The fruits of freedom

Across mostly red states, Republicans are noisily celebrating their freedom. Only one freedom seems to matter at the moment: freedom from taking the covid-19 vaccine, a freedom that hasn’t been denied them so you wonder what the fuss is all about.

It’s unfortunately quite clear that they want to extend this freedom to plenty of others in their states, whether they particularly want it or not. Dr. Michelle Fiscus was until this week was the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health. She was fired for excelling at her job, which apparently included trying to get teenagers and children vaccinated.

We’re seeing the results of all this “freedom” right now, mostly in red states, as covid-19 infections start to spike again, almost exclusively among the unvaccinated. No surprise, those infected are mostly acquiring the newer delta variant of the virus, which is much more infectious than earlier versions. Most of these states have no mandates to wear masks either, making it straightforward for the virus to spread widely in these communities.

In Springfield, Missouri patients are being offloaded to other hospitals as it’s getting hard to treat all these cases locally. Another covid-19 wave is obviously arriving, mostly in red states, but most states are seeing increases. It’s just that in bluer states, it’s more manageable, as more people are immunized. In Missouri, mostly unvaccinated people should be celebrating their “freedom” as they try to hold on to life while hooked up to hospital ventilators. Take that, big government!

But I’m celebrating real freedom. Real freedom gives me more choices to do what I want to do when I want to do it, and do it with reasonable safety. That’s because I’m fully immunized against covid-19. I’m immunized against a whole lot of other stuff too, as my doctor makes sure I’m up to date on my shots including (a sign of age) a shingles shot. My blood stream is teeming with antibodies to attack likely flus as well as lots of other preventable diseases.

How are we celebrating? Well, my wife is off to Las Vegas tomorrow, where cases are rapidly rising. Yesterday, over eight hundred new covid-19 cases were reported in Nevada. She and her friends are immunized though so she’s pretty safe to meet with her friends at an off-strip hotel. Everyone coming is vaccinated. She’ll have to wear a mask on the plane and while in airports, but otherwise she is minimally inconvenienced.

To me it’s still a bit novel to walk around most of the time without a mask. I do this confident that I now have a very low risk of acquiring covid-19 but I’m mostly outdoors anyhow where it’s not a problem. When in stores I’m mostly unmasked too, as are most shoppers. I keep a spare mask in my car in case I need it, and I do need it from time to time. A recent visit to the doctor to treat a UTI required me to wear a mask. But mostly I breathe the fresh air again and do it with confidence. My vaccine has a ninety percent efficacy rate, so should I acquire the disease it is likely to be mild and it’s very unlikely I’ll end up in a hospital and on a ventilator.

We’ve also got trips planned, principally a New York City theater trip in September. We’ll probably have to wear masks during performances, but again we can go confident that we won’t get infected and enjoy some fine Broadway shows, one of our true passions. These shows are returning because the state and the city got vaccination rates up high enough where herd immunity may be within reach. This was the holy grail the anti-vaxxers we shooting for. They just were hoping that enough others would get the vaccine so they wouldn’t have to. Unfortunately, politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have convinced a whole lot of other people not to get vaccinated too, making it out of reach there. I hope they are enjoying their “freedom”. I’m enjoying mine, because it’s real.

I’m hoping one of these days it will occur to some of these people that government can actually expand freedom. Freedom from dying from preventable diseases doesn’t just happen. The private sector doesn’t decide to create the vaccines needed to keep from dying from these diseases. It’s a role only government can take on. In reality, most freedom means nothing if you don’t first enjoy good health.

Consequently, these “freedoms” being enjoyed in principally red states are anything but. If anything, they are anti-freedoms. The more who practice this “freedom” the less the rest of us can enjoy actual freedom, because we often bear the cost of their reckless selfishness.

I’ll be enjoying two shows on Broadway in September, and the city too. Most likely I won’t be hunting for a hospital with respirators and oxygen, as many people in and around Springfield, Missouri and many people in principally red states will be doing instead.

The futility of playing Russian Roulette with covid-19

The state of Maryland reported yesterday that everyone that died of covid-19 in the state during June was unvaccinated. Moreover, 95% of covid-19 related hospitalizations in Maryland in June were from people who haven’t been inoculated.

This tells us something that should be obvious: these vaccines work. The news is especially good here in the United States where we have three very effective vaccines, including the “one and done” Johnson & Johnson vaccine. They appear to be ninety percent effective or greater, even against the new and more contagious delta variant now wreaking havoc worldwide.

It’s not like it costs money to get the vaccine. It’s free, even to the undocumented. It’s not like it’s hard to get a shot either. It’s available pretty much everywhere now, including in many doctors’ offices. If I needed a shot, I could get one at a Walgreens pharmacy a mile from my house. Check how far you would have to go to get a shot here. If that weren’t enough, President Biden is pushing for door-to-door outreach to try to increase the vaccination rate, hovering at just under seventy percent of eligible adult Americans. And yet plenty of Americans still aren’t convinced, and likely won’t be convinced, to get the vaccine.

It’s not too surprising that the variants are becoming more lethal over time. Although viruses aren’t technically alive, those variants that are easiest to acquire will naturally tend to infect more people. If there is an epsilon variant, it won’t surprise me if it is more transmissible and deadly than the delta variant.

Generally, our survival instinct is pretty powerful. But it appears that about thirty percent of us have an instinct more powerful than survival: believing in untruths. If you hear the message from your peers that these vaccines are fake or contain a microchip controlled by Bill Gates or that it’s part of a great conspiracy, somehow these things can override the basic survival instinct for a lot of us.

