The Atlantic
The Atlantic
I'm a Nurse in New York. Teachers Should Do Their Jobs, Just Like I Did.
The other day my husband, a public-school teacher in New York City, got a string of texts from a work friend. After checking in on our family and picking up their ongoing conversation about books and TV shows, she wrote, “So, are we going on a teacher strike in the fall?”“What!? No!” My husband is adamantly against a strike, because he understands on a deep, personal level his duty to serve his country in the classroom.[Read: ‘This push to reopen schools is guaranteed to fail’]We have two young children, one of whom is developmentally disabled, and I’m an intensive-care nurse. Through the spring, I took care of COVID-19 patients at the hospital while he toggled between teaching on Zoom and helping our daughters through their own lessons. He knows that I did my part for society, and that now he should, too.We wouldn’t be in this mess of uncertainty about the coming school year if the federal government had managed to control the virus; any glimmer of leadership from the president would have gone a long way. Grievances and fear are understandable. I support teacher-led campaigns to make sure that safety measures are in place. And any city or state experiencing a spike in cases should keep schools shut, along with indoor businesses.What I don’t support is preemptively threatening “safety strikes,” as the American Federation of Teachers did in late July. These threats run counter to the fact that, by and large, school districts are already fine-tuning social-distancing measures and mandating mask-wearing. Teachers are not being asked to work without precautions, but some overlook this: the politics of mask-wearing have gotten so ridiculous that many seem to believe masks only protect other people, or are largely symbolic. They’re not. Nurses and doctors know that masks do a lot to keep us safe, and that other basics such as hand washing, not touching faces, and social distancing are effective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.Instead of taking the summer to hone arguments against returning to the classroom, administrators and teachers should be thinking about how they can best support children and their families through a turbulent time. Schools are essential to the functioning of our society, and that makes teachers essential workers. They should rise to the occasion even if it makes them nervous, just like health-care workers have.My husband, playing devil’s advocate while we discussed this (we both know how eager he is to go back), said, “Arguably health-care workers sort of signed up for this kind of risk, but teachers did not.”I replied, “Absolutely not!” Doctors and nurses sign up for work that is sometimes high-stress for us and sometimes life-or-death for our patients, not for us. Aside from those who choose to work in biocontainment or offer their services in war zones, we are not expected to do crucial medical work under potentially lethal circumstances.[Fred Milgrim: A New York doctor’s warning]I was terrified when I started taking care of COVID-19 ICU patients. Before my first COVID-19 shift, I had panic attacks that made me wheeze, and I walked onto the unit my first day in tears (so in addition to being terrified, I was also really embarrassed). My co-workers felt similarly. I heard an attending physician say, of her daughter, “What if she loses her mother?” and I read through a young nurse’s freshly written will, no joke.In those early days, I confessed my anxieties to an acquaintance, and he asked whether I could take a medical leave of absence. I could have taken a leave, and teachers in need can too. (And parents who want their children to stay home have that option, whether through homeschooling or continued remote learning.) But I said, "No, I can't just chump out!" Chump wasn't the right word—at the moment, I was almost hysterical, and it was hard for me to even articulate how I felt, called upon to do something frightening and hard that I viscerally did not want to do.The military language people used when discussing COVID-19 in the spring seemed totally appropriate, and in a way that mentality got me through the peak: This was a war, and I was a soldier. It wasn't my choice to serve, but it was my duty; I had skills and knowledge that were needed.So I can understand that teachers are nervous about returning to school. But they should take a cue from their fellow essential workers and do their job. Even people who think there's a fundamental difference between a nurse and a teacher in a pandemic must realize that there isn't one between a grocery-store worker and a teacher, in terms of obligation. People who work at grocery stores in no way signed up to expose themselves to disease, but we expected them to go to work, and they did. If they had not, society would have collapsed. What do teachers think will happen if working parents cannot send their children to school? Life as we know it simply will not go on.When some of my husband’s students told him that they had continued working as cashiers throughout the spring and summer, he said, “Wow, that’s so courageous of you.” He feels that he doesn’t really have anything to show for himself, and he looks forward to the time when he will. Now, contemplating the possibility of teachers striking, he says, “Bowing out wouldn’t be a good example to set for our students.”[Dave Grohl: In defense of our teachers]Teachers signed up to be a positive adult presence in children’s lives, and to help them grow up with their peers, at school, away from home. We need them to follow through, even though it’s a challenge. It’s going to be hard; it’s going to be stressful; it’s not going to be perfect. “I can’t think of one time that there was actually hand soap in the men’s bathroom,” my husband told me. That’ll have to change, hopefully for good. The point is that everyone is going to have to go above and beyond. But teachers are smart and adaptable. They can do this.In the days before I first took care of COVID-19 patients, I discovered a deeper fear. Beneath my panic over exposing myself to the disease, I was also afraid that the work would be too difficult, too fast-paced, too chaotic: I was afraid I would fail. When I came to the hospital, I discovered that solidarity, flexibility, kindness, and a willingness to learn would be integral elements of nursing through a pandemic, and I knew I wouldn’t fail—the skills I had were the very reason I had been called upon to do this work. The same is true of teaching through a pandemic.
The Coronavirus Is Never Going Away
Editor’s Note: The Atlantic is making vital coverage of the coronavirus available to all readers. Find the collection here. The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has sickened more than 16.5 million people across six continents. It is raging in countries that never contained the virus. It is resurging in many of the ones that did. If there was ever a time when this coronavirus could be contained, it has probably passed. One outcome is now looking almost certain: This virus is never going away.The coronavirus is simply too widespread and too transmissible. The most likely scenario, experts say, is that the pandemic ends at some point—because enough people have been either infected or vaccinated—but the virus continues to circulate in lower levels around the globe. Cases will wax and wane over time. Outbreaks will pop up here and there. Even when a much-anticipated vaccine arrives, it is likely to only suppress but never completely eradicate the virus. (For context, consider that vaccines exist for more than a dozen human viruses but only one, smallpox, has ever been eradicated from the planet, and that took 15 years of immense global coordination.) We will probably be living with this virus for the rest of our lives.Back in the winter, public-health officials were more hopeful about SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. SARS, a closely related coronavirus, emerged in late 2002 and infected more than 8,000 people but was snuffed out through intense isolation, contact tracing, and quarantine. The virus was gone from humans by 2004. SARS and SARS-CoV-2 differ in a crucial way, though: The new virus spreads more easily—and in many cases asymptomatically. The strategies that succeeded with SARS are less effective when some of the people who transmit COVID-19 don’t even know they are infected. “It’s very unlikely we’re going to be able to declare the kind of victory we did over SARS,” says Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist at Columbia University.[Read: A vaccine reality check]If not, then what does the future of COVID-19 look like? That will depend, says Yonatan Grad, on the strength and duration of immunity against the virus. Grad, an infectious-disease researcher at Harvard, and his colleagues have modeled a few possible trajectories. If immunity lasts only a few months, there could be a big pandemic followed by smaller outbreaks every year. If immunity lasts closer to two years, COVID-19 could peak every other year. At this point, how long immunity to COVID-19 will last is unclear; the virus simply hasn’t been infecting humans long enough for us to know. But related coronaviruses are reasonable points of comparison: In SARS, antibodies—which are one component of immunity—wane after two years. Antibodies to a handful of other coronaviruses that cause common colds fade in just a year. “The faster protection goes away, the more difficult for any project to try to move toward eradication,” Grad told me.This has implications for a vaccine, too. Rather than a onetime deal, a COVID-19 vaccine, when it arrives, could require booster shots to maintain immunity over time. You might get it every year or every other year, much like a flu shot.Even if the virus were somehow eliminated from the human population, it could keep circulating in animals—and spread to humans again. SARS-CoV-2 likely originated as a bat virus, with a still-unidentified animal perhaps serving as an intermediate host, which could continue to be a reservoir for the virus. (SARS also originated in bats, with catlike palm civets serving as an intermediate host—which led officials to order the culling of thousands of civets.) Timothy Sheahan, a virologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wonders if, with SARS-CoV-2 so widespread across the globe, humans might be infecting new species and creating new animal reservoirs. “How do you begin to know the extent of virus spread outside of the human population and in wild and domestic animals?” he says. So far, tigers at the Bronx Zoo and minks on Dutch farms seem to have caught COVID-19 from humans and, in the case of the minks, passed the virus back to humans who work on the farm.[Read: What a negative COVID-19 test really means]The existence of animal reservoirs that can keep reinfecting humans is also why scientists don’t speak of “eradication” for these viruses. The Ebola virus, for example, probably comes from bats. Even though human-to-human transmission of Ebola eventually ended in the West African epidemic in 2016, the virus was still somewhere on Earth and could still infect humans if it found the right host. And indeed, in 2018, Ebola broke out again in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ebola can be contained through contact tracing, isolation, and a new vaccine, but it cannot be “eradicated.” No one is quite sure why SARS has never reemerged from an animal reservoir, but this coronavirus could well follow a different pattern.In the best-case scenario, a vaccine and better treatments blunt COVID-19’s severity, making it a much less dangerous and less disruptive disease. Over time, SARS-CoV-2 becomes just another seasonal respiratory virus, like the four other coronaviruses that cause a sizable proportion of common colds: 229E, OC43, NL63, and HKU1. These cold coronaviruses are so common that we have likely all had them at some point, maybe even multiple times. They can cause serious outbreaks, especially in the elderly, but are usually mild enough to fly under the radar. One endgame is that SARS-CoV-2 becomes the fifth coronavirus that regularly circulates among humans.In fact, virologists have wondered whether the common-cold coronaviruses also got their start as a pandemic, before settling in as routine viruses. In 2005, biologists in Belgium studied mutations in the cold coronavirus OC43, which likely evolved from a closely related coronavirus that infects cows. Because genetic mutations accumulate at a somewhat regular rate, the researchers were able to date the spillover from cows into humans to the late 1800s. Around this time, a highly infectious respiratory disease was killing cows, and even more curiously, in 1889, a human pandemic began killing people around the world. The older people were, the more susceptible they were. This illness, which produced “malaise, fever, and pronounced central nervous system symptoms,” was linked to influenza based on the antibodies found in survivors half a century later. But the cause was never definitively proved from tissue samples.Could it have been a coronavirus that jumped from cows to humans? This is all speculative, and the possible links between the other three cold coronaviruses and past pandemics are even less clear, says Burtram Fielding, a coronavirus researcher at the University of the Western Cape. “But,” he says, “I wouldn’t be surprised.” It would also be good news, in a way, because it would suggest that COVID-19 could become less deadly over time, making that transition from pandemic to common cold.[Read: Why the coronavirus has been so successful]With a virus, there is a general trade-off between how contagious it is and how deadly it is. SARS and SARS-CoV-2 are illustrative points of comparison: The earlier virus killed a much higher proportion of patients, but it also did not spread as easily. And what a virus ultimately wants to do is keep spreading, which is much easier to do from a live, walking host than a dead one. “In the grand scheme of things, you know, a dead host doesn't help the virus,” says Vineet Menachery, a coronavirus researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch. The other four coronaviruses may also be less deadly because we have all encountered them as children, and even if our immunity does not prevent us from getting them again, it may still prevent severe disease. All of this, along with immunity from vaccines, means that COVID-19 is likely to become far less disruptive down the line.Influenza might be another useful point of comparison. The “flu” is not one virus but actually several different strains that circulate seasonally. After pandemics like 2009’s H1N1 flu, also known as swine flu, the pandemic strain does not simply disappear. Instead, it turns into a seasonal flu strain that circulates all year but peaks during the winter. A descendent of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic strain is still the seasonal flu today. The seasonal peaks never quite reach pandemic heights because of building immunity in the population. Eventually, a new strain, against which people have no immunity, comes along and sparks a new pandemic, and then it becomes the new dominant seasonal strain.In this way, the long-term outlook for COVID-19 might offer some hope for a return to normal. “I think this virus is with us to the future,” Ruth Karron, a vaccine researcher at Johns Hopkins, told me. “But so is influenza with us, and for the most part, flu doesn't shut down our societies. We manage it.”
The Black Yearbook
Photographs by Adraint Khadafhi BerealIn August 2016, during his first week of college, Adraint Khadafhi Bereal went to “Gone to Texas,” a large back-to-school event held every year for students at the University of Texas at Austin. Hundreds upon hundreds of people had gathered in front of the campus clock tower for the welcome event and fireworks display. But despite the throng of students, Bereal didn’t see any who looked like him—and he wouldn’t for another week.Octavian MotenThe university, like many flagship colleges across the country, enrolls vanishingly few Black undergraduates—just 4 percent of the 40,000 students are Black, and just 1.5 percent are Black men. That can leave the few Black students the university does enroll feeling isolated. So last summer, just before the start of his senior year, Bereal began work on The Black Yearbook, a project that aims to give expression to their experiences. It’s not a traditional yearbook; through portraits and 100 interviews, The Black Yearbook shows the highs and lows of Black life at a predominantly white college, both the beauty of the campus experience and the stress of having such scant representation. In several images, students turn their back to the camera. This, Bereal told me, is how white students too often see their Black peers: as faceless. They regularly mistake one for another. But even shot from behind, Bereal’s subjects reveal their individuality—a do-rag here, an expressive pose there.Top: Black Homecoming, September 28, 2019. Bottom, left to right: Siji Deleawe; Awab Ahmed; Jala JonesThe yearbook is “a view into what our daily life looks like on a predominantly white campus,” Bereal said. He hopes people can see the full picture.Members of the Longhorn Band
The NBA’s Bubble Works. Other Leagues Are in Denial.
