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Monitor Daily Podcast

May 21, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

A pandemic prescription: humility

“Even the very wise cannot see all ends,” Gandalf told Frodo in “The Fellowship of the Ring.”

At this moment, the tendency to predict the future can be overwhelming. News is dominated by questions of when the pandemic will end, what course it will take, and what it will change. We hear the world will never be the same again – from energy use to office spaces to education.

Undoubtedly there will be change, but in his article, “I Predict Your Predictions Are Wrong,” the Atlantic’s Yascha Mounk notes how resilient humanity is. Change is a powerful force, but so is continuity. And when it comes to predicting the path of the coronavirus, The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof notes that “nonexperts are supremely confident in their predictions, while epidemiologists keep telling me that they don’t really know much at all.”

The point is not to alarm. But as Mr. Kristof says, it is to start with humility. Each moment presents an opportunity to put aside fears and be guided by reason, wisdom, and humanity. That brings its own kind of certainty. “Humanity will survive this pandemic,” writes Mr. Mounk. “In its aftermath, as after so many other disasters, we will learn to thrive anew.”

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As all 50 states reopen, leaders weigh tough questions

As all 50 states begin reopening this week, leaders are weighing tough questions that go to the core of the different values Americans hold dear.

Mark
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
A woman carries away fresh food at a Los Angeles Regional Food Bank giveaway of 2,000 boxes of groceries April 9, 2020. Food banks in Los Angeles County report an 80% increase in demand as unemployment has soared.

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In California and across the country, pressure is on to reopen, expressed in lawsuits and protests. Over it all looms an election in November. No fewer than a dozen suits have been filed against California and Gov. Gavin Newsom by gun shops, churches, businesses, and even a bride to be.

This week, COVID-19 deaths topped 93,000 in the United States, far more than the 58,000-plus Americans who died in the Vietnam War. Marginalized and vulnerable populations are bearing the brunt.

At the same time, isolation and joblessness have their own costs – among them, mental health, children’s welfare, and financial ruin. Unemployment stands at 14.7%, the highest rate since the Great Depression. The pandemic could lead to 75,000 additional “deaths of despair,” according to Well Being Trust.

Wellness experts regret that public health and the economy are being pitted against each other. The two are inextricably connected and support each other, they say. “The question should be: How do we prevent the most number of people from dying from anything, period,” says Benjamin Miller, chief strategy officer of Well Being Trust.

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1. As all 50 states reopen, leaders weigh tough questions

Michael Flood feels for America’s government leaders. They have difficult choices to make in deciding how quickly to reopen economies. As president of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, he’s seeing both sides of human hurt in the coronavirus pandemic.

On one hand, a lockdown to prevent spread of the virus has caused great economic and mental stress, illustrated in the skyrocketing demand for food pantries in Los Angeles County, the most populous county in the nation. The food bank’s distribution has surged 80% since the beginning of March – nearly twice the increase during the Great Recession. Several times a week, upward of a thousand cars line up at parking lots for drive-through groceries.

At the same time, two people who worked at the food bank’s partners have died from the virus. Los Angeles County is the epicenter for the outbreak in California, with about 2,000 deaths so far. The disease “feels like a personal threat to all of us,” explains Mr. Flood.

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

“We’re seeing on both ends, people who have died from COVID and this huge impact. I really struggle with this. It’s so hard to figure out.”

It is no wonder that Mr. Flood is wrestling with trade-offs in the reopening. Much of the country is entering a “gray space,” as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti puts it. That space lies between flinging open the doors and cautionary measures to prevent a virus resurgence. It includes ethical dimensions as governors and local officials make life-altering choices, while those unhappy with the decisions push back in the courts and on the street. Americans need to have a national conversation about these choices and their consequences, say social scientists. But it’s a tough subject.

Hans Gutknecht/The Orange County Register/AP
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, shown at a press conference in Reseda, Calif., May 19, 2020, says the country is entering a “gray space” when it comes to decisionmaking around the coronavirus outbreak.

As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently put it, “How much is a human life worth? That is the real discussion that no one is admitting, openly or freely.”

The national narrative on choices surrounding the pandemic is evolving, says Anita Chandra, director of the Rand Corp.’s research on social and economic well-being. It started with “we’re all in this together” and “sheltering in place” to save lives and not overwhelm hospitals. Now, with the curve flattening in states like California, Washington, and New York, some people are saying that their personal liberty and other aspects of their well-being are more important.

The bottom-line question

But the conversation needs to advance further, and be more directly addressed, says Dr. Chandra. She puts it plainly, “How much do you weigh different parts of our total well-being against each other?” It’s an “uncomfortable” question, she says, but necessary, because it forces moral questions about American values and prepares the country to deal with a possible resurgence of the virus – and learn from it.

For instance, what choices will government leaders make if the nation muddles through a summer of retail and restaurants at half capacity and sees an uptick in the economy – and then faces a spike of infections? Many people will want to keep the economic vitality going, while others will worry about contracting the virus.

“There’s a lot of fear. Even as we reopen, a lot of people say to me, ‘Don’t reopen. I don’t want to work. It’s not safe,’” says Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Weighing the costs

This week, COVID-19 deaths topped 93,000 in the United States, far more than the 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War. Marginalized and vulnerable populations are bearing the brunt.

At the same time, isolation and joblessness have their own costs – among them, mental health, children’s welfare, and financial ruin. Unemployment stands at 14.7%, the highest rate since the Great Depression. The pandemic could lead to 75,000 additional “deaths of despair” resulting from drug or alcohol abuse and suicide, according to the Well Being Trust, a national wellness foundation.

In trying to prevent COVID deaths, the medical profession is doing exactly what you would expect them to – save lives, says Dr. Chandra. But that needs to be “balanced against all these other aspects of well-being.”

Governments do have a mathematical way to figure a cost-benefit analysis for policies as they relate to risk of a lost life. It’s called the value of a statistical life, or VSL, and it’s based on how much individuals themselves are willing to pay to reduce the risk of death. Right now, VSLs range between $9 million and $11 million per life and are used to determine, for instance, the cost of environmental regulations or road improvements.

But some say that’s too blunt of an instrument to use – or at least use by itself – because it’s rooted in narrow trade-offs that don’t fit a broad condition like a pandemic. Questions about American values also have to be considered, says Dr. Chandra: “What are the ethics around liberty and freedom of movement? What are the ethics around whose life is worth more? And what are the ethics around protecting the most vulnerable?”

Not a dichotomy

Wellness experts regret that public health and the economy are being pitted against each other. The two are actually inextricably connected and support each other, they say. “The question should be: How do we prevent the most number of people from dying from anything, period,” says Benjamin Miller, chief strategy officer of Well Being Trust.

Gregory Bull/AP
Workers at Pigment prepare floral arrangements for curbside service May 19, 2020, in San Diego. With encouraging results in their fight against the coronavirus, San Diego County supervisors voted Tuesday to ask the state to be a test case for whether more rapid reopening can safely occur.

“I think the way the choice is being presented is between saving grandma and saving the economy, and the way we look at it is if we’re not careful, we’re going to kill grandma and kill the economy,” says Alex Tabarrok, director of the Center for Study of Public Choice at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. “These two things are not in opposition to one another.”

He co-authored an Op-Ed in The Washington Post arguing that quick, congressional funding of sufficient testing, contact tracing, and quarantining would provide the confidence and safety needed to open up businesses and bring people back to work. This should be combined with “zones” that open at different paces, recognizing that the virus has not hit all regions equally.

Others see more federal spending as the way to protect against harm from disease and a decimated economy, pointing to Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell’s remarks that Congress may need to do more in the way of fiscal support. The House passed a $3 trillion stimulus bill that would aid state and local governments that faces an uncertain future in the Senate. On the other hand, President Donald Trump is pushing for a speedy reopening, as is his treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin.

Can ingenuity provide a bridge?

And then there are those who point to American creativity as a bridge to carry the country forward. A case in point: Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, which provides free mental health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention help.

The group completely reoriented its work from on-site only to allow people to work remotely. In a herculean effort, it outfitted its 80 staff and 215 volunteers with laptops and headsets, trained them, and changed the setup for callers to the crisis line.

The inflow of calls related to COVID-19 has been huge, and for the first time, caller and counselor have been experiencing many of the same things. The nonprofit had to contend with virus exposure, quarantining staff. Some staff have lost family members, says Carolyn Levitan, the crisis line director.

On the other hand, the forced reorientation has opened a whole new way of operating, says Ms. Levitan. “It’s a huge eye-opener. I’m really excited about it,” she says. It turns out not everyone wants to endure Los Angeles traffic to volunteer in person, and people have other reasons for wanting to work from home.

No matter what state and county officials decide about the pace of reopening, though, her group will take a “thoughtful” approach. “It’s going to be a very slow return for us,” in part because of people’s fears about safety, though the center has put social distancing and extra hygiene measures in place.

County leaders are now hoping to open up more fully by July 4, but they still want to keep a lid on hospitalizations.

“We do acknowledge there are trade-offs,” says Paul Simon, chief science officer for LA County’s Department of Public Health. Early on, everyone was focused on locking down the disease, but now health officials are looking closely at other indicators such as suicides (a lagging indicator that has actually decreased slightly).

“We’re in a tough situation with this pandemic and hard choices are going to have to be made, but I think they can be made in a thoughtful way.”

Forcing their hand

In California and across the country, pressure is on to reopen, expressed in lawsuits and protests. Over it all looms an election in November. No fewer than a dozen suits have been filed against California and Gov. Gavin Newsom by gun shops, churches, businesses, and even a bride to be. Last week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the state’s “safer at home” order, saying it needed approval in the Legislature.

Eugene Volokh, who teaches at the University of California Los Angeles law school, says it is unlikely that it will be the courts that push reopening. Governments have “extremely broad authority” in a pandemic, especially over everyday business, he explains, citing the 1905 Supreme Court smallpox case, Jacobson v. Massachusetts. It may be a little different where some specific individual rights are involved – such as with churches or guns. Stay-at-home orders also may violate some state constitutions.

But it is economic pressure that will do the pushing, he says. “Long before the courts accept any of these business claims, many states are going to recognize that at some point, the shutdown causes more harm than good.” Governors don’t want to be seen as causing more deaths than the pandemic, he says, and at the same time, they need revenues to implement their programs and balance their budgets.

“The interests of business, and the interests of citizens, and the interests of government officials, while not completely aligned, will be largely aligned in favor of opening things up as long as it is seen as marginally safe.”

Indeed, with decreased hospitalizations, Governor Newsom this week relaxed criteria for counties to move further along the road to reopening. LA County officials, too, feel a sense of urgency from businesses to open or risk permanent job loss.

“Time is of the essence,” said Kathryn Barger, chair of the county’s Board of Supervisors after meeting with business leaders this week. “Now it is time to begin to move from safer at home, to safer at work, and safer in our communities.”

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

Lacking seasonal workers, Italy elevates its long-shunned migrants

Could an agricultural crisis change how many Italians view migrants? It might at least open a window to begin to address a deep-seated distrust.

Mark

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Italy has long been at the heart of Europe’s debates over migration, and has been markedly hostile to migrants in recent years. But that stance has been challenged amid the coronavirus pandemic. The inability to get seasonal workers from Eastern Europe during the crisis is threatening Italy’s agricultural sector. So the Italian government has decided to allow some of the estimated 600,000 irregular migrants working in the sector to legalize their status with a temporary residency to prevent crops from rotting in the fields.

“We need to consider this as a first step for broader cultural changes in our country,” says Paolo Pezzati of Oxfam Italia. “In the COVID-19 era, what is needed is that no one remains invisible.”

But while the move is a significant step for Italy, experts say that the underlying systemic problems that make cheap, exploitable labor necessary in Italian agriculture still need to be addressed.

“The real problem is that the attention is only on growers’ economic needs, [and] that hides human beings who are [used] as farm workers,” says Gennaro Avallone, a sociology researcher at University of Salerno.

