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Between You and Me

A large tree in front of Emma S. Clark Memorial Library was no match for Hurricane Isaias. Photo by Pam Botway

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

It’s no secret that we are living in chaotic times. The pandemic has changed all our routines and we certainly didn’t need a tropical storm with its accompanying power loss to further churn our existence. But Mother Nature gave us no choice. There we were, in the summer heat and in the dark with no phones, no TV and no internet. On top of that, it was Tuesday afternoon, the height of our production week at the office, and we had newspapers to get to the printer and the latest news for our website and our social media to publish.

But how?

We went home Tuesday night, hoping when we returned there would be electricity. The main event that lasted less than two hours gave us little rain, but high winds, and many days of downed trees intertwined with lots of electric lines to remember Isaias by. It seemed like every other local road was blocked.

While Wednesday morning was clear and beautiful, we were in a frenzy at the office. Normally our six papers leave us in turn via email to meet our press time at the printer, but that surely wasn’t happening. We needed power, and we needed the internet. We also needed at least eight more hours of in-house work by our pandemic-shrunken skeletal crew before we could even get to the printer.

I kept reminding myself, at least we we’re all healthy. And the extreme heat had somewhat abated so that we could keep our windows and doors open. Staff poured in and we threw out various suggestions for how to deal with this crisis that had snuck up on us. Well, it almost snuck up except for one staffer who had asked us on Monday how we were going to deal with the coming hurricane. “What hurricane?” I had responded cheerfully. “It’s only going to be a tropical storm!” Dubious, she returned to her desk, knowing how Cassandra must have felt during the Trojan War. Next time I will listen to her.

After we had parsed all the ideas for how to proceed, the one that made the most sense was to get a generator. There then began a furious round of phone calls on our juice-deprived cellphones to try and find one. Good luck! We tried from Hauppauge to Sag Harbor. There was none to be had.

Just when all seemed lost, our sales director remembered an advertiser called appropriately, Generators R Us by North Country Electric, Corp. Desperately we called. Trish Restucci answered the phone and, in the midst of their frenzied day, sensed our great need and remembered they had a small, old one in a closet that just might work. Later her husband, Frank, arrived with it and a can of gasoline and worked tirelessly to get us going. Now the frantic search for extension cords began until we found one long enough to stretch from the generator outside to our server inside, with stops along the way for the various computers.

By the end of the day, we were hooked up and ready to go. And then the power came on.

We at least had the satisfaction of knowing that we had rescued ourselves and had not waited hoping to be rescued in time. Yes, we were able to reach the printer, who rearranged his tightly scheduled press time to fit us in on Thursday afternoon, and we were in readers’ mailboxes and on the newsstands by Friday.

It was a true miracle. It was also the result of extraordinary help. Our heartfelt thank you to our neighbor, Denis Lynch of Setauket Kitchen and Bath, Dolores Stafford and Mike Vincenti of Stafford Associates, the computer wizards, Astrid at Ace Hardware, the post offices, and our saintly printer, among others. It took a village.

It also took the extraordinary energy and creativity of our most loyal and professional news media staff at TBR: our production and art director and her assistant, the editors, the ad director, the circulation manager and her husband, our drivers, the classified director, the webmaster and our general manager. It is an honor to work with you. You are the best!

METRO photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

What’s it like to be a grandparent?

Most of us would say it’s totally wonderful. But it’s not automatic. It’s a club we can’t join on our own. Only through our children’s actions can we be admitted, and for some people, their children are reticent to provide admission. Getting married in one’s 20s and shortly thereafter starting to have children is not the automatic course of events it once was in the last and previous centuries. For others with no children of their own, the surrogate route is available, and that can be deeply satisfying.

I can share with you some of the personal satisfactions. I am grandmother to four, who are in their teens and early 20s. Watching them grow and flower has been as much a miracle to me as their births, and they have expanded my horizons even as they have found their own paths. From my oldest grandson, I have learned a bit about making films since he has become a filmmaker. As you may know, we have even teamed up and collaborated on his movie, “One Life to Give,” about Benjamin Tallmadge, Nathan Hale and the Culper Spy ring.

