The Moving Lights of a World in Quarantine
Even during the worst of the pandemic in New York City, when the threat of the virus had emptied out the streets, the lights of Times Square stayed on, its many towering advertisements flashing and flickering. The coronavirus had driven millions of people indoors, but the city’s most recognizable plaza was illuminated—a symbol, George Lence, a spokesperson for Times Square’s sign operators, told me, of “New York’s strength and resiliency,” a marker that everything might still be fine. If Times Square—or any other famous monument in a major city—were to go dark, it would send a worrying message.Outdoor lighting signals security, a bright deterrent against misdeeds that would otherwise flourish under the cover of darkness, and that idea extends to other definitions of security. “We have this idea that light is something positive, and we are in dark times, so we need some light to brighten us up,” says Annette Krop-Benesch, a researcher in Berlin who studies the effects of artificial light on the biological rhythms of humans and animals.But Times Square was something of an aberration: Everything, of course, was not fine in the United States and beyond.From a satellite’s perspective, Earth at night, under cloudless conditions, is, in normal times, a navy-blue marble with a dusting of gold. The electric sparks of human activity shimmer in the darkness: a bustling downtown, a well-traveled highway, a fleet of container ships in open water. But when the coronavirus swept across the globe, the glow of civilization shifted from city centers to residential areas. Entire stretches of road, once shiny like strands of tinsel from car headlights, vanished from the nighttime map. As entire populations and industries curtailed their usual movements, pixels of light on satellite images rearranged themselves accordingly—a new bright cluster here, a fresh spot of darkness there.Some changes have coincided with the implementation of emergency measures meant to slow the transmission of the fast-spreading virus. The effect was stark in China, according to Qian Liu, a doctoral student in geography at George Mason University in Virginia. Liu and her fellow researchers used images from a weather satellite to examine the average nighttime radiance—a measure of artificial light on the ground—across the country’s provinces. They found that radiance levels decreased from December, when the first coronavirus cases were reported, to January and February, when officials put entire cities on strict lockdowns.Near Wuhan, the city where the virus first emerged, the data showed that residential areas brightened while commercial areas dimmed this spring—a sign that more people were staying home than usual. “In China, people’s commercial areas and living areas are separate,” Liu says. The levels appeared to return to normal as provinces lifted restrictions in March, with the exception of Hubei, where Wuhan is located, which remained under quarantine until April.Christopher Elvidge, a researcher who specializes in nighttime observations of light sources at the Colorado School of Mines, found similar effects in the U.S. Analyzing data from the same satellite that Liu’s team used, Elvidge and his colleagues found that from February to March, artificial light dimmed in states such as New York and California, which were among the first to introduce widespread stay-at-home orders, but remained unchanged in states such as Florida and Arizona, which took a less stringent approach.Satellite data might have even captured the result of plummeting oil prices. In late April, as U.S. oil prices dropped below zero for the first time in history, oil fields in Texas appeared significantly dimmer compared with satellite images taken three months earlier. As demand had diminished worldwide, oil companies had sharply cut their operations, which apparently eliminated the need to keep their deserted sites lit. The drop in oil prices may be causing some lights to go out in oil-producing parts of the world. Here, @NOAASatellites measurements of light ( over south and west Texas on 24th Jan & 24th Apr. Changes in the Permian Basin (upper L) & Eagle Ford (lower R). — Dr. John Barentine FRAS (@JohnBarentine) May 7, 2020Such views can tell us only so much, though; weather satellites aren’t spy satellites, and their resolution at night isn’t good enough to resolve small-scale sources of artificial light. When researchers spot dimming in a particular region, “we can’t necessarily say, ‘Okay, this was advertising lighting that turned off,’ or, ‘People went to bed earlier,’ or, ‘There’s less traffic,’” says Christopher Kyba, a researcher at the German Research Center for Geoscience who studies the ecological impacts of nighttime artificial light.On the ground, different cities managed the electric lights within their borders in different ways. In Spain, for example, authorities in Pamplona and A Coruña decided to turn off lighting in certain public spaces for the duration of the nationwide lockdown this spring, in part to save energy. Alejandro Sánchez de Miguel, a light-pollution researcher at the University of Exeter, says some towns even encouraged residents to turn off their lights at night so that they could see more stars in the sky than usual. (It helped that the atmosphere itself was cleaner; with fewer vehicles on the road and power plants in operation, there were fewer air pollutants to scatter light and magnify its glow.) For a few days in March, thousands of people across Italy turned off all of the lights in their home and aimed their smartphone cameras outside to collect data for researchers studying light pollution.In these metaphorically dark times, New York wasn’t the only place that tried to keep its most brilliant lights burning; parts of the world even became, for a time, significantly brighter than usual. Several locations in the United Kingdom installed blue light beams meant to pay tribute to health workers battling the pandemic. These beacons happened to turn on during the migratory bird season, when they risked luring birds away from their flight paths and disorienting them to the point of exhaustion. “Light can make people feel good and bring people together, but we need to think carefully about when and where we use it,” Kyba says.When it’s well deployed, though, light can give a glimmer of hope. For a month this spring, Matterhorn mountain in Switzerland was illuminated in bright projections each night—the flags of other nations, thank-yous written in different languages, and hashtagged advice to stay home. Such luminous shows of support appeared at other landmarks around the world, from the Great Pyramid in Egypt to the Las Vegas Strip, already one of the brightest spots on the planet as seen from space. Even if everything wasn’t fine, there were beacons to illuminate a way forward.
3 h
Republicans Are Political Distancing From Trump
Donald Trump has never been much for encouraging social distancing. He might end up getting political distancing as a result.This week, five senators announced that they will skip the Republican National Convention in August. A Republican governor up for reelection said he wouldn’t attend a Trump rally in his state. And Senator Lindsey Graham disagreed publicly with Trump for what his home-state newspaper reckoned was the fifth time in three weeks.These are unusual, though not unprecedented, cases of Republican elected officials creating space between themselves and the president, and each case has situation-specific dynamics. The coronavirus pandemic creates plausible deniability about skipping conventions and rallies.But these moves also all come in the context of widespread doomsaying about Trump’s chances in November. The president is not out but he is down, and suddenly Republicans seem to be contemplating a potential future in which he doesn’t hold sway. The officials in question either have really good reasons for why they don’t have to care about what effect Trump might have on them or have equally good reasons for why they do. We’re still far from widespread GOP abandonment of the president—but if that does happen, this is how one might expect it to begin: with the most bulletproof and most endangered politicians at the vanguard.[Read: Which Republicans opposed Donald Trump in 2016?]Of course, we’ve been here before. In 2016, many Republican leaders (elected, appointed, and self-appointed) opposed Trump’s candidacy all along. Many of those who endorsed him after he clinched the nomination then broke with him again in October, after a tape emerged in which he boasted about sexually assaulting women. The moral calculus aside, the political calculus was clear: Trump had looked likely to lose even before the Access Hollywood tape, and now it was a sure thing. Most prominently, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said he wouldn’t defend Trump and encouraged GOP office seekers to focus on their own elections, basically conceding that Trump would lose.Except: He didn’t. Trump went on to win the election a month later, and in office he proved to be swift in retribution for Republicans who crossed him. The result was that while GOP officials—even his own Cabinet members—were willing to insult and deplore the president in private, they stayed in line publicly.On occasion, Trump-aligned Republicans did criticize the president: After a white-supremacist march turned violent in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump delivered a both-sides condemnation, some elected officials upbraided him. They were aghast again after Trump’s sycophantic summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland.But in each case, they kept their criticism narrow and brief, lest they incur Trump’s wrath. If you crossed Trump, he’d make your political life hell. He might hound you into retirement; he might encourage a primary challenger and campaign for that person. Ryan was one of many Republicans to simply retire. By the time of Trump’s impeachment, Republicans in Congress had their backpedaling skills perfected. They laid out red lines for what might have been unacceptable behavior toward Ukraine, then swiftly erased them when it became clear that Trump had crossed them. In the end, no House Republicans voted to impeach, and among Senate Republicans, only Mitt Romney voted to convict, on a single count.Trump’s survival of the impeachment, despite the damning evidence, was the high-water mark of his invincibility. Then came the coronavirus, an economic collapse, and especially protests against police violence and racism, a trifecta of mishandled crises. Suddenly, the president seems on a path to defeat, an impression that has taken hold in Washington circles. “Republican strategists we’ve spoken with this week think Trump is close to the point of no return,” wrote Amy Walter of “The Cook Political Report.” “A couple of others wondered if Trump had reached his ‘Katrina’ moment: a permanent loss of trust and faith of the majority of voters.”Now there are signs of tentative breaks with Trump by Republican officeholders, although in each case they can cite mitigating factors or maintain plausible deniability. Consider the five senators skipping the RNC in Jacksonville, Florida. There’s widespread belief that holding a big in-person convention is a bad idea for public-health reasons. Three of the senators who are skipping are at high risk of illness from COVID-19 due to age: Chuck Grassley (86), Lamar Alexander (80), and Romney (73). Susan Collins says she never attends national conventions in years when she’s running.But each of these senators has other reasons for why they might not bother. Most are relative moderates, and not especially Trumpy in ideology. Romney and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have both publicly broken with Trump in recent months. (Alexander gently chastised Trump during the impeachment trial as well.) Moreover, none of them needs Trump’s help, and none of them needs fear him. Romney and Murkowski are themselves all but indestructible in their home states, and neither faces reelection for two years. Grassley is probably similarly solid, should he choose to run again in two years. Alexander is already retiring.[David A. Graham: Trump’s lost cause]Collins is a different story: She’s in the political fight of her life against the Democrat Sara Gideon, and the danger to her is that she’s too closely aligned with Trump for Maine voters—so keeping him at arm’s length has gone from being the liability it used to be for most Republicans to being a must for her. (The problem for Collins is that as politics has become more and more nationalized, it has become correspondingly difficult for moderate members of Congress to separate themselves from presidents of their own party.)Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, Governor Chris Sununu announced that he wouldn’t attend a rally on Saturday in Portsmouth, though he’ll greet Trump on arrival to the state. He, too, blamed the coronavirus.“I will not be in the crowd of thousands of people, I’m not going to put myself in the middle of a crowd of thousands of people, if that’s your question specifically,” he told CNN. “I try to—unfortunately, you know, I have to be extra cautious as the governor, I try to be extra cautious for myself, my family.”This is an implicit rebuke of Trump’s cavalier attitude toward the coronavirus, if a timid one. But not long ago, it would have seemed absurd for any sitting Republican governor to avoid a rally with Trump—especially a governor up for reelection. But Sununu, like the senators, probably just doesn’t need to worry about Trump right now. Polling on the ground is sparse, but Sununu seems to have a safe lead going into November. (One reason is public approval of his handling of COVID-19.)[Read: Can Lindsey Graham be beat?]Graham makes for the most interesting case, and also the most ambiguous. As I reported yesterday, he criticized Trump for attacking NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate battle flag from races and defended the Black driver Bubba Wallace. The State notes an emerging pattern of clear, though limited, disagreements: Since June 20, Graham has blocked a Trump U.S. attorney nominee, criticized Trump’s decision to put a temporary freeze on visas for foreign workers, split with the president about face masks during the coronavirus pandemic and pressed the administration for information about alleged Russian bounties on American soldiers. The South Carolinian was one of Trump’s most outspoken critics during the 2016 GOP primary, in which he was abortively a candidate. But after Trump took office, Graham became one of his most reliably obsequious defenders. Many columns of ink and pixels were devoted to contemplating why. One theory, pushed by Graham himself, was that cozying up to the president made it easier for him to criticize Trump and push him on pet issues, which Graham has on occasion done—especially on military policy in the Middle East.Another theory was that Graham was just being cravenly political, and knew that getting crosswise with the president would be perilous in deep-red South Carolina. But now the senator has won the GOP nomination and is headed to a general election against the Democrat Jaime Harrison. Graham is still favored, but the race should be his toughest in some time, and he may benefit from moderating his image. The election analyst Dave Wasserman tweeted, “When even Lindsey Graham starts repudiating Trump, you know it’s … oh wait, he just made it through his primary and was willing to say anything to survive all along [because] he doesn’t have a life outside of being a senator. This isn’t hard, folks.”There’s no need to choose between theories, though; both may well be true. The relevant fact is that Graham has decided it’s safe to create some distance, as have some of his colleagues. It’s all but impossible that there will be anything like a repeat of the turn against Trump in October 2016 this time around, and whether this proves to be the first augurs of broader defections or just a few isolated actions won’t be clear for some time. But Republican elected officials can see all the same polls everyone else can, plus some more, and they’re once again calculating that standing with Trump could cost them more than standing apart.
4 h
Photos: Deadly Flooding in Japan
Days of torrential rainfall in central Japan have led to extensive flooding and mudslides, leaving as many as 58 people dead so far. Rivers that overflowed their banks have swept away bridges and roads, cutting off communities and making it difficult for rescue workers to reach many areas. Emergency crews are now working against the clock, trying to find people who may still be trapped.
5 h
The Contradiction at the Heart of ‘American’ Food
Food, at its essence, is sustenance; that much is simple. Where things get complicated is in all the manifold ways it sustains us. Consider the burrito. In the first episode of Padma Lakshmi’s new Hulu show, Taste the Nation, the food writer and longtime Top Chef host travels to El Paso, Texas, where she attempts to isolate all the different ingredients in one of America’s favorite dishes. At the Jalisco Cafe, a chef griddling oozy eggs with beans on a stovetop tells her that the perfect burrito comes down to an attention to detail. The dish, another interviewee tells Lakshmi, is pure practical convenience: It’s quick to assemble and eat on the way to work. It can also signify a mother’s love, a whole meal swaddled in a pillowy tortilla and tucked into a child’s pocket before the day begins. And, in a city where the hum of helicopters surveying the border adds ambient foreboding to every interaction, burritos also represent the essence of American food: cuisine from one culture cloaked in the imposed ingredients of another (in this case, wheat flour). “A burrito,” Lakshmi observes, “is tradition wrapped in colonization.”Lakshmi has been a graceful, gamine presence on American TV screens for almost 15 years now, so familiar from her Top Chef duties that the significance of Taste the Nation feels almost underplayed. On camera, she’s engagingly ribald, describing a razor clam as “phallic, elephantine” and good-naturedly scarfing down stadium food in a triptych of shots that radiate an absurd sensuality. Lakshmi’s flirtatious manner, her unquenchable glamor, allow her to Trojan-horse Taste the Nation’s true intentions for viewers who might be expecting a vaguely patriotic travelogue through America’s most iconic meals. What she’s offering instead is one of the most fascinating food series to emerge in recent years: a ruthless indictment of how a nation’s cultural heritage has been constructed out of the people and traditions that it has consistently and brutally rejected.[Read: Uncovering the roots of Caribbean cooking]Initially, Taste the Nation wasn’t even supposed to be about food. After the 2016 election, she told Eater, Lakshmi was working with the American Civil Liberties Union and had decided to research a project on immigration, as an immigrant who was offended by the rhetoric coming out of the White House. She landed on food as a way to become more intimately acquainted with some of the communities she wanted to investigate. But what becomes clear through the series’s 10 episodes is how distinctly American cuisine encapsulates a paradox, in which dishes made by immigrants are quickly appropriated as national staples while the people who make them are rejected over generations. Perhaps because a country founded on the violent displacement of Native Americans will always expect violence from successive new arrivals, wave after wave of immigrants has tried to use food as a pacifying, neutralizing force. “It’s all ‘Don’t be scared of us,’” is how the comedian Ali Wong characterizes Americanized Chinese food to Lakshmi as the pair eat their way through San Francisco’s Chinatown. At the end of the El Paso episode, Lakshmi idly mulls why shared tastes can’t bring people together in a more substantial way. “Who,” she ponders, “doesn’t love a taco?”This knife-edge dance between adoption and rejection comes to define Taste the Nation, as Lakshmi considers what a particular dish or place reveals about immigration, assimilation, and the hunger for home. In Milwaukee, she examines how the seemingly effortless absorption of hot dogs and lager as American staples belies an uneasy history of German immigration to the United States. In an episode dedicated to chop suey, a dish almost totally removed from authentic Chinese cooking, she explores its enthusiastic U.S. adoption in the 19th century even as Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred immigrants from China for decades. “How do you convey who you really are in a place where nobody understands you?” Lakshmi asks in one episode. Taste the Nation also conveys how often authenticity and uniqueness have to be sacrificed in the quest to be accepted.[Read: The history behind one of America’s most beloved desserts]At home, in New York, Lakshmi shares her mother’s story of coming to this country in search of a better life, and cooks coriander chicken with a pioneer in the mainstreaming of Indian food, Madhur Jaffrey. Lakshmi is particularly attuned to the women she interviews, and to their understanding of food as a totem of love, security, and prosperity. “Your mom was like me,” a Peruvian immigrant named Aida tells Lakshmi in one scene, raising a toast to the bravery of another woman who made a leap into the unknown. Saipin Chutima, who has become the doyenne of high-end Thai cuisine in Las Vegas, explains that when American diners initially rejected her cooking because they were used to greasy, inexpensive Thai fare, “I was not afraid, because I have 10 fingers; I can do anything.”In the series’s most striking episodes, Lakshmi looks at communities whose traditions and history tend not to be included in kitschy celebrations of culinary Americana. One features the Gullah Geechee people of the southern coast, described by Lakshmi as among “the most beautiful cultures you may have never heard of,” whose ancestors were enslaved and transported to America to turn swampland into rice fields. With the culinary historian Michael Twitty, Lakshmi makes red rice, a meal whose varying components traditionally came from whatever happened to be available. At this point in history, the dish has been so broadly incorporated into southern cooking that even Martha Stewart has a recipe for it. But as Lakshmi and Twitty prepare it, the context they provide adds fraught symbolism: the wealth of the early American economy built on the blood and forced labor of enslaved people. It’s this quality, the particular “dichotomy of the splendor and the suffering,” Lakshmi argues, that truly defines American cuisine as a whole.[Read: F]oodie culture as we know it is overDiners, Drive-Ins, and Dives the show isn’t. Still, for all the comparisons it has garnered to adventuristic travelogues like Parts Unknown, Taste the Nation kept reminding me of Guy Fieri’s long-running Food Network series, an unabashedly populist celebration of “real” American food. Fieri, with his cherry-red hot rods and his unique bowling-shirt chic, is the antithesis of a food snob, as enamored of a deep fryer as he is of a farm-to-table joint. His conception of American cuisine has always been an inclusive one. Bosnian refugees, Jamaican matriarchs, British purveyors of pub fare—all are welcome in Flavortown. But while Fieri makes acceptance seem easy, Lakshmi exposes the overlooked battles that have defined the making of the American melting pot. She documents how Indigenous food traditions were lost when Native Americans were forcibly removed from their land and given government-supplied commodity foods that made them sick. She considers questions of food sovereignty, colonization, and trauma. She does all this with a kind of educated breeziness, and speech peppered with colloquial “dudes” and “mans” that resists heaviness, but respects viewers’ ability to figure things out for themselves.At the end of the El Paso episode, Lakshmi interviews Maynard Haddad, a second-generation Syrian American entrepreneur who owns the H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop, a Tex-Mex restaurant. Haddad employs a number of Mexican cooks who cross the border every day to get to work. He also voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and expresses no reservations about doing so, although he’s irked by how much harder his chefs’ commutes have become. Lakshmi doesn’t press him on the disconnect. She wanted, she told Eater, to document his point of view, not try to manipulate it. She’s been criticized for this unwillingness to hold to account someone with views that directly threaten his staff’s lives and livelihoods, and for her faintly platitudinous conclusion that food might be able to unite people divided by much more than physical borders. But the episode has already exposed the conflict at the heart of American cooking, the inequity of a culture that gets to selectively take and absorb whatever it wants without having to offer anything significant in return. Haddad can profit from Mexican food and the labor of migrant workers while directly betraying those same employees because that’s exactly what American cuisine has always done.
6 h
Mike Pence’s Entire Future Runs Through Trump
In private moments, Donald Trump has told aides that he rescued Mike Pence from a potentially embarrassing defeat by pulling him out of a tough reelection bid in the 2016 Indiana governor’s race and putting him on the ticket, a former White House official told me. Now it’s Vice President Pence’s turn to see what, if anything, he can do to rescue Trump from a more momentous loss—and keep alive a long-held ambition to win the presidency in his own right.Their fates, at this point, are wholly entwined. Pence would have trouble winning in 2024 if voters repudiate Trump in November. Yet even if he runs after a second Trump term, he’d surely be tarnished by the rolling tragedies of 2020. For three years, Pence largely sidestepped Trump’s unending dramas. Not so with the pandemic. Trump pulled Pence from the bubble wrap and plunked him into a crisis, making him head of the coronavirus task force overwhelmed by COVID-19’s relentless spread. Now Pence is forever tied to the government’s botched response. And that’s something he’ll need to defend and explain as the current campaign ramps up, and if he ever runs for the higher office he’s long prized.“You get the Trump stink on you, it’s hard to get it off,” said the former official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely.For the moment, Pence needs to help salvage a campaign whose prospects look bleak. Trump has made the race a referendum on him. Part of Pence’s role is convincing voters that there’s something in it for them. In the coming months, he will spend several days a week visiting crucial swing states, a campaign adviser told me. Pence will approach each state as if he’s running to be its governor, zeroing in on local issues important to voters’ daily lives, the adviser said, and he’ll try to showcase the federal grants and other benefits the Trump administration has dished out. He’ll also talk about the stakes in broader terms, if past speeches are a guide. At the president’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last month, Pence predicted that Biden would appoint “activist” judges, weaken border security, and harm the economy through expanded government regulation.[Read: Trump’s blank vision for a second term]Staff may try to recruit some surprise guests along the way, perhaps inviting former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan to join Pence on a Wisconsin bus tour, where the pair could “tool around from Appleton to La Crosse at some point,” the adviser told me. (Ryan, who hasn’t joined Pence for past campaign stops, has feuded with Trump for years, though he’s stayed on good terms with his onetime colleague Pence, a former Indiana congressman.)If there’s an organizing theme to Pence’s vice presidency, it’s that he must never offend a man whose emotional antennae quiver at any slight. That means he’s perennially validating a president who insists the pandemic is under control when reality screams that it’s not. Privately, he is under no illusions about the crisis, people who work with him have told me. “He never shoots the messenger,” one member of the task force said. “If you tell him something that the administration won’t like or the president won’t like, you never get the impression that he’s saying, ‘Enough of that, let’s move on to the next topic.’ He hears you out.” (Trump, meantime, has turned on the government’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony Fauci, telling an interviewer this week that he disagrees with Fauci’s warnings about the virus and believes “we are in a good place.”)Pence knows it’s important to wear masks; he grasps that the virus is a serious public-health threat; and he appreciates the governors who have played a prominent role in combatting the disease, the people who’ve worked with him told me. One governor’s office sent me notes of a private conference call last month with Pence and governors from both parties. Pence delivered a more supportive message than Americans typically hear from Trump, who has scolded some Democratic governors for failing to “liberate” their states. The notes show Pence saying, “We’re with you,” while commending states that have “taken prudent steps to pause reopening” because of the spike in new infections.In public, Pence takes pains to ensure he and the president are aligned. On June 26, at the task force’s first public briefing in two months, he delivered the Trumpian message that “truly remarkable progress” had been made fighting the coronavirus, despite a worrisome rise in cases in dozens of states.I asked the task-force member why, at times, Pence hasn’t worn a mask in public to model responsible behavior. Is it because he doesn’t want Trump to see and take umbrage? “That’s the only reason,” this person said. “He’ll wear it in a microsecond. He doesn’t want to egregiously look like he’s opposing the president.” (Asked about Pence’s mask-wearing message, John Fea, the historian and author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, referenced Pence’s Christian identity: “You can’t apply these scriptural ideas about loving your neighbor until you first understand that actually wearing a mask is to protect your neighbor.”)Even if he’s mirrored the president in his public comments about the virus, Pence will campaign in his own style. Normally, vice-presidential nominees are the ones who level the most pointed attacks, while presidents try to be the statesmen. Here, the roles are reversed. Trump is only too happy to stick nicknames on Biden and question his mental capacity, while Pence—avoiding visceral attacks—talks policy and draws more substantive contrasts with Biden’s record.Whether anyone’s listening to what Pence has to say is another matter. The bottom half of the ticket seldom decides presidential races. And, in any case, Pence is defending a record that looks more damaged by the day. The pandemic is getting worse, not better. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Three-quarters of voters believe that the country is on the wrong track.By some measures, Pence’s undimmed loyalty to Trump has paid off. He’s one of the few senior officials whom Trump hasn’t marginalized and, partly as a consequence, his presidential aspirations are still within reach. He considered jumping into the 2012 presidential race when he was in the House, but instead chose a different office. “I counseled him: Don’t run for president now, run for governor,” said former Vice President Dan Quayle, who viewed the Indiana governor’s office as a more viable springboard to the presidency. Quayle, Pence’s friend for more than 30 years, thinks he’ll run for president four years from now, though he said they haven’t spoken about it. “He’s been an effective and loyal vice president to Donald Trump,” Quayle said. “I would think he’d get a lot of credit for that. But it’s not automatic.” (One White House official told me that Pence is “entirely focused on helping this ticket win in November 2020.”)[Read: God’s plan for Mike Pence]If he runs in 2024, Pence will need to stay in Trump’s favor. And that’s no easy thing. His allegiance hasn’t stopped Trump from questioning his value. Inside the White House, Trump has mused about whether Pence pulls in enough voters beyond Christian conservatives, the ex–White House official told me. In reply, aides would tell Trump: “Be careful, he brought an awful lot of votes your way and if you’re seen to be turning your back on the evangelicals, you may be in trouble,” this person said. (White House spokesman Judd Deere told me in a statement that “any suggestion that President Trump does not appreciate and value Vice President Pence’s advice, experience, and skill is simply false and complete fabrication.”)How exactly Pence stays on Trump’s right side is something of a mystery. Obsequiousness is surely part of it. Last year, Pence gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference and in the course of the half-hour address he mentioned the president’s name 30 times—once per minute. (In his own half-hour speech at the same conference in 2015, then-Vice President Biden mentioned his boss, Barack Obama, just one time.) A European official who attended Pence’s speech told me he was approached later by a Chinese diplomat who confided that the performance reminded him of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, “where you had to mention the name of the ‘Great Leader’ every third sentence.”“There’s no more loyal person who truly believes in President Donald Trump and all his accomplishments than Mike Pence,” said one senior Trump administration aide, when I asked about Pence’s unstinting praise.Even some senior White House officials have seemed unsure of what goes on between the pair when they talk alone. Pence tends to be reticent in larger staff meetings, former aides have told me. John Bolton, the president’s former national-security adviser, writes in his new book, The Room Where It Happened, that he suspected Pence “did much of his best work in private conversations with Trump.”On the campaign trail this summer and fall, Pence could face pressure to speak more openly about the administration’s pandemic response and his own role leading the task force. That pressure will be inescapable if he runs for president. “Trump’s legacy, which doesn’t look particularly good at this point, will certainly splash hard onto Pence,” Charlie Dent, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, told me.At least one of his former associates has echoed that warning. After Pence won an Indiana congressional race in 2000, he would meet with Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister, and pray and read scripture together. Schenck sees two warring and unresolved dimensions of Pence’s personality, ambition and altruism, and says one seems to be crowding out the other. “If he were to seek pastoral counseling from me, I would say to him, ‘Brother Mike, Jesus commands you to love your neighbor, not love your boss,’” said Schenck, who plans to vote for Biden, the first Democrat he’s supported in a presidential race since Jimmy Carter in 1976. “That’s not God’s command.”A couple of years ago, Schenck sent a letter to Pence after seeing him at a swearing-in ceremony for Sam Brownback, the administration’s ambassador for international religious freedom. In the letter, Schenck cited the commandment that warns against bearing false witness. “I conveyed in the letter that that was one of the greatest failures of this administration: truth-telling,” Schenck told me. “I was trying to say to him, ‘You need to be a truth-teller.’” He never got a reply.
9 h
Releasing People From Prison Is Easier Said Than Done
If the coronavirus were to design its ideal home, it would build a prison. Inmates are packed together day and night; social distancing, frequent hand-washing, and mask wearing are fantasies. Many inmates are old, sick, and prone to infection. Most prisons are operating near capacity; some house more prisoners than they were built for. The five largest clusters of the virus are in prisons; in Marion County, Ohio, 95 percent of inmates tested positive.The stark and irrefutable images of police officers killing Black men and women for small infractions have sparked protests and a larger rethinking of how America treats people who cross paths with the criminal-justice system. Even before the killing of George Floyd, the public and politicians had grown troubled by a less visible but still shocking death toll behind bars, where inmates are trapped as the virus spreads, effectively turning their prison sentences into death sentences. How do we stem the wave of infections? The answer, according to many advocates, is simple: Release prisoners.Some governors, alarmed at the deaths in prisons and jails and worried about the risk to surrounding communities, are listening—sort of, with an ear attuned to the political liability. More than half of the states have agreed to release people convicted of low-level crimes, people who are nearing the end of their sentences, or people who merit compassionate release, such as pregnant people or older, vulnerable inmates.“It’s been helpful. I know that people have gotten out, and I am moved by their release,” says Nicole Porter, the director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project, a research organization that campaigns for sentencing reform. “But none of it has been substantial. And what I hope this moment tells us is that our incarceration rate is a function of politics—because there are many questions about who needs to be incarcerated.”“We’re barely scraping the surface,” says Abbe Smith, a professor at Georgetown Law School and the author of Guilty People. “Even if we release the low-hanging fruit,” Smith says—what she calls the “non non non”: nonserious, nonviolent, nonsex offenders—“that wouldn’t make a dent.”[Barbara Bradley Hagerty: Innocent prisoners are going to die of the coronavirus]To meaningfully reduce America’s prison population and slow the pandemic will require cutting away not just fat but muscle, releasing not just nonviolent drug offenders but those convicted of violent crimes. The difficulty of doing so, in both practical and moral terms, is enormous. Which people convicted of murder or armed robbery do we release? How do we decide? And how do we guarantee that they won’t offend again, especially as they try to restart their life during the worst economic collapse in nearly a century?In one way, the pandemic has created the perfect justification for releasing people convicted of violent crimes—stopping the virus. But at the same time, it has created the worst possible conditions for their release: They will struggle to find jobs; the organizations devoted to helping them will be strapped for funds; housing and even food may be out of reach. John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University and the author of Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, notes that in this economy, we could see an uptick in crime. “People would say: ‘Bob was released early from jail and he went off and committed this robbery,’” he says. “And the real reason for the robbery is that Bob got released early and there were no jobs; therefore, he committed the robbery. But if you’re a police chief or a [district attorney], it’s very easy to turn the economic-driven crime into criminal-justice-reform-driven crimes.” That is his nightmare, and it’s easy to see why.(Nina Berman / NOOR /Redux)advocates say prisons are brimming with candidates who deserve a second chance—men and women who made egregious mistakes when they were young, whose crimes say more about the impulsiveness of youth and the trickiness of navigating inner-city violence than they do about character. Yet in large part, these are not people whom the system has been preparing for release.Prison can serve many purposes—to deter people from committing crimes in the first place, to punish them if they do, or to rehabilitate them and usher them back to normal life. America has by and large chosen the punitive path, imposing decades-long sentences intended to reduce crime on the streets. During that time, inmates usually don’t receive the kind of training or care that would enable them to return to the outside world and build a new, stable life. This presents a giant hurdle for those who would wish to release prisoners now.“Prison doesn’t rehabilitate you,” said Angelo Robinson, who served more than 20 years for murder. In many ways, he told me, life in prison is no different from life on the streets. “As far as the drugs, the killing, the fighting, it’s all in prison as well. The guards don’t come in there and try to help change you. No, they come there with their problems as well.” Any propulsion toward redemption comes from within. “You have to want to change your life. And a lot of guys there don’t want to.”[Read: Quarantine could change how Americans think of incarceration]Robinson’s prison story begins around 10 p.m. on February 17, 1997, as he and a few friends were doing business in an apartment in Cincinnati’s West End neighborhood. Robinson, who was 20, was locked in the bedroom, guarding the stash of crack, when he heard the front door burst open, screams, and gunfire moving down the hall toward the bedroom. “I just thought, I’m a dead man,” Robinson recalled. He shot through the bedroom door, and when the apartment fell quiet, he found his friend, Veronica Jackson, dead in the hallway. Not until days later did he learn that it was his bullet that had killed her. “I felt horrible,” he said. “I took someone from her family. She had children. I think about it every single day.”Prosecutors offered him 14 years if he would agree to plead guilty to manslaughter. Robinson thought he could prove self-defense, and opted for a trial. A jury convicted him of murder and sentenced him to 29 years to life.Robinson’s is one story in the larger narrative of how America’s inmate population has more than quadrupled since 1981, turning prisons into crowded, unsanitary places just waiting for an infectious disease to arrive. Since the dawn of the tough-on-crime era, people convicted of violent and even some nonviolent crimes have received ever-longer sentences. This is not because Americans have become more savage; in fact, rates of violent crime have fallen by 50 percent since the early 1990s. But even as street violence has been quelled, time served in prison for homicide and non-negligent manslaughter has tripled, and one out of seven inmates will be in prison for life. New offenders arrive and old offenders take years to leave; prison is like a dam with no outlet, and today the reservoir is flooding its banks.This unforgiving policy has an emotional appeal to voters, perhaps, but defies logic based on statistics. “Why should we lock someone up for 50 years?” Pfaff asks. No other Western country does that, he says, and the social science is “unambiguously clear” that people age into and out of violent behavior. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, homicide arrests peak at age 19; arrests for forcible rape peak at 18. “A 50- or 60-year-old person is just not the violent person that they were when they were 20,” Pfaff says.These long sentences sprang from a retributive mentality, but they also signal the smartest way to thin the ranks of prisoners during a pandemic: Start with older prisoners. “Every year we keep somebody in prison after 30, and certainly after 40 or 50, we’re getting diminishing returns for public safety,” says Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project. Meanwhile, Mauer says, because of poor health care, aging prisoners are growing sicker and more expensive by the year. “The costs become enormous to prevent less and less crime over time.”Of course, these numbers don’t account for the social cost of long sentences, the loss of a father or mother or son, the emotional strain, the dismantling of community, the hopelessness that comes when a young man is warehoused in prison for the rest of his life. For several years, Robinson marinated in that loss, until one day he thought, “You can’t just sit here and rot.” He decided to get an education.[Read: How Biden killed prison education]Here he smacked into a roadblock to not just personal fulfillment but rehabilitation, which is, in theory at least, a cornerstone of prison. Typically, the classes, apprenticeships, and programming that might prepare an inmate to reenter society are a scarce resource given first to inmates who are within a year of release, according to experts such as Mauer. “And here I was, 29 to life,” Robinson said. “I was the last on the list.” Robinson decided to figure out another way. He snuck into classes and audited them. He managed to earn his GED, whose test is available to most prisoners. He taught himself Spanish and sign language; he learned to read music and play the guitar. He applied himself to his work, learned how to operate a forklift, to upholster furniture, to cook.The prioritization of inmates close to release penalizes prisoners like Robinson, who have long sentences but the possibility of parole, Mauer says. The parole board considers not just bad behavior but good, not just disciplinary actions but also classes and apprenticeships, which indicate that you want to better yourself. Someone like Robinson would come up short, “not because you don’t care, but because you haven’t had access to programs,” Mauer says. “So they say, ‘You’re denied, because you don’t have a good prison record.’”But Robinson was, for once, lucky. In 2012, David Singleton, the executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, represented him in a civil-rights lawsuit, forcing the prison to allow him to receive a needed surgery. “I knew this is somebody I’d love to be my neighbor one day,” Singleton says. Over the next few years, Singleton, who is also a professor at Northern Kentucky University’s Chase College of Law and a former public defender, developed a counterintuitive approach: Persuade the people who put the criminal in prison to advocate for his release. Last year, the Ohio Justice and Policy Center launched Beyond Guilt, a program that works with prosecutors and victims’ families to secure the release of those convicted of more serious crimes, including violent offenses.“We’re the Guilty Project,” Singleton says, laughing. “We want to represent people who are guilty but who are still human beings and deserve to not be written off.” To be considered, a prisoner must have admitted his guilt, served a significant part of his sentence, and demonstrated evidence of rehabilitation, whether formally, through classes, or reputationally, by mentoring and being a force for good in prison. The project also looks for people who have aged out of crime: those convicted in their teens and early 20s, but who have had a few years for their behavior to mellow. [Read: Mass incarceration is making infectious disease worse]Robinson became the project’s first client. Singleton approached members of Veronica Jackson’s family about supporting his release, and all but one relative agreed. “He was a young man when this crime happened and he has served long enough,” the victim’s sister, Sarah Jackson, wrote in an affidavit. “It’s time for him to come home to his family.” The victim’s son, Clifford Jackson, had expressed reservations in the past, telling The New York Times in July 2019: “We were never compensated for anything. We’re only compensated by his time.” He could not be reached for comment for this story. Steve Tolbert, the chief assistant prosecutor for Hamilton County, Ohio, joined Singleton to petition the court for Robinson’s release. “Morally, it just feels right,” Tolbert told me. “This person made a huge mistake, and we’re willing to take that chance in these limited circumstances.” On August 1, 2019, Robinson pleaded guilty to manslaughter and walked out of prison. He had spent 22 years, more than half his life, behind bars, but at 43, he hoped to spend the rest of his life free.Last year, 15 people convicted of violent crimes—including three convicted of murder—were freed thanks to Beyond Guilt. Singleton says they are all “adjusting well to the ups and downs of life”—no small thing during a recession and a pandemic. But the story is as daunting as it is encouraging. Unless governors unilaterally release large numbers of people—an extremely unlikely prospect—these inmates will be the rarest of exceptions. How many prosecutors are willing to petition a court for the release of a criminal convicted of violence? How many victims’ families will support the freedom of a man who raped or killed or beat their sister? How many other legal organizations have the money or staff to fight this painstaking, time-consuming battle? As far as I can tell: close to zero. Last year, Beyond Guilt reduced Ohio’s 49,000-person prison population by 0.0003 percent. It’s like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.Angelo Robinson (Maddie McGarvey / The ​New York Times / Redux)for those who do make it out, building a stable life could seem all but impossible during the pandemic. It was already hard enough in normal times. Michelle Robinson knows this well.On the night of April 4, 2007, Robinson (no relation to Angelo) allowed two male acquaintances into her apartment so that they could rob her friend, William Means, who was spending the evening there. Means had a job and money, and during the robbery, one of the men drew a gun and shot Means to death. The prosecutor offered Robinson 10 years if she pleaded guilty to manslaughter and robbery, but on advice of her attorney, she turned it down. She was sentenced to 18 years to life. In prison, she rose to the status of an “honor lifer,” running classes for other inmates, and earning certificates in janitorial and electrical work. In 2019, Singleton and Tolbert, the prosecutor, persuaded a court to let her accept the plea she had rejected a decade earlier, and free her with time served.The return to civilian life, particularly for those who have spent a decade or more in prison, can be a disorienting, uphill climb. Finding an apartment, landing a job, applying for a driver’s license, paying off debts such as child-support payments when you’ve been earning 40 cents an hour—all of these make the transition a Sisyphean task. State and local governments have no obligation to help a prisoner reenter society. “They don’t have to do a thing,” Mauer notes, “and in most cases, they do a very inadequate job.”Some cities, such as New York, offer a range of programs—job training and placement, affordable housing, drug-treatment programs—often by funding nonprofit community or religious organizations. But if you’re unlucky enough to be from, say, rural Alabama or Mississippi—almost any rural community, in fact—you’re pretty much on your own.[Read: A prison lifer comes home]The pandemic exacerbates the problem. Could these organizations, already operating on goodwill and a shoestring, handle hundreds or thousands of people released at once? “That would stretch [them] to the limits,” Singleton says.“Every single state is going to go through a financial crisis,” says Arthur Rizer, the director of Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties at the R Street Institute, a center-right think tank. “Where are they going to cut their money? It’s not going to be from Main Street. It’s definitely not going to be Wall Street. It’s going to be from the services that provide the types of things that these people need to come back to the fold.”Last summer, when Michelle Robinson left prison, the marketplace was ravenous for labor, and her reentry proceeded relatively smoothly. She moved in with her daughter, and landed a job with a company that cleaned up houses damaged by floods, fires, and other natural disasters. “I had a good job ’til this COVID-19 started,” she says. She was laid off in March, when the state locked down and the company’s contracts disappeared. She would fire up the computer three or four times a day and apply for every job she could find, reluctantly checking the box inquiring about felony convictions. She rarely heard back. “Tyson Foods hires felons, but they’re at their max. Servpro hires felons, but they’re at their max.” So does Kroger, but her conviction is “too fresh.” She can’t work at drive-throughs: “With a robbery on there, they don’t want me counting money.” After three months, she finally landed a job at a restaurant.Prisoners released today will face a market with more than 11 percent unemployment. They will compete with people with clean records, and depending on how long they’ve been incarcerated, they won’t possess the technological skills expected in a modern workplace. They’re at a serious disadvantage. Except for this: They’re desperate. “The people we get out of prison will be willing to do the frontline jobs where they’re at risk,” Singleton says. “It’s almost like they can’t be at more risk than they are in prison.”With nearly 400 cases of COVID-19 having been diagnosed among the inmates and employees, Cook County Jail in Cook County, Illinois is the nation’s largest-known source of coronavirus infections. (Scott Olson / Getty)those are the practical challenges. The moral question—who deserves to be released?—is even more daunting. Is the inmate truly penitent, or merely saying the right words? Has he matured past his violent tendencies, or is he a tinderbox waiting to ignite once he’s out? Does the family of the victim agree, or will his release only add to their pain? Is the crime simply so heinous that even a perfect record cannot overcome it?Consider the case of Nathaniel Jackson, who happens to be a relative of Veronica, Sarah, and Clifford. (Singleton learned of Nathaniel Jackson’s case when he worked to help free Angelo Robinson. When Jackson's family saw how Singleton helped secure Robinson's release, they asked him to look into Nathaniel's case.) In October 1990, Jackson, a 26-year-old drug dealer in Cincinnati, came to believe that a man named James Foster had stolen cocaine from him. Jackson and his associates snatched Foster, doused him with gasoline, and set him on fire. The young man survived, with burns on more than 70 percent of his body. Jackson and his friends were charged with attempted murder, but four days before trial, they had Foster killed. Jackson was later convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to 23 years to life.Jackson has now spent 28 years in prison, and where some see a callous murderer, others see a man transformed. “His mission in life now is to get out and keep young people from making his mistakes,” Singleton says. “He’s a good man now. He did bad shit before. But he’s totally changed.”[Conor Friedersdorf: Why second chances for prisoners are so hard to come by]Singleton believes that Jackson deserves a second chance. But there are few exits for prisoners serving long sentences for violent crimes. There are no laws that invite judges to reconsider long sentences: Bills that would do so, called “second-look acts,” have been introduced in 18 states and the Senate, but none has passed. Most prisoners eventually come up for parole, but experts say parole is usually denied year after year, often because of the seriousness of the crime, which of course will never change. Jackson, for example, was denied parole in November. Governors sometimes pardon inmates, but they are disinclined to show mercy toward men like Jackson, even if they no longer pose a danger to society. Even with the threat of a deadly virus, so far governors have drawn the line at violence. “Governors are making a very calculating decision that it’s probably better for them politically for 10 men to preventively die in prison from COVID than for one of them to do something wrong if he’s released early,” says Fordham’s John Pfaff. “We don’t view these deaths as all that problematic.”Jackson is so far Singleton’s riskiest proposition. But the lawyer believes that Jackson’s prison record proves he’s worth the risk. He has been moved to a minimum-security facility. According to guards, staff, and volunteers who work with him, Jackson is a “model inmate,” a mentor for younger men, a “spiritual role model” because of his strong Christian faith; his “exuberance and zeal for recovery has been infectious.” He received top ratings for his behavior in prison and on the job, as a forklift operator and an upholsterer. “I am still working on myself,” he wrote me in an email. “I am truly an asset to the community which I am in now, but truly want to do a much better job once Mr. David helps me get released.”Singleton recently sent a petition to Steve Tolbert. While Tolbert has proved amenable to petitions in the past, he wishes the Jackson case would just go away. “If we were to go along with this, this would be the toughest call we’ve ever made,” Tolbert told me. “I mean, he set a guy on fire.” Then he had the victim killed. Tolbert hasn’t decided yet, but “I would not go to the local casino tonight and bet on this one happening.”“Maybe he has reformed,” observes Donna Foster, the victim’s mother, “but I wish he had reformed before he killed my son.” She says she won’t block his release, but won’t support it either. Still, she’s puzzled: Why free Nathaniel Jackson? Why does he deserve a second chance? “My son will never be able to walk the streets again,” she says. “I will never have any grandkids by my son. I will never go to his wedding. It’s over.”Perhaps Jackson is a new man; perhaps he has paid his debt in full. But is this the risk that prosecutors and judges want to take? Is this a person who has earned the forgiveness of his victim’s mother and siblings? Even if Jackson no longer poses a danger, can society forget that murder, so breathtaking in its violence? Even during a pandemic, Jackson is a hard case, but it’s likely that if we start considering large releases of people convicted of violence, there will be far more hard cases than easy ones.(Julie Jacobson / AP)the pandemic is inducing governments to engage in some complicated accounting: compassion and the prospect of redemption on one side of the ledger, retribution and the risk of unleashing new violence into the community on the other. One bad case could torpedo all the progress, Tolbert worries. “The future of this [Beyond Guilt] program depends upon every one of these people,” he said. If a prisoner gets out Friday and assaults someone on Saturday, there would be two casualties: the victim of the crime, and the prison-reform movement. If a prisoner released through Beyond Guilt makes a violent mistake, “this whole program is going to look really, really bad and the plug is going to get pulled.”[Read: An Airbnb for the formerly incarcerated]That question—what if it backfires?—keeps prison-reform advocates like Arthur Rizer at the R Street Institute staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night. “I already feel it in my bones—the next wave of the Willie Horton ads,” Rizer says. In 1986, Horton, who had been convicted of murder, was allowed a weekend out of prison as part of a Massachusetts furlough program. He fled, raped a woman, and knifed her fiancé, before being captured. Aside from sinking the presidential hopes of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988, the Horton fiasco prompted furlough programs to be canceled across the country. “So what happens when one person is a COVID release and then they commit a brutal, horrible crime?” Rizer asks. “You’re going to have people run, run their campaigns on: We need to put more people in prison.”But what if this radical idea works? What if Angelo Robinson builds a career, has a family, pays taxes? The man who once committed a homicide now works as a machinist at Meyer Tool. He’s been promoted after less than a year, and the company is paying his tuition at Cincinnati State, where he’s earning a software-engineering degree. At night, Robinson works construction, remodeling houses. He sees his daughter every week, and he’s saved enough money to get a mortgage and start looking for a home to buy. “I’m ecstatic,” he told me. “When I wake up in the morning, I say to myself, It’s a new life for me.”Robinson’s story is, so far, a happy one. But if the country is to chip away at prison overcrowding, if the country wants to stave off the next wave of COVID-19 sweeping through prisons, or the next infectious disease, or the next, his story will have to be repeated not 10 or 20 times, but thousands of times.
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A Nationalist’s Guide to Stepping Back From the Brink
When a deadly standoff on a disputed stretch of border between India and China resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers (and an unconfirmed number of Chinese casualties), a response from New Delhi seemed inevitable. It was the worst violence to take place between the two countries in nearly half a century—one which each side has since faulted the other for. It also comes at a time when the two countries are being led by strongmen who are under immense pressure not to lose face.In the weeks since, though, no such response has materialized. Despite growing calls in India for a boycott of Chinese goods, Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping have focused on downplaying the situation, with the former opting thus far for symbolic retaliatory measures such as the recent ban on dozens of Chinese mobile apps, including WeChat and TikTok. De-escalation is easier for Xi, whose tight grip gives him greater control over the Chinese national narrative; it is less easy for Modi, whose population has begun to view China not only as India’s rival, but as its chief threat. Though recent polling shows that a majority of Indians trust the prime minister to safeguard their national security, they also expect him to take a harsher stance against Beijing. Some people have even taken to destroying Chinese-made products as a form of protest.Modi’s efforts to reduce tensions while placating his voters expose something of a strongman paradox—one in which the prime minister, whose leadership has projected a hawkish and muscular image, must contend with the reality that India cannot afford a full-scale economic retaliation against China, let alone a military one. They also offer a case study for how nationalist leaders can back down from confrontation while still saving face.Modi’s tenure as prime minister has largely been defined by hard-line politics reflective of his Hindu nationalist agenda. Though not all of his policies have been uniformly popular—his decisions to revoke the constitutional autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir and impose a religious test on those seeking a path to citizenship from three neighboring countries, for example, generated mass protests—he has nonetheless maintained a broad base of support. Even amid the health and economic uncertainties brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Modi’s approval rating has recently towered as high as 74 percent—a level of popularity that has eluded other nationalist leaders such as Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Vladimir Putin in Russia.[Read: Indians aren’t buying China’s narrative]Yet as popular as Modi’s efforts have proved domestically, they haven’t necessarily helped him navigate India’s tense, albeit typically stable, relationship with its largest neighbor. Though India and China have enjoyed 70 years of diplomatic relations, they have also weathered a number of challenges—including a war over their disputed border in 1962 (which China won), their respective relationships with Pakistan (an adversary to New Delhi, but an ally to Beijing), and other long-standing issues such as the status of Kashmir (to which China lays some territorial claim). Last month’s deadly standoff in the Himalayas, in which Indian and Chinese soldiers are believed to have engaged in hours of hand-to-hand combat using crude weapons such as stones and iron rods, occurred within the context of this longer history.“Popular sentiment in India now is more hostile to China than it’s been in a number of decades,” Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, D.C., told me, noting that “there is a lot of pressure on the Modi government to respond, to retaliate, to avenge the deaths of the 20 soldiers.”Still, the desire for revenge is dulled by political realities that even a hawkish leader such as Modi can’t ignore. For starters, China’s economy is nearly five times the size of India’s. An economic response could expose New Delhi to retaliation, which could be particularly dire given India’s sizable reliance on Chinese imports, including medical supplies. Militarily, India is largely outmatched. This kind of realpolitik “poses a bit of an inconvenient truth,” Kugelman said, “that, on many levels, the Indian government’s hands are tied.”For all the limits to Modi’s apparent strength that this border standoff has exposed, though, it has also demonstrated the ways by which nationalist leaders can still attempt to save face, even as domestic pressures grow.In the days following the clash, for example, Modi claimed in a televised address that no part of Indian territory had been occupied by Chinese soldiers, in contradiction with his own government’s findings and subsequent evidence. “He desperately wanted to de-escalate tensions for the simple reason [that] he recognizes that China has much more significant military capabilities that it can bring to bear against India,” Sumit Ganguly, a distinguished professor of political science at Indiana University Bloomington, told me. But it also signaled Modi’s desire to recast the narrative as one not of loss but defiance—one that would ostensibly help appease the nationalist fervor among his ardent supporters, even if his reframing was widely criticized by his political opponents as evidence of his government’s failures.Recasting the narrative isn’t the only thing that enables nationalist leaders to maintain their hawkish reputations. Modi has also proved the value of symbolic retaliatory steps, such as his ban on 59 Chinese apps, citing national-security concerns. Though banning an app such as TikTok is, on its face, a big deal—more than 200 million people use the video-sharing service in India, roughly a quarter of the app’s users worldwide—it doesn’t impose any economic or technological cost on China (as The Hindu’s Ananth Krishnan noted, TikTok’s profit in India amounted to only a fraction of its parent company’s total revenue last year). It merely gives an impression of retaliation, without the risk of severe Chinese reprisals.[Read: TikTok is taking over India]And, symbolic or not, Modi’s tactics appear to be working. In the aftermath of the government’s announcement, a number of users began using the hashtag #ByeTikTok to direct their followers to join them on alternative platforms, such as Instagram and YouTube. Others opted to download Chingari, an Indian alternative to TikTok. “It’s very clear from the reviews … that this is an app with many flaws and not comparable in the kind of efficiency and general workability as TikTok,” Prerna Singh, the Mahatma Gandhi associate professor of political science and international studies at Brown University, told me. “And yet it has seen a 400 percent increase in the number of downloads in the last few days.”Modi’s efforts to downplay tensions with China without undermining his own strongman image have been so successful, in part, Singh said, because of the fact that Beijing isn’t India’s traditional foreign adversary, a role occupied by Pakistan. It also helps that, despite growing resentment toward Beijing, Indians are far less familiar with China than they are with Pakistan. “It’s difficult to whip up nationalist fervor because the memories of the ’62 war, except for the generation that lived through it, is kind of a fading memory,” Ganguly said. “It doesn’t have the same visceral quality ... as, say, the relationship with Pakistan … There are limits to how you can play that with China, and Modi, I think, is more than well aware of it.”But perhaps the greatest driver of Modi’s actions is that for all his strongman bravado, he is well aware of India’s limits, as well as his own. Recasting the narrative or imposing anodyne retaliatory measures allows him to subtly acknowledge those limitations without losing face. “Modi is astute enough to realize that if he fuels a nationalist fervor,” Ganguly said, “he may become trapped by his own rhetoric.”
The Atlantic Daily: Police Abolition Is an Opportunity
Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.(HULTON ARCHIVE / GETTY / KATIE MARTIN / THE ATLANTIC)June’s protests saw a series of victories for advocates of police reform. But the national conversation is far from over, and calls for further overhaul continue.Below, four writers weigh in the movement to defund the police—and offer their thoughts on how to best fix American policing: Police abolition is more than just firing cops. Derecka Purnell, a human-rights lawyer, a writer, and an organizer, was once repulsed by the idea. She explains why she later changed her mind: “Abolition, I learned, was a bigger idea than firing cops and closing prisons; it included eliminating the reasons people think they need cops and prisons in the first place.”Unbundle the police in Venice, California. “You shouldn’t have to call 911 for problems related to homelessness,” Conor Friedersdorf, who once watched an LAPD officer kill a homeless man, argues.Whistleblowers within police departments need better protections. “Those who stand up to corruption, report negligence or abuse, or decline to comply with bad orders are frequently marginalized, demoted, or outright fired,” the sociology professor Musa al-Gharbi reports.Defund facial recognition, which can be used to surveil activists. “As a second-generation Black activist, I’m tired of being spied on by the police,” Malkia Devich-Cyril writes.Klara AuerbachOne question, answered: Can I get a tattoo right now?“This doesn’t seem like a particularly pressing question,” our staff writer Joe Pinsker admits. But if your local parlor just reopened and you’ve been itching for ink, here’s what one expert, Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at UC Irvine told Joe: When I asked Noymer about the tattoo parlors open in some parts of the country, he said that going to one wouldn’t be the worst option to choose from the array of activities Americans can now elect to do. “If both parties are masking, I’d rather see someone getting a tattoo than see a crowded shopping mall,” he said. What to read if … you want practical tips: Our state-by-state coronavirus tracker A guide to staying safe as states reopen 8 films to watch right now, according to the Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins 25 half-hour shows to watch now 11 books we’re reading this summer What to read if … you feel like something is missing in your life right now: Astronomers can relate. Explore the case of the disappearing star.Did someone forward you this newsletter? Sign up here.
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The Backlash Against PPP Is Why the U.S. Can’t Have Nice Things
The pandemic is out of control, the economy is in the toilet, and the weather is unpleasant, but at least the Schadenfreude is excellent this week.The Small Business Administration on Monday released a list of businesses that received loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, part of the hastily passed CARES stimulus. The list is full of targets ripe for naming and shaming. There are plutocrats (country clubs! private jet companies!), kleptocrats (various Trump associates), and Kanye (whose Yeezy brand received between $2 and 5 million). There are some particularly humorous examples of groups that decry people taking from the government who are, well, taking from the government: the Ayn Rand Institute, Americans for Tax Reform. This is the second round of this process of ridicule. The first also provided lots of red meat, from the literal (Ruth’s Chris Steak House) to the figurative (the crimson crowd at Harvard, which accepted CARES funding though not PPP cash).Raging at the wealthy receiving these funds, or simply mocking the hypocrisies, is understandable, but it misses the point. The CARES Act was quick-and-dirty legislation, full of rules and conditions that allowed these recipients to claim money, which might have been ironed out in a bill that moved slowly, or an application process that built in more rigorous review. The whole point was that the stimulus needed to be passed quickly, and that allowing a coarser filter was worth it for the economic boost. And while CARES was not without flaws, every indication was it helped the sagging economy—just as intended.[Annie Lowrey: The second Great Depression]The point of the PPP was to get money to business so that they didn’t lay off workers—or in some cases, so that they would bring them back. The money was structured as long-term, forgivable loans. More workers receiving paychecks meant that economic demand wouldn’t collapse as swiftly. Even if major companies with celebrity CEOs were taking in the money, each dollar they passed along to employees was a dollar injected into the American economy, which was the goal.In April, just after PPP was enacted, the NBC and MSNBC journalist Stephanie Ruhle predicted this backlash and announced her intention to lead it: Dear Hedge Funds, Small PE Firms & creative lawyers for rich people with a whole lot of LLCs,The tax IDs for those receiving #PPP loans are public.I will search them until my last breath on Earth.THIS LOAN IS NOT INTENDED FOR YOU.Your management fees are in tact. — Stephanie Ruhle (@SRuhle) April 3, 2020Here’s the thing, though: The loan was intended for them, or at least they were plainly eligible for it under the law. Hedge funds, boutique law firms, and the like don’t need me or anyone else defending them, and it’s obviously unsavory to see Harvard sitting on a $41 billion endowment while also taking government stimulus money. (The school changed course and returned the funds after public pressure.) But why should a business or institution that is legally allowed to seek public stimulus funds forgo them?Legislation written with more time might have excluded some of these recipients, but time was of the essence in late March when Congress and the Trump administration cobbled together the stimulus package, which has since been expanded. The longer Congress waited, the worse the damage to the economy would have been. If the price of supporting a sagging private sector was that some portion of the money would go to recipients some find undeserving, that was a price worth paying.While Democrats are stereotypically eager to spend government money, the White House seemed to grasp this more fully than Democrats in Congress. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who led the administration’s efforts on the stimulus, emphasized the need for speed.[Derek Thompson: We can prevent a second Great Depression. It’ll take $10 trillion.]“We’re going to have a new program up by next Friday where banks can lend. I mean that—that would be a historic achievement that is just incredibly aggressive,” Mnuchin said in March. “This is a brand-new program, the Treasury working with the SBA. We’re doing everything we can because Americans need that money now. They can’t wait for government to take three or four or six months like we normally do.”The same dynamic prevailed with another provision of the CARES Act, the tax-credit payments made to individuals. Senator Mitt Romney even endorsed Andrew Yang-style checks to all Americans, though other Republicans called for limiting how much aid the poorest Americans might receive, a bizarre and punitive idea.Democratic leaders, however, were much more wary than Mnuchin, and during the early stages of pandemic-relief planning argued for means-testing, making sure that only the neediest Americans received money. This may well have been good politics, because it played defense against caricatures of tax-and-spend liberalism and appealed to widespread public beliefs that government budgets are bloated by waste fraud and abuse, but it was dubious policy.For one thing, as Eric Schnurer wrote for The Atlantic in 2013, there really isn’t that much waste, fraud, and abuse in the system. For another, means-testing threatens to undermine the point in this case. It’s wise to be concerned about benefits accruing disproportionately to the wealthy—but that’s a matter for broader, more deliberate changes in policy, not for a crisis. “In (very rough) figurative terms, Pelosi was evincing a preference for allowing some of those drowning to go without life preservers, if that’s what it took to prevent wasting preservers on those who were perfectly capable of swimming to shore on their own,” Eric Levitz wrote at New York.The question of politically unpalatable but eligible businesses receiving money under PPP is separate from actual fraud. The Trump administration’s efforts to stifle oversight of the PPP money and circumvent inspectors general raise alarms, but legal recipients are legal recipients. Some businesses may have provided false certifications, or failed to live up to the terms of the program, but that’s not the focus on the current backlash.There is also much that is still unknown about the government response to the pandemic, just as not all of the flaws in the response to the 2008 financial crash were immediately plain. Some of the problems are already emerging, though. Many businesses were unable to obtain PPP funding, at least initially—especially ones owned by people of color.[Annie Lowrey: Don’t bet on a quick recovery]But the problem there is less lack of money than a lack of political will. In other words, the issue is less that Ruth’s Chris got money that Acme Neighborhood Restaurant should have gotten; than that Congress should have appropriated, and still should appropriate, more money in stimulus so that any eligible business could receive a loan promptly. The government’s ability to spend in this situation is really only constrained by its own imagination.Even with these flaws, the stimulus so far has gone pretty well. Many Americans are hurting, and not every small business got the money it received—but the spending gave the economy a shot in the arm. As Tom Gara writes, the first rounds have helped propped up the economy, but several key programs are due to run out soon.The danger of this kind of naming and shaming is that it will imperil the government’s next round of stimulus. If businesses are afraid of political backlash, they might not take government funds, and instead make deeper cuts. (It doesn’t matter whether a given institution “should” find money elsewhere, but whether they will.) If Congress is afraid of backlash, it may narrow its future stimulus efforts—which already seem grievously small—wagering that potential pain in the form of a prolonged recession is easier to pass off than acute pain in the form of political controversy. The backlash against a successful government program is why the U.S. can’t have nice things.
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Can Fashion Be Redeemed?
Luxury fashion’s love of hierarchies has never been subtle. Telling people what they should look like often also requires telling them what’s unacceptable: To spend money on feeling better, people first need to feel bad. For decades, the industry tolerated nearly no dark skin, fat bodies, wrinkles, or outward indications that a person wasn’t summoned from the recesses of a French executive’s brain and manifested directly onto the banquette at a SoHo restaurant. Any criticisms, the industry shrugged off.Suddenly, though, it’s the worst time to be peddling European elitism since the French Revolution. As the U.S. has roiled with soaring unemployment, mass death, and protests against racist state violence, fashion has had to contend with accusations that it long refused to dignify with a response. In June, Yael Aflalo, the CEO of the popular sustainable fashion brand Reformation, and Leandra Medine Cohen, the influencer behind the style website Man Repeller, both left the companies they founded after their employees accused them of racism and classism. Vogue’s longtime editor in chief, Anna Wintour, was recently forced to apologize to her workforce for the publication’s decades of racism in a bid to keep her job.For the most part, the tales of toxicity in fashion aren’t new. Many of them are based on things done brazenly and in public—a Vogue cover that positioned LeBron James as the brute King Kong to Gisele Bündchen’s blond damsel, Prada lining its boutique windows with figures that evoked Sambo stereotypes. Prominent fashion people are regularly and credibly accused of racism, sexual harassment, labor abuses, and beyond. If fashion as an industry is about the audacious celebration of social dominance, the thinking went, then how could anyone be shocked that it’s a terrible business to work in?What’s new is everything else: the collective rage sweeping the country, the support for those within the industry who speak up, the fear that those at the top seem to feel. People with little power can imagine better workplaces and lives well within their grasp. It is now not quite so fashionable to be fabulously and unaccountably rich.But in fashion, envisioning a path forward is particularly complicated. The veneration of whiteness and wealth isn’t merely incidental to the global fashion business, but central to its vision and embedded in its practices, from who gets hired to how things get marketed. Luxury fashion is built on the emotional scaffolding of human aspiration—what happens to the industry when everyone gets sick of worshipping rich white people?JOOEUN BAELong before the manufacturing and marketing of clothing became a multibillion-dollar industry, clothing was used to signal status. “Distinguishing clothing has always been important in large-scale societies,” Katalin Medvedev, an international-dress and fashion researcher at the University of Georgia, told me. As societies became less agrarian and more centralized, people started to think of clothing as a way to show their jobs, their social status, their position within the community. In ancient Egypt, for example, female servants wore modest sheaths and plain hairstyles, while noblewomen enjoyed makeup, jewelry, perfume, wigs, and gowns detailed with gold thread. Some examples of early sartorial hierarchies are still visible: Catholic nuns and low-level priests dress simply and identically, humbling themselves and eschewing their personal identities in service of God; papal regalia is heavily embroidered and richly hued, the dress of a man singular in his religious authority. The fashion industry, according to Medvedev, is that basic idea of identity through dress, taken to the logical extreme of capitalism.It’s a straighter line than it might seem from ancient nobility and religious leaders to globe-trotting social-media influencers raking in millions of dollars a year from fashion endorsements. As the second Industrial Revolution infused capital into the expanding European upper class in the late 19th and early 20th century, fine clothiers and luggage-makers—Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Gucci—sprang up in Britain, France, and Italy to supply the burgeoning aristocracy with the accouterments of their everyday lives. That meant sharp outerwear for military officers, trunks for international travel via steamship, and fine leather saddles for equestrians. As Europe’s colonial power spread around the world, so did those brands and the aesthetic ideals of the wealthy white Europeans who patronized them.The fashion industry, like energy or mining, is fundamentally extractive. For generations, Western countries had skilled tradespeople—leatherworkers, embroiderers, couturiers—in spades, but raw materials had to be imported, to be transformed into items that signified “luxury.” Silk came from China, cashmere from Mongolia. Eventually, as brands looked to cut costs, cheap labor came from all over—in the 1970s and ’80s, the manufacturing of textiles and leather goods began to migrate from Western Europe to Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. Much of luxury fashion is now assembled in part in those places and “finished” just enough in Western Europe to get a Made in Italy or Made in France label. These marks of European craftsmanship, Medvedev said, encourage consumers to think of a new purchase as part of a centuries-long elite fashion lineage—and to feel as if they themselves are part of that lineage too, if only briefly.Modern corporations want constant growth, and in fashion that’s impossible without getting into the wallets of regular people looking for a little taste of clout, whether they’re in the growing upper class in East Asia or the Middle East or in newer markets in Brazil or India. Entry-level status symbols—a Gucci belt or Chanel earrings or a Louis Vuitton wallet—covered in conspicuous logos and with prices in the hundreds instead of thousands of dollars are accessible to people with credit cards who want to project economic power they don’t quite have. All of that money, though, still flows back to the wealthy Europeans who have always sat atop the fashion hierarchy. Almost all of the industry’s most successful brands are owned by just two conglomerates, LVMH and Kering, which are controlled by French billionaires, their children, and their inner circles of other European aristocrats. In 2019, the two companies combined for nearly $79 billion in revenue, by today’s exchange rates. Lots of people can buy into their vision of what power looks like, but it’s still their vision.More than a century after Hermes began outfitting the horsey set and Burberry started making trench coats for British military officers going off to fight in World War I, those same brands form the basis of the global luxury business, inextricable from the white European wealth that created it. The glorification of that history—a brand’s “heritage,” as it is often termed—is central to luxury marketing. Gucci’s horsebit logo and the massive LV-covered trunks often used as decor in Louis Vuitton boutiques are there for a reason. You can still buy a custom saddle from Hermès, although the basis of its business is now handbags that can cost more than $100,000.That tight control of fashion’s most powerful and influential brands makes it difficult for people outside the well-pedigreed white elite to enter the industry at all, let alone influence how it conceives of luxury. “Fashion is an industry that has a ton of gatekeepers, and there’s a lot of barriers to entry that are pretty subtle,” says Aurora James, the founder and designer of the accessories brand Brother Vellies. Brands and media companies might commit to working with models from more diverse backgrounds or to including more Black celebrities in their ad campaigns or style coverage. But internally, little changes. “When you have just Black models or Black musicians as the only Black women in your sphere, it’s really objectifying,” James told me. “It doesn’t really allow us a space to be intellectuals or businesspeople.”Although contemporary fashion draws heavily on the aesthetics of Black American culture—streetwear, hip-hop, and high-end sneakers are all crucial to the industry’s current popularity with consumers—its use of those ideas is mostly without paying or acknowledging their originators. Often, those things only come after public pressure, or when a Black person is already so famous and powerful that an association with them isn’t really seen as a risk. In 2017, Gucci, part of the Kering conglomerate, lifted some of the legendary Harlem designer and artist Dapper Dan’s ideas before a public outcry goaded the company into collaborating with him directly. LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton, Dior, Givenchy, and Fendi, among others, had never named a Black woman to the top creative post of any of its brands until 2019, when it hired Rihanna to start her own luxury-apparel line. The white people usually picked to lead fashion brands are rarely well known outside of the industry itself.James, a Black woman and the daughter of a Ghanaian immigrant, started her line of sustainable shoes and handbags with $3,500 of personal savings and a spot at a popular New York City flea market. Two years later, her work had turned enough heads to win the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, a prestigious award for American designers early in their careers. In some ways, though, the recognition made her situation more complicated. “My business grew so quickly, but I didn’t have the things that I needed,” she told me. “If you have access to capital, you’re able to grow and scale, but because I didn’t have that access, I ended up in some really bad financial situations,” including one that she likened to “modern-day sharecropping.” She took a loan from someone in the business whom she thought she could trust, but the terms of it bled her dry and did “exponential harm” to her company; she still doesn’t have a business credit card. Across industries, Black-owned companies are twice as likely as white-owned companies to get rejected for traditional loans, and less than 1 percent of Black women who seek venture-capital funding get it. James sees things go differently for her white, well-off peers when success comes knocking and they need cash to meet it: Many upstart young designers are the kinds of people who can get a first round of funding from family and friends, raising six or seven figures with little risk and few strings attached.Just last week, the fashion industry coughed up another example of the financial dismissiveness with which it treats Black talent: The designer Telfar Clemens was unceremoniously dropped by Gap, which had been promoting a high-profile collaboration with him as recently as January. In an interview with The New York Times, Clemens revealed that, even though the collection’s cancelation was caused by the chaos of the pandemic and not through any fault of his own, Gap had paid him only a quarter of his fee for the work he had done so far and then stopped answering his creative director’s emails. (A representative for Gap later apologized for how the situation was handled and said that the remainder of his fee had been paid.)JOOEUN BAEWashing whiteness out of the hierarchy of fashion wouldn’t just take adjustments to corporate leadership or less exploitive supply chains. It would mean dramatic changes in how wealth accumulates more broadly, and in how we think about nice things and who should have them. A more just industry would exist in a world in which the prices of goods are tied to fair wages for workers and ecologically sound materials, instead of to lavish marketing and events budgets and high executive salaries. It would be a world in which it’s not an unthinkable luxury for anyone to own a warm, smartly cut winter coat or a well-made pair of shoes. It would be a world in which you don’t need generational wealth to get your ideas heard. It would be a world in which European fashion conglomerates no longer have a stranglehold on the goods or images the industry creates, or on the revenue it generates. It would be a world in which more people share power, and in which that power isn’t tied to the hoarding of wealth and resources.Still, James said she’s optimistic that the industry, and retail in general, can at least improve on the status quo. To prod businesses into change, she started the 15 Percent Pledge, which was first just an Instagram post asking a handful of major retailers, including Target, Whole Foods, Sephora, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Net-a-Porter, to commit to buying 15 percent of the products they stock from Black-owned brands, a proportion that mirrors Black people’s slice of the American populace. James thinks that this kind of program can do material good for Black designers and creatives in a way that companies’ internal diversity-and-inclusion programs haven’t: Brother Vellies’s first big wholesale order, from the trendsetting boutique Opening Ceremony, changed the trajectory of her career. So far, both Sephora and Rent the Runway have signed up for the program, and the 15 Percent Pledge has transformed into a nonprofit organization that will try to hold those who join accountable to their promise to spread the wealth.Although trying to reform fashion’s worst offenders through outside initiatives is probably futile, both Medvedev and James see a shift coming for the luxury industry that they say might do the trick. “It’s not over, but it will be over very soon that people will buy a sweater for $2,000,” Medvedev told me. “I think people begin to reevaluate their value system, or at least question it.” She thinks that COVID-19 will hasten this change, as income inequality becomes a more widely considered moral hazard and people shy away from signifiers of unabashed, unapologetic wealth. If your brand’s bottom line is based on logo-covered handbags, the look might be a little too “Let them eat cake” for post-pandemic economic blight, even if your customers’ wealth remains intact.The industry’s classic marketing moves, so deeply tied to a veneration of white beauty standards, might also not be long for this world. “For a long time, the fashion industry has worked to make women feel like they were less than,” James said. “They were trying to get them to feel bad about themselves, to want to purchase a product in hopes of feeling better. But, ultimately, you’re purchasing from a place of shame.” For Brother Vellies, her goal is to try to reimagine luxury around what makes people actually feel good in a pair of shoes or when carrying a new handbag, and for those things to be made responsibly.Some brands, James acknowledged, might not survive a change in how people want to spend their money, which will become apparent when a freshly radicalized generation eventually needs to buy some new clothes for going outside. For brands that have clung to fashion’s ingrained elitism, she thinks it might be too late to save them: “If you systematically created your business with the intent of celebrating certain ideals, and everything has been built on that structure, then it’s rotted from the root.”
