2020
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Monitor Daily Podcast

April 29, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

What an Italian grocery teaches about kindness amid COVID-19

Today's edition looks at how Russia sees the post-Soviet world order, why the left doesn't trust Joe Biden, the lockdown's lessons for climate change, what a war zone teaches about life during a pandemic, and poetry's calming voice

But first, a look at what a little kindness can achieve.

The idea is just oh-so-Italian. Pay for your coffee now and drink it later. Caffè sospeso – suspended coffee – the Italians call it. Only, a grocery store owner in Rome has recently come up with an even better idea: suspended shopping.

Customers at Michela Buccilli’s small shop can pay ahead for groceries, with a twist: They’re paying for those who can’t afford it. Half of Italian workers are out of a job because of coronavirus restrictions. So Ms. Buccilli often adds a little extra. One customer bought a kilogram of oranges for a needy family; Ms. Buccilli gave an entire crate, NPR reports.

Worldwide, the coronavirus is revealing the bedrock of kindness in human nature, as we’ve highlighted in so many of these Monitor Daily intros. But it is equally important to recognize that these acts aren’t simply fleeting moments. They can be transformational.

At a time when so much public discourse is entrenched and antagonistic, research shows that kindness is the most effective solvent. “Defensiveness fades away,” and thinking “about the ‘bigger things’ makes us forget ourselves, to an extent,” notes an article in Inverse about a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

That can be writing a thank you note – or doing a little “suspended shopping.” Such attitudes, the study’s author says, “are a really powerful force of change.”

Navigating uncertainty

The search for global bearings

Trust deficit: The roots of Russia’s standoff with the West

Why are U.S.-Russia relations still so fueled by suspicion – and still fueling global turmoil? The Russian view, rarely heard in the West, begins with post-Soviet hopes that crumbled as desires for the new era went disregarded. Part 6 of our series “Navigating Uncertainty.”

Mark
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Nursery school students in folk costumes perform songs, including one about wheat and bread, beneath a portrait of Lenin, in November 1987 in Moscow, Russia, Soviet Union.

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It’s difficult to hold a conversation with any Russian foreign policy specialist today without getting dragged into arguments with the underlying assumption that the other side – be it Russia or the West – must change its behavior. But most agree that, in a world facing common challenges including a relentless coronavirus pandemic, the replay of the Cold War is a serious obstacle to international efforts to stave off global disaster.

Defanging the hostility in part requires understanding what Russians see as historic wrongs inflicted by the West. Western leaders gave Mikhail Gorbachev assurances NATO would not be expanded into the former Soviet sphere, but following the USSR’s demise, U.S. President Bill Clinton took office and adopted other plans.

Western examples also soured Russian perspectives. The 1999 war over Kosovo illustrated to Russians that NATO was not simply a defensive alliance. The 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and subsequent Middle East misadventures created the impression that the U.S. was an aggressor that didn’t know what it was doing. The 2008 financial crash tarnished the U.S. economic model.

“When you wonder why Putin often opposes the West, and Russians tend to support him, you need to see that side of it,” says Yevgeny Bazhanov, a retired professor.

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1. Trust deficit: The roots of Russia’s standoff with the West

It was Dec. 25, 1991, when the USSR abruptly ceased to exist.

Just before midnight, the Soviet red hammer-and-sickle banner was pulled down from the Kremlin for the last time, and up fluttered an unfamiliar white-blue-red tricolor that proclaimed the birth – or rebirth – of Russia.

It was truly an inflection point. The Soviet Union, the communist behemoth that had defined one pole of a binary world order for decades, had simply evaporated. It had already abandoned its Eastern European empire and dissolved its military alliance. Now its rivalry with the United States, complete with a hostile anti-capitalist ideology, a costly nuclear arms race, and multiple proxy wars around the world, was gone.

Commentators hailed this not merely as an end to a divided world with its permanent threat of nuclear war, but as a chance to create an inclusive, ideology-free order that might improve the lot of all humankind.

It was a world that seemed within reach thanks to the discovery, as the walls crumbled and the Cold War stereotypes receded, that most Russians were surprisingly, enthusiastically pro-Western. Vladimir Pozner, an American-Russian who grew up in New York, then spent 30 years working in the bowels of the Soviet propaganda machine before becoming a TV personality in both the U.S. and Russia, recalls it as the most exhilarating moment of his life.

“There was this emotional upsurge in the country. People felt like they were coming out of a cocoon after a very long time,” he says. “Many of us thought, finally, we are going to become part of the world – as we always really wanted to be – be accepted, be participants. It was a really enthralling vision.”

Things have, conspicuously, not turned out that way. Tracking polls that showed Russians overwhelmingly pro-American in the 1990s now show majorities of Russians suspicious of the U.S. Even though today’s Russia is a capitalist country, without an empire or an antagonistic ideology, American attitudes toward Russia have turned as negative as they ever were toward the old USSR.

It’s difficult to hold a conversation with any Russian foreign policy specialist today without getting dragged into polemics: angry accusations, defensive responses, and the underlying assumption that the other side must change its behavior before a more constructive global order becomes feasible.

But most agree that, in a world facing common challenges like climate change, the persisting danger of nuclear conflict, and a relentless coronavirus pandemic, the replay of the Cold War is a serious obstacle to international efforts to stave off global disaster. Some even offer a few practical ideas for how Russia and the West might at least formulate some new priorities to minimize confrontation and maximize cooperation.

“I do believe that most of the issues between us can be solved, not by one vanquishing the other, but by finding new terms of mutual acceptance,” says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament. “My dream is, maybe during my lifetime, that we will see normal politicians on both sides sit down together with a readiness to formulate pragmatic answers to the questions that vex our relationship.”

A Russia ignored

From the Russian perspective, the evolution of disillusionment with the West was a natural progression.

Alexei Gromyko, as director of the official Institute of Europe, often serves in an advisory role to today’s Russian leaders. On an overcast afternoon in mid-March, the institute, an ornate 19th-century building near the Kremlin, was empty amid the beginnings of Russia’s coronavirus shutdown. But Mr. Gromyko was in his office, willing to talk about how he sees East-West relations.

In his view, today’s inflamed geopolitical crisis was rooted in the post-Cold War failure to create a security system, primarily in Europe, that would fully include Russia. Western leaders gave Mikhail Gorbachev strong verbal assurances NATO would not be expanded into the former Soviet sphere but, as Mr. Gromyko ruefully notes, Mr. Gorbachev failed to get that in writing. Following the USSR’s demise, U.S. President Bill Clinton took office and adopted other plans. That lesson was not lost on the Russians.

“After the collapse of one pillar of the former bipolar world order, it became fashionable in the West to think that the world order could become unipolar, with the U.S. at the helm,” he says. “In the 1990s, Russia descended into its worst crisis since 1917. It not only ceased to be a superpower, it suffered political, economic, and social collapse as well. It was not even clear that Russia would survive physically. So, perhaps believing that Russian interests and views didn’t matter anymore, Clinton made the decision to enlarge NATO to the east.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Under Mikhail Gorbachev, Russians exercise their freedom of expression during a demonstration in Manyezh Square in Moscow, Russia, Soviet Union, in July 1990. The demo is anti-Communist, pro-democracy.

“But just because Russia couldn’t do anything about it at the time doesn’t mean that we accepted it. We never did. Since then the process of NATO expansion has been unstoppable, and so has the subsequent chain of events.”

The Western alliance has since taken in all of the former Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact allies, as well as the three former Soviet Baltic republics. Mr. Gromyko says the Russians signaled repeatedly to Western counterparts that inducting Ukraine or Georgia into the alliance would be a red line. At its 2008 Bucharest Summit, NATO shelved those countries’ applications, but issued a statement insisting they would eventually join.

A few months later Georgia attacked the Russian-backed statelet of South Ossetia, which belongs to Georgia but had de facto independence since the early ’90s. Russia staged a military intervention and drove Georgian forces back.

In early 2014, after a disorderly change of power in Kyiv brought pro-Western nationalists to power, Russia again intervened, seizing the Crimean Peninsula – where the main base for Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet is located – and orchestrating a referendum in which Crimeans voted to join Russia. Moscow subsequently stirred up, armed, and gave military support to anti-Kyiv separatists in Ukraine’s east.

Mr. Gromyko insists Russia has nothing to apologize for. The idea of Ukraine joining NATO is as unthinkable for Moscow as, say, Mexico joining a Chinese-led military alliance would be for Washington, he suggests.

“It’s not that we view NATO as an existential threat right now,” he says. “But Russia cannot accept that a country next door would be a member of a military alliance that is hostile to Russia,” he says. “We are not opposed to Ukraine being democratic. It’s fine with us if a neighbor has a different political and social system. But not a member of an adversarial bloc. Security is the central issue.”

He says that, at least in Europe, people have concluded that NATO expansion has reached its natural limit. If that can be formalized, he suggests, it might ease the standoff over Ukraine and lead to wider negotiations for a more stable security order in Europe.

But he is not optimistic about relations with the U.S. Only one of the Cold War-era networks of nuclear arms-control agreements remains in force, and it will soon expire. And the U.S. keeps ramping up sanctions.

“Even if we have a breakthrough on Ukraine tomorrow, we are quite sure that U.S. sanctions will not be lifted,” Mr. Gromyko says. “Sanctions have taken on a life of their own, and new ones have no direct connection with the situation between Ukraine and Russia.”

Sanctions have also hastened Russia’s drift into China’s strategic and economic embrace. But the pivot wasn’t just about the Kremlin’s desire to show the West it has alternatives, say Russian experts. “The process of strengthening ties with China has been going on since 1989,” says Mr. Klimov. “That ship sailed well before the current crisis.”

Watching the Western example

The public’s view of Russia’s standoff with the West is not well covered, and the story gets told in the voices of political leaders. But Russian experts note that Russians’ disenchantment with their system played a role in the USSR’s collapse, while the widespread perception of the West as a superior civilization conditioned the pro-American orientation of Boris Yeltsin’s post-Soviet government.

Yevgeny Bazhanov, now retired, was a longtime professor and for some years the rector of the Diplomatic Academy, which trains Russian diplomats. He recalls watching students over the years morph from admirers of the West into hardened critics. That tendency was informed by the examples they perceived the U.S. setting, he says.

“You can blame Putin, or some kind of Russian stubbornness, but that wasn’t the main thing,” he says. “In the early ’90s we wanted to be a prosperous, democratic country, and the West was the model for our development. But reforms enacted on Western advice produced economic disaster and mass misery. People started to believe that the West didn’t want Russia to succeed. It looked like the U.S. wanted Russia to become a junior partner, like Germany or the U.K. But most Russians wanted to follow an independent policy, to be friends and partners with the West, but to be ourselves.”

He says several events led many Russians to question not only the idea of U.S. leadership, but competence. The 1999 war over Kosovo illustrated to them that NATO was not simply a defensive alliance. The 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and subsequent Middle East misadventures, created the impression the U.S. was an aggressor, and one that didn’t seem to know what it was doing. The 2008 financial crash tarnished the U.S. economic model.

“When you wonder why Putin often opposes the West, and Russians tend to support him, you need to see that side of it,” says Mr. Bazhanov.

“Citizen diplomacy” might be the best antidote to the war of words, says Mr. Pozner. He may be uniquely qualified in that respect. For the past three years he has given lectures at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, in Monterey, California, addressing mainly Russia-studies students, but also holding events with wider audiences. He travels Russia to give public talks, and hosts one of the most popular public affairs shows on state TV.

“Sometimes Americans ask me, how can you live with your government when it does things like poisoning the Skripals, or interfering in our elections? I answer that, like most Russians, I have no idea what Russian secret services are doing, but I am dubious about these accusations,” Mr. Pozner says. “In Russia, people are long accustomed to our authorities blaming the ‘foreign hand’ when things go wrong. It’s convenient because it displaces blame and tars critics with enemy associations. I’m sorry, I just don’t believe that anything Russia did could have swayed an American election. It’s a bit depressing to hear Americans talking like this, as if they were in the Soviet Union, and uncritically believing something their secret services tell them.”

During the 1980s Mr. Pozner took part in “Space Bridge” programs that brought ordinary Americans together with Soviets over a satellite link, and let them converse.

“The whole Cold War mood simply evaporated as they started comparing their lives, their hopes, talking about their families, even emptying their handbags to show each other what kind of stuff they had. The real Cold War disappeared shortly thereafter. I am convinced that if you get people together to dialogue, they may not become friends but they will find terms of coexistence,” he says.

The “trust deficit”

It’s hard to guess at the future. Most Russian experts agree the coronavirus pandemic is an urgent global wake-up call, and fostering international cooperation an existential issue.

But before Russia and the West can establish areas of cooperation, it is probably necessary to address the gaping “trust deficit,” or the urge to see everything the other side does through a dark prism. An example is Russia’s efforts to provide coronavirus assistance to Italy, and the U.S., during the pandemic’s worst days. What might have been greeted as a good deed – albeit with the ulterior motives that usually apply with aid – was almost universally treated in Western media as a propaganda ploy and an attempt to disrupt European unity.

