2020
April
10
Friday

Monitor Daily Podcast

April 10, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

Love (of pets) in a time of coronavirus

Today’s stories include a look at how governors have stepped up during the crisis, how Britain’s pandemic battle is stirring a nation of volunteers, the effect on protest movements around the world, a survey of how small businesses on one Massachusetts street are tightening belts to survive, and a Good Friday essay on how a pastor of a 400-year-old church has learned new ways to minister.

Two weeks ago in this space I wrote about Chester, a foster beagle my family was about to take in to help him and us through the trials of sheltering in place. Chester sparked a lot of audience response, and so I’m happy to report today that he has fit right in to our menagerie. At this very moment he is patrolling the backyard with lead beagle Lucy, defending his new home against adversaries, real and imagined. 

His bark ends in a kind of howl. He sleeps on one of my sons’ beds. He leans against your legs when he wants to be petted.

Animals are soothing in trying circumstances. In mid-March, after we all started working from home, a Monitor staffer created an internal Slack channel labeled “pets.” Staffers can swap pictures and comments about their cats, dogs, and in at least one case, their hedgehog. Looking at others’ pets seems to foster a bit of togetherness.

And simple pleasures like that remain important in this serious time. Cat videos, for instance, may seem trivial, but they bring joy that cannot be denied. Even Werner Herzog, famed German film director and author, says he feels “rejuvenated” after watching them. 

That brings us to the closing point: Have you watched the dog videos narrated by BBC sportscaster Andrew Cotter? Where, deadpan, he describes – invents really – eating and chew bone competitions between his Labradors? If you haven’t you must. They are A1 shut-in entertainment. Chester is a huge fan.

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In scramble for supplies, states start banding together

During disasters, the federal government backs up the states. But when the crisis is nationwide, a lack of coordination can lead to mayhem. Some are pushing for an overarching “czar,” as states scramble to fill the gaps.

Peter

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The nation’s multi-layered, federalist form of government is facing the test of a lifetime, as states grapple with shortages of equipment and are banding together to do what the federal government can’t or won’t do for them. 

A depleted Strategic National Stockpile has states competing among themselves and with the federal government for personal protective equipment. “They’re losing out to the entity that told them to buy it. It’s just bonkers,” says Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development and a former Obama-era official.

Still, states are rising to the occasion and helping each other. In the Midwest, a consortium of states is working together on purchasing supplies to avoid competition that drives up prices. In the West, the governors of Oregon and California have been loaning ventilators to other states as their case loads recede.

Last Saturday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown tweeted that she was sending 140 ventilators to New York, noting that her state was “in a better position right now.” 

Vice President Pence applauded the move at that day’s briefing. Oregon, he said, was acting “in the very highest American tradition of loving your neighbor.”

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1. In scramble for supplies, states start banding together

President Donald Trump calls himself a “wartime president” against an “invisible enemy,” the novel coronavirus.  

Indeed, there is no disputing the warlike nature of the threat, as governments around the globe and at all levels in the United States, along with the private sector, nonprofits, and individuals rally to save as many lives as possible and defeat the adversary. 

But in the U.S., beneath this picture of resolve and shared sacrifice lies a stark reality: The nation’s multilayered, federalist form of government is facing the test of a lifetime, as states grapple with shortages of equipment and are banding together to do what the federal government can’t or won’t do for them. 

The depletion of the Strategic National Stockpile and the inability of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to fill these needs has forced such action, governors say. In the Midwest, a consortium of states is working together on purchasing supplies to avoid competition that drives up prices. 

In the West, the governors of Oregon and California have swung into action, loaning ventilators to other states as their case loads recede. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California is also using his state’s purchasing power to acquire millions of pieces of protective equipment for his own state’s use and potentially for neighboring states. 

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

To veterans of past public health emergencies, the scramble for supplies reflects a flat-footed U.S. response born of overconfidence after past epidemics, such as SARS, were thwarted with minimal American casualties. 

Delays in testing set back the U.S. response by weeks, and as the outbreak grew, the nation’s command-and-control systems were simply not up to the task, says Dr. Elias Zerhouni, former director of the National Institutes of Health under President George W. Bush.

“You win the war not by heroics,” Dr. Zerhouni says. “You win the war by good logistics.” 

And it’s logistics that have proved painfully challenging to the U.S.’s multi-tiered, federal-state-local system of government, in which each piece plays a critical role. During disasters, states are supposed to take the lead and the federal government is meant to serve as a backup. But when the disaster is nationwide – in fact, global – the potential for the system being swamped was always high. 

“A statewide or regional disaster is one thing, but an emergency that affects all 50 states is something else,” says Joshua Sharfstein, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “The federal government is supposed to provide the framework for the states to act in. On that, the government has in many ways largely abdicated.” 

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his state saw its first daily decrease in intensive care hospitalizations during the coronavirus outbreak, at his daily briefing in Rancho Cordova, Calif., Thursday, April 9, 2020. He went on to say the state's hospitals have thousands of ventilators available should the number of patients suddenly surge again.

Even in regional disasters, a strong federal response can prove essential, as it was in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast and state and local authorities proved unable to manage the disaster. Often, then, it’s the leaders involved who can make or break a situation. 

Looking at today’s pandemic, “I don’t think any disarray, such as it is, is caused by federalism,” says Ilya Shapiro, a constitutional scholar at the libertarian CATO Institute in Washington. The federal government’s job is to look out for the country as a whole, while the governors need the flexibility to do what’s right for their state, he notes. New York is not South Dakota. 

Part of the challenge today comes with the Trump administration’s multiple chains of command: President Trump puts himself out front daily in televised briefings, making himself the prime authority. He’s backed by a White House Coronavirus Task Force that has many coordinators, including Vice President Mike Pence, Dr. Deborah Birx, and various Cabinet members and other presidential advisers who handle different aspects of the response. 

Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner also has a hand in the task force, and caused a flap recently when he scolded states for not building up their own stockpiles of supplies. The Strategic National Stockpile, he said, is “supposed to be our stockpile – it’s not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use.” The Department of Health and Human Services soon changed its website to reflect his comments, adding more tension with states.

When asked about logistics, the president used to point to the director of FEMA, Pete Gaynor. But more recently, it’s been Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, the supply chain task force lead at FEMA, and Adm. Brett Giroir, the coronavirus “testing czar.”

Even amid a national crisis, Mr. Trump has continued his rampage against inspectors general, who are meant to be a semi-independent check on federal government activities. Last week, he fired the inspector general of the intelligence community, fallout from his agitation over impeachment. On Tuesday, he fired the inspector general meant to oversee the group charged with monitoring the coronavirus relief fund. The day before, at his briefing, he attacked the acting inspector general of HHS, who had released a report about hospitals facing severe shortages of equipment needed to fight the pandemic.

Veterans of past disasters point to the need for an overarching “czar” – such as a high-ranking military figure – who has the president’s full confidence and superior organizational skill. 

Adm. Thad Allen, former commandant of the Coast Guard, served that function for both the second President Bush, during Katrina, and President Barack Obama, during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. 

In a podcast with the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition, Admiral Allen notes that the two presidents he served had different styles, but there was a common denominator: the need to separate the disaster from political concerns, have the authority to set up the appropriate framework, and execute the plan. His motto: Every crisis is an exercise in applied civics.

“Both gave me wide rein to figure out what the problem was, make recommendations to them, speak frankly to the American people, and be held accountable and be removed if I wasn’t doing the job,” Admiral Allen says.  

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has pressed Mr. Trump to appoint a top military figure to run the pandemic response, but so far to no avail.  

Admiral Allen responds carefully when asked if he’d be willing to come out of retirement to lead the U.S. response on COVID-19. 

“Some of the basic tenets that allowed me to be successful may or may not exist in this current administration,” the admiral says, noting specifically the ability to speak freely and honestly with the American people. If the conditions were right, he said, he’d “always consider helping the country out.” 

Other past disaster-response officials are less diplomatic when looking at today’s crisis. 

“The federal government has to take ownership of this response, because it’s a national level crisis,” says Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development and a former Obama-era foreign aid official. “But it can’t do that if the president isn’t willing to step up. It seems like the president wants the attention but not the responsibility.” 

A depleted Strategic National Stockpile also has states competing among themselves and with the federal government for personal protective equipment. “They’re losing out to the entity that told them to buy it. It’s just bonkers,” says Mr. Konyndyk.

But faced with the reality of needing to be proactive on supplies, states are rising to the occasion and helping each other. Last Saturday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown tweeted that she was sending 140 ventilators to New York, a global hot spot for the virus, noting that her state was “in a better position right now.” 

Vice President Pence applauded the move at that day’s briefing. Oregon, he said, was acting “in the very highest American tradition of loving your neighbor.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

As Britain battles a pandemic, a volunteer spirit stirs

The United Kingdom has been riven by the Brexit debate in recent years, and the coronavirus pandemic has only added a new element of uncertainty. But the country is finding common cause against the virus.

Peter
Jason Cairnduff/Reuters
People applaud as the Harland and Wolff shipyard horn sounds in support of the NHS in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on April 9, 2020, while the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues. The horn has not been sounded properly in 20 years and is the loudest siren in Belfast.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent this week in the hospital, raising concerns about political stability amid a pandemic. His is one of 65,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.K. Mr. Johnson’s condition has improved, and that may provide some relief for a country that only recently emerged from years of political turmoil over its exit from the European Union. 

Every Thursday night, U.K. residents on lockdowns emerge from their homes to clap and cheer the doctors and nurses of the National Health Service. That sense of unity was reinforced by a rare public address last Sunday by Queen Elizabeth II that was warmly received by many. 

At the same time, hundreds of thousands of citizens recently volunteered to support the pandemic response, far more than the government had anticipated. That sense of solidarity was referenced by the monarch in language that invoked the sacrifices of World War II. “While we may have still more to endure, better days will return. ... We will meet again,” she said.

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2. As Britain battles a pandemic, a volunteer spirit stirs

Across the United Kingdom, as the COVID-19 crisis has bitten deeper, its citizens have started a new ritual: Emerging from self-isolation every Thursday night at 8 p.m. to clap, cheer, and bang pots and pans to show support for the country’s front-line doctors and nurses.

Each week the crescendo of gratitude has grown louder, sometimes punctuated by the blast of fireworks, filling otherwise becalmed neighborhoods briefly with appreciative noise for those at the tip of the spear, as they battle the spread of the coronavirus.

But as the death toll today hit a single-day U.K. record of 980 – and with the peak death rate still estimated to be two weeks away – the crisis caused by the scale of the pandemic has been compounded here by a new degree of political uncertainty. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was admitted to the hospital on Sunday and has spent his days and nights in intensive care fighting the virus, surrounded by the doctors and nurses of the National Health Service.

“They’ve had a tough week,” said Joan, a 60-something Briton, as she banged on a frying pan on her west London porch last night, referring to key workers. “They’re amazing,” she said, as her suburban neighborhood joined in the rallying cry.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

The U.K. is not alone in showing newfound public affection for key workers, nor in facing an unprecedented public health emergency that has, in Europe, especially ravaged Italy, Spain, and France. A recent U.K. government appeal for 250,000 volunteers to help the NHS cope yielded an army of 750,000 would-be helpers, precipitating a temporary stop to clear the backlog.

But the pandemic finds the U.K. at a politically precarious moment, as a nation finally emerging from 3 1/2 years of political gridlock over its chaotic departure from the European Union. A December election that gave a decisive victory to Mr. Johnson and the ruling Conservative Party added clarity to a Brexit mandate and was seen by many as a potential first step in healing deep divisions in Britain’s political and social fabric.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
An image of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and quotes from her historic television broadcast commenting on the coronavirus pandemic are displayed on a big screen behind the Eros statue at Piccadilly Circus in London on April 9, 2020.

Acknowledging the impact of the coronavirus on daily lives, Queen Elizabeth II, in a rare address on Sunday, praised the “national spirit” and thanked NHS and care workers, whose “every hour” of hard work “brings us closer to a return to a more normal time.”

Calling on citizens to “remain united and resolute” to overcome the pandemic, she sought to provide comfort. “While we may have still more to endure, better days will return. ... We will meet again,” she said.

“Who’s in charge now?”

Yet within an hour of hearing those words that would resonate widely, Britons learned that Mr. Johnson had been rushed to the hospital, raising the specter of a leadership vacuum that, amid the pandemic, renewed a sense of political uncertainty.

The sense of uncertainty “operates on a number of levels, and they’re all destabilizing,” says Steven Fielding, an expert on British politics and political history at the University of Nottingham.

“The very fact that the prime minister had been taken to hospital was something people genuinely found a bit disturbing,” says Professor Fielding.

“They were concerned about how decisions would be made, and obviously political journalists have been trying to follow, ‘Who’s actually in charge now?’” he says. For others, it was more symbolic: If the prime minister could fall seriously ill, so could everyone.

Mr. Johnson was returned to a normal hospital ward late Thursday after spending three nights in intensive care. His father, Stanley Johnson, told the BBC today how touched he had been by the outpouring of support the family had received, and said his son would need time to fully recover.

Jon Super/AP
A man on a bike takes a photo of a NHS sign printed on a road near the newly setup coronavirus Nightingale Hospital North West in Manchester, England, on April 9, 2020.

The U.K.’s unwritten constitution does not spell out a clear succession process if a prime minister is incapacitated.

Mr. Johnson had already shepherded several key decisions about the national lockdown, and a £350 million financial rescue package that was adopted by lawmakers on March 17. That means, for now, that Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is deputized to act for Mr. Johnson, is unlikely to have to make any critical moves.

Nearly 9,000 people have died from the virus in the U.K., with more than 65,000 confirmed cases.

With the Easter weekend looming, Mr. Raab said Thursday a decision to ease restrictions was at least another week away. He told a press briefing that he had not spoken to Mr. Johnson since he was admitted to the hospital, but that the government has “got this covered.” Mr. Raab said he has “all the authority I need” to make decisions.

Indeed, Mr. Johnson’s temporary incapacitation “is not necessarily a crisis for the British political system,” says Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of government at King’s College, London, in an analysis for Foreign Policy that tabulates the absences of past prime ministers.

During World War II, for example, Winston Churchill had bouts of pneumonia, and in 1953, an incapacitating stroke, but remained prime minister on both occasions, even as others were deputized to preside.

Austerity budget blues

But severe social inequalities across the U.K., a wealthy country that has pockets of deep deprivation not seen in its European peers, may have lasting, post-crisis impact. 

When Mr. Johnson was shown clapping for health workers last Thursday at the door of 10 Downing Street, for example, social media erupted with charges of hypocrisy, pointing to a decade of Conservative-led austerity budgets that especially pared down the NHS.

Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/AP
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson claps outside 11 Downing Street during a moment of applause for workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic in London on April 2, 2020.

There is a shortage of intensive care beds, and some health care workers have been forced to buy their own protective gear. A survey of nearly 3,500 nurses published Friday found that two-thirds did not feel they had access to sufficient safety equipment. Just under a third had bought their own.

And a Royal College of Nursing study last September that found a shortage of 40,000 nurses in England alone.

“From defunding nurse training to selling off parts of the NHS to private companies, the Tory party in power has hobbled the healthcare system’s ability to deal with the everyday, let alone the exceptional,” wrote one Guardian columnist last week.

That has meant online skepticism of social media campaigns like #PrayForBoris.

Still, citizens have rallied together, evoking the memories of the spirit of community and selfless volunteerism that rose during World War II, which were echoed by the queen.

Revisiting the Blitz spirit 

Yet it remains to be seen how deeply British society might change after the pandemic threat recedes, if World War II is any guide. “I wouldn’t like to say it’s a new kind of spirit,” says Professor Fielding, who has authored several books on Britain’s postwar political history.

Back then, people had discovered purpose and solidarity in a conflict that followed a period that poet W.H. Auden called a “low dishonest decade,” in which those qualities were seen as missing in action.

“People are volunteering to go into bombers to fly over Germany and face almost near-certain death, in order to win this war, on behalf of everybody,” says Mr. Fielding. “They’re literally sacrificing their lives.

“And people said at the time: ‘We’ve now got a new kind of citizenship, which will go forward into the world, after the war.’ It didn’t quite work out like that, so people went back largely to how they had been before,” he says.

“But the crisis did reveal some people’s capacity to think about others, rather than themselves. And, of course, that is quite inspiring.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Coronavirus gives some protesters new mission: Preserving life

This particular season of discontent is not conducive to conventional mass protests. But social action groups dedicated to the common good are finding the means, and new directions, to refocus their energies – temporarily.

Peter

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From Senegal to Santiago, from Hong Kong to New Delhi, streets that over the past year brimmed with protests have gone mostly silent amid the coronavirus pandemic. But activists and experts say the quiet does not mean the movements have died out. Rather the mass protests are likely to come back once conditions allow.

