2020
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15
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Monitor Daily Podcast

May 15, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

Obituaries, writing, and the art of remembrance

Today we look at those experiencing food insecurity for the first time, the Afghan maternity ward massacre, an Irish outpouring for the Navajo, virtual Sunday school, and engaging online with museums and theaters. First, some thoughts on remembrance. 

I have long been a reader of obituaries, which I see as celebrations of life, albeit with some sadness. There have been far too many lately, but along the way, I’ve “met” some amazing people. I’ve also gotten to thinking about those tasked with suddenly having to portray the meaning of a life at a very difficult moment. 

Yesterday’s Washington Post featured an article about a famous Chinese American writer I had never heard of, who recently died. The headline hinted at the remarkable story to follow: “Battered by upheaval, novelist Yu Lihua told raw stories from a speckled blue desk.” 

We learn of a childhood wound, university rejections, and how tough she was on her children, including Post reporter Lena Sun, who, it so happens, is covering the pandemic. But Ms. Yu persisted, and led a full life – teaching, writing, raising a family. 

She published more than two dozen books, read mostly by Chinese speakers, in writing that spanned 75 years. But it’s the details that make the story pop: the Shake ’n Bake chicken dinners, her “mah-jongg mafia,” that time she smeared peanut butter across the TV screen. 

Kudos to the writer, normally a transportation reporter, who got input from Ms. Yu’s children and grandchildren to paint an endearing portrait. Many papers are pulling reporters from other beats into writing about those struck down by COVID-19. It’s a sad sign of the times, but the art of remembrance is still a craft worth celebrating. 

My writer friend Laura Akgulian recalls the time she was asked to write up the life of a friend who died suddenly. 

“I had to get VERY quiet to sift through a lifetime of remembrances to try, in a few short sentences, to encapsulate her essence,” Ms. Akgulian writes in an email. “Each of us, jewel-like, contains so many facets ... and yes, it felt like a singular honor to be entrusted with another’s life story.”

From pandemic to famine: Can world meet food crisis fast enough?

Growing hunger in wealthy nations doesn’t compare to the famine expected in the developing world, the United Nations’ top food official warns. Wealthier nations are chipping in to help – but a strategic coming together on a global level will be crucial.

Linda
Courtesy of Kaynat Salmani
Gulshan Khatoon (left) and Mohammed Amanat with their son and daughter at their home in Delhi where the family remains under India’s strict lockdown.

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Around the world, millions of fathers and mothers are encountering food insecurity for the first time. Strict lockdowns have eliminated informal and menial jobs, leaving tens of millions with no income.

At the same time, with transport disrupted, farmers can’t distribute their produce.

The prospect of widespread food shortages has prompted the World Food Program to warn that the added punch of the pandemic will mean unprecedented starvation unless the world takes prompt and coordinated action.

“This is not a Chicken-Little-the-sky-is-falling situation,” says David Beasley, executive director. “If we don’t act now, we are going to have famine of biblical proportions.”

In India under lockdown, Mohammed Amanat has not worked since March. For the first time he’s had to accept a handout – rations of lentils, flour, oil, and spices provided by a U.S. charity in Delhi.

“I never had to accept rations before, but now we have no other choice,” he says, seated under a corrugated metal awning with his pregnant wife and two children. Already three months behind on rent, he says if he can’t work soon his only option would be to return home to Bihar.

“But our families tell us things are even worse there. How could I do that to my family?”

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1. From pandemic to famine: Can world meet food crisis fast enough?

When Mohammed Amanat migrated from the rural Indian state of Bihar to a teeming New Delhi five years ago, it was with the idea of becoming a better provider for the family the young man hoped to have.

In his modest way, Mr. Amanat has accomplished his mission. Now with a daughter and a son, and a third child on the way, Mr. Amanat has always earned enough – first at a tobacco company and more recently as a day laborer in construction – to feed his growing family.

His wife, Gulshan Khatoon, even managed to save enough from her husband’s $4-a-day pay to occasionally buy the children milk, or add chicken or vegetables to the dals and curries she prepared over the open fire in the family’s one-room corrugated-metal shanty.

But now with the pandemic, those days of relative plenty are over.

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

With India’s strict lockdown only now loosening, Mr. Amanat has not worked since March. For the first time ever he’s had to accept a handout – rations of lentils, flour, oil, salt, and spices provided by an American charity working with the Delhi police to organize weekly food distributions.

“I never had to accept rations before, but now we have no other choice,” he says via videocall, seated under a corrugated metal awning with his family. Already three months behind on rent, he says if he can’t work soon his only option would be to return to Bihar.

“But our families tell us things are even worse there. Food is becoming scarce and they don’t have rations,” he adds. “How could I do that to my family?”

Mr. Amanat is not alone in his predicament. Around the world, millions of fathers and mothers who have always been able to feed their families are encountering food insecurity for the first time. Strict lockdowns like India’s have eliminated informal and menial jobs, leaving tens of millions with no income.

At the same time, with transport disrupted, farmers can’t distribute their produce.

Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
People wait to receive free food at an industrial area, during an extended nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New Delhi April 23, 2020.

The prospect of widespread food shortages and disrupted supply chains has prompted the World Food Program – which was already predicting that 2020 could find more than 135 million people in severe hunger – to warn that the added punch of the pandemic will mean unprecedented famine and starvation unless the world takes prompt and coordinated action.

“This is not a Chicken-Little-the-sky-is-falling situation,” says David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program (WFP), the United Nations’ famine prevention arm and the world’s largest humanitarian agency. “If we don’t act now,” he adds, “we are going to have famine of biblical proportions.”

The tell-it-like-it-is former governor of South Carolina, who has built a can-do reputation with global leaders, says a “perfect storm” of events could leave more than a quarter of a billion people in severe hunger: the refugee-fueled worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, the pandemic, and now a plague of desert locusts destroying 1 million acres of new crops in East Africa.

The United States and other developed countries are also seeing food supply chains disrupted, shortages of some products like meat, and rising hunger. But as worrisome as that is, experts say the food insecurity in developing and poor countries is of a different order.

“I’m not talking about people going to bed hungry,” says Mr. Beasley, addressing a recent Atlantic Council webinar. “You could have 150,000 to 300,000 people dying a day if this thing does not get addressed promptly.” 

Many food supply analysts and humanitarian assistance experts would add a fourth factor to Mr. Beasley’s perfect storm. A nationalist wave has turned many countries inward, prioritizing domestic issues such as the health and economic impacts of the pandemic.

Global leaders, including the United States, are stepping up, Mr. Beasley says, though he maintains they still must do more.

At the same time, the world is benefiting from a new wave of young food-production and supply-chain entrepreneurs, many of whom got their start in climate activism and see the pandemic as an opportunity to reimagine essential activities, from farming to food delivery.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Juanita Jones wears her wedding dress to celebrate her 19th wedding anniversary as she helps run a donated food distribution point from Serve Your City at the mixed-income Townhomes on Capitol Hill community in Washington April 25, 2020.

Mr. Beasley says he has heard the dire warnings of donor fatigue after years of acute crisis, but insists he’s not seeing it. In particular, he rejects the widespread view that the U.S. is retreating from its leadership role.

“We keep hearing that the U.S. has backed off its multilateral commitments,” he says, before pointing to a near doubling in U.S. funding of the WFP over the last three years. “The message that tells is that [the U.S. is] not backing down.”

Under President Barack Obama, he notes, U.S. funding of the WFP reached a new high of $1.9 billion (of about a $6 billion budget). Last year under the Trump administration, the U.S. contribution climbed to $3.4 billion (of a total $8.3 billion raised for food programs).

Still, Mr. Beasley says last year’s budget will be “nowhere near enough” to stave off the dire levels of food insecurity and even starvation he foresees. The food security czar says he is focused on getting major donors like the U.S. and Germany to send their contributions now.

“What I’m saying is ... go ahead and give us now what you’re going to give us ... so we can pre-position food before the worst of the food supply-chain breakdown sets in.”

Another message Mr. Beasley emphasizes to world leaders is that acting now to nip looming famine in the bud will mitigate the instability that accompanies severe hunger – and which reverberates to undermine countries’ national security.

Still, what alarms some food supply experts is that they’re not seeing the international community coming together to address a looming global food crisis the way it has in the past – as in 2007-08, when prices of basic food commodities suddenly spiked.

“In response to the last [food] crisis, you saw a huge and sudden mobilization of effort, and agreement around principles to follow to address food insecurity worldwide, and money put behind those efforts,” says Caitlin Welsh, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ global food security program in Washington. “At this point, we haven’t seen that mobilization.”

Noting moreover that in 2007-08 it was the Group of Seven wealthy countries and the G-20 most-developed countries that led a global effort, she adds, “[We] haven’t seen them yet, which is disappointing.”

Ms. Welsh, who directed the National Security Council’s global economic engagement in the Obama White House, says the multilateral organizations’ focus in the last food crisis was agricultural productivity.

Courtesy of Ndeye Marie Ndieguene
Ndeye Marie Ndieguene works with farmers in the village of Makka Sarr, Senegal.

The pandemic is revealing a new set of priorities, she adds. “The response this crisis calls for is looking at food systems, so not just farm production but … food transportation, labor, food processing, storage, and then marketing,” she says. “The response we’re going to see, I hope, is a different one, and broader than the response to the last crisis.”

Echoes of Ms. Welsh’s thinking can be heard in the ideas of Ndéye Marie Aïda Ndieguene, a young food-systems entrepreneur in Senegal.

Ms. Ndieguene describes a Senegal under lockdown that is not unlike Mr. Amanat’s India.

“So many people work in the informal sectors of the economy that aren’t functioning right now, but at the same time the government has banned movement between regions of the country, so that makes it difficult for farmers to get their produce to market,” says Ms. Ndieguene. “That combination has many people here declaring, ‘We are not going to die of COVID-19, we are going to die from hunger.’”

But Ms. Ndieguene, who has won international awards for her design of a food warehouse that reduces food loss, is springing into action to help address Senegal’s spiking food insecurity.

Starting with the farming contacts she made through her warehouse project, she has developed a digital community marketplace that links farmers and their products with new markets. She is also nurturing a farming community of 150 women and girls who are interested in particular in ways to support Senegalese women.

What Ms. Ndieguene is finding is that the pandemic, while a dire threat to so many, is also prompting new thinking and innovative solutions to a problem like food insecurity.

“Of course the pandemic is not something good – people are sick, people are dying, people are going hungry,” she says. “But it is also providing the occasion for all of us to stop and consider new ways and new solutions, and not just about food security. It’s a general stop for all humanity,” she adds, “to think about the impact of how we are living.”

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

Why maternity hospital attack is pushing Afghans toward ‘tipping point’

An attack this week horrified a country all too accustomed to violence. The question is whether it will galvanize thinking about what it would take to alter such a violent status quo.

Linda

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Women and children have died before in decades of war in Afghanistan. Hospitals, too, have been attacked. But even by that low standard, the attack Tuesday that left at least 24 dead at a Kabul hospital – including mothers, nurses, and two newborns – changed minds. The Taliban denied responsibility for the attack. But many Afghans have turned even more stridently against Taliban and Islamic State militants, jeopardizing an already stalled U.S.-led peace effort. That raises the question of whether the attack may prove to be a tipping point that galvanizes Afghans seeking a way out of war.

Rafiullah Wardak, whose wife was killed in the attack after giving birth to their daughter, says he will never forgive the Taliban, charging that their continued violence “paves the way for other groups.” 

“Unfortunately, what this seems like it might be a tipping point for, is a lot of people rejecting the very idea of trying to give this peace process a chance,” says Andrew Watkins, an International Crisis Group analyst. “What really worries me is not the fact that there are such intense responses to this attack, [but] that there are no new ideas,” he says. “What I’m not hearing is any recommendation for anything that could prevent this from happening again tomorrow.”

