Corona Corner

With everything else in the news, you might have forgotten that there was a virus. I didn’t. I’ve been wearing my mask in public and socially distancing all the time. I think twice before taking a bus and use alcohol gel after each trip.

Israel is trying desperately to get back to normal with mixed results. Hundreds of new confirmed corona cases are showing up every day, but deaths remain in the single digits. Is this the dreaded “second wave”? Probably not; it’s just people thinking they don’t need to take precautions. The government doesn’t want to shut down the whole nation again, so they are enforcing targeted lockdowns.

Big-picture view

One statistic I followed – and I haven’t seen reported – is the time it takes to reach 100,000 deaths globally.
It took 77 days to reach the first 100,000 deaths (January 23-April 9).
It took 14 days for the next 100,000 (April 10-April 24).
It took 19 days for the next 100,000 (April 25-May 14).
It took 22 days for the next 100,000 (May 15-June 6).
We’re just about to reach the next 100,000 (probably today, June 27) and that took 21 days.
It seems to me that since April 25, the global death toll has been stable. If one country starts to lessen their death toll, another one steps up to take its place.

Is the US doing as badly as reported?

The big headline in the past few days has been Americans will not be allowed in EU countries because of their poor handling of the coronavirus. What’s left out of the headline is that the US is not targeted and is one of a number of countries (including Israel) that will not be allowed in the EU yet.

I’ve felt that perhaps the reporting on the US handling of the coronavirus has been a little bit skewed. The US has 50 states and 330 million people; it’s the third largest country in the world in terms of population. So I combined the 6 countries in Europe with the highest death rates (UK, Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, Germany) and found their total population is 335 million. Altogether, those 6 countries have 155,000 deaths (133 days) to the US’s 127,000 (119 days) (both numbers rounded as of this writing).

Brazil has the second most confirmed cases in the world (half of what the US has) and about two-thirds the population of the US. Since May 27, it averages about 1,000 deaths every day. From the first deaths on March 22, Brazil reached 56,000 deaths (rounded as of this writing) in 97 days.

For a closer-to-home comparison: Mexico has one-third the population of the US and 26,000 dead (85 days) with hundreds dying every day; Canada has 38 million people and 8,500 deaths (103 days) with not even dozens dying every day. Americans are allowed to travel to Mexico, but as yet are not allowed to travel to Canada.

Another statistic is that there are 10 million confirmed cases in the world and 2.5 million are in the US. Of the nearly 500,000 deaths, 127,000 are in the US. The US, a single country, represents 25% of both numbers. No other single country comes close.

Is the US doing badly? It depends.

Europe has many countries and many governments. Their policies are not entirely coordinated under the EU umbrella. Some countries do better. Some do worse – like the UK’s failed “herd immunity” policy and Sweden’s “just be responsible citizens” policy. In the US, some states are doing really well (Wyoming) and others are struggling (New York). It could be said that Europe and the US are sort of equal in numerical terms.

In general, the daily coronavirus death toll in the US is going down (see the daily deaths graph and the CDC’s excess death rate – the spike in 2018 was the flu). But it would be a stretch to say that the downward trend was a result of compassionate, logical, serious, unified leadership at the federal level.

https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid19/excess_deaths.htm

Is the US leading the world with a unified message on coronavirus? No. Once the US president was seen as someone who would bring nations together to solve global problems. The current president is not a voice of leadership for this global pandemic, and so, on the world stage, yes, the US is probably doing as badly as reported.

Just a Little Justice

Justice, Justice shall you pursue . . .

. . .צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף

Deuteronomy 16:20

This verse from the Bible is translated many different ways, but I think this one is the most literal. Some translate it as “Righteousness, righteousness, shall you follow . . .” and some go with “Equity, equity, you are to pursue . . .” (I’m not a fan of this one).

Following my last post about Hebrew roots and given everything that is going on the world right now, I’m moved to write about the root צדק – tzedek.

Tzedek is generally understood as justice. From this root, we also have tzedakah meaning charity. A righteous person is called a tzadik.

You might notice that none of these three is strictly tied to the law. But they all relate to doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.

How do we know what is right?

Most religions and philosophies have some version of the most basic principle.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Or the opposite: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.”

Another version is: “What you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself.”

Whether it’s about wearing a mask to protect others from coronavirus or acknowledging that we have inequality in society or acting against police brutality, we can all take a moment to consider the effect of our actions on others.

An interesting addition to the discussion of the root tzedek is that when you make it reflexive (the action of the verb is done to the speaker), it means “to apologize.” Merriam-Webster notes that to apologize more often means to excuse or defend, not acknowledge a fault. And here we clearly see a link to justifying one’s actions through the root tzedek.

