Under my iron hand
Oozes out sideways
In dollops and curls
Like hot pink icing
Between stale wafers.
What if we all had the same color of skin?
Who would you hate then?
What if we all had the same religion?
What if we all had the same warmth in winter, cool in summer?
Who would we fight then?
Would we kill each other with rocks and clubs?
What if our jobs all paid the same and my stainless steel appliances were no newer than yours? What if our furniture was exactly the same, our lawns just as nicely tended, our cars the same year and model?
Would you still resent me then?
What if we were all born with the same color of hair, the same color of eyes, grew to the same height, the same musculature?
Would you still be jealous because my nose was slightly longer? Or my lips slightly fuller? Would you still pay for surgery to make your nose and lips more like mine?
What if we sat side by side through all twelve grades and received the same education and yet somehow I went to college and became a lawyer while you went to trade school and became a plumber? Would you call me a libtard and resent my career? Would I look down on you as you installed my new toilet?
Will we always find something to resent, something to be jealous of, something to fight about?
Will it always be our nature to fear the Other, even if their Otherness is only birthmark, a broken tooth, a different hairstyle?
How does the skin color, the religion, the material wealth of Others make us fearful?
How do we make all Other into Ours?
For a segment of the American population, the idea of being required to wear a mask triggers outrage. Some of the outrage results in physical violence. Over a mask.
On the surface, such a reaction defies reason. But behind the curtain, there are insidious reasons, all of which are egged on by rightwing and foreign interests determined to sow chaos in this nation.
There’s the ‘freedom’ element, resistance to being ‘required’ to do anything. But why? Similar outrage is not apparent in instances of ‘required’ seat belts, or shoes and shirts in stores, or – for that matter – driving in the right lane.
There are news reports of people who claim they can’t breathe if they wear a mask, but that dog won’t hunt. Doctors, nurses, scientists, and hazmat teams wear masks every day for hours. None of them have dropped dead from oxygen starvation or carbon dioxide buildup. Yes, there may be a few with mental health issues or respiratory problems that a mask can complicate. But that’s a handful of people in the overall situation.
If we pull back the curtain further, we find massive evidence of Denial. It’s not just excuses for why a mask requirement allegedly violates someone’s freedom or that one can’t properly breathe in a mask. The denial is far more fundamental than that, and largely hidden.
Remember, for the contingent of Americans who believe in Trump, the virus started out as a Democratic hoax. It was nothing more than the flu and would disappear by April. News coverage of New York’s crisis with bodies stored in refrigerated tractor-trailer trucks or ICU beds lining hospital hallways wasn’t real, simply more of that Democratic hoax meant to scare people and mess up Trump’s chance at re-election.
Now five months in and as the infection rate soars and hospitals in several states are nearing 100% capacity, the hoax lunacy has expanded to include screaming mobs of anti-vaxxers whose sole mission is to protect all of us from a mandatory vaccine that carries microchips which will … well, that detail is rather elusive. Some claim the chips will be the ‘mark of the beast’ that prevents its carrier from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Others claim the chips will control our behavior and force us to accept the ‘New World Order’. Or most egregiously, it’s a Bill Gates plan to track everyone – because… ?
In a poll conducted May 20 and 21 by Yahoo/YouGov, 44% of Republicans said they believed the microchip conspiracy theory with Democrats checking in at 19%.
A Christian Right broadcaster, Brannon Howse of “Worldview Watch,” warned that Gates and the “medical globalist deep state” were using the crisis to regulate people’s fertility depending on their worldview, through “procreation tickets” and microchips.
So we have the ‘don’t tell me what to do’ mindset enhanced by the Democrats’ evil hoax and the microchip from Satan Gates himself. Some folks have even made the whole thing more concise by blaming Bill Gates for creating the virus so he could implant chips in the vaccine.
Elaborate thinking, perhaps – except it’s the result of not thinking at all.
Sadly, these conspiracy theories and rejections of facts have become fodder for political interests whose goal is to disrupt and divide the people of the United States. This has been the stated purpose of Russian disinformation campaigns for decades, but that too has become a conspiracy theory even when our best intelligence agencies confirm proof of such actions. The intelligence community is then swept into yet another conspiracy theory.
The more the far right learns (and can’t understand), the more it crafts yet another conspiracy theory. And experiences more rage.
Anger is often the result of fear, part of the adrenaline-stoked fight or flight response. Fear of the unknown, i.e. a virus or scientific process that is too hard to understand. Fear of being on the losing ‘side.’ Fear of being wrong for folks who need to feel ‘right’ in order to maintain mental stability.
With an invisible virus spreading through the population, anxiety sweeps in triggering fear. Those who are willing and able seek scientific information to help understand how the virus works, how it travels, what can prevent infection, and how he/she personally can best avoid the bug. These folks wear masks in public, stay home as much as possible, and social distance when they can’t.
But not everyone is equipped to seek out or understand scientific information and these people are more likely to be triggered into rage about wearing a mask. If these folks were capable or willing to investigate the virus instead of feeding on falsehoods promoted by Trump, they probably weren’t Trump voters to start with.
Trump voters are a strange amalgam of several sorts of people. At the core are those evangelicals who refuse to think beyond the boundaries of their religious beliefs, and those beliefs dictate saving the fetus above all else. That means a Republican vote no matter who the candidate, a constituency carefully cultivated and routinely fed hot-button rhetoric like the “Democrats want to kill babies after they’re born!”
There is no room in these minds for the rights of a woman to control her body, or the reality that abortions occurred millennia before Roe v Wade and will occur after it’s overturned, if it is. There is also no room in that lockstep for consideration of the horrific abuses perpetrated upon unwanted children, or immigrant children in cages, or children and pregnant women in places where our corporate war machines spread death and destruction on an industrial scale. Apparently ‘My Body, My Choice” slogans only apply to those who refuse to wear a mask.
