of the United States Senate agreed to Senate Resolution 39, 109th Congress, on June 13, 2005, to apologize to the victims of lynching and the descendants of those victims for the failure of the Senate to enact anti-lynching legislation.
Well, the bad news is that, of this writing, the Senate is still failing to enact such legislation. Rand Paul blocked the House bill from coming to a vote, objecting to the bill’s “broad scope.” I mean, you don’t want to give someone serious prison time for “merely” disfiguring a face or whacking off a limb. Gracious, no! Some Democrats suggested what Paul objected to was the bill’s new name: The Emmett Till Antilynching Act.
For too long, it’s been too easy to dismiss this kind of systemic brutal violence as a “southern” problem. But George Floyd was a Minnesotan, murdered over the issue of twenty bucks. Eric Garner was a New Yorker, strangled for selling cigarettes. And Ryan Twyman, who was shot 34 times in his car in June 2019 by the LAPD for possible possession of illegal weapons (none were found in his car), lived in sunny California. If we are to save this house that’s exploding all around us, we need serious police reforms, not the kind of faux band-aid “suggestions” made by TheRUMP, who, you know, kind of thinks chokeholds are sort of a bad idea, except when they’re necessary. We need:
A ban on police use of chokeholds.
And end to the provision/use of military grade weapons by the police.
A prohibition on racial profiling, and an end to stop and frisk.
A ban on no-knock warrants.
Creation of a national police misconduct registry, and an end to qualified immunity.
A ban on the use of facial recognition systems by both police and ICE, systems which “misidentify Blacks at rates five to 10 times higher than they do whites.”
And we must stop sending the police to intervene in every situation. Armed cops do not need to be called in when no actual crime is being committed or openly threatened. As Scott Roberts at Color of Change points out: “Rayshard Brooks should [and would] still be alive today. If a tow truck had been called instead of the police, if family members were called to pick him up, or even if he was simply allowed to walk home. There are a number of non-police alternatives that could have been used in the minutes leading up to Rayshard’s murder.”
Stopping the epidemic of police violence against people of color and putting the dollars spent on police into services that improve the lives of Black and Brown communities is the headline story of the moment, but legal justice must also address the systemic racism in banking and investment.
Robert Reich notes that while the CEOs of JPMorgan Chase, BlackRock, and Goldman Sachs all publicly bemoaned racial bias in the wake of Floyd’s murder, JPMorgan has made it difficult for Black people to get mortgage loans, routinely charging them higher interest rates than white borrowers and refusing them mortgages white applicants would have received. BlackRock is a major investor in the private prisons that disproportionately incarcerate men of color. In the halls of Congress, these CEOs oppose laws against red-lining or payday lending (both of which disproportionately burden Black and Brown people), while receiving giant tax cuts and lobbying against “a wealth tax that could bring world-class schools, first-class healthcare and affordable housing to communities of color.”
We haven’t even touched on voting rights or how gentrification is destroying Black and Brown communities in every city. You’d need an encyclopedia, or a set of them, to catalog all the ways the law works to restrict, harass, incarcerate, and kill Black and Brown Americans.
Racial Justice is Environmental Justice
The destruction of communities of color goes far beyond gentrification. It goes to the very lives of the inhabitants. One of the reasons COVID-19 is proving so deadly for Black and Native peoples is that their communities are too often the dumping grounds for tainted water, smoggy air, and industrial waste. Asthma mortality rates in the Black community are three times that of whites, nationwide, and Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at a rate of 50.3 per 100,000, compared to 20.7 for whites. The link? Both diseases are higher in areas that suffer heavy air pollution, and people with Asthma are particularly vulnerable to dying from COVID.
Landfills, refineries, and industrial plants that poison the environment are overwhelmingly located in Black neighborhoods. Major highways in every metropolis—The Bronx, Los Angeles, Chicago, DC—run through Black and Latinx communities, filling the lungs of those who live there with toxic fumes. And that’s no accident. Race-based zoning has corralled people of color into what are known as “sacrifice zones”, hot spots of pollution.
And though a bulk of the worst pollution sources are dumped in neighborhoods with low education and income levels, studies have shown that environmental injustice is not just a “poor person’s thing.” Middle-class Black neighborhoods, with incomes in the $50,000-$60,000 range, tend to be more polluted than white neighborhoods where the incomes are under $10,000. Nor is this poison-dump only an urban issue. Down-river pollution, fracking, and cheap land for unloading toxic waste all affect rural communities of color and Indigenous peoples. As I write, plans are in the works to build a fracked gas export facility on sacred land of the Texas Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe. And the struggle by Native Americans to stop the Keystone XL pipeline is legend.
Racial justice demands a true environmental rethink/revolution. A genuine green plan that leaves no one gasping for breath.
Racial Justice is Social Justice
The United Nations defines Social Justice as “the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities.” The Oxford Reference calls it “the objective of creating a fair and equal society in which each individual matters, their rights are recognized and protected, and decisions are made in ways that are fair and honest.” The justice we’ve been discussing here. The justice we still lack.
On our 244th anniversary, America has yet to answer that most important question: Are we a nation? Or are we just a loose, wrangling collection of various peoples: Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, and white, with many whites struggling to maintain the unfair (major) edge they’ve always enjoyed, determined to remain dominant if they’re monied, equally determined to avoid being cast to “the bottom” if they’re not?
With internal divisions as deep as any we’ve seen since the Civil War, I believe the first thing we must do is own up to the havoc and ruin this deeply divided house has wrought. And that means continuing and amplifying the kinds of conversations we’ve been having in recent weeks in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks. We’ve begun these conversations before, most notably during the Civil Rights era when people like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis revealed to a nation just how badly we had failed the democratic ideal. We need to keep talking this time. And more than that, those of us who enjoy privilege need to walk the walk. Not for a single piece of legislation. Not for a season. But until what happened to George Floyd is impossible for a generation of Black children to imagine.
The idea of supremacy—of racial, class, ethnic, religious “pecking orders”—it’s such a waste of talent, brilliance, of human potential. This—I don’t know what to call it—drive?—to suppress others, to climb on the backs of our fellow beings, to press the life from them. It leads to nothing but suffering—police violence, wars, a poisoned planet where children die daily, without having lived. Our hierarchies are killing us. Literally.
But what if there were no hierarchies? What if we became a house indivisible? Not a “melting pot” of assimilation to whiteness, but an America of true equality,its strength and endurance founded in the beauty and complexity of what we each bring to the mix. Can we ever hope to be that nation, united in justice and opportunity for all?
I only know we’ll never get there by climbing on someone else’s back to get advantage. We’ll only get there by linking arms. In his brilliant and enduring Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963), Martin Luther King said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
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.
“If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we need to rethink everything.” (Ronnie Cummins, Organic Consumers Association)
[NOTE: Yes, this is a lengthy post, but the COVID-19 crisis we’re facing demands that we take care not only of ourselves, but each other. The emails, news publications, and TV reports rolling across my screen each day tell a heartbreaking tale of urgent need in every corner of America and beyond. To help you find assistance and/or voice your concerns, I’ve added links for each topic. If you’re lucky enough to have what you need in this moment, I hope you will speak out and keep hollering for the health and safety of others. Please pass this on to anyone you feel needs it. We are all in this together.]
Once upon a time, homo sapiens referred to themselves as people. In the early years, these people were largely engaged in doing things like taming fire and inventing the wheel. But as time went on, they began making stuff, and soon they were producing more stuff than they needed, so they started hawking it to others. Thus, the consumer was born. But people were still referred to as people, even when they purchased candles or beans or wool material. Shakespeare often used the Romanesque term citizens, as he was writing in a time of rising nation states. Still, citizens connotes people, residents of a particular society.
It would take another 350 years—in the decades following WWII—to commonly refer to people as consumers. “Consumers worry about rising rents.” “Seventy percent of consumers favor Medicaid expansion.” It would take less than 50 years to begin referring to human beings as brands. And not everyone is worthy of being a brand. To be worthy, you have to be a “name.” Have some talent or product or financial scheme that others are willing to shell out bucks for. A film star. A best-selling author. A hedge-fund dude. Otherwise, the reckoning is you just don’t matter in our economy. And if you’ve been tuning in to the news, you know that TheRUMP and his henchmen are all about the economy.
When asked for his response to those who worry that re-opening the economy now will get people killed, Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-Indiana) said, “There is no zero harm choice here. Both of these decisions will lead to harm for individuals, whether that’s dramatic economic harm or whether that’s the loss of life. But it is always the American government’s position to say in the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of life of American lives, we have to always choose the latter.”
Note that economic harm is “dramatic” to Hollingsworth, while loss of life? Pfft. Easier to get a table at your favorite restaurant on Saturday night.
But if COVID-19 has reminded us of anything, it’s this. We are not consumers. We are not brands. We are PEOPLE. People who suffer. People who die. I say it’s about time we reclaim our humanity. And get down to the business of saving ourselves. A threat to one of us is a threat to all of us, and right now we’re facing some formidable obstacles on the one-world front. Here in the States, we can’t even get TheRUMP and his pals to view the corona virus as a national emergency. It’s been a scramble of state and local governments having to fend for their people. To quote an old Laugh-In joke: As the president said, you’re on your own. “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment—try getting it yourselves,” TheRUMP said. Definitely not funny.
While SCOTUS and the NRA are promoting guns—everyone get armed!—as the solution we all need, it’s up to us to resist the petty politics of self-interest, greed, and bigotry. The uber-rich may have the power, but we have the numbers, and numbers can be a formidable force. So, taking the highest moral principle to be this—that people don’t throw other people under the bus—we need to:
Keep the Water On for Everyone
It’s not rocket science to recognize that no running water in the age of COVID-19 = death. Not “just” the death of those without this most basic of needs, but the chain of deaths that follow a single infected person. Yet, some 2 million Americans already lacked running water before the pandemic, and now those numbers are rising as utility companies shut off access to people for nonpayment.
And the inability to pay is increasing daily. Over 22 million people filed for unemployment in the period from mid-March through mid-April. Strapped for cash to buy food and pay the rent, how will they manage the water bill?
Failure to place a moratorium on water shutoffs at the federal level is mean-spirited, dangerous, and just plain crazy. A century ago, the U.S. government recognized that having access to safe drinking and wastewater for every American was key to preventing widespread disease. To protect public health, they built water infrastructure and funded it, with positive benefits to both public health and the economy (funny how the former is essential to the latter). Today, federal support has trickled to a drip and communities are losing access to water services they once had.
But we can lobby our elected officials to keep those taps open and running. Though twelve state governors have already signed an executive order requiring a moratorium on water shutoffs (California, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin), only four require utility companies to reconnect service for households whose water was already cut off. The good news is, as of April 27, some 203 million Americans are protected from shut-offs. The bad news is there are 328 million of us. I don’t have a degree in math, but I believe that means more than a third of the country is at risk. Which, in terms of COVID-19 spread, means all of us are at risk.
Shutting off access to water to anyone hurts everyone.
And let’s keep the lights on, too. No electricity means no safe food storage. No power to cook the food you have. No heat for many in cold weather. No fans or AC in the heat. And once you’re out of battery power, no life-saving link to the outside world via computer or phone. Despite an FCC initiative to “Keep Americans Connected,” a pledge that asks broadband and telecom services to refrain from terminating service at least through mid-May for those who can’t pay (a pledge taken by some 650 companies), newly-unemployed people are still having their service shut off and facing ridiculous sums to be reconnected.
What you can do: Sign the Food and Water Watch petition here to stop all water shut-offs during COVID-19. If your state still lacks a moratorium on shut-offs, call or write your governor today, using the contact info here.
If you need help: If essential utilities are shut off, advocacy org Food and Water Watch recommends calling your governor immediately—contact info is available here. To speak directly to someone at Food and Water Watch, call toll-free: 855-340-8083.
Screw Business as Usual—We Must Feed Everyone
Some of the saddest news footage I’ve seen in a time of sad images—refrigerated trucks to handle the morgue overflow, exhausted doctors and nurses weeping over yet another death on the ICU—is the film of farmers destroying acres and acres of food or dumping enormous vats of milk because the supply chain they use is connected to now-shuttered restaurants rather than supermarkets.
Hello, ten-thousand people lined up in their cars in San Antonio the first week of April for a box of food from their local food bank, and we’re being told that the supply chains for restaurants and schools can’t be shifted to grocery stores because the food is “packaged differently”? That in a five-star red-alert emergency, we can’t put food that used to go into a big carton into a small carton? That the trucks which formerly came to your town’s restaurants can’t take a three-block detour and go to the supermarket? Can they possibly make it to a local food bank? We are a country that put a man on the moon fifty years ago. I don’t think the millions and millions of hungry Americans really care how their food is packaged. They’re just trying to keep themselves and their kids from starving.
We need to start thinking like one nation, not a chain of disconnected enterprises. Those thousands of acres of food farmers destroyed—it all could have gone to food banks who are scrambling to feed millions from Chicago to Sunrise, Florida, from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, even as they face funding shortfalls. Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, with more than 200 affiliates, has projected a $1.4 billion shortfall in the next six months, while half the harvest of a nation rich in farmland is plowed under.
What you can do: Contact FeedingAmerica here to find ways you can take action to help hungry Americans.
If you need help: For a list of food banks near you, contactFeeding America here.
Provide Free COVID-19 Testing and Healthcare for Everyone
In the war against Medicare for All, a battle that can only be labeled ironic (but deadly) now, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were both subjected to endless harassment by network debate moderators, the insurance companies, and the Wall Street press for championing the kind of universal healthcare every other major nation (and many smaller countries) provides. Lots of hand-wringing. But people don’t want to give up their wonderful employer-provided health plan.
Ironic because in the weeks following those debates, COVID-19 has laid waste to much of that employer-provided insurance as businesses downsize, fold, or go on indefinite hold, and people lose both their jobs and their healthcare. Of course, many, many jobs never provided health insurance at all to employees. If you were/are an hourly worker, then you know the old management trick of giving you a weekly work sked just an hour or two short of what qualifies as full time. Which means no coverage at all. Which also means many low-wage workers in essential jobs must now keep working even when they’re sick, even if they have COVID-19, even when they are spreading the disease far and wide.
Free testing and Covid-19 care must be available to all people, regardless of whether or not they still have a healthcare plan. No deductibles. No co-pays. No out-of-pocket anything. The health insurance industry is already enjoying a very healthy bottom line this year, which we’ll get to in a moment. It is people, not giant corporations, that need life-saving help now.
What you can do: If your state is not one of the 11 listed in the paragraph below, lobby your governor and your state department of health and human services for opening ACA enrollment in your state now. It’s complicated because not all states operate their own ACA exchanges. Better yet, email the White House and demand a special national open enrollment period. TheRUMP has fought this because he hates all things Obama, but tough luck. Lives are at stake.
If you need help: As of April 9, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington have all announced special open enrollment periods for people without insurance to sign up for a plan through the Affordable Care Act. Check out your state’s government website (e.g., Mass.gov for Massachusetts) under “health and human services.” Also, check out healthcare.gov. If you’ve had one of the “life-changing events” listed under “Special Enrollment Period”, you are eligible to enroll in the ACA right now no matter where you live.
Keep or Put a Roof Over Everyone’s Head
Healthcare isn’t the only loss that comes with 22 million+ people losing their jobs. The impossibility of making rent and mortgage payments puts many of these people at risk of homelessness, and that spells contagion and death on a massive scale. There were over half a million homeless people in the U.S. before COVID-19. The cruelty—and danger—of increasing that number, tripling, quadrupling, ten-fold is beyond nightmare. No one must become homeless and the already-homeless must be given shelter. The federal government must cancel rent and mortgages for all individuals for their primary residence, a bill that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has proposed.
And what about the families in ICE detention camps and cells around country, packed in tight and with no medical care? In its usual inhumane and ham-handed way, ICE racheted up the danger and death toll significantly by waiting to release detainees until the virus had spread significantly, then releasing hundreds of people into the general population, not knowing whether or not these individuals were infected. For those still in detention, their situation mirrors that of many refugees around the world: Crammed close in unsanitary conditions, it’s a likely death sentence for people whose only “crime” is fleeing violence and starvation.
What you can do: To support Rep. Omar’s bill , the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, click here. This bill is co-sponsored by Representatives Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Tlaib (D-MI), Jayapal (D-WA), Pocan (D-WI), Pressley (D-MA), Escobar (D-TX), García (D-IL), and Meng (D-NY).
If you need help: Renter protections curing COVID-19 vary greatly from state to state. Under the CARES Act, the federal government has issued a 120-day moratorium on evictions from federally subsidized housing or from properties with federally backed mortgage loans. The problem is it can be hard for tenants to know who backs their landlord’s mortgage.
To find out if your state or city has an eviction moratorium, try: 1) HUD rental assistance. Click here, then click on your state, and scroll down to Local Resources. Click on “disaster assistance” or “rental help” (it varies by state). 2) FEMA emergency management. Click here, then click on the letter for your state (for example, D for Delaware). 3) NOLO. Click here, then scroll down the page to find your state.
Protect All Workers: We Depend on Them
From a recent email:
I’m not disposable.
I’m a person. I’m a mother. I deserve as much protection and support during this crisis as anyone else.
I need McDonald’s to understand that they may see me as disposable, but I do not.
So, I’m proud to be one of the McDonald’s workers to have walked off the job in the past weeks, and to stand with workers in California walking off the job today. After McDonald’s workers in Tampa, St. Louis, and Memphis went on strike to protest a lack of personal protective equipment, McDonald’s announced that it will begin to provide its workers with masks – but we’re not done yet.
Fighting for what’s right means taking action until all our needs are met. We need paid sick leave. We need hazard pay. We need basic protections like gloves and masks when we do have to work.
We know that nurses, doctors, and other hospital staff on the front lines are not getting the protective gear they need. In some states, a fifth of all known COVID-19 cases are medical staff. TheRUMP’s refusal to involve the federal government in large-scale testing for Americans, and his insistence that the Strategic National Stockpile belongs to him (dipping into a recent shipment to lift 3,600 surgical masks for his White House staff), has forced state governors to scramble for their own testing equipment, hospital beds, masks, and ventilators, only to find they are in a bidding war with other states, or worse, the federal government.
Sometimes, federal authorities just confiscate shipments en route, as they did in March, seizing 3 million masks, ordered by Massachusetts, at the Port of New York. Now, states and hospitals have to resort to using private planes, as Massachusetts did, when it flew the New England Patriots team plane to China to pick up 1.2 million masks. Governor Baker tweeted: Tonight’s arrival of a major shipment of N95 masks on the Patriots’ plane was a significant step in our work to get front-line workers the equipment they need,”
Equally essential, and faring far worse, are the farm workers we’re all depending on to keep us fed throughout this pandemic. TheRUMP wants to further slash wages for farm workers on guest worker visas to help Big Ag cut costs. These workers already suffer from pesticide exposure, heatstroke, dehydration, and ICE raids. They have no minimum-wage guarantee or overtime pay under federal law. They cannot work remotely, and social distancing presents real challenges in the fields. Though farm workers in some areas have started maintaining 10-foot distances from one another, almost a quarter of them report they travel to work in packed vans or buses because that is what contractors and crew leaders provide. And close to half live in crowded housing.
You would think with everyone depending on essential workers for food, healthcare, and other necessities, workers would have a powerful leverage in the moment, but the ears of Big Business and billionaire CEOs have been deaf to demands for safety, paid sick leave, and fair pay.
When Amazon’s warehouse workers began to contract COVID-19 and the company refused to provide protective gear for them, they went on strike demanding safe working conditions and paid sick leave. Not only were their demands denied, but the leaders of the action were fired. On April 21, workers again walked out, and though the results of that remain to be seen at this writing, it’s important to note that workers in more than 130 Amazon warehouses in the U.S. now have the virus. At some locations, the number of infected employees tops 30.
Mom and Pop businesses—the local garden center, your favorite boutique, your hair salon—may be shuttered for business, but the big banks are balking at lending them the money—our tax dollars—Congress allocated. And now the banks claim the money is—poof!—gone. Yes, the same banks we bailed out back in the Obama era. The banks who used that bailout gift to boost already outrageous CEO salaries and buy back stock.
Congress voted in a $2 trillion COVID-19 package to protect American workers and small businesses owners, and they appointed Inspector General Glenn Fine to lead the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee to guard against abuses (largely, big corps and other pals of the president sucking up the funds). Within days, TheRUMP fired Fine, suggesting he was an Obama appointee (Fine was confirmed an inspector general in 2000, under the Bush administration), and now who knows where the money’s going, going, gone…
This life-threatening level of mismanagement is what we’ve come to expect from this administration, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The Hillreports that, “When the governments of Denmark, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Australia told their businesses to shutter to protect the public health, they quickly set up paycheck protection programs to cover employee salaries at affected businesses. This has allowed workers to stay attached to their jobs and positioned them to quickly return to work when the coronavirus pandemic ends.” The Hill concludes: “Congress should follow their lead.”
What you can do: Sign Move-On’s petition here demanding that Congress provide essential workers with essential protections, including work place health protections, paid sick leave, hazard pay, free health care, and paid family leave.
If you need help: Sadly, OSHA(Occupational Safety & Health Administration) is widely-reported to be refusing to create any COVID-19-specific protections for workers. The National Employment Law Project notes that: Some members of Congress tried to pass such a requirement, but the American Hospital Association and the Trump administration opposed any such standard, and the congressional effort was unsuccessful. However, Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Vermont have designated healthcare workers and other essential personnel (including grocery workers) as “first responders” which gives them access to free child care. State bills have been introduced for multiple types of assistance including hazard pay. Check your state’s government website (e.g., Mass.gov) to learn what you may be entitled to.
