Wednesday, April 22, 2020

A Covid-19 Kind Of Day

And so another day begins. The morning get-up routines have been completed, breakfast has been eaten, I am all dressed to meet the day. But what kind of today awaits me as we move through month two of a Covid-19 redefined existence?

Each today looks very similar to yesterday, and the now many yesterdays that came before. One of the normal life changes that occurs in “seniorhood” is that one’s schedule is less dictated by external requirements and institutions versus our own created calendar. There is a certain great freedom in that, but it is also an easy slide into a sameness routine – less distinction from one day to the next. “What day is today?” becomes a more frequently asked question. Covid-19’s stay-at-home requirement exaggerates that sameness even more. How does one fill the time, nurture one’s spirit, and generate enthusiasm in such a context?

We catch up on a thousand little household and personal to-dos that have been awaiting our attention for months (years?). We discover reading again, though the closed libraries and bookstores inconveniently thwart our intentions. Gasoline is cheaper than ever, but there are few places open to go to. A good time to start a new hobby – if you have the materials that you need. How many homes are good entertainment and educational respites for engagement, versus now relying on external venues for amusement? It is a good time to catch up with friends and family, though it must now be done digitally. It is less satisfying through technology, but it breaks up the easy slide towards isolation. The afternoon walk becomes the high point of this new adventure: sunshine, movement, nature, fresh air are all good, encapsulated in an unfamiliar but newly found “quiet” (relatively speaking). Sitting on the front porch, one greets the many neighbors (and often their pets) going by, most of whom having been previously unfamiliar faces. As I watch the day pass, I remind myself that I am a card-carrying member of the higher-risk Covid-19 age group; I am cautious, but not paralyzed.

That said, other people have a very differently filled day, even if they also experience a similar sameness. Some people are classed as “essential workers” employed at “essential businesses.” Generally these workers are: 1) those inadequately-supported health care workers fighting Covid-19 on the front lines (e.g. doctors, nurses, maintenance staff in hospitals / nursing homes / care centers; emergency and first responders; pharmacy employees); 2) those that are keeping our infrastructures open and functioning so the rest of us can stay home (e.g. food chain workers and servers; municipal service workers; home / transportation / financial servicers). Without them, our defensive systems would collapse. While they may be thankful to have employment, and an income to help support their families, it comes with an ever-present awareness that they could easily move from defender to patient with little warning. Yet they continue on, their personal worries tucked under their collective hats – save those occasional moments of desperately needed mental and emotional release.

Another group is the cadre of “at-home” workers. For some, this is a totally new experience which may or may not prove comfortable. Some people can be quite productive in this environment. Others are too easily distracted by the temptations of the home; some may react badly to the isolation and miss the “social” element of working in a central office with colleagues; some may find it difficult to do all work and communicating through technology tools. Perhaps they are also part of a family with children who must be homeschooled, entertained, or overseen. A family that is usually dispersed during the day may now find themselves suddenly together 24x7. It can be a combustible mix requiring a creative deftness instituted on the fly. But at least some employment and income can be continued, and thereby some commercial activities can be conducted for the community. The white collar workplace may be forever changed.

Which leaves another group of people living in limbo. For them, working at home is not an option. For employees, the job is gone; for small business owners, the building is shuttered. Yet unstoppable bills still must be paid, food must be bought, prescriptions must be filled, but “$0” only stretches so far. Many have minimal-to-no financial cushion to absorb this blow, have no idea when – or  if – jobs and businesses will return. Their paycheck-to-paycheck life is now a day-to-day decision about how to survive. The one-time $1200 stimulus check is helpful, but is only an already insufficient month’s pay for a minimum-wage worker; an even shorter timeframe for a previously higher-paid worker. They may spend their day on long lines at the food bank, while farmers dump milk and plow under crops for lack of market reach. They file unemployment insurance claims and applications for small business loans, but those offices are overwhelmed by the volume of millions of filings happening concurrently. So the checks are slow to arrive, if at all. And the next dinnertime comes all too soon.

Alongside this on-the-fly societal reinvention stand the Covid-19 deniers. It is a group that considers the whole pandemic an overblown phenomenon (if not hoax), blown out of proportion by the “fake news” media in search of a story filled with necessary villains. They quote statistics suggesting the Covid-19 numbers are less than other typical cyclical causes of health crises. Or they point to small numbers of cases/deaths in rural areas where they live so the probability of their being infected is assumed to be minimal. (It is unclear how many more than 800,000 Covid-19 cases / 40,000 deaths they require to qualify as an epidemic.) Or they protest the shutdown / stay-at-home program that is the only thing with hope of protecting them – or their neighbors.