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2. Lacking seasonal workers, Italy elevates its long-shunned migrants

The heart of Italy’s agricultural sector is concentrated in the southern regions of Calabria and Puglia, the country’s “toe” and “heel” respectively, in fields of tomatoes, lettuce, and orange trees. And in a normal year at about this time, seasonal workers from Eastern Europe would be working in those fields to bring the produce to market.

But the coronavirus pandemic has made this far from a normal year – especially in Italy, one of Europe’s worst affected countries. With most nations in the European Union closing their borders to travel in order to prevent the virus’s spread, there are no seasonal workers coming to Italy from abroad. And without those extra workers, the prospect of fields full of rotten tomatoes and unpicked citrus fruits loomed.

That has prompted the Italian government to rethink its frequently antagonistic approach to the estimated 600,000 irregular migrants working in its agriculture sector. It has agreed to allow farm hands and domestic workers to legalize their status with a residency valid for six months, thereby both addressing Italy’s employment gap and improving the employment and healthcare opportunities available to migrants amid the pandemic.

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

But while the move is a significant step for a country that has been markedly hostile to migrants in recent years, experts and migrant advocates say that it is only a small step in a much longer journey. The underlying systemic problems that make cheap, exploitable labor necessary in Italian agriculture still need to be addressed, they say. And migrants warn that the government’s decision will not necessarily help them.

“The new decree is not a good decree,” says Mohammed Konare, who picks oranges and tomatoes in Calabria. “Italians do not want immigration; even to rent a house is a problem. Nobody accepts me.”

Essential to Italian agriculture

Italy has long been at the heart of Europe’s debates over migration. Although no longer in power, the right-wing League party remains the country’s largest party and owes much of its popularity to a tough line on migration. The southern European nation is keeping its ports closed to rescue ships loaded with migrants and asylum seekers from Libya. And the question of what to do with unauthorized migrant farmers and caregivers caused acrimony between the governing coalition parties as they finalized a €55 billion ($60 billion) stimulus package.

Italian nongovernmental and civil society organizations have long called for a change to the country’s migration policy, asking for regular channels to access work permits and renewals. 
Paolo Pezzati, Oxfam Italia’s humanitarian policy adviser, welcomes the government initiative as a step in the right direction, but regrets that it does not also reach irregular migrants working in other sectors such as construction or tourism. “We need to consider this as a first step for broader cultural changes in our country,” he says. “In the COVID-19 era, what is needed is that no one remains invisible.”


Mr. Pezzati stresses that vulnerable Italians will also benefit from this initiative, which should give foreign migrants more leverage when negotiating their contracts. He notes that about 40% of the agricultural work force in Italy is irregular, and that Italian laborers are often pressured to take low wages on the grounds that migrants are willing to work for less. It will also help reduce the power of criminal organizations that connect irregular workers with farmers in need of labor.

And migrant workers are essential to Italian agriculture, says Aldo Alessio, the mayor of Gioia Tauro, a strategic port town in Calabria. “The agricultural productivity of the Calabria region is currently largely guaranteed by underpaid migrant workers without rights,” he says. “Our traditional agricultural laborers have almost completely disappeared. ... Without the labor force of immigrant farm workers, agricultural productivity in our region would be zero.”


The bulk of the irregular migrants who work in Italy’s agriculture sector hail from Africa. Often single men, they live in improvised cardboard or plastic sheet homes packed into ghettos or shanty towns with miserable hygiene conditions, and work for a day rate in the fields of southern Italy. Some have been in the country for years but no longer have a valid residency permit, if they ever did.

Mr. Konare, from Mali, is one of those. He arrived in Italy five years ago when he was 17 years old. He says he normally works seven days per week, earning a day rate of €35 ($38) for seven hours of work. But his contract, which expired and wasn’t renewed amid the coronavirus pandemic, stated that he worked only five days per month.


“I don’t know if I will work again, the boss didn’t call me anymore,” he says. Mr. Konare has little faith that the six-month amnesty for unauthorized migrants will help improve his situation in practical terms or meaningfully shift public opinion. He points out that the renewal of an expired residency takes more than a year in Italy, so even those who benefit from the amnesty will soon find themselves in the country illegally again.

The problem of labor exploitation

Many unauthorized migrants live in makeshift camps and ghettos around Calabria, usually in poor conditions. In the ghetto in the small town of Taurianova, for example, about 150 people had to manage without drinking water, toilets, or garbage collection during the pandemic, says Giorgia Campo of the trade union USB Calabria. Migrants in the area found it largely impossible to keep social distance or hygiene rules.


Ms. Campo is among many who hoped the government would pass a sweeping emergency residence permit, normalizing the situation of irregular migrants across sectors, allowing them access to health care and thus controlling the spread of COVID-19. She says she is bitterly disappointed. “This decree cannot be considered as a regularization, the people who will benefit from it throughout Italy will be at most 2,000,” she says, citing an estimate issued by the farmers’ association Coldiretti.


Guido de Togni, cultural manager at Funky Tomato, an agricultural cooperative trying to ensure fair conditions along the tomato supply chain, also thinks the government has much left to do. “We do not believe the relaunch decree will solve the problem of labor exploitation in agriculture,” he says, stressing that the issue is the outcome of unsustainable sales prices imposed by big processing brands and supermarket chains.

“The real problem is that the attention is only on growers’ economic needs, [and] that hides human beings who are [used] as farm workers,” says Gennaro Avallone, a sociology researcher at University of Salerno in southwest Italy. Italian policy-making, he adds, is strongly influenced by propaganda and frequent polling, which often mirrors racist attitudes.

A change would happen if anti-racist solidarity increased in a comprehensive movement for social justice, involving parts of the Italian and non-Italian populations together, he says. But Dr. Avallone expects “neither a change in racist attitudes nor in immigration policies by the Italian state.”

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

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Less pomp, given circumstance: Students grapple with virtual graduations

Seeing their graduation ceremonies simply evaporate, college seniors are disappointed but undeterred. They’re finding other ways to commemorate their connections and accomplishments.