While I don’t wish misery and death on anyone, it is clear that these people are predominantly Republican and conservative, not to mention Trump supporters and wholesale swallowers of The Big Lie. Many have guns in their household too. Effectively they are playing Russian Roulette with their own lives and the lives of their family members who are also unvaccinated. It’s not too hard to figure out that there will be yet another covid-19 wave, probably in the autumn, and that almost all the fatalities will be from these people who simply refused to accept basic science.

When the pandemic started, it was an equal opportunity disease. Well, not quite. Certain people like me were well protected as we didn’t have to go out and earn a living. And a lot of people could also work from home to mitigate risk. Otherwise, it was an equal opportunity disease, but you have more “opportunities” if you lived in close contact with others. Unsurprisingly, it hit minority communities disproportionately hard.

Now, at least here in the United States, it’s not that way at all. Unless you are stupid or choose to be willfully ignorant, you are choosing to risk bad odds. The disease is likely to always be with us, so for the unvaccinated it’s just a matter of time before you will get it. It’s still unlikely to kill you, but the delta variant will give you a more severe case of the disease than at the start of the pandemic. The mortality rate is about 1.7 percent. There are some 600,000 dead Americans who, if they were still alive, could attest to the lethality of the disease.

Approximately 174 million people in the United States are not fully vaccinated. About 52 million of these are children not yet eligible for vaccination. There have been at least 33 million cases in the United States so far. So roughly one in ten Americans have gotten the disease.

Assuming that until recently cases and deaths are proportionate, with 150 million Americans unvaccinated, ninety percent of those haven’t acquired covid-19 yet. That’s 135 million people. If ten percent of them get it in the next year we can expect 13.5 million more infections and about 230,000 more deaths to stack on top of the 603,000 confirmed covid-19 death. So before the pandemic is over we can expect over 800,000 deaths from covid-19 in the United States. And probably 200,000 or so of these will be fully preventable if these people had simply taken the time to get the free vaccine.

About 88 percent of the population is age 18 or over. Assuming fifty percent of these people are registered to vote, and eighty percent of them vote Republican, this means there will be about 70,000 fewer Republican voters in the next election. This only counts those who haven’t died yet. Add in those that have and it’s likely there will be 150,000 or more fewer Republican voters in the next election.

Republicans of course are doing their best to pass restrictive voting laws to make it more difficult for principally non-white people to vote. Many of these people will have died from covid-19 too. But if Republicans lose elections in these states in spite of all this, it’s pretty clear why. It’s because they promoted baseless covid-19 vaccination conspiracy theories and untruths. In short, they did it to themselves.

I am reminded of Ebenezer Scrooge. He was speaking of poor people, but I’m not. Still, it’s true enough: “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Given all the opportunities for these people to say yes to the vaccine, it’s hard to disagree.

How do we win the fight against willful ignorance and stupidity?

There are so many overarching issues to deal with right now that it feels overwhelming. For me, one of the largest overarching issues is figuring out how to fight all the willful ignorance and stupidity that is going on pretty much everywhere in our country.

2020 had many appalling displays of it, and 2021 looks to be much more of the same. Regular stupidity is one thing, but exhibiting willful ignorance that could kill you in on a whole different plain. Behavior of this magnitude is unprecedented here in the United States.

For me, the magnitude of the problem was truly driven home last August when some 400,000 motorcyclists converged on Sturgis, South Dakota for their annual rally. They weren’t going to let catching covid-19 keep them from coming together. Most disdained masks, kept close quarters and dined largely indoors. For ten days people rubbed shoulders and revved their engines in the name of freedom. The rally led to a huge increase in covid-19 infections in South Dakota, and many infections elsewhere were directly attributed to the rally. It turned into probably the biggest super-spreader event of 2020, likely directly killing thousands of people.

It was preceded by many other events, starting most notably with Florida Spring Break in March 2020. Prior to it, you could number the total covid-19 infections in Florida to a hundred or so. A few weeks afterward, infections went through the roof, in Florida and most other states as students brought the disease home with them. And so it went, at numerous events including pretty much all Trump rallies. It is likely that the late pizza magnate Herman Cain acquired the disease at a Trump rally in Tulsa, and died from it. The stupidity extended into the White House itself, where Trump likely acquired the diseases, and at a subsequent event outdoors where people were tightly packed enough where it didn’t matter, allowing people like Hope Hicks to get it. All this willful ignorance was hardly without cost. 600,000 or so Americans are dead from covid-19, and the likely real figure is closer to one million people.

And yet still so many people don’t believe covid-19 is real, or that somehow they are special enough so that they won’t get it. Now there are highly effective vaccines available and some half of Republicans still won’t get the shots. It appears that to do so they must admit the obvious to themselves: that they and the people they listened to were wrong. The psychic cost of going there must be higher than their fear of getting the disease.

That’s some drug these people are on and many have paid the price, either in acquiring the disease or dying from it. But it’s really a mental illness because it’s an inability to acknowledge the undeniable reality that is right in front of you.

How do you stop this level of stupidity and hopefully reverse it? Thinking about it, I realize it’s complicated because so many people have this idea in their head that freedom means they can do whatever they want, damn the consequences. I’ll grant them the right to believe what they want, but I for one don’t grant them the right to let them get away with it without sanctions.

In the short term, they should not just be shunned, but society should make their lives difficult. Democrats control the government now. I would start by upping the ante on travel. If you are a legal adult and can’t prove you are immunized against covid-19, you should not be allowed to travel on any airplane or train. Full stop. No cruises for you either, although there is already a moratorium on cruising for ships leaving the United States. Oh, of course these people would whine, but they are already whining. Whining is not something they can control. So if they are going to whine anyhow, let’s at least keep these people away from the rest of us as much as possible.