“During the old Cold War, the West was genuinely united and self-confident. They not only claimed to be right, they were fully convinced of it,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “Today, many Western countries face deep internal discord and uncertainty. There are serious strains within the alliance.

“I believe this urge to disproportionately blame Russia comes from that new place of insecurity and lack of confidence. I doubt there is much we can do to change this atmosphere of acrimony and recrimination until they start to fix their own problems. Amid this crisis we all need to work on that, and Russia too will need to change itself to survive. Maybe after we come through this we can find modes of dialogue.”

Reporters on the Job
The Monitor's special correspondent Fred Weir gives the inside scoop

When I decided to try to capture authentic Russian voices offering unvarnished views of what ails U.S.-Russia relations, I went first to the Institute of Europe, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. Unlike the U.S. system, where academics may shuttle into and out of government, in Russia such scholars maintain constant and intense contact with those in power. 

I sought out Alexei Gromyko, the institute’s director and grandson of the USSR’s longest-serving foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, notorious in the West as “Mr. Nyet.” The younger Mr. Gromyko proved far more accommodating. He greeted me in his huge office – the building was empty and silent amid Moscow’s draconian coronavirus lockdown in mid-March – and walked me through the turbulent evolution of Russia’s ties with the West since the USSR’s collapse. 

It was a tough conversation. As I left, he reminded me that the West and Russia had worked together before, most notably in World War II, when the USSR was led by dictator Josef Stalin. “With all the common threats facing us today, such as climate change and pandemics, I don’t see why we can’t find ways to cooperate again,” he said.

The left is lukewarm on Biden. Will they turn out for him anyway?

Donald Trump won the presidency by reaching out to voters who felt unheard and overlooked. Joe Biden might need to do the same – with disillusioned, Bernie Sanders-loving liberals.

Mark

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As it prepares for a pugilistic general election contest with President Donald Trump, the Democratic Party – for once – doesn’t seem in disarray. Former Vice President Joe Biden came from behind to wrap up the nomination relatively easily, with his former competitors quickly endorsing him – including his last rival standing, Sen. Bernie Sanders. Among dozens of Sanders supporters interviewed by the Monitor, only a handful say they absolutely will not vote for Mr. Biden in November. 

But tensions between the progressive wing and the rest of the party haven’t dissipated, either.

Many on the left were outraged when New York decided this week to cancel its presidential primary in June, likely denying Mr. Sanders delegates that could have given him more clout at the convention. And some Sanders supporters have been advancing charges that Mr. Biden sexually assaulted a former staffer in the mid-’90s. (Mr. Biden’s campaign has denied the allegation.)    

Above all, many say there are concessions Mr. Biden still must make to help unite the party – most prominently, his selection of a running mate.

“Many Bernie supporters are eagerly awaiting his VP candidate announcement,” says Kittee Hayes, a hairstylist from Eugene, Oregon. “Who that woman is will determine a huge percentage of who will vote for him.”

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2. The left is lukewarm on Biden. Will they turn out for him anyway?

Ray Barkoski has something particular he wants from presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden: respect.

Sure, it would be good if Mr. Biden picks a running mate who reflects progressive values, says Mr. Barkoski, a dog rescue coordinator for Connecticut who supported Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primary race. He hopes the Biden platform will incorporate some of Mr. Sanders’ policy goals, such as universal health care and reining in Wall Street.

But if the Biden campaign truly wants to win over Mr. Sanders’ army of dedicated supporters and unite the Democrats, the candidate himself needs to signal that he values them and understands why they became Sanders activists in the first place, Mr. Barkoski says.

“It’s not Trumpers who are saying ‘Oh you Bernie people are all losers.’ That’s all coming from our own party,” says Mr. Barkoski, who has cast his ballot for Democratic presidential nominees since he became old enough to vote in 1972. “This party has no interest in me or what I stand for, unless it’s courting my vote.”

As it readies for what promises to be a pugilistic general election contest with President Donald Trump, the Democratic Party – for once – doesn’t seem to be in disarray. Former Vice President Biden came from behind to wrap up the nomination relatively easily, with his former competitors quickly endorsing him – including his last rival standing, Senator Sanders.

Many of the Vermont lawmaker’s loyal supporters, sometimes dubbed “Bernie Bros,” may eventually follow. A USA Today/Suffolk poll from last week found that 77 percent of Sanders supporters say they will back Mr. Biden, and among dozens recently interviewed by the Monitor, only a handful said they won’t.

But tensions between the progressive wing and the rest of the party haven’t dissipated, either. Many on the left were outraged when New York decided this week to cancel its presidential primary in June, likely denying Mr. Sanders delegates that could have given him more clout at the party convention. And some Sanders supporters have been advancing charges that Mr. Biden sexually assaulted a former staffer, Tara Reade, in the mid-’90s. (Mr. Biden’s campaign has denied the allegation.)    

Many say there are policy and personnel concessions that Mr. Biden still must make to unite the party in coming months – most prominently, his selection of a running mate.

“Biden needs to unite the left by not being in the center,” says Kittee Hayes, a hairstylist from Eugene, Oregon. “That is the bottom line.” 

Concessions to the left

To be sure, the request for respect cuts both ways.

Senator Sanders’ grassroots army is notoriously active – and biting – on social media. A previous Monitor analysis of Sanders supporters on Twitter, for example, found their negative replies to other candidates’ tweets far outnumbered those of any other Democrats’ supporters.

And Mr. Biden has already moved left on key issues. Last year he unveiled a plan to reduce U.S. net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, at a cost of $1.7 trillion in federal investments. He has proposed a health care budget that, over 10 years, is more than five times larger than the one proposed by Hillary Clinton in her 2016 presidential campaign. In early March Mr. Biden endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy plan, which he had previously opposed.

The day after Mr. Sanders dropped out of the presidential race, Mr. Biden announced two more policy shifts: a proposal to lower the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 60, and a pledge to forgive federal student loan debt for graduates of public universities or historically black colleges making less than $125,000.

“Senator Sanders and his supporters can take pride in their work in laying the groundwork for these ideas,” wrote Mr. Biden in a blog post, “and I’m proud to adopt them as part of my campaign.”

Still, some of Senator Sanders’ most vocal supporters, such as New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, say Mr. Biden has further to go.

Mr. Biden has already committed to selecting a woman as his vice president, and Sanders supporters hope his choice will be a nod to the left. They throw out a bunch of names, but the most common suggestion is Senator Warren.

“Many Bernie supporters are eagerly awaiting his VP candidate announcement,” says Ms. Hayes. “Who that woman is will determine a huge percentage of who will vote for him.”