Mark

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Senior springs are typically packed with beloved traditions and emotional goodbyes as students prepare to launch into the “real world.” But with universities shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic, graduation ceremonies and commencement activities have been canceled, postponed, or moved online.

Schools are doing their best to provide alternative ways to mark students’ achievements, says Donovan Livingston, an assistant dean at Wake Forest University.

“One thing that’s been fascinating is to see that energy universities are putting into creatively finding ways to celebrate their students,” he says, “whether it’s gathering notable alumni and getting them to show love and appreciation or hosting ... these virtual commencement ceremonies.”

But for many grads, it’s not the pomp and circumstance they miss, but the casual conversations, conspiratorial whispers between classmates, and accidental run-ins on the quad.

“I’ve realized it’s really easy to keep in touch with friends who you know super well,” says Julia Pinney, a senior at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. “But the casual friends, who really bring a lot of joy to life, that’s really hard to replicate by Zoom.”

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3. Less pomp, given circumstance: Students grapple with virtual graduations

In the days leading up to graduation, Elon University in North Carolina is unusually quiet. While some students trickle back onto campus to take photos in maroon graduation robes, most have gone home. Seniors will not gather under the historic oak grove for a farewell picnic with faculty and staff, and on graduation day, no one will walk across the stage in the new Schar Center to accept a diploma. 

Instead, the long-awaited recognition of achievement will arrive as an email following a livestreamed conferral ceremony on May 22. 

Kendall Hiti plans to watch the event with her friends on Zoom. Then, when the lease on her off-campus apartment is up, she’ll start the 44-hour road trip home to San Francisco. “It’s really not what I expected out of all of this,” she says.

Senior springs are typically packed with beloved traditions and emotional goodbyes as students prepare to launch into the “real world.” Instead, many college seniors are stuck in their childhood bedrooms wondering: “What now?”

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

As schools rush to provide online graduation programming, students say it’s hard to find closure after the coronavirus scattered classmates around the world. For many, these virtual ceremonies feel like placeholders. And colleges, which are trying to balance student disappointment and public safety concerns, have been slow to commit to a makeup commencement sometime in the future. 

Donovan Livingston, an assistant dean at Wake Forest University and author of the viral 2016 convocation address “Lift Off,” says this pandemic has challenged schools and individuals to preserve those feelings of accomplishment until college communities can gather together again.

Courtesy of Donovan Livingston
Assistant Dean Donovan Livingston, seen here in August 2017, received his Ph.D. in educational leadership and cultural foundations this week after defending his dissertation over Zoom.

“One thing that’s been fascinating is to see that energy universities are putting into creatively finding ways to celebrate their students,” he says, “whether it’s gathering notable alumni and getting them to show love and appreciation or hosting ... these virtual commencement ceremonies.”

Touchstones and keepsakes

It takes a lot for schools to cancel commencement. In 1970, several colleges and universities cancelled graduation ceremonies following the Kent State shootings and ongoing protests over the Vietnam War. But many other schools simply adapted traditions to acknowledge the student unrest, or just proceeded as usual.

Today, widespread lockdowns have left an unprecedented crater in higher education, derailing spring classes and graduation ceremonies. During the initial evacuation of college campuses in March, some members of the class of 2020 took a moment to re-create their most anticipated senior traditions.

At Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, seniors marched themselves across campus in a stripped-down version of the college’s annual Laurel Parade. Colorado College’s graduating class fast-tracked their end-of-year bash, with students gathering for a toast at the school flagpole. Jela Latham, a senior at Ohio University, made sure to nab a loose brick on her way out of Athens, Ohio, in March. Stealing an Athens brick is a way seniors take a little piece of their beloved college town with them, says Ms. Latham. “The university hates it but I don’t think it’s a tradition that’s going down any time soon,” she says. 

Courtesy of Jela Latham
Jela Latham poses for a photo on Ohio University's largely empty campus in Athens, Ohio, in late April. The coronavirus derailed Ms. Latham's senior spring, pushing classes and end-of-year traditions online.

Since their final days on campus, seniors say online classes and end-of-year celebrations have fallen flat. It’s not the pomp and circumstance they miss, but the casual conversations, conspiratorial whispers between classmates, and accidental run-ins on the quad.

“Everyone’s working really, really hard. So there was something magical about the opportunity to have this ... unstructured time with each other,” says Julia Pinney, a senior at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. “I’ve realized it’s really easy to keep in touch with friends who you know super well. But the casual friends, who really bring a lot of joy to life, that’s really hard to replicate by Zoom.”

But college administrations are still searching for ways to make their newly minted graduates feel special.

Virtual commencement

Schools are trying to preserve as many elements of commencement as possible, from celebrity keynote speakers to department receptions and student galleries – often with mixed success. 

Ms. Latham, a first-generation student majoring in publication design, has been waiting to see her work hanging in Ohio University’s senior show since she was a freshman. It would have been a great opportunity for her parents to interact with the professors who shaped her college experience. “I don’t think my dad has ever met any of my professors,” she says.

Instead, they got a peek into some student traditions.

“We had a virtual senior farewell toast, which is usually held in a giant ballroom,” she says. “We did that through Zoom. It was actually really cool because my family watched it with me.”

Northeastern University in Boston will not host a classwide ceremony online, but students who fall under the College of Arts, Media and Design had a 40-minute celebration on Zoom on May 1 with messages from deans and a student performance of “Lean on Me.” At the end, graduates’ names ran across the screen like movie credits.

Evan Ortega, a geography student at University of Washington, submitted a photo of himself and nominated a favorite teacher in preparation for his department’s graduation ceremony on June 11. He also requested eight “tickets” – protected links – to the university’s larger graduation event on June 13. Mr. Ortega is still renting a house 10 minutes from campus, but his best friend and family will attend virtually from a suburb outside Seattle. He plans on moving home in late July.

Despite his disappointment, Mr. Ortega is trying to focus on the positive, like the extra time he’s been able to spend with his roommates, and his family’s overall health and safety.

“I do wish that I could have had a normal graduation,” he says. “However, I think the fact that I’m still graduating, that I’m finished with all this, is still relieving. ... My mom also sent me an email, and she was like ‘whatever happens, graduation gifts are not cancelled because of COVID-19.’”

Mixed feelings over future ceremonies

Many people are still hanging onto the idea of having a “normal” graduation together at some point, but colleges face the challenge of retrofitting their traditions into an undetermined weekend. Some smaller schools, like Bennington College in Vermont, have simply invited graduates to walk in the 2021 commencement. Elon University has floated the idea of hosting belated graduation ceremonies over fall vacation, but ongoing concerns about the coronavirus have made the administration hesitant to commit to a date. 

“We get at least one email weekly that’s a huge update on everything,” says Ms. Hiti, who graduates from Elon University on May 22. “I just wish there was information confirmed on the in-person graduation ... because I’d be flying all the way from California.”

Some students wonder if it will even be safe to gather so many people together again, or if schools will unintentionally exclude international students or those who can’t afford last-minute travel. Others are feeling more apathetic about returning to campus at all.

While Ms. Pinney misses her classmates, the American studies student is a bit skeptical about Georgetown University’s makeup celebration.

“I’m very much transitioned into being a grad,” she says. “I hang out with my high school best friends. I hang out with my parents. I walk my dog. … I feel very disconnected from Georgetown at this point.”

But Dr. Livingston thinks creating the opportunity for seniors to reunite once restrictions are lifted is critical. 

“Finding ways to celebrate students no matter where they are [in their careers] is really important,” he says. “If you have a student that’s graduated and they’re at an entry level job on Wall Street, they still might feel the need to come back to campus to have that moment, to have that sense of closure, that sense of community.”

Correspondents Asia Palomba and Riley Robinson contributed to this report.

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

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Essay

One globe-trotter’s homebound holy month

For this peripatetic travel writer, spending Ramadan isolated in her New York apartment has offered unexpected lessons in gratitude.

Mark
Courtesy of Sarah Khan
Writer Sarah Khan pauses in front of one of the famous ornamented doors of Zanzibar's Stone Town as children run by, in 2019 (left). A tantalizing iftar feast awaits at the home of Nassra Nassor in Zanzibar.

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A year ago, I welcomed the month of Ramadan by following the scent of charred meat wafting through the damp tropical air of Zanzibar. One evening, I joined a maze of locals snaking through an open-air market. The adhaan, or call to prayer, rang out from nearby mosques as families drifted from stall to stall, cobbling together an iftar meal to break the fast: soul-warming bowls of urojo, Zanzibar “pizzas,” cups of freshly pressed sugarcane juice.

This year, mosques stand eerily empty and decadent iftars in Zanzibar are a faint memory. Like everyone else, I’ve spent the last few months adjusting to a bizarre new normal. Gone are the thrills of exploring a seemingly limitless world, replaced by the monotony of circling every corner of my very finite New York apartment.

Yet even under these circumstances, I marvel at the unlikely sense of community that’s emerged — people messaging me out of the blue, socially distant walks in the park with masked friends, and care packages arriving every day. Weeks in solitude have had a meditative effect, giving me stretches of time to contemplate my blessings — including all the memories that have made up my Ramadans past. 

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4. One globe-trotter’s homebound holy month

A year ago, I welcomed the month of Ramadan by following the scent of charred meat wafting through the damp tropical air of Zanzibar. Most of the residents of the tiny archipelago off the coast of Tanzania are Muslim, and with the holy month colliding with the tempestuous beginning of Zanzibar’s rainy season, historic Stone Town was sodden with heavy cloudbursts and largely devoid of tourists. 

On one particularly sticky evening, during a brief dry spell between storms, I joined a maze of locals snaking through the open-air Forodhani Market on Stone Town’s seafront. The adhaan, or call to prayer, rang out from dozens of nearby mosques as families drifted from stall to stall, cobbling together a hearty iftar meal to break the fast: soul-warming bowls of urojo from one hawker, Zanzibar “pizzas” glistening under the fluorescent lights of another, cups of freshly pressed sugarcane juice to wash it all down. A few nights later, a lovely woman named Nassra invited me to her house for iftar, where I joined her family for a bountiful Zanzibari feast. 

As a travel writer with an unpredictable schedule, out-of-town assignments occasionally send me far from home during Ramadan. But whenever possible, I try to press pause for the holy month and settle into a familiar Ramadan routine in New York: nightly iftar dinners with friends, tarawih prayers at a rotating roster of mosques, and late-night hangouts that, on weekends, often end in gatherings at someone’s apartment or a nearby diner for the pre-fast suhoor meal at dawn. When I moved to a new apartment in January, I noted its proximity to Manhattan’s 96th Street mosque, envisioning easy walks home after tarawih prayers with friends during balmy summer evenings. 

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But this Ramadan, mosques stand eerily empty, and there are no carefree late-night strolls with friends. Decadent iftars in Zanzibar are now a faint memory, suddenly little more accessible than iftar on the moon. 

Ramadan is a deeply spiritual time meant for reflection and rejuvenation, but it’s also a largely communal month: The promise of restorative meals with close friends and family and inspiring sermons at overflowing mosques are an eagerly awaited salve after the hardships of a long fast. When I have to travel, I do my best to soak in the month’s convivial energy in all its manifestations around the world: tracking down a mosque in Madrid to attend tarawih prayers, charming my way into delicious iftar dinners at homes in Zanzibar or Cape Town, or roaming the congested arteries surrounding the Charminar in Hyderabad, when the streets come alive after sunset with people slurping haleem or shopping for Eid clothes. 

Like everyone else, I’ve spent the last few months adjusting to a bizarre new normal. Gone are the thrills of exploring a seemingly limitless world, replaced by the monotony of circling every corner of my very finite New York apartment.

Courtesy of Sarah Khan
Reporter Sarah Khan explores the walled city of Harar in Ethiopia, often referred to as one of the holiest cities in Islam, in 2019. In the weeks leading up to Ramadan, residents repaint the city's walls in vibrant tones in anticipation of the holy month.

Part of Ramadan’s purpose is to revive a sense of appreciation for all that we’ve come to take for granted amid the inexorable rhythm of our daily lives. Living under lockdown in the pandemic’s epicenter has led me to reminisce nostalgically over each unhurried grocery run, each mediocre brunch with a familiar face, even each congested subway commute. As I’ve settled into a solitary Ramadan this year, that sense of lament is even more acute. Each Ramadan I strive to reconsider the way I live, and contemplate my aspirations for the way I want to live. This year, these epiphanies began weeks before the sighting of the new moon marking the official start of the holy month on April 23. 

While Ramadan is the most social time of the year for many Muslims, in New York, where many of us live far from our families and venture into our pint-size kitchens only to decant our takeout meals, we rely on our friends and communities that much more. My favorite Ramadan travel plan is the trip home to see my family in Boston, to overindulge on my mom’s kheema samosas at iftar and attend Eid prayers at my childhood mosque, where post-prayer doughnuts are as integral to my Eid festivities as the customary three hugs I exchange with everyone around me.

The iftar parties have gone virtual, but the allure of watching my friends scarf down pasta through a Zoom screen has run thin. Fasts feel more exhausting this year, perhaps because there no longer are evening gatherings to look forward to. I log on to lectures and prayers online, but it’s hard to focus without the collective energy and sense of purpose I find at mosques. And while quarantine has brought me back into the habit of cooking every day, the prospect of iftar in solitude night after night doesn’t inspire me to make much effort in the kitchen to re-create my favorite Ramadan staples. 

Though this may be my most challenging Ramadan yet, I marvel at the unlikely sense of community that’s emerged – unexpected people messaging me out of the blue, socially distant walks in the park with masked friends, and care packages arriving every day. I’ve also been checking in on friends I’ve made on my past travels all over the world. Conversations with Muslims in Bosnia, Tunisia, and the United Kingdom all echo similar sentiments: We’re all missing the human connections we’ve come to take for granted, and we’re all taking things one day at a time. 

As Ramadan winds down, the prospect of an isolated Eid looms quietly ahead. How does celebration translate in isolation? What is an Eid without family, hugs, and doughnuts? I suppose I’ll soon find out. In the meantime, the forced weeks in solitude have had a meditative effect, giving me boundless stretches of time to contemplate my blessings — including all the memories that have made up my Ramadans past. I know I’ll be that much more grateful the next time I’m able to share an iftar meal with strangers turned friends in far-flung lands. 

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

Pandemic, in park: Viewers pull up to drive-ins again

Around the U.S. and the world, people are finding cozy comfort in a decades-old idea: the drive-in.

Mark
John Minchillo/AP
Jayden Deltoro (left) watches "Trolls World Tour" at the Four Brothers Drive In Theatre, May 15, 2020, in Amenia, New York. Innovators are looking at the drive-in model as a way for people to experience live events without being elbow to elbow.

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On a recent Saturday night, vehicles spread out among three screens at the Rustic Tri View Drive In in North Smithfield, Rhode Island. Flatbed trucks transform into sleeping-bag forts for kids in pajamas, and attendees discover that face masks aren’t impervious to the tantalizing smell of fried dough.

First-timers Jill and Bill Harris brought their three children to see Pixar’s “Onward.” “We can sit outside and talk if we want to,” says Ms. Harris. “You really can’t do that in the theater.”

The drive-in, a medium that has waned since its heyday decades ago, is suddenly at the forefront of pop culture again. Beyond the nostalgic allure of movies under the stars, innovators are looking toward the drive-in model as a way to experience live events now that people can no longer stand elbow-to-elbow. At least temporarily, audiences may end up in front of vast screens for concerts, sports, and even theater.

“We’re theater people, we’re creative people,” says Michael Duran, producing artistic director of BDT Stage. “We should be able to figure out a way to bring theater to the people and still be able to stay safe.”

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5. Pandemic, in park: Viewers pull up to drive-ins again

When Danish singer-songwriter Mads Langer stepped onto a concert stage in late April, he wasn’t greeted with cheers and clapping. He was welcomed by the honking of car horns. 

Around 500 vehicles gathered to watch the pop star perform in a field in Aarhus, Denmark, that had been hastily transformed into a drive-in hosting rock shows and screening movies. Mr. Langer performed on a newly constructed concert stage beneath a massive screen that relayed video of the show. Sound was streamed via FM radio. 

Before the coronavirus crisis there was only one drive-in theater in the Scandinavian country. Now they’re popping up all over.

“I’m starting a small drive-in tour,” says Mr. Langer, whose itinerary includes a stage and screen erected in the parking lot of Copenhagen’s international airport. “For me, this whole thing is really about trying to be creative and rethink ways of doing stuff that everybody has been doing for a long time. So it’s becoming an adventure.” 

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

The drive-in, a medium that has waned since its heyday decades ago, is suddenly at the forefront of pop culture again. It’s an attractive option for watching movies while practicing pandemic-related social distancing, with demand high from coast to coast. But innovators are also looking toward the drive-in model as a way to experience live events now that people can no longer stand elbow to elbow. At least temporarily, audiences may end up in front of vast screens for not just films, but also concerts, sports, and even theater. For many people, cars congregating for a collective experience under the stars offers a nostalgic allure. 

“A drive-in is very democratic,” says Joe Bob Briggs, host of “The Last Drive-In” on AMC’s Shudder streaming service. “The drive-in is usually on the edge of the city. And the people who live in the city drive out to the country to be at the drive-in. And people in the country drive in towards the city to be at the drive-in. ... It’s a festive, communal place.” ‘

A venue with many uses 

Social distancing is a boon for the outdoor screens that remain in the United States. Some 305 locations were still in operation in 2019, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. Until Hollywood offers new releases again, drive-ins can still attract moviegoers with retro fare such as “Jaws” and “Back to the Future.” Owners are also considering other entertainment. In Lockport, New York, the Transit Drive-in Theatre is lobbying to show live prime-time NFL games featuring the nearby Buffalo Bills. Promoters are also besieging drive-ins with offers to stream live entertainment events. There’s a precedent: In 2014, Jimmy Buffett played a show beamed exclusively to drive-ins across the U.S.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Dave Andelman, co-owner of the Mendon Twin Drive-In, shows the upgrades that he has made May 7, 2020, in Mendon, Massachusetts. His face mask, with a cartoon hotdog, is one of many that were custom-made for his employees, who swing back into action on Memorial Day.

“Free markets fill vacuums very quickly,” says Dave Andelman, co-owner of the Mendon Twin Drive-In in Mendon, Massachusetts, which plans to open on Memorial Day. He envisions the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship having ideas. “Dana White from the UFC will say, ‘OK, we’ll put it on the biggest card we ever put out.’ ... There’ll be boxing, there’ll be concerts, there’ll be comedy.” 

When drive-in theaters aren’t readily available, entrepreneurs are building their own pop-up versions. In the German towns of Schüttorf and Düsseldorf, night clubs this month assembled stages and screens in their parking lots for raves in which the clubbers waved glow sticks out of car windows and flashed headlights in time with the beat. On June 1, the Danish soccer club FC Midtjylland is planning to use two large screens in its 2000-space parking lot so that fans can watch games being played inside the empty stadium. Similarly, a dinner theater company in Boulder, Colorado, is examining the economic viability of projecting a musical production from its stage to a phalanx of cars outside.

“We’ve got these big vast walls on both sides of the theater and we could hook them up with an FM receiver from a soundboard inside the theater,” explains Michael Duran, producing artistic director of BDT Stage. “We’re theater people, we’re creative people. We should be able to figure out a way to bring theater to the people and still be able to stay safe.”

Another idea is to turn drive-ins into actual concert venues. Already bands in Mesa, Arizona, and Fort Collins, Colorado, are planning such events. And Houston’s Showboat Drive-In is gearing up for a DJ event in which masked dancers must stay within the width of their car – the strictest social distancing since high school proms in the 1950s. 

“I had one promoter talking to me about essentially leaving a big stage setup here, basically all year,” says Mr. Andelman during a tour of his 16-acre drive-in highlighting the social distancing procedures it has instituted. His face mask, with a cartoon hotdog, is one of many that were custom-made for his employees. “Bands and the comics are itching to get out and do their thing,” he says. “The vibe of those events will be amazing.”  

Working overtime

John Vincent, president of the drive-in owners association, reckons that zoning laws and a thicket of onerous regulations will make it difficult for many new drive-ins to spontaneously sprout up in the U.S. Existing drive-ins are already working overtime as it is to institute practices and procedures to make their facilities safe during the pandemic, including reducing capacity by half. 

On a recent Saturday night, the new embrace of these venues is on display at the Rustic Tri View Drive In in North Smithfield, Rhode Island. A phalanx of 200 vehicles spreads out among three screens, an extra space between each one for social distance. As the sunset embers behind the silhouetted tree line, flatbed trucks transform into sleeping-bag forts for kids in pajamas. Attendees discover that one thing face masks aren’t impervious to is the tantalizing smell of fried dough. In a carefully spaced pickup line outside the snack bar, many express relief at getting outside their homes. Some haven’t been to a drive-in in years – or ever. First-timers Jill and Bill Harris, who brought their three children for a double feature that includes Pixar’s “Onward,” conclude that they like the drive-in better than theaters.

Mikkel Berg Pedersen/Ritzau Scanpix/Reuters
Cars are parked in front of the stage where Danish singer-songwriter Mads Langer performs at a sold-out drive-in concert at Tangkrogen, a public park in Aarhus, Denmark, April 24, 2020.

“We can sit outside, and talk if we want to,” says Ms. Harris. “You really can’t do that in the theater.”

That’s something that’s long been an allure. “You have this shield around you on all four sides. But the fact is nobody wants to stay in the car at the drive-in. ... Everybody gets the lawn chairs out,” says Chris Willman, features editor for Variety and a longtime drive-in devotee. He notes that if you want to have minimal contact, “you can go and never get out of your car. Slip your credit card through a crack in the window right at the gate and that’s all the exposure you have all night.”

In the Northeast, the sold-out Tri View Drive In was among the first venues permitted to reopen. While waiting for “Onward,” Cristen Spinella sits in a camping chair outside her car and plays Mexican train dominoes with her boyfriend. Lamenting the suspension of concert-going, her favorite social activity, she says she’d “definitely” attend a gig streamed at a drive-in. For now, the pharmacist is more than happy just to see a movie during the pandemic.

“It’s outside, so it’s a breath of fresh air,” says Ms. Spinella. “Hopefully people who’ve never been to a drive-in or have written it off, maybe will really fall in love with the drive-in and start coming again.” 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the location in the dateline to Mendon, Mass. As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall. 

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Africa’s cathartic moment for reform

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Across Africa, long-delayed reforms in governance are suddenly on the table. Both the challenge of the pandemic and the prospect of the continent’s first recession in over 25 years have put leaders on notice. Even before the coronavirus crisis is over, civic activists and international creditors are demanding deep reforms in badly managed regimes. 

In South Africa, this desire for structural change was echoed in a speech by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who also serves as the head of the 53-nation African Union: “We are resolved not merely to return our economy to where it was before the coronavirus, but to forge a new economy in a new global reality.”

The virus crisis is liberating many Africans to demand greater resilience in their societies. There is no shortage of ideas from civil society and financial institutions about how to build a stronger post-pandemic economy.

“As Africans, we are used to being adaptive and innovative, often driven by necessity, and we do have an indefatigable capacity to stand on our own feet,” writes Alain Tschudin, executive director of Good Governance Africa. 

With the coronavirus exposing weak governance in Africa, its people are also tapping their strength to fix it.

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Africa’s cathartic moment for reform

Just a month ago in Africa’s largest economy, a reform that seemed impossible became possible. Nigeria ended subsidies that kept gasoline prices low. The government needed the revenue to deal with the COVID-19 emergency. It also began to make moves to reform its currency exchange rates and diversify its economy from a dependency on oil exports.