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2. Why maternity hospital attack is pushing Afghans toward ‘tipping point’

Rafiullah Wardak and his wife Nazeya chose the Barchi National Maternity Hospital in Kabul for the birth of their third child because it was “safe.” They never suspected it would be the target of a militant attack that would shock even war-hardened Afghans.

Baby Amina was born Tuesday morning, welcomed into the world with the first embrace of her mother. It would also be her last.

Less than an hour later, Nazeya was killed by three bullets as three gunmen stormed the ward. Amina, shot twice in the leg, survived.

Women and children have died before in Afghanistan, in the decades of war that have killed tens of thousands of civilians. Hospitals, too, have suffered dramatic attacks.

But even by Afghanistan’s low standard, the brutal attack Tuesday changed minds. It left at least 24 dead – including mothers, nurses, and two newborns. And it took place amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Many Afghans have turned even more stridently against Taliban and Islamic State militants responsible for so much bloodshed in the country, jeopardizing an already stalled U.S.-led peace effort. And that raises the question of whether the attack against such innocents might prove to be a tipping point that galvanizes Afghans seeking a way out of war. And, if such a horrifying assault is not a tipping point, what it would take to alter such a violent status quo, including a surge of lethal Taliban attacks.

“We have spent our whole lives in war and violence, and expected to make our children’s lives better, but the Taliban will never let us achieve our dreams,” says Mr. Wardak, an Afghan policeman for eight years. After burying his wife Wednesday, he waited anxiously Friday as little Amina underwent another round of surgery.

The conservative Islamist Taliban denied any role in the Kabul attack, or in a suicide bombing that day of a funeral in eastern province of Nangarhar, which killed at least 32 people. U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted the American assessment that the Islamic State conducted both attacks, and urged Afghanistan not to fall “into the ISIS trap and delay peace or create obstacles.”

A stymied peace deal

The withdrawal agreement the Taliban signed with the U.S. in Doha, Qatar on Feb. 29 was meant to lead to intra-Afghan talks beginning March 10. But that deal, which excluded the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, has been stymied by a dispute over prisoner releases and a resurgence of Taliban attacks against Afghan security units – even if the jihadists have steered away from targeting U.S. and NATO forces. Since the accord, under which American officials say the Taliban agreed to an 80% reduction of violence, the jihadists have instead conducted some 55 attacks per day, Afghan officials say.

Courtesy of the Rafiullah Wardak family
Afghan father Rafiullah Wardak looks upon his newborn daughter Amina, recovering after being wounded by gunmen who stormed a maternity award in Kabul on Tuesday. Mr. Wardak's wife, Nazeya, was among at least 24 people killed in the attack, including women, nurses, and newborns.

“Unfortunately, what this seems like it might be a tipping point for, is a lot of people rejecting the very idea of trying to give this peace process a chance,” says Andrew Watkins, senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank.

“What really worries me is not the fact that there are such intense responses to this attack, [but] that there are no new ideas,” says Mr. Watkins. “What I’m not hearing is any recommendation for anything that could prevent this from happening again tomorrow. ... What is it that we might be tipping back into?”

“I don’t think it’s a final blow to the inching forward that the peace process has undergone,” he adds. “But then we come to this question of the national mood, and for so many people this just seems to be it, this seems to be a line crossed.”

Indeed, it doesn't matter that the hospital attack, striking civilians in the Shiite-majority district of Dasht-e Barchi in western Kabul, bore the signs of an Islamic State operation. It is the Taliban’s continued violence that “paves the way for other groups,” says Mr. Wardak, Amina's father.

“I will never forget this crime. I will never forgive the Taliban,” he says, distraught. “The Taliban will never accept peace.” And he is not alone.

An angry and exhausted Afghan eyewitness to the attack was visiting the family of another newborn when the shooting began. “Peace with the Taliban is like writing on a piece of ice, and putting it in the sun,” he said, citing a well-known Afghan saying.

Official reaction was swift.

“The Taliban have not reduced violence, and instead they have increased their attacks,” President Ghani said. “In order to provide security for public places and to thwart attacks. … I am ordering Afghan security forces from an active defense mode to an offensive one, to start their operation against the enemies.”

Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, weighed in as well. “The attacks of the last two months show us and the world that Taliban and their sponsors do not and did not intend to pursue peace,” he tweeted.

If the Taliban can’t control violence, he added, there “seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in ‘peace talks.’”

Anti-Taliban sentiment deepens

Indeed, though technical discussions continue behind closed doors on provisions of the U.S.-Taliban accord – prisoner releases, efforts to reduce violence, and the start of Taliban-government talks – popular sentiment against the militants has been forged anew by the scale of killing.

Even without a fresh declaration of war, the violence feels like business as usual in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have made battlefield gains for years and now control or contest more than half the country.

“If you look around Afghanistan today and the last few weeks, it looks like a normal spring offensive to me,” Kate Clark, the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, told Al Jazeera English.

“To be honest, I don’t see any intention from the Taliban of sitting down and talking. Their actions belie that,” Ms. Clark said. “Now you can talk and fight, we’ve seen that in other conflicts. But you have to at least have the intention that a political negotiation is your aim. ... And up to now, I don’t think we’ve seen that from the Taliban side.”

Still, neither Afghan side wants to be held responsible for completely shutting down the American-initiated process, even as they bicker over the very first step of a prisoner exchange, two-and-a-half months after the deal was signed. To build "confidence," the government was meant to release 5,000 Taliban fighters, and the Taliban to release 1,000 prisoners. But only a fraction have been let go.

But the Ghani government is facing tremendous U.S. pressure.

“As terrible as it is, and as much as I don’t want to minimize or marginalize the mass psychological impact of Tuesday’s attacks, the fact is the Afghan government still has a $1 billion cut to [U.S.] aid dangling over its head, like the Sword of Damocles,” says the Crisis Group’s Mr. Watkins.

