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 vaccination. 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.

K-ing our way to a recovery

My Thanksgiving was spent with family. Only in this case, family means my wife and me, plus two cats who got a few scraps of turkey with their supper.

It was a scaled down meal absent some of the extra fatty dishes my wife makes during the holidays, like her cheese souffle. Also missing was our daughter, who likely wouldn’t have shown up anyhow because she lives four hundred miles away, but had planned to visit us a few earlier. But she needed a fresh covid-19 test and couldn’t get one in a short enough timeframe to satisfy the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. So, her Thanksgiving was similarly downscaled but, in her case, it was a rotisserie chicken that her cat helped consume.

The same thing will play out for us at Christmas. In fact, it’s been this way since we returned from a cruise last March, one of the last cruises to go out before covid-19 shut cruising down. We’re socially isolating, along with our many retired neighbors. There is no community holiday party this year. Our condo association’s annual meeting will be on Zoom. Socializing is now saying a few words to neighbors behind our masks at the mail kiosk.

But the end is now in sight, with at least two very promising and very effective vaccines likely to be available soon. As seniors, we’ll likely be nearer to the head of the queue than most. But really, we should be one of the last. There’s a good reason we haven’t contracted covid-19: we hardly ever go anywhere; retirement give us the privilege/luxury to do so. It helps not to be particularly extroverted. For us, coping is not that hard. It’s a bit like serving a sentence of home confinement. A trip to the store once or twice a week is the closest we come to mixing with society. Here in Massachusetts, virtually everyone wears masks outdoors and in stores. It would be truly extraordinary if we somehow contracted covid-19.

We’ll survive this thing pretty easily and comfortably. As for our country, not so much. We’ll likely surpass 300,000 covid-19 related deaths by the end of the year. By the time this is contained, the total is likely to be between 400,000 and 500,000 deaths, and may be higher. This would make it actually worse than the Spanish Flu of 1918 and 1919.

It’s easier to ignore perhaps because it’s affecting minorities disproportionately, and anyone who has to go out in the real world regularly, which are generally blue-collar types. This was true of my niece Cheryl, who teaches Chinese. She likely acquired it from a student and brought it home to her immune-compromised husband. She wore a mask but it wasn’t enough. Both of them survived it and neither required hospitalization, although there was some rough going. The rest of my siblings remain unaffected, or at least never exhibited symptoms. Most have jobs that allow telecommuting. They do sensible stuff just like us: go out infrequently and always wear masks.

It does get comical at time. I have a sister who retired to Titusville, Florida. Every time she goes out, she’s virtually the only one wearing a mask. Floridians by and large believe in freedom, which in this case means their right to infect others, a right recently upheld by the Supreme Court, at least as it pertains to religious services, as I noted in my last post. In the past, the Supreme Court decided that freedom of speech meant you couldn’t yell fire in a crowded theater. Our latest version of the Supreme Court though thinks its equivalent is fine in houses of worship. Go figure.

Anyhow, my sister observes her fellow neighbors doing stupid stuff. The family across the street brought in extended family and friends for a raucous Thanksgiving meal. It’s likely that part of this extended family will catch the disease from this socializing, but she reports Floridians for the most part just don’t care. They are enjoying their freedom to be mindlessly stupid. My sister and brother-in-law will survive where some of this family may not.

Trump and the Republican Party are giving us hundreds of thousands of Darwin Award winners. A decade from now we’ll look back on this pandemic and wonder how we could be so stupid. For many there wasn’t much choice: it was either that or starvation. After providing initial relief to keep people home, Congress subsequently decided the pandemic wasn’t that big a deal, and wouldn’t pony up more money to reduce our death rate by keeping people solvent while waiting safely at home.

It’s not too hard to predict that the rollout of a vaccine will go badly too. Guidance from the CDC on who should get the vaccine first is likely to be followed in a scattershot manner by the states. Probably twenty percent of us will refuse to get inoculated, letting it linger. But there are also staggering logistical issues in producing and distributing the vaccine. It will likely require two shots and super cold temperatures for storage, plus the candidate vaccines seem to have a shelf life of about a week. For some, they will refuse it because the shot hurts a lot. I’ve had the shingles shot and it’s a lot like that. It did hurt for a few days, but I got better. In any event, a true recovery is likely to arrive later rather than sooner, despite the quick production of an effective vaccine. It’s likely to be another six months before we get a sense that we have gained some control over the disease. The longer we dawdle in doing a good job, the worse our economy will fare compared with other countries.

Perhaps Republicans don’t care because it fattens their bottom line. This is turning out to be a K-shaped recovery, meaning that if you own stocks or can work from home, you’ll probably emerge a winner. Otherwise your personal economy is likely to sink you further toward or into poverty. In that sense only, Republicans have done a good job: they’ve improved the bottom line for those with wealth.

