Notes From a Pandemic: August 7th, 2020

by Miles Raymer

Greetings, dear friends of the present and curious citizens of the future.

It’s been nearly three months since my last pandemic journal. I wish I could say the interval has been uneventful, marked only by the steady progress of sensible folks coping with inordinate strain. But this is 2020 America, where we blend flavors of chaos like a blind chemist trying to make a bomb.

Both globally and nationally, what originally looked like the “first wave” of COVID cases ended up being something more like the first bump of the first wave. Around the world, we’re approaching 20 million total cases and recently exceeded 700,000 deaths.



United States

United States

Here in 2020 America, we’re in worse shape than ever. Speculation that warm summer weather might somehow slow the virus’s progress proved nothing more than optimistic longing, and cases predictably spiked in states that started to open up. The CARES Act funds that provided a lifeline to millions of newly-unemployed citizens expired at the end of July, and Congress continues to bicker over the details of a new relief package while widespread suffering kicks up a notch.

California, which handled the first stage of the pandemic well compared to harder-hit states such as New York, experienced a major surge in July and now has over half a million cases with more than 10,000 dead. Here in Humboldt County, we’ve had a steady drumbeat of new cases each day, usually fewer than 10. Then yesterday, August 6th, the County announced 25 new cases––by far the most recorded in any single day of testing. We’re still at just 4 deaths and 17 hospitalizations, but I suspect those numbers will start to climb any day now.

Mishandling the health crisis of the century isn’t enough for 2020 America. Shocked and enraged by the tragic killing of George Floyd in May, people across the country took to the streets. Most, I believe, marched peacefully to protest the injustice of Floyd’s death and the greater failures of law enforcement and our justice system that it represents. Some, I believe, left their homes out of COVID-induced boredom, or a desire to be a part of something––anything––greater than themselves in this time of loneliness and isolation. And as always, a highly-visible minority took advantage of a moment of weakness, causing violent riots and looting businesses.

While I’m sure it will take decades for America to fully grapple with the impacts of these events, there is much heroic cogitation happening in real time. I’ve been impressed with and fascinated by the diverse reactions to our national troubles. Here are a few of the best podcasts I’ve heard on the subject:

While getting everyone to agree on anything is impossible in 2020 America, I remain hopeful that this painful process will bring all of us a bit closer to mutual understanding.

With summer coming to an end, the issue of going back to school is front and center for all educators, students, and families. My wife Jessie teaches at a local junior high, and a large number of my closest friends are also teachers. While we believe there are strong arguments on both sides of the debate, my family and I favor distance learning to start off the year. Given our community’s limited medical resources, there is a high risk that schools could create COVID hotspots, leading to a flood of cases that would quickly overwhelm our hospitals.

Yesterday evening, Jessie and Ma and I were riveted by Fortuna Elementary School District’s School Board meeting. Despite substantial disagreements between various parties, I was encouraged by the prevailing atmosphere of congeniality and collaboration. People were quick to acknowledge the legitimacy of others’ viewpoints, and everyone agreed that there was no “good” solution––just bad ones, each with terrible trade-offs. After nearly three hours of debate and discussion, the Board voted by a slim majority (3-2) to start the year in full distance learning mode, with a pledge to reassess that decision three weeks after the school year starts. We were incredibly relieved, but also saddened to know that this option won’t work well for some families and is likely to further weaken the local economy in the short term.

This experience crystallized something that I’ve been pondering for weeks, which is the question of how to sustain an attitude of patriotism and civil compassion in the face of dysfunction and disaster. As things get more and more screwed up in this country, giving up becomes more and more seductive. Is the shitshow of 2020 America easier to bear if we distance ourselves from it, pull away and pretend it’s not “our” problem? Maybe so, but I’m feeling a strong desire to double down on my patriotism. I love this country and believe in our ability to learn from this horrible situation and emerge stronger on the other side. I love and respect my fellow citizens––even the ones with which I ardently disagree. If you’re reading this, friend or kind stranger, please know also that I love you, in all your glorious and flawed beauty.

