2020
April
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Monitor Daily Podcast

April 24, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

Hurrah for Hubble: Iconic space telescope turns 30

Today’s issue explores Nova Scotia’s strength amid grief, the surprising effects of the oil price plunge, a new poignancy to Portugal’s day of celebration, a vision of the future in Boston’s empty streets, and the comfort of foster pets.

For millennia, humans have looked up at the cosmos with wonder. And for the past 30 years, ethereal images of deep space snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope have added immensely to that awe. 

Today marks three decades since Hubble launched. Originally planned to operate for 15 years, Hubble has far exceeded expectations. It has provided invaluable scientific data on everything from the expansion of the universe to dark matter to the atmospheres of exoplanets. But perhaps its greatest contribution has been the spectacular images generated by that data. 

Hubble’s breathtaking portraits – especially of the Eagle Nebula, known as the “Pillars of Creation” – have captured the imaginations of many outside science, earning it the nickname, “the people’s telescope.” As former Monitor science correspondent Pete Spotts once wrote, “Hubble and its images have transcended the confines of science conferences to become a global ambassador for astronomy.”

“Pillars of Creation,” like so many Hubble images, stands not only as a spectacular illustration of the beauty of deep space, but also of its mind-blowing science. Those pillars of gas and dust are incubating new stars. And, from our tiny space rock 7,000 light-years away, considering that vastness can be astonishing and humbling.

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After shooting, Nova Scotia finds ways to comfort under lockdown

Suffering Canada's deadliest mass shooting was a hammer blow for a community already struggling with the coronavirus lockdown. But Nova Scotia is finding ways to grieve – and to persevere.

Eva
Moira Donovan
Ed McHugh (right) looks on as George Purcell affixes a Nova Scotia flag to Valery, the wooden heart they've set up on a cliff overlooking the highway running into Halifax, Nova Scotia, on April 22, 2020.

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The mass shooting in Nova Scotia that left 22 dead is the sort of tragedy one would expect to be followed by full churches and community halls – neighbors gathered to grieve together. But that's not happening, because the province is also grappling with one of the highest per-capita infection rates of COVID-19 in Canada.

Instead, the community's grief will be expressed in a virtual vigil over Facebook and myriad other ways as it improvises their shared consolation amid the pandemic.

Cees van den Hoek set up sheets of lattice outside Portapique’s former church, which he owns. He says people who want to express their condolences from afar can mail him cards, which he’ll put up at this “mail-in memorial.” A Facebook page created to combat isolation, called “Ultimate Online Nova Scotia Kitchen Party (Covid19 Edition),” has turned into a musical memorial of haunting tributes, including several with bagpipes.

It is this kind of act that Michael Ungar of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Halifax says helps communities recover. “When you have communities where people know each other, they look out for each other. There’s a sense of neighborhood.”

After shooting, Nova Scotia finds ways to comfort under lockdown

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The heart, perched on a bare cliff overlooking the highway outside Nova Scotia’s capital, Halifax, is called Valery. “It stands for courage, valor,” says Ed McHugh, who built the 11-foot-tall wooden symbol with friends.

They raised Valery, traced with red twinkle lights so it can be seen at night, last week. It was a tribute to front-line workers and a rallying symbol for the province, grappling with one of the highest per-capita infection rates of COVID-19 in Canada.

But this week, Mr. McHugh and his friend George Purcell climbed through the woods from his home, a bucket of ropes and zip ties in hand. They raised a blue and white Nova Scotia flag next to the heart as a double mark of hope after the Maritime province became the site of Canada’s largest-ever mass shooting across April 18 and 19.

“Our hearts are broken in this province,” Mr. McHugh says. “Anything to try and mend hearts back together – even for the 30 seconds when you’re driving on the highway behind my house – is important.”

The shooting took 22 lives in a 13-hour spree of terror across 16 crime scenes in which houses were torched and residents gunned down at random – something that would be terrifying anyplace, but especially rural Nova Scotia. And at a time of historic shutdown over COVID-19, when social distancing measures have shuttered schools, businesses, and borders, residents accustomed to keeping their front doors open have been forced to hunker down in their homes – the very place where some of the victims were killed.

“People are already anxious and out of their routines and distant from other people,” says Michael Ungar, director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “The way people cope with a mass shooting or other significant community stressors, is to get together. … People do things that reassert control and predictability over their lives. And of course, all of those processes, which are normally part of the healing and that coming to grips with this kind of tragedy, are largely being changed or not occurring at all.”

But this wind-swept province is used to hard times, and is leaning on centuries of perseverance and a culture of kinship to overcome the obstacles that the pandemic presents. On Friday, when churches and community halls would normally be full, when neighbors would be walking together holding candles or drinking coffee at one another’s kitchen tables, grief and mourning will be expressed in a virtual vigil over Facebook. And the community is improvising their shared consolation in myriad other ways.

“I really do feel that if I can play a small part, to be just a little shining moment,” says Mr. McHugh, “so that you can reflect and say, ‘You know what? There is still good in the world.’”

“Everyone’s all intertwined”

To get to Portapique, where the gunman began his spree Saturday night dressed as a Mountie in a faux police car – the motives are still unclear – one leaves Valery’s perch and continues for nearly an hour through the center of the province. Then the road turns west and follows the meandering shore of the Bay of Fundy where the world’s highest tide washes over broad beaches.

Decades of urban migration following a decline in industries such as forestry and farming have turned many of the once bustling towns around here into sleepy places dependent on an influx of summer visitors. Yet communities are tightknit, the list of victims revealing the social fabric of the community, with a school teacher, nurses, a retired volunteer fireman, and a Mountie among the dead.

Tim Krochak/Reuters
Denise Caume and her dog, Mimi, are seen in front of a makeshift memorial for the victims of Sunday’s mass shooting in Portapique, Nova Scotia, on April 23, 2020.

“Everyone’s all intertwined, one way or another,” says Cees van den Hoek, who grew up in the area. He owns Portapique’s former church and uses it as storage for the antique business he runs. But in the days after the shooting, he had another idea. “I thought about all the people at home that wanted to express their feelings, and I had probably the ideal spot to do it, in the heart of the community,” he says.

On Tuesday, Mr. van den Hoek set up 4-by-8 sheets of lattice, attached to fence posts outside the simple, white building. He says people who want to express their condolences from afar – or who can’t come near, because of social distancing – can mail him cards, which he’ll put up at this “mail-in memorial.”

“It just gives people a little outlet, to help them deal with what they’re going through now.”

It is this kind of act that Dr. Ungar, who authored “Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success,” says helps communities recover. And despite the trauma that Nova Scotia is facing, from isolation, global uncertainty, economic anxiety, and now the kind of trigger event that upturns any community, he says this one can lean on its resilience built over decades.

“When you have communities where people know each other, they look out for each other. There’s a sense of neighborhood,” he says. “Those communities tend to do better because those networks are already present.”

He says they’ll reassert their collective identity – which is already on minds here.

Anita MacLellan has been helping with the “Colchester – Supporting Our Communities” Facebook page that is hosting Friday’s vigil. But she’s also focused forward. For the past four years, she’s served on the board of the Cliffs of Fundy Aspiring Geopark, which has been working toward UNESCO Global Geopark status. That decision was supposed to come this spring, but will be delayed because of the pandemic.

If and when they start receiving visitors, Ms. MacLellan says it’ll be an opportunity to present themselves beyond this tragedy. “This story will remain a part of our history. But we’re going to have to work extra hard at getting the word out there, that this is not who we are.”

On Sunday, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil spoke in similar terms. “It may change us a little, but it cannot define us,” he told the province.

“Good old-fashioned values”

For now, residents are working toward redefining what it means to overcome tragedy, when the playbook has changed. As the head of the Debert and Area Community Association, Marie Benoit would normally be opening her doors, as she did when an employee of the municipality was killed in a car crash and Ms. Benoit leaped into action with a fundraiser for her family.

But following the mass shooting, in which the perpetrator shot two people in Debert, Ms. Benoit can’t organize a gathering or events to raise money for victims’ families.

So they are improvising instead. On Monday she participated in a candlelight vigil with her family. As many locals lit flames, a brilliant sunset, the kind they haven’t seen for years, lit the sky. A Facebook page called “Ultimate Online Nova Scotia Kitchen Party (Covid19 Edition)” that was created to combat isolation has turned into a musical memorial of haunting tributes, including several with bagpipes. (One of the victims of the shooting, a teen killed with her parents in their home, had played the fiddle on the page in late March.)

Back on the highway to Halifax, Mr. McHugh and Mr. Purcell affix their flag firmly to a pole with zip ties to protect against the wind. Mr. Purcell climbs onto the heart to attach the pole. “Don’t let me down now, Valery,” he says.

The two have scarcely stood back to examine their work when horns started to sound from cars passing below. Mr. McHugh waves.

“We’re a province that still has many good old-fashioned values. You know, take care of your neighbor, look out for each other, be kind,” he says. “There’s still a lot of that in this province. And my goodness, I hope we never lose it.”

Graphic

Where does an oil crisis hit first? Not where you might expect.

Here's a look at the nations most vulnerable to the plunge in oil prices. Hint: It's not the big names, like the U.S., Russia, or Saudi Arabia. It's smaller countries already struggling economically.

Eva

When world oil prices crashed this week (briefly falling into negative territory in the United States), it served as a wake-up call for nations. The coronavirus pandemic has rapidly dried up demand for everything from gasoline to jet fuel. Now a key question is when and how strongly the global economy will rebound. Oil may offer some early clues. Oil-producing nations face a squeeze that could turn out to be a short recession, or something deeper and more prolonged.

In some previous bouts of low prices, “you could increase taxes and cut expenses,” says Niels de Hoog, an economist with Atradius, a trade-credit insurance company based in the Netherlands. But now these so-called petrostates “need to spend more on households and businesses.” 

One way to measure the stress is to look at government budgets. The more nations rely on oil revenues to fund government operations, the bigger their fiscal deficit will be. To balance their budgets, Saudi Arabia and Russia require a higher oil price than the actual drilling price. But they have huge financial reserves to cushion the blow. Surprisingly, struggling Iran may be sheltered a bit, too, because it no longer exports much oil and it has some reserves.

Many smaller oil producers look much more vulnerable. Ecuador announced two weeks ago an emergency economic plan that will dun wage earners and big companies alike to straighten out its finances while dealing with a big outbreak of the coronavirus. Oman is also struggling with soaring debt, and Nigeria last week applied to the International Monetary Fund and others for emergency funds. 

Low oil prices also threaten politically fragile governments. Iraq, on its third prime minister-designate in as many months, faces a halving of oil revenues in recent weeks. In Venezuela, the price decline is just one more blow for a population already struggling with severe shortages and hyperinflation.

The silver lining in all this, of course, is that low oil prices will help both consumers who fill up their tanks, and big energy importers such as China and Japan. –Laurent Belsie, staff writer

SOURCE: Chart 1: BP Statistical Review for 2019 (data for 1861 to 2018), U.S. Energy Information Administration (2019 monthly average), Intercontinental Exchange (April 23, 2020 price); Chart 2: Council on Foreign Relations, Energy Intelligence, CEIC, Nasdaq; Chart 3: Atradius N.V., Oxford Economics Global Economic Model; Chart 4: Rystad Energy
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Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris/Staff

‘Land of fraternity’: In Portugal, a revolution’s values withstand pandemic

The anniversary of Portugal’s young democracy is usually a festive day of song and solidarity. Amid a pandemic and global political uncertainty, it’s taking shape as something different this year.

Eva
Henrique Casinhas/SOPA Images/Sipa USA/AP/File
Paradegoers sing April 25, 2019, on the 45th anniversary of Freedom Day, also known as the Carnation Revolution, on the Avenida da Liberdade in Lisbon, Portugal. Organizers are promoting ways to celebrate despite restrictions under the pandemic.

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It may be maligned in fancy bouquets, but the red carnation is an enduring symbol of the revolution for Portugal’s democracy 46 years ago. On April 25, 1974, soldiers put flowers in their gun barrels and civilians in the streets joined the nonviolent military coup, ending authoritarian rule and hastening Portugal’s decolonization of Africa.

This year’s Freedom Day won’t be marked by massive celebrations. But Col. Vasco Lourenço, a key military officer in the coup, refuses to surrender his national holiday to the coronavirus. At 3 p.m. from his window he’ll sing the song that secretly signaled the start of the revolution on the radio. 

A former political prisoner, Artur Pinto, will sing from his home, too. “Now with the lockdown, our freedom of movement is conditioned but our fundamental freedoms have been guaranteed,” he says.

Historian Irene Pimentel points out what’s been gained since the end of dictatorship: access to education, more rights for women, social welfare. “With this pandemic we’re dependent on the national health care system, something that was won with the revolution,” says Dr. Pimentel. “It’s terrible to think that someone could be denied medical care just because they are poor. For us now it’s something unimaginable.”