“The Taliban still very badly wants to reap the fruits of international legitimacy and what seems like the certification of their victory that the deal signed in Doha would deliver them,” he says. “So even if we are at a tipping point, there are big, threatening reasons that are coming in the form of U.S. pressure, and even if it is only by a thread, it does seem to keep both actors plugged in by a thread.”

Hidayatullah Noorzai contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.

‘In each other’s shadows’: Behind Irish outpouring of relief for Navajo

“Why is a whole country all of the sudden donating to us?” the Navajo communications team leader wondered, as donations poured in from Ireland to the hard-hit tribe. The answer has its roots in a long-ago deed of kindness.

Linda
Kristin Murphy/The Deseret News/AP
Vehicles line up for COVID-19 testing outside the Monument Valley Health Center in Oljato-Monument Valley, Utah, on April 17, 2020. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita coronavirus infection rates in the United States.

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From the start, the leadership team of Navajo and Hopi women were particularly worried about their elders. The Navajo now have more diagnosed cases per capita than any other state – and the health care situation is so dire that Doctors Without Borders has sent a team to the United States for the first time in history.

Then donations came pouring in, often accompanied by a Irish proverb: Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine, which means, “In each other’s shadows the people live.”

The answer harks back to another tribe’s generosity in 1847. The Choctaw, still reeling from the Trail of Tears, sent money to Irish families starving during the Potato Famine.

“It’s one of those stories that we have about a people who were there for us when we were weak and powerless and alone,” says Maria Farrell, an Irish writer.

Cassandra Begay’s grandmother is among those living without running water and electricity. Her best friend contracted the virus. Unable to see him face to face, she’s been leaving meals and flowers near his front door. 

“It’s been heartbreaking, but it’s also been – it feels good to come from a place of strength and compassion and grace for our people,” Ms. Begay, communications director for the relief team, says through tears.

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3. ‘In each other’s shadows’: Behind Irish outpouring of relief for Navajo

Cassandra Begay felt a quiet sense of awe earlier this month when she and other Navajo and Hopi women watched their COVID-19 fundraiser begin to double, inexplicably, in less than a week.

The women’s relief effort, launched in mid-March, had already been quite successful, she says, raising about $1.3 million to provide food and water for the most vulnerable living in their nations’ remote communities – who have been among those most afflicted by the coronavirus pandemic across the United States.

“Then one of my teammates, she’s like, ‘Hey, guys, we’re all of the sudden receiving a flood of donations from Ireland!’” says Ms. Begay, a Navajo activist who’s been handling the team’s communications. “And so we’re, like, ‘What’s going on? Why us? Why is a whole country all of the sudden donating to us?’”

There were thousands of unfamiliar names appearing on the team’s GoFundMe page – the first names Siobhán, Padraig, and Aoife, or surnames O’Leary, McMullen, and Gallagher – each donating small amounts from across the Atlantic. Many posted a common Irish proverb: Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine, which means, “In each other’s shadows the people live.” 

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

The women soon learned why the donations, now at more than $3.6 million, were pouring in: After hearing about their fundraiser, many people in Ireland recalled a moment from their own history more than 170 years ago. Another tribe of America’s first peoples, the Choctaw, raised $170 (about $5,000 in today’s dollars) and sent it to starving Irish families during the Potato Famine in 1847.

“I’m sure Ireland received all sorts of donations from around the world back then, but that’s the one that has stuck with us,” says Maria Farrell, an Irish writer living in London. “It’s one of those stories that we have about a people who were there for us when we were weak and powerless and alone. They helped us, and now we’re friends forever.”

A different people whose ancestral lands were over 1,200 miles from the Hopi’s and Navajo’s, the Choctaw collected their modest donation just a few years after the infamous Trail of Tears, when the U.S. government forcibly removed them from their ancestral lands across the South, killing thousands.  

“I think the gift touched and stayed with Irish people so much, basically because it wasn’t charity. It was an act of solidarity,” Ms. Farrell says. “The Choctaw people, they were giving it to us because they saw us, they recognized us and our plight as being similar to theirs.”

As the Monitor has reported, the COVID-19 crisis has affected Native peoples across the U.S. in disproportionate numbers. The Navajo Nation in Arizona and New Mexico, with a population of about 330,000, now has more coronavirus cases per capita than any state, according to the Navajo health agency

Given how infectious diseases brought over from Europe, such as the measles and smallpox, wiped out large swaths of native populations, many observers say the outsize effects of COVID-19 today on Native peoples are particularly poignant. 

From the start, the leadership team of Navajo and Hopi women were particularly worried about their elders. The relief effort began informally by the former Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch, who knew her people were particularly at risk.

More than a third of their nation’s members have no running water or electricity, and many rely on unregulated wells and springs, which are often contaminated by more than 500 abandoned uranium mines. The area is also considered a food desert, with only 13 grocery stores serving more than 180,000 people. Even before the lockdown, unemployment hovered around 50%.

But one of the most critical problems on Navajo lands has been the lack of health care infrastructure. The situation has become so dire that the international relief agency Doctors Without Borders, which serves poverty stricken and war-torn areas throughout the world, sent a delegation of health care workers to the United States for the first time. 

“There are many situations in which we do not intervene in the United States, but this has a particular risk profile,” Jean Stowell, head of the organization’s U.S. COVID-19 Response Team, told CBS News. ”You can’t expect people to isolate if they have to drive 100 miles to get food and water.”

Ms. Begay’s grandmother is among those living without running water and electricity. Her best friend contracted the virus, too, she says. Unable to see him face to face, she’s been leaving meals and bouquets of flowers near his front door. 

“It’s been heartbreaking, but it’s also been – it feels good to come from a place of strength and compassion and grace for our people,” Ms. Begay says through tears. “And for me personally – I get emotional about this, because I know this is a dark time for us – but, you know, with the outpouring of support from the Irish people because of what the Choctaw ancestors did 173 years ago – it’s so good to be a part of that history, a positive part of that history.”

