Journal of the Plague Year (#17)

Berkeley, CA July 13, 2020 — When you’re in the midst of what seems to be a historically notable period, it’s very difficult to tell what that “midst” is.  Or how long it will last before one can credibly say it’s “over.”

In 1763, those recently arrived North Americans who opposed British rule had little idea they were destined to never see their former home again.  And no idea that it would take them until 1776 to declare independence.  And even less idea that their independence would not be codified in a Constitution until 1787.

The intervening 24 years meant that most of the original delegates had died, the average life span then being just 38 years (it’s 79 years now).

As World War II was grinding to its bloody end, those Allied troops slogging up the Italian peninsula had no idea that it would take nearly two years before Hitler’s collaborator, Mussolini, would be driven to surrender.  Similarly the Allies who landed in Normandy in June 1944 could not imagine it would take less than a year to force Germany’s surrender.

But even after Germany signed an “unconditional surrender” (which turned out to have many “conditions,” as the Germans knew it would) in May, 1945, the war wasn’t “over” when combat stopped.  The overwhelming number of killers, tortures and profiteers among Germans, Poles, Hungarians, Rumanians and others went unpunished.  Most Americans came home.  But in occupied Europe there were hundreds of thousands of people displaced, missing, dead, homeless, and wounded - mentally and physically.  For decades France, Germany, Poland, Russia, and countries as far away as Africa and Asia continued to suffer.  Basics like food and shelter were in critically short supply. 

The United States was relatively unscathed.  There had been almost no military activity on our shores.  Unlike in Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, and Japan, cities here had not been reduced to rubble.  Homeless individuals and starving families did not roam, disoriented, through downtowns.  There had been 418,000 Americans killed, a wrenching number in a population that then totaled 147 million.  But Germany saw an estimated 8 million people killed out of a population of 88 million, and for the Soviet Union the numbers were 24 million out of 168 million.

As our current pandemic rages on, there are useful, though frightening time frames and economic comparisons with those and other historically devastating eras. And there are other non-military time frames, like the AIDS crisis (1980-current) with an estimated 31 million dying worldwide, and the 1918 flu, which killed as many as 60 million people in just three years.

In comparison, in the U.S. we currently have 3.4 million coronavirus cases  with about 138,000 deaths.  (Worldwide, the totals are estimated at 13 million cases with 571,000 deaths.)

But…a big but…nobody can begin to reliably state where we are, in this  “midst” of what looks like it’s becoming a much bigger affliction. 

What we can learn from the past, and it’s good to keep in mind now, is that there were always people in previous eras who said “it’s winding down,” “it’s under control,” or “we shouldn’t worry.”   Germany in the final years of WW II is a good, example.

The Nazis had suppressed any media that might have given the German people an idea that they were about to be defeated.  Radio and print regularly reported fictitious victories, and suppressed any mention of defeats.  Food supplies, until the final months of the conflict remained sufficient.

However, the German people got to know, as people always will, the truth.  Hitler was not winning.  Soldiers returning from combat talked about where they had been in action, ever closer to, and ultimately within, German territory.  People increasingly were aware that enemy aircraft dominated the skies, with devastating bombing raids increasingly frequent.  Fuel for household heat and cooking became scarce. 

In light of what occurred in the past, what we’re encountering now is almost ridiculous. Political “leadership” denies facts about the nature, transmission, and effects of COVID-19.  An economy is being kept afloat based on baseless, unsustainable financial instruments.  There is more and more visual evidence of how bad it’s gotten; streets full of closed stores characterize cities large and small.  Some will eventually reopen when the virus is considered under control.  But name brands, like Neiman-Marcus, J.C. Penney, Macy’s, The Gap, Brooks Brothers, J. Crew and Pier 1 will have gone out of business.  A total of at least 25,000 stores will be gone.  

Technology-oriented enterprises will not replace them.  Insofar as they do, they will require many fewer workers. The Venture Capital entities that survive and even thrive depend on political power that has allowed them to make huge profits through tax advantages.  But there are unpaid rents and mortgages.  And, most importantly, millions of unemployed people, barely subsisting on government aid which can be, and will be, cut or eliminated if a political majority does not emerge to preserve them.

And we’re not even talking about a country increasingly agonized over the historical and ongoing disgrace of racism. As with COVID-19, denial is the  default position of the political establishment.  Unfortunately for them, it is no longer as practicable and politically possible to deny bigotry, prejudice, and violence in the era of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd.  Trump et al cannot change the subject.