Back in March, I wrote that the NBA should cancel the rest of its season because trying to play sports while under siege by a global pandemic seemed, frankly, ridiculous. There were too many variables, and so much was still unknown about the virus.It turns out I was worrying about the wrong league. Pro baseball’s season already is in serious trouble even though it only started play on July 23. And with the NFL and college football facing some of the same hurdles as Major League Baseball, the NBA’s success is especially striking.The NBA resumed its season July 30, weeks after bringing 22 teams into an elaborately planned, tightly monitored isolation zone at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. So far, pro basketball’s “bubble” has worked. No players have tested positive since July 13.Major League Baseball—without a bubble—couldn’t make it two full weeks without a major coronavirus outbreak. Six teams have been sidelined because of the outbreak, and as of yesterday more than 20 games had been postponed. On Saturday, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred strongly rebuked players while reiterating his commitment to finishing the season.“We are playing," Manfred told ESPN. “The players need to be better, but I am not a quitter in general and there is no reason to quit now. We have had to be fluid, but it is manageable.”It’s manageable if you’re willing to accept that COVID-19 outbreaks will become as routine in sports as a ground ball to third. It’s manageable if you don’t mind that athletes—not just highly paid professionals but also, in the case of college football, amateurs working for free—will be risking their health primarily to feed the billion-dollar economies they’ve created. And of course, to entertain.The coronavirus crisis now developing in pro baseball is what happens when financially motivated wishful thinking is stamped out by unavoidable reality. The odds of MLB being able to have a season free of COVID-19 were minuscule, especially since the players are on the road traveling. Even when they’re home, they are tasked with behaving wisely and avoiding situations that will make them vulnerable to contracting the virus. It also didn’t help that the players, owners, and Manfred all seemed to dismiss the idea of playing inside a bubble pretty quickly because it seemed inconvenient.What would be far more inconvenient and also embarrassing is if the season had to be cancelled because baseball’s approach failed spectacularly. So far, 21 members of the Florida Marlins organization—18 of whom were players—have tested positive for the coronavirus. Six players from the Cardinals had positive tests.The Marlins, according to an MLB internal investigation, were supposedly lax in following safety protocols and exercising common sense. While visiting Atlanta for an away game, the players reportedly went out to enjoy the Atlanta nightlife. Even though the Major League Baseball’s operations manual discourages players from going to bars and large gatherings, some of the Marlins apparently decided to do so anyway.While the players do bear some responsibility, they are operating within a framework that is bound to fail. What’s happening in Major League Baseball is just a microcosm of what’s happening across America. This country’s response to the coronavirus has been disastrous because of poor, incompetent leadership at the national and state levels. More than 4.6 million Americans have become infected with the coronavirus. Basic safety precautions have been manipulated into a political issue. What hope does sports have in trying to coexist with this pandemic?The NBA’s example certainly has fooled people in some other sports into thinking that coexistence is easy. But the NBA’s success has to do with exhaustive preparation, extraordinary leadership from Commissioner Adam Silver, and a lot of luck. The NBA reportedly spent $150 million to develop the bubble. While that won’t make the projected loss of $1 billion in revenue related to ticket sales sting any less, pro basketball has proved that there is an effective way to play sports in this pandemic if you’re committed to safety.Creating a plan for a restart was likely simpler for the NBA because, when Silver suspended the season in March, the playoffs were only about a month away. The league didn’t have to manage a full season’s worth of games. Selling players on staying inside a bubble at Walt Disney World for a few months was easier than if they had to be away from home for more of the year. Aside from one player who visited a strip club, ostensibly to pick up lemon-pepper chicken wings from its kitchen, and another who went rogue to collect from a delivery service, the NBA hasn’t had any major hiccups. The bubble strategy also has worked for the WNBA, the NHL, and the National Women’s Soccer League, which held a month-long tournament and didn’t report a positive test. Meanwhile, the NHL set up bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton.But trying to operate a sports league outside a bubble adds much more uncertainty, and it seems a given that any league that operates without a bubble will have to deal with infected players at some point.NFL players are reporting to training camp this week, meaning thousands of players will have to be kept healthy. Already, a number of players have been placed on the league’s Reserve/COVID-19 list, which was created to identify the players who have tested positive for the coronavirus or been exposed to someone who has been infected. As of Sunday, 84 players were on that list. The Philadelphia Eagles announced on Sunday that head coach Doug Pederson tested positive for the coronavirus, making him the second NFL head coach to have contracted it.The paid professionals who navigate the complications of playing their sport during a pandemic at least share in the financial rewards. Far worse off are college football players—who lack the union protection and financial resources of their professional counterparts. These student athletes will be jeopardizing their health because so many schools have become completely dependent on the income these unpaid players generate.The Washington Post recently obtained an audio recording of a conversation between Southeastern Conference leadership and players that revealed the players were told by one conference official that outbreaks and positive tests were inevitable. “We’re going to have positive cases on every single team in the SEC,” the unidentified official said. “That’s a given. And we can’t prevent it.”The SEC generated $721 million in revenue in its 2018–19 fiscal year, and football is by far its most lucrative sport. The conference and its member schools have an obvious reason to push through this pandemic to play football. No wonder the players are having a hard time trusting the conference’s leadership to look out for their best interests. During the call, many of the players questioned the conference’s safety protocols and pressed officials on their lack of answers.However, college football players are beginning to connect the dots. Several football players from the Pac-12 conference have threatened to opt out of the season unless certain inequities are addressed. They wrote a list of demands, which include a variety of safety protocols and the distribution of 50 percent of the sports revenue to college athletes. If they’re going to risk their health and it’s ultimately their labor that powers so much of the higher-education economy, why should the players be the only ones excluded from making money?Regardless, the sports that choose to operate outside of a bubble will be jeopardizing human health and human lives. Resuming sports in this way isn’t a calculated risk. It’s a willful stubbornness that defies reality.In early July, the Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle told reporters, “Sports are like the reward of a functioning society.” If that’s the measuring stick, this country hasn’t earned anything.
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The Shadow Pandemic
Call it the “shadow pandemic,” as the United Nations did. As families around the world were forced into lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus, they were given a simple message: Stay home, stay safe. Yet the ubiquity of domestic violence means that for millions of people, home is anything but safe. As one charity put it, “Abusers always work from home.”Over the past few months, the coronavirus and the measures needed to contain it have made life almost intolerable for those with controlling or violent partners. Counseling services have been withdrawn or moved online; supportive friends and relatives are physically out of reach. Schools, here in Britain and in much of the world, are still partially closed. Millions of workers are unemployed or on furlough, waiting to find out if their jobs still exist. Families are trapped together, wracked by money worries, boredom, loneliness, and drug or alcohol use.As a result, there has been a spike in calls to domestic-abuse help lines, and charities predict an increase in victims seeking support as restrictions loosen and it becomes easier to leave an abusive home. In April, the British charity Women’s Aid collected stories from those affected by this shadow pandemic. “I am a key worker who is around Covid positive patients, so I don’t feel like I can go home and stay with my parents,” one woman said. Another told the charity, “My biggest concern is that my child may be given back to our abuser if I were to become seriously unwell with the virus or not survive.” The British government has acknowledged the problem, announcing that it will fund 1,273 new spaces at refuges. The money is undoubtedly welcome. Last year, two-thirds of refuge referrals were declined, and the sector has endured years of budget cuts.A situation this grave deserves proper attention. But compare these two figures: £76 million and £66 billion. (That’s about $96 million and $83 billion.) The first is the amount of emergency funding the government pledged in May for vulnerable people, including domestic-violence survivors, children, and victims of sexual violence or modern slavery. The second—the one measured in billions, not millions—is the government’s own estimate of the cost to the British economy of domestic violence in a single year. This includes health, policing, and court costs, as well as lost productivity and the long-term effects on children who experience or witness violence.When you consider the size of the problem, the British government’s extra financial support seems tiny: To steal a phrase from the late astronomer Patrick Moore, it’s like throwing a baked bean at a rhinoceros. The Domestic Abuse Bill, which is now making its way through Parliament, is similarly necessary but limited. It proposes appointing a domestic-violence commissioner to scrutinize current services, ending the “rough sex” defense in murder trials, and giving the state a legal duty to provide housing to those who suffer abuse. The biggest reforms are to the family courts, where suspected perpetrators will be banned from cross-examining their victims. There will be separate entrances for each party, as well as a new type of restraining order for domestic abusers, with criminal sanctions if the order is broken.These efforts are based around the same assumption: that victims leave. But only 30 percent of domestic-violence survivors who seek help use a refuge, according to the Labour lawmaker Jess Phillips, drawing on figures from the charity SafeLives. “Most women don’t think their partners are beyond redemption,” she told me. But those who stay—the majority—get very little support, as do their partners. Britain’s biggest charity working with perpetrators, Respect, has an annual income of £1.5 million, a tenth of the income of the biggest women’s charity in the sector, Refuge. In most cases of domestic violence, the state offers victims a menu with only one option. If they don’t take it, they’re on their own.Read: [The Particular Cruelty of Domestic Violence]After years of austerity, the British government has recently taken an interventionist turn, pumping money into the economy to save jobs and companies. Unprecedented times call for new thinking: Surely now is the moment to look at the roots of domestic violence, as well as its consequences? Yes, refuges are vital, and underfunded. But the current situation is as if our only solution to the obesity epidemic were gastric-band operations, without ever talking about food. “I would never say perpetrator work should happen at the expense of survivors,” Jo Todd, the chief executive of Respect, told me. However, “if we want to solve the problem, just patching up survivors is not going to do it. We need to look at the cause.”As a concept, domestic violence didn’t exist before the 1970s. Until then, it was called wife beating—if it was discussed at all. Second-wave feminism sought to change that. In 1971, Erin Pizzey founded Britain’s first women’s shelter, in a rundown house in west London; within four years, there were 28 more. In 1973, the Labour Party lawmaker Jack Ashley became the first person to use the words domestic violence in Parliament, telling the House of Commons that he wanted “to draw the attention of the House to a subject cocooned in prejudice and buried in fear … Thousands of men in this country are subjecting their wives to physical brutality. Some are psychopaths, some are alcoholics, and some are sadists. All of them must be stopped from indulging in gratuitous violence.”Ashley’s speech was brave and necessary. He outlined the extent of the abuse and the police’s lack of interest in addressing it: He recounted the stories of a woman left blind after a particularly brutal beating detached her retinas; a woman, eight months pregnant with twins, who was kicked in the stomach until one of her babies was born dead; a woman “flung across the room like a rag doll.” This violence should not be excused or dismissed, Ashley argued: “A criminal assault on a wife must be treated exactly the same as a criminal assault on a Member of Parliament, a police officer, or a member of the Royal Family.” If it was necessary, he said, men “must be given psychiatric treatment, but the first priority must be to protect their wives.” Patching up the victims proved to be an enormous task; perhaps it is no surprise that we never addressed the perpetrators.There are now more than 500 refuges and support services in Britain, including nine for men. But that is still not enough to meet demand, and finding a place is particularly hard for women with more than two children, or foreign nationals whose visas mean they are not entitled to public funds. Austerity following the 2008 financial crisis has meant that budgets have been cut across the country over the past decade. Because refuges are often run by charities acting on government contracts, the slashing of official spending has curtailed the extent of the support being offered.Domestic-abuse charities have understandably highlighted the risks of staying in a violent household, citing the three British women killed by a current or former partner every fortnight—a total of roughly 80 women a year. Yet those cases are only a tiny part of the overall picture. In 2018, 2 million people in England and Wales reported being victims of domestic violence—1.3 million women and 695,000 men—and police made 225,714 arrests. Domestic violence accounts for a tenth of all recorded crime here, according to police figures.Emily Alison is one of a growing number of voices pushing for a broader approach. She argues that the narrow focus on deaths, which feature prominently in charity campaigns, is distorting our perception of the broader problem and hampering our resolve to tackle it. Alison, a psychologist and professional counselor who grew up in Wisconsin and now lives in England, frames the problem this way: “The solution is not more money for fire hoses; it is having more smoke alarms in the first place.”Alison has made a career out of trying to understand some of the least sympathetic people in our society. Through her company, Protagoras, she has worked with more than 1,000 perpetrators of abuse, guiding them through therapy designed to address both their behavior and its motivations. She also trains the specialist police officers who interrogate suspected murderers, rapists, and terrorists; her research found that threats and intimidation were ineffective compared with the less palatable option of building a rapport with them.Her work on domestic violence has led her to a similarly contentious conclusion: We are reluctant to invest in either material or psychological support for perpetrators because diverting money, and empathy, to violent men (and the overwhelming number of abusers are men) makes us uneasy. And we don’t want to talk about dysfunctional relationships in case that looks like blaming battered women for the abuse they suffer. Instead, campaigners—and the media—stick to the cases in which there seems to be a clear victim and villain. “We’ve got to stop high-risk, high-harm cases, obviously, because they’re the ones that end in death,” Alison told me. “But my problem is that as a sector, and as a society, we concentrate on that.”Instead, she wants Britain to embrace what she calls “the gray.”(Susan Meiselas / Magnum)So what would a broader, deeper method of tackling domestic violence look like? Is there any way we can stop the fire, instead of fighting the flames—or sweeping up the ashes? The answer starts with education: teaching young people how to avoid dysfunctional relationships, and teaching adults how to deal with them.Alison has also developed a series of programs, one of which runs in a women’s prison in northern England. It recognizes that most female prisoners are not just offenders but also victims—their lives are often so saturated with abuse that they struggle to recognize it. Her most controversial programs, though, are also the most pragmatic: One, for example, supports women who do not want to leave their abuser, and helps men with “safety-net” strategies to manage their behavior.The principle underlying all this work is one that is shared with the mainstream women’s movement: Domestic violence is a social problem, and it is nourished by deep-rooted beliefs about gender roles and ideas about control, privacy, honor, and shame. When Alison runs programs for teenagers, she tells them a story about a visit to an ice rink in northern Wales when she saw a group of youngsters, around 14 or 15 years old—two girls on the ice and four boys at the side—trash-talking each other. One of the girls, “with a face like thunder,” moved away from the boys, and then skated back toward them at full speed and punched one of them in the side of the head, so he dropped like a stone to the ice.She recounts this sequence of events, and then she asks the teenagers in her program a simple question: What do you think the other kids did?The answer is: The other kids laughed.