Not only have few of the protesters’ demands been addressed, experts say, but in many places the pandemic has only underscored some of their grievances, including indifferent government and the growing divide between haves and have-nots.

“The activists who organized these movements aren’t going away, and their underlying grievances aren’t going away. So there’s little reason to think that the global discontent was a blip that won’t survive the coronavirus pandemic,” says Jonathan Pinckney at the United States Institute of Peace.

In Senegal, the group Y’en a Marre has switched its message from demanding transparent democracy to the more pressing need of promoting good social-distancing practices. “The time for protest and mass demonstrations will return,” says Fadel Barro, one of the group’s founders and leaders. “But for now our aim has to be to preserve life.”

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3. Coronavirus gives some protesters new mission: Preserving life

Just over a month ago, Senegal’s social action group Y’en a Marre – “Fed Up” in French – was spearheading mass street demonstrations to protest everything from unresponsive government and public-sector corruption to high electricity bills.

These days taking it to the streets is no longer feasible, as governments around the globe ban large public gatherings in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But that does not mean the musicians, rappers, journalists, and other activists comprising Y’en a Marre have gone silent.

Au contraire.

Now the group known for its protest songs and for rallying Senegalese youth to action is adapting to address what Y’en a Marre’s leaders say is the West African nation’s biggest immediate threat.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

“Right now there is a lot of denial in Senegal. People aren’t taking the epidemic seriously. So we have decided to switch gears to get vital information out there and be of public utility,” says Fadel Barro, one of Y’en a Marre’s founders and leaders.

A song list that before demanded a transparent democracy now promotes good social-distancing practices and implores Senegalese youth to stay home and meet with friends online. Y’en a Marre organizes car caravans from which musicians, one per car, perform the new songs as they cruise from one neighborhood to another.

“The time for protest and mass demonstrations will return,” adds Mr. Barro, “but for now our aim has to be to preserve life.”

From Senegal to Santiago, from Hong Kong to New Delhi, streets that over the past year brimmed with an unprecedented wave of protests and discontent have gone mostly silent. But activists in many of these hotbeds of public dissatisfaction, as well as experts studying the global phenomenon, say the quiet does not mean the movements have died out.

Less like annuals that last but one season and more like perennials whose roots have been established and will grow again, they say, the mass protests are likely to come back once conditions allow.

Not only have few of the demands that sparked the protests been addressed, experts say, but in many places the pandemic has only underscored some of the key motivating factors behind the discontent – from indifferent government and failing public services to growing divides between the haves and have-nots. 

“The activists who organized these movements aren’t going away, and their underlying grievances aren’t going away, so there’s little reason to think that the global discontent was a blip that won’t survive the coronavirus pandemic,” says Jonathan Pinckney, chief researcher at the Program on Nonviolent Action at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.

“If anything,” he adds, “we are seeing the movements in many countries adapt and shift to using the coronavirus crisis to highlight issues like government incompetence and negligence that were already among the major rallying cries of protesters before the pandemic.”

As one example, he cites how the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement over recent weeks has shifted to digital forms of expression to highlight what activists judge has been an already dismissive government’s inadequate response to the pandemic.

At the same time, some networks within Hong Kong’s movement have moved beyond criticizing the government to taking matters into their own hands – for example by organizing to import more than 100,000 medical masks to distribute in poorly served communities.

Jessie Pang/Reuters
Pro-democracy veteran Leung Kwok-hung speaks to reporters in Hong Kong before a Court of Appeal ruling on the controversial anti-mask law that the government had a right to invoke colonial-era emergency legislation, April 9, 2020.

One result, Mr. Pinckney says, is that a movement that in some respects was losing steam has found new purpose, with its public backing reinforced. He notes that a recent poll measuring public perceptions of responses to the pandemic showed higher marks for the pro-democracy movement and falling support for the Hong Kong government.

In Chile, where a subway fare hike in October touched off months of protests over widening economic divides, activists have quickly moved much of their expression of discontent indoors, while shifting their focus to the pandemic – and to the inequalities in access to health care and other services they say it highlights.

“The movement that got started on October 18 was all about economic inequality, the inadequacy of public services like health, education, and transportation, and the daily struggles of the many in a country where wealth is concentrated in the hands of so few,” says Andrés Velasquez, an administrator for a small Santiago construction company who regularly participated in the protests.

“It’s true that we can no longer gather in huge numbers in Plaza de Italia,” Santiago’s ground zero for the protest movement, he says. “But the epidemic has only reinforced people’s thinking about the weaknesses and unfairness in our economic and governance systems.”

Chile’s activists have lost little time in adapting their action to the new constraints of the coronavirus. One innovation is an online “guide” to protesting from home. Among the expressions of discontent are regular caserolazos – the banging of pots and pans from windows and balconies at an appointed hour, often announced on Facebook – that have been a staple of protest in Latin America since the grim days of dictatorships in the ’70s and ’80s.

Mr. Velasquez says he has made his own adjustments to his protest routine. Until the pandemic ended the mass marches, he joined other volunteers in providing food – which they dubbed “Hooded Gourmet” – to the often-hooded protesters making up the front line separating the mass of demonstrators from the police.

Now the protest-food cooks have shifted to providing meals to Santiago’s ramshackle camps of day laborers and the swelling ranks of people left unemployed as a result of the crisis.

“This movement has always been about solidarity, so we’re all looking for ways to maintain that solidarity and help us all get beyond this virus together,” Mr. Velasquez says. “But certainly all these actions are to some degree about maintaining our momentum.”

Mr. Pinckney of the United States Institute of Peace says he expects the pandemic to affect various national protest movements in distinct ways, with some weakened and others reinforced.

