A Defense of U.S. COVID Status

As I explained to my cousin when I disputed his take on recent coronavirus numbers: I’ve become a COVID stats junkie over the past five months. It started to snowball when I read in the Wall Street Journal about a kid, Avi Schiffmann, a high school student on Mercer Island, in Washington State. He was named “2020 Webby Person of the Year,” presumably for his Coronavirus Dashboard, a coronavirus tracking website. Some people follow the NY Times updates, some Johns Hopkins, some the CDC or Worldometer. But me, I stick with Avi.

Avi Schiffmann Linked In heading

Avi has the data I seek: a saved feature for the spots I want to watch closely (mostly where my family members—and we— live), a world panel to reveal who is better or worse off than you, and separate tables for the USA, Canada, Australia, Europe, Asia, South America, and so on.

This is how I came to take issue with my cousin’s Facebook post, which cited how Japan, Australia, France, and China recorded far fewer deaths than the US on a particular date. Following Avi’s dashboard, I saw that Japan rarely updated its stats. Many of the columns are marked unknown. The fact is we really did not know how Japan is doing. Likewise for China. By now we see that China’s reported data are ludicrous: a population of 1.4 billion has cases on a par with the state of Indiana, population 6.7 million? I don’t believe it. Deaths from COVID in China are pretty even with the state of Connecticut, population 3.6 million? Another suspicious factor: China never updates its number of tests. It’s been stuck at 90 million for months. Avi’s dashboard is a lesson in comparative transparency among the countries of planet Earth.

Why China’s statistics are not credible. Large blue-gray figure represents proportional size of China to the US

Naturally, comparing deaths for any single day is problematic. While France, for instance, may have had fewer deaths on a given day, their deaths per confirmed cases are about 11%, Belgium 12%, and Italy 13.6%. Considering this morbidity rate, even bad-boy Florida comes out relatively golden with a 1.7% deaths to cases ratio.

Comparative size of Australia and US, though Alaska and Hawaii are here omitted.

As for Australia—whose population amounts to 7.8% of the US population (that is 300 million-plus more people live in the US)—Australia is slightly smaller in geographic area. As a result, population density in Australia runs about 7 people per square mile, compared to 93 people per square mile in the US. Thus, a US-Australia comparison is tricky. How much viral spread can you expect if people are not in proximity with one another? In all, we can compare and contrast our numbers with others, but any conclusions depend on contextualizing cases and deaths over time according to population and population density.

The US has endured a global smack-down on its coronavirus status based on piece-meal analyses that shortchange the US health care establishment. Our trusty Avi has recently added columns showing cases per million and deaths per million globally, that is, per capita measures of coronavirus. Now we realize that the US deaths per million is 546, or 0.000546 deaths per US population. Who might have higher deaths per million? The state of New York for one, at 1,695. Mayor Bill DeBlasio of NYC and NY Governor Cuomo have some ‘splainin’ to do. New York and New Jersey are driving the US per capita death rate. Truth be told, the eastern US performs dismally in this statistical column, with New Jersey at rock bottom, meaning with the highest count of deaths per million, reflecting again the impact of population density. Yet looking at rates outside the US, we find higher deaths per million in Belgium, Peru, Chile, the UK, Spain, Italy, and Sweden, with France not far behind. So much for the US as global pariah.

Much has been made of the US lagging far behind in testing for coronavirus, with blame laid squarely at the feet of the sitting President of the United States. I’m no apologist for President Trump, but at this juncture the US must deserve some credit for its testing. Our health care community has gone all in, with drive-in clinics, rapid-test clinics, pharmacies, and free clinics (at our local fairgrounds for one), providing mass testing for anyone and everyone who wants to be tested. A nearby community went door to door to ramp up its testing.

The single country performing the most tests appears to be China, though we already have questioned the currency and veracity of their numbers. Even if China has tested 90 million people, as Avi shows in his dashboard, the US is close on China’s heels, at this writing with 77 million tests among a population smaller than one-fourth of China’s. I must note that China’s cases increase by several a day, but the testing number never changes—which makes one wonder how they can confirm new cases without having added tests.