Then there are those who hate government and rally behind the idea that Trump will dismantle the ‘deep state’ which describes, in their minds, a mysterious evil machinery behind all our nation’s ills. There is no room in these minds to understand how government works, no respect for people who devote entire careers to studying how chemicals in water or food affect our endocrine systems, or for people who spend every working day looking at data about our schools and whether students are learning, or the processes by which agencies can make choices about interest rates or surplus crops or weather forecasting – all of it in service to the people of our nation.
The mentalities involved in this willful ignorance and diminished reasoning capacity know somewhere deep inside they might be wrong. An internal crisis of anxiety and fear grows proportionately to the growing evidence of the possible error. When it reaches the point where their local supermarket won’t allow them through the doors without a mask, the evidence of their wrong blows up in their face.
Does that mean they suddenly realize that they were wrong? No. In defense of all the ignorance they hold dear, they rage.
Denial explains and justifies the rage. Denial that Trump is an idiot. Denial that the nation is not now nor ever was meant to be a ‘Christian’ nation, that the Republican mantra about fetuses and freedom of religion is nothing more than a political con meant to garner votes from people who are incapable of thinking for themselves. See, for example, the evangelical prediction that the world will literally end if Trump isn’t re-elected. (Footnote )
Other mask-ragers are people who fear losing the historical supremacy of white identity. People who still can’t admit the South justly lost the Civil War. People too lazy to pay attention to the facts, too busy or disconnected to read/watch the news from enough different sources to truly understand what is going on. These are people incapable of gathering relevant information regarding an issue, reasoning through that information, and reaching logical conclusions.
If we as a nation are going to survive the current chaos and move toward a more united, egalitarian future, each of these conditions among segments of the American population requires a focused examination of the cause and a concerted national effort to remediate the cause. These causes mean we are not equal. Without a long term determination to ‘cure’ these inequalities, they will destroy us. It’s not enough to have scientists discovering vaccines and advanced computing systems that can park cars for us. People have to understand how to apply rational processes and appreciate the logic of the scientific method.
Masks are a symbol of the truth of the virus, but they are also a symbol of the truth about Donald Trump and the Republican Party. Those who have embraced Trump deny they’ve been manipulated, misled, and used to further a political agenda that has – in reality – nothing to do with what they believe it to be. The agenda, in reality, is to further consolidate power and wealth in the hands of a few.
These folks have been played. Wearing a mask would require them to admit it.
I flow like water.
Passing from one faint circle of light to the next,
My breath smooth, my legs moving rhythmically.
Across one darkened neighborhood and then another,
Street cleaners whisk past, big machines with their circular brushes whooshing.
Past houses where families sleep.
Dogs barking in back yards.
Cars in driveways wrapped in dew.
Pink air colors the houses, trees, lawns.
I run until my darkness is washed from my flesh,
Gone with the rising sun.
I run until there is no desire, no memory, nothing but the movement of muscle.
The edge of the sun appears at the horizon
Like a red-hot knife.
I believe I could live on carbs alone. Preferably derivatives of wheat. Refined into cake. Angel food cake. Chocolate cake. Lemon cake. Pound cake. Cupcakes! We’ve made up holidays so that we can have more cake.
Or cookies. Peanut butter cookies, oatmeal cookies, sugar cookies. Cookies! Biscuits slathered with butter and strawberry jam. Biscuits with sorghum molasses. Biscuits!
I bet you didn’t know that the Roman legions’ staple ration of food was wheat. Or that from 123 BCE, a ration of unmilled wheat (as much as 72 pounds) was distributed to as many as 200,000 people every month by the Roman state. Hence the old reference to ‘bread and circuses’. Juvenal, a first century Roman poet who originated the phrase, used it to decry the “selfishness” of common people and their neglect of wider concerns because the government pacified them with bread and entertainment. The phrase implies a population’s erosion or ignorance of civic duty as a priority. (‘Circuses’ referred to elaborate spectacles in the coliseum.)
Not surprisingly, the Romans knew how to make flour into piecrust.
In these times of political crisis and viral contagion, I’ve increasingly come to admire the qualities of flour. Bread of course. Bread for sandwiches, toasted bread with eggs, with jam, with melted cheese and tomato soup. Breadsticks!
Without flour, there would be no gravy! No puddings! No graham crackers or the heavenly crusts made from them that lie underneath and beside the beautiful maidens of cheesecake and cream pies. Pretzels, bagels, tortillas, English muffins, blueberry muffins, banana nut bread, crumpets, scones. Scones baked with bits of crisp bacon, or with sharp cheddar, or dried cranberries.
Crackers. Salty crisp crackers.
Pies. Lots of my favorite foods come in pie crust, thick crumbly crust of flour and butter brought to its most exquisitely evolved state. One could argue that American cuisine is lacking in regard to pie crust. Our cousins across the pond seem far more advanced in regard to food wrapped lovingly in crust.
The genius of pasties and its ilk is its perfect use of crust by wrapping crust entirely around the contents. Maximum crust.
We do have a descendant of pasties in our half-moon pies. Steam some apricots until tender, mash with appropriate sweetener. (There used to be dried apricots that carried the perfect balance of tart and sweet. You can’t find those anymore. Now they’re all too sweet.) Still, with a judicious hand on the sweetener and a hint of ginger, the apricots can be made ready for their marriage bed in crust. She finds herself spread on one side of a flat circle of rolled-out dough where the other side is brought to rise up over her, cover her… Ahem.
The most perfect apricot pies were fried. In deep hot oil, the butter in the dough sizzled, cooking the flour into tender flakes that, once in the mouth with a portion of apricot filling, dissemble like a velvet-tongued seducer, drawing everything connected to the mouth into bliss. For those aging beyond heavily fried foods, the alternative is to bake the pie – with so-so results.
WAIT for the pie to cool. Oops, sorry.