“In some countries we’re already seeing a rallying around the flag that could work against any expression of opposition, but in other countries they’re adapting in ways that are likely to leave [the movement] stronger,” he says. He also notes that the rough police treatment accorded some people displaced by the pandemic – as occurred in India – could turn into heightened repression once mass demonstrations return.

But Mr. Pinckney has a hunch that in some places the pandemic, because of how it represents a threat to all social strata, will tend to increase a sense of empathy with the most vulnerable. And that, he adds, could mean stepped up public support for protest movements.

Mr. Farro in Senegal is not so sure. A journalist by training, he remains skeptical that the pandemic will necessarily mean a stronger protest movement ahead.

“For sure it will change the way people interact with each other, but experience tells us that societies don’t change so easily, even after crises,” he says. He also worries that the state will use the pandemic as a “pretext” for extending limits on personal freedoms.

Mr. Velasquez in Santiago believes Chile’s movement will come out of the coronavirus challenge stronger – and he cites one experience in particular that has left him confident of that.

At home in his 16th-floor apartment one recent evening, he opened his windows to hear Freddie Mercury’s rendition of “Day-O” spontaneously shouted from balconies across his neighborhood, the words and responding cheers wafting across the city like a message of unity and hope.

After that communal experience and others like it, he says, “I’m certain this movement will come back, and will come back with even greater force.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

A deeper look

Coronavirus crunch: One city block reveals small businesses at risk

When consumers are told to stay home, the economy takes a massive hit. Our reporter visited a long-vibrant commercial street to explore the new realities that are raising doubts about small-business survival.

Peter
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Michael Godfrey Perri cuts a cable at Philip A. Rand Wire Rope and Sling Co., in Watertown, Massachusetts, on April 8, 2020. The company has remained open during the coronavirus outbreak, with its employees supplying cables for tow trucks, shipping, and construction.

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On one block of California Street, between the Boston suburbs of Newton and Watertown, more than 15 small businesses ply their trade in widely diverse industries but with a single problem. The state-imposed closing of nonessential companies to stop the spread of the coronavirus has severely cut into their revenue. 

Philip A. Rand Wire Rope and Sling Co. is down some 70%. The dentist running American Dental and other Boston locations has seen business fall 80% or more. For small firms, it’s a race against time. Millions need to see an economic turnaround or federal aid in the next two months or so to avoid closing permanently.

As shops on California Street wait to hear if they qualify for loans under Congress’ coronavirus rescue package, the importance of human connections can be paramount. One local landlord has decided not to collect rent from his business tenants this month.

“Those are the people who have been so good to us over the years,” says Werner Gossels. “We can’t do much about food and shelter, but we could say, ‘No rent. Forget this month.’”

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4. Coronavirus crunch: One city block reveals small businesses at risk

For a man who has lost 70% of his business, Philip Rand remains remarkably upbeat.

Then again, his company, the Philip A. Rand Wire Rope and Sling Co., has proved remarkably resilient through two world wars, the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, and the Great Recession. A couple of government contracts are currently keeping its four full-time and four part-time workers employed.

“This is a new adventure; it’s a different kind of adventure,” says Mr. Rand, great-grandson of the founder, about the lockdowns that have curtailed or stopped business operations throughout the United States because of the coronavirus threat. “But we are going to survive. ... We have been around since 1911.”

That’s one of the more positive outlooks along this 500-foot stretch of California Street that runs between the Boston suburbs of Watertown and Newton and houses more than 15 small businesses. They are remarkably diverse, including everything from a law office to an Asian restaurant, an air-conditioning contractor to a nail spa. And with the exception of the Stop & Shop grocery store, which is bustling, and maybe one or two others, all of them have been hit by the state’s stay-at-home advisory and orders for “non-essential” businesses to close.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Small businesses are bone and sinew to the U.S. economy. They represent 99% of all firms and employ about half of all working Americans. More than 40% of the nation’s economic activity flows through their ledgers. While any firm with less than 500 workers can be considered “small,” nearly 9 in 10 of these firms have fewer than 20 employees. And with far fewer resources than big corporations, they’re also the most vulnerable to a downturn. 

Already last month, when an employment report by payroll firm ADP showed midsize and large companies still adding employees, firms with fewer than 50 employees laid off a combined 90,000 workers. “Small companies got hammered,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics.  

And they’re racing against the clock. The longer the lockdowns persist, the more likely they are to close permanently. A survey last week by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) found that about half of small firms say they can survive for two months at the most. 

The small businesses along California Street reflect the squeeze and the concern, but they also tell a richer story about how money flows and sometimes doesn’t, the fragile interdependence of local business, and the importance of human connections, even in an era of social distancing.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Edamame, an Asian restaurant in Watertown, Massachusetts, tried to stay open offering takeout and delivery. But by April 8, 2020, a note taped to the door told customers the eatery was closed until further notice.

Some stores have been spared closure because they are essential businesses, like grocery stores. Planet Fitness, a workout gym, has shut its doors. But the Jenny Craig weight loss clinic two doors down is still open because it sells food. Still, staying open is no guarantee of profit.

“Open” but in trouble

While the Jenny Craig store offers curbside service for limited hours and is seeing “a steady flow of clients,” according to Faith Hanson, marketing director of the north Boston area for the Jenny Craig corporation, American Dental next door is effectively closed, used only for emergency root canals.

“Everybody’s been affected,” says Dr. Z. Bender, part of the management that operates this location and four others in the Boston area. Three of them are still open, but like many dentists in Massachusetts, Dr. Bender is only handling emergency situations and treatments that require immediate attention. He’s had to lay off roughly half of his 40 employees, while providing bonuses and protective equipment, including face shields, to those still working.

