Coronavirus: No gloom and doom here

Cuban medical team arrives in Milan

Despite the death, disease, and disruption the novel coronavirus is visiting on nations across the globe, it is also responsible for generosity and good deeds. 

International cooperation is always good news: Italians welcomed a team of 35 doctors and 15 nurses sent by Cuba to aid in the fight against the novel coronavirus that is ravaging Italy. The Cuban medics came with expertise gained in combatting ebola and other infective diseases in Africa. Three million face masks are arriving in Italy from Egypt, India, and China, which is also sending 100 ventilators. Russia expedited one million face masks and nine huge cargo planes carrying eight mobile medical teams, medical equipment and aerosol disinfection trucks. Ironic that Europe is now receiving aid from its former colonies, and Russia and China, rather than the other way round. COVID-19 has a way of turning everything on its head.

People on diverse continents are working together to fight the virus. Labs and doctors worldwide are sharing their research and results on therapies and vaccines.

COVID-19 is sparking innovation. An Italian company designed a prototype of a respirator valve in three hours. They 3-D printed 100 valves in 24 hours for a hospital at a cost of about $1.00 each, according to the BBC. Materialise, a Belgian company, is making hands-free door openers.

In the U.S., Carbon is one of the companies that uses 3-D printers to make products of diverse materials. It has now pivoted toward face masks, nasal swabs and ventilator parts. Pres. Trump gave automakers Ford, General Motors and Tesla the go-ahead to make medical supplies instead of cars.

On a local level, here in Manhattan, young people are volunteering to run errands and go shopping for anyone who fears to go out or is unable to. 

News outlets are compiling video and TV watchlists. For music lovers, the Metropolitan Opera is streaming a different opera from their HD archives each day. (To see the weekly calendar and access the opera, scroll way down the page.). The NY Public Library has a vast array of digital resources available online. It is easy to find many more institutions sharing their previously paywalled gems to help shut-ins cope with isolation. It is a good time to catch up on reading, perhaps that interesting you didn’t have to finish.

Another way of passing time is reviving old friendships, connecting with friends on your Christmas card list, the ones you never have time to speak with. Now, people are rediscovering the telephone and communicating with live voices, not dry text. Social distancing is actually making many of us more social. Parents and children now have opportunity to spend time together and listen to each other.

The most exhilarating reaction to COVID-19 that I know of is the daily concerts in Italy that ring out from windows and balconies. Italians of all ages, amateur and professional, fill the air with music. With instruments and voices, they comfort and support each other and spark joy in everyone. Their indomitable spirit encourages the rest of the afflicted world. 

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Coronavirus Dilemma

Last night I posted a commentary on the President’s unhelpful and mendacious handling of the Coronavirus crisis. I appended a list of precautions to take to protect against being infected.

If everyone were to follow my advice, the epidemic would be stopped cold. The problem is that the effect on the US economy would be equally devastating. There is a very thin line between keeping the population healthy and causing an economic disaster.

The busiest intersection in Milan at rush hour during the Coronavirus crisis.

The recommendations that regard personal hygiene should definitely be followed, but the others involve making difficult decisions. Avoiding crowds is recommended for personal safety, but if no one shops or goes to restaurants or theaters or hairdressers, those will quickly face bankruptcy, go out of business and drag their landlords and suppliers along with them. 

Contagion travels like quicksilver and the stock market reacts accordingly. Italy is a case in point. As of today, February 28, almost 900 people in Italy have tested positive since the first case was announced on Feb. 21. Almost all the cases are clustered about Milan, a major city in Lombardy, a region in the North. 

At the end of January, a Chinese tourist couple fell ill, tested positive, and was put in isolation. None of the people they had been in contact with tested positive. All flights to and from China were banned.

Then on Feb. 18, “Patient One,” a 38-year-old man, took himself to a hospital, but wasn’t tested because he hadn’t been to China. He was surrounded by other sick patients. He returned home, then back to the ER the following day because he felt worse. He was diagnosed with the Coronavirus on Feb. 20, but by then he had infected at least eight people. On Feb. 23, the Italian government cordoned off the “Red Zone,” forbidding travel in or out of the towns where the outbreak is located. Many residents were commuting to the city for work.

