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Now that impeachment has slid off the table into history, and the Capitol attack boasts an ongoing commission, we return to Topic A, the pandemic. Everyone agrees that the shameful disorder of our government and economy–and now even the wintry weather–made a shambles of the vaccine roll-outs. Angry citizens claim to be deprived of access to vaccine, while others are faulted for rejecting it.
Our best vaccination option was some thirty miles away in a town we had never had reason to visit.
In Antioch, California, the January sun was warm, and people, mostly men with hard hats, were eating lunch on concrete benches in the middle of a parking lot. Sutter Health Foundation anchors a modest medical mall with fueling stations such as Xtreme Burger, Subway, and Starbucks. We found an empty bench and ate burgers prepared by one small, efficient Asian man who seemed to be working alone. Unemployment in Antioch is upwards of 10 percent, highest in Contra Costa County. This figure was not available on the City of Antioch’s website, which features a photo of a dapper administrator flanked by an eye-catching but empty template.
Sutter Health is the second largest employer in town. We passed through its glass portal to meet a receiving line of beaming young women who serially confirmed our identity and body temperature. The ratio of attendants to patients seemed about six to one. An attendant led us toward a receding corridor lined with additional young persons in pastel scrubs, smiling reassuringly as we passed. Magic Flute came to mind. In the room at the end of the corridor stood Krystelle, tall and lovely, with a crown of magnificent braids–and the vaccine. The jabs were painless, followed by a friendly question: had we been able to see anything much around Antioch? “In the summer, you can visit some sweet wineries in Brentwood,” she said.
In fact we had arrived early, in time for a quick turn around the town and the waterfront. Near the river, a sign on a small weathered building said Vets Help Lunch and Medications. Around the corner at the Antioch Community Center, a long line, including several wheelchairs, was also moving slowly toward vaccinations. Down the road at the deserted marina, there were no boats on the river, which had once been the main shipping channel of the San Joaquin-Sacramento river route to San Francisco Bay.
Antioch had begun as Marsh Landing, after John Marsh (Harvard, 1823), one of the early American pioneer entrepreneurs. Marsh had made his way west as an Indian agent, merchant, doctor, and finally, rancher and real estate speculator. During his time in the pueblo of Los Angeles, he was the only “western-trained” medical doctor around, thanks to the illegible Latin of his Harvard diploma. Having saved a tidy amount in in-kind medical fees, he liquidated his inventory and went north.
For $500 (or $300, depending on your source) Marsh became the owner of the 13,000-acre Rancho Los Meganos, a cattle ranch east of San Francisco Bay. He soon became a promoter of the joys of California life, writing widely circulated letters to encourage emigration, statehood, and of course the purchase of homesteads on his property. This land he had acquired from the Mexican government, via Spain, which had first dibs, unless you count those indigenous tribes. The history of California as a continuing land grab is not unknown, beginning with the Franciscan missions and Indian slave labor.
For his part, John Marsh sold a piece of his river property to the Smith brothers, bearded twins unrelated either to the cough drop dynasty or my family. William Smith, a minister, wanted to give the town a biblical name. He must have known his history to have chosen the ancient Greek “Antioch,” another town located at a delta formed by two major rivers.
The original Antioch was founded by a general of Alexander the Great, near a delta of rivers opening onto the northeastern Mediterranean. It became a center of commerce and culture during the Hellenistic and Roman empires and beyond. It was also a religious center where the followers of Christ, including Peter and Paul, were first known as Christians. This history as well as its riches made it a target of the First Crusade.
Ancient Antioch is now only ruins in the Turkish town of Antakya near the Syrian border. Just south of that border, in the Syrian province of Idlib, nearly everything is in ruins, both ancient and recent. In the years before the Syrian civil war, Idlib province was mainly known for the “Dead Cities,” hundreds of Byzantine settlements from the first through seventh centuries, preserved when trade routes changed.
Antiochus III the Great expanded the Seleucid empire in the usual way, through conquests and prudent marriages, and lost it in the usual way, by decisive military defeats–in his case as in so many others, by the Romans. But today, if the facts were more generally known, Antiochus would probably be more famous for being the father of Cleopatra than for Thermopylae. Reflections on the transient glory of military conflicts tend to attract less interest over the centuries than tales of sex, incest and violence like Cleopatra’s—and some much more recent.
In 2009 Antioch, California became suddenly notorious with the discovery of a kidnapped girl who had been kept there in captivity for 18 years. International media feasted on the story of Antioch’s alleged 1,000 registered sex offenders in residence, with domestic variations on the theme from Anderson Cooper, Larry King, Diane Sawyer, Oprah, and Judge Judy. Jaycee Dugard received $20 million from the state of California, acknowledging defective law enforcement. She wrote a best-selling memoir and established a foundation to support other victims of rape and kidnapping.
Ten years after the Jaycee’s rescue, the streets of Antioch seem calm, but police blotters tell another story. In one week in February there were 48 adult arrests, including the alleged shooter of a firefighter and paramedic, as well as a lunchtime bank robbery the day before our vaccination visit.
The streets are lined mainly with working-class cottages and no-frills condominiums, but with California property inflation, the median house price is now $540K, affordable mainly for desperate commuters employed in the central Bay Area.
John Marsh got the 13,316 acres of Rancho los Meganos for the equivalent of about $3.75 an acre in 1850 dollars. California’s legislature never ceases to recognize the need for affordable housing, but voters are no more inclined to tax raises than John Marsh would have been.
On our way to vaccination in Antioch, California, we could see from the highway a green spread of regularly distributed bumps and cubes over many acres. It looks like, and is, camouflaged weapons storage, now, we are told, empty. After the horrendous Port Chicago disaster in July 1944, when thousands of pounds of naval ordnance exploded during loading, killing 320 and wounding 390 mostly black Americans, a new name and new uses were proposed for the site.
For a while it was the proving grounds for testing self-driving cars, most notably Mercedes Benz. Then in 2018 the Navy floated a plan to build a tent city there. As many as 47,000 immigrants could be detained on this somewhat toxic but isolated Superfund site. Local protests resulted, and Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, who called the plan “madness,” assured his constituents that the projected tent settlement would not be built. The Navy continues to work on decontamination in hopes of making the land salable for residential or park development.
Some twenty minutes from the erstwhile naval weapons station, Marsh Creek State Historic Park now incorporates much of the former Rancho Los Meganos and the Marsh Home. John Marsh had lived alone in his adobe hacienda for decades, but for his new wife he planned a fairly grand stone manor with a tower to spy out cattle rustlers.
Construction was still underway when his wife died, and not long thereafter he was murdered by his own vaqueros after a wage dispute. “The meanest man I ever knew,” said John Bidwell, another early California pioneer.
The Marsh Creek State Park may reopen after the pandemic, but it appears that the house may be allowed to fall into ruin. And who will take responsibility for the hundreds of human burials discovered nearby, dating from 3,000 to 4,000 years ago–long before Antiochus the Great and his daughter sat uneasily on their respective thrones.
In the ruins of ancient Antioch, in 1932, a consortium of American and European museums found a trove of magnificent Byzantine mosaics. Their excavations were interrupted in 1939 by the war. Half of the mosaics were immediately absorbed by the excavators’ home museums. The others were left to Antakya, and we can only hope that they are no longer on display in the Hatay Archaeological Museum, less than 90 kilometers from Idlib in the heart of Syria’s northeastern war zone.
While crows in increasing numbers crowd smoky Bay Area skies, humans think of migrating to more hospitable climes. Crows, handsome and black, loud and smart, line up on electrical wires above us or linger in the middle of the street to finish a scavenged snack. Are they attracted by the spread of homeless settlements with those exposed middens so repellent to the tidily housed?
Cities are perhaps safer now for crows than fields protected not only by scarecrows, but farmers with real guns, and enthusiastic hunters. Here the young daughter of an “NRA family” has scored her first crow kill. It seems safe to say that her parents will remain Trump voters, although Wayne LaPierre and the NRA, as well as the Republican Party, are in disarray.
Crows, science has recently informed us, are not only crafty, but possess conscious awareness. I.e. they know what they know–which is more than can be said for many humans. Crows mate for life, although according to one source they are only “monogamish” and like a bit on the side now and then. Young crows, instead of looking to start a new family, hang around their old nest for a couple of years and help out with the chicks. Whether that is also typical of human adolescents is debatable.
We planted some redwoods–such lovely trees– between us and the student apartments next door. “Madness,” said a friend who knew California as only a midwestern native could. “They are just giant weeds.” Years later, as redwood roots grew intimate with the neighbors’ plumbing as well as ours, the redwoods were taken over by two nests, one crows’, one squirrels’. In the spring we sometimes heard squirrely sounds of rutting, but more often it was hard to distinguish the angry scolding of a squirrel from the assertive cawing of a crow. All of them fled during the traumatic tree work, but they seem to be returning, if only to check out the new perch of the plaster seagull above the porch.