From my second grandson’s work, I am thrilled to hear how music is made and then distributed to the public. This is his chosen career and our family is enjoying every note. My granddaughter is in college and expresses an interest in psychology, a field in which I have, to my regret, never taken any courses and am eager to learn more about. She is also a marvel to me because she is the first daughter among a team of sons to come along in a couple of generations. And my youngest grandson, still in high school, and I share a passion for baseball. Our only difference: he plays, I watch. And cheer.

Perhaps a less generally articulated satisfaction of being a grandparent is watching our children become parents. They have moved into those roles with the same eagerness and trepidation that their father and I felt. They now know what it is like to put aside their lives for another. As they have done so, they have understood and, I believe, come to appreciate their father and me, which is a nice aside.

Grandparents get to love their grandchildren without any baggage. We can enjoy their development without as much ego and effort as the first time around. We can play with them when they are little, then give them back to their parents when they need some attention. The remarkable thing about that relationship is how much they seem to love us, right from their first breaths on earth.

Grandparents also are the repositories of the culture, origins and values of the family. They offer a link between past and present, and often it is they who bring together families and community with their Sunday dinners and holiday gatherings.

Where are the grandparents now and how are they doing?

Grandparents have been perhaps the most isolated by COVID-19. In the age group deemed most likely to die from the disease, they have been the most careful about staying at home. As a result, grandparents have become almost invisible over the past four months. The only respite for some has been FaceTime or Zoom. If they have the technology, at least they can connect with family and friends digitally.

To honor grandparents and make them more visible during the pandemic, we are producing a special publication in time for Grandparents Day, a national holiday started by Marian McQuade of West Virginia and made official by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. We are inviting residents to send in pictures of their grandparents, and we will print them in the issue of Sept. 10. September was considered appropriate for such a celebration by the Carter administration since grandparents are in the autumn of their lives. And we consider it appropriate to salute them now for their difficult sheltering-in-place.

METRO photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Three men in my life, whom I would normally be hugging a lot this third week in July, are missing. Their birthdays line up nicely for a wonderful celebratory period. First comes my youngest grandson, then four days later my oldest son, and then two days after that, my youngest son. This has provided my family an annual occasion to get together with multiple cakes and dinners, noise and fun activities, usually at my home. But in this Year of the Pandemic, it’s not going to happen in yet another instance of how our lives have changed.

The sad news is that we miss each other’s physical presence. The good news is that we live in a digital age. It could be worse. Not only could we not hug each other, we could not even see each other over the many miles of separation. But thanks to Zoom and the other video platforms, there we are, at least in two dimension and we can talk back and forth with only a tiny lag between voice and picture.

Tuesday night my family did even more than that. When my oldest son was asked by his two boys a couple of weeks ago what he wanted for his birthday, he asked for something that they would make rather than buy. They met his request grandly. They pooled their particular talents, along with those of their friends, and created a four-minute full color animated video in which they mentioned many details of their father’s life set to original hip-hop music. It was a highly personal Happy Birthday card, sent through the ether and bathed in love.

For example, the video mentioned their father’s love of sailing — and in the same frame, of fruit. They slyly referred to his disposal of an unwanted shot of beer in the nearest flower pot. They alluded to his passion for tennis — and for peanuts, which he has been known to carry in his pocket on the drive into work. They generously included those who love him the most in the film, and they ended with half a dozen corny jokes that made us all howl.

Needless to say, in joyfully fulfilling their father’s wish, they brought us all together with the requisite laughter and hijinks. My grandsons and their friends, like so many of the young people today, are not working at their day jobs or are working remotely. In a way, this strange new existence made such a present possible because, coupled with the internet, they had the time and resources for such a creative gift. They were able to adapt to our altered existence and flip the messages that typically would have been sent in birthday cards presented at the party to Tuesday night’s video-sharing.

It makes me realize how quickly so many of us have harnessed our new lives. Many meetings and events are now held, in revamped fashion, on the internet. Education, only recently thought of as unusual if taught over the internet, now looks like it has found a home there. Doctors’ visits, requiring an appointment in a professional office, are now being conducted via telemedicine. Shopping, which has been ever creeping onto the internet, has now in just a couple of months become a way of life there — and not just for a book or a patio umbrella but even for food that is routinely delivered.

