Friday, July 31, 2020

Coronavirus: Let's take it outside

Remember that old taunt? "You want a piece of me? We can take this outside." 
Guaranteed to induce most of us to back down. But now there's a new twist -- "You DON'T want a piece of me? Let's take it outside."  
People are inventing lots of new ways to take life outside. Schools are erecting tents with open sides, musicians are strolling around and performing on sidewalks and in driveways. And meetings of all kinds are assembling in parking lots with chairs carefully spaced apart. Historically, while fighting epidemics of tuberculosis, schools moved classes outside EVEN IN THE WINTER.  
The impetus for this is the clear evidence that the coronavirus is spread through the air, surely as droplets from coughing and sneezing, but likely as an invisible mist of aerosolized particles. If you remember the movie, Outbreak, in which Cuba Gooding, Jr., makes an antidote in a trailer in about a day,  you'll remember the great scene in the movie theater. An infected person sneezes, and the droplets go into the air and all over the movie theater, infecting everyone who's there. Obviously the infectious mist is invisible, so the special effects people colorized it for our fear and trembling. Now, every article I read about the invisible mist, I think of that scene. 
I, personally, don't want to go in anywhere. I have to go to the supermarket, and occasional doctor visits. That's enough. Everything else, I want to move outside. I'm considering getting a gas grill so that the great chefs of my acquaintance can cook in the backyard!
And it inspires a re-visit of the old taunt, "Coronavirus, you think you can get a piece of me? Let's take it outside!"

Monday, July 27, 2020

A bag of flour

I opened the paper this morning and saw a headline that said, "That flour that you bought could foretell our economy." That was very spooky because I had bought a bag of Maine Grains wheat flour and it was sitting right in front of me. I realized I'm a type -- the type with a yard and an oven, who has spent quarantine baking bread and growing vegetables. Disheartening, to say the least. But my ego issues, as always, were not the point. The article was trying to say that there is a way forward away from the madness of agribusiness, and part of it has to do with small mills that grind flour with local grain and local labor. King Arthur's Flour, though not so advanced as Maine Grain, has, the op/ed said, much the same spirit of small is better. I am convinced of this by no less an authority than Robert G. Wallace, who thinks that breaking away from agribusiness is key to preventing future pandemics, species extinction and other horrors. I wasn't thinking about all that when I bought the flour -- just how good the bread would taste. As to my garden, today I found a mega cucumber in my mega cucumber patch. And I will soon have more tomatoes than I ever dreamed possible in one-third of 4'x12' raised bed. Thank God for landscape architect Stephen Panasci, who is supervising my transition from theoretical to actual gardener.
My bag of Maine Grains Wheat Flour next to some produce from my garden -- including the giant cucumber I found lingering in the vines -- normal cucumbers for comparison.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Glass Box

I was thinking yesterday about the glass ceiling and how it has operated in my life. Then this morning I thought, no, for black women, it's more like a glass box. So I started thinking about the glass box and how annoying it is to hit the boundaries. I was asked recently would I like to apply for a job, but one of the criteria was NIH grants. Well, I might be a well-known researcher, but I've never been able to get an NIH grant. I am not alone in this, as science has shown that minority researchers are not funded at the rates of white researchers, in part because of the questions they ask. Of course, asking the government to fund you to look at why the government is bad is a "How long have you been beating your wife?" proposition. 

But then I thought not about the boundaries, but about the interior of the box. I am not in a solitary coffin. All the black, brown, red and yellow people of the world are in the box and we are really quite busy. Add us all up and we are billions. It is not lonely or boring or frightening. It is amusing and weird and joyful. It is home. 

All the people in box become our teachers, which is why Akeelah and the Bee rings so true. A white friend said he was sad that Ta-Nehisi Coates had to prepare his son to face racism. I thought, "Thank God." It's only the preparation that gets us on solid ground. 

As a teenager, I fought the acceptance of this fact with all my heart and soul. Like all painful truths, I had to pass through the depression that comes with painful truths, in this case, that I would hit limits not related to my abilities. But, having passed through that phase, I could relax into reality. I could embrace my possibilities and fight my limits. One of my father's many sayings was, "Lower your buckets where ye may," possibly a version of a line from Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Compromise speech. My dad did not accept racial injustice, but he knew he had to do what he could wherever he was. When I didn't get NIH grants, I looked around for other ways to study the crises of the ghetto. There were many. Much to my pleasure, I have been able to document how the government is treating us in eight books and more than a hundred papers. 

Thinking about my white friend, it occurred to me that most white people are not prepared by their parents. They can't see the racism, and therefore live in a delusional state. The consequences of this are terrible for them and for all of us. We can see this in the coronavirus pandemic. Clearly, white people have decided that this illness hits black and brown people and they are safe to party on. This is not how it works -- concentration is not containment -- and their actions growing out of racist assumptions are having horrifying consequences for the nation. 

