Thursday, March 26, 2020

Say `Thank you' to heroes of coronavirus -- March 26, 2020 column


In a presidential debate before the 1988 election, Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush, the Republican nominee, was asked about heroes who could inspire young people.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, he said.

“You’ve probably never heard of him. He’s a very fine researcher, top doctor at the National Institute of Health, working hard doing something, research on this disease of AIDS,” Bush said. C-SPAN found and posted the clip this week.

Today, nearly everybody has heard of Fauci. The director of the Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is a hero of the novel coronavirus crisis.

Fauci, 79, stands behind President Donald Trump at news conferences and, with grace and courage, sets the record straight when Trump errs about the virus.

The coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes, have upended daily life, caused sickness, financial hardship, fear, grief and more than 1,000 deaths nationwide. 

The crisis is also showing us the best in America. It has brought us together as we stay apart to stop the spread of disease. And there are many other new heroes.

Often standing near Fauci at news conferences is Dr. Deborah Birx, 63, who was U.S. global AIDS coordinator in the State Department until the White House picked her to be the coronavirus response coordinator.

Her calm presentations are professional, reassuring and personal. Urging young people to practice social distancing, she told of her grandmother’s lifelong guilt after as a child she brought home the Spanish flu that killed her mother.

“My grandmother lived with that for 88 years  . . . this is not a theoretical. This is a reality,” Birx said.

Another hero to many is New York’s Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has shown extraordinary leadership and empathy.

Cuomo calmly and clearly explains in daily news conferences how New York became the epicenter of the outbreak and how the state and the country can get through the crisis.

He reminds New Yorkers and all of us to thank those who put their lives on the line when they go to work.

“Our health care workers, who are doing God’s work. . .  Can you imagine the nurses who leave their homes in the morning, who kiss their children goodbye, go to a hospital, put on gowns, deal with people who have the coronavirus?” Cuomo said at Tuesday’s briefing.

“You want to talk about extraordinary individuals. And it’s the nurses and the doctors and the health care workers. It’s the police officers who show up every day . . . And it’s the firefighters and it’s the transportation workers, and it’s the people who are running the grocery stores and the pharmacies and providing all those essential services.”

Many are finding ways to help. In Virginia, when Gov. Ralph Northam asked for volunteers for the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps, more than 1,500 health professionals signed up in a month. On Wednesday, Northam asked for more volunteers.

At least half a dozen Virginia distilleries have shifted from producing whisky and other libations to hand sanitizer. Bakeries donate fresh bread to food banks.

Amy and Jeremy Filko of Vienna, Virginia, are using 3-D printing to make plastic shields to protect N95 masks, Washingtonian magazine reported.

The Filkos send four free masks to doctors, nurses and health care workers who request them through their Facebook page and cover the shipping costs themselves. They also are sharing the technology with others who want to make shields, as long as they agree to provide the shields free.

To this group of everyday heroes, I would add blood donors, neighbors who shop for others, delivery people, sanitation workers, mail carriers, cashiers -- and the people who cover the news day in, day out.

In this time of rampant misinformation on social media and mostly unfounded criticism of reporters by the president and his fans, we need solid, fact-based reporting more than ever.

News organizations face grave financial challenges, and with continued layoffs and cutbacks work harder to do more with less. There’s never been a better time to subscribe to a local newspaper in print or online.

And, as we keep our distance, we can still smile and say, “Thank you,” to all the unsung heroes of this crisis.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

What did you do during COVID-19? -- March 19, 2020 column


When plague shuