BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
March in Chicago:
- Dreams of baseball (the games that count…boy, the White Sox would have been good this year)
- The St. Patrick’s Day (I mean week-long…I mean month-long) celebrations in full swing
- Greening grass jazzing up the color tones of monochromatic gray Chicago winter
- Early spring flowers breaking through the soil like eager babies walking for the first time
- School spring break plans for Galena, Florida, Arizona, or maybe even Ireland
- The palpable energy coursing through Chicagoland as we anticipate the warm months that make this beautiful lakeside metropolis worth living in the rest of the time.
But not this year.
A virus that was just distant international news in early January has changed the way we live in America in what feels like a matter of a week. Toilet paper and hand-sanitizer hoarding, social distancing (that would not be a good name for a band…or would it?), school and house of worship closings, the feeling that every trip out of the house is some sort of coronavirus-Russian roulette, the terrible challenges faced by bar and restaurant owners and people in many other industries, daily press conferences by Dr. Anthony Fauci (thank god for Dr. Anthony Fauci) and the highs and lows of our elected officials. Our Illinois elected officials have been almost to a person calm, factual, and professional, but when it comes to other “leaders” (ehhhhmmm…federal officials), sometimes I wonder if the gods like to taunt us with mediocrity.
Our reality has shrunk from “Live Free or Die, nothing-can-hurt us America” (where you can do anything you want, anywhere, anytime you desire especially if you live in a big city like Chicago) to life in whatever square footage your dollars could get you when you purchased or rented your house, condo, or survival shelter. We’re quickly learning to love every nook and cranny of our homes. Restaurant, hospitality, and other service industry workers are losing their jobs. Fear and uncertainly pervade the land. And, as always in America, the hardest path is given to those who are not rich, do not have degrees in quantitative finance or business management, did not attend an Ivy League school, and who are living paycheck to paycheck.
These are trying times in the United States—and throughout the world—but I’m so glad that many of us have come to understand that it will take sacrifice and forbearance to get us back to life as we knew it before COVID-19 (let’s call it BCV19). Plenty of people have talked these points to death, but quarantines = fewer deaths; less stress on the U.S. health care system, which was already running on fumes in many ways; better protection for our elderly and those who have life-threatening medical conditions; and the best strategy for getting back to normal as fast as possible. This new normal is restrictive, scary (at times), boring (often) and, let’s be honest, irritating. But if we choose to anchor ourselves in a fact-based world, we need to listen to the medical experts (who aren’t fishing for votes and looking to score points with their “base”), hunker down, and follow their advice.
Thoughts on the “New Normal”
Little has changed for me. At least at home, because I always work at home and my wife worked at home 2-3 times a week BCV19. Now, I get more glares from her to get out of the kitchen and more psychic wishes by her for me to stop talking, but that’s really her mountain to climb, not mine. My son—the 9-year-old power plant that is currently being considered as a source of energy for 18 U.S. cities—is a different story. If someone could watch my face while he flies around the house seemingly powered on plutonium, you would see the look of a 100-year-old man or woman in 1903 watching Orville Wright make the first free, controlled flight of a power-driven airplane near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. But his youthful, don’t-care-what-anyone-thinks energy is refreshing, sometimes tiring, but also encouraging in a world that often follows the societal-norms-by-numbers credo that makes most of us adults safe and boring. I welcome his boyish energy because in a few years he will be a one-word grunt machine to everything I say (hopefully not, but…). In a nutshell: small problems. How lucky I am to have a wife who tolerates me (50.000000009 percent of the time) and a son who can power 18 cities with his enthusiasm.
I’m more thankful. This crisis has made me even more grateful for my family; for being a creative person working in a field that does not make me rich, but that does not put me into the “living paycheck to paycheck” category; for having a house in which to weather the epidemiological storm; for having enough food on the table (and beer in the fridge); and for having friends and family whom I can no longer see regularly, but with whom I’m keeping in touch with via technology or through quick social-distanced trips to the local nature center.
The idea that resources are finite has been reinforced. We’ve always taught our son not to waste food or other household resources, but we’re receiving a firsthand lesson that our resources must be conserved—especially in this moment of panic buying. Every squeeze of hand sanitizer, every apple eaten, and every dishwasher pod used is one less than we will have when we need it down the road if conditions get worse. Once this is all over, I wish more people would embrace this credo of conservation and less waste. And when this crisis ends, I wish we all could create some sort of basic emergency kit that contains essentials such as medications, hand sanitizer, first aid gear, and basic shelf-stable foodstuffs.
It’s important to have a plan. No one’s plan should be to buy hundreds of rolls of toilet paper or clean the grocery stores out of foodstuffs so that no one else can purchase reasonable amounts of goods. I’m talking about a personal plan that will help you to prepare for any possibility that may occur when more people are diagnosed with COVID-19 (the number of diagnosed cases has more than doubled in three days in the U.S.), more people are admitted to hospital intensive care units, supply chains temporarily break down (I don’t think the system will crash, but we’ll certainly have some hiccups in the next weeks and months), or, if we fall ill, are too sick to make a run to the grocery store. Questions to ask: Do I have enough food, supplies, and medications on hand should we be unable to leave the house due to illness or other reasons? What’s our plan if one or both of us parents get sick? What will we do if one of our mothers become ill? Do we have enough beer and wine in the house?
There are real heroes out there. If I had a roll of toilet paper for every time the entertainment industry, the media, or just the average person threw out the word “hero” pre- BCV19 when describing someone who went slightly above what was expected, I’d have towers of toilet paper (now that’s a good band name) and would be ostracized as a hoarder. The concept of “hero” has become debased by overuse, but there are real heroes in the COVID-19 story: health care workers, who have put themselves on the front lines of this epidemic and who are at high risk for getting the illness and/or passing it on to their families. I can’t even imagine what it is like to work in places like Italy, China, and, now in the United States, in Washington, California, and New York (and soon in Illinois), where the patients keep coming and there’s no end in sight. These people are heroes for risking their own health in the service of others. And let’s be sure to mention our mail carriers, delivery people, janitors and other cleaning workers, grocery store cashiers and stock clerks, and first responders (especially EMTs), too, who don’t get to “shelter in place” until the storm passes. I’ve just named a few professions, but many people are still working hard to do their jobs under extreme duress.
This crisis has given me a lot of time to think about what America has become recently and in the last few decades. Although some people might say that we should save our criticism for after the crisis, I’m not a first responder, doctor, nurse, elected official, or epidemiologist so I have a lot of time on my hands…and a lot of questions.
How did we get to this place in time?
We’ve watched the feverish pace of COVID-19 in China since January. We had our first case in the U.S. in mid-January. As recently as three weeks ago, we watched COVID-19 begin to wreak havoc on a highly industrialized region of a western country (Italy) with a health system in its northern sector that some say is better than the one in the U.S., yet which has almost been overwhelmed by the epidemic. Yet, our president and other administration officials told us COVID-19 would not be a big deal here. (My favorites: on February 25: President Trump said, “Now they have it, they have studied it, they know very much, in fact, we’re very close to a vaccine.” and on February 28, “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”) Our president resisted testing people because massive numbers of people diagnosed with a virus might affect his polling numbers. At this point, it’s estimated that only 25,000 people (in a nation of 329 million) have been tested in the United States in the last two months. This is 3–4 days of testing in South Korea, and most of the U.S. tests have been conducted in the last week.
I’m angry because our president has put my son, my wife, my mother, my mother-in-law, other family and friends, and hundreds of millions of other Americans at risk for illness or financial disaster because he wanted to protect his poll numbers and get re-elected. I’m angry because his ego, his political aspirations, and his frequent disdain for science and experts have placed us in grave danger. If his behavior and actions of the last 3.5 years are not enough to convince you that he is unfit for office, I’m not sure what will. This is not a Republican nor Democratic issue, this is a matter of dangerous incompetence, arrogance, and presidential malpractice. We would never accept this mediocrity from service providers and leaders in our personal lives, so why do some accept it from their president?
As Americans, we deserve a president whom we can trust, look up to, and find kindness, decency, and comfort in, but President Trump is not that kind of president or person. Would you want your son or daughter to emulate this man in any way? We deserve so much better. Regardless of how the administration’s response goes from this point on, President Trump has put us in danger that could have been avoided (or at least reduced) if he told us the truth from the beginning, acted to address the risk of pandemic in January or early February, and decided to think of the American people first, rather than his own welfare. Yet….I still hope he gets it together for our benefit. He’s already “spinning” wildly to deflect the blame, but our first goal is stopping the virus. Worrying about his lies is an activity for those who are not threatened by a virus that has infected more than 200,000 people in 144 countries and that does not seem to be slowing outside of China and South Korea.
- How did we get to the point in the United States where two people have to work to pay the bills? Is that the best model for raising our children and living quality lives?
- How have we got to the point in America in which you can lose everything financially if you have a serious illness and do not have health insurance?
- Why are so many Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck? In fiscal year 2019, the U.S. government gave $39.2 billion in foreign assistance, according to The Brookings Institution. I understand that this is less than 1 percent of the federal budget and that the U.S. plays a major role in fighting terrorism and disease, improving education, and doing many other good things in the world. But if less than 10 percent of the $39.2 billion was re-directed to fund social programs for Americans, no one would be hungry, no one would be homeless, no one would be under-educated, everyone would have health care, and an infectious diseases office that was shut down under the Trump administration could have been funded and helped us avoid—or at least reduced the effects—of this mess. Let’s not even discuss the United States’ defense budget: $544.5 billion in fiscal year 2020, according to The Nation. The proposed Trump administration payments of $1,000 per adult seem trite in comparison when considering these foreign aid and military expenditures.
- What compromises have we made in order to pay less for goods manufactured in represssive countries that imprison their citizens for things as basic as criticizing their “elected” leaders or complaining when the state “requisitions” their property? Would it not be better—whenever possible—to pay 5 to 15 percent more for products that were made in the United States or other countries that share the values that we claim to espouse? Americans would have more jobs and our supply chain would be more secure. I know that the U.S. has a history of propping up dictators, but what if we instead acted based on the values we cite when we claim that our country is different than other nations?
- What compromises have we made in regards to our privacy when we share our personal information on social media? Are we okay with commoditizing our lives so that tech companies can become wealthy by selling our personal data to marketing firms and corporations? Is the Photoshopped, curated existence that many of us present on social media really better than reality?
- How did we elect a president who exists in some sort of alternative moral universe that is contrary to the precepts of any religion we were raised in or any humanistic theory that we were taught?
- How did some of us choose to elect a president with little prior management experience and no crisis experience to run the most-powerful country in the world?
- When I was growing up, I was taught to respect and value those with higher education and expertise. These intellectual benchmarks were something to aspire to. In contrast, why have many of us in our society come to disparage those with education and expertise as “elites,” rather than potential role models? Why are some Americans afraid of new ideas, new ways of living, and new ways to look at past historical events?
- Why have some Americans accepted the normalization of lies, hate, and anti-scientific thought as part of our daily lives?
- How have some Americans never learned how to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the news? There is a huge difference in the quality of news providers, but many Americans seem to think anyone who posts a story on social media is a Pulitzer Prize or George Polk Award in Journalism winner.
I’ll be thinking about the answers to these questions during this challenging time and beyond, and I hope that you will, too. The answers to these questions and others provide a clear framework (at least to me) to what type of man or woman we want as president, and I will be voting accordingly in November and in future elections.
Planting Seeds of Hope
Soon, we will plant a garden on our deck because it’s a good time to start growing our own food and a because a garden equals hope. With all the darkness, we need some light. These tiny seeds that we plant, water, and watch will hopefully blossom into plants that are both beautiful and utilitarian. Gardening is also a great activity for cooped-up kids that can power 18 cities with their energy. I hope that you plant your own hopeful seeds in a garden and in your lives over the coming months.
Life has changed drastically for Americans in the last few weeks. This is a new challenge, but life is full of challenges. I encourage you to be hopeful (I’m sounding very “self helpy”, and I know you’ve already figured this out on your own) and make use of this time. Do some guilty pleasure Netflix streaming, learn a language or invent a new one, learn to paint or plaster, interview your parents or grandparents about their lives, help out your neighbors, stay in touch with your friends, lose 10 pounds (I can lose 20), take a walk in your neighborhood, don’t be afraid to explore nature if you socially distance yourself (my blog has a lot of ideas for destinations), and try to have some fun amidst the madness.
See you on the other side when our bars and restaurants are open once again; we can celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in warm weather; we can argue about who is the best all-around (hitting/defense) first baseman in Chicago, Anthony Rizzo or Jose Abreu; and some sort of normal returns to the flawed, but great, US…of A.
Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes, Nature in Chicagoland
Photos (copyrighted as credited); main blog photo copyright NIAID-RML
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