School/work

The pandemic has heightened awareness of a number of social problems in the United States.

One revolves around the care and education of children. Political and business leadership often spout platitudes about how important children are and how much they care about them, but they seldom back up their words with meaningful policies that help children and the people who love, care for, and educate them.

Before the pandemic, American families often cobbled together child care with parent(s), school, relatives, neighbors, and paid caregivers, who often had to charge more than the family could afford to pay even though their own salaries were so low it was hard for them to get by. When schools and most day-care centers closed due to the pandemic, parents were suddenly trying to do paid work themselves from home while simultaneously trying to care for and educate their children or were forced to quit a job outside the home to be at home for their children.

It’s not a sustainable situation for many families.

There is a big push by the president and some state and national leaders to re-open schools full-time and full-capacity in the fall, even though that is against the recommendations of public health experts, in order for adults to return to jobs outside the home or so they can work from home without interruptions, but, besides being a huge health risk for children and adults, it fails to address the root of the issue.

Somehow, caring for children in exchange for a salary is considered “work” but caring for children without a salary is not considered work. Hazel Henderson calls this non-monetized part of our system the “love economy.”

The United States lags far behind other countries with advanced economies in acknowledging the love economy. We don’t offer mandatory paid sick leave, parental leave, or caregiving leave. People who do get paid as caregivers, whether for children, elders, or other vulnerable people, often earn shockingly low wages. For that matter, many people working in other kinds of jobs also don’t make a living wage, making it impossible to fully care for their family. Other countries also have a must more robust system of social services, so that people have access to adequate clothes, shelter, food, medical care, and education regardless of their income level.

As part of our efforts to #BuildBackBetter, the United States should reform our economic, health, educational, and social systems so that every person has adequate resources to lead a life of dignity. Some components of such a system that have proven successful in other countries have been single-payer universal health care, required living wages for workers, a graduated tax system that raises enough revenue from the top of the income spectrum that those in the lower end can afford their tax bill without compromising the needs of their household, free public education, paid leave for sickness, caregiving, and vacation, and a robust social safety net so that no one goes without food, housing, and other basic necessities. I would also like to see more social recognition and financial support for caretaking that is currently part of the “love economy.” A possible way to address this would be through a program of universal basic income or a stipend for those caring for a child, elder, or person with a long-term illness or disabling condition.

Obviously, crafting systemic change will take time and new national leadership. For the moment, I think it is foolish to implement a national school opening policy. Historically, education has been the province of local districts within the framework of state policy, allowing the system to adapt to local conditions. The wisdom of that flexibility is even more evident during the pandemic. Areas with low rates of illness may plan to implement hybrid systems where students attend in person part-time and online part-time so that physical distancing can be used to keep the virus in check. Areas with very high infection rates may need to keep students at home learning virtually until their infection rate is under control, when they could begin to phase in in-person attendance. All schools will need plans for dealing with changing circumstances; as there have been school closing plans to deal with severe flu outbreaks or natural disasters, there will need to be COVID plans to try to keep the school community and the general public as protected as possible.

Everyone wants students to be back to in-person classrooms, but only if it is safe for them, the school staff, their families, and the community. Pretending we can go back to the pre-pandemic system without grave public health consequences is foolhardy. Instead of wishful thinking, we need to use data, science, expertise, care, and intelligence to adapt to our changed and changing circumstances.

It’s what our children and youth need and deserve.

SoCS: New York State re-opening

I live in the Southern Tier region of New York State (USA), where we are undertaking a methodical re-opening of businesses after we successfully drastically lowered our number of COVID-19 cases.

Every day, I listen to the press briefings from Governor Cuomo. He has been very transparent on what the state is doing and what the role of the public is in protecting public health during our stay-at-home period and now our phased re-opening.

The Southern Tier region is about to enter Phase 3. One of the services that is allowed in phase 3 is nail salons. Hair salons were allowed to resume, with masks and other safeguards in place in phase 2, but nail salons had to wait for phase three as it involves longer face-to-face interaction.