“Reverse the genders, and that’s not okay,” Alison told me. “Even though at 14, 15, they’re about the same size. But that was the attitude to it—that it was a joke. And the young girl turned around and skated off like, yeah, don’t mess with me.” Watching the scene, Alison couldn’t help but mentally fast-forward a few years, imagining the same boy and girl as a couple with a young baby, arguing after a few drinks. “Then that girl decides, this is how I’m going to deal with this argument, I’m going to punch you in the head. And the person who’s most at risk is her. She’s at risk because no one has ever said, ‘That is not how you solve your problems.’”Educating children about healthy relationships—through programs such as Alison’s, or through improved compulsory sex and relationship education in schools—is easier than getting adults to unlearn their assumptions and question their past behavior. The mixed success of perpetrator programs demonstrates this only too clearly. These try to expose the excuses that we all make for violence, when it happens within the context of a heterosexual relationship, because of the historic legacy of treating “wife beating” as a private matter. (In Britain, only straight male perpetrators do group therapy, for this reason; women and gay men usually get individual counseling.) “Our culture tells men that, throughout history, they are the ones with power and status, [and] that includes power and status over their family and partner,” Jo Todd of Respect told me. Some men, she added, are “randomly violent,” but for others, there isn’t an uncontrollable anger-management issue: They would never hit their boss, or someone in a bar fight. “They’re choosing not to control themselves at home,” she says. “What’s that about?”Most British perpetrator programs follow the so-called Duluth model, named after the city in Minnesota where a new approach was pioneered in the 1980s. They offer between 10 and 30 weekly sessions, hosted by a male and a female facilitator, so participants can see the two sexes working together as equals. The men are forbidden from referring to their partners as “the wife,” or “the missus,” or anything other than their names. “If you empathize with someone, it’s hard to hurt them,” Todd said. “If you objectify them, it’s easier.”At the end of last year, I went to meet a man who had been through a Duluth-style program in Bristol, a couple of hours from London on the train. Charles—I agreed to use only his first name—grew up with an alcoholic father who died when he was 13, and that same year, he watched a fellow pupil shoot a teacher in his classroom. (In Britain, where gun laws are tight, this was an extremely rare event.) After his father’s death, Charles became aware of an edginess he struggled to control. He channeled it into rugby, and then heavy drinking. He woke up one morning at university to discover that he had trashed his room and punched his flatmate.The Duluth model emphasizes that domestic violence should be seen in the context of traditional gender roles, which discourage men from showing vulnerability and can lead them to turn feelings of shame or frustration into anger and violence. That made sense to Charles, as did the fact that we tend to excuse male violence: After he hit his flatmate, his friends reassured him that he shouldn’t worry, because he was a “nice person.”Charles is now a dentist, and he still has that rugby player’s build, strong and broad at six foot one. He quit drinking after he punched his friend, but throughout his 20s he still felt there was “something in him” that he had never quite addressed—and that the people around him didn’t force him to confront. At 31, he entered a relationship with a new woman and they had a daughter together, “the best reckless thing I’ve ever done.” But the relationship began to break down, and his girlfriend talked about moving away, to the north of England, with their child. He felt as though he was constantly on edge, close to exploding. The perpetrator program helped him manage his emotions and made him realize that the relationship was hopelessly dysfunctional, so he ended it. (His ex-girlfriend moved away, but he maintains regular contact with his daughter.) “Luckily for me in terms of my conscience, I never hit her,” he told me of his ex-partner. “But what I’ve learned about in this group, here, is not about being holier-than-thou.”Before I left, Charles told me how much the program had helped him. Unfortunately, though, he wouldn’t be continuing with it. Its funding had just been cut.Read: [Can You Cure a Domestic Abuser?]Even as we hold Charles up as a success story, it is important to remember that he wanted to change. He didn’t have to attend the program as part of a court order, and he had a steady job and no criminal convictions. That was not the case for many of the other men in his group, who were either required by court orders to attend or attempting to rebuild their lives after prison. British jails are chronically overcrowded, and that’s only part of the problem with the criminal-justice system. Continued use of short sentences doesn’t help: Six months in prison is enough to make a man unemployable but not enough for him to complete a course designed to address his behavior. Already isolated and shamed, these men are in desperate need of support from other sources. Many domestic abusers try to go back to their previous relationships. But once they are out of prison, there is little help on offer—after a botched privatization and years of crisis, probation services have just been taken back into government control.Alison told me the story of a man she worked with who was convicted of a serious assault involving a weapon. When he was released, he went to live with a family member, a two-hours drive away from his job, his twice-weekly probation meetings, and his court-ordered community service. He was not allowed contact with his ex-partner but could visit his children four times a week. Unable to manage the constant travel, the man began sleeping in his car, becoming more dishevelled and paranoid at each of his various appointments. “This person needs to be housed,” Alison said. “But the attitude of [state] services was: He shouldn’t have done what he did. We don’t support single men, so it’s tough … Even if you removed the ethical obligation to him, as a human being, that situation was making him so much more dangerous to his partner and children.”Perpetrator programs are controversial. Critics accuse them of being feminist propaganda—asking men, like participants at Alcoholics Anonymous, to agree to a belief system in exchange for help. On the other side there is Refuge, the charity that descends from Erin Pizzey’s first British home for “battered wives” and that is now the biggest provider of accommodation to domestic-violence victims in Britain. It has said it will not endorse or participate in any perpetrator programs. “‘Less’ violence is simply not good enough,” its chief executive, Sandra Horley, wrote in 2016. “Of course, in an ideal world we would tackle the problem of domestic violence from both sides. Our world is far from ideal.” (Refuge did not respond to an interview request.)The questions are not just ideological, either: There is little useful data in either direction about the effectiveness of the programs. In 2017, Britain’s Ministry of Justice scrapped a sex-offender treatment program called SOTP after evidence emerged, thanks to a whistleblower, that it was actually increasing reoffending rates. Gene Feder, a professor of medicine at the University of Bristol, has completed an initial pilot focused on how to identify perpetrators and victims who would not be picked up by the criminal-justice system—for example, through children’s social services. He is now running a full-size randomized controlled trial over the next two years, following 350 men and their partners, seeking evidence on the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of a modified Duluth-style intervention. There is still a great deal we don’t know, since research to date has focused on heterosexual relationships with a male perpetrator and a female victim. Feder listed the lack of research into, and support for, female perpetrators, as well as gay men, lesbians, and transgender people. All of this work falls into what Emily Alison calls “the gray.”Todd, whose charity has been running perpetrator programs for nine years, told me that they could only help those who were “ready, willing, and able” to seek help. Alcohol problems, poor literacy, a chaotic lifestyle, homelessness, membership in a gang—all of these were barriers to change. (It is also harder sometimes to get through to the nonviolent abusers, the coercive controllers, because they can’t see the tangible effects of their behavior, in the form of bruises and broken bones.) “We compare it to giving up smoking,” she said. “Some people are not interested. Some people really want to, but things get in the way … maybe something goes wrong, stress, bereavement. Then there’s people who manage it and quit and never go back to it.”For her part, Phillips, the Labour lawmaker, has changed her mind on perpetrator programs since her days working at Women’s Aid. “I used to hate them,” she told me. Too many were poorly designed and delivered, she found, “a rogue’s gallery to make money for crappy providers.” But the model championed by Respect has changed her mind, suggesting that high-quality community services can demonstrate good outcomes. The problem, as Phillips now sees it, is that intensive programs are incredibly expensive—and too many people would be eligible for them. When refuge places are hard to find, where does the money come from to give therapy to thousands upon thousands of men?Instead, we punish them, and that leads us to ineffective—or even harmful—approaches. Professor Belinda Winder, who leads the Sexual Offences, Crime, and Misconduct Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, says that SOTP in particular was based on a model of owning one’s actions, which made perpetrators defensive and withdrawn. “The stuff that people wanted to work—taking responsibility—didn’t,” she told me. “Guilt can be positive. But if you think about what people do when they’re ashamed … shame is a really negative state to induce.”Our collective desire to punish perpetrators—or, at least, our unwillingness to extend empathy to them—also influences their material conditions. Alison’s programs aim for 70 to 77 percent of offenders to have a positive outcome, defined as a full or significant reduction in abuse and not having social-care involvement in the family. She hopes that even when her facilitators cannot change participants’ behavior, they can still monitor the men involved, reducing their risk profile.But her story of the man sleeping in the car demonstrates the sorts of material challenges these men often face. If we truly want to know the effectiveness of a therapeutic intervention, we should also ensure that offenders have suitable housing, a reliable income, and a steady job. Feder told me that “many of these guys are so damaged by their lives: anxiety, depression, PTSD.” Rachel Louise Sydner, in her best-selling new book on domestic violence, No Visible Bruises, recounts a phrase that is often used by those who work with perpetrators: Hurt people hurt people. Meetings that bring together police, social services, housing officials, education specialists, drug and alcohol services, and others to share information on individual high-risk cases have been an important innovation in helping victims in Britain. But across the country, there is nothing comparable for perpetrators—what Alison calls a “wraparound service.” To many people, that would feel like sympathy for the devil.Will we ever do more to tackle domestic violence than simply patch up its survivors—and only as long as they are willing to tear up their lives and start again? What do we have to offer the 70 percent of victims who never use a refuge? The shadow pandemic of domestic violence is both appalling and overlooked, horrifying and mundane. It may be raging in the house next door, in the home of a child at your local school, between people you know. According to statistics, it is. A problem measured in billions of pounds and millions of lives deserves more than an emergency bailout. It deserves proper attention to its causes as well as its consequences. Almost 50 years after the first “battered wives” found a safe haven from the violence they experienced at home, the best way to build on the success of the refuge movement may be to understand its limits.
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The Atlantic Daily: 5 Ways America Has Failed During the Pandemic
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.Dina Litovsky / ReduxThe United States is home to just 4 percent of the world’s population but a quarter of its confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths. How did we get here?“A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humbled and humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation,” Ed Yong writes in our latest cover story. Now the country needs a full accounting of what went so catastrophically wrong.Today, Ed, who spent years warning of such possible failures, begins the work of doing just that. Here are five ways America failed, as explained by him (read his whole piece for more):1. It fixated on the wrong things at the onset. Trump could have spent those crucial early weeks mass-producing tests to detect the virus, asking companies to manufacture protective equipment and ventilators, and otherwise steeling the nation for the worst. Instead, he focused on the border. 2. Its public-health system was underfunded and ill-prepared. Today, the U.S. spends just 2.5 percent of its gigantic health-care budget on public health. Underfunded health departments were already struggling to deal with opioid addiction, climbing obesity rates, contaminated water, and easily preventable diseases. 3. Its long-running racial inequities were exploited by the virus. Far from being a “great equalizer,” the pandemic fell unevenly upon the U.S., taking advantage of injustices that had been brewing throughout the nation’s history. 4. Its (mis)information ecosystem allowed untruths to fester. An infodemic of falsehoods spread alongside the actual virus. Rumors coursed through online platforms that are designed to keep users engaged, even if that means feeding them content that is polarizing or untrue. 5. Its president actively made the situation worse. Trump is a comorbidity of the COVID‑19 pandemic. He isn’t solely responsible for America’s fiasco, but he is central to it. Read the full story. TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP / GETTYOne question, answered: What should—and shouldn’t—people do with their financial holdings during a full-blown recession?Annie Lowrey, our staff writer who warned readers to not touch their stocks at the start of the downturn, offers some advice for an elongated crisis: Roughly half of Americans hold financial assets such as stocks and bonds, many in retirement-savings vehicles. Some share of those folks will need to access that money in a downturn—to get them through a job loss, pay for a child’s health care, or help a struggling friend. A fee-only financial adviser would be the best person to figure out how to do that. Other folks will want to sell their assets, panicked by their shrinking portfolio. That is an understandable impulse, but usually not a great one. Even financial professionals are terrible at market timing, and volatility is best understood as the price of being in the market in the first place. If you don’t need cash soon, go ahead and do nothing. What to read if … you’re processing the back-and-forth over banning TikTok in the U.S.: Michael Schuman spoke with the social-media company’s founder for his piece on why America is afraid of the platform.What to read if … you miss traveling: Rick Steves, the guidebook writer and TV host, encourages you to apply that traveling mindset to your hometown: “We can explore our backyards like a tourist would.”What to read if … you want practical tips: Our state-by-state coronavirus tracker Should I fly? Does vitamin D help fight COVID-19? 25 underrated films that will save your summer The best things our newsroom has watched this season (so far) 11 books we’re reading
Listen: A Guide to Birding
On this episode of the podcast Social Distance, Katherine Wells and James Hamblin investigate a new pandemic-compatible hobby.Listen to the episode here:Subscribe to Social Distance on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or another podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they’re published.Some highlights from their conversation:Jason Ward: The birds that you’re seeing in your yard or in your neighborhood are not there year-round. During springtime, we have migration of 20 billion birds. They leave South America and Central America and the Caribbean and head north to the U.S. and Canada to breed. This bird has to brave storms, predators, windows, and buildings, and it has to brave all of these different obstacles just to be able to make it. And it does this twice a year, every single year. These are small dynamos.Katherine Wells: What’s the best way for people to start birding?Ward: I think, first and foremost, we should utilize our eyes and ears and our sense of curiosity. Walk outside. Stay still for a moment and watch the birds behave and interact with one another. Listen to their songs and their vocalizations. Then, if you want to take the observation to the next level, purchase a pair of binoculars. Now you’ve unlocked the key to a whole different world that has always been there. After binoculars comes field guides. You can get a book or use an app, like I do. The beauty of birds is that they have figured out almost every habitat on the planet: oceans, deserts, high mountains—birds are everywhere.James Hamblin: Is this a type of mindfulness or meditation that you’re essentially practicing? Is that a way to think of it?Ward: It can be, absolutely. For example, I live in Atlanta, which has some of the worst traffic in the country. It’s frustrating. And I remember about a year or two ago in August, I was in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was very hot. We’re not moving. And I look out the window and notice that there are barn swallows, about five or six of them, just swooping around. Swallows are very acrobatic in the air, and they’re swooping in between cars and they’re catching insects and they’re doing all of these amazing feats of aerial display, and suddenly I noticed that I’m a little calmer now. Sure, we all have places to be. Some of us are probably running late. It’s probably frustrating. But if we take a moment to step aside and just appreciate what was going on right outside of our windows, it’s a way to feel better about the overall state of things.