The genius of the Brits with pasties is that the filling is a meal.
A pasty is a baked pastry, a traditional variety of which is particularly associated with Cornwall, United Kingdom. It is made by placing an uncooked filling, typically meat and vegetables, on one half of a flat shortcrust pastry circle, folding the pastry in half to wrap the filling in a semicircle and crimping the curved edge to form a seal before baking.
Despite the modern pasty’s strong association with Cornwall, its exact origins are unclear. The English word “pasty” derives from Medieval French (O.Fr. paste from V.Lat pasta) for a pie, filled with venison, salmon or other meat, vegetables or cheese, baked without a dish. Pasties have been mentioned in cookbooks throughout the ages. For example, the earliest version of Le Viandier (Old French) has been dated to around 1300 and contains several pasty recipes. In 1393, Le Menagier de Paris contains recipes for pasté with venison, veal, beef, or mutton.
Other early references to pasties include a 13th-century charter that was granted by Henry III (1207–1272) to the town of Great Yarmouth. The town is bound to send to the sheriffs of Norwich every year one hundred herrings, baked in twenty four pasties, which the sheriffs are to deliver to the lord of the manor of East Carlton who is then to convey them to the King. Around the same time, 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris wrote of the monks of St Albans Abbey “according to their custom, lived upon pasties of flesh-meat.” A total of 5,500 venison pasties were served at the installation feast of George Neville, archbishop of York and chancellor of England in 1465.
The family of pasty-style meat pies includes those fabulous empanadas which spread with the advance of Portuguese and Spanish conquests of the New World from Argentina to Indonesia (panasan) and the Philippines (several versions). Then there are the Russian and Ukranian pirozhoks, boat-shaped pies made of yeast-leavened dough, with filling completely enclosed. Also the Italian calzone made with pizza dough wrapped around salami, ham or vegetables with mozzarella, ricotta and parmesan or pecorino cheese, plus an egg. Don’t forget the samosa of India, a crusty wrapping of dough around a filling such a spiced potatoes, onions, peas, cheese, beef or other meat, or lentils. And the Jewish knish. Or the Mongolian khuushuur.
We do have Hot Pockets, which hardly merit mention.
The lines blur with the jianbing, a Chinese wheat flour pancake that is wrapped raw around fillings and cooked on a griddle and folded. Traced as far back as 2,000 years, this food was originally made from millet flour or other grains. It is a cousin to crepes, usually served with fruit or other sweet fillings rather than savory ones. But then that brings up pancakes… PANCAKES!
Never forget those thin wrappings of eggrolls and spring rolls, deep fried to crisp perfection, thanks to wheat flour. Spring rolls appeared in the historical record in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (266-420 CE) of ancient China, leading one to theorize that the Western European rise of pasties as a flour-based wrapping around meat fillings might have resulted from the Italian Marco Polo’s wanderings along the Silk Road into Asian lands (1271-1295). Interestingly, the 12th century Arthurian romance Erec and Enide, written by Chrétien de Troyes, includes pasties eaten by characters from the area around Cornwall. Which brings back the question of whether the pasty was indigenous to Cornwall or if the idea followed Polo back from China.
Then there’s pasta. How lost we would be in this world without it? Spaghetti, ravioli, pizza and, among many other shapes of this water and flour invention, macaroni, that star of American comfort food, mac ‘n’ cheese! Developed as early as the 14th century in Italy, the charm of mac ‘n’ cheese quickly gained pride of place in English cuisine of the same century.
Let us not forget the forms of bread that serve us daily in their embrace of hamburger patties or hot dogs, soft pillows of compliant wheat dough providing a handhold on meat and fillings without the trouble of frying or baking a pasty.
People have been making delicious food with flour since, well, since a time before history. We just don’t know exactly when those clever women (of course it was women) started harvesting and then replanting the largest grains of native grasses; the first known cultivation was around 10,000 years ago in the area around modern day southeastern Turkey. Around 6,000 years ago Egyptians figured out how to make wheat bread in an oven. Evidence of the first identifiable bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) with sufficient gluten for yeasted bread is found in Macedonia circa 1350 BCE.
But for flour, someone had to figure that out. Some woman rubbing two rocks together smashed wheat kernels into dust, and flour was born. Sometime before 2,000 BCE, a recipe for chicken pie was written on a clay tablet in Sumer.
One of the most sublime of all human flour experiences is to wind through the process of making risen bread – the mixing, the kneading, the waiting for it to rise only to punch it down again before waiting yet again for it to rise before shaping loaves or those manna parcels called ROLLS. And then, suffering through the baking as yeasty aroma fills the air, one arrives at the moment of completion when the golden loaves are lifted onto cooling racks and the truest torture begins. One is exhorted to wait until the bread cools, but who can wait? Yes, the soft interior suffers when a knife plunges into the hot loaf. Equally true is that a slice of bread still steaming from the oven will melt the butter before it can be spread.
But who needs to spread it? Drop thick slabs of cold butter onto the incandescent bread and let it vanish into the textured magic, cooling the bread as it goes so that your trembling hands can bring the slab of hot bread to your mouth and you can absorb the entirely decadent ambrosia directly into your bloodstream.
A lot of talk is going on right now about not needing the police, but it’s just not true. We need police. There will always be robberies, rape, assault, murder, crazy people with a gun, and other crime.
It’s true we don’t need police in areas of our lives where they have been unnecessarily and destructively assigned duty by lawmakers eager to appease public sentiment or to garner support for re-election. The drug war has been one of those areas.
But it’s also true that law enforcement in the United States has always been armed. Shoot-outs in dusty frontier towns of the Old West come to mind. Those encounters were minor compared to what happened when do-gooders decided the American people shouldn’t have alcoholic drink.
Organized crime got its first foothold in American life thanks to the lucrative black market in liquor. This was also the golden age of bank robbery with figures like Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, and John Dillinger becoming folk heroes. The Thompson sub-machine gun and the Browning Automatic Rifle were increasingly used by these crime “stars.”