I don’t do manicures, but I do have an appointment for a haircut in a couple of weeks. After that, I’ll be able to go without the headband that has become part of my wardrobe in order to keep my bangs out of my eyes.

Long bangs is an infinitesimal price to pay for what has been great news for New York State. Unlike other states that were less careful about re-opening businesses, our infection rates have continued to decline. The numbers are constantly monitored with widespread testing and contact tracing for positive tests so that we know we are not starting an outbreak. As soon as the numbers in a region start to creep up, there are plans in place to cut back on the re-opening until the infection rate is under control again.

I’m proud of everyone in New York and our leadership team for the thoughtful, caring, science-based, and successful way we have tackled this challenge. I hope that more states and countries, seeing our approach working so well, will follow our lead and be able to save their people from further suffering from the pandemic.
*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “nail.” Join us! Find out how here: https://lindaghill.com/2020/06/12/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-june-13-2020/

2019-2020 SoCS Badge by Shelley!
 https://www.quaintrevival.com/

pandemic shopping

During our stay-at-home order period, shopping for food and other necessities has been one of the few opportunities to be away from the house, unless one is an essential worker. Most households have one designated shopper and it is suggested that shopping occur only once every 1-2 weeks.

At our house, I am the designated shopper. I also shop for my dad, who lives in a nearby senior community. He gets some meals through their dining service, but prepares breakfast and most lunches on his own.

Ideally, I would do one, very large shopping trip every two weeks, but this has proved impossible. Our area still has supply problems that cause stores to be out of stock of certain items, for example, flour, yeast, peanut butter, meat, toilet paper, canned beans, rice, frozen vegetables. It’s not that you can’t find your favorite brand. It’s that these products can be totally missing. There are also often limits to the number of containers you can buy of a product, as well. Staples like bread, milk, pasta, and canned beans are most likely to have that kind of restriction.

Because of this, I usually shop weekly, but need to go to two or three stores to find what we need. I am also making sure to keep a two-week supply of food on hand in case we need to quarantine, so I need to have food for immediate consumption and to keep the pantry stocked without compromising our emergency provisions.

We are also trying to give business to our local restaurants that are open for curbside pick-up. We are afraid that some of the local businesses that closed may never re-open, although we were happy that our favorite neighborhood Chinese restaurant, though closed for a few weeks, has now re-opened for carryout.

We have also been enjoying trips to our favorite ice cream stand, Sugar Lips, which makes their own hard ice cream and usually about ten vegan flavors. This is a special place for the lactose-intolerant people in my family. Sugar Lips usually attracts a lot of customers from the university, so we are hoping that the local folks can give them enough business to stay open until the students are able to return to campus.

Today, thanks to our region meeting the criteria for phase one re-opening, I was able to support one of my favorite shops in a nearby town to our west. They specialize in locally made products. I usually buy handmade soaps from them and I’m pleased that I was able to put in an order online. Bonus: they had some multipurpose headband/face masks for sale. Pickup from the store is by appointment. Maybe the next time, they will be able to be open for in-person browsing. I think that might be phase four, with facemasks and social distancing, of course.

Are you having shopping adventures in your area? Please share in the comments.

SoCS: re-opening?

I want to believe that our region’s re-opening of some businesses will not spark more cases of COVID-19.

I wrote earlier in the week about our area of New York State qualifying to re-open certain businesses. As of yesterday, non-essential retail can be open for curbside pick-up. Some construction and manufacturing can start up with appropriate precautions to protect workers. Plans have to be filed with our regional commission to make sure that they comply with CDC and state guidelines. This is stage one of four. All seven metrics that govern re-opening have to be met at all times. If something slips, signalling a possible outbreak, businesses will have to close again until conditions improve.

It’s bothering me that the media are lumping New York State in with the other 47 states that are ending stay-at-home policies. The vast majority of those states have not met the CDC guidelines for two weeks of declining cases, making public interaction much more dangerous. Those states are not trying to contain the virus but to mitigate it.

