Sunday, August 23, 2020

What Now?

I'm getting to the age where making a bucket list, that is to say planning things to do before I kick the bucket, is starting to make sense. Finishing up old business is high on that list, one of which is fulfilling my age-old dream of learning to speak another language. I took a combined five years of elementary and high school Spanish, being able to pass my classes pretty much with flying colors. Despite that I still wasn't able to do practical things like read anything worthwhile or more challenging, being able to have a conversation with someone beyond telling them I like to eat apples. Since that time I've studied both Czech and German and never even got that far.

Around March of last year I decided to change all that, putting a working knowledge of at least those three languages on the old BL. I may never get there but at least I'll die trying. I decided to start with the language I got the farthest with, Spanish.

After about a year and a half of daily study, practice, and most important, living the language, speaking is still a bit of a challenge. My excuse: the five month hibernation period was a setback as I lost direct contact with my Spanish speaking friends at work. However I've gotten pretty good at reading the language. Something I read the other day which inspired this post, was a practice text geared at upper/intermediate readers such as myself, about life in Spain during the pandemic.  

I'll get to that in a moment.

It wasn't the first thing I've read about the subject. If you've been paying any attention to the world outside of the United States this year, you should know that by March, the two countries outside of China with the highest infection rates of COVID-19 were Italy and Spain. Beyond the obvious tragedies of sickness and death, hospitals in those countries were so overwhelmed that doctors were put in the heartbreaking position of having to separate patients whose conditions were treatable, from those whose desease was too far progressed for any reasonable chance of survival. Beyond being provided whatever comfort was possible, the latter patients were left to die. 

Contact testing in Spain determined that many of the infections could be traced directly to several public gatherings of tens of thousands of people in early March including a soccer match attended by 60,000 fans, a political rally, and the celebration of International Women's Day on March 8th which brought about 120,000 prople out into the streets of Madrid. In no time the infection rate, especially in the capital, soared. You may remember that the warning signs of the deadly virus had been known publicly since January, and the government of Spain was roundly criticized for dragging its feet by not cancelling or at least discouraging participation in these events. 

Here's a New York Times article published on March 13th, just days after the public events, that chronicles Spain's failure to take heed of the warning signs that had been around already for quite some time.

Spain however managed to drastically bring its COVID infections under control after implementing fairly draconian measures, forcing non-essential workers to remain housebound for all but the most urgent of necessities. As a result, Spain made a remarkable turnaround, the graph of the infection rate of that country between March and June fittingly resembles the profile of the Rock of Gibraltar, with the slope of the recovery slightly more gradual than that of the surge. 

Unfortunatly as the country began to open up, in July the infection rate began climing at an alarming rate, although the rate of deaths seems by and large to have been kept at bay, for now at least. Here's a graph from the World Health Organization to illustrate.

You may also remember that around the beginning of March, the United States still had very few infections and its president was declaring the desease to be little more than the flu or a bad cold. Despite the clear paradigm of Spain and other countries, with the exception of a partial travel ban from China, (this president REALLY LIKES travel bans), he ignored pleas to take reasonable action to prevent what happened there and in other parts of the world. Implying that concern for the virus was an over-reation, he went so far as to label COVID-19 a "democrat hoax" designed to discredit him. 

Meanwhile some governors and mayors across the country, miles ahead of the president, side-stepped the federal government and placed restrictions of their own on public gatherings like the ones in Spain. The first victims were St. Patrick's Day parades in Chicago and New York City, the announcements of their cancellation being anounced the very day the W.H.O. declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

That same day, March 11, 2020, the President of the United States, still downplaying the seriousness of the virus had this to say:

It goes away….It’s going away. We want it to go away with very, very few deaths.

Thy following day, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned Congress that this country was ill-prepared for the coming outbreak in terms of means for testing. He said: 

The system is not really geared to what we need right now, That is a failing. Let’s admit it.

Meanwhile the president kept poo-poohing the threat of the outbreak and took credit for his administration's response up to that point, which aside from the travel ban, was essentially doing nothing. "I'd rate it a ten" the president said of his efforts.

Then something remakable happened. Almost as if by miracle, the president made a 180 degree reversal and said on March 17: 

I felt like it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.

Why the sudden about face? Well it could be that on March 16 there were 0 new confirmed cases in the United States reported that day. On the following day, St. Patrick's Day, there were 1,822. Since that day, with very few exceptions, the daily number of new infections reported in the U.S. has not fallen below ten times that number.  

If you look at the comparable W.H.O. map of incidents of COVID-19 in the U.S., you'll see a dramatic rise from March 16 until April 6, a day the country reported 33,510 new cases. April 17 was a particularly dark day as during that 24 hour period, this country lost 6,409 people to the virus, a record that stands to this day. 

