Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“In silk and satin
was the flea now made up;
he had ribbons on his clothing, and he had also a cross there,
and had soon become a minister
and had a large star.
Then his siblings became
great lords and ladies of the court as well.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Song of the Flea”
— Translated by Emily Ernst
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not during my lifetime, anyway. After all, it hadn’t happened for 102 years — not since the last true viral pandemic, the so-called “Spanish” flu of 1918-1919, ravaged the world. There’ve been a few viral crises since, notably polio in the 1930’s, when swimming pools were closed to stop the spread of the virus, but nothing like this in my living memory or that of just about anyone alive today.
Not that we weren’t warned. For the last 50 years epidemiologists and virologists have been screaming their little heads off about one virus or another that was supposed to cause a pandemic and kill millions of people worldwide. Remember Legionnaire’s Disease? Swine flu? Swine fever? SARS? MERS? Ebola? Zika? None of these materialized as pandemics. Even AIDS, as devastating as it was to the Gay male community and the other so-called “risk groups,” never became a general threat in the developed world, either because the virus was so weakly transmissible (according to the HIV/AIDS mainstream, your likelihood of getting infected from a single unprotected sexual contact is one in 500) or, as I’ve believed all along, because it was never a viral disease at all.
Indeed, one thing I’m not upset about regarding the U.S. government in general, and the Trump administration in particular, to the pandemic universally referred to as COVID-19 or the “novel coronavirus” (though the virus’s official name is SARS-CoV-2, indicating that it’s not “novel” at all but is a further evolution of the original SARS-CoV discovered in China in 2003), is that it took a long time to respond. The epidemiologists and virologists had been screaming so long about one pandemic threat or another they had become the scientific equivalents of the boy who cried wolf. I didn’t take the back-page newspaper stories from January 2020 about this weird new virus out of China seriously, and I suspect a lot of people — including President Trump — didn’t either because the scientific “experts” had cried wolf so often, and the wolf had never materialized.
Until now. Just why SARS-CoV-2 spread so rapidly out of its original Chinese base to infect the world in general, and locales like New York City and Italy in particular, is not known, and probably never will be known. But, like the flea in Goethe’s poem quoted above — who was elevated from lowly fleahood by a king, made into a noble and scared the shit out of the courtiers, who were afraid to swat insects or scratch themselves lest they kill the king’s new favorite — this virus has taken on an extraordinary level of power over virtually all humanity.
This submicroscopic package of RNA, proteins and a lipid coat has done what the armed forces of Germany and Japan were unable to do to the U.S. in two world wars: end professional sports and live concerts, shut down the Broadway theatres and make millions of Americans essentially prisoners in their own homes. It has caused almost all the world’s advanced industrial countries to bring their economies to a skidding halt and zoomed the U.S.’s unemployment rate from 3.4 to 14.7 percent in just one month (from February to March 2020). It threatens to start a long-lasting worldwide depression rivaling the one from the 1930’s.
And, in a particular bit of cruelty unique to the United States — still the only country in the advanced industrial world that does not guarantee access health care to all its citizens as a right — by throwing millions of people out of work, SARS-CoV-2 has also deprived them of their access to health care just when they most need it. If anything illustrates the need for the U.S. to junk its absurd, cruel, wasteful and inadequate health care non-system and enact a single-payer “Medicare for All” program in its place, it is the epidemic of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, the disease it causes.
Yet the piss-ant loser the Democratic Party seems determined to nominate as Donald Trump’s principal opponent in November, former vice-president and previous two-time failed Presidential candidate Joe Biden, angrily responded to Bernie Sanders as he tried to make that point in what turned out to be the last debate between two Democratic Presidential candidates this year. He said, essentially, that when your house is burning down it’s not the time to talk about how you could make it better. He had a point, but in promising federal health coverage only for people actually diagnosed with COVID-19 he missed the point that millions of Americans in marginal jobs or unemployed altogether will stay away from health care for fear that if their sickness isn’t COVID-19, they may be stuck with thousands of dollars worth of medical bills and every dollar they manage to scrape together will be seized from them by medical collection agencies.
When your house is burning down, the immediate need is to put the fire out — but once it’s out, you ought to take some time to consider how the house was designed in the first place. You should be asking whether rebuilding it exactly the way it was is just going to put you at risk of another devastating fire. SARS-CoV-2 is not only shutting down society and the economy, it’s also highlighting the continued danger Americans are in from a privately funded, profit-driven health care system that costs more than that in any other advanced country and consistently delivers worse outcomes — shorter life expectancies, more infant mortality, higher rates of chronic disease.
Boiling a Frog
The principal public response to SARS-CoV-2 from governments in most nations and U.S. states has been to issue so-called “stay-at-home orders” that, as I wrote two months ago in these pages, basically declare normal public life illegal. Workers have been told to isolate themselves in their homes and do their jobs from home, via the Internet, if they can. If they can’t — and it’s generally the people who were already working the most arduous low-paying, low-status, health-threatening jobs in the first place — they’re either being thrown out of work altogether, with no way to pay their rent or put food on their tables, or increasingly, as governors and President Trump talk about “reopening the economy,” they’re being threatened with a Hobson’s choice: either go back to work under hazardous conditions that maximize their chances of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, or lose access to unemployment benefits and risk ending up homeless and starving.
