Sad stats

The horror show that is the United States and coronavirus continues.

My state, New York, was the world epicenter in the early spring. Through good leadership informed by science and metrics and residents who took the policies seriously, we were able to get the pandemic under control. Through a careful, phased, and data-driven process, we have also been able to keep our transmission rate low as we have opened more of our economy.

Still, when the map of case numbers would be released every day, New York, the fourth most populous state, showed the highest number of total cases, over 400,000, because our initial outbreak had been so severe.

Until this week.

California, which is the most populous state, passed New York this week on confirmed COVID case numbers. (All the public health experts agree that the actual case numbers are much higher, but the official count uses only testing results and death certificates.) While California had had early success in containing the virus, it re-opened businesses too quickly and many people abandoned needed precautions like masks. Hence, their caseload is soaring. I’m hoping that New York will continue to keep the virus from resurging so that we never again reach the top number of cases, but Texas and Florida, second and third most populous states, are also in the midst of major outbreaks and might surpass California’s numbers in the coming weeks.

It’s appalling.

What saddens me is that it didn’t have to happen this way. New York and some of our partner states in the Northeast learned a lot of lessons through our experiences this spring and, in the absence of a national program, have been offering to help other states deal with the virus and the economic/social fallout. This has resulted in some positive news in the states being hard-hit now, for example, the mortality rate is lower, in part because of improved treatments for the severely ill. Most of the news, though, is bad: overwhelmed hospitals, people not wearing masks and attending large gatherings, bodies being stored in refrigerated trucks because mortuaries are backlogged, more and more states where the number of cases is rising.

Meanwhile, there is still no national plan. The House of Representatives, led by the Democrats and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act or the HEROES Act in mid-May, which would address some of the current problems with testing, contact tracing, and treatment of COVID, as well as a host of economic and social impacts on individuals, families, businesses, agencies, and state and local governments. The Senate, under the leadership of Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, didn’t act on the bill this spring and just returned from a three-week break without their own version of a bill and, after a week’s work, they still don’t have a Republican proposal, much less a bill that has been negotiated with the Democratic and Independent senators so that it is ready for debate and vote.

Meanwhile, people are sick and dying, out of work, not knowing how they are going to be able to pay their bills, scared, and bewildered about their country’s dysfunctional state. The United States has become an object of pity around the world.

I’m disappointed that, even when the crisis is monumental, the Republican leadership can’t muster the will and/or competence to do their job and govern for the good of the people. If they had integrity, they would resign to make way for leaders who can and will serve the people and the Constitution. Resignations would be less disruptive than the current inaction.

unprecedented

For decades, public opinion polls in the United States have asked how satisfied people are with the way things are going in the country, which is often referred to often as the country being on the right or wrong track. A Pew Research Center poll released on June 30th reveals that only 12% of respondents are satisfied with the direction of the country.

Twelve percent is a shockingly low number, but the number today could be even lower, given that the poll was conducted before the revelations about Russia paying bounties for the deaths of United States and coalition troops in Afghanistan, before the daily national number of new positive COVID tests reached 50,000+, and before 38 of 50 states reported rising numbers of cases on a 14-day rolling average.

The COVID numbers are going to get worse in the coming days because the seven-day rolling averages are already worse and because there are likely large numbers of people who are positive but not yet showing symptoms or being tested.

The rise in COVID cases is all the more upsetting because much of this precipitous spread was avoidable. I have written often, for example here, about the battle against the pandemic in New York State, where I live in its Southern Tier region. By following the science and metrics, our state went from having the worst infection rate in the country to the lowest. Mask-wearing, physical distancing, travel restrictions, and enhanced sanitation are part of daily life for nearly all people here. New York, which suffered the first wave of COVID cases coming in undetected from Europe, pioneered many ways to crush the coronavirus curve and keep infection rates low through robust testing, contact tracking and quarantine. It breaks my heart that other states and the country as a whole are not following a similar path to protect their residents and visitors. Governor Cuomo’s office has been in contact with governors’ offices around the country, offering assistance in fighting the virus, but it seems that few are willing to put the lessons we learned into practice in their states.

