2020
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Monitor Daily Podcast

May 01, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

In a time of social distance, remembering handshake between nations

Today we explore the racial disparities underlying the pandemic, Joe Biden’s #MeToo uproar, the definition of an “essential” business, how a Monitor writer beat COVID-19, and the films of Indian director Satyajit Ray.

First, some thoughts on how we greet each other.

For millennia, the handshake has been a gesture of peaceful intentions, perhaps even a way to ensure the other person isn’t carrying a weapon. 

In modern times, the handshake has usually stood for a simple “hello.” But it could also carry deep significance. Last weekend was the 75th anniversary of a historic World War II handshake: the moment when allied American and Soviet soldiers met on a bridge over the Elbe River – effectively cutting Germany in two and signaling the Nazis’ imminent defeat.

Sadly, the global pandemic forced the cancellation of in-person commemorations of the Elbe handshake. But that doesn’t mean the United States and Russia can’t still work together on matters of existential importance as my friend, retired Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack, wrote in The Hill newspaper. 

Extending the New START treaty, the last strategic U.S.-Russia nuclear weapons accord, is Exhibit A. The urgency of this idea was made clear last December at a U.S.-Russia forum that General Zwack and I both attended, as I wrote

There were plenty of handshakes at that meeting. Another participant, Robert Michler, a top surgeon in New York City doing his part to battle COVID-19, says he now “yearns for the days of a handshake.” Alas, that simple gesture is likely a thing of the past. But new customs will spring up. It’s the expression of goodwill that counts. 

As Biden denies assault allegation, Democrats wrestle with hypocrisy charge

A former staffer’s charge that Mr. Biden sexually assaulted her in the mid-’90s seemed to gain some corroboration this week, forcing Democrats to grapple with questions of double standards and what constitutes a fair hearing.  

Linda

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“Believe women” has been the mantra of the #MeToo movement since it launched in 2017. 

Now, no less a figure than Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumed nominee for president, has been ensnared. Weeks after a former Senate aide, Tara Reade, alleged that he sexually assaulted her 27 years ago – and after repeated denials from his campaign – the former vice president has finally addressed the charge himself. 

“I’m saying unequivocally – it never, never happened,” Mr. Biden said Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” 

The controversy has roiled a presidential campaign fully dominated until now by the global pandemic. It has also muddied Mr. Biden’s carefully honed image as a champion of women, as he tries to unseat a president facing at least 17 accusations of sexual misconduct. 

The anguish today among feminists old and young is palpable.  

“I subscribe to the ‘women must be believed’ perspective, unless proven otherwise,” says Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine.

“At the same time, Joe Biden is our candidate; I’m desperate for him to win,” Ms. Pogrebin adds, noting that she never excused President Bill Clinton’s behavior. “The alternative is too terrible.”

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1. As Biden denies assault allegation, Democrats wrestle with hypocrisy charge

“Believe women” has been the mantra of the #MeToo movement – the most aggressive, sustained effort to fight sexual harassment and assault in history – since it launched in 2017. 

Now, no less a figure than Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumed nominee for president, has been ensnared. Weeks after a former Senate aide, Tara Reade, alleged that he sexually assaulted her 27 years ago – and after repeated denials from his campaign – the former vice president has finally addressed the charge himself. 

“I’m saying unequivocally – it never, never happened,” Mr. Biden said Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” 

In a lengthy post on Medium, Mr. Biden also called on the National Archives to release any complaint Ms. Reade may have filed. He portrayed himself as having a strong record advocating for women’s rights, without mentioning past stumbles, such as his handling of the Anita Hill allegations in 1991 against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

But he also called the allegations “complicated,” without explanation. 

“While the details of these allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault are complicated, two things are not complicated,” Mr. Biden wrote. “One is that women deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and when they step forward they should be heard, not silenced. The second is that their stories should be subject to appropriate inquiry and scrutiny.”

Mr. Biden’s denial seemed unlikely to dampen the uproar. Earlier this week, two sources spoke on the record to corroborate some of Ms. Reade’s details. In addition, a 1993 video surfaced of a woman Ms. Reade says was her mother, now deceased, calling in to CNN’s “Larry King Live” and talking about her daughter’s “problems” with a “prominent senator” (though the woman makes no mention of sexual assault).

The controversy has roiled a presidential campaign fully dominated until now by the global pandemic. It has also muddied Mr. Biden’s carefully honed image as a champion of women, as he tries to unseat a president facing at least 17 accusations of sexual misconduct. 

And it revives painful questions surrounding the sexual assault charges that Justice Brett Kavanaugh faced during his 2018 Supreme Court confirmation hearing, a searing experience for both accuser and accused. 

For those strongly defending Mr. Biden or downplaying Ms. Reade’s allegations, as some media outlets have been accused of doing, the imbroglio invites charges of hypocrisy – especially in contrast to the vigorous, immediate attention that was paid to the allegation by Justice Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. Ms. Ford said Mr. Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her at a high school party in the 1980s.