I’d extend it to the schools. You want to attend classes inside a public school? You must be immunized. We’re not quite there yet because so far vaccines have not been approved for those aged 12 and under. Unless you have a doctor’s note saying you are immune-compromised if you can get a vaccine you must if you want to get in-person teaching. If not, or your parents won’t let you attend classes on line, and if this means throwing everyone into online classes, so be it. Those who do attend in person need to wear masks indoors until the CDC says its acceptable not to because infection rates are low enough.

Society needs to aggressively signal that these behaviors are unhealthy simply because (minimally) you could carry the disease, if not acquire it or die from it. You – yes, I’m speaking to you, you vaccinate-hesitant Americans — have an obligation to your fellow humans, and if you think you won’t do your civic duty, then you don’t get to play with the rest of us. This sort of willful ignorance if practiced by a parent is nothing less than child abuse. This policy is really the least that society should be doing. In a more just world, these parents would be hauled off to a detention facility until they see the light.

In the longer term, it’s clear that most students these days are getting substandard civics education, if they are getting it at all. They are also apparently missing a lot of science basics, particularly the lessons that describe the scientific process used to discern knowledge. A robust mastery of how science knowledge is learned and how government works should be required for any diploma or GED.

Government can also help by elevating scientists and researchers that make advancements in science. These people should be admired and put on pedestals. There should be lavish prizes awarded to citizens who contribute the most to improving our understanding of reality and make major advancements in basic and applied sciences. The government should provide tuition free scholarships to students showing exceptional aptitude in these skills, so they can be applied sooner for the benefit of all humanity.

Obviously there are huge problems with our voting laws, which I have addressed in numerous other blog posts. I won’t revisit them in this post. These problems are longstanding and very hard to address. But where Democrats can require change, they should.

My modest proposals may rankle many as anti-American somehow, but not only are they necessary, they are legal and morally necessary. Public health law is a thing in the United States, even if many would like to pretend otherwise. We can’t “promote the general welfare”, as we say we want to do in the U.S. Constitution, if we allow such counterproductive ignorance to remain unchecked.

I am deeply grateful to those who solved our covid-19 pandemic

We went out for dinner the other day. This is not exactly a first since the pandemic, but the difference this time was that we dined indoors. All three of us (this includes my daughter, who paid a quick visit) were fully immunized, all with the Moderna vaccine.

With the mask mandate guidance lifted, even in interior spaces for us fully vaccinated, while it seemed safe to dine in, it still gave us a bit of concern. Not wearing a mask may send the wrong signal: that it’s okay to not wear a mask if you are not fully immunized too. So while we ate indoors, and we kept our mask on, except when we were eating. So did the other patrons, what there were of them. There were strict quotas on the number of inside diners.

It wasn’t quite the same experience. This Chinese restaurant was still operating partly in pandemic mode. There was a table near the entrance with brown stapled bags of takeout, which now forms the bulk of their business. China seemed to be out: we got paper plates and cups, though the disposable chopsticks were there as always at our table. The food was just as good as we remembered but the visual experience felt cheapened somehow.

In our state, most mask mandates don’t come off until next weekend. As a practical matter, most are off already. Those running the park across the street decided that masks were no longer necessary. The prohibition always struck me as overkill, particularly when it was figured out that covid-19 was acquired almost always through breathing it in, so it required closed spaces. For someone fully vaccinated like me, masking is becoming something more to fit in and signal the right social values. Outdoors, I noticed that kids are masking but most everyone else isn’t. In public indoor spaces, masking still remains the rule, even when not technically required, such as during my Friday trip to a Trader Joe’s.

It’s largely unappreciated just how quick and effective the vaccine response has been. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines began development literally within days after China released the virus’s genome. Their success was arguably greased by tons of government money, which also encouraged Pfizer and Moderna to develop vaccines based on messenger RNA technology. There were some shortcuts that may have compromised safety: limited and parallel trials, for example, as well as emergency use authorizations. A certain amount of suspicion about their efficacy was warranted, even if they proved baseless.

This contrasted with the often dismal efforts to prevent the transmission of the disease here within the United States, leading to at least 600,000 deaths from the disease so far. I’ve drawn the conclusion that there was a far more rampant “disease” running rampant at the same time: the arguably viral obstinacy by so many Americans that: it was a fake disease, that various quack treatments would work if you did get it, that I’m too special to get it, and that it’s all part of some grand conspiracy to bring about left-wing government. There are still legions of these people out there. 600,000 deaths have taught them nothing. Whereas people like me (who believe in science) persisted by simply following recommendations and best practices, which evolved over time.

That these recommendations evolved seems to infuriate a lot of those who refused the vaccine. It seems they cannot inhabit a world where there is ambiguity: if any guidance changes over time, it must have been inherently wrong in the first place! The reason covid-19 was so easily transmissible and deadly was because it was novel: it hadn’t been seen before. We weren’t going to know what works best until we had experienced it and tried stuff, hence the high mortality rate toward the start of the pandemic.

There was concern that you could pick it up if you touched surfaces that had the virus. So I hyper-cleaned surfaces too, until the science came in that it was virtually impossible to pick it up this way, at which point I relaxed. Surviving covid-19 became pretty simple: live an isolated life if you could, work remotely if you could, and use effective masking if you couldn’t and were in public spaces. It wasn’t fun, but it could have been much worse and much more hassle. Effective vaccines took less than a year to develop. Now the challenge is to get them into the arms of people mostly in third-world countries that can’t afford to pay for them. It’s incumbent on rich countries like ours to do our utmost to help out.

It’s also remarkable that these vaccines are both so highly effective and seem to also work against the many covid-19 variants out there. There is virtually no evidence so far that once vaccinated you can pass on the disease as a passive carrier. So I shouldn’t feel guilty walking around unmasked because I am properly immunized. At worst there is a tiny five to 10% chance that I could still acquire the disease, but its symptoms would be mild. If I get it, I shouldn’t require hospitalization and it won’t kill me. Maybe that itself if a reason to mask up, but since I’m not immuno-compromised, it’s not a compelling reason to do so.