In February before the pandemic became a tangible thing, I moved a lot of our portfolio into bonds convinced that it would be a U-shaped recovery. It is, but not according to the markets. I did keep our net worth up for a while compared with the collapsing financial markets, but I didn’t expect the Federal Reserve’s success at propping up businesses would work so well. With fewer expenses due to the pandemic and markets soaring in spite of our anemic economy, our wealth is soaring.

I can’t find much to spend all this new wealth on, but I do feel guilty for having it. In reality though government responds to those with wealth, and that’s why we’re doing so well. It’s all those other suckers who keep the economy going who fall by the wayside.

Those and stupid people like my sister’s neighbors. Those of us with some wealth, who can easily socially isolate and wear masks will emerge from this triumphant. But our society will be markedly less stable than it was before the pandemic.

So hold onto your hats. The real reaction to the pandemic might show up in 2022.

The Supreme Court puts freedom of religion above freedom from dying

So this is what a conservative majority of the Supreme Court looks like, eh? With her recent confirmation, we have a 6-3 conservative majority with the addition of now Justice Amy Coney Barrett. In one of Justice Barrett’s early decisions, she quickly showed the conservative majority’s power and proved Chief Justice John Roberts the newest “moderate” on the court. In a recent  5-4 decision, the Supreme Court nixed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to temporarily ban worship at houses of worship in the state’s hot covid-19 zones.

Places packed with people of course are natural zones for spreading this coronavirus. Infections there get passed on, not just to congregants in these houses of worship, but to people outside them, some of whom will also pass it on. It all spreads the disease but, hey, your right to worship in the First Amendment is apparently is more important than your desire to not catch this often-deadly disease. Maybe this is because there is no amendment is in the Constitution saying you have the right to a functioning public health system that can take obvious measures in the name of public health.

“Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” the opinion said. “The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

Thanks for clarifying that, justices. It’s not like Governor Cuomo issued an edict closing houses of worship permanently. He did it until the disease was under control in these hot zones. This allowed worshippers, but also those who don’t worship there or practice religion at all, to avoid infection and potential death. Until now, this was a perfectly reasonable standard. Now, the Supreme Court is okay with you being dead of covid-19 if it temporarily infringes on someone else’s religious liberty.

I’d like to say this is something new, but the conservative majority has been around since the George W. Bush era. It now just has another member and an expanded majority. Sometimes these decisions expanding liberty are good, such as in the case of allowing universal gay marriage, even though marriage is not a right actually spelled out in our federal constitution. But at other times, it’s been bad. The Supremes decided you have the right to own a gun no matter what, and since that time lots of people have died who would not have had they upheld common sense gun control laws where it was obviously needed.

The premise of liberty seems to be that risk is inherent in the exercise of liberty. It’s just that until fairly recently, this risk was born on those wanting to exercise their liberty instead of everyone else. While about a third of gun-related murders are suicide, the rest are homicides, most likely inflicted against family members, neighbors or other intimates. This decision is just more of the same, except had Justice Ginsberg not died and had not Justice Barrett so quickly replaced her, it would likely have been 5-4 the other way. In other words, sanity would have likely prevailed.

The Supreme Court’s decision here essentially is a death warrant for at least thousands of Americans, and will sicken tens or hundreds of thousands more. Most likely, if you could poll these people (it’s hard to poll dead people) they would disagree with this decision, but apparently, they don’t matter. Preventable death is an unfortunate consequence of having so much liberty.

This is what happens when you put ideologically strict constructionists in our courts. Real life is not allowed to have any impact on their decisions. Instead, these decisions are based not on what our founding fathers really thought about these liberties, but on what they think they might have thought about them, had these founding fathers never interacted in the real world at all.

It’s likely that this court will find new and similar ways to expand liberty, like by denying women the liberty to have an abortion because the liberty to fetal life is somewhere in the U.S. constitution, in their minds. Fetuses without brains even capable of cogitating will be endowed with future freedoms thanks to our enlightened Supreme Court, I’m betting. I’m betting this court will find ways to reduce social benefits because laws like social security weren’t explicitly in the Constitution either. And we’ll all feel freer if we stand on our own two feet, and pay-as-you-go for life, they will figure. Freedom through bad circumstance and a rigged economic system make living better!

I just hope we survive all this liberty. Chances are many of us won’t. And we’ll enjoy a new unarticulated freedom inherent in the Constitution: the right to a premature and miserable death so that others can exercise their freedoms stupidly and/or with malicious intent.

What progress!

Pay no attention to that man (Trump) behind the curtain!

Most of you will understand the reference, but if you don’t, watch the classic 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. In the pivotal scene the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz was revealed as just a man behind a curtain good at pulling levers that blew a lot of fire and smoke. That wizard, like Donald Trump, knew how to put on an impressive show.