I guess the real question we need to ask ourselves is: when we look inward, can we justify our actions to ourselves and others by showing that we are doing the right thing? Are we pursuing justice and righteousness?

Ears of Philosophy

Hebrew as a language is organized around roots. Many words can be built on a single root and often the words seem to be philosophically connected.

There is a Torah Portion called Ha’azinu. It’s usually translated as “Give ear” or “Listen.” Listening is more involved than simply hearing. You may hear* something, but are you really listening?

The Hebrew word for ear is: אוזן (ozen).

The verb from that root is להאזין (l’ha’azin). It’s more common today to use להקשיב (l’hakshiv) to say to listen, but l’hakshiv includes a nuance of pay attention and obey.

The Hebrew word for scales is מאזניים (moznayim). Specifically scales like in the sign for Libra, balancing scales.

The Hebrew word for balance (like on the above-mentioned scales) is מאוזן (me’uzan).

Long before science told us that the intricate inner ear contains the mechanism to regulate balance in human beings, ears were somehow connected to balancing.

The world is totally unbalanced right now, and it has a lot to do with an inability to listen. Everyone is stuck in their algorithm-curated social media echo chambers.

If we want to move our world to a better place and find balance, we need to give ear; we need to listen.

Listen: to hear something with thoughtful attentiongive consideration.

“Listen.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary

It’s hard to listen to something or someone you don’t agree with. It’s hard to listen to stories and incidents that make you uncomfortable. The bigger the divisions, the harder it’s going to be.

And we’ll conclude with the Greeks.

We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.

Epictetus

*I don’t know if hear in English is in any way related to ear. But if it is, does it mean that in English ears are only for hearing, but not truly listening?

From Avengers to Talmud

Remember Avengers: Infinity War? We all knew that Thanos was the “villain” because he was gathering Infinity Stones to fit into a gauntlet that would allow him to snap his fingers and eliminate half the population of the universe (randomly chosen lest he be unfair). This was to save the universe because overpopulation was ruining everything for everyone. He would bring balance, and it would be a good and plentiful universe for everyone who was left. I used quotation marks because there are a few who think #ThanosWasRight.

This is fantasy and fiction so the stakes would have to be massive. Half the population? Is it really a “lesser evil” for a “greater good”?

What about Typhoid Mary? She was an Irish immigrant to America in the late 1800s. She just wanted to make a living as a cook, and she seemed healthy. Turns out she was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid. Once she found out, she worked as a laundress, but made a lot less money. Then she was injured. She changed her name and went back to work as a cook. Illness followed wherever she went, and she kept changing her name and working for other families. They confirmed three deaths, but it was never known if that was the total (insufficient contact tracing). Was she evil? I doubt it.

After her second arrest, she was kept in quarantine for 23 years and died of pneumonia. All she wanted was to make a good living and do what she enjoyed. Unfortunately, it made people ill and some died.

COVID-19 is definitely not going to take out half the world’s population. It won’t take out even 0.01%. In a fictional story, these stakes would not be high enough. In real life, the stakes are gigantic when it’s your parent, your sibling, or any other member of your family.

The percent of asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 is unknown. I tried to look it up and saw numbers varying from 20% to 80% of those that have been tested. I’m sticking with unknown because if a person isn’t sick, he or she is unlikely to get tested unless required to do so.

So you’re “healthy.” Everyone you know is “healthy.” You just want to get back to normal. There are certainly dangers to economic shutdown. And, hey, isn’t it (meaning: some people dying) just a “lesser evil” for a “greater good”? People die all the time, so what’s a few more? Especially since a lot of the people dying are old and often have other conditions.

That argument would never work in Israel. Many old people in this country are Holocaust survivors. No person, no matter their political party, would ever think that it could ever be acceptable to value the economy over human life and build business on the bones of people who survived genocide.

Israelis desperately want to get back to normal. But will they sacrifice their elders? No.

This week Israel was pretty much open. You can sit in restaurants and cafes. Stores are open. But we had a spike in new cases (89 and the next day 121) at a couple of high schools. Teachers and students are being tested and put in quarantine. The Health Department specifically asked children not to visit their grandparents.

Israel doesn’t have a magic number of infections or deaths that are deemed acceptable (that I know of). Regardless of the inadequacy of our government (a post for another day perhaps), allowing preventable deaths due to an infectious disease is simply not part of the equation. Asymptomatic carriers cannot be allowed to become superspreaders, and in no version of Israel is the first choice to follow Thanos’s logic.

“Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:1 (22a)

Random Observations

The new world we live in is weird. Starting with the weather.