So I’m very grateful to those who created such effective vaccines in so short a time, and even for our somewhat dysfunctional government which at least could throw gobs of money at the problem, all while making the actual pandemic here exponentially worse. The vaccine makers though were but the tip of the spear. Hundreds of thousands of epidemiologists largely gave up their other work, or worked unpaid overtime, to advance research, help mitigate its spread and develop best practices. Our health care workers dealt with enormous stress and excessive amounts of jackasses to do their best in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic. All these people, and many more, have my gratitude, and should get accolades from our government for their tenacity, curiosity and intelligence they exercised to solve this public health crisis.

Needless to say, I am breathing easier.

Covid-19 freedom feels fleeting

Saturday I got the second jab, that second dose of vaccine (Moderna) that has something like a ninety percent chance of keeping me from acquiring covid-19. Another drive to a CVS for the shot, this time in faraway Springfield, Massachusetts. But at least this time things felt more relaxed. The nurse that jabbed me even noted that the crush was over. They weren’t upset when a lady showed up an hour early for her appointment. A lot of their slots weren’t filled so jabbing her early was no problem.

Also no problem, at least for me, was any reaction to the second dose. My wife was not so fortunate and had about twenty four hours of side effects: principally headaches, muscle cramps and a mild fever from someone who never gets them. My arm hardly hurt a tad after the injection but otherwise I had no side effects. The following day I took out my bike and fully masked took it for a twelve mile ride, the first time in a year.

A year earlier the pandemic wave was just starting and for a while where I live (Massachusetts) was a hot spot. People at the time hadn’t gotten into the masking habit. I felt unsafe biking the trail as it was crowded with both bikers and pedestrians, so I stopped.

This time fully masked I realized it wasn’t that much different. But things had changed. For one thing, people like me were getting vaccinated. Despite my bitching, my state is the number two in the percent of people vaccinated. Most of New England makes the list of top vaccinated states, likely because we understand and respect science around here. I’m likely already immune from the disease, but I’ll stay likely masked outdoors until May 15 anyhow, at least when I’m near people. It’s unlikely I’ll get it, but the science is not in yet on whether I could pass it on to others. The science though is pretty clear that you can stay unmasked outdoors in most places, and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) now agree.

The park across the street discreetly took down their outdoor masking requirement sign. Most of us walking around the park are still masked anyhow, because we’re used to it. I expect our city to follow through on all outdoor spaces public shortly, following CDC guidance. I’ll still carry a mask though. It’s possible I’ll be walking and need to dash into a store, and I would wear one then, even though it probably wouldn’t matter.

Like most Americans I want to feel like I’m back to the way things always used to be. These are truly extraordinary times. My mother was born in 1920, shortly after the end of the Spanish flu pandemic. She never had to live life behind a mask, except when she was a nurse assisting in surgery. Covid-19 though feels to me like we’ve crossed the Rubicon. I’m not convinced we’ll ever fully go back to before.

I’m not even convinced the pandemic won’t return in force. The pandemic has proven that we’ve become a remarkably brainless and self-centered country, with many of us perfectly willing to put “me” before “we”. During World War Two, we recycled scrap metal and lived with ration books. I can’t imagine our country doing this kind of national self-sacrifice anymore. Liberty now is interpreted as meaning that you can do pretty much anything you want and shouldn’t have to care about how your behavior could impact on others, and maybe even kill them. Freedom is all about “me me me” doing whatever I want when I want damn the consequences.

The result of all this self-centeredness, along with a bad global vaccine rollout and twenty to 30 percent of Americans who just refuse to take the shot, are increasingly more dangerous covid-19 variants. A shot is a pretty good bet that you won’t acquire one of these variants. But it’s not paranoid to think that one of these will get around the shots and we won’t get boosters in time to ward a variant off. In short, what’s now happening in India could very easily come back here again because we can’t get enough people vaccinated quickly enough, in part because so many of us will refused to get the vaccine. In a way, it’s still very much here, it’s just hitting younger people this time, mostly because they aren’t vaccinated. And the variants are much easier to acquire.

So give me a vacation quick, please. I need to get some wanderlust out of my system, just in case I can’t later. I need it because I am sick of sitting at home and while I could endure another year or two of this if I had to, I surely don’t want to. So a road trip or something is in order after May 15. Just an overnight or two perhaps, to get back into the groove again and test the water. Vermont is less than an hour away, and the Adirondacks are not too far away either. Maybe we’ll be eating mostly takeout. Maybe it won’t feel quite the same and disappoint. But I feel the need to try just in case … just in case we’re back in covid-19 hell again soon.

Getting half way back to before

A year ago this week we were scrambling to find masks. So was everyone else, which meant what masks there were had been largely spoken for. Overnight people began constructing their own masks, if they were lucky enough to find material, had a pattern and had a sewing machine or a set of steady hands.

For some of the part-time seamstresses on our hill, mask making became a pandemic preoccupation for a while. Generous neighbors provided a few to get us started. We frequently wore them wrong and we often wondered what the point was since we (thought) we didn’t have covid-19. I wiped lots of inside surfaces, probably unnecessarily. For a month or two became fanatic about washing my hands, which now seems to have been largely unnecessary since the covid-19 seems to be transmitted almost always through the air. I still took daily walks for the most part but routinely gave broad berth to strangers, often walking on the other side of the street. It was all new and more than a little scary. Staying home, if you were so fortunate, seemed the only safe option.

My daughter wondered how this pandemic compared to the Cold War. I must have been traumatized she thought, growing up in the Cold War age. But I never had a “duck and cover” exercise. And I was a kid for much of it, not understanding until I was nearly a teen that a nuclear barrage could end life (including my life) as we know it quickly. I was too young to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest we came to actual nuclear war. So I didn’t think about it. Covid-19 though is different. Nuclear annihilation was an abstract worry. Covid-19 though could easily be acquired and could kill you. No wonder most of us tried to be careful.

Today I went walking, one covid-19 shot in my arm doing its thing, and another scheduled for May 1. I still wear a mask outdoors, at least if I’m within fifty feet of encountering someone else. Our masks now mostly have adjustable straps over the ears, making them easy to don and doff without ever really leaving your head. People still regularly wear masks outside, but it’s becoming less common. Some people are openly flouting the rules, which I’ve never seen enforced. But it’s looking that at least outdoors there is little risk of acquiring covid-19 from a passing stranger, particularly if there is a steady breeze.

On Tuesday I had a virtual physical (which is something of an oxymoron). My doctor said she doesn’t usually mask up outside. Of course, she is fully vaccinated and got her first shot in January. She’s starting to eat at restaurants again, at least when they offer outdoor dining. She said there are still risks, but for the vaccinated they are pretty minor. It’s fine to hang out with other fully vaccinated people. It’s fine to go traveling if you follow standard precautions.

She encouraged me to live life again, and I plan to starting on May 15. But even with one shot inside of me I am feeling less anxious. One of my major concerns now is whether I might be an asymptomatic carrier. Studies are underway to find out, but so far it looks promising. It’s likely that the Moderna vaccine I got will keep me from being an inadvertent virus spreader.

So hope is in the air. The United States did a wretched job of controlling the spread of covid-19, and in many states largely Republican governors are arguably pushing a fourth wave. But twenty percent of our country is now fully vaccinated – a remarkable number that few other countries can match. As I documented, getting the vaccine was a hassle but every day it’s becoming less of one. It’s likely that children will soon be eligible too. Soon it will only be the dogmatically stupid who won’t be protected from the virus.

We’re not quite making plans, but we are penciling stuff in. Last year my family decided to cancel a planned reunion at Acadia National Park in Maine in August. This year it is still off, mainly due to scheduling conflicts. Some of us hope to meet in the autumn, perhaps in Virginia’s Tidewater area where my sister has a house. My wife has plans to attend a convention in Las Vegas that same month if it looks like it will gel.

Many Americans are waiting for the other shoe to fall. It could be a covid-19 variant that triggers another round. The Pfizer vaccine looks like it will handle the emerging strains. It’s still  question on the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. But the good news is that vaccine manufacturers can quickly tune their vaccines to work with emerging variants. So there are likely to be booster vaccines to let us continue to live a more normal feeling life.

But the shoe could wait a year or two before dropping. While the vaccination campaign here in the United States seems largely successful, much of the rest of the world is still struggling to even acquire a vaccine, in some cases because the countries cannot afford it. The United States will have far more vaccine than it can use, so it should give it away. The Trump Administration’s contracts specifically disallowed this, but perhaps this can be reversed. It’s not entirely humanitarian to do so, because if new strains emerge and get large enough it could start what will feel like a Phase 2 of the pandemic. It’s in everyone’s interest to get everyone vaccinated if possible.

Life though is unlikely to return to what it was. Some aspects of our post-covid world will look a lot like they never left. There will probably be periods when we’ll be told to wear a mask. Going to the office may remain purely optional for many. Once businesses discover the cost savings of downsizing  their office space, others will have to follow to maintain their competitive edge too. Telework will probably become the default if it can be used. Reliable municipal networks will become the norm. Telework will bring other benefits: presumably more free time and less pollution from less commuting, and fewer people travelling to work.

For a year we’ve been forced to innovate. It was not usually fun and in some cases it was very stressful. But in some ways this adaption is good: we are fitting in better to a changing environment that we largely changed. Both we and nature may ultimately prosper from this yearlong game of musical chairs.

Give me a mask, please

So after months of waiting, I get my first covid-19 shot tomorrow.

I’d like to say it was easy, but it was just the opposite. I did discover that if you are determined enough, it is possible. It just meant some compromises. In my case, it meant compromising my sleep. I’m still on the waiting list for the Massachusetts mass vaccination sites, but there are a limited number of CVS drug stores where you can get the shot. The problem is if you go to their website to book an appointment, it will always say there are no appointments available. But from friends and neighbors I learned that they open up new appointments between 3 AM and 3:30 AM. It’s not all CVS stores.

Here’s where it helps to be an older male. Our prostates will naturally wake us up in the middle of the night anyhow. Of course at 3 AM while awake, you are not generally able to focus on a task more complicated than emptying your bladder. But with my tablet computer while sitting on the john, I could scan the list of CVS sites provided by the state. Since my wife has two co-morbidity symptoms, she had priority. After fifteen minutes of trial and error I found a CVS in Chicopee and got her an appointment there. The next night I tried again for myself with no luck. But the third night was the charm. Tomorrow at 11 AM I expect to get the first dose of the Moderno vaccine at this same CVS in Chicopee, about a half hour drive in Hampden County. Welcome to our modern world.

But it may be the beginning of the end of this madness. Just today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that traveling is fine two weeks after your second shot. I doubt I’ll be on the first plane to Hawaii, but maybe the second one. Living in Hampshire County is fine but at this point I … want … out … of … here!

But I have the feeling that we’re still quite far from the end of this. You would think after three waves of covid-19 people might have learned something from it all. But, no, we’re Americans, which means huge portions of us are either too desperately poor to do much about it or, most likely, figure they are immortal. It’s often the young people that are the most reckless, so of course they flocked to Miami Beach and rubbed a lot of shoulders, and now a fourth wave is building across the country, which seems to be affecting younger people more this time. The stupid compounds on the stupid. About a fourth of the country says they won’t get a shot. If they’re serious, that means we can kiss the idea of herd immunity goodbye … and that’s the very reason a lot of these people were out maskless in the first place … supposedly to bring about herd immunity!