‘Land of fraternity’: In Portugal, a revolution’s values withstand pandemic

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For the past four decades, Col. Vasco Lourenço has spent every April 25 on the streets of Lisbon celebrating Freedom Day. This year will be different. There will be no parades, no concerts, no crowds walking down Freedom Avenue carrying red carnations.

In 1974, Colonel Lourenço was one of the young Portuguese officers who led a nonviolent military coup that ended Europe’s longest lived far-right dictatorship. Today, at 77, he has canceled tomorrow’s parade, and will spend the time at home. But Colonel Lourenço refuses to surrender his national holiday to the coronavirus.

The revolution’s values “are fundamental to face the pandemic and deal with this moment of global crisis,” he says. As the head of the April 25 Association – which represents the revolution’s officers and organizes celebrations every year – he’s urging people to celebrate from home.

Colonel Lourenço has mastered video conferencing and plans to spend the day connecting with his “comrades,” family, and friends. He wants everyone to sing “Grândola Vila Morena” (Grândola, Swarthy Town) at 3 p.m.

“We asked the TV stations and radios to play the song, and asked people to sing it wherever they are, from their windows or their balconies,” he said via video.

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

Forty-six years ago, the song was played on the radio in the early hours of April 25 to secretly signal the start of the coup that overthrew the authoritarian regime, bringing an end to a three-front colonial war the Portuguese had been fighting in Africa since the 1960s. 

“Land of fraternity,” the song goes, “on each corner a friend.”

On the day of the coup, the military had asked civilians to remain in their homes, but people poured into the streets. The armed forces’ rebellion turned into a popular uprising, demanding democracy and social justice. Soldiers placed blooms in their gun barrels and uniforms, and the coup was dubbed the Carnation Revolution.

For historian Irene Pimentel, a young woman during the revolution, this year the lyrics to “Grândola Vila Morena” resonate more strongly. Her neighbors have offered to get groceries and to go to the pharmacy for her.

Solidarity and creativity seem to be spreading faster than the virus. Many are learning how to make face masks for family and neighbors. Portugal’s March 18 lockdown closed nonessential businesses – including flower shops – but Dr. Pimentel says some people are making red carnations from paper at home.

Freedom and democracy aren’t to be taken for granted, she says. “We see what’s happening around the world, how in countries like Hungary the pandemic is being used as an excuse to crack down on freedom and rights.”

For the first time under the democratic system, Portugal’s governors are empowered to suspend rights and freedoms during the state of emergency. Trust in the government led by the center-left Socialist Party, however, is relatively high. Prime Minister António Costa is enjoying growing popularity for the way he is handling the crisis. Portugal’s first case of COVID-19 was discovered late for Western Europe, and the country has so far registered a high rate of coronavirus testing, with under 23,000 positive cases, and 854 deaths – fewer than its closest neighbors.

A majority has supported the state of emergency. Many considered the restrictions on personal freedoms justified by the scale and severity of the pandemic.

“Now with the lockdown our freedom of movement is conditioned but our fundamental freedoms have been guaranteed,” says former political prisoner Artur Pinto.

Mr. Pinto was arrested in 1965 and spent nearly two months in a 3-by-6 1/2-foot cell in the Aljube prison. Thousands were imprisoned and tortured by PIDE, the secret police, which helped the authoritarian regime to stay in power for four decades. Some did not leave the prison alive.

After the Carnation Revolution, the Aljube prison was turned into a museum.

“Every year on April 25 we receive thousands of visitors, but this year because of the pandemic we were forced to close doors,” says Aljube Resistance and Freedom Museum spokesperson Francisco Ruivo. “But pandemics won’t make us forget the importance of fighting for freedom.”

Mr. Pinto says that despite his hoarse voice, he will be singing from the balcony with his wife, who was also jailed as a political dissident. Their daughter and grandchildren live nearby and will be singing too. Not being able to hug them is a different kind of prison. But he says the holiday needs to be celebrated.

“We have to keep remembering it and remind the younger generations. Remind them that we used to live in a country where there were no freedoms, where almost a third of the population was illiterate.”

Dr. Pimentel, a researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History in Lisbon, points out what’s been gained since the end of dictatorship: access to education, more rights for women, social welfare, universal health care.

“With this pandemic we’re dependent on the national health care system, something that was won with the revolution,” says Dr. Pimentel. “It’s terrible to think that someone could be denied medical care just because they are poor. For us now it’s something unimaginable.”

