Reevaluating Our Priorities

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It has all happened so fast. As Representative Eric Swalwell put it last week over social media: “How many years did you live this week?”

This COVID-19 pandemic feels similar to what it must be like to live through a hurricane. You hear there may be one headed your way, if you’re smart you prepare, then you wait. First it is quiet and still, especially if the eye passes over you, waiting waiting, then suddenly much of your life that you know gets blown to bits.

If you prepare and heed the warnings, you have a much better chance of being okay though there are no guarantees. It’s potentially much worse if you don’t heed the warnings. Hopefully you and your loved ones survive, and your friends and community, then there’s the aftermath, the destruction, the displacement of all you know. Then there is finding the courage to pick up the pieces and rebuild your life anew. You may also find yourself, as one may after any disaster, reevaluating your priorities.

There was one reported case of community spread not quite one month ago here in the U.S., and now there have been tens of thousands of confirmed cases—without widespread testing available—and hundreds of deaths. Numbers that are predicted to rise precipitously in the coming days and weeks.

In order to help “flatten the curve” we are being asked to:

  • Wash our hands for 20 seconds.
  • Distance ourselves socially.
  • Shelter in place as much as possible.
  • Not hoard, not panic.
  • Not fly.
  • Not go into work.
  • Not visit businesses, restaurants, bars, gyms, yoga studios, theaters, sporting events, beaches, theme parks, or our places of worship, etc.

Important life events such as weddings and funerals are being postponed. Schools are closed and families are trying to figure out how to school their children at home. (Regarding the latter, my advice as an old unschooling parent: relax and enjoy this time with your kids! Play games, cook, sew, dance, learn an instrument, knit, plant seeds, build with Lego, paint, deliver Meals-on-Wheels, etc. You will be surprised at the education your children, and you, will receive!)

Basically, there’s a sign across a good portion of our day-to-day lives that reads: CLOSED.

The main reason we are being asked to take all of these extraordinary measures is so that we lessen the risk of spread, so that our most vulnerable are put at less risk, and that if people do fall ill there will be help available to them.

A brief and not exhaustive list of some of the most vulnerable to and affected by this crisis—physically, economically, emotionally—just here in the United States alone, in addition to seniors and those with underlying medical conditions:

  • The disabled and those with chronic illness
  • Those coping with mental illness
  • The homeless
  • Those in the immigration system
  • Prison populations and those who serve them
  • Shut-ins, and those who don’t have access to transportation
  • At-risk youth
  • Victims of domestic violence
  • Millions who don’t have insurance, or who are under-insured
  • Millennials and younger who are now reported to potentially be at increased risk.
  • Our gig economy, service workers, restaurant workers, tipped employees, independent contractors—all who are suddenly without their usual income, or an income that is greatly reduced (a group that I am part of), and who don’t yet know if they will be taken care of by unemployment or emergency aid packages
  • Small business owners who are at great risk of going out of business and potentially bankrupt.
  • Tens of millions of both hourly and salaried workers who live paycheck to paycheck and don’t know how they will keep a roof over their head, or pay for the power to stay on, and who can’t afford to buy a year’s worth of toilet paper and canned beans
  • And not to minimize their disappointment, there’s also the millions of young people of all ages, but especially those in their final years of high school or college who have had their dreams and plans of participating in certain events—theater, athletics, debate, community service, social events, important academic moments—put on hold at best, and canceled entirely at worst

The list goes on. Here and around the world. And what happens when this crisis really hits the world’s most vulnerable nations?

And then there’s the issue of all those who, just here in the U.S., despite having at least some symptoms, continue to work—mostly due to economic need and a lack of available testing. I’ve heard this directly from people in my own community. And these people are potentially adding to the exponential growth of the virus.

My paying gig is driving taxi in my community. Not only is it difficult to maintain proper social distancing in a taxi, the past few weeks I’ve been driving a lot of sick people. After all, it’s a lot cheaper for people to call the taxi than to dial 911. I delivered a baby in the back of my taxi a while back precisely because of this. Hello? Medicare for All, already?

Recently I experienced some very mild symptoms and not knowing what it was, and without available testing, I took time off, unpaid. Getting back to driving a couple days ago, I took to wearing a mask. My primary care provider said that I should have been wearing one all along, not just for my own benefit, but also for the benefit of those who I drive.

We were told early on that masks were only recommended for medical professionals and those who had already been confirmed as having the virus. Maybe this was intended to keep the general public from panic-buying masks and leaving medical institutions and healthcare workers without an adequate supply. Which was perhaps wise on some levels, but isn’t some protection from potentially contagious droplets better than none, I wondered?

