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COVID Horror: The Holiday Edition

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In less than two weeks, tens of millions of Americans will travel to see their friends and relatives for the Thanksgiving holiday. At this point, most Americans have developed what some experts call ‘pandemic fatigue,’ although it’s hard to imagine how Americans can feel so “fatigued” after having been asked to do so little, especially when compared to other countries.

On November 11th, 142,856 Americans tested positive for COVID-19, the highest single-day total since the pandemic began. A month ago, on October 11th, that number was 44,783. According to the COVID Tracking Project, “Hospitalizations in the country also topped records for the second day in a row. On Wednesday, 65,368 people were hospitalized, up from Tuesday’s record of 61,964,” doubling the total number of hospitalizations from one month ago and 5,000+ more than the previous peak hospitalization day, April, 15th (59,940).

Lauren Sauer, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins University, recently told NPR, “We have legitimate reason to be very, very concerned about our health system at a national level,” noting that many states have reached a “tipping point” when it comes to hospitalizations. In fact, 18 states are “at or nearing capacity.”

Doctors, epidemiologists, researchers, and scientists have warned this would happen if the U.S. continued down its current path. As a result, those in positions of authority and power also knew this would happen. After weeks of confusion and mismanagement, liberal states such as California, Oregan, Vermont, New York, Washington, and Massachusetts took proactive steps to contain the spread and test for the virus, whereas Republican-controlled states left residents to fend for their own. As a result, blue states have fared much better than their red counterparts.

As someone who lives in a Republican-trifecta-controlled state, Indiana, in a deeply red county, LaPorte, with conservative Democrats in power at the municipal level, I can tell you that it’s absolutely terrifying, surreal, and absurd to endure a pandemic with virtually no guidance from government institutions.

Without question, the partisan divide is deep. According to Pew, 82% of Democrats polled said COVID-19 was a significant issue in the 2020 election compared to only 24% of Republicans. Women are more likely to wear masks than men (real men don’t wear masks!), and Democrats are almost three times as likely to wear masks indoors than Republicans, according to a survey from Gallup.

Perhaps the craziest piece of partisan news that came out of the 2020 elections was the fact that counties that had the highest per-capita rate of positive COVID cases overwhelmingly voted for Trump over Biden.

Of course, black, Latino, indigenous, and Asian Americans are much more likely to contract the virus and die from it. The AMP Research Lab’s project, ‘Color of Coronavirus,’ reports:

+ Of the more than 240,000 U.S. deaths cataloged in this Color of Coronavirus update, this is the number of deaths documented by group through Nov. 10, 2020: Asian (8,687), Black (46,211), Indigenous (2,251), Latino (46,912), Pacific Islander (334) and White (123,429). Additionally, 5,373 deaths are recorded only as “other” race (and likely include more Indigenous people and Pacific Islanders), while another 8,510 had an unknown race.

+ In the past four weeks, the death rate among Indigenous people has accelerated the fastest.

+ These are the documented, nationwide actual mortality impacts from COVID-19 data (aggregated from all U.S. states and the District of Columbia) for all race groups:

1 in 875 Black Americans has died (or 114.3 deaths per 100,000)

1 in 925 Indigenous Americans has died (or 108.3 deaths per 100,000)

1 in 1,275 Latino Americans has died (or 78.5 deaths per 100,000)

1 in 1,325 Pacific Islander Americans has died (or 75.5 deaths per 100,000)

1 in 1,625 White Americans has died (or 61.7 deaths per 100,000)

1 in 2,100 Asian Americans has died (or 47.6 deaths per 100,000)

+ Black Americans continue to experience the highest actual COVID-19 mortality rates nationwide — about two or more times as high as the rate for Whites and Asians, who have the lowest actual rates. Indigenous Americans’ death rate is just slightly lower than Blacks.

The pandemic has been devastating for everyone, but disproportionately so for black, Latino, Asian, and indigenous Americans, as the above numbers indicate. Yet, as Les Leopold writes in The American Prospect, “The greatest predictor of coronavirus deaths appears to be income.” Indeed, with all the talk about race, ethnicity, and gender roles in determining COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, the key factor, ‘class,’ is rarely mentioned. Not a coincidence, and surely not a surprise. This Neoliberal narrative dovetails nicely with ‘woke culture.’

Clearly, liberals, Democrats, and many progressives underestimated the economic damage that would be caused by shutting down the economy without an economic stimulus plan in place prior to enacting such measures. As a result, many Americans revolted at the ballot box, almost handing Trump a second term in the White House. While many Americans are scared of getting the virus, exit polling indicates that the economy remains the most important issue for most people.