A key question is how much political power Senator Sanders and his followers actually possess. After all, their candidate did lose, and with a smaller share of the vote than in 2016.

“After running for president twice and losing worse the second time, maybe [Mr. Sanders] is not the wave of the future at all for the party,” says Matthew Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College. 

But if Mr. Biden wants to attract young voters, he needs to recognize what drew many of them to Senator Sanders, says Carmel Pryor, communications director for the Alliance for Youth Action, one of several activist groups that recently penned a letter to the former vice president outlining how he might win their support.

It’s more than just policies, she says – it’s a willingness to listen. “We shouldn’t be treated as children who are just complaining,” says Ms. Pryor. “We are trying to find solutions and looking for someone to take us seriously.”

The country’s current struggle with COVID-19 will only hasten the party’s leftward shift, she suggests.

“COVID-19 is exposing the social ills of our nation,” such as an unstable economy and inadequate health care, says Ms. Pryor. “It’s unearthing things that progressives have been yelling from the mountaintop this entire time.”

Not 2016

Others say the left should perhaps cut Mr. Biden some slack.

This primary contest ended on a far less acrimonious note than four years ago. In 2016, Senator Sanders did not endorse Mrs. Clinton until two weeks before the party’s nominating convention; this year, he endorsed Mr. Biden just five days after dropping out. It’s clear the two septuagenarian grandfathers have a friendly relationship.

And of course, the stakes appear very different to many Democrats.

“The elephant in the room is that, if not Biden, Trump,” says John Landosky, a city employee for Little Rock, Arkansas, and a Sanders backer.

Many Sanders supporters didn’t expect Mr. Trump to win in 2016, so they felt safe not voting for Mrs. Clinton. Now, that’s not the case. 

“The majority of people I’ve talked to so far have said, ‘Yes, I will vote for Biden because the other choice is so much worse,’” says Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, a state representative from Middletown Springs, Vermont.

“I’d vote for the devil before I voted for Trump,” says Lisa Geiger, a Sanders supporter and substitute teacher from Arkansas. 

This either-or decision is clearly on the mind of Senator Sanders himself. “Do we be as active as we can in electing Joe Biden and doing everything we can to move Joe and his campaign in a more progressive direction?” he said to The Associated Press. “Or do we choose to sit it out and allow the most dangerous president in modern American history to get reelected?”

But some, like Massachusetts substitute teacher Kasey Rogers, say the movement Senator Sanders built is more important than one election.

A few years ago, Ms. Rogers’ husband got sick, lost his job, and died. She was suddenly a single mom trying – and failing – to pay all of her bills.

“When I had to go to the grocery store with food stamps and people looked at me like a criminal...” Ms. Rogers trails off, crying. “It really changed my perspective on life. I suddenly became one of those people that Bernie fights for.”

Ms. Rogers says she’ll vote for the Green Party nominee this November, just as she did in 2016, seeing Mr. Biden as little better than Mr. Trump. And she hopes the Sanders movement goes on fighting for change.

“We remind each other that Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony – they were never president,” says Ms. Rogers. “Transformational things in our country have been done by non-presidents.”

Bluer skies, less greenhouse gas. What happens after the pandemic?

People worldwide have made remarkable sacrifices to rein in COVID-19. Can that same spirit be applied to climate change? For many researchers, now is the time to drive home that message.

Mark
Ashwini Bhatia/AP
The snowcapped Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas are clearly visible in Dharmsala, India, April 10, 2020. Cleaner air during India's closure of schools, industries, and transport is one bonus during the pandemic, in the country with six out of 10 of the world's most polluted cities.

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On social media, people have eagerly posted photos of clearer air and waterways to show how humans slowing down during the pandemic is affecting the environment.  But many of these demonstrable changes are temporary and may barely register on any long-term analysis, according to researchers. After the financial crisis of 2008, for example, global emissions grew rapidly.  

It’s a reason to push green initiatives now, say climate advocates. Some worry that unless policymakers focus on greener legislation, the pandemic could lead to policy shifts that would undermine years of hard-won climate victories. In March, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency paused enforcement of its regulations during the pandemic.

But while conventional wisdom has held that the people who consume the most aren’t willing to change their behavior, the pandemic is showing a different side of humanity. “We are able to mobilize the entire global economy and population for an imminent threat,” says Christopher Jones at the University of California, Berkeley. “Climate change and this pandemic both affect the most vulnerable.” Many are “willing to make personal sacrifices. ... I think that’s quite new.”

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3. Bluer skies, less greenhouse gas. What happens after the pandemic?

Earlier this month, health care experts from across the United States gathered to address hundreds of journalists and policymakers by webinar. But their focus was not testing, nor vaccines, nor “herd immunity.” It was not even COVID-19, really. Instead, their focus was climate change. 

“While many see issues like climate change and biodiversity loss as far from what’s going on right now … I see this as the time to talk about it,” said Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School. “Climate solutions are, in fact, pandemic solutions.” 

A few days later, economists and policy experts with the World Resources Institute held their own panel discussion. The message was similar, and the audience one of the largest in the organization’s history. The experience of and response to COVID-19, proclaimed expert after expert, was intricately tied to climate.

Indeed, increasing numbers of researchers and policymakers, scientists and health care practitioners, are looking at the coronavirus through an ecological lens. Whether they are focused on consumer behavioral shifts, changes in emission outputs, or policy decisions that might help or hurt long-term goals for green infrastructure, they are seeing in this moment a pivotal chance to address climate change. 

“As we respond to the very imminent economic and health crisis, can we also tackle the climate and sustainability crisis?” asked Manish Bapna, WRI’s managing director and executive vice president.

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

There have been a number of short-term environmental shifts connected with how the world is coping with the pandemic. China’s carbon emissions dropped 18% between the beginning of February and mid-March, according to data compiled by the website CarbonBrief. Pollution over India has decreased dramatically, according to satellite images from NASA’s Earth Observatory. And in the U.S., a dramatic decrease in air travel, as well as a drop in vehicular travel, has also lowered emissions. 

Mike Blake/Reuters
In Encinitas, California, April 2, 2020, about 100 miles south of Los Angeles, residents are experiencing air quality that one study says is about 20% better than normal in the southern part of the state. Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 19 restricted nonessential activity for nearly 40 million people.

But many of these changes are temporary, researchers say, and may barely register on any long-term analysis of global carbon emissions. The drop in China’s carbon output, for instance, came alongside a lockdown over much of the country and a related plunge in factory operations. As the country reopens, says Fang Li, chief representative of the World Resources Institute in Beijing, emissions are expected to rebound along with the economy. After the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, Dr. Fang and others point out, global emissions grew rapidly.  