Embracing the Compromises of Political Giants
A giant dies and the world left behind feels a bit more tawdry and mundane and uninspiring and small. A melancholy descends, filled with insecurity about the present and seductive nostalgia for the certainty of the past. Where have the great leaders gone, one wonders—the great causes and morality, the clarity and vision? The death of the Nobel Prize–winning Irish politician John Hume is such a moment.Hume’s death today, at age 83, marks the passing of not only a titan of politics, but arguably the most towering of a generation of giants in Northern Irish politics, who did great and terrible things in the pursuit of a cause over which there was, and remains, a great and terrible divide: the future of Northern Ireland. Hume’s legacy is that he mostly did the great things (while others mostly did the terrible), constructing a vision for peace and reconciliation that became a template and then, in time, a living legal accord that forever changed the part of the world that he was born into.The Good Friday Agreement, which ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland, was Hume’s agreement more than anyone else’s. It is the political legacy that survives him. Over the course of decades, Hume argued that for nationalists—those who want Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, to be merged with the Republic of Ireland, a separate country—what mattered was the unity of people, not the unity of territory (though this remained his long-term aspiration). To him, violence was wrong in all circumstances. And to unionists—his opponents, who favored Northern Ireland remaining a part of the U.K.—he argued that no stability could be achieved without the inclusion of nationalists like him. On both arguments, he won. For his efforts, he shared a Nobel Peace Prize, and the violence that plagued Northern Ireland for decades is largely a memory.[Read: Northern Ireland offers a warning that few are hearing]In a narrow political sense, the greatest value of this inheritance lies not in the words of the Good Friday Agreement, but the way of working that the deal embedded in the governance of Northern Ireland—a political philosophy that has become the established doctrine, for good or bad. In the new Northern Ireland that Hume created, the usual rules of democracy have been suspended in the pursuit of a peace that remains delicate. Power is shared among communities; majorities of individual citizens or politicians do not, and cannot, take all. Decisions must be made by mutual agreement. The consequence is a government that cannot be replaced, but that ensures an uneasy stability.Yet his legacy is greater still. Hume combined moral clarity against violence and strategic vision for what peace might entail with a politician’s embrace of life’s complexities, the need to compromise and to take risks, to find where power lies and to exploit it. Hume was supremely successful in this effort, whether you agree with the ends he pursued or the tactics he deployed to achieve them; he was not a saint, but a man who made judgments that are not beyond reproach. He abhorred violence, but brought Sinn Fein’s leaders (who did not) to the top table of Northern Irish politics. In seeking out giants, we are too quick to seek out perfection, when no such thing exists. Hume’s legacy lies in the compromises he championed and the complexities he recognized.(Three Lions / Hulton Archive / Getty)Hume’s death follows those of other leading political figures from his generation, such as the fellow nationalist Seamus Mallon in January (who was critical of his dialogue with Sinn Fein), Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness in 2017, and the Democratic Unionist Party’s Ian Paisley in 2014. With each death, a sentimental longing is stirred in a political class raised in their shadow, a wistful affection for a past that did not quite exist. I have lost count of the times I have spoken with unionists whose loathing for McGuinness’s murderous policies (and actions) at some point morphed into a nostalgic longing for the power and certainty that he came to represent. He might have been a terrorist, ran the logic, but at least we knew what we were dealing with and he could hold his own side in check. Paisley’s history of sectarianism was subject to similar revisionism on the other side after his death.Today in Northern Ireland there is a residual fear that with the passing of this older generation, of which Hume was spiritual leader, an element of hope has gone too. Without Hume’s vision, or McGuinness’s violent authority, or Paisley’s moral certainty, might things quickly spiral out of control? The killing of the journalist Lyra McKee by dissident Republicans in Hume’s Derry last year raised concerns that a new generation of terrorists had emerged in the ungoverned space left by the loss of this older generation. Similar fears have been expressed to me about the unionist youth, unwilling to bow to the authority of the Paisleyites, whom they partially blame for the compromised position they now find themselves in, split from London and forced to work with the Republicans they loathe. [Read: Brexit and Britain’s Northern Ireland déjà vu]Fierce criticism has been reserved for leaders in Dublin, London, and Belfast, whether Ireland’s former leader Leo Varadkar for his apparent naïveté, Theresa May or Boris Johnson for playing with the fire of Brexit, or the DUP’s Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill for being unable to rise above their provincial prejudices, as Hume, McGuinness, Paisley, Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, and Hume’s fellow Nobel Prize winner David Trimble were perceived to have done before them. The underlying fear is an old one: What if the politicians who have replaced Hume and others are not up to the job?Such sentimentality is understandable. Sometimes new leaders really do destroy the work of the giants that came before them. Yet the perception that the great leaders of old were unsullied by the provincialism of today does not often stand up to scrutiny. Helmut Kohl, for example, reportedly complained that Angela Merkel was “breaking my Europe,” but today such attitudes have been replaced by a new fear: that the Europe Merkel created will soon miss her steadying hand. A great lesson of Hume’s life is that things are not so simple. He argued that identities were complex, not fixed—as he noted, though he was not a unionist, his part of Northern Ireland had closer links to Glasgow, in Scotland, than Dublin. He argued that Irish history was not the simple story that folklore suggested—of Ireland whole and free until 1920, when it was split by the British. Instead, he argued that it had long been an island of division, and that the key to peace was to acknowledge this. “The first thing we have to do sounds like a contradiction,” he explained. “We must accept diversity. The essence of unity … is the acceptance of diversity.”There is a diversity of opinion about Hume too. Some see in him a fateful legitimization of Republican terror by entering into dialogue with McGuinness and Adams, however much he loathed the Irish Republican Army and its violence. Others see a man who may have despised that terror but who realized that the only way to peace was to bring them to the table. For many he is a hero, for others a complex figure who inspires mixed feelings.History is complicated and nostalgia a seductive liar, as the former U.S. diplomat George Ball once remarked. Today’s Northern Ireland is a place that Hume envisaged and succeeded in creating. It is at peace and free to choose its own future. It is better than the one it replaced. But it also remains beset by deep problems. To solve them, the new generation of political leaders in Northern Ireland and beyond would be wise to look to the vision, strategic patience, and politicking that saw Hume’s vision triumph.But it would not be sacrilege to point out that some of today’s problems are the inevitable consequences of the stubborn realities that Hume’s necessarily imperfect vision could not solve. When giants die they are sanctified, but they do not often become giants by being saints. As Hume would have acknowledged, life is more complicated.
Spaceflight Is Back in America
In recent years, as SpaceX launched rocket after rocket without incident, liftoff became the company’s second-most-impressive feat. The truly dazzling moment came after the rocket had left the ground, and its booster—or, sometimes, two boosters—reversed course high up in the air, flipped around, and glided back down, landing upright on the ground or a barge floating in the Atlantic Ocean, ready to be refurbished and used again. What once seemed like science fiction has become a SpaceX signature.From now on, SpaceX has claim to another enduring image of the new era in spaceflight: a quartet of parachutes in the sky over open water, with a capsule dangling below, delivering passengers safely home from space.This is how two NASA astronauts returned to Earth yesterday afternoon after spending more than two months living and working on the International Space Station. The SpaceX Dragon capsule splashed down in still waters in the Gulf of Mexico, just off the coast of Florida. Its passengers, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, bobbed inside the capsule—which was so charred from the fiery fall through the atmosphere that it looked more like a toasted marshmallow—until recovery ships arrived and tugged them to safety.The last time NASA astronauts made a watery return like this was in 1975, at the end of the Apollo era, after a rendezvous with Soviet cosmonauts high above Earth. American spaceflight has changed so much since then—the propulsion systems that power the missions are more sophisticated, the people who fly them are more likely to be women, and competition among spacefaring countries has become friendlier. Perhaps one of the most significant changes has to do with who is doing the job of taking people to space and back. NASA doesn’t fly its own astronauts anymore. It hires companies such as SpaceX to do it instead.[Read: The false hope of an American rocket launch]This was SpaceX’s first attempt to bring astronauts to and from the ISS. The company has mastered the art of launching dozens of satellites and even a Tesla into space, but, before this weekend, it had returned a capsule to Earth only once, last year, and with a mannequin onboard, not two men. Though launches get the most attention, returns are more dangerous, and to keep the passengers alive, SpaceX had to perfect a feature that has tormented the space industry for decades: parachutes.The successful splashdown marks the end of a historic mission nearly a decade in the making. NASA, the agency that put men on the moon half a century ago, had never given so much responsibility to one of its contractors before. But NASA needed SpaceX. After the space-shuttle program had ended in 2011 under the weight of cost and safety concerns, the only way for NASA astronauts to reach the ISS was to fly shoulder to shoulder with Russian cosmonauts from Kazakhstan.Boeing, the other company that NASA hired to develop an astronaut-transportation system, seemed like a more suitable match; it had worked with NASA for decades, even helped build the ISS. But SpaceX was ready first, and Boeing had botched an attempt to reach the space station last year in an uncrewed test flight.SpaceX’s launch day, in late May, was unlike any other at Cape Canaveral. NASA, accustomed to running the show, watched over SpaceX’s shoulder instead. Hurley and Behnken were helped into their spacesuits by SpaceX workers, driven to the launchpad in a Tesla, and lifted off in a SpaceX rocket. All the way to the ISS, they listened to the steady voice of an engineer at Mission Control, based not in Houston, but in Hawthorne, California, the home of SpaceX headquarters.[Read: NASA will only tolerate so much danger]For 30 years, NASA flew astronauts on the space shuttles, winged spacecraft that landed on Earth like airplanes on a runway. The Russian astronaut capsule, the Soyuz, uses parachutes for its desert landings, but the SpaceX capsule, and other next-generation vehicles, are bigger. SpaceX and Boeing have both experienced trouble during parachute tests, and so has NASA, on its own spacecraft projects. Engineers had relied on Apollo-era parameters for parachute technology before they realized that the standards set by their predecessors weren’t going to work. SpaceX overhauled its parachute design last year and ran dozens of tests. “Parachutes, they look easy, but they are definitely not easy,” Musk said in 2019. “We’ve had so many engineers quit over the parachutes.”The parachutes unfurled beautifully yesterday, billowing like jellyfish. After cutting through the atmosphere at thousands of miles an hour, the capsule coasted to the water at a gentle 15. “Welcome back to planet Earth, and thanks for flying SpaceX,” an engineer in Mission Control told Hurley and Behnken when they touched down.A cute remark, but also a sign of what’s to come. Hurley and Behnken are NASA astronauts, but on this mission, they were also SpaceX customers, their tickets covered by their employer. Because although NASA helped fund SpaceX’s development of the astronaut capsule, the agency doesn’t have exclusive rights to it, and SpaceX doesn’t plan to transport only astronauts. SpaceX is already in talks with the actor Tom Cruise about a trip to the ISS to film a movie. Cruise could probably shoot scenes right inside the Dragon capsule itself; the interior is futuristic-looking and sleek, all black and white, with a triptych of touch screens. Unlike NASA’s early cramped capsules and overstuffed control panels, there’s plenty of legroom. Since SpaceX’s founding, Musk has promised that traveling by a rocket would become as routine as flying on a plane. “Space is the new air,” he tweeted yesterday after Hurley and Behnken returned.With the Dragon capsule’s first passengers back home safe, other customers might be lining up for their chance to fly. SpaceX plans to develop a fleet of the capsules. Astronauts will depend on them to commute to work, and wealthy individuals will use them to experience the world from a thrilling new perspective, any fears soothed by the fact that the product was tested on astronauts first. “We certainly feel comfortable that we’re on the right path to carry commercial passengers not too long from now,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s chief operating officer, told reporters yesterday.[Read: Minimalism goes to space]On the way back down, those passengers will feel, as Hurley and Behnken did, gravity crushing them into their seats. They will see, outside the oval-shaped windows, a spectacular light show of radiant oranges and white—the glowing plasma all around them. As they descend, the outside of their spacecraft will heat to about 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The surrounding plasma will become too hot for even radio waves to squiggle through, and for six terrifying minutes, the passengers won’t be able to talk with Mission Control.Once through the atmosphere, the passengers will feel the jolt as the first set of parachutes deploys, and then the second. Like an airplane, the capsule will be stocked with barf bags, should they feel a little seasick as they wait to be scooped out of the water.The journey to space and back will be automated; the passengers won’t need Hurley’s Marine Corps background, or Behnken’s Air Force experience, or two decades’ worth of NASA employment. They just need enough money to pay for the ride. These trips might, over time, become as routine as SpaceX rocket launches have. But flying to space will always be more harrowing than catching a flight. Clapping upon landing, considered cheesy on a plane, would be entirely warranted. The first person the passengers will see when the Dragon hatch opens will be a SpaceX doctor, making sure that they’re alive and well. Astronauts are trained to take mortal risks to advance science and national pride; customers may not be eager to pay so high a price.As the waves of the gulf’s water lapped against the capsule yesterday, relief washed over Mission Control.“I’m not very religious, but I prayed for that one,” Musk said after the splashdown, once Hurley and Behnken were reunited with their families.
I’m Traveling, Even Though I’m Stuck at Home
For many people, travel is a way of life. When not on the road, we dream of being on the road. As we fly home from one trip, we’re planning the next. That certainly describes me. And yet, several months into the pandemic, I’ve realized that the essence of traveling requires no passport and no plane ticket. A good traveler can take a trip and never leave her hometown.For the past 30 years, I’ve spent four months in Europe each year, writing guidebooks, producing travel television, and leading bus tours. Since mid-March, I’ve slept in the same bed. I’ve eaten dinner at the same table with the same person. A weekly venture to the supermarket is my big excursion. There’s nothing in my pockets, nothing on my calendar, and the only things I’m wearing out are my favorite slippers. I’m home for my first Seattle summer since 1980.Rick Steves traveling in 1978. (Courtesy of Rick Steves’ Europe)Stuck here, I’ve been pondering a big question: Why do I travel? When I was young, I sought out vacations on which I could have fun checking iconic sights off my bucket list. As the years went on, I realized that I traveled more to get out of my comfort zone, to find who I was in the immense scheme of things, and to fly home with the best souvenir: a broader perspective. Since March, I’ve tried to apply this mindset to my current situation. I’ve found that I can satisfy my wanderlust with “sightseeing highlights” just down the street and cultural eurekas that I never appreciated. Before the pandemic, I didn’t think to savor the little, nearby joys in the same way I did while abroad. To be honest, I ignored them. Now I notice the tone of the ferry’s horn, the majesty of my hometown sunset.[Read: The strange pleasure of planning a post-pandemic vacation]Similarly, while I enjoy sampling new cuisines abroad, I’m lost in my own kitchen. I never cooked until this year—literally never made pasta, never used olive oil, never cared that there are different kinds of potatoes. Now, like someone experiencing the delights of Europe for the first time, I thrill at the sensation of a knife cutting through a crisp onion.Rick Steves cooking at home during the pandemic. (Courtesy of Rick Steves’ Europe)Travelers are free to wonder, seeking inspiration. We marvel at the glorious achievements of the past: ancient Greek philosophy, Renaissance genius, heroic struggles for liberty, equality, brotherhood. While many Americans temporarily cannot visit museums, cathedrals, and monuments, we can be inspired by books, movies, lectures, and conversations. We can explore our backyards like a tourist would. In the past few months, I’ve read the historic plaques in my hometown, wandered through our little cemetery, and admired the church steeple (even if it’s just a painted cross mounted on hardware-store dowels).I’ve also been dusting off old passions. I sifted through the brittle postcards, coated in minuscule handwriting, that I sent home from my earliest backpacking trips. And I oiled up my old trumpet, which had sat in the darkness of its case since I was in college. With each sunset, I play taps from my deck. The neighbors come out, whoop, and clap, and we are reminded—as the sun dips out of sight—that we are in this together and blessed with our health, a beautiful environment, and one another.This crisis has made me aware of things I’d come to take for granted. For my entire adult life, spending three months each year in Europe has been routine. Now grounded at home, I see clearly how fortunate I was to regularly jet around the world. And reflecting on the suffering this pandemic is causing both near and far, I’m also mindful of my privilege to be able to work from home for a steady paycheck—something I know many do not have right now.Travel teaches us that there’s more to life than increasing its speed. This quarantine has been therapy for a workaholic like me. Perhaps the pandemic is the universe’s way of telling us all to slow down. And, like travel, this crisis is reminding us of how we need one another, and we need one another to be safe and cared for. Hard times highlight the importance of public services and good governance, as well as the value of neighbors.[Read: Traveling teaches students in a way schools can’t]While the future is uncertain, approaching the world as a traveler can make us less afraid. It opens our minds, it opens our hearts, and it enriches our lives. I am confident that, sooner or later, we’ll be planning trips and packing our bags again. In the meantime, I’ll be patient and continue to embrace life with the traveler’s spirit here at home.On the road, I find myself saying “Life is good” a lot. And even while homebound during a pandemic, I find plenty to be thankful for—and many reasons to strive for a world where all can say: Life is good.
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Dear Therapist: No One Appreciates My Middle Child
Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at Dear Therapist,My husband and I have three terrific kids, ages 6, 4, and 2. Our oldest is cautious, helpful, and precocious. Our youngest is easygoing, affectionate, and goofy. Our middle child is persistent, bold, imaginative, and tenderhearted. Her personality is not as easy as her siblings’, but she’s a great kid. If she makes me want to pull my hair out five times a day, then she makes me laugh, surprises me, or melts my heart 10 times a day.The problem comes from others. Our elderly next-door neighbor dotes on the oldest and youngest and all but ignores the middle one. More than once, she has asked whether our doctors have diagnosed her with any disorders. I just look at her as if I don’t understand her question. I’ve had others “praise” me for being so patient with our middle child. These kinds of comments make me so angry and sad.We recently visited my husband’s family, and I grew resentful of the way my in-laws talked about and treated our middle child. Conversations seemed to focus on all the bad things she had done that day, or ever in her life. I’m sensitive that these narratives we tell repeatedly can lock a kid into acting a certain way, especially when she is treated differently by the adults around her. My husband’s parents played favorites with him and his siblings, and one sibling has suffered long-lasting trauma from this, and now has several mental-health issues. The final straw was when our oldest picked up on the comments from the adults, and started joining in the criticism of her younger sister. I scolded my oldest with hopes that the adults around the table would take the message to heart, but I didn’t address their behavior directly. My husband and I have discussed these issues since the visit, but we are both at a loss as to how to improve things.My middle child is not a monster. Her preschool teachers assure me that she’s well behaved. Like any kid, she has tantrums at home, but she’s not violent or uncontrollable. When we visit my side of the family, she is happy and carefree; they accept and love her for who she is. I’m so tired of people seeing only her bad traits. Do you have any advice on how we can address the issues on my husband’s side of the family?AnonymousColumbus, OhioDear Anonymous,As most parents of multiple children have observed, all people are born with a certain temperament, which is why siblings can be raised in the same environment and display wildly different dispositions. These inborn temperaments are often apparent from birth—the fussy baby, the “easy” baby—and because some personality types demand more parental patience and attention, they’re often given the label of “difficult.”A child with this label may have a more intense emotional range than average, or may be more sensitive or inflexible. She may be considered “high energy” or “strong willed” or, as you describe your daughter, “persistent.” For these kids, moving through the world is just harder—whether that’s transitioning from the park to the car, finding an unfamiliar food on their plate, or not getting to go first in a board game. And as you’ve seen, many adults tend to find these kids challenging to be around, even if, like you with your daughter, they also see their gifts.You’re asking how to handle your in-laws’ reaction to your daughter, but it might be helpful first for you and your husband to get clear about your own. Many parents of children like your daughter feel multiple and conflicting emotions—some of which they suppress, out of fear that they aren’t acceptable. In your case, you may be reacting to what is the great taboo of parenting: Some children are exponentially harder to raise, and that can make parenting them less enjoyable and more exhausting in the day-to-day.You get angry and sad when others point out what you already know—that your daughter is more challenging than her siblings. But I wonder if this anger and sadness is partially displaced—if it’s more comfortable to be angry and sad because of how others feel about your daughter than to be angry and sad because of how you and your husband feel about her. Many parents of challenging children worry that if they acknowledge some of the emotions that raising their child engenders—frustration, resentment, sadness, envy of other parents—they’re somehow being disloyal or unloving. In short, “bad” parents.The truth, though, is that you’re human, and there’s a big difference between seeing your daughter as a “monster” and seeing her as a challenging kid. I wonder how you and your husband have been able to talk with each other about your respective feelings toward your daughter. Are you able to create a space for each of you to share how you feel, or have you made the tacit agreement that you talk about her only in a positive light, thinking that this will protect her? In fact, it leaves her—and you—more vulnerable. Denying your feelings about your daughter prevents you from having a candid conversation—one that would help you cope better as a parent, which would in the long run help your daughter.Once you’re able to integrate the deep love you have for your child with the very real frustrations you and your husband inevitably experience, you’ll be able to talk to others about how to better understand and relate to her without denying the reality of their experience.With your in-laws, you and your husband can start by acknowledging that your daughter’s temperament might require more patience, and that you know they want all of their grandchildren to grow into the best versions of themselves. You can empathize with the frustrating experiences they’ve had with her, and also share with them the parts of her they may not have had the opportunity to see. You can let them know that children are attuned to how adults view them, and that while you’re certain they would never intentionally hurt their granddaughter, she will come to view herself through the same lens the adults in her life view her through. And you can say that by interacting with her in a more effective way, they will begin to see her differently, reflect a different image back to her, and find their time with her far more mutually enjoyable.If they’re open to that possibility, you can share the strategies that work for you with your daughter at home—or those that work for her teachers at preschool. When she misbehaves, for instance, perhaps you address the feeling underlying the behavior (“You seem frustrated that you can’t go first, and it feels so unfair. Maybe next time you’ll go first, but right now, do you want to join in the game or go take a walk with me?”). Maybe you’ve found it useful to help her regulate her emotions by giving her choices, but limited to two (“Do you want to watch this movie or that one?”). Or perhaps you counteract some of the negative reactions she often gets by offering a praise sandwich (“You’ve been so flexible with eating later at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, and we’ve all been so impressed with that. But right now you’re having trouble waiting. I know you’ve had great ideas before for how to wait—what do you think would help more than what you’re doing now?”).Your in-laws may take some time to implement these strategies, but the more they see how they help your daughter—and therefore allow them to have pleasant interactions with her—the more balanced their view of her will become.A problem can be addressed only once it’s acknowledged, and you may also want to give some thought to how you talk about your middle child with her siblings. Instead of shutting down your oldest child’s feelings about her sister, consider that challenging children are challenging siblings as well, and to ease the family burden, many less challenging siblings cast themselves in helpful and easygoing roles. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings about their sibling, or don’t have needs of their own that might get overlooked given the higher-maintenance sibling’s demands on parental time and attention.Ask your oldest daughter how she feels when her sister acts out, and instead of talking her out of her less-than-positive feelings, let her know that it’s perfectly okay to love a person and also sometimes wish they’d go away. It’s a lesson that will serve everyone—you, your husband, your middle daughter, her siblings, and your in-laws—well.Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.
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Joe Biden’s Big, Bold, and Very Quiet Agenda
Almost halfway through Chris Wallace’s July 19 interview with Donald Trump, an exchange occurred that encapsulates the current state of the presidential race. The president claimed that his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, “wants to defund the police.” Wallace contradicted him, which led a furious Trump to instruct his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, to “get me the charter” of the unity task force that the Biden campaign had created with Bernie Sanders supporters. After riffling unsuccessfully through the document, Trump muttered, “We’ll find it.” But, as Wallace told viewers, “The White House never sent us evidence the Bernie-Biden platform calls for defunding or abolishing police—because there is none.” On Fox News, Trump’s home turf, the president looked like a fool.The incident illustrates one of the reasons that Biden has proved such an elusive target. Despite embracing an agenda that is further to the left than that of any Democratic nominee in decades, he’s avoided the specific policy proposals and catchphrases that Republicans find easiest to attack. As a result, he appears more centrist than he actually is. In Biden, Democrats have a nominee who is promising FDR-style change yet is avoiding the political backlash that an ambitious progressive agenda often brings.[Shadi Hamid: The coronavirus killed the revolution]Polls suggest that Americans are more comfortable with candidates close to the ideological center. In surveys this year, respondents consider Biden more moderate than Trump. That’s a reversal from 2016, when Americans viewed Trump as more moderate than Hillary Clinton. One reason for this shift is that Trump’s image has changed. By November 2016, after a campaign in which Trump had publicly opposed cutting Social Security and Medicare, slammed the Iraq War, and denounced America’s campaign-finance system as corrupt, voters perceived him as less conservative than every other recent incoming Republican president except George H. W. Bush. But by early 2018, after a first year in office in which Trump promoted a hard-right economic and cultural agenda, his moderate reputation had already faded. It has never returned, which makes Biden look more moderate by contrast.Biden also appears more moderate than Clinton because, as I’ve previously argued, Americans generally deem male candidates less threatening. In gauging a candidate’s ideology, voters often seize on cultural cues. In his book Politics Lost, the journalist Joe Klein notes that in focus groups during the 1976 campaign, white voters insisted that Jimmy Carter opposed school busing even after being shown a speech in which he said he supported it. They claimed he was lying to win black votes. Carter overperformed among culturally conservative white voters because those voters couldn’t imagine that a white male governor of Georgia was truly progressive on race.Biden benefits from stereotyping in a similar way. His race, gender, and age incline voters to view him as moderate. But race, gender, and age don’t explain everything. Despite being old, white, and male, Bernie Sanders still convinced Democratic-primary voters that he was significantly further left than Elizabeth Warren.[Adam Serwer: Trump is struggling to run against a white guy]The other reason voters perceive Biden as moderate is that on issue after issue, he’s adopted policies that are strikingly progressive while stopping just shy of the specific formulations that might leave him vulnerable to Republican attack. On criminal justice, for instance, Biden has proposed abolishing cash bail and mandatory minimum sentences, and creating a national roster of police officers who abuse their position—all policies that place him to the left of the 2016 Democratic platform. But, to Trump’s dismay, he hasn’t proposed defunding the police.On education, Biden has proved more skeptical of both standardized testing and charter schools than the Obama administration. He’s also called for tripling federal assistance to schools that educate poor kids, and for making college free for families earning less than $125,000—pledges Clinton did not make four years ago. But he has refused to adopt Sanders’s controversial call to make college free for everyone.On issue after issue, it’s the same pattern. Biden now embraces a more generous public option than he did during the primaries, and wants to allow Americans to enroll in Medicare at age 60. But he doesn’t support Medicare for All, which polls during the primary campaign found wasn’t popular.He now calls for making all new buildings carbon neutral by 2030 and ending the use of fossil fuels for creating electricity by 2035. But he won’t endorse a ban on fracking, which local Democrats have warned would hurt the party in Pennsylvania. And his unity task force on climate change, despite being co-chaired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, doesn’t include the words Green New Deal.[Franklin Foer: Biden has changed—for the better]On immigration, Biden wants to let in more refugees. And, unlike Barack Obama, he supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants without linking it to tougher border enforcement. But he doesn’t support decriminalizing illegal border crossings or abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, two policies floated during the Democratic primary that don’t poll well.By repeatedly stopping short of the left’s most ambitious—and most politically incendiary—proposals, Biden has created an agenda that is less progressive than Sanders’s or Warren’s would have been. (On foreign policy, the contrast between Biden and Sanders is even greater.) But as Waleed Shahid, the communications director for Justice Democrats, told Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, Biden is still running on “the most progressive platform of any Democratic nominee in the modern history of the party.”It’s a shrewd strategy. Biden is allowing progressive activists to push him left—just not so far left that he’d be an easy mark for the GOP. No wonder Trump is sputtering with rage.
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“Anatomy of an American Failure”
As the fall approaches, and countries around the world prepare to resume their pre-pandemic lives, the planet’s most powerful nation stands alone. The United States has been humbled and humiliated by its failure to protect its people and contain the coronavirus. How did it come to this?For The Atlantic’s September cover, staff writer Ed Yong undertakes an autopsy of this catastrophic failure. His is a full accounting of what went wrong, every weakness and every failure, leading to the painful conclusion that “almost everything that went wrong with America’s response to the pandemic was predictable and preventable.” Yong’s reporting urges us to grapple with the multitude of preexisting vulnerabilities that have accumulated in the U.S. for years, for decades. Unless we fix that broken foundation, the country will be at the mercy of even worse plagues to come.Yong’s report, “Anatomy of An American Failure,” is out today. He shares the cover with Ibram X. Kendi, a contributing writer at The Atlantic and one of the country’s foremost anti-racist voices. Kendi’s cover story, “The End of Denial,” will be published Wednesday, August 5. In his reporting, Yong details how each of our country’s actions, and inactions—from chronic underfunding of public-health programs, to racist policies that left Indigenous and Black Americans especially vulnerable to COVID-19—contributed to a response that has left more than 150,000 Americans dead. He argues that the U.S. has little excuse for its inattention, as epidemics of SARS, MERS, Ebola, H1N1 flu, and Zika showed in recent decades the havoc that new and reemergent pathogens could wreak. But, he writes, “the COVID-19 debacle has also touched—and implicated—nearly every other facet of American society: its shortsighted leadership, its disregard for expertise, its racial inequities, its social-media culture, and its fealty to a dangerous strain of individualism.”Unsparing in his criticism of the administration’s response, Yong calls President Trump’s failure in leadership entirely unsurprising. “No one should be shocked that a liar who has made almost 20,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency would lie about whether the U.S. had the pandemic under control; that a racist who gave birth to birtherism would do little to stop a virus that was disproportionately killing Black people; that a xenophobe who presided over the creation of new immigrant-detention centers would order meatpacking plants with a substantial immigrant workforce to remain open; that a cruel man devoid of empathy would fail to calm fearful citizens; that a narcissist who cannot stand to be upstaged would refuse to tap the deep well of experts at his disposal … or that a president who has been shielded by his party from any shred of accountability would say, when asked about the lack of testing, ‘I don’t take any responsibility at all.’”Yong warns that COVID-19 is merely a harbinger of worse plagues to come, and the U.S. cannot prepare for these inevitable crises if it returns to normal. Instead, “it should strive to prevent sickness instead of profiting from it. It should build a health-care system that prizes resilience over brittle efficiency, and an information system that favors light over heat. It should rebuild its international alliances, its social safety net, and its trust in empiricism. It should address the health inequities that flow from its history. Not least, it should elect leaders with sound judgment, high character, and respect for science, logic, and reason.”Read “Anatomy of An American Failure” at The Atlantic. The September issue of the magazine will continue to publish at The Atlantic across the coming weeks.