…the Prohibition Era saw domestic police departments using automatic weapons, armored vehicles, and ammo developed with the express purpose of being able to penetrate the early bulletproof vests worn by gangsters of the era.
The first transfer of military weapons to civilian law enforcement occurred in the years immediately after World War II when surplus military supplies were made available to various civilian entities. With the rise of activism for African-American rights in the 1950s and 1960s, then the increasing public protests over the Vietnam War in the late ‘60s and early 1970s, police forces felt emboldened to use force.
…police militarization was escalated in the 1950s and 1960s, an era in which race riots and anti-war protests were common in many U.S. cities. Some believe that the seeming success of officers armed with military-style weapons and deployed to curtail the 1965 Watts riots, a six-day race riot sparked by conflicts with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) that killed 34 people, gave way to the trend of arming and equipping law enforcement officers with battlefield weapons. Joy Rohde, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy, has published research indicating that “militarization is a mindset … is a tendency to see the world through the lens of national security, a tendency to exaggerate existing threats.” Rohde traces “the origins of modern militarized policing” to the Cold War-era anti-communist paranoia, and the idea that domestic civil rights activists were similar to foreign enemies, as manifested in activities such as the CIA’s Operation CHAOS.
…The 1981 Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act allows the U.S. military to cooperate with domestic and foreign law enforcement agencies. Operations in support of law enforcement include assistance in counter-drug operations, assistance for civil disturbances, special security operations, counter-terrorism, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), and similar activities. Constitutional and statutory restrictions and corresponding directives and regulations limit the type of support provided in this area. This allows the U.S. military to give law enforcement agencies access to its military bases and its military equipment. [Emphasis mine.] The legislation was promoted during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan in the context of the War on Drugs, and is considered a part of a general trend towards the militarization of police.
The process becomes circular. Tougher drug laws under Reagan meant police were legally empowered to invade private residences, stop and search vehicles, and frisk people on the street. In response, civilians trafficking in drugs or only using drugs became more likely to arm themselves. Which in turn led police to seek more protection and greater fire power like SWAT which are essentially militarized police squads.
Begun in 1965 in Philadelphia, SWAT teams were conceived as a way to restrain urban unrest, deal with hostage situations, or handle barricaded marksmen. The number of SWAT raids in the US grew dramatically from about 3,000 in 1980, to a whopping 50,000 SWAT raids in 2014.
Unfortunately, too much of a potentially good thing has meant that 62 percent of all SWAT deployments were for drug raids, 79 percent of these were done on private residences, and only 7 percent of all raids were done for situations SWAT was invented for—namely barricades or hostage situations.
The result has been an increasingly armed and embattled police at war with the population whether white right-wing fanatics or inner city drug gangs. One begets the other. It’s hard to imagine sending disarmed police officers out on calls and equally hard to contemplate any attempt to disarm the public. Communities of color have become disproportionately impact by the war on drugs not only because they are disproportionately impoverished and therefore seeking any means of income, but also and most importantly because ALL LAWS are policed selectively. Officers would rarely if ever stop a white well-dressed man driving a late model Lexus but would not hesitate to stop a black or Hispanic man with any profiling features like certain hairstyles, jewelry, clothing, shoes, or automobile.
We have get smart about this. Yes, communities and the nation as a whole must do a better job of intervening in the preconditions of ‘crime’ by improving all forms of social support: better early childhood education, far more generous funding for public schools, and intensive efforts to improve health care and nutritional support to impoverished communities. Better job opportunities will require dedicated effort. It’s a long list of what might help and a very short list of funding to enable those programs.
It also makes sense to look at what drives much of the police violence, and the drug war is first in line. Young men in impoverished neighborhoods earn money by selling drugs. With their profits and to protect themselves from theft, they buy weapons. Shoot-outs with police are inevitable.
We need to face reality as a nation and legalize all drugs. People who want drugs are getting them now, so it’s a fantasy to think that prohibition is succeeding in its stated goal. We only need to look at what occurred as a result of alcohol prohibition to see the parallel to our current situation. More violence, more crime, and no real impact on the use or abuse of alcohol.
The money we spend on enforcing drug laws and punishing drug law violators could easily supply the funds needed for the social reforms mentioned above. “Since 1971, the war on drugs has cost the United States an estimated $1 trillion. In 2015, the federal government spent an estimated $9.2 million every day to incarcerate people charged with drug-related offenses—that’s more than $3.3 billion annually.”
The fact is that we can’t arrest our way out of the drug problem and treatment alone is not the answer. As shown on the adjacent chart, funding for ‘prevention’ is a slim portion of the overall budget. What we need to get at is WHY people abuse drugs, and in order to make meaningful headway on that question, we must first accept the reality that drug USE is not the same as drug ABUSE. Just as a beer or two isn’t alcoholism, neither does casual smoking of marijuana or exploring LSD on a weekend adventure constitute substance abuse.
If drugs were legal, labeled for purity and potency, and taxed like alcohol, our tax dollars could be concentrated on the true sources of substance abuse problems including:
– Genetic predisposition to addiction or abuse
– History of mental illness and lack of access to mental health care
– Neglect, abuse, or other childhood trauma
– Poor social skills or lack of social support structure
– Poor health and lack of access to health care
Data collected over recent decades shows a consistent 8-10% of the population are predisposed to addiction, the greatest percentage of which are alcoholics. In 2011, of persons meeting criteria for substance abuse, “2.9 million were classified with a substance use disorder of both alcohol and illicit drugs. 4.2 million were classified with a substance use disorder for illicit drugs but not alcohol. 15.0 million were classified with a substance use disorder for alcohol but not illicit drugs.”