This dynamic played out in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, a place where Trump made significant inroads among Latino voters. As the Los Angeles Times reports, “In 2016, Donald Trump lost all 18 Texas counties where Latinos make up at least 80% of the population. This time he won five of them and closed the gap considerably in the rest.” Moreover, “[Trump] triumphed over Joe Biden in rural Zapata County — where Hillary Clinton had beaten him by 33 points — and narrowly lost Starr County, where Clinton’s winning margin was 60 points. In all, he took 39% of the vote in those 18 counties, up from 29% in 2016.”

When asked why they backed Trump this time around, Latinos noted his support for the oil industry and law enforcement (looks like ‘defunding the police’ isn’t so popular). Unsurprisingly, Latino voters also cited the stimulus checks they received with Trump’s name plastered on them. As the old saying goes, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Speaking of the economy, large portions of the retail sector, and various other sectors of the economy depend on holiday sales. In fact, “The holiday shopping season is a crucial period for retailers and can account for up to 40% of annual sales.” Few are confident giving their economic forecast through the holidays, but the financial firm, Deloitte, predicts spending will rise between 1% and 1.5%, lower than previous years.

Additionally, the economic impact of the holiday season “will hinge on how much splurging high-income consumers do, and how much belt-tightening takes place throughout lower-income households — the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Certain sectors will benefit, such as online retailers and digital entertainment companies, while movie theaters, restaurants, and the travel industry will suffer.

Right now, there’s no help economic help on the horizon, but an effective and safe vaccine should be introduced by early 2021, though in small doses. Dr. Peter Hotez, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, recently told ABC news that he hopes “by this time next year we’ll have a significant percentage of the U.S. population vaccinated.” What Dr. Hotez means by “significant percentage” remains to be seen.

Last week, Pfizer announced they’ve developed a COVID vaccine that will likely be available by the end of the year, with a potential efficacy rate of 90%. That said, Dr. Hotez and others have warned that the vaccine trial cited by Pfizer has yet to be peer-reviewed, hence we should remain hopeful, yet equally skeptical:

1) The vaccine is being co-developed with a German firm, BioNTech. In fact, BioNTech began working on a vaccine for COVID in late-January, quickly realized it needed major institutional help, and subsequently created a partnership with Pfizer in mid-March.

2) This is the first formal external/independent review of the findings. If the vaccine is 90% effective, that would put it on par with current measles vaccines. No serious health or safety concerns have been identified. Pfizer will ask the FDA for approval in late-November. By the end of the year, there could be anywhere from 15–20 million doses available, with each vaccine requiring two independent doses. No one, however, knows how long the vaccine’s protection might last.

3) Pfizer did not participate in President Trump’s ‘Operation Warp Speed’ because the company wanted to distance itself from presidential politics. Pfizer has declined federal funds for research and development of the vaccine (for those worried that OWS influenced the findings).

4) The data released is not conclusive and did not appear in a peer-reviewed journal. However, many doctors, scientists, and researchers were excited by the news.

5) Things we don’t know, but might in the coming weeks: whether or not the vaccine protects people who’ve already been infected; whether or not the vaccine still allows for minor COVID symptoms, etc.

6) Logistical and political challenges remain the primary concern. I recently spoke to Indian journalist and science researcher, Prabir Purkayastha, who warned of the intense logistical challenges ahead. Due to its mRNA composition, the Pfizer vaccine will need to be transported and stored at temperatures of -147 degrees Fahrenheit. This will require special vehicles, storage facilities, and a highly centralized and coordinated national plan. If Pfizer expects 15–20 million doses by the end of the year, and if each dose requires two shots, we can expect to vaccinate 7–10 million Americans by the beginning of 2021. With more than 340 million people living in the U.S., major logistical challenges obviously remain. We also face the problem of international cooperation. Will countries cooperate or will the world be flung into a state of hyper-competition, which could lead to geopolitical calamity? Geopolitical analysts are already warning of a creeping vaccine nationalism that could potentially further destabilize international relations.

7) Let’s also keep an eye out for the stratification of vaccine distribution here in the states. Americans without access to healthcare services and those living in poor neighborhoods will have a more difficult time getting vaccinated. It’s not hard to imagine a situation unfolding where middle, upper-middle-class, and rich Americans are vaccinated, attending baseball games, concerts, and parties, while poor and working-class Americans remain at the back of the line, unvaccinated, living in a sort of pandemic caste system. Again, as mentioned above, the same is true on the international level, where rich countries will deploy vaccines long before poor nations have the ability to vaccinate their populations.