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The Unfinished Business of a Young Rap Star
Some albums demand ascetic listening, the kind that happens best in solitude or while wearing noise-canceling headphones. Such music has its place, especially in the colder months. But summer is made for the populist records—albums ideally consumed secondhand, whether blaring from the bass-heavy stereos of cars parading down hot, crowded streets or wafting from the open windows of apartments down the block.Last year, no voice cut through the New York City heat with more force than that of Pop Smoke. The Brooklyn rapper, born Bashar Barakah Jackson in the sweltering July of 1999, quickly rose to the forefront of the borough’s emerging drill scene, a corollary to the London and Chicago movements. With the boisterous anthem “Welcome to the Party,” the first single of his first mixtape, Pop Smoke dominated social events and city streets all summer. His music, booming and self-assured even as it explored heavy themes, captured the irrepressible energy of New York at its most dynamic. By the end of 2019, even with local law enforcement curtailing his public performances, the young rapper and his gravelly baritone seemed poised for national attention and a meteoric 2020.But in February, the 20-year-old artist was shot and killed in Los Angeles following a home invasion. Now the rapper’s latest album serves as an unlikely soundtrack for mourning the unthinkable—a New York summer without the steady pulse of rowdy social gatherings, and a rap landscape without Pop Smoke, whose music so animated the city. Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, released last Friday, should have been the official debut of an artist set to thrust his own work and his hometown’s rapidly evolving musical sensibilities further into the mainstream. So it’s especially eerie to listen to Pop Smoke now: Along with Meet the Woo 2, the mixtape he released two weeks prior to the shooting, the rapper’s new album and its haunting title now reverberate with the tragedy of his untimely death.It’s not just the 2020 releases that are tinged with this loss, though. Shoot for the Stars joins a song from 2019’s Meet the Woo in taking on a powerfully elegiac meaning. In the months since his death, Pop Smoke’s “Dior” has become a ubiquitous addition to the protest-music canon. Following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, the forceful track has routinely been played at demonstrations against police violence around the country, especially in New York. Unlike some other recent entries into the protest-anthem category, such as Kendrick Lamar’s conciliatory “Alright” or YG’s inflammatory “FDT,” the boastful Pop Smoke song isn’t an obvious fit. He doesn’t address law enforcement or racism directly, nor does he exhort listeners to reimagine justice.But as Pitchfork’s Alphonse Pierre notes, the transgressive appeal of “Dior” lies in something much more visceral. The late rapper vividly articulates the contradictions inherent in Black life: “‘Dior’ is cathartic in all that it encapsulates, a song that holds many feelings at once: the frustration of seeing a friend jailed, the fun of flirting and acquiring the latest designer clothes (so you can flirt some more), the sobering reality of knowing that it all could end with a snap.”That same interplay between fatalism and ebullience is woven throughout Shoot for the Stars, which embodies the qualities that drew fans to earlier records. Perhaps most painful, the record offers glimpses of what the slain rapper could have achieved. The album’s propulsive first section fits in neatly with Pop Smoke’s repertoire, with songs such as “44 BullDog” and “Gangstas” finding the Panamanian and Jamaican American rapper characteristically gruff and cocksure—which is to say, a New York man—over combative production.On “44 BullDog,” named for the handgun, he interpolates his own 2019 single “Flexin’” and levies threats between references to Brooklyn’s West Indian population, luxury brands, and partying. Taken alongside “For the Night,” on which the rappers Lil Baby and DaBaby add arioso and vigor respectively, these songs evoke the recklessness of a summer party or the languid flirtation of stoop-side conversations. It almost feels wrong to listen to them indoors, and especially alone. How cruel and poetic that the pandemic now requires the rest of New York to forgo the same spirited gatherings that Pop Smoke is no longer alive to witness.It’s fitting that the rapper, whose death still feels surreal and catalytic, would remain a preeminent voice of New York—and of a generation of Black youth. In a moment of tremendous political and social turmoil, Shoot for the Stars offers listeners catharsis. The album’s penultimate track provides a kind of mission statement (it also plays before “Dior,” which was included as a bonus track). Toward the end of “Tunnel Vision (Outro),” an unnamed interviewer poses serious questions to Pop Smoke: “What do you want your impact to be on the music industry? / Like, a hundred years from now, how do you want people to remember you? / Pop Smoke did this, he did that, he did what?” The rapper’s responses are confident and nearly prophetic: “Pop Smoke came in and changed the game / Pop Smoke came in and showed them niggas a new vibe / You know, the whole sound, the whole vibe, the whole movement / Different.”On some tracks, other industry heavyweights flank the rapper, allowing the record to transcend regional barriers. Features from Atlanta’s Quavo as well as Charlotte, North Carolina’s DaBaby and Tupelo, Mississippi’s Swae Lee showcase Pop Smoke’s vocal dexterity and underscore his growing popularity outside New York. The Colombian singer Karol G joins him on “Enjoy Yourself,” a sultry, dual-language song that feels tailor-made for the twilight zone of post-midnight dancing. (“West Coast Shit,” which features Quavo and the robotic Los Angeles rapper Tyga, is a rare misfire, pushing Pop so far into commercial-sounding production that it overtakes his strongest sensibilities.)The most palpable influences on the album, though, are other New Yorkers, especially the Queens native 50 Cent, who features on one of the standout songs and produced several others. Pop Smoke even sounds similar to the veteran rapper at some points, most notably on “Got It on Me,” which samples “Many Men (Wish Death),” the third single from 50 Cent’s 2003 debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’. The song bleeds directly into “Tunnel Vision,” the sequence once again emphasizing the sinister quality of the album’s posthumous release.Still, Shoot for the Stars manages to find some levity, and not just courtesy of the garish Virgil Abloh cover design that fans pilloried before its release. A surprising suite of tracks late in the album finds Pop Smoke playing with a softer, more melodious sound, at times nearly singing. “Mood Swings,” which features the Bronx rapper Lil Tjay, is the most original of these, with gently percussive production that complements the artists’ amorous lyrics. Of the slow jams that sample earlier hits, “What You Know Bout Love,” which interpolates the R&B singer Ginuwine’s 2001 hit “Differences,” is the clear highlight. Pop Smoke sings the chorus with an arresting warmth and opens the second verse with a rare admission of weakness: “Look, baby, I said I ain’t gon’ front / You got my heart beating so fast to words I can’t pronounce.”Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon isn’t a perfectly cohesive album, but its scattered feeling reflects the cataclysmic circumstances of its arrival. That Pop Smoke isn’t around to keep honing his music, and to keep pushing New York rap forward, are among many unbelievable tragedies. Listening to the record in isolation, instead of luxuriating in the sound of Pop Smoke’s distinctive growl on every humid city block, is appropriately devastating.
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The Colorful Blooms of Castelluccio, Italy
In central Italy, the small village of Castelluccio sits atop a hill overlooking the Piano Grande—a broad basin surrounded by the Sibillini Mountains—where fields of lentils and poppies bloom every year, carpeting the landscape with a colorful quilt of blossoming flowers. Every summer the phenomenon is viewed by thousands of tourists, and this year, photographers Antonio Masiello and Tiziana Fabi visited as well, sending back these photos.
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This Is Not a Normal Mental-Health Disaster
The SARS pandemic tore through Hong Kong like a summer thunderstorm. It arrived abruptly, hit hard, and then was gone. Just three months separated the first infection, in March 2003, from the last, in June.But the suffering did not end when the case count hit zero. Over the next four years, scientists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong discovered something worrisome. More than 40 percent of SARS survivors had an active psychiatric illness, most commonly PTSD or depression. Some felt frequent psychosomatic pain. Others were obsessive-compulsive. The findings, the researchers said, were “alarming.”The novel coronavirus’s devastating hopscotch across the United States has long surpassed the three-month mark, and by all indications, it will not end anytime soon. If SARS is any lesson, the secondary health effects will long outlast the pandemic itself.Already, a third of Americans are feeling severe anxiety, according to Census Bureau data, and nearly a quarter show signs of depression. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the pandemic had negatively affected the mental health of 56 percent of adults. In April, texts to a federal emergency mental-health line were up 1,000 percent from the year before. The situation is particularly dire for certain vulnerable groups—health-care workers, COVID-19 patients with severe cases, people who have lost loved ones—who face a significant risk of post-traumatic stress disorder. In overburdened intensive-care units, delirious patients are seeing chilling hallucinations. At least two overwhelmed emergency medical workers have taken their own life.To some extent, this was to be expected. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, child abuse, and domestic violence almost always surge after natural disasters. And the coronavirus is every bit as much a disaster as any wildfire or flood. But it is also something unlike any wildfire or flood. “The sorts of mental-health challenges associated with COVID-19 are not necessarily the same as, say, generic stress management or the interventions from wildfires,” says Steven Taylor, a psychiatrist at the University of British Columbia and the author of The Psychology of Pandemics (published, fortuitously, in October 2019). “It’s very different in important ways.”[Read: Two errors our minds make when trying to grasp the pandemic]Most people are resilient after disasters, and only a small percentage develop chronic conditions. But in a nation of 328 million, small percentages become large numbers when translated into absolute terms. And in a nation where, even under ordinary circumstances, fewer than half of the millions of adults with a mental illness receive treatment, those large numbers are a serious problem. A wave of psychological stress unique in its nature and proportions is bearing down on an already-ramshackle American mental-health-care system, and at the moment, Taylor told me, “I don’t think we’re very well prepared at all.”Most disasters affect cities or states, occasionally regions. Even after a catastrophic hurricane, for example, normalcy resumes a few hundred miles away. Not so in a pandemic, says Joe Ruzek, a longtime PTSD researcher at Stanford University and Palo Alto University: “In essence, there are no safe zones any more.”As a result, Ruzek told me, certain key tenets of disaster response no longer hold up. People cannot congregate at a central location to get help. Psychological first-aid workers cannot seek out strangers on street corners. To be sure, telemedicine has its advantages—it eliminates the logistical and financial burdens of transportation, and some people simply find it more comfortable—but it complicates outreach and can pose problems for older people, who have borne the brunt of the coronavirus.A pandemic, unlike an earthquake or a fire, is invisible, and that makes it all the more anxiety-inducing. “You can’t see it, you can’t taste it, you just don’t know,” says Charles Benight, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who specializes in post-disaster recovery. “You look outside, and it seems fine.”From spatial uncertainty comes temporal uncertainty. If we can’t know where we are safe, then we can’t know when we are safe. When a wildfire ends, the flames subside and the smoke clears. “You have an event, and then you have the rebuild process that’s really demarcated,” Benight told me. “It’s not like a hurricane goes on for a year.” But pandemics do not respect neat boundaries: They come in waves, ebbing and flowing, blurring crisis into recovery. One month, New York flares up and Arizona is calm. The next, the opposite.[Read: Recovering from PTSD after Hurricane Katrina]That ambiguity could make it harder for people to be resilient. “It’s sort of like running down a field to score a goal, and every 10 yards they move the goal,” Benight said. “You don’t know what you’re targeting.” In this sense, Ruzek said, someone struggling with the psychological effects of the pandemic is less like a fire survivor than a domestic-violence victim still living with her abuser, or a traumatized soldier still deployed overseas. Mental-health professionals can’t reassure them that the danger has passed, because the danger has not passed. One can understand why, in a May survey by researchers at the University of Chicago, 42 percent of respondents reported feeling hopeless at least one day in the past week. A good deal of this uncertainty was inevitable. Pandemics, after all, are confusing. But coordinated, cool-headed, honest messaging from government officials and public-health experts would have gone a long way toward allaying undue anxiety. The World Health Organization, for all the good it has done to contain the virus, has repeatedly bungled the communications side of the crisis. Last month, a WHO official claimed that asymptomatic spread of the virus is “very rare”—only to clarify the next day, after a barrage of criticism from outside public-health experts, that “we don’t actually have that answer yet.” In February, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Americans to prepare for “disruption to everyday life that may be severe,” then, just days later, said, “The American public needs to go on with their normal lives,” then went mostly dark for the next three months. Health experts are not without blame either: Their early advice about masks was “a case study in how not to communicate with the public,” wrote Zeynep Tufekci, an information-science professor at the University of North Carolina and an Atlantic contributing writer.[Read: Why the coronavirus is so confusing]The White House, for its part, has repeatedly contradicted the states, the CDC, and itself. The president has used his platform to spread misinformation. In a moment when public health—which is to say, tens of thousands of lives—depends on national unity and clear messaging, the pandemic has become a new front in the partisan culture wars. Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me that “political and social marginalization can exacerbate the psychological impacts of the pandemic.”Schoch-Spana has previously written about the 1918 influenza pandemic. Lately, she says, people have been asking her how the coronavirus compares. She is always quick to point out a crucial difference: When the flu emerged in America at the end of a brutal winter, the nation was mobilized for war. Relative unity prevailed, and a spirit of collective self-sacrifice was in the air. At the time, the U.S. was reckoning with its enemies. Now we are reckoning with ourselves.One thing that is certain about the current pandemic is that we are not doing enough to address its mental-health effects. Usually, says Joshua Morganstein, the chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on the Psychiatric Dimensions of Disaster, the damage a disaster does to mental health ends up costing more than the damage it does to physical health. Yet of the $2 trillion that Congress allocated for pandemic relief through the CARES Act, roughly one-50th of 1 percent—or $425 million—was earmarked for mental health. In April, more than a dozen mental-health organizations called on Congress to apportion $38.5 billion in emergency funding to protect the nation’s existing treatment infrastructure, plus an additional $10 billion for pandemic response.Without broad, systematic studies to gauge the scope of the problem, though, it will be hard to determine with any precision either the appropriate amount of funding or where that funding is needed. Taylor told me that “governments are throwing money at this problem at the moment without really knowing how big a problem it will be.”In addition to studies assessing the scope of the problem, which demographics most need help, and what kind of help they need, Ruzek told me researchers should assess how well intervention efforts are working. Even in ordinary times, he said, we don’t do enough of that. Such studies are especially important now because, until recently, disaster mental-health protocols for pandemics were an afterthought. By necessity, researchers are designing and implementing them all at once.“Disaster mental-health workers have never been trained in anything about this,” Ruzek said. “They don’t know what to say.”Even so, the basic principles will be the same. Disaster mental-health specialists often talk about the five core elements of intervention—calming, self-efficacy, connectedness, hope, and a sense of safety—and those apply now as much as ever. At an organizational level, the response will depend on extensive screening, which is to the mental-health side of the pandemic roughly what testing is to the physical-health side. In disaster situations—and especially in this one—the people in need of mental-health support vastly outnumber the people who can supply it. So disaster psychologists train armies of volunteers to provide basic support and identify people at greater risk of developing long-term problems.“There are certain things that we can still put into place for people based on what we’ve learned about what’s helpful for PTSD and for depression and for anxiety, but we have to adjust it a bit,” says Patricia Watson, a psychologist at the National Center for PTSD. “This is a different dance than the dance that we’ve had for other types of disasters.”[Read: ‘ICU delirium’ is leaving COVID-19 patients scared and confused]Some states have moved quickly to learn the new steps. In Colorado, Benight is helping to train volunteer resilience coaches to support members of their community and, when necessary, refer them to formal crisis-counseling programs. His team has also worked with volunteers in 31 states, the United Kingdom, and Australia.Colorado’s approach is not the sort of rigorously tested, evidence-based model to which Ruzek said disaster psychologists should aspire. Then again, “we’re sitting here with not a lot of options,” says Matthew Boden, a research scientist in the Veterans Health Administration’s mental-health and suicide-prevention unit. “Something is better than nothing.”In any case, the full extent of the fallout will not come into focus for some time. Psychological disorders can be slow to develop, and as a result, the Textbook of Disaster Psychiatry, which Morganstein helped write, warns that demand for mental-health care may spike even as a pandemic subsides. “If history is any indicator,” Morganstein says of COVID-19, “we should expect a significant tail of mental-health effects, and those could be extraordinary.” Taylor worries that the virus will cause significant upticks in obsessive-compulsive disorder, agoraphobia, and germaphobia, not to mention possible neuropsychiatric effects, such as chronic fatigue syndrome.The coronavirus may also change the way we think about mental health more broadly. Perhaps, Schoch-Spana says, the prevalence of pandemic-related psychological conditions will have a destigmatizing effect. Or perhaps it will further ingrain that stigma: We’re all suffering, so can’t we all just get over it? Perhaps the current crisis will prompt a rethinking of the American mental-health-care system. Or perhaps it will simply decimate it.In 2013, reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the SARS pandemic, newspapers in Hong Kong described a city scarred by plague. When COVID-19 arrived there seven years later, they did so again. SARS had traumatized that city, but it had also prepared it. Face masks had become commonplace. People used tissues to press elevator buttons. Public spaces were sanitized and resanitized. In New York City, COVID-19 has killed more than 22,600 people; in Hong Kong, a metropolis of nearly the same size, it has killed seven. The city has learned from its scars.America, too, will bear the scars of plague. Maybe next time, we will be the ones who have learned.
