What changes will the pandemic cause?

We’re in the midst of a great social experiment. How will living month after month with a disease that causes no symptoms in many and yet kills and maims at a high rate change people? And what are the long-term effects of designating 20% of the workforce as non-essential and sending them home–some with money and others without?

There are too many variables for serious research, but we do need answers.  

Why does anyone become angry enough to shoot people over being required to wear a face mask or being refused sit-down dining? Would these people have resorted to violence over petty issues in different circumstances or is a change in privileges and routine that unsettling for some?  

In March gun sales were up 85% from the previous year–and a significant number were handgun purchases by first-time gun buyers. Will these buyers continue to fear others when people aren’t getting so ill?  Will more guns mean even more suicides and accidental killings?  

Will people become more upset at homelessness–or at the homeless? Protesters in San Francisco are angry that the city has managed to house only 1,000 of the 8,000 homeless, yet many will oppose a continued drain on the city’s coffers. Sprawling Los Angeles county has spent heavily to house 14,000 street people while leaving another 45,000 homeless.   

And will the nation resume the former rate of shopping and eating out and attending concerts and sports events when the pandemic is over?  Or will businesses close as many permanently adapt to a more stay-at-home lifestyle? 

 Will people newly accustomed to doing business via skype and zoom continue to prefer meetings where no one knows if they’re wearing shorts and flip-flops? Or will the instant boom for these companies be followed by a major bust?

Meanwhile disputes over how to vote continue in many states that have previously limited absentee voting to people with significant reasons for their request. Some see voting from home as benefitting Democrats more than Republicans–possibly because many Democrats work longer hours, have less access to transportation, and face long lines or bullying at the polls.

Absentee voting has been open to all Idaho voters for decades. Still, voting only by absentee is a significant change.  

There’s some indication more people may vote–by last Friday, nearly 250,000 Idahoans had requested absentee ballots.  Only 176,806 voted in the 2016 primaries. In Canyon County the numbers were over 24,000 ballot requests for 2020 and 13,651 votes in May 2016.

Of course, having an extra two weeks for voting will affect the results. May 19 is the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot and June 2 for voting.

Perhaps the most important question is will this pandemic help or hurt the status of science in this country? Obama appointed five Nobel prizewinners and 25 members of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine during his administration. Trump issued orders silencing scientists early in his administration and has steadily replaced many with career politicians and business executives. The man recently appointed to head the fight against the coronavirus previously managed Dallas Labradoodles. 

Have the scientists been right in recommending measures to stop Covid-19? Or would it have been wiser to have let people die without ventilators while the disease ran its course?  

Scientists have overcome much of the opposition to previous findings about smog, tobacco, DDT, asbestos, sugar, and saturated fats.They have gained wide acceptance, but not victory, for theories about evolution and global warming.

Will their current fight help or hurt their future influence?  

Just how different will our new normal be? 

Idaho hopes for normalcy ahead

During the 20th century, May 1 evolved from a large celebration known for dancing children plaiting streamers around poles to solitary children stealthily depositing spring flowers on neighbor’s doorsteps to overblown displays of military might. 

This midpoint between the spring equinox and the summer solstice was chosen by early unions as International Workers’ Day, by U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars as Loyalty Day, and by the American Bar Association as Law Day.  

On May Day 2006 Latinos held the Great American Boycott calling for immigrant rights; in 2008, longshoremen protested against the Iraqi War; in 2012, Occupy Wall Street supporters protested economic inequality.

May Day 2020, however, won’t be remembered for celebrations or protests, but as the heroic–or foolish–starting point of the great American effort to re-establish normalcy.   

With polls indicating that 60% of the American people don’t feel the coronavirus danger is over, more than 30 states are easing social distancing restrictions. In an attempt to allay the fears of many, President Trump said it was possible that reopening would result in fewer than 100,000 deaths.  

Should we or shouldn’t we, that is the question. 

Idaho, fortunately, is more ready than most of the nation.  

Thirty-four states had more people die from coronavirus on May 2  than the 63 fatalities that Idaho has totaled over eight weeks. 

It sounds extreme for Michigan to ban motor boats, jet skis and travel to second homes. Yet, Michigan suffered 154 coronavirus deaths Saturday. That brought the state’s total to 4,020, a rate of 404 persons per million. Idaho’s rate is 37.

The U.S. average rate is 203 coronavirus deaths per million.  Twenty-two states have rates under 60.  Four states–Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York–have rates over 500 (https://www.wordometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/).   

Some states are definitely reopening too soon. Iowa opened 77 out of 99 counties the same day its total cases jumped nearly 10%. Georgia, one of the first state’s to reopen, saw its cases jump over 10.5% in three days. 

And, disappointingly, the initial test on remdesivir, the drug that caused a brief stock market surge, shows it decreases symptoms, but not deaths.