Renewing a focus

For many climate advocates, this is a reason to push green initiatives now. Environmentalists worry that unless policymakers focus on climate as part of their economic packages, the pandemic could lead to policy shifts that would undermine years of hard-won climate victories. Indeed, the Trump administration in late March announced that it would weaken Obama-era fuel standards that mandate increased fuel efficiencies for automobiles. It also announced last month that the Environmental Protection Agency will not enforce environmental regulations during the pandemic. 

“What we have to worry about is whether ... policy changes are going to be long term or short term,” says Christopher Jones, director of the CoolClimate Network at the University of California, Berkeley. “If we roll back standards and they remain in place when the economy comes back, we are going to have a real problem.” 

Researchers say that a green economic stimulus package could both help the U.S. ensure long-term sustainability and rebound from the crushing economic impact of the pandemic. (More than 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since March 15, according to the U.S. Labor Department.) Many environmentalists look at the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama in 2009, as an example of how government initiatives can spur climate-friendly industry. That bill, which earmarked some $90 billion to promote green energy, is widely credited with launching the widespread renewable energy sector in the U.S. 

“Economic measures should focus on climate as well as jobs and livelihood,” Mr. Bapna said during the WRI panel.

But as Kenneth Gillingham, a professor at Yale University and a research fellow at the National Bureau of Economics Research, points out, the pandemic itself has slowed renewable energy efforts.

“There’s a slowing down of building new solar farms, of new wind facilities,” he says. “Some projects are hitting the pause button. Other projects may not happen for a long time.” 

And while there is hope for a green renewal, he suspects the future will be a good deal more nuanced.

“Entirely rebuilding our economy as a green economy? It’s a wonderful vision, but I don’t believe that’s what we’ll likely see,” he says.

Inequality, exacerbated

But a move toward environmental sustainability, says Dr. Bernstein, is going to be crucial not only for combatting a climate crisis, but for helping some of the people most impacted by the coronavirus. As he points out, both the pandemic and the impacts from climate change disproportionately affect people of color and other marginalized groups. 

There is, he and others say, a hopeful lesson to be taken from the massive lifestyle and economic shifts seen across the globe in response to COVID-19.  For years, popular wisdom has said that people simply would not engage in the sort of behavior changes necessary to fight climate change; that they wouldn’t stop traveling, wouldn’t stop consuming, wouldn’t sacrifice material comforts and help save others who are most immediately at risk from climate change. Now, the response to the pandemic suggests otherwise. 

“We are able to mobilize the entire global economy and population for an imminent threat,” says Dr. Jones. “Both climate change and this pandemic both affect the most vulnerable. But everybody is willing to make personal sacrifices to protect the most vulnerable. I think that’s quite new.”

The question, he and others say, is whether people will be able to see climate change as a similarly “imminent threat,” deserving of action. While climate researchers look at the world’s increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters and see a direct connection to human behavior, research shows that most everyday people still feel disconnected from both the impacts and causes of climate change. 

“We don’t experience risk properly,” says Katharine Hayhoe, professor and director of the Texas Tech University Climate Science Center.   

But with the coronavirus, researchers say, there is a chance to shift.

“It can make people feel that what was previously unthinkable is plausible,” Dr. Jones says. “They know what the experience feels like.”

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

Essay

Living in a war zone: What it teaches about surviving a pandemic

In this essay, our Martin Kuz beautifully explores how perspective gained from trips to Afghanistan has helped him see the coronavirus crisis through a different lens.

Mark
Martin Kuz/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A group of men clusters behind a store’s security gate in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 24, 2013, as militants and Afghan security forces clash a few blocks away.

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It’s common these days to hear people compare our responses to the coronavirus to war. Flaws abound in the comparison. But it is true that both reshape the order of life, disrupting cultural and social rituals and altering perspective on external and interior worlds.

Amid this new uncertainty, our Northern California correspondent, Martin Kuz, shares a different perspective. He covered the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan for three years, traveling to half the country’s 34 provinces. One memory that persists is how Afghans responded to the countless attacks they endured.

Their calmness defied the not-so-distant echoes of gunfire and grenade explosions. And their example of adapting to the constant presence of war – finding purpose, meaning, and joy within the confines of mutual hardship – holds useful lessons.

The willingness of Afghans to repair the social fabric whenever violence tears open their lives reveals a patience born of experience. They spurn cynicism to attend college, get married, and raise families. They cast off self-pity to gather in cafes, hold public celebrations, and worship together. They search for light in the shadow of war.

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4. Living in a war zone: What it teaches about surviving a pandemic

The city appears deserted. No cars in the streets, no pedestrians on the sidewalks. Shops closed up, restaurants shut down. The absence of motion surrounds me.

Walking past a storefront, I notice a cluster of men staring out from behind its metal security gate. They range in age from early teens to about 50, and when I offer a smile, a few respond in kind. Their calmness defies the not-so-distant echoes of gunfire and grenade explosions.

As the novel coronavirus forces much of America to hole up indoors, my mind keeps returning to that silent, fleeting exchange seven years ago in Kabul, Afghanistan. People had disappeared into buildings seeking cover during an insurgent attack. Yet four or five blocks from the fighting, the group of men reacted to their captivity with placid resolve, inured to war’s chaos.

The memory of that moment from the longest war in United States history surfaces when I stroll through my neighborhood in Northern California. Stillness has muffled the streets in Sacramento as people hibernate in their homes and wait for the threat of COVID-19 to subside. Here and there, I glimpse someone peering out a window, as if checking whether our old way of life has come back.

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

Flaws abound in the comparison of pandemic to war. But it is true that each form of calamity brings suffering and death, provokes anxiety and grief, and requires collective effort and sacrifice to repel an invading force. Both reshape the order of life, disrupting cultural and social rituals and altering perspective on external and interior worlds.

In our new age of uncertainty, the example of Afghans adapting to the constant presence of war – finding purpose, meaning, and joy within the confines of mutual hardship – holds useful lessons. As we confront economic insecurity, food shortages, and loss of personal freedom, as we worry about the danger of stepping outside our homes, we can take cues from a nation that has coped with those burdens for decades.

A sense of possibility

I covered the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan for three years, traveling to half the country’s 34 provinces. The attack in Kabul on May 24, 2013, fit a recurring pattern in large cities and remote villages alike.

The assault began when a suicide bomber detonated explosives near a Western aid agency. The hourslong firefight that followed between militants and Afghan security forces claimed four victims, including a 6-year-old girl. A plume of gray smoke swirled over the city of 4 million people as its public spaces emptied out and its daily bustle ceased.