Crows used to come uninvited to meet a few of our friends sharing distanced drinks and close-in anxieties on our pandemic terrace. Covid corvids were more likely to appear when shrimp or smoked salmon was on offer. And they seemed to be more interested in our older friends…as are we, often enough.
One summer when my mother was recovering from serious surgery, crows collected on her redwood deck in the warm Los Gatos afternoon–not, I supposed, to wish her well. I chased them away with blasts from the garden hose. Watering her garden, daily and plentifully, was an important strategy in her plan for eternal life. During a year when we were living in Italy, she took me to Venice for my birthday. On the Riva degli Schiavoni the traditional souvenirs were all arrayed: glass from Murano and China, gondolier’s hats, masks of all descriptions.
The Venetian tradition of masks is much older than Carnival, with their earliest regulation recorded in the 12th century. They were worn commonly by the prosperous and somewhat amoral citizenry, who might prefer to conceal their financial and amorous adventures. Four hundred noble families were rich and aristocratic enough to lead a life of fairly unrestrained pleasure. The families included various dissipated relatives, but not of course the enabling household servants–who sometimes benefited from hiding their own identity behind masks, as we learn from Mozart operas.
In the 1530s the master mask-makers’ guild had eleven busy members, including one Barbara Scharpetta. The decadent life of the Venetian aristocracy continued until the end of the Republic in 1797. Masks were then forbidden altogether, and Carnival itself was not resumed until 1979.
In the time of the Black Death, the curved beaks of Venetian plague doctor masks were filled with dried flowers, herbs and spices, or camphor. The mask was worn to keep away foul smells, known as miasma, that were thought to transmit the plague.
Miasma had been regarded as the main cause of disease as far back as ancient China. A Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty, Han Yu, was sent into exile. (Poets in ancient China were more politically significant than in 21st-century America.) In the unhealthy southern province, expecting to die, the poet wrote: I know that you will come from afar. . .and lovingly gather my bones, on the banks of that plague-stricken river.
From miasma came malaria (literally “bad air”) in medieval Italian. Though miasma is mainly associated with the spread of contagious diseases, early in the 19th century the theory went rogue, suggesting, for example, that one could become obese by merely inhaling the odor of food.
Even after scientists and physicians realized that specific germs, not miasma, caused specific diseases, getting rid of odor through underground sewage systems and garbage cleanup in urban ghettos became a high priority for city governments. The observed connection between foul air, poor sanitation and disease lasted until the mid-nineteenth century and beyond. Plague doctor masks, however, are still available in any Venetian kiosk. Do we have even now a more useful term than miasma to explain the spread of our latest pandemic? Or any protection more effective than vaccine, and masks?
Five hundred years after the Black Plague, crows were still keeping bad company. In the 1830s, “Jim Crow” was a kind of dancing jester created by a popular white minstrel singer, wearing blackface. “Jim Crow” came to refer to the many forms of segregation and injustice toward African- Americans that followed Reconstruction after the American Civil War and far beyond.
In World War II, “Old Crow,” mostly known today as a cheap bourbon, was a codename for Allied military personnel carrying out fairly primitive electronic maneuvers, such as jamming enemy broadcasts. Today there is an international Association of Old Crows, boasting some 14,000 members, promoting conferences, classes, and lobbying among researchers, industry, and government in the hugely more sophisticated arena of EW, electromagnetic warfare. This seems to be a lesser known corner of the Big Picture, in which the U.S. is far and away the world’s largest arms supplier. The Old Crows are surely deep in that Washington Swamp so decried by virtuous politicians.
Enters war again: “Eating crow” is a traced to a War of 1812 incident where a British officer forced an American soldier to consume part of a crow that the Yankee had shot over the border in British territory. Whether or not the story is true, crow meat is said to taste like the dark meat of any wild bird. Roasted slowly in red wine, it has been declared delicious. On the other hand, an Australian recipe suggests simmering the bird with a stone for three hours, then draining the liquid and eating the stone.
This morning I went across town to pick up sacks of co-op-farmed vegetables to be shared with friends. Two crows were trotting around self-importantly, pretending to be supervising the operation–a fine illustration of today’s urban-agricultural interface.
Trouble at the Majestic
The year is 1919, the scene a decaying imperial spa in County Cork, Ireland. The owner of the Majestic Hotel is an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who cares more for his dogs and piglets than for the starved villagers who raid his potato patch by night. His beloved piglets are housed in the former squash court and fed yesterday’s pastries.
The Majestic Hotel figures in Trouble, a tragicomedy about the Irish rebellion against British rule–performed against a background of guerrilla attacks by the rebels and vicious reprisals by the British. The “Troubles” exploded again in 1970, the year that J.G.Farrell’s remarkable novel appeared.
A century after the partitioning of Ireland, amid the planetary chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, California’s vacant hotels suddenly figure in a social and economic crisis of survival.
California governor Gavin Newsom, confronting the vulnerable and potentially infectious mass of 150,000 homeless in the state, has engineered an ingenious deal. Hotels and motels, most notably Motel Six, have made available for lease some 15,000 hotel rooms for housing the most fragile homeless–the aged and those with underlying health conditions.
Newsom announced Project Roomkey at a press conference in front of a Motel Six in Campbell,California. Campbell is an unremarkable Santa Clara Valley town where I went to high school, when prune orchards were just giving way to housing tracts, highways, and the garage startups that transformed the farmland suburbs into Silicon Valley.
In the early days, Campbell, California had at least one street of “affordable housing,” inhabited by poor people, then generically called “Okies”. Gilman Avenue was a few blocks of small greyish bungalows, some with junked cars as lawn furniture. Betty the Moocher lived on Gilman. She was pallid and grimy with a plaintive, small-featured face. During lunch hour she would stand nearby, gazing silently at your sandwich. Sometimes we would give her something. It never occurred to me that she could actually have been hungry, though there were no free lunch programs then.
One of those Gilman bungalows is for sale right now as a “vintage” fixer-upper, for $1,220,000. Down half a million from its earlier listing. Most people cannot now afford any sort of home in California, but there are more free lunch programs. Just no housing.
Given the continuing pandemic lockdown, Project Roomkey hotel rooms would have been vacant anyway–a seemingly perfect solution, with FEMA ready to pay 75% of the costs. But two weeks ago only some 4,000 of the 15K available rooms were occupied. Tidy charts showed how many rooms had been leased for the project, how many were being prepared for occupancy, and the relatively few which were actually occupied.
It is not a simple process. The first challenge is the vetting of would-be occupants, by experienced social workers already overstretched by the Covid crisis. Applicants range from the responsible but roofless and medically fragile to lifelong addicts who may trash their rooms if not regularly supplied with their drugs. Medical records and background checks are needed. Staffing has to be arranged to provide food, housecleaning, medical help–and security.
Several counties have already signed onto Project Roomkey. But a number of southern California townships have rejected any use of their local hotels as homeless housing, either temporary or permanent. And anecdotal reports from some of the occupied lodgings are not good. Social distancing, along with housekeeping and private property, are unfamiliar concepts for many formerly homeless folks.
California has the fifth largest economy in the world, one of the highest costs of living in this country, and the largest number of homeless of any state. Some see this as flagrant evidence of a failed government–the inability to provide for the welfare of its least able citizens. Newsom, as governor, and earlier as mayor of San Francisco, took on homelessness as his central issue. There was the controversial Care Not Cash, which reduced cash support and increased shelter and social services. Now there is Project Roomkey.
Here in my present hometown of Berkeley, 40 homeless have moved into two Oakland hotels that are part of Project Roomkey. Each room is $186 per day, to be 75% reimbursed by FEMA. For whatever reason, Berkeley jokes aside, these are not Motel Six rooms like those claimed by other counties, which normally rent for $76 per night. Meanwhile the proposal for 16 stories of housing to be built at People’s Park brings out opponents pointing to its 50-year history as a political symbol and a refuge for the homeless.
Newsom and his allies would like to see Project Roomkey succeed and extend beyond the pandemic. This cannot happen without aligning funds from state, local, and federal sources. And so far, even money has not proven to be the answer. Homelessness was a serious problem in California long before COVID-19, and will doubtless increase afterwards, given the economic devastation of the work stoppage as well as earlier problems with local zoning and construction workers’ unions.
Bond issues for building affordable housing have been passed and then failed dismally to address the need. In California it costs $450K to construct one no-frills unit of subsidized low-cost housing. This is based on rising costs of labor and material and the expensive delays between securing funding and local approval of the project and the site. Given the cost of new construction, adapting ready-made housing seems a rational solution to the very immediate needs of California’s 150K homeless.
Some say that this apparent emergency will shrink back into perspective once our society returns to normal. Others point out that “normal” has included indifference not just to homeless encampments under our clogged freeways, but to the climate crisis, to enormous income inequality, to mass shootings, and to the continuing partitioning of our electorate that gave us Donald Trump. ∞