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Ottessa Moshfegh’s Strange and Riveting Female Narrators
Jake Belcher“I’ve disguised the ugly truth in a kind of spiffy noir package,” Ottessa Moshfegh said about her debut novel, Eileen, published in 2015. Convinced that readers wouldn’t pick up a novel about a self-loathing woman with little desire to please others, she masked her “freak book” as a mystery. To Moshfegh’s frustration, readers still fixated on the grossness of Eileen—a laxative-addicted clerk at a juvenile prison who has vivid, violent thoughts—so she funneled similarly off-putting traits into the narrator of her second novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but gave her the looks of an off-duty model. (“Try to tell me she’s disgusting!” she told one interviewer.) In her latest novel, Death in Her Hands, Moshfegh is back to her old formal tricks. This time, she uses a meta-mystery-gone-mad to explore a question that applies to her own oeuvre: How much control can women have over their narratives?The opening of Death in Her Hands gestures as much toward fable as to mystery. Vesta Gul is a 72-year-old widow who lives in a secluded former Girl Scout cabin in the woods with a muscular dog, her “alarm and bodyguard.” One day, while on a dawn walk, she stumbles upon a note that reads: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” The notepaper is suspiciously pristine, the penmanship impersonal—the kind “you’d use when making a sign for a yard sale,” Vesta observes. More puzzling, there is no body, or any sign of there ever having been a body, and Vesta has never met a Magda in her tiny town. The story that ensues—told from the unsympathetic, utterly unreliable first-person perspective of Vesta—is Vesta’s attempt to solve the mystery, or, rather, the mystery of whether there is even a mystery to solve.Penguin PressThe New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino once described Ottessa Moshfegh as the “most interesting contemporary American writer on the subject of being alive when being alive feels terrible.” In light of her latest novel, Moshfegh might also be viewed as an unflinching chronicler of the wild things women are pushed to do in the face of emptiness. Vesta—who has no phone, internet, or friends—seizes upon the note as a welcome disruption of her routinized, isolated existence. She’s seen her fair share of Agatha Christie films, but pursues sleuthing methods that are as absurd as her predicament with comical conviction. At the local library, she types “Is Magda dead?” into Ask Jeeves, and when that returns nothing of use, clicks on a page of “TOP TIPS FOR MYSTERY WRITERS!”Inspired, Vesta begins trying to solve the mystery by writing it, inventing an elaborate backstory for Magda and conjuring a cast of fictional suspects. The further she delves into her imagination, the more conspiratorial Vesta’s thinking becomes. A random poem in the library is a clue left just for her, she is sure; people she encounters in town are suspects from her list (a list that she forgets is pure fiction). Before long, Moshfegh’s meta-narrative becomes unhinged.Yet a more serious thread emerges from the farce. Caught up in her fantasizing, Vesta sees elements of her past anew. Fond recollections of her late husband, a respected scientist named Walter, give way to darker ones, and we learn in intrusive spurts how he had overshadowed her thoughts and feelings for decades. He “nipped my moods in the bud the moment a twinge of anything untoward showed on my face,” she recalls, and he forbade her from using contraceptive pills because “they sapped a woman’s integrity.” A year after his death, Walter continues to inhabit Vesta’s mind “like a nosy adversary,” appearing in daydreams to berate and judge her. Trapped inside Vesta’s claustrophobic brain, we become detectives ourselves, trying to sort out what happened in her past, what is happening in her present, and what is some warped invention inspired by her traumatic marriage.[Read: Ottessa Moshfegh on finding meaning in going nowhere]Vesta’s darkly comedic methods of finding meaning recall those of the unnamed narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation—with a key twist. Vesta escapes into her imagination as a way out of solitude. By contrast, the 24-year-old who escapes into unconsciousness in the earlier novel is looking for a way to disconnect from the world. A Columbia graduate and “effortless beauty” enmeshed in a Manhattan art scene filled with “canned counterculture crap,” she’s convinced that her privileged existence has been pointless. Her solution is to “sleep [her]self into a new life” by self-medicating for a year. She finds a psychiatrist in the yellow pages to write her scripts. (Dr. Tuttle dispenses medical guidance such as “Try visiting a church or synagogue to ask for advice on inner peace” and “Dial 9-1-1 if anything bad happens.”) Then she starts combining prescription drugs with the verve of a chef improvising a recipe.The idea of authorship as a means of control is central to both books. Vesta writes a mystery to bring motive and arc to her own existence. The narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation opts for self-erasure in her effort to be reborn “a whole new person.” Meaning and momentum are scrubbed away in this tale whose teller is only semiconscious much of the time; after mixing pills, she wakes at random intervals to find her hair chopped off, her furniture rearranged, or herself on the Long Island Rail Road, and doesn’t typically care enough to figure out how she wound up there. She gives us little backstory to contextualize her emptiness—mentioning her “dead parents” only when explaining why she has money, or while asking her psychiatrist for more meds. For the grand finale of her drug-induced hibernation, she tries to sleep for all but 40 hours in four months—a willed act of will-lessness that becomes a dangerous kind of performance art.“The deep sleep I would soon enter required a completely blank canvas if I was to emerge from it fully renewed,” she says—and she recruits a pretentious young artist named Ping Xi to be her sleep “warden.” She gives him carte blanche to use her blacked-out body for his own work, so long as he leaves no trace of his presence in her home. (“There was to be no narrative that I could follow, no pieces for me to put together.”) When she finally awakens, she claims success: “There was majesty and grace in the pace of the swaying branches of the willows. … My sleep had worked.”That we doubt her abrupt discovery of grandeur in the world seems to be Moshfegh’s intention: Even her drug-addled narrator, though she takes to rising with the sun and feeding squirrels in the park, doesn’t seem fully bought in. Her rhapsodizing is hollow and rote, like a parody of the self-help literature on opting out of our connected, capitalist world. Moshfegh is merciless when it comes to the vacuousness and self-seriousness of the art world, but making art is still the only path to redemption her narrator can see. It’s a profoundly grim punch line that art—though it briefly gives her a sense of hope—doesn’t save her from the void.The epiphanies of Death in Her Hands are similarly double-edged, at once ridiculous and existentially charged. As Vesta attempts to solve the mystery, it’s not the “cozy whodunit” that unravels, but her own sanity—and the reader realizes that Vesta’s fate, not Magda’s, is at stake. Paranoid that someone is after her, Vesta scrounges among the crudest of genre-fiction tricks in what seems to be an attempt to assert control over her own story: She dons a midnight-black camouflage onesie and sets up booby traps in her home, like she’d “seen done once on a television show.” Vesta succeeds in engineering the sense of momentum she has long craved, but no plot device can grant her the agency she seeks—a problem not unlike the one the novel itself faces. In this pulpier companion to her previous book, Moshfegh strikes an uncanny balance between absurdity and urgency that makes for propulsive reading, all the while making a mockery of serious suspense.For Moshfegh, who has said she started writing Death in Her Hands five years ago “to get [herself] onto the other side of an experience” of deep grief, crafting this meta-fictional mystery was purposeful work. Alone and adrift in San Francisco, she forced herself to write 1,000 words a day “until [she] reached the conclusion of something,” she recently told The New York Times. The result feels less ingeniously and cruelly playful than her fiction has been in the past. Still, Moshfegh’s gift for staring down darkness—for finding spiffy packages for awfulness—is rare and unexpectedly riveting. If art can’t reclaim maimed pasts, erase pointless ones, or promise better futures, a writer who keeps us listening to her alienated female narrators, intrigued by their fates, has managed a feat.
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Trump Is Campaigning on a Platform of Abject Failure
President Trump has laid out his case for reelection.In a series of speeches over the past several days, the president has spelled out, or at least gestured toward, the major themes of his coming campaign. There will be other themes, to be sure—mostly, one presumes, attacks on Joe Biden—but the president’s recent speeches in Tulsa, in Phoenix, and at Mount Rushmore all outline what appear to be the main components of his affirmative case for a second term.The argument is an odd one—a brew of nostalgia for an economy that the president’s incompetence has actively helped ruin, magical thinking about the course of the pandemic, and white racial grievance and identity politics.The argument is not based on any programmatic promises or some kind of policy agenda for a second term in office. In fact, when asked recently what he wants to do in a second term, Trump went off on an extended and barely coherent riff about the word experience. There’s no equivalent to his 2016 assurance that “I alone can fix it” or his promises to shake things up or drain the swamp or build a wall. Nor, for that matter, is there anything like his broad assertions about his great powers as a dealmaker, someone who could do business with a hostile Congress as easily as with Vladimir Putin.Largely gone as well are major themes of Trump’s speeches during his years in office. He’s not vamping about the “Russia hoax” these days. The impeachment saga makes only a relatively brief appearance. He’s not complaining about the “coup attempt” or the “deep state” much either.[Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes: Trump is boring now, and he can’t do anything about it]So what is Trump’s case for reelection?The argument proceeds as follows—with the important proviso that we are imposing a bit more discipline and organization on it than is obvious in Trump’s speeches themselves:First, Trump wants voters to support him based not on the current state of the economy—crushed as it is by the coronavirus pandemic—but on how well the economy was doing before the pandemic. Or as he put it in a June speech in Phoenix: “Before the plague came in, we had the best of everything. We had the best interest rates. We had the best employment rates. We had the best job numbers ever.” Having made the economy great prior to the pandemic, he argues, he is the best man to, well, make the economy great again—unlike the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who, Trump says, will “raise your taxes like crazy.”Second, while declaring that he can help the country recover from “the plague,” Trump also insists that the plague is not really that bad. “I have done a phenomenal job with it,” he told the crowd in Tulsa, trumpeting the limitations his administration imposed in late January on travel from China and ignoring the skyrocketing number of new coronavirus cases in the United States. At the same rally, he suggested that “my people” should “slow the testing down, please,” to keep the number of new cases low. The president seems to believe he may not need to do anything to address the pandemic at all. As The Washington Post reports, he has suggested 19 times since February that the virus might just “go away”—most recently on July 1.The president’s other themes place him in familiar culture-war territory. In what The New York Times politely describes as an effort to “exploit race and cultural flash points,” Trump has, third, positioned himself against protesters pulling down or defacing statues memorializing the Confederacy or other racist figures or causes. To listen to his rhetoric, the issue isn’t one of a handful of demonstrators but an immense, coordinated effort to blot out American history—though just how remains unclear. “The left-wing mob,” he warned in his Mount Rushmore speech, “is trying to demolish our heritage so they can replace it with a new repressive regime that they alone control.”Trump thus links statues to a fourth theme: the “unhinged left-wing mob” seeking to “punish, cancel, and persecute anyone who does not conform to their demands.” Trump is all in against such repression, calling it at Mount Rushmore “a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.” He promises to stand against this.And this leads to the final variation on Trump’s culture-war pitch and fifth major theme: Not only does the “left-wing mob” want to tear down statues and punish conservatives, but this supposed radical cohort will bring about the destruction of law and order altogether in its calls to defund police. In many of the president’s recent speeches, this blurs together with the imagined danger of “open borders”—one of the president’s older themes that has retreated in centrality but always lurks close to the surface. “They want to punish your thought, but not their violent crimes,” he said at Tulsa. “They want to abolish bail, abolish and open up your borders. They want open borders.”Finally, Trump argues that Biden is too weak to prevent this chaos. Consequently, voters—presumptively white ones—have a choice between order and a reopened, rejuvenated economy, and the barbarian hordes coming for their treasure and Confederate statues.[David A. Graham: Donald Trump’s lost cause ]Trump’s case has obvious problems, both moral and intellectual. But, more pragmatically, the argument is flawed from an electoral standpoint. For example, even voters who believe that Trump deserves credit for the pre-coronavirus economy may worry that his disastrous response to the virus has contributed to the economic devastation the country now faces. Trump’s approval rating on his handling of the pandemic is not good; a solid and growing majority disapproves of it, and a whopping 85 percent of the country is either somewhat or extremely worried about the economy. Those aren’t good numbers against which to ask for a vote as an incumbent.Moreover, the human costs of the pandemic beg for an electoral reckoning, one that Biden is likely to demand of Trump and to which the current president is extremely vulnerable. His propensity to wish the matter away only exacerbates this problem. And the United States’s performance cannot convincingly be portrayed as admirable in the face of rising COVID-19 case numbers not seen anywhere else in the developed world.The attempt to tag Biden with the excesses of every anarchist protester is also unpersuasive. Whatever Biden is, he’s no leftist firebrand, and his rhetoric has not given aid or comfort to demonstrators engaged in illegal activity—who are not obviously part of his political camp in any event. Painting him as responsible for controlling the supposed mob Trump warns about will be tricky, particularly because Trump himself is the incumbent, and many Democratic primary voters supported Biden as a moderate alternative to more radical choices—as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, no moderate herself, pointed out recently. Finally, despite hopeful noises from his campaign that Trump’s culture-war shtick will ingratiate him with frightened suburban white women, the polls don’t bear this out. Rather, the attempt to stand behind law enforcement against protesters is actually unpopular, given the current public horror at police behavior, and sympathy with the large majority of protesters who have remained peaceful.So Trump is swimming upriver with this case.But he may not have much choice. He hardly has an obvious alternative argument for his own reelection. He could have his campaign generate a policy program for a second term, but that would be very off-brand. Trump has never talked policy much, beyond promises to build walls and make better trade deals. And a sudden lunge in that direction would be utterly unconvincing. Trump is left with grievance and magic because he’s running for reelection while presiding over the smoldering ruins of an economy and a six-figure death toll from the virus he has let grind the nation to a halt.
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Why China Wants Trump to Win
Like everyone else across the country and the world, China’s leaders are likely watching the contentious presidential campaign unfolding in the United States and anxiously wondering what it means for them. After their four-year rumble with Donald Trump, the Chinese should be counting the months, weeks, days, and minutes to the November election, hoping a (more pliable) Democrat takes over the White House, right? That’s certainly what Trump believes. The Chinese, he tweeted, “are desperate to have Sleepy Joe Biden win the presidential race so they can continue to rip-off the United States, as they have done for decades, until I came along!”That’s not necessarily true. From Beijing’s perspective, while a Democratic presidency may restore a more predictable form of American diplomacy, that may not best serve Chinese interests. In fact, four more years of Trump—though likely packed with annoyances and disputes—might present tantalizing opportunities for China to expand its influence around East Asia and the world.Of course, we can’t know with certainty what outcome China’s senior cadres prefer, or if they even agree among themselves. No candidate should expect an endorsement from People’s Daily. Still, there are clues. In a highly unusual comment, the former Chinese trade negotiator Long Yongtu reportedly told a Shenzhen conference late last year, “We want Trump to be reelected; we would be glad to see that happen.” The president’s tweets make him “easy to read,” Long said, and thus “the best choice in an opponent for negotiations.” In May, Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of the Communist Party–-run newspaper Global Times, tweeted at Trump that the Chinese “wish for your reelection because you can make America eccentric and thus hateful for the world. You help promote unity in China.” Hu added that “Chinese netizens call you ‘Jianguo,’ meaning ‘help to construct China.’” Long and Hu may not be speaking for the Beijing leadership, but no Chinese official or state-media figure would risk making such statements in public if their views were taboo in the inner circle of power.What gives? Many Americans believe (erroneously) that Trump is the first president to stand up to China. After all, his administration has slapped tariffs on China’s exports, sanctioned some of its most important companies and officials, and pressured Beijing to play fair on trade—and the Chinese want more? Sure, Beijing would much rather have avoided a costly trade spat with its largest customer. But Trump may not strike as much terror in the hearts of Beijing’s top cadres as you might expect.“He has some gut feelings that China doesn’t like, but he has gut feelings China does not really mind,” Minxin Pei, a specialist in Chinese politics at Claremont McKenna College, told me. “He does not really see China as an ideological adversary. Trump can be persuaded if the price is right.”[Read: Don't believe the China hype]For China, that’s key. Although Trump has sometimes acted on political and human-rights issues Beijing finds highly sensitive—most recently, signing legislation to impose sanctions for the Chinese government’s abusive treatment of minority Uighurs—he personally has often appeared disinterested, even dismissive. In a new book, Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton claimed that Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping over dinner in Osaka that the detention camps Beijing was building to control the Uighur community were the right thing to do. Trump also recently admitted that he delayed sanctions on officials involved with the camps to smooth negotiations for his coveted trade deal with China.Trump has shown similar ambivalence toward Beijing’s intensifying crackdown on prodemocracy protesters in Hong Kong. The president promised stiff penalties to counter Beijing’s latest move—imposing a national-security law on Hong Kong aimed at wiping out remaining resistance—and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has made bellicose statements and threats over the move. But Trump’s commitment to the Hong Kong cause has often seemed lukewarm. Last year, as millions marched in the city, he sidestepped supporting them, at one point even mouthing the Communist Party’s line by calling the protests “riots” and a purely Chinese matter. “That’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China,” he said last August.Even on trade—the subject featured most often in his tweets—Trump has proved weak-kneed. Chinese negotiators deftly convinced him to push off discussion of issues most critical to American business—state programs that heavily subsidize Chinese competitors, for example—to a “phase two” of talks, which have yet to materialize. Instead, Trump settled for a narrower “phase one” deal, signed in January, that was centered mainly on large Chinese purchases of American farm produce, but included little to alter Beijing’s discriminatory practices.Trump has done even less to contain China’s growing clout on the world stage. His administration’s disdain for international institutions has ceded influence within them to China—most notably, with his recent announcement of the U.S.’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization. While Pompeo has repeatedly bashed Xi’s pet diplomatic program, the infrastructure-building Belt and Road Initiative, as a dangerous trap to ensnare unsuspecting poor nations, the administration hasn’t bothered offering an alternative. Trump has more aggressively contested Beijing’s controversial claim to nearly the entire South China Sea by increasing the frequency of naval missions sent through the disputed waters to uphold freedom of navigation, but he hasn’t followed that up with any consistent diplomacy in Southeast Asia, and he himself has generally ignored the issue.“China’s leadership is pretty confident that, while they haven’t won the South China Sea, they are certainly winning,” Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, told me. Preventing that will require a collective international effort led by the United States, but “you can be pretty certain that is not going to happen under the Trump administration,” Poling said.[Read: Hong Kong is a colony once more]Here lies the main reason Beijing may not mind another Trump term: His style of foreign policy—unilateral, personalized, and fixated on dollars-and-cents matters—has severely weakened America’s traditional system of alliances. While President Barack Obama attempted a “pivot” to Asia, Trump has taken only occasional interest in the region, especially beyond trade and his fleeting dalliances with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Beijing has surely noted that Trump has strained relations with America’s two closest allies in the region—South Korea and Japan—with his persistent and petty squabbles over trade and the costs of U.S. military bases in those countries.That suits Beijing just fine. As Washington steps back, China tries to lurch forward. Beijing has become more and more assertive over the course of the Trump presidency. The Chinese propaganda machine is capitalizing on Trump’s woeful response to the coronavirus pandemic to mock the president and American democracy, raise doubts about U.S. global leadership, and offer up China as a more responsible world power. The Global Times’ Hu is having a field day with Trump’s struggles, pouring forth an almost daily barrage of jibes. “You have no idea how to control epidemic,” he tweeted about Trump in June. “If the grumpy America were someone in life, how nasty the person is.” In another, he simply proclaimed, “Washington is rather stupid.” China’s government, with its superior virus-busting skills, “bolstered international confidence in beating the virus,” Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom recently argued. (Though it is far from clear whether these comments are having a tangible impact on global public opinion, many of China’s diplomats and officials certainly see them as effective.)From China’s standpoint, Trump is not so much tougher as he is different. Previous presidents tried to pressure China within the rules of the current global order; Trump prefers to act outside of that system. For instance, his predecessors turned to the World Trade Organization to challenge China’s unfair trade practices, filing 21 complaints between 2004 and early 2017 (with a strong record of success). The Trump administration, openly disparaging of the WTO, has submitted only two complaints, one of which was a response to China’s retaliation against Trump’s own tariffs. Whereas previous presidents have sought to win over other powers, notably in Europe and East Asia, with similar interests in forcing China to play by the rules, this White House has alienated much of the European Union by threatening hefty tariffs, criticized NATO, and launched personal attacks on some of the West’s most influential leaders. In Asia, meanwhile, he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact aimed at solidifying American ties to its allies.In that sense, a president with a more “normal” American foreign policy—in which Washington works closely with its friends and stands behind international norms and institutions—isn’t good for China. The Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has already vowed to forge a coalition of countries to isolate and confront China. “When we join together with fellow democracies, our strength more than doubles,” Biden argued. “China can’t afford to ignore more than half the global economy.” That, and not Trump, is the stuff of Chinese nightmares.Whoever wins in November, policy toward China isn’t likely to soften. A near consensus has formed in Washington, across the political aisle, that China is a strategic threat to the U.S., and there may be no way to turn back the clock to the more halcyon days of patient American engagement. “There are far fewer doves left, even on the left,” Poling, of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, said. “A Democrat who comes in now is not going to be an Obama Democrat when it comes to China. That is no longer politically possible.”Claremont McKenna’s Pei speculated that some in Beijing may still prefer a Biden victory, if only hoping for a pause in tensions as the Democrats, at least at first, focus on their domestic priorities. But the Chinese, he said, might also come to regret it. “The Trump people believe that the U.S. alone can deal China a fatal blow,” Pei said. “Democrats would likely reach out to allies to form a much more united front against China. If the Democrats succeed, China would be in a much more difficult situation in the long run.”