Though there are no known cases in Milan, the financial capital of Italy is a ghost town. The streets are deserted as anxious people stay home and workers telecommute. Schools, universities, museums, bars, restaurants, hairdressers— all closed. Most Italians are rabid soccer fans, but in the North, games are being played in empty stadia. Worried by the effect these closures are having, the authorities have declared that schools, museums and other public places will reopen on Monday, a week short of the recommended 14-day quarantine.

It’s almost impossible to navigate the strait between the Scylla of economic wreckage and the Charybdis of a decimated populace. It took less than a week for the paralysis in the industrial North of Italy to bring the third-largest economy of the Eurozone to the brink of recession. Worldwide, panic and the pandemic have caused the disruption of supply chains, postponement of travel plans and cancellation of major events, bringing the global wipeout to $6 trillion.

And yet, most people have no reason to panic if they wash their hands frequently and keep their distance from people with respiratory disease. Even if they do contract COVID-19, healthy people seem to recover without ill effects.

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Combatting the Coronavirus

Credit: Scientific Animations

Knowledgable health officials are telling us that a Coronavirus epidemic will not spare the US. It’s a question of when it will arrive, not if. They warn that we must not lose any more time in preparing for the onslaught of the disease.

[Update: scroll to end for tips on how to protect yourself]

As of now, we are grievously unprepared. We don’t have enough hospital beds to accommodate both the predicted large numbers of victims and the patients hospitalized for the usual reasons. We don’t have nearly enough masks and other gear to protect health workers constantly exposed to the disease; we lack testing kits to identify and confirm infection. These are indispensable for preventing or at least limiting the spread of COVID-19, as the new Coronavirus is now called. 

There has been no concerted effort to remedy these and other deficiencies because two years ago Trump fired the global disease expert and eliminated the agency established by President Obama to deal with domestic epidemics and global pandemics. (Trump thought emergency preparation was a waste of money because without an epidemic, there would be nothing to do.) The President defunded the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), stripping away the infrastructure we now desperately need to deal with the crisis.

Instead, Trump assured Americans in a press conference on February 26 that he and his administration are doing a “great job” and have the situation completely under control. There are only 15 cases, he asserted, and there will soon be zero as those people recover. Actually, there were 59 cases in the US (now 60). Trump preferred not to count the 44 Americans  infected with or exposed to the Coronavirus who were airlifted home from Asia. Despite the insistence of the CDC that they be isolated, the Trump political appointees with no medical expertise had them travel in the same plane with their healthy comrades. Even worse, A whistleblower today revealed that the personnel sent to welcome the 14 persons in quarantine were not trained or equipped with protective gear. Moreover, after being exposed to the virus, they went their separate ways across the country, possibly exposing an unknown number of other people.

As of today, 49 countries have reported more than 82,000 cases and more than 2,800 deaths from the disease. But Trump denies we have an imminent crisis, controverting the scientists’ warning that we cannot avoid the certainty of an epidemic.

Trump believes that his reelection depends on the continuing record-breaking climb of the stock market. The market has been tanking for six consecutive days since February 20, significantly eroding the gains of the Trump years. The decline is a reaction to the virus and its adverse effect on the global economy, but Trump blamed it on the Democrats’ debate (which took place on February 25, after four days of market free fall) and the media, which he accuses of exaggerating the seriousness of the situation.

To combat the horrible truths that emerge each day, as we learn of more cases in more places, Trump has decreed that the CDC and other medical authorities cannot advise and update the public without first submitting their comments to the vice president for his approval. From now on, with the experts muzzled, we’ll have to depend on leaks and sharp reporting to find out what is really going on. Shades of Stalin, as democratic norms continue to be shattered and totalitarian constraints and restrictions inexorably replace them. 

People, products, food and disease-causing micro-organisms traverse the globe in unprecedented numbers and historic speed. When they were free to share their concerns, professional medics warned us to prepare by readying hospitals, testing and stocking medical supplies. But how can individuals prepare? What should we do? The recommendations for avoiding contagion are mostly common sense procedures, no different from what we already know. 

  • First of all, prepare, don’t panic. Healthy people experience what will feel like a cold or the flu. Children don’t seem to be affected. Seniors, however, are at risk, especially if they have chronic conditions like diabetes.
  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, especially after touching handrails, doorknobs, elevator buttons, gym equipment— anything that others touch. Wash before eating and after using the bathroom. Use soap and hot water and scrub for at least 20 seconds: between the fingers, backs of the hands, under the nails. This video demonstrates the technique advocated by the World Health Organization as the best way to wash your hands. (It’s a little more complicated than what you’re used to.)
  • Don’t touch your face! Most of us do it all the time, but infection enters easily through mouth, eyes and nose.
  • For now, stop shaking hands.
  • Avoid touching handrails, doorknobs, etc. away from home.
  • Carry alcohol-based (at least 60 percent alcohol) hand sanitizer to use when soap and water aren’t feasible.
  • Keep your distance (six feet, if possible) from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Get a flu shot.
  • Avoid crowds. It follows that you should avoid public transportation whenever possible. Also sport events, theaters, conferences.
  • Keep a 90-day supply of your medications on hand.
  • Work from home if you can.
  • Stock your cupboard in case you have to stay home.
  • Avoid spreading your own germs:
  • Sneeze or cough into your elbow.
  • Stay home if you don’t feel well and see a doctor.

If you manage to follow these tips, you and your family will probably stay healthy. At least you won’t regret not taking the recommended precautions.

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Why Valentine’s Day?

It’s not just a Hallmark holiday: it commemorates a bishop of the 3rd century named Valentine. Hearts and flowers came later.

According to one story, Valentine was under house arrest in the home of a Roman judge. The judge challenged the Christian to prove the validity of his faith, bringing out his blind daughter, Julia. Valentine laid his hands on her and implored God to save the girl (and him). When he removed his hands, Julia’s vision was restored. Amazed by the miracle, the judge and all his household converted to Christianity. He broke all his idols and freed all the Christians in jail. 

Another account relates that Valentine continued to evangelize. He married Christian couples, which allowed the men to avoid conscription in the imperial army. To remind these men of their vows, Saint Valentine is said to have given them hearts he cut from parchment, which may explain the hearts of Valentine’s Day. 

Valentine supposedly wore a purple amethyst ring, as did other Christian bishops. He had an image of Cupid, a pagan god, engraved on it. Romans recognized the god of love and would ask him to marry them. (Probably because of the association of amethysts with Saint Valentine, the gem has become the birthstone of February, and is thought to attract love.)

Claudius, the emperor, was not pleased. He had Valentine brought to Rome, but he took a liking to the bishop, at least until Valentine tried to convert him. Claudius refused and condemned Valentine to death. On February 14, 269, he was stoned (or beaten with clubs) and then beheaded when the torture didn’t kill him. More than two centuries later, Pope Gelasius declared a feast day on that date. But sadly, it was downhill from there. Since 1969, inclusion in local liturgical calendars became optional.

Before his execution, some say Valentine wrote a note to Julia, the judge’s daughter, and signed it “from your Valentine,” a possible origin of Valentine notes and cards. Oh, and if you’d like to see what’s left of his head, his alleged skull is crowned with flowers and exhibited in a Roman basilica. Other relics are scattered throughout Europe.

Some say that Geoffrey Chaucer was responsible for the association of romance and St. Valentine. Chaucer wrote the Parlement of Foules on the first anniversary of the engagement of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. The poem contains the lines, “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” But the royal engagement was on May 3, also the day another Valentine (of Genoa) died. So who knows? It’s impossible to know how much is fantasy and what part of the legend reflects historical fact. Indeed, there were actually as many as 12 St. Valentines.

By the 18th century in England, the 14th of February had evolved into an occasion when partners expressed their love for each other with flowers, chocolate, and other gifts. And in the 19th century, the sending of Valentine’s cards had become so popular that they began to be mass produced, especially in America and Europe.