The Biden-Reade uproar has driven a wedge between mainstream Democrats and the party’s left wing, just as party leaders are urging unity heading into November. Supporters and former top staff of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mr. Biden’s last primary rival, have been among those leading the charge, amplifying Ms. Reade’s allegation. 

Earlier this week, Senator Sanders’ former national organizing director, Claire Sandberg, called on Mr. Biden to quit the race, “out of respect for survivors and for the good of the country.” 

Today, the essence of “Believe women” – sometimes rendered as an absolute, “Believe all women” – raises questions for women’s rights advocates. The idea, they say, is not to automatically accept as fact everything an accuser says. It’s to make sure she is given the space to tell her story, and to approach it with an assumption she’s telling the truth.

The latest imbroglio also recalls the 1990s, when some feminists seemed to look the other way when candidate and then President Bill Clinton faced numerous accusations of sexual impropriety (including rape), and was ultimately impeached for lying under oath about an affair with an intern. Mr. Clinton, many argued at the time, stood for progressive policies on women’s rights, and so they stood by him. 

“There does seem to be this idea of political pragmatism and feminist values, and how they slide on a spectrum,” says Margaret Johnson, co-director of the University of Baltimore’s Center on Applied Feminism. “That has never made sense to me. I think it’s all holistic.”

The anguish today among feminists old and young is palpable.  

“I subscribe to the ‘women must be believed’ perspective, unless proven otherwise,” says Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine.

“At the same time, Joe Biden is our candidate; I’m desperate for him to win,” Ms. Pogrebin adds, noting that she never excused President Clinton’s behavior. “The alternative is too terrible – four more years of this man.”

Tarana Burke, who launched the #MeToo movement, showed her own conflicted views on the matter Tuesday in a Twitter thread. 

“The inconvenient truth is that this story is impacting us differently because it hits at the heart of one of the most important elections of our lifetime,” she wrote. “And I hate to disappoint you but I don’t really have easy answers.”

The alleged incident took place in 1993. In an interview with pro-Sanders podcaster Katie Halper on March 25, Ms. Reade said then-Senator Biden pinned her against a wall and violated her sexually with his fingers. 

Back in April 2019, Ms. Reade was one of several women who accused the former vice president of inappropriate touching, but she said nothing about sexual abuse. Mr. Biden has since apologized for engaging in behavior that he now acknowledges made women uncomfortable. 

“I get it,” he said in a video that same month, promising to change his behavior. 

Despite being famously “handsy,” Mr. Biden has never been accused of sexual impropriety or assault until now. He’s known as a family man, married 43 years to Jill Biden, after losing his first wife and a baby daughter in a car accident. 

But over the decades, the education of Mr. Biden on female empowerment hasn’t been easy. In 1991, as chairman of the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, he crossed swords with feminists when Ms. Hill alleged sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Mr. Biden faced criticism for preventing other witnesses from testifying on Ms. Hill’s behalf, and eventually apologized for his handling of the hearings.  

Mr. Biden later crafted the Violence Against Women Act, aimed at fighting domestic abuse. He calls it his most significant legislative achievement. Now, as the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, Mr. Biden has pledged to name a woman as his running mate. 

Feminists have long supported politicians who promote their causes, including reproductive rights, equal pay, paid family leave, and legal protections, despite private behavior that they believe falls short. The question in recent years, for voters of both parties, has been how (or whether) to address a politician’s private behavior. 

Most religious conservatives back President Donald Trump, despite his well-documented personal history of marital infidelity, accusations of sexual harassment and assault, and crude talk about women. Some religious supporters say they believe he has reformed. But it’s clear many Trump supporters are willing to overlook his past in favor of today’s policies and judicial appointments.  

“Democrats have put themselves on higher moral ground than Republicans” on the issue of personal conduct, says Dianne Bystrom, director emeritus of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. “There’s a danger in that.”  

When asked to comment on the allegations against Mr. Biden, feminist leader Gloria Steinem offered a written statement.  

“I only know what I’ve read about this, but I support women who come forward because their honest testimony is right now the only brake on private male behavior,” Ms. Steinem wrote. “Women know the polar differences between Biden and Trump, who brags about assaulting women in his private life, and whose public policies endanger our health and safety. I agree with Tarana Burke that Biden can be ‘both accountable and electable.’ ”

Why coronavirus looks different to black America

The coronavirus has hit black communities disproportionately hard. Understanding why can help improve health care for minorities going forward.

Linda
Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Pitmaster Bobby Lewis tends the ribs and butts at Randy's BBQ on Savannah's east side on April 14, 2020. Mr. Lewis supports the mayor's aggressive enforcement of shelter-in-place rules

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Mayor Van Johnson made a lot of unpopular decisions in aggressively shutting down Savannah, Georgia, to blunt the spread of coronavirus. And he’s not about to apologize.

Savannah is 54% black, and he’s seen too much evidence – recently and over the years – that black health outcomes in America are worse than for other groups. COVID-19 “exploited what we already knew: If you were poor, if you were darker, if you were less educated, if you did not have a home, you were going to be disproportionately affected by this,” he says.