By that time, much of the country had shut down as had the rest of the world, the difference being in the States, the severity of the restrictions was determined on a state by state basis. Unlike many other countries, few if any restrictions in this country were placed on people leaving their homes. And the president insisted that while the wearing of masks in public might not be a bad idea, it was not mandatory. Worse, the president refused to wear a mask himself, setting a bad example for millions of his supporters who foolishly claimed that mask wearing was a violation of their constitutional rights. (Just wondering, would they say the same about wearing pants in public?) 

Despite the overwhelming evidence that in the midst of a pandemic, wearing masks saves lives, millions of Americans chose to not wear them as a political statement in solidarity with the president. All over the country, fights broke out as customers claimed they had the right to enter shops and other private businesses without proper face-covering. 

As a result, while the infection and death rates in the United States declined ever so slightly  then flattened out from April to June, we never experienced the drastic downward plunge that Spain and other European countries did. Here's a link to the W.H.O. graph of the outbreak in the United States.

By late June, as this country began to re-open after three months of dormancy, just like Spain, infection rates began to take off in the wrong direction, but unlike Spain whose infection levels returned to at or near the levels they experienced during the height of their outbreak, in July our infection levels rose to unprecedented heights. On July 19, the daily number of new cases reported was a staggering 74,354. While the death tally is not as high as it was in the early months of the outbreak, at this writing, most days continue to see the number of COVID deaths in the United States to be over one thousand.  

Of course it has been well reported that the United States leads the world by far in the number of COVID deaths, 167,201*, about 60,000 more deaths than its nearest competitor, Brazil. All told, the COVID-19 deaths in the United States account for about 22 percent of all the COVID deaths in the world. Compare that to the fact that the population of the U.S. accounts for a little over four percent of the world's population. 

One does not need to be a statistician or epidemiologist to realize this is a staggeringly pathetic response on our part to the pandemic. Long before there was a single infection in this country, there were numerous paradigms of what to do and what not to do, tremendous success stories such as Taiwan and New Zealand, and missteps that led to success such as Spain, actions that could have easily been taken or avoided by this country. The playbook was already set out on the table, all we had to do was look at it.

Contrary to what this president claims, we were not blind-sided by the pandemic, we had plenty of time to prepare and adjust our response on the fly if need be. As a matter of fact, many states such as Michigan, New York and Illinois, had patterns of infections and recovery similar to that of Spain and other European countries. Other states who foolishly chose to follow the lead of the president, fared much worse. Were it not for the difficult but necessary choices of governors such as Gretchen Whitmer, Andrew Cuomo, Jay Pritzker, and mayors such as Lori Lightfoot of sweet home Chicago, the U.S. Covid numbers would be far higher than they are now. 

The numbers say it all, the proof is in the pudding. The proverbial manager of the local Dairy Queen would be thrown out on his ass if he turned out numbers like these for his business. 

It used to be that presidents took responsibility for what occured under their watch whether it was legitimately their fault or not. Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that read. "the buck stops here." Not this president. He blames his predecessor so often for his own fuck ups that you'd think he had his own sign which reads: "the buck stops with Obama."

But can this U.S. president truly be blamed for a global pandemic? 

For the pandemic no, for the response, yes. Given the clear evidence that governments who took dramatic action including stay-at-home orders and mandates to wear masks in public had dramatically higher success rate than those who took a more laissez-faire approach, yes it is clear, especially given the precedents mentioned above, that this administration dropped the ball on several occasions, and keeps doing so. Its response to this crisis can best be described as tragically inept, at worst, criminally negligent.

The tragedy here is that tens of thousands of American lives could have been saved had more people worn masks or short of that, practiced common sense social distancing methods that were prescribed by professionals whose lives are devoted to studying such things. Instead, millions of Americans choose to listen to a president whose chief sources of information are his own hair-brained hunches such as the now legendary ingesting bleach method of curing the disease caused by the virus. 

This president likes to compare himself favoribly to presidents of the past, especially one. 

But imagine if in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln while dedicating the cemetery on the hallowed grounds outside of Gettysburg, instead of honoring the dead, used the opportunity to lambast the press and his political opponents for treating him badly as this president did at a military cemetery in France during the remembrance of the 75th anniversary of D Day. 

Imagine if Franklin Delano Roosevelt on December 8, 1941 had addressed Congress, assuring the American public that by April, 1942 when it gets a little warmer, World War II would, as if by miracle, miraculously go away.

Or imagine if George W. Bush, while standing in New York City before the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center, in September of 2001 had said to those gathered: "It is what it is." 

Every president, good or bad until this one, has understood the awesome respnsibility placed upon his shoulders, or in the words of Barack Obama the other night, felt,  

...the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care.

Every president, good or bad until this one, has understood the role that public responsibility and sacrifice play especially during a time of crisis.

And every president, good or bad until this one, has understood, especially during a time of crisis, the necessity of unifying the country.

But not this president who is focused on thing and one thing only, holding on to power. 