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Democrats Are Spending Millions to Boost a Trump Ally
There are few Republican politicians aside from Donald Trump who Democrats abhor more than Kris Kobach, the Kansas conservative who has gained national fame as an architect of laws to force immigrants to show their papers to police and voters to prove their citizenship at the polls.Yet for the past few weeks, Democrats have come to Kobach’s rescue, spending at least $4 million to help the unapologetic Trump ally win the Republican nomination for an open U.S. Senate seat in Kansas. The primary is August 4, and a Democratic-aligned super PAC formed in recent weeks has poured millions into TV ads that bash Kobach’s opponent, Representative Roger Marshall, the Republican backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other state and national GOP power brokers. The ads attack Marshall from the right, lumping him in with “Mitt Romney Republicans and Never Trumpers” who think Kobach is “too conservative.” The committee, called the Sunflower State PAC, is using an advertising firm that created commercials for Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign and for a super PAC backing Joe Biden this year.It appears to be a simple, if clandestine, case of primary meddling, a tactic that has become popular among both parties in recent years: Democrats see Kobach as the weaker, more polarizing GOP candidate and are trying to boost him now so they can pummel him in the fall. But the strategy is unnerving the party’s staunchest immigrant advocates, who see Kobach as a uniquely dangerous figure and who worry the move could backfire and end up giving him a national platform in the Senate and a potential launching pad to the presidency.“You’re playing with fire here,” Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice and a longtime advocate for immigration reform, told me in an interview. “He’s not a stooge to be lifted in the hopes of winning a Senate seat,” he said of Kobach. “He is the devil incarnate, and we’ve got to put a stake through a heart at every opportunity. So we’re not going to be contributing to this group or patting them on the back.”Kobach first rose to national prominence when he helped draft an Arizona law in 2010—and similar measures in other states—that required police officers to demand immigration papers of people they suspected of being in the country illegally. He won election as Kansas’s secretary of state later that year, after which he promptly helped write, and later implemented, one of the nation’s strictest voter-ID laws. Kobach advised Trump on immigration policy, and, in 2017, the president picked him to lead his short-lived “Commission on Election Integrity.”But Kobach narrowly lost his bid for governor to the Democrat Laura Kelly in 2018, and Republicans worry that his nomination next week could hand Democrats a Senate seat in Kansas for the first time since the Roosevelt administration. Trump has resisted pleas from senior Republicans to back Marshall, The New York Times reported last week. Either Kobach or Marshall will likely face the Democrat Barbara Bollier, a longtime Republican state legislator who bolted the party in 2018 after the GOP leaders sanctioned her for endorsing Kelly in the governor’s race. Primary polling has been scarce, but a survey conducted in late May showed Marshall faring much better than Kobach against Bollier in a hypothetical matchup.[Read: The battle for the soul of the Republican Party is still raging in Kansas]Elected Democrats I spoke with said they didn’t question the motives behind the shadowy super PAC’s ads and were cautious about criticizing them. If Biden defeats Trump for the presidency, Democrats need a net gain of three seats to capture the Senate majority, and although winning the Republican-held seat in Kansas likely wouldn’t be the tipping point, it would add a crucial vote to their margin in a narrowly divided chamber. But despite Trump’s low public approval nationally, Kansas remains a state he’s expected to carry, and Bollier’s defeat of Kobach is far from a sure thing.“I’m confident that they are acting in good faith in terms of what they think the best matchup would be for a Democrat in Kansas,” Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas, the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told me. “At the same time, it’s a risky move, and if Kris Kobach is able to win that Senate seat, then minority communities and immigrant communities are the ones that are going to pay the highest price.”Officially, no Democrats are actually admitting they’re trying to help Kobach. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said Bollier is “well positioned to take on whoever emerges from the very nasty and bruising primary,” pointing to an early-June poll showing her running neck-and-neck with Marshall as well as Kobach. A Bollier spokesperson offered a similar message. The Senate Majority PAC—the Democrats’ main Senate super PAC—declined to comment entirely. And when I emailed the Sunflower State PAC to ask for details on its donors and purpose, it refused to shed light on its activities. “Sunflower State is focused on educating voters about the U.S. Senate race in Kansas and is operating in accordance with all federal election law,” the unsigned reply read. The super PAC has spent more than $4 million in Kansas, according to an account that tracks campaign-ad spending, which is about five times as much as Kobach had spent in total through the end of June.Democrats have successfully pulled off this kind of primary gambit before, most memorably in Missouri in 2012, when Senator Claire McCaskill ran ads aimed at lifting the conservative Todd Akin in the primary before she defeated him that November (with help from an outrageous Akin comment about abortion that summer). And on the Republican side, Senator John Cornyn ran ads apparently designed to help a Democratic state legislator defeat the Air Force veteran M. J. Hegar in the party primary; the intervention didn’t work, as Cornyn is now facing Hegar.What worries Democrats this time, however, is that the 54-year-old Kobach is no Akin, a relatively generic religious conservative who seemed destined, at the age of 67, for a seat on the Senate’s back bench. “He is way, way out there,” Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, the chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on immigration, told me. “I don’t think there’d be anyone to the right of him in the Senate.”Others I spoke with said plainly that Kobach is a racist. “He is today’s incarnation of David Duke,” Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, told me.The assumption is that the ambitious, Harvard- and Yale-educated Kobach would be more than another Republican vote—he’d undoubtedly try to use his perch to enact national versions of the hard-line laws he wrote at the state level. “He knows how to pull the levers of power in terms of making policy,” Noorani said. “Kris Kobach is not just some loose cannon,” he added. “He would not just be sending out press releases.”Castro, noting Kobach’s elite education and his easygoing manner in television appearances, said he “represents a kind of intellectualized racism.” “He’s a tactician and a strategist when it comes to writing bigotry into the law and giving it a nicer name,” Castro said. “So whereas you may have other people who are generally bigoted, he applies his racism strategically into the law.”A spokesperson for Kobach’s campaign did not return a request for comment.In 2012, McCaskill’s boasting about her efforts to pick her Republican opponent made the maneuver seem edgy—not quite a dirty trick but a perfectly legal bit of political gamesmanship. But Trump’s election four years later, after some Democrats gleefully cheered his victory in the GOP primary, was a searing lesson to be careful what you wish for. “I think politics has changed,” Noorani said. “Strategies like this could end up too cute by half.”In Kansas, advocates like Sharry see an opportunity to end Kobach’s political career, to do to him what voters in Iowa and Alabama did in rejecting the immigration foes Steve King and Jeff Sessions, respectively, over the past couple of months. And if that defeat comes in a Republican primary and not to the benefit of a Democrat in November, so be it. “We want Kobach out of politics,” Sharry told me. “We want him discredited and disgraced for all that he’s done to hurt millions of people over the years of his political career.”
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How the Pandemic Defeated America
Image above: A masked worker cleans a New York City subway entrance.How did it come to this? A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humbled and humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation. America has failed to protect its people, leaving them with illness and financial ruin. It has lost its status as a global leader. It has careened between inaction and ineptitude. The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, in the moment, to truly fathom.To hear more feature stories, get the Audm iPhone app. In the first half of 2020, SARS‑CoV‑2—the new coronavirus behind the disease COVID‑19—infected 10 million people around the world and killed about half a million. But few countries have been as severely hit as the United States, which has just 4 percent of the world’s population but a quarter of its confirmed COVID‑19 cases and deaths. These numbers are estimates. The actual toll, though undoubtedly higher, is unknown, because the richest country in the world still lacks sufficient testing to accurately count its sick citizens.Despite ample warning, the U.S. squandered every possible opportunity to control the coronavirus. And despite its considerable advantages—immense resources, biomedical might, scientific expertise—it floundered. While countries as different as South Korea, Thailand, Iceland, Slovakia, and Australia acted decisively to bend the curve of infections downward, the U.S. achieved merely a plateau in the spring, which changed to an appalling upward slope in the summer. “The U.S. fundamentally failed in ways that were worse than I ever could have imagined,” Julia Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, told me.Since the pandemic began, I have spoken with more than 100 experts in a variety of fields. I’ve learned that almost everything that went wrong with America’s response to the pandemic was predictable and preventable. A sluggish response by a government denuded of expertise allowed the coronavirus to gain a foothold. Chronic underfunding of public health neutered the nation’s ability to prevent the pathogen’s spread. A bloated, inefficient health-care system left hospitals ill-prepared for the ensuing wave of sickness. Racist policies that have endured since the days of colonization and slavery left Indigenous and Black Americans especially vulnerable to COVID‑19. The decades-long process of shredding the nation’s social safety net forced millions of essential workers in low-paying jobs to risk their life for their livelihood. The same social-media platforms that sowed partisanship and misinformation during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa and the 2016 U.S. election became vectors for conspiracy theories during the 2020 pandemic.The U.S. has little excuse for its inattention. In recent decades, epidemics of SARS, MERS, Ebola, H1N1 flu, Zika, and monkeypox showed the havoc that new and reemergent pathogens could wreak. Health experts, business leaders, and even middle schoolers ran simulated exercises to game out the spread of new diseases. In 2018, I wrote an article for The Atlantic arguing that the U.S. was not ready for a pandemic, and sounded warnings about the fragility of the nation’s health-care system and the slow process of creating a vaccine. But the COVID‑19 debacle has also touched—and implicated—nearly every other facet of American society: its shortsighted leadership, its disregard for expertise, its racial inequities, its social-media culture, and its fealty to a dangerous strain of individualism.SARS‑CoV‑2 is something of an anti-Goldilocks virus: just bad enough in every way. Its symptoms can be severe enough to kill millions but are often mild enough to allow infections to move undetected through a population. It spreads quickly enough to overload hospitals, but slowly enough that statistics don’t spike until too late. These traits made the virus harder to control, but they also softened the pandemic’s punch. SARS‑CoV‑2 is neither as lethal as some other coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS, nor as contagious as measles. Deadlier pathogens almost certainly exist. Wild animals harbor an estimated 40,000 unknown viruses, a quarter of which could potentially jump into humans. How will the U.S. fare when “we can’t even deal with a starter pandemic?,” Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and an Atlantic contributing writer, asked me.Despite its epochal effects, COVID‑19 is merely a harbinger of worse plagues to come. The U.S. cannot prepare for these inevitable crises if it returns to normal, as many of its people ache to do. Normal led to this. Normal was a world ever more prone to a pandemic but ever less ready for one. To avert another catastrophe, the U.S. needs to grapple with all the ways normal failed us. It needs a full accounting of every recent misstep and foundational sin, every unattended weakness and unheeded warning, every festering wound and reopened scar.Left: President Donald Trump and the coronavirus task force brief the press at the White House. Right: A record number of bodies being processed at a funeral home in Queens, New York. (Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post / Getty; Natalie Keyssar)A pandemic can be prevented in two ways: Stop an infection from ever arising, or stop an infection from becoming thousands more. The first way is likely impossible. There are simply too many viruses and too many animals that harbor them. Bats alone could host thousands of unknown coronaviruses; in some Chinese caves, one out of every 20 bats is infected. Many people live near these caves, shelter in them, or collect guano from them for fertilizer. Thousands of bats also fly over these people’s villages and roost in their homes, creating opportunities for the bats’ viral stowaways to spill over into human hosts. Based on antibody testing in rural parts of China, Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that studies emerging diseases, estimates that such viruses infect a substantial number of people every year. “Most infected people don’t know about it, and most of the viruses aren’t transmissible,” Daszak says. But it takes just one transmissible virus to start a pandemic.Sometime in late 2019, the wrong virus left a bat and ended up, perhaps via an intermediate host, in a human—and another, and another. Eventually it found its way to the Huanan seafood market, and jumped into dozens of new hosts in an explosive super-spreading event. The COVID‑19 pandemic had begun.“There is no way to get spillover of everything to zero,” Colin Carlson, an ecologist at Georgetown University, told me. Many conservationists jump on epidemics as opportunities to ban the wildlife trade or the eating of “bush meat,” an exoticized term for “game,” but few diseases have emerged through either route. Carlson said the biggest factors behind spillovers are land-use change and climate change, both of which are hard to control. Our species has relentlessly expanded into previously wild spaces. Through intensive agriculture, habitat destruction, and rising temperatures, we have uprooted the planet’s animals, forcing them into new and narrower ranges that are on our own doorsteps. Humanity has squeezed the world’s wildlife in a crushing grip—and viruses have come bursting out.Curtailing those viruses after they spill over is more feasible, but requires knowledge, transparency, and decisiveness that were lacking in 2020. Much about coronaviruses is still unknown. There are no surveillance networks for detecting them as there are for influenza. There are no approved treatments or vaccines. Coronaviruses were formerly a niche family, of mainly veterinary importance. Four decades ago, just 60 or so scientists attended the first international meeting on coronaviruses. Their ranks swelled after SARS swept the world in 2003, but quickly dwindled as a spike in funding vanished. The same thing happened after MERS emerged in 2012. This year, the world’s coronavirus experts—and there still aren’t many—had to postpone their triennial conference in the Netherlands because SARS‑CoV‑2 made flying too risky.In the age of cheap air travel, an outbreak that begins on one continent can easily reach the others. SARS already demonstrated that in 2003, and more than twice as many people now travel by plane every year. To avert a pandemic, affected nations must alert their neighbors quickly. In 2003, China covered up the early spread of SARS, allowing the new disease to gain a foothold, and in 2020, history repeated itself. The Chinese government downplayed the possibility that SARS‑CoV‑2 was spreading among humans, and only confirmed as much on January 20, after millions had traveled around the country for the lunar new year. Doctors who tried to raise the alarm were censured and threatened. One, Li Wenliang, later died of COVID‑19. The World Health Organization initially parroted China’s line and did not declare a public-health emergency of international concern until January 30. By then, an estimated 10,000 people in 20 countries had been infected, and the virus was spreading fast.The United States has correctly castigated China for its duplicity and the WHO for its laxity—but the U.S. has also failed the international community. Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. has withdrawn from several international partnerships and antagonized its allies. It has a seat on the WHO’s executive board, but left that position empty for more than two years, only filling it this May, when the pandemic was in full swing. Since 2017, Trump has pulled more than 30 staffers out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s office in China, who could have warned about the spreading coronavirus. Last July, he defunded an American epidemiologist embedded within China’s CDC. America First was America oblivious.Even after warnings reached the U.S., they fell on the wrong ears. Since before his election, Trump has cavalierly dismissed expertise and evidence. He filled his administration with inexperienced newcomers, while depicting career civil servants as part of a “deep state.” In 2018, he dismantled an office that had been assembled specifically to prepare for nascent pandemics. American intelligence agencies warned about the coronavirus threat in January, but Trump habitually disregards intelligence briefings. The secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar, offered similar counsel, and was twice ignored.Being prepared means being ready to spring into action, “so that when something like this happens, you’re moving quickly,” Ronald Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014, told me. “By early February, we should have triggered a series of actions, precisely zero of which were taken.” Trump could have spent those crucial early weeks mass-producing tests to detect the virus, asking companies to manufacture protective equipment and ventilators, and otherwise steeling the nation for the worst. Instead, he focused on the border. On January 31, Trump announced that the U.S. would bar entry to foreigners who had recently been in China, and urged Americans to avoid going there.Travel bans make intuitive sense, because travel obviously enables the spread of a virus. But in practice, travel bans are woefully inefficient at restricting either travel or viruses. They prompt people to seek indirect routes via third-party countries, or to deliberately hide their symptoms. They are often porous: Trump’s included numerous exceptions, and allowed tens of thousands of people to enter from China. Ironically, they create travel: When Trump later announced a ban on flights from continental Europe, a surge of travelers packed America’s airports in a rush to beat the incoming restrictions. Travel bans may sometimes work for remote island nations, but in general they can only delay the spread of an epidemic—not stop it. And they can create a harmful false confidence, so countries “rely on bans to the exclusion of the things they actually need to do—testing, tracing, building up the health system,” says Thomas Bollyky, a global-health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “That sounds an awful lot like what happened in the U.S.”This was predictable. A president who is fixated on an ineffectual border wall, and has portrayed asylum seekers as vectors of disease, was always going to reach for travel bans as a first resort. And Americans who bought into his rhetoric of xenophobia and isolationism were going to be especially susceptible to thinking that simple entry controls were a panacea.And so the U.S. wasted its best chance of restraining COVID‑19. Although the disease first arrived in the U.S. in mid-January, genetic evidence shows that the specific viruses that triggered the first big outbreaks, in Washington State, didn’t land until mid-February. The country could have used that time to prepare. Instead, Trump, who had spent his entire presidency learning that he could say whatever he wanted without consequence, assured Americans that “the coronavirus is very much under control,” and “like a miracle, it will disappear.” With impunity, Trump lied. With impunity, the virus spread.On February 26, Trump asserted that cases were “going to be down to close to zero.” Over the next two months, at least 1 million Americans were infected.Left: An unemployed woman in Houston.Right: Los Angeles under lockdown in March. (Elizabeth Bick; Adam Amengual)As the coronavirus established itself in the U.S., it found a nation through which it could spread easily, without being detected. For years, Pardis Sabeti, a virologist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, has been trying to create a surveillance network that would allow hospitals in every major U.S. city to quickly track new viruses through genetic sequencing. Had that network existed, once Chinese scientists published SARS‑CoV‑2’s genome on January 11, every American hospital would have been able to develop its own diagnostic test in preparation for the virus’s arrival. “I spent a lot of time trying to convince many funders to fund it,” Sabeti told me. “I never got anywhere.”The CDC developed and distributed its own diagnostic tests in late January. These proved useless because of a faulty chemical component. Tests were in such short supply, and the criteria for getting them were so laughably stringent, that by the end of February, tens of thousands of Americans had likely been infected but only hundreds had been tested. The official data were so clearly wrong that The Atlantic developed its own volunteer-led initiative—the COVID Tracking Project—to count cases.Diagnostic tests are easy to make, so the U.S. failing to create one seemed inconceivable. Worse, it had no Plan B. Private labs were strangled by FDA bureaucracy. Meanwhile, Sabeti’s lab developed a diagnostic test in mid-January and sent it to colleagues in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Senegal. “We had working diagnostics in those countries well before we did in any U.S. states,” she told me.It’s hard to overstate how thoroughly the testing debacle incapacitated the U.S. People with debilitating symptoms couldn’t find out what was wrong with them. Health officials couldn’t cut off chains of transmission by identifying people who were sick and asking them to isolate themselves.[Read: How the coronavirus became an American catastrophe]Water running along a pavement will readily seep into every crack; so, too, did the unchecked coronavirus seep into every fault line in the modern world. Consider our buildings. In response to the global energy crisis of the 1970s, architects made structures more energy-efficient by sealing them off from outdoor air, reducing ventilation rates. Pollutants and pathogens built up indoors, “ushering in the era of ‘sick buildings,’ ” says Joseph Allen, who studies environmental health at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Energy efficiency is a pillar of modern climate policy, but there are ways to achieve it without sacrificing well-being. “We lost our way over the years and stopped designing buildings for people,” Allen says.The indoor spaces in which Americans spend 87 percent of their time became staging grounds for super-spreading events. One study showed that the odds of catching the virus from an infected person are roughly 19 times higher indoors than in open air. Shielded from the elements and among crowds clustered in prolonged proximity, the coronavirus ran rampant in the conference rooms of a Boston hotel, the cabins of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, and a church hall in Washington State where a choir practiced for just a few hours.The hardest-hit buildings were those that had been jammed with people for decades: prisons. Between harsher punishments doled out in the War on Drugs and a tough-on-crime mindset that prizes retribution over rehabilitation, America’s incarcerated population has swelled sevenfold since the 1970s, to about 2.3 million. The U.S. imprisons five to 18 times more people per capita than other Western democracies. Many American prisons are packed beyond capacity, making social distancing impossible. Soap is often scarce. Inevitably, the coronavirus ran amok. By June, two American prisons each accounted for more cases than all of New Zealand. One, Marion Correctional Institution, in Ohio, had more than 2,000 cases among inmates despite having a capacity of 1,500. 
