2020
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Monitor Daily Podcast

May 13, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

To beat a pandemic, enlist an ‘army’ of citizen workers?

As followers of the Monitor Daily already know, the current crisis has repeatedly called forth the best in the human spirit as people strive to respond with compassion and creativity.

Here’s perhaps another example. In recent days, faced with twin challenges of a pandemic and a record spike in unemployment, some U.S. senators are offering a “let’s solve both” proposal. They urge an expansion of federally funded national service programs, citing big benefits to society as well as to the individuals employed.  

“Right now, the American people are eager to get back to work and looking for ways to help our country in its time of need,” write Sens. Chris Coons and Bill Cassidy, a Delaware Democrat and a Louisiana Republican, respectively, in a joint opinion column published Monday.

Senators Coons and Cassidy say as many as 300,000 new health care “contact tracers” are needed, to help combat the spread of coronavirus infections while also allowing the economy to reopen. Equal numbers could be deployed to meet needs in fields like education and conservation, and addressing hunger. 

Some longtime advocates of national service say the benefits could go beyond the most obvious ones for communities and the individuals who gain pay or skills. Economist Isabel Sawhill notes that, at a time of deep political and social divisions, national service is a proven way to lessen those chasms – by bringing people from different backgrounds onto the same team.

We’re also working on a project highlighting personal stories for Memorial Day. Tell us about your loved one who served in the armed forces by filling out our form or emailing us at engage@csps.com. We’d love to hear from you.

A deeper look

For refugees, a plea: You can’t beat a pandemic by leaving people out

If the coronavirus and its economic devastation are already straining the developed world, how can refugees – the world's most vulnerable – cope? There is no safety net, no margin for error. Six of our writers report.

Mark
Elias Marcou/Reuters
Spilling out of the overwhelmed and overcrowded Moria refugee camp are another 5,000 people in makeshift shelters who have no access to showers, electricity, or water, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, April 2, 2020.

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For the world’s 25.9 million refugees, the most vulnerable people on the planet, the pandemic has struck at a time they were already widely viewed with hostility. Almost no one is looking out for their rights or physical health. Most live in dense urban areas or overcrowded camps where social distancing and access to medical care and steady work can feel like an impossible dream.

Refugee experts are urging swift action, warning of a potentially cataclysmic spread of the disease among communities and in locations with little margin for error.

Deepmala Mahla, CARE’s regional director for Asia, oversees COVID-19 response for the world's largest refugee camp, in Bangladesh. She says infection control needs to go beyond a call for social distancing in such impossible conditions and focus instead on what can be done.

The urgency in stopping COVID-19’s spread to refugee populations should be clear, she says: “The world can only be safe if each of us is safe.”

Charlie Yaxley, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, reinforces the point. “You cannot beat a pandemic by leaving people out,” he says. “Only by protecting everyone’s health, including the displaced, ensures everyone survives this.”

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1. For refugees, a plea: You can’t beat a pandemic by leaving people out

Eden Gebre spends every day crammed into a single room of a Tel Aviv apartment with her husband, their 6-year-old twins, and 4-year-old daughter.

In the same apartment live two fellow Eritrean asylum-seekers with whom Ms. Gebre is fearful to interact, because she says she is immunocompromised following a liver transplant. She tries to strictly isolate, wary of adding to what is already a mountain of medical debt if she becomes infected with COVID-19.

There is no safety net for Ms. Gebre – or for the 30,000 asylum-seekers from Eritrea and Sudan in Israel and many of their fellow refugees around the globe. She and her husband have no medical insurance, nor have they unemployment insurance to compensate for the jobs they lost in this age of lockdown.

To earn money, the couple sews masks and Ms. Gebre crochets baskets to sell through Kuchinate, a Tel Aviv collective of asylum-seeking women. The name means “crochet” in Tigrinya, a Semitic language spoken in Eritrea and Ethiopia.

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

In Israel the asylum-seekers’ hand-to-mouth existence working in restaurants and as cleaners has come mostly to a halt. The coronavirus crisis has forced members of the community to rely on one another and relief groups for food and help with paying rent.

For the world’s 25.9 million refugees, the most vulnerable people on the planet, the pandemic has struck at a time they were already widely viewed with hostility. Almost no one is looking out for their rights or physical health.

Most live in dense urban areas or in overcrowded refugee camps where social distancing and access to hand-washing, medical care, and steady work can feel like an impossible dream.

David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary who now leads the International Rescue Committee (IRC), says that makes “seeking refuge from this virus doubly or triply difficult.”

Refugee experts are urging government and international agencies to act swiftly, warning of a potentially cataclysmic spread of the disease among communities and in locations with little margin for error.

“They should use the small number of weeks that still exist before the disease goes rampant in the poorest part of the world in order to prevent its spread,” Mr. Miliband says.

The next step, he advises, is building up access to basic health care so those who get the disease can survive it. Also key, he says: distributing cash and food to mitigate potentially disastrous social and economic damage.

Keeping refugees safe, “requires a massive, coordinated and collective effort,” says Charlie Yaxley, global spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“No country can overcome this pandemic alone,” he says, adding that “it’s not only about controlling transmission but ensuring we have equal distribution of vaccines and medicines when they come.”

Courtesy of Eden Gebre
Eden Gebre's husband, Isyiah, sews masks to make money as his three children, twins age 6 and a daughter age 4, join him, in Tel Aviv, April 2020.

860,000 in one camp

The Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, is the world’s largest, sheltering some 860,000 people, many of them Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar. The camp is so densely populated that in some stretches 70,000 people live in a square kilometer in flimsy dwellings of bamboo and thatch.

Long lines are the norm – for the bathroom, hand-washing, or to clean a bucket for the day’s cooking.

As CARE’s regional director for Asia, Deepmala Mahla oversees COVID-19 response at the camp. She says infection control needs to go beyond a call for social distancing in such impossible conditions and focus instead on what can be done.

More hand-washing stations are needed, Ms. Mahla says, requiring additional soap, water, and buckets. Also critical: the distribution of cash and food so people are less likely to risk breaking curfews and closures to work outside the camp to feed their families.

She repeats a refrain she hears from refugees responding to action surrounding the virus: “Can you also protect us from starvation?”

To reduce crowding at the camp’s medical facilities, mobile clinics are being employed. Also of help are volunteers among the refugees who receive training to spread public health information.

Women and girls are at special risk, Ms. Mahla warns, in need of protection from sexual and physical violence at all times, but even more-so during a crisis like this one.

The urgency in stopping COVID-19’s spread to refugee populations should be clear, she says: “The world can only be safe if each of us is safe.”

The UNHCR’s Mr. Yaxley reinforces the point. “You cannot beat a pandemic by leaving people out,” he says. “Only by protecting everyone’s health, including the displaced, ensures everyone survives this.”

Prevention is “the only way”

Jelda Yayi has faced many dangers in her 70 years, but never one like this.

In her experience, danger had always arrived loudly. It sounded like gunshots and screaming. It sounded like her own rasping breath, hiding from men with guns outside.

It’s that kind of danger that forced her from her home in South Sudan three years ago and led her to walk about 20 miles to the Ugandan border. But now she and the other million refugees in Uganda face the stealthier threat of the coronavirus.

Courtesy of Christine Onzia Wani
Refugees practice safe distancing while in line for a water pump, in Bidi Bidi, Uganda, May 2020.

In Bidi Bidi, Africa’s largest refugee settlement, where Ms. Yayi lives, there have been no confirmed cases of the disease. But the quarter million residents must adhere to the Ugandan government’s strict lockdown, which has shut nonessential businesses. That includes millions of informal enterprises like Ms. Yayi’s, selling brooms she makes.

To help block the disease, programs for farming, improvements to water and sanitation, and the building of houses and schools have all been halted.

And relief agencies have introduced social distancing in the lines for water and food in settlements like Bidi Bidi.

At a Bidi Bidi water pump one recent morning, 10 women sat with their plastic jerry cans inside large chalk circles sketched on the ground, two meters apart. The scene contrasted with the busy, cramped lines that often stretched out from the same spot just last month.

Overhead, mobile loudspeakers broadcast the voices of workers belting out public health messages regarding the battle to halt the virus. Village leaders walk door to door, making sure people are familiar with COVID-19 symptoms.

“We just don’t have the option here for numbers to go up like they have in Europe and the U.S.,” says Niek de Goeij, the representative for Catholic Relief Services in Uganda. “Prevention is really the only way.”

On the move

In Colombia, the pandemic has made things so dire that Snydenys Peña is contemplating a return to her native Venezuela.

She, her husband, and five children are among the estimated 5 million Venezuelans who fled the country’s political and socio-economic convulsions, about a third of whom are in Colombia.

When she fled Caracas last May, driven by a mother’s desire to save her children from hunger and illness, she could not imagine a scenario in which she would return to its mayhem.

Courtesy of the International Rescue Committee, Colombia
Nearly 250 Venezuelans in Medellín, Colombia, received cash transfers from the International Rescue Committee, April 30, 2020. The aid is meant to help them pay rent and put food on the table during the pandemic.

Today the family lives in a one-bedroom house on the outskirts of Cúcuta, a town on the Venezuelan border. They sleep on the floor, the children on mattresses. Her husband lost his work as a day laborer and she hers, sewing dolls for a foundation. Over two months behind on rent, they fear eviction.

“I’m terrified. We stay here and we could be homeless in the midst of a pandemic,” she says. “We return home [to family support], but condemn our children to a life without a future.”

On a recent morning dozens of Venezuelans in Medellín came in shifts to sit six feet apart, in masks, in a line to receive cash transfers from the IRC. The funds were designated for nearly 250 Venezuelans and are intended for them to buy food and pay rent, the IRC said.

The coronavirus has wiped out their already precarious reliance on the informal economy, and now thousands are on the move home, sometimes by foot. They are spurred on by the pandemic’s fallout and spooked by the rising death toll in Ecuador and Colombia.

Local governments are trying to organize their safe passage, in some cases arranging mobile health units, diverting people to routes that circumvent big cities, or arranging transportation – with no social distancing – to the Colombian-Venezuelan border.

The Catholic church, civil society, and international NGOs are trying to help. The church has cafeterias near the Venezuelan and Ecuadorean borders that serve upward of 5,000 meals a day. Small water stations were erected by dioceses along highways for hand-washing and showers.

A camp’s grim conditions

At the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, more than 20,000 asylum-seekers are living at a site intended for just 2,750.

That translates to just one water station per 1,300 people, one toilet for every 200, and one shower for every 630. There are also 5,000 people who have spilled out beyond the formal camp and are using makeshift shelters who have no access to showers, electricity, or water, says Apostolos Veizis, director of the medical operational support unit for Médecins Sans Frontières-Greece.

To date no coronavirus infections have been reported at the camp. Trying to help keep it that way is a relatively new resident, Deen Muhammad Alizadah, a pharmacist from Afghanistan who arrived in Greece six months ago with his wife and 4-year-old son via Iran and Turkey.

Courtesy of Deen Muhammad Alizadah
Deen Muhammad Alizadah, an asylum-seeker from Afghanistan, holds his 4-year-old son inside a makeshift tent in the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Mr. Alizadah is on a refugee-run committee that teaches residents about the disease and how to prevent it by staying in their tents and in the camp as much as possible. Shopping, they are told, should be done by one member of the family. A Greek police checkpoint outside the camp bolsters the guidelines.

Regular hand-washing remains difficult with running water available only intermittently throughout the day. But people are doing their best to be hygienic and stay inside.

“This is the only chance,” Mr. Alizadah says. “If the virus started in this camp it would be uncontrollable.”

Some good news

At a time when most of the world seeks to keep refugees and asylum-seekers out because of the coronavirus, Germany is finding a way to let some in.

Fifty-seven children, all unaccompanied minors – the majority from Syria and the others from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eritrea – were recently flown in from Moria. They are the first refugees to leave the camp since 2015, relief workers said.

Highlighting its unsanitary, crowded conditions as especially dangerous during the pandemic, Kindernothilfe, a children’s rights and humanitarian assistance organization in Germany, lobbied the government for an airlift.

Frank Mischo, a Kindernothilfe advocacy officer, says his organization and partners provided a list of cities and states that, combined, could immediately provide around 5,000 unaccompanied minors with housing, care, and support.

“We offer safe quarantine possibilities, we finance everything,” Mr. Mischo says of his coalition of partners.

The hope is that this is just the beginning. About 20 cities across Germany, alongside eight countries in the European Union, including France, Croatia, and Belgium, have volunteered to take in underage, unaccompanied refugees from the camp.

The urgency of the pandemic seems to have worked where years of pressure failed.

Finally, Mr. Mischo says, “there is some hope.”

Contributing to this story were Lenora Chu in Berlin, Whitney Eulich in Mexico City, Dominique Soquel in Basel, Switzerland, Christine Onzia Wani in Bidi Bidi, Uganda, and Ryan Lenora Brown in Johannesburg.

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

The Explainer

Tracing the origins of the novel coronavirus

Scientists are working to trace the origins of the novel coronavirus. Their aim is not to point fingers. Rather, it's about preventing this from happening again.

Mark

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As governments work to contain COVID-19 and reopen their economies, scientists are racing to trace the novel coronavirus’s origin with the hope of not only improving the world’s ability to fight this pandemic, but also preventing future outbreaks.

In the past 30 years, more than 50 novel viruses have made the leap from animals to humans. Scientists say that better understanding this complex crossover between animal and human health is vital to saving lives.

The World Health Organization says the novel coronavirus likely originated in bats. But how exactly it made its way to humans in late 2019 is unclear. Most scientists think the virus was first transmitted to humans in an area where people and animals are in close contact, but other possible scenarios have also been proposed, including a laboratory origin for the virus. 

Scientists say tracing exactly how the novel coronavirus made the leap is key to combating the pandemic and preventing future ones. It will allow scientists and policymakers to prioritize steps to prevent this virus from being reintroduced into the population, and also to guard against the transmission of new coronaviruses.

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2. Tracing the origins of the novel coronavirus

As governments work to contain COVID-19 and reopen their economies, scientists are attempting to trace the novel coronavirus’s origin with the hope of not only improving the world’s ability to fight this pandemic, but also preventing future outbreaks.

In the past 30 years, more than 50 novel viruses have made the leap from animals to humans. Scientists say that better understanding this complex crossover between animal and human health is vital to saving lives.

Here’s a brief synopsis of their efforts so far. 

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

Why is discovering when, where, and how the virus originated considered so important?

The World Health Organization (WHO) says the novel coronavirus likely originated in bats. But how exactly it made its way to humans in late 2019 is unclear. 

Scientists say tracing how the novel coronavirus made the leap is key to combating the pandemic and preventing future ones. It will allow scientists and policymakers to prioritize steps to prevent this virus from being reintroduced into the population, and also to guard against the transmission of new coronaviruses.

“The public health importance of this is critical, because without knowing where the animal origin is, it’s difficult for us to attempt to prevent this from happening again,” says Maria Van Kerkhove, the American infectious disease epidemiologist serving as the WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19. “This happens with all emerging pathogens, because most emerging pathogens come from animals,” she said in a May 6 press briefing.

Scientists traced two earlier coronaviruses – severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) – relatively rapidly from bats to the animals that infected humans: civets (SARS) and camels (MERS). So far, scientists have yet to confirm the direct transmitter of this virus to humans, though pangolins are a key suspect – or perhaps it was bats themselves.

What do we know about the origins of the virus?

Most scientists believe the virus was first transmitted to humans in an area where people and animals are in close contact. Chinese officials said it originated in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a wet market in Wuhan where live animals were sold. But months after animals from the market were reportedly tested, China has yet to reveal those test results. A Lancet study found two-thirds of early patients were exposed to the market; the rest, including the first known patient, were not. 

Those discrepancies have led some to speculate about other possible scenarios. One: that the virus was engineered in a lab. A team of researchers rejected that idea in a paper in the journal Nature, writing that the characteristics of the virus do not fit that scenario.

The Trump administration has backed another idea: that the virus escaped from a lab studying such diseases in bats, jumping straight to humans. 

Such an accident is not unimaginable. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has detailed numerous instances of pathogens escaping from labs. A 2018 State Department cable reportedly warned of safety concerns at Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), the first biosafety level 4 lab in China. 

Trump administration officials have said there was “enormous evidence” supporting the lab accident theory. But they have not revealed details. 

Scientists, while not outright dismissing that scenario, have said that it is highly unlikely based on the lack of evidence and what is known so far about how bat coronaviruses are transmitted. Additionally, WIV researchers have said the novel coronavirus isn’t a genetic match to the coronaviruses studied in their labs. 

To what extent are scientists able to stay above the political fray?

The WHO is in discussions with China about a follow-on research mission focused on animal origins of COVID-19, as recommended by the WHO in February, Dr. Van Kerkhove said in early May. The mission, supported by the WHO, would take an “academic” approach and “really focus on looking at what happened at the beginning in terms of the exposures with different animals,” she said.

Despite the U.S.-China political tensions, some U.S. scientists are reportedly already working with Chinese scientists to investigate the virus origins. 

Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, said he is cooperating with a Chinese team to research whether this novel coronavirus existed in other parts of China before it was discovered in Wuhan in December, according to a Financial Times report. Dr. Lipkin worked on the 2003 SARS outbreak and has close professional ties in China, through which he is seeking access to key Chinese data important for international collaboration on the virus.

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed to this report.

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

Patterns

Tracing global connections

COVID-19 brings new threat to journalists: jail

COVID-19 has raised many questions about the nature of freedom. But few people are having to face them as brutally as the journalists around the world who have been locked up for reporting on the pandemic.

Mark

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Around the world, COVID-19 is giving age-old philosophical questions real-life relevance. The latest example? The nature of freedom in an age of pandemic.

Some people are worried about their privacy if tracking apps to locate carriers become widespread. Others, especially in the United States, dispute the government’s right to enforce safety rules.

But worldwide, it is journalists who are suffering the bluntest attacks on their freedom, especially when they live in fragile democracies or under autocratic regimes.

From Turkey to China, from Egypt to Venezuela, from Ethiopia to Russia, governments have locked up journalists for reporting on COVID-19 in ways that displeased them.

Ethiopian reporter Yayesew Shimelis was locked up for reporting that the authorities were preparing tens of thousands of gravesites for pandemic victims. In Turkey, Fox News anchor Fatih Portakal was jailed for suggesting tax hikes might have been needed to fund the government’s response.

It remains to be seen whether such governments ease up when the pandemic has passed. But they face one question in common with the United States: Will the political battles waged under the pressure of the pandemic lead to lasting changes?

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3. COVID-19 brings new threat to journalists: jail

You may not have heard of Fatih Portakal or Chen Mei, Anna Shushpanova or Ruth Michaelson, Darvison Rojas or Yayesew Shimelis.

But they’re living examples of how the COVID-19 pandemic is transforming age-old philosophical questions into real-life issues around the world. The latest: the nature of freedom in the age of the coronavirus.

Different nations are confronting this in different ways. Even some democracies, like the United States, are still grappling for an answer – a debate all the more important because it could color political life for long after the pandemic is over.

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

But for Fatih Portakal and others, from Asia and Africa to Europe and Latin America, the outcome seems already clear, and the picture much starker.

They are journalists, working for established newspapers or broadcasters, or as citizen reporters on social media. They live and work under fragile democracies or autocratic regimes where basic freedoms – of expression, information, conscience – and the rule of law were already tenuous. And from the outset of the pandemic, it has become clear that constraints on all these fronts were tightening.

In nondemocratic states, no less than in democratic ones, the existence of a public health emergency made some limitations – on public gatherings, for instance – nearly inevitable. Even in democracies, some explicitly coronavirus-related balances are having to be struck, as my Monitor colleague, Eoin O’Carroll, explored a few days ago in his look at the role of smartphone surveillance.

Yet the main battleground for Mr. Portakal and other journalists hasn’t been about such trade-offs. It has involved efforts simply to provide reliable information about the virus, and about failures or oversights in their governments’ actions to limit its spread.

Mr. Portakal works in Turkey, which, under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, already has more journalists in jail than any place but China. Mr. Erdoğan made his answer to the “rights versus emergency” question clear in March. The government announced its intention to release a large number of prisoners for health reasons; it excluded all jailed journalists. Last month, police arrested Mr. Portakal – news anchor for Fox TV in Turkey – after he suggested tax hikes might be imposed to help fund the response to COVID-19.

Journalists have also been facing sanctions or restraints on reporting in dozens of countries. Those range from Ethiopia, where Yayesew Shimelis was arrested after reporting that the authorities were preparing tens of thousands of gravesites in anticipation of deaths from the virus, to Venezuela, where Darvison Rojas is one of nearly a dozen journalists detained while reporting on the outbreak.

In Egypt, as in Turkey, even before the pandemic, hundreds of journalists and political prisoners were behind bars. And President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi signaled his intentions even earlier than Mr. Erdoğan. In mid-March, the Egyptian authorities forced Ruth Michaelson, a correspondent for Britain’s Guardian newspaper, to leave after she reported on a research study suggesting they were understating the number of cases.

Of particular concern for rights activists, Egypt’s parliament has now approved emergency legislation giving President Sisi widened powers to detain suspects indefinitely. Last week, a “terrorism court” extended pretrial detention for more than 1,600 inmates, including many arrested on political grounds, according to Amnesty International.

In Europe, the emergency has given Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his self-described “illiberal democracy” an open-ended authority to rule by decree. He had already been reining in the judiciary and the news media.

China and Russia have also shown they’re determined to punish journalists for coverage of their response to the pandemic. In China, Chen Mei is one of five citizen journalists detained after disseminating information about the spread of the disease. Two of them had produced independent reports on the initial outbreak in Wuhan.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin last month signed a law allowing fines or jail terms for people publishing what the authorities deem to be false information on the pandemic. A few days later, police searched the apartment of Anna Shushpanova, a political activist in St. Petersburg, confiscating her phone and computer. She’d posted a report on residents’ concerns in Sestroretsk, a few miles to the northwest, over what they saw as inadequate quarantine precautions at a local hospital.

There is no danger in democracies like the United States of a crackdown on freedom of expression prompted by COVID-19. But even in the U.S. the pandemic and the controversy surrounding the federal government’s response have caused strains.

President Donald Trump has ramped up his attacks on critical media coverage, assailing it as “fake news” produced by by “terrible” journalists.

A particular tension between the health emergency and personal freedoms has also been intensifying. Mr. Trump’s supporters have taken the lead in protesting against state governors’ shutdowns as an assault on their individual prerogative to live, work, and interact with others as they choose.

For now, that philosophical debate is being overshadowed by a partisan battle over the Trump administration’s response and the national elections in November. But one thing the U.S. does share with less democratic states is a longer-term question: whether political battles waged under the pressure of the COVID-19 emergency will lead to lasting political changes in a post-pandemic world.

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

Why Washington state was so prepared for the pandemic challenge

Recent weeks have been the ultimate stress test for how states handle adversity. An embrace of innovation and collective spirit are why Washington is shaping up as a model.

Mark
John Froschauer/AP
Gagan Thind watches as her daughter Seva drops off ballots in the Washington State primary March 10, 2020 in Seattle. Washington is a vote-by-mail state.

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When the coronavirus first appeared in the United States, Washington state, it seemed, was headed for trouble. But while other states struggled to care for the growing number of coronavirus patients, Washington managed the crisis so efficiently that officials actually gave 400 ventilators back to the federal government.

What’s more, the state managed to pull off a primary election at the height of the outbreak. Washington’s turnout ranked highest among all states holding primaries to date – 49.5%.

So, why Washington? The state has always been a bit different – a place of contradictions. It is both an economic titan and a liberal stronghold. It embraces both individual rights and the wisdom of the collective.

It was this environment that empowered local officials to act swiftly and decisively. But even before Gov. Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order, several of the state’s tech powerhouses shuttered their offices. And, undeterred by a little isolation, the citizenry has done their part as well.

The result of all these ingredients is a unique brew of communalism and innovation. As Amy Hagopian, a professor of public health at the University of Washington, puts it, “We get that we all succeed together.”

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4. Why Washington state was so prepared for the pandemic challenge

The state of Washington, it seems, was made for this moment. 

Successfully hold a major election during a pandemic? Check. Flatten the curve of coronavirus cases? Check. Manage the crisis so efficiently that you can actually give 400 ventilators back to the federal government? Check. 

If COVID-19 is the ultimate stress test for a society – revealing how well it protects health, manages the economy, and comes together in crisis – no state might be passing with higher marks than Washington. 

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

Despite being America’s first hotspot, coronavirus cases have been going down for six consecutive weeks. Emergency department admissions for people with “COVID-like symptoms” peaked the week of March 22 with 557 admissions statewide, and dropped to 201 this past week, allowing small re-openings like farmers markets. And despite a primary election held at the height of the outbreak, Washington’s turnout ranked highest among all states holding primaries to date – 49.5%.

“Washington knocked it out of the park,” says Phil Keisling, Oregon’s former secretary of State. “You were ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic, and still you voted almost double the rate of other big Super Tuesday states the week before, including California and Texas.”

So, why Washington? Is it something in the salmon and saltwater inlets? The answer is: Washington is not just “off in the corner of the country” literally. It has always been a bit different – a place of contradictions. 

It is both an economic titan – home to Amazon and Microsoft – and a liberal stronghold. It is both socially cool – so culturally insular that people joke about the “Seattle Freeze” – and a dynamic hub of globalism. It embraces both individual rights – giving women the right to vote 10 years before the 19th Amendment – and the wisdom of the collective.

Behind it all is Seattle, a city that is one of America’s best-educated and has an ethic of “thinking big” ingrained in its founding spirit. During the past few months, that has resulted in a different picture of how the nation can respond to the coronavirus.

John Froschauer/AP
King County Elections workers collect ballots from a drop box during the Washington State primary March 10, 2020, in Seattle.

One takeaway is that success helps dampen partisanship. Take voting by mail, a divisive issue at the federal level. President Donald Trump has rebuffed calls for a nationwide vote-by-mail election this year, claiming “mail ballots are corrupt.” 

But here in Washington state, “Do you ever hear any Republicans here say we have to get rid of mail ballots?” asks Dwight Pelz, former chair of the state Democratic Party. “Do you ever see any Republican bills in the Legislature to repeal mail-in balloting? No. 

“Why?” he continues. “Because their constituents love it. According to the Republican ideology, we should be the most corrupt voting system in the country. But we aren’t.”

That sentiment is echoed in the more conservative eastern parts of the state. “Voting is our democracy,” says Joe Kelly, who lives in the tiny mountain hamlet of Ardenvoir. “Mail-in ballots are more democratic.”

And Eastern Washington has been doing its part in flattening the curve, too. “We go to Wenatchee once a week to shop,” Mr. Kelly adds. “You don’t see any kids on the streets of Wenatchee. They’re mostly at home, which is a big change.”

Yet it is in the Seattle area where the state’s COVID-19 story is most compelling.

King County became the first American epicenter of the pandemic when the virus was discovered here for the first time on U.S. shores. The response was comprehensive. 

First, the region’s robust public-health sector sprang into action. The ecosystem includes the University of Washington, the Gates Foundation, and many other local NGOs.

“Most of these experts were trained at the University of Washington,” says Amy Hagopian, a professor of public health at the university. 

It’s impossible to overestimate the role of this massive institution in the region’s macro-culture, she adds. Economists, for example, have long said that Boeing will never stop manufacturing airplanes here because it doubts other areas of the country could supply the consistently smart pool of talent the university continually turns out.

But businesses and the citizenry played their part, too. 

“When Amazon learned it had its first case of COVID-19, it issued a directive the very next day for everyone to work at home,” says Irene Voskamp, who works at Amazon in downtown Seattle. “Google did the same thing. Then Microsoft. Then Expedia.”

With all those workers gone, downtown businesses reduced hours or sent employees home even before the “stay home” order. “Take all of those people – call it 100,000 – out of the city, you flatten the curve,” she says.

Ms. Voskamp says the engineering mindset in tech plays a role: “Leadership understands what an exponential growth curve means,” she says. “They actually understand math: ‘If we have one case today, we’ll have 10 cases next week, and a hundred cases the week after that, and a thousand cases the week after that.’

“They had evidence from China. They had evidence from Italy,” she points out. “They could see there’s no reason Seattle would be any different.”

The biggest factor, Ms. Voskamp says, was that “leadership that was willing to make hard decisions and accept short-term pain to avoid long-term disaster. That’s something not common in politicians, though maybe it should be, but it is an essential characteristic of good leaders.

“It doesn’t always make you popular,” she added, “but there are times when being unpopular is the right thing to do.”

Seattle is a place used to thinking not just big, but also small. Last week, in response to people’s need for safe exercise while sheltering in place – in a region where the outdoors has always been a strong lure — Mayor Jenny Durkan announced the permanent closures of selected streets to most vehicles.The idea is to provide people a place to walk, jog or bike in safety, sans cars and trucks. Giving citizens some 20 miles of residential streets spread across the city’s neighborhoods may not be as drastic as the governor’s sweeping mandates to dampen the rate of viral infection, but it signals to Seattleites that their leaders care about their well being on multiple levels: not just their public-health needs, but also their desires for recreation, community, and even to escape, now and then, the confines of their homes.

That culture springs from the city itself. 

The message of “Sons of the Profits,” a history book about the city: “The people who founded Seattle, they were forward thinkers. They were willing to make bold bets. It’s still in the DNA of the city,” Ms. Voskamp insists.

In King County, which surrounds Seattle, more than half of adults have college degrees, compared with about one third of adults nationally. Residents here are overall younger and, with a median household income of $89,000, earn nearly 50% more than the median American household. 

Seattle is annually named one of the country’s most well-read cities. It also is politically liberal: In 2016, some 87% of residents mailed in ballots for Hillary Clinton.

That’s a vestige of Western Washington’s past. Union organizers preached Karl Marx in lumber camps. The massive, five-day Seattle General Strike of 1919 is a historical touchstone. Utopian colonies routinely sprouted throughout Puget Sound. 

The legendary toast offered by national Democratic Party leader James “Big Jim” Farley in the mid-1930s perhaps summed it up best: “To the 47 States of the Union and the Soviet of Washington.”

But in these times, in particular, Washingtonians might have an even bigger superpower. They don’t mind a little isolation.

The reason the state was able to return 400 ventilators is that its citizens so dutifully complied with commands to shelter at home and observe social distancing.

The region is known, especially among newcomers, for the Seattle Freeze. It’s shorthand for explaining why locals are perennially, passively indifferent to strangers. Almost all who move here lament how tough it can be to forge close friendships.

Combine the “Freeze” with the city’s Scandinavian culture, with its clannishness and built-in cultural distancing, and you practically have a ready-made pandemic boot camp.

A meme circulating on local Facebook pages jokes that no one needs a governor’s order to shelter-in-place when you’ve already been conditioned by so many brush-offs to sequester at home.  

The result of all these ingredients is a unique brew of communalism and innovation. 

Says Professor Hagopian of the University of Washington: “We get that we all succeed together.” 

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

Difference-maker

Drivers of change

In a new twist on ‘pass the buck,’ Americans donate crisis relief checks

In an era of hardship and layoffs, Americans are countering fear with compassion by pledging to share their checks. The movement underscores the power of generosity – immune even from a pandemic. 

Mark
Courtesy of Tamara Torres McGovern
The Rev. Tamara Torres McGovern, at center, attends a rally for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients with her wife, Piper Dumont, and their daughter, Tovi, in Portland, Maine, September 2017. Ms. Torres McGovern is a co-founder of the #PledgeMyStimulus campaign.

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The coronavirus pandemic has upended the U.S. economy. More than 33 million Americans have filed for unemployment since mid-March. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act – a $2 trillion package to help businesses and individuals signed into law in March – includes one-time payments of up to $1,200 for individual taxpayers. As of May 8, some 130 million Americans have received their checks.

The Rev. Tamara Torres McGovern says her relief check could easily go toward household repairs, or the combined $130,000 student loan debt she shares with her spouse. But the couple is putting their checks toward supporting immigrants, low-wage workers, and local businesses.

Americans across the country are pledging to “pay it forward.” Some taxpayers plan to redistribute their checks to organizations or neighbors in need. As they brace against the virus, communities countrywide prove generosity is immune. 

“This is not my money, this is our collective money,” says Ms. Torres McGovern, co-founder of the #PledgeMyStimulus campaign in Portland, Maine. So far 151 individuals have pledged more than $122,000. 

“This virus has created fear of other people,” she says. “This is a really simple way to kind of push back against that fear and [move] towards compassion.”

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5. In a new twist on ‘pass the buck,’ Americans donate crisis relief checks

Fresh out of cosmetology school, Jennifer Guy was glad to start work as a hairdresser in late February. But she lost the job three weeks later as Pennsylvania closed to COVID-19. The single mom and cancer survivor from McKeesport says she hadn’t worked long enough to file for unemployment. Her two teens at home needed food. 

Ms. Guy didn’t know where to turn – until a news story on a local Facebook group caught her eye. The Stimulus Check Exchange support group seemed nonjudgmental, she says, so she posted about her struggle. 

Two days later, a check signed by a stranger appeared in the mail for $250. 

“It actually was a blessing for me,” says Ms. Guy. “I really was starting to lose hope” of getting help. She says the check went toward rent, food for her kids, and a book for each from Walmart. 

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

In an era of fear and layoffs, Americans across the country are pledging to pay it forward. Some taxpayers say they plan to redistribute their checks to organizations or neighbors in need. As they brace against the virus, communities countrywide prove generosity is immune. 

“This is not my money, this is our collective money,” says the Rev. Tamara Torres McGovern, co-founder of the #PledgeMyStimulus campaign in Portland, Maine. So far 151 individuals have pledged more than $122,000.  

“This virus has created fear of other people,” she says. “This is a really simple way to kind of push back against that fear and [move] towards compassion.”

Safety net

The coronavirus pandemic has upended the U.S. economy. More than 33 million Americans have filed for unemployment since mid-March. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act – a $2 trillion package to help businesses and individuals signed into law in March – includes one-time payments of up to $1,200 for individual taxpayers. As of May 8, some 130 million Americans have received their checks, according to the Treasury Department and the IRS.