Will this exclusively two dimensional existence come to an end? Sure it will, perhaps sooner, perhaps later. The virus has been the driver, and whenever humans have figured out how to overcome the contagion, COVID-19 will just be another disease in the annals of medicine. But as far as the internet goes, you can’t put the cork back into the bottle. We will work more remotely, meet more remotely, be entertained more remotely and otherwise permanently embrace convenient exchanges that can be performed digitally.

One thing is for certain, however. Nothing will ever take the place of a hug.

Stock photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Most of us like to try to peer into the future and see what may lie ahead. That’s one attraction of a world’s fair and of futurist books. One such popular book of half a century ago was “Future Shock,” by Alvin Toffler, which dealt with how people can adapt to changes and even embrace them. During this coronavirus pandemic, the first such in 100 years, consensus seems to be that life will be changed after the disease ends, that this is a defining moment in
our history.

But how will things change?

A columnist for The New York Times, David Leonhardt, tried to provide a few answers this past Sunday in his article entitled. “It’s 2022. What does life look like?” Here is some of what he has to say that you and I can probably agree with, understanding that the timing of a vaccine can, in turn, alter the most clairvoyant of predictions.

Many traditional department stores will disappear. Already weakened by specialty stores like Home Depot or discount stores like Costco, the one-stop of Sears and J.C. Penny have been bypassed by shoppers, who have also embraced the convenience of the internet. Walmart and Amazon are among the world’s richest public companies today. Retailers in general have been stricken by the consumer move to online shopping. As investment guru Warren Buffett has been often quoted, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.”

Retail stores that have just managed to hang on will now experience a death blow. This could be devastating for shopping malls that depend on retailers’ rent. Of course, after a vaccine frees people to go shopping as something more like recreation, those retailers who provide an “experience” along with their goods for sale will have a better chance of surviving and even thriving. The demise of small retailers will have a huge impact on villages and unemployment, I believe. Many residents across the country work in their local stores.

Another change will be in higher education, according to Leonhardt. Dozens of colleges, private and public, despite being heavily subsidized by government, are in trouble. There are a couple of reasons. While college enrollment has pretty consistently been growing in the United States since the Civil War, in the last decade undergraduate numbers have fallen, the result of fewer births and, I believe, of a reconsideration of the value of pricey college education. Colleges have lost the revenue from summer school, from food service and parking fees. Of greatest concern is the imminent reduction of state aid due to stricken state budgets. The big question now is whether colleges will be able to bring back students for fall classes. If they cannot return, revenue is likely to drop sharply. Remote learning was not as successful or satisfying as was hoped. This could have severe implications for the educational level of the next generation of Americans.

The positive side of the remote coin can be found among white collar workers, many of whom will prefer to work at least part of the week from home in the future. There will be less business commuting, less travel with attendant fatigue, less cost. But that will negatively affect commercial real estate, the airlines and hotels.

The third at-risk industry, in Leonhardt’s view is local newspapers. “Between 2008 and 2019, American newspapers eliminated about half of all newsroom jobs. The virus has led to more job cuts — and could end up forcing dozens more papers to fold … If that happens, their cities will be left without perhaps the only major source of information about local politics, business, education and the like.” To what end? “Corruption and political polarization tend to rise while voter turnout tends to fall,” says Leonhardt. In short, the community begins to shrivel.

The solution, as we see the future, is to embrace change and make it work for us. That is why we here at the local newspapers are also the popular news website, tbrnewsmedia.com with almost 150,000 unique viewers a month. We are the sponsors of several social platforms and the innovators of such valued print products as the 2020 graduation supplement and the TBR Artists Coloring Book released in the last month alone. With, and only with your support, we at Times Beacon Record News Media are here to stay.

Stock photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Those businesses that qualified for a paycheck protection program (PPP) loan have had a bit of a honeymoon from the novel coronavirus these last eight weeks. They were allowed to apply to the government for two months plus 50 percent of their labor costs. From that money they had to pay at least 60 percent to workers to cover payroll, with the remainder underwriting other expenses like utilities, payroll taxes and leases.

So the employers who received the payments could relax during those two months, and the employees could also stop holding their breaths, knowing that their salaries would be paid. And the government would keep the workers employed. At least that was how it was supposed to work, and it did, except when the weekly unemployment insurance payments were greater than the weekly salaries and proved too much of a temptation to the employee. In those cases, the employer was in competition with the government and, depending on the worker’s loyalty and long term concern about holding onto a job, the employer would often lose. 

But the program was essentially a good one. The funds, paid to the businesses and-in turn to their employees, kept the work force together and saved the workers from the frustrations of trying to collect unemployment. 

The original thinking was that the pandemic would probably lessen after two months and businesses could resume as normal. Well, we now know how that turned out. The pandemic is still with us, although New York is in a much better condition at the moment than most of the rest of the country, but economic activity has not returned to anything like normal, and with social distancing, looks unlikely to return soon. 

For many of those businesses, the PPP honeymoon is almost over. How do we prevent a return to the layoffs, loss of company health insurance and nail biting of the pre-PPP days? 

The good thing about a pandemic is that the whole world is in the same situation, and we can look around and see how other countries are coping or trying to cope. The U.S. has relied on an expanded program of unemployment insurance to tide over workers until the economy resurrects itself. Many European countries have prevented joblessness by essentially nationalizing payrolls and enabling workers to continue to be paid and businesses to resume whenever that happy day comes, without having to rehire and possibly retrain. Workers are often furloughed if there is no work at the shuttered shops and factories, meaning that their jobs will be held for them and they continue to receive their salary, although generally at a reduced amount. 

In short, Europeans have been pursuing an extended PPP. Workers have not overwhelmed the unemployment insurance system, caused websites to crash, phones to go unanswered, lost health coverage, nor have they stood the requisite six feet apart in the hot sun on long lines in parking lots, waiting to get into benefit offices. There is also the intangible but priceless advantage of workers not feeling jobless, with the fear and loss of identity that often brings. 

And today, many feel just that. The U.S. number in June for jobless was 11.1 percent. That’s an increase of some eight percent since February. In the aforementioned European countries, the jobless rate has increased by less than 1 percent. In human terms, that means some 20 million Americans are unemployed. While that’s better than 23 million in April, probably almost all of those people have families who also will feel the effects as tenants begin to be evicted and queues form for food banks. 

We don’t know what is going to happen in the next few weeks, as government programs for business and unemployment benefits run out if not extended. The $600 federal unemployment boost is supposed to end July 31. Congress is debating whether to extend the time or modify the payout, even as some worry that paying workers more than their salary is a disincentive to work.

Just remember, we are in this together. Hang on and stay safe.

METRO photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

O! say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,

O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?

And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, that is the first stanza of our national anthem, the star-spangled banner. It has been my experience, at ballgames and other public gatherings (remember those?) where the anthem has played, that many Americans do not know all the words. In fact, not a lot of the words. In truth, not any of the words beyond the first two sentences. Confess: that’s you or your spouse or your children.

Now there is always a story behind every creation. In honor of our nation’s upcoming birthday, I thought I would tell you some of the controversial story and remind you of the words of at least the first and last of the four stanzas written by Francis Scott Key.

So who was Francis Scott Key and how did he come to write these words?

Key was a good-looking, rich American lawyer, author and amateur poet who was from Frederick, Maryland. Born August 1, 1779, three years after the start of the Revolutionary War, he lived to be 63, dying at the beginning of 1843. He was married to Mary (“Polly”) Tayloe Lloyd and they had eleven children. Incidentally, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a distant relative.

We remember that we learned of Key viewing the attack by the British on Fort McHenry from a ship outside Baltimore during the brief War of 1812, and how he could not tell, through the dark night, if the fort had fallen to the enemy. But at dawn, when he saw the flag still flying, he was inspired to write the poem in 1814 that was to become our national song.

His friends called him “Frank,” which often blended with Key to come out “Frankie.” He had a high profile, having been part of Andrew Jackson’s Kitchen Cabinet, the unofficial advisers who were so influential. He defended a young Sam Houston in court on the latter’s trial over beating up an Ohio congressman. He was U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, and he prosecuted the would-be assassin of President Jackson, who by the way was a Southern slaveholder.

Key, as a youth, had almost become an Episcopal priest, helped found two seminaries and wrote about poetry’s influence on religion. He also had a complicated and contradictory relationship with slavery. He personally owned six slaves, though he allegedly opposed the practice and eventually set them all free. Yet he did not do so for the many slaves his wife inherited and who worked the farm that provided much of the family’s income. He represented slaves for free in court who were trying to win their freedom, yet he was bitterly opposed to the abolitionist movement, and as U.S. district attorney, challenged its efforts. He strongly supported the colonization of former slaves in Africa, helping to found the colony of Liberia.

It is no surprise, then, that in the recent rush to tear down statues, his was toppled on Friday, June 19, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Today we have come to recognize that the imperfect Key is inseparably linked with slavery and pride in our nation.

O thus be it ever when free men shall stand

Between their lov’d homes and the war’s desolation!

Bless’d with victory and peace, may the Heaven-rescued land

Praise the Power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto: “In God is our trust!”

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Deer tick. Stock photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Early Sunday morning, I had a close encounter with a tick. Now I know this is a bonanza season for ticks because we have had so much rain this past spring and there is lush greenery for the ticks to inhabit. Also, we have run articles cautioning readers about ticks and how the symptoms of Lyme disease so closely mimic those of COVID-19. I can advise you further that when you find a tick in bed with you that has already attached itself onto your person, you will experience shock and maybe even the creepy-crawlies.

Additionally, I could feel the lump, but because of its location, I could not see it. So since it was early and I was still more than half asleep, I tried to persuade myself that I could go back to sleep and we could deal with it later. But no, my brain was already on high alert and nudged me out of bed and to a full length mirror. 

Yep, it was a tick, tiny but unmistakable. Ech! What to do next? I have pulled them off my dogs many times over the years, but this one was smaller and out of reach. I googled “Tickssuck.org,” which told me not to slather it with Vaseline in order to smother it into releasing its hold on me, which I had done with the dogs. Instead it recommended getting tweezers, placing one tip under the head of the tick and carefully extract the beastie. Not wanting to wake the household, I found a smaller hand mirror, a pair of tweezers and a plastic bag to save the tick for diagnosis.

It was not pretty. I was in a convoluted position just to see the spot, and while one hand had to hold the mirror, the other could only fumble around with the tweezers. Somehow, after repeated stabs, I was able to yank the tick free, but I had left the head, the toxic part, still in my skin. I carefully, or so I thought, moved the tweezers toward the plastic bag only to have the tick slip out and fall onto the small bathroom rug at my feet. I uttered a not-so-nice word as I bent down to find the arachnid. After intense scrutiny, I could not find it. I carried the fluffy rug, carefully as you might imagine, out the front door and put it down in the sunlight. I saw nothing and was about to give up when I spied it and this time bagged it.

What did I do next? I sat down back inside my house and considered throwing up. Not a good idea in the living room. I considered going to a hospital emergency room but dismissed the thought in this time of real emergencies. I had the specimen, it was no longer attached, it would make a good story when everyone was awake, and I would wait until the beginning of the week to see a physician.

Monday morning, I tried to get an appointment. “When are you free in August?” I was asked sweetly by the receptionist. There ensued a lengthy exchange about 72 hours being critical for treatment, followed by a couple of phone calls back and forth throughout the day and finally a Tuesday slot. “Yes, it appears the head of the tick is still there, in the center of the red circle,” confirmed the physician who was good enough to squeeze me into his already overbooked schedule. “Would you like to wait until your body extrudes the head, which normally happens with a foreign substance in the skin, or would you like me to anesthetize the area and cut it out?” he asked. “Makes no difference.”

Well, it did make a difference to me, and I opted to wait. I left with two doxycycline and the warning to make sure the red spot doesn’t turn into a rash, to call immediately if it does for a full 21-day prescription, and an order for a blood test for Lyme after six weeks will have passed.

I share this with you to urge you every night to check yourself and your loved ones for ticks.

Photo from METRO

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Sunday is Father’s Day. When I think of my father, one of the most immediate memories I have of him is of his telling us stories. He loved to talk about his childhood days growing up on a dairy farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. One of nine children, he distinguished himself with his claim as “the middle child,” and made his adventures sound daring and riveting. Somehow he and his siblings always survived, always came through relatively unscathed. And the conclusions to the stories were inevitably happy ones.

For example, there was the time the six boys climbed to the peak of the hill behind their farmhouse, arranged themselves onto an oversized sled and careened down on the hard-packed snow. It was great fun until they saw a train in the distance coming along the track at the bottom of the mountain. Their oldest brother, sitting in the front, quickly calculated the speed of the sled and the speed of the train and shouted a command to those behind him: “Jump off to the left when I count to three.” They obeyed and huddled together watching, as down below the rushing train crushed the sled crossing in its path.

