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Journal of the Plague Year (#5)

Berkeley, April 20 – All these years, all these crises later, the advice hasn’t changed.

“Get down to Disney World in Florida,” said President George W. Bush after the September 11 premeditated murders, planned and perpetrated by our longtime acolytes, the Saudi Arabians. “Take your families and enjoy life the way it’s meant to be enjoyed.”

September 11…Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy…shootings at countless schools, from kindergartens to universities…endless military conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Ukraine, and Syria…and the 2008 financial meltdown…

What is to be done?

Rod Yates has the answer. Never heard of Rod? Probably you don’t live in or around Omaha. There’s a place called “Nebraska Crossing Outlets,” 376,000 feet of stores and restaurants. 80 of them. Acres of parking. Yates, who owns the mall, wants it to be a “laboratory” for opening those stores and shops., which have been ordered closed to stop further spread of the coronavirus.

 “It’s a relatively safe community,” Yates tells the NY Times (whose exemplary on-site reporting continues). He says it would be a “soft opening,” and cites the mall’s “contribution to state sales tax” as a reason to “get back open.”

The Governor of Nebraska, Pete Riketts, got elected and re-elected in the manner long adopted by many United States political figures, buying the job with a hefty $2 million chunk of his personal wealth (he owns the Chicago Cubs, worth $3.2 billion.) He’s one of five governors to reject statewide bans on potentially dangerous gatherings. He won’t stop Yates, although every responsible health authority and expert in Nebraska is warning him of the danger.

In fact, Nebraska does look to be relatively unaffected by this pandemic. 1,138 cases and 24 deaths in a population of around two million. But, unfortunately, those numbers are highly suspect. Studies are beginning to emerge, such as in Santa Clara County, where the number of infected is now estimated by Stanford epidemiologists to be as high as 81%, which is 50 to 85 times more than the official total. The equivalent for Nebraska would be 50,000 to 80,000. 

Not all cases result in sickness, much less death. But we don’t yet know what it means when symptoms disappear. Is immunity developing? Or is the virus mutating for another punch?

And if you’re being cared for in a health-oriented facility, we’re beginning to find out how much at risk you are. Countless thousands are ill in nursing homes or skilled nursing facilities. Helpless people are languishing in understaffed conditions with underskilled personnel. At one of the worst of these, in rural northeast New Jersey, seventy people died. 17 bodies were kept after they died in what the former lieutenant governor of New York, Betsy McCaughey, calls “death pits.”

There are 3,800 such facilities coast to coast. “Patients,” writes the Times, “become hosts for virus and bacteria, which then get transferred back and forth to hospitals.” 380,000 people died last year in such settings. 46 of 160 were residents in one of the worst, Canterbury, in Richmond, Va. TV helicopters spreading the viral images of horror settings abound. One broadcast an interview, in rural Andover New Jersey, with the town mayor. 

A broadcaster asked the mayor of the small New Jersey town where the bodies were found, “How could this have happened?” He cited “extreme short staffing – many workers were ill or afraid come to work because of contagion.” And there was a “ lack of preparation – inadequate masks and gowns. Malfunctioning equipment. Reports on dozens of such situations abound. Prisons and jails are similarly prone to epidemic. As are homeless camps or shelters. 

Press conferences are given. Everyone aside from Governor Ricketts and his tiny band of deniers agrees that mandatory cleaning, and social distance are critical. And that all facilities should have clear and enforceable standards. 

Yet another situation: slum hotels. In San Francisco, SRO (single room occupancy) hotels “have to meet minimum environmental cleaning standards,” according to the S.F. Chronicle. “The owners must keep a cleaning log which they must show to a health inspector upon request. It is unclear how many times this has been enforced.”

To get anything enforced, of course, requires staffing..

What percentage of San Francisco’s twenty-seven health inspectors (who are also supposed to visit the city’s 2,000 restaurants) check on the city’s 500 SRO’s? How many would do so, given the risks to their own and their families’ health? Is $65,000 a year sufficient compensation for doing this critical work? 

The bad-brained mass killers among us, like Nebraska’s Yates and Ricketts, (led and enabled by Trump) are focused in another direction. They’re making omelettes. We are the eggs. And we’re supposed to be delighted that we’re being cooked in “freedom” sauce.

 “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA” read the signs on TV news. There’s an aerial shot showing people (no distancing, few masks) lined up in San Diego on a closed road to the beach. No less than our “liberator” in chief, tweets his support. While, elsewhere, a crowd probably killing themselves on their way to killing others presses up against each other outside the state capitol in Ohio. Where police, hundreds of whom are already infected nationwide, try to establish control without kicking the shit out of them. Which they could easily do, as New York Mayor and wannabe President Michael Bloomberg did to the defenseless people in “”Occupy” back in ancient days (2001). Perhaps because they’re just as affected, and just as scared, as everyone else, police and the politicians who nominally are in charge of them seem to be relatively restrained. For now.

Some headlines:

 “USPS Warns It Might Have to Shutter by June as Stimulus Package Provides No Funding.”

