Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

Evaluating Risk

May 26, 2020

Yesterday Governor Newsom announced religious institutions would be permitted to resume worship and other services. Stipulations and requirements are of course, well, required. Our congregational leadership has been preparing for this for some time and we’re ready to roll. But of course there is inevitably – and appropriately – the nagging question of whether it’s safe to do church again.

Lots of voices weigh in on this. My ecclesiastical supervisor issued a notice today encouraging pastors in his jurisdiction to not rush back to holding worship services again, but to make sure they have properly followed the instructions outlined by the Governor to protect their parishioners. Judicious advice. And while I’m sure there are a few hard-headed pastors out there who are hell-bent on starting worship again without any consideration for their parishioners, I trust they are a very small minority. I trust most pastors care a great deal about their parishioners and shudder at the thought that, perhaps, regardless of preparations and precautions, one of them might happen to catch something at church that leads to serious illness or death.

Should we sing? Should I wear a mask? The what-ifs abound. Despite very low occurrences of COVID-19 in our county it’s still a concern. Given the age of my parishioners the concerns are not unwarranted. Now, as always, I desire that worship not be an associated cause of death for anyone. Now that we know about a new virus, are additional concerns warranted?

Part of that concern is due, no doubt, in part to early reports of super-infection events concerning churches, reports that no doubt led to not just a shutdown of religious institutions but added ammunition for shutting down most institutions in general. Perhaps the first and most widely cited such event occurred on March 10th, a week before the statewide shutdowns started, and occurred at a small Presbyterian church in Mt. Vernon, Washington. Sixty some members of the church choir assembled for practice and within short order more than 40 of them were infected with Coronavirus and at least two died from it. Truly a horrific event that would haunt a pastor for the rest of his or her life.

But what if there was more to the story? What if it wasn’t simply a matter of a church choir? What if additional details weakened the link with churches and singing? Does that eliminate the possible risk to my people? No, it doesn’t. Are individuals and churches more informed and aware and in a better condition to practice reasonable cautions now than we were two months ago? Undoubtedly.

Still the effort to link houses of worship – particularly Christian ones – to COVID-19 spread and as justifying continued restrictions and modifications to worship persist. Consider this story from just last week. The headline makes it sound like this just happened – some crazy church someplace met in defiance of orders and now look what happened! Confirmation bias from the headline alone is pretty powerful.

But if you read the story, it has to do with a church event back in early March. March 6-8 to be specific. Not just a worship service but a multi-day children’s event. The article doesn’t indicate whether it was a retreat style event with children sleeping at the church. But it’s clear it’s not just a typical church event, and I’m guessing there’s more than a good chance that many of those present were not members or attenders of the church. Yet the headline and lead off of the article stresses the need for churches to either remain restricted or modify their services to protect the public.

But there is still risk. I argue there has always been risk. I have members paranoid about deranged shooters showing up, and certainly that’s a risk. We have flu season every year and for many of my folks the flu could be every bit as fatal as the Coronavirus, yet we continue to have church. Over the years many members have fallen, suffered seizures and other health crises during worship. Does that mean church should not meet? Does it mean Christians should be afraid lest injury or illness or death strike during worship?

At the end of the day, we know quite a lot. We know that one of two events is going to bring life as we know it and experience it personally to an end. Either each one of us will die, or our Lord will return to bring creation history to fulfillment and usher in something much greater and larger and better. Barring the occasional Enoch or Elijah, I can guarantee that one of these two events will affect every single one of my members. What we don’t know is the when and how.

But the Biblical injunction in uncertain times is always the same – don’t be afraid. Don’t be an idiot, either, but don’t be afraid.

God’s words to Abram in Genesis 15? Don’t be afraid. What did Moses command the Israelites, caught between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army? Fear not. God’s command to Joshua as he takes over Moses’ role as leader of the Israelites? Be courageous. Jonathon’s words to David as he fled Saul under threat of death? Don’t be afraid. Elijah’s words to the widow and her son who were preparing to die of starvation, when Elijah asked her to use the last of their foodstores to help feed him? Don’t be afraid. God’s message to Joseph in a dream after Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant before they were fully married? Don’t be afraid. The angels’ words to the shepherds before announcing the birth of the Messiah? Fear not.

Followers of Christ are not to be people of fear, and this takes tangible expression in how we live our lives and make decisions. Risk and danger are all around us – will we live in perpetual fear of drunk drivers or nuclear missiles or contaminated drinking water or COVID-19? No. We will use the brains God has given us and we will trust in our God, knowing that He has conquered all things in Christ and even our own health and death has been conquered by Christ. We don’t seek to die, but if and when we do we do so in the confidence we will live again.

Christian worship is the expression and articulation of this faith and anticipation. As we join our voices of praise with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven we proclaim the dead are not gone but saints with Christ in glory, as we one day will also be. And that all of us will stand with Job and gaze upon our Redeemer with our own eyes.

So as churches open – and bookstores and movie theaters and sporting events eventually – we live our lives using the brains God gave us. This may mean we wait a little longer than others before showing back up for worship or using our season tickets to the Lakers. If that seems wisest given our own health condition, so be it. But each person will need to eventually make a decision whether they will live in fear or not. I can’t make that call for them, I can only try to show what it looks like to live confidently in my own life. Failures and all.

Round 2

May 18, 2020

A massive spending proposal has passed the House of Representatives.  Intended to provide further financial assistance to individuals and businesses reeling  from COVID-19 restrictions and losses, the bill still has to pass the Senate and there is considerable uncertainty whether that can, will, or should happen.  The price tag is roughly $3 trillion dollars ($3,000,000,000,000,000) on top of our current national debt which is over $25 trillion dollars.  So this package would bump up our national debt by approximately 12%.

The legislation is over 1800 pages in length.  If you have the stomach and time for it, you can read through it here.

Changing the Rules Mid-Game

April 28, 2020

When we began all of this COVID-19 panic the week of March 16th, 2020, the goal was fairly clear.  We need to take drastic measures to flatten the curve, or in other words, avoid the spike in serious cases that might overwhelm our hospitals and urgent care facilities as happened in Italy.  At the time, this seemed like a reasonable course of action.  We trade off some civil liberties temporarily in order to slow the spread of this new virus.  The idea was that it would be a short-term matter.  Stay at home.  Yes, you might lose your job.  Maybe your business won’t survive.  But the survival of humanity seemed to hang in the balance.

So we stayed at home.  We social distanced.  We washed our hands.  We treated each other like garbage as we fought and hoarded.  But, hey.  Everybody wants to live, don’t they?

Well, it worked.  We flattened the curve.  Or at least according to some sources we have.  Other sources vehemently deny this.  But regardless, even common sense can see that we are not being overwhelmed with massive caseloads of severely sick and dying people.  Although there are some hot spots where there have been more serious cases, even those places really haven’t been overwhelmed.  Although there are people at risk with this virus (as with any virus), that number seems drastically lower than we feared in mid-March.

At this point many people are beginning to say that given the situation, we should begin easing restrictions.

What they – and the rest of us – are going to find out is that it’s a lot easier to give up civil liberties than it is to reclaim them.

California Governor Gavin Newsom now insists that “We are not going back to normal until we get to immunity or a vaccine.”  That’s a much different demand than flattening the curve.  The fact that he has to state it this way demonstrates that we have indeed flattened the curve and now those inclined to keep a tight hold on the reins have to find other reasons to do so.

He’s also stated that for some organizations – including religious organizations – restrictions will not be eased for months.

That is not what we all somewhat begrudgingly or eagerly agreed to back in March.  It isn’t what we agreed to as over 25 million people filed for unemployment this month.  It isn’t what we agreed to in voluntarily suspending religious services.  It isn’t what we  agreed to, weighing the damage done to the indeterminate future through massive additions to our government debt and the destruction of many small and even medium or large sizes businesses – perhaps even industries.

Now citizens need to get up and start figuring out how to retrieve the civil liberties we so easily and fearfully gave up seven weeks ago because the longer we allow them to be suspended, the harder they’re going to be to get back.  If we ever get them back.  Because certainly there will be some new reason to extend states of emergency and other measures even if the COVID-19 pandemic plays itself out (as it obviously is doing all over the world).

The curve has flattened.  It’s time for leaders to put the people back in charge of determining how they remain safe while rebuilding their lives and businesses.

 

Which Court Is the Ball In?

April 15, 2020

The Los Angeles Times today ran an editorial by journalist Michael Hiltzik claiming consumers will be the ones to dictate when the US economy goes back to work from the Coronavirus shutdown.  The pace of any return to normality will be dictated by you and me – by consumers making their own judgments about when it will be safe to resume old habits, and business owners running cost-benefit analyses on when a flow of customers will warrant reopening.

It’s a very warm and fuzzy,  we’re-all-in-this-together kind of pro-America statement one might expect to find in newspapers, or perhaps newspapers of another era.  The irony however is that his statement is blatantly false – for now.  It is not consumers or business owners who are making these decisions but rather government officials – governors and mayors and other officials who direct law enforcement to enforce edicts on what businesses are essential and non-essential.

The photo above is what this looks like.  My favorite used bookstore had this posted on their window warning them to cease operations.  As with many small businesses, they were working to figure out how to honor social distancing and other recommendations.  They set up a system where people could order books and pick them up curbside.  They also offered a bag o’ books program where people could pay a set price for a random selection of books in a bag.  Apparently that’s not good enough.  What really matters is whether the State thinks you’re essential or not.  If you aren’t essential, it doesn’t matter whether you’re following best practices to keep your employees and customers healthy. The e-mail it came in indicated there were threats of large fines if they ignored the order to shut their doors.

(This whole topic is ironic,  in that I just re-watched last night one of my all-time Favorite The Twilight Zone episodes – the second season finale The Obsolete Man)

Ideally, it should be a matter of consumers and business owners figuring this stuff out.  If consumers don’t feel safe they won’t go shopping which will drive business owners to reduce hours and do other things to compensate.  But when the government is involved in the mix in terms of dictating  not only how to do business but whether your business is essential or not, things get complicated.  Fast.  And it derails the free-market principles that otherwise (at least imperfectly and impurely) work in our economic system.

One of the fish Hiltzik is trying to fry is Trump, of course.  Trump’s spat with state governors over who controls when the US returns to work or not.  Hintzik’s real issue is to argue against Trump’s claims.

But Hiltzik also envisions a US workplace very different than a month ago.  A workplace governed by social distancing and other factors.  Are these factors mandated by the government or dictated by the free market system?  Are consumers going to demand these changes and so employers will accommodate them?  He recognizes this will increase costs – but those increased costs may not enable businesses that were viable  a month ago to remain viable.  If you operate a restaurant – an example Hiltzik mentions – reducing your seating capacity and therefore the amount of business you can bring in may make your entire business model untenable.  Who is going to be driving those changes and the attendant business closures – the government, or the free market?

But the bigger fish than Trump Hiltzik’s dealing with is capitalism itself, chastising the US for not handling aid like many other countries in the world have – by funneling money to businesses so they won’t lay off their employees even though they can’t be open for business.  He cites our unemployment issue as an “American peculiarity” not  seen in other countries because in those countries, wages are socialized for the current crisis.  He doesn’t indicate or cite whether in those other countries wages were socialized to some extent before the crisis, though the short list of examples he cites certainly have a lot of socialist economies in them.  Certainly America’s response to the crisis will be peculiar because we are – or at least once were – very peculiar indeed.  A place where the well-being of our people was dictated by the people rather than the State, with according levels of risk and reward that more directly benefited the people taking the risks.  If you were willing to innovate to find out how to create a new business opportunity when nobody else was there was the hope you could benefit financially from your risk-taking.  Now, taking risks is much harder to do because the State dictates more of what can and can’t be done – all the way down to mandating which businesses are essential and which aren’t, even if risk mitigation efforts are put into place which are acceptable practices for essential businesses.

Hiltzik clearly favors a socialist approach to things, touting calls for guaranteed paychecks for all Americans until things return to normal.  He doesn’t indicate how that massive expenditure would be paid for.   Nor does he indicate how making such a demand integrates with a government imposed shutdown.  Our governor is working on plans on how to reopen the economy in our state, though his roadmap is so vague as to literally useless.  He cites six criteria that will guide his determination of when it’s safe to go back to work, and in what fashion.  And he’s bluntly stated that neither consumers nor business owners will have much say in that – if any.  Science, rather, is what he claims will guide his decisions as he positions himself for a future presidential run by loaning out the very medical equipment he cites as one of the six criteria that must be met before reopening the economy.