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The Pandemic Experts Are Not Okay
Saskia Popescu’s phone buzzes throughout the night, waking her up. It had already buzzed 99 times before I interviewed her at 9:15 a.m. ET last Monday. It buzzed three times during the first 15 minutes of our call. Whenever a COVID-19 case is confirmed at her hospital system, Popescu gets an email, and her phone buzzes. She cannot silence it. An epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, Popescu works to prepare hospitals for outbreaks of emerging diseases. Her phone is now a miserable metronome, ticking out the rhythm of the pandemic ever more rapidly as Arizona’s cases climb. “It has almost become white noise,” she told me.For many Americans, the coronavirus pandemic has become white noise—old news that has faded into the background of their lives. But the crisis is far from over. Arizona is one of the pandemic’s new hot spots, with 24,000 confirmed cases over the past week and rising hospitalizations and deaths. Popescu saw the surge coming, “but to actually see it play out is heartbreaking,” she said. “It didn’t have to be this way.”Popescu is one of many public-health experts who have been preparing for and battling the pandemic since the start of the year. They’re not treating sick people, as doctors or nurses might be, but are instead advising policy makers, monitoring the pandemic’s movements, modeling its likely trajectory, and ensuring that hospitals are ready.[Read: America’s patchwork pandemic is fraying even further]By now they are used to sharing their knowledge with journalists, but they’re less accustomed to talking about themselves. Many of them told me that they feel duty-bound and grateful to be helping their country at a time when so many others are ill or unemployed. But they’re also very tired, and dispirited by America’s continued inability to control a virus that many other nations have brought to heel. As the pandemic once again intensifies, so too does their frustration and fatigue.America isn’t just facing a shortfall of testing kits, masks, or health-care workers. It is also looking at a drought of expertise, as the very people whose skills are sorely needed to handle the pandemic are on the verge of burning out.To work in preparedness, Nicolette Louissaint told me, is to constantly stare at society’s vulnerabilities and imagine the worst possible future. The nonprofit she runs, Healthcare Ready, works to steel communities for outbreaks and disasters by ensuring that they have access to medical supplies. She started revving up her operations in January. By March, when businesses and schools started closing and governors began issuing stay-at-home orders, “we were already running on fumes,” she said. Throughout March and April, she got two hours of sleep a night. Now she’s getting four. And yet “I always feel like I’m never doing enough,” she said. “Like one of my colleagues said, I could sleep for two weeks and still feel this tired. It’s embedded in us at this point.”But the physical exhaustion is dwarfed by the emotional toll of seeing the imagined worst-case scenarios become reality. “One of the big misconceptions is that we enjoy being right,” Louissaint said. “We’d be very happy to be wrong, because it would mean lives are being saved.”The field of public health demands a particular way of thinking. Unlike medicine, which is about saving individual patients, public health is about protecting the well-being of entire communities. Its problems, from malnutrition to addiction to epidemics, are broader in scope. Its successes come incrementally, slowly, and through the sustained efforts of large groups of people. As Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida, told me, “The pandemic is a huge problem, but I’m not afraid of huge problems.”[Read: Why the coronavirus is so confusing]The more successful public health is, however, the more people take it for granted. Funding has dwindled since the 2008 recession. Many jobs have disappeared. Now that the entire country needs public-health advice, there aren’t enough people qualified to offer it. The number of epidemiologists who specialize in pandemic-level infectious threats is small enough that “I think I know them all,” says Caitlin Rivers, who studies outbreaks at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.The people doing this work have had to recalibrate their lives. From March to May, Colin Carlson, a research professor at Georgetown University who specializes in infectious diseases, spent most of his time traversing the short gap between his bed and his desk. He worked relentlessly and knocked back coffee, even though it exacerbates his severe anxiety: The cost was worth it, he felt, when the United States still seemed to have a chance of controlling COVID-19.The U.S. frittered away that chance. Through social distancing, the American public bought the country valuable time at substantial personal cost. The Trump administration should have used that time to roll out a coordinated plan to ramp up America’s ability to test and trace infected people. It didn’t. Instead, to the immense frustration of public-health advisers, leaders rushed to reopen while most states were still woefully unprepared.[Read: The U.S. is repeating its deadliest pandemic mistake]When Arizona Governor Doug Ducey began reviving businesses in early May, the intensive-care unit of Popescu’s hospital was still full of COVID-19 patients. “Within our public-health bubble, we were getting nervous, but then you walked outside and it was like Pleasantville,” she said. “People thought we had conquered it, and now it feels like we’re drowning.”The COVID-19 unit has had to expand across an entire hospital wing and onto another floor. Beds have filled with younger patients. Long lines are snaking around the urgent-care building, and people are passing out in the 110-degree heat. At some hospitals, labs are so inundated that it takes several days to get test results back. “We thought we could have scaled down instead of scaling up,” Popescu said. “But because of poor political decisions that every public-health person I know disagreed with, everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”“I feel like I’ve been making the same recommendations since January,” says Krutika Kuppalli of Stanford University. The last time she felt this tired was in 2014, after spending three months in West Africa helping with the region’s historic Ebola outbreak. Everyone who experienced that crisis, she told me, was deeply shaken; she herself suffered from post-traumatic stress upon returning home.The same experts who warned of the coronavirus’s resurgence are now staring, with the same prophetic worry, at a health-care system that is straining just as hurricane season begins. And they’re demoralized about repeatedly shouting evidence-based advice into a political void. “It feels like writing ‘Bad things are about to happen’ on a napkin and then setting the napkin on fire,” Carlson says.A pandemic would have always been a draining ordeal. But it is especially so because the U.S., instead of mounting a unified front, is disjointed, cavalier, and fatalistic. Every week brings fresh farce, from Donald Trump suggesting that the country should do less testing to massive indoor gatherings of unmasked people.“One by one, people are seeing something so absurd that it takes them out of commission,” Carlson says.Public health is not a calling for people who crave the limelight, and researchers like Rivers, the Johns Hopkins professor, have found their sudden prominence jarring. Almost all of the 2,000 Twitter followers she had in January were other scientists. Most of the 130,000 followers she now has are not. The slow, verbose world of academic communication has given way to the blistering, constrained world of tweets and news segments.The pandemic is also bringing out academia’s darker sides—competition, hostility, sexism, and a lust for renown. Armchair experts from unrelated fields have successfully positioned themselves as trusted sources. Male scientists are publishing more than their female colleagues, who are disproportionately shouldering the burden of child care during lockdowns. Many researchers have suddenly pivoted to COVID-19, producing sloppy work with harmful results. That further dispirits more cautious researchers, who, on top of dealing with the virus and reticent politicians, are also forced to confront their own colleagues. “If I cannot reasonably convince people I’ve been friends with for years that their work is causing tangible harm, what possible future do I see on this career path?” Carlson asks.[Read: A dire warning from COVID-19 test providers]Other scientists and health officials are facing the wrath of a nation on edge. Unsettled by months of stay-at-home orders, confused by rampant misinformation, distraught over the country’s blunders, and embroiled in yet more culture wars over masks and lockdowns, Americans are lashing out. Public-health experts—and women in particular—have become targets. Several have resigned because of threats and harassment. Others face streams of invective in their inboxes and on their Twitter feeds. “I can say something and get horrendously attacked, but a man who doesn’t even work in this field can go on national TV and be revered for saying the exact same thing,” Popescu said.Some critics have caricatured public-health experts as finger-wagging alarmists ensconced in an ivory tower, far away from the everyday people who are suffering the restrictive consequences of their advice. But this dichotomy is false. The experts I spoke with are also scared. They’re also feeling trapped at home. They also miss their loved ones. Louissaint, who lives in Baltimore, hasn’t seen her New York–based parents this year.“I feel like I’m living in at least three realities at the same time,” Louissaint told me. She’s responding directly to the pandemic, trying to ensure that patients and hospitals get the supplies they need. She’s running an organization, trying to make sure that her employees keep their jobs. She’s a Black woman, living through a pandemic that has disproportionately killed Black people and the historic protests that have followed the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. During the ensuing reckonings about race, “I’ve been pulled into so many conversations about equity that people weren’t having months ago,” Louissant said.“Someone said to me, ‘I hope you’re getting tons of support,’” she added. “But there’s no feasible thing that anyone could do to make this better, no matter how much they love you. The mental toll isn’t something you can easily share.”These laments feel familiar to people who lived through the AIDS crisis in the ’80s, says Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale epidemiologist who has been working on HIV for 30 years and who has the virus himself. “I have friends who survived the virus but didn’t survive the toll it took on their lives,” Gonsalves told me. “I’m incredulous that I’m seeing this twice in my lifetime. The idea that I’m going to have to fend off another virus … like, really, can I have just one?”But Gonsalves added that HIV veterans have a deep well of emotional reserves to draw from, and a sense of shared purpose to mobilize. His advice to the younger generation is twofold. First, don’t ignore your feelings: “Your anxiety, fear, and anger are all real,” he said. Then, find your people. “They may not be your colleagues,” he said, and they might not be scientists. But they’ll share the same values, and be united in recognizing that “public health is not a career, but a mission and a calling.”Despite the toll of the work and the pressure from all sides, the public-health experts I talked with are determined to continue. “I’m glad I have a way in which I can be useful,” Rivers said. “I feel like it’s my duty to do what I can."
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A Better Fall Is Possible
The sirens have quieted in New York City. Each week, my husband, a nurse practitioner, reports fewer patients coming in for COVID-19 tests. We watch in horror as Arizona, Texas, and Florida experience the consequences of squandering the time they had had to prevent an outbreak. Again, ICU beds fill. In the Northeast, by contrast, case counts are falling. On June 30, Massachusetts reported zero COVID-19 deaths.What should these states do now? Massachusetts is moving forward with reopening businesses, and, despite indoor dining having been paused in New York City, northeastern governors’ goals seem to be relentlessly commercially driven. Leaders see economic suffering ahead if the federal government does not reinvigorate support for workers and families as federal pandemic unemployment assistance ends on July 30. By prioritizing reopening businesses, states are wasting an opportunity to ensure a better fall for children and families.This is the wrong course. Instead of speeding forward with reopening their economies, these states should do everything in their power to make a return to school possible in the fall—especially for younger children. This must be the No. 1 priority, and all other “reopening” plans should flow from that. This means keeping the case counts of the virus as low as possible, via business closures (with unemployment assistance and stimulus to compensate) and required universal mask wearing.[Read: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should]At the beginning of the pandemic, we made a trade-off: Sacrifice school and day care, with women mostly picking up the slack, for public health. With little known about COVID-19, and knowing that many other respiratory illnesses are spread by children, this was a tough, unfair, but decent, emergency bargain. In the Northeast, these sacrifices, alongside the efforts of health-care and essential workers, and the unemployment of millions—all of which have been borne disproportionately by people of color—have led to successfully driving down case counts.But all of this progress can be reversed if we continue reopening as planned. Bustling bars and shops mean cases will likely rise again. And, because of the way this particular virus works, we won’t know we have a disaster on our hands until it is far too late to fix things easily, and many will die. Amid this, school districts across the country seem to be lumbering toward reopening in the fall by adhering to exactly what they have done in the past, COVID-19-style. That typically means school as we know it—but “hybrid,” with students taking classes in school part-time and online part-time from home. This maintains our demand for maternal sacrifice, and does not take into consideration the different needs and risk profiles by students’ age.Since the beginning of the pandemic, evidence has emerged showing that younger children are at lower risk of getting COVID-19 and are not a major source of spread. However, no scenario is zero-risk, and although less likely, children could transmit the disease to adults. We can take advantage of children’s relatively lower risk only by keeping community transmission rates down and implementing a contact-tracing system.In-person education is crucial for so many reasons. Students attending virtual school have lower test scores and are less likely to graduate high school—and the evidence comes from planned virtual schooling. Outcomes from emergency online education may be worse. Schools provide vital social-emotional support and safety-net policies such as food access, health clinics, and washing machines. Schools help detect child abuse and neglect. A virtual alternative risks exacerbating inequalities, such as access to devices, internet connections, quiet places to work, and adults to assist children in staying on task. The difficulties are greatest for younger children: They are at a higher risk of learning loss, are in a key period for learning how to read, are less able to have online social interactions, and need more supervision at home. School is important for the careers and sanity of parents. Many essential workers must work outside the home, and need school to help care for their children.[Read: What America asks of working parents is impossible]Reopening schools successfully will require tough choices, and the hardest, perhaps, is this: We will not be able to reopen for all children.There are two important constraints. First, teachers and staff should be able to opt out of in-person school if they or their families have a health risk. This will limit the number of staff available. But an opportunity to opt out, along with a reasonable plan for reopening that prioritizes staff health, is both moral and necessary for staff buy-in. Second, teens may be more similar to adults than young children when it comes to disease spread. This limits which students can be safely brought back to school.Where capacity constraints prevent a full reopening, and there’s an obvious difference in risk, learning needs, and supervision requirements by age, there’s one clear conclusion: little kids first. Elementary schools must reopen, spread out across all school buildings and grounds (for as long as the weather permits). Given the intense learning needs of students with disabilities and the difficulty of online alternatives, middle- and high-school students with special needs should also have priority for in-person attendance.[Read: The pandemic is a crisis for students with special needs]Elementary-school students should be assigned to the school building closest to their home to minimize time spent in transit. The goal in spreading spreading out elementary-school students across campuses is not forcing students to distance from one another, but minimizing adult-to-adult interactions, the greater risk for COVID-19 spread. Classrooms should have a stable group of children, and adults rotating into the class, so that if contact tracing is necessary, close contact happens within a “bubble.” To support students returning to schools with different learning needs, small-group tutoring, with an AmeriCorps-style program providing both one-on-one attention for students and jobs for unemployed young people, should augment classroom teaching.The downside of this is that most middle and high schools will need to be online, except for in-person services for older students with special needs. This is hard, really hard. All middle- and high-school students have needs that can be met only at school: an optimal learning environment, access to the school safety net, and interactions with peers. But prioritizing younger grades over older ones recognizes the reality of COVID-19, the unfair burden that having young kids at home places on women, and the capacity constraints that make a full reopening impossible.To make this proposal feasible, we need to reorganize learning in the upper grades. We must trade the norm of individual teachers working in isolation for collective planning. For families that lack or opt out of in-person options, states, consortiums of school districts, and large-school districts should provide centralized online-learning programs for all grades, including remote option for elementary grades, and the basis of fully online learning for upper grades. We should not be recreating the wheel in each school building, when teachers could focus on supporting students.A subset of upper-grade teachers should focus on content generation for these online platforms, and the rest of teachers should be matched to small student groups to provide individualized coaching and tutoring. Reimagining online education in this way would alleviate some of the demands on parents (read: moms) to manage middle- and high-school learning, and improve the experience for students. Some teachers will have to teach outside their typical grade or subject to cover faculty who cannot teach in person because of health risks. And to alleviate the suffering of students who miss their friends and struggle online, school districts could offer small group activities for tweens and teens every other Friday (so a deep clean could occur over the weekend), and have younger children stay home that day so there is adequate space.Families will also need to trade some of their individualism for the collective. Barring medical exceptions, adults must be required to wear masks at drop-off and pickup. Children must be required to be vaccinated for all illnesses if medically possible, including the flu shot. (Avoiding typical childhood illnesses means a lower likelihood of a coronavirus “scare” that turns out to be the flu, as well as protecting children from childhood diseases.) Families that can’t abide by these rules must use the online option.[Read: What happens when kids don’t see their peers for months]Even this partial reopening will not be enough to fully support children’s needs. We should also focus on and fund compensatory support for children now and in the future, such as vacation academies, summer school, and tutoring, as well as student counseling.This transformation will require sufficient funding. Schools are facing deep budget cuts due to lost state tax revenue. If a vaccine appeared tomorrow, schools would still have a fiscal crisis. With balanced budget requirements, states cannot step in: Only the federal government can borrow the necessary funds. The federal government must prioritize a bailout for schools and child-care centers that both covers budget gaps and provides additional funding to manage the special needs of educating children during a pandemic.In some places currently in crisis, even this modified reopening plan may be unsafe. Instead, the focus must be on reducing community spread and caring for the sick. An alternative for these areas would be to delay the start of school and plan on a longer school year. Full school reopening may be possible in low-density areas with little community transmission. The key here is to be flexible based on community transmission and, if faced with a situation where not all students can return, to prioritize younger students and those with the most need.A lot of this proposal might be difficult to fathom—prioritizing younger children over older, changing school culture—but the alternative is not a return to normal. A few communities have recognized this, and announced plans similar to what I suggest here.This fall will be the strangest return to school in memory, and if we continue to reopen businesses as planned, it may very well be all online. When considering this proposal, or any other, we should compare it with reality, rather than magical thinking about returning to what school was like in February.The other day I stood in front of the mirror and cut my own hair. Last month we ordered in from our favorite neighborhood restaurant for a date night at home. I would love to change this. But if the choice is between a haircut and reopening school for our neighbors’ kids and day care for our daughter, I choose children. If the choice is between a drink at the bar and supporting women who are trying to manage a career and parenting during a pandemic, I choose women. Let us be bold together and halt reopening the economy—and choose reopening schools, and a better fall for our families.