Then there was the day my dad and a couple of his schoolmates climbed atop the one-room schoolhouse roof and jumped down in front of their young teacher just as she was arriving for the day. She screamed, which was satisfying to his buddies, but my dad also screamed as, barefoot, he landed on a glass shard. His father, who was of necessity the “emergency room doctor” for his family, isolated as they were in the rural farmland, stitched his foot and spooked him by saying that he would bear the scar of that misadventure “all the rest of his life.” To my young father, that sounded more ominous than the pain of his sole being sewn up. If we begged, he would show us the jagged scar, evidence of his exciting youth.

What would he say about living through the present pandemic? It still feels like a dream, this novel coronavirus, from which we will shortly awake. I pinch myself, but I know I am not dreaming. For sure these times require daring just to go shopping in the supermarket, and judging by the amount of media coverage, are also riveting.

For many, sheltering in place has proven to be most difficult. Those who like to be in motion constantly are now restrained to their few rooms and a daily walk. Relationships with spouses or others sharing the house or apartment may have become strained to the breaking point. In Wuhan, China, made famous as the origin of COVID-19 for example, suits for divorce have increased appreciably compared to the preceding year. There has been an uptick in the use of alcohol and drugs in the U.S. by those feeling isolated or lonely or simply in limbo from their normal lives. Depression is an increasing complaint.

Yet others, at the same time, have found the pandemic a time for reevaluation of their lives. They have slowed down from their frenetic pace, deepened relationships with partners and children and colleagues, and if they have been fortunate enough not to have anyone fall ill, and to keep their jobs, perhaps have seen a new way occasionally to work: remotely from home or elsewhere in the world. They have probably saved some money by not venturing out to shop, dine or vacation and have maybe enjoyed some healthy home cooking.

There is a better prospect ahead. After all, we are in Phase Two now. It appears that Phase Three is on the immediate horizon. By wearing masks in public, practicing social distancing and avoiding crowded indoor settings, and by sheltering those who would be most vulnerable, we seem now to be co-existing with the virus, at least until a vaccine becomes available or sufficient herd immunity evolves.

How would my dad tell this story? I believe he would share his experience as a great adventure, even as he would hold up his scar.

METRO photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

This is the year we all disappeared behind our masks. “Who is that masked man?” people would ask about the Lone Ranger, as he rode the range decades ago in every child’s imagination and kept the peace. Now they might ask the same question of us, masked men and women and children, as we peacefully go about our new freedoms of shopping and ordering meals for alfresco dining. We are not always immediately recognizable behind the variety of face coverings we see on the streets. The importance of wearing a mask has been accepted by almost everyone, and with good reason. An example of the benefits can be found in Japan.

According to Motoko Rich, a reporter for The New York Times, face coverings are common in Japan during flu and hay fever seasons, on crowded public transportation when commuters commonly have colds and even when women “don’t want to bother putting on makeup.” Mask sightings are routine.

Could that be the explanation for Japan’s surprisingly low number of victims of COVID-19 compared to other countries?

Initially, we Americans were advised not to wear masks, that they were unnecessary and should be saved for hospital workers. We all know what happened next. Cases of novel coronavirus spiked and the number of deaths exceeded the capacity of morgues and funeral homes for weeks. We were directed to shelter-in-place. Yet in Japan, which did not order a lockdown or massive testing or emphasize social distancing, and kept karaoke bars open and public transportation packed, terrible spikes in cases and deaths did not occur. The numbers there were 17,000 infections and 900 deaths. Yes, they have a smaller population, but in the United States, whose residents number two-and-one-half times that of Japan, some 1.9 million have fallen ill and 110,000 have died.

Eventually bars and businesses did close, and schools were shut early, as cultural and sports events were canceled, but note that none of those restrictions was mandatory. What the people did do was to nearly universally don masks. That response follows a cultural tradition of hundreds of years. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, mining workers used masks to prevent inhaling dust. The Japanese wore them during the 1918 flu epidemic and more recently during SARS and MERS outbreaks, as well as to protect against pollution and pollen. The country was “relatively unscathed,” during the epidemics, according to Motoko Rich.