Revenues are down 80% or more, he estimates. So he’s looking to get referrals from other locations and do some promotion to boost business, because the current situation is not sustainable, he says. “If we are going to keep operating this way, we would be able to continue for a few weeks.”

It’s a situation faced by many small businesses. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, among the healthiest firms only 1 in 5 said they had the cash reserves to continue business as usual if revenue dried up for two months, according to a new survey of small business credit by the regional Federal Reserve banks. For all other firms, the figure was less than 1 in 10.

Will aid come in time? 

For these reasons, Congress has rushed aid to small businesses. A week ago, firms began applying for $350 billion in forgivable small business loans, part of the $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package. Many of the businesses along California Street – as well as some 70% nationally, according to the NFIB – have already applied. 

For some, it’s not clear if the help will come in time. The owner of the Newton Nail Bar & Spa vows in an email to serve customers again soon. But after launching last year, the shop’s phone number no longer accepts calls and, aside from a “Grand Opening” banner still hanging in its window, there’s no sign telling clients the now-darkened store will reopen.

“I got a manicure a week before all this happened,” says Debbie Fredberg, co-owner with her husband of the My Salon Suite just up the street. “They put a lot of money into it. You can tell. At the time, they seemed upbeat.”

SOURCE: Massachusetts Bureau of Geographic Information
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

This is one of the lessons of California Street: In business, timing can be everything. While Newton Nail Bar & Spa opened at the wrong time, Ms. Fredberg’s salon may get some breathing room from being still in the preparation phase. “Coming Soon” posters adorn its windows. Due to open this month, the site is now on hiatus; construction stopped just as workers were beginning to move in the furniture. 

“It’s a disappointment,” she says, but hardly a big blow. Unlike a regular hair salon, the franchise rents out fully equipped individual rooms to stylists as well as massage therapists and beauticians. Getting one’s hair styled in a private room may be popular in a post-pandemic world, she adds. Some 80% of the salon rooms are already spoken for.

The economy as an organic web

Another lesson of California Street is that local business owners and workers tend to patronize each other, popping into the Stop & Shop for groceries, or eating at Edamame, the Asian restaurant behind it. Edamame tried to stay open offering takeout and delivery, stocking an outdoor rack of menus that got wet from the rain. But by Wednesday of this week, a note was taped to the door saying the restaurant was temporarily closed. Its customers’ money, presumably, will flow down the block to Stop & Shop, or to other supermarkets.  

In a normal year, Americans spend more on food eating out than they do at home. But the lockdowns in the past month have meant a huge diversion of spending from restaurants to grocery stores. The National Restaurant Association estimates the total at some $25 billion since March 1, which has put 3 million people out of work. It figures 15% of restaurants will close permanently within two weeks, if they haven’t already done so.

Other money has stopped flowing at all, and that has a ripple effect. Closed offices mean the cleaning businesses have fewer to clean. Van drivers for the senior center and air-conditioning specialists are now laid off, which means they sit at home and spend less. 

Some small businesses appear to be doing just fine. “We are busy and we are also running shorthanded,” writes Arthur Margolis, president of ACC Apothecary, which specializes in custom-made prescriptions for patients. “All I can say is that we are open and we have patients in 8 states that we are taking care of.”

Nationally, 3% of small businesses surveyed by the NFIB were positively affected by the virus. But 92% were adversely affected, even if business owners are hesitant to talk about it. 

“Clients are holding on to their money,” says the owner of EnChem Engineering, a remediation specialist for hazardous-waste sites, who doesn’t give his name or take off his face mask. But “we are able to keep going.”

Connections in a “distanced” world

The other aspect of business here on California Street is how personal it is. For all the moves to physically distance people, they still make social connections. It’s the essence of business, exchange among individuals.  

Behind EnChem Engineering, Zdorovie Senior Services is closed down. All the employees have been laid off. Even if it was open, it’s unlikely that retirement homes would let their clients travel and congregate. “But I regularly call them to check up,” says a manager, who won’t give her name.

This month, EnChem and the other small-business tenants in the building received an unexpected surprise. The landlord was not collecting rent for April. 

“The tenants are the same general type,” says Werner Gossels, who owns the building and others in several communities around Boston. “It’s a family business with one or two or three people.” 

It was a decision that cost Mr. Gossels hundreds of thousands of dollars. But “those are the people who have been so good to us over the years,” he says. Now, there’s “the fear that everybody has – suddenly they have no business, they have no knowledge of where they’re going. We can’t do much about food and shelter, but we could say, ‘No rent. Forget this month.’”

“It looks like we may have to do May as well,” he adds.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

SOURCE: Massachusetts Bureau of Geographic Information
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Essay

To reach his flock in a crisis, one minister turns to the old tools

“It’s as if I lost the key to my ministry toolbox. Unable to worship in person, I can’t look out from the pulpit and see who’s dabbing eyes – or yawning for that matter,” writes our essayist. He and his parishioners have found other ways to come together in grace.

Peter
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Pastor G. Jeffrey MacDonald poses in First Parish Church of Newbury, on April 8, 2020, in Newbury, Massachusetts. Mr. MacDonald is now preaching online due to the coronavirus, because his congregation cannot worship in person.

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The ministry crisis began in mid-March when our town health director asked me over the phone to suspend worship services. We complied even though Sunday morning at our white-steepled, 1869 meeting house is our epicenter. When our bell rings out for miles at 9:45, it means God is soon to be worshipped and God’s people are soon to confer on all kinds of decisions that will shape our life together. Without our Sunday huddle, we’d surely feel lost in a wilderness. Yet we’d have to adapt, and our building was already needed for another purpose: feeding the hungry.