New York is putting in place a much different strategy. Only those areas of the state that have the virus contained are eligible. There is a requirement to do a certain number of tests weekly and there are contact tracers, so many for every thousand residents, so that if a case is detected, they can quarantine all contacts that have been close to the infected person so that we don’t get community spread. We hope that the testing, tracing, and monitoring will keep the virus contained, allowing more businesses and services to re-open over the coming weeks and months, while protecting public health. If the program is effective, we won’t need to back off and go back to stay-at-home, but we can if infection rates go up. More importantly, we would know that infection rates are climbing before they get out of control. It turns out that the reason New York had so many cases is that the virus was already out in the community months before anyone realized, coming into New York/New Jersey airports from Europe when everyone was thinking that it was only travel to China that was worrisome. Even now, the downstate region is still under stay-at-home for at least another month. The other area of the state that is still under stay-at-home is western New York, including Buffalo.

Because New York State’s plan is so well-thought-out and relies on science and the experiences of other countries in re-opening, I am hopeful that we will be able to protect public health while gradually getting more people back to work.

I am very afraid for the states that are re-opening more haphazardly, which is, sadly, most of them. They didn’t even follow the CDC guideline to have two weeks of declining infection rates before opening businesses. Many places also opened high-risk businesses, such as hair salons and bars, where social distancing is impossible. The experts who model suspected outcomes have all raised their estimates for infections and fatalities because so many states are taking such a risky path.

I’m sad and scared.

I want New York’s path to work. If it does, I want other states to adopt similar plans, so that we can save as many people as possible from illness and death.

Is that too much to ask?
*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday is using the word “want” within the first three words of the post. Join us! Find out more here:  https://lindaghill.com/2020/05/15/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-may-16-2020/

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New York’s reopening plan

I’ve posted several times about how my state is handling the pandemic. Unlike many other states, New York State has taken a methodical, metric-based approach.

The whole state has been under a program called PAUSE, which is a stay-at-home order for all but essential workers and shopping for necessities. Starting on May 15th, certain regions of the state that have met the criteria will be moving into phase one of four for re-opening certain businesses.

My region, the Southern Tier, is qualified to re-open companies with worker and customer safety plans in place in construction, manufacturing, delivery/curbside pick-up retail, wholesale, agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting. The region needs to continue to meet the criteria each week, including testing and having contact tracers available. If criteria continue to be met, other businesses will open in phases. If the statistics show an outbreak is developing, the phased-in businesses will close until all the criteria are again met.

The state has a website called New York Forward, which has up-to-date information about the plan and the current status of each region. There is more information about the phase-in of businesses here. For those who would like more detail, there are many different pages and sections available on different aspects of the plan from the New York Forward main page link above, as well as a 50 page book, which includes some history, the basics of the plan itself, and future goals.

While there are no certainties in dealing with the pandemic, I am reassured that there is a detailed plan with metrics based on science and the experiences of other places dealing with the virus. It’s also good to know that there is continuous monitoring of the situation so that we can adapt the implementation as needed.

For the good of our state and the health and well-being of our residents, I hope the plan works well. If it does, I hope other governments will be able to use it as a template for their own plans.

We are better off if we make thoughtful, science-based decisions. This pandemic has shown how connected the world is. We all need to cooperate if we are ever going to end this diesase.

bad timing

The United States government authorized direct cash payments to adults in order to help people face the challenges of the pandemic economic impacts.

The implementation has been dicey, though.

Most of the payments were based on 2018 or 2019 income tax returns and were made by direct deposit, if banking information was on file with the Internal Revenue Service, or by check.

Unfortunately, the IRS didn’t cross-reference with the Social Security system, which meant that some payments were issued to people who were deceased. That is what happened with my parents, known here as Nana and Paco, who received a payment by direct deposit last month, even though Nana’s date of death was on file at Social Security.

Many others were similarly affected and, at first, it seemed that surviving spouses would be allowed to keep the full payment as had happened in a similar economic stimulus program a number of years ago.

However, a few days ago, the government issued instructions that required people to mail them a check for any payment sent on behalf of someone who had died.

I am not arguing against the principle of payments to only those who are living, but I wish that the program had been implemented with accuracy. It’s been painful dealing with the hassles and uncertainty of the situation.

I couldn’t make myself write the check and required note to the IRS on Mother’s Day, my first without my mom. I did put it in the mail today. Later this week will be Nana’s birthday and the following week the first anniversary of her death. I didn’t need another reminder of her absence from the government in the midst of it.

I feel badly for those whose loss is more recent, who may need the money to help pay funeral bills or to support surviving family. I would hope in those instances that the government would not demand that the money be returned, but I doubt that the current administration will act with compassion and competence.

It’s sad.

New York State and plans

Every day, I listen to Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York give his daily coronavirus briefing and take questions from the press.

I am definitely not alone.

I often watch through Facebook Live, so there is a comment stream during the briefing. While some of the people are, like me, New York residents, many others tune in from other states and countries. While there are some trolls, many people thank Governor Cuomo for his candid, factual presentation and his compassion. There are always some calls for him to run for president. I admit to having the occasional, totally improbable political fantasy that both the nominating conventions decide to choose a governor who has handled the pandemic as well as possible to run for president, so that instead of Trump versus Biden, we would have, say, Hogan versus Cuomo. Not going to happen, but I, for one, would breathe easier if it did.

This is a big week for New York State. Our current stay-at-home order expires May 15 and it is expected that some regions, including the Southern Tier where I live, will qualify to enter phase one (of four) for expanding what businesses and services may be opened and under what circumstances. There are a number of criteria to meet before being eligible, including at least a two-week decline of new cases, hospital and intensive care unit availability, and testing and contact tracing capabilities. All the businesses have to have plans in place for safe working conditions and customer delivery protocols. If COVID-19 cases start to increase, the state will go back to its prior level of operations until conditions improve again. The New York plan is based on medical science and the experiences of other countries and cities around the world as they try to increase economic and social activities after outbreaks of the virus. For reference, businesses like hair salons and dine-in restaurants don’t re-open until phase three.

Because of the planning and vigilance of our state government, I feel relatively secure that New York will be able to protect public health while gradually opening more and more public and private entities. I remain very worried, however, about the majority of states who are re-opening without even having had a decline in the number of cases. Indeed, right now, if you take New York out of the national statistics, you find that while New York’s infection rate is on a steady decline, the rest of the country is still on the increase. In addition, some countries that had contained the outbreak, such as Germany and South Korea, are having to back off with some of their re-opening of businesses because their case numbers are rising again.

I am hopeful that our region and other New York State regions that qualify will be able to move forward with our slow and thoughtful plans while still protecting public health. If that happens, I hope other states and countries will study our approach and adapt it to their regions.

With over four million confirmed cases world-wide, we need the best practices devised and enacted as soon as possible around the world.

re-opening fears

Some of the states here in the US are re-opening stores, hair, salons, dine-in restaurants, recreation activities, and other businesses, even though they haven’t met the not-very-ambitious federal benchmarks to do so during the pandemic.  They feel safe enough because they are not large cities like New York City or Chicago and they don’t have thousands of new cases every day in their state – or are ignoring it if they do.

I’m afraid they are ignoring not only science but also the experience of my state, New York.

The health guidelines are that limited re-opening should not occur until a state has had two weeks of decline in the number of cases. The reason for the two week timeframe is that fourteen days is considered the maximum incubation period, although people can develop symptoms as few as two days after exposure. If numbers are declining for two weeks, it signals that the outbreak is under some measure of control, so careful resumption of some business and recreational activities can resume in conjunction with testing widespread enough to quickly detect a rise in cases, in which case stricter measures would be resumed until there was again a two week decline. Not only do the states that are opening not meet the two-week decline criteria but also they don’t have the testing capacity to quickly detect an uptick in cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in studying the virus’s path in the United States, now realize that the strain that has caused so much illness and death in New York came through Europe, not directly from China. This strain appears to be even more virulent than the strain that came to the western US directly from China. During the weeks when the administration was banning travel from China, thousands upon thousands of travellers arrived from Europe to NYC area airports, some of them bringing the virus with them. It’s now estimated that there were 10,000 cases in the NYC area before any were officially recognized as COVID-19; this explains why New York State has so many more cases and, unfortunately, deaths than other states. The virus was already wide-spread in an area with a high population density weeks before anyone realized it.