It sure appears they’d like to get there via unnecessary deaths than through vaccinations. That’s because at least some of them are anti-vaxxers, which essentially means they refuse to believe in science. Others are convinced tiny microchips from Bill Gates are in the serum, so the government can track us or make us communist or something. It all doesn’t make any sense, but to these people the very fact that it doesn’t make any logical sense means they are probably right. America: the land where freedom means you have the right to be as stupid as you want and where civic virtues does not extend to doing your part to keep preventable illnesses from spreading.

Indeed, the evidence is pretty widespread that American is rapidly dumbing down. Sixty years ago we were anxious to down sugar cubes to avoid polio. Vaccine exemptions were not a thing; parents could go to jail if they didn’t get their kids vaccinated. Sixty years ago science was cool and patriotic. We looked up to scientists. Now we don’t accept any science that conflicts with our biases and political philosophies. The only good thing from all this vaccine hesitancy is that those with this trait are self-selecting themselves to be wiped out. Darwin would be amazed that people would choose their own natural selection.

Well, not all of us. I’m the product of a nurse and an engineer. My Dad was left-brained to the max, my Mom spent a lot of time scrubbing with disinfectants and tracking our vaccinations to make sure we survived to adulthood. It naturally rubbed off on me and my siblings. The mere idea of not following the recommendations of medical professionals and scientists was not only absurd, but was obvious lunacy. We knew medicine was not an exact science and were comfortable with advice evolving at covid-19 was better understood. The virus continues to evolve, making it likely that we’ll be getting annual booster shots, at least.

Unsurprisingly, the virus unfolded largely the way the experts predicted. Trump scoffed at the idea of a half million Americans dead of covid-19. We passed the milestone and have hardly tallied the last casualty. We endured more than a year of stupid leadership by stupid people. Unsurprisingly, about the time we got rid of the last president, things started to improve in a meaningful way. After four years of doing pretty much everything completely counterproductively, we have a government determined to work with nature and reality rather than deny it.

At least some Americans are waking up from their dogmatic stupors. Vaccination rates are rising and the number of people saying they will never get a vaccination is declining. I’m quite confident Bill Gates won’t be controlling me via a tiny microchip after my vaccination tomorrow.

The second shot is scheduled for May 1, which means on May 15 I’m largely out of covid-19 jail. I still won’t be able to do everything. There is maybe a ten percent chance I can still acquire the disease, but it won’t hospitalize me or kill me. It’s possible one of the variants could sneak in somehow. As I said, there is no guarantee. There are simply improving probabilities that it can be avoided or its impact lessened if acquired. I’ll probably still wear a mask a lot of the time I am in public. We may start eating in restaurants again, but we’ll keep the masks on until the food is served and put them on shortly afterward.

I’ve come to appreciate the value of the low-tech mask. If Americans had brains, they would use this opportunity to use masks routinely during the cold and flu season. The flu largely didn’t happen this year, thanks to all the masking. While I was aware a lot of illness was transmitted in the air, I can now clearly see the link and the virtues of wearing masks. It’s no longer that big a deal.

I just wish most Americans could embrace the idea that rather than limiting freedom, using masks allows freedom not just for you, but for everyone else too.

Buddy, can you spare some vaccine?

Basically, I’m waiting to be let out of home confinement.

Okay, I’m not actually confined. I can leave any time I want to, but do I want to? Yes I do, but practically I can’t. Going anywhere in the covid age entails risk, but a lot less risk if you are inoculated against the covid virus.

I’ve been in covid jail for about a year now. About once a week, sometimes more often, I hit a store. I generally go early to avoid crowds, and I’m not too proud to use senior hours if they are offered. And of course I wear a mask, which was not true a year ago when we didn’t understand that covid-19 is principally spread through respiratory droplets in the air. If weather permits though, I do make it a point to walk outside every day, and that helps a lot. I should keep the mask on all the time but the truth is I often take it off, and don it when I am within fifty feet of someone else. After all this time, I still don’t like breathing in my own warm air.

Like most Americans I’m sick of this, but unlike a lot of Americans I’m not stupid enough to ignore the perfectly sensible precautions like limiting my exposure to crowds, wearing a tight-fitting mask and not dining in restaurants. Naturally introverted, I tend to like my own company better than someone else’s. Online social networks generally let me feel connected. I still meet people, including neighbors, but it’s almost always in a Zoom call.

But I want out of jail. What’s making it frustrating is that a number of my siblings are getting or have been vaccinated. My daughter is in public safety (911 operator) and completed her Moderna shots in late January. She’s only 31. I’m more than twice her age but I am waiting and more than a little jealous when others seem to be able to get their shot somehow but I can’t.

I almost qualify as a senior citizen. I’d need to be 65 but I don’t hit that milestone until next year. Perhaps if I were unhealthier, I could get it. I’m sure I’m overweight, but hopefully not obese. Obesity is one of two factors that usually win you a shot. But you also need something else. My wife qualifies. I won’t name her two factors, but one of them is an underlying medical condition. So she’s been trying to get a shot, so far with no success.

Frankly, Massachusetts is making quite a mess out of vaccine deployment. Citizens of the commonwealth give our governor Charlie Baker decent marks for his handling of the vaccine’s rollout, but I don’t know why. I think he’s messing it up pretty badly. There’s a state website but no way to register for a shot on it, though they do provide links to some places that may offer the shot. You learn about shots mostly from friends and since you don’t meet them in person anymore, you learn about it from your online friends. By the time my wife tries, the few slots are gone. Out here in western Massachusetts, there are few mass vaccination places and you can’t count on any appointment you do snag on being fulfilled. The doses mysteriously stop coming from the federal government. CVS is starting to offer shots, but they open their system once a week and they fill up almost instantly.