For many, this year’s Freedom Day is also a wish for better days. Colonel Lourenço will be singing from his window, hoping that next year he will be on the streets with a real carnation in hand. “Solidarity, social justice, freedom ... my hope is that these values will prevail,” he says.

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

Boston’s car-free streets offer glimpse of low-carbon future

As the global coronavirus pandemic disrupts nearly every aspect of how we live, work, and travel, it might reveal pathways to alternative ways of organizing our communities.

Eva

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Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s stay-at-home advisory has transformed one of the Bay State’s most enduring icons: Boston traffic. Mostly gone are the honking and cursing hordes for whom red lights are a suggestion and turn signals a sign of weakness. Taking their place on the city’s famously convoluted roadways are cyclists and pedestrians; people who, whatever other faults they may have, aren’t burning gas.

This pandemic-driven automotive vanishing act has not just reduced pollution in the city, it has also offered a potential vision of the future. Like many other cities around the globe, Boston has committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. To achieve that, the city will have to dethrone the car as king of the road, replacing it with a mix of bikes, trains, electric buses, and improved infrastructure for all modes of transportation.

“Transit is key to carbon neutrality and moving people out of cars onto bicycles and other carbon-free modes is very important,” says Vineet Gupta, the director of planning and engineering at the Boston Transportation Department. “That comes first.” 

Boston’s car-free streets offer glimpse of low-carbon future

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Michael Dwyer/AP
A man rides a bicycle on April 11, 2020, on Boston's Day Boulevard, which has been closed to traffic to allow for social distancing among cyclists and pedestrians.

Helmet on, Peter Cheung zips up his bright green jacket, matching the rest of his attire, down to the sunglasses. Without his signature outfit, people don’t recognize him. Mr. Cheung knows the busy streets of Boston intimately. Biking in the city since his college years, the Aruba native is now a leader in Boston’s biking community.

But ever since the coronavirus pandemic emptied the streets, Mr. Cheung’s rides feel eerily quiet. From Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, to the towns of Brookline, Needham, and Newton, the cyclist now often goes through his almost daily 10-mile ride without seeing anyone on the road.

“[There’s] definitely less stress,” he says. “And it seems like cars are respecting cyclists more because they know that people are out trying to get some exercise.”

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

For years, organizations addressing climate change have been advocating for a reduced number of cars on the road. It’s a goal many Boston commuters can agree with, if not for environmental reasons then in hopes of taming some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion. But so far, any agreement on how to limit cars on the road has remained elusive. Then came the pandemic.

Within a month, average distances driven in Boston fell by 75% compared to February’s average. As cars step back, leaving space for other modes of transportation, the pandemic offers a glimpse of what one possible carbon-neutral future could look like.

Boston, like many other cities in the United States and around the world, is trying to reach its goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But with 65% of Boston's transportation emissions coming from personal vehicles, the city will have to dethrone gasoline-powered cars as king of the road. 

“Transit is key to carbon neutrality and moving people out of cars onto bicycles and other carbon-free modes is very important,” says Vineet Gupta, the director of planning and engineering at the Boston Transportation Department. “That comes first.” 

“The worst option”

While a mostly-car-free city may look uncanny in the middle of a global pandemic, there used to be a time when that was the norm. At the turn of the 20th century, when cars first appeared on U.S. roads, they had to share the paved streets with the previous tenants – horses, bicycles, pedestrians, and carriages. 

Today, cars hold a near-monopoly. Eighty-five percent of Americans drive alone to their jobs every day. In 2019, Boston was the most congested city in the country with drivers spending 149 hours in traffic that year. And the rest of the country is no different – San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New York all face congestion and pollution problems. 

“America is car-centric. You see it everywhere. In advertising at the Super Bowl, there are car commercials. Buy this car – faster, stronger,” Mr. Cheung says.     

But as the pandemic forced millions to work remotely, the reduced number of cars on the road led to a drop in greenhouse gas emissions. Recent NASA satellite data shows that nitrogen dioxide levels – primarily emitted from burning fossil fuels for transportation and electricity – were about 30% lower on average in March 2020 over the Northeast compared with the previous five years. 

While these statistics look encouraging, experts expect air pollution levels to rise again when economies restart. To reach carbon neutrality, cities will need to implement lasting changes.

“You’ve got to make driving, you know, the worst option in order to change things,” says Joan Fitzgerald, professor of public policy and urban affairs at Boston's Northeastern University.