Figures in Georgia and beyond show these trends playing out. Black leaders note, anecdotally, that some community members didn’t take the virus seriously early on. But the problems now center around a lack of access to health care and historic distrust of the system.

Now, Mr. Johnson’s approach is starting to win converts in Savannah. And more broadly, the need is for treatment that goes beyond medical care to building relationships, says Lisa Price Stevens, chief medical officer of a Virginia facility. “Those relationships do everything when you talk about health.”

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2. Why coronavirus looks different to black America

Back in early March, shortly after Mardi Gras had raged in New Orleans and Florida welcomed spring breakers, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson made an unpopular decision. He canceled the second largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the country.

It fit with the Democratic mayor’s early response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was as aggressive as that of any civic leader in the South at the time.

He issued his city’s stay-at-home order on March 19 – more than two weeks before the statewide order in early April. He closed non-essential businesses, including barber shops and beauty salons, cracking down on 30 businesses that refused to close. He ordered police drones to disperse street parties. And he even broke up a fight at a local Walmart, which he said had become a version of “the club” – a replacement for the loss of evening revelries.

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

Residents bristled at the early shutdown, calling the mayor a tyrant and sending him about 2,000 mostly critical messages.

But Mr. Johnson had a different perspective. Back when he first issued his stay-at-home order, startling racial disparities in the country’s coronavirus cases were just gaining attention. Now, they are in stark relief. Black residents make up less than a third of Georgia’s population but account for more than half its COVID-19 fatalities – a trend seen nationwide.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Mayor Van Johnson of Savannah, seen here on April 20 in his office at Savannah City Hall, has been a relentless enforcer of social distancing rules in Savannah, Georgia, after after three members of his own family in New York contracted the virus. "We keep the faith and follow the science," he says.

Some causes are seen as particular to this pandemic, with a number of black leaders noting, anecdotally, that members of the community weren’t taking the virus seriously early on. But the deeper problems are chronic, with the coronavirus merely amplifying long-standing inequities, from a lack of access to care to the related dearth of trust in the health system.

“What this [virus] did was it exploited every weakness we’ve had in our socioeconomic system, every single one,” says Mr. Johnson. “It exploited what we already knew: If you were poor, if you were darker, if you were less educated, if you did not have a home, you were going to be disproportionately affected by this. The national figures bear that out.” 

That was why he acted the way he did.

“A lot of people are just, like, ‘Why we got to talk about race?’” he adds. “We have to talk about race. The problem is that we haven’t been talking about race. All of those things become very, very real to us.”

Indeed, at least part of Mayor Johnson’s actions sprang from the experience of his own family. His father, sister, and brother-in-law, who live in New York City, had each contracted the virus. A deacon at his church had died.

The view from Savannah

Now, Mr. Johnson’s approach is coming into conflict with his governor’s. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, announced the state – among the last to issue a stay-at-home order – would begin to restart its economy last week. Gyms, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, as well as hair salons and barbershops, were allowed to reopen on April 24 with strict social-distancing rules ­– a move the Savannah mayor called “reckless, premature, and dangerous.”

Savannah, which is 54% black, has seen its cases stabilize. Its numbers have also been more evenly distributed across racial groups. That has helped change the attitudes of many of Savannah’s black residents. Early resistance has shifted to solid support – and kinder messages, the mayor says. 

“This virus ain’t racist,” says Bobby Lewis, pitmaster at Randy’s BBQ, a popular local haunt that has stayed open for delivery and pickup. “No one is immune. Everybody has to step up.”

As a community, “we’re trying to get from where we’ve been to where we need to be,” he adds. “Van Johnson’s attitude has been a big part of that. Not everybody likes it. But I do. I think it’s working.”

That blunt message was needed, some say.

“When COVID first came out, there really was a sense that this is not a black people’s disease because it started in China and went to Europe,” says Sandra Elizabeth Ford, head of the DeKalb and Fulton County health departments in Georgia. 

That perception has changed. Since March, a number of national polls have indicated that black and Hispanic Americans have been more concerned about the virus than white Americans. The Pew Research Center found that 43% of Hispanics and 31% of black adults said they were very concerned about contracting COVID-19, compared with 18% of white adults. 

“There are so many dimensions that matter for African Americans with this pandemic,” says Alford Young, a sociologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Every social and health-related and structural factor in their lives exacerbates their exposure to the virus.”

“African Americans live in smaller spaces and in more densely populated communities,” Dr. Young continues. What’s more, “the extended family for the black community is about as intimate as the immediate family for a lot of other Americans. When African Americans check in on their family, they’re thinking cousins, uncles, my aunts, grandparents – not just siblings and parents at home.”

The deeper challenges

The racial disparities seen in the COVID-19 pandemic are nothing new and stem from structural inequities woven into American society for decades, if not centuries, scholars say. 

For example, the deliberate “redlining” of black neighborhoods to exclude them from federal programs to purchase homes has chronically depressed black wealth. With education funding based on local property taxes, that has contributed to underresourced schools.

These economic stresses have made it hard for hospitals and health clinics to survive, too. Few residents have health insurance, and Medicare and Medicaid simply can’t pay the bills.