Afghans have honed their shelter-in-place reflexes during multiple wars over the past 40 years. They know to stay inside at the sound of explosions and gunfire. They also know that, after the smoke dissipates, a pall of dread will linger.

The unease hovers for hours or days, weeks or months. But in time, by degrees, people reassert a measure of control as shops reopen, workers return to their jobs, and children again play in the streets. Life regains its normal rhythms – with the caveat that “normal” remains at once relative and fragile in war.

The willingness of Afghans to repair the social fabric whenever violence tears open their lives reveals a patience born of experience. They spurn cynicism to attend college, get married, and raise families. They cast off self-pity to gather in cafes, hold public celebrations, and worship together. They search for light in the shadow of war.

These acts of rebellion against despair and loss reflect an ability to acclimate to chronic turmoil. Even after generations of bloodshed, Afghans continue to nurture a sense of possibility, bearing their country’s privations with an enviable strength of spirit.

The day after the attack, Kabul’s residents started to emerge from hiding. In the afternoon, I rode by taxi to a university to watch its graduation ceremony, passing the store where I had seen the group of men. The security gate was up, and inside there were customers.

“We live each day”

The coronavirus has engulfed America. Hospitals struggle with patient overflow and equipment shortages. Demand at food banks soars in tandem with millions of people losing jobs or income. Stay-at-home orders cut us off from public spaces and one another. We tend to feel connected only in our shared isolation.

War splinters a nation, and in their distress, people turn to each other for solace and hope. By contrast, preventing the spread of COVID-19 requires us to stay apart, a concept at odds with human impulse and one that, in aiding the greater good, denies us the comfort of coming together.

Our retreat from the outside world, aside from complicating our economic and emotional recovery, conflicts with American notions of personal freedom and the desire to impose control over the future. We can look to Afghans for guidance in navigating our new reality.

Decades of war in Afghanistan have inflicted profound tragedies and social ills on its people. At the same time, their acceptance of uncertainty as the status quo serves as a wellspring of resilience. Rather than dwell on the unrest and surrender to a siege mentality, Afghans attempt to create a semblance of stability by devoting their attention to the day at hand.

The insurgent attack in Kabul in 2013 inflicted minor damage on a shoe store run by Samiullah Safi. When I visited him two days later, he was sweeping up bits of glass and plaster from the shop floor.

He had reopened that morning, and I asked how he endured in the face of endless war. His answer echoed what I heard from Afghans across the country during my years there.

“We know violence is always possible,” he told me. “But we cannot live thinking this way. We live each day until the next one.”

The West tends to view Afghanistan as medieval, a place with nothing to teach us about surviving our modern moment. Yet as the coronavirus blurs the future and magnifies the present, we might emulate the persistence of Afghans, who even under the yoke of war regard each day as its own reward, its own triumph.

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

Books

Poems to remind us of our strength during quarantine

Robert Frost wrote that poetry provides “a momentary stay against the confusion of the world.” We asked the Monitor’s staff what poems they’ve loved that offer calm and an opportunity to reset.

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Karen Norris/Staff
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5. Poems to remind us of our strength during quarantine

When life feels difficult or bleak, where do you turn for comfort and inspiration? For many people, good poetry is an obvious choice.

[Have you found poetry comforting right now? Email us at books@csmonitor.com with your favorite poem and what you love about it. We’ll be in touch if we want to publish your submission.] 

That’s not surprising, since oral poetry predates written language in cultures around the world. Both spoken and written verse have always expressed people’s hopes and fears, their desire to understand life and to connect with something immutable.

“Poetry is indeed something divine,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the finest English Romantic poets, in 1821. “Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed ...” and “a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.”

Roughly a century later, Robert Frost, who won four Pulitzer Prizes, described poetry in less lofty terms: Poetry provides “a momentary stay against the confusion of the world.” He argued that a poem “begins in delight but ends in wisdom.” 

Regardless of how one defines the art form, poetry requires lively, memorable language that leads to new perceptions or even new roads of understanding.

Sometimes the understanding we need most is that we are not alone in our struggles. Others have felt what we are feeling and found a way to articulate their complex, amorphous thoughts.

Poetry that comforts and consoles also lifts our gaze beyond current circumstances – or reminds us that we have the grit, strength, and grace to persevere, just as generations before us have done.

If perseverance sounds exhausting or days blend together during this strange time, poems can jolt us out of inertia with their imagery, metaphor, color, and rhythm. 

“I dwell in Possibility,” wrote Emily Dickinson, who chose to live most of her life in isolation so she could focus on her writing. 

The poems that follow, which Monitor staff members have loved for years, are intended to spark hope and encouragement. As one of Dickinson’s most famous poems notes, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” Let those feathers lift you now.

Favorite poems of Monitor staff

[Due to copyright constraints, we are publishing full poems only when they are in the public domain or we have permission. We’re including links so you can find the others elsewhere on the internet.]

Francine KieferWest Coast bureau chief

My mother wrote poetry, and she started feeding me poems when I was in high school. I fell in love with Edna St. Vincent Millay – her passion, her acute observations of life, her lyricism. “Recuerdo” is one such poem, singing to the world about two companions, presumably lovers, who have not much between them except enough money to buy fruit and ride the ferry back and forth all night. Their youthful exuberance is infectious, too strong to keep to themselves, and at dawn, they end up sharing what they have left over with a mother, a “shawl-covered head.” It reminds me of how love is too big to be contained.

Recuerdo

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

We were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable–
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

***

Scott Armstrong, Weekly cover story editor

Sometimes you just need to laugh. And “Arithmetic” by Carl Sandburg works for me.

Arithmetic

By Carl Sandburg

Arithmetic is where numbers fly like pigeons in and out of your head.
Arithmetic tells you how many you lose or win if you know how many
         you had before you lost or won.
Arithmetic is seven eleven all good children go to heaven—
         or five six bundle of sticks.
Arithmetic is numbers you squeeze from your head to your hand
         to your pencil to your paper till you get the answer.
Arithmetic is where the answer is right and everything is nice
         and you can look out of the window and see the blue sky—
         or the answer is wrong and you have to start all over and
         try again and see how it comes out this time.
If you take a number and double it and double it again and then
         double it a few more times, the number gets bigger and bigger
         and goes higher and higher and only arithmetic can tell you
         what the number is when you decide to quit doubling.
Arithmetic is where you have to multiply – and you carry
         the multiplication table in your head and hope you won’t lose it.
If you have two animal crackers, one good and one bad, and you eat one
         and a striped zebra with streaks all over him eats the other,
         how many animal crackers will you have if somebody offers you
         five six seven and you say No no no and you say Nay nay nay
         and you say Nix nix nix?
If you ask your mother for one fried egg for breakfast and she gives you
         two fried eggs and you eat both of them, who is better in arithmetic,
         you or your mother?