Members of the scientific community weigh in on the matter. “I think there is definitely evidence coming out of COVID that Japan, as well as other countries which practice mask-wearing, tend to do much better in flattening the curve,” said  Akiko Iwasaki, a professor of immunobiology at Yale, as quoted in the NYT. 

Masks can block respiratory droplets that are emitted when people speak, cough or sneeze. Those droplets may carry the virus, even when the wearer has no symptoms, and hence transmit the disease if not captured by the mask.

The reporter goes on to emphasize that masks alone are not sufficient to prevent disease, that social distancing is also required. Even with masks, crowds are a danger for the spread of infection. It will be informative to learn the unintended health consequences of the many protests against racism, triggered by George Floyd’s death under the knee of a police officer, that have occurred over the past two weeks. Most of those protesters, crowded together, seemed to be wearing masks.

From my travels to Japan, I would add a couple of cultural differences to this story. We found the Japanese to bow rather than shake hands and to be a little physically distant with each other rather than hugging often. Their country is, for the most part, amazingly clean and uncluttered, and they seem fastidious about themselves. These traits would also argue in favor of less contagion when disease is present.

I would also like to predict that masks — designer, decorated, color coordinated, whatever — will be with us well after the pandemic ends.

Hundreds of protesters stand at the corner of Routes 112 and 347 in Port Jefferson Station Monday, June 1 to protest police violence, especially against people of color. Photo by David Luces

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

This year will be remembered in much the same way as 2001, 1968 and even 1941 are remembered. And the year is not even half over yet. Those were years when we were embroiled in conflict; we the people of the United States of America. In 1968, we experienced internal strife, with protesters taking to the streets against the Vietnam War and racism in society. The other two historic years, the strife came from outside the country. This year we have both.

It required protests in 140 cities across the nation, triggered by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, to push aside the daily counts of illness and death from COVID-19 at the top of the news. And like 1968, this is a year of national elections, so throw in a heavy dose of politics into a climate of extreme political partisanship.

Peaceful demonstrations catalyzed by grief and anger at the video proof of police officers killing George Floyd, a black man in their custody, have morphed in many instances into chaotic and often deadly attacks on police as they try to control rioting, vandalism, fires and looting in the cities. 

Protesters have sometimes tried to stop looters, adding to the wrestling for control of the streets. And all of that is happening as more than 100,000 Americans have died and close to two million have been sickened, victims of the coronavirus. The possibility of a spike in the pandemic from the gathering of crowds pouring out of their sheltering-in-place homes in protest is another concern for health officials. The situation is certainly not helped by the more than 40 million people now unemployed. Disease, economic challenges and social unrest are combining to inflame our country.

Where do we go from here?

For our health problem, the answers are simpler. As our lives become more liberated by the phased openings, we must still maintain caution during our comings and goings. We need to wear masks when interacting with others, even one other. We must practice social distancing of at least 6 feet of separation when we are with others who are new to our antiviral sheltering circle. We can get tested more easily now should symptoms prompt such action. We should continue to diligently wash our hands, especially after touching any common surfaces, like doorknobs or railings. And extra resources must be given to areas with extra caseloads.

The racism problem is not so straightforward. It has been embedded in our country since before its founding, and it will take much more than words to alleviate. 

We need to work together across communities to root out discrimination and inequalities in health care, educational access, employment opportunities and policing. That starts with the birth of each baby in a safe and professional environment, and follows that child through pre-school right up through full schooling with competent teachers, administrators and resources, jobs that can pay at least a living wage and housing in a safe and pleasant neighborhood.

Is it possible for societies to do all that?

Many systems have been tried to help level the playing field. None of them has worked so far. While all people might have equal rights, not all people have equal abilities or equal good luck. Some will always be better off than others. Democracy offers vital freedoms and choices. But the will of the majority must always be accompanied by protection for the rights of minorities. Good governments can do that. Capitalism offers rewards for enterprise. But good government must control its excesses. Presumably we can all agree on these principles.

But how do we end bigotry?

Racism is bigotry based on differences of skin color. Anti-Semitism is based on differences of religion, as is anti-Catholicism and anti-Muslimism and countless other theological beliefs. People kill each other over such defining differences. At different times in human history, such bigotry seems to lessen. People intermarry, live together in diverse communities, even vote each other into office.

But bigotry doesn’t disappear. It merely slumbers, like a pandemic gone underground. If we are to survive as a species, we must first unite.