Pandemic Journal (# 27): More Reflections on the Pandemic

The July 26 New York Times proclaims the statistics of the pandemic’s toll: [1]

  • For the world, there have been 16,034,200 cases in nearly every country with 644,925 deaths while the number of new cases is growing faster than ever with a daily average of more than 200,000.
  • The U.S. (including four territories), with at least 4,190,400 total cases has the most of any country in the world while recoding 146,314 deaths. “Case numbers are surging throughout most of the United States, including in many states that were among the first to reopen. Because the number of people hospitalized and the percentage of people testing positive also are rising in many of those places, the case spike cannot be solely explained by increased testing. Still, coronavirus deaths remain well below their peak levels. And as some places reimpose restrictions, others continue to reopen their economies.”
  • The State of Minnesota has had at least 50,331 cases and 1,611 deaths. “Over the past week, there have been an average of 689 cases per day, an increase of 22 percent from the average two weeks earlier.”

The pandemic has been having and continues to have a major negative impact on the world and U.S. economies. For the week ending July 25, the initial U.S. jobless claims rose to 1.4 million. This increase was the first in nearly four months, “a sign the jobs recovery could be faltering.” Now the $600/week jobless aid is nearing an end. Evictions loom for millions who cannot afford their rent while foreclosures loom for homeowners who cannot pay their mortgages. And the U.S. federal government recorded a budget deficit of $ 3 Trillion for the 12 months ending this June.[2]

These calamities have had a disproportionate impact on our African-American brothers and sisters. For example, in Minnesota 48% of Black workers have filed for unemployment compensation versus 22% of white workers. “One of the big reasons for the unemployment disparity in Minnesota is that Black Minnesotans are more likely to be employed at hotels, restaurants, retail, health and other service-related industries that have seen the most job losses because of stay-at-home orders and other pandemic-induced slowdowns.” In addition, “the pandemic also has disproportionately hurt American Indian, Latino and Asian American employment in the state. Women, younger workers and those with less education have also taken a bigger hit.”[3]

In the midst of these immense problems and challenges, President Trump continues to lie and demonstrate his incompetence. As a result, the rest of the world is shocked and dismayed.[4] I worry that Trump will attempt in some fashion to try to steal the election.[5]

Although I am retired with good health and financial savings and thus not personally affected (so far) by these woes, I worry about the impact of these crises on my sons and grandchildren. More generally I am worried about the negative impact of these crises on people and countries all over the world and the U.S. in particular that will linger for all their lives as I believe happened to those who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

“Investing in the Future” was the sermon today at Westminster Presbyterian Church by Associate Pastor Sarah Brouwer. It drew upon Jeremiah 19: 1-14, where the Prophet sends a letter to the Jewish people who have been taken into exile in Babylon after the Babylonians had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. God tells the exiles, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

This passage of Jeremiah continues. “Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will [the Lord] visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to [Jerusalem]. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord., and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you [Jerusalem] into exile.”

According to Rev. Brouwer, this passage reminds us today to shed our expertise and judgment, relearn old ways and accept marginal status in the current pandemic in order later to flourish.

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[1] Coronavirus Map: Tracking the Global Outbreak, N.Y.Times (July 26, 2020, 9.21 a.m. EDT); Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count, N.Y.Times (July 26,2020, 9.21 a.m. EDT); Minnesota Coronavirus Map and Case Count, N.Y.Times (July 26,2020, 9:21 a.m. EDT); Hyatt, Minnesota COVID-19 cases up by 871; 3 more deaths reported, StarTribune (July 26, 2020). See also List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: Pandemic Journal.

[2] Davidson, Coronavirus Spending Pushes U.S. Budget Deficit to $ 3 Trillion for 12 Months Through June, W.S.J. (July 13, 2020); Kiernan, Evictions Loom for Millions Who Can’t Afford Rent, W.S.J. (July 16, 2020); Chaney & Mackrael, Jobs Recovery Shows Signs of Slowing as Coronavirus Surges, W.S.J. (July 17, 2020);Benoit, What Banks Tell Us About Business: Everybody Is Struggling, W.S.J. (July 18, 2020); Morath & Chen, As $600-a-week Jobless Aid Nears End, Congress Faces a Quandary, W.S.J. (July 19, 2020).

[3] Kumar, Half of Black workers in Minnesota have lost work during pandemic, StarTribune (July 18, 2020).