This shouldn’t last much longer. There is a new Johnson & Johnson vaccine now available, and President Biden has talked another vaccine manufacturer into producing the J&J vaccine. He wants all Americans to be eligible by May 1. This sounds like a worthy goal, but as we’ve discovered so far being eligible doesn’t mean you can actually get a vaccine appointment.

I’m not picky. I’ll take any one that’s available. The J&J vaccine is getting a bad rap. It’s simpler, being once and done. It doesn’t require super cold refrigeration. It’s also newer, so likelier to work against the newer covid variants. You have a higher likelihood of getting the disease anyhow, but your symptoms will be milder. You won’t go to the hospital. No one has been killed from the vaccines.

While being generally introverted, I do miss occasional socializing. It’s true when walking I can nod or say a quick high to some stranger, but it’s not quite socialization, particularly when you are behind masks and generally all you can see of their features is their eyes. Aside from my wife, there is only one other person I can say I am socializing with: my hair stylist every six weeks. We both wear masks and she cleans up before and after. It’s not quite enough.

Pre-pandemic, the men on the hill where I live would go out for a monthly dinner. That ritual ended a year ago. I’m in a 55+ community but I’m one of the youngest people here. I’m guessing about half of us here on the hill have had at least one covid shot. But not me or the spouse. I may be the last one to get one as I don’t have the necessary preconditions and I’m too young. Yes, too young at age 64!

While we’ve remained alive and healthy, staying so has been a hassle, just less than it is for many. There are no kids whose online learning we need to micromanage. I consult and can meet with clients virtually, and I won’t pick up the covid from working upstairs.

But a lot of the things that I took joy in are gone. No going to see movies, not that there are a lot of new movies to see. No travel anywhere. We see our daughter generally at least once a year, although she is 400 miles away. She moved recently. She had to do this “adulting” (as she calls it) all by herself. We’d probably have otherwise been down there to help out.

So we’re all learning self-reliance, which should I think make Republicans happy, but instead it seems to drive them insane. Socializing in person with their kind seems to be critically important. Most seem impervious to the risks they are taking. About a quarter of Republicans won’t even bother to get a covid shot. If 530,000 deaths in our country haven’t convinced them of their vulnerability, nothing will.

Meanwhile, I wait and increasingly feel put out. Covid-19 will probably never go away completely, so it’s something I’m going to have to live with. But I can at least look forward to mask-less encounters with others who get their shots … if I can manage to get the shot.

Mindlessly profiting from a pandemic

You’ve probably heard that the pandemic has made the wealthy wealthier and the poor poorer, at least here in the United States. The U.S. gross domestic product actually fell in 2020, but according to Quicken our net worth shot up 17% in what seemed like the worst year of our lifetimes.

Just four years ago we went through the expense of getting estate plans done. Here in Massachusetts, if you die with over $2M in assets, you are subject to estate taxes, unless you create estate plans that effectively shield a lot of money from estate taxes. Since the state does not index the amount for inflation, it seemed a sensible thing to do. I remember telling the missus, “It looks like our net worth is likely to be over two million dollars before we die.” Four years later, we’re nearly there.

Should I be thanking the coronavirus? Maybe I should be thanking the Fed (Federal Reserve). When the coronavirus hit and markets tanked they went to work pumping up the economy with lots of newly created money. Fortunately, it used the money to buy assets, so it’s not like they threw the money down the drain.

Crazily, it worked, at least for keeping the stock market overvalued, where we had plenty of investments. Nationally our economy otherwise collapsed. The stimulus intermittently doled out by our government helped some, but it’s clear that all this wasn’t enough for most people who live paycheck to paycheck. In many cases, there was no paycheck. Unemployment benefits sweetened by Uncle Sam helped. For most working folk at best it kept them from collapsing into debt and homelessness. The latter is largely a result of federal legislation that makes it hard for landlords to kick out many tenants.

Then there’s the undeserving: me and those of us who weren’t hurting to begin with. We got stimulus too: $2400 in the first tranche, $1200 in the most recent one and possibly more with the new bill going through Congress. Having nowhere to spend it we did what most of the rest of the reasonably well moneyed did: saved it or bought more stocks with it. Being retired with no mortgage or any debts, and with the pensions coming in monthly plus selling some of our retirement portfolio, and being unable to spend most of what was coming in, we were effectively saving 25% of our income.

And although neither of us has to work, I still do some consulting. And crazily 2020 was a banner year too, netting me nearly twice the income from it than it did in 2019, thanks mostly to one new client. There is no chance of contracting covid-19 from this work. It’s done in my upstairs office over the Internet. We went to the store maybe once a week at off hours, heavily masked but that was as much risk of catching covid-19 as we bore. In reality, covid-19 was never really a threat to us. No one came to visit. We had nowhere to go. One of the few things we spent more money on was services like Netflix. There was a lot of time to kill. Stuff we needed mostly got delivered.

All this while the effects of the pandemic were quite obvious. There’s a public middle school next to us. You would see a handful of cars in the lot, but no children noisily screaming or school buses going in and out. Those who weren’t masked more often looked like they were hit by a bus. All this plus Donald Trump was making everything exponentially worse; hospitals and ERs were overflowing and people were dying, about 450,000 of us last I checked.

I’d like to credit all this to my brilliant financial talents. But really I did nothing out of the ordinary. I just stayed home, deposited those pensions checks regularly and spent a whole lot less. The only pangs of regret I felt is that we couldn’t get on a cruise ship or take an exotic vacation. All that was in our budget. (We actually did take a cruise in early March 2020, came back okay, but it was scary. It had been paid for in a pre-pandemic world, and it was nonrefundable.)