All these factors contribute to the greater vulnerability of minority populations in general, and during a pandemic in particular.   

“We have an economy where you’re going to see people of color disproportionately working low-paying service jobs where they are essential workers, but they may not be getting the right protective equipment,” says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. “But then there is, ‘OK, if you’re going to ignore congregation bans and go to a party – that’s not race-specific, but just individual dumb behavior.’”

“What can we empower people to do, to be their own best advocate and their own defense against contracting this disease against so many systemic odds?” she asks.

One answer is to help build trust in the health care system among black Americans.  

“There’s a level of distrust that’s rooted in history and in lived experiences that makes it more difficult for life-saving messages to get through to these communities,” says Jamila Michener, professor of government at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Giving care, building relationships

That is a big reason why Lisa Price Stevens became a doctor in the first place. She’s wanted to be a doctor ever since, at age 7, she saw her mother save another family member with the Heimlich maneuver.

“As physicians, we are innately concerned about the health care disparities and racial disparities we’re seeing, and particularly as an African American physician, this is a passion of mine,” says Dr. Stevens, chief medical officer at JenCare Senior Medical Center in Norfolk, Virginia.

Her patients are among those most vulnerable: lower-income, Medicare-eligible seniors, over half of whom are people of color. So treatment includes more than just medical care.

“We work in care teams where we address the social determinants of our patient’s health, with social workers and case managers so that we not only address the holistic caring of the mind, body, and soul, we’re looking at, Where do you live? Housing is health. How do you obtain your nutrition? So I can manage your diabetes,” Dr. Stevens says.

“Those relationships do everything when you talk about health,” she adds. 

It’s one of the reasons Mayor Johnson has turned things around in Savannah. 

“I don’t live in a spirit of fear. I’m not going to be intimidated,” he continues. “The vast majority of people recognize that these are extraordinary times that require extraordinary measures, and we have extraordinary tools to keep our citizens safe.”

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

Who’s ‘essential?’ From Germany to the US, you might be surprised.

Amid lockdowns, which services are considered crucial? Depending on where you are, the answers range from supermarkets to golf. But some open stores share a common sentiment: pride in providing for their neighbors.

Linda
Martin Meissner/AP
People with bicycles meet at the clock park in Duesseldorf, Germany, at 6 p.m. on April 24, 2020.

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Golf courses, bike shops, pro wrestling, cheese stores – they may not appear to have much in common. But as lockdowns continue amid COVID-19, each has been deemed an “essential” business somewhere in the world.

There’s a clear consensus that banks, grocery stores, gas stations, and the like qualify as essential. But other decisions about which services should stay open reveal the character of country and culture, as leaders make hard choices about what’s critical to a functioning society. 

For owners, operating amid social distancing protocols has brought extra challenges. But some also say there’s been an unexpected joy in being able to serve their community.

“I am not a nurse or on the front line, but I’m still here to provide some happiness to people,” says Bernard Mure-Ravaud, owner of the cheese shop Fromagerie les Alpages in the French city of Grenoble. 

“It’s much more intimate because service takes longer. It’s as if we are returning to traditional commerce, commerce of the past,” says Mr. Mure-Ravaud. He’s been seeing a lot of “children” in the shop – people he’s known since they toddled in with their parents decades ago. Now, they shop for their parents and grandparents, who are distancing at home.

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3. Who’s ‘essential?’ From Germany to the US, you might be surprised.

When Germany announced the country would be closing for business to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Standert Bicycles was one of the lucky retailers. Berlin considers bike shops an “essential business.”

But they were surprised to discover just how essential they are.

“Raw sales numbers increased,” says head of marketing Benedict Herzberg, despite closing their physical store and going online-only for a high-end product that people typically want to see in person many times before purchasing. People flocked to Standert’s website and phone lines to buy commuter bikes, in part to avoid public transport during the pandemic. “They want bikes now. It’s not, ‘OK, we can deliver in a week or two.’ They’re calling for pickup in an hour. N-O-W.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, the implementation of lockdowns has forced hard choices on what businesses are critical to a functioning society. There is a clear consensus that banks, grocery stores, gas stations, and the like qualify as essential services. But other decisions about what is essential reveal the character of country and culture.

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

And even as some purveyors in the U.S. and Europe struggled with early logistical challenges of remaining open, they found unexpected joy in being “essential.”

Perhaps it was predictable that Berlin would let the bike shops stay open. Cycling has run deep in German culture ever since the first two-wheeled bicycle was invented by a German nobleman in 1817. Apart from that, Mr. Herzberg says, the decision was prudent governance. “It empowers people to go out, breathe fresh air, strengthen your immune system,” he says.

Courtesy of Standert Bicycles
Standert Bicycles CEO Max von Senger in his office, examining one of his Italian-made bike forks. Though Standert's Italy-based suppliers are on hiatus due to COVID, sales of commuter bikes are up as customers seek alternatives to public transportation.

Standert Bicycles’ retail store – which normally doubles as a repair shop, café, and post-training hangout for cyclists – has had to go mostly online. But it has found success that way, running its 2,000-member cycling club virtually and developing a platform to allow members to go online, grab a route they like, and track themselves by GPS.