In less than 70 days, Joe Biden will be sworn in as President of the United States. Until then, brace yourselves for a bumpy and brutal ride. The Trump administration remains in denial about the virus, claiming the worst if over. That leaves us with state and local officials who largely don’t have the resources, knowledge, or capacity to contain the virus. Nevertheless, Americans should pressure their state and local officials to do everything in their power to mitigate the spread of the virus, particularly in the absence of federal guidance and support.

Once Joe Biden takes office, there’s a good chance another lockdown will commence. Dr. Michael Osterholm, McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair in Public Health and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, has floated the idea of another round of lockdowns, perhaps 4–6 weeks in duration.

Dr. Osterholm, who sits on the COVID advisory committee appointed by President-elect Joe Biden, will hopefully have a prominent voice in the incoming administration. Dr. Osterholm’s weekly podcasts and updates have been the most practically useful and educational tool I’ve found during the pandemic. If his voice is elevated within the Biden administration, the better off for all of us.

In the meantime, everything comes back to personal and collective responsibility. Yes, we should have more governmental guidance, but we don’t. Americans need clear and solid medical and public health advice, and they’re not getting it. The fragmentation of the national media landscape is one of the primary causes of our national social schism. But that too won’t be fixed in the near future, so we’re left with policing our own, as we used to say in the Marine Corps.

So far, whatever we’re doing isn’t working. As Dr. Osterholm recommends, “We must change the dialogue.” At first, I will admit, I was quite irritated with many of my friends, family members, and community members who failed to follow proper guidelines. I lashed out and berated them for acting irresponsibly. Obviously, that approach isn’t working. Osterholm has admittedly made the same mistakes and now suggests a different route.

Much like the post-election division that’s only heightened in recent days, the pandemic offers another deeply divisive challenge. Clearly, most Americans are unwilling or incapable of engaging in discussions with whom we disagree. This not only poses significant challenges politically but also helps exacerbate a once in a lifetime public health crisis of epic proportions.

Our lack of community and collectivity, the Cult of Hyper-Individuality as a result of Neoliberal economic policies and pop-cultural propaganda, has left the country paralyzed at a time when it needs to run back-to-back marathons just to survive. The outlook is grim, no doubt. Anyone arguing otherwise is living in a dream world.

Instead of giving up on the pandemic, Americans must hold each other accountable, but also provide mutual aid and support. Even though we have less than 70 days until Trump leaves office, that’s a lifetime in terms of pandemic math. By the time Joe Biden is sworn-in to office, the COVID-19 death toll in the United States will likely top 400,000, roughly the same number of Americans lost during World War II.

Plus, let’s keep in mind that doctors are only now beginning to understand the long-term health consequences of getting infected with the virus. According to the Wall Street Journal, some of those consequences include severe fatigue, memory lapses, heart problems, kidney issues, and permanent respiratory damage, to name a few.

We can, however, help mitigate the spread of the virus. Studies show that wearing a mask greatly helps, as does social distancing, or what we should rightly refer to as “physical distancing.” According to a recent piece in the Washington Post, “Many earlier coronavirus clusters were linked to nursing homes and crowded nightclubs. But public health officials nationwide say case investigations are increasingly leading them to small, private social gatherings,” such as dinner parties, carpooling trips, vacations, sleepovers, and family gatherings.

These forms of exposure are within our control. It’s true that poor and working-class Americans have a more difficult time physical distancing — living in multigenerational homes, working multiple jobs, taking public transportation to work, etc. — but that doesn’t mean we should add to the problem by engaging in unsafe behavior. Let’s talk to our friends, family, and community members about staying safe. If local officials won’t distribute info, community groups and unions should.

The sooner we come up with coordinated plans at the local, even granular level (home, family, friend network, block, apartment), the more prepared we’ll be to engage in a nationwide effort to curb the spread of the virus. What we do now will have a major impact on how the future will play out. Everything is contingent on what we do or don’t do.

For now, stay safe. Develop plans to hold digital holiday gatherings. Your family is no safer than a stranger from the store. Remember that. Save your money (who knows if the next lockdown will include a robust stimulus package). Wear a mask. Call your friends. Keep in contact with your family and neighbors. And encourage your people to remain accountable and safe. If not, we’ll be having this same conversation next year, and who the hell wants that?

Vincent Emanuele is a writer, antiwar veteran, and podcaster. He is the co-founder of PARC | Politics Art Roots Culture Media and the PARC Community-Cultural Center located in Michigan City, Indiana. Vincent is a member of Veterans For Peace and OURMC | Organized & United Residents of Michigan City. He is also a member of Collective 20. He can be reached at vincent.emanuele333@gmail.com

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