Through my career I felt like I had earned my salary and then some, so there was no reason to feel guilty living a cushy retirement. But I often do anyhow. I didn’t realize until fairly recently just how big an advantage it was to be male and white, which I was. At the time I didn’t feel like it meant much, but now I see friends who are people of color generally dealing with an entirely different reality.

So as much as I’d like to think I rose on my own talents, in reality I was lofted at least in part on an unseen rising tide of white privilege. Not all my white male peers were so lucky, of course. Some really got the short end of the stick. Heck, my wife got downsized in the early 2000s and never recovered her previous salary, despite doing similar work. But she could ride on my income and prosperity.

In retirement I am finding the ways to squeeze a nickel even harder without trying very hard. The tactics have changed since the days of my parents, who lived through a Great Depression. Rather than darning socks, I find new income in the darnedest places, like a 2% cash back no annual fee credit card. I went on a savings hunt and found, at least for a while, that I could lock in a 2.5% APR CD at an online bank. We also get income from our solar panels, about $2000 a year, paid by companies that use our green offset to pollute. And really, we save money because we are taxed too little. We could and should be paying more in income taxes, but Republicans have decided we shouldn’t have to. The only tax that increased this year was our real estate taxes, now nearly $10K a year. A city assessor came through the neighborhood. On the plus side, he reassessed the value of our house upward by $76,000. Add that to our net worth.

And we’re trying new things. We let go our old financial planner and found one closer to home, with an interesting model. They find out portfolios that match our risk tolerance and add their fees to that. When I mentioned I could no longer get a 2.5% APR CD, they suggested a bond fund that would likely beat that. No, it’s not FDIC insured, but it’s very low risk, and we should be able to net at least that for our cash assets.

We probably won’t be buying a second home or time shares, but I’m wondering if this is how someone like Mitt Romney spends his free time. Income just seems to keep compounding. I used to struggle to put aside a little money with each paycheck, now I don’t know quite to do with it all. It seems surreal and wrong somehow, particularly when so many are suffering.

Yes, we have given more to charity, quite a bit more this year, and helped bail out a few friends who were seriously struggling. Even four years ago when we were putting together our wills, we decided that we were unduly fortunate. When we depart this world, about half of our estate redirects money to charitable causes.

Half of my side of the estate is currently earmarked for scholarships for people of color, to be handled by the estate manager. At least in death I can partially rectify my white privilege and help elevate those who were denied it.

My last post of the Trump presidency … thank goodness!

Donald Trump was probably in our stars and in our national destiny. If we had to have a malignant narcissist for our president, we actually could have done a lot worse. He turned out to be as dumb as dirt, with a great ability to play to a crowd but a complete inability to get anything done.

Granted, he spent four years causing a lot of evil and testing our institutions in a way they have never been tested before. We learned our national ship of state contains some pretty shoddy bulkheads, such as our Justice Department. But under his assault it probably held up better it would have under a more adept dictator wannabee. Still, our ship of state has taken on a lot of water during Trump’s four years, more so than when Barack Obama had to take over after George W. Bush’s presidency.

By almost any standard, the Trump presidency was a disaster. Doing a post mortem of Bush’s two terms, I could only point to one accomplishment of his of any positive note: he did a lot to get anti-viral AIDS drugs where it was needed most: Africa, saving likely millions of lives. Trump’s presidency though doesn’t have any positive accomplishments.

Trump will probably claim his Operation Warp Speed was a success, given the quick development of a number of effective vaccines. But the truth is the government didn’t do much to help besides promising to buy up a lot of the vaccine, making it less risky to develop. It was mainly scientists working around Donald Trump that got it done, many of them outside the United States.

In the meantime, Trump made covid-19 infinitely worse by disdaining masks and sensible strategies to contain the pandemic. Now 400,000 Americans are dead of it and we have the dubious distinction of having the most deaths and highest infection rates of any country on the planet.

Just today Mike Pence tweeted that the Trump Administration was the only modern administration not to get us into a war. That’s debatable, but it depends on what you consider a war. Still, its non-management of the pandemic likely killed 300,000 of us that likely would be alive had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election. We lost more citizens to covid-19 than we lost soldiers in all of World War II.

The Trump Administration just got worse as it went on. For the first year or so Trump’s worst impulses were restrained by staff, until he fired all of them. It was a government run by tweet, but really it was a government largely in name only. The ship of state was basically in a tempest the last three years. Every time someone left or was fired, their replacement was worse, resulting in some stunningly bad choices, like Bill Barr as Trump’s last Attorney General. Laws and often the courts were generally ignored within the administration. Grifting was in, the Hatch Act was out.

The 2020 presidential election went pretty much the way I predicted. The ensuing chaos reached a crescendo on January 6th with the storming of the Capitol. That was certainly the low mark of the administration and encapsulated everything wrong with Trump and his administration.

Amidst the daily horror though there was often dark humor to be found. In takes a bottom-of-the-barrel administration to give us a press conference at Four Seasons Lawn and Landscape instead of a Four Seasons Hotel. And who will forget a sweating Rudy Giuliani with his hair dye dripping down his sideburns at the RNC press conference?

Most Americans are now ecstatic and relived to put the horrible Trump era behind us. Only, what’s left of America looks little like what preceded this administration. It proved that the United States was a shoddy façade of a democracy that in the end sort of held together mostly due to institutional inertia and amazing incompetence by Trump and his cronies.

My wife spent the last four years mostly depressed and in a shock that won’t go away. I can name her condition: sustained emotional abuse, not inflicted by me, but by Donald Trump and his ilk. Obama got handed a terrible hand in 2009. Biden inherits a much worse country. We’ve been raped, and our abusers were Donald Trump and all but a handful of Republicans.

I do hope the door hits them in the ass as the exit.