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Journal of the Plague Year (#1)

Berkeley, CA; Week of 3/16 — Sunday afternoon. Preternaturally quiet. Church on the corner, with its small, aged, African-American congregation, has suspended services. Nothing in the neighborhood is open but the always busy Berkeley Bowl, where lines controlling entrance have been set up. Once inside, they’ve managed to keep almost everything in stock. And almost all deli workers and checkers are there, with gloves and masks, shoppers not so much. A car goes by my usually busy street two or three times an hour. The city bus still runs.

On my daily walk (which I must do as part of long, painful rehab from an accident last May) I see maybe half a dozen people, most with dogs. People who know me, and see me, witness a thin, slow, old man, wielding a walker. In an hour I go four blocks. Me, who once thought nothing of taking off from on my bike, navigating the hills, up some or all of Mt. Diablo.

Back home I turn on the TV. In recent days it’s been the same anchors and reporters re-running days-old footage of interviews with the same people, and B-roll scenes of empty Times Square, Milan, Rome, Paris — without saying that’s what they’re doing. Crawling headlines show old statistics of cases, deaths. 

Then comes The Main Event. The confused, inarticulate, boastful, lying “Leader of the Free World” takes center stage. Guess what? There are fantastic success stories out there! We are only on Day 7 of 15 (who said it would take only 15 to do what?) and already surgical masks and ventilators are magically being made and shipped. Two large hospital ships are being overhauled and within a month one will be on each coast. But best estimates say that IF they are successfully overhauled and IF personnel can be found to staff them, they MAY be able to house a couple of thousand infected people. Estimated numbers of infected people nationwide range into the millions. Worldwide, tens of millions.

The NY Times, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and website Politico have been doing exemplary work under impossible conditions. The Times has a special Sunday section “Your Questions About Life under Coronavirus, Answered” (3/22/2020) They’ve taken down their pay wall so if you have internet you can read a lot. 

If you don’t have internet, of course, the closing of public libraries is crippling. Try using even a talk-only phone to speak to a friend or family member who can read what you can’t, and pass on the essential. Some utilities are saying no one will have their electricity or water cut off for not paying. Some internet providers are similarly saying phones and web connections also will not go dark (try for lists).

On the back page of that special NYT section is “How Do I Handle My Money?” (right after the obligatory middle class handholding about what to watch on TV and what to cook.) 

An hour into Trump babble there is still nothing emerging (reporters can’t seem to get questions through the endless success stories) about how those who have little or no income and little or no savings are going to feed themselves and pay the rent. A bill which would provide $1,200 per individual as “relief” is somehow stalled in Congress. 

A Senator (Jeff Merkely of Oregon) is on MSNBC pointing out, for the umpteenth time (one of those endlessly re-run segments) that $1,200 won’t even pay most rents. That adding a one-time $600 per child payment is also insulting; try feeding, clothing, supplying a kid on $10 a day and see how far you get. There is also the little fact that Trump’s corporate tax cut has weakened the Treasury’s ability to fund any kind of relief effort. So where’s the money going to come from? War Bonds? Those of us who remember or have studied WWII and FDR’s administrations know that Bonds – which paid little or no interest – were bought by people in abundance because relatives and neighbors of those in the armed forces wanted to show support.

We are in a time, now, however, when a significant percentage of people don’t support the government, even with the now largely symbolic gesture of voting. (Half those eligible don’t.) And they certainly don’t have an FDR to trust. Or a government they think can get anything right. The Newt Gingriches and Steve Bannons have used decades of media-enabled glide paths to promote selfishness and greed as government destinations. 

The nominal opposition has been led (if that is the right word) by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, narcissists for whom power was the destination. (Biden is a worthy successor.) Trump is equally narcissistic, of course, but because he has no administrative capability he has enshrined opportunists with power, and for them, greed is the only good. Now, no one is talking about nibbling around issues like inequality, climate destruction, and infrastructure to improve our lot on earth. 

The school where I’ve taught for 27 years is currently on-line only. Massive technical glitches seem to happen every day. The middle school where I’ve volunteered for nine years is much worse off, regular communication via internet is close to impossible, except for families on the right side of the digital divide. (Fewer than half, I would guess.) 

My own health care has become precarious. Already in-person visits to all but the ER (an unspeakable horror show in my experience) are discouraged or turned away. Brave doctors, nurses, clerks, technicians are doing all they can. But those who warned about something like this emergency were ignored.

Words like “Mitigation,” “Isolation,” “Medication” come up again and again.

No one seems to be using “triage” much yet.

They will.


  1. Jonah Raskin March 25, 2020

    Thanks Larry. Maybe you go on walking.

  2. djakke raine April 2, 2020

    thanks larry, good to hear from you.

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