New York, through closing all but essential or work-from-home businesses and encouraging most people to stay at home except to buy needed supplies, has managed to bring down the number of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, although not yet for long enough to enter phase one re-opening of some businesses. Plans are being made for eventual re-opening with testing in place to make sure that things will not get so out of hand that our hospitals will be overwhelmed with critical cases. There is the very real possibility that, despite all the planning and precautions, we might have to reverse course and close down again if the numbers start climbing. Until there is a vaccine, it is unlikely we will be able to get the case number down to zero or resume large-scale gatherings.

It’s not that Governor Cuomo and other state leaders don’t want to open more of the economy. They do, but not at the cost of more debilitating illness and death. As a community, we are all responsible for trying to protect the health of others, especially those most vulnerable to complications and those who are working in health care, food service, delivery, transit, custodial, and the other essential businesses that have been continuing to serve throughout the pandemic and who have been getting sick at much higher rates than other New Yorkers.

Our state leaders are also acutely aware of those who are unable to work because of the restrictions in place. There is enhanced unemployment insurance in place, as well as emergency food, utility, health, and homeless outreach programs. They are refusing the false dichotomy of illness/death or the economy, trying to prioritize health and life for everyone so that we are healthy to re-build our economy.

There are some New Yorkers and some folks in other states who are claiming that they have a right to be anywhere they want and do anything they want and that government has never interfered in people’s lives like this. They are overlooking that with our rights, both political and human, come responsibilities. The individual has the right to risk their own health, for example by drinking alcohol, but with that comes the responsibility not to harm others through violence or driving drunk. National and state governments have taken action to protect the public health in prior epidemics, such as the 1918 flu pandemic and the waves of polio that afflicted the world before the development of the vaccine. As I am fond of pointing out, in the Preamble of the Constitution, we the people of the United States established our national government to “promote the general welfare.” Each person has that responsibility to all the others. While some may have fallen into the illusion that individual freedom entitles them to do whatever they want, our system has always been a social one. One person’s freedom can’t interfere with others’ well-being, at least, not without challenge.

As I watch the news of opening of businesses in other states and see people in large gatherings without personal protection, I worry that, within a couple of weeks, there will be coverage of spikes in cases, more hospitalizations, and more deaths, especially because some of the states have re-opened with major outbreaks in factories, nursing homes, and prisons, as though those cases won’t spread beyond facility walls. Maybe the strain they have circulating is not the more virulent one we have suffered with in New York.

Or, maybe, our collective burden of sorrow will be increased, knowing that learning lessons from New York’s experience could have saved heartbreak and lives, if only people had heeded them.

SoCS: looking for meaning

I, along with millions of others, am searching for a deep, inner meaning in these troubled times.

I’m fortunate to be affiliated with a number of organizations that center on social and environmental justice. While these organizations are working on ways to help in the immediate circumstances, they are also looking forward toward lessons to take away from these times and ideas to transform our social systems to better support people and the planet in the future.

Here in the United States, it is easier than ever to see the impacts of income inequality. So many people don’t earn enough to have any savings cushion at all that the sudden loss of work immediately puts them at risk of hunger and/or homelessness. As we rebuild our economy in the coming months/years, I hope the US will finally institute some kind of living wage protocol so workers can afford to live a dignified life and support their families, with some ability to save for future needs. We also need a stronger social safety net to help people who, due to age, health status, location, caregiving responsibilities, etc., are not able to have paid work.

At the moment – and for decades before now – the United States has had economic policies that have favored business owners and stockholders over the rest of the population. Money is taken to be a form of free speech and politicians have been showered in money by the powerful. Many of them are representing these monied interests more so than their human constituents. As we take stock of the pandemic and post-this-particular-pandemic world, we need to return to the founding principle that government exists to “promote the general welfare.” (That’s from the preamble of the US Constitution, for those not familiar with the phrase.)  It’s also often called working for the common good.

