earthweal weekly challenge: PANDEMIC AND CLIMATE CHANGE

Tom Toles / Washington Post

There has been a “clear” immediate effect of pandemic on climate change. With economic activity flattened worldwide, highways are emptied, factories are at a standstill, jet traffic lulls. In China alone, carbon emissions were down 25 percent in January—an amount equivalent to half the annual emissions of Britain.

The change is palpable. You can see blue skies in Los Angeles. The waters are clear in Venice. People are outside walking. One researcher at Stanford University estimated that the reduction of air pollution in China alone for two months was enough to save 50,000 people who would have otherwise died prematurely.

That’s a good deal, but it is short-term. The engines will rev up again once the epidemic is under control or a vaccine has been widely administered. The curtain of one crisis will fall, fading into another much more lasting. Meehan Crist writes,

To be clear, the coronavirus pandemic is a tragedy — a human nightmare unspooling in overloaded hospitals and unemployment offices with unnerving speed, barreling toward a horizon darkened by economic disaster and crowded with portents of suffering to come. But this global crisis is also an inflection point for that other global crisis, the slower one with even higher stakes, which remains the backdrop against which modernity now plays out. As the United Nations’ secretary general recently noted, the threat from coronavirus is temporary whereas the threat from heat waves, floods and extreme storms resulting in the loss of human life will remain with us for years.

There are eerie similarities between pandemic and climate change. Infection rates follow an upward spike similar to the upward curve of increasing carbon in the atmosphere. But the time scales are vastly different, one realized in weeks, the other in decades.

As Lawrence Torcello and Michael Mann write, both pandemic and climate change are wicked problems where acting smart is crucial .

As with climate change, understanding the difference between recommendations based on good science and reckless opining or misinforming is critical, and as with climate change, taking appropriate action now will pay future dividends. Likewise, the necessary disruptions to everyday life and the status-quo might not seem so indispensable to those who aren’t directly experiencing the worst impacts of COVID-19 or of climate change. In both cases, however, the reality is that the slower we are to react, the higher the cost will be in death as well as economic loss.

 “Flattening the curve” is the product of collective action in both cases, and the economic impact is equally drastic—plenty of pain up front to minimize long term impacts. And in both cases, doing to little will be far more costly.

Resistance to the actions necessary to resolve both crises are coming from the same quarter, amplified by right-wing media and blessed by leaders struggling for power. (Great clip by The Daily Show titled “Saluting The Heroes of the Pandumbic”) The response from these people to both climate change and now the pandemic is so identical, you have to wonder if the two crises bear a single a truth.  (Of course they do.) Climate scientist Katharine Hayhow tweeted, “The six stages of climate denial are: It’s not real. It’s not us. It’s not that bad. It’s too expensive to fix. Aha, here’s a great solution (that actually does nothing). And—oh no! Now it’s too late. You really should have warned us earlier.” Wait! Is she talking about climate change, or the pandemic?

The Trump administration is racing to roll back environmental regulations and privatize public lands ahead of the upcoming election. Taking advantage of scaled-back pollution enforcement due to the pandemic, the EPA and the Interior Department are racing though deregulation measures—like lifting migratory bird protections and holding oil and gas sales with little or no opportunity for public comment. And just a few days ago, the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era vehicle mileage standards, raising the ceiling on damaging fossil fuel emissions for years to come and gutting one of the United States’ biggest efforts against climate change.

Rebuilding our economic infrastructure is required by both and it will take great leadership and cooperation from every level of government—especially between the parties. (Hissing from the hard right isn’t helping, nor is the “we’ll give everything away for free” from the left.) Certainly the necessity weighs heavily enough to achieve something significant. In the U.S. ten million people filed for unemployment in just two weeks, overwhelming state unemployment offices. Once the big curve is flattened, no one know what jobs there will be to return to; now may be the time for significant investment in green-energy jobs. President Obama had promised them in the wake of the Great Recession, and the Green New Deal was proposed as a way forward into the age of climate change.

It is hoped that there may be habits learned in this short term which could be of great help in addressing the long-term challenges of climate change—reduced long-distance travel, say, or less dependence on automobiles (long-term unemployment will devastate the commute for many.)

The pandemic comes at an awful time for the oil and gas industry as oil prices have been depressed due to a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia; the plunging demand for gas due to people staying at home has put the industry in survival mode. Rates of return for oil and gas projects have slumped from 20 percent to about 6, making sustainable energy projects much more attractive. Will the industry bounce back with the resumption of business, or will this finally push the industry into a retreat that will finally give the climate a chance to recover?