To those ends, this president knows that his one chance of winning the next election, just like four years ago, is to stir up the passions, the anger, the fear and the hatred that a minority of the American public have against the rest of us. 

As has been perfectly clear during his enitre public life and even more so during his presidency, everything this president has done has been purely for his own benefit, and that even in the face of the needless deaths of tens of thousands of Americans under his watch, he is incapable or unwilling of doing anything that might bring people together.

Which brings me to the article that inspired this post. 

During the very strict stay at home orders imposed on Spain (and Italy) between March and June, a wonderful tradition developed. At 8 PM every night, people all over those countries stopped whatever they were doing and stood on their balconies to cheer on the public health workers who had just finished their shift and were headed home. There is ascertainable evidence to prove this as internet usage dropped significantly each night between 7:55PM and 8:10PM in all regions of both of those countries. 

Residents of Barcelona cheering on health workers as they head home after their shift.

The writer of the piece, Ana Mantilla, said that the cheers echoing through the streets created a feeling of excitement and liberation, knowing that the whole country (well, at least a large majority of it) was united in support of these workers who were risking their own lives in the service of others. Above all the reaction in one unified voice of so many her fellow countrymen and women lifted the morale of the country as they "rose to the occasion in solidarity, generosity and courage."

Meanwhile in this country during the shutdowns, massive demonstations took place with gun toting, mostly maskless yahoos demanding that the restrictions be lifted, pandemic be damned, just so they could get back to their normal lives. One widely distributed photograph showed a woman in Chicago carrying a sign addressed to the governor of Illinois, (who is Jewish) that read: "Arbeit Macht Frei" the words that marked the gate of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, under which passed some 1.3 million people, the majority of them Jews.

Nauturally the president expressed his support for these demonstrators.

But this president is not soley responsible for our disastrous response to COVID-19. The people who support him, well at least those who are old enough to vote, are supposedly adults who should know better. They are the ones who have allowed their fears and hatreds to be manipulated by a con-man who has his entire life proven himself to be a person clearly not to be trusted. Ask anyone who ever had buisness dealings with him if you don't believe me. 

Just this week, one of the president's top former advisors Steve Bannon, was indicted on fraud charges for allegedly pocketing money sent by true believers in the cause who thought they were contributing to the construction of the wall on the U.S./Mexican border. For his part, the president who directed 400 million dollars of Department of Homeland Security funds into Bannon's bogus operation, has a lot of "splainin'" to do. Not surprizingly he is doing what comes naturally to him, denying any invovement, distancing himself from Bannon and any responsibility, just as he has done with the plethora of higher ups in his campaign, his administration and his private life who have been charged, and in some cases convicted of committing felonies while in his service. 

The dust from the Bannon scandal hasn't yet surfaced but when it does, it's unlikely that the strong evidence that the president and his cronies are robbing them blind, still won't deter the true believers in the cult that has developed around this president.

I'm not one who goes in for internet memes but one I read recently was spot on. It said in effect, that the fear and hatred of the followers of this president far outweighs everything in the lives of these people, common sense, morality and sometimes even self-preservation.

Followers in the cult of this president would say that my bias against him makes me blind to "all the good he has done for this country." The truth is as much as I distrusted and disliked him four years ago, I did not wish him to fail as president as my love for my country prevented me from doing so. If he failed, then the country failed. And yet in all honesty,  I cannot believe that anyone who has been  paying attention to the events of the past four years can look at the state we're in and honestly say that this president has not failed this country.

My opinions of this president are based upon my own observations of the man over the past thirty five odd years as well as from reading accounts from multitudes of people who have had direct contact with him, including most recently, his neice Mary Trump. To anyone paying the slightest bit of attention, it doesn't take a student of psychology to realize that this president is not a well man. According to his neice who is a clinical psycholgist, much of that can be attributed to the way in which he was raised, which in a very small way excuses his deplorable behavior.  

But for the life of me I can't find an excuse for the shameless enabling of this president by Republican members of Congress, (who know exactly the kind of man he is and the dangers he poses to this country) fearful of his nasty tweets and of their constituents who will continue to blindly support this man come hell or high water.

History will not judge any of these folks kindly.

We love to talk of our parents' and granparents' generation, the one that lived during WWII. We call them "The Greatest Generation"  because of the sacrifices they made, both at home and on the front lines in Europe and the Pacific, to save the world from totalitarianism. 

Some of the members of that generation including my mother are still alive, and they are the people at the greatest risk from the pandemic. Imagine how these people who sacrificed everything so that the world might be a better place for their children, must feel looking at their children today who cannot be bothered with even the infinitessimally insignificant inconvenience of wearing a mask in order to help save the lives of others, or that we cannot come together as a nation to fight the war against this dreadful pandemic as one unified people.

We all ought to  be ashamed of ourselves. 

* The number, 167,201 was the number of COVID deaths in the U.S. one week ago when I began writing this piece. Today, one week later, that number stands at 174,246.



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