[4] E.g., Achenbach, Wan, Brulliard & Janes, The crisis that shocked the world: America’s response to the coronavirus, Wash. Post (July 19, 2020).

[5] E..g., Sonmez, Trump declines to say whether he will accept November election results, Wash. Post (July 19, 2020). See also, Election Officials’ Dread About This Year’s U.S. Election, dwkcommentaries.com (July 11, 2020).

 

 

Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer: “Take the Next Best Step”  

On June 21, Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, Professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, engaged in an enriching and enjoyable online conversation with Rev. Dr. Matt Skinner, Professor at Luther Seminary and Scholar for Adult Education at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, as part of a series of  “Conversations on Big Questions for a Changing Church.”[1]

She emphasized that the Bible was not a scientific record. It is a library, not just one book. It emphasizes that the world is not just physical or material, but proclaims an enchanted world of belief and hope for love and justice beyond the physical world. Everyone is made in the image of God and should be caring for one another and calling for love and justice. Jesus testifies to that vision.

While justice and grace are both important in Christian faith, too much emphasis on grace can tend to emphasize the status quo. The parables about the importance of looking for the one lost coin from a collection of 10 coins or the shepherd looking for the one lost sheep emphasize the need to work for justice. The prophets tell us that you will be in exile no matter how good you are. We need to sing God’s song in a foreign land.

The current pandemics of coronavirus and racism are unveiling major problems in the U.S. empire and U.S. churches. For example, in the early years of this country, churches baptized slaves without emancipating them. The Presbyterian church in the U.S. split into northern and southern denominations over slavery. All  have been complicit in discrimination against Blacks, Natives, women and transgender people. We need the grace of God and our intangible qualities—trusting one another in community, praying for one another and having difficult conversations. We need to be “enchanting the world” with the hope of a force beyond the physical and material world to call for love and justice.

Thus, there is a need for Presbyterians and other churches to reform. We need to again recognize we are not perfect. “Reformed, always reforming.” Our tradition emphasizes talking the next best step. After that, there will be another next best step. (This especially resonated with me. It emphasizes the importance of incremental change and of avoiding the impotence of trying to understand every facet of a problem before acting to change some aspect of the problem.)

The Bible can be seen as migrant literature. Many of the Bible’s words are responses from outsiders to what was happening in the world of the Roman Empire. They are cries for justice and the rants of prophets. Many characters in the Bible have two names and thus are bicultural and provide migratory strategies for survival.

Professor Aymer made all of these points with graceful smiles and laughter. Thank you, Professor. (Others who have reactions to this conversation are invited to share them in comments to this post.)

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[1] Aymer & Skinner, Conversation on Big Questions for a Changing Church, Westminster Adult Education Hour (June 21, 2020).

 

Pandemic Journal (# 26): Reflections on Life During the Pandemic  

Here are my latest reflections on living through this pandemic.

The morning news on July 1 reported that there have been 10,483,100 people in the world who have been sickened with the coronavirus with 511,540 deaths, all occurring in nearly every country in the world. For the U.S. the numbers are 2,653,200 cases and 127,461 deaths. The recent hotspots are Arizona, Florida, California, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Washington and Mississippi.[1] My state of Minnesota has had 36,338 cases and 1,476 deaths.[2]

On June 30 in testimony to a U.S. Senate committee, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said  the rate of new coronavirus infections could more than double to 100,000 a day if current outbreaks were not contained, warning that the virus’s march across the South and the West “puts the entire country at risk.” He added, ““I can’t make an accurate prediction, but it is going to be very disturbing, I will guarantee you that [3]because when you have an outbreak in one part of the country, even though in other parts of the country they are doing well, they are vulnerable.”

These are grim statistics and predictions that are endlessly noted in newspapers and television and radio news programs. As an 81-year-old who has been isolated in his downtown Minneapolis condo building since March 19, all I can do is continue to spend time in my condo with my wife, wear a face mask and “physical distance” at least six feet from other people when I leave the condo to buy groceries, walk in nearby parks and go biking.

While in the condo most of my time is spent reading multiple newspapers on my computer and writing blog posts, usually watching MSNBC at night and occasionally other programs. I have to make time to read books for my men’s book group. Within the last week our building’s swimming pool, hot tub and exercise facilities have re-opened to one or two persons at a time, and I have started to use them again.