Her people have a concept similar to that in the Irish proverb appearing on their fundraising site, she says, a spiritual idea called K’é

“It’s about the importance of honoring the sacredness of our relations to each other,” she says. “It’s the principal belief that where we come from – our family, our community, our nation, as well as our relations with other people, and not only just humans, but of all things – it’s a sacred relationship.” 

The relationship between the Choctaw and the Irish was memorialized in 2015 when a large stainless steel sculpture of eagle feathers was dedicated in the town of Midleton in Ireland, one reason the memory of the 1847 donation was fresh in the memories of many Irish donors. 

“We are gratified, and perhaps not at all surprised, to learn of the assistance our special friends, the Irish, are giving to the Navajo and Hopi nations,” said Chief Gary Batton of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma in a statement last week

“Our word for their selfless act is iyyikowa – it means serving those in need,” said Chief Batton, who traveled with a delegation to Midleton when the sculpture was dedicated. “We have become kindred spirits with the Irish in the years since the Irish Potato Famine. We hope the Irish, Navajo and Hopi peoples develop lasting friendships, as we have. Sharing our cultures makes the world grow smaller.”

The former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and current Prime Minister Leo Varadkar each traveled to Oklahoma to pay a visit to the Choctaws.

The potato famine claimed more than 1 million lives from 1845 to 1852, but 1847 was the most deadly, scholars say, and it is still known as Black ’47. 

“And when you look at it, you know, you can see the suffering of both sets of peoples was a political choice – the Trail of Tears and Black ’47,” says Ms. Farrell in London. “They weren’t accidents – they were a tyrannical acts of colonialism,” noting the British government offered scant aid to the Irish people during the famine. “Their governments caused just unthinkable hardship to both peoples.”

Just reading the comments from donors has filled members of the leadership with a newfound strength. “When it started, we couldn’t believe it. We were just – our hearts were so full,” Ms. Begay says. “And, you know, we were struggling because it’s hard doing this work.”

“But I know that I won’t have any regrets from this part of my life and in this time of history,” she continues. “With the outpouring of support from our Irish friends because of what the Choctaw ancestors did 173 years ago ... it’s something we’ll always remember, and our children will remember, and there will come a day when we will pay it forward, too.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Ms. Farrell's name.

Virtual Sunday school: Where faith endures under lockdown

COVID-19 has caused all kinds of rituals to evolve. Yet many Americans are adapting to new rhythms with open minds. Families of faith have found that home can double as a house of worship.

Linda
Elaine Thompson/AP
Nadia Chaouch reads to her son Yusuf Kamel as they wait to break the Ramadan daily fast with an iftar meal in their home in Seattle, April 28, 2020. During the pandemic, the family is celebrating Ramadan with prayer and reflection at home, rather than in community gatherings and mosques.

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Handling religious education can be a tall task for parents pressed to oversee their children’s remote learning while making a living. Yet some families are experimenting with creative forms of spiritual instruction, whether online or through an increased parent role, because they see faith as an aid for helping their children process the pandemic with some hope and stability. 

Parents play a big role in their children’s spiritual development by role-modeling, says Lisa Pearce, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. How parents are responding to the pandemic may open up opportunities to connect with their kids about their faith, or cause friction if parents are too forceful, she adds. 

After the coronavirus outbreak halted in-person services at Rachel Lambourne’s local chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she and her family moved Sunday worship inside their home in Fremont, California, and let the kids pick the music and give talks.    

“I think the peace that we generally feel when we are together, when we are praying together, that peace is the only thing that can really transcend all of the worry and confusion,” she says.

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4. Virtual Sunday school: Where faith endures under lockdown

For parents who usually bring their children to churches, mosques, or synagogues, the coronavirus pandemic has cast yet another role on their shoulders: spiritual educator-in-residence. 

Handling religious education can be a tall task for parents pressed to oversee their children’s K-12 remote learning while making a living. Yet some families are experimenting with creative forms of spiritual instruction, whether online or through an increased parent role, because they see faith as an aid for helping their children process the pandemic with some hope and stability. 

“Judaism as a religion has been around for a long time, obviously, and has been through a lot. A lot of these rituals and structures, the language itself, the prayers, they’ve been fairly stable and that helps anchor [our son],” says Rob Seesengood of Reading, Pennsylvania. His 10-year-old son now attends Hebrew school online, and meets with classmates virtually to sing prayers before the traditional Friday evening candle lighting to mark the Sabbath. 

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Participation in organized religion is declining in the United States, with drop-offs in regular worship attendance and a fast-growing segment of the population identifying themselves as holding no religious affiliation. However, the global pandemic seems to have sparked some interest in matters of faith. A March poll from Pew Research Center found that more than half of U.S. adults have prayed for an end to the spread of the coronavirus, including 15% of those who seldom or never pray. 

Irwansyah Putra/Antara Foto/Reuters
Children pray as they attend an online service to celebrate Good Friday at their home amid the spread of coronavirus outbreak, in Aceh, Indonesia, April 10, 2020.

About 45% of the U.S. adult population attend religious services at least monthly, according to a 2019 Pew report. Since the coronavirus outbreak, more than half of regular attendees have reported watching religious services online or on TV instead of in person, and 51% of Americans believe in-person religious services should be permitted in some form during the pandemic, according to a recent poll by the University of Chicago Divinity School and AP-NORC.

While there’s little data on kids and religion during the pandemic, a number of religious institutions are experimenting with new formats and are releasing content geared specifically for kids, such as the free online Sunday school curriculum prepared by LifeWay Christian Resources, a publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. 

“I do think, similar to schools, religious institutions are taking this opportunity to advertise what may have been existing online resources, or working to build up more of those. Parents may also be turning to some of those resources,” says Lisa Pearce, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who researches family and religion.

Amanda Rabineau, a mother of four from Vestal, New York, says her local church moved its Sunday school and worship service to the online platform Zoom. Her kids recently listened to their teacher read the story of David and Goliath in the Bible and drew pictures. Afterward, the whole family sat on their couch to watch the pastor preach and to sing songs together.  