Awash in disorienting conditions, I’ve spent the past month scrambling to find ways to hold my flock together – in worship, mission, and pastoral care – without getting together physically. It feels unfaithful at times to not be like Jesus, who touched even the lepers whom others shunned. Yet distance is what love now requires, and I’m finding technology goes only so far in closing the gaps. The rest needs to come from an even older ministry toolbox, one our spiritual ancestors left for us to use in such a time as this.

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5. To reach his flock in a crisis, one minister turns to the old tools

I am a pastor. I lead a Massachusetts congregation that meets for the same reasons that it was first gathered in 1635: to pray and sing, to comfort and challenge, to share food and laughter, to facilitate helping and being helped, to foster and celebrate righteousness with God. When disaster strikes, whether it’s a 17th-century drought or a 21st-century terrorist attack, we join hands and seek God. Coming together is what we do because it’s who we are.

That is, until we can’t.

The coronavirus pandemic, with its necessity for social distancing, poses challenges unlike any I’ve faced over 20 years of ordained ministry. It’s as if I lost the key to my ministry toolbox. Unable to worship in person, I can’t look out from the pulpit and see who’s dabbing eyes – or yawning for that matter. I no longer get coffee hour updates on backyard tree removals, hip replacements, or grandchildren’s sporting events. I can’t even hold hands and pray with my nursing home shut-ins. No visitors allowed there anymore. Not even clergy. 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Awash in disorienting conditions, I’ve spent the past month scrambling to find ways to hold my flock together – in worship, mission, and pastoral care – without getting together physically. It feels unfaithful at times to not be like Jesus, who touched even the lepers whom others shunned. Yet distance is what love now requires, and I’m finding technology goes only so far in closing the gaps. The rest needs to come from an even older ministry toolbox, one our spiritual ancestors left for us to use in such a time as this.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
G. Jeffrey MacDonald stands between his church's pews, which are filled with 10,000 pounds of donated food from the Greater Boston Food Bank, to help the greater numbers of those in need due to skyrocketing unemployment.

The ministry crisis began in mid-March when our town health director asked me over the phone to suspend worship services. We complied even though Sunday morning at our white-steepled, 1869 meeting house is our epicenter. When our bell rings out for miles at 9:45, it means God is soon to be worshipped and God’s people are soon to confer on all kinds of decisions that will shape our life together. Without our Sunday huddle, we’d surely feel lost in a wilderness. Yet we’d have to adapt, and our building was already needed for another purpose: feeding the hungry.

The food pantry at First Parish Church of Newbury normally feeds 75 to 125 people a week, but demand more than tripled when layoffs started skyrocketing. Food bank deliveries now arrive weekly, including one last week for 9,000 pounds. Every pew is filled with canned vegetables, rice, and other basics for drive-thru and home deliveries. Though I serve the church part-time and live 45 minutes away, I still wanted to support this volunteer-run operation that had suddenly expanded to take over the whole sanctuary. But how?

At first, I acted instinctively and just showed up. Keeping six feet apart, I folded cardboard boxes and encouraged this monumental effort to provide for our area’s most vulnerable. But organizers didn’t need or want extra bodies around as health precautions got stricter week by week. So I stayed home and borrowed a page from an old ministry playbook that says in effect: Let the people testify. I posted volunteers’ photos, passed along their updates via e-newsletter and put them in touch with news media who reported what they’re doing and what motivates them. Making room for witness is what our forebears might call it. They were onto something.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
First Parish Church of Newbury was built in 1869. The original church was built in 1635 and has had four iterations.

Meanwhile, we’re still a small church with a big problem: no physical place to gather. Our solution involved moving worship online to Zoom, where videoconferencing lets us see our 25 regulars and hear their prayer requests. It’s not perfect – our music sounds better in our sanctuary than online – but being virtually together makes up for many a trade-off.

Getting everyone to Zoom has been a bit like moving a 19th-century caravan through a mountain pass. Several hopped on easily, but some would need to go back and assist stragglers. Two have no computers at home. A bunch more can’t stand technology: It escalates their anxiety in what are already anxious times. These are folks who love to help others and don’t like being on the receiving end of handouts or tutorials. So I tried an old-school ministry move: I picked up the phone and called to check on everyone.

I had been using the phone less and less in an age of texting and instant messaging, but now it was a rediscovered treasure in my hand. Sure, I offered tips for using Zoom, but more than that: I listened. In quivering voices, I heard fears about being high-risk for complications of COVID-19. I heard confessions that had pent up with no ears to hear them out. One parishioner called me back within a few hours, just to talk again. The tech issues are now largely resolved, but the calls have continued. They’ve been a grace connecting me with my flock on a new, more personal level.

Preaching online, I’ve learned, is a distinct craft with its own learning curve. To my surprise, the ancestors’ toolbox has come in handy here too. I’d never realized how much my preaching feeds off energy from my congregation until I started giving sermons from my home office. Now I’m speaking into a computer camera while the entire crowd listens on mute. Though Congregationalists are jokingly called the frozen chosen, mass muting takes their reticence to a whole new level. Without the usual feedback cues signaling me to embellish here or fast forward there, I crave new props to help me be sure folks are still engaged, not dozing off.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A sign in front of First Parish Church of Newbury lets people know how to log into Pastor MacDonald's sermons, on April 8, 2020, in Newbury, Massachusetts

For that, I’ve started putting art on PowerPoint slides, which I’d never used at the meeting house. Much as Europe’s cathedrals once relied on stained glass to bring biblical stories to nonreaders, I’m finding illustrations can poignantly reach the frazzled, the stressed out, and the easily distracted in pandemic times. In Easter season, we will look together at how masters like Renoir, Raphael, and Caravaggio depicted the risen Christ. With that cloud of artistic witnesses with me, I feel synced with the saints even when I’m preaching alone. I’m reminded once again that I’m part of a team, a Communion, that transcends space and time.