Across Africa, long-delayed reforms in governance are suddenly on the table. Both the challenge of the pandemic and the prospect of the continent’s first recession in over 25 years have put leaders on notice. Even before the coronavirus crisis is over, civic activists and international creditors are demanding deep reforms in badly managed regimes. 

In South Africa, this desire for structural change was echoed in a speech by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who also serves as the head of the 53-nation African Union: “We are resolved not merely to return our economy to where it was before the coronavirus, but to forge a new economy in a new global reality.”

So far, the only major reform being weighed in South Africa is a suggestion by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni to sell off the country’s money-losing public enterprises. Comprehensive reforms face a formidable obstacle. It is well-documented that, after 26 years in power, the ruling African National Congress is bloated with corruption and incompetence. Breaking its inertia will be a challenge even for Mr. Ramaphosa, who carries enormous credibility as a chief architect of South Africa’s democracy and for his success in business, but who seems little inclined to buck his party.

And then there are external constraints. For the first time, South Africa has asked for financial aid from the International Monetary Fund to help support a post-COVID-19 stimulus package. Nigeria has already received the largest IMF package ever for an African country – $3.4 billion.

Given the global economic impact of the virus crisis, South Africa and the rest of the continent may not be able to count too much on foreign help. And it should expect conditions attached to whatever it may obtain. African nations will need to draw on their previous experiences in making significant reforms. For South Africa, the relevant lesson is a recent one – the early post-apartheid years of the late 1990s when new institutions were formed.

“More than ever we need to be applying that lesson in the current crisis,” writes a group of South African academics and former officials in the Daily Maverick. “We know, moreover, a lot about how to do it. The challenge is to set this capability free.”

The virus crisis is liberating many Africans to demand greater resilience in their societies. There is no shortage of ideas from civil society and financial institutions about how to build a stronger post-pandemic economy.

“As Africans, we are used to being adaptive and innovative, often driven by necessity, and we do have an indefatigable capacity to stand on our own feet,” writes Alain Tschudin, executive director of Good Governance Africa. 

With the coronavirus exposing weak governance in Africa, its people are also tapping their strength to fix it.

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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.

Praying for the world brings healing of flu symptoms

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If we’re feeling ill, it can often seem hard to think of anything but our own problem. But as a woman found out when faced with worsening flu symptoms, letting God’s limitless love fill our thoughts with a deeper love for humanity uplifts our viewpoint in powerful ways that also bring healing to the one praying.

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1. Praying for the world brings healing of flu symptoms

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Is it possible to be benefited ourselves when praying for others?

Yes. If such prayer is motivated by genuine compassion and love, it will inevitably bring blessings and healing to us as well. “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, contains this wonderful teaching: “The rich in spirit help the poor in one grand brotherhood, all having the same Principle, or Father; and blessed is that man who seeth his brother’s need and supplieth it, seeking his own in another’s good” (p. 518).

I will never forget the way the truth of this statement was illustrated to me one Saturday, when I was battling flu symptoms that were getting increasingly worse despite the fact that I had been praying about the condition for several days.

I love to turn to God for healing of problems of any kind, and I’m grateful to have seen consistent, reliable, and beautiful healing from this prayer in Christian Science. I’ve been healed of sickness, found employment, and seen broken relationships mended. Beyond these practical benefits, I particularly cherish the feeling of God’s love for me that comes when I turn to Him in prayer.

Every one of us can feel this wonderful love. The Bible teaches that God is Love and teaches of His unchanging care and love for all His children.

Christian Science explains that this loving God is entirely good. Science and Health states, “The Christian Science God is universal, eternal, divine Love, which changeth not and causeth no evil, disease, nor death” (p. 140). God nurtures and cares for us and meets our every need. And recognizing the spiritual fact of God’s infinite goodness and power brings healing.

Having prayed on and off about this problem with no apparent results, on this particular Saturday morning I took a pillow and comforter out to the living room and put them on the couch, planning on staying there all day. I intended to sleep on and off, as I carried on as many of my business activities as I could by telephone and computer. It looked as if it would be a day of barely getting by.

But a turning point came when I did something at lunchtime that I love to do over meals: pray for our community, our state, and the world. I did not pray for myself or do any other work – I spent the whole lunch praying for the community and the world. My prayers included affirming that God and His goodness and love are present everywhere to guard, guide, and lift hate, envy, doubt, and fear. That because God is also the divine Mind, He is the source of infinite intelligence, expressed in all of us, including those in government.

These are spiritual truths I have seen proved in my own life and which I love to apply more broadly, as well. I was very inspired by these prayers that day.

I had not thought of my ailment even once during lunch, but had been completely absorbed in my prayers. When I got up from lunch, I realized to my great surprise that all the symptoms, including weakness and weariness, had disappeared. I was completely well! And I felt rejuvenated and joyful.

I put the comforter and pillow away, confident that this healing was complete. And so it proved to be.

This healing reminded me of something Mary Baker Eddy once wrote in a letter to congregants of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston: “Learn to forget what you should not remember viz. self, and live for the good you do” (L05043, Mary Baker Eddy to Septimus J. Hanna, January 15, 1895, The Mary Baker Eddy Collection, The Mary Baker Eddy Library).

In fact, the “grip” of illness had been broken in my thought when I turned away from inward and self-centered thinking and instead let my thought be filled with the Love that is God, and with love for my fellow men and women. As I recognized and established in my own thought that the reign and government of God, eternal good, is truly present and active in our community, our state, and the world, this government became apparent in my own thought and life, bringing complete freedom from the illness.

What a grand opportunity we each have to be a healing influence in our communities and the world, and in the process bring great blessings into our own lives.

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.

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Viewfinder

For summer fun, just add water

Ali Hashisho/Reuters
Children play in a pool on the rooftop of a building in Sidon, southern Lebanon, May 21, 2020. The country’s economy was already reeling before the coronavirus outbreak. The country's prime minister now warns of major food shortages.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us today. Please come back tomorrow when our Sara Miller Llana looks at how past crises have brought not only challenges, but also change and fresh hopes – and what this crisis might bring.

And a reminder that we’re now giving you a place to track today’s faster-moving headline news that we’ll be reporting on more deeply soon.

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