 

Traffic has been light in general, but it’s started to pick up as more places open. I rode a bus twice this week. I was on a double-length bus and there were only 6 passengers on it during “rush hour.” The next day I was on a regular bus during “rush hour” and was a little surprised to see 12 passengers. Passengers are not allowed to enter the bus through the front door or to sit in the seats near the driver.

Kids were back at school, but a  teacher tested positive for COVID-19, so they isolated the teachers and the kids and closed that school for two weeks.

An Israeli moment: A religious girl, probably about 10 years old and dressed in a school uniform of a long skirt and a long-sleeve button-down shirt, was in charge of getting her two younger sisters (twins, I think) to school by bus. The older one was wearing a mask and the younger ones, probably about 5 or 6, weren’t masked. It’s not uncommon for older siblings, even at this age, to be in charge of their younger siblings. But now it involves being responsible enough to properly wear a mask in public at such a young age.

I’d been hearing Shabbat services in the park for the past few Fridays. Now that synagogues are open again, I found that I missed hearing the singing yesterday.

Most mornings on my way to the office, I saw a group of men wearing prayer shawls walking home after holding morning services on a street corner. I’ve kind of missed seeing them lately as well.

People are out and about. They are lax about wearing masks over both their mouths and noses – the underside of people’s chins seem to be overly protected by masks though.

Friday was Jerusalem Day. Usually there’s a parade and a lot of celebrations. I heard nothing. I saw nothing. It was barely a blip this year for me.

Next week, restaurants will open for seated customers (take-away was always available), and we’ll have to see how things go. Will new cases spike or has the virus played itself out for now? Based on the virus genome structure, they found that 70% of Israel’s cases came from the US and the virus was spread by a small number people. Weirdly, that means it wasn’t from ordinary tourists, but people who come to Israel and have a lot of interaction with Israeli citizens. What does that mean for tourism (a huge industry for Jerusalem)? It’s anyone’s guess.

The strangeness of the new normal will eventually fade, and the new normal will just be normal. We’ll all wonder how we ever got along without a supply of surgical masks and disposable gloves at home. I mean, you’ve been using alcohol-based hand sanitizer for ages already, right?

Random Thoughts

  • If breathing into a paper bag when hyperventilating helps you calm down, maybe the masks are actually for anxiety?
  • How do surgeons manage to wear masks for 16-hour surgeries?
  • Rebreathing my exhalations? Pass the breath mints, please!
  • After walking with my mask on in the heat, my face was an uncomfortable shade of purple and my mascara melted. Will this be the fashion trend of summer 2020?
  • The scents of nature pass through the mask. So while I’m walking more and avoiding people, I’m grateful for the flowers.

Don’t Panic, Pt. 10: We Shall Be Released

Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released
— Bob Dylan

This will be the last in the “Don’t Panic” series (I hope!). Israel is opening up, and we’re slowly moving toward what will be the new normal.

Israel has twice as many people who have recovered from the virus (more than 11,000) than are ill (fewer than 5,000), and our new cases each day have been in the 10s. We’ve had very few deaths in the past week. The re-opening is happening in stages, and if the infection rates go up again, we can reverse into shutdown mode.

Masks are required outside our homes. In my area, I’d say about 50% are mask compliant. Another 35% are semi-compliant (masks not covering noses or having the mask available under the chin or over one ear). Jerusalemites have been desperate to get back to Mahane Yehuda, the open air market, and chose to wait in long lines in the heat to get in on the first day. It defeats the purpose of limiting the number of people in the market, but there’s no accounting for the human desire to shop at the shuk.

 

I went back to the office this week too. I’m taking the opportunity to walk to and from work instead of taking public transportation. [Read: Begone, damn pounds!] When I arrive at the office, I put on a glove to clock in. The guard takes my temperature with a scanner thermometer. We don’t touch each other and the thermometer never touches me. My temperature is recorded, and I head upstairs.

On the first day back, we had a staff meeting to go over new health precautions with everyone wearing masks and sitting at least 6 feet (2 meters) apart. Obviously our staff room isn’t that big, so all 30 or 40 of us were in the lobby of the building, and we had to set up a microphone so speakers could be heard. Not all of our staff have returned to work, but it was nice to see colleagues I haven’t seen for at least 6 weeks.

The nice thing about being out and about is really appreciating the flowers.

I took a walk along the railroad trail in celebration of my freedom.

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The frogs were out, but I wasn’t lucky enough to see one. Have a listen!

Don’t Panic, Pt. 9: Together, Apart

This week I had the opportunity to join a 10-hour, worldwide Tai Chi celebration via Zoom. I didn’t do 10 hours of Tai Chi, but I did a lot. I was pleasantly exhausted, infinitely calm, and genuinely uplifted.