“Cyclists will always cycle,” Mr. Herzberg says.

And the sense of community – once celebrated in person at the shop and cafe – transferred to goodwill online. “We offered returning customers a discount, and some told us to take it and ‘put it in the tip box for corona times.’”

Escape on the fairways

Florida has made headlines for one of its more questionable recipients of essential status: professional wrestling. But perhaps more important to the well-being of its citizenry, though still controversial, is golf. The Sunshine State has more golf courses than any other U.S. state, and they were declared essential in a number of counties. That changed the fate of the semi-private Palm Cove Golf Club, especially as another important outdoor outlet – beaches – were ordered shut.

“Our gates were flooded,” says Richard Pfluger, Palm Cove’s golf shop manager. “We showed record numbers – over 200 rounds a day – during times we normally have 75.” Golfers came over from neighboring counties whose courses were closed, and others seized the ever-rarer opportunity to get fresh air.

Staying open required the “unexpected altruism” of the community, says Mr. Pfluger. Friends of the club helped procure scarce masks, gloves, and sanitizers. Some staffers left because they were concerned. The days were long, and overtime was on order.

“When the dust started to settle, I felt a certain accomplishment for having dealt with the stress,” says Mr. Pfluger. There was also a pride in servicing the community during challenging times.

“Floridians live their days outside. It’s an outdoor culture, and we’re getting lots of thank-you’s for being open, lots of thank-you’s for sanitizing the golf carts,” says Mr. Pfluger. “We have an 87-year-old guy who walks nine holes every afternoon and made a plea for us to stay open so he can get his exercise.”

“Providing happiness to people”

In France, where the average person consumes almost 60 pounds of cheese a year, cheese shops were declared essential. So were chocolatiers and patisseries. Bernard Mure-Ravaud, owner of the cheese shop Fromagerie les Alpages in the city of Grenoble, found he’s been able to reconnect with his customers in new ways.

After 37 years of business, Fromagerie les Alpages is back to the basics. Clients used to come in from all over the region; now they trickle in from the surrounding neighborhoods. Since no one’s in a rush to get anywhere, clients linger and discuss recipes in detail.

“It’s much more intimate because service takes longer. It’s as if we are returning to traditional commerce, commerce of the past,” Mr. Mure-Ravaud says. He’s also seeing a lot of “children” – people he’s known since they toddled in with their parents decades ago. Now, they shop for their parents and grandparents, who are distancing at home.

To combat isolation, Mr. Mure-Ravaud has launched virtual wine tastings on Facebook and Instagram Live, which have been attended by more than 100 people.

“I am not a nurse or on the front line, but I’m still here to provide some happiness to people,” says Mr. Mure-Ravaud. “Before this, people never said thank you. Now, they say thank you for being open. I am very proud.”

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

Essay

‘Left with my thoughts’: How our reporter fought the coronavirus

Brave health care workers, strong family bonds, a flood of support and prayer from friends around the world: Our correspondent, Peter Ford, shares how all helped him heal. 

Linda
Robin Ford-Coron/Courtesy of Peter Ford
The Monitor's global affairs correspondent, Peter Ford, stands outside the Paris hospital where he spent 10 days fighting – and beating – the coronavirus.

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As far as I was concerned, once I had finished at the clinic I was going back home. Instead, the clinic sent me straight to hospital. And so began my personal fight with the coronavirus.

In France, where I live, the overwhelming majority of even the worst-affected patients have lived to tell the tale. But as my wife, Edith, blew me a goodbye kiss from the entrance to the hospital, I felt extremely vulnerable.

The staff who helped me had volunteered to serve on the coronavirus ward. Their courage was intensely moving.

But one night, doctors told me I would be moved in the morning to the intensive care unit. “No,” I said. “Because there are fewer ways out of there.”

I was left with my thoughts, and I marshaled them into the protective wall I had been constructing in my head.

It grew image by image: friends, my sons, our cat hiding in the rosebushes. At its heart stood Edith, her love for me and mine for her. Cementing the structure were the thoughts, messages, and prayers from friends. Believers of every ecumenical stripe prayed for me. Nonbelievers sent love and concern, too.

I felt that in my body and my soul. I wove it all into a cord I could cling to. I was no longer alone.

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4. ‘Left with my thoughts’: How our reporter fought the coronavirus

As far as I was concerned, once I had finished my lung scan at the clinic I was going back home, and I told the ambulance driver as much.

He scoffed. A little lacking in bedside manner, he told me bluntly that “the only place I’ve ever taken someone with a blood oxygen level as low as yours is the emergency room.”

He was right. The clinic sent me straight to hospital. And so began my personal fight with the coronavirus that has struck at least 3 million other people around the world.

Obviously, I lived to tell the tale. And so have almost all the other 3 million victims. In France, where I live, the overwhelming majority of even the worst-affected patients survive. Some 83,000 people were hospitalized with coronavirus here during the first seven weeks of the pandemic; it is worth remembering that 84% of us were healed.