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A Valentine Lament

Oh, silly, solemn, lovesick Muse
Wherefore do you wander
Without giving me cues?
You must come forthwith, help me ponder and conjure
Not fish stew or cabbage or salamander
But tremors of passion and amorous rhymes.
Inspire my thoughts for St. Valentine’s.
Wooing, cooing, and otherwise doing
Cupid’s work with his confounded arrow
That pierces the heart deep into the marrow.
A wound that won't heal
No more than boys’ lust for an automobile.
Love conquers all,
Virgil famously said.
Caesar won Gaul,
Anne Boleyn lost her head.
For lack of a son
“Now you’re done!”
Henry said.
Muse, I don't hear you
Hope you don’t have the flu.
I'm not calling Euterpe, Thalia or Terpsichore,
No, Erato’s my lady, named for Eros, not war.
Love and love poems fall in your bailiwick
So fly to me, Precious. It’s urgent, be quick!
Of arms and the man I’m not singing tonight
Paradise is still Lost— it is nowhere in sight.
To Goethe and Dante, Mallarmé and Shakespeare
You whispered and murmured softly in the ear
So succor me now, lend me words I can pen
Please don’t forsake me, help me scribble again.
My love, how to praise him,
How to describe
The joys of our journey I want to transcribe.

Erato, your silence is hard to endure,
No lyrical stanza, no euphonious verse
You’re wayward and fickle
You’re being perverse.
Alas, you have failed me,
I don’t sense you near.
Too late for this Valentine,
Hope to see you next year.

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L’État C’est Moi: I am the State

photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

If Donald Trump has learned anything in his three years in the White House, it is that the president has awesome power. 

Trump may not have read the Constitution, but he now knows that Article 2 defines the executive branch of government. According to Trump, “I have in Article 2 the right to do whatever I want as president.”

Of course he doesn’t, but if the Senate doesn’t remove him from office, what little restraint he may have experienced will evaporate and he will accelerate the erosion of the pillars of  American democracy. 

Trump would have recognized a soulmate in Richard Nixon. He also believed that “When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” But 1974 seems eons ago, a time when Republicans and Democrats recognized the danger of an out-of-control president and joined forces to oust him.

Yesterday Trump’s lawyer affirmed that Donald Trump could do nothing illegal as president. The man who defended O.J. Simpson put forth a terrifying argument in Trump’s defense. Alan Dershowitz asserted, “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in an impeachment.” 

Dershowitz argues that a president can do whatever believes is for the public good. If the president believes, as Trump does, that he is the best president ever, then his election is necessary and justifies whatever it takes to achieve that end. Asking foreign governments to discredit his adversary, hacking the election, disseminating disinformation, rigging the voting machines, disenfranchising g/.roups known to vote Democratic— all of these and more are permissible. Trump has invited China, as well as Russia, to help re-elect him.

Dershowitz may have done irreparable harm, especially if Republican senators acquit the President. He has legitimized autocracy. 

Louis XIV

Trump reminds me of Louis XIV of France. He ruled as an absolute monarch, believing that what was good for him was good for France. “L’état c’est moi,” he said famously. Louis believed in the divine right of kings, much as Trump believes in Article II. Trump loves to live lavishly surrounded by gold furnishings, and Louis built the sumptuous palace of Versailles for his royal residence. Several decades after his death, his heirs and the rest of the French nobility succumbed to the guillotine and the French Revolution. France was never the same.

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Trump defensive strategy: delay, delay, delay

John R. Bolton

John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, has indicated that he would testify in the impeachment hearing — BUT — he wants a judge to decide if he can continue to ignore the Judiciary Committee’s invitation to testify, as the president has ordered, or whether, as a former employee of the White House, he is not subject to the executive order.

Initially, I thought Bolton’s request for a judicial determination was a strictly CYA maneuver. But now his lawyer’s hint on Friday that Bolton knows about “many relevant meetings and conversations” that the House committee doesn’t suggests something more. The intimation that Bolton could supply new evidence is meant to be tantalizing. If the Democrats bite the bait by acceding to his request and taking him to court to force him to testify before the committee, the momentum of the hearings will be lost.

Delay only helps Trump.  The longer the impeachment inquiry drags on, the greater the chance that public interest in the eventual impeachment will subside. No one wants the impeachment to drag into a presidential year, and the first primary is only two and a half months away. The candidates for the nomination need to direct their attention to their campaigns. They can’t afford to be distracted by the impeachment.

Democrats already have all the evidence they need to impeach Trump, But Bolton’s position in the White House places him closer to the president than any of the other witnesses so far. His testimony would certainly be valuable to the Democrats and difficult for the Republicans to impugn.

Democrats must resist Republican attempts to bog down and obstruct the hearings by assailing the process, smearing the witnesses, and using the courts to delay unimpeachable testimony that will likely damn the president.

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