Pandemic life in Sweden

As I say, the US is roundly shamed for being out of control regarding COVID19. Some say that people in France or New Zealand or Hong Kong admirably obey directions, compared to US free-wheelers. They lock down, wear masks, and dependably socially distance. (I also hear that the French would carry a baguette around when they went for walks in the lockdown phase. The gendarmes wouldn’t question your purpose or fine you if you were out with a baguette. After all, you needed bread.) So why is Sweden not shamed? Sweden, with higher deaths per million. Is it because they admittedly opted not to lockdown to minimize the spread of coronavirus? Sweden aimed for herd immunity, hang the costs in cases and lives. Do we know at this time whether more cases will result in herd immunity? Recent reports cite some experts claiming mission accomplished in Sweden.

So back to the US, which is far above any other single country in sheer numbers of tests and cases. Should a country be faulted for large numbers of cases? If we test more, we find more. Is the converse then true: If a country fails to meet a substantial testing threshold per population (Avi now provides populations), should they take pride in keeping their case number low? In some French départements (regions), they tout low cases per 100,000. The same pride surfaces in US counties, where they list cases per 100,000. Happily, in our Paciific Northwest, more confirmed cases have not translated into high death rates. For that matter, is low case count a good thing? Do we really believe that not exposing cases means the virus is not active? The virus will go where it will, right?

If we test, we know more about the movement of coronavirus in our area. Denmark has tested a remarkable 39% of its population. Singapore 29%. The US has tested 23%. New Zealand has tested 14%, Sweden and Hong Kong 10%, France 9%, Brazil 6%, and surprisingly COVID poster-child South Korea fewer than 4%. Globally the testing rate is 0.5% of population. Whether or not the US has an extraordinarily high number of cases, we know this because of the rigor of its testing. Truth be told, the numbers drive me crazy. But I don’t think the US status constitutes the worst coronavirus profile.

In the final analysis, I don’t want to be defensive about my country. I don’t want to suggest we’re far better or worse than anyone else. I remember a Brazilian saying when U.S. numbers went up that he was glad he lived in Brazil where such a thing wouldn’t happen. Now that man knows otherwise. We look at Brazil today differently than we did then. Still, they’re hanging in there with a deaths per million rate about equal to that of the US, doing a decent job with the curve they’ve been thrown.

COVID in India, from The Guardian

In March Italy locked down—too late some said—and now their children are back in school and they have moved way lower (in severity) on Avi’s dashboard. Last month France and Spain were down in numbers; today they’re surging again. The US had a super-surge through July, but in August it’s subsided. India, with 1.3 billion people, is seeing very high case numbers. They may need the help of all of us in the long run, but so far, they are doing an amazing job at keeping deaths at bay. Yes, in the end I don’t want to be a statistics junkie. I want to feel safe, neither shamed nor proud. I want to understand the reality and meaning of the coronavirus in our lives. All of our coronavirus data, after all, come with a caveat: so far, or at this point in time.

Avi Schiffmann’s site has a link you can click to buy him a cup of coffee. $3 donation. I bought him a coffee. By now he must have his college education paid for. I’m glad for him. I want us all to do well and to come out on the other side of this with some semblance of life as we knew it. That is to say God bless us everyone.

Hey, Mom, we got married!

Today we’re forty-niners. No golden anniversary yet, happily. Rather stodgy and ceremonious that, and we’re not much for ceremony. I guess we’ve rolled with our hunches—and with the punches, haha.

George Harrison

It began sans lightning bolt. The guy reminded me of my true love, George Harrison. Tall and skinny (but decidedly stronger than George), wearing a pea coat, black turtleneck, Bob Dylan cap, and army boots. Kind of a mash-up of 70s chic. I liked that when we first talked, he spoke affectionately of his mother, referring to her as “me mum.” She wrote long letters from England that were “all one sentence,” he said with a smile. Our main common ground was an English class (modern British literature), having attended the same Rolling Stones concert, and a mutual friend who was a stunning guitarist.

So, you could say, there was the lure of the animal at work, but also compatibility. We made a major decision together: moving into a commune with a group of university town hippies. As it turned out, we’d escape furtively to the Italian Patio on brown rice and seaweed nights at the commune. To add insult to our communal ethic, we’d order veal parmesan.

English Building on campus

In time we moved out. We set a date, a Friday, to tie the knot. I had an oil painting class that summer morning, and he would be coming from his class (Latin?). I’d stop back at the apartment to change and pick him up at noon en route to the county courthouse—to elope! We could get our license and marriage certificate in one fell swoop. I wore a pale green dress my little sister had made for me a few months earlier, and he wore jeans, a white shirt, and a pinstripe jacket. No witnesses necessary. The judge took a picture of us together, then we each snapped a photo of the other holding the marriage certificate.

That’s us, way back when.

We asked a couple of good friends, Jeff and Vicky, to come to Howard Johnson’s with us for our wedding reception. We ordered burgers, of course. Afterwards, Jeff took our picture next to the car. Vicky said “If it doesn’t work out, you can always get divorced.” Then my new husband had to go to work. After nine, we all met up at our apartment. We lacked champagne, so Jeff invited us to go to his parents house with him. Apparently they kept champagne. When we got there, his dad, true to his rep, dipped down to the basement and came up with a couple of bottles of bubbly. Jeff and Vicky, his parents, and their friends all toasted us.

The next day we drove to Milwaukee for our honeymoon, crashing in on my older sister and brother-in-law, who’d married two years earlier. They weren’t thrilled but were good sports and took us to Kohl’s to pick out a wedding present, our first, a big brown bowl for baking bread (used most recently this past week).

On Sunday we headed back home, stopping at my parents’ house, that is, my childhood home. As we pulled into the driveway, my next younger sister sauntered up to the car window and looked at me with intuited meaning. My mom was tending the garden when I called to her, “Hey Mom, we got married!” I revealed the slim 18-karat white gold band on my left hand. She said “I’m glad you still believe in marriage.” My dad was out on a bike ride; as he returned, I repeated our announcement, and he remarked, “I need a drink,” and fixed a round for everyone, now gathered on the big screened porch. I told my Nana, “I know we’ll never be rich, but we know how to work. We’ll have enough.” And so we did.

Today we celebrate in a pandemic. We’ve never done that before. We came over to a little place on the Pacific coast, 90 minutes from our house. We awoke to an overcast sky, and drank coffee from the window that looks onto the ocean. A happy anniversary message was already on my phone when I booted it up—from my little sis!—and within the hour we had a FaceTime call from Kid #4 and two grandkids gallivanting in a local meadow.

CCC shelter

Since sunshine is forecast for this afternoon, we decided to drive to our favorite lookout at the top of the cape just south of here. From there we can walk on a woodsy path overlooking the blue expanse of the Pacific to a little shelter constructed in 1934-35 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a little historical deep diving for the occasion.

We’re arranging take-out from the excellent little Italian resto a few doors down. There’s a bottle of decent, not expensive, bubbly in the fridge, which we’ll drink on our balcony as the sun descends. We can check through the binoculars to see how many boats are still out, their little sparks of light dotting the horizon. It’s still enough.

What is in a Home?

This week a dear high school friend messaged me to say she had driven past the home of my childhood, down the street from her lifelong home. The new owner (only the second owner) was putting the finishing touches on a Little Free Library in the lot’s corner. The library matched our mid-century modern house architecturally: pristine white trim on redwood, echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright‘s prairie style. We were pleased in 2015 that this second owner was from Oak Park (Illinois—Wright’s suburban Chicagoland home) and even had volunteered with Wright’s foundation in Madison, Wisconsin. It appeared she along with her husband and elderly mother, did not scoop up the home in order to make it over, but to appreciate it’s light, space, and warm earthy materials and design.

The house was built in 1953 by my Uncle Bill, an accomplished architect, after my paternal grandfather had died. My dad and he had put their heads together to find a suitable lot for a spacious home where our family of five (later six) could live with our grandmother, only 55 at the time.

