It's time to talk (and maybe just talk) about reopening
There are costs to staying locked down. Can we weigh them?
Not a cat, but an excellent tiny turtle
What I’m Reading
Susan Faludi on how “Believe All Women” was a right-wing lie. Feminists said “Believe Women” — the right inserted the “all” as a cynical gotcha. Don’t fall for it.
Adrienne LaFrance on the new religion of QAnon. It’s a conspiracy theory, sure, but it’s also a way of organizing and explaining a complicated world — a matter of faith, not so different from many other religious movements in its refusal to recognize false prophesies.
This one is old but it’s just delightful: How to be polite.
The View From Here
Are things getting worse where you are? Things feel like they’re getting worse where I am. People are more on edge. The weather is nicer, so more of us are outside — and more people are glaring at those they anticipate won’t move to give them six feet of space; others are glaring at those who do move, thinking, I imagine, that we’re liberal suckers, the reason they’re so inconvenienced in this moment. I swear I can tell who someone voted for by how they walk down the street.
On the right, the demands to reopen the country are growing louder. In response, the left meets them with a unified chorus: Not until we’re safe. Demands that we consider the economy are met with swift dismissal — how can we consider the economy when human lives are at stake? Republicans and Trump acolytes are making increasingly ghastly arguments: That we need to sacrifice the elderly for the good of the markets; that we only fear death because we don’t believe in God (this is from a very vocal pro-lifer); that the virus is primarily killing old people and the “bottom of society,” so, if coronavirus is even real, it’s actually a positive thing. In this environment, with a right wing that is almost totally devoid of empathy and fully invested in rejecting the scientific consensus, it makes sense that those of us who are left of center take a strong and unwavering stand that we put public health first and don’t sacrifice Grandma for Wall Street.
But I’m worried about what this simplistic conversation says about how broken our basic discourse and decision-making has become.
To be clear: We should listen to the advice of public health experts. A big part of the problem here is that Americans were asked to make enormous sacrifices so that we could flatten the curve, avoid over-burdening our health systems, and give the government time to come up with a comprehensive plan to fight this disease. We did our part; the Trump Administration did not do theirs. I’ve been on lockdown since March 8th, and the rest of the country wasn’t far behind. That’s ten weeks; maybe eight for the latest adaptors. Prior to that, our government knew this was coming. They’ve had since at least January (and probably earlier, given American intel) to start planning, to scale up test production, to test widely, to track and trace infections. They just didn’t do it. They still aren’t doing it. And so while we haven’t sacrificed for nothing — a lot of lives were saved — we are now in a position of being asked to make these sacrifices indefinitely, without our government holding up their end of the bargain. And that means without an end in sight.
There are costs to this, and they aren’t the ones showing up in the rise and fall of stock prices. We should be talking about them and assessing them. I think we would be doing that, if we were a reasonable country where people might disagree about the best policies to solve the problems facing us, but at least agreed that (1) science is real and (2) one role of politics is to improve peoples’ lives, and it is an abuse of power (and an act of sociopathy) to use political office to try to hurt people who are politically or culturally different from you. We cannot agree on those things, though, which is why we are where we are. Thanks largely to the monied powers behind climate change denial and their wholesale overtake of the Republican Party, half the country has been primed to think that experts are just people with opinions like anyone else, and that things like “facts” and “scientific consensus” are liberal dirty tricks. Thanks to the consolidation of the Republican Party as a nearly entirely-white, majority-male force hellbent on securing power primarily so they can hurt their perceived enemies — liberal elites, people of color, immigrants — people of color in particular have targets on their backs. This is a dangerous place to be. It’s a place that has liberals playing defense, and trying to mitigate the very worst of the harm. And that often means dumbing down the conversation, or not hashing out the murky middle, because this is an emergency and we really can’t give the death cult any more ammunition.
In the meantime, though, we are collectively losing out on the ability to have a sensible and productive conversation about how we balance competing interests. Because there are issues here that are far more complex than “you want to kill Grandma and I don’t.”
We’ve started to creep in a more nuanced direction when it comes to stay-at-home orders. This very good piece in the Atlantic, for example, looks at how overly-simplistic messaging — “stay at home!” — can have the perverse effect of creating more dangerous behavior; once people don’t stay at home, they may be inclined to just go about life as usual. By contrast, if you open up public space, and encourage people to stay near home, wear a mask, keep your distance, and wash your hands, you’ve given the populace tools to significantly reduce their risk without being asked to do something that is nearly impossible in the long term (and definitely not healthy). It’s like any other abstinence message, whether that’s for sex or drugs: “Just say no” doesn’t work. Learning how to reduce your risk and still be a human being does.