Let us not think climate change has been shelved in any significant way except for our awareness. What we experience in the climate this year is largely the product of increased carbon emissions twenty years ago. The Great Barrier Reef off Australia is being further devastated by the third major bleaching event in the past five years. The Gulf of Mexico is three degrees above normal, spelling intensified thunderstorm and hurricane activity for the region. And where the pandemic has kept people indoors and off the streets, clearing skies and waters, it has hurt climate change progress in other ways. And crucial UN climate talks scheduled in Glasgow for November have been delayed a year due to the coronavirus. We might be focused elsewhere, but the crisis has not at all.

Many things to think about.

For this challenge, write about pandemic and climate change together.

  • How are the two issues similar, how do they differ?
  • What if pandemic is an accelerated petri dish for understanding the arc of climate change?
  • What have you learned about self-sacrifice for a longer common good in the pandemic, and how has that changed your perspective on climate change?
  • Where do the two blossom, how do they bleed?
  • Has the public’s attention to the climate change crisis been enhanced or diminished by pandemic, or both?
  • Is pandemic a synecdoche of climate change, where a part represents the whole? Does it serve as a lens for seeing better the grander sweep?
  • Does the dramatic uptick of human mortality in pandemic help us understand the extinction cascade of so many species caused by climate change?
  • A recent challenge looked at the weird mosh-pit of timescales caused by climate change—where geologic ages have become entangled with human days—is this another example?
  • Does the accelerated drama of pandemic and the possibilities of human intervention for good show us how the same is possible with climate change?
  • What of a collective refusal of fossil-fuel living, learned by necessity during pandemic, continued in order to flatten the curve of carbon emissions?

Much to write about!

—Brendan

earthweal open link #14

 

Welcome to earthweal open link weekend #14. Post a poem in whatever theme or mood that suits you. Share something new or a rave fave from the past. Include your location in your link so we get a feel for the breadth of global reportage. And be sure to visit your fellow linkers and comment.

Open link weekend ends at midnight EST Sunday night to make room for Monday’s weekly challenge. March 16 will be the present moment of pandemic and how climate change comes into play. Very interested in finding out through your poetry about the interface of those two global phenomena.

And if any of you are interested in trying your own hand at a weekly challenge, let me know! Would love some fresh DNA in the gene pool.

But for now—sing us a song of whatever and more!

—Brendan

Sweet alyssum.

 

In a recent op-ed piece, Roger Cohen observes what a quiet time we’ve entered:

This is the silent spring. The planet has gone quiet, so quiet you can almost hear it whirling around the sun, feel its smallness, picture for once the loneliness and fleetingness of being alive.

This is the spring of fears. A scratchy throat, a sniffle, and the mind races. I see a single rat ambling around at dusk on Front Street in Brooklyn, a garbage bag ripped open by a dog, and experience an apocalyptic vision of vermin and filth.

Scattered masked pedestrians on empty streets look like the survivors of a neutron bomb. A pathogen about one-thousandth the width of a human hair, the spiky-crowned new coronavirus, has upended civilization and unleashed the imagination…

Massively empty communal spaces pair with a bulge on the other side: What a crowded, crowing interior we’ve opened up, Tik-Tokking a strangely blooming inner primrose path. Zooming our collective unsociable mugs. Gaming and binge-watching and tweeting to fill the empty cathedral within. Reading books, perhaps for the first time …

Time had almost vanished in the digital world, and now it is the grand taskmaster. Who knew? Days are chunks, not flows: managerial tasks, not billows of indulgence. In the past month I’ve:  Cleaned out and organized the garage; my dresser; the bathroom; purged every shelf, drawer and file in my study; made lists of tasks in the yard and house, from weeding to planting to painting and fixing; arranged files in my laptop & tweaked pix I had meant to long ago; wondering, all the while, what to do next.

As my layoff approached—I saw it coming for months—I thought about what a month or two of reprieve from work-time might be like when I could just collect up my past and be. I saw all the above projects in the golden light of time I never had enough of: But now that I’m doubled down in off-time—laid off and ground further down from possibilities of employment by pandemic—mostly time now is a burden, the thing one must carry, and duration is gritty towards iron-heavy. Who knew? I wonder now at the well-paid hours I used to lavish and slave in my former career. Then everything counted, sort of, and was well furnished; now everything counts for everything and contributes hardly at all.

And you know? I seem to have less time than ever. Writing these prompts takes time I must begrudge at the cost of other Important Things, though right now I can hardly imagine what they are.

It’s significant that Cohen identifies this time as a “silent spring,” for it unleashes memories of Rachel Carson’s 1962 jeremiad about the poisoning of America through better chemistry. Despite the authority of her claim that DDT was destroying local ecosystems (and reinforced by the massive character assassination campaign launched against Carson by the chemical industry), nearly 50 years later here we still are, with industries still busily poisoning us as ever, for the good of shareholder profit. As dramatized in the recent movie Dark Waters, Dupont Chemical has always known the C8 compound it used to make Teflon coating decreased fertility, lowered birth rates, cancer, liver dysfunction and thyroid disease) and has vigorously fought—right up to the present—attempts to either regulate the chemical or warn the public.

Writing back in 1962, Carson posed a question we still must ask: “As crude a weapon as the cave man’s club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life – a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways. These extraordinary capacities of life have been ignored by the practitioners of chemical control who have brought to their task no ‘high-minded orientation,’ no humility before the vast forces with which they tamper.”

Which brings us to the coronavirus pandemic. Maybe it’s a stretch comparing DDT to coronavirus, but think about it. The coronavirus pandemic is the result of an emptying of forest species to supply a human need which has no basis for need other than vanity or folk belief—products, both of errant humanity. We hunted pangolins to a hair’s breadth from extinction, and one of them en route to our markets carried some infected batshit it had stepped in. Now the human world has been silenced, if only for a time (do not doubt we’ll come roaring back) to contest the surge of a virus which is harvesting in mass numbers the sick, the old, the weak, both physically and financially—a Darwinism unleashed by our own invasive hands. Sorcerer’s apprentice indeedy.

How will we wash our hands of that? Ask Dupont and the intrepid supply chain of poachers and wild markets; it’s the same capitalism at work.

A third conspirator of course is the ineptitude of world leaders like Donald Trump, failing so miserably to prepare and respond to the crisis, especially here in the United States where industry groups have such influence in national policy. (Remember, it was pressure from the national Chamber the Commerce and pro-business advocates like Steven Moore and Art Laffer that had Donald Trump making absurd rumblings about re-opening America  for business by Easter—remember “the cure should not be more harmful than the disease”?) A recent article in Foreign Policy magazine called the poor-to-criminally negligent response of the US government to the pandemic “the worst intelligence failure in U.S. history,” “more glaring than Pearl Harbor or 9/11.”) Donald Trump now echoes Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s claim that government inaction is the Democrats’ fault—the White House was distracted by impeachment proceedings earlier in the year when it should have been preparing for the coming pandemic.

Yet the real wonder in the vista of nastiness—the fourth horseman of our apocalypse—is that we US citizens allowed a disease like Trump into office, which says volumes about our indifference and distraction, two qualities pandemic revels in. And despite the cascading awfulness of this guy, he still has a good chance of getting re-elected back into the White House come November. Huh?

Likewise, the inept government response worldwide to this pandemic is no different than the human community’s failure to respond to the climate crisis: Present gain trumps future risk every time. The cruel irony is that the truth is just the opposite: present inaction yields even greater future risk.

As we endure this spring silenced by our own ill-preparation in dealing with the consequences of our behavior, all of the errancies of human civilization find themselves burnished. Authoritarians use government control measures to consolidate power. Domestic violence is soaring. Scammers are taking advantage of fear. Hackers are breaking into Zoom meetings to harass women and sling racial slurs. Here in Florida, gun shops are declared essential services.

Are we lost? Never in one sense. Humanity ever adapts and innovates and responds. We race toward stronger tools, we embrace new methods of coping. We look for silver linings. Cohen himself searches for these:

… Yet, to write, to read, to cook, to reflect in silence, to walk the dog (until it braces its legs against moving because it’s walked too much), to adapt to a single space, to forsake the frenetic, to contemplate a stilled world, may be to open a space for individual growth. Something has shifted. The earth has struck back. Exacting breathlessness, it has asserted its demand to breathe.

Is this silent spring a curse, a gift, or both? That is up to us and our time to decide. The new normal is only the present one, and this pandemic has many chapters to come.

A poem in a recent New York Times Sunday magazine struck a somewhat reassuring, somewhat dissonant chord, which may be the most we can hope for:

HOW TO SURVIVE THIS

Barbara Kingsolver

O misery. Imperfect
universe of days stretched out
ahead, the string of pearls
and drops of venom on the web,
losses of heart, of life
and limb, news of the worst:

Remind me again
the day will come
when I look back amazed
at the waste of sorry salt
when I had no more than this
to cry about.

