March 20, 2020

A poem for an indefinite time out period

In a time like this, I thought it might be appropriate to share this poem by Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). It might help a little.

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

March 19, 2020

Thoughts on getting through these days

Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Stephen King…what can I say? I grew up reading his books and watching the movies.

I sometimes go years without going there. Other times, I binge on book after book. By King’s own admission, some are more gripping and substantial than others.

One that stuck with me over the years is The Stand. In case you missed it, the book starts with a super flu epidemic nicknamed Captain Trips that wipes out most of the human race.

Then things really get bad.

On a more literary level, one of my favorite novels is The Plague by Albert Camus, which I’ve often mentioned. It’s about an epidemic in Oran, Algeria around 1940, when the country was still under French control. And the disease is a metaphor for life in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The plague takes over the lives of everyone. People are separated from loved ones and feel totally confined and cut off from the rest of the world. Everything changes, including the sense of time.
In both books, the epidemic requires people to make moral decisions. In The Stand, it’s a pretty stark choice between good and evil. In The Plague, it’s interesting to see the different ways people respond to the situation. Some respond with quiet heroism, while others seem to profit or thrive from the epidemic.

For obvious reasons, those books have been on my mind lately. First though, let me say that the current situation is nowhere near these literary extremes and I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere close to them.

But I think the situation does require a response from us. Probably the worst things we can do now are either to politicize the Coronavirus outbreak (as in “Fake news. SAD”) or spread hysteria…which may entail taking a deep breath or two and stepping away from the TV every now and then.
So how should individuals and communities respond to the latest developments? And what can we learn from it? I have a few ideas:

*take reasonable, evidence-based steps to protect ourselves and pay attention to the latest recommendations and cooperate with the reasonable directions of health authorities, even if it can be a pain in the rear;

*if necessary, do what you can to nudge public officials to step up and do all they can to respond and prepare for the future if the virus spreads. Also, encourage them to take steps to ease the economic impact. We've already had some success with this in WV;

*take Mr. Rogers advice and “look for the helpers.”

*put things in perspective: it’s not like we were immortal before Coronavirus came around. We don’t know how bad the hit is going to be, but it’s not the only threat out there. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between Oct. 1 2019 and Feb. 29 2020, there have been an estimated 20,000 to 52,000 deaths from “regular” flu in the US. Worldwide, somewhere between 291,000 and 646,000 die annually from seasonal flu.

In a normal year, 40,000 Americans die from auto accidents. It’s been estimated that sugary drinks kill over 180,000 people per year in the US. According to the DHHR website, 300,000 deaths per year are related to obesity. The CDC reports that 480,000 Americans die each year due to cigarette smoking. Worldwide, tobacco kills around seven million people per year.

We don’t notice what we get used to.

*let’s not recreate past mistakes. Sometimes events like this make people search for someone to blame or some vulnerable group to target. During the Black Death of the mid 1300s, Christians blamed the plague on Jews, who were accused of poisoning wells. This unleashed horrific persecution throughout Europe. The “enemy” is a virus, not other people.

*this could be a reminder of how interconnected people are all over the world. Sometimes I think that very wealthy people, for example, think they can insulate themselves and their children from the effects of their actions on others, whether it’s the damage done by extreme inequality or climate change.

Sticking with the literature of epidemics, that was a theme of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which Prince Prospero and his aristocratic friends party in apparent safety while an epidemic raged outside their walls. It didn’t work out very well for them. 

There may be a lesson in that. As Bob Marley sang, “When the rain falls, it don’t fall on one man’s house.”

*this could also be a reminder of how important things like paid sick days, universal health care, universal basic income and out of school food programs for children are. We have a lot of unfinished business.

*but the main one is, after taking all reasonable precautions, not to stop living or being human or showing compassion to others out of fear. Shakespeare’s Henry V observed that “we owe God a death,” but let’s not die while we’re still breathing.