Obviously neither military weaponry nor SWAT teams have any real impact on addiction. By now we as a society should recognize that drug prohibition has almost singlehandedly pushed our police forces into armed combat on our city streets and given birth to gang warfare. This is one specific target upon which concerned citizens can and must take action – educate our elected representatives on the facts, advocate in support of change, and never rest until this arena of community conflict has been removed.
Police only enforce the laws. Voters are in control of who make laws. Let the healing begin.
Looking for some perspective on today’s viral crisis? Considering humanity’s infinitely long track record with similar outbreaks, we surely aren’t surprised that it’s here again. In case you’re not up to speed on the history of mankind’s virus background, check out my last blog post.
There is evidently an ingrained memory of this threat to our lives. Instinctively, we know there are invisible killers lurking out there, and entertainment takes advantage of our interest. Not only have scientists made regular warnings to prepare for such eruptions, our literature and movies regularly focus on outbreak what-ifs.
Consider the list of 79 – yes, 79 – movies on the topic of epidemic/pandemic outbreaks. In fact, as long as movies have been made, viral contagions have been a favored subject. Here’s a great list.
If you prefer to curl up with a book, writers and historians have been exploring the desolate landscapes of plague-riddled civilizations since Greek and Roman times. Daniel Defoe was one of the first English writers to producing a book about devastating disease with his 1722 A Journal of the Plague Year, which chronicles the 1665 bubonic plague in London. Here are more books to consider.
One might wonder why anyone would want to read about horrific diseases when we’re in the middle of our current crisis, but art reflects life in many important ways. Movies and literature about pandemics not only explore the physical effects of the disease but also the human response to collateral damage like quarantine, isolation, and economic hits. We can gain a greater understanding through this informing exploration, and that in itself is somehow comforting. It’s like, ok, we’ve been through this before and survived. We can do it again.
But most of all, such deep history about our relationship with diseases like SARS-CoV-2 (COVID 19) provides critical information for those entrusted with leadership over us all whether elected officials, agencies, teachers, or scientists. In our tragic case, our president failed to read history or listen to experts – or even his predecessor, President Obama, who had learned from Ebola and Zika that preparations must be made BEFORE an outbreak ever occurs. The sad result is the enormous death rate for a nation purportedly the most advanced.
The most malevolent viruses are fast and silent killers, moving through populations before we have time to prepare. There is no excuse for the current situation in the United States where we’re still not in possession of enough face masks or testing apparatus to get in front of this tidal wave of death.
Perhaps most instructive about such movies and books, both fiction and non-fiction, is the inevitable reactions of people. There’s denial – it can’t happen here, it’s not that bad, it’s still safe to go shopping, I won’t wear a mask – that has become one of the most virulent aspects of SARS-CoV-2. It probably wouldn’t matter what the books and movies might say to the folks clogging state capitol steps with their guns and angry, unmasked faces. Their denial derives from lack of understanding of the science involved and a refusal to admit they might be lacking. It doesn’t help that their presidential hero praises their ignorance – because he too is lacking.
Mother Nature will keep throwing these things in our path. I predict another new viral crisis within the next two years. Meanwhile, we don’t yet know if a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 will work – after all, vaccines depend on the idea that our bodies create effective antibodies once the vaccine is administered, and those antibodies will protect us from a new infection. But increasingly, reports filter in that persons are becoming sick for the second time, which means antibodies aren’t working. And we already know that to date, our best flu vaccines are only 50%-60% effective.
SARS-CoV-2 is here to stay, folks. More of us will die. Grab the popcorn and watch a movie! And next time you vote, make sure your chosen candidate is going to protect you and your loved ones by preparing well in advance for the next outbreak.
Amid funny television sitcoms, exciting football games, and eating out at your favorite Thai food restaurant, it’s easy to forget about plagues. But they’ve always been part of human existence. Millions of us have died with these periodic outbreaks. Fortunately for us, we (well, most of us) now understand that these are not curses sent by angry gods but rather a natural invasion of one or another micro-organism seeking its own place in the sun. Er, in us.
A side note here: A virus is technically NOT an organism like bacteria but rather a microscopic parasite much smaller than bacteria which can’t reproduce outside of a host body.
Viruses teeter on the boundaries of what is considered life. On one hand, they contain the key elements that make up all living organisms: the nucleic acids, DNA or RNA (any given virus can only have one or the other). On the other hand, viruses lack the capacity to independently read and act upon the information contained within these nucleic acids.
A virus is a submicroscopic infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of an organism. Viruses can infect all types of life forms, from animals and plants to microorganisms, including bacteria and archaea. [Since their discovery in] 1898, more than 6,000 virus species have been described in detail, of the millions of types of viruses in the environment. Viruses are found in almost every ecosystem on Earth and are the most numerous type of biological entity.
So keeping in mind that these infinitesimally small entities can’t move, reproduce, or live except inside another organism, we can look back and marvel at the enormous impact these entities have wrought on the human race. Research has found that an astonishing thirty percent of all protein adaptations for humans have been driven by viruses., As noted in the 2007 scientific article by Christian W. McMillan, “Epidemic Disease and Their Effect on History,”
There is perhaps no longer-lasting historical relationship than that between humans and disease, especially epidemic disease. The relationship predates agriculture, the formation of cities, and, if current research on the emergence of diseases like tuberculosis is correct, human migration out of Africa. From the earliest times to the present, epidemics have affected human history in myriad ways: demographically, culturally, politically, financially, and biologically. Humans have never known a time in history when epidemics did not loom large.
Studies of prehistory suggest that bottlenecks in human evolution may have been the result of epidemics where most of a population died off leaving only a few survivors to repopulate that area or continent. Aside from restarting populations, these virulent invaders also affect the genome by selecting survivors with particular DNA profiles which then become the prevailing type. Epigenetic effects also become part of the remaining population, an inheritance by mechanisms other than through the DNA sequence of genes. … It works through chemical tags added to chromosomes that function to switch genes on or off.