Now I lay me down.
I’m not there yet.

 

Postscript:

My sweet 89-year-old uncle died yesterday. Posing as one of his children, I was able to get past the front desk of the assisted living facility where he and my aunt are now living (places like that are in lockdown) and spent some time by his side. He’d suffered a major stroke and could not speak, but he did squeeze my hand as I remembered out loud all the fun we had as kids when my mom came to visit her sister. How he drove the ski boat around the lake by their house in Orlando all those decades he was on call as a neurosurgeon. How he complained that when I played their Steinway, I never could finish any ditty I started. (Pianos were not made for first drafts.) How he and I would make up couplets about food over dinners my aunt prepared. How he helped pay for my sister’s college and loaned me the money for my DUI fine. I thanked him for always taking care of my Mom and making their house a welcoming place for our family as we all grew up and had kids and worked careers.

I told him I loved him: He squeezed my hand. I talked with my aunt for a while after and then departed, saving my mask in a baggie and driving quiet streets in Orlando while spring spread in silent glory. Later that afternoon as I was planting sweet alyssum in the window boxes,  my cell phone dinged – a text message from my cousin Kitty to say her father had died. I’d seen him in his final hours.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s unemployment website is down again. Yesterday I got the last of four things on shelves at my grocery store. It’s stunningly beautiful outside. Hardly any traffic goes up and down our street today. The Allman Brothers’ “Sweet Melissa” lingers in my ears as life drones on.  What a world we live in.

earthweal weekly challenge: FLATTENING THE CURVE

 

Hi friends,

Sherry Marr here—Numbers of those affected by the coronavirus change by the hour, and are rising rapidly. As of my final edit at 9 a.m., Sunday, March 29, globally we have 685,913 known cases, with 32,239 deaths.

In Canada, we have a total of 5,886 with the virus, and 63 deaths. My province of B.C. has 884 current cases, with 17  deaths.

On Friday, I was shocked to hear that the United States already has more cases than China had, now documenting 120,000 infected, reporting 2100 deaths. Infectious disease specialists predict a very dire spread of this voracious virus in the U.S.

This is very alarming. I worry for my friends and neighbours to the south. I worry for us all. Stay in your two-metre bubbles, kids.

Clearly, self-isolation is the only way to flatten the curve and slow this voracious monster. But it took too long for enough people to get the message.  A week ago, Vancouver, B.C., parks and beaches showed up on the news with hordes of people out enjoying the sun, oblivious. It was outrageous. It has gotten better since. Officials were in tears on the news, begging people to stay home, fearing our health care system could well collapse under the weight of what is to come.

Prime Minister Trudeau himself is in self-isolation, working from home, as his wife Sophie has the virus. He appears outside his front door every morning for his daily briefing, and works on facetime the rest of the day. I am pleased that the Canadian government is doing its utmost to take care of us and help us through this time. Leadership is clear and active, with constant updates. (My sympathy is with my neighbours in the U.S. at this time. I am glad state leaders are taking the reins and doing what needs to be done.)

On the graphs, the curve is spiking steeply, with no sign of it leveling, and by the time this posts, the increase will be definitive. Officials exhort us to practice social and physical distancing, in a desperate effort to flatten the curve. (In Italy, cases went from a thousand in one week, to 40,000 the next week. Canada was at the thousand mark as I began writing this last weekend. It has since doubled.)

Tofino is, as always, taking a leadership role. Before mandates were issued, the mayor requested tourists to not travel here, to wait till this is over. Resorts and small businesses and restaurants voluntarily began closing their doors. Tourists already here were asked to leave.

Tla-o-qui-ahts took action early, meeting traffic coming through Sutton Pass, on our only highway in. Locals and essential traffic were allowed through; tourists (many of them from the U.S.) were asked to turn around and go home. They have closed off their communities to non-residents in order to protect their vulnerable population.

Tofino hospital (photo: Joseph Bob)

Our small Tofino Hospital has ten beds, two ambulances and ONE respirator. We service Tofino, Ucluelet and all of the Nuu chah nulth reserves on the West Coast and on outlying islands. Our front line workers will be stressed to the max and beyond with what they know is coming.

Our local representatives are doing a remarkable and reassuring job of keeping us informed. Local front line workers and essential businesses are doing a heroic job of taking care of us. But they are not allowed to tell us whether it is in our community or not. The head doctor at the hospital is requesting permission from the provincial health officials. Knowledge helps us look after ourselves even more pro-actively.