I recently saw a Facebook post arguing that that America was simply overreacting to an everyday medical problem. That by giving into this disease by shutting down and staying home and not reopening the economy, Americans had become “soft,” or more specifically, had become “wimps.” I would suggest that that writer speak directly to some of the medical personnel and first responders who are showing up each day to tend to the sick. They fight everyday feeling as if they are carrying a sophisticated automatic rifle, but have only one bullet to use; they wait desperately for the cavalry to come to their rescue, but they never show. The “success” of their efforts is no longer measured by the number of people cured, but instead by how many less people died today. They are some of the most courageous people I know of. Or speak directly to some heads of families with no job and no income trying to hold mind and body together, but who understand why they are home. They are some of the most courageous people I know of. Or speak directly to the millions of Americans who are quietly cooperating with the social distancing and stay-at-home orders not because it is easy or convenient, but because they do it for their own good and for the good of others. They are some of the most courageous people I know of. Most importantly, speak to one of the sick or dying Covid-19 patients, alone in a cold institutional health facility, devoid of family or friends, trying to get through the day not knowing if they will survive this experience – 40,000 Americans have already died in just six weeks’ time. Theirs is a very different Covid-19 kind of day. They are truly some of the most courageous people I know of.

These are among the best of our citizens. All told, there’s not a wimp among them.

©   2020   Randy Bell   

Friday, April 10, 2020

Two Commentaries On Covid-19 Responses

Lieutenant General Todd Semonite. Remember that name. Imprint it on the very front of your brain. Why? Because he is the commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps that moves stuff, builds stuff, puts it exactly wherever it is needed, on a short timetable. When they don’t have exactly what they need, they improvise – American ingenuity on display. That is their job, every single day. I have seen General Semonite interviewed twice now. A no nonsense, old school kind of guy. If you can be clear about what you need (as some governors and mayors are), he is totally focused on just getting the job done. “No” and “can’t be done” are not part of the vocabulary.

Thanks to General Semonite and his extended team, there are temporary, makeshift, and converted facilities going up as hospitals all over this country to respond to the Covid-19 onslaught on our medical centers. Convention centers, dormitories, and vacant hotels converted to overflow hospitals. Tent hospitals built on football fields, parking lots, any open space that can be used. Usually completed in less than a week. It is what the Corps does. And thereby, they demand our respect and admiration as part of the best of America.

This is what you get from true leadership in times of crisis. You turn to someone who has experience in getting done what must be accomplished. Who has a clear understanding of what is needed, what has to be brought to bear, what has to be done, and in what sequence. As President Lincoln turned to General U.S. Grant to defeat the Confederate Army and end the Civil War. As President Roosevelt turned to Dwight Eisenhower to end World War II in Europe; “Ike” then turned to General George Patton to spearhead the allied drive to push the Nazi army back to Germany. Whatever issues of personal character might legitimately be questioned about Grant and Patton, they were singularly focused on getting their assigned job done – no excuses, no distractions. General Todd Semonite appears to have all those similar qualities of leadership (without the character baggage). The leadership needed in these times. What do we get to fight this “war” against Covid-19? We get a responsibility-denier President who still thinks he is running a tiny family-owned business in Manhattan. He in turn appoints his son-in-law (Jared Kushner) to be our Covid-19 point man in background charge of the federal response – notwithstanding that he has NO experience in logistics, health and medicine, pandemics, crisis management, or running a multi-organizational operation.

The art of leadership is all about finding the right person (people) at the right moment to fit the right demand. Clearly defining the results expected, putting those people fully in charge, and then getting out of their way. We do not have anything close to that “right person in charge.” What we have got instead continues to be amateurs at the top, the skilled professionals below. As a result, many people are and will suffer in a variety of different ways. Some will unnecessarily die. Why?

On Tuesday April 7, Wisconsin held an election. Other states that had originally scheduled their elections for March and April long ago rescheduled them to May or June in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Democratic Governor of Wisconsin, together with the state Public Health Director, tried to postpone the election, but the state’s Republican legislative leaders sued to overturn the postponement. They won in the state’s Supreme Court and the federal Supreme Court. So the election went on.

Why the big push? Because on the ballot was one seat on the state’s Supreme Court, and the Republicans were pushing their conservative candidate to win it. At all cost. And the calculus was that a low voter turnout would favor their candidate. So the election went on, combined with other voter suppression tricks that have been employed in the 2016 and 2018 elections: reduced early voting days/hours; no expansion of mail-in / absentee voting; no extending of absentee voting deadline; moving or reducing polling sites – especially in Democratic-leaning Milwaukee. Nevertheless, voters turned out, many enduring average wait times of 2-3 hours. Putting themselves at personal health risk, standing six feet apart where possible, covered in masks where available, many of them senior citizens most-at-risk for vulnerable to Covid-19. Doing what they needed to do to exercise their right to vote. Mocking this risk, the Republican leader of the Wisconsin House posted a video claiming that “it is absolutely safe to go out and vote,” spoken while he was covered head-to-toe in full PPE gear.

Once again it was demonstrated what lengths some Republican Party officials will go to in order to win by manipulating the rules of game, rather than winning on the strengths of the candidate or the soundness of one’s political argument. Except this time it was not just about winning or losing an election. It was literally about risking one’s life in order to vote. This episode is yet another example of our longtime values, our respect for one another, being thrown in the trash can in favor of one’s selfish, personal, or political benefit. We are absolutely losing our collective minds as a Country.

©   2020   Randy Bell