Left: Blood samples in a lab in Florida. Right: The USNS Mercy arrives in the Port of Los Angeles to provide help to overstretched hospitals. (Rose Marie Cromwell; Tim Rue / Bloomberg / Getty)Other densely packed facilities were also besieged. America’s nursing homes and long-term-care facilities house less than 1 percent of its people, but as of mid-June, they accounted for 40 percent of its coronavirus deaths. More than 50,000 residents and staff have died. At least 250,000 more have been infected. These grim figures are a reflection not just of the greater harms that COVID‑19 inflicts upon elderly physiology, but also of the care the elderly receive. Before the pandemic, three in four nursing homes were understaffed, and four in five had recently been cited for failures in infection control. The Trump administration’s policies have exacerbated the problem by reducing the influx of immigrants, who make up a quarter of long-term caregivers.[Read: Another coronavirus nursing-home disaster is coming]Even though a Seattle nursing home was one of the first COVID‑19 hot spots in the U.S., similar facilities weren’t provided with tests and protective equipment. Rather than girding these facilities against the pandemic, the Department of Health and Human Services paused nursing-home inspections in March, passing the buck to the states. Some nursing homes avoided the virus because their owners immediately stopped visitations, or paid caregivers to live on-site. But in others, staff stopped working, scared about infecting their charges or becoming infected themselves. In some cases, residents had to be evacuated because no one showed up to care for them.America’s neglect of nursing homes and prisons, its sick buildings, and its botched deployment of tests are all indicative of its problematic attitude toward health: “Get hospitals ready and wait for sick people to show,” as Sheila Davis, the CEO of the nonprofit Partners in Health, puts it. “Especially in the beginning, we catered our entire [COVID‑19] response to the 20 percent of people who required hospitalization, rather than preventing transmission in the community.” The latter is the job of the public-health system, which prevents sickness in populations instead of merely treating it in individuals. That system pairs uneasily with a national temperament that views health as a matter of personal responsibility rather than a collective good.At the end of the 20th century, public-health improvements meant that Americans were living an average of 30 years longer than they were at the start of it. Maternal mortality had fallen by 99 percent; infant mortality by 90 percent. Fortified foods all but eliminated rickets and goiters. Vaccines eradicated smallpox and polio, and brought measles, diphtheria, and rubella to heel. These measures, coupled with antibiotics and better sanitation, curbed infectious diseases to such a degree that some scientists predicted they would soon pass into history. But instead, these achievements brought complacency. “As public health did its job, it became a target” of budget cuts, says Lori Freeman, the CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.Today, the U.S. spends just 2.5 percent of its gigantic health-care budget on public health. Underfunded health departments were already struggling to deal with opioid addiction, climbing obesity rates, contaminated water, and easily preventable diseases. Last year saw the most measles cases since 1992. In 2018, the U.S. had 115,000 cases of syphilis and 580,000 cases of gonorrhea—numbers not seen in almost three decades. It has 1.7 million cases of chlamydia, the highest number ever recorded.Since the last recession, in 2009, chronically strapped local health departments have lost 55,000 jobs—a quarter of their workforce. When COVID‑19 arrived, the economic downturn forced overstretched departments to furlough more employees. When states needed battalions of public-health workers to find infected people and trace their contacts, they had to hire and train people from scratch. In May, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan asserted that his state would soon have enough people to trace 10,000 contacts every day. Last year, as Ebola tore through the Democratic Republic of Congo—a country with a quarter of Maryland’s wealth and an active war zone—local health workers and the WHO traced twice as many people.A woman processes take-out orders at a restaurant in the East Village, in Manhattan. (Dina Litovsky / Redux)Ripping unimpeded through American communities, the coronavirus created thousands of sickly hosts that it then rode into America’s hospitals. It should have found facilities armed with state-of-the-art medical technologies, detailed pandemic plans, and ample supplies of protective equipment and life-saving medicines. Instead, it found a brittle system in danger of collapse.Compared with the average wealthy nation, America spends nearly twice as much of its national wealth on health care, about a quarter of which is wasted on inefficient care, unnecessary treatments, and administrative chicanery. The U.S. gets little bang for its exorbitant buck. It has the lowest life-expectancy rate of comparable countries, the highest rates of chronic disease, and the fewest doctors per person. This profit-driven system has scant incentive to invest in spare beds, stockpiled supplies, peacetime drills, and layered contingency plans—the essence of pandemic preparedness. America’s hospitals have been pruned and stretched by market forces to run close to full capacity, with little ability to adapt in a crisis.When hospitals do create pandemic plans, they tend to fight the last war. After 2014, several centers created specialized treatment units designed for Ebola—a highly lethal but not very contagious disease. These units were all but useless against a highly transmissible airborne virus like SARS‑CoV‑2. Nor were hospitals ready for an outbreak to drag on for months. Emergency plans assumed that staff could endure a few days of exhausting conditions, that supplies would hold, and that hard-hit centers could be supported by unaffected neighbors. “We’re designed for discrete disasters” like mass shootings, traffic pileups, and hurricanes, says Esther Choo, an emergency physician at Oregon Health and Science University. The COVID‑19 pandemic is not a discrete disaster. It is a 50-state catastrophe that will likely continue at least until a vaccine is ready.Wherever the coronavirus arrived, hospitals reeled. Several states asked medical students to graduate early, reenlisted retired doctors, and deployed dermatologists to emergency departments. Doctors and nurses endured grueling shifts, their faces chapped and bloody when they finally doffed their protective equipment. Soon, that equipment—masks, respirators, gowns, gloves—started running out.American hospitals operate on a just-in-time economy. They acquire the goods they need in the moment through labyrinthine supply chains that wrap around the world in tangled lines, from countries with cheap labor to richer nations like the U.S. The lines are invisible until they snap. About half of the world’s face masks, for example, are made in China, some of them in Hubei province. When that region became the pandemic epicenter, the mask supply shriveled just as global demand spiked. The Trump administration turned to a larder of medical supplies called the Strategic National Stockpile, only to find that the 100 million respirators and masks that had been dispersed during the 2009 flu pandemic were never replaced. Just 13 million respirators were left.In April, four in five frontline nurses said they didn’t have enough protective equipment. Some solicited donations from the public, or navigated a morass of back-alley deals and internet scams. Others fashioned their own surgical masks from bandannas and gowns from garbage bags. The supply of nasopharyngeal swabs that are used in every diagnostic test also ran low, because one of the largest manufacturers is based in Lombardy, Italy—initially the COVID‑19 capital of Europe. About 40 percent of critical-care drugs, including antibiotics and painkillers, became scarce because they depend on manufacturing lines that begin in China and India. Once a vaccine is ready, there might not be enough vials to put it in, because of the long-running global shortage of medical-grade glass—literally, a bottle-neck bottleneck.The federal government could have mitigated those problems by buying supplies at economies of scale and distributing them according to need. Instead, in March, Trump told America’s governors to “try getting it yourselves.” As usual, health care was a matter of capitalism and connections. In New York, rich hospitals bought their way out of their protective-equipment shortfall, while neighbors in poorer, more diverse parts of the city rationed their supplies.While the president prevaricated, Americans acted. Businesses sent their employees home. People practiced social distancing, even before Trump finally declared a national emergency on March 13, and before governors and mayors subsequently issued formal stay-at-home orders, or closed schools, shops, and restaurants. A study showed that the U.S. could have averted 36,000 COVID‑19 deaths if leaders had enacted social-distancing measures just a week earlier. But better late than never: By collectively reducing the spread of the virus, America flattened the curve. Ventilators didn’t run out, as they had in parts of Italy. Hospitals had time to add extra beds.Social distancing worked. But the indiscriminate lockdown was necessary only because America’s leaders wasted months of prep time. Deploying this blunt policy instrument came at enormous cost. Unemployment rose to 14.7 percent, the highest level since record-keeping began, in 1948. More than 26 million people lost their jobs, a catastrophe in a country that—uniquely and absurdly—ties health care to employment. Some COVID‑19 survivors have been hit with seven-figure medical bills. In the middle of the greatest health and economic crises in generations, millions of Americans have found themselves disconnected from medical care and impoverished. They join the millions who have always lived that way.Left: Health-care workers surround a COVID-19 patient at Lenox Hill Hospital, in Manhattan. Right: A woman wears a mask in Los Angeles. (Sarah Blesener; Alexis Hunley)The coronavirus found, exploited, and widened every inequity that the U.S. had to offer. Elderly people, already pushed to the fringes of society, were treated as acceptable losses. Women were more likely to lose jobs than men, and also shouldered extra burdens of child care and domestic work, while facing rising rates of domestic violence. In half of the states, people with dementia and intellectual disabilities faced policies that threatened to deny them access to lifesaving ventilators. Thousands of people endured months of COVID‑19 symptoms that resembled those of chronic postviral illnesses, only to be told that their devastating symptoms were in their head. Latinos were three times as likely to be infected as white people. Asian Americans faced racist abuse. Far from being a “great equalizer,” the pandemic fell unevenly upon the U.S., taking advantage of injustices that had been brewing throughout the nation’s history.[Read: COVID-19 can last for several months]Of the 3.1 million Americans who cannot afford health insurance, more than half are people of color, and 30 percent are Black. This is no accident. In the decades after the Civil War, the white leaders of former slave states deliberately withheld health care from Black Americans, apportioning medicine more according to the logic of Jim Crow than Hippocrates. They built hospitals away from Black communities, segregated Black patients into separate wings, and blocked Black students from medical school. In the 20th century, they helped construct America’s system of private, employer-based insurance, which has kept many Black people from receiving adequate medical treatment. They fought every attempt to improve Black people’s access to health care, from the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in the ’60s to the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.A number of former slave states also have among the lowest investments in public health, the lowest quality of medical care, the highest proportions of Black citizens, and the greatest racial divides in health outcomes. As the COVID‑19 pandemic wore on, they were among the quickest to lift social-distancing restrictions and reexpose their citizens to the coronavirus. The harms of these moves were unduly foisted upon the poor and the Black.As of early July, one in every 1,450 Black Americans had died from COVID‑19—a rate more than twice that of white Americans. That figure is both tragic and wholly expected given the mountain of medical disadvantages that Black people face. Compared with white people, they die three years younger. Three times as many Black mothers die during pregnancy. Black people have higher rates of chronic illnesses that predispose them to fatal cases of COVID‑19. When they go to hospitals, they’re less likely to be treated. The care they do receive tends to be poorer. Aware of these biases, Black people are hesitant to seek aid for COVID‑19 symptoms and then show up at hospitals in sicker states. “One of my patients said, ‘I don’t want to go to the hospital, because they’re not going to treat me well,’ ” says Uché Blackstock, an emergency physician and the founder of Advancing Health Equity, a nonprofit that fights bias and racism in health care. “Another whispered to me, ‘I’m so relieved you’re Black. I just want to make sure I’m listened to.’ ”Black people were both more worried about the pandemic and more likely to be infected by it. The dismantling of America’s social safety net left Black people with less income and higher unemployment. They make up a disproportionate share of the low-paid “essential workers” who were expected to staff grocery stores and warehouses, clean buildings, and deliver mail while the pandemic raged around them. Earning hourly wages without paid sick leave, they couldn’t afford to miss shifts even when symptomatic. They faced risky commutes on crowded public transportation while more privileged people teleworked from the safety of isolation. “There’s nothing about Blackness that makes you more prone to COVID,” says Nicolette Louissaint, the executive director of Healthcare Ready, a nonprofit that works to strengthen medical supply chains. Instead, existing inequities stack the odds in favor of the virus.Native Americans were similarly vulnerable. A third of the people in the Navajo Nation can’t easily wash their hands, because they’ve been embroiled in long-running negotiations over the rights to the water on their own lands. Those with water must contend with runoff from uranium mines. Most live in cramped multigenerational homes, far from the few hospitals that service a 17-million-acre reservation. As of mid-May, the Navajo Nation had higher rates of COVID‑19 infections than any U.S. state.Americans often misperceive historical inequities as personal failures. Stephen Huffman, a Republican state senator and doctor in Ohio, suggested that Black Americans might be more prone to COVID‑19 because they don’t wash their hands enough, a remark for which he later apologized. Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, also a physician, noted that Black people have higher rates of chronic disease, as if this were an answer in itself, and not a pattern that demanded further explanation.Clear distribution of accurate information is among the most important defenses against an epidemic’s spread. And yet the largely unregulated, social-media-based communications infrastructure of the 21st century almost ensures that misinformation will proliferate fast. “In every outbreak throughout the existence of social media, from Zika to Ebola, conspiratorial communities immediately spread their content about how it’s all caused by some government or pharmaceutical company or Bill Gates,” says Renée DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory, who studies the flow of online information. When COVID‑19 arrived, “there was no doubt in my mind that it was coming.”