 “A Window to Stop the Virus: Warnings Came Early and Often” 

 “For Black Men, Masks Add Fears of Profiling”

 “America Can Afford a World Class Health System – Why Don’t We Have One?”

 “G.O.P. Aims to Scapegoat China to Deflect Blame for Trump’s Virus Response”

 “U.S Deported Thousands Amid Pandemic. Some Were Sick.”

Creating the meme that “testing” and “social distancing” and “handwashing” can, first of all, “flatten the curve” and then somehow, someday come up with vaccines and medications to eliminate COVID-19 is painfully off point. Science, history, and human behavior are on the other side. Science takes time. In this case it has come up with no fewer than ninety tests. Almost all of them unproven and of questionable reliability.

What is necessary, unfortunately, to make a good faith effort has to include another element. Politics.

Those who read this “Journal of the Plague Year” last week may remember that last we brought a largely unknown name into the fray: Jill Kosofsky.

A liberal Democrat, she was supposed to be in a tight race for Wisconsin Supreme Court. And how the race would turn out was said to be an important barometer for November.

 “What Happened in Wisconsin? The Opposite of What Trump Suggested,” headlined the Washington Post the next day. Kosofsky won big. She won statewide. She won in Republican-leaning precincts. She won where the machinations of the state legislature and a decision by the Supreme Court made it difficult, if not impossible, to vote. People, who had been denied the right to vote through limitation and suppression of mail voting options stood in long lines knowing they were potentially exposing themselves to coronavirus danger. “It was virtually impossible to vote in Milwaukee,” said one TV journalist, noting that only 5 of the city’s 180 polling places had enough workers show up to function. Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city, is about 35% African-American; the state figure is 6%. 

All the Trumpoid blather about “protecting the electoral process” now seems desperate. As does the contention that people have a “liberty” right to get sick and spread sickness to others. The citizens of Wisconsin were not invoking the right to vote in the abstract. It was not about the right to vote but about voting.

An obvious flaw in “reopening” the economy is the inconvenient truth that this country’s economy has never been “open.” It’s been “open” mainly to people of wealth, especially to people of property. White people of property. White men of property who granted themselves the right to vote for one of themselves. And are now trying to use their wealth and property to preserve that important power.

Trump’s people are scared of another viral agent, this more reliably quantifiable than the coronavirus has been so far. It’s the viral agent of voter demand and public opinion. 

So they’ll continue to try to quarantine it through designing electoral districts . In Wisconsin, for example, they spent huge amounts of money to get a veto-proof state legislature elected. They didn’t, by the way, have to “conspire” to do this; they created, and got lavish funding from, the American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC) which has successfully won hundreds of “down ballot” seats over the past ten years. While the Democrats spent huge amounts of money on personalized top-of-the ballot campaigns by Clinton, Kerry, Gore, and Obama, the Republicans were de-personalizing and institutionalizing their efforts. It was hardly a secret: Karl Rove and others spelled out their game plan on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, among other places.

How successful was it? Having veto proof majorities in the legislature to design their districts meant that in the Wisconsin midterm elections, for example, Republicans got 46 percent of the U.S. House vote, but 63 percent of the seats. Democrats got 54 percent of the vote for the Wisconsin State Assembly, but only 36 percent of the seats. 

You can see the same thing in dozens of state legislatures coast to coast. Democrats do it too, but much less often and much less successfully, preferring to advocate for independent commissions to draw electoral districts. Such commissions now exist in 10 states. But none of them is named Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Iowa or Pennsylvania. States where Trump won in 2016 and where polling now shows that Democrats at this point are preferred over Trump. With the highest court’s induction of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh it is by no means certain that the commissions will be ruled constitutional, as they were in 2014 

Why the Kosofsky victory is rattling cages chez Trump is obvious. His lack of leadership and inability to run his organization are now a matter of life and death. Grimly brought to anyone with a TV or a computer. It is now a common assumption among media analysts that Trump et al have built their shaky refuge on Fox News and Facebook. But even if one counts those who consume lies, omissions, and distortions from those two sources, they add up to fewer than one in ten people in this country (even if that audience were attentive and monolithic, which it isn’t) . 

Much larger percentages think it’s more important that our health be protected than that our economy be “reopened.” (Around 60 percent for health, 25 percent for the “economy.”)

No false claims of “liberty” can deny death. 

It looks like it’s going to take a lot more time for that message to sink in.

One Comment

  1. Jonah Raskin April 23, 2020

    Larry Bensky writes, “All these years, all these crises later, the advice hasn’t changed.” He seems a bit too hasty to dismiss the notion that something has actually changed. As the Governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, astutely noted,
    “The president is fomenting domestic rebellion and spreading lies.” The Bushes and Clinton and Obama told lies, but they didn’t foment domestic rebellion which is what Trump is doing, with help from the Koch clan and god-fearing Americans who seem to be saying they would rather die than lose money and spend money and stay at home. The expression, “The more things change, the more they say the same,” holds true for somethings, some times but not for all times and all things.

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