While we continue to methodically re-open different types of businesses and increase the size of (reasonable and still distanced) gatherings allowed, we keep constant watch on our testing numbers, ready to change plans immediately if the number of positive tests starts to rise. Our greatest threats at this point are complacency among people here leading them to get sloppy with our preventive measures and the risk of travellers bringing the virus with them from another state or country. New York does have quarantine rules in place for those entering the state from places with high infection rates, but we would be much better off with a national policy based on science and metrics.

I think the national polling numbers with which I began this post show that our ship of state is seriously off course and in danger of shipwreck. The vast majority of the country knows it, as does most of the rest of the world. Travel from the United States into the European Union is banned. Both our allies and our adversaries wonder how a strong and proud democracy could have a national government in such impotent disarray.

Long-time readers know that I occasionally indulge in political fantasy. I had one for a while that both DT and the VP were forced to resign due to corruption and that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would become the first woman president of the United States. During the impeachment of the president, some argued that we should wait for an election to get DT out of office. I don’t think any of them imagined the dire mix of pandemic, attack by foreign adversaries, economic collapse, and cries for long-overdue justice and equity with which we are currently dealing. To avert more disaster and to safeguard lives and well-being, we need new leadership now, not on January 20, 2021.

I call on the president, the vice-president, and all appointed Cabinet and high-ranking officials of agencies who are not career professionals within their departments to resign, so that Pelosi, aided by experienced civil servants, can put in place national policies to stem the pandemic and to run a fair election in November, so that the newly elected president has a chance to inherit a country that isn’t a complete disaster area. Some problems could be addressed by executive order and, one hopes, others could be handled legislatively, if enough Republican senators step up to govern, instead of letting Majority Leader Mitch McConnell kill nearly every House-passed piece of legislation that lands on his desk.

2020 has been a year in which we hear the word unprecedented on a regular basis. My suggested course of action certainly would be unprecedented, but I think it offers hope of alleviating at least some of the suffering around us and averting more. It is also constitutionally valid.

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.

Smith commencement

On this weekend in an ordinary year, the Smith College campus and Northampton, Massachusetts would have been awash in graduating students, their families, and returning alumnae, participating in the traditional activities of commencement and reunion. (While all reunions used to be held simultaneously, now only landmark years, such as the 25th and 50th hold reunions in conjunction with commencement weekend. The other classes meet on the following weekend.)

This year, though, because of the pandemic, the festivities moved online. Saturday evening, the campus would have been illuminated with hundreds of lanterns. Instead, there was a global illumination event, with alumnae and friends of Smith lighting their own lanterns or candles in honor of the class of 2020.  Commencement was livestreamed on Facebook, with a special Zoom experience for graduates, family, and friends.

As a proud member of the class of ’82, I watched the first part of the ceremony. (I admit that I didn’t watch the conferral of degrees, which included the name and photo of each graduate.) I was surprised by how often the alumnae were invoked in the addresses. It’s comforting to know that the strong connections among alumnae and to the institution persist, despite the efforts to divide people that have been so worrisome in the United States in recent years. I add my sincere good wishes to the new alumnae as we all try to find a positive path in the face of these troubled times.

Here are some of the things about the ceremony that I found especially striking:

  • The acknowledgement of the indigenous peoples of the region where the Smith campus now is by Director of Religious & Spiritual Life and College Chaplain Matilda Rose Cantwell ’96
  • The strong bond that President Kathleen McCartney has with the students, the alumnae, and the entire campus community and the sensitivity with which she treated the disruption of the pandemic
  • That 2020 Senior and Alumnae Class President Dimitra Konstantinos Sierros chose to attend Smith for much the same reason I had – because the students she met as a high schooler were so engaged and interesting that she wanted to be a part of such a vibrant community
  • That Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi drew together the accomplishments of notable alumnae and the activism of the class of 2020 in her commencement address, while looking forward to the future endeavors of the graduates

This is not a reunion year for my class. When we meet for our 40th in 2022, I expect that there will be a vaccine and/or effective treatment for COVID-19 widely available so that we will be allowed to travel and gather on campus, although masks and less physical contact may still be a feature of post-pandemic life. I sense, though, that this experience of nurturing community at a distance will make our bonds even stronger.

The class of 2020 may prove to have the strongest bonds of all.

What a week!

I started the year by posting for 33 days in a row, thanks largely to Linda’s Just Jot It January.

Then, I fell off the wagon.