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Donald Trump’s Lost Cause
There’s an old expression wryly deployed across the South: Thank God for Mississippi or we’d be last in everything.Donald Trump is now behind even Mississippi. Last week, Governor Tate Reeves signed into law a measure that will remove the Confederate battle flag from the state flag. It was the last state flag in the country to include the Confederate design, though others retain references. The president, meanwhile, is still complaining about decisions to remove the flag.In a Monday-morning tweet, he attacked the Black driver Bubba Wallace and bashed NASCAR’s decision to ban the flag from races: Has @BubbaWallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX? That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 6, 2020This broadside followed a July 4 weekend in which Trump eschewed the customary appeals to national unity and instead sought to divide the American people during speeches in South Dakota and Washington, D.C. Taken together, the speeches and Trump’s other remarks in other forums over the past weeks indicate that he is seeking to inflame a culture war ahead of the November election.There’s nothing strange about Donald Trump seeking to exploit racial and cultural tension to advance himself; it’s the story of his career, and certainly of his political career. Yet the moment is also profoundly strange, even with all that history in mind. A president who ran and won a campaign built on racial grievance is now losing support because voters have turned against him on his core issue. Rather than adjust course, however, Trump is insisting on talking more about it, and appears to have given up on the idea of persuading voters altogether.This is the deep irony of Trump’s reelection campaign. He captured the White House with a campaign based on racial backlash and now, after nearly four years of racist remarks and appeals, backlash to the backlash may doom his campaign.[David A. Graham: America has no president]It’s difficult to think of a moment in recent history when Americans were more divided—either physically, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, or politically. Independence Day is, furthermore, the easiest occasion for a president to appeal to national unity and warm feelings, and to bask in that warm glow. Yet Trump cannot or will not do that. At Mount Rushmore on Friday, Trump told a crowd: Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities. Many of these people have no idea why they are doing this, but some know exactly what they are doing. They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive. But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them. In a speech at the White House on Saturday, he struck similar notes: “We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who, in many instances, have absolutely no clue what they are doing.”Trump has also announced a strange and likely chimerical plan to build a national sculpture garden celebrating American heroes. And later yesterday, he assailed two professional sports teams that are considering changes to their names, while also delivering a dumb attack on Senator Elizabeth Warren: They name teams out of STRENGTH, not weakness, but now the Washington Redskins & Cleveland Indians, two fabled sports franchises, look like they are going to be changing their names in order to be politically correct. Indians, like Elizabeth Warren, must be very angry right now! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 6, 2020The common element across these statements is an appeal to an us-versus-them worldview. As Trump has demonstrated in the past, it’s a usefully protean designation. It’s just vague enough to leave possibilities—race, ethnicity, cities versus rural areas, the “deep state” versus the people, Q adherents versus everyone else, left versus right—and just specific enough to allow any number of groups to see themselves in it. What unites all these groups, ironically, is division: Trump is pitting some Americans against others. Where he once said there were “very fine people on both sides,” the president now sees right on only one side.Though Trump has long tended to view himself not as the president of the United States but as the president of Trump voters, the imperative to broaden his base of support is more urgent than ever. The president has pinned his reelection hopes on the enthusiasm of his fervent supporters, but now his base is shrinking. A growing body of polling shows voters favoring Democrat Joe Biden in November. The base strategy always required Trump to walk a narrow path, and now that path is narrower still.Instead of taking steps to broaden his support, however, the Trump team has already given up on winning anyone back. The Associated Press reported yesterday that his campaign is predicated on the belief that few voters who don’t like Trump can be persuaded to swing behind him now, so success lies in motivating those who are still with him. The plan: First, drive up negative opinions about Biden, whom the Trump campaign believes is liked by perhaps 60% of the country, if tepidly. Second, on the theory that a largely unwavering 40% of the country likes the president, Trump would serve up policies and rhetoric to generate enough enthusiasm to turn out that slice of the country to vote. If this sounds familiar, it is because it’s the playbook Trump ran four years ago. He realized he didn’t need to win a majority of the country, and indeed he didn’t: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. But Trump was able to exploit negative views of Clinton, exacerbate them, and strategically suppress the vote enough to execute a clever Electoral College–focused strategy. Trump has been reliving that election for years—his upset victory remains a staple of his public comments and tweets—and it stands to some reason that he’d try to use it again.It’s early in this election campaign (though it feels like it’s been going on forever), and Trump might still be able to pull off the same trick. At the moment, however, it’s not working like it once did. While it’s true that a lot of the media coverage made a Clinton victory seem like a foregone conclusion, there were warning signs of her weaknesses for some time, and Biden is already doing better on several of those fronts. The presumptive Democratic nominee holds a larger lead, and a more consistent one, and he’s eating into Trump’s edge in key demographics including white voters and older voters.[David A. Graham: White voters are abandoning Trump]The reason for this, as I wrote last week, is that voters are horrified by Trump’s handling of race issues and of protests. The president’s unfavorability rating remains high, though within its normal range, and voters still give him high marks on the economy, but there’s been an immense shift in opinion on race. White voters have changed their minds, and they’re no longer with the president—but he’s sticking to the same talking points.In 2016, many skeptics believed, naively it turned out, that a race-based campaign was a relic of the 1960s and could no longer work. At the moment, it looks like a relic of the 2010s that may no longer work.Trump’s tweet about Bubba Wallace exemplifies the shift. In the fall of 2017, Trump began railing against the former quarterback Colin Kaepernick and effectively pitting himself against the NFL. In the summer of 2020, Trump is once again demonizing a black athlete, but this time he’s pitting himself against NASCAR, a far more conservative (and smaller) institution—and he’s finding himself on the wrong side of the debate, with the sport’s leaders banning the flag and its drivers rallying around Wallace. (As for Trump’s claims of a “hoax,” the FBI concluded that a noose reported in a garage was not meant to threaten Wallace—but it was certainly a noose.)There is likely a tranche of voters who have been deeply moved by the protests after George Floyd’s death, and who are upset about racial injustice, but who are also uncomfortable with the iconoclastic urge to tear down statues. This is one group of people Trump has probably lost but could presumably regain, and on occasion, he manages to pitch his argument in a way that might appeal to them.At Mount Rushmore, Trump said this: “By tearing down Washington and Jefferson, these radicals would tear down the very heritage for which men gave their lives to win the Civil War; they would erase the memory that inspired those soldiers to go to their deaths, singing these words of the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’: ‘As He died to make men Holy, let us die to make men free, while God is marching on.’ They would tear down the principles that propelled the abolition of slavery in America and, ultimately, around the world, ending an evil institution that had plagued humanity for thousands and thousands of years.”[David A. Graham: The night Trump stopped trying]This is bellicose by normal standards, but it’s relatively restrained for Trump, and it celebrates the Union victory in the Civil War. Notably, it’s also a prewritten text for a formal speech. When Trump takes the opportunity to go off script, to improvise, or to speak for himself, he almost invariably wades into more dangerous water, and starts to lose those persuadable voters. He might threaten to veto funding for the military if it requires renaming bases that honor Confederate generals. He might call Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate.” Or he might attack Bubba Wallace and celebrate the Confederate battle flag. This is not merely the lack of discipline Trump apologists sometimes ascribe to him, but the president revealing his own essential urges. With his political fate on the line, he has made a choice to talk almost entirely about the things that voters dislike most about him.Speaking on the conservative commentator Brian Kilmeade’s radio show yesterday, Senator Lindsey Graham defended both NASCAR (“I’ve lived in South Carolina all my life and if you’re in business, the Confederate flag is not a good way to grow your business”) and Wallace, who he said had nothing to apologize for.“You saw the best in NASCAR,” Graham said. “When there was a chance that it was a threat against Bubba Wallace, they all rallied to Bubba’s side, so I would be looking to celebrate that kind of attitude more than being worried about it being a hoax.”Expecting Trump to celebrate that attitude at this point borders on delusional. As Graham’s colleague Rick Scott of Florida told The New York Times, “He is who he is. People know who he is. You think he’s going to change?” Scott’s right: There is never going to be a Trump pivot. Trump is the same as he always is, and he’s trying to use the same old strategy on an electorate that is desperate to move on.
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Listen: How the Coronavirus Affects Kids
Early on in the pandemic, it seemed as if kids were spared the worst effects of the coronavirus. But in May, a mysterious illness emerged that affected children and appeared to be linked to the virus. As parents now look to send kids back to school and daycare, how should they think about these risks? What do we now know about this new syndrome?James Hamblin and Katherine Wells are joined on the Social Distance podcast by staff writer Sarah Zhang to discuss. Listen here:Subscribe to Social Distance on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or another podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they’re published.What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.EMBED LANGUAGEKatherine Wells: Sarah, we have gotten so many questions from listeners about kids and coronavirus. And they're often in two parts. One is: what's up with the disease and kids? And two is, therefore: how are we supposed to think about childcare and schools? We can start with the actual virus. A listener named Liz wrote us back in May:“I am a mom of a 3-year-old, 19-month-old, and 7-week old. I am a nurse anesthetist returning to work on June 1. Can you tell me how worried I should be about this ‘Kawasaki-like’ illness that may (or may not be) associated with COVID-19?”Sorry, Liz, that we're getting to you late, but maybe we could start there: Sarah, can you just give us an overview of what we know about kids and the virus?Sarah Zhang: It was clear pretty early on that kids don't seem to get very sick from the virus. And when they do, they're often asymptomatic or very mild, and it also seems like they don't really spread it. But a few weeks after the virus first peaked in New York, doctors started noticing, as Liz says, this Kawasaki-like disease, which is now called Multi-system Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, or MIS-C. When I was reporting on it back in May, it had a different name, but I guess they settled on MIS-C.Wells: It seems like it's just ‘miscellaneous.’James Hamblin: It is the perfect word, actually. I don't mean to make light of this—because it can be very serious and I'm sure that wasn't unintentional—but it fits really well.Wells: Okay, so this miscellaneous syndrome affects children. Sarah, what is it?Zhang: Well, it's fittingly a miscellaneous set of symptoms. It includes a bunch of different things that are usually seen with an overactive immune system, like rashes on the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet, a swollen tongue, cracked lips, in some cases really, really low blood pressure. It looks like a bunch of different things that can sometimes happen with different viruses as well. Kids sometimes just have what looks like an overactive immune system. They have almost a delayed reaction to the virus.Part of the reason this took a while for doctors to notice is that it seemed to peak about six weeks after the COVID-19 cases actually peaked in New York. It seems like there was some delay between exposure and actually getting this syndrome. That's why it took so long to notice. It's also because it's really, really rare.Hamblin: I think part of the reason we haven't heard more about it is because it's so difficult to define and because of that lag. That is why you're just now seeing these clear cases. The CDC has warned parents to consult a doctor “right away” if their child develops “symptoms of MIS-C” that include: “fever, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, neck pain, rash, bloodshot eye, [or] feeling extra tired.”And there have been fatalities. Some kids have had serious cases. So essentially, CDC was telling people: hey, if you don't have enough to worry about already, if it seems like your kid is feeling extra tired, they might have this serious condition.Zhang: As you're saying, it’s this collection of symptoms that are so nonspecific. Part of the worry is that we really don't know why most kids are totally fine after getting COVID-19, but a very, very small number seem to develop this serious condition. And that kind of uncertainty of knowing this can happen but not knowing who it will happen in makes it really hard.Wells: So this is happening to kids after they have recovered from COVID-19?Hamblin: They probably didn't even get it.Zhang: Yeah, they never had the coughing or the shortness of breath that most of us associate with COVID-19.Wells: Got it. But these are in instances where they had the virus circulating in their bodies, they fight off the virus, and then some number of weeks later, they start to have these inflammatory symptoms.Zhang: Yeah, exactly. It's like the virus is gone or almost gone, but the system is still reacting to it for some reason.Wells: I understand that a lot of the worst reactions in adults to coronavirus happen with a cytokine storm, like an overreaction of the immune system. Is the same theory in play here with kids?Zhang: I think in a general sense, that is what we're seeing. You fight off the virus first. Even when adults have this really strong reaction, it's towards the end of infection and they may not actually have that much virus.Wells: It's a delayed reaction.Zhang: Yeah, the real difference is that you just never got the respiratory symptoms in kids that you tend to see in adults.Hamblin: I'm imagining a sort of Venn diagram here. There's an MIS-C-COVID-19 Venn diagram where some people are going to have both, some people are going to have just the respiratory symptoms, and some people are just going to have a delayed immune response.Wells: Are there any theories about why this is happening? Are kids' immune systems are a lot stronger in general, so they're better at fighting off that initial disease, but then keep going too long or something?Zhang: There are some theories. Kids' immune systems are stronger and weaker in different ways. Kids tend to encounter a lot of new pathogens because everything you encounter as a kid is new to you, so they tend to be better at fighting off something that's completely new.But if you're seeing something for the first time, it also takes time for your immune system to mount that response. If you're an adult and you've had, for instance, chickenpox before, the next time you see chickenpox, your immune system will recognize it and start getting rid of it right away, whereas in kids, it may take a while for their immune system to respond. So they do work slightly differently and that might help explain why their responses are so different to adults.Wells: Got it. You know, there was this thought at the beginning of the pandemic that maybe kids are better off and maybe they don't seem to get sick, so we don't have to worry about them. But is the lesson here that actually, we do?Hamblin: I think kids are better off than adults—though it does seem that they can transmit the virus, as anyone who's carrying it can). And MIS-C is pretty reliably treatable so far. It shouldn't be super scary. What is worth keeping in mind is that these patterns are just now emerging. We don't know how this is going to play out in the long term across the population in terms of potential delayed effects.Wells: What does this mean for schools and daycare? Many parents have been working from home and trying to take care of their children. There are parents who need to go back to work and need childcare for their kids. How worried should people be about transmission in these spaces with kids?Zhang: Well, everyone's risk calculation is different, but I don't think this miscellaneous disease is the biggest thing to worry about. You mentioned transmission. Kids bringing it home from schools and daycares, or infecting teachers, is probably a slightly bigger worry. But the evidence does indicate that kids don't usually get very sick and they're not walking virus bombs.Wells: Really? We don't think that kids are as good at transmitting the virus?Zhang: Yeah, there haven't been very many cases where a kid went to school, got sick at school, and brought it back. Part of this is that a lot of schools have been closed. But in the Netherlands where they have opened schools, they followed families and there haven't really been any cases where the kid brought it back to the family.That doesn't mean it doesn't happen. And when it comes to risks, there's no one-size-fits-all advice. It depends on who else is in your household, how old are your other kids, are you living with grandparents. I think the individual family situation matters a lot more than should this daycare be open?Hamblin: I think this is a good moment to resist the impulse to stratify risk or to help people calibrate anxieties in any way other than saying Here's what we know right now and here are some possibilities for the ways this could unfold. It's not something to panic about, but it is something that we want to keep a close eye on. I want to be assured that there are not other manifestations of this multi-system inflammatory process that don't linger and cause something that is actually significant that we aren't yet picking up on.Wells: Sarah, you've been following the science of the virus since the beginning and covering science for years. What do you most want to know about how this virus works?Zhang: The question I most want to answer is why it seems to manifest differently in different people. And I think the answer to that actually may not be about the virus itself, but actually in our immune systems, because lots of viruses are really different from person to person. If we could in some way predict who would get really sick once they get this virus, I think that would help a lot in figuring out how to minimize the impact.
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