Not all taxpayers benefit. The current legislation excludes unauthorized immigrants, though many work “essential” jobs. In response, a GoFundMe by a coalition of advocacy groups has raised more than half a million dollars for immigrant families around Washington, D.C. 

“It has become ever more clear that we need systems that serve everyone, especially in times of crisis, and not just those with saved or inherited wealth or well-resourced jobs,” writes Yahya Alazrak, campaign director for Resource Generation, in a statement to the Monitor. 

Resource Generation organizes young adults with privilege around social justice causes. The nonprofit’s #ShareMyCheck campaign is meant to inspire donations for individuals, communities, and organizations in need during the pandemic.

New York grant writer Jason Yoon took to Twitter last month with the #ShareMyCheck hashtag. Grateful for a steady income and bank account, he says sharing his check with others was a “moral imperative.”  

“I’m personally frustrated that so many workers and laborers are being excluded from federal aid,” says Mr. Yoon. He divided his check among two immigrant empowerment groups, a community arts studio where he formerly served as executive director, and his current employer, Sakhi for South Asian Women, which aids survivors of gender-based violence. 

“My parents are immigrants from Korea. My mother is a retired nurse [who worked] in New York City,” he says. “So seeing the experience of front-line workers, and the work of women in particular in this moment, is something that hits home for me.”

Local news has chronicled a range of giving inspired by relief checks. Hundreds of educators in California are committing their incoming cash to support unauthorized workers. A Boise, Idaho, man’s donation to a local food bank encouraged others to follow. And an Alabama math teacher paid three students’ utility bills. 

“As this pandemic unfolds, the silver lining really has been the outpouring of generosity and support,” says Una Osili, associate dean for research and international programs at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Philanthropy has been “part of America’s fabric from the very beginning,” says Dr. Osili. “Compared to a lot of European countries, we don’t have a lot of government programs for those in need,” she says. “Private philanthropy plays an important role.”

It’s hard to gauge how many will act charitably with their checks. Early evidence suggests most are putting the money toward basics like food and bills. An April Gallup Poll found only 3% of U.S. adults plan to donate to charity.

Nonetheless, research has found that U.S. philanthropy persists during dark hours. In the wake of several natural disasters, nearly a third of Americans made a disaster-related donation in 2017 and 2018, according to a study by Dr. Osili and colleagues. Most donate to disasters “over and above their regular patterns of charitable giving,” she notes.

More than 650 funds in the United States have been set up to bolster nonprofits during the pandemic, according to Candid, an organization that tracks global philanthropy. Yet despite an influx in institutional giving, the pandemic poses challenges to nonprofits. Many face increased demand for services amid social-distancing mandates. Others struggle to fundraise – especially since spring is a major fundraising season.

“On the whole, nonprofits are suffering,” says Jen Bokoff, director of stakeholder engagement at Candid.

Torres McGovern says several people have used #PledgeMyStimulus to pledge their checks to Maine Access Immigrant Network (MAIN). The Portland nonprofit led by former refugees has been applying to foundations’ emergency funds during the pandemic as its staff faces growing demand. 

“Our workload has tripled, and not the funding,” says Sarah Lewis, who helps run MAIN. 

The organization’s community health workers help refugees and immigrants navigate U.S. health care, often as interpreters and cultural brokers. 

One bright spot has been the prospect of donations from the #PledgeMyStimulus campaign. “It brought tears to my eyes,” says Ms. Lewis, learning of others’ desire to help. “We’re only as strong as our most vulnerable population. And if we don’t lift everyone, who are we?”

Kurt Wilson/Reuters
Nancy Hausermann, who said she lives on $700 a month and spent her entire $1200 stimulus check on food to give away to those in need, tends to her makeshift free food stand after giving a bag full of groceries to a passerby on Rocky Point Road near Polson, Montana on April 24, 2020.

Good at the core

In Wexford, Pennsylvania, retiree Susan O’Connor keeps busy moderating her Stimulus Check Exchange Facebook group.

“My goal was just to make connections,” says Ms. O’Connor, who has helped 22 individuals like Ms. Guy receive assistance. Ms. O’Connor says she and her husband had originally planned to put their checks toward buying a house – before an epiphany struck.  

“There’s people so much worse off that are struggling right now,” she says. After receiving their checks last week, the pair has bought a washer and dryer for a single mom, and plans to help another family fix their roof. 

Torres McGovern, of #PledgeMyStimulus, says her check could easily go toward household repairs, or the combined $130,000 student loan debt she shares with her spouse. But the couple is putting half their checks toward causes that include support for immigrants, low-wage workers, public radio, and domestic violence prevention, as well as a faith community where she works part-time. The other half will benefit local businesses.

“I believe that people at their core are basically good, and that given an opportunity to be generous, most people will choose to be generous in whatever way they can,” she says. “Maybe that’s through money, maybe that’s through bringing a casserole to the folks across the street who they know are struggling.”

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

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The power of honesty about COVID-19

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Last December, when COVID-19 was first detected in China, one of the first casualties was the truth about its existence. Hundreds of Chinese who raised alarms were suppressed. Even six months later, China still attacks those calling for an investigation of the virus’s origin or how officials initially dealt with it – despite such information being essential to preventing a similar pandemic.

The first hurdle in persuading China’s ruling Communist Party to allow such a probe is to show that it is living a lie. While a few countries are now asking for an investigation of COVID-19’s beginnings, the most powerful voices for accountability may be those Chinese simply insisting on the freedom to tell the truth.

“The best way to fight for freedom of expression is for everyone to speak as if we already have freedom of speech,” legal scholar Zhang Xuezhong wrote in a letter this week that led officials to detain him.

In China, the truth may yet come out about COVID-19, even if bit by bit, as more individuals see themselves as already free to speak out.

