2020
May
07
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Monitor Daily Podcast

May 07, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

From fences to sidewalks, neighbors share humor in tough times

Today’s issue looks at questions of freedom and privacy as governments leverage technology to fight the coronavirus, lessons on how to handle job insecurity and shortages from Russia’s recent history, the view from New York’s essential small businesses, the American dream in Guatemala, and the creative range of actress Saoirse Ronan.

Before the pandemic, so much of our lives had moved online that we turned the phrase “in real life” into the abbreviation IRL to highlight nonvirtual experiences. Now, people are turning to social media even more to feel connected. They’re posting in gratitude for essential workers, sharing phrases of unity and strength, and finding humor in this shared predicament. 

But some are bringing those interactions back into real life, using windows and yards like a Facebook newsfeed – or bulletin board, for those who remember when every interaction was IRL. 

There are signs thanking essential workers and messages of hope etched in sidewalk chalk. But some people aim to provide a chuckle for passersby. 

One man in Maryland writes daily “dad jokes” on a whiteboard. An example: “I ordered a chicken and an egg from Amazon. I’ll let you know.”

A woman in Texas set up humorous scenes in her front yard using Halloween decorations, poking fun at things like the toilet paper shortage.

In my neighborhood, someone has taken memes out of the virtual world by printing them out and posting them on a fence. 

At a time when many of us are screen-weary, finding a speck of delight off-screen provides respite. 

As Tom Schruben, the dad joker, told The Washington Post. “Everyone is very stressed with the virus and the quarantining. … I thought it would be a good idea to give people a break from that, shake them up momentarily to take their mind off their troubles for just a minute.”

Free movement or privacy? Pandemic forces new trade-offs.

In times of crisis, protecting human rights often involves a delicate balancing act. In a pandemic, it can mean exchanging some of our privacy for freedom of movement.

Eva
Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters
A couple looks at a phone, as other people wear protective face masks to avoid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at an amusement park in Seoul, South Korea, April 30, 2020. South Korea is employing "contact tracing" apps to avoid a strict lockdown.

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Jung Won Sonn, a professor who has lived in both London and Seoul during the coronavirus pandemic, contrasts the responses of each city to the crisis. In London, citizens are allowed to go out once per day, and police will readily disperse public gatherings.

In Seoul, Professor Sonn can enjoy crowded restaurants and cafes, but only if he brings his smartphone, which regularly alerts him about potential virus carriers in the area and shares his location data with two government agencies.

“We are making a hard choice between two undemocratic options,” he says, referring to the seeming trade-offs between free movement and privacy.

Honed by previous epidemics, the high-tech responses to COVID-19 taken by South Korea and Taiwan, which combine mobile location services with surveillance cameras and cashless payment tracking, allow for freedom of movement, but only at the cost of some privacy regarding your whereabouts. That cost, say some privacy advocates, should give us pause.

“If you don't fight to protect the liberties, freedoms, and privileges afforded by the Constitution,” says Margaret Hu, a law professor at Washington and Lee University, “it’s very hard to claw them back once those rights are ceded to the government.”

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1. Free movement or privacy? Pandemic forces new trade-offs.

When Jung Won Sonn flew from London to Seoul over Easter, he traded one freedom for another.

“In the U.K., you are allowed to go out just once a day, and if you go to the park and gather in a group of four or five people, police will approach you and disperse the crowd,” says Professor Sonn, an associate professor at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London. “That’s not democracy.”

Now in Seoul, Professor Sonn enjoys freedom of movement, but he had to download a pair of smartphone apps that would keep the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Ministry of the Interior and Safety informed of his whereabouts.

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

South Korea’s pandemic response has been honed through past exposure to SARS and MERS outbreaks. For one thing, testing is widespread, fast, and convenient. Public health authorities have also marshaled the country’s sophisticated tech infrastructure – widespread GPS-enabled mobile phones, cashless payments, and closed-circuit video cameras – to monitor the population. 

Along with Taiwan, which takes a similar approach, South Korea has drawn praise for containing the virus while avoiding strict lockdowns. This system has also likely spared lives: South Korea, whose population is about 50 million, has reported about 240 deaths. By contrast, Great Britain, population 65 million, has seen more than 26,000 deaths.

But this model comes with its own costs. In Korea, those suspected of carrying the virus are expected to have their phones on them at all times so that authorities can locate them and inform anyone who may have been infected, a method called “contact tracing.” (Authorities may also call at random during waking hours.) And the locally broadcast text messages that share the age, gender, and location data of those who have tested positive for the virus are fueling public shaming

Countries seeking to relax their lockdowns by emulating South Korea’s approach face a delicate balance between freedom of movement and freedom of privacy. On one hand, stay-at-home orders inhibit citizens’ rights to assemble and engage in commerce. On the other, to lift those restrictions while monitoring the spread of the virus would require newly invasive forms of state surveillance. 

“We are making a hard choice between two undemocratic options,” Professor Sonn says.

Who is mobilizing “disease detectives”?

In the United States, much of the burden for contact tracing has been carried by state and local governments, working under guidelines provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies. Since the novel coronavirus pandemic has placed about 65% of the U.S. population under lockdown, some states have organized armies of “disease detectives.” But the disparities between states remain vast, as the Monitor’s Simon Montlake reported last month.

Lindsay Whitehurst/AP
A smartphone app built for the state of Utah displays coronavirus test sites April 28, 2020. The app tracks symptoms and shares location data for contact tracing, the process of determining who might have been exposed to the virus. The app is “a tool to help jog the memory of the person who is positive so we can more readily identify where they’ve been, who they’ve been in contact with, if they choose to allow that,” said Angela Dunn, Utah’s state epidemiologist.

Silicon Valley hopes to narrow that gap. Apple and Google announced in an April 10 joint statement that “in the coming months,” the companies would be developing an opt-in “Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform.” 

Germany and France initially rejected this system, seeking a more centralized approach called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing. Germany and Italy eventually came around to Google and Apple’s approach, while France, Great Britain, and Spain are pursuing their own apps. 

Advocates of centralizing data cite the scientific value of large datasets. Critics worry that governments will use the data for other purposes. 

“Google and Apple got it right this time,” notes Jovan Kurbalija, head of the Geneva Internet Platform, a Swiss initiative. “For the tech industry, COVID-19 also poses a unique opportunity to get out of the ‘tech-lashing’ phase of avoiding taxes and not dealing properly with users’ data.”

He expects that Apple and Google’s approach, which protects data by leaving it on users’ devices, will prevail because they already have billions of users worldwide. What remains to be resolved, he says, is the extent to which the contact-tracing apps being developed in Europe and beyond will be compatible with the contact-tracing systems that are expected to be native to Android and iOS devices. 

Does it work?

Contact tracing long predates the mobile phone. The concept emerged in early modern Europe in an attempt to limit the spread of syphilis among sex workers. Before the coronavirus pandemic, contact investigators have sought to limit STDs, tuberculosis, Ebola, and other perceived threats to public health. 

Modern technology opens up new avenues for authorities to track and limit the spread of a disease, but it still faces challenges.

Contact tracing apps require usage by at least 40% to 60% of the population before they are useful. This raises the question whether the voluntary approach favored in Europe will yield the same results as compulsory methods in Asia.

MINDEF SINGAPORE/Reuters
Singapore Armed Forces personnel conduct contact tracing in efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19, in Singapore, January 28, 2020.

What’s more, Bluetooth technology is not flawless. For example, the virus does not penetrate walls. Bluetooth signals do, which may lead to a false positive. Connectivity problems – familiar to anyone who uses a Bluetooth speaker – could return a false negative. 

“Beware of the false reassurance that an app can provide,” says Luciano Floridi, director of Oxford’s Digital Ethics Lab. “No bad news is just that. ... It doesn’t mean everything is OK. Of all the weapons we have, this is probably the smallest and least important. The app, if it is useful, is only useful within a much bigger strategy that is medical and social. Concentrate on the wider strategy.”

Professor Floridi worries that governments could make the mistake of linking incentives – such as the right to socialize or work – to ensure enough people download the apps. This, he says, risks dividing the population into those who can afford a smartphone and have the digital skills to manage the app and those who don’t.

“That would be a disaster,” he says. “The privacy problem could be solved if we do the right thing. It is the social justice that worries me.” 

An invasion of privacy?

Digital contact tracing is no substitute for human health care workers and medical testing, cautions Margaret Hu, an associate professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law. “If you don’t have widespread testing, and if you don’t have accurate testing,” she says, “are you, through this warning system, going to have a very large rate of false warnings or under-warnings?”

And, Professor Hu notes, state powers enacted during extraordinary times have a way of being repurposed once the crisis passes. “Emergency state powers lend themselves to normalizing surveillance in day-to-day governance,” she says. “If you don’t fight to protect the liberties, freedoms, and privileges afforded by the Constitution, it’s very hard to claw them back once those rights are ceded to the government.”

If done right, digital contact tracing could be compatible with privacy rights, argues E. Glen Weyl, founder and chairman of the RadicalxChange Foundation, a nonprofit focused on improving democratic systems and market economies.

“There are ways to implement that sort of thing that are not major problems for civil liberties,” he says. He describes a decentralized contact-tracing system similar to the one used in Taiwan. “No individual person’s location history is ever stored anywhere other than on their own private device. This is not rocket science.”

Such a system would share only certain location data, which would be compiled into heat maps that could be used to locate potential outbreaks. “There is not a fundamental impediment here to doing it in a way that is consistent with American values,” says Mr. Weyl.

Professor Sonn says that on the balance he thinks South Korea’s test-and-surveil approach is best, but he cautions against binary thinking. “Most journalists are using this dichotomous framework of ‘surveillance versus democracy’ because it’s familiar,” he says. “Once you get a framework, you tend to use it in new situations.”

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

World confronts pandemic shortages. Russians have been here before.

The coronavirus epidemic has raised worries about job security, food supplies, and social stability in many countries. Not long ago, Russia experienced such a trial. Our correspondent lived through it.

Eva
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Women line up to buy cookies from a street vendor in Moscow in July 1990.

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When 15 former Soviet republics went their separate ways in early 1992, it wrecked supply lines, separated industries from their traditional markets, and led to economic chaos.

By the middle of the decade, Russia’s economy had shrunk by around half. About 40% of the population was in dire poverty, and corrupt elites were laundering what was left of the country’s wealth into foreign bank accounts. The virtual implosion of the state meant people could expect no assistance from that quarter.

Russia’s economy today is heading for its biggest contraction since those days, as unemployment soars and businesses go underwater amid a near total shutdown to control the spread of the coronavirus. That is reminding many people of the chaotic 1990s and how they managed to adapt to completely new circumstances.

The cataclysm drove people like Maya Melnikova, a Moscow architect, into odd jobs to survive. “I had a friend who bought children’s denim sundresses at wholesale prices, and I would stand all day in a Moscow market selling them retail,” she says. “I was surrounded by educated people like myself, all doing the same kind of thing. It wasn’t easy, but I came home with food.”

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2. World confronts pandemic shortages. Russians have been here before.

I recall the catastrophic upheaval well. The economic floor dropped away, destroying the livelihood of millions and forcing individuals to imagine entirely new ways to survive and feed their families. Old political verities proved worthless, and government largely failed to relieve the disaster.

Today’s coronavirus lockdown is a fresh nightmare for much of the world, but in Russia it is reviving painful memories of the chaotic 1990s, a social and economic cataclysm that anyone over the age of 40 knew all too well.

Through hyperinflation and a banking crash I lost my life’s savings twice. But I was spared the crushing, disorienting sensation experienced by millions of Russians as they realized that everything they had relied upon and formerly built their lives upon had collapsed, scrambling the social order and forcing people to face existential challenges they had never imagined.

Russia’s economy is heading for its biggest contraction since those days, as unemployment soars and businesses go underwater amid a near total shutdown that will last until at least May 11. So, many people are recalling the hardships they faced in the ’90s, and how they managed to adapt to completely new circumstances. Indeed, it’s hard to understand Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where polls consistently show that people place an overwhelming priority on political stability, without appreciating that turbulent decade.

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

“Yes, I’m afraid all those hardships will return,” says Anna Abashina, who had a good job as an economist when things fell apart in the early ’90s. “I had a small child to raise, my job had ceased to exist, and it was really difficult to even obtain food.” She found a job in a bakery. The work was hard and the money was sparse. “But people always need bread,” she says.

“We inherited a catastrophe”

It wasn’t a virus but a political event – the sudden demise of the USSR – that turned Russians’ lives inside out. When 15 former Soviet republics went their separate ways in early 1992, it wrecked supply lines, separated industries from their traditional markets, and led to economic chaos.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A woman holding a toddler begs at a busy intersection in Moscow in July 1999. The 1990s saw a lot of Russians lose their jobs and the safety net that the former Soviet system provided, leaving them desperate to find ways to feed their families.

By the middle of the decade, Russia’s economy had shrunk by around half, about 40% of the population was in dire poverty, and corrupt elites were laundering what was left of the country’s wealth into foreign bank accounts. The virtual implosion of the state meant people could expect no assistance from that quarter. Law and order all but disintegrated.

“It was a terrible time to be elderly, or without education or skills,” says Yevgeny Gontmakher, who was deputy minister for social protection in the first post-Soviet government and an official adviser on social policy for much of the decade. “But for the young, the most active people, it was a time of unimaginable freedom and opportunities to do things in a totally new way.

“We inherited a catastrophe. There were mass shortages, no reserves in the banks, and few real jobs to be found. That was because the previous economy, the Soviet system, was completely dysfunctional,” he says. “We had to contend with all that.”

He says the current coronavirus crisis is different from the turmoil of the ’90s. “In those days, people were thrown on their own resources and had to think of something to do. Now the state has become very strong, and most people are waiting for the government to take care of them.”

“What do you think I do for a living?”

I recall visiting a coal mine near the city of Shakhti, in southern Russia, during one of the worst years, 1994. I had come to find out how they were managing to get by, and I received an education.

A group of miners took me down to the coal face – the shafts are very deep there – and I watched them clawing out coal and sending it up to the surface in big buckets. Then it was time for their break, which they called tormozok (coincidentally from the Russian word for “brake”) and we sat there, drinking tea from thermoses and eating bread torn from loaves.

A big fellow with a smudged face leaned over to me and asked, “What do you think I do for a living?”

I answered, “Well, um, I think you’re a coal miner.”

He laughed and said, “No, not me. I’m a farmer.”

They explained to me that the mine was bankrupt, but since Russia did not yet have any bankruptcy laws, it continued a zombielike existence, producing coal and selling it wherever possible. Even though they had received no cash wages in months, the men kept putting in their regular shifts. Sometimes they were paid in coal, which they could barter for other goods.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Women sell children's clothing on the stairs leading to a subway entrance in Moscow in July 1999. Senior pensions dried up as Russia's economy collapsed in the '90s.

But while the houses they lived in nearby were owned by the former Soviet coal company, they were allowed to stay and work the pieces of land attached to them. Some raised cows and chickens, or grew vegetables and potatoes. I recall being astonished by the amounts they claimed to harvest from their small garden plots. They, and their families, put up huge amounts of preserves for the winter.

Alexei Shishkin, the head of the Union of Gardeners in the central Russian region of Tambov, says that a Soviet-era innovation of handing out rural garden plots to urbanites may have saved the country from starvation in those desperate years. In the late ’90s, a Russian sociologist calculated that about 40% of all food being consumed in the country was homegrown.

“We were given free plots of land in 1992. I received mine through the hospital where I worked,” Mr. Shishkin says. “About half of those plots are abandoned today, but in the worst years they were full of people growing potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. Many of us keep it up, because when you know what you’re growing, you know what you’re eating.”

“It was unclear how to go on living”

Maya Melnikova, a Moscow architect, had expected that to be her life’s career. But it disappeared, and she ended up doing a wide variety of jobs during the ’90s.

“At first we found ourselves without hope, and it was unclear how to go on living,” she says. “I had a friend who bought children’s denim sundresses at wholesale prices, and I would stand all day in a Moscow market selling them retail. I was surrounded by educated people like myself, all doing the same kind of thing. It wasn’t easy, but I came home with food.”

Ms. Melnikova went on to reinvent herself as a home repair expert, an interior designer, and a teacher in a private school before immigrating, briefly, to the U.S. She’s now retired and living in Moscow.

“I have learned that knowledge isn’t just an accumulation of information, but the ability to learn new things and enjoy the process itself,” she says. “I also learned that you don’t need a manicure every week, or new clothes for each season. I really hope that, as a result of this current crisis, a society that found it possible to pay millions to football [soccer] players will decide to provide decent salaries to our doctors and medical workers.”

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

A deeper look

‘We’re open for them’: The small shops in New York trying to stay afloat

New York’s myriad small businesses are integral to the city’s vibrancy, but now the pandemic is calling into question their survival. Their straits also point to the broader challenge facing the U.S. economy.

Eva

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Vito Mazzarino’s family has owned S&V General Supply Co. on First Avenue in Manhattan since 1974. The store’s customers are primarily handymen from nearby apartment buildings, but with all nonemergency work on hold because of the coronavirus, demand for S&V’s lumber, paint, and other items is on hold, too. Sales are off 60%.

Mr. Mazzarino says he got none of the initial $349 billion federal aid package but is prepping for round two. “This is a major blow to the economy. ... I hope it ends soon,” he says, “or else we’re all going to be broke.”

New York has more small, family-run enterprises than just about anywhere else in the country – some 230,000 entities that employ nearly half the city’s private workforce. With the state in its seventh week of lockdown, temporarily shuttered businesses are at obvious risk, but so are shops that are operating but not covering costs.

“Every day, you hear about another store or cafe or bar that is in trouble,” says Greg May, whose board game cafe Hex & Co. significantly restructured to meet expenses. “I hope the city and state can continue to support and help small-business owners.”

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3. ‘We’re open for them’: The small shops in New York trying to stay afloat

People think of New York as a city of skyscrapers and high finance, but it’s the small, independent businesses that make the city run.

New York has more small, family-run enterprises than just about anywhere else in the country – some 230,000 entities that employ nearly half the city’s private workforce. Visitors who come to the city for the arts, finance, and glitz don’t see that the true pulp of New York comes from everyday butchers, bakers, dog groomers, jewelers, hardware stores, restaurants, and specialty stores that shape neighborhoods. Sometimes with just two or three workers, these merchants make the city feel more like a small town than somewhere that’s home to more than 8.3 million people.

They’re neighborhood fixtures, and too many are in dire straits because of the pandemic.

In terms of diagnoses and deaths, no city has suffered more than New York, which has had more COVID-19 cases than any foreign country except Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom. With the state in its seventh week of full lockdown, temporarily shuttered businesses are at obvious risk, but so are shops that are operating but not covering costs.

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

For businesses deemed essential – grocers, restaurants, liquor stores, laundromats – the first few days after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s shutdown announcement were like building an airplane as they flew it. Soon, they had a system. All instituted stricter cleaning protocols. Most businesses cut hours; some limited the number of people in a store. A few retailers installed huge sneeze guards at cash registers and mandated that customers wear masks before it became mandatory.

Even in the best times, it’s hard to be a small business in New York. The city’s minimum wage is among the nation’s highest, annual rent can run into six digits, and taxes pack a wallop. Then there is insurance and red tape, as well as tough competition from online retailers and national chains. Unlike unions or big corporations with teams of lobbyists and lawyers, mom and pops are largely on their own. When the city shut down, their hard job became pretty near impossible.

There’s more at stake than the livelihoods of individual entrepreneurs. Small businesses give New York City its character and vibrancy, says Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, an independent think tank.

“It’s a diverse mix of shopping that you can’t find anywhere else in the country and adds so much to street life in New York City,” he says. “I don’t think people come to New York [to see] chain stores and chain restaurants.”

Indeed, New Yorkers themselves take it personally if Victoria’s Secret replaces Viola’s Smart Shop. But the challenges here also symbolize a wider one nationwide. Whether in Chicago, Dallas, or New Orleans, no one wants a neighbor going bust. Yet that’s precisely the risk as the COVID-19 crisis leaves millions of U.S. small businesses shuttered or drawing a fraction of their ordinary revenue.

It’s uncertain how many of New York’s small businesses are open now, or how many of their almost 3 million workers are unemployed. Since layoffs began in March, almost 593,000 city residents had filed for unemployment by April 25, according to the state Department of Labor. More people couldn’t register because the system kept crashing.

Sales off 60%

Vito Mazzarino’s family has owned S&V General Supply Co. on the Upper East Side of Manhattan since 1974. The store recently reopened. It had closed in March, partly due to so much uncertainty but also because its shelves had been emptied of protective wear like N95 masks. Virus-related gear was all people wanted, and the store couldn’t get more. By the time S&V lifted its metal gates to customers, it couldn’t get American-made N95s. Chinese-made KN95 masks, which Mr. Mazzarino estimates would’ve cost him $2 or $3 each before the novel coronavirus, are now going for $9. He raised prices to keep the same profit margins.

Andrew Hohmann
Vito Mazzarino pauses in front of his family’s hardware store in New York City on May 4, 2020. S&V General Supply Co. is one of the few stores allowed to operate during Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state of emergency.

Located on First Avenue, S&V’s customers are primarily handymen from the 15- and 20-story apartment buildings surrounding it. With all nonemergency work on hold, demand for S&V’s lumber, paint, and plumbing and electrical equipment is on hold, too. S&V’s sales are off 60%. Mr. Mazzarino says he got none of the initial $349 billion federal aid package but is prepping for round two. Though his family owns the building, current sales aren’t covering the mortgage, equipment, supplies, or staff.

“This is a major blow to the economy. It’s going to trickle down to every aspect of it. The big concern is how long it goes on. I hope it ends soon,” says Mr. Mazzarino, a lifelong New Yorker, “or else we’re all going to be broke.”

Manhattan is characterized as a land of big spenders, but this area of the borough represents a dollop of middle class (relatively speaking). Most businesses are homegrown – restaurants, nail salons, clothing boutiques, barbers, grocers, housewares stores, and one that sells carpeting. The Starbucks and nearby 7-Eleven also have their loyalists. Pre-coronavirus, pedestrians were out at every hour, and traffic was backed up. Seven weeks into the state shutdown, just over half of the local stores were open – 26 out of 49.

Disinfecting the inventory

Just up First Avenue from S&V is A Matter of Health, which has been selling organic produce, cereal, and cleaners since 1989. Customers must wear gloves, and only two people are allowed in the narrow-aisled store at a time. Shopping baskets are washed after every purchase. Each night, workers swab the floor with bleach water and try to disinfect the inventory.

“Customers really appreciate the fact that we are on top of it,” manager Elias Zaki says. Some have even sent pizza. “It’s like Secret Santa.”

Like many stores, A Matter of Health cut hours. Even with precautions like wearing surgical masks and gloves, some staffers didn’t feel safe coming in. So Mr. Zaki is down to eight employees from 12. He says sales are up slightly, partly because of a new email-delivery program but also because his few walk-in customers are buying more than usual.

“For the first week, some people were buying five gallons of milk. That didn’t make sense, unless you’re a baker. We did try to enforce [limits] on popular items that we know our distributors don’t give us a lot of,” Mr. Zaki says. Some vendors, he says, have warned that certain products with specialty ingredients like elderberry won’t be back until January.

Sourcing is a constant concern for Gamal “Jimmy” Yehia, who has owned the nearby Market Deli since 1991. Without his daily food deliveries, Mr. Yehia goes to his local grocery store and Costco for stock. As with other neighborhood bodegas, his comfortably cluttered shop is more than a source of coffee, bagels, and milk. Doormen on break stop by to chat, and some neighbors leave keys for safekeeping.

Andrew Hohmann
Gamal “Jimmy” Yehia works at his Upper East Side bodega on May 4, 2020. Food stores like Market Deli have seen an upswing in business since nonessential entities were closed to flatten the COVID-19 curve.

“I get a lot of comments from people saying, ‘Thank you for opening.’ People, they understand [we don’t have] to be open, but we’re open for them,” Mr. Yehia says.

He is bringing in a bit more money than usual, thanks to business from closed smoke shops’ customers. But the work is exacting a toll. Mr. Yehia, in his 60s, had worked part time before the coronavirus, taking the express bus from Staten Island. Now, he works 50-hour weeks and drives the hour each way. He says he’s kept prices pretty much the same, in part because he drops suppliers who bump up their prices.

“Some companies take advantage,” he says.

Little choice but to reopen

It’s been harder for Ken Huang. He opened Sashimi Ramen Express, a reasonably priced sushi restaurant on a nearby quiet side street, in 2015. Rent runs more than $5,000 a month for 400 square feet; it’s another $1,300 to cover all other monthly expenses, except staff. Mr. Huang closed on March 10 because his workers didn’t feel safe leaving home. With little savings, no money coming in, and the rent due, he reopened April 14. Where he previously had three people making salmon rolls and bubble tea, he now is the only one. He takes orders via text and offers pickup only.

A big night recently earned him about $600, multiples short of what he made pre-coronavirus. He applied for $10,000 in federal aid but got just $1,000 – not enough to cover his electric bill for three months. Just recently, his landlord said he could stop paying rent until he’s gotten back on his feet. But ultimately, he will have to pay everything in full.

Even before the shutdown, many small businesses were fragile. According to a new survey by the regional Federal Reserve banks, 30% of businesses with fewer than 500 employees were classified as “at risk” or “distressed.” Even among those deemed “healthy,” just 20% said they could survive two months with a loss in revenue.

Board games and Zoom chats

Among the most fortunate of local businesses is Hex & Co., a board game cafe. Back when “corona” was just another Spanish word, business was booming at Hex West in Morningside Heights near Columbia University and its sister cafes in Brooklyn, Greenwich Village, and the Upper East Side. During the day, they were a combination WeWork/cafe/study hall/after-school program. At night, young children and their parents, teens, and 20- and 30-somethings packed in, drinking $7 milkshakes and $13 cocktails, strategizing over Settlers of Catan, Codenames, and hundreds of other games that lined the walls.

Fast-forward to the shutdown in March. Hex owner Greg May and his two partners focused on their Columbia location and furloughed about two-thirds of their 100-person staff. Though proudly old-school analog, Hex’s “Dungeon Masters” have taken their quests into Zoom chats and elsewhere in cyberspace. Open for takeaway snacks, Hex West added delivery (of games) and is meeting expenses on both the West and East sides.

One of the relatively few businesses that’s gotten federal aid, it’s lined up more than $200,000 in low-interest loans. Its landlords appear willing to cut deals on rent, and the other three cafes are expected to reopen as soon as customers are allowed.

“It makes me incredibly sad to hear about other small businesses that New York is losing,” Mr. May says. “Every day, you hear about another store or cafe or bar that is in trouble. I hope the city and state can continue to support and help small-business owners.”

Crotchety customers harder to find

Rainbow Ace Hardware, across from S&V, is the closest thing to a general store Manhattan has seen since horses caused traffic jams. A local institution for more than 30 years, it boasts an eclectic inventory – including underwear, rain boots, paint, hammers, curtains, lamps, Lysol, toilet paper, and MyPillow. With the quarantine, it’s added shelf-stable foods like pasta. One worker says business is down by more than half and staffing is at 50%. But here’s the bright side: New York’s infamous crotchety customers either are nicer or are staying home.

“They’re very few – fewer than normal,” manager Fall Sar says. “We’re all in the same boat.”

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

Working thousands of miles from home – to build a new one

Even amid COVID-19, “remittance homes” keep rising in Guatemala’s highlands. They’re symbols of the resilience – and fragility – of the American dream.

Eva
Megan Janetsky/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Virginia Castro shovels concrete mix in front of the remittance home she is building in Cajolá with her husband, Israel Vail López. The town has a large indigenous population, and Ms. Castro wears traditional Maya Mam clothing.

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The rolling, green hills here have been replaced in recent years by sprawling – mostly uninhabited – homes. These so-called remittance homes are built with money sent back to Guatemala by migrants in the U.S., serving for many as a safety net in case of deportation. 

Remittances from the U.S. – $10.5 billion in 2019 – fund infrastructure projects, pay school fees, and ensure there’s food. For many, these houses encapsulate the American dream. But there are consequences. Big homes can divide towns into successful migrants and those who don’t have the economic cushion of remittances. That inspires others to travel north, feeding the cycle of migration.

Marina Díaz, a former migrant, doesn’t see the benefit: Even if someone is deported, a big house doesn’t change Guatemala’s lacking economic and educational opportunities. But for Israel Vail López, building with remittances changed his life. “My dream was to build a place to live. … I did it.”

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4. Working thousands of miles from home – to build a new one

Israel Vail López walks from room to room, treading across construction dust that powders the hardwood floor in this new home. It has high ceilings and freshly painted white walls, and he proudly turns on the lights to show his hard work.

This house and another Mr. Vail López is working on belong to his children, Juan and José. In 2014, they left the Guatemalan highlands to seek opportunity thousands of miles away in the United States. They don’t plan on returning anytime soon, but sending earnings home from their jobs as construction and landscape workers in New Jersey serves as a safety net should they be deported. These homes are commonly referred to as “remittance houses.”

An estimated 1.4 million Guatemalans and people with Guatemalan ancestry live in the U.S., sending more than $10.5 billion in remittances home in 2019. That money is used to pay school fees, put food on the table for family members left behind, or to bolster the local economies in towns and villages where employment opportunities are nearly nonexistent. Last year, more than 54,500 Guatemalans were deported back to rural communities like this one. While some migrate legally, many arrive to the U.S. as unauthorized migrants due to the difficulty in getting a visa.

“You don’t know if tomorrow or the next day immigration will arrive and send them to their homeland,” Mr. Vail López says of migrants like his sons. “But here they have a place to live. This is the idea for the Guatemalans that live [in the U.S.]”

Buildings like these – often constructed in a U.S. style, with multiple stories and ornate windows, pillars, and balconies – have grown to define towns like Cajolá, made up of 15,000 people who work largely in subsistence agriculture. Cajolá is a product of decades of migration and the inextricable relationship between migrants and the community they left behind. Remittances make up roughly 75% of household incomes here, community leaders estimate.

“If you’re young and you have any aspirations of buying a home ... it’s really vital that you go to the United States,” says Richard Johnson, a researcher at the University of Arizona who studies Guatemala. Minimum wage in Guatemala hovers around $11 per day, and the majority of the economy depends on low-paying, informal labor.

It’s “almost destiny” that young Guatemalans will try to move abroad, he says. “Otherwise, you’re looking at a life of being impoverished.”

Megan Janetsky/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Rising cases of coronavirus in both the United States and Guatemala may shrink remittances and slow the rapid rise of the homes, but migration and deportation continue despite the pandemic. Remittances to Latin America are estimated to drop by nearly 20% in 2020. For now, construction continues in Cajolá.

Looking out across the town, it’s easy to pick out which buildings are constructed from remittances. They are often extravagantly large compared with the modest, single-story adobe houses historically built along the rolling green hills and farmland.

Guatemala is predominantly rural, and owning land represents success. Passing a home or farm down to the next generation has deep significance in indigenous cultures here, which believe their people have a special connection to their land. It’s a motivator for many to migrate, and earn the funds to build. This is especially true in Cajolá, where 96% of the population is Maya Mam.

Having a home – and the financial security that comes with that kind of asset – was a key reason Mr. Vail López migrated to the U.S. more than 20 years ago. He, too, built a remittance house.

Back then, when telephones were scarce and illiteracy rates were high, he mailed audio cassette tapes to his wife and sons, detailing in their language, Mam, how he wanted the new home to look.

Today, Cajolá is a checkerboard of construction, with gray brick and scaffolding alongside multicolored homes. Isidrio López works on one of these sites, laying down slabs of concrete and gray brick with a careful hand.

For the past six years, he’s sustained his family by building homes. He said he’s watched construction skyrocket, a reflection of Cajolá’s remittance-based economy.

“The construction has always been growing, but especially in these last two or three years,” he says, leaning on a chest-high brick wall. This jump in remittances is a product of both increased migration northward and a feeling of instability among migrants as U.S. President Donald Trump ramps up migration enforcement.

Mr. López owns a remittance house himself. He paid for it with 10 years of work on a New York dairy farm. He came back to Cajolá in 2010 once he’d saved up enough money to build his family’s home.

In Cajolá, migration and remittances have generated economic security, infrastructure, and jobs. But experts note that these houses have an indirect effect. A remittance home may act as a safety net, but many are driven to migrate when they see such grand homes popping up around them.

“It can create [these] sort of social differentiated communities that draw more people into the ‘migration economy’ as a means of keeping up,” says Professor Johnson.

It’s something Marina Díaz, a former migrant and Cajolá resident, says she’s surrounded by – literally. Her tidy one-story house is wedged between buildings mimicking New Jersey suburbs and Atlanta’s classic white architecture. The majority sit vacant, changing the social structure of her town. What used to be far-reaching farmland is now covered in empty homes. Even, if the owners do return, Ms. Díaz says many won’t stick around long enough to make Cajolá home again. 

A big home doesn’t change the fact that Guatemala isn’t a sustainable place to build a life for many young people, she says. There are slim economic and educational opportunities, forcing people to seek opportunity elsewhere.

From her rooftop patio, Ms. Díaz looks out at the grand buildings that stand on land once used to plant corn. “There’s so much land that doesn’t give food anymore,” she says.

But for Mr. Vail López, that very shift has transformed his family’s life and offers them hope.

“My dream was to build a place to live, and buy a place to plant,” he says, seated in his white-walled remittance house.

“It was my dream, and I did it.”

On Film

Home theater: Settle in with ‘Little Women’ star Saoirse Ronan

Is it possible to watch creativity unfold? For a mini-festival at home, follow the roles of Oscar-nominated actress Saoirse Ronan, who most recently played Jo March in “Little Women.” Film critic Peter Rainer praises the range of her talent.

Eva

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Saoirse Ronan is the most prodigious young actress in movies. If you only know her from her recent turn in “Little Women,” then you’re missing out. 

Now 26, she started acting when she was 9, but broke through in a big way in 2007 with “Atonement,” adapted from the Ian McEwan novel. She was 13 at that time and her performance brought her the first of her four Oscar nominations. One of the hallmarks of Ronan’s acting is her astonishing versatility. With equal force, and sometimes within the same moment, she can project both a fierce intelligence and a winsome passivity. But the passivity often conceals a powerful core. 

Ronan’s two most popular roles are the janglingly self-confident high school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” and her definitive Jo March, the centerpiece of Gerwig’s “Little Women.” It’s easy to see why these performances, both Oscar nominated, created such a stir. They show off Ronan in the full maelstrom of her emotions.

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5. Home theater: Settle in with ‘Little Women’ star Saoirse Ronan

Saoirse Ronan is the most prodigious young actress in movies. If you only know her from her recent turn in “Little Women,” then you’re missing out. 

Now 26, she started acting when she was 9, but broke through in a big way in 2007 with “Atonement,” adapted from the Ian McEwan novel. She was 13 at that time and her performance brought her the first of her four Oscar nominations. She plays the upper-crust Briony, circa 1935, who lives a sheltered, privileged life and dreams of becoming a novelist. Out of spite and confusion, she ends up giving false testimony in a criminal case that convicts the housekeeper’s son, whom she fancies, as a predator. The avidity that Ronan brings to the part is shattering. She becomes the dramatic center of every scene she’s in. Beneath her tight mask of righteousness we can see how she suffers for the consequences of her lie. (Rated R)

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

One of the hallmarks of Ronan’s acting is her astonishing versatility. With equal force, and sometimes within the same moment, she can project both a fierce intelligence and a winsome passivity. But the passivity often conceals a powerful core. 

The Oscar-nominated performance that perhaps best captures Ronan’s versatility is her Eilis Lacey, the Irish immigrant, in “Brooklyn” (2015), based on Colm Tóibín’s bestselling novel. Eilis has left behind her beloved mother and sister in County Wexford to seek a better life. It takes some time before she finds it, and even then, her homesickness eats into her happiness. Few films express as well as this one how an immigrant’s sadness at leaving one’s homeland is countered by the prospect of a revivifying renewal. And for this full credit is due to Ronan, who brings to Eilis, with the utmost delicacy, the full range of her emotional conflicts.

When Eilis meets Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian American plumber, he is as smitten with her as we are. He invites her to dinner with his family – a big step. There’s a classic scene where her boardinghouse girlfriends, in preparation for the big night, teach her to slurp spaghetti without spattering the sauce. Ronan can play comedy with the best of them. What she also does that most actors cannot is express the rue and befuddlement and delight undergirding the laughs. (Rated PG-13)

Anthony Behar/Sipa USA/AP
Saoirse Ronan, nominated for best actress for "Little Women," walks the red carpet at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on Feb. 9, 2020.

In the underrated “On Chesil Beach” (2017; Rated R), another adaptation of a McEwan novel, Ronan plays Florence, a well-to-do classical violinist in the early 1960s who falls for Edward (Billy Howle), a working-class history student. Their tremulous, tentative courtship leads to a disaster of a wedding night. The scene where the two of them berate each other on the beach and break apart is a harrowing example of acting and writing at its best. I would say that Ronan is cast against type in this role, except that she has no type. Besotted by love or terrified by it, she convinces equally. (In 2018, Ronan again played opposite Howle in an adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” where her Nina held her own against Annette Bening’s Irina.)

Ronan’s two most popular roles are the janglingly self-confident high school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (2017; Rated R) and her definitive Jo March, the centerpiece of Gerwig’s “Little Women” (2019; Rated PG). It’s easy to see why these performances, both Oscar nominated, created such a stir. They show off Ronan in the full maelstrom of her emotions.

Christine, rebellious, bollixed by adolescence, wants to discover her true identity. Her equally headstrong mother (Laurie Metcalf) tells her, “I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be,” to which Christine replies, “What if this is the best version?” It’s a good line, delivered perfectly. As Jo March, everything about Ronan – her eyes, her body – is always on the go. When Jo exclaims that “women have souls and minds, as well as just hearts,” it’s not just a sentiment; it’s a clarion call.

These films are available to rent on Amazon’s Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, and iTunes. 

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In South Korea, a triumph for talent in successions

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For decades, South Koreans have tried to discourage nepotism in business and politics. On Wednesday, their efforts were rewarded when the head of Samsung, the nation’s largest business group, vowed on national TV not to allow his children to take over the company.

Lee Jae-yong, whose conglomerate was founded by his grandfather, even admitted that recent scandals that have engulfed his company were caused by attempts to ensure family succession within Samsung. He apologized for his misdeeds while vowing to focus on improving “corporate value” – relying on professional managers – rather than seeking favors for kin.

The Korean press welcomed the move by a company that is the world’s largest maker of smartphones and other electronics. “Other family-run business groups with similar problems,” wrote The Korea Herald, “ought to use the incident as an occasion for self-awakening.”

Mr. Lee says he will be the last of his family to lead Samsung. He may be the first to assert in public that personal destiny should not depend on one’s genetic lineage.

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In South Korea, a triumph for talent in successions

For decades, South Koreans have tried to shed a cultural belief that a person’s destiny in business or politics is determined by bloodlines rather than merit. Laws have been passed to discourage nepotism. Politicians promise reforms against family favoritism in university admissions. On Wednesday, these efforts were rewarded when the head of Samsung, the nation’s largest business group, vowed on national TV not to allow his children to take over the company.

Lee Jae-yong, whose conglomerate was founded by his grandfather, even admitted that recent scandals that have engulfed his company – he spent more than two years in prison on bribery charges – were caused by attempts to ensure family succession within Samsung.

He apologized for his misdeeds while vowing to focus on improving “corporate value” – relying on professional managers – rather than seeking favors for kin.

The vow was perhaps self-serving. Mr. Lee faces more jail time as a court determines his future. Yet the Korean press welcomed the move by a company that is the world’s largest maker of smartphones and other electronics. “Other family-run business groups with similar problems,” wrote The Korea Herald, “ought to use the incident as an occasion for self-awakening.”

Family-run businesses are the bulk of businesses worldwide with many failing by the second or third generation. Most fail out of family rivalry or greed but also out of the notion that one’s gene pool is the best talent pool. Such a belief denies the worth of others in the company who might bring better qualities and experience. “Power is never a good, unless he be good that has it,” said King Alfred the Great.

Mr. Lee’s apparent enlightenment went beyond an acceptance of “best-level management,” as he called it, and a rejection of birthright as privilege. “Samsung has to hire proven personnel regardless of sex, education level, and nationality,” he said.

In South Korea, social class is more closely tied to that of one’s parents than in other developed countries, according to a 2018 study. Partly this is due to a perception that personal traits are inherited. Breaking this belief requires a country to accept that each individual has unique talents and the ability to flourish.

Mr. Lee says he will be the last of his family to lead Samsung. He may be the first to assert in public that personal destiny should not depend on one’s genetic lineage.

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.

Invisible goodness – all around us

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Fear of the coronavirus as an “invisible enemy” may sometimes pull at us. But there’s another presence surrounding us all that’s even more powerful: the healing presence of God, good.

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1. Invisible goodness – all around us

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Have you ever considered all the invisible things that surround us and fill our lives with goodness? Think of the invisible process causing spring flowers to bloom, the invisible force of gravity that enables us to stand upright. And the invisible but very concrete sense of connection we feel with our loved ones, even if they live far away and we can’t see them.

In my prayers for our global family, I have been specifically praying about the fear of an “invisible enemy” many people are feeling. Well, the Bible has a lot to say about an invisible, powerful presence of good that surrounds us. In the Bible, the Apostle Paul writes about looking “at the things which are not seen: for ... the things which are not seen are eternal” (II Corinthians 4:18).

Each of us can become more and more aware of goodness everywhere around us, expressed through countless acts of generosity and kindness. It’s not just about a positive attitude. It’s bearing witness to the unending love of God, divine Spirit, which can be felt and experienced in tangible ways.

Jesus explains Spirit’s invisible presence this way, as “The Message” interpretation of the Bible puts it: “You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God” (John 3:8, Eugene Peterson).

In her book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, writes: “Spirit blesses man, but man cannot ‘tell whence it cometh’” (p. 78). Mrs. Eddy, a follower of Jesus’ teachings, successfully healed many cases of disease – including those that are considered contagious – through a calm, clear awareness of the presence of the one invisible and infinitely loving God. God’s protecting and healing power may seem invisible to the physical senses, but it is very much present and visible to our spiritual sense, the innate ability we all have to discern the spiritual reality of God’s love and care.

So next time you hear about an “invisible enemy,” remember to acknowledge that it’s actually the health-filled winds of the invisible Spirit, God, that are surrounding us all.

Adapted from the April 24, 2020, Christian Science Daily Lift podcast.

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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Last stop

Andrew Kelly/Reuters
A worker wipes down surfaces as the MTA subway closed overnight for cleaning and disinfecting in New York May 7, 2020, in what will be a nightly occurrence during the pandemic. It was the first time in its 115-year history the city had a planned shutdown of its entire system.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow. We’ll look at how the quintessential New England country store is buoying communities through challenging times.

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