Scientists have noted how much clearer the air is, especially in major cities. With people in many countries staying at home and with a large number of businesses shut down, there are a lot fewer emissions that cause air pollution and that add to the climate crisis. Those of us who have been working on climate issues have been hearing for years that there isn’t political will to change our lifestyles to cut carbon for the sake of the planet, but the pandemic shows that our world can mobilize on a large scale – and quickly – to change business as usual. Obviously, emissions will rise when more businesses are able to re-open, but, perhaps, the pandemic will lead to some permanent changes that will keep emissions lower than what had been the status quo. Perhaps some employees will work from home most days of the week, coming together physically only on certain days to better work out solutions to problems. Maybe there will be less business travel in favor of teleconferencing. Maybe the reorganizing of the economy will include more local/domestic manufacturing and food production to cut down on shipping and boost supplies. Maybe the US will follow the lead of Europe and use this juncture to institute a “green deal” that promotes both climate/environmental and social justice causes.

So many possibilities.

There is a lot of work that many are doing to meet the immediate needs of people in this time of pandemic and I commend all of them for their deep sense of duty and service. I also appreciate those who are able to analyze the past and the present and use those insights to help us prepare for the future. If we are wise and brave, we will build a safer, better, sustainable, and dignified life for all living beings and our planet.
*****
Linda’s Stream of Consciousness Saturday/A to Z prompt is “deep.” Join us! Find out how here:  https://lindaghill.com/2020/04/03/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-april-4-2020/

2019-2020 SoCS Badge by Shelley!
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socialism?

In the film adaptation of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya, played by Mandy Patinkin, says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I think of that quote every time I hear someone accuse Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, or any other member of Congress of being a socialist.

Merriam-Webster defines socialism as “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” The second definition is a) “a system of society or group living in which there is no private property” b) “a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.”

No member of the United States Congress is calling for the abolition of private property or for government ownership of businesses. Capitalism continues, although with more legislation to ensure that workers are paid adequate wages, have safe work conditions, and are protected from discrimination or abuse.

Most proposals also call for higher taxes on the very wealthy. The top marginal tax rate in the United States was 70% or higher from 1936-1980. To be clear, the US income tax is a graduated tax. The first bracket of taxes is at a low rate; as income increases, the percentage of tax also increases. If someone is being paid millions of dollars a year, they still pay a low rate on the first bracket amount, paying a higher amount on each bracket. Only the amount of income above the starting level of the highest bracket is charged at the top marginal rate. For reference, the top marginal tax rate is currently 37% for income over $510,300/individual or $612,350/married couple.

None of the health care reform proposals is calling for “socialized medicine.” This system, which is currently used in the United Kingdom, is one in which the medical providers work directly for the government. All the proposals of the Democratic presidential candidates are either a combination of public and private health insurance or single-payer systems. Medical care providers continue to work for private practices, hospitals, etc. as they do now. In the single-payer system, the government acts as the insurer. This is the system in place in Canada. The current Medicare system is a form of single-payer, although many recipients also have a private supplemental plan. The “Medicare-for-all” proposals also expand Medicare to include dental, vision, and hearing care, while cutting premiums and co-pays to at or near zero.

What confuses things more is that a few members of Congress consider themselves “democratic socialists.” What they favor is what is generally called “social democracy” in Europe. Many European countries have a social-democratic party and use some of these principles in their governments. The Nordic countries are structured with a lot of social democracy principles. They have strong social safety nets and much lower levels of income inequality than the US, and their citizens rank among the happiest in the world. Yet, the vast majority of their workers still work for private companies.

So, the next time you hear “socialist” being thrown about as an epithet or a scare tactic, ask yourself if the speaker is using the word accurately. Chances are high that they are not.
*****
Join us for Linda’s Just Jot It January! Find out how here:  https://lindaghill.com/2020/01/10/daily-prompt-jusjojan-the-10th-2020/