The most beautiful part of it was having teachers lead the kata from Australia, Israel, Italy, and the United States. They invited us into their homes and studios connecting the hundreds of participants in a single purpose. Even though we were apart, we were together.

Tai Chi in the living room is different from practicing in a studio. One of the things missing from the Zoom experience is the soft “psh” of other people’s shoes on the floor as an auditory cue for the next move. Zoom also lacks form adjustment from a teacher (vital if you are just starting your Tai Chi journey!). There’s only me and a screen.

But on the screen, some teachers have their pets lounging on the floor like I do. Some have to shorten their steps or adjust their placement like I do. They’ve likely moved the furniture around like I have.

One thing that is the same is what happens in my mind during the kata. To remember the movements, I made up ridiculous (and totally unofficial) mnemonics to remember the moves: the moon goes up and down, …, hug a tree, sweep, serve the tea (on a flat hand!), remove it, push your guest out, …, cover the pot, push it, flip it, …, hold the baby, …, revolving door, uppercut, …, Hello Waldorf-Astoria, …, aim a gun, frame the moon, …, cloud hands, …, flamingo, …, kick, diagonal step back, sumo wrestler, fists, …, fireworks, kick, break a stick on bent knee, double punch to opponent’s forehead, …, curtsy, …, chicken beak spin, …, four corners, …, chicken eats, dragon snake slide backwards, …, Pink Panther, …, ball, banner, …, gather infinity energy, and end. Whew!

With all that in my mind as well as coordinating my arms and legs, I have a smile on my face (like you’re supposed to when practicing Tai Chi), and for that time, absolutely nothing else matters.

With love and thanks to the Israel Center for Tai Chi! (See my post several years ago about Tai Chi in Israel.)

*Full disclosure: I haven’t been active in the Tai Chi community for a long time, but I happen to be on the mailing list. This connection was gifted to me by the Universe reminding me how much I enjoyed the the moving meditation of the kata. I once knew the whole kata well enough to lead it in class, so these past weeks and especially this World Tai Chi Day have been a way for me to ignite my muscle memory and relearn the kata. I am truly grateful!

 

Don’t Panic, Pt. 7: Synchronicity of Yizkor

I have a confession. I like murder mysteries. A lot. Call them what you will: police procedurals, cozy mysteries, whodunits, even thrillers. The death is not the important part; it’s a catalyst for the puzzle. The hook is the chase and the solution.

It occurred to me this week – given that I have extra time on my hands for murder mysteries – that these stories and puzzles almost completely ignore the grieving process. People get back to the office (and have to work even though there was a murder!) and the family and friends of the victim help (or hinder) the investigation. It all feels very non-Jewish.

When a Jew dies, the immediate family stops everything for 7 days and allows themselves the space to mourn and remember. Semi-mourning goes on for 30 days. And then the person is remembered on their death anniversary every year.

I had forgotten that there are other days in the year when a candle is lit and a prayer said in remembrance of those, especially parents, no longer with us: Yizkor, from the Hebrew root of the verb “to remember.”

Synchronicity

This week I’ve been listening to an audiobook about an 82-year-old Jewish man living with his granddaughter in Oslo. He has lots of opinions, doesn’t pay much attention to what other people think, and kind-of lives in the past. Some of his monologues reminded me of my dad.

Christoper Lloyd was the guest star on this week’s episode of NCIS.  I can’t put my finger on why exactly but he always reminds me of my dad. Something in the cheekbones? Maybe some of the kooky behavior of his characters? His character in this episode was a curmudgeonly WWII vet who just wanted his story to be heard and to have his ashes interred on the USS Arizona, the ship that sank in the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The last scenes of the episode show divers taking the ashes down to the sunken ship.

Before the coronavirus shutdown, I was planning to take some of my dad’s ashes to Masada, but everything – and I mean everything! – conspired against it. A friend offered to drive me to Masada and we had to cancel a couple of times for various reasons. And then when our schedules matched, a huge storm blew in with high-speed winds and flooding. Two days later, everything was closed because of coronavirus.

My Google calendar reminded me that Thursday was Yizkor and, coincidentally, I got an email from Chabad about the prayer said on these special days. So I lit a candle for Dad and said a prayer of remembrance. After all this, Dad will have to let me know when and where he wants his ashes interred.

Pass Over

Some rabbis have noted that Passover is a very unusual time to be locked in our homes avoiding the coronavirus. The tenth plague was the killing of the firstborn. And the Angel of Death passed over the homes marked with the blood of sacrifice. The Hebrews were released from Egypt and in freedom on the the other side of the Red Sea became a nation.

All of us will be released from our homes eventually. And we will have lost people to the virus and to death from other causes. Unlike in a murder mystery, we will grieve, we will mourn, and most importantly, we will remember.

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Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay