Are we Committing 2 Sins?

 

I learned last week that in Ontario and Quebec the epicentre of Canada’s Covid-19 19 pandemic, 28 Canadian soldiers have contracted Covid-19 while working in Long Term Care facilities. Today there was horrific news out of Ontario about 5 of those facilities. I am not commenting yet on them since the news is just coming out. Long-term care facilities have been hit hard in Canada. So hard that 82% of Canadian deaths from Covid-19 have occurred in long term care facilities. That is the first sin. After all these are the most vulnerable people in the country and they are in our care. You and I and the government are responsible for them. How could we have left them so vulnerable? Think about that percentage. It is stunning.

 

Of course personal support workers in those facilities are naturally at risk too. My son Pat’s partner Tammy works courageously in one of those facilities. And she is not well paid to do that work. I have frequently said, she does the most important work in our family. She works with adult mentally challenged men in a group home. These men are completely at the mercy of their support workers, like Tammy. And they do not understand the concept of social distancing. They just understand what they need.

 

Lee Berthiaume reported on one of those facilities in Montreal where soldiers were tending to the patients. In that facility, The Winnipeg Free Press reported last week, “residents had been nearly abandoned by staff.” I do not want to criticize the staff because I do not know what situation they were caught in, but to think about long term care residents being abandoned by staff is shocking. Apparently the staff were “overwhelmed”…providing medical assistance but also serving food and assisting with resident’s basic needs.”

 

Now we must add the case of the soldiers. It seems they are getting overwhelmed as well. Nearly 1,700 military personnel are serving in such facilities because regular staff can’t handle it.  But what about the soldiers? 28 of them have already contracted Covid-19. Are they trained for this? They are accustomed to taking risks, but this is an entirely unexpected risk. I just hope we are doing the right thing when we send them into such situations. But what else could we do when the facilities are abandoned by staff?

Vacancies in Health

 

Relying on an article by Garret Graff in Politico,  I have pointed out some astonishing vacancies in the Trump administration before and during the pandemic. Some of the critical vacancies occurred in positions directly related to the health pandemic we are now facing. As Graff said,

“Last year, the top job at the Food and Drug Administration, the role overseeing the nation’s pharmaceuticals, sat vacant for nearly eight months; the latest occupant, Stephen Hahn, took over in December, nearly a month after the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in Wuhan, China. At the Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees a massive health care network and legally serves to supplement the civilian health care system in an emergency like the current epidemic, there’s no deputy secretary, general counsel or undersecretary for health.”

 

All of this is not just a mess. It’s a scandal! And that scandal has been authored by none other than the President of the United States who likes the flexibility of acting appointments!

Graff also reported how the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management (‘OPM’) which is in effect the government’s HR department at a time when the 2 million employees of the federal government face the incredible challenge of working from home while they carry on essential duties, also has an acting Director. Of course it does. Not only that but the acting director of OPM, Michael Rigas took over the position in late March after the OPM director who had been there for only 6 months quit just as the pandemic spilled over. He was also acting director of the Office of Management and Budget (‘OMB’). He has both positions at once. As Graff said, “Wondering how someone can effectively lead one mission-critical organization while simultaneously working as the deputy of another? The answer is you can’t.”

Remember that Trump is already on his 4th White House chief of staff, his 5th homeland security secretary and his 4th defense secretary. That is in 3 years of his administration! This is a record of incompetent appointments that has likely never been matched in the history of American government. But Trump knows the best people!

I know some people get annoyed when I criticize Trump, but I am not really trying to criticize Trump. He is too easy a target. I am criticizing a very common attitude in both the United States and Canada. This is the assumption that governments are incompetent and unimportant and all that counts is the private sector. It has been the platform for mockery of the government for decades. Particularly since Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney were elected heads of their respective governments. That is a dangerous attitude and its warts are revealed in an emergency—such as a pandemic. I think it is time we deep-six that convenient attitude. It really is not that convenient in the long run.

From the start of his administration Trump made clear his contempt for government. That attitude has had disastrous consequences. There are many reasons that the Trump administration has failed in its response to the pandemic. Many countries have done a much better job of fighting the pandemic than the United States. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker put is well:

“The reasons for the American failing include a lack of preparation, delayed mobilization, insufficient testing, and a reluctance to halt travel. The Administration has, from its start, waged a war on science, and expertise, and on what Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon called ‘the administration state.’ The result are all around us. Trump has made sure that a great nation is peculiarly vulnerable to a foreseeable public health calamity.”

We are learning how costly and dangerous contempt for government can be.

 

Trump knows the best People but where are they?

 

Garret Graff in his analysis of crucial  vacancies in the Trump administration pointed out how  Trump’s failures in filling government positions went well beyond leaving critical vacancies where leadership was urgently required. Trump also made disastrous appointments, notwithstanding his boastful claims that “I know the best people.” Well he might know them but he did not appoint them. One of the more glaringly dysfunctional appointments was John Bolton as the National Security Advisor, often considered one of the most important security positions since Henry Kissinger held the position. He scooped John Bolton probably because he liked his punditry on Fox News. This is what happened:

“Over the course of his administration, Trump effectively has done away with the role of homeland security adviser; when John Bolton took over as national security adviser, one of his first acts was to fire Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert and downgrade the role in rank. Ever since, the Trump NSC has sidelined the officials who filled the role. In February, as Covid-19 loomed domestically, Trump actually even shuffled the Coast Guard official then filling the post out to a new job, overseeing Puerto Rico’s disaster recovery.”

 

Trump’s failure to provide for good government has led to serious weaknesses in the American preparedness for a pandemic. This went well beyond his egregious dismantling of the National Security Council’s pandemic unit, though that may have been his worst decision. As Graff pointed out in his reporting:

“Further afield from the Homeland Security roles, the empty holes in federal organization charts will continue to slow and hamper the government’s ability to respond at the speed and scale necessary to address a crisis of unprecedented complexity.”

Two of the Trump’s cabinet appointments have been particularly weak. These were Ben Carson in HUD and Steven Mnuchin at Treasury. Treasury has of course been vitally important in the economic crisis. Once again, America has paid a big price for this lacklustre appointment from among “the best people” that Trump promised. This is how Graff explained Mnuchin ‘s performance:

“At the Treasury Department, Secretary Steven Mnuchin began confronting the crisis without a chief of staff or legislative director. As Bloomberg reported, “Of 20 Senate confirmed roles reporting to the secretary, seven aren’t filled, and four are occupied by acting officials. The domestic finance unit, which should be handling the brunt of the work related to the coronavirus outbreak, is particularly empty. It has no top boss and is missing three assistant secretaries, who are the next level down.”

Another sensational  failure occurred at the Pentagon where the Navy faced a Covid-19 crisis on its carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt without a Navy Secretary having been approved by the Senate. The last Secretary left under a cloud when the controversy arose over Trump’s pardoning of a Navy Seal accused of war crimes. The replacement for the Secretary that left has also now resigned amid that fiasco. Apparently the undersecretary of the Army will fill the position of acting Secretary of the Navy as well. Graff summed all of this up this way:

To say that it’s less-than-ideal for all of those roles—which serve as each military service’s chief management officer—to be vacant in the midst of an unprecedented, global crisis is an understatement.

 

I would say that itself is an understatement. According to Graff, “Across the building, roughly a third of the Pentagon’s top jobs are vacant or filled with acting officials—an administration high.”

Only someone with complete disdain for government would make such poor appointments and leave so many important jobs unfilled. And that is the problem. the leader of the government has nothing but disdain for government. He wanted to drain the swamp. I wish he would remove the leader.

Critical Importance of Government vacancies

 

Government vacancies in the U.S. , have become critically important for those positions that would have been expected to deal with the coronavirus emergency. Yet,  since Trump was elected an astonishing number of governmental posts, many of them crucial in defending the country against a pandemic, have remained unfilled. Garret Graff wrote a detailed article in Politico setting out those posts that have been left vacant.

For example, the Deputy overseeing the Department of Homeland Security (‘DHS’) whose job it was to oversee preparedness was vacant. So was its chief medical officer, the physician designated to advise the Secretary (Head) of DHS and the head of FEMA responsible to co-ordinate the federal response to emergencies, like Hurricane Katrina, and of course, Covid-19. In fact DHS itself had 600 infections in its own workforce. These are the people whose job it is to protect the public!

 

Often Trump moves one government official from one post to another. But this creates problems too when the position of the replacement must be filled. This can cascade down the government leading to ever greater governmental incompetence; not a good state of affairs during a health and economic crisis. And this is all a self-inflicted wound! This is Trump’s baby. Even Obama can’t be blamed for this one.

As Graff said,

“The effect of these vacancies ripple further than most people realize. Since vacant roles awaiting either an official appointment or a Senate-confirmed nominee are always filled by “acting” officials pulled from other parts of the organization or broader government, even more offices are understaffed as people do double-duty and as their own positions are filled with other “actings” behind them. Grenell, even as he fills in as director of National Intelligence, continues technically to be the U.S. ambassador to Germany, meaning that amid the huge economic uncertainty around Covid-19 epidemic the U.S. is without a high-level envoy to the largest economy in Europe. For the 14 months he was “acting” White House chief of staff, up until March 31—another horse Trump changed midstream in the epidemic—Mick Mulvaney was still technically serving as the director of Office of Management and Budget, a normally critical role itself overseeing the nation’s spending. In Mulvaney’s absence, Russell Vought, OMB’s deputy, filled in as the acting director—leaving his own job, normally its own full-time role, to be filled in by others, and so on.”

A number of these vacancies involved “deputies.” This may seem innocuous or insignificant to those not familiar with government. To sum up, Deputies are important! They are not sidekicks. They are the permanent officials that can guide the political appointees who are often not really familiar with the job they have to perform. Graff put it this way:

“In government agencies, deputies are not like the vice president—a spare role kept around, if needed. Often, the “deputy” role is the most important figure in the day-to-day operations of the department or agency—the person who runs the bureaucracy and organization while the principal (the secretary or director) attends to the policy and the politics. Robbing an agency or department of a principal and forcing the deputy to fill in means the organization will be running at reduced effectiveness, with less guidance, direction and oversight.”

 

Crucially he left open as well the position of Office of Director of National intelligence. Remember these positions deal with much more than terrorism or military matters, They also deal with intelligence and health related matters. After 9/11 George W. Bush emphasized how these two positions would make sure the US was never hit by a surprise attack again. As we all know by now, it was surprised again, this time by a virus.

 

Perhaps the most important and egregious vacancy was the National Security Council’s pandemic unit. Trump disbanded that shortly before the pandemic! nI am surprised this has not caused a great uproar.

 

Added to that, as Graff reported,

“Another key post-9/11 reform was the creation of a White House homeland security adviser, a domestic equal to the national security adviser, a post created just days after 9/11 by President George W. Bush and filled at first by Tom Ridge, who would go on to be the first Homeland Security secretary. Presidents Bush and Obama for years had at their beck and call senior, sober homeland security advisers like Fran Townsend, Ken Wainstein, John Brennan and Lisa Monaco; Monaco helped oversee the nation’s response to Ebola and led the incoming Trump administration through a pandemic response exercise in the days before the inauguration to highlight how critical such an incident could be.”

 The Obama administration after the Ebola outbreak created a “Playbook” on how to deal with pandemics. This was a detailed plan created thoughtfully. That, of course has remained unused on the shelf, because nothing good could come from the Obama administration. Instead the Trump administration relied on plans made in the middle of a health emergency.

People have to realize that government is important. The leader of the country must show some interest in it. It is not enough to say tear it down or drain the swamp.  The people should learn, ‘Never again,”  Never again allow someone to lead a government who doesn’t care about it. That is asking for trouble.

 

Disdain for Government has a Price

In April the role of the American Homeland Security Secretary was vacant for an entire year! Remember Trump fired her because he felt she was not tough enough in enforcing his border security policies. She was reluctant to support separating young children from their parents at the border as Trump’s immigration Czar, Steven Miller had required. Imagine that. Remember that the Department of Homeland Security (‘DHS’) has many crucial roles in any domestic crisis, not just military ones. They were created to fight terrorism but a lot more than that. Pandemics are part of their jurisdiction too. That makes sense, as we are all finding out now, pandemics are a much bigger threat than terrorists or even wars. More Americans have already been killed in this pandemic than the Vietnam War! In her place the Acting secretary Chad Wolf, according to Graff “ fumbled through the epidemic.” As Garret Graff reported in Politico ,

Wolf couldn’t answer seemingly straightforward questions on Capitol Hill from Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana about the nation’s preparedness—what models were predicting about the outbreak, how many respirators the government had stockpiled, even how Covid-19 was transmitted. “You’re supposed to keep us safe. And you need to know the answers to these questions,” Kennedy finally snapped at Wolf. Wolf has been notably absent ever since from the White House podium during briefings about the nation’s epidemic response.

Wolfe was a fairly typical Trump appointment. He picks his appointments because they think like him. That is a scary thought. Now imagine that! Obama used to pick appointments because they were smart, even if they would think differently than him. After some of Trump’s nominees for appointment to various government posts met with scorn even by his usually loyal Republican Senators, Trump deliberately moved to appointing “acting” appointments. Those don’t need Senatorial approval, thus eliminating potential embarrassment when their weaknesses are exposed. But there are problems with this approach. As Graff reported,

“Actings” often struggle to be successful precisely because they’re temporary—their word carries less weight with their own workforce, with other government agencies or on Capitol Hill—and they rarely have the opportunity to set and drive their own agenda, push for broad organizational change or even learn the ropes of how to be successful in the job given the usually brief period of their tenure. Anyone who has ever changed jobs or companies knows how long it can take to feel like you understand a new organization, a new culture or shape a new role.

And yet up and down the org chart at DHS, there are people still learning the ropes. DHS is riddled with critical vacancies; according to the Washington Post’s appointment tracker, just 35 percent of its top roles are filled. Its chief of staff, executive secretary and general counsel are all acting officials, and there’s no Senate-confirmed deputy secretary, no undersecretary for management, no chief financial officer, no chief information officer, no undersecretary for science and technology, nor a deputy undersecretary for science and technology.

 

Graff outlined numerous positions with DHS that have had acting appointments or none at all. That is the other way Trump avoids embarrassment. Don’t appoint anyone! Then Trump won’t be embarrassed as his appointees fail or flounder.

Disdain for government in some circles is very popular.  But disdain for government has a price. A high one.

 

Government with Big Holes

 

The pandemic is playing out in the United States at a time when the country was stripped of vast amounts of administrative leadership as a result of Donald Trump’s failure to appoint people to fill an astonishing array of important governmental posts. He blames it on the Democrats—of course—but the real failure is caused by his lack of appreciation for government. Trump thinks government is all part of a nasty Deep State that should be shredded. So why fill holes?

 

Trump has been soaked in the right wing ideology of extolling the virtues of small government. To give one example, where many could be given, as soon as he got elected he announced a new policy for regulations. For every new regulation proposed his bureaucrats would have to suggest 2 that could be dropped. That sounds good no doubt to his base, but such arbitrary rules can and did hamstring government. Trump does not realize that there is such a thing as good government and does not appreciate that we need it. At few times do we need it more than during a pandemic. As a result many critical posts have been filled with temporary replacements or none at all.

Garret Graff reported on this issue in depth in Politico. He pointed out that just when we desperately need good, efficient, and compassionate bureaucracy that bureaucracy is in a shambles of Trump’s making. In fact much of it was done deliberately because Trump wanted flexibility. I suspect he likes this so he can fire personnel without going through the embarrassing process of Senate approval for a replacement, even though the Senate is controlled by Republicans.

Graff started with a reference to a concerning statement by the Surgeon General in April of 2020:

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams promised that we’re entering the darkest days of the Covid-19 epidemic: “This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment. Only, it’s not going to be localized, it’s going to be happening all over the country. And I want America to understand that,” Adams told Fox News’ Chris Wallace.

Adams’ metaphor, evoking the two deadliest—and most shocking—moments of modern American history, came on the fourth consecutive day that U.S. deaths from Covid-19 crossed the 1,000 mark. Across Saturday, Sunday and Monday, more Americans were killed by the novel coronavirus than in either Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks or the Civil War battle of Antietam. The days ahead surely will include an even grimmer toll.

 

Yet Adams’ metaphor of this as our new “9/11 moment” is more apt than he likely intended: Comparing the events is about more than just a story of casualties—it is also a story about government’s failure. Both Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks occurred, in part, because the U.S. government and intelligence failed to see the attacks looming. We were caught unprepared, and Americans paid for that mistake with their lives.

 

After 9/11, we swore to never let that happen again. “Never again” was the mantra handed down to the nation’s leaders by George W. Bush in the White House on September 12. We devoted billions—trillions, even—of dollars after 2001 to fixing the intelligence and information-gathering problems identified by the 9/11 Commission, and Congress and George W. Bush worked through the biggest reorganization of the government since 1947 to create two entirely new entities to help prevent “the next 9/11”: The Department of Homeland Security, an attempt to bring together all the agencies tasked with protecting the country at home, and the Office of Director of National Intelligence, a coordinator for the nation’s 17 disparate intelligence agencies to ensure that the country better understood both the big picture and the small picture of what was happening around the world.

 

Unfortunately, President Donald Trump’s routine, day-to-day mismanagement of the government has left both organizations—the very entities we tasked as a nation to prevent the next 9/11—riddled with vacancies and temporary officials as the novel coronavirus rapidly spread from a small blip in China to a global health and economic catastrophe. In fact, the four top jobs at DHS and ODNI have all been filled with temporary acting officials for literally every day that Covid-19 has been on the world stage.

 

Those positions were created by George W. Bush—not Obama. As a result Trump’s disdain is less understandable. Nothing Obama did could be good. And they are very important positions and they are not just military or counter terrorist positions either. Intelligence, which Trump has often mocked in favor of getting intelligence from his buddy Putin, is vitally important in many respects, including preparedness for pandemics! Intelligence is broad. And in both senses of the word “intelligence” Trump lacks respect for it, and America, and in fact the world, are paying a heavy price for that disdain. As Graff reported:

While we often think of those jobs as focused on protecting against terrorism, both agencies have critical public health roles, too; U.S. intelligence spent the winter racing to understand how serious a threat Covid-19 truly was and deciphering the extent of China’s cover-up of its epidemic. Just last week, news broke about a special report prepared by U.S. intelligence documenting China’s deception about the disease’s spread—information that, had it been more accurately captured and understood, might have caused a faster, harder response and lessened the economic and personal toll of the epidemic at home.

 

Yet Trump has churned through officials overseeing the very intelligence that might have helped understand the looming crisis. At Liberty Crossing, the headquarters of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the government will have been without a Senate-confirmed director for eight months as of next week; last summer, Trump accepted the resignation of Dan Coats and forced out the career principal deputy of national intelligence, Sue Gordon. Coats’ temporary stand-in, career intelligence official Joseph Maguire, then served so long that he was coming close to timing out of his role—federal law usually lets officials serve only 210 days before relinquishing the acting post—when Trump ousted him too, as well as the acting career principal deputy. In their place, at the end of February—weeks after the U.S. already recorded its first Covid-19 case—Trump installed U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell as his latest acting director, the role that by law is meant to be the president’s top intelligence adviser. Grenell has the least intelligence experience of any official ever to occupy director’s suite.

Graff reached the following conclusion in his investigation into this crucial issue: “The government agencies designed to protect us are riddled with vacancies and temporary officials. No wonder we’re facing a catastrophe.”

And we know what that is the case.

Savagery Exposed: Empathy Shredded

 

I already commented how America has abandoned reason. By that I mean to include much of the west, but not always as excessively as America, who seems particularly susceptible to dumbed down politics.

Of course, we have abandoned more than reason. We have also abandoned compassion. Nowhere is that more evident than in America, the self-proclaimed leader of the free world. In that country compassion has been shredded. That has become sickeningly obvious in 2020 with the Covid-19 crisis.

As New York Times commentator, Charles Blow, put it: “This crisis is exposing the savagery of American democracy.” So far, during this crisis the power elite have showed no compunction about putting the poor at the leading edge of danger.

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times quoted a 75-year old retiree from his home state of Minnesota who decried this evolution. This is what she said to the Washington Post:

“We were the leading country in everything when I was young…And what are we now? We’re mean. We’re selfish. We’re stubborn and sometimes even incompetent. … It seems like some of these other countries almost feel sorry for us. … We can’t get out of our own way. … There’s no leadership and no solidarity, so everybody’s doing whatever they want … which means everyone who’s vulnerable is losing big.”

 

Friedman blamed the Republican Party and its erratic leader:

This erosion of our collective societal immunity has been fed by many sources over the years, but none more than a Republican Party that has simply jumped the tracks. Donald Trump’s election was a byproduct of our lost immunity, but his leadership has now become a giant accelerant of it.

At a time when we desperately need to be guided by the best science, Trump’s daily fire hose of lies, and his denunciations of anything he doesn’t like as “fake news,” has contributed mightily to the loss of our “cognitive immunity” — our ability to sort out truth from lies and science from science fiction.

At a time when we need a globally coordinated response to a pandemic, Trump has wrecked every alliance we have.

At a time when we need high social trust in order to have a coordinated response at home, Trump’s political strategy of dividing us and playing everything both ways — even telling people both to rise up against their governors and to lock down according to his guidelines — is the opposite of the “all in this together” approach we need to win this battle.

Sometimes the current administration in the U.S. is doing everything it can do to make things even worse during a pandemic. As this plays out Trump is quietly working to leave many of the front line workers, health care workers high and dry when it comes to health care. At least he is trying to do that. It seems incomprehensible but he is trying to take health care away from millions of Americans who started receiving health care insurance as a result of President Obama’s Affordable Care by challenging it in court. Trump’s administration has brought a case asking the court to through out Obama care entirely and That case is about to go to the Supreme Court this year.

As Friedman said,

At a time when access to affordable health care is extra-important — when frontline workers need to know that if they go to work and fall ill, they will have some safety net to protect them — Trump has been trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act enacted by President Barack Obama without even thinking through an alternative.

It seems crazy but all of this is playing out right now during a pandemic.

Dumb-as-we-wanna-be

 

As we watch America flounder from afar some of us have pity for them. They are led by a President who is the least qualified President in history. He is a man who makes decisions on the basis of “hunches” and “instincts.” He has never given any indication that he ever read a book. He has said that his favorite book is the Art of the Deal which he wrote (with the help of a ghost of course.) He has no respect for science or expertise. He ignores the advice of his best advisors, such as the leaders of the various intelligence services. Instead he relies on people like Vladimir Putin because Putin tells him things “strongly.” That is good enough for Trump. It doesn’t hurt that Putin has no regard for truth either. Added to that, this is a President who has nothing but disdain for government so places no importance to having it run well. He has no respect for career bureaucrats who are often exactly what we need, particularly at times like this when the world faces an economic crisis and health crisis at the same time. He dismisses them as members of something called” the Deep State.”

But this post is not about Trump. Everyone knows what he is like. More importantly the American people knew before they elected him that this is how he was. The American people, even though not a majority of them, voted him in to power. About 55 million people voted for him nearly as many as voted for a much more obviously qualified candidate. Many of those people still support him.

That is the issue. The American people don’t care about science or expertise. They too are content to rely on hunches, instincts, feelings, and above all faith. That is what matters. They have faith in Trump and in fact have religious devotion to him. Trump said, truthfully for a change, that he could stand in Times Square and murder someone and his supporters would still support him. If that is not religious devotion what is?

Ignoring facts, reason, data/evidence, and science can only go so far. I think the United States is nearing the end. And Canada is not that far behind.

Thomas Friedman author and columnist for the New York Times, characterized this attitude as “Dumb as we wanna be.” Then he said the following:

This pandemic has both exposed and exacerbated the fact that over the last 20 years we as a country have weakened so many sources of our strength. We’ve simultaneously eroded our cognitive, ecological, economic, social, governance, public health and personal health immune systems — all the sources of resilience we need to get through this pandemic with the least damage to lives and livelihoods.

 

All these immune deficiencies are the logical outcome of how we’ve let ourselves go as a country, how we’ve let ourselves be dumb-as-we-wanna-be for so many years — devaluing science and reading, bashing public servants for political sport, turning politics into entertainment, not to mention adopting horrible eating habits that have left 40 percent of Americans obese.

Dumb-as-we-wanna-be is epitomized by the guy in Austin, Texas, who last week shoved a “park ranger into the water while the ranger was explaining to a crowd the need for social distancing,” as CNN reported.

Warren Buffett was right: When the tide goes out you see who’s swimming naked. And now it’s us. We are still exceptional, but now it’s in the fact that we lead the world in total coronavirus cases and deaths from Covid-19.

 

It seems remarkable that a country that has so many of the best universities in the world should have turned its back on them. How did that happen? It’s an interesting story. It didn’t happen over night. Kurt Anderson in his book Fantasyland described how that happened over about 500 years from the time of the arrival of Puritans on the shores of North America. It came gradually, very gradually, as a result of 5 centuries of the disparagement of reason in favour of faith and feelings and an array of temptations away from reason. It is an incredible story and all of us are now in 2020 suffering the consequences of that as we face a health crisis and an economic crisis at the same time . This is not a good time to discover that we have abandoned reason.

 

I am a racist!

 

Recently I was in the hospital in my hometown, thinking I might have Covid-19. While I was waiting for test results in the emergency room I wanted to use the washroom, but I was told by the nurse I would have to use a commode. I really did not know what a commode was. I kept thinking of a bedpan. That did not seem too attractive to me. I whined. The nurse was firm. I decided to try to wait it out, hoping at the time I would be able to go home soon. So I told the nurse I would wait it out.

 

Jimmie overheard me. He was the guy who would have to clean the washroom each time it was used. No one’s favourite job. Jimmie did not know me; he just heard me schlemming and he graciously offered to let me use the washroom and clean it after I was done. He had no reason to do that. He was just being kind, to an overly fastidious old man. But he was really taking a serious risk. Washrooms used by Covid-19 patients are dangerous places. Oh by the way, did I mention that Jimmie was black?

Jimmie all I can say is, my bad. Later, as soon as I thought about what he had done for me, I felt guilty. As I should have felt guilty. I earned the guilt. The second day in the hospital I bucked up and used a commode and found it was not so bad at all. I had been a big baby. And yet Jimmie took a chance he need not have taken. Why did he do it?

We live in a system of systemic racism. Whites, like me, don’t think we are racists. We are good people aren’t we? After all there are not many insults worse than being called racists. We can’t admit that about ourselves. But we live in a system that routinely and automatically advantages whites while denying those same advantages to blacks, Hispanics, Asians, indigenous people, and other groups. Most of us whites never think about that. We don’t see the water in which we swim. We don’t want to see those advantages, but that does not make them any less real. There is ample evidence that whites enjoy those advantages while other racial groups are denied those advantages.

Frankly, when I think about Jimmie and how I unthinkingly exposed him to an entirely unnecessary risk I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I revealed myself as a person who would take advantage of a system of systemic racism for a minor advantage to me, and an unnecessary risk to Jimmie. That’s racism. And frankly it happens all the time and that does not make it right. I hope that I learned from the experience.

I was a racist; and most of us whites are too.

The Complicated Savagery of Society Revealed

 

The Covid-19 pandemic reveals a lot about us. It shows us the best and worst of ourselves.

According to New York Times columnist Charles Blow, “This crisis is exposing the savagery of American democracy.” The pandemic is showing us the ugly predatory side of American society and American capitalism. Blow described America this way:

“People — mostly white, sometimes armed, occasionally carrying Confederate flags or hoisting placards emblazoned with a Nazi slogan from the Holocaust — have been loudly protesting to push their state governments to reopen business and spaces before enough progress has been made to contain the coronavirus. This is yet another illustration of the race and class divide this pandemic has illuminated in this country.

For some, a reopened economy and recreational landscape will mean the option to run a business, return to work, go to the park or beach, or have a night on the town at a nice restaurant or swanky bar. But for many on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, it will only force them back into compulsory exposure to more people, often in occupations that make it hard to protect oneself and that pay little for the risk.”

Blow sees America as the scene of class warfare .He pointed particularly to Georgia. The first businesses to be allowed to open were businesses like tattoo parlors, and barbershops, nail shops, and hair salons. Are these essential services? Clearly not. Why are they allowed to open? Is it because they are staffed mainly by low-wage earners? Is it because most of those low wage earners are black? Is it because these workers are considered expendable?

Blow opines this way:

“These are the struggling workers who entertain and aestheticize people of means. These businesses were by no means essential, and they put these workers in danger. There is absolutely no way to practice social distancing while inking someone a tattoo. (Also, what are you so desperate to stamp on your body that you would risk it all during a pandemic?)

These workers are “allowed” to be the first to try-out and hence, perhaps, the first to die by the opening out. It makes sense to think the establishment would prefer low-earning blacks take the first chances, giving more important white workers the ability to decline if it turns out unsafe.”

Yet, to be fair, these black people are serving “people of means” as Blow suggests. Are they not taking the same chance as the poor workers? In fact what person of means would be interested in taking an unnecessary risk to add to his armour of tattoos?

As well, as Blow admits, among those taking the biggest risks are medical care workers including Doctors and nurses and other highly paid professionals. How can this be a class war? Yet to make things even more complicated there are others in hospitals who are low-wage earners and they are taking big risks. Finally, as  well it must also be admitted that many of these low paid workers want to go back to work. They need to work to pay their mortgages, rent, or groceries. You might say that they are being compelled to work, but what would the workers really say? I don’t know.

Charles Blow made some more important points in his recent New York Times article:

“It has been widely reported that the virus is having a disproportionate impact on black and brown people in America, both in terms of infections and death. But that is only one aspect of the disparities. In a country where race and ethnicity often intersect with wealth and class, there are a cascade of other impacts, particularly economic ones, to remain conscious of.

In a Pew Research Center survey conducted last month, 52 percent of low-income workers said they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a pay cut as a result of the pandemic. But, when you look at this through a racial lens, another striking reality emerges: 61 percent of Hispanic people agree with the statement, compared to 44 percent of African-Americans and just 38 percent of white people.

And, as Pew pointed out, “lower-income adults are less prepared to withstand a financial shock than those with higher incomes.”

Is it an exaggeration to characterize this as class war? If it is it is a a very complicated one. The fact is that whites, like me, often fail to see the privileges we enjoy at the expense of blacks, browns, or indigenous. That is what systemic racism is all about. Whites are blind to the benefits and detriments the system doles out. As whites we just think that is natural. We don’t see the water in which we swim. That is what racism is all about, and the first step those of us who consider we are not racists have to take, is to acknowledge the advantage exists and acknowledge the injustice of that advantage. There is no good reason that we enjoy that advantage.

Blow also referred to a recent McKinsey and Company report last month that found: “39% of jobs held by black workers, seven million jobs in all, are vulnerable as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, compared with 34% for white workers.” On what basis can we whites successfully argue that this is fair? I wish I had similar statistics for Canada for likely we are not immune to this. That report also showed that 40% of the revenues of black-owned businesses are in the five most vulnerable sectors — including leisure, hospitality and retail — compared with 25% of the revenues of all U.S. businesses.

Of course a systemically racist system like the one we live in, does not stop delivering advantages and disadvantages during the pandemic. Those will inevitably endure well beyond that time. As Blow opines:

“Even when the country starts to recover, the race and class disparities will most likely still be present and working against minorities in low-wage jobs. As the Center for American Progress wrote last month, ‘Evidence demonstrates that while workers of color are often the first to be fired during economic downturns, they are often the last to be rehired during recoveries.’

This pandemic is likely to not only expose inequalities, but also exacerbate them. America has never been comfortable discussing the inequalities that America created, let alone addressing them. America loves a feel-good, forget-the-past-let’s-start-from-here mantra.’

But, this virus is exploiting these man-made inequalities and making them impossible to ignore. It is demonstrating the incalculable callousness of wealth and privilege that would willingly thrust the less well off into the most danger for a few creature comforts.

This crisis is exposing the class savagery of American democracy and the economic carnage that it has always countenanced.”

Yet if this is class war it is a complicated one. What else is new? Things are always complicated.