The Canadian government has earmarked a financial package totalling $82 billion dollars, to help individuals and small businesses survive the lack of income involved in work stoppages and business closures. Wow. The government has set aside $55 billion in tax deferrals for businesses and families.  Families will soon feel some assistance with increased monthly child benefit payments. Low income singles (me) and families will receive a higher GST payment in April. Further financial mortgage and housing relief measures are being taken, and workers who do not qualify for Employment Insurance benefits can apply for direct payments without a wait period. One MILLION Employment Insurance claims were filed this past week. That is a lot of households who don’t know how they’re going to pay the rent.

(The Credit Union where my sister is a small business manager immediately announced that all loan and mortgage payments are suspended for six months.)

Yesterday the streets of Victoria, down-Island, usually jammed with tourists, were empty. Two major hotels, including the famous Empress, closed their doors. So many hourly wage earners have been laid off in all sectors.

My own daughters are self-isolating, as am I. My son is an essential service worker.

Industries are being asked to start producing health supplies, such as respirators and masks, that are in short supply across Canada. I am impressed by how government has stepped up to take care of those of us with the least resources. But I wonder what will happen as this continues long-term. They keep telling us this is a marathon, not a sprint.

How is it in your part of the world? How is your country doing at flattening the curve?

It has been heartening to watch world leaders come together to fight this common foe. (I only wish they would come together around the climate crisis with the same dedication and focus. Maybe after the virus abates, they will.) Most people are following directives around social distancing (staying home, avoiding crowds, keeping two metres between oneself and another person). It has been astonishing to note how many ignore the directives, putting others at risk.

We have become such an entitled species; it is disappointing to see how many All-About-Me examples we have heard about on the news: like the couple in Kelowna, B.C., who bought up the entire meat section of a chain store.  (There could be a whole other conversation about the connection between our meat-eating, the terrible lives of factory animals, and the climate crisis.) People were still gathering, so as of  March 22, malls, parks and beaches were being closed. There will be steep fines for noncompliance with physical distancing.

Because we have become such global travellers, all of the first instances of the virus in Canada were related to people coming back from travelling. But now travel has been restricted; ominously, more cases are now coming from community spread.

All over Vancouver Island, we are watching businesses closing, airline, bus and ferry service being reduced, only essential services continuing. People are working in solidarity to try to keep themselves and each other safe.

By the time this posts, I am wondering if the mandate will have advanced from social distancing to sheltering in place. I suspect that is not far off, judging by officials’ frustration at public noncompliance. But people are becoming more aware, as the days go on.

I have been staying home, since I have a compromised immune system. I have been out only twice, for groceries. I hope to not go out again for the next while. I take in the fresh air on my balcony.

Right now, our CoOp reserves the first hour of the day for seniors to shop, to minimize our exposure.  A guard stands at the door to let only we elderly through. (I don’t need to show I.D. LOL.) It’s peaceful with so few of us in the store. I am happy the cashiers, on the front lines and very exposed, wear rubber gloves. I am so grateful to them for coming to work when they are nervous. May they stay safe.  I bought extra groceries the last time I went, so I won’t have to go back, just in case we get to the point where our only grocery store gets closed. Right now, they are on reduced hours.

These times bring out the best and the worst in human nature.

The Italians were first to inspire us, singing from their balconies at six every evening. My heart lifted at the sight and sound of them, that first evening, so beautifully sharing songs and smiles with the world. It fell next morning, when I saw the long line of military trucks hauling away the bodies.

People in Greece and Spain and Vancouver, B.C.,  applaud on their balconies to thank the health care workers and front line people looking after us in this crisis. Some howls have even been heard in Tofino and Ucluelet. Our debt to the doctors, nurses and health care professionals has never been more clearly demonstrated, as they risk their own lives to keep us safe.  Some of them, sadly, world-wide, have succumbed to the virus.

On TV, health officials BEG us, sometimes in tears, to stay home, the only way to flatten the curve. The trajectory of how quickly and exponentially this virus moves is terrifying. From one day to the next, from one week to the next, this virus spreads in frightening leaps. Those who ignore this advice are risking other lives along with their own.

Of concern is the homeless population, who have nowhere to self-isolate. In Canada, the North West Territories, in the first weeks, had no incidences of the virus, and tried to prevent all non-essential travel to keep out the virus. Sadly, on March 21, the first case was documented. Around this time, the virus showed up in South Africa. The spread in both Africa and India will be difficult, if not impossible, to control, given how many people live closely together, lacking adequate shelter and resources.

Amazingly, China spiked and not only flattened, but conquered the curve in their country by enforcing very stern measures. This shows it can be stopped.