[Read: The great 5G conspiracy]Sure enough, existing conspiracy theories—George Soros! 5G! Bioweapons!—were repurposed for the pandemic. An infodemic of falsehoods spread alongside the actual virus. Rumors coursed through online platforms that are designed to keep users engaged, even if that means feeding them content that is polarizing or untrue. In a national crisis, when people need to act in concert, this is calamitous. “The social internet as a system is broken,” DiResta told me, and its faults are readily abused.Left: A pro-Trump protester in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in April. Right: An anti-lockdown protest in Mount Wolf, Pennsylvania, in May. (Mark Peterson / Redux; Amy Lombard)Beginning on April 16, DiResta’s team noticed growing online chatter about Judy Mikovits, a discredited researcher turned anti-vaccination champion. Posts and videos cast Mikovits as a whistleblower who claimed that the new coronavirus was made in a lab and described Anthony Fauci of the White House’s coronavirus task force as her nemesis. Ironically, this conspiracy theory was nested inside a larger conspiracy—part of an orchestrated PR campaign by an anti-vaxxer and QAnon fan with the explicit goal to “take down Anthony Fauci.” It culminated in a slickly produced video called Plandemic, which was released on May 4. More than 8 million people watched it in a week.Doctors and journalists tried to debunk Plandemic’s many misleading claims, but these efforts spread less successfully than the video itself. Like pandemics, infodemics quickly become uncontrollable unless caught early. But while health organizations recognize the need to surveil for emerging diseases, they are woefully unprepared to do the same for emerging conspiracies. In 2016, when DiResta spoke with a CDC team about the threat of misinformation, “their response was: ‘ That’s interesting, but that’s just stuff that happens on the internet.’ ”[From the June 2020 issue: Adrienne LaFrance on how QAnon is more important than you think]Rather than countering misinformation during the pandemic’s early stages, trusted sources often made things worse. Many health experts and government officials downplayed the threat of the virus in January and February, assuring the public that it posed a low risk to the U.S. and drawing comparisons to the ostensibly greater threat of the flu. The WHO, the CDC, and the U.S. surgeon general urged people not to wear masks, hoping to preserve the limited stocks for health-care workers. These messages were offered without nuance or acknowledgement of uncertainty, so when they were reversed—the virus is worse than the flu; wear masks—the changes seemed like befuddling flip-flops.The media added to the confusion. Drawn to novelty, journalists gave oxygen to fringe anti-lockdown protests while most Americans quietly stayed home. They wrote up every incremental scientific claim, even those that hadn’t been verified or peer-reviewed.There were many such claims to choose from. By tying career advancement to the publishing of papers, academia already creates incentives for scientists to do attention-grabbing but irreproducible work. The pandemic strengthened those incentives by prompting a rush of panicked research and promising ambitious scientists global attention.New York City at the height of the pandemic (Dina Litovsky / Redux)In March, a small and severely flawed French study suggested that the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine could treat COVID‑19. Published in a minor journal, it likely would have been ignored a decade ago. But in 2020, it wended its way to Donald Trump via a chain of credulity that included Fox News, Elon Musk, and Dr. Oz. Trump spent months touting the drug as a miracle cure despite mounting evidence to the contrary, causing shortages for people who actually needed it to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. The hydroxychloroquine story was muddied even further by two studies published in top medical journals—The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine—that claimed the drug was not effective and was potentially harmful. The papers relied on suspect data from a small analytics company called Surgisphere. Both were retracted in June.Science famously self-corrects. But during the pandemic, the same urgent pace that has produced valuable knowledge at record speed has also sent sloppy claims around the world before anyone could even raise a skeptical eyebrow. The ensuing confusion, and the many genuine unknowns about the virus, has created a vortex of fear and uncertainty, which grifters have sought to exploit. Snake-oil merchants have peddled ineffectual silver bullets (including actual silver). Armchair experts with scant or absent qualifications have found regular slots on the nightly news. And at the center of that confusion is Donald Trump.During a pandemic, leaders must rally the public, tell the truth, and speak clearly and consistently. Instead, Trump repeatedly contradicted public-health experts, his scientific advisers, and himself. He said that “nobody ever thought a thing like [the pandemic] could happen” and also that he “felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” Both statements cannot be true at the same time, and in fact neither is true.A month before his inauguration, I wrote that “the question isn’t whether [Trump will] face a deadly outbreak during his presidency, but when.” Based on his actions as a media personality during the 2014 Ebola outbreak and as a candidate in the 2016 election, I suggested that he would fail at diplomacy, close borders, tweet rashly, spread conspiracy theories, ignore experts, and exhibit reckless self-confidence. And so he did.No one should be shocked that a liar who has made almost 20,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency would lie about whether the U.S. had the pandemic under control; that a racist who gave birth to birtherism would do little to stop a virus that was disproportionately killing Black people; that a xenophobe who presided over the creation of new immigrant-detention centers would order meatpacking plants with a substantial immigrant workforce to remain open; that a cruel man devoid of empathy would fail to calm fearful citizens; that a narcissist who cannot stand to be upstaged would refuse to tap the deep well of experts at his disposal; that a scion of nepotism would hand control of a shadow coronavirus task force to his unqualified son-in-law; that an armchair polymath would claim to have a “natural ability” at medicine and display it by wondering out loud about the curative potential of injecting disinfectant; that an egotist incapable of admitting failure would try to distract from his greatest one by blaming China, defunding the WHO, and promoting miracle drugs; or that a president who has been shielded by his party from any shred of accountability would say, when asked about the lack of testing, “I don’t take any responsibility at all.”Left: A woman hugs her grandmother through a plastic sheet in Wantagh, New York. Right: An elderly woman has her oxygen levels tested in Yonkers, New York. (Al Bello / Getty; Andrew Renneisen / The New York Times / Redux)Trump is a comorbidity of the COVID‑19 pandemic. He isn’t solely responsible for America’s fiasco, but he is central to it. A pandemic demands the coordinated efforts of dozens of agencies. “In the best circumstances, it’s hard to make the bureaucracy move quickly,” Ron Klain said. “It moves if the president stands on a table and says, ‘Move quickly.’ But it really doesn’t move if he’s sitting at his desk saying it’s not a big deal.”In the early days of Trump’s presidency, many believed that America’s institutions would check his excesses. They have, in part, but Trump has also corrupted them. The CDC is but his latest victim. On February 25, the agency’s respiratory-disease chief, Nancy Messonnier, shocked people by raising the possibility of school closures and saying that “disruption to everyday life might be severe.” Trump was reportedly enraged. In response, he seems to have benched the entire agency. The CDC led the way in every recent domestic disease outbreak and has been the inspiration and template for public-health agencies around the world. But during the three months when some 2 million Americans contracted COVID‑19 and the death toll topped 100,000, the agency didn’t hold a single press conference. Its detailed guidelines on reopening the country were shelved for a month while the White House released its own uselessly vague plan.Again, everyday Americans did more than the White House. By voluntarily agreeing to months of social distancing, they bought the country time, at substantial cost to their financial and mental well-being. Their sacrifice came with an implicit social contract—that the government would use the valuable time to mobilize an extraordinary, energetic effort to suppress the virus, as did the likes of Germany and Singapore. But the government did not, to the bafflement of health experts. “There are instances in history where humanity has really moved mountains to defeat infectious diseases,” says Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It’s appalling that we in the U.S. have not summoned that energy around COVID‑19.”Instead, the U.S. sleepwalked into the worst possible scenario: People suffered all the debilitating effects of a lockdown with few of the benefits. Most states felt compelled to reopen without accruing enough tests or contact tracers. In April and May, the nation was stuck on a terrible plateau, averaging 20,000 to 30,000 new cases every day. In June, the plateau again became an upward slope, soaring to record-breaking heights.[Read: Ed Yong on living in a patchwork pandemic]Trump never rallied the country. Despite declaring himself a “wartime president,” he merely presided over a culture war, turning public health into yet another politicized cage match. Abetted by supporters in the conservative media, he framed measures that protect against the virus, from masks to social distancing, as liberal and anti-American. Armed anti-lockdown protesters demonstrated at government buildings while Trump egged them on, urging them to “LIBERATE” Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia. Several public-health officials left their jobs over harassment and threats.It is no coincidence that other powerful nations that elected populist leaders—Brazil, Russia, India, and the United Kingdom—also fumbled their response to COVID‑19. “When you have people elected based on undermining trust in the government, what happens when trust is what you need the most?” says Sarah Dalglish of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who studies the political determinants of health.“Trump is president,” she says. “How could it go well?”The countries that fared better against COVID‑19 didn’t follow a universal playbook. Many used masks widely; New Zealand didn’t. Many tested extensively; Japan didn’t. Many had science-minded leaders who acted early; Hong Kong didn’t—instead, a grassroots movement compensated for a lax government. Many were small islands; not large and continental Germany. Each nation succeeded because it did enough things right.[Read: What really doomed America’s coronavirus response]Meanwhile, the United States underperformed across the board, and its errors compounded. The dearth of tests allowed unconfirmed cases to create still more cases, which flooded the hospitals, which ran out of masks, which are necessary to limit the virus’s spread. Twitter amplified Trump’s misleading messages, which raised fear and anxiety among people, which led them to spend more time scouring for information on Twitter. Even seasoned health experts underestimated these compounded risks. Yes, having Trump at the helm during a pandemic was worrying, but it was tempting to think that national wealth and technological superiority would save America. “We are a rich country, and we think we can stop any infectious disease because of that,” says Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “But dollar bills alone are no match against a virus.”Public-health experts talk wearily about the panic-neglect cycle, in which outbreaks trigger waves of attention and funding that quickly dissipate once the diseases recede. This time around, the U.S. is already flirting with neglect, before the panic phase is over. The virus was never beaten in the spring, but many people, including Trump, pretended that it was. Every state reopened to varying degrees, and many subsequently saw record numbers of cases. After Arizona’s cases started climbing sharply at the end of May, Cara Christ, the director of the state’s health-services department, said, “We are not going to be able to stop the spread. And so we can’t stop living as well.” The virus may beg to differ.At times, Americans have seemed to collectively surrender to COVID‑19. The White House&r
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Michael Jones Receives Royal Honors
Over the years I’ve frequently mentioned my friend Michael Jones, a computer scientist and geography whiz. Nine years ago he was a leading figure in my Atlantic story “Hacked,” the saga of what my wife Deb and I learned when her email account was taken over by international hackers. For an Atlantic column around the same time, I interviewed him on the way omnipresent, always-available mapping was likely to change people’s habits and lives. And before any of this, he had added to world knowledge with his explanation of “Boiled Frog” science. As he laid out in this guest post, careful experiments in 19th-century Germany established that a frog would indeed sit still in a pot of ever-hotter water—but only if its brain had already been removed. Outside our household, Michael Jones is known, among other things, as one of the guiding forces behind Google Earth and Google Maps. When you see your neighborhood, or your planet, from above on a computer, or follow turn-by-turn directions on your phone, he is one of the people you have to thank.Among the bright sides in the current pandemic nightmare is the news that this spring Michael received the “Patron’s Medal” from the Royal Geographical Society, in London. I am by nature wary of anything involving the concept of “Royal” (for reasons laid out long ago here), but I make an exception in this case. I am delighted to learn of this overdue recognition for Michael Jones.As the Society’s announcement put it: The 2020 Patron’s Medal has been awarded to Michael Jones for his contribution to the development of geospatial information. Baroness Chalker said: “Michael Jones is a role model for future generations of geographers. From his beginnings as a software engineer, inventing and filing his own patents, through to his role as Google’s Chief Technology Advocate, his inspiring career trajectory is charted by his vision to redefine mapping from static lines and symbols to an interactive geographical web of context and information. It’s hard to overstate the importance that Google Earth and Google Maps has had on the public worldwide and how Michael’s pioneering work has democratised and popularised cartography and spatial awareness. Today we recognise his extraordinary contribution and his continued advocacy for the benefits of geography. He whole heartedly deserves the Society’s highest recognition.” Michael Jones said: “This recognition is a signal honour for an idea that started in my head and which, through the work of many, resulted in the Google Earth used by billions of people around the world. On behalf of colleagues who laboured to make this dream of Earth and Maps a reality, and in full credit to the inspiring attainments of all who have come before us in the quest to better understand the Earth, I can only say that the ‘Earth-in-your-hand’ idea has never had a greater friend than the Royal Geographical Society, to whom we humbly offer our gratitude.” As a fellow Yank, I will razz Michael for writing “signal honour”—but it couldn’t be more deserved, with the British u or without. Congratulations. And you can read more about his story and outlook in this interview.
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