Remember the movie Home Alone? It’s a fantasy, a comedy, and a horror film wrapped in one. The parents leave for a family vacation and amidst the chaos of preparing to leave, they forget the most important thing… their son. So the kid gets left home alone with no grown-up in charge, no one to tell him what to do, no curfew, no sugar limits, etc. Which is all fun and games until the bad guys show up at his doorstep and there’s no one to protect him. No one to make the big decisions. To guard the door. To call for help. And all the kid’s left with are his wits and the questionable judgment of an adolescent.
That’s kind of how I feel these days. With no adult in charge, I’m hiding out in fear of a faceless enemy, with no overarching plan to fight back other than my wits, some cobbled together, constantly changing strategies and a cocktail of pessimism and optimism that changes daily and sometimes hourly, as I wait for help to arrive. Meanwhile, my fate is in the hands of an uncaring, unempathetic, brainless juggernaut that will stop at nothing to advance its own agenda… I’m talking, of course, about COVID-19.
No matter what side of this you’re on, mask or anti-mask, that’s a fact. This pandemic has lasted beyond what any of us anticipated and has tested everyone’s psychological endurance. The good folks at Google, people who are pretty darned good at analyzing terabytes of info, told their workers early on they weren’t expected back this calendar year. Now they’ve told their workers they don’t expect to see them physically until, at the earliest, next summer. If that’s Google’s analysis, it’s probably worth at least a (sobering) gander.
I’d say things have gotten real, but we left the pier where “real” was docked long ago. Surreal is where we all live now. As if you needed more proof, Americans, grasping at straws for some sense of normalcy, started Major League Baseball’s 145th season last Thursday, with Dr. Fauci throwing out the first pitch. The game featured piped in cheers, cardboard cutouts of fans, and announcers that were off site presumably where they’d be safe from COVID-19… and Fauci’s wild throw. Still, all of that I could swallow in the Dali painting that has become our sur-reality.
What I found more unsettling was you had Fauci appearing for the first time not as an expert or leader but as a celebrity. I know it’s sacrilege to criticize Saint Fauci, but with coronavirus surging to all-time highs in so many states including this one, it seemed like a weird time for the good doctor to be taking a victory lap. Perhaps he was just trying to provide a momentary distraction, but in so doing he only highlighted the fact that nothing is normal.
The whole eventencapsulated, for me, the U.S. COVID response in a single action. Fauci entered the stadium to high expectations (at least as indicated by the canned applause). But Fauci’s pitch was so far off it bore more resemblance to a pick-off throw. Perhaps that was due to pre-existing conditions – he says he practiced so much that he went into the game sore. He also said he “miscalculated the distance” which seems like something he might have also done with the coronavirus. Maybe we all did.
During the game, players violated COVID protocols by spitting like camels and hugging each other after homers. At the end of the game even the charade that life was normal had not been achieved whatsoever, in fact quite the opposite: the Nationals voted to cancel their next series against the Marlins because of their lack of faith in how the pandemic is being handled. July has been an especially cruel month for Florida. It’s been all downhill since Tampa Bay signed Tom Brady in March.
The Nats-Yankees Opening Day game underscored what’s becoming an all too familiar process. Pretending things are normal only makes them feel more abnormal. As Google has presaged, the reality is things are not going to be normal for a good long while. Fauci isn’t going to save us. As in Home Alone, we’re going to have to improvise our own salvation and scratch build our own hope. Probably the sooner we get our heads around that the better.
STILL, HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL
I know some people think that false hope is better than no hope. But I’m not one of those people. So I reached out to my friend, Montecito resident Lee E. Ohanian, a Professor of Economics at UCLA and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, to see if he had a multi-dimensional plan as opposed to just a cardboard cutout of one. I was glad to hear that Ohanian’s view, one shared by many economists worldwide, provides some reasonable path forward and also involves taking care of society’s most vulnerable.
First and foremost, since mortality is low for those under 60 without preexisting conditions, Ohanian recommends getting low risk people back to work with proper precautions. “Policies to return people to work should hold businesses accountable for worker safety… and businesses should be incentivized to provide and take those precautions,” Ohanian says.
According to Ohanian, “High-risk workers (those over 60 or who have comorbidities) should be ‘incentivized to take early retirement’ by reducing the age at which a retiree is eligible for benefits.” He also insisted that we need to do a better job of taking care of those in assisted living facilities.
In a recent interview with Business Insider, Ohanian and economist Harold Cole, co-authors of New Deal Policies and the Persistence of the Great Depression, advocate for continuing to support low-income workers, whether they are employed or not. Cole and Ohanian say that businesses should “receive tax incentives based on a low rate of COVID-19 among their workers,” which they say is “similar to experience ratings for employer unemployment contributions.”
Ohanian and Cole warn that “Policy makers need to get this right, and get it right now, to avoid a second Great Depression.” Ohanian says that in shutting down the economy again “we could do irreparable damage to some people’s lives that extend beyond economic into mental health, rising suicide rates, etc.”
Despite my strong desire to get my own kids back to school, I’ve not felt this is a safe time to do so. But Ohanian believes there are “reasonable work-arounds for reopening schools,” which include “putting young, healthy teachers back in the classrooms with sanitary stations, masks, highly effective hand sanitizers, etc.” Older and otherwise vulnerable teachers, Ohanian says, can teach online and/or work as supplemental tutors.
From everything Ohanian understands, it’s good news that this is a virus that does not mutate in bizarre ways, which means it’s relativity easy to target effectively – and thereby develop a vaccine. And he concurs with other experts that we should be “back on track by next spring.”
Next spring. That sure seems like a long way off. I take a deep breath and console myself that in Home Alone, the kid ultimately wins. Unlike Home Alone, however, let’s hope this pandemic has no sequels. For as everyone knows, they’re always worse than the original.