I haven’t had to give up all embodied ministry. When I heard a longtime parishioner was receiving end-of-life care at her nursing home, I got permission to see her under an exception for the dying. Wearing a mask, I led the family in a farewell rite. I marked her forehead with the sign of the cross. I trusted she could hear me and knew the vibrations in my voice as those of her earthly shepherd, pointing her safely to a final peace with God. It felt good to draw again on my familiar toolbox in a moment when it mattered.

Someday this pandemic will relent and we’ll do ministry again as people for whom the Incarnation is a guiding truth. By then our pastoral repertoires will be wider and deeper, thanks to those who left us tools we never expected to need again.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is pastor of First Parish Church of Newbury, UCC. His second book, Part-Time is Plenty: Thriving Without Full-Time Clergy,was published this month.

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The Monitor's View

In an interlude for sports, a time for introspection

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What’s left of sports these days? Not much. Nearly every league down to the local bowling club has hit the pause button. Yet this dearth of popular athletics has led to a debate over their inherent value and whether they can return in the same form. Perhaps sports is overdue anyway for a reckoning.

Sports competition, of course, will survive. And it should. At its best, it’s an inspiring expression of talent, teamwork, and hard work, of dominion over physical limitations and a breaking of mental barriers. For many, the sports calendar is part of the rhythm of life.

Behind this fan experience, however, is a multibillion-dollar business, caught up in broadcast rights, tickets sales, and other sources of income. During the COVID-19 interlude, these business models are being severely challenged. U.S. professional and collegiate sports can rethink their standards while revising their business models.

The sudden absence of sports has left a gaping hole for fans. Whatever value sports brought to them will eventually be filled, even if in altered form. With the right reforms now, sports can be even better than before, especially after this long reflection on its enduring purpose.

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In an interlude for sports, a time for introspection

What’s left of sports these days? Not much. The 2020 Summer Olympics have been put off to 2021. Professional leagues await the all-clear to resume games. College sports? Maybe this fall. And nearly everything else down to the local bowling club has hit the pause button.

Yet this dearth of popular athletics has led to a debate over their inherent value and whether they can return in the same form. Perhaps sports is overdue anyway for a reckoning.

Sports competition, of course, will survive. And it should. At its best, it’s an inspiring expression of talent, teamwork, and hard work, of dominion over physical limitations and a breaking of mental barriers. Ice dancing displays grace and beauty. Gymnasts achieve aerial feats of strength and coordination. In baseball, a shortstop shows the smooth skill of scooping up a ground ball and firing it to first base. Spectators watch with awe and joy.

For many, the sports calendar is part of the rhythm of life. In the United States, college basketball’s March Madness and the Masters golf tournament signal the start of spring. The 162-game Major League Baseball season offers entertainment and companionship for lazy afternoons well into autumn. Then football collides to grab attention until the college bowl games and the Super Bowl. Overlaying these rhythms are the seasons for the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League.

Behind this fan experience, however, is a multibillion-dollar business, caught up in broadcast rights, tickets sales, and other sources of income. During the COVID-19 interlude, these business models are being severely challenged. One result could be lower salaries for professionals and fewer new stadiums or other upgrades to facilities. Colleges may drop sports that don’t pay for themselves.

Meanwhile, separate from the coronavirus crisis, the world’s most popular game, soccer, has seen a scandal in its international governing body, FIFA. The U.S. Department of Justice has accused individuals working for Russia and Qatar of bribing FIFA officials in exchange for giving the rights to those countries to host the men’s World Cup. FIFA now needs to introduce reforms to ensure its work is transparent and ethical.

With similar introspection, U.S. professional and collegiate sports can rethink their standards while revising their business models. For example, the value of allowing legalized sports gambling needs to be reconsidered before that corrupting influence damages both players and their fan base. In addition, colleges that have turned their sports programs into a lucrative pipeline must refocus on the educational value of team play.

Innovation has long been part of sports, both on the field and off. There is more focus today on safety of players, on developing better skills, and on how games are played.

The sudden absence of sports has left a gaping hole for fans. Whatever value sports brought to them will eventually be filled, even if in altered form. With the right reforms now, sports can be even better than before, especially after this long reflection on its enduring purpose.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

‘The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart’

Emily Swanson
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The timeless message of Easter assures us that however dark things may seem, God, Life itself, is always present to inspire and light our path.

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1. ‘The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart’

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation;
I hear the sweet though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

What though my human comforts die,
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round,
Songs in the night God giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that Rock I’m clinging;
Since Love is God of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

I lift mine eyes, the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it.
And day by day this pathway smooths
Since first I learned to love it.
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am God’s.
How can I keep from singing?
– Pauline T., adapt., “Christian Science Hymnal: Hymns 430-603,” No. 533, © CSBD

Viewfinder

Peekaboo patterns

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
When I’m looking through my camera viewfinder, I’m always drawn to patterns. Sometimes I just have to look closely – or differently – to see them. “Some of nature’s most exquisite handiwork is on a miniature scale, as anyone knows who has applied a magnifying glass to a snowflake,” wrote conservationist Rachel Carson in “The Sense of Wonder.” In living things, symmetry is pervasive: Think of a tiger’s face, leaves, or a starfish. Of course, humans can create beautiful patterns, too. Carson was right about the power of a magnifying glass. But a camera is pretty good, too. – Melanie Stetson Freeman
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Come back Monday. We’ll have a story on the calming effects of enjoying nature in a troubled time – and whether that can be done digitally as well as in real life.

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