***

Timmy Broderick, Contributor

Autumn” by T.E. Hulme describes what is surely a cold fall evening – a portent of nights to come. And the image of a “ruddy moon” has stayed with me for nearly a decade. Reading the poem leaves me feeling impossibly warm. I’ve always personified that ruddy moon as the benevolent stranger who stops to help you fix a spare when you’re stranded on the highway.

Autumn

By T.E. Hulme

A touch of cold in the Autumn night–
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.

***

Ryan Lenora Brown, Johannesburg bureau chief

Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” by Nazim Hikmet is a poem I’ve come back to many times in my life. It’s about recognizing and appreciating the small things around us, and about marveling at being alive. I’ve found this message especially helpful in the past couple of weeks.

Things I Didn’t Know I Loved (excerpt)

By Nazim Hikmet

it’s 1962 March 28th
I’m sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
night is falling
I never knew I liked 
night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain
I don’t like
comparing nightfall to a tired bird

I didn’t know I loved the earth
can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it
I’ve never worked the earth
it must be my only Platonic love

and here I’ve loved rivers all this time
whether motionless like this they curl skirting the hills
European hills crowned with chateaus
or whether stretched out flat as far as the eye can see
I know you can’t wash in the same river even once
I know the river will bring new lights you’ll never see
I know we live slightly longer than a horse but not nearly as long
         as a crow
I know this has troubled people before
                   and will trouble those after me
I know all this has been said a thousand times before
                   and will be said after me

...

Nazim Hikmet, “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved,” translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, from “Poems of Nazim Hikmet.” Copyright © 1994, 2002 by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk. Reprinted by permission of Persea Books, Inc (New York), www.perseabooks.com. All rights reserved.

***

Patrik Jonsson, Georgia bureau chief

I come back to “Happiness” by Raymond Carver for comfort because it explains how much of life is feeling beyond words. The image of two boys delivering newspapers in the early morning light is a beautiful one – simple, yet resounding. The line “and they are doing this thing together” caught me when I reread recently.

***

Kendra Nordin Beato, Intern coordinator and staff writer

I spotted “Saint Francis and the Sow” by Galway Kinnell printed on a signed poster at the Boston Book Festival years ago during a difficult time in my life (shortly after my dad had passed away unexpectedly). For some reason it resonated with me so much I bought it, had it framed, and hung it on my bedroom wall, where it’s been ever since. To me, this poem speaks to the hope and gratitude we all hold in our hearts, despite any disappointments, and the kindness we feel when someone appreciates our hard work.

***

Yvonne Zipp, Daily Edition editor

I first read “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry at a particularly tough time in my life. It was like a hush descended. No matter how many times I come back to it, I feel that same sense of quiet abiding and emerge grateful for Berry and his understanding of what lasts.

And “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins is a touchstone in our family. In fact, when I dropped our then-10-year-old son off at summer camp for the first time, it was with one request (besides have a great time): Could he make me a lanyard? He delivered. It was blue and red, and I loved it.

***

Melanie Stetson Freeman, Staff photographer

Teddy Bear” by A.A. Milne, from the 1924 book “When We Were Very Young,” was one of my favorites when I was a child. I even had it memorized at one time. It’s not highbrow, but I love it! The bear in the poem goes on to become very famous as Winnie-the-Pooh. 

***

Amelia Newcomb, Managing editor

I first learned of Wallace Stevens as a high school senior. In “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain,” I loved the sense Stevens conveys of the journey around seeking and creating meaning. To me, the poem gave power to embracing that journey, and the task of weighing ideas and testing outlooks over time. There’s a quiet confidence, even amid the search, that I found reassuring. And still do.

***

Greg Fitzgerald, Communications manager

Children’s poems have been my favorites because my kids (now in their late 20s) absolutely loved us to read them. Shel Silverstein, who also illustrated his own poems, was the best to read because you could always throw in a tickle in the middle of “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too.” In fact, if you didn’t throw in the tickle somewhere in this poem, you had to read it over again until you did.

***

Whitney Eulich, Latin America editor

In “normal” times, I’m not much of a worrier. But in recent weeks the opportunity to worry about just about everything and everyone has been overwhelming. I came across “I Worried” by Mary Oliver; it has helped settle my heart and reset my outlook repeatedly.

[This poem has not been cleared for web publication, but you can find it in the book “Swan: Poems and Prose Poems,” by Mary Oliver.]

***

Linda Feldmann, Washington bureau chief

I was recently reminded of “This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos Williams, a poem that makes me laugh. I find humor to be comforting in times of stress. 

Here’s the backstory: A friend posted a photo on Facebook of the “quarantine biscuits” his tween daughter had made. On top of the plastic-wrap-covered plate of biscuits was a handwritten note that said: “Dad, DO NOT eat all my biscuits! If you do, everyone in this house will shun you!” 

Someone responded to the post with this comment: “My roommates used to leave William Carlos Williams-type poems whenever we had anything worth taking from the fridge in college.” 

“This Is Just To Say” could certainly be the model!

***

April Austin, Deputy Weekly editor and books editor

This Inwardness, This Ice” by Christian Wiman might strike some people as a bit gloomy at first glance, but I find it compelling and mysterious. Sometimes we all feel as if the ice is cracking under our feet. I see it as encouragement to live with bravery, to keep going, to not look back. And especially to not let our perceived flaws stop us. I particularly like reading this poem aloud, because the sounds fit with the wintry mood. I, too, want to “learn a blue beyond belief.” I don’t know what that line means exactly, but it gives me chills every time. 

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The not-so-secret sauce of New Zealand’s success

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has generally avoided war metaphors in uniting her country against COVID-19. She prefers not to refer to the coronavirus as “the enemy” or her fellow citizens as “soldiers.” When asked if she was afraid of the virus, she responded, “No. Because we have a plan.”

On Monday, that “plan” resulted in Ms. Ardern announcing that New Zealand had effectively eliminated the virus, reducing the number of known cases to single digits. Instead of a war image, she used the language of a tsunami: “We have stopped a wave of devastation.”

Early on, New Zealand took swift, strict, and decisive steps, such as closing its borders to foreigners. Perhaps just as effective was her language. The prime minister rarely framed the pandemic in military terms, which can cause fear by evoking images of violence. Ms. Ardern focused on the mental well-being of her citizens as much as elimination of the virus. She encouraged people to contact new mothers, for example. Special apps were provided to deal with mental health.

