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.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

"The worst mistake we could make in this time of rallies and marches would be to demand too little!"

June 20, 2020, 1:28pm.  I've just finished participating in the Mass Assembly of the Poor People's Campaign.  I was lucky that I had a great "bus ride" with friends and family.  We laughed and joked, and explained the snacks and books we'd brought for the ride.  We needed this virtual bus to replace the long-awaited bus we were planning to take to Washington.  At 10am, we "arrived" and went to the Assembly, keeping in touch by text, which is the way to "share" an event these days.

The goal of the Assembly was to change the narrative by changing the narrators, and thereby to help us actually see the depth and breadth of the pain of the 140 million poor and low-wealth people in our country. So many people spoke, about so many issues, in short chapters. Women are suffering, let's hear from women. Mass incarceration is choking us, let's hear from the formerly incarcerated. Native communities are suffering, let's hear from them.

Let's hear from them.

I know all of these stories, and am constantly, in my own teaching and writing, trying to get across this point. But nothing I could say could equal the power of this time hearing from people speaking about their struggles. As an American, I am horrified. As a physician, I am crying -- 700 people a day die from poverty, that was before Covid-19, and you could see the weathering in the speakers' bodies and their faces and their voices.

Reverend William Barber II cautioned us that the worst mistake we could make in this time of rallies and marches would be to demand too little. The Assembly was designed to hammer home the lesson that, "The political and economic systems in the U.S. are plagued by the interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, militarism and a war economy, ecological devastation and a distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism."

No single demand could undo this -- it is truly an ecology of inequality. Therefore the Poor People's Campaign has pushed for a complex of demands carried by a moral fusion coalition. It is the combination of the two -- complex demands and the moral fusion coalition -- that are the right way forward in these times.

Reverend Barber asked us to each take an inventory of our time on this earth. Not to be morbid, he said, but we've seen how fast and unexpectedly life could end. "If," he asked, "you knew you had 48 hours to live, what would you fight for with your last breath?"

For me, the answer is simple. My life has been about wrapping my mind around the epidemics affecting poor and minority communities, trying to understand the way out of this mess. With my last breath, I'd say, "Join the Poor People's Campaign." If you didn't get to see the Assembly this morning, watch at 6pm tonight or when they post the recording. It lights the way. As they said over and over, "Somebody's hurting our people.  It's gone on far too long, and we won't be silent anymore."

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Coronavirus: Every attack on the poor must embolden our agitation!

Back at the beginning of shelter-in-place, I said there were five tasks we had to do to stay same and come out alive.  One was that we must fight for justice.  The outpouring of people into the streets demanding justice makes sense in a time when our fractured, abusive system is laid bare by the deadly progression of coronavirus through the land.

For four years, the 400 Years of Inequality Project has held up the work of Reverend Dr. William Barber II as charting the path away from inequality towards a nation truly for all.  When the Poor People's Campaign announced the Assembly in Washington on June 20th, we pointed our work in that direction.

The time has come.  There are two events we're doing to lead up to the Assembly at 10am this Saturday.

Tonight, we're holding a workshop on the People's Platform for Equity that we wrote based on our 4 years of examining the problem of inequality, including all the observances we got to attend of the 400th Anniversary of Jamestown.  You can join us at tonight (June 17th) at 7pm for an explanation of the People's Platform and how we got there.

Saturday, we've organized a "virtual" bus that will get you to the Assembly on time!  Join us at 9:30am to share signs and chants, as we "go" to Washington to hear the voices of the poor and dispossessed.  Here's a short video from the Poor People's Campaign that will give you a taste of what's to come!

And of course there's the June 20th Assembly of Poor People's Campaign.  Part protest and part programmatic organizing, this Assembly will us get on the same page about the demands we need to place on our governments, local, state and federal, to stop the abuse of the poor, which translates to the abuse of us all.  It will be a crucial moment in this charged era.

Join us!

Be there!

Monday, June 15, 2020

Coronavirus: Hedonism makes us heedless

New Jersey is on pace for more re-opening today.  It is, as Aubrey Murdock put it, a slippery slope -- I want to dive into so many things that I've been missing, hedonism making me heedless.  I fear I am failing the marshmallow test, that test they give kids in kindergarten to see if they can delay gratification.  Of course in the test I'm taking, they keep moving when I get the marshmallow -- it is now not two weeks of delay but maybe a year or two.  And while waiting, I'll be stricken with polio or some other dread disease that is surging in the absence of the usual controls. Or, in my sorry case, diabetes from baking too many cakes. 

I want, in no particular order, to: have fried clams at a beachside shack, see the new MoMA, give a reading of my Main Street book in a crowded bookstore, walk down the street eating ice cream, fly business class to Istanbul and stay at Hotel Turkoman, go to Michel Cantal-Dupart's birthday extravaganza, shop at a Christmas bazaar in Berlin, go to the baths, see a movie at the cinema, and see the Alice at Madame Claude's Bis. You notice immediately that this list does not include "defund the police" or "end war." It's just pleasure. It does not include a single chore or even anything difficult -- no learning, no cleaning, no caretaking. Just fun. And I certainly don't want to wear a mask while doing of any of those things.

Is this what I've really learned from this quiet time of baking bread, exercising, and playing the cello? Is this why the Jazz Age followed World War I and 1918 Flu Pandemic? 

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Coronavirus: How We Help: We Listen

One of the students in my Urban Colloquium class this past semester was sheltering-in-place at his home in Queens.  He wrote this poem, which he gave me permission to share here anonymously.


As I sit safely in my home, my phone is filled with news and Go Fund Mes
The privilege of working remotely, still getting a check, and not feeling hungry

Who is really an essential worker and who is not?
How the hell is my neighborhood dying, yet still being harassed by the cops?

You “discipline” the dying, while handing masks to the living.
I saw the picture, you prefer shirtless white people sitting.

How is it that I keep track of this, yet feel paralyzed by the whole situation?
Trying to keep my family physically and mentally safe has kept me in isolation 

Guilt lays over me and suffocates my character
Who am I? Why am I not helping? Don't all those falling matter?

Am I selfish?
Does being an activist leave room for this? 
You said donating was not enough, and solidarity was the road to bliss.

I have fallen and let myself go
Not knowing how to reach out, I dive back into the computer, though my productivity is low.

Incomplete, I slump into the abyss.
A part of me
I miss.

I fall
And continue to fall endlessly, until I am finally interrupted

Without any request, my body begins to resuscitate 
Vibrations begin to fill my soul
Kids yelling, speakers blasting
It was Bad Bunny and Hector Lavoe
I slowly resuscitate 
My neighborhood is living, it has never let me go

This poem captures that moment of despair that so many of us have felt -- what can we do that would be enough in the face of all that is happening?  But then the poet is distracted by the vibrations that begin to fill his body -- "It was Bad Bunny and Hector Lavoe."  As he listens, the burden lifts, is lifted by his neighborhood.

There is so much to listen to these days. Last night I listened to "Why We Fight: Voices from the Struggle for Health Care Justice."  Organized by Voices of a People's History and 400 Years of Inequality, the readings conveyed so many emotions, so many ideas. I resuscitated. The burden was lifted by the neighborhood of people who have struggled over centuries to win justice.

It might be Bad Bunny, it might be Dorothea Dix you need to listen to. What it is I don't know. I know that listening is part of how we heal, find the strength to keep going, resuscitate.