The Pandemic Diary: April 29

Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, through the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.

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April 29: The United States now has more than 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases. The death total has now surpassed that of American dead in the Vietnam War. We have just over 4% of the world’s population but we have about one third of all the world’s known infections. And there is great reason to believe we’re actually underreporting infections and deaths.

Against that backdrop, yesterday the president’s son-in-law, who is somehow in charge of the country’s response to all of this despite being unqualified to do, well, basically anything, said “the federal government rose to the challenge and this is a great success story.” The State of Florida, meanwhile, has ordered medical examiners to stop reporting COVID-19-related deaths because the high numbers they are reporting conflict with the lower numbers state political officials are reporting. 

They say that in war, truth is the first casualty. That goes for basically any crisis these days, I suppose.

 

Last week Trump announced that the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds — the Navy’s and Air Force’s acrobatic flight demonstration squadrons — will go on a multi-city tour to “champion national unity.” They have already started doing flyovers in various cities to, in the Pentagon’s words, “thank first responders, essential personnel, and military service members as we collectively battle the spread of COVID-19.” Trump said, “this is a tribute to them, to our warriors because they’re equal warriors to those incredible pilots and all of the fighters that we have for the more traditional fights that we win.”

It costs $60,000 an hour to operate each of these flight teams. When they fly over, crowds gather when they should not be gathering. And, of course, it does actual jack shit to tangibly help the “first responders, essential personnel, and military service members” to whom this is supposed to be a tribute.

As I’ve said so many times, America does a hell of a job with empty, meaningless symbolism. We do a terrible job actually assisting those in need. It’s a national embarrassment.

 

Meanwhile, some states like Georgia, Iowa and Texas are pursuing aggressive re-opening plans. Given that these re-opening schedules seem to be driven by politics and public opinion more than medical or public health expertise, I think they’ll largely backfire, both because (a) most people will not flock to the mall simply because a governor says they can; and (b) even if they do, it’ll greatly increase the risk of a worse second wave of illness and death.

Another thing it will do, of course, is create a situation where workers feel unsafe and won’t want to report for duty in unsafe environments. At least one of these governors has a response to that: telling the workers to risk their lives or lose their jobs:

An excellent and detailed breakdown of this horrible choice many state governments are forcing their citizens to make can be found in The Atlantic, where writer Amanda Mull talks to the people affected by their governor’s bullheaded insistence on a return to normality in defiance of the experts and of medical professionals:

Instead, their stories depict a struggle between a state government and ordinary people. Georgia’s brash reopening puts much of the state’s working class in an impossible bind: risk death at work, or risk ruining yourself financially at home. In the grips of a pandemic, the approach is a morbid experiment in just how far states can push their people. Georgians are now the largely unwilling canaries in an invisible coal mine, sent to find out just how many individuals need to lose their job or their life for a state to work through a plague.

That so many of our leaders are putting their own citizens in this position is unconscionable. They simply don’t care about people. At all. They don’t even put up a pretense of caring. It’s the literal sacrificing of life at the Altar of Mammon.

 

My kids’ school announced how fourth quarter grades will work. If they completed 70% of their at-home work and their grade is lower than than their third quarter, pre-pandemic grades were, they will get a repeat of their third quarter grade. If their at-home grade is higher, they can keep the at-home grade for fourth quarter. If they didn’t complete 70% of their at-home work their fourth quarter grade rules regardless. There will be no final exams.

I can’t say that I can think of a better way to deal with it, really. This system accounts for the potential falloff some kids will inevitably have from learning at home with diminished structure, but it also rewards hard workers or better independent workers in ways that a Pass/Fail system wouldn’t. There are really no perfect options here, but this doesn’t seem to screw anyone. Above all else, it seems to be a pretty plain acknowledgment that learning environment matters and that there is no real substitute for being in school every day. I’m glad that, unlike so many other parts of our government, the public schools are acknowledging reality.

 

It seems like everyone is baking lately. I have multiple friends who seem to be doing a few loaves of sourdough a week. I have a friend who, basically every night, is posting photos of brownies or cookies or baked goods of some kind. I haven’t really done much of that, but in the past few weeks I’ve made a couple of things.

Last week it was bourbon browned butter Rice Krispie treats. Or, in our case, “Crispy Rice” treats as, because of Allison’s celiac disease, we have to use the Aldi store brand of cereal which, unlike the name brand, is gluten free. I had never made Rice Krispie treats before somehow. They came out pretty good. Anything with bourbon and browned butter is gonna come out pretty good, though, I reckon. The chocolate chip cookies I make in normal times have browned butter — and probably could have bourbon — and they’re the best.

Last night I made a Depression cake. No compelling reason to, actually. We’ve had no problem finding eggs or milk since the second week all of this stuff began, but such recipes are “having a moment” as they say, and Allison wanted to try it. Not because she wanted to get used to Depression-style cooking as much as she’s always looking for things that go light on dairy if possible because celiac disease brings with it a rich tapestry of other intolerances. The verdict: it was . . . fine. It’s recognizable as cake. If someone said “I made cake, would you like some!” and gave you a piece of it you’d eat it and find it acceptable but you wouldn’t consider it memorable. If you, like us, made it at home, you’d have another piece of it after dinner tonight. I guess it all just depends on how badly you want cake.

After I made it I Googled the very idea of “Depression cake” and found that it was also called “wacky cake.” That rung a bell, as my ex-wife’s mother and grandmother had each mentioned that to me before many years ago. I figured it was just an old lady West Virginia thing. Thinking about it now, though, it makes a lot of sense. My ex-mother-in-law was born in the early 30s. Her mother was a young mother, married to a coal miner and they lived in a coal camp. I’ve read and studied a lot about the Depression, but I learned a lot about what life was like then first-hand from them.

It’s always different to learn about such things via the personal experience of others than it is to learn about it in textbooks. It’s not a top-down “[narrator’s voice] during The Great Depression, money was scarce, and people . . .” kind of thing. My ex’s grandmother used to just talk about things “being hard sometimes, so we’d . . .” My ex mother-in-law just talked about “when we were kids.” Meals of prune puddings and canned-meat stews. Stories that sounded just-this-side of Grandpa Simpson’s tales but which had the benefit of being true. For them it was just life and they took it as it came. Wacky cakes were a part of it.

My ex-mother-in-law is still alive in her late-80s, but she was a little kid then. Living memory of that time in this country is almost completely gone. I don’t think this next phase of American life, which may very well include a Second Great Depression, will play out in exactly the same way the lives of my ex-in laws did 80 or 90 years ago, but I do think it will carry with it all manner of new challenges that will form all manner of new habits and ways of life that seem alien to us now. And that will seem alien to our kids and grandkids when we tell them about it when we’re old. Here’s hoping that strange recipes and belt-tightening are as bad as it gets.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.