We have not yet gotten to a similarly thoughtful conversation on the shutdown versus the great re-opening. This is in part because there is not going to be any great re-opening where the president tweets that things are now a-okay and life goes back to normal. Life has been profoundly disrupted. The question is how we reopen, and what, and when, and that requires a full accounting of what the costs have been, and what the potential costs could be in all directions. Yes, that means the cost of deaths from coronavirus, which our wonderful public health experts are doing their best to calculate and project. But health is not just the absence of disease. Some experts are already projecting 75,000 COVID-related “deaths of despair” through 2029 — deaths from suicide and substance abuse, related to the economic damage from coronavirus and the related shutdowns. Those figures don’t count the number of people who die because they lose their jobs and, as a result, lose their health insurance. Thirty million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in a crazy system that ties insurance to employment; some number of those people are not going to be okay. I have not seen any calculations on the many more deaths that can count as contributing factors the sedentary lifestyles, heavy alcohol use, unmitigated stress, lack of vitamin D and fresh air, and unhealthy eating that coronavirus seems to have encouraged, at least among some folks (social media is purely anecdotal, but I’ve been shocked by the number of people I see on Twitter and Facebook who say they haven’t left their homes in days or weeks). The human body does not thrive when it is stuck inside, without sunlight, without movement, and without fresh air to breathe. And that’s a relatively mild example. How many people are not getting the basic primary care that we know saves and prolongs lives? How many people are not getting lumps discovered, melanomas spotted, blood pressure measured and regulated, cholesterol tested, Pap smears looked at and irregularities treated before they turn dangerous?
Cutting off in-person social contact also has serious downsides. Socializing through a screen is not a replacement for being face-to-face with someone. Human beings are animals; like other animals, much of how we communicate is non-verbal. We simply miss many of the social aspects of socializing when we do it via phone or laptop. And those mediums also lend themselves to bullying, harassment and abuse — they’re nearly perfectly designed to incentivize cruelty and reduce empathy. Which doesn’t mean technology is bad or that we shouldn’t FaceTime our friends; it does mean that, while we are lucky to have these substitutes for real-life interactions, they are not adequate replacements. Again, there is a cost here. Loneliness and depression shorten lives. A childhood or adolescence long on screen time and short on the real-world interactions that shape human compassion and communication has missed something important (a year is a long time for a developing brain). And of course education. For the already-privileged children of highly-educated and involved parents, this will be fine. For the kids whose primary or even only intellectual and developmental stimulation came from school, this is an unmitigated disaster.
Even worse off: The children and adults trapped with people who abuse them. This, too, shortens lives — not just because abusive people do sometimes murder their victims, but because abuse takes a long-term toll on the body even if you live through it; because abuse takes an economic toll, and a few months without work can mean many more years stuck with an abuser; because we know, for example, that women who become pregnant while trapped in abusive relationships are a lot more likely to remain stuck in them if they have the baby — and every day a woman is stuck with an abusive partner is another day that a pregnancy is a possibility.
And yes, work matters too. Women are getting hit especially hard not just as frontline workers — although women do disproportionately fill the ranks of nurses and grocery store cashiers — but in the jobs that are being lost. We know women and people of color are being hit the worst. Women who still have their jobs are finding that, if they have kids, they’re picking up most of the at-home slack, which means fewer hours dedicated to work for pay, which I guarantee you is going to mean a lot of women losing their jobs down the line because they didn’t pull their professional weight during the shutdown. This in turn means greater dependence on a male partner, which comes with its own set of risks, or it means potential financial insecurity, and the life-shortening depression, stress, and despair that go with it.
And all of the above applies to the United States, a prosperous and developed (if not sane or generous) nation. Yes, we have a ripped-up social safety net, but we are lucky compared to struggling low-income countries that pre-corona had no safety net, astronomical unemployment, a population mostly getting by via a vast and insecure informal economy, low levels of social trust, and high rates of malnutrition and serious disease. Several countries in sub-Saharan Africa have shuttered, and their economies have been battered by a totally collapsed tourist sector. Are people living with HIV getting the antiretrovirals they need to stay live? Is it easy to get treatment for malaria? Are kids getting vaccinated? Can laboring mothers get to the hospital? (Is it safe for them to go to the hospital, and do they want go?) Can women get contraceptives? Poverty kills, and while that shouldn’t be the case in a rich country like the U.S., it is the case here; consider, then, how many magnitudes worse in the developing world. Coronavirus shutdowns have enormous life-and-death consequences even for places that are kinda-sorta okay; for more fragile places, prolonged shutdowns will mean many years of even greater devastation, instability, and death.