Like many other black psychiatrists, I think of racism as a mental illness. Unlike many other mental illnesses, this illness can be cured. I have known lots of white people who faced the lie of racism and rejected it. As Lucian K. Truscott IV wrote in the New York Times, visit Monticello. You'll see the whole story there: the Big House AND the slave cabins. Guides will tell you, as mine did, about Jefferson's psyche. He grew up with black children, one of whom became his stablemaster. When that man died, Jefferson simply asked, "Who will replace him?" No words of mourning for his childhood friend. This is not normal, and I say that speaking as a psychiatrist. Truscott invites us to move out of the delusion by taking down Jefferson's memorial in Washington, which is a one-sided celebration, and going to Monticello for the whole story. Imagine: not only is racism a mental illness but also it can be cured by tourism.

The glass box that has placed limits on my productivity has not been the last word in my life. But imagine the world we might have, the energy we would liberate, if we stopped boxing some people in and forcing others to live in a delusion? As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, 

In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be... This is the inter-related structure of reality.

There is hope for us. I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:12, which taught,  "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known."

Monday, July 6, 2020

Coronavirus: Getting through the next loooooong phase

The Morning, a daily briefing from the New York Times, shared this graph, which I saw when I had barely opened my eyes. I closed them again and pretended I didn't see that. But when I looked again, it was there in living color:

















Cases in the US are surging. The Washington Post reported that the Trump campaign hopes that we won't notice and can be convinced to reopen anyway, not to mention vote for Trump anyway.  

This is a shifting timeframe, and reordering of our hopes for a quick, decisive shutdown and quick return to normal. That is not happening. For many reasons and at many levels, the US was unable to do what so many other countries did, making it possible to return to life as they knew it. We can't just yet, and not for awhile.

What are the practices that will help us?

The Poor People's Campaign had posters that read: Stay inside, stay alive, organize and don't believe the lies. That was perfect for then. How do we adapt to now?

Stay inside -- well, actually stay inside your house when you can, don't go inside other spaces, like movies, malls, offices, and the terraces of bars. Let's call this "Avoid dirty air."  

Another news story about the high rates of infection among people of color had this graphic:

One of the reasons for the high rates of infection is crowded living quarters. People can't help where they live and they can't always help where they go. So the rest of us have a great responsibility for controlling our contributions to dirty air. We can call this "keep the air clean." It means wear a mask when outside your home.  

Stay alive -- we now know a good deal about the coronavirus. We have a few treatments that work. We know that early care is best and doctors now know much more about the warning signs. Covid-19 is a terrible illness, so prevention is the best cure, but early treatment is second best.  "Get care quickly" is perhaps what we need to go next.  

Don't believe the lies -- we have to do more than not believe the lies -- we have to have sound sources of information and we have to call out the lies. The Trump campaign promises to pile lies and lies. We have to speak the truth. My father, Ernest Thompson, pointed out to me how campaigns can attack the lies and win -- at that time we fighting to free Angela Davis, and we won.  So now it's "Attack the lies and win." Thanks and a tip of the hat to Dad!

Organize. I put this last because it becomes the core of the work. The reckless disdain shown by the current administration is killing poor and minority people at incredible rates. We must organize everyone who will listen, and have them make "Respect for all life" a part of all the work they do. 

So this is my advice for the next period of times:

Clean Air
Quick Care
Attack lies
Save lives!

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Coronavirus: Getting through this moment, Revisited

The University of Orange took my March 22, 2020, blogpost about "Getting through this Moment" seriously and has stopped to look at all five suggestions I made. I have appreciate having those ideas reflected back to me from time to time. It's one thing to have a idea, but it is useful to be reminded that the best ideas are useless if we don't put them to work. We've had excellent advice about managing the coronavirus pandemic, but as a nation, we haven't done it. Therefore, the pandemic will continue to church through the population, widening its toll in numbers of people and numbers of communities affected. Rodrick and Deborah Wallace, in a new paper on the spread of infection, pointed out,  
Similar dynamics must, in fact, ultimately characterize an emerging pathogen across the full system of metropolitan regions, first drawn into the apex of the urban hierarchy, and then blown back and forth along it. Concentration is not containment, but the central mechanism for general spread.
As infections bounce around, we will face hard times indeed. Not a coherent exit strategy but months of illness, death, and troubles. I think I have to think what are the suggestions for getting through something that is no longer a moment in time, but a long haul. Today's post from UofO, about building a personal foundation of spirit, is surely one. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Coronavirus: How We Help: Every mask is a prayer and a song!