The earliest evidence of a widespread plague is found in China where the 5,000 year old remains of prehistoric villagers had been stuffed inside a house that was subsequently burned to the ground.
No age group was spared, as the skeletons of juveniles, young adults and middle-age people were found inside the house. The archaeological site is now called “Hamin Mangha” and is one of the best-preserved prehistoric sites in northeastern China. Archaeological and anthropological study indicates that the epidemic happened quickly enough that there was no time for proper burials, and the site was not inhabited again.
Before the discovery of Hamin Mangha, another prehistoric mass burial that dates to roughly the same time period was found at a site called Miaozigou, in northeastern China. Together, these discoveries suggest that an epidemic ravaged the entire region.
There’s no question that epidemics have changed not only the physical make-up of humanity but also the course of history. Among the earliest records of such events are Sanskrit notations from 1200 BC documenting a type of flu that spread through Babylon, Central Asia, Mesopotamia and Southern Asia. Since these were the first areas of the world to create written records, it follows these would be the places where such chronicles would exist. But without doubt, plagues didn’t select only advanced societies to infect.
The first well documented outbreak of epidemic disease may be the Plague of Athens, an illness which Thucydides described as starting in the head with illness that included fever, redness and inflammation in the eyes, sore throat that led to bleeding, sneezing, coughing, vomiting, and ulcers on the body. The opinions of scholars on the cause range from hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola to epidemic typhus fever.
The Plague of Athens was an epidemic that devastated the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC) when an Athenian victory still seemed within reach. The plague killed an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 people and is believed to have entered Athens through Piraeus, the city’s port and sole source of food and supplies. Much of the eastern Mediterranean also saw an outbreak of the disease, albeit with less impact.
The plague had serious effects on Athens’ society, resulting in a lack of adherence to laws and religious belief. In response laws became stricter, resulting in the punishment of non-citizens claiming to be Athenian. In addition, Pericles, the leader of Athens, died from the plague. The plague returned twice more, in 429 BC and in the winter of 427/426 BC. Some 30 pathogens have been suggested as having caused the plague.
The Roman Empire suffered its first massive epidemic in the so-called Antonine Plague circa 165-180 AD. Soldiers returning to Rome from campaigning along with empire’s boundaries developed what scientists now believe was smallpox. The result in Rome’s crowded streets was the death of up to five million people. The long-lasting outbreak ended the long peaceful “Pax Romana” for the empire, with barbarian invasions weakening the government and undermining the old religious belief systems with their multiple gods, opening the door to the growth of Christianity.
About 100 years later, a new virus hit the Roman Empire that wiped out over one million people. “Named after St. Cyprian, a bishop of Carthage (a city in Tunisia) who described the epidemic as signaling the end of the world, the Plague of Cyprian is estimated to have killed 5,000 people a day in Rome alone. In 2014, archaeologists in Luxor found what appears to be a mass burial site of plague victims. Their bodies were covered with a thick layer of lime (historically used as a disinfectant). Archaeologists found three kilns used to manufacture lime and the remains of plague victims burned in a giant bonfire.” Thought by scholars to be another outbreak of smallpox, the disease is believed to have transferred from animal hosts to humanity and may have included measles. The outbreak continued for nearly twenty years and contributed greatly to the fall of the empire.
In 541-542, up to 100 million died across Europe and West Asia in the epidemic known first as the Plague of Justinian (emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire at Istanbul), wiping out up to 50% of the European population. The disease, later known as the Black Death (Bubonic plague) hopped over to the British Isles 100 years later and reappeared in 746-747 in the Byzantine Empire, West Asia, and Africa to ill an unknown number of victims. Meanwhile, an outbreak of smallpox in Japan killed about half the population.
The Black Death is perhaps the most famous of pandemics, believed carried by fleas and also spread by human to human contact. Credited with depopulating Europe during the Middle Ages, the outbreak lasted from 1331-1353 and wiped out up to 200 million people, up to 60% of the population.
The Black Death, also known as the Pestilence and the Plague, was the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history… the bacterium Yersinia pestis is believed to have been the cause. Y. pestis infection most commonly results in bubonic plague… it most likely originated in Central Asia or East Asia, from where it travelled along the Silk Road, reaching Crimea by 1347. From there, it was most likely carried by fleas living on the black rats that travelled on Genoese merchant ships, spreading throughout the Mediterranean Basin and reaching Africa, Western Asia, and the rest of Europe via Constantinople, Sicily, and the Italian Peninsula.
A recurrence of Black Death in the mid-1500s wiped out over 20,000 Londoners and another estimated 20,000 thirty years later. Various plague outbreaks around the globe continued to occur, but the biggest death toll in Britain of over 100,000 people happened in the mid-1600s. Subsequent ripples of this infection have made way through various populations since that time, and the virus remains active even in the United States.
One of greatest advantages Europeans had in its conquest of the New World were the diseases that came with them. Smallpox, measles, and yellow fever wiped out upwards of twenty million natives who had never been exposed and had no immunity. For a full list of epidemics and their impact, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_epidemics
Today, we have the advantage of knowing such disease outbreaks are not signals of the end of the world wrought by supernatural powers, but rather by invisible creatures that breed in our cells. We shouldn’t be at all surprised that yet another such eruption has occurred, given the role such entities have played throughout human history. Due to modern science, we stand at a far greater advantage than any of our forefathers in fighting such devastating illnesses. But as we’re witnessing, science is only as effective as the public and our leaders will allow.
And as far as science goes, no one yet knows exactly how COVID-19 kills people, or how long asymptomatic carriers continue to spread the virus, or whether those who’ve survived infection are vulnerable to re-infection. The horizon for a vaccine remains distant despite our advanced technology, and no one can predict whether a vaccine will be more or less as effective as the flu vaccine at its average of 50%.