Stop the Highway Robbery: Price-gouging
Someone once said America is not a nation; it’s a get-rich-quick scheme. Never has the truth of this been more naked than now. In the wake of COVID-19, prices for medical supplies, cleaning products, and food have skyrocketed on Amazon and other internet sites. In March, a digital thermometer was going for $27 (a 50% mark-up), toilet paper tripled in price—$98 a box, and the cost of N95 masks, desperately needed in hospitals across the nation, had quadrupled from $1.00 to $3.98. That hand sanitizer we all crave? A four-pack of Purell is yours for $159.
Despite complaints from 33 state attorneys general calling on Amazon, Walmart, eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook to take active measures to end price-gouging, the pandemic profiteering continues. There are still thermometers selling for more than $500, and Cheerios going at two boxes for $60. When one overpriced product gets removed—usually after enough shoppers complain—another pops up.
The U.S. Public Research Interest Group (U.S. PIRG) has been lobbying for measures to end this deadly greed at a national level. Right now, only 33 states have some kind of law against such profiteering, and the vague language used by a third of those statutes, prohibiting “unconscionably high” prices during a national disaster further confuses the issue. Whose conscience?
The pandemic has also proven profitable for U.S. health insurance companies. With elective surgeries no longer in the picture, and national testing a mirage on a distant horizon, their payout has shrunk considerably. Medicare For All recently cited a Market Watch report that claimed UnitedHealth, one of the largest health insurers in the U.S., reported a profit of $5 billion on their first-quarter earnings—much more than the company had anticipated. Did they use this COVID-19 windfall to lower premiums and out-of-pocket expenses for customers? No, they plowed $1.7 billion of this bonanza into stock buy-backs, and gave doctors an ultimatum: Take a pay cut (up to 60%) or get dropped from UH’s networks. No one on United’s board risked their life to get rich. But every doctor on the frontlines in America is risking theirs to help save people.
Much has been made of Jeff Bezos’s recent $100 million contribution to Feeding America, the nation’s largest chain of food banks. That’s the biggest donation the hunger-relief nonprofit has ever received, but only about a tenth of what it needs in this crisis. Interestingly, Business Insidercalculated in January 2019 that Bezos earns roughly $8,961,187 every hour. That means his $100 million donation put him out about eleven hours and some change. For a guy who pays virtually no taxes—thanks to TheRUMP–and can write off this gift on his tax form, well, it seems like Gee, Jeff, couldn’t you have reached a little deeper? Maybe donated a whole day’s earnings? Especially now that COVID-19 and stay-at- home orders have boosted Amazon’s profits through the stratosphere.
Speaking of Bezos: Amazon, along with 3M, Honeywell, FedEx, and U.S. Bank—companies which helm the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—are spearheading the C of C’s lobbying against the full use of the Defense Production Act, a critical tool for the central manufacture and distribution of the N-95 masks, ventilators, and testing kits our doctors, nurses, essential workers, and communities need. The Defense Production Act allows the president to prioritize orders for the federal government, to allocate materials, services and supplies, and to restrict hoarding. All things that could impact companies’ profits during COVID-19.
As Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) recently said, “The COVID-19 pandemic is illuminating some of the failings of our society. Income inequality in America is among the worst in the developed world. Since 1979, the wages of the top 1% grew 138%, while wages of the bottom 90% grew just 15%. And inequality will get much worse because the incomes of already-wealthy Americans’ are currently growing faster than those of the middle class. This system cannot continue, especially if we want our country to recover quickly and effectively from the impacts of COVID-19.”
Amid all the profiteering, one of the saddest, most poignant stories to emerge was reported in The Guardian. It concerns the question a patient asked his medical team as they were hooking him up to a ventilator in a New York City hospital. “Who’s going to pay for it?” the man asked anxiously. Those were his last words.
What you can do: Check the state-by-state list here to see where your state stands on price-gouging during national emergencies. If there is no law against it, or the language is vague, contact your state’s attorney general and holler loudly to correct this.
If you need help: If price-gouging is preventing you from obtaining food, medicine, safety protection or other basic goods, contact your state’s attorney general (find their name and contact info here) and file a complaint even if your state does not currently restrict price-gouging. Laws are changing daily, and public pressure is what changes them.
Restore and Extend Environmental Protections to Prevent Future Pandemics
Tucked up inside you house right now—okay, forced by law, fear, intelligence, or all three to stay at home throughout this runaway COVID-19 crisis—concerns about the environment may not be topping your daily list of worries, but we can’t afford to ignore the role business-as-usual—this “normal” life we’re supposed to return to—plays in the current global disaster. Especially with TheRUMP burning down all EPA protections.
Ronnie Cummins (Organic Consumers Association), who I quoted at the top of this post, lays bare the stakes for our survival in his thoughtful essay:
If we’re going to survive this pandemic, and avoid the pandemics lying in wait, if we’re going to avoid the greatest pandemic of them all looming on the horizon—runaway global warming and catastrophic climate change—we need to take control of our destiny and build a new Green Commonwealth that is regenerative, rather than degenerative.
Cummins goes on to say we must rethink our food production systems, our healthcare system, the fossil-fuel industry, and the military-industrial complex. Bio-warfare labs are scattered across the planet. On any given day, an accident worthy of a Stephen King novel could occur. In fact, King wrote about exactly this kind of four-alarm pandemic in The Stand.