Here's a photo published in nj.com of white-presenting New Jerseyans having a really good time, without masks and without social distancing.  Just like old times!  Obviously, they are driven to gather by encoding in our genome over which we have some, but not all that much, control.  The great American urbanist, Jane Jacobs, said that people like to be where people are.  That is why the vast parks of New York can be empty while Fifth Avenue is packed.  


But, as Paul Krugman pointed out in his column today, it is a bad idea to give into our genes so quickly.  They might be young and white and therefore at less risk than some others, but risk is a calculation of "if."  What matters is what happens when you get infected or sick.  And we literally haven't a clue.  As more and more people of all ages recover, grim stories of debilitation are appearing.  And what will we know five or ten years from now?

Yeah, I know that taking risks is also in our genes and those genes are expressed at just the age of the people in this photo.  Happily people also have highly evolved brains and we can use those brains to think.  One of the important ways to think with our brains is to accept reality. Here is the graph from the NY Times today of the rise of cases, which Dr. Anthony Fauci warned could go to 100,000 new cases A DAY:


We can also use our brains to learn geography.  

The geography of disease spread is well-known, and includes hierarchical diffusion (moving from major cities to their satellites), spatial contagion (moving in an area) and network diffusion (moving among groups that are connected).  

People have diagrammed how this unfolded with the Covid-10 pandemic.   The New York Times made a diagram of the spread of Covid across the nation, before we caught on to what was happening.  El Pais shared three studies of infection in groups of people, people working in an office, on a bus, and in a restaurant.  These give us insights into thinking about reopening.  

Here's my take:
  • First, being together indoors at close quarters is the heart of the transmission process.  We have to spread out.  And we have to wear masks at all times.  This means NO to indoor dining.  It seems possible to be inside far apart -- more experience will tell us if this is so.
  • Second, being outside seems to be OK.  Masks are still essential and distancing is good.  But the great expanse of air helps, and moving helps.  A runner without a mask going by me is not likely to get me sick.  Happily it's summer -- let's be outside as much as possible.  
  • Third, standing around on a patio drinking in close quarters with other people does NOT count as outside. 
  • Fourth, if everybody would wear a mask, it would have a powerful effect on transmission. 
  • Fifth, as Thomas Edison would want us to remember, every failure will be a time for learning how to do it better.  We must keep studying every outbreak.
And here are some words of wisdom from my dear friend, Sara Crystal, RN, posted on Facebook (emphasis added by me):
yes I like to push and prod each of you to wear a mask and use precautions and get realistic in these desperate and tragic times. but I want to say, I feel we WILL get through this, have parties and potlucks and a vaccine and restart businesses and projects. we are in a cocoon right now and we WILL bust out. not by ignoring and pretending the virus isnt there, but by using all our capacity as a human race to overcome it. we will be healed. we must first acknowledge it and protect each other in love. weep with those who weep, be kind to the stranger, love one another with a pure heart fervently. try harder. do all the good you can. those who are younger and healthier must bear some of the burden for others. we will manage. and not by "herd immunity" bs, but by finding the true medical answers and sharing and helping and fighting for a real cure. let us not sacrifice anyone, ever. but never lose hope. every mask is a prayer and a song, and we will survive, stronger and better.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Time to tell the truth

Brent Staples wrote a remarkable piece in the New York Times last Sunday, June 19, 2020, about Tulsa. He shared a story I'd not heard before --

The helpless old black man who was shredded alive behind a fast-moving car would have been well known in Tulsa’s white downtown, where he supported himself by selling pencils and singing for coins. He was blind, had suffered amputations of both legs and wore baseball catcher’s mitts to protect his hands from the pavement as he scooted along on a wheeled wooden platform.  Among the white bystanders who witnessed the pencil seller’s grisly end was a teenager named E.W. Maxey, who was undersheriff of Tulsa County by the time he recounted the carnage to the local historian Ruth Sigler Avery 50 years later. Undersheriff Maxey admitted to knowing the thugs who tied the “good old colored man” to a convertible and sped off along Main Street. Describing the scene to Ms. Avery in 1971, he recalled that the victim “was hollering. His head was being bashed in, bouncing on the steel rails and bricks” that lined the street.

Staples makes clear that Maxey, knew who was in that convertible, kept the secret, as white Tulsa tried to keep the secret of the whole massacre.  White people who tell the secret are called names like "race traitor." But that's part of what this moment is about. 

I think the deeper secret is that racism was invented for the sake of the ruling class, which keeps social control and makes extra profit. All of us are asked to keep that secret. The truth is that in the United States it's always about race and class.  

Whatever secrets of whatever atrocities -- is this a privilege that we've been given? Or a living hell?  The US, with 5% of the world's population, has 25% of its prisoners and 25% of its Covid-19 cases.  

This is a moment for each of us to think about deep truths and to consider telling the truth.