Hiltzik’s idea that consumers and business owner should drive decisions is right on – even if I don’t think he really believes that’s true.  As the ones facing the predominant economic and health risks in this entire crisis, it’s patently unfair to dictate to us how we must handle the situation and then stick us with the bill for paying for it – whether we wanted it or not.  It might be a plan that works in socialist economies, but it’s a poor and dishonest fit for the free market we ought to be proud of and which continues to draw people from around the world to make America their home so they might possibly benefit from it in ways then can’t in their own economies.

When the Emperor Tells You to Strip

April 13, 2020

You might be familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen fable The Emperor’s New Clothes.  In it an emperor is convinced he is wearing an amazing new suit of clothes that will be invisible to anyone who is stupid or unworthy of their position.  In fear of being seen as stupid, nobody around the Emperor wants to tell him he’s naked.  People play along with the Emperor’s whims rather than risk their social status or rank or public opinion.  A child is the only honest one, perhaps in part because the child has nothing to lose, but mostly because children are sometimes able to call a thing for what it is when nobody else will.

A cautionary tale about the dangers of power and the influence power has on the otherwise common sense of people.  But what if instead of just pretending to admire the Emperor’s clothes, you were commanded to strip naked as well?  What then?

It sure feels like that is what Americans – and perhaps most of the world – are being asked to do in fear of COVID-19.  We are being asked to sacrifice our personal economic well-being and the well-being of our families in order to stay physically safe from a terrifying and mysterious infection.  Numbers are paraded out unceasingly to show us how dangerous COVID-19 is.  But the numbers are often portrayed in isolation from any other numbers that would provide context for them.

For instance, headlines recently blared that America surpassed Italy’s COVID-19 death toll.  Since we all remember the headlines about Italy a few weeks ago when COVID-19 hit there, this sounds terrifying!  But it assumes that America was in a better position than Italy to deal with COVID-19, which I doubt is the case (or the case for much of any country), and it ignores the fact that the US has six times the population of Italy, so it seems only reasonable the number of deaths here would be higher.  It also ignores the fact that Italy currently is on a downward trend in terms of  number of infections and deaths.  Yet without any other information, the headlines just hype fear and worry.

But news half-stories are the basis driving our government officials to insist on forcing businesses to close and lay off people.  We are told it is worth destroying our economy, putting millions of people out of work and on unemployment, and destroying untold numbers of small, medium, and even a few large companies because the alternative is the danger of spreading COVID-19, which we are told is more contagious than the flu and more deadly as well.  Two trillion dollars has already been spent in the US on COVID-19 relief and far more actually has and will be spent in terms of state of emergency spending and other forms of government relief to citizens and businesses (oh, and don’t forget banks).

But let’s examine these claims.

In terms of contagiousness, we are daily given new statistics about continuing rates of infection of COVID-19.  Some sources say the rate of infections is slowing and other sources don’t.  But both are using numbers that are, charitably at best, inadequate or, at worst, wrong.  The numbers reported are newly confirmed cases.  Confirmed cases occur when someone tests positive for COVID-19, either alive or dead.  But not everyone with symptoms of COVID-19 is tested.  Despite repeated assurances of widespread testing being made available, testing is still reserved only for those with severe symptoms.  While I don’t know anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 (or anyone who knows anyone for that matter), I do know of at least one person who was refused testing because their symptoms weren’t acute enough to warrant testing.  I’m positive that person didn’t have COVID-19, but the fact that they weren’t tested is a reminder that testing is far from ubiquitous.  Tests are only for those who evidence the full-blown symptoms.

And tigers.

So the numbers being cited of infection rates can hardly be accurate since testing is so spotty and limited.  There are two conclusions we can draw from this.  One would be that we are incredibly good at visually identifying the tell-tale signs of COVID-19 and excluding by external observation cases that aren’t, so the infection rates being reported are essentially accurate because we’re actually testing most of the people who actually have it.  In which case, the more lethal nature of COVID-19 is substantiated because we’re likely identifying most of the actual cases of COVID-19.

Personally, I find that hard to believe.

The other conclusion has two versions.  One is that the reported rates of infection are representative and can be extrapolated out to  the entire population of the country/world.  This of course results in much higher levels of infection and much lower mortality rates.  Or, since we’re only testing extreme cases, the reported  rates of infection are not at all accurate and infection rates are much higher across the board, which drastically reduces the mortality rate associated with COVID-19.

And if COVID-19 isn’t nearly as lethal as it’s being portrayed, why are we destroying our entire economy and  Lord knows what else to contain the infection levels? Are there other options to shuttering an entire economy and trying to force people to stay home as Constitutional rights are violated?

Our county has – as of the 2010 census, roughly 424,000 people in it.  There have been 264 identified cases of COVID-19 as of yesterday.  Over 80% of the identified cases are either fully recovered or in recovery at home.  There have been two deaths in the county thus far.  Yet the entire county is supposed to shelter in place and embrace the drastic measures applied in much higher infection areas and cities.

Things just don’t add up.  I’m more than happy to be educated in why my assessment of this is wrong.  And certainly I know the issue is more threatening to people older than I am (though I’m snugly in the middle of the two age ranges with the highest reported rates of infection in my county).  I know in some more congested areas of the country things are worse – that only makes sense.  Yet the same precautions insisted upon in many of the hardest hit urban areas are expected from our county as well?  The people I know are out of work and hoping for unemployment for a localized rate of infection that is ridiculously small.  In the most recent data available (2017) there were 53 deaths in our county in one year from the flu and/or flu-like illnesses.  Nearly 30 times as many deaths in a single flu season than COVID-19 thus far.  Certainly more people could die of COVID-19, but still.  At this point, the flu is far more dangerous in our county than COVID-19.

It leads one to wonder how much of this is based simply on the novelty of COVID-19.  After all, the flu is no big deal.  It’s been around forever.  We’ve learned to live with it and we’re comfortable with the idea that a lot of people get sick every year  from it (~19 million nationwide) and a lot of people die from it (~24,000 nationwide).  There’s nothing we can do about it (apparently), so we just deal with it.  Oh, and get your flu shots, we’re told.  Even though the 24,000 fatalities expected this flu season are going to happen despite wide scale efforts to convince people to get their flu shots.

But COVID-19 comes along and it’s new and sexy and we can mount a massive effort to provide a vaccine for it, despite the fact we lost interest in creating vaccines for other Corona-family viruses like SARS and MERS.  Once the epidemic or pandemic subsides, there’s no money to be made in funding a vaccine effort, apparently.

I understand different people have different tolerances levels in terms of anxiety and fear and health-related issues.  But when the government demands we cease work and shutter our businesses because of a medical issue that might be scary because it spreads so quickly but is no more dangerous than the flu, that’s a lot like the emperor demanding everyone else strip naked.  At some point, somebody has to stand up and state the obvious.

This is overkill.  The economic and financial damage is going to be far greater, longer-reaching and harder to recover from than the physical health damage.  It’s time to start thinking how to best continue to protect those most vulnerable to this illness while allowing the rest of the country to get back to work.  It’s time for all of us – including our leaders – to put our clothes back on, acknowledging that perhaps we slowed the spread of the infection through these drastic measures, but that drastic measures can’t  be sustained indefinitely when the illness proves to be far less devastating than originally feared.

 

 

 

 

 

Crossing the Line

April 10, 2020

Holy Week hasn’t felt terribly holy this year.

This is not a theological statement – the objective works of the Incarnate Son of God in space and time on behalf of all humanity are not subject to my feelings.  I got that.  I’m referring only to my subjective feelings about those objective events, feelings in part governed by traditions.  Some of those traditions go back nearly 2000 years and bind together Christians from around the world and throughout history.

And subjectively speaking, it hasn’t felt like a very holy Holy Week.  That’s almost entirely due to our congregation – along with nearly other faith group in the United States – suspending all of our worship and in-person activities as part of hoping to stop the spread of COVID-19.

We’ve suspended our services voluntarily, to large degree, though legal counsel early on indicated that what I felt was a rather vague Executive Order could – and likely would – be utilized to force faith groups not to meet if things got bad enough.  Fair enough.  Because the Executive Order included a broad spectrum of businesses and other entities in our state, I didn’t (and still don’t) consider it a direct challenge to religious liberty or something that requires me as an ordained minister to engage in civil disobedience against.

But in Kentucky (not where I live and work), things just changed.

The Governor of Kentucky just issued a direct threatto Christian churches and congregations and individual congregants.  The threat directly pertains to gathering for celebratory worship for Easter, the holiest and most important day in the Christian faith (and all of human history).

Although couched in language attempting to be generic, the Governor of Kentucky has threatened to record license plate information of people at mass gatherings, run the information, and force the owners of those vehicles into a 14-day at home quarantine.

I get the logic of it.  But he’s crossed the line.  Why does it cross the line?

He states that people cannot gather in one building, but that’s patently false according to the Executive Order he issued last month.  People are regularly going into singular buildings together to shop for food and other necessities of life.  He’s making a specific threat against exercising our freedom of religion and that’s a very dangerous step to take.  His statement doesn’t take into account any steps a church – like a grocery store – might take to minimize risk of cross-contamination through social distancing and sanitary practices like wiping down doors and other points of common contact.

If I feel like I need to go to the grocery store because I need more food in the house, there isn’t a government agent quantifying the amount of food actually in my house and then either permitting or denying my desire to get more food.  I have a felt need and I’m free to fulfill that felt need, certainly with the understanding that the places I might go to obtain that food are working to mitigate the risk of either me infecting other people or me becoming infected by others tending to their needs.

Religious liberty is the same thing.  Whereas the government might be able to force grocery stores to only deliver food via phone orders rather than allowing people inside, I’m Constitutionally granted the right to freedom of worship.  And while the Governor of Kentucky and other people might not perceive that as a need on the level of clean food and water, it’s actually a deeper and more fundamental need.  My faith transcends my prosperity, my health, and any other issue in life I might be facing.  It is the core of who I am as a human being.  Whether you agree with that or not is secondary – I have a Constitutional guarantee that I am free to exercise my religious faith.

And while I might agree to forego the full exercise of my religious freedom for a period of time, as the vast majority of faith-groups and congregations are doing right now, to specifically target one particular faith group on one particular holy weekend and threaten to penalize them for the exercise of their faith without regard to any systems that might be in place to exercise that faith as safely as possible – or at least as safely as going to the grocery store – is crossing the line.

I’ve been impressed at how cautious officials have been – up until now – to not attempt singling out religious organizations or gatherings for special mention.  I believe this is in deference – grudgingly or otherwise – to the very real Constitutional issues of directly ordering the shuttering of houses of worship instead of calling on the faithful – as with all other citizens – to limit their activities on behalf of the greater good.  The argument of the greater good could be misused, of course, but so far I don’t feel it has (and certainly many,many other religious leaders agree with that assessment).

I hope the Governor of Kentucky is challenged on this.  Not necessarily with civil disobedience but legally, and forced to retract his statement and issue an apology.  I have no doubt his intentions are good.  But unfortunately, as history shows, good intentions are frequently hijacked by those with less good intentions.

 

 

St. COVID’s Day

April 6, 2020

March 17th.  St. Patrick’s Day.  This was the first year the BCA moved the annual world tournament from July to March.  The first year as well that my teammates were all able to attend, and so the first time we’d be competing as a team in several years.  We’ve been anticipating this time for months, saving and preparing.

I imagined St. Patrick’s Day in Vegas to be something certainly worth observing.  In a city so  obsessed with consumption and excess, I was certain there would be plenty of good people-watching to be done.  And of course, a few Irish whiskeys along the way perhaps.  But not too many, as the team competition would be starting the next morning and we would want to be sharp and ready for the the already formidable task of having to start shooting pool at 9 am instead of in the late afternoon or evening as most of us were more  used to.

But instead, as the sun was going down over the Nevada desert I was hightailing it out of Las Vegas instead of celebrating.  The team event was cancelled as of Sunday evening.  We had remained in Vegas through Tuesday for my teammate who was still competing in the individual’s tournament (and ended up winning 3rd place in his division – not bad being able to say you’re the third best player in your division in the world!).  But as of 5 pm or so he had finished, gotten his check, had his picture taken, and it was time to leave.

I drove up to Vegas the previous week alone, knowing I’d be driving two teammates and their gear back.  But now I was also driving our league president and his wife back.  The hotels were shutting down and kicking everyone out.  Rather than wait another day for their flight back to Santa Barbara they squeezed into my SUV and I used my Tetris skills to fit their gear in as well.  It was a cozy bunch headed into the sunset.

We were maybe half an hour out of town when the classic rock station interrupted their playlist for a live broadcast from the governor of Nevada.  For the next 20 minutes or so we listened to him talk about what the state of Nevada would be doing immediately to respond to the threat of COVID-19.  Yes, the hotels would be shut down by noon the next day.  All gaming machines in the state would be turned off in a matter of hours at midnight.  People were being ordered to stay at home as much as possible.  It was clear an entire state was essentially closing, hunkering down and hoping that by doing so the spread of COVID-19 would be slowed, and fewer people would get sick and die from it.