Today, though, I am taking advantage of being kept inside by a snowstorm to try to process what has been a surreal week into a post.

On the personal side, my spouse B has been involved in a major workshop week with co-workers from the US and Germany, so he has been working loooong days, sometimes capped off by group dinners that run late into the evening. Between his schedule and working around the weather, things were already feeling unsettled here.

This just added to what has been a very unsettling week here in the United States. T and I had watched giant swaths of the impeachment trial of Donald Trump. The House managers who served as prosecutors were very methodical in laying out their case. The president’s defense team was much harder to follow and tended to be in conflict with both some of the evidence and some of what other members of the team had presented. Their arguments were often circular.

For example, one of the arguments that the president’s team was making against the second article of impeachment for obstruction of Congress was that the House should have gone to court to enforce their subpoenas. Meanwhile, a court case that the House had brought trying to enforce subpoenas in the ongoing investigation of Russian election interference saw the Justice Department lawyers arguing that the courts weren’t the proper remedy, that impeachment was! As Rep. Adam Schiff, who was leading the House managers, said, “You can’t make this stuff up.”

Because the Senate had voted not to call witnesses or request documents, the first part of the week was about senators being able to speak for ten minutes about their reasoning behind their upcoming trial vote on Wednesday. However, on Tuesday night, President Trump gave his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress.

The State of the Union is usually a very formal and solemn opportunity for the president to lay out their agenda for the coming year, including what legislation they would like to see taken up by Congress and passed. It was obvious from the start that this address was not going to follow that norm, when the Congressional Republicans started chanting “four more years” before the president even began speaking.

Much of the president’s message mirrored his campaign speeches. As a reasonably well-informed citizen, I knew immediately that some of the things the president was claiming were not true. He tried to take credit for things that actually happened during the Obama administration. He said he would always protect health insurance for those with pre-existing conditions at the same time the Justice Department is in court trying to have those protections under the Affordable Care Act thrown out.

It was surreal.

The State of the Union often features special guests of the president who sit in the gallery near his family. Their stories are inspiring and heart-warming. President Trump added a twist, though, in that most of the people received a surprise reward.  This seemed to harken back to Donald Trump’s experience as a “reality show” celebrity. A couple of these surprises made me cringe. There was a girl, attending with her mom, who received a scholarship to attend a private school. Education is a wonderful thing and I am happy for this girl, but the president framed it as her leaving “a failing government school.” In the United States, we don’t call them “government schools”; we call them public schools. One of the responsibilities of our government is to provide free public education through primary and secondary school. If a public school is doing poorly, it is up to our government at all levels, working on behalf of the taxpayers, to ensure that the school is brought up to a high standard – for the good of those students and the general public. To see the president totally abrogate responsibility for our public schools, which serve the vast majority of US students, was disheartening.

The shocking part of the evening was the “surprise” awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to talk radio personality Rush Limbaugh. This is the highest civilian honor in the United States and is usually given to individuals who have brought people together in a positive way. By contrast, Rush Limbaugh has been sowing division for decades. He regularly belittles people who don’t follow his particular brand of conservatism. [Fun fact: He once railed against a women’s prayer group of which I was a member. We were a small, local group getting lambasted on nationally syndicated radio. It was ironic, because his actions gave us more power and visibility and led to a 60 Minutes interview.] Limbaugh has recently revealed a stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis; it is appropriate to ask for prayers and well wishes on his behalf, but the Medal of Freedom is not an appropriate honor for so divisive a figure.

Speaking of prayer, yesterday was the National Prayer Breakfast, which is sort of an unusual occasion in and of itself, but I can’t give its history here as this post is already shaping up to be long. First, though, there needs to be a wrap-up of the impeachment trial.

As expected, Trump was not removed from office. All the Democratic and independent senators voted for removal on both counts. There had been hope that some of the more moderate Republicans would join them, especially on the abuse of power article. Several Republican senators, in opposition to the president’s assertion that his behavior was “perfect”, issued statements saying that what the president did was inappropriate but didn’t warrant removal from office so they were voting for acquittal.