The hasty transfer to a hospital near my Paris home was not in fact the start of my coronavirus experience. I had already been confined to bed at home for 10 days, cared for by my wife and two adult sons.

But now I was getting short of breath. As my wife, Edith, blew me a goodbye kiss from the entrance to the blue canvas tent that served as the hospital’s makeshift admissions area for coronavirus cases, I felt extremely vulnerable.

A hospital emergency room in high gear, however, does not leave you much time to feel lonely. I was prodded and probed, quizzed and queried, measured and metered. And then wheelchaired to a little electric van that whizzed me to the building set aside for coronavirus patients.

A new set of rhythms

I was at the Pitié Salpêtrière hospital. More than 400 years old and spreading over several city blocks, the “Salpet” – as the place is known to Parisians – is one of the top teaching hospitals in Europe. Its staff had all the personal protective equipment they needed, unlike a suburban hospital where a doctor friend was working, using a plastic trash bag as a gown.

I found myself in a tall-windowed single room flooded with light, which made me more fortunate than most of my 100 fellow coronavirus patients. I was in total quarantine in the soundproofed room, but my mobile phone brought the world to me: I talked several times a day to my family, I got calls and messages from around the world, I listened to the BBC and French news, I streamed Schubert and Vivaldi and Aretha Franklin.

A nurse showed me how to fasten the two little tubes that fed oxygen into my nostrils and soon I was sucked into the implacable rhythm of high-maintenance hospital life, with visits from doctors and nurses and catering staff and cleaners – all covered head to toe in disposable protective gear – from six in the morning until 11 at night.

Every one of those doctors and nurses and kitchen staff and cleaners, a nurse told me, had volunteered to serve on the coronavirus ward. No one who did not want to work there was obliged to do so. That, perhaps, explains why all the staff treating me were so young; all the doctors who cared for me were interns in their 20s. Their courage, and that of their nursing colleagues, was intensely moving.

Karen Norris/Staff
Members of the Monitor staff welcome Peter Ford home from the hospital during a Zoom meeting.

Less impressive, unfortunately, was the catering. Like many severe coronavirus patients, I had lost my senses of taste and smell, and with them my appetite. I faced difficulty forcing down a few spoonfuls of yogurt; even a banana defeated me. When I was confronted one Saturday lunchtime with choucroute, a pile of fermented cabbage topped with several varieties of sausage and a chunk of pig knuckle, I could manage only a hollow laugh. I lost 26 pounds during my illness.

And then, suddenly, even hollow laughs were out of place. The concern that doctors and nurses had been showing shaded almost imperceptibly into alarm. I had been stable. Now I was in a nosedive.

That night, in the middle of the night, a doctor came to see me. I was dazed and confused, struggling to fill my lungs, but I understood what she had to tell me. I had a severe case of coronavirus, she said, and was suffering from double pneumonia. I was already having six liters of oxygen an hour pumped into me; on the standard coronavirus ward they could not administer more because that would require closer monitoring than they had staff for, the doctor explained.

So they were preparing a bed for me in the intensive care unit, she said, where I would be given as much oxygen as I needed. I would be moved in the morning.

“No,” I said.

“Why not?” she asked. “They can take care of you better there.”

“Because there are fewer ways out of there.”

She was a young trainee doctor. She had no answer. She turned the lights out and left.

Constructing a protective wall

I was left with my thoughts, and I marshaled them into the protective wall that I had been constructing in my head each hospital night, a wall to keep the virus out.

I built it image by image, each one giving me strength, forming an imaginary semicircular shield. Friends I value especially for their courage and wisdom; my two sons, full of vitality and strength; memories that give me particular pleasure; a vision of our cat hiding in the rosebushes at our country home; a friend’s radiant painting of flowers, offering promise of a future; my brother in England.

At the heart of this defensive mental kaleidoscope stood Edith, her love for me and mine for her. And packed around the edges, in the chinks, cementing the structure, were all the thoughts, messages and prayers I was being sent from friends and colleagues across the world. (I have lived a globetrotting life.)

My mobile pinged with text messages and emails. Edith received even more. Believers of every ecumenical stripe prayed for me – worshipers at a synagogue in California, evangelical Christians in Colombia, the North African Muslim who mans my local newspaper kiosk, and, of course, Christian Scientists the length and breadth of this newspaper. Nonbelievers sent their love and concern, too.

And I felt all that in my body and my soul. I do not know how, but I did. Hunkered down in my hospital bed, my room dimly illuminated by a ghostly night-light, I wove all those prayers and thoughts into a cord I could cling to while I hung on to my own willpower at the same time. I was no longer alone.

A decisive moment

The doctor who kept my wife informed of my condition in daily phone calls had told her that these 48 hours would be decisive. I didn’t need to be told.

When dawn broke, I was still on six liters of oxygen, and comfortable. Nobody came to take me to intensive care. I was wakeful and alert all morning, and mid-afternoon a nurse turned the oxygen down to 5-1/2. I couldn’t see her face behind her surgical mask, of course, but I could hear the smile in her voice as she told me what she was doing.

And that’s how I stayed for the next 24 hours, hovering just inside the ward’s oxygen limits, and just out of reach of the ICU. I didn’t listen to the news or to much music. Instead I concentrated on myself, drawing on my resources. Thankfully they proved sufficient. Within four days I was off oxygen altogether, and three days later I was discharged.

Today, nearly three weeks later, I still tire very easily. Often I will lie down with a book after lunch and wake up at five o’clock. I still find myself out of breath more quickly than normal when I do exercises to rebuild my withered muscles.

I have a little machine to boost my lung capacity. It consists of three columns and three balls. I have to breathe in for as long and as steadily as I can so as to hold one or more of the balls at the top of their columns. The exercise is just as boring as it sounds.

Much less boring, though, are meals now that I have recovered my sense of taste. I have regained my appetite (and some of those missing 26 pounds), but strangely my sense of taste is now heightened; strong flavors such as vinegar, chili pepper, and ripe French cheese, once favorites, are now anathema. Nobody can tell me how long this might last.

Nobody can tell me much, in fact. Am I now immune to the virus? Medical experts differ. Why did I get better? I have my own opinions on that, as I have explained. But as a 66-year-old man in only average physical shape, I am particularly fond of the reason a young doctor gave me a couple of days before I left the hospital.

“Because you are young and strong,” she said.

If I had not been infected with coronavirus, and if her face had not been covered by a mask and visor, I would have kissed her.

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

On Film

Home theater: See the world through the eyes of director Satyajit Ray

When looking for films to transport you during lockdown, start with those by Indian auteur Satyajit Ray. “No other director has so consistently expressed what it means to be alive,” says film critic Peter Rainer. “No other filmmaker, male or female, has explored with such profound grace and understanding the inner lives of women.”

Linda
Janus Films/File
Smaran Ghosal as Apu in “Aparajito (The Unvanquished),” the second film in The Apu Trilogy from Indian director Satyajit Ray.
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5. Home theater: See the world through the eyes of director Satyajit Ray

Of the films of the great Indian director Satyajit Ray, the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa once said that not having seen them “is like never having seen the sun or the moon.” I completely agree. For me, Ray is perhaps the finest of all film artists. The humanism of his vision, and the lyricism he brings to it, is overwhelming. No other director has so consistently expressed what it means to be alive. No other filmmaker, male or female, has explored with such profound grace and understanding the inner lives of women.

I had the honor in the fall of 2008 to be invited to Kolkata, India, to lecture to local students and film societies about his work. As a white Westerner, I was wary of coming across like some sort of postcolonial know-it-all. I needn’t have worried. Our shared love for Ray dissolved any barriers. I was accompanied by a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who was instrumental in the ongoing restoration of Ray’s films, many of which were in a state of disrepair. (Ray was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1992, shortly before his death.)

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

The trip was one of the most enthralling and mysterious experiences in my career. Ray lived and worked in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, where he was revered. Inhabiting his world, however partially, connected me to his way of seeing. I saw in the faces of the people – the abjectly poor, the well-to-do, the merchants, the office workers – the imprint of his artistry. Whenever I look at a movie by Ray now, I am transported back to that time.

Ray’s movies would be supremely transporting even if one had never set foot inside India. His films may have ethnographic value but that’s not remotely what makes them so great. They are great because they reveal us to ourselves. They are great because they express with full transcendence the sacredness of our humanity. 

Trying to whittle down the director’s oeuvre to a couple of movies is like picking out a couple of plays by Shakespeare. I’ve seen most of Ray’s 29 feature films, and I’m not being sentimental or starry-eyed when I say that he has the highest batting average of any major film director. The vast majority of his output is extraordinary but I will highlight here his most famous contribution, The Apu Trilogy. I consider it the finest linked series of films ever made. (Ravi Shankar composed the beautiful music.) They stand on their own but for maximum effect must be seen in order.

Never having directed a movie before, Ray began his career in 1955 with “Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road)” (unrated), derived from a classic novel about rural Bengali life and its impoverishments. The focus is on little Apu and his family, and it conveys like no other movie the sense of liberation one gets from breaking free, however momentarily, from the restraints of such a world. A sequence where Apu and his older sister Durga race across the fields to glimpse a distant train – a symbol of a faraway realm – takes you to the limits of feeling.

Jim Pringle/AP/File
Indian director Satyajit Ray holds the Golden Lion, the top award of the annual Venice International Film Festival, for the film “Aparajito (The Unvanquished),” on Sept. 8, 1957. It was the first time an Indian motion picture won the coveted award.

Ray originally had no intention of extending Apu’s story, but in 1956 he released “Aparajito (The Unvanquished)” (unrated), the second installment. In this narrative, Apu first moves to Benares with his parents and then, when tragedy hits, moves to the countryside and then to Calcutta, where he has won an academic scholarship. The heady world of the city turns him away from his roots. His mother pines for him. We last see her, ailing, hoping for his return, as she steps outside her home into a swarm of fireflies lighting up the night.