This recent opinion piece in the New York Times supports that intuition. After all, if we can be walking around contagious but asymptomatic, wouldn’t a rudimentary homemade mask be better than wearing nothing? Especially if dealing with the public, or with those who have known underlying medical conditions?

This is just one small area where the lack of a consistent and coherent nationwide response has been detrimental. Which is a colossal understatement.

Where are the millions of tests and masks, and the badly needed PPE?

In this pandemic, Trump has demonstrated, yet again but especially now, to be a stupendous and catastrophic failure. His lies and delays mean unnecessary death and financial disruption for untold others.

On March 7, Trump proclaimed: “Anybody right now and yesterday — anybody that needs a test gets a test. We — they’re there. They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful . . . . In addition to that, they’re making millions of more as we speak.”

But that was not true. Hospitals, and patients, weeks later, are still begging for tests.

Maybe it’s just slightly possible the ongoing delay in testing is not only due to Trump’s obvious “the less we test the lower the numbers will be” mentality but also to the fact Trump was maybe waiting for a company his son-in-law is associated with to roll out their testing? Emoluments anyone?

Trump then promised millions of masks. But that has not been true either. Hospitals and healthcare providers are begging for Personal Protective Equipment. The lack of masks has become such a crisis that hospitals are asking for donations of homemade masks, and the CDC itself has said homemade masks, such as bandanas or scarves are an option.

What country are we living in?

Also, why did it take Trump three weeks from the first reported case of community spread in the United States to invoke the Defense Production Act ? And why, several days after invoking the act, has Trump yet to put it into action—despite a very clear crisis regarding lack of PPE? Maybe he’s waiting for another family roll-out, this time of PPE, that he can profit from? Or maybe he’s giving his corporate friends a chance to get in on the gig?

When this disaster is over, we need an investigation into whether Trump, his family, other elected officials, and certain businesses profited off of the misery of others, and if this lead to delays in getting out necessary and life-saving information and supplies.

But socialism

Another thing this crisis has illustrated, so clearly and painfully, are some of the many weak spots in the fabric of our society that Bernie Sanders has spent a lifetime and two presidential candidacies passionately trying to focus our attention on, including the need for:

  • Healthcare for all.
  • Closing the income inequality gap.
  • Ending homelessness.
  • Reducing the prison population.
  • Paid sick leave.
  • Paid family and medical leave.
  • Free childcare.
  • Free public colleges and universities, and a cancellation of student debt.

A couple of these needs have now received bi-partisan support and have been signed into law as part of a coronavirus relief package. There are many gaps in the package, and currently proposed packages, and while these are only emergency measures, this pandemic has deepened our conversation and understanding of where we are weak as a nation, of where we may need to reevaluate our priorities, as Bernie, and others, have attempted to point out all along.

To many more now, it seems, Bernie’s democratic socialism (and Yang’s universal basic income) ideas do not look so bad. And even if just some of Bernie’s policies were already in place they would have likely saved trillions of dollars over time (or maybe even in the short run), and perhaps millions of lives.

While Bernie’s ongoing presidential candidacy may be uncertain at this point (perhaps due in large part to the corporate media feverishly pushing their own vision), there is zero uncertainty when it comes to what his commitment is regarding helping the people of this country. His proposal to help deal with the coronavirus crisis is robust, he has held coronavirus round tables and town halls, and his campaign, according to this Common Dreams piece, recently raised over two million to help the following organizations during the crisis: Meals on Wheels, No Kid Hungry, Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, One Fair Wage Emergency Fund, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. More fundraising efforts in this regard will be announced soon.

A historic opportunity

This period in time will continue to be difficult. In addition to worrying about contracting or spreading COVID-19, and our concerns for loved ones and friends who are at greater risk and/or who have tested positive, much of our general populace is faced with varying degrees of uncertainty, anxiety, and financial uncertainty or hardship. Let’s have courage, work together, and help each other get through this the best we can. But, when and where we are able, let us also appreciate the gifts this period brings.

We are gaining an enhanced awareness of what it means to be a global citizen while also living a little closer to home. We are perhaps learning how to better conserve (even if it’s just our toilet paper), to be more self-sufficient, to make-do, to live more simply, to share. We are perhaps reevaluating what really matters.

During this period we have an opportunity to adopt new behaviors and learn and practice new skills that will not only help lessen our suffering now but also in potential future pandemics. And if we continue to practice these new behaviors and skills, we also might avert a worst-case-scenario reality brought on by climate change. Recognizing all of these gifts, and nurturing them, should not be put off for a time when we are distracted by a life seemingly returned to normal . . . only to be rudely awakened another day and forced to realize what we should have done when we had the opportunity.