In the end, one Republican, Utah senator and former presidential nominee Mitt Romney, did vote to remove the president on the abuse of power charge. In his ten-minute floor speech, he spoke about how difficult this decision was. He is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and because he had sworn an oath to God to deliver “fair and impartial justice” and because the House managers had put forward convincing evidence of the president’s abuse of power, he decided that he must follow his conscience and vote to convict. He did not let political expediency deter him from his obligation to follow the dictates of his faith and the Constitution. He has faced immediate backlash from the president and other members of the Trump family, as well as from some of the conservative media. I appreciate Romney’s integrity. It took a lot of courage to vote against a president of one’s own party in an impeachment trial. Indeed, this is the first time that that has happened in the United States.

Which brings me back to the prayer breakfast…

The keynote had been on the subject of love and, in particular, the Christian call to love one’s enemies. When President Trump, who is ostensibly Christian, spoke, he proceeded to attack the faith of those he considers his enemies. After speaking about the impeachment, he said, ” I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong.  Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that that’s not so.” This was a thinly veiled attack on Sen. Romney for his impeachment vote and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who, in answering questions from reporters has revealed that she prays every day for the president. Speaker Pelosi was sitting at the head table, only a few feet away from the president as he spoke. As a fellow Catholic, I admire Nancy Pelosi’s prayer life and don’t doubt for a minute that she sincerely prays for the president and for our country every day. That the president dismisses people of faith, equating his own viewpoint as being right and theirs as being “wrong”, compounds the damage that he has done to our country.

After President Clinton’s impeachment and trial, he apologized again to the country and made a plea for reconciliation and moving forward as a nation. (He was impeached for lying under oath about an affair.) By contrast, when President Trump spoke later in the day after the prayer breakfast, he did not admit any wrongdoing and blamed everything on Democrats and anyone else he considers an opponent.

At this point, without a unifying leader, I don’t know how Americans can fully come together as a nation to meet our challenges. I do want to point out, however, that, under Speaker Pelosi’s leadership, the House of Representatives has passed over 300 bills, the vast majority of which are bipartisan, that Majority Leader McConnell has refused to take up in the Senate. I am a member of NETWORK lobby for Catholic Social Justice. Every Congressional session, NETWORK scores the votes on ten bills that deal with social justice issues, such as fair pay, access to medical care, and equal justice. For the first time ever, this year they were unable to score the Senate because they hadn’t held votes on the bills that were companions to the House-passed bills. I and millions of other Americans expect and deserve more.

I swear that I did not spend the whole week on nothing but politics. I wrote a new poem in response to a challenge on The Ekphrastic Review. If it gets accepted, you can be sure there will be a link here at Top of JC’s Mind – and a mini-celebration that I managed to get a poem published in 2020.

Now, I think there is a snow shovel that is calling my name…

 

 

an open letter to Speaker Boehner

Dear Speaker Boehner,

Thank you for your service in what has become an increasingly untenable job.

I implore you in your remaining days as speaker to lead in a new direction. Please search through the Republicans in the House and identify those who want to govern, rather than obstruct.

Speak to House minority leader Pelosi about forming a governing coalition so that the legislation that the country and all of its people need passes, among these being a clean debt ceiling raise and a just budget, which puts human needs first.

Nancy Pelosi, as a former speaker, would be the natural choice to lead this new coalition, although another person outside of Congress would be a possibility.

The country cannot afford to be made ungovernable by a few dozen representatives who refuse to do their job, which is to govern for the good of the country, not just their district, not just the people within their district who voted for them.

Pope Francis eloquently called on the Congress to work together, in keeping with the ideals of our Constitution.

I know you believe these ideals and ask you to put the common good above partisan politics to craft a solution that will move the Congress and the nation out of its current dysfunction.

Sincerely,
Joanne Corey

My nomination for House Speaker

So, the US Republican party is in disarray.

The current House Speaker John Boehner’s resignation goes into effect on October 30. House majority leader Kevin McCarthy has just withdrawn his name from consideration as the next Speaker, as a sizable chunk of the party would not support him.

The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be anyone that the whole Republican caucus agrees on for the post, which is incredibly important to get legislation passed into law and is also third in line for the succession of the presidency after the vice president.

My solution is that Nancy Pelosi, former Speaker and current House minority leader, should be the next Speaker, supported by the Democrats and those Republicans who actually want to govern rather than be obstructionist.

There is vital legislation for the debt ceiling and for the budget that must be passed to avert severe negative economic consequences. If the Republicans can’t get their act together to govern effectively, they don’t deserve the speakership.