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Dee Em Vee

Dee Em Vee

This is the story of my recent visits to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) in an effort to acquire a valid driver’s license that meets Homeland Security’s Real ID security standards.

It all started when I moved to Pennsylvania and got my PA driver’s license, back in 2018. This license was set to expire in September of 2021, which of course is now, and had the address of my apartment in West Chester. Then there was a pandemic, and I moved to Morgantown. Being a good citizen, I let PennDOT know. When it came time to renew my license, they sent me a “camera card” with my new address. I was supposed to take the camera card to a PennDOT location to get a new photo taken and have my new license printed up. I put the camera card in my wallet, with my license, so that I had proof of my correct address with me when I was driving.

I delayed getting this done for a few weeks, but time was running out. My camera card was only valid until the end of September. I decided to get my new photo and license this Monday, during my lunch break. I had two locations to choose between, and I decided to go to the one that I figured would be less crowded. That morning after I awoke, I took a shower and put on a nice shirt. I did a load of laundry, then went to work (meaning upstairs in the home office). As it got close to noon, I logged off and got ready to go. I was so excited!

I had this vague idea that I would see if I could get a Real ID while I was at it, and I knew that required me to bring my birth certificate and my SSN card, both of which I had. My SSN card is really old and worn out; it’s from when I was a child. I got them together, and my checkbook in case I needed it to pay because they didn’t take cards, but where was my wallet? I realized that I had left it in my pants when I did the laundry! It had gone completely through the wash, and my camera card was in there!

I extracted the still damp camera card and stuck it between two paper towels. It still seemed legible to me, despite the ink being smeared. Maybe I would be OK. I took all the plastic out of the wallet, including my expired license, and with this pile of documents I headed out to Pottstown.

My maps software helpfully guided me to the PennDOT location, which was right in the middle of town. It was a small building. A sign on the door implored, “please wear a face mask,” which of course I was doing since the pandemic is not over. Inside the building there were two rooms I could enter; and since the one on the right had the camera setup, that seemed like the obvious choice. Maybe a dozen or so people were already there, most of whom were ignoring the mask sign. There was a dispenser to grab a ticket with a number on it, so I took my number and sat on a chair against the wall.

It appeared I was in the right place, and shortly my number was called. There was just a young guy behind a desk who took my ticket, and a woman who was behind a nearby counter doing most of the work (both employees were masked). I showed the young guy my laundered camera card and explained the situation. He made a little of fun of me for washing my wallet, then gave the card to the woman, along with my driver’s license. She tried to scan the card, but it wouldn’t read. She told me that she wouldn’t be able to help me. I would need a new camera card, but they had no way to get me that here, though I might be able to go across the hall and get one, or go to a “full service” PennDOT location.

So I went across the hall. It was another small room, with two employees behind a counter, neither one masked, but at least they had plexiglass set up. Each one was busy with a customer. Both of these customers had some super complicated thing to do involving tag or title transfer, and I stood there waiting for a good while. It was hot and stuffy, because the AC wasn’t working, which I overheard one of the employees mention. Behind me, a line started to form. I was the only one with a face mask, and feeling uncomfortable.

At one point the same employee who had commented on the AC not working called out to the people in line, to tell them that if they were here to get a photo taken, they were in the wrong room. She wanted to make sure they knew to go across the hall. I took advantage of the opportunity to engage her, even though her customer was still at her counter. I told her I was here to get a new camera card. She said that would be possible, but I wouldn’t get it right away. It would be mailed to me.

That was of no use to me, so I left. I drove back home, feeling cranky. Trying to keep a sense of humor, I joked to my housemates that our supposed advanced civilization doesn’t even have the capability to scan a camera card just because you decided to send it through one cycle in the washing machine. You couldn’t even do one cycle in the washing machine without the whole system breaking down! My BFF gently reminded me that it was my own fault and I should own the responsibility.

I went online and looked at what my options might be. I found the DL-80 form to get a new camera card, but it had to be notarized. So I couldn’t even conveniently request the card from home and just sit on the problem for another week or so; I would have to go out again. I resolved to go to the alternate location in Reading, which I believed was probably a “full service” PennDOT. I would leave first thing in the morning. It opened at 8:30 AM. I let work know I was going to be offline in the AM the next day.

So on Tuesday I woke up early, showered, and put on the same shirt. I had a cup of coffee and a protein bar, and headed out as soon as I could. I got to the PennDOT location at 8:45 AM. There as a huge line of people in front of the building, at least thirty or more. But I was resolved. I approached the building, and discerned that there were multiple lines. A man in a guard’s uniform was there, and when I went up to him he asked me what I was there for. I tentatively replied that I wanted to get a Real ID, and he directed me to the proper line.

Luckily, it wasn’t too hot out yet. Also, most, though not all, of the people in line were wearing face masks. The crowd’s mood was generally positive, and slowly but surely the lines advanced into the building. It seemed they were letting in one person from each line on a rotating basis. In about 45 minutes I was in the building, in a consolidated line at the entrance. It was a very large room, with rows and rows of seats with people in them on one side, and a row of counters on the other. Two different gentlemen were processing the newcomers at the entrance.

Suddenly I saw the same young guy who had first taken my number the previous day, walking right by me. He was working at this location today. I called to him that I recognized him from Pottstown, and excitedly told him that I was having a DMV adventure this week. He gave me a quick sideways glance and slight smile, then hurried off.

One of the two gentlemen in front summoned me up to his counter with a hand wave. He asked me what I wanted and I told him I wanted to get Real ID, and also that I had a camera card that had gone through the washing machine. He made a little fun of me for washing my camera card, then told me I would be able to get a new one here, and listed what I needed to get Real ID. Birth certificate; I had that. Social security card, had to be the real thing, not a photocopy; I had that. Two proofs of address. Oh oh. I hadn’t brought that.

Not to fear, he assured me. The camera card had my address, so that was one. And if I had a vehicle registration or proof of insurance card, those could work, too. Those were in the car, I told him, and he had me run out to get them, then come immediately back to him. I ran out, clutching my precious bundle of documents, added the registration and proof of insurance to the pile, then returned. He was seeing another customer, but as soon as he was done, beckoned to me again.

The vehicle registration had my current address, so I was in luck, although the insurance card was old and did not. He gave me a ticket with a number and had me go sit down in the rows of chairs. I picked a corner, as far away from other people as possible. Waiting here, though, wasn’t as bad as it had been at the other location the previous day. Here, the air conditioning was working. The building was much more spacious, and almost everyone was wearing a face mask.

My number was called over the PA system, along with the number of the counter I was to go to. A woman there took all my documents and listened to my story and my request. She made gentle fun of the fact that I had washed my wallet. She also told me that, unfortunately, I would not be able to use my camera card as one of the two proofs of my address to get a Real ID compliant license, since it was associated with my old driver’s license which had my old address on it. I pointed out that the camera card itself had the new address on it, but she insisted that was not how it worked. If my driver’s license was current, with my current address, I would be able to use it. But not as things stood.

So wait, I continued, attempting an argument. I had everything I needed to renew my license, right? The answer was yes. And once I had a new license, with my current address, I would be able to get the Real ID, right? The answer was yes. So why not just let me get the Real ID with what I had, since it was the same information? That wasn’t how it worked. It was the federal government, you see. Very strict. But I could get my renewed driver’s license and come through again for the Real ID? Absolutely. She told me to do that, and just come directly to her after getting my license.

The path before me was now clear. The woman behind the counter printed me up a new camera card, which cost me 5 bucks. I returned to my seat to wait for my number to be called again, and when it was I was directed to one of the counters where the photos were taken. A woman there directed me to sit in a chair facing a camera. I set my pile of documents, now in disarray, down on the counter and then did as instructed. I did my best to smile cheerfully at the camera. Calm blue ocean. She snapped my picture, then had me come up to the counter to go through a brief questionnaire on a touch screen. It was hard for me to read, and I kept having to shift my glasses to see it properly. One of the annoying things about growing old.

Once that was done, I grabbed my document pile, seated myself near the photo section, and waited some more. My name was called, and I was given my license, which I had to verify and then sign for. I immediately went to the other counter where the first woman was, and hovered until she beckoned me forward. She processed me again, scanning all of the documents that proved to the federal government that I was who I said I was. She gave me yet another camera card, and charged me 60 bucks this time. She also gave me a new number for getting my photo taken.

Back to a seat to wait. I had been at the building for over two hours now. I looked around, wondering if I would recognize any faces of customers who had been there when I originally showed up. I saw one. This wait ended up being the longest, or maybe it just felt that way, since I was so close to the finish line. After half an hour, I was getting nervous. Maybe my new number wouldn’t work, because the woman at the counter hadn’t entered it correctly into the system. I was getting close to getting up to ask her if there was an issue, when a number very close to mine got called.

That gave me hope. There was light at the end of the tunnel. A little while later, my number was indeed called. I rushed up to the photo counter. It was the same one I had gone to originally. I couldn’t tell if the woman there recognized me from before. She just processed me like I was any other customer. Smile for the camera. Fill out the questionnaire, eyes squinting to read the questions. This time, that was the last step. My Real ID compliant driver’s license would come in the mail, and would be good for eight years.

The saga was complete. It had come to a fairy tale ending. Not only was I Real according to the federal government, I was going to have a driver’s license (if not eyesight) that was good until 2029! And I had a valid one in my wallet at the very moment. As a bonus, I had my amusing tale of hidebound bureaucracy and its cumbersome processes, which I told several times to my housemates and friends, and have now shared with you, dear reader. In all truth, PennDOT did a wonderful job, and bless them for keeping up with their work in this time of corona.

And now for some Primus.

War For The Planet Of The Covidiots

War For The Planet Of The Covidiots

‘The war has changed’ blares a Washington Post headline, referring to an internal CDC document reassessing messaging about the coronavirus in light of the new delta variant. What’s changed is that the prevalence of a mutated strain of the virus, which can spread even among the vaccinated, means it might make sense for masks to come back on and for people to start practicing social distancing again. But how well can the CDC influence people’s behavior, with the deep levels of mistrust in our society, and the fact that the CDC’s messaging has shifted around over the course of the pandemic? Never mind that the message changing actually makes sense, given that the science also changes, because we are dealing with a novel coronavirus.

Now look what’s happened to the prospect of herd immunity. As this cartoon by Kevin Kallaugher implies, there was just too much vaccine resistance to get to the levels that could have prevented the spread of this variant. And with the mad rush to “return to normal,” it’s probably too late.

So we don’t just have a war against a disease. We have a war against impatience. A war against ignorance. I’ve already blogged about what a shame it is that the pandemic became politicized. That was probably unavoidable, given that everything gets politicized these days. But political affiliation isn’t the only thing dividing the vaccinated from the unvaccinated. Race, income, and education level are also factors. The implosion of trust in our society has been very costly.

If GOP leaders would just get on board with a vaccination program, it would go a long way towards increasing vaccination rates and getting us to the other side of the war. Instead, we have to wait for the Republican con job to exhaust itself. Eventually the marks will all clue in, even if they have to sneak their vaccinations in behind their friends’ backs. You know, to save face. It’s truly pathetic.

I hope that we are in the winding down phase of this Crisis, and that the war will soon be won. From my vantage point, not leaving home much, it’s hard to tell if we’re in the darkest hour, or in the denouement. I think I’ll just be staying under lockdown and keeping my mask on for a bit, ’cause this ain’t over yet.

Theater Emerging

Theater Emerging

A year ago we were deep in the pandemic, and my best friend and partner, who works in the theater industry, was not able to work. All of the summer work that she had lined up in 2020 evaporated with the lockdown. She could have just stayed at home for all I cared, but she is too driven and needed to do something, so she ended up taking up a job as a census enumerator. This stressed me out a bit, as she spent the late summer and early fall wandering the area, visiting the homes of recalcitrant people. I mean, people who don’t do their census aren’t going to want to be bothered about the census, right? I thought she was very brave for taking on this job. After that gig ended, she worked for a high school as a Covid safety officer, which entailed patrolling the halls and making sure the kids were following protocols (they weren’t). That job ended with the school year.

Aileen Lynch McCulloch

Now it’s summer, and with the pandemic “over” – or at least “winding down” – she has gone back to work in her field. I’m glad for that, because she is clearly much happier. She just finished running a production workshop for teens, producing the musical Chicago: High School Edition. If you don’t know what this means: a production workshop is an educational program, like a summer camp, where each student pays a fee to participate. Chicago is a famous musical by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb which satirizes celebrity crime culture in the 1920s. “High School Edition” just means that the script is shortened and cleaned up a bit, so it is appropriate for younger people.

The fees the students pay cover costs like rent to the space, and the licensing fee to the rights holders. This latter cost is substantial – as in three figures – and depends on the number of performances. In this case, there were four live performances (as opposed to streaming online performances, which was a popular way to do it during the pandemic). Rehearsals started while there were still significant restrictions on group gatherings, so they were online at first. In fact, the auditions were all done by having the students submit videos. Note that every kid who auditioned was going to get cast (that’s kind of the point of an educational workshop), but auditions are still used to cast the specific roles.

Once restrictions eased, some time in June, rehearsals moved to the theater space. At first, many kids weren’t yet fully vaccinated, so everyone wore masks while rehearsing, and temps were taken. By the end of rehearsals, almost all of the kids were vaccinated. I got to see a couple of the dress rehearsals during tech week! If you don’t know what “tech week” means, it’s the final rehearsal phase when the lighting and sound is integrated into the show. Here’s a photo from dress rehearsal, of the merry murderesses performing the Cell Block Tango:

The show went up in early July, on the weekend after Independence Day. Audience members were required to wear masks, though the performers did not, except for two who wore face shields. Those were the two cast members who were not vaccinated. Some audience members refused to come see the show because masks were required. This was actually the desired outcome, and it was probably for the best, since the Delta variant is now spreading like wildfire.

Here’s a short review I posted after the first show:

It’s too bad there are only four performances of this show, since the cast and crew have pulled together a tight and energetic production, showcasing the talents of multiple young performers, directors and designers, and you won’t want to miss it. A teen production of Chicago HS Edition, on the heels of the pandemic, was a gutsy choice for director/producer Aileen Lynch-McCulloch, but as is usual for her, she has pulled it off. She demonstrates her knack for finding the perfect cast, and for translating a script onto the stage in a tight time window and with a shoestring budget. Minimalist set and costume choices, on a stark stage with smooth lighting, succeed in conveying the characterizations and the storyline, giving the talent the opportunity to shine. The director’s faith in the ability of youth and commitment to helping them find their voice have once again resulted in an amazing production. Get a ticket if you can!

I wrote this blog post to extol the talents of my good friend, Aileen, and to raise awareness of the challenges facing the theater industry as we emerge from the pandemic. This production of Chicago was slipped right in between the beginning of vaccinations and the surge of the Delta variant; it may have been a fortuitous occasion that can’t be repeated in the near future. In her role as Artistic Director at The Center Theater, Aileen would like to plan more productions, as part of her program called The Arts Bubble, “a healing project created to help audiences return to the live performance spaces.” But obviously this depends on the state of the pandemic.

I’ve been following Aileen’s work for many years, and it really is amazing to behold. She can handle all aspects of a production – directing, producing, costuming, set design, tech, PR, you name it. When she is working on a project, her commitment is total, and she seems to have an endless reservoir of energy on which to draw. But luckily she has people to help her, so she doesn’t have to do it all herself. She only needs to do three or four people’s jobs instead of ten or twelve.

She has people to help her because over her career she has built up a network of supportive friends, as well as young people who want to come back and work with her time and time again. Many of the teens and young adults who worked with her on Chicago have known her since they were children, when they first acted in a show which she directed. For a long time she ran her own theater company, Vagabond Acting Troupe, and she has also worked as an educator in schools and at other theaters. And she hasn’t changed her fees for over 30 years, while others around her have taken her approach and then raised the cost. Many of her students have gone on to Broadway tours, Cruise Ship entertainment and some have even started their own companies.

I mean, just the fact that Aileen was able to get large audiences to see Chicago and all willingly wear face masks is impressive. And if you think that wearing a mask is just “pandemic theater,” then I submit to you this thought: not wearing a mask is “pandemic theater.” Because everything we do socially, how we dress and how we act, is meant as a signal to others; it’s all a performance. Life is theater, and theater is life. As Shakespeare put it, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

So please join me in congratulating my dear friend Aileen Lynch-McCulloch on another successful theater production. And please get vaccinated, because if we don’t get this pandemic under control, we may all have to climb back into our cocoons, and wait another year before live theater can emerge once more.

To Mask Or Not To Mask, A “Post”-Pandemic Question

To Mask Or Not To Mask, A “Post”-Pandemic Question

The masks have come off all around.

I got the first inkling that America was “back to normal” when I went down to the Delaware beaches on Memorial Day weekend. As I drove south through the beach towns on Route 1, I noticed that people out on the streets were not wearing masks. “Everyone here must be vaccinated,” I thought. At my destination, a beach resort where my Dad and stepmother live, this sense was compounded when we went out. There were crowds of people, with no one wearing masks. Well, there would usually be an occasional couple or family that were masked, but it was a tiny percentage of the total number of people.

We spent one evening at a bar, and I must admit it felt very strange to be in a crowd where everyone was unmasked. Throughout the lockdown in 2020, I had been having dreams about being unmasked in public, and feeling a sense of dread or guilt. There was only just a hint of that feeling as we sat in that bar, and had some draft beers and pub food. Everyone was very friendly, with the exuberant energy of summer vacation in the air. But what else was in the air? I wasn’t comfortable doing any more pubbing on that trip.

I was visiting because I am finally fully vaccinated, as are my Dad and his wife. It was a “first post-vax hugs” family reunion moment. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of them on your social media feeds. I hadn’t seen them in person since 2019, so it was a wonderful visit. But I kept repeating the nervous little joke, “everyone in Delaware must be vaccinated, because…”

Back home in Pennsylvania, the masks are also coming off. Stores have stopped requiring them, even for their employees in some cases. I would guess that maybe half of customers in stores are still wearing masks, including me. I have a hunch that the elderly tend to go masked more than younger people do, and one can easily imagine why. I base this on casual observation, not data.

One thing I’ll say is that when I am masked in a store, even if I’m in the minority, I don’t feel uncomfortable about it. Meaning I don’t get any sense of being scorned by the non-mask wearers. I think everyone understands and respects people’s choices. It’s similar to the impression I got at the height of the pandemic, when everyone was complying with mask orders. It spoke to a willingness that the general public has to cooperate with public authorities, despite the fact that the pandemic became politicized. I mean, I read about anti-maskers melting down in public and even violence connected with people resisting mask mandates, but here on the ground, where I live, it is not something I have encountered personally.

We just got back from a Father’s Day trip to Knoebels Amusement Resort, an annual family tradition that was cancelled in 2020. It will be our only summer trip this year, since our other annual tradition, G-Fest, is also cancelled for 2021. Well, everyone at Knoebels must be vaccinated, too, based on the almost complete absence of face masks. Conspicuously, some families were masked, but it was less than 1% of people. Now, this is a venue where you are almost always outdoors, whether riding an attraction or eating a meal. We carried our masks with us but only wore them in a few instances of being in a confined space.

It was nice to return to normal, in one sense, but at the same time it felt like we were taking a chance, especially hearing about this new delta variant that is likely to become a scourge of the unvaccinated. And frankly, I’m pretty sure a large proportion of the visitors at Knoebels were unvaccinated, despite the fact that they were unmasked. I base this on the fact that the resort is popular with working class white people, and well, you’ll have to pardon my prejudice, but they tend to be on the MAGA side politically. The bumper stickers and T-shirts I saw while we were there only confirm this prejudice.

So 2020 is behind us now, and we are slowly changing back to the way things were before. But I have an ominous feeling that 2021 has more havoc in store for us.

YOLO through a Pandemic (You Hope)

YOLO through a Pandemic (You Hope)

When the pandemic started last year, I posted this dire warning about how the fun was all over. Financial markets and supply chains were in deep trouble; Generation X could kiss their 401Ks goodbye. I guess I really thought we were in for some serious hell. I mean, doesn’t everyone remember the toilet-paper shortages? Didn’t it seem like we were doomed?

I don’t mean to be glib. 2020 was a terrible year for many – either because loved ones died of Covid-19, or because of economic hardship. And on top of that, politics in the U.S. hit a new low. But for many of us – those of us lucky enough to be able to work from home, those of us who didn’t lose family members – the lockdown turned out to be a boon.

For one, we spent less money. I keep a pretty close watch on my budget, and I know from having done so for years that the three things which eat up the most income are housing, healthcare, and food. Well, it turns out that not eating out ever means spending a lot less money on food. I know this was bad for the restaurant industry, but I’m telling the 2020 story from my perspective here.

In addition, because we were suddenly never leaving the house, I ended up moving in with my BFF. So housing costs also went down for us. Add in the money saved by not travelling, and our savings grew. Frankly, it’s also really nice not to have to commute. It’s hard to imagine now that I used to spend two hours a day driving to and from work – whatever for? Staying at home means an easier pace of life, with no rushed schedule and more time for family.

The icing on the cake: because of the measures to avoid infection by the coronavirus, we didn’t get sick from anything else either. Normally we catch a few colds each year, what with the teenagers going to school and the girl doing her theater work. But not in 2020.

It all just seems like the next level in the steady progression of my fortunes over the years of the Crisis Era. Literally, from 2008 on things just keep looking up for me. I know I’m not the only one having this experience. It’s like for some Gen Xers, the pandemic lockdown was the perfect situation.

We’re even seeing this idea now of the YOLO economy: workers ready to quit their jobs and pursue their passion, now that they have savings and have had a taste of what it’s like to *not* drive to work every day. Should I resign from my FinTech job to become a full-time blogger?

Now I couldn’t do that without first consulting with my partner. And for her, 2020 was a different story. She’s basically a gig worker in the theater industry, so the pandemic was a disaster for her from a work perspective. All of the gigs she had worked hard to line up just evaporated. So I’d better stick with my job that pays well.

Another story we’re hearing is that retail businesses are struggling with a hiring crisis now. Essential workers are better off on unemployment benefits than going back to their low wage jobs. It makes you wonder why they are deemed “essential” but then not compensated very well. Perhaps an improvement of the conditions of the lowest paid workers in our economy will be a lasting effect of the pandemic. Pandemic relief (“stimulus payments”) is sort of like basic income, after all.

Now that restrictions are being eased, my partner has actually been able to find gigs again, and I can tell she is excited to get back to work in 2021. But are we really out of the woods in terms of the pandemic? One of my projects this year has actually been research on pandemics throughout history, and from what I’ve learned I’m not feeling too easy.

Just take a look at this list of the worst pandemics in history. One pattern you’ll see here is that the more recent large scale pandemics are caused by ineradicable viral pathogens. The older ones chronologically are typically bubonic plague or cholera, which are controllable now thanks to improved sanitation and antibiotic medicine, or smallpox, which has been eliminated through vaccination.

But some viruses cannot be wiped out by immunization, both because they can reside in non-human hosts (waiting to infect the next generation of non-immune human hosts), and because they can mutate (nullifying previously acquired immunity). These include the influenza virus and the SARS coronavirus. We’re stuck with them, barring some next level development in medical science.

A pandemic like the Covid-19 pandemic, the eighth deadliest in human history according to that list, should be a once-in-a-lifetime event. But you never know. So enjoy your time on Earth, because as they say, you only live once.

A Lesson from History: Be Responsible and Get Vaccinated

A Lesson from History: Be Responsible and Get Vaccinated

This year I’ve been involved in a project, doing research on pandemics. As part of that, I’ve been reading this interesting old book I dug up. I like reading old books because the dated perspective and language is illuminating. It is like seeing into the past in a way that you won’t get from reading a history book written in current times.

The book is called “Epidemics Resulting From Wars“, by Dr. Friedrich Prinzing, a German doctor and pioneer in the field of medical statistics. It was published in 1916, under the auspices of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, stemming from a conference held in Berne, Switzerland, in August 1911. There is a sad irony in knowing that as this was being written, the Great Powers of Europe had already abandoned International Peace in favor of other ambitions.

In the introduction, the director of the Endowment’s Division of Economics and History has some hopeful comments about how, in the case of the Great War underway, advancements in medicine might mitigate the risk of disease that in the past always accompanied armed conflict. In that naïve and hopeful start-of-World-War-I way, he seems to believe that, thanks to modern science, at least that deadly facet of warfare can be eliminated. It is also a sad irony to read this knowing that an influenza pandemic, the second deadliest pandemic in human history, is just two years away from this book’s publication.

In this blog post, I wanted to highlight one part of the book. The eighth chapter is titled “The Franco-German War of 1870-1, and the Epidemic of Small-pox Caused by It.” In discussing this smallpox epidemic, time and again, the subject of vaccination comes up. As you probably know, the smallpox vaccine was the first vaccine developed, in the late 1700s. By the 1800s, German authorities were attempting to vaccinate their populations, but encountering resistance. Here are a couple of quotes from the book.

“In Württemberg, where vaccination had been compulsory since 1818, but had been frequently evaded in the ‘sixties in consequence of the agitation of the anti-vaccinationists, an epidemic of small-pox raged in the years 1863-7, causing, all told, 804 deaths.”

Dr. Friedrich Prinzing, “Epidemics Resulting from Wars,” p. 260

“The kingdom of Saxony experienced a very severe epidemic of small-pox in consequence of the Franco-German War. The wide dissemination of the disease is attributed by Wunderlich to the fact that vaccination, in consequence of the wild agitation of the anti-vaccinationists, was insufficiently practised; prior to the year 1874 vaccination was not compulsory in Saxony.”

Ibid., p. 269

I find it interesting that anti-vaxxers were around a century and a half ago. Their presence in society today is nothing new. And frankly, I can understand being wary of vaccination. I am actually wary myself. I don’t want someone injecting something into me if I can help it. But the point is that, under some conditions, you can’t avoid the need. The reason is there in the statistics – for example, as recorded in this book:

“A particularly good idea of the protection against small-pox afforded by vaccination is given in the Chemnitz statistics for the years 1870-1. Of 53,891 vaccinated persons 953 (1.8 per cent) contracted the disease in those two years and seven succumbed to it, all of whom were more than ten years of age ; of 5,712 unvaccinated persons, almost one-half contracted the disease (2,643 or 46.3 per cent, to be precise), and of these 243 (9.16 [per cent] of those taken sick) died.”

Ibid., p. 256

Simply put, a vaccinated population is less susceptible during a disease epidemic. Rates of infection and of mortality go down if vaccination is widespread.

So think about what that means for the current epidemic today. Maybe there is some risk to getting vaccinated. It could be inconvenient and uncomfortable since you might get sick for a day. We’ve even heard about potential problems with the J&J vaccine. And we’ve heard there’s a chance you could still catch COVID anyway.

But if a large portion of the population resists getting vaccinated, then there will be more sickness and more death. It’s unavoidable math. It’s the logic of a replicating virus.

Getting vaccinated isn’t really about protecting yourself. Vaccination is another measure to flatten the curve (flatten it way down), just like wearing masks and social distancing. You are asked to take a very small risk to prevent a great deal of suffering and death among other people in your society. That makes it a civic duty.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

I still sometimes see people out and about and not masked. I call them “death spreaders” and give them a very wide berth. There was a death spreader at the Post Office over the Christmas holiday. It was in much too close quarters for anyone to be unmasked and it pissed me off. It’s sad that this is still a problem, with the pandemic raging and the numbers just getting worse and worse.

When I first observed this phenomenom I called these people Covidiots. Their presence was ominous and invoked the feeling of being in an apocalyptic movie. How can it be getting worse?

We all know the real problem. The pandemic has been politicized. One side of the political divide believes the pandemic is a lie, just as they believe the election is a lie. And now the Covidiots are out on the streets, armed and dangerous, attacking democracy itself.

It’s only going to get worse before it gets better. So get ready for the final chapter in the trilogy, coming soon to a country near you.

What I learned in 2020

What I learned in 2020

Looking back at 2020, it at once one of the most eventful and one of the least eventful years of my life (of all of our lives, I imagine). Mostly we stayed at home and did nothing. Very uneventful. But also, we experienced a once-in-a-century pandemic, and I moved in permanently with my BFF. Absolutely earth-shattering.

And then there was this insane election and this dreadful sense that we might be close to a coup of some sort and the end of democracy in the United States. I believe that danger has passed, but for awhile there I was shaken up.

This year I’ve blogged extensively about both the political divide and the pandemic. On this final day of 2020 I wanted to think a little more about the year’s lessons.

My BFF was telling me that some Trump supporters on her social media feeds have argued that total deaths this past year are actually no different than in past years. It’s not to deny the reality of Covid-19, but to say that because of the lockdowns other causes of death have been reduced (for example, vehicle-related), so it’s evened out. I guess they think this is a reason to open up the economy again, though when I think about it, wouldn’t it make sense to never reopen, even after everyone is vaccinated and Covid is no longer a threat? Then the death rate should really go down!

In all seriousness, I understand that we accept certain levels of risk in our society. There is no way to eliminate altogether the possibility of death or bodily harm. We can’t live our lives at all if we are too cautious about accepting risk. And we have schemes to mitigate risk; we all accept the dangers of automobile use, knowing that our insurance system will absorb the costs, if not guarantee our lives. Less effectively, our health insurance system does the same for medical risks.

The point that anti-shutdowners seem to be missing is that the costs associated with Covid-19 are much too high for our healthcare system to absorb. So just accepting the risk in the way we do with the dangers of automobile use is not a good option. To bolster their arguments, pandemic deniers fall back on questioning the data altogether. It must be that it’s all overblown. And I understand part of the motivation for believing this – for many people, the shutdown has been financially devastating. It is quite a quandary.

So a big lesson of the year is that we need to restore trust in our society, and to heal the political divide. It has been tough living in this time of contentious politics. And we need to reform our fragile system so that when public health demands drastic change, it isn’t quite so destructive of people’s livelihoods. It’s certainly doable, with all the wealth in our country.

And maybe we should have been practicing some of these health measures already – wearing face masks in the flu season, for example. Certainly when we ourselves are symptomatic; this is common practice in other societies.

I know its easy for me to accept the pandemic protocols, since I am a privileged stay-at-home worker. Personally, I’ve had one of the healthiest years of my life, except for a bit of a lack of exercise. Not travelling, and having the boys stay home from school has meant that I haven’t had a cold since early in the year. Usually I get sick a couple of times at least. And not commuting has been a blessing, saving both time and money. But like I said, that’s not an option for everyone.

Ok, I’m rambling. What did I learn this year? That I am very lucky. That what matters is family and loved ones. That we should enjoy life while we have it, because it is very fragile. Our whole world is fragile. Live fully in each day because time always rushes on.

The Red-Blue Wars: Fighting in the Midst of a Global Pandemic

The Red-Blue Wars: Fighting in the Midst of a Global Pandemic

My last blog post went in depth on political partisanship in the United States, with its split between the red zone and the blue zone. I wanted to add a brief note about how the Covid-19 pandemic is shining a spotlight on that partisan divide. I’ve noted before how Covid-19 is also spotlighting the defiencies in our economic system. The pandemic is a major social stressor, and because we’re in a Crisis Era, it is starkly revealing long-standing problems that have been building up without any resolution for a generation or longer. It’s apocalyptic in the sense of the word’s Greek roots – it reveals what was previously hidden (or ignored).

As serious as the Covid-19 pandemic is, it is bizarre and disturbing to me that it has become a partisan issue. But it can’t be denied: which side you stand on in the partisan split does to some degree determine your beliefs about the nature of the disease and the appropriate response to it. It even determines what facts you believe, about the efficacy of measures such as wearing a face mask, or the accuracy of case counts and death counts.

Pro-Trump red staters generally believe that the threat is overblown, and are against lockdown measures, which are inherently anti-freedom and disrupt the business of doing business. Meanwhile, the anti-Trump blue wave resisters use the administration’s failure to respond cohesively to the pandemic as political ammunition. To this, red staters simply respond that Covid-19 is not as bad as the mainstream (read: anti-Trump) media makes it out to be, and that the cure should not be worse than the disease.

Since the President chose to hand the responsibility for the pandemic response to the state governors, their different responses also highlight the partisan split. Red zone governors like Ron DeSantis were Covid-denying, refusing to take any measures until absolutely forced to by the unfolding situation nationwide. Blue zone governors like Andew Cuomo, in the initial epicenters of the pandemic, were Covid-accepting, responding quickly and earning the enmity of Trump and his supporters as a result.

Despite all this, I do think that the compliance of the vast majority of the public with mask mandates (I base this assertion on my personal observation) shows that our society is ready and willing to follow restrictions for the sake of public safety. It’s like the “grey zone” as I’ve called them – the majority who are not particularly partisan – is out there, waiting for effective leadership. You could even argue that big business, the major retail corporations who have all readily gone along with social distancing and mask requirements, are taking over regulatory functions where the government has failed to act.

But unfortunately, extreme partisan conflict shuts down the moderate voice, and that’s where our politics are. It’s gotten so bad that, in one state, red state militias, goaded by words of the President, have terrorized and plotted insurrection against the blue zone governor. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to imagine any kind of unified response to the pandemic in the near future. It will rage on in a society utterly ill equipped to manage it from the top down.

The 1918 influenza pandemic, regarded as the worst in modern history, caused 675,000 deaths in the United States over a two year period. That was 0.6% of the population. The equivalent in deaths today would be 2,165,000 – a number we’re unlikely to reach. But the death toll already is bad enough, with no end in sight. For the forseeable future, Covid-19 will remain in the background of these trying times, shining its bleak light on our failing state.

Covid-19: The Tempering Test of the Market State

Covid-19: The Tempering Test of the Market State

I wanted to exposit a bit on some of the points I made in my last blog post about the dilemma that Covid-19 presents. As many commentators have observed, the pandemic has disrupted our economic system and starkly revealed its defects. In particular it has exposed the risks to a bulk of the population who live on marginal income and can barely, if at all, afford health insurance. But of course these were known issues already, it’s just that Covid-19 is shining a harsh spotlight on them.

I’ve categorized this post as “Strategy Review” because I want to think of this problem with one of the strategic theories I’ve reviewed in the past in mind. That would be Philip Bobbitt’s conception of a newly evolving constitutional order called the “market state.” Here’s a key quote from the linked blog post:

the familiar nation state of the 20th century is giving way to what Bobbitt calls the “market state.” A key difference between the two orders is that whereas the nation state serves the welfare of the nation through public services and social safety nets, the market state maximizes economic opportunity for its citizens, while protecting them from environmental degradation and network-infiltrating dangers such as infectious disease and terrorism. The state’s role has evolved from managing the system for the benefit of the people, in competition with other states with different ideologies (the Cold War status quo), to protecting the system’s perimeters while allowing the people to manage themselves in a loosely controlled consumer marketplace of global extent 

The Covid dilemma as it relates to this constitutional order is this: if the market state is supposed to protect the citizen while maximizing opportunities, what does it do when these goals are mutually exclusive? Simply put, an endemic disease that is highly infectious and lethal entails restricting economic activity in order to save lives, but that necessarily reduces economic opportunity. This is especially problematic in the United States, which has a flavor of the market state which Bobbitt calls “entrepreneurial” – meaning that it favors individual over corporate responsibility for well-being.

Hence the quandary the U.S. is in, with its fraying social safety net, and too many people living on a thin margin. Gig economy workers are suddenly in an environment in which there are no gigs. Unskilled laborers have become “essential workers” and are expected to endure dangerous workplaces with no extra compensation, and rudimentary protection measures.

At least the public at large has shown a willingness to follow one simple, minimally disruptive safety measure – the wearing of face masks. I believe that the broad compliance with this mandate shows that society is ready and willing to cooperate and take collective action. The desire is there. But there is a political problem of extreme partisanship and incoherent national leadership.

So this pandemic has become the tempering test of the emerging market state. Can it survive as an ordering principle, or will it break under the strain and need to be replaced? One way to help think about this question is to consider the state in relation to the strategic environment, a key feature of Bobbitt’s line of thinking.

In Bobbit’s model, the nation state prevailed in a particular security environment, which pertained to the World War and Cold War eras. The rise of certain technologies – weapons of mass destruction, advanced computing, telecommunication networks – altered the strategic landscape from that in which the nation state was successful. For the new market state to be successful, it must be able to counter security threats in this new environment.

Threats primarily intrude on the order of the market state by exploiting open networks. In the quote above I explicitly mention infectious disease as a network-infiltrating danger. I had in mind SARS and H1N1, which have turned out to be the preludes to Covid-19. Other potential threats include computer hackers, social media disruptors, and smugglers of WMDs.

The best strategies against these kinds of threats are defensive; think of tower defense casual games, where an infrastructure is built up against ongoing waves of enemies trying to get past a perimeter. Hence the pandemic related shutdowns and other measures – limiting mass gatherings is a defensive strategy against an airborne virus. Surveillance is also crucial (you have to detect the network infiltrators), which is why nations which implemented intensive testing and tracking programs are the ones that have been the most successful at mitigating against the coronavirus.

So you can see the fundamental problem the United States has, with its “entrepreneurial market state.” It is just too open of a society. It is large in extent, and its citizens are used to free travel and a high degree of autonomy. Which is why so many are railing against the measures (though I still think the majority accepts the need for them).

Not only that, the ethos of the independent, self-made American (the “entrepreneur”) means there is resistance to the concept of public assistance, which is another useful defensive measure. The government is calling what pandemic aid has been given “stimulus” money, a complete misnomer. If the economic recession were on the demand side, meaning people didn’t have money to spend for goods or services, then the term “stimulus” would make sense. But the recession is supply side, meaning that businesses can’t deliver goods or services because of the shutdown measures. The loss of income to these businesses is the problem being alleviated, so the money is relief money, not stimulus money. But we can’t call it that, lest we admit that we aren’t a purely capitalist society.

Have other societies, with more of a “managerial market state” (Bobbitt’s term) fared better? Those would mostly be other developed countries of the West – in Europe, for example. I’m not sure of the answer, though it would be interesting to go over Bobbitt’s work, identify his taxonomy of states, and then see how each has done in the 2020 pandemic. There may be a pattern. It would be a bit of lengthy task, but might be worth the time.

Meanwhile, it’s plain to see one thing that has suffered in reputation in light of the pandemic: globalization. It is, in fact, globalization, with its increased access to markets and increased movement of goods and people, that is the reason new viral diseases keep popping up and rapidly spreading around the world. This latest one, Covid-19, seems to have put the brakes on globalization for some time to come, probably for at least a generational cycle. It had already lost its popularity among anyone except economic elites anyway.

What will happen to the market state? I’ve already noted in previous strategy review posts that we will not simply revert back to the nation state. Time isn’t reversible, for one thing, and the changes in the strategic environment – the nature of threats to the security of society – remain. We still need a state capable of countering danger in a complex, networked world.

It’s not just communicable disease that exploits networks. What about dangerous ideologies, spread on social media? If you’ve seen the Netlfix documentary The Social Dilemma you know what I mean. Given the deep political trouble the United States is in, there may be even hotter fires for the market state to endure before it is strong enough to rule in the twenty-first century.