My husband Charles and I have both been relatively lucky so far through the pandemic. First, we have each other — and the moral support from a significant other in my life has been so powerful I thank whatever powers there may be in the universe that I don’t have to face this as a single man. Second, we both have our jobs; I’m an in-home caregiver for sick and disabled people, and he’s a grocery clerk. That means we’re both in so-called “essential occupations.” We’ve been going to work, doing our jobs and getting paid for them just as we were before the pandemic broke, and we’re still paying our rent and bills and buying food. We’re even well provisioned with the most elusive commodity of all, toilet paper, thanks to the sheer good luck that I’d picked up a large package of it at Costco just before the pandemic hit and wiped the shelves clean of it.
What we have had to deal with is a series of escalating regulations that I’ve compared to the classic recipe for cooking boiled frog. You take a live frog and stick it in a big pot of cold water. Frogs are amphibians, used to living in or on water, so they’re fine with that. Then you turn on the heat. The water gets warmer and warmer, the frog gets weaker and weaker, and by the time it dawns on its little frog brain that it’s in mortal danger, it’s too weak to get out of the pot and save its life. The ever-escalating regulations people have been ordered to live by — none of them actually debated and voted on either by the people as a whole or their elected representatives — strike me as the political equivalent of boiling a frog. The point is to weaken us slowly over time until we meekly follow orders and don’t resist until it’s too late.
Charles and I both rely on public transit to get to our jobs. At first we were able to ride San Diego’s buses normally: we got on at the front door, tapped our monthly passes on the reader for them, the computer system registered that we’d paid for our rides and we were good to go. Then, one morning, without any warning, the entire front section of each local bus was roped off and we were told to get on through the back door. The first day they did that we didn’t have to show passes at all — making the bus system essentially free — but after that we were required to show our passes to the driver (who was obliged to look at them through his rear-view mirror while still attempting to drive the bus!), even though the driver would have no way of knowing whether they were valid or not.
Starting May 1, we were treated to recorded announcements on the buses that due to an order from the County of San Diego — an order, mind you, as if governments at all levels had decided to abandon even the pretense of democracy and issue proclamations like a piss-ant dictatorship in a bad movie about an occupied country — that from now on we were permitted to use the buses only for “essential trips.” (“Essential” — a word that’s been thrown around a lot during this crisis — is, of course, very much in the mind of the beholder.) What’s more, we were told through that authoritarian voice on the buses’ P.A. systems (which are usually used only to announce where the bus is going and what its next stop will be) that all bus riders in San Diego County are now required to wear face coverings. Indeed, you’re supposed to have your face covered whenever you step out of your home.
The piss-ant regulations don’t stop with public transit. One of the clients I do home care for lives in a seniors’ building, and — freaked out, I suspect, by the fact that the first mass break-out of COVID-19 in the U.S. occurred in a nursing home in Washington state — the people running the place, both the on-site managers in San Diego and the bosses in Pasadena they answer to, have really gone hog-wild regulating the residents’ lives. They cancelled all public events in the building and boarded up the common areas, including the library where the one computer available to the residents was located. Thus people in the building who want to enroll in social programs they need now more than ever can’t do it.
What’s more, the residents are not allowed to have anyone over to their homes except caregivers and delivery people. They are specifically not allowed to have their adult children come over. If a family member wants to visit them, they have to meet outside the building. At least they can do that; relatives of nursing home residents have been forced to stand outside the building and look in at their loved ones, and sometimes they’ve “touched” each other through window panes of glass like couples in a 1930’s gangster movie in which one is in prison and the other is behind a wire-mesh screen, unable to touch each other.
Even when the on-site managers tried to do something sensible — like keeping the community restroom on the ground floor open to make it easier for the residents to wash their hands, as we’re incessantly being told we have to do to keep from getting SARS-CoV-2 — their bosses in Pasadena overruled them and ordered the restroom closed. There are a lot of incontinent people in the building who need that restroom open in order to be able to go out at all.
These weird and often silly measures to attempt to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 have also affected the ways businesses that are allowed to remain open can conduct themselves. One of the regulations from the state of California (again, merely proclaimed as law by the governor and never actually voted on by the people or their “democratic” representatives) says that only a certain number of people can be in a certain space at once. Thus a lot of grocery stores have had to set up checkpoints at their entrances in which you have to wait in line just for the privilege of being admitted to shop, and because of the ironclad “social distancing” (a horrible phrase that will probably, like a lot of the social changes brought on by SARS-CoV-2, linger long after the immediate need for it is passed), the lines to the checkout stands now wind their way through at least half the length of the store and often people still shopping for items find people waiting to check out are in their way.
Indeed, I’ve been in at least two grocery stores that have barricaded off their checkstands and forced all their customers to wait in one line — like the U.S. Postal Service or the rides at the now-shuttered Disneyland. The first time I encountered this was at the North Park Smart & Final at University and Mississippi. I thought the system was an outrageous imposition and said so to my husband when he got home from work that night — and he startled me by replying that he thought that was a great idea and wished his store would do it.
When I shopped for one of my home-care clients at the downtown Grocery Outlet at 11th and Market two days before Mother’s Day, they’d not only adopted the system of barricading the checkstands and forcing every customer to wait in just one very long line, they’d formed the barricade out of the stands of cut flowers they’d ordered to sell as Mother’s Day bouquets. This gave the uncanny impression that they were holding a funeral in the store — which, given that the stated reason for doing this was to keep their customers from getting a fatal disease, seemed macabrely appropriate to me.
My Slave Collar
At least for me and my husband, the inconveniences wrought in our daily lives by SARS-CoV-2 and the regulations proclaimed by governments at all levels to attempt to stop its spread are just that: inconveniences. They are annoying, arbitrary and for some reason keep getting ratcheted up in little installments. But they’re not utterly destroying our ordinary lives like the massive shutdowns of businesses, the rising unemployment level (from 3.5 percent in February to 14.7 percent in April, the highest level seen since the peak of the Great Depression from 1929 to 1933) and the threat to millions of Americans that the loss of their jobs also means their loss of access to health care at precisely the time they most need it.
For me, the most irksome regulation has been the increasing demands on people to wear face masks when outdoors at all times. When I first started people wearing masks on the bus — back in February, before the so-called “stay-at-home orders” and the virtual shutdown of normal life in obeisance to the Great God SARS-CoV-2 — I thought they were being silly. The reason I thought they were being silly was that I knew from my previous research that the ordinary face masks that used to be available readily in drug stores like CVS did not protect against viral transmission.
They do protect against bacteria, and also particulates that result from mass fires (before the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic the last time our household had bought masks was during the big San Diego wildfires of 2007). But because viruses are so small, they can pass right through the pores in the material the masks are made of. That’s why such a big to-do is being made right now about making sure doctors, nurses and other workers in hospitals, nursing homes and other care facilities have the so-called “N-95” or “KN-95” masks, which are made of a much less porous material and therefore do stop the transmission of free virus particles in the air.
But as the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic heated up and the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths zoomed upwards, I started to read phrases like “droplet contamination” and “aerosol contamination” as the reasons why health authorities thought masking was a good idea even though the common masks available (sometimes, at least) to ordinary citizens — or the makeshift ones people who can’t buy masks are obliged to make themselves from scarves, bandanas, old T-shirts or what have you — don’t block free-floating viruses. Apparently every time you cough, sneeze, talk or even breathe, you emit bits of water containing, among other things, potential infectious agents.
If you already have SARS-CoV-2, you can infect someone else via viruses hiding out in those droplets or aerosols. So, even if your ordinary non-medical-grade face mask is too porous to block the transmission of a virus on its own, it can block the transmission of those deadly droplets or aerosols which appear to be the principal ways this virus is spread. So I’ve grudgingly accepted the idea that the masks may be doing some good, and I’ve been following the order the County of San Diego and its public transit system have been issuing since May 1 that everybody who uses public transportation must be wearing a face mask at all times. I’ve also followed the order that I’m not allowed to enter a grocery store — including the one my husband works at — without wearing a mask.
But that doesn’t mean I have to like it! When I put on the mask, more often as not I call it “my slave collar.” My skepticism about masks — and in particular about the effectiveness of requiring people to wear them — only got fueled when I ordered and read a copy of a book that’s been on my bucket list of things I’d want to read someday for years: Alfred W. Crosby’s America’s Forgotten Pandemic, his 1976 history of the 1918-1919 flu. Needless to say, Crosby’s book zoomed to the top of my reading list as I became determined to read what he had to say about the pandemic 102 years ago and note the comparisons — and the differences — between then and now. And one of the most powerful chapters of his book was a withering condemnation of San Francisco’s response to the 1918-1919 pandemic and its reliance on masking as their principal weapon to stop its spread.
San Francisco, as a major port, was inevitably going to be an epicenter of a pandemic like the 1918-1919 flu that spread most powerfully via ships, many of them packed with servicemembers either on their way to or returning home from World War I. The city’s public health officer, Dr. William Hassler, already had enormous prestige there because many people had predicted San Francisco would suffer an epidemic of bubonic plague after the destruction of much of its infrastructure by the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. That didn’t happen, and Dr. Hassler was given much of the credit for that.
Dr. Hassler was convinced that the way to stop the spread of the 1918 flu was to require everyone in the city to wear face masks at all times. He got the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to enact the requirement by unanimous vote. (It’s interesting that, unlike today, there was a public hearing and an on-the-record vote by an elected body — not merely a dictatorial proclamation.) The masking law went into effect, and the number of cases dropped. Then public resistance set in, more and more San Franciscans broke the law, and the number of cases rose.
Needless to say, Dr. Hassler felt that had proved his point. Then some enterprising reporters looked at case data from other Bay Area cities and found that the same pattern of rising, falling and re-rising cases had occurred there whether those cities had had masking ordinances or not. It had to do with the overall course of the pandemic — particularly the fact that it occurred in three waves: a first wave in spring and early summer 1918; a second, far more deadly, wave in late fall and winter 1918; and a third wave, more deadly than the first but less than the second, in spring 1919. (This is one of the reasons public health experts in the current pandemic are warning that American states and cities should not lift the stay-at-home orders and reopen businesses and public places too soon; relaxing our guard now could easily trigger a more severe second wave of COVID-19.)
The final word on masking requirements Crosby quoted in his book came from Dr. Edwin Jordan, who in 1927 produced a history of the pandemic for the American Medical Association. He wrote, “[T]he practical difficulties in the way of mask wearing by the general public seem insuperable, and render this measure one for individual rather than general prophylaxis.” In other words, wearing a mask may keep you safe, but it’s going to do little or nothing to slow the general spread of a pandemic virus. This seems to be news to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), who like Dr. Hassler 102 years ago seem to regard mask requirements as a sine qua non for stopping SARS-CoV-2, but it makes sense to me.
I must say that my husband Charles strongly disagrees with me on that one. He’s really tired of hearing me call my mask “my slave collar,” and in one of his rare bursts of anger (he’s generally a quite calm person who, if we disagree about something, is more likely to express himself politely rather than angrily) he told me that the only things that are keeping him confident that he won’t catch the virus from a grocery-store customer are the mask he’s required to wear on duty and the big Plexiglas covers between him and his customers. “Don’t you be the guy I have to have thrown out of the store for not wearing a mask!” he told me.
Indeed, as I was writing this article Charles came home from a work shift literally screaming at the number of customers he’d had during the last three hours of his May 13 work shift who’d refused to wear masks and given him piss-ant excuses for not doing so. One woman said she couldn’t wear a mask because she has chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), which prompted Charles to tell me when he got home he intends to look up a Web site on COPD and find out for himself whether that condition means you can’t wear a mask. According to the Web site I found, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/covid-19-and-copd, COPD patients should wear a mask in public during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic because they “have a higher risk of more severe illness from COVID-19 due to their existing lung problems.”
The National Rorschach — Again
One of the most fascinating aspects of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is the extent to which it’s become politicized. I’ve written in these pages before that under Donald Trump the U.S. has essentially been taking a national Rorschach test; like the Rorschach inkblots, just about every news event for the last four years has evoked profoundly different responses from the American people. The U.S. has divided itself into two widely and seemingly irreconcilably separated political camps: the 40 percent or so of the country who regard Donald Trump as the nation’s savior and believe virtually everything he says; and the roughly equal but slightly larger percentage who can’t stand him and believe he’s dragging the country down the road to authoritarianism and the arbitrary rule of one man — and one man of bizarre whims and a dubious hold on sanity, at that.
Part of that division has come about due to the rise of two separate and distinct media parties in the U.S. Left-leaning media critics tend to focus on how so many ostensibly separate media outlets are owned by a handful of companies with similar class interests. But just as the U.S. has long been dominated by two political parties, Republicans and Democrats, both totally committed to protecting and extending the power of big-corporate capitalism but with profound and significant differences on how to do that, so there are two big pro-corporate U.S. media parties. America’s center-Right media party consists of the major newspapers — particularly the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times — along with the big TV networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS) and such cable channels as CNN and MS-NBC.
The far-Right media party consists largely of AM talk radio (as music broadcasting retreated to the better-sounding FM band in the 1970’s Right-wing talk shows grabbed control of virtually the whole AM band, and the decision of President Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission [FCC] to eliminate the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” paved the way for these stations to broadcast Right-wing propaganda virtually 24/7) and, since 1996, the consistently highest-rated cable news network, Fox. These outlets carefully cultivated an audience of disaffected people — mostly, though not exclusively, working-class white males — disgusted by the social changes that began in the 1960’s, particularly the civil-rights struggles of people of color, women and Queers.
For years the far-Right audience built up by talk radio and Fox News yearned for a President who not only bought into their sense of grievance but actually sounded like them and the on-air personalities they had come to revere. Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes delivered on a lot of the Right-wing policy agenda but didn’t really grab the talk-radio and Fox News electorate the way Donald Trump has.
Trump not only talks like a Right-wing talk-radio host —the same unremitting self-righteousness and the same tactic of belittling and sneering anyone with a contrary view, and saying the only reason anyone disagrees with him is they have a sinister, malevolent, conspiratorial motivation to keep him from “making America great again” — he’s thrown government policy into reverse on civil rights, environmental protection, foreign engagement and all the other bogeymen hosts on talk radio and Fox News have been railing against for decades. Indeed, on a number of issues Trump has even let talk-show and Fox News hosts dictate policy — including obeying Tucker Carlson’s demand that the National Institutes of Health de-fund a program in which U.S. and Chinese health experts were coordinating responses to SARS-CoV-2. (This was reported on 60 Minutes May 10: see https://www.cbsnews.com/news/nih-cancelled-coronavirus-research-grant-60-minutes-2020-05-10/.)
As Los Angeles Times columnist Virginia Heffernan wrote in a May 8 article defending face-mask requirements against ideologically driven Right-wing opposition (https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-05-08/coronavirus-mask-mke-pence-donald-trump), “I’m trying to avoid thinking of the mask as a crucifix necklace or an Affliction-brand face tattoo, something that marks me as part of one fight club and not another. Because of course there are those who don’t and won’t wear masks. And it’s going to be a long, terrible summer if, as the coronavirus death toll mounts, the United States erupts in Sharks-Jets street fights over who masks and who doesn’t. … Mask-rejecters are flouting public-health guidelines the way chain-smokers used to, grounding their individuality in their defiance of nanny-state edicts and in their outlaw freedom to trash their own health and endanger others. …
“The battle over masks maps closely onto the dangerously inflamed red-blue divide,” Heffernan continued. “MS-NBC field reporter Craig Melvin wears one. Fox News host Laura Ingraham, citing masks as advertisements for ‘fear and intimidation,’ does not. President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have refused masks; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has a drawerful of handsome, practical cloth face coverings. This daft showdown wouldn’t matter if we didn’t live in the political tinderbox that is Trump’s America.” (There are reason-based arguments to be made against requiring face masks — I’ve made some of them above — but the Trump-Fox-talk radio crowd aren’t bothering with them.)
One of the hallmarks of a totalitarian state — which the U.S. is already dangerously close to becoming and will probably complete the process if (as I expect) Trump is re-elected in November 2020 against Joe Biden, the hapless bozo-brain the Democrats are suicidally determined to nominate against him — is that everything is political. Trump is a totalitarian not only in his determination to take total control of the U.S. government and fire or drive out anyone who contradicts his point of view, but in his view that every event in the U.S. must be viewed and responded to according to whether it helps or hurts him economically or politically.
When the SARS-CoV-2 crisis began in earnest in February, Trump regarded it as more a personal insult than anything else. How dare this little piss-ant virus break out — in China, one of the countries Trump loves to hate (particularly because so many U.S. companies have exported manufacturing jobs there) even while he admires and envies its dictator, Xi Jinping — and start throwing its weight around. How dare it screw up the American economy just as it was racking up record-high stock market averages and record-low unemployment figures and thus ensuring his re-election. Throughout the crisis Trump’s focus has remained resolutely on what the virus is doing to him rather than what it’s doing to the country — and the world.
Trump is and has always been a man who divided humanity into two groups: those who are with him and those who are against him. He’s also someone who sees everything that happens in the U.S., no matter how far removed from politics, as grist for the revenge-driven mill of his Twitter feed. Whether attacking professional athletes for kneeling during the national anthem at games as a protest against police brutality or denouncing Meryl Streep (the most Academy Award-nominated actress in movie history) as “overrated” because she issued a veiled criticism of him on the Golden Globes, Trump regards any social, cultural or political opposition to him as a threat to America itself.
So it’s no surprise that Trump’s response to SARS-CoV-2 has been full of his usual invective — and his attempt to blame someone else for anything that goes wrong. He’s blamed former President Obama for the U.S. not having a viable COVID-19 test in the early days of the pandemic — even after it was Trump, not Obama, who closed down all the federal offices that were supposed to coordinate with other governments to give us early warnings of evolving viruses that could cause pandemics. He’s blamed China and endorsed Congressmember Matt Gaetz’ [R-Florida] bonkers conspiracy theory that the Wuhan Institute of Virology genetically engineered SARS-CoV-2 and loosed it on the world as a bioweapon.
He’s blamed Democrats and alleged that they want to ruin the country and cause mass deaths just to make him look bad — while public-health experts are futilely trying to warn him that restarting the American economy too soon risks mass annihilation from a second wave of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. In a further example of Trump’s determination to purge the American government of anyone who disagrees with him and replace them with people whose sole qualification is personal loyalty to Trump (the process Adolf Hitler called Gleichschaltung — literally “coordination” or “rectification”), he not only canceled EcoHealth Alliance’s grant to study emerging viruses in association with similar labs worldwide (referenced above in the May 10 60 Minutes report), he fired CDC vaccine researcher Dr. Rick Bright for not going along with Trump’s hailing of hydroxychloroquine (a crucial drug for the treatment of lupus but totally untested for COVID-19) as a miracle cure.
(For information on the Bright firing, see https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/trumps-firing-of-a-top-infectious-disease-expert-endangers-us-all?utm_source=nl&utm_brand=tny&utm_mailing=TNY_Daily_042320&utm_campaign=aud-dev&utm_medium=email&bxid=5bd67def24c17c104802d859&cndid=48795007&hasha=7211a88f055bd17bdb282abe13bcaec5&hashb=1b1fd81444c3a076b11a0dfd4976a1cfbff930c4&hashc=b3ad2cd7ada4a3e0189edc794b80d6e9a213d883989556b06506edd545e9490a&esrc=AUTO_OTHER&utm_term=TNY_Daily. A more recent commentary on President Trump’s attack on Bright as “disgruntled” is at https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-05-14/trump-bright-disgruntled-whistleblower-coronavirus.)
During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump famously proclaimed, “I know more about ISIS than the generals.” It’s obvious he thinks he knows more about SARS-CoV-2 than the doctors. There’s certainly no love lost between me and Anthony Fauci — not when he was a key part of the government’s terrible handling of the AIDS crisis and helped kill tens of thousands of my Gay brothers — and I get sick to my stomach when I hear him referred to as some godlike oracle on how to deal with infectious disease. But right now — especially when he’s warning of a potential second wave of the pandemic and trying to put the brakes on the rush to reopen businesses and force workers in unsafe jobs like meat-packing back to work, or else — he’s making a lot of sense.
But then the entire SARS-CoV-2 response has become embroiled in America’s ongoing partisan divide, as Los Angeles Times reporter Melissa Etehad wrote on May 14 (https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-05-14/coronavirus-democratic-republican-battle-over-reopenings). A partisan 4-3 Republican majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court just overruled the state’s Democratic governor Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order — and at least some Wisconsinites responded by flocking to the bars and celebrating their new-found ability to put themselves in viral harm’s way. Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, another Democrat, is facing pushback from Republican legislators and a recall campaign to throw her out of office.
Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf, another Democrat facing a Republican legislature (thanks to the GOP’s success in gerrymandering legislative districts so state voters get Republican control even when overwhelming majorities of them vote for Democrats — one more reason we should abandon single-member districts and winner-take-all elections and replace them with Germany’s system of proportional representation), is being threatened with defiance from county governments in conservative areas of the state. ““We’re trying to get things moving in a safe and responsible manner because this thing is turning into a pressure cooker,” said Republican Representative Dan Moul from Adams County. “This thing is going to blow up if [Wolf] doesn’t make a move soon.”
Donald Trump, being Donald Trump, has thrown fuel on these fires with his all-caps tweets to “LIBERATE” states like Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia from stay-at-home orders — even though no U.S. state has met the criteria put forth by the CDC for when it’s safe to reopen. His administration ordered the CDC to take down its carefully considered reopening plan, and one White House official boasted that it “would never see the light of day.” (Fortunately, it did because someone leaked it.) Pollsters keep saying that three out of every four Americans want the lockdown orders to continue. An April 2 survey by the Washington Post and Ipsos (cited by Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik at https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2020-05-14/economy-shut-down#) nearly three-fourths of all respondents said “the worst is yet to come.”
In the fight against SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 disease it causes, Donald Trump’s scattershot leadership style has made things worse, not better. His constant demands for flattery have turned most of government into his cheering section. His insistence that states fight with each other, and with federal agencies, for testing supplies, ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE) for health-care personnel and all the other tools needed to fight the pandemic is the way he’s always run his businesses. Trump was the sort of boss who hired people without giving them a clear idea of what he wanted them to do, and let them fight it out to win his favor. That’s how he’s run the government as well, and it’s the incredibly destructive way he’s running the SARS-CoV-2 response.
More Isolated and More Unequal
What is America’s — and the world’s — future going to look like after the crisis phase of SARS-CoV-2 passes? (I say “the crisis phase” because some form or another of this virus will probably be with us as long as humanity exists; the best we hope for is it evolves to be less lethal, like the flu.) One thing is certain: the sheer power of the corporate elites that actually run the world will grow and grow and grow. The human race has evolved a ruling class of such power, scope, influence and seeming invulnerability that it will use everything that happens to make the distribution of wealth and income ever more unequal. We got a good example of that when most of the money from the first round of the so-called “Paycheck Protection Program,” which was supposed to help small businesses stay alive during the shutdown, was instead diverted to giant corporations.
America — and the world — are also going to become more isolated. The iron demands health officials are making as the bottom line for controlling SARS-CoV-2 — particularly the seemingly ironclad “social distancing” rule that everyone must remain six feet away from everyone else at all times — hit the world at a time when people are already far too isolated, far too “distant,” from each other. You can see that when you say hello to people as you walk by them on the street; even before SARS-CoV-2 they would usually just stare blankly at you or ignore you completely.
One thing I’ve long believed is that America’s relationship to communications media started to change dramatically in 1959 with the introduction of the transistor radio. For the first half of the 20th century, mass communications media were truly mass. Phonograph records, movies, radio and TV were centralized messages that transmitted one program to an audience of many. Beginning with the transistor radio, media became individualized: you could now use media technology not to become part of a broader world, but quite the opposite — to isolate yourself, to cut yourself off from other people and brush off any attempts by others to communicate with you as distractions.
Since then, media have become more individualized — more “narrowcast” than “broadcast,” as they say in the media business. Instead of three or four big TV networks, there are hundreds of cable and satellite channels serving narrower and narrower market niches. Instead of watching movies in theatres, more and more people were watching them at home — first on VHS, then on DVD, now on so-called “streaming services” that give you access to whatever programs you want for a monthly subscription fee. Music, too, has changed from something you listened to on radio (where it came free but with only a limited choice of what to listen to) or on records (of whatever format) to something that is “streamed,” where for a subscription fee you can have access to the whole smorgasbord of recorded music and pick out only the items you want.
The most obvious and transformative evolution of the transistor radio has been the smartphone. One of the biggest reasons you get ignored if you try to say hello to a stranger on the street is they’re plugged into those damned phones and are using earbuds (just like the original transistor radio users 60 years ago!) to listen to music or talk and literally block out the rest of the world. I’ve seen plenty of people at streetlights who are so wrapped up with what they’re doing with their smartphones they literally don’t see the traffic signals change, and more than once I’ve told one of these people, “Hey, the light’s green. You can cross now.” Between the smartphone and the Internet, it’s now all too easy to block out any opinion, any voice, any stream of information or even any fact that doesn’t fit in your existing world view.
The increasing individualization of the media is, I think, the reason why the nature of extreme political movements have changed. The radical movements of the first half of the 20th century were collectivist: fascism on the Right, socialism and communism on the Left. Since the era of the transistor radio and the media “narrowcasting” it ushered in, the dominant radical political movements have become individualistic: libertarianism on the Right, anarchism on the Left. Michael Hiltzik’s May 14 Los Angeles Times column at https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2020-05-14/economy-shut-down# argues that to succeed in battling SARS-CoV-2, “the American public, resistant to government regimentation even in a crisis, would have to be shown how shared action and shared sacrifice would defeat the virus.”
Dream on, Michael; all too many Americans have become individualistic narcissists whose only concerns in a crisis are “What’s in it for me?” and “What can it do to me?” In that regard, Donald Trump — an individualistic narcissist par excellence who so totally lacks concern for anyone else he can’t even fake it when he tries to — is the perfect President for the U.S. right now. South Korean immigrant Marie Myung-Ok Lee published a column in the May 13 Los Angeles Times (https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-05-13/trump-asia-coronavirus-testing-south-korea) argued that her native country did a better job grabbing hold of the SARS-CoV-2 crisis and responding to it forcefully than her adopted country did:
Dr. Jung [Eun-Kyeong, head of South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control] was able to persuade a populace to allow tracking via credit cards, cell-phone GPS and other methods, including getting a church to give up the records of more than 200,000 members for the purposes of public health — a level of organization and trust the U.S. cannot match. If a person with COVID-19 leaves isolation, a text alert is issued, alerting those nearby. Tracing an infected person’s contacts is so rigorous that a running joke in South Korea is that you can’t even die in peace from the coronavirus because the government will still track you down.