Dangerous, generalized nonsense surfaces as time goes on, as it has from time immemorial.  There’s a supposedly massive horde of people demanding to eat and meet in closed indoor environments.  Ditto for a supposedly massive numbers of students and teachers who want in-person schools to reopen.  Athletes are supposedly able to re-define “I’m out of breath!” after exertion from “I’m out of breath because I have a fatal disease.”

And then this past week we had the “cancel culture” mini-flap between a group of entitled literary and academic voices and their opponents, who wish to widen those voices to include long excluded people and their points of view.  Voices that, with many different nuances, are shouting “Black Lives Matter!”

Astonishingly, the 150 signatories agonizing over a phenomenon almost no one has heard of (what is "cancel culture" anyway?) don’t seem to have noticed, or minded, that their letter make no reference to, much less does it explore, the major “denial of expression” that we are living through.  That would be the Trumpist furor at anyone daring to point out that we are in a plague that threatens to end everyone’s ability to debate anything about anything. When the President alludes to “miracles” and “beautiful surprises,” what’s a rational person to think?  Or dare to do?  Less dangerous to one’s career and political opportunities is taking refuge in  “thoughtful” generalizations (“cancel culture”) and calling out the guys and gals on the “other” side.

However much, or little, one chooses to take it in, it is still possible to live one’s life somewhat “normally” as disease and death expands. But we are only four months into however long it’s going to be.  And even daily, guarded manifestations of “normalcy” can be shattered by something like what happened in my south Berkeley neighborhood this week.

Saturday’s San Francisco Chronicle headlined, on its cramped Local News pages, a story that had appeared two days previously in the on-line “Berkeleyside” site.  The coronavirus was affecting Berkeley’s biggest grocery store, the Berkeley Bowl.  Its two stores serve thousands of shoppers seven days a week.  (It’s worth noting that neither the Chronicle nor our other, barely surviving, daily, the East Bay Times, has a bureau or even a regular reporter covering Berkeley.  So the action described - the posting of notices to shoppers and the interior alerts to employees, actually took place weeks before .)

The net effect on quarantined households has been one of alarm.  What does it mean?  You will look in vain to find out from Berkeley’s “progressive” politicians, who spend many hours shooting out press releases and conducting on-line town halls without even mentioning, much less advising the citizenry about the Bowl.  What were – and are – the contact patterns of that need to be traced for Berkeley Bowl shoppers and workers? Do safe alternatives exist?  Is Berkeley’s supposedly oh so valuable $55 million dollar a year Health Department on the case?  What are they doing?  What are they advising us to do?  

You can easily get Berkeley’s politicians to cluck and crow about the obvious – the racial, gender and economic inequalities, of our society, and the idiocies of Trump et al.  And Berkeley’s visibly diverse elected leaders, and other liberals around the country, have quickly set up massive quantities of deck chairs on the sinking Titanic that is our country.  Have we struck our iceberg and are we sinking while the band plays on? 

Should we be singing the hit song of the early 20’s, when the yellow flu pandemic was killing millions around the world, a world that had barely started to recover from the death and destruction of World War 1?

 Every morning, every evening

Ain't we got fun?

Not much money, oh, but honey

Ain't we got fun?

The rent's unpaid, dear

We haven't a car

But in any way, dear

We'll stay as we are

Even if we owe the grocer

Don't we have fun

Tax collector's getting closer

Still we have fun

There's nothing surer

The rich get rich and the poor get poorer

In the meantime, in between time

Ain't we got fun?

Who will be summoned from those deck chairs when a vaccine is developed?  Meanwhile, who will have access to any palliative medicine when one of those comes along?

On immunization, CDC is running into the Trumpists not very well disguised racial bias.  “Agency officials,” the New York Times reported this week, “are considering what has become a contentious option: putting black and Latino people, who have disproportionately fallen victim to COVID-19, ahead of others in the population (for vaccination).  But some medical experts are not convinced there is a scientific basis for such an option. ("Who Would Get Vaccinated First? U.S. Considers Race in Its Plans." NYT 7/10/2020)

The now expanded CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is supposedly engaged with this question.  Who’s on that committee is not clear from their website.  But they do have some sort of meeting scheduled for July 29.  Zoom on in, if you dare (cdc.gov/vaccines). But don’t roll up your sleeve for that needle prick just yet.  We may be in a Revolutionary War 24-year time frame.  Or it may be the 11-month Normandy invasion calendar. Or, as with AIDS (nearly a million deaths in 2019) CODIV-19 may migrate to countries with inadequate sanitation and health practices, but be forgotten here. Lots of lives depend on which becomes the analogy. Including yours and mine.

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