Though early rumors hinted that COVID-19 started in a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the virus likely started with an infected horseshoe bat in China, jumped to an intermediary species, and then to humans. The suspect “jumping point” for COVID-19 is the wet markets so common in South Asian countries. “Wet markets” are defined as a shopping area where butchers and farmers sell fresh produce. We have them in the U.S. and Europe. It’s the selling of live animals in South Asian markets—especially those from the illegal/exotic animal trade—for making food and folk medicines, that risks spreading viruses to humans. The 2003 SARS epidemic was linked to the sale of civet cats at Guangdong wet markets. Ebola and other epidemics have been traced to viruses in wild bush meat. A science-based white paper issued by Humane Society International warns that COVID-19 is “a tipping point that governments globally must not ignore.” Failure to act makes “the emergence of another coronavirus-based disease … a practical certainty.”
Factory farms present another, related pandemic danger. With their emphasis on maximum production at minimum cost—crowding thousands of cows, pigs, chickens into tight quarters—they are the perfect Petri dish for disease. The breeding programs employed by factory farms are designed to produce animals that provide a consistent food product (more white meat! more profit!). That means genetic variation is minimized, and without that variation—if these animals lack a gene for resistance to a particular disease—a disease can run rampant, wiping them out, but not before it may be passed on to humans. A second danger: The excessive use of antibiotics to prevent disease among the animals, packed head to toe, is creating antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.
What you can do: Sign the Food &Water Watch petition here asking Congress to ban factory farms for the many ways they hurt our health/the environment (the two are deeply intertwined). Call or email your senators and reps (find their names here) to insist all gutted EPA standards be immediately reinstated. And voice your support for the Green New Deal.
We Must Defend Democracy for Everyone: Demand Vote-by-Mail
On April 7, thousands of brave people risked their lives to exercise our most democratic right: the right to vote. The scene was Wisconsin—a Democratic primary that also featured a state Supreme Court seat the GOP was intent on keeping. Intent enough to overturn an order Governor Tony Evers (D) had issued to keep Wisconsin voters safe by extending the deadline for vote-by-mail ballots. The state Supreme Court conservatives quashed it. If voters (whom they expected to be mostly Democrats, and in Milwaukee, mostly people of color) wanted to vote so damn bad, they’d just have to come stand in line and risk getting COVID-19. That same day, Brett Kavanaugh and the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court intervened to give Wisconsin Republicans another thumbs up on their refusal to protect voters, by overturning a federal judge’s support of Evers’ extension,
With a shortage of poll workers, Madison’s 92 polling locations were down to 66. Green Bay had just two. And Milwaukee—the state’s largest city at 600,000—its 180 polling stations were reduced to five. Voters told stories of ordering mail-in ballots 3-4 weeks before—ballots that never arrived. People stood in line for hours, but they didn’t give up.
Charles Swanson, of Demand Justice, describes the dangers poll workers and voters alike encountered as they risked their lives to make their voices heard:
Last Tuesday, I worked at a polling place in Racine, Wisconsin as my neighbors and community members stood in line waiting to cast their ballots.
Not everyone had a mask or gloves. It was impossible to check an ID from six feet away, so we couldn’t practice the advised social distancing. My fellow poll workers and I did our best to try to disinfect the clipboards and pens people had to use.
And here I pause to savor the moment because, every once in a while, in the darkest hour, when all feels lost and hope seems hopeless, true justice comes ROARING in and triumphs: On Election Day, April 7, the moral arc of the universe bent toward justice as Democrat Dane County Circuit Court Judge Jill Karofsky blew right by Republican Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly in a whopping 10-point victory.
But the decisions of the two courts to force Wisconsin citizens to vote in person came with a terrible cost. Nineteen people who either voted in person or worked at a polling site have since tested positive for COVID-19, Wisconsin state health officials said.
To avoid a repeat of the situation and hold a fair election in November, when America may still be in the middle of a pandemic, we must ramp up voting by mail. But mail-in voting has a loud opponent: President Trump. He’s calling for Republicans to fight it, saying it’s a recipe for fraud.
Those are the words of Dan McReady, the Democrat candidate for Congress in North Carolina’s 9th District. McReady is running in a special election on September 10 because his Republican opponent committed election fraud in the 2018 elections. Is this the fraud TheRump’s warning us about?
Key to winning vote-by-mail for the 2020 election is the survival of the U.S. Postal Service. Right now—strained for money—it may well tank before that date, leaving 600,000 workers jobless and millions of Americans in the lurch. Some mortally so, as the USPS delivers life-saving meds to people in areas deemed too remote to be worth the trip by for-profit delivery services.
To date, TheRUMP has refused to sign any COVID-19 legislation that funds the Post Office, calling the USPS “a joke”, and most recently adding that to get his support, the USPS would have to quadruple its price to Amazon for package delivery. This is more of TheRUMP’s jealous war with Jeff Bezos.
More to the point is the president’s candid admission that a functioning U.S. postal service, combined with nationwide vote-by-mail would be a knock-out combo unfavorable to him. If the U.S. switched to all-mail voting, he said, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
We must: 1) Protect the United States Postal Service, and 2) Demand vote-by-mail for all Americans, because right now the outcomes of our elections are too often not reflecting the values, dreams and needs of MOST Americans. Right now, our lives are on the line.