But in many of our countries, accustomed as we are to our “rights and freedoms,” governments are faced with a harder task, asking people to comply and trusting that we will be responsible. So it will take longer for them to take the next step, giving the virus more time to spread.

Of special concern are the homeless, as well as First Nations communities, many of which lack clean drinking water and access to medical care and basic medical supplies. These communities will be hit hard.

People are staying home here; the village is quiet. We writers are fortunate in these times. We have our poetry community online; we have a platform for sharing our feelings and thoughts; we have friends around the world to stay in touch with.

This is scarier than any science fiction book or movie predicted. We feel helpless in the onslaught, but we do what we can. I am being careful. But I live in an old apartment building. How many other residents will be as careful? How many germs are lurking on the railings going downstairs, on the door we all go in and out of, in the laundry room?

How are you weathering this threat? In your comments, tell us how things are in your area, in your country, state or province. How are you doing personally? What are you doing to get through self-isolation? Do you know anyone who has come down with the virus? How are they doing?

I told Brendan that he began this site at exactly the right moment, when we need to come together, to share experiences, fears, wisdom, hope – and our poems, as we write our way through the strange and frightening times we live in. Looking back at what I agonized over last year, I realize we were not as bad off then as we thought we were.

Sadly, it seems only when humans’ actual survival is threatened, do we wake up to the world we have made and the damage we have done. When Mother Earth’s message wasn’t heeded in wind and storm and fire, what is left is this terrible pandemic, in which the message is loud and clear: we are interconnected across all perceived boundaries of time and space and geography, with every other living being on the planet. What happens to one, happens to us all. The aboriginal people have known this for millennia, and have tried to tell us. We are suddenly hearing their wisdom now.

For your challenge, write about whatever aspect of this issue speaks to you: self-isolation, social distancing, fear of contagion. Or, conversely, you might write about our increased awareness of our interconnectedness, and how people are rising to the challenge, showing the best side of all we can be. There are many heroic stories we are not yet hearing. Maybe you know of some. I look forward to whatever you bring back to the communal fire.

Stay safe, my friends.

—Sherry

  

earthweal open link #13

Welcome to earthweal’s lucky no. 13 open link weekend. Specially loaded dice gleam on the felt: It’s your turn to take them up and shake, rattle ‘n’ roil.

Link a poem which feels fit for your mood’s moment, the time (strange and wild for sure) or both, be it new or up from your archival vaults.  Include your location in your link and be sure to visit your fellow linkers and comment.

Open link weekend ends at midnight EST Sunday night to make room for Monday’s weekly challenge. On March 30, Sherry Blue Sky takes over the reins again with a challenge she titled FLATTENING THE CURVE. Lord knows, we all have something to sing in the perilous chapel perched atop that uproarious hill!

Looking forward to walking in the wild of your songs.

 

 

This past several weeks my wife and I have hunkered down in the lowlands, doing our part to soothe and smooth the bat-virus beast unleashed by a delectable pangolin cowering in a wild meat market. Legacies grow stranger these days, do they not? Stronger too. (And we thought Australian wildfires could have no peer!)

Well, here we are again, torching the drama of a local disaster on the most global of scales, with all of the buffoonery and terror of Feast Night in Hell Kitchen: Surges of infection overwhelming hospitals, makeshift morgues hijacking ice rinks and refrigerated semis, politicians swirling in the surge of events like hapless dwarves (pointing bony fingers at each other with partisan glee), grocery aisles bare as Primavera’s tushie, less and less compassion in the eyes of our daily fellows as this painful  exercise demands ever more sacrifice and worry and fear. (Here in Florida, the drumbeat is Stay Inside If You’re Compromised, We’re Going To The Mall.) No one dares look too far down the lanes of consequence because the view is too scary—global recession? what of the poor? the homeless? homeland-less migrants? climate refugees? When will I find another roll of toilet paper?

And if that’s not enough, it’s HOT here in Central Florida today – 93 degrees—which coming in late March portends ever-hotter oceans and the resulting mega hurricanes. (Whoopie.)  Researchers are bringing back bad news from the Great Barrier Reef—a third major bleaching event in the past five years. Acre upon water acre of ghostly spines and desecrate ecosystems. And the largest king penguin colony in the world in the sub-Antarctic Crozet archipelago known as Pigs Island, is 1 million king penguins shy of the last count, the result, researchers believe, of a hotter ocean.