As parents decide how much to engage with the virtual tools offered to them by their faith communities, they’re also weighing how to practice their religion in their home and how to discuss some of the deeper questions provoked by the pandemic. 

Akif Aydin, a Muslim father of three from Greenville, South Carolina, says his children are experiencing a heightened fear of death since the coronavirus outbreak. He and his wife are talking with them about what death means in the Islamic tradition and reasons why the pandemic might be occurring.

“[We are] trying to explain at their level of understanding,” using simple language, he says.

Elizabeth Vice, the children’s spiritual formation director at Two Rivers Church, a Charleston, South Carolina, congregation of the United Methodist Church, hosts Facebook Live videos for parents demonstrating activities they can do with their kids, like telling the resurrection story while building with stones or Legos. She’s also shared tips for talking with children about grief or death. 

“We had a lot of modeling of how to have a religious conversation with your child because a lot of our families don’t tend to come from overly churched backgrounds,” she says.  

Parents play a big role in their children’s spiritual development by role-modeling, says Professor Pearce. How parents are responding to the pandemic may open up opportunities to connect with their kids about their faith, or cause friction if parents are too forceful, she says. 

Jason Redmond/Reuters
Members of the McClenahan family (L-R) Helen, daughter Isla, son Cade, and husband Tyler watch Pope Francis' special prayer from the Vatican at home, as efforts continue to help slow the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Seattle, Washington, on March 27, 2020.

“I think a lot of people turn to religion or spiritual practices to cope with anxiety or difficult situations. If there’s more of that happening in the home, then that’s going to open up examples or opportunities to see that or talk about it,” she says. “The negative flip side of that can be, I also see in my research that parents do try to force religion and spirituality on their kids. That’s not really successful when it ends up being contentious and really tense and children might be resistant.” 

Parents across faith backgrounds generally feel confident answering their children’s questions about religion, says Michael Rotolo, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Notre Dame and co-author of the book “Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America.”

“In the event that they didn’t have the answer to their children’s question, [some parents said] they would be open to figuring it out together with their child,” Mr. Rotolo says. “There were actually quite a few parents who felt the internet would be a good enough resource to help answer those questions.” 

After the coronavirus outbreak halted in-person services at Rachel Lambourne’s local chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she and her family moved Sunday worship inside their home in Fremont, California, and let the kids pick the music and give talks. 

While the family worries about those they know who are affected by the coronavirus, Ms. Lambourne appreciates the easing of their rushed lifestyle and the extra time spent praying, singing, and talking together as a family about their faith.  

“I think the peace that we generally feel when we are together, when we are praying together, that peace is the only thing that can really transcend all of the worry and confusion,” she says. 

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

Tired of Netflix? Museums and theaters bring the arts home.

How can arts organizations, known for in-person experiences, engage audiences entirely online? As groups figure out next steps amid pandemic closures, some are finding creative ways to embrace fans and newcomers alike.

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When in-person entertainment shut down due to the pandemic, the art world moved quickly to offer online concerts, streaming plays, and virtual galleries. Even as prolonged closures create a revenue crisis for organizations, some observers say that investing in digital strategies now could actually lead to improved accessibility and expanded audiences.   

For many outlets, it’s a time to experiment. The Minneapolis Institute of Art, also known as Mia, moved its digital offerings to a special landing page on its website. It has seen a surge in podcast listeners and social media engagement, especially on Instagram, since closing in mid-March. Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts, moved its long-running series of movie seminars online, where dozens more aficionados are now participating. And in Houston, the Alley Theatre shared a video of a play, “1984,” with ticket holders for the first time.

“The terrific thing about digital is that it can be iterative,” says Douglas Hegley, Mia’s chief digital officer. “You can keep ... trying out new kinds of content, new kinds of experiences, seeing how the audience responds and then pivoting as necessary. To me, that’s really exciting.”

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5. Tired of Netflix? Museums and theaters bring the arts home.

Instead of attending her typical Saturday morning drawing class, Nora Paul is sitting in her apartment, stabbing tiny pieces of wool into something resembling Vincent van Gogh’s “Olive Trees.”

“It’s oddly satisfying,” she says.

The inspiration for this needle-felting project came from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which features the 1889 painting prominently in its digital gallery. Since the museum, known as “Mia,” closed its doors to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, it has encouraged patrons to find its art online. Ms. Paul, a retired college professor and longtime Mia fan, complied.

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

People around the world have been searching for enriching and entertaining experiences they can access from home. The arts world delivered, with online concerts, streaming plays, and virtual galleries. And even as prolonged shutdowns create a revenue crisis for theaters and playhouses, some observers say that investing in digital strategies now could actually make these institutions stronger.

Jonathan T.D. Neil, director of the Center for Business & Management of the Arts at Claremont Graduate University in California, refers to this trend as “arts media.” He says that when organizations such as museums, symphonies, and theaters use digital tools to record and distribute content online, they begin to act like media companies. During this time when arts groups must forgo the live experience, developing a strong digital presence can help arts institutions punch above their weight, improve accessibility, and expand their audience – even in a global pandemic. 

“It’s a great way of maintaining relationships with their community,” says Mr. Neil. “It maintains the audience’s interest so that as soon as this thing passes, which it will, they will of course come streaming back, perhaps with new interest and new engagement.”

Along with museums, live music and theater venues have also been answering the call for online entertainment. Streaming services such as BroadwayHD have brought several seasons of all-star plays and musicals to home audiences, and The Metropolitan Opera has 14 years of its “Live in HD” series, archived, to lean on during this pandemic. Still, the nationwide shutdown has left some artists and organizations scrambling. 

That’s not the case for Mia. 

Emma Freeman/Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art
Visitors pause by a painting of the Rialto Bridge in Venice by Italian artist Michele Giovanni Marieschi at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2017. Mia is currently closed due to the coronavirus shutdowns, but patrons can explore galleries online.