Nana with her boys; my dad on the right, next to Uncle Bill
4th of July with Nana (wearing the string or pearls), aunts, and cousins, Dad outside the porch behind

The result was an L-shaped two-story, three bedroom home for us attached to a single story, one bedroom home for Nana, with it’s own kitchen, bathroom, dining and living areas. (Nana liked to entertain her friends for lunch and bridge.) We had a roomy screened porch, where we mostly lived in the summer; Nana had her own patio alongside the roses, under a dark green awning. We shared dual laundry areas in the full basement, a two car garage, a wrap-around perennial garden, and the shade of seven enormous elm trees lining the intersection. The back garden separated us from a pair of neighbors who built after us but remained in place for 60+ of the years we occupied “303,” as our home affectionately came to be known.

Almost all of our family lived within 50 miles, most within ten. The house was well filled for holidays, summer reunions, cousin sleepovers, for scout meetings, and for relatives and friends who would “call.” My mother came to say in her later years what she missed most about the past was people calling on one another, meaning they would stop by on a Sunday afternoon, stop over for cocktails early Saturday evening, neighbors popping onto the porch anytime to visit, never mind phoning ahead. We loved the evening barbecues especially, when parents and grandparents played bridge on the porch while we ran around in the dark like “wild Indians” (a regrettable expression) playing “Yoller-yoller, hear I come so holler!”—our version of hide and seek—and catching lightning bugs in jars.

We lived a half mile from our grade school, a little over a mile from the junior high, and a mile from the high school. We walked back and forth to school through most weather. When the thermometer dipped below ten degrees Fahrenheit, my mom consented to drive us and pick us up. No arguments about that. If we wanted a ride, my mom would say, “Check the thermometer.” Throughout our studies at the university “downstate,” we’d be back for Thanksgivings, Memorial Days, semester breaks, any time we didn’t have class, picking up waitress hours at the local BigBoy restaurant.

My sisters and I all moved out of the area after college and eventually started families in other cities, other homes. Interestingly we have all been in our current homes for decades, though they all resettled within a 3-hour drive of 303. We stayed out west, a place where they call my homeland “back east.” As Mom and Dad aged, they remained at home. Caregivers came in, my sisters rotated weekends there, while my flights and longer stays became more and more frequent. As our parents became more incapacitated and we installed accessibility equipment, the house gave up some of its sleekness, but it retained its nurturing magic.

Dad passed away (after Mom) six years ago this month, suddenly, but not so suddenly, at the age of 91. We flew back over the 4th of July and in August, when we had a musical hoohah with my brother-in-law (who plays like George Harrison on acoustic), my son, and oldest grandson on guitars. We came back again in October and again at Christmas, sleeping there the weekend of my older sister and brother-in-law’s annual Christmas party a few miles north. We made breakfast for the family at 303 the next day. The house was at its best, looking chic with its large rooms, classic fixtures, and now-trendy mid-century modern furnishings. By June it was stripped back nearly to its native state, as Mom and Dad had entered it in 1953, and by September, our new owners had made their offer.

The little library woman told my friend I could come by and walk through the house when I’m back; she’d love to visit. I suspect she’s a woman after my mom’s heart, salt of the earth. I had heard she welcomed all the neighbors for a housewarming the Spring after they took possession. A new neighborhood has been established. It warms me, but with a pang. Today when my daughter called to FaceTime with our new granddaughter, I choked up telling her all of this.

It has always struck me how the French have no word for the English home. They can say chez moi or à la maison, but not our home, with its connotations of coziness, of “where I belong,” a place of the heart. No. They name their out-in-the-country family homes Le Moulin and such. Maybe that does the trick. Or maybe what makes a house a home is when you choke up realizing you could lose or have lost it. When you think about it, is your home where you live?

What have we learned; what have we forgotten?

Like you, in my home, we’ve watched a lot of movies over the past three months of pandemic. In selecting what to watch after the dismal news of the day, my suggestions most often are met with the observation that “we’ve already seen it.” Impossible. I have no recollection. And yet halfway into the film, so it is—a family rerun. Why did I not remember?

I have the same issue with books I’ve read: I have imbibed them, even with relish, but I haven’t digested them. The past few days I’ve been re-reading the third volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. I had recalled the first reading as a tedious and tawdry account of Elena’s affair with Nino Sarratore. In this second reading, I’m halfway through what now appears a paean to her friendship with Lila; Nino is nowhere to be seen. How can my experiences be so divergent?

Plato in The School of Athens—Raphael

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates warns that the act of writing undermines memory. With a written record, we have no need to remember. Our memory is vested in an externalized account. That said, the internet age must not undermine but demolish human memory. I did have an internalized memory of Elena’s story. It just happened to be at odds with the actual book.

Faulty memory leads to mistakes, from incorrect “external” information to stereotyping to inappropriate behaviors. This weekend of protests against racism across the United States, I walked on the beach, where someone had sculpted a dozen faux graves, a memorial to recent deaths by racism. Is racism a problem of faulty memory—as from habitual faulty associations or from failing to learn what prior experience has revealed?

We surely remember that slavery did not work out well for the United States. It set the country against itself by contradicting its ideals: All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights—except for black people who are only 3/5 equal.

Slavery: the saddest story in United States history. Launched in the 17th century, and outlawed in the 19th. Yet, as the 19th flowed into the 20th century, the subjugation of black people mutated into the Jim Crow era of different rules for black and white people. It seeped into the 21st century with unequal enforcement of law and inequitable exercise of justice. Ongoing racial degradation has brought us in 2020 the knee-jerk killing of Ahmed Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, the mistaken identity and slaughter of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, his windpipe crushed under a policeman’s knee. Persistent erroneous associations pigeonhole black as different, unequal, and dangerous. What have we learned, and what have we forgotten?

At one of our kids’ college graduations in Chicago, the university president opened the ceremonies by memorializing a black woman graduate, killed the day before she was able to don her cap and gown. She was driving from downtown back to campus and was pulled over by police. She stopped and raised both hands in the air. Her cell phone was in her right hand. The officer thought it was a weapon and shot her.

Condoleeza Rice, 66th U.S. Secretary of State

We might say that to racially profile is to willfully forget. By 2020, white people across the United States cannot have escaped close encounters and intimate connections with black people. Consider your fellow students, your colleagues, your teammates, your parents’ caregivers. Before and during this century, US society has come to elevate black people to positions of prominence and power—from jazz singers to opera singers, from sports icons to Supreme Court justices, from mayors to Secretaries of State, from four-star generals to Attorney General, from Governor to President of the United States. Haven’t we transcended issues with black equality, humanity, worthiness, acceptance, intelligence, goodness, and competence?

I was lucky, I think, to have experienced a glimpse at racism at the age of four. Candy, my contemporary neighbor, told me one morning when we were playing on the sidewalk in front of our houses that her family had a colored lady working at their house. I was captivated by the mental image: a lady of many colors! I said I wanted to see her. We tip-toed down her basement stairs and peeked into her laundry room, where a gentle-faced woman was folding laundry. I asked where the colored lady was, but Candy pointed only to the lady doing laundry. I saw no colored lady and continued to look back and forth, perplexed by Candy’s mischievous expression. I gave up trying to figure it out, and we went back upstairs. The interchange left me uneasy. Was Candy telling me a joke I didn’t get? There might be something odd about her family, I felt inwardly. We remained sidewalk friends but not for long because my family moved to a different house, and Candy’s family moved to Minneapolis.

Last month a beautiful friend of mine passed away. She was a woman of warmth and smiles, and she was colorful: well traveled, a quilt maker, tastefully dressed, a mother of five, irrepressibly energetic. She was several years older than I, but we found commonality in hailing from different parts of Chicago and transplanting to the Pacific Northwest. We discovered that we had each at one time worked in the same school district, she as a principal, I as a student teacher. In our eventual west coast locale, we taught at the same college before she retired. The last times we saw each other were at a UPS outpost and at a piano recital this past March, just before the coronavirus lockdown. She and her husband were there for their grandson’s recital. I was there for my husband’s, as he had taken up piano over the past few years.

They say my friend died on Saturday of a cerebral hemorrhage the day before. She went, as they say, very quickly, before we knew she had been hospitalized. Some people wondered: was it COVID19 related? They didn’t treat it as such at the time, but having learned since then the relationship between coronavirus and blood clotting, could it be? We know that black people for whatever reasons—personal history? genetic predisposition? environmental chance?—are disproportionately stricken. In any case, my friend died. She happened to be a black woman, though I saw no black in her.