It can be argued that climate change is the number one threat that faces humanity. Climate change also contributes to and exacerbates viral outbreaks such as the one we are currently experiencing. This worldwide pandemic offers us an opportunity to better understand the idea of what an emergent worldwide crisis really looks like, and how a worldwide effort at mitigating is not only possible but necessary. Yet, this is something that the climate crisis has heretofore been unable to successfully impress upon us.

What if we could somehow better understand the urgency of what we are facing regarding the climate crisis, and how might we be more inspired to do what we can to support the effort? For the greater good? As a recent Market Watch article asks: “Where’s the impetus for moving on policy change and market-driven fixes (solutions to store carbon, for instance) to limit a future environmental health crisis — one on par with or even greater than a coronavirus?”

It could be argued that the reason is at least partly due to the fact that our mainstream media outlets, as a recent Media Matters study points out, have failed us. According to the study, in 2019, major media networks only devoted 238 minutes to the climate crisis! A whopping O.7% of their overall coverage!

It will be interesting to study the climate data on the other side of this current COVID-19 pandemic, but already, for example, we have the following reports:

  • Scientific American reports a 25% drop in carbon dioxide emissions between January and February in China. Though that is now likely rising again as China gets back to being the number one producer of the word’s goods . . . and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • According to this report published by CNN, good quality air days in China also increased by 21.5% in February. In this same report, Marshall Burke, assistant professor at Stanford’s Department of Earth System Science shares an astonishing observation: “The reductions in air pollution in China caused by this economic disruption likely saved twenty times more lives in China [emphasis added] than have currently been lost due to infection with the virus in that country.” [Perhaps this data point shouldn’t be buried here, I ask myself while doing a last minute edit before submitting.]
  • The European Space Agency has posted a video showing a time-lapse of the dramatic reduction of air pollution over northern Italy.
  • According to this report by NBC News, water is running clear in Venice canals, with fish and dolphins now visible. In the report, Christopher Jones, lead developer of the CoolClimate Network, an NGO partnership with UC Berkeley that hosts a wide variety of useful tools to help us reduce our carbon footprint, expressed his hope: “If we can think about how to prepare for climate change like a pandemic, maybe there will be a positive outcome to all of this.”

These are just four examples, with astonishing and enormous inferences, of how mandatory reductions in certain behaviors designed to help flatten the curve and avoid the worst-case scenarios regarding COVID-19, have also resulted in near immediate positive changes in the output of pollution and greenhouse gasses in some areas. Reductions that, per the assistant Stanford professor quoted above, likely has saved twenty times more lives in China than have been lost to COVID-19.

Now, this isn’t to say that we won’t see a bounce and escalation in the opposite direction once the crisis passes. Or that there aren’t things about this crisis that are creating worse scenarios ecologically such as an increase in delivery trucks and the pollution they bring to neighborhoods, or the discarded surgical face masks that are clogging waterways, an escalation in hazardous hospital waste, and on down to seemingly small things like my local co-op recently banning the use of personal shopping bags, and personal containers for filling at the bulk stations.

The point is, the evidence points to the fact that if governments informed the general public, and certain actions were mandated, and if the media infrastructure was as similarly unrelenting regarding the dangers of inaction regarding climate change as they have been about the COVID-19 crisis, and if we were inspired, as during WWI and WWII, to each do our part, we just might experience the kind of necessary sea-change in behavior that needs to happen in order to stave off a worldwide crisis due to climate change, that would, by many indications, be much worse than this current, however horrific, Coronavirus pandemic.

We had rationing During World War II, and other wartime efforts practiced on the home front such as scrap drives, making do and mending, and Victory Gardens—the latter of which our family is currently working on so that we can provide more of our own food. Now we just need to figure out how to grow our own toilet paper! These are all practices that could be applied to surviving the current pandemic, and they can also be applied to helping mitigate a climate-related planetary catastrophe.

It is never too early to begin our work in earnest, together. As this piece in The Atlantic makes so abundantly and shockingly clear about the novel coronavirus: we were warned. We were warned about the potential for a pandemic, and we have been warned about climate change. Do we want our children, or our children’s children and beyond, to look back at this point in history and wonder why we all didn’t reevaluate our priorities and choose to act more responsibly, or more aggressively?

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License. Feel free to republish and share widely.

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About author Debi Smith — meal making, laundry washing, toilet swishing, bill paying, teen transporting, hug giving, information gathering concerned American — writes from Ashland, Oregon, where she shares a home with her husband, two children, a cat, and a dog. She can be reached at [email protected].
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