What you can do: The ACLU is working to support safe voting for all Americans. You can help by signing their petition here. Just scroll down and click on “Congress: Expand Voting Access During a Pandemic” to add your name. You can also call/email your senators and reps to demand they support both the USPS and vote-by-mail options. Find their names here.
If you need help: The National Conference of State Legislatures offers info on state statutes for Vote-by-Mail. Just click here and scroll down to State Statutes on All-Mail Elections. For voting procedures in your state, visit http://www.usa.govhere, then scroll down and select your state.
In London, it was Thursdays. In New York City, Fridays were the day, though it quickly evolved into a daily event. And now #ClapBecauseWeCare is happening in cities and towns around the globe. In this time of pandemic uncertainty and social distancing, people everywhere are coming out on their balconies, their front stoops, or just opening a window at 7 p.m. to cheer for the doctors, nurses, first responders, sanitation workers, grocery workers, warehouse workers, delivery drivers, postal employees, pharmacists, farm laborers, and those staffing the take-out window at shuttered restaurants, as well as those preparing the food. All over the world, we clap and cheer for five full minutes. To express our gratitude. Our solidarity with one another. And, perhaps as well, to collectively celebrate the fact that we are still alive.
A woman wrote to MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell that she felt isolated from this celebration, living out in the country. Who would hear her if she clapped? But then one night, she decided to give it a go. She went out on her front porch to cheer and clap for five minutes. The next night she did it again, and this time she heard someone, faintly, doing the same. O’Donnell finished the story with, “And if you do this anywhere in America, you will never be alone.”
I began this post with Ronnie Cummin’s words: If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we need to rethink everything. I’ll close it by sharing a glimpse into one possibility. If you scroll down through this cbsnews.com feature, you’ll see before-and-now pictures of cities around the world. I promise it will shock you. And inspire you. What we have been. What we could be.
Our Constitution does not say “We the consumers… ” It does not say “We the brands… ” It says “We the people… ” It is up to us to help one another, care for each other, be a champion for all. No one else is coming to fix this. It rests on us, the people. So, do whatever you can from wherever you are to build a better world. A humane world. And know that life is resilient.
There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing. (Robert Burns)
April, being my birth month, is the time I usually regale you with the Big Stuff I’ve learned travelling life’s bumpy road in my eternal quest for grace—which I define as that ability to remain calm and carry on no matter what. And without overdosing on the antacid tablets.
This year, I’m focusing less on the bumpy road and more on the GIGANTIC pothole that threatens to swamp us all. I think even Thomas Paine would agree we don’t lack for soul-trying times. As The Nation headlined its March 13, 2020 issue: “Our Worst Crisis Since 2008 … and We Have an Idiot at the Helm.” No **** Sherlock. Which is an apt comment, as I sit here penning this in March, because the Corona virus madness has made toilet paper the new holy grail. You may search far and wide without finding a single roll.
Could someone please pass the antacids?
Anyway, I was driving along the other day, immersed in concerns of pandemic proportion as well as my own pathetic little pile of personal troubles, when the Eagles’ Take It Easy came on the oldies station: We may lose and we may win, but we will never be here again. Instantly, my heart lightened. I’m alive. I’m OK. And this is the day I have at hand. Don’t muck it up worrying about stuff beyond my control. As I pulled into a Taco Bell parking lot to jot down that transformative line, something like grace descended.
We may lose and we may win, but we will never be here again. The winning part’s easy. It’s the losing part that poses the challenge: how to cope in these troubled times.
Perspective is Everything
While researching my WWII novel, I came across an arresting story in one of my sourcebooks, London 1945. Author Maureen Waller describes a scene in a north London cinema. Though 28,000-pound V-2 rockets had been falling in the area for three days and nights, the locals still flocked to see the new film. As a revolver fired onscreen, one of the actors cried “What was that?” A wit in the audience responded, “Only a bloody rocket!” It made me laugh. It made me think. The tenacity of life—the green shoot that rises from the slender crack on a granite cliff in a barren landscape. Over 80,000 Londoners were killed or seriously injured in WWII. Every night, they went to sleep not knowing if a bomb would fall on their house. Not knowing if they would ever wake up again. And yet, life, however changed and rearranged, continued.
If you live in North America or western Europe and were born after 1940—which is most of us reading this—you have lived a life relatively free of disaster on a grand scale. Not in a war zone or under some violent regime. Our tragedies have largely been personal, and though that doesn’t minimize the pain they caused the people who experienced them, the scale has been one of the individual, not the universal. As Humphrey Bogart famously said in Casablanca, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Well, now we’ve got much more than the problems of three little people (though it is, indeed, still a crazy world). Now, we do have to keep calm and carry on, as all those Brits did in WWII England—minus the congregating in cinemas part—because, literally, what else can we do?
Chuck the Crystal Ball That Never Really Worked—It’s Still Not Working
In mid-March, I was trying to calculate whether or not we’d be able to take a planned mini-vacation to Portsmouth in May. Would my son be able to safely fly here for a visit in late July? Could we even count on finding laundry detergent when the current bottle ran out in two weeks? And then I stopped. Because no one knows.
The bottom line is: We have to stay in the here and now. The here and now is all we have. It’s all we can rely on. It’s actually all we ever have, but pre-pandemic life gave us the illusion we could make plans and have reasonable assurance things would unfold accordingly. Well, now we can’t. Trust me, for someone who dots all her Is and crosses her Ts, who mentally fast forwards to consider every contingency and prepare, this does not come easy, but there simply is nothing ahead any of us can know with certainty.