Why the pressure to reopen? Protestors would like to think it’s caused by a refusal to accept restrictions on our Constitutional right to assemble. Those who believe in following the money point to states faced with bankruptcy by the costs of unemployment payments for 18.6% of America’s workforce.

People who refuse to return to work because of the COVID-19 danger will not be eligible for state benefits or the extra $600 a week from the Federal government.  Finances will force many to take the same risks for which we’ve honored health care workers and other ‘essential’ employees.

And President Trump has offered some factories government help with any ‘liability,’ i.e. lawsuits resulting from worker deaths, rather than aid for frequent testing and personal protective equipment.

But Idaho is in pretty good shape. The rate of new cases has halved. And coronavirus deaths have been reported in only nine counties; three out of four deaths took place in just four–Ada, Nez Perce, Twin Falls and Blaine. 

Well done, Idaho. May our caution continue to pay off as we reopen step by step, health region by health region.  

I’m ready to don a mask my niece made and take some bold baby steps–having both my eyes (glaucoma) and my teeth checked. 

May all of you who’re returning to work face conditions as safe as possible amid responsible customers and co-workers.       

Some good stuff happening–really  

Okay, enough about Americans being angry at one another. Enough about two months  of U.S. COVID-19 deaths approaching the number of U.S. soldiers killed during 20 years of war in Vietnam (58,220). And absolutely no more about forcing states to go bankrupt so they won’t have to pay employee pensions.   

I set out to find some good news this week, and not just Congress appropriating nearly a half trillion more for small businesses, hospitals and coronavirus testing–though, at least, members did agree to check where the $2.2 trillion in the last bill went. 

My hunt paid off quickly with a gem I overlooked last week.  U.S. Health and Welfare will allow Idaho to include treatment for mental illness and substance abuse disorder under Medicaid. This will not save the state money so much as make it possible to expand treatment to more Idahoans. Expect healthier families and better employees.    

As Betsy Z. Russell said in an April 17 article this Medicaid Expansion waiver was the only one to draw support from all sides–”lawmakers, medical care providers, advocates and more.”      

And, this week we got more good news when the Supreme Court ruled in support of clean water.   

Polluters must now “get permits for indirect water contamination that’s the ‘functional equivalent’ of a direct discharge into federal waterways” (Bloomberg Law, April 23). 

That is, a company must have a permit or pay a fine for pumping four million gallons of treated sewage a day into injection wells a half-mile from the Pacific Ocean IF any of the waste pollutes the ocean. 

This reversed an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) policy adopted last year.  

It’s a compromise. The Federal government still claims no authority to stop pollution of groundwater and a permit still exists that allows some entities to pollute Federal waters.  

On the other hand, companies will be held responsible for knowing where the waste will go and how fast before building a discharge system. And there’s a chance that the ruling could apply to surface pollution–oil spills, coal ash impoundments, and wastewater lagoons–that leak into groundwater.   

I’m confident that most Americans see a ruling that lowers the amount of water pollution as good news. And two conservatives–Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh–joined the Court’s ‘liberal bloc’–in crafting the compromise.  . 

Similarly, after studying intelligence reports on Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee agreed the evidence was clear: Russia had made a serious attack on our democratic institutions.   

Again, I’d rather they’d introduced a bill to fund countermeasures during the 2020 elections, but baby steps are better than nothing. .  

There’s another issue coming up that will call for serious compromise. A Federal court has ruled that drafting men and not women is sexual discrimination. Now bills in Congress present two options: authorize the drafting of women or end the draft altogether.  

The U.S. called up the National Guard of several states instead of drafting during the Iraq War.  It was a quicker way to get trained personnel, and it affected only those who, at some point, had volunteered.  

Could the National Guard provide enough troops for conflicts that range wider or last longer? The Iraq War was only army against army for a short time before becoming a policing operation against terrorists.

Expect serious discussion on options concerning universal military training, forms of alternative service, and criteria on when to use the draft. 

Only by working together can we hope to maintain our democracy. 

To do it we must fight efforts to divide us.          

Normalcy ahead–but when?    

Right now people around the world are having to choose between two goods–whether it is to interact with others (e.g.making a wage or babysitting the grandkids) or to avoid a contact that might spread COVID-19. 

Most of us make trade-offs–I’m willing to go to the post office, but not if there’s a line.. It can be a tougher decision for those who want their families fed and housed as well as safe. 

But a few see this crisis as posing a choice between good and bad–exercising liberty or losing rights. 

They call themselves patriots while constantly battling their government, even when it’s acting to protect health and safety. Over a thousand showed up at the Capitol Friday to protest Gov. Little extending stay-at-home orders. They posed on the Capitol steps with big guns while real patriots monitored respirators and got groceries for their neighbors. 

Five Republican state legislators attacked the Governor’s orders; Rep.Heather Scott claimed people were comparing Brad Little to Hitler. 

Nationally, the rallies that pitted Republican protesters against Democratic governors got more attention. 

Stay-at-home directives, however, are not a partisan issue. A Pew Research poll released last Thursday indicated that two-thirds of Americans–including a majority of Republicans–fear that state governments will lift restrictions on public activity too quickly. 

Idaho is a prime example that stay-at-home orders work. The number of new cases daily peaked at 63 to 70 from March 13 to March 25 and has been 12 or under for the past week. U.S. numbers, on the other hand, have not dropped, but stayed around 30,000 new cases a day in recent weeks. (Admittedly, the shortage of tests affects Idaho’s numbers, but that was as great a problem March 25 as it is today.) 

So restricting activity pays off. But when will it end?    

ABC News released a poll Friday that showed only 31% of Americans whose lives have changed due to COVID-19 restrictions believe we will return to normalcy by June 1. About 75% of those polled–66% of Democrats and 93% of Republicans–believe life will be back to normal by the end of summer. 

And that’s looking very possible this week.  

 Gilead Sciences is conducting studies with 4000 COVID-19 patients around the world using a drug–remdesivir–developed to fight SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) during an epidemic in 2002-2003. 

Reports are expected later this month, but last week a tape from an in-house report at the University of Chicago was leaked. It indicates only two of their study’s 125 participants  died. Most went home within a week.

Having a drug that has already undergone safety tests and been approved for marketing could immediately change the timeline for return to normalcy.  

We may get a similar jump on prevention measures this year. According to Regulatory Focus, more than 40 projects worldwide are working on a vaccine. Getting one from lab to market is said to take 18 months if everything goes right. 

But there is a vaccine already in clinical trials. BCG is an immune system booster developed to prevent tuberculosis (TB). Studies in recent years have indicated it is also effective against acute respiratory infections and sepsis.  

And now one quick review indicates fewer COVID-19 cases in areas where children were vaccinated against TB. Blind studies–where some health workers receive BCG and others a placebo–are getting underway in Australia and the Netherlands.  

Patience–and consideration for others–will pay off once again.

Many share in the sacrifice as we fight COVID-19

It’s fitting that Easter, honoring one who made the ultimate sacrifice, fell late this year. Most of us have come to terms with the problems COVID-19 has brought our families and are ready to recognize the sacrifices that others are making in the battle to stop this worldwide pandemic.     

 As Pope Francis said Palm Sunday in a nearly empty St. Peters Basilica, “Dear friends, look at the real heroes who come to light in these days: they are not famous, rich and successful people; rather, they are those who are giving of themselves in order to serve others.”

Health care workers come to mind immediately: men and women who day after day, with totally inadequate protective gear, swab nostrils for those seeking COVID-19 tests and monitor vital signs, clean bodies, serve meals, and, yes, empty bedpans for the very ill. 

Health care workers now make up more than 10% of Idaho’s 1400+ confirmed cases.   

And with time we’re coming to appreciate many others.  Everyone who serves a number of strangers each day is at risk. We’re growing aware of the bravery of workers at groceries, pharmacies, and hardware stores, at laundromats and gas stations, and at motels and child care centers. And we’re realizing the very real sacrifices made by those who travel to where they’re needed–police, firemen, maintenance workers, journalists, and drivers supplying stores and delivering mail orders. 

It’s regrettable that the initiative to see that all of these workers receive a living wage was an early casualty of the isolation order.  Yes, there are people facing danger for us who make $7.25 an hour. I wouldn’t be surprised if the hourly wage for the majority is under the $12 an hour that 33,000 Idahoans hoped to make the minimum. (Okay, I’m dreaming that some of our legislators will take the hint and pass a minimum wage bill next session.)  

All labor has dignity, but that erodes rapidly when one can’t put some meat on the table or take the kids to a movie. As a people, we’re almost better at recognizing the worth of unpaid work caring for family–children, the elderly, and the disabled–than of work that’s poorly paid. Many insist that the pay is low because the work doesn’t require skill–and then complain whenever it’s done poorly.  

While we admire those whose jobs are deemed essential, we mustn’t fail to recognize the difficulties for those laid off. As many government workers learned when Congress has deadlocked over budgets, it’s hard to accept that your job is non-essential.

Please remind friends that their jobs are only considered non-essential for the short term.  Every job out there is essential to someone or it wouldn’t exist (e.g. my hair is doing strange things). 

Idaho’s unemployment rate for February was 2.7%; today it’s probably close to 12.7%. It’s a drop that has never been equalled in speed or numbers. 

Fortunately, unemployment insurance is being extended to cover individuals who are self-employed or independent contractors. Before, if workers who didn’t have employers paying the insurance, got nothing. In 2010 I talked with child care workers, repairmen, and real estate agents who technically had their jobs but had lost their income. There was no help for them. 

Now that employment services are stretched to the limit, I imagine help won’t be coming fast, but it will come.  

Please stay safe. Keep in touch with friends and family. Appreciate this beautiful spring weather.  And stay confident that a better day is coming.