To those of us with a brain, Trump was that always that man behind the curtain. It was obvious from the beginning. He was only something special to those who chose to believe otherwise. For many on the right, Trump is their last hope. He’s their hopelessly skewed knight in shining armor with a nontraditional way about him that somehow was going to make everything right again. “Right” in this case meant an end to the creeping anxiety they feel about a world changing too quickly. Change drives them nuts.

It’s not just a lot of Americans who have this anxiety; it’s people all across the world. Wannabee dictators are a dime a dozen and you don’t have to look far to find them. Two of the more prominent ones are Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines. Both promise through control that they will make things right again and ease the crushing anxieties of their populaces to a world changing too quickly.

Americans who picked Donald Trump were voting their anxieties too. Trump was to bring back Leave it to Beaver America, a time when America was triumphant, whites ran pretty much everything, and life was great. Actually, the 1950s kind of sucked. A lot of our success back then was our sky-high income tax rates, which ensured tons of money went to build up our infrastructure. Naturally, this aspect of the 1950s his supporters are particularly unwilling to bring back.

Trump was never this person and in fact modeled the opposite. The breadcrumbs were all around: the many failed businesses, failed marriages, infidelities and his wacky and crazy pants ideas. Trump sold us on a vision he could not possibly deliver. The real Donald Trump doesn’t spend all his time working for you. He uses government to enrich himself, which we now understand because he’s paid little in the way of income taxes for years and he’s massively in debt. Governing bores him. What he really likes to do is tweet, hold rallies and bask in the adulation of his die-hard fans.

And now we also learn that he’s not the Great and Powerful Trump, but just another guy with covid-19. He’s 74 and obese. Statistically, he has an 11% chance of dying from the disease now that he has it. Now at Walter Reed Naval Hospital, he has a team of doctors trying to get him well.

His doctors say he may be released tomorrow, but even if he goes back to the White House it says little. The disease seems to be worst on days 8-12. It’s very likely that his actual condition is much worse than the limited facts we are learning from his doctors. He apparently traveled to a fundraiser knowing he had tested positive and while he was already declining. It appears he’s been on supplemental oxygen but doctors won’t confirm it. Meanwhile, he’s taking a crazy array of drugs not normally given to those with covid-19 and often given to only the sickest of the sick, like dexamethasone. That alone suggests he’s getting oxygen, since it’s not given to those not needing supplemental oxygen because of the possibility of harm.

He likely carried the disease during last Tuesday’s “debate” with Joe Biden. Let’s hope the social distancing keeps Biden free of the disease, but Trump’s children and in-laws showed their support by taking off their masks, a clear violation of the rules the campaign had agreed to. But, of course, Trump is all about breaking the rules as he did almost constantly during the debate itself.

Prominent Republicans all over the places are coming down with the disease or are testing positive. You can watch many of them slapping each other’s backs at the ceremony in the Rose Garden where Trump introduced his pick for the Supreme Court. No masks. No social distancing. People shaking hands and hugging. Chairs were laid next to each other.

It’s getting so bad that three Republican senators have tested positive, so it’s unclear if Trump’s supreme court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett can get a quick hearing. It’s not clear if due to the absence of these senators if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has to votes to even advance the nomination. All this is because Republicans swallowed the Trump Kool-Aid. They were too spineless to wear masks and social distance because they worried Trump would be mad at them.

Some are wondering if karma is at work. Trump has dodged it all his life. I like the idea of karma, but I’m skeptical it’s a thing. It suggests there are some higher and unseen forces at work.

Trump could die from covid-19. It’s true I would not shed any tears if he did, except possibly of joy. It would certainly feel just. But it would not actually be just. His death would simply be another way he avoided accountability for his actions; it would be anti-karmic. He deserves to get well enough to lose massively at the polls, so there is no ambiguity that voters rejected not just Trump, but Trumpism. Today’s NBC News/WSJ poll shows Biden with a 14% lead nationally. Trump is now polling under 40%, which is Herbert Hoover territory.

Much like the unpopular Jimmy Carter, Hoover went on to have a very successful ex-presidency. Assuming we can stave off civil war and put Joe Biden successfully in office, this is unlikely to be Trump’s fate. So, here’s hoping Trump survives this disease so the law can finally catch up to him. But I fear he will cheat his way out of it. Dying of covid-19 may be his only way out.

Just living

The covid-19 crisis has certainly upended things. Our old world went away around the time we got back from a March cruise, one of the last to go out and come back infection free. Since then, pandemic avoidance went from being weird to rote. I don’t know how to leave the house anymore without putting on a mask. It seems unnatural not to.