Improving bus lines and adding lanes on the road, transitioning to electric modes of transportation – whether it be buses or cars – and adding bicycle lanes throughout cities are ways to push people onto other modes of transportation, and meeting the 2050 goal.  

“That’s really the future of cities,” Julia Wallerce, the Boston program manager at the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, says. “Cars are not.”

Recently, Boston closed some of its streets to automobile traffic to offer more space for pedestrians, runners, and cyclists. Cities globally are already brainstorming ways to transform initiatives taken during the pandemic into more permanent urban redesign. In Milan, over the summer, city officials will implement a bold plan to transform its streets to expand cycling and walking spaces and reduce car use as residents go back to work.   

A breath of fresh air

Sharing the roads with cars – that’s what Mr. Cheung and the Boston Cyclists Union, a nonprofit group of cyclists with paid staff, have been fighting for. For 10 years, the BCU has been campaigning for better bike infrastructure with additional bike lanes, and safer, more accessible streets throughout Boston.

Riding through a quieter and cleaner Boston, Mr. Cheung enjoys the newfound, but temporary, freedom and safety on the streets.

“A lot of people have been depressed and sad. But everyone has been saying that when they go out on their bike ride, it just totally makes them feel better, healthier, fresher,” he says. “It’s just been great just to be out on a bicycle. It really, really helps a lot of people to go through these times.”

The solutions to achieve carbon neutrality are already here, says Craig Altemose at Better Future Project, a Massachusetts organization addressing climate change; we just need to use them. The 2050 goal might even be underambitious, he says, and we might not have 30 years to tackle climate change.

“We have electric buses, we have electric trains, we have electric cars. We have bike paths, we have sidewalks – none of this is new technology. We know how to do all of this,” he says. “It is purely a question of political will to implement solutions.”

He adds: “As we see more wildfires, more hurricanes, more heat waves, more severe storms, more droughts, more floods, the political will for bold and aggressive action is only going to increase exponentially.”

This story was published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the Boston Cyclist's Union is a nonprofit with paid staff and to clarify that personal vehicles account for 65% of the city's transportation-related emissions. As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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In lockdown, they found someone – with four legs – to love

Lockdowns have inspired people all around the world to give animals in need a new home. But at a time when we're all looking for companionship, foster pets offer their new owners a boost as well.

Eva
Courtesy of the Galatioto-Ruffs
Sarah and Adam Galatioto-Ruff's newly adopted dog, Figulus Caesar (Figgy), lies in the shade in Georgia on March 28, 2020.

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Across the globe, billions of people are hunkered down at home, waiting out the end of a pandemic that has deeply rattled the human world. And to keep their spirits up, many have turned to the company of the one group that knows nothing at all about that crisis: animals.

From Israel to New York City, and from Cape Town to the United Kingdom, animal shelters have reported a massive upsurge in adoption and foster requests during the COVID-19 pandemic. Shelters have even posted about emptying out – though some worry there will be a surge of returns once lockdowns lift.

But for many new pet owners, it was an easy choice in a time of many difficult ones. Sarah Galatioto-Ruff and her husband Adam, who live in Atlanta, had been nursing the pain of losing their old dog for months. A new dog was on the horizon, but not until they were ready.

Then last month, as COVID-19 restrictions expanded, they realized it was the perfect time. Ms. Galatioto-Ruff logged into an animal shelter database, and clicked on a photo of a floppy-eared puppy in a blue navy captain’s hat.

“I took one look and said yup, this is him,” she says.

In lockdown, they found someone – with four legs – to love

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Like most of the world, Colette Hoggmascall is reaching the point where her isolation companions can sometimes test her patience.

They eat ravenously, don’t clean up after themselves, and when she tries to talk to them, they stare at her blankly from behind their tangled hair, which flops over their eyes like they’re members of a ‘90s boy band.

But she takes it in stride. Boys will be boys, after all, and Shetland ponies will be Shetland ponies. And her lockdown roommates in Sussex, England, happen to be both.

“They’ve got their own personalities, that’s for sure,” she says of Hamish and Hedgehog, whom she is fostering through a local animal charity.

Across the globe, billions of people are hunkered down at home, waiting out the end of a pandemic that has deeply rattled the human world. And to keep their spirits up, many have turned to the company of the one group who know nothing at all about that crisis: animals.