I have noted the reports that on June 28, Gilead Sciences announced the pricing for the drug remdesivir, the first drug authorized by the U.S. for treatment of COVID-19. The prices were $3,120 for commercially insured U.S. patients (for the shorter treatment course at $520 per dose) and $5,720 for the longer treatment course. For certain U.S. government programs (but not Medicare or Medicaid) and the rest of the world, the price will be $2,340 (for the shorter course at $390 per dose) and $4,290 (for the longer treatment course).These prices were deemed reasonable by the supposedly independent Institute for Clinical and Economic Review on the basis that use of the drug was expected to enable earlier discharge from the hospital and thereby “save” additional hospital expenses. Gilead’s shares suffered a small decline after the announcement based on certain analysts’ belief that the prices for the drug would be higher.[4]

In my opinion, this is a strange way to assess whether a price is reasonable. The proper method, I thought, was to calculate the cost of producing the drug or other product, after subtracting any costs that had been paid for by the government (or by converting that financial contribution into common or preferred stock and paying dividends to the government), and then adding a percentage of the cost as profit, whose reasonableness could then be assessed.

On May 25th I was shocked to hear the news that George Floyd, an African-American man, had been killed by Minneapolis police in south Minneapolis about 3.5 miles from our condo building. To see the teenage bystander’s video of the last minutes of this human being’s life was excruciating. I did not attend any of the immediate protests at this site, but a couple of weeks ago on a pleasant weekday morning, my wife and I visited the site, which felt like visiting the memorial to a martyred saint. As a result, most of my blog posts since then have been about this killing and the related issues of reforming the Minneapolis and other police departments.

Although I believe that the Minneapolis Police Department needs various reforms, I do not support the City Council’s proposed amendment to the City Charter, which will be discussed in a future post.

I also worry about the U.S. and world economy and the financial struggles of so many people, small businesses, political campaigns and our many worthy nonprofit organizations. This concern was voiced in the June 30th testimony of  Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell before the House Financial Services Committee. He stated that although May employment and sales numbers were better than expected, the path forward would depend on both how the virus evolved and a willingness at all levels of government to provide policy support as long as necessary.[5]

I continue to be grateful that I am retired and not worried about keeping or finding a job. Instead I sort through the many requests for contributions and notices of webinars and other ZOOM meetings. I try to respond as I am able.

My church, Westminster Presbyterian in downtown Minneapolis, is shut down because of the pandemic. But every Sunday morning at 10:30 a.m.it has a worship service on ZOOM that is broadcast in the afternoon on local TV station KSTP. Also available on ZOOM are other services on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. and on Wednesdays at 6:00 p.m. Adult education is available on Sundays at 9:15—10:15 a.m. on Zoom. Check the church’s Livestream button for details.

Especially enriching have been Westminster’s conversations with other pastors and theologians about important issues. A future post will discuss the June 21st “Conversation on Big Questions for a Changing Church” between Westminster’s Scholar for Adult Education, Rev. Dr. Matt Skinner, who is a Professor at Luther Seminary, with Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

I also continue to be shocked by the incompetence and outrageous comments from the mouth of President Trump and have to restrain myself from letting them distract me.

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[1] Coronavirus Map: Tracking the Global Outbreak, N.Y. Times (July 1, 2020, 9:32 am (EDT)); Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count, N.Y. Times (July 1, 2020, 9:32 am (EDT).

[2] Minnesota Coronavirus Map and Case Count, N.Y. Times (July 1, 2020, 9:32 am (EDT)); Carlson, Minnesota deaths up 6, to 1,441, in COVID-19 pandemic, StarTribune (June 30, 2020).

[3] Stelberg & Weiland, Fauci Says U.S. Could Reach 100,000 Virus cases a Day as Warnings Grow Darker, N.Y. Times (June 30 & July 1, 2020)/

[4] Walker, Covid-19 Drug Remdesivir to Cost $3,120 for Typical Patient, W.S.J. (June 29, 2020); Grant, Gilead Is Wise to Leave Remdesivir Money on the Table, W.S.J. (June 29, 2020); Carlson, COVID-19 drug price deemed ‘reasonable,’ StarTribune (June 29, 2020).

[5] Rappeport & Smialek, Mnuchin and Powell Offer Mixed Views of Economic Recovery, N.Y. Times (June 30, 2020).