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The power of honesty about COVID-19

Last December, when COVID-19 was first detected in China, one of the first casualties was the truth about its existence. Hundreds of Chinese who raised alarms were suppressed. Even six months later, China still attacks those calling for an independent investigation of the virus’s origin or how officials initially dealt with it – despite such information being essential to preventing a similar pandemic.

The first hurdle in persuading China’s ruling Communist Party to allow such a probe is to show that it is living a lie. To stay in power, authoritarian regimes often hide behind falsehoods and rely on fear to stifle the truth.

While a few countries such as Australia are now asking for an investigation of COVID-19’s beginnings, the most powerful voices for accountability may be those Chinese simply insisting on the freedom to tell the truth.

One of them is writer Fang Fang who wrote an insightful journal about life in the city of Wuhan during the outbreak. Another is prominent businessman Ren Zhiqiang who wrote an essay critical of how Chinese leader Xi Jinping responded to the coronavirus. In February, 10 Wuhan professors signed an open letter demanding the right to free speech for those now criticizing the government.

Last Saturday, legal scholar Zhang Xuezhong joined this chorus with a letter on the popular social app WeChat. He suggested that China’s suppression of constitutional rights contributed to the pandemic. He asked the country’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, to create a representative committee that would write a new constitution according to “modern political principles.”

For writing the letter, Mr. Zhang was detained for 24 hours by officials. Like other grassroots intellectuals in China, he has learned to counter official lies by “living in the truth,” as the late Czech dissident Václav Havel put it.

“The best way to fight for freedom of expression is for everyone to speak as if we already have freedom of speech,” Mr. Zhang wrote in the letter.

Many dissidents in China do not wish to topple the regime. They seek to rebuild society from the bottom up by the fearless practice of independent thinking in daily life. They see power as residing in conscience and honest dignity, not the Communist Party.

“One word of truth outweighs the whole world,” wrote Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident. In China, the truth may yet come out about COVID-19, even if bit by bit, as more individuals see themselves as already free to speak out. Being self-governed by truth is the best path to creating a truthful government.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

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

A time for unselfishness and love

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While normal community interactions are on hold right now, we don’t need to feel aloof and unfulfilled. We can let God’s love inspire in us a spirit of unselfishness, a love for humanity, and joy.

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1. A time for unselfishness and love

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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This is a challenging time for people throughout the world. Many of the activities that have formed the fabric of our lives have abruptly halted. How do we respond to all these simultaneous changes? It can seem all too easy to feel deprived, angry, frustrated, or depressed.

But there is an alternative. We can strive to express unselfishness and love. I’ve found it helpful to consider that even though it can seem hard to see this amid the chaos, God, who is divine Love, is here. This infinite Love is the antidote to fear, frustration, and anger.

Although it involved a very different situation, the sudden shift in how we’re all living our lives right now has reminded me of a time when my own personal situation involved a great shift in the way I was living – and taught me a lot about selflessness. I had been a teacher, and after our daughter was born, my life as I had known it screeched to a halt. Instead of managing a classroom, I was dealing with piles of laundry and a crying baby. I loved my daughter dearly but became depressed with the makeup of my new life.

With the help of a Christian Science practitioner, I began to learn that I had a choice. If I were willing to let go of self-pity and instead see things from God’s perspective, it would free me to be more joyful and feel more at peace. God wants only good for each of His children. In fact, Christian Science explains that we are actually the very expression of God’s goodness and love. That’s our true, spiritual identity.

As I turned to God in prayer to better understand ideas such as these, I began to realize that God-given joy and purpose can never be taken from us. This isn’t about ignoring unhappy feelings or just asking God to help us feel better about our lives. It’s about glimpsing the spiritual reality that as God’s children, reflecting unlimited divine goodness, we can actually never be cut off from good.

This kind of profound change in the way we think about ourselves and our circumstances can have an equally profound effect. In this case, my life turned around. I became happier and eventually entered graduate school, which opened amazing vistas for me and my family.

When we’re feeling jostled by events out of our control, we can pray to feel God’s loving presence, which dissipates fear, anxiety, frustration, and sadness. God is always with us and everyone, sustaining and guiding each of us. We can trust God to lead us step by step through challenges of all kinds. It might seem reasonable to negatively and complainingly react to a difficult situation, but when we turn to God for inspiration instead, we find blessings and progress in unexpected ways.

Recently I’ve been reminded of something Mary Baker Eddy, a devout follower of Christ Jesus and the discoverer of Christian Science, wrote. At several points in her life, she either chose or was thrust into isolation. She describes one such period as a quiet, inspired time of deep prayer and spiritual exploration – “sweet, calm, and buoyant with hope, not selfish nor depressing” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 109).

We may be alone at this time, but we don’t have to be lonely or self-pitying because God, infinite Love itself, is always with us. We can let this unity with God nurture in us a love for humanity, a spirit of unselfishness and joy. Although we can’t have normal physical connections at the moment, we can connect with the world in spiritual, God-inspired love. And as we do, we will feel more of the peace and joy of our closeness to God.

As the Christian Science practitioner lovingly helped me see, we do have a choice to make. We can let an inward-facing mindset take over our thinking, or we can choose to turn our thought outward in a mental embrace of our fellow men and women. This can be a time of great spiritual growth, inspiration, and selflessness. Mary Baker Eddy writes, “The very circumstance, which your suffering sense deems wrathful and afflictive, Love can make an angel entertained unawares” (Science and Health, p. 574). Let’s choose wisely!

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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The peanut gallery

Thilo Schmuelgen/Reuters
Life-size cardboard figures with the photos of football fans are positioned on the stands of the Borussia Moenchengladbach soccer stadium for the next game, which will be played without spectators, amid the coronavirus outbreak in Moenchengladbach, Germany, May 13, 2020.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

That’s your daily for Wednesday. Thanks for joining us! See you again tomorrow for a lineup including a look at how people in their 90s have been gaining stature as voices of authority and positivity.

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