We sat in stunned silence.

Good zombie movies often center around an unlikely collection of people forced to work together to survive.  That’s all well and good for a movie, but as we raced towards the sinking sun I couldn’t  help but think that this isn’t the group of people I would have hoped to be my apocalypse survival squad.  Not that there weren’t some good skill sets here.  Our league president served in the US Navy.  One of my teammates was good with his hands.  Another had experience in caring for people with disabilities.  It was a good, gritty crew to some extent.  But I couldn’t help but lament, as we drove by mostly empty gas stations and restaurants and Motel 6’s with their lights turned off that I would have preferred to be facing the apocalypse with my family, even if we weren’t quite as gritty and our survival chances might not be as good.

That ride, and listening to the speech from the governor is likely something I’ll never forget.  Unlike any experience in my life.  Unlike 9/11.  Unlike housing busts and recessions, presidential assassination attempts or even the vague background threat of nuclear war as a child and young adult.  This was something different.

Three weeks later it remains something fundamentally different.  How long can a country shut down?  How long are people expected to shelter in place and avoid one another?  What are the long-term costs to our country not just economically but socially and politically?  We don’t have any road maps for these sorts of considerations.  As competing models and evolving models of how the infection will play out in our country shift and change, something seems clear.

COVID-19 will have to be a pretty big deal.  If it turns out to be a smaller issue than anticipated, if it turns out to have the overall impact of a really bad flu season, there’s going to be hell to pay.  Or at least there should be.  There will need to be some very specific repercussions against a government ordering people to shut their businesses down and destroy their livelihoods rather than guiding people but allowing them to make decisions that seem to make sense.

Either COVID-19 is devastating to our nation as an actual health crisis, or it will be devastating to our political structure and the people who sacrificed untold small businesses out of fear or paranoia.  It’s possible that both things could happen, though I pray not.  But understanding whether COVID-19 is ultimately dangerous enough to very possibly destroy an entire economic and political system is something we aren’t going to know until after the fact.

It’s popular to compare COVID-19 to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-1920.  The Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans in less than two years.  We’re currently at not quite 13,000 deaths.  This is, of course tragic, but also confusing, as an undetermined number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 are also strongly related to underlying and pre-existing health conditions.  At the same time, there have been an estimated 24,000 deaths from the flu through the end of March, and I assume that some number of  those deaths also involve compromised health situations.  Depending on what news reports you choose to believe, we may already be seeing the COVID-19 infection rate slowing in the US.

It will be painful and fascinating in the coming years to understand better whether we reacted appropriately to COVID-19 or not.  Whether the economic and political damage incurred is something we can recover from or will lead us into new economic and political realities couldn’t  have foreseen.  Most zombie movies never play out the long game of community and state and nation and world rebuilding.  Nobody has the attention span for that.  Or  at least, we didn’t used to.

Hopefully we do now.  Because we’re all in this together, an unlikely group of people thrust together and required to work together to survive.  I pray we’re up  to the task, and careful about the precedents that are knowingly or unknowingly being set right now.  I hope our skills, Tetris or otherwise, are up to the task.  And I hope people are willing to work together towards these ends rather than continuing to isolate and scream at one another through their face masks and social media masks.  There are challenges ahead but also opportunities, if we are wise enough to discern enough and brave enough to take them.  Hopefully the darkest part of this night-desert-drive is over, and we’ll be seeing the sun coming up shortly.

 

Preaching to the Church

April 2, 2020

The Los  Angeles Times today ran an editorial critical of religious leaders (it only mentions Christian religious leaders, curiously) who are not fans of shelter-in-place demands and how they affect congregations.  The editorial criticizes Christian leaders who either disobey restrictions on large gatherings or are critical of such restrictions.  Such behavior is characterized in the editorial as reckless and defiant.

The editorial openly questions assertions that Christians in large worship venues could gather safely for worship, still maintaining proper social distancing recommendations.  Perhaps the editors have never been in a large worship space?  If we can practice social distancing to obtain groceries and other necessities, why would the assumption be it is impossible to do so in a worship setting?  There is a definite bias here that is unsupported in any meaningful way beyond an obvious belief that Christians gathering together for encouragement and comfort in the faith is not vital to them.

Of course the editorial has to bring Trump into this, equating the religious with Trump, as well as sneering at the “religious values” of human and divine fellowship entailed in Christian worship.

The editorial concludes by citing the publication Christianity Today, which recently in an editorial sided with those church leaders and congregations who have decided to suspend (not close) in-person activities because “The Church remains the Church online, too.”  The Times editorial ends with the assertion that continuing to meet for worship  during this time is irreligious.

Such a flimsy treatment of such a complicated issue as freedom of religion and the life of faith is unhelpful,  at best.  Using the generalized language of this editorial, houses of worship ought to  be closed every year from September to March or so because of flu season, wherein 19 million some Americans are infected and in the neighborhood of 10,000 die.  Annually.

I’d like to think  that a more informed and even-handed approach to a very complicated subject could be had instead of a brief editorial.  But apparently it won’t be had in the Times.

Nothing to Catch Us

March 30, 2020

This article caught my eye several months ago, before the current world-wide panic over COVID-19.  It caught my eye in January because of the memorable line early in the story – There was nothing to catch us.

The whole point of the story is decades and decades of failure in terms of public policy on homelessness.  The entire story is geared around the idea that homelessness is essentially a public policy issue best solved by all levels of government in a combined effort to save these people from their situations.  Yes, yes, the article will grudgingly concede, mental illness and addiction are often contributing factors.  But since those are different arenas, let’s essentially just focus on the economics of it and how government should pump more money into systems already proven to not work to fix the problem.

Here in California, where homelessness is often a matter of ‘enlightened’ live and let live, resulting in pervasive homeless camps both communal and solitary, lawmakers want to throw an additional $2 billion dollars per year at solutions for homelessness.  These solutions will undoubtedly emphasize state and local programs, social workers, case workers, low-rent housing options, and a variety of other factors.

Even should such massive appropriations be approved (raising taxes on other people and thereby putting more people at risk of homelessness, perhaps?), it won’t solve the problem.  Experts have already said as much.  But it’s better than nothing, right?  And to be fair, something is better than nothing.  But some things are better than other somethings.

And it fascinates me (but doesn’t surprise me) that so much emphasis is placed on state-provided solutions towards these issues and no attention is given to the importance of strong families as a means of protecting the most vulnerable in our society.  Of the people who approach me for help, it’s literally universal that they have no other support lines in terms of family, nuclear or extended.  There are undoubtedly myriad reasons for this, but it is a consistent factor.

I wonder what it would look like if our society finally admitted that families are actually more important than the State, in terms of providing stable environments for children to be born and raised and continuing to function as safety nets even into adulthood, both for the grown children as well as their aging parents?  I wonder what it would look like if the State invested in these directions rather than in trying to create alternative systems which repeatedly prove inadequate to the challenge despite good intentions?

The first and best line of defense against the unexpected and catastrophic in people’s lives is family.  We can’t prevent tragedies from happening, but families are naturally the first line of defense and solidarity when they do strike.  It’s a shame this sort of common sense eludes elected officials when they discuss strategies to help people, and journalists when they report on the disadvantaged.

 

You Can’t Outlaw Stupid

March 25, 2020

Though we seem determined to try.

Does a tactless and rude comment and action merit a felony rap sheet along with potentially seven years of prison time and over $25,000 in fines?  That’s what one man faces for acting like a jerk.  He intentionally coughed on another person at a grocery store and claimed to have COVID-19.

What he did was unkind, rude, and dumb, without a doubt.  But to charge him with terrorism?  This is one of the ugly side-effects of Homeland Security changes implemented nearly 20 years ago after the 9/11 attacks.  Now all  sorts of other crimes – with pre-existing definitions and sentencing structures – can also be deemed terroristic in nature.

Some people are scared, and they are making their fear very well-known as they venture out into public spaces to obtain the necessities of life.  Some of these folks are undoubtedly excessive and none-too-kind themselves in how they warn people to stay away from them.  And some people are going to respond equally unkindly.  Paranoia does strange things to people.  A certain modicum of grace seems wisest under these circumstances, a grace that hopefully people will pick up on and emulate.

But even if they don’t,  a charge of domestic terrorism seems grossly out of proportion in responding to this kind of behavior.