And that includes the pundit alarmists out there who predict the virus will go on for years, erupting again and again. That our country and the world will never be the same. Our way of life is gone. Forever! While there’s no denying, TheRUMP and his profiteering pals have mucked up the rollout of everything from test production to desperately-needed masks and ventilators—resulting in a huge spike in COVID-19 cases and needless deaths—forever is a very long time, and history is proof that even the awfullest awful disasters come to an end. Bubonic plague. The flu pandemic of 1918. The Great Depression. World War II. Ironically, we tend to overlook the big lesson these dark moments impart because we see everything in the past as over and done, but living through a disaster in real time is always the same. For those who suffered prior global catastrophes, there was no certainty in the present. There never is.
As for the doom-and-gloom about our way of life disappearing, the world is always changing. Our way of life is always changing. The noun “crisis” comes from the Latinized form of the Greek word krisis, meaning “turning point in a disease.” A moment when things could get worse. Or better. Opportunities arise at such crossroads. Out of the Great Depression came the Social Security Act. After the 1918 flu pandemic, many countries adopted free universal healthcare. Though (sadly) the U.S. did not do so—opting instead for employer-based insurance plans that left many uninsured—it did consolidate the field of medicine to include the sociological as well as the biological and experimental. The concept of public health was born and, with it, epidemiology which studies the patterns, causes, and effects of disease.
This is a crisis, and with it comes the opportunity to rethink the way we live.
Joan’s Theory of Relativity
A good friend from my younger days used to talk about her mom, Joan. If you complained about something in your life, Joan would remind you of all the people who had it worse. My friend called it Joan’s theory of relativity. It made us laugh back then, but it underscores a valid point.
If you’re healthy and have no symptoms of COVID-19, you’re having a wonderful day. Go read a book. Or write one. If the weather’s good, take a walk. Do some gardening. Whatever the weather, dance in your kitchen, bake chocolate chip cookies, take up the bongos.
And do something for a better future:
1) Protect the 2020 election by writing or calling your U.S. reps and senators. Let them know you support voting by mail in all 50 states;
2) Join an online group to protect the environment. Many orgs are now working with activists through the Internet, advising on how to take effective actions from home;
3) Money is uncertain for many of us now, but if you have $5 or $10 to spare, there are numerous good causes out there: Feeding America; Direct Relief; The American Red Cross; Team Rubicon (an NGO service organization that puts veterans to work providing disaster relief); United Way Worldwide. (For full descriptions of these and other charities, checkout this WaPo article.)
The Humane Society International could use your help, too. Hundreds of thousands of pets have been abandoned around the world in the mistaken belief they can pass on COVID-19. Both the CDC and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department have issued statements that no evidence exists that companion animals, including pets, can spread COVID-19.
If you’re doing a self-quarantine because you’re feeling a bit squishy around the edges, you’re maybe not having such a good day, but hopefully you can draw some comfort from listening to your favorite music, reading (great time to reduce your TBR pile), binge-watching old movies you love or streaming new series, and connecting with loved ones by phone or social media. Do take very good care of yourself. We need you.
If you have COVID-19, you’re probably not reading this, but if you are, know that we are all pulling for you. That millions and millions of people across the globe are rooting for your full and speedy recovery. You have every right to be angry—the White House’s mishandling of this pandemic is cruel and inexcusable—but anger is a poor healer. Get well and take your revenge at the ballot box in November.
And that’s Joan’s theory of relativity.
The only place I venture out to these days is the supermarket, where I try to buy enough to last a full week. Or put another way, I go weekly and whatever I forget, we do without. When I went last week, the store was in full insanity mode. Aisles stripped bare of every basic as people piled their carts high with multiples of whatever they could grab. I kept thinking They must all have a platoon of giant chest freezers in the basement. You know, the kind where they discover the victim’s body on murder mysteries.
But things were calmer today (although for some inexplicable reason, butter and yogurt are still on the MIA list). Gone was the frenzy, and in its place, a new patience, bordering on generosity, had descended. People acknowledged each other with a nod, a smile. Maybe we are realizing that we really are all in this together. And that we can’t know when this will end or exactly what shape it will take in the months ahead.
Ahead of me in the self-checkout line was a woman with two small children. The children were being, well… children, so the process of emptying her cart and bagging her items was something like watching paint dry. I told her to take her time, no stress. We all have enough stress. And I realized I wasn’t just being polite. I meant it. In this new world, what is the rush about anything for anyone who’s healthy? As I watched the kids, excited by a pack of modeling clay they were getting, my heart went out to them and their mom—to have young children or an infant at this time has to have its scary moments. Like may be a lot of them. My kids are grown and I’m still concerned. As professor and author Elizabeth Stone famously said: To have a child is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.
So, my annual birthday cake and champagne bash for the neighbors won’t be happening next week. The incredibly delicious cake Ed usually orders from our local bakery (lots of frosting!) won’t be happening—we’re limiting all outings to the supermarket and pharmacy for now. But I can always bake one from scratch. And we can hold the celebration when all this is over. Whenever that is. We’ll see.
Is that grace? Maybe. I only know that my job—our job—in this difficult hour is to endure.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably run across my “mantra”, the Rumi quote that hangs by my desk. It is especially apt in these times:
Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.Don’t try to see through the distances,That’s not for human beings. Move within,But don’t move the way fear makes you move.
Winston Churchill put it even more simply: If you’re going through hell, keep going.
Until the moment you’re not here, you are here. Whatever the circumstances, this day, this hour is your life. It is precious.