That’s the message of a Buddhist parable about a man chased by a tiger. When he comes to the edge of a cliff, he climbs down a vine. The tiger is waiting. At the bottom of the cliff, there’s another tiger. Meanwhile, two mice just out of reach start gnawing at the vine. Then he notices a ripe strawberry. He plucked it and took a bite. It tasted great. The end.

That’s pretty much the human condition.

I’m not suggesting that people should crank up the song “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”

But if you do, enjoy the cowbell.

(This is an updated version of an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail last week.)

March 16, 2020

WV groups urge state action on COVID-19

Around 15 WV organizations, including AFSC have signed on to this letter to WV Governor Jim Justice. It ran as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail Saturday. Thanks to the WV Center on Budget and Policy for taking the lead on this:

As of publication, no cases of COVID-19 have been identified in West Virginia, but it is very likely only a matter of time until our state’s residents are affected.

While the Governor’s Office and state agencies are taking this issue very seriously, this pandemic has revealed serious holes in our state’s and nation’s health system, safety net and economic infrastructure. Fortunately, there are immediate measures that we, the undersigned, call on state officials to implement to address the situation.

In the short-term:

Begin holding daily press availability of staff of the Governor’s Office and the Bureau for Public Health. A key to preventing panic and keeping the public well-informed is the free flow of information and timely updates.

Waive copays and coinsurance for coronavirus testing and related visits. While the Public Employees Insurance Agency has announced this policy, West Virginia should require all insurers regulated by the state to cover coronavirus testing and related treatment at 100%, without coinsurance, copays or deductibles. This is critical to ensuring that cost concerns do not become a barrier to testing or treatment. People who go without testing because of cost concerns could spread COVID-19 to their communities.

Promote telehealth. West Virginia should require insurers to conduct outreach to consumers to make sure they are aware of telehealth benefits available to them to increase testing and decrease the spread of COVID 19. Telehealth services around COVID 19 diagnoses also should be covered at 100%, without coinsurance, deductibles or copays.

Bar utility shutoffs and evictions via executive action. Individuals and families who are financially affected by COVID-19 and the resulting economic downturn and layoffs must not have their utilities shut off. In particular, water is a critical need, as is electricity for people who rely on medical devices.
Temporarily suspend re-determination of eligibility for federal assistance programs, as allowed. This will ensure that there is no interruption of critical medical, food or other needs and that interruptions in the state’s workforce and ability to process applications will not disrupt benefits.

Provide good-cause exemptions for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, work requirements and time limits. SNAP work requirements and time limits should be waived entirely but, in the absence of the ability to do that, West Virginia should provide good-cause exemptions to all adults known as “ABAWDs,” Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents, ensuring access to food during this crisis. Outreach and education also should be conducted to let those who have previously been denied know they are eligible for benefits during this time.

Utilize contingency funds to provide outreach, education and testing to people who are most likely to be affected by COVID-19, including those in homeless shelters and West Virginians who visit food pantries and senior centers. Those who are most likely to be affected by community spread need to have access to health and food benefits and testing.

Waive the one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance benefits and “noncharge” benefits to protect employers. Suspending the waiting period will help ensure financial security among unemployed or temporarily separated workers as a result of COVID-19, while “noncharging” benefits will protect employers from bearing the brunt of the increased uptake in unemployment insurance.

Waive state policies that terminate a child’s eligibility for Child Care and Development Fund child care subsidies based on a specific number of absent days. This will allow parents to make the decision to keep sick or exposed children home, curtailing the spread of virus without jeopardizing their longer-term eligibility for child care assistance.

Adjust payment policies to child care providers so that they are based on enrollment of children rather than attendance. This is critical in allowing sick children and parents to stay home without disrupting revenue for providers.

Suspend charging those in our state’s prisons and jails money for phone calls. During this time while visitation is curbed, those in our prisons and jails must not be charged for staying in touch with loved ones.

In the longer term:

Pass paid-sick-days policies.
Protect and expand Medicaid.
Restore funding to public health.
Implement paid family and medical leave for public and private employees.