Keep that paragraph in mind whenever you hear any public-health official blandly declare that “contact tracing” — words that seem harmless but actually demand a level of government intrusion in our daily lives that will appall Right and Left Americans alike — is necessary to combat and control SARS-CoV-2. I first heard the words “contact tracing” in the 1980’s as a technique to forestall epidemics of sexually transmitted disease. Most people know the people who have sex with, and even if they don’t know the “who” (like the Gay men who in the pre-AIDS era — and still, to a lesser extent, today — sought casual anonymous sex in bathhouses, back-room bars, public restrooms and “cruisy” areas in public parks and piers) they could still give contact tracers a good idea of where, when and what sorts of sex they’d had.
So when I started hearing “contact tracing” mentioned as an important tool against SARS-CoV-2 my initial thought was, “How on earth are you going to do contact tracing for a casually transmissible virus?” It’s going to take a massive expansion of the government’s surveillance of ordinary Americans that will dwarf even the “anti-terrorist” surveillance programs (like the National Security Agency’s surveillance of every e-mail and cell-phone call by an American) put in place as an emergency response to the 9/11 attacks but still going on nearly 20 years later. “Contact tracing” for SARS-CoV-2 will require either the abolition or severe restriction on the privacy of people’s health histories, and will be so people-intensive a number of people have actually said it could be a full-employment program, like Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to put unemployed people to work during the Great Depression, that could help alleviate the economic slump caused by COVID-19 and the great shutdown.
And the public health experts who are so blandly and blithely calling for massive amounts of “contact tracing” for SARS-CoV-2 are doing so in a climate in which at least two generations of Americans have been brainwashed by decades of Right-wing propaganda (and some Left-wing propaganda, too) to hate the whole idea of collective action through government. As Michael Hiltzik pointed out in the above-cited article, “The challenges are political and cultural in a country that has been trained since the Reagan administration to mistrust the government. That particular chicken has come home to roost. At a moment when a consistent, humanistic expression of government authority would save thousands of lives, federal leadership is in the hands of a petulant egotist whose interest appears to be in using this crisis to divide Americans, not unite them in a shared cause, and blame everyone else for his own manifest failure.”
In a culture that has long celebrated “rugged individualism” and the “pioneer spirit,” and in which changes in media technology over the last 60 years have left us more atomized — to the point where each side in our political debate feels entitled not only to its own opinions but its own facts, and viewers of Fox News have a profoundly different idea of what’s going on in the world from viewers of CNN or MS-NBC — the SARS-CoV-2 crisis demands we pull together politically while at the same time it divides us physically.
In a March 23 article in The New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-loneliness-from-coronavirus-isolation-takes-its-own-toll?source=EDT_NYR_EDIT_NEWSLETTER_0_imagenewsletter_Daily_ZZ&utm_campaign=aud-dev&utm_source=nl&utm_brand=tny&utm_mailing=TNY_Daily_032320&utm_medium=email&bxid=5bd67def24c17c104802d859&cndid=48795007&esrc=&mbid=&utm_term=TNY_Daily), Robin Wright noted the irony that the instinct of the human species when confronted with a crisis is to band together. Yet in this crisis, banding together in the conventional ways people do it — coming together physically, doing bonding rituals, hugging, touching each other — is one of the biggest things people are told they must not do.
Wright interviewed Dr. Sue Varma, a New York University official who founded a mental health program specifically aimed at survivors of the 9/11 attacks in New York City in 2001. “What’s different today from the 9/11 attacks or Hurricane Katrina or the tsunami in Japan is that those episodes had finite endings. With this pandemic, we see no end in sight, so it’s more traumatic,” Dr. Varma told her. What’s more, Dr. Varma said, loneliness, especially the inability to have physical contact with other people, produces physical reactions that are themselves destructive of mental health. “The power of touch releases oxytocin, which is a natural cuddle hormone. You see it during mother-infant bonding, an orgasm, and hugs,” Dr. Varma said. She compared prolonged loneliness to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and said it raises your risk for the same diseases associated with tobacco use: cardiovascular disease and stroke, obesity, or premature death. It also makes you more susceptible to depression and dementia, she explained.
Beware of the Interblob!
One of the most striking phenomena associated with the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is it has increased the already outsized role the Internet is playing in our daily lives — not only how we inform ourselves and how we shop, but how we entertain ourselves and even how we learn. In 2013 I published to this blog and the East County Magazine Web site what I think is one of the most important pieces I have ever written, “The Interblob” (https://zengersmag.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-interblob.html). “[L]ike the Blob in the 1958 sci-fi camp-classic film — a huge piece of protoplasmic jelly from outer space that devoured everything in its path and grew to massive proportions — the Internet has devoured virtually every competing source of information, entertainment or culture,” I wrote. “And that’s not all. It’s transformed such basic functions of modern life as the search for a job or the pursuit of a relationship. It’s remolding us all into widgets in an increasingly computerized world in which it’s not altogether clear whether the machines are serving us or we are serving them.”