The third film, “Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)” (unrated; 1959) brings us the adult Apu, played by Soumitra Chatterjee, and his newfound bride Aparna, played by Sharmila Tagore, as they discover who they are and what they mean to each other. It’s the most delicate and intuitive portrait of a marriage I’ve ever seen. The two first-time actors went on to star, often together, in some of Ray’s best movies. 

At the risk of being listy, I can’t help but end by citing a few other Ray masterpieces for your delectation: “Devi (The Goddess)” (1960),  “Teen Kanya (Two Daughters)” (1961), “Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World)” (1984), “Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest)” (1970), “Mahanagar (The Big City)” (1963), and “Charulata (The Lonely Wife)” (1964). As Kurosawa said, they are the sun and the moon.  

The films in The Apu Trilogy, which all include English subtitles, are available to rent on Amazon’s Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, and iTunes. 

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The global jolt toward creative thinking

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Right now around the world one of the largest creative exercises is taking place: Thousands of political leaders are deciding when to reopen their economies. They must challenge old ways of thinking and invent new approaches.

But they are not alone. In their isolation at home, families are learning to solve problems posed by the pandemic. With classrooms closed, schools are testing their assumptions about how students learn. Retailers are trying new ways to keep customers.

The coronavirus may have weakened much of society. But the great weakening has stirred a great awakening. People are digging deeper for inspiration and breaking mental chains. Trends like digitization and online learning have been fast-forwarded.

Even in the midst of the crisis, it is time to celebrate the shift toward creativity and unity. One example is “The Call to Unite,” a 24-hour global streamathon that starts today at 8 p.m. Eastern time. The event’s goal: “to help you turn the pain of this moment into possibility for tomorrow ... and inspire you to pay it forward.”

Parts of life may eventually return to the prior normal. The ability to envision a new life may not.

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The global jolt toward creative thinking

Right now around the world one of the largest creative exercises of the 21st century is taking place: Thousands of political leaders are deciding when to reopen their economies as the COVID-19 threat fades. To balance the difficult trade-offs in ending a lockdown, they must challenge old ways of thinking and invent new approaches.

But they are not alone. In their isolation at home, families are shedding habits and learning to solve problems posed by the pandemic. With classrooms closed, schools are testing their assumptions about how students learn.

Retailers are trying new ways to keep customers. With their workers returning soon, manufacturers are experimenting with new workplace techniques and supply chains for a post-pandemic world. In the rush to invent a vaccine, thousands of researchers are breaking new ground in scientific thinking.

The coronavirus may have weakened much of society. But the great weakening has stirred a great awakening. People are digging deeper for inspiration and breaking mental chains. Trends like digitization and online learning have been fast-forwarded.

Peter Coleman, a Columbia University professor who studies the impact of societal shocks, writes that people coming out of a major crisis “are more open and their thinking is more flexible than it was before.” They listen to alternative ideas and discard old realities. Over many shocks, they can attain an irreversible innovation in thought.

They also see the utility of unity where once they reveled in playing up differences with others.

“The extraordinary shock to our system that the coronavirus pandemic is bringing has the potential to break America out of the 50-plus year pattern of escalating political and cultural polarization we have been trapped in, and help us to change course toward greater national solidarity and functionality,” Dr. Coleman writes. “The time for change is clearly ripening.”

Even in the midst of the crisis, it is time to celebrate the shift toward creativity and unity.

One example is “The Call to Unite,” a 24-hour global streamathon that starts May 1 at 8 p.m. Eastern time. The event has pulled together dozens of global leaders and celebrities to reflect on the long-term meaning of the crisis. The goal: “to help you turn the pain of this moment into possibility for tomorrow ... and inspire you to pay it forward.”

Much of daily life – shopping, working, worshipping, governing – has been turned inside out but also has been given an overdue review. The exercise in fresh thinking, while unwelcome at first, could be here to last. Parts of life may eventually return to the prior normal. The ability to envision a new life may not.

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.

Gone just like that

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In these uncertain times, fear can sometimes overshadow our hope, joy, and peace. But as the author of this poem experienced, the unfailing light and warmth of divine Love comforts “like nothing else,” dispelling fear.

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1. Gone just like that

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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There it seemed to be, fear
riding roughshod over my hopes
(it felt like an eternity), asserting
itself as filling all space,
as all-ruling, as all – period,
when a pinprick of faint
light pierced the black.
It was this: that darkness in
a closet shut for a minute or
centuries flees all the same
the moment light floods in.

Clinging to that small light-idea
took the wind out of fear’s
seeming sails and opened to me
divine Love’s unstinting warmth
pouring out endlessly – darkness
is not darkness to its luminosity.

So fear is not found in God’s infinity.

At that moment I was sure Love
was everywhere present, a
peerless tenderness comforting
like nothing else, and the fear
was swept away.

God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
I John 1:5

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.

Viewfinder

Hanging in there

Francois Lenoir/Reuters
Students from a closed Brussels' circus school hang on ropes attached to an abandoned bridge as a cyclist wearing a mask rides past during the lockdown imposed by the Belgian government to slow down the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread, Belgium April 27, 2020.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us. Please come back Monday when we look at the building campaign to make China pay reparations for the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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