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

From Israel to New York City, and from Cape Town to the United Kingdom, animal shelters have reported a massive upsurge in adoption and foster requests during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, for instance, there was a 97% increase in fosters in the second week of March 2020 compared with the same week last year, according to PetPoint, a software program that tracks shelter adoptions in the U.S. Shelters have even posted about emptying out – though some fear there will be a surge of returns once lockdowns lift.

But for many new pet owners, it was an easy choice in a time of many difficult ones.

“We made the decision overnight,” says Sarah Galatioto-Ruff, a teacher in Atlanta who recently adopted a puppy named Figgy with her husband, Adam.

For months, the couple had been nursing the pain of losing their old dog, Napoleon. A new dog was on the horizon, but not until they were ready.

And then last month, the world around them began to shrink. One day, Ms. Galatioto-Ruff was standing in front of a classroom full of high school students, teaching them Latin cases and the basics of algebra. The next, she was squinting at their pixelated faces on her computer screen. Restaurants closed. Friends stopped coming over. The boundaries of the couple’s life became the perimeter of their suburban neighborhood, where they took long evening walks to break the monotony of days at home.

“We couldn’t imagine bringing a new dog ... into our hearts right now,” she says. “And then this whole thing started and we realized, we’re going to be home for weeks on end, possibly months on end, and there’s really no better time.”

One evening in mid-March, she logged onto PetFinder, a database that connects shelter animals to possible owners. She clicked on a photo of a floppy-eared puppy in a blue navy captain’s hat. And that was that. “I took one look and said yup, this is him,” she says.

Calming companions

In Lancaster, England, journalist Ruth Hopkins was also looking for a distraction after a difficult several months. First, late last year, she was diagnosed with skin cancer. And as she dealt with that, she was also scrambling to meet a deadline for her book manuscript. And now, a global plague kept her mostly locked indoors, or out running errands for her elderly parents.

She began to think of the two cherished mutts she’d lost in her divorce a couple years earlier, and their comforting, earnest cluelessness.

“I’ve always found it very stress relieving to have a dog because generally they don’t understand what we humans are getting so upset about,” she says. “They are just happy to see you.”

It didn’t take long to convince her parents, and a few days later she collected Layla, a sand-colored, samosa-eared hound, from a local rescue.

Immediately, the days felt lighter. Layla sniffed around Ms. Hopkins and her father as they did their morning planks. She squeezed between her and her mother on walks around the neighborhood, as if worried about missing out on the conversation. And then she settled in for long contented naps on the couch as Ms. Hopkins read or worked beside her.

“Just to cuddle like that, it’s extremely therapeutic,” she says. “It puts your mind and your body at ease.”

Someone ‘to give you a hug’

For many new pet owners, their animals also give structure to days at home that seem to ramble out endlessly into the horizon.

“It’s really nice to have somebody to wake you up or just to give you a hug,” says Rethabile Krämer who adopted two puppies, Ragnar and Gary, from a rescue organization in Johannesburg, South Africa, with her husband in late March. The next day, the country started a strict 21-day lockdown.

“Right now if it was just my husband and I, I think we would be almost killing each other,” she says, laughing. “The puppies lighten the mood, and keep us quite busy.”

And for those who live alone, animals bring company to the quiet moments between work video calls and virtual happy hours.

“It’s a good break. I stop my work, I get up, and I get on the floor and just hang out with them,” says software developer Ahmed Elgoni, who recently adopted two cats in Amsterdam. “They start purring like tiny motors. ... It creates a very nice pause in my day.”

In Mexico City, Pilar Marroquín’s new rescue dog Kenia has made the days less lonely too. The pair still go to dog parks in the city – as long as they aren’t too busy – and do yoga together in the living room. Sometimes, she opens the door to her apartment and lets Kenia bound up and down the hallways with the neighbor dogs as their humans stand back, keeping their distance.

The coming economic shutdown could worsen crime, she worries. But Kenia, despite being more teddy bear than grizzly, is big enough to give off dangerous vibes.

“Back in the day I would be walking on the street and I would see a group of guys, I would be the one moving to the other side, and now it’s the exact opposite,” she says. “They’ll see me with the dog and they’ll walk in the other direction.”

For Ms. Hoggmascall, who is fostering the two Shetland ponies in Sussex, her scruffy, 3-foot-tall companions don’t provide much in the way of added security. “They spend 18 hours a day eating,” she says. But they give her someone to be present for, a way to stop her mind from sailing off into the future that might have been.