Even when (if) we manage to craft an effective vaccine and discover treatments that address the viral infection with relatively useful interventions, we still must face the fact that the flip side of our advanced scientific status in the modern world is a far greater rate of intercontinental disease transmission and expansion of human population into areas previously left to nature, to name only two.
There will be new viruses.
 It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how this plague led to the end of the classical world. “The reign of Justinian was a turning-point in Late Antiquity. It is the period when paganism finally lost its long struggle to survive, and when the schism in Christianity between the Monophysite east and the Chalcedonian west became insurmountable. From a military viewpoint, it marked the last time that the Roman Empire could go on the offensive with hope of success. Africa and Italy were recovered, and a foothold was established in Spain. When Justinian died, the frontiers were still intact although the Balkans had been devastated by a series of raids and the Italian economy was in ruins. His extensive building program has left us the most celebrated example of Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture that still survives: Hagia Sophia in modern Istanbul.” See https://www.roman-emperors.org/justinia.htm
Scientists have no firm grip on the fatality rate for this coronavirus. That’s because no one knows who is infected and/or who has experienced the virus without significant reaction. Until testing for the virus and antibodies is widely accessed across the entire population, these answers will remain unknown.
Ask the president when widespread testing will be available and you might trigger a temper tantrum like the one he unleashed yesterday on a FOX reporter.
Also, what anyone knows about the mortality rate depends on whether you’re talking about apples or oranges:
In the UK, as of 2 April, 2921 people had died out of 33,718 confirmed cases – a crude case fatality rate of around 9 per cent. For Italy, the figure is nearly 12 per cent and for Germany just 1 per cent. These figures don’t tell us what we really want to know, though: how many of those infected will die as a result, which is known as the infection fatality rate.
Then there’s the vaccine. Several promising ideas are in the pipeline, including a DNA-based formulation under development by Inovio and supported by Bill Gates. But by any and all accounts, a vaccine is still twelve to eighteen months away.
So why is everyone talking about an ‘end’ to self-isolating by May or June? Nothing magical happens in June. The virus will still exist. Those of us who have avoided it so far will have no more immunity in June than we have now.
Well, there is the weather. Quite a few viruses have seasonal growth and decline, and this general knowledge apparently led President Trump to assert “that the virus will be gone by April.” He claimed that when temperatures rise, ‘the virus’ will ‘miraculously’ go away.’ The idea has triggered several studies of that effect in this particular outbreak. It’s not good news.
As summarized in a report by the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Public Health,
The short answer is that while we may expect modest declines in the contagiousness of SARS-CoV-2 in warmer, wetter weather and perhaps with the closing of schools in temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, it is not reasonable to expect these declines alone to slow transmission enough to make a big dent. [This report is worthy of a full read!] 
So no big break from warm weather and no vaccine until 2021. Do we self-isolate for the next year?
In reality, people simply can’t and won’t self-isolate for the next year. Many aren’t doing it now either because they hold an ‘essential services’ job or because they’re stupid. Plus the government can’t and won’t send out an endless supply of money to businesses to keep people on their payrolls or send money directly to the unemployed. Jobs are jobs because things need to get done – farming, transportation, shipping and dockworkers, manufacturing of a thousand things, millions of small businesses that involve everything from plumbing to roof repair to house cleaning, haircuts and dry cleaning, auto repair and lawn mowing. Then there are the big stores where people buy groceries, batteries, and underwear, essential in their own ways.
And – if you’ll remember – those charts showed a high curve and longer, lower curve – that longer, lower curve means people are still getting infected months into the outbreak. The idea of self isolation was to spread out the incidence of infection so that medical facilities didn’t get overwhelmed all at once, not so that the mitigation ended the risk.
How do we plan for the future?
Some national leaders are telling it like it is:
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday Canadians will need to stay at home and practice physical distancing for months as the first wave of COVID-19 cases in the country won’t end until the summer and Canada won’t return to normal until there is a vaccine — which could take a year and a half.
None of this should be a surprise. Outbreaks like this have been on the rise for decades and show no sign of slacking. The World Health Organization notes that in just the last three months of 2019, there were documented cases of MERS/CoV, Yellow fever, Ebola, Measles, Dengue fever, Lassa fever, Zika virus, and Cholera in multiple locations from the Middle East to Congo to Pacific Islands and including Afghanistan, the Netherlands, and France.
Scientists have been trying to prepare us for the next outbreak. A 2018 article on pandemic preparedness published in Nature Microbiology stated:
As recent outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Ebola and Nipah viruses, and pandemic influenza make clear, emergent infectious agents pose a continued and considerable threat to human health. However, our ability to detect and predict the initial emergence of a novel human pathogen (for example, the spillover of a virus from its animal reservoir to a human host), and our capacity to observe and forecast the transmission and spread of that pathogen within and among human populations, remains limited.
Key words: “Remains limited.”
Scientific consensus is that we are at greater risk of pandemics from both known and unknown disease vectors than in the past.
Evidence suggests that the likelihood of pandemics has increased over the past century because of increased global travel and integration, urbanization, changes in land use, and greater exploitation of the natural environment.
This is why it was criminally short-sighted by President Trump to “reorganize” Obama’s Global Health Security and Biodefense unit responsible for pandemic preparedness. The unit resided under the National Security Council (NSC), a forum of White House personnel that advises the president on national security and foreign policy matters. Now merged into one “directorate” with arms control/ nonproliferation and weapons of mass destruction terrorism, the global health and biodefense team’s clout is apparently lost in the shuffle. Trump was advised as early as December that a new bio-threat was shaping up in China and again several times in subsequent weeks, yet he failed to grasp the seriousness until mid-March.
Whether that’s a failure of his leaderless and diluted biodefense team or his basic inability to grasp anything is unclear. “Responding to an epidemic requires cooperation across a variety of government agencies, but without a dedicated coordinator, none has the responsibility to solve the problem.”
The hope for a vaccine within the next year seems to assume a vaccine will be developed. Surely it will–no guarantees. But even our best flu vaccines are only about 50% effective. That’s because these viruses mutate frequently, changing enough of their DNA to wriggle away from our efforts at prevention. So far scientists are optimistic that a vaccine might be more effective with COVID-19, known more formally as SARS-CoV-2.
Based on current data, it seems as though SARS-CoV-2 mutates much more slowly than the seasonal flu. Specifically, SARS-CoV-2 seems to have a mutation rate of less than 25 mutations per year, whereas the seasonal flu has a mutation rate of almost 50 mutations per year.
Unless one lives in a remote location without human contact, chances are all of us are going to end up exposed, one way or the other. The sooner we face that existential reality and adjust our outlook accordingly, the sooner we can relax.
At the very least, the lessons of the current experience demand better federal oversight and a president who pays attention to his security briefings. We need national stockpiles that can immediately respond to the need in mass infections and a public educated in advance on social distancing and other mitigation steps. We need to bolster our institutional and personal preparation for such inevitable events.
My Berner friends may become incensed with what I’m about to say, but I have to say it. It’s not that I don’t like almost everything Bernie promises. It’s that I’ve learned in my 72 years to be suspicious of someone who offers everything I might want, especially when it’s free. What’s the catch?
I believe he promises far more than he can deliver. Obama managed to get the Affordable Care Act passed but with massive compromises even though Democrats held majorities in the House and Senate. Yet to hear Bernie tell it, he’ll wave his magic wand and give us Medicare for All.
Same thing with his talk about taxing the 1% to pay for all his promises. It sounds great to hear him talk of free college, free childcare, ending fossil fuels, etc. but – as my grandmother used to say – “It’s too much sugar for a dime.”
Immigration policy changes advocated by Sanders are extensive. Good ideas include his commitment to “ensure customs and immigration agencies have the funding and personnel necessary to eliminate the backlog of pending applications and cut wait times for immigration applications and to work with Congress to provide funding to swiftly unify families stuck in pending backlogs.”
But I’ve seen little if any analysis of the social, financial, and security costs to allow unlimited immigration. Just his Medicare for All policy for immigrants raises red flags for a lot of voters — that he would “provide comprehensive care to everyone in America, regardless of immigration status” and his plan to “provide year-round, free universal school meals; breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks through our school meals programs to all students regardless of immigration status.”
And how much is enough? One million immigrants? Five million? We already know that climate change will marginalize increasing areas of the planet. Is it our plan to let them all move here until we’re as crowded as China?
Bernie’s embrace of the Green New Deal includes statements like “Save American families money with investments in weatherization, public transportation, modern infrastructure and high-speed broadband.” And “Invest in conservation and public lands to heal our soils, forests, and prairie lands.”
Who is investing?
Short answer: the government. “Directly invest an historic $16.3 trillion public investment toward these efforts, in line with the mobilization of resources made during the New Deal and WWII, but with an explicit choice to include black, indigenous and other minority communities who were systematically excluded in the past.” And he goes on to promise “We will guarantee five years of a worker’s current salary, housing assistance, job training, health care, pension support, and priority job placement for any displaced worker, as well as early retirement support for those who choose it or can no longer work.”
Sanders vows to make “the fossil fuel industry pay for their pollution, through litigation, fees, and taxes, and eliminating federal fossil fuel subsidies” yet doesn’t hint at what this would do to fuel prices. He promises to “End the greed of the fossil fuel industry and hold them accountable,” what every environmentalist has wanted for 50 years. But how do you end greed?
His plan to end right to work laws alone will roil through state governments—where such laws are passed—and spark enormous resistance. Program after proposed program relies on taxing the 1% — but Sanders provides no numbers of how much tax the 1% and many others earning above $29,000 per year will actually be expected to pay.
These proposed policies and much more are outlined at Sanders’ campaign website and are worth a read by voters before charging off to put him into the running against Trump. To me, much of Bernie’s platform is pie in the sky without any acknowledgment of the role of Congress in passing legislation or the overall impact on American lives.
There’s a strong sense of individualism among Americans. We believe in hard work and earning what we have. It’s not going to sit well among many voters for the government to take what is earned and give it to someone else. It’s one thing to send a contribution to a request for money by someone we know or to a legitimate charity and quite another to set up massive programs where everyone can get freebies even if they’re slackers. We already have plenty of evidence that people will believe the worst about welfare recipients, some of which is well proven.
Don’t get me wrong. I fully support higher taxes on the super-rich. We might hope that some of these changes could be enacted soon, no matter who the president or members of Congress. But each member of Congress has to answer to their constituents including local businesses and people who worry about having to pay even more taxes. Waving your arms and making promises doesn’t end the human desire to earn more money (i.e. greed) or the very real limits on what we can have.
Promises unfulfilled leave a bad taste in the mouths of voters who might naively elect someone who says all the right things and then can’t deliver. Sanders could set up Democrats for losses far into the future, not only of the White House but Congress and state races as well.
To the more pressing point, if we don’t get Donald Trump and his coterie of criminals out of power, we will have a majority of right wing nuts on the supreme court (much as we love her, Ginsberg can’t live forever), continued degradation of our ethical and social standards, and the risk of losing our entire democracy. Why should Democrats take the chance that Sanders with his wild promises might go down in flames and leave Trump in office another four years? Can’t we recognize the risk and choose a less extreme candidate?
I believe if Sanders becomes the Democratic nominee for president, the Republicans will mop the floor with him and his massive tax plan.
Yes, Republicans will attack any Democratic nominee. That’s what campaigns do. But Bernie is a grenade waiting to go off in our hands. I want change. I’ve been a progressive all my life and have worked hard on issues from women’s rights to the environment. I’d like to believe that Sanders can win the presidency and deliver on his promises. But I don’t believe.
Bernie scares me. He should scare you too.