None of which means the initial shutdowns were a bad idea, or that continued shutdowns are the wrong path (I personally think they are the right path for now). But it does mean that we all deserve a better conversation than “reopen the nation!” or “if we reopen, Grandma dies you ghoul.”
Here is the reality: Things are going to reopen, everywhere, well before the infection and death rate is down to zero. The question really is how to navigate the next few months (or, I hate to say it, but even the next few years). There is going to be a balancing act between protecting public health and decreasing economic fallout. We do this all the time — speed limits may be the most obvious example (if you made everyone go 20 mph, we’d have a lot fewer road deaths, but that would also massively slow productivity). Unfortunately, we have a right wing that wants to press ahead with an “open everything” strategy, contrary to the advice of public health experts, without having much of any risk mitigation in place. My concern is that we haven’t heard a careful and transparent proposal on the left. We have heard public health experts weigh in on coronavirus itself, and we have heard various projections of how this particular virus might be managed or magnified depending on the choices we make. We have seen some demands for expanded safety net programs — more money for unemployment, rent and mortgage abatement, free or affordable healthcare for coronavirus specifically. This is important. But of course neither life nor coronavirus happens in isolation (as much as it feels like that right now), and if we’re talking about saving lives, we need to look at the broader landscape of health, economics, and human wellbeing — of which coronavirus is a part, and to which it is a serious and immediate threat, but still not even close to the entirety of the scene.
I am worried that we don’t have the whole picture, and so we are staking out territory and making decisions about our future course based on a tiny piece of a much bigger map. I am worried that the right has so thoroughly destroyed the ability to have a rational conversation based in fact and expert guidance that here we are, in the middle of a pandemic, and we are collectively flailing. Because we can’t see the big picture, we turn on the next-closest person who is Doing It Wrong, using social media to shame beach-goers and joggers. Because the right has so signed on to the Trump cult, we (correctly) fear that even giving them an inch on their “open the country up” demands will careen us all into death and disaster. And so we, understandably if not admirably, fall back on absolutism.
I do not know what the answer is because I am not an expert. But I am frustrated and scared by the lack of information, the lack of a plan, and the failure to recognize that this isn’t about Wall Street versus Grandma. Yes, the president cares about the stock market, not the mom and pop shop, and he should largely be disregarded. But coronavirus is not the only thing putting lives at risk; there is a cost to this response. I think it’s clear that up to this point, and probably a bit beyond this point, it is worth the cost (and frankly a whole lot of the cost, in the U.S., could be absorbed by expanded government programs, we’re just refusing to do that). But that will not be the calculus forever. And right now, we’re not only measuring using an uncalibrated scale, we haven’t even figured out the totality of what we’re weighing.
What I’m Eating
It is almost summer tomato season (…almost? right?), and this is one of my favorite, super-easy fresh tomato pasta recipes. The key is the thing that is always the key to any pasta in sauce: Boil the pasta only halfway, then cook the rest of the time in the sauce. I do not blanch, skin, or seed the tomatoes, I just chop them, toss them in the pan with the warm olive oil (and I usually sauté a little garlic first), and crush them with a fork once they soften up. It’s great.
Spaghetti With Fresh Tomato and Basil Sauce
3pounds fresh plum tomatoes, blanched, peeled, seeded and quartered
3ounces olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1pinch crushed red-pepper flakes
1pound dry spaghetti
2ounces extra-virgin olive oil
6leaves fresh basil, shredded
2tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Blanch the tomatoes and remove the skins. Cut in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Cut the tomatoes crosswise. Set aside in a bowl.
Heat 3 ounces olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat until it smokes slightly. Add tomatoes, salt, pepper and crushed red pepper. Since the tomatoes will reduce and the salt will be concentrated, it is better to season initially with a lighter hand.
Chop the tomatoes with a potato masher until they are in fine chunks and all their liquid is released. Be sure they are chopped and crushed fine, for a semichunky sauce. Simmer for 25 minutes over medium heat.
While the sauce simmers, heat the water for the pasta. Cook the spaghetti in salted water about half of the way cooked. Drain, reserving some of the water.
Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Add the pasta to the sauce and cook over medium-high heat until all the liquid is absorbed and the pasta is al dente. If the sauce is over-reduced, use the pasta cooking liquid to adjust it.
At the last moment, remove the pan from the heat; add the extra-virgin olive oil, butter, basil and cheese. Mix thoroughly until the pasta is an orangy color. Taste again and adjust the salt if necessary. Remove to a platter. Serve.