The age we call Anthropocene is grim indeed,  and the fun is just beginning. Can’t we just order up a different century from the menu of the ages? I’ll take the sixth century AD, please. The year 563—when my spiritual father St. Oran was buried in the footers of the new abbey on the isle of Iona— works fine for me.

In lieu of that, we’ll just have to keep our spectacles polished and keep writing down what we see. In some ways (though none of them so rosily affective), it’s like entering puberty or falling in love for the first time: Everything is fresh and new. Maybe dying is that way, too. Good thing we see the reality only so far down the line.

Now let the linking begin!

—Brendan

earthweal weekly challenge: PANDEMIC

Detail of fresco by Luigi Vacca on the plague of 1630

 

Thoughts for the post began on a later-afternoon walk though my little town in Central Florida. The day was bright and warm, upper 80s, breezy with spring busting out from every seam. Hard indeed to think about global pandemic and looming catastrophe on so fair a day, but that’s the weird nature of what we’re going through. It’s nowhere to be seen yet everywhere at once. So through this happy green proscenium, let us begin this drama of disaster …

 

 

For reality spirals, you can’t beat the half hour on either side of US President Donald’s Trump’s address to the nation the night of March 11. In that short shrieking span you got: An NBA basketball game getting canceled because a center for one of the teams had come down with Covid-19; former Alaska governor and VP candidate Sarah Palin feverishly twerking in a bear suit on The Masked Singer; Trump announcing that Covid-19 was “a foreign virus” that had started in China and banning European travel (causing stock futures to swoon); Tom Hanks announcing that he and his wife had contracted the virus while in Australia; and the NBA later announcing it was suspending its entire basketball season.

“What I wouldn’t give for a dull moment,” CBS Late Night host Steven Colbert tweeted. The next night, Colbert performed his show to a studio empty except for a few staffers who tried laughing hilariously at every joke. This week the late night shows are cancelled.

 

 

In our media-saturated gaze, pandemic is coming at us with nightmarish slowness (like a molasses tsunami) and then all at once.  And it’s weird, weird, weird—do you find yourself struggling for apt ways to describe it? The visible surfaces appear this way in a 3/14 piece in the Washington Post:

The new life — few are yet willing to call it a new normal — is working at home and becoming starved for contact with even the people you avoid at the office. It’s walking down the sidewalk and examining pedestrians to see whether they might cough in your direction. It’s streaming movies and news saturation, bored kids and calls to check on elderly parents. The dregs from the back of the pantry and a stiff drink at the end of another day of life, suspended.

Dan Zak of the WaPo grappled with the paradoxes of coronavirus this way: “To mitigate, we must collaborate. To collaborate, we must separate. One nation, under quarantine, trying to ‘flatten the curve.’”

 

 

One world, actually. Night curfews in Manila. Schools closing in Jakarta. The virus spreading now in Africa. Bars, restaurants and shops closing in Madrid and Paris. Oslo’s main airport banning all foreign travelers. Personal protection and testing supplies vanishing fast in Australia.

Those poor weathercasters. They look absolutely befuddled offering forecasts absolutely devoid of the real news.

Government responses vary from capable to flaccid to criminal.  South Korea is testing about 15,000 citizens daily, isolating most affected areas and keeping people informed on how to respond and where the virus is spreading. As a result, the coronavirus mortality rate in South Korea is less than one percent. On the other hand, Iranian officials have stayed mum about the disease and its spread, causing the outbreak to spiral. And in the United States, only 11,000 people have been tested—the smallest percentage of testing among developed nations—and there remains small capacity for processing tests, despite false claims of the American president to the contrary.

 

 

I classify pandemic is an Anthropocene phenomenon. Climate change is a threat multiplier, magnifying local epidemic malaise into global pandemic disorder. Human mobility is a multiplier, too.  A pangolin steps in infected bat shit, is rounded up by poachers and shipped to a distant market in China where the virus leaps from animal to human. Thanks to human overpopulation and mass connectiveness, the virus has the perfect transmission vehicle. With some 1.6 million known viruses and more emerging from shrinking wilderness and melting permafrost, it’s no surprise that the 21st Century is has seen three pandemics so far. Climate change also increases the chances for pandemic through rising heat and humidity and medical infrastructure damage due to catastrophic weather. And for all the bacteria and viruses we know (and most we don’t), we still don’t know how a few degrees Centigrade will deviate their behavior in us.

What we do know about climate change is that the longer we wait to take aggressive action to slow it down, the worse the magnifying events. We’ve seen a dramatic uptick in drastic weather events due to inaction, from flooding in the Florida Keys, the United Kingdom and Jakarta, wildfires from record heat in Australia and heat waves across Europe. They come at us in serially multiplying fashion, with each year somehow hotter and worse than the previous.