The SARS-CoV-2 crisis is accelerating the rise of the Interblob to warp speed. Schools at all levels, from kindergarten to graduate schools, have closed down physically and moved their course offerings online. Virtually all stores other than groceries or pharmacies have been shut down; if you want to buy a book, a record or a movie, almost your only source for those items is a Web site. Furniture stores and home remodeling companies have been forced to close down their showrooms and offer you so-called “virtual tours” of what your home may look like — if everything goes well, which it usually doesn’t. Even if you need to apply for social-service programs like food stamps, Medi-Cal or low-cost phone or Internet service, the offices that usually handle those things are closed to the public and you’re told, “You can always do that online.”
This is an especially cruel irony for people who don’t have computers and aren’t on the Internet already: they’re given the Catch-22 that in order to be fully a part of modern life, you have to be on the Internet — but you can only apply for Internet service if you’re already on the Internet. It’s even worse than it might be otherwise because the pandemic has closed down virtually all the routes for Internet access for people who don’t own their own computers — public libraries and computers available to apartment-building residents.
The increasing Internetization of life is one trend that was well under way before SARS-CoV-2 reared its ugly little transmission knobs from its lipid coats, but the pandemic is accelerating it to warp speed. Not only have almost all educational institutions closed their doors and gone to “online learning,” but there’s no sign that they’ll return to in-person instruction any time soon — if at all.
Timothy P. White, chancellor of the California State University system, just announced that its 23 campuses will remain closed for the 2020 fall semester (though lab courses and a handful of other hands-on classes will still meet in person, albeit with far fewer people — he said enrollment in labs will decrease from 20 students per class to five). He appeared on the PBS News Hour and explained that, though online learning is initially more expensive than in-person instruction because of the initial investment in hardware and software, it’s so much more “efficient” than clunky old in-person classrooms he anticipates that after the crisis 70 percent of his system’s instruction will happen online.
Indeed, SARS-CoV-2 has moved the entire school system online — and this is going to exacerbate existing economic and social inequality still further. Already children from affluent households have enormous educational advantages over kids from poorer ones — more stable home lives, better nutrition, more books in the home and a greater appreciation of learning from their parents. The rise of online education is just going to move us closer to a society of education haves and education have-nots, as children’s ability to do well in school increasingly depends on just how good a computer and an Internet connection their parents can afford.
It’s ironic that one of the things I complained about in my 2013 “Interblob” article was that the Los Angeles Times had dropped its print listing of TV schedules. Not long after I posted the article, I added a correction that the Times had restored TV schedules to the print edition — though the new schedule was far less comprehensive and took much less space. But SARS-CoV-2, and especially the plummeting ad revenue newspapers are dealing with as so many of their traditional advertisers are closed “for the duration,” led the TV schedules to disappear from the Los Angeles Times, once and quite likely for all. This is especially wrenching since if you’re stuck at home because your employer has closed, it seems one of the things you’d most want to know from your newspaper (assuming you still get one) is what’s on TV that night.
Already we’re hearing about the shutdown of community newspapers, many of them having published for longer than 100 years and survived economic depressions and world wars. Many people won’t immediately miss newspapers — they’re an old-hat technology in a world in which current events are available via cable TV or, dare I say it, the Internet — but it’s still the big “legacy” newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times that set the news agenda because they’re the ones with the money and staff to cover most of the world’s substantial news stories and give TV crews and online journalists the cues for what to cover.
Without community newspapers, local governments will be able to run roughshod over their residents because there won’t be press outlets to hold them to account. Without a strong press — and particularly a strong press whose product is available on paper and therefore doesn’t require the substantial investments in a computer and a monthly Internet service bill — we’ll become a nation of information haves and information have-nots, just as the increasing Internetization of education will turn us into a society of knowledge haves and knowledge have-nots.
And in an age in which the fastest-growing and most lucrative jobs involve handling information, America’s already immobile class system will become even worse. Future Americans, even more than present-day ones (or the Europeans of the past, including our forebears, many of whom emigrated here in the first place precisely to get away from a class system in which your birth determined your entire life and there was virtually no chance for upward mobility), will have their entire futures determined by who their parents were, how much money they had and what they did for a living.
This is the kind of world SARS-CoV-2 is creating (or accelerating the creation of) for our future: a world of rigid class divides based on your access to information (or lack thereof) ruled by an elite concerned more about making money than saving people. If you don’t believe me, look at President Trump’s speech ordering meat-packing plants to reopen despite the lack of mitigation of the already cramped working conditions that have made them among America’s biggest focal points for the spread of SARS-CoV-2. It will also be a world where people are conditioned to fear each other’s very presence; as I wrote in an earlier post on the pandemic, in the early days of the AIDS epidemic Gay men still met and got together for sex, but in the back of their minds they thought, “Is this the one who will kill me?”
Now everybody who comes within six feet of another person who isn’t a family member is being told to worry, “Is this the one who will kill me?” It’s hard to imagine a world more inimical to the best parts of the human psyche: our willingness to touch each other, to love for each other, to sacrifice for each other. Those qualities had already become so rare in our society and our culture that we take time every evening to bang pot lids in honor of the nurses and other health-care professionals who are risking their own lives and help others through the horrors of COVID-19. And they will become even rarer as COVID-19 and the virus that causes it, SARS-CoV-2, remake the world as a place of inequality, institutionalized cruelty, paranoia and fear.