I’ll close with some quotes that I hope will bolster your inner patriot:

I feel that for white America to understand the significance of the problem of the Negro will take a bigger and tougher America than any we have yet known. I feel that America’s past is too shallow, her national character too superficially optimistic, her very morality too suffused with color hate for her to accomplish so vast and complex a task. Culturally, the Negro represents a paradox: Though he is an organic part of the nation, he is excluded by the entire tide and direction of American culture. Frankly, it is felt to be right to exclude him, and it is felt to be wrong to admit him freely. Therefore if, within the confines of its present culture, the nation ever seeks to purge itself of its color hate, it will find itself at war with itself, convulsed by a spasm of emotional and moral confusion…Our too-young and too-new America, lusty because it is lonely, aggressive because it is afraid, insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black; our America is frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of necessity. It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness. Am I damning my native land? No; for I, too, share these faults of character! (Black Boy, by Richard Wright, 272-3)

I don’t know how it will be in the years to come. There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know. Some of these forces seem evil to us, perhaps not in themselves but because their tendency is to eliminate other things we hold good. It is true that two men can lift a bigger stone than one man…There is great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused. At such a time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions. What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against? (East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, 131)

There isn’t an end state to American politics. The search for a static answer will always be folly. There is no one best way for the system to work. There is only the best we can do right now. And, if we do a good enough job at it, we will see today’s successes ossify into tomorrow’s frustrations. What works in one era fails in the next. That’s okay. The point is to get to that next era with the most progress and the least violence…The era that we hold up as the golden age of American democracy was far less democratic, far less liberal, far less decent, than today. Trump’s most intemperate outbursts, his most offensive musings, pale before opinions that were mainstream in recent history. And the institutions of American politics today are a vast improvement on the regimes that ruled well within living memory. If we can do a bit better tomorrow, we will be doing much, much better than we have ever done before. (Why We’re Polarized, by Ezra Klein, 267-8)

Even on a united planet there will be plenty of room for the kind of patriotism that celebrates the uniqueness of my nation and stresses my special obligations toward it. Yet if we want to survive and flourish, humankind has little choice but to complement such loyalties with substantial obligations toward a global community. A person can and should be loyal simultaneously to her family, her neighborhood, her profession, and her nation––so why not add humankind and planet Earth to that list? (21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari, 125)

Patriotism is sometimes criticized as a form of idolatry. And because it involves belief in your nation, it does, indeed, share part of the psychology of religious belief. It is hard to believe in your nation, though, unless you appraise at least some of its achievements highly. Patriotism does not require you to believe that your nation is better, let alone best, among nations. But it works well, I think, only when you believe there is something distinctive in your national story to feel especially proud of. (The Honor Code, by Kwame Anthony Appiah, 97-8)

I’m the kind of patriot whom people on the Acela corridor laugh at. I choke up when I hear Lee Greenwood’s cheesy anthem “Proud to Be an American.” When I was sixteen, I vowed that every time I met a veteran, I would go out of my way to shake his or her hand, even if I had to awkwardly interject to do so. To this day, I refuse to watch Saving Private Ryan around anyone but my closest friends, because I can’t stop crying during the final scene. Mamaw and Papaw taught me that we live in the best and greatest country on earth. This fact gave meaning to my childhood. Whenever times were tough––when I felt overwhelmed by the drama and the tumult of my youth––I felt that better days were ahead because I lived in a country that allowed me to make the good choices that others hadn’t. When I think today about my life and how genuinely incredible it is––a gorgeous, kind, brilliant life partner; the financial security that I dreamed about as a child; great friends and exciting new experiences––I feel overwhelming appreciation for these United States. I know it’s corny, but it’s the way I feel. (Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, 189-90)

From the very beginning of this country, America has been two things, not one. We have our founding reality and our founding dream. And the two are not the same. Our founding reality was ugly and unequal. Nobody can deny that…But that’s not all America was, even at the start. And that’s not all we are now…We are that rainbow-hued people, unique on this earth, who contain in our multitudes every color, every faith, every gender expression and sexuality––every kind of human ever born. And we are living together, in one house, under one law…At our best, our mission is simple. For more than two centuries, we have been working to close the gap between the ugliness of our founding reality and the beauty of our founding dream…That’s who we are. That’s what we do. What’s what makes us Americans. (Beyond the Messy Truth, by Van Jones, 185-7)

Until next time, be well, and good luck.

Global: 19,141,627 confirmed cases, 715,802 deaths

United States: 4,888,070 confirmed cases, 160,157 deaths

California: 541,492 confirmed cases, 10,024 deaths

Humboldt County: 280 confirmed cases, 4 deaths