Of course, a lot of people are still getting covid-19 with 200,000 of us dead from it and rising steadily. This is mostly due to the fact that they can’t avoid exposure easily, but also because a lot of people are morons, refuse to wear masks and attend events like a massive South Dakota bikers rally which is estimated to cause 250,000 new covid-19 cases. With a 3% fatality rate, that’s 7500 people right there, mostly people who didn’t go to the rally but caught it from someone who attended the rally. Our idiot president of course continues to cheer on these morons.

I thought my 55+ community would be especially vulnerable to getting the disease, but I was wrong. First, we’re almost all white. Second, we are probably disproportionately rich-ish. Some of us have second homes and RVs. In any event, our kids are gone and social isolation is not that big a deal. Community parties are out but we can chat in the street or at the mail kiosk from a safe social distance. The older the resident is though, the less I see them outside, and their masks look especially high quality and taut. So, no fatalities here, thank goodness.

In general, we’ve been lucky. Massachusetts was one of the worst hit states when the pandemic began. Now we are one of the best states to avoid getting covid-19. It hit hard but our governor and mayors quickly did sensible stuff. Our county still gets dozens of new covid-19 infections every week, but fatalities are now rare. Some of the college students have returned to Smith, U Mass Amherst and the rest, but most are tele-educating from afar.

I still see a lot of unmasked people on my daily walks, despite the prominent signs even on the trails saying masks are required. About a third aren’t wearing masks but no one seems to be getting cited by the police. The rest of us either keep them on, or like me (I sheepily confess) don them when I’m in fifty feet or so of someone walking toward me. Being retired, to the extent I work, I work from home. I can understand why people working in the public would not want to wear one. I am glad for any opportunity to doff my mask.

So, I see the likelihood of me getting covid-19 to be miniscule. We’re used to not doing anything in public. If it is, it’s outdoors. There’s a grill run from a trailer along the side of the road a few miles from here. You can eat outdoors on their metal tables, properly socially distanced, and we have twice so far. It’s hardly fine dining, but it’s going to a restaurant, sort of, and beggars can’t be choosing.

At home, no one gets in or out of our house without masks on, except us. This has one downside though: no one comes to visit us. And really there’s nowhere for us to go either. Life is safe but more than a little bit boring.

And while millions are struggling to get by, or simply aren’t getting by, we are swimming in money. This is in part because we have fewer places to spend it. Also, my work from home business is going very well. I’ve had a couple of long term, commercial rate paying contracts. The work is generally engaging and really unnecessary, as we don’t need the money. It does however stave off boredom. It’s nice to be paid well to move bits around the Internet. Meanwhile the pension keeps getting deposited monthly. With no mortgage or debt of any kind, we could live much more expansively if we had some place to spend the money.

And that’s a problem. I actually want to spend money but can’t find anything to spend it on. This has resulted in us donating more to charity, but it’s monetary donations. Volunteering has stopped, although it may restart soon. Our house is just five years old so it doesn’t need much. I did find one thing to spend money on: having someone come in and put in a duct to the outside for our stove. We might put a bathroom in upstairs, but as that would be a project spanning weeks, it’s too dangerous right now with contractors.

Vacations are theoretically possible but virtually impossible. Our daughter hopes to drive up and visit us in November, but it may not be legal for her to do so. She’d have to quarantine before or after coming, and since she works as a 911 operator, she can’t do that from home. The alternative is to get a negative covid-19 test shortly before coming up. Legally she would need to report her arrival to the State of Massachusetts. Violations cost up to $500/day. She’s a hermit by nature but even so we’d be a little leery to have her simply because if she did pass covid-19 onto us, we would be particularly at risk.

So, there’s a lot of killing time around here. Innumerable days seems to pass by. We can’t tell weekdays from weekends except by looking at the date on the newspaper. We’re both introverted, but we also know we need more social interaction than we are getting. Maybe that’s why I’m walking in the afternoon. It’s sort of social to say hello passing strangers on a trail or sidewalk.

Of course, we all want what we can’t have. For many Republicans who swallowed the Trump Kool-Aid, they don’t seem to care enough to remain socially isolated and wear masks when not. Maybe for an extreme extrovert, the risks of infection are worth it.

I want what I can’t have: another cruise, or a fancy trip to Europe and normally we would just go ahead and do it, particularly with all this money we have amassed from cooling our heels for six months. It’s gotten such that with rising markets I’m thinking when we do travel again, maybe we’ll just fly business class. But right now, international travel is almost impossible, and visiting most states requires a host of protocols and conditions that make it more hassle than it is worth. So, you take comfort where you can.

Like going to the Best Buy. I went to the one in Holyoke a few weeks ago. The salesmen wore masks and kept a physical distance. In the past they would have been all over me, but the Best Buy looked sad and they happily let me fend for myself. Their shelves were half empty. I found what I was looking for, but the activity still cheered me up. It was a small, diminished example of something I used to take for granted, but is now so rare it feels like a treat.

Meanwhile, time to keep hunkering down and pass another day.