New Zealand’s initial success may prove that kindness, starting at the top, can be a mental vaccine for an entire country.

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The not-so-secret sauce of New Zealand’s success

Unlike most other world leaders, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has generally avoided war metaphors in uniting her country against COVID-19. She tends not to refer to the coronavirus as “the enemy” or her fellow citizens as “soldiers.” Instead, she speaks of a “team of 5 million,” the population of her nation. When asked if she was afraid of the virus, she responded, “No. Because we have a plan.”

On Monday, that “plan” resulted in Ms. Ardern announcing that New Zealand had effectively eliminated the virus, reducing the number of known cases to single digits. Instead of a war image, she used the language of a tsunami: “We have stopped a wave of devastation.” Her government, in fact, has relied on a phone alert system for tsunamis to send out messages during this crisis.

Early on, New Zealand took swift, strict, and decisive steps, such as closing its borders to foreigners by March 19. Perhaps just as effective was the tone of her language. The prime minister rarely framed the pandemic in military terms, which can cause fear and panic by evoking images of violence and “the other.”

Ms. Ardern focused on the mental well-being of her citizens as much as elimination of the virus. She encouraged people to contact new mothers, for example, to lessen their isolation. Special apps were provided to deal with mental health.

She asked people to “be kind” in uniting against COVID-19 as they were forced to stay at home. She cut government salaries to help create a closeness between officials and idled workers. She suggested people rely on the “creative, practical, country-minded” culture of New Zealand.

She brought humor to her role, such as telling children that the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy were “essential workers.” She was open and transparent, not secretive like a military commander.

Her metaphors were those that inspired selflessness during the necessary self-isolation. The country’s efforts, wrote the Weekend Herald newspaper, will be remembered for “the acts of humanity which rose to the occasion.”

The “vicious virus has sparked a revival of kindness,” the paper added. “Watch out, it’s contagious.”

For sure, other leaders around the world have used a similar approach. For instance, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg went on television to talk directly to children, who perhaps easily pick up the fears of adults.

Something like this approach was made famous in the 19th century by Florence Nightingale. In her many reforms of the nursing profession, she advised that nurses deal as much with a patient’s feelings of apprehension and uncertainty as a disease. She wrote:

“Remember, he is face to face with his enemy all the time, internally wrestling with him, having long imaginary conversations with him. You are thinking of something else. ‘Rid him of his adversary quickly’ is a first rule with the sick.”

When faced with biological threats, leaders must be careful in using metaphors of war, Lisa Keranen, a medical rhetorician, told Vox news. Such images make us “focus on fighting and not on caring.” New Zealand’s initial success against COVID-19 may prove the point. Kindness, starting at the top, can be a mental vaccine for an entire country.

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.

What to do if you’re feeling lonely

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When it seemed like there would be no end to her loneliness, a woman initially felt overwhelmed and anxious. But a surprising realization about the nature of God as Love completely changed her state of mind.

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1. What to do if you’re feeling lonely

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I’m not sure how much more I can take. It had been almost a week since I’d seen anyone, and the isolation was really starting to get to me. Worse, because I work alone from home and my friends live far away, this state of things was my “normal.”

When I’d start to think about the days and months ahead, filled with more hours alone, I was overwhelmed with dread and anxiety. It felt like a life of isolation was mapped out ahead of me, and I couldn’t see a way out.

But one day, as I was grappling with these feelings, I had a realization. While all the things that companionship represents – love, joy, union, support – seem to come from people, they really come right from God.

This realization was based on what I’d learned from reading the Bible: that “God is love” (I John 4:8). From studying Christian Science, I’d also learned that Love, God, is infinite – the source of all real love. So while each of us does express love, this love isn’t sourced in us or our friends and family, but in God. Love actually transcends time and space and any other limitations – like whether or not we’re with people who care about us.

This brought me the most relief I’d felt in a long time. I was starting to see some light in what had felt like a very dark situation. It also occurred to me that since God is always present, love, joy, support, and so on must also always be present. These qualities had always been with me, and always would be.

I stopped being angry about the situation, which meant that right away I was more receptive to God’s love. I also started to feel more peaceful about the long hours I’d be spending alone. The feeling of loneliness eased.

I realized that a tangible expression of the love I was newly perceiving was also natural. I didn’t have to outline what it would look like. But I could be ready to hear God’s guidance, and in the meantime, I also felt confident that I could enjoy each day.

Even though my schedule hadn’t changed, over the next few days, I had a renewed feeling of enthusiasm for each day, and I no longer felt so alone.

The following weekend, I woke up with the thought that I should go get a cat from a local rescue shelter. The message was super clear – almost as if it would be silly not to go and get one! Misty has been a tangible expression of companionship that I hadn’t thought would be possible. And loving her has given me a new appreciation for the way our love for others also helps us feel loved and less alone.

Shortly after I adopted Misty, I also felt inspired to get a membership at a different gym. While I’d been mostly alone at my old gym, at the new one, I found it easy to make friends.

While I’m so grateful for these tangible expressions of God’s love in my life, the thing that’s been most meaningful is this new, more rock-solid feeling that divine Love is always there for me – and for all of us. And that if we’re struggling with feeling lonely or anything else, we really can take our problems to Him. “Cast all your anxiety on him,” the Bible says, “because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:7, New International Version). God really does care for each one of us, and Love won’t leave us without a satisfying solution.

Right now, lots of people the world over are grappling with feelings of isolation. And while we’re all looking forward to things returning to normal, it’s helpful to remember that the love and comfort we’re yearning to feel don’t originate with people. Yes, there are wonderful expressions of companionship – and over the last few weeks we’ve seen many of these in virtual concerts and dinner parties and in online worship services. But it’s cool to know that companionship isn’t limited to these or any other activities, because Love really does fill every bit of space and every one of our moments.

So even when you can’t go see friends, or no one’s at home with you, the joy and love that come from God are still there for you – and you can feel them.

Adapted from an article published in the Christian Science Sentinel’s online TeenConnect section, March 31, 2020.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all the Monitor’s coronavirus coverage is free, including articles from this column. There’s also a special free section of JSH-Online.com on a healing response to the coronavirus. There is no paywall for any of this coverage.

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Final touches

Sergei Kiselev/Moscow News Agency/AP
Employees work inside the new Cathedral of Russian Armed Forces in Patriot Park outside Moscow, April 28, 2020. The church, being built by Russia's Defense Ministry, is set to open on May 9 to mark Victory Day.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us today. Please come back tomorrow when we take a look at the long history North American native communities have with pandemics – and how they are finding the perseverance to push back today.

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