A month ago, she and her husband were frantically preparing for a move to Brunei, a tiny sultanate on the island of Borneo. They had stacked worldly possessions in a shipping container and sent it across the ocean.

Then came COVID-19. Ms. Hoggmascall has come to terms with the fact that it will probably be a long time before she leaves her small patch of farmland in the south of England.

And until she does, Hamish and Hedgehog will be here too, eating and sleeping and carrying on as though nothing is wrong in the world.  

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As rescue money flows, so can honesty and accountability

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One of the most trusted people in the United States is Jerome Powell, head of the Federal Reserve. As the Fed begins to disburse trillions of dollars to distressed companies, Mr. Powell knows he must work hard to keep that trust – by preventing corruption in the use of the taxpayers’ money. On Thursday, the Fed said it would disclose the names of companies receiving its assistance along with the terms of the loans.

The Fed’s unusual transparency is one example of officials around the world trying to maintain support during the fight against COVID-19. When people are sacrificing so much for the collective good, leaders cannot afford anger at government malfeasance or at private actors who take advantage of the crisis for their own benefit.

“The pandemic opened up a business opportunity for predatory criminals,” states a report by Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement arm. Both officials and citizens have strong incentives to keep that door of opportunity shut. Their best tools are transparency and accountability, especially in agencies like the Fed handing out trillions of dollars. Honesty is a powerful disinfectant.

As rescue money flows, so can honesty and accountability

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U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell speaks to reporters in March.

One of the most trusted people in the United States is Jerome Powell, head of the central bank. Some 58% of Americans have confidence in the Federal Reserve chairman, according to an April Gallup Poll. Yet as the Fed begins to disburse trillions of dollars to distressed companies, Mr. Powell knows he must work hard to keep that trust – by preventing corruption in the use of the taxpayers’ money.

On Thursday the Fed said it would disclose the names of companies receiving its assistance along with the terms of the loans. The information will be listed on a website at least every 30 days.

The Fed’s unusual transparency is one example of officials around the world trying to maintain support during the fight against COVID-19. When people are sacrificing so much for the collective good, leaders cannot afford anger at government malfeasance or at private actors who take advantage of the crisis for their own benefit.

A few countries like Taiwan have shown in their response to the coronavirus that open and accountable government can be an effective virus killer and perhaps an economy saver. The Council of Europe’s anti-bribery body just issued guidelines to its 50 member states on ways to prevent corruption. And the group of wealthy countries known as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says it will help countries safeguard public procurement, transparency, and whistleblowers.

“It is in moments of disaster response and relief that the values of open government can come under intense pressure, but can also meaningfully contribute to better outcomes,” says the international group Open Government Partnership.

Citizens also seem to be taking up the cause. The U.S. Justice Department’s National Center for Disaster Fraud has received more than 9,000 tips in recent weeks about consumer fraud, price gouging, hoarding, and other potential crimes related to the crisis. More than 3,000 of the tips were deemed worthy of investigation.

“The pandemic opened up a business opportunity for predatory criminals,” states a report by Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement arm. Both officials and citizens have strong incentives to keep that door of opportunity shut. Their best tools are transparency and accountability, especially in agencies like the Fed handing out trillions of dollars. Honesty is a powerful disinfectant.

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.

A holy presence

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Even when we’re feeling isolated or alone, God’s comforting, healing presence is right with us, as this poem highlights.

A holy presence

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

There’s a holy presence in this house,
No empty space to fear.
There’s a gentle presence in this house
Of all that I hold dear.

Life, Truth, and Love are with me still,
They’re ever at my side.
I have my Father-Mother
In whom I can confide.

Should it ever seem too quiet
Then I will be quieter still,
To hear what God is saying
So that I may do His will.

If I’m tempted to yearn for company
To while away an hour,
I’ll entertain, right then and there,
Angel thoughts of His all-power.

For we each are given a purpose
That only He can declare,
And to fill that holy purpose
Brings peace beyond compare.

But Love divine has greater plan
Than our duty well fulfilled;
It’s joy that runneth over,
And o’er us will be spilled.

Originally published in the December 1998 issue of The Christian Science Journal.

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Photos of the week

Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
Photojournalists strive to capture moments that tell a full story, bringing news from the remotest corners of the globe in an instant. Through them we learn more about the world, and ourselves. Here is a roundup of photos from this week that Monitor photo editors found the most compelling.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thanks for joining us. Come back next week. We’ll look at how things are going in Georgia, one of the first states to attempt to reopen.

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