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.

A shtickle of hydroxychloroquine anyone?

Sly Stone

Hot fun in the summertime. Sly and the Family Stone, 1969. Rolling Stone said of this rock group’s ethic, “If there was anything to be happy about, then everybody’d be happy about it. If there were a lot of songs to sing, then everybody got to sing. If we have something to suffer or a cross to bear–we bear it together.” Sly and his family rocked and we along with them, “Them summer days. Those summer days. That’s when I had most of my fun back.” Eh, this year, not so much.

Didier Raoult

Take yesterday as a case in point. A newly formed group in white coats calling themselves “America’s Frontline Doctors” want to wrest us from the perilizing fears that have infiltrated our COVID summer. Thus they stood before the Supreme Court to re-introduce and advocate the use of the controversial drug hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) touted by French physician and epidemiologist Didier Raoult, to stop coronavirus in its tracks.

I watched the Frontline Doctors video embedded in a friend’s post on Facebook. The video was housed on the right-of-center Breitbart News, which is likely why it’s reputation got off to a rocky start with the left. Me? I found the video compelling. By evening I noticed that a young pediatrician friend and a professor friend had each debunked the video along with a chorus of followers: the doctors were not real doctors because they weren’t wearing masks (They were out of doors, socially distanced, but no matter), and they were not in fact affiliated with any medical establishments. They had no credentials. No evidence. To be fair, the doctors were presenting the evidence of their results with HCQ in their own practices. Yet their practices were dismissed as anecdotal, insignificant, and quasi-medical.

Social media critics were questioning the doctors’ credibility without offering any sources or evidence themselves. Maybe no one cares that people dismiss doctors’ claims about coronavirus based on their experience in treating it. Maybe that sounds unreasonable. “No one had ever heard of [these doctors].” OK, but now you have; who are they? Do doctors have a right and responsibility to report their experience with a virus they have faced daily over several months? Let’s find out. While the doctors claimed that HCQ could cure COVID in its early stages, the critics said “There is no known cure for COVID.” In the world of debate we call this an appeal to ignorance: As the fallacy goes, because we don’t know something to be true, it cannot be true. We have no evidence that HCQ works, even while doctors are presenting their evidence.

At my first Facebook login of the day today, I learn that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram wasted no time in censoring the Frontline Doctors’ video. So, the doctors came back for a second round on their Supreme Court platform. They tell us that their website, too, has been taken down by its host, SquareSpace. End of controversy? Not exactly. In their second go, the doctors begin by stating credentials up front. They hail from a slew of states, hospital emergency rooms, pediatrics and family practices, all board certified. Their message: hydroxychloroquine works. It’s a form of quinine, used in this country at least since the time of George Washington.

One of the Frontline doctors, Dr. Stella Immanuel, is a Black woman from Cameroon. According her own words in the Frontline press conference, she went to medical school in Nigeria and experienced in Africa the effectiveness of HCQ and other quinine derivatives for treating illnesses. She emigrated to the United States and certified in pediatrics in Texas. She more than all the Frontline group has been ridiculed on social media and in the press. The fact that she happened also to be Christian, a minister in a church, and experienced in demonology didn’t help her cause. Madonna was quick to claim Dr. Immanuel as her new hero. (It was Madonna’s Insta account that was messed with.)

Dr. Stella Immanuel
Madonna

The Guardian labeled the Frontline Doctors’ position a coronavirus conspiracy theory. The Washington Post’s Politifact pronounced it simply false. CNN addresses the Frontliners’ claims as both false and dubious because “The claims run contrary to multiple studies on the anti-malarial drug and advice from public health officials to prevent spread of the virus.” The BBC asks why the Frontline video has been repudiated. They conclude “The debate has been increasingly dividing Americans along political lines, with proponents of hydroxychloroquine pointing to President Trump’s support of it while accusing critics of covering up its potential effectiveness.” That’s pretty close to the heart of the matter.

I hear that in France now there are Raoult hospitals and non-Raoult hospitals, reflecting the political hot potato of a potential (or faux, depending on your persuasion) coronavirus cure. So much for all for one and one for all in France or the US or perhaps around the globe. Why is that? Is science fixed, immutable? Do political affiliations certify a medical treatment’s validity or riskiness? We continue to mask, distance, and sanitize. No fun in the summertime.

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.

COVID19 Priorities: Making do versus ordering online

People are talking about reopening US society. Truth be told, they’re waging political warfare over whether or not to lighten up. Straddling the difference between liberationists and lockdowners, my husband and I are facing off against immediate exigencies of life while tentatively looking ahead. To be specific, we’re replacing a defunct internet system, enhancing outdoor spaces for fresh air living, and keeping up the family love.

It all started when we had a router go kaput. It had long since been time to replace our internet provider, but this meltdown sent us scrambling to compare megabytes per second and cumbersome wiring options for a plan. It came as news to us that helpful computer service is a no-show in the coronavirus era. Who knew that no one answers a business telephone during a pandemic, that mobile and internet services now offer virtual assistants as opposed to actual online chats staffed by people? I’ve learned that whether or not you choose one of their pre-selected questions, you will never find an answer to your unimagined question.

On day five of our attempt to set up service, Brent the technician arrived to link our new modem to an outdoor connection that turned out not to exist. Brent needed to enter our home. No problem, we said, flinging open the door, come on in! Hang social distancing; we need service. “I cannot come in,” he countered The company had ordained that no technician can enter a home over the next thirty days. WiFi meets pandemic catch-22. Time to make do with—and to be thankful for— our cell phones for the month ahead. Our humbly dated and cracked iPhones provide spotty coverage, but what’s 30 days in a daily shortening lifespan? We warily commit to pulling back from life online, that is, life without an escape hatch.