“We’ve been thinking about this for a while,” says Douglas Hegley, the museum’s chief digital officer. When Mia closed its doors on March 13, curators knew they had years’ worth of online content they could promote during the shutdown.

All their digital offerings, from “The Object” podcast to virtual-gallery scavenger hunts, were moved to a fresh landing page where anyone with an internet connection could explore. Since the closure, the museum has seen a surge in podcast listeners and social media engagement, especially on Instagram.

From her Minneapolis apartment, Ms. Paul has been browsing the museum’s website and creating art based on her discoveries. While she misses the traveling exhibits and annual flower show (and her drawing class), she has tried approaching the homepage with an open mind, letting trails of hyperlinks lead her to unexpected masterpieces. “I’ve always been a fan of serendipity,” she says. “That’s what’s always so satisfying about being in a physical space – you never know, turning the corner, what new riches are going to be in that room.”

No longer an afterthought

Other art museums have also been investing in their digital strategy. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has won a Webby Award for its Snapchat presence, and the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, has a mobile app with augmented reality and themed tours. Google Arts & Culture Lab partners with museums around the world to capture artworks using its high-resolution art camera, creating a massive database of virtually accessible art. 

When Mr. Hegley started working at Mia in 2011, he says museums were far less visible online. “The digital folks would sort of be thought of as an afterthought, not central to the museum’s mission. That’s changed,” he says. “They understand that sharing digital content actually encourages visits. It piques curiosity. It makes people want to see the real thing.”

The show must go online

Like many nonprofit art-house cinemas across the United States, Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts, aims to build community through film culture. To continue that mission in lockdown, it has been forced to innovate.

Within days of dimming its projectors on March 13, the theater transformed its website into a streaming hub for first-run independent films and launched several community-engagement initiatives. Staff members are making videos recounting formative filmgoing experiences and offering personalized movie suggestions based on patrons’ tastes. The theater’s long-running series of movie seminars, which were always capped at 45 attendees, have also moved online. 

Ann Hermes/Staff/File
Movie projectionist Nick Lazzaro makes adjustments to the focus and alignment at a midnight screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in 2012, in Brookline, Massachusetts. Temporarily closed, the theater has found its online film seminars are proving popular.

“The first thing we offered was ‘Rear Window,’ since we thought people would relate to that,” says Katherine Tallman, the theater’s executive director and CEO, referring to the Alfred Hitchcock film. “We had well over 200 people. ... That first seminar, we actually had somebody call in from Peru!” 

Ms. Tallman hopes to reopen the cinema when it becomes safe to do so because it still makes more money from physical screenings than online streaming. But its new, community-oriented online component is here to stay. 

Still, other organizations face significant barriers when it comes to embracing “arts media.” 

In Houston, the Alley Theatre’s production of “1984,” based on the George Orwell novel, had a promising preview run. When the mayor banned large gatherings just days after opening night in March, Artistic Director Bob Melrose knew the theater had to act quickly to salvage the work of the cast and crew. Staff jumped into negotiations with multiple unions, earning a concession to rules prohibiting the recording of live performances. Mr. Melrose would be allowed to film a run-through of “1984” and distribute the link to ticket holders. 

The Alley, he says, had never done anything like this, and he hopes the precedent will help ease burdens that theaters face year-round.

Strict rules against filming performances were designed to protect actors from nonconsensual broadcasts of their work. But they also leave American theaters at a disadvantage in international festival circuits, where foreign companies have high-quality recordings of their best shows. Successful exceptions in the coming months might help pave the way for greater flexibility, says Mr. Melrose. 

“Once all these theaters get through this dark time, [they] are going to need help,” he says. “Maybe unions will say, well, if this is something that will help you guys get back on your feet, maybe this is a good new tool.”

Mr. Neil and Mr. Hegley agree that if arts institutions can use the coming months to experiment with digital content and hone their production skills, it could help them bounce back after the dramatic loss of revenue.

“The terrific thing about digital is that it can be iterative,” says Mr. Hegley. “You can keep ... trying out new kinds of content, new kinds of experiences, seeing how the audience responds and then pivoting as necessary. To me, that’s really exciting.”

Staff writer Stephen Humphries contributed to this report.

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

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The world’s two-wheeled future

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Retailers are reporting that bicycles are rolling out their doors at an unprecedented clip. As weather in the Northern Hemisphere warms, and lockdowns of various types wear on, people are looking to get outside and exercise. And with motor vehicle traffic way down, more people with bikes are willing to take to roads usually dominated by cars and trucks.

The boost in bike riding could be one change that will endure beyond the coronavirus. Cities are planning more accommodations for cyclists, especially if commuters hesitate to squeeze back onto buses and trains. London is expecting a tenfold increase in bike traffic. Rome is planning more than 90 miles of new bike lanes, while Paris is creating about 400 miles. What’s more, France is offering every citizen $55 toward bike repairs.

As Janette Sadik-Kahn, former transportation commissioner of New York City, put it to the BBC: “The pandemic challenges us, but it also offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to change course and repair the damage from a century of car-focused streets.” 

It may be time to dust off that old bike, pump up the tires, and join the mass of pedal-pushers.

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The world’s two-wheeled future

You’ve heard of shortages of meat, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer? Add bicycles to the list. Retailers are reporting that bikes are rolling out their doors at an unprecedented clip.

“Every $400 bike in the universe has been sold,” a manager at Landry’s Bicycles in Boston says. The co-owner of McCully Bicycle and Sporting Goods in Honolulu, Hawaii, seems to agree. “We have never sold this many bikes so fast.”

Part of the shortage is because of trade difficulties between the United States and China, a major producer of bicycles. But the pandemic is a factor too. As weather in the Northern Hemisphere warms, and lockdowns of various types wear on, people are looking to get outside and to exercise. And with motor vehicle traffic way down, more people with bikes are willing to take to roads usually dominated by cars and trucks.