So if the slo-motion nightmare vibe is creeping up your back, its just a grander echo of humanity’s slow response to the greater problem. Researchers are calling coronavirus “climate change at warp speed,” and the slow response to the threat by governments around the world have resulted in a dizzy daily cascade of events, with markets tumbling, collective life fragmenting and the specter of infection casting an invisible pall over dailiness. It’s still distant here Central Florida—three days ago when I started this write, there were only 11 cases in all of Florida, a state with a population of 22 million (by Saturday, the count had climbed to 52, and today it’s more than 100)—but three weeks ago in Italy, only 300 cases had been reported, and now there are more than 20,000 infections with a death toll passing 1,400.

 

 

And how quaint these numbers will seem in the coming weeks, when it’s too late to have done more right away.

We are now witnessing the blossoming of the pandemic. Satellite images show mass gravesites being built in Iran. Large gatherings are being banned everywhere. Broadway theaters are shutting down, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade has been cancelled. Spring training for Major League Baseball has been cancelled. March Madness is no more. The Summer Olympics hangs by a thread. Conservative pundits says it’s all a plot to dethrone a sitting Republican president. Conspiracy theorists in China and Russia say that the pandemic is bioterrorism, with the virus created in some secret U.S. lab.

Is your head spinning? I don’t know if it’s just me in my strange new phase of unemployment — how differently days now pass — but the approaching pandemic is so hard to understand and rationally react to and prepare for. The media loudspeakers bray now by the hour with new Big News. (On March 12 the Dow Jones Industrial dropped nearly 10 percent last Thursday, closing down 2,352 points, an all-time record daily decline.) (The next day stocks rose almost as much.) Hard indeed to stay away from the media sites, from Twitter …

And what to do? I’ve stocked up slowly all week on groceries, with a few extra meals ready to be thrown together if we’re in isolation, with plenty of hand sanitizer, wipes and, yes, TP. My wife and her sister need to figure out care for their father who has advanced dementia and is due to go into a facility in a few weeks. (Now we find out the facility is on lockdown.) I can’t tell if potential employers aren’t returning my calls because they are dealing with the crisis or if they just don’t damn need me. Trying to figure out how we’ll eke this out.

And what shall we do while in quarantine? Great opportunity to hunker down and write, of course, but with a world fraying everywhere, what else to expect? Will humanitarian efforts grow in response to disaster or will fear for our personal comfort cause us to wither? Will governments use the opportunity to advance their goals dealing with climate change, or will suddenly cheap oil become license to burn, baby, burn?

Epidemics are no respecters of art. Hans Holbien and Titian died during the Black Death,  Anton Checkhov died of a tuberculosis epidemic which swept Russia in the 19th Century, and the Austrian artist Egon Schiele and French poet Guilliame Apollaire both fell victim to the 1918 Spanish flu.

And yet there are creative responses. William Shakespeare is believed to have written King Lear, Othello, Measure for Measure and Macbeth while the theaters of London were closed during the 1606 recurrence of the plague. (In the background of that, remember that Shakespeare’s son Hamnet was claimed by an earlier plague in 1596). When the Great Plague hit in 1665, Isaac Newton, then a student at Trinity College, used the enforced social distancing to retreat from London to the family estate Woolsthrope Manor where he carried on his studies alone, without the interference of his professors. He would call it his annus mirabilis or “year of wonders,” developing calculus and gazing out at an apple tree in the back yard which formed his ideas about gravity.

I’m hoping our quarantine-enforced backyard vigils will help us to reconnect with something beyond our isolated, fearful homes. Look around and the world is beautiful; it’s full spring here in Florida, and all is a-flush with virginal greens and sweet scents. But it’s hard to keep focused when the invisible sky looms closer.

 

 

For this weekly challenge, write a poem (or several) about how pandemic is affecting and afflicting things locally for you. How are rhythms changing? What are you finding out about yourself in sweeping crisis, or how modernity is handling this? What unexpected dimensions are coming to view? How is climate change in play? Where are the hidden packets of gold? How is your voice, cadence, rhythm, rhetoric or poetic changing in response? If you were a traditional healer, how would you restore balance? What are the jeremiads of despair, the psalms of hope? Is there a song which is breviary and bestiary at once?

Any news would be greatly appreciated. From what I can tell looking around right now, this pandemic is seriously challenging so many assumptions of human existence and art. Looking forward to your take.

— Brendan