We had wandered into covid-land around the Ides of March, which meant that by mid-April, the winds had tempered, and the sun glinted across our property, welcoming deep breaths and broad social distancing. We could nimbly escape into the great outdoors simply by fluffing up our furnishings. We had acquired four lightweight woven deck chairs last Spring. We pulled them out of the shed, hosed them down, and plopped them on the deck. We can handily drag them onto the lawn, alternately following shady and sunny patches through the day. Yet, as you can see from this photo of a Summer ’19 baby birthday party, we had great chairs, but lacked a place to set a drink. To secure our escape, we were driven back into the morass of failed WiFi to search for outdoor accent furniture, that is to say cheap side tables.

The most accommodating resource legible by phone turned out to be the Home Depot website, where I spotted a stone-like cast-cement table. Alas, each one weighed 25 pounds, we’d have to move and store these over the winter months, and how could we drag them onto the lawn? Scrolling onto to page 2, I glimpsed an alternative stool/table, though on closer examination, the ivory color clashed with our chairs’ pristine white, and the little stool was made of iron, translating into soon-rusted. Several pages further, I fell upon a more promising model: white, lightweight, cheap, functional. The discovery felt like a triumph of survival in a mostly offline existence.

The online phone search is headachey, bleary-eyed drudgery. For my next quest, birth and birthday gifts for special little people in our lives, I vowed to omit the internet search altogether. Our going-on-seven grandson’s wise parents are not keen on toys or electronics. So books? Yes. An avid reader, the kid is recently hooked on TinTin. I recall that we have some vintage hardbound versions upstairs that fall into the making-do with a flair category.

Yet wouldn’t he also love a little “Milou” (Snowy)? I resort to Google after all and find a TinTin boutique. I can order a stuffed Snowy, though prices are listed in euros. Hmmm. As I add in my shipping information, the price converts to dollars, and I find I’m paying $42.50 for a 15-inch (albeit cute) stuffed dog. I check on the vintage TinTin upstairs. Oops, they’re in French, from the older French grandkids; our 7-year-old, clever though he is, does English. So much for TinTin. I order on Amazon a couple of National Geographic sea creature books, a young kid’s ball and bat set, and stick a check toward his 529 account into his card.

Attempt #2 of offline gift seeking, for a dear niece’s new baby boy arriving at the end of May. They have escaped the growing horror of virus-besieged Brooklyn and have quarantined close to their Midwest families. She (eight months along) and her husband are dropping her Brooklyn OB and resetting their life for “Baby Jolly’s” birth and the next two months. I’ve checked out their online baby registry—pretty dry. I’ll figure out something else.

We drive to the coast for some restorative beach walking the next day. I’m driving and as I drive, I plot how I might find a suitable gift. Once we arrive, I wander through the little coastal village, angling toward the beach. The tiny Peruvian alpaca shop is shuttered for the lockdown. I remember their baby sweaters, fluffy-soft but non-irritating to tender baby skin. Dang. The place is firmly closed.

I wonder—might I be able to reach someone from the store …? I call a phone number from their Facebook page and reach a gem of a man, the owner. He will meet me—gladly. He lives three blocks from the shop. He’ll send photos of the baby-size hooded sweaters. I can pick a color, give him a card number, and he’ll have it for me within the hour. Back from the beach, I stop by and knock on the window before noticing a tidy paper bag set on a display table just inside. I peek in and catch his broad smile, a responsible 6 feet away. Lifting the bag with gloved hand, I feel heroic, though of course he’s the hero. It’s a few hours later, back home, when I finally open the tissue-wrapped sweater, appliquéd with a smiling sun, seagulls, birds, and flowers. Impeccable.

I’ll wrap and post it immediately. Confounded once more, I have only scraps of wrapping paper and ribbon remnants. Fabric scraps? I’ve used or given them away. I rummage through my multicolored dish towels and find an old classic pattern in ochre, from Avignon, France, purchased during an extended stay in Provence more than a decade ago. The tea towel is still lovely, the colors vibrant, even though I detect a couple of tiny stains and a quarter-inch hole near one edge. I shrug and fold under the flaws. Tied with some raffia and a sweet card, it will work.

We’re perpetually bouncing between worlds these days. Negative and positive, the news alternately terrifies and encourages us. Inertia followed by brisk exercise becomes the daily rhythm. Online meetings, scoured data tables, and coronavirus dashboards yield to walking, gardening, and biking. We order out, but we are baking so much bread that our stores are out of yeast. We’re balancing the efficient with the gratifying. One of my sons sent a photo of a luscious multi-layered chocolate cake he baked for a friend’s birthday; we admired the texted picture, but we couldn’t taste the cake. We can Zoom but not touch. We can shop but not hand off a gift with a warm embrace. We can accomplish a task with a few clicks that neither require nor evoke a sense of pleasure. Imagination, warmth, birdsong, the scent of fresh baked bread, the tactile: all come back to us from things past, a flood of sensory memory. They bring the flow and fullness of real life.

The bold extension of self through the internet can never reach the infinitely subtle and sensitive microbits of human existence. The scale of satisfaction in our daily pursuits is being recalibrated. No doubt you can surmise which has been the most fulfilling of my recent pursuits. Which are yours? What altered colors and textures will our emergent rediscovered life hold post pandemic?