The boost in bike riding could be one change that will endure beyond the coronavirus. Cities are planning more accommodations for cyclists, especially if commuters hesitate to squeeze back onto buses and trains. As more people give biking a try, many don’t want to turn back, especially with the ease of the new electric bicycles.

London is expecting a tenfold increase in bike traffic. The British government has announced $2.5 billion in spending to encourage cycling and walking, including giving out vouchers to pay for bike repairs.

Rome is planning more than 90 miles of new bike lanes while Paris is creating about 400 miles.  What’s more, France is offering every citizen $55 toward bike repairs.

Budapest is installing bike lanes on major streets. Oakland, California, has closed off 10% of its streets for bike use. And so on.

Some merchants are concerned that less car traffic or fewer parking spaces will reduce business. But one new study from Oregon’s Portland State University shows the opposite: Bike lanes actually bring more customers to city streets, especially to retail shops such as food vendors. Along car-free streets in a half-dozen American cities, both employment and sales have grown.

City dwellers may welcome more bikes and fewer cars after enjoying the cleaner air of the past couple of months. In Europe, air pollution from nitrogen dioxide and particulates has fallen dramatically.

Much still needs to be done to make sure biking is a safe activity. Yet the economic, health, and environmental benefits are even more appealing than before this crisis. As Janette Sadik-Kahn, former transportation commissioner of New York City, put it to the BBC: “The pandemic challenges us, but it also offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to change course and repair the damage from a century of car-focused streets.”

It may be time to dust off that old bike, pump up the tires, and join the mass of pedal-pushers.

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.

Intimidated by illness? Let God’s light lead you.

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Sometimes it can seem as if there’s no option but to let illness run its course. But as a woman found when experiencing symptoms of the flu, protesting the notion of sickness as inevitable and opening our thoughts to divine inspiration and light pave the way for healing.

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1. Intimidated by illness? Let God’s light lead you.

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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I was feeling ill with flu symptoms and could hardly wait to get home so I could lie down. As I headed home I decided to pray, to turn to God. That is something I’ve found helpful and healing when I’m afraid, or I’m not feeling well, or I need guidance.

My prayer didn’t start out very well. I began by telling God I felt so sick that I wasn’t going to be able to come up with anything very inspired. In other words, that my prayer might be pretty lame.

I was surprised when I heard this message in my thought: “Why don’t you stop repeating to yourself how bad you feel?”

That sounded like something I could do, so I stopped telling myself – and God – all about the problem. By the time I got home 15 minutes later, I was completely healed. I didn’t go to bed until nighttime, because I didn’t need to. I was completely free.

This healing reminded me of something Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, says in her main book, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures”: “All disease is the result of education, and disease can carry its ill-effects no farther than mortal mind maps out the way” (p. 176).

“Mortal mind” is another name for the carnal mind, which Paul in the Bible calls “enmity against God” (Romans 8:7). It’s the counterfeit of the one true Mind, God. After I stopped focusing on how bad I felt, I was able to see that the carnal mind had no legitimate power to map out the way of sickness. Instead I could choose to refuse to go along with it, to instead let the divine Mind, which is entirely good, guide my thoughts. In my case it involved not rehashing the problem.

Underlying my refusal to agree with sickness as the inevitable course of things was the conviction that God’s love for me – and for all of us – includes the right to be free, to be healthy. In the book of Genesis in the Bible, it says that God made everyone in His image (see 1:26, 27). As God’s children, or spiritual expression, we reflect the strength and power of the Divine. We are the opposite of vulnerable.

This spiritual reality means we don’t have to mentally go along with sickness, but instead can claim our God-bestowed freedom. This isn’t done through willpower but through leaning on God’s presence and power.

Mrs. Eddy was a devoted follower of Jesus. Jesus never accepted sickness as having validity or power. It didn’t matter what the situation was, whether a man with a withered hand, a man who was paralyzed, or a woman who had a fever. In each instance Jesus protested against mortal mind’s unjust sentences of illness and injury and showed that God’s healing power could be tangibly felt. As a result, the sufferers were healed.

The following passage from Science and Health describes the way Jesus healed: “It is neither Science nor Truth which acts through blind belief, nor is it the human understanding of the divine healing Principle as manifested in Jesus, whose humble prayers were deep and conscientious protests of Truth, – of man’s likeness to God and of man’s unity with Truth and Love” (p. 12).

Even though I am certainly not healing to the degree that Jesus did, I do take his teachings to heart and try to follow him. We all can do this! Jesus promised that if we believe in him we will do the same works he did (see John 14:12). We can expect to experience more healing as we honestly put his teachings into practice.

Our own “deep and conscientious protests of Truth” can take many different forms. Our prayers don’t have to be elaborate. But being willing to let the divine Mind inspire us, to replace dark thoughts of sickness with the light of Truth, can make a healing difference. Our prayerful protests on the side of God, good, defeat the darkness.

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 global pandemic. There is no paywall for any of this coverage.

Viewfinder

Catching the wind for 1,000 years

CHANGIZ M. VARZI
For centuries, the ancient windmills of Nashtifan, Iran, were the main source of income for the farmers and millers living in the small town, which lies close to the border with Afghanistan. Today, though, the blades of these windmills – which are believed to be some of the oldest in the world – no longer whirl. The windmills that survive in Nashtifan are about 1,000 years old. But their vertical design, known locally as asbad, was first used more than 1,500 years ago. Residents were no strangers to taming renewable energies: The “120-day wind” of Iran’s Sistan Basin, which blows in from the snow-covered heights of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush range at speeds of up to 70 mph, was once the only way to move Nashtifan’s millstones. Eventually, as industrial mills took over and drought destroyed the agriculture infrastructure of eastern Iran, Nashtifan’s historical windmills were mostly forgotten. But recently, as part of an effort to alleviate the widespread poverty in the region, a group of citizens has been working to restore the mills. They hope to introduce the complex as a candidate for the UNESCO World Heritage List. By CHANGIZ M. VARZI
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Thanks for joining us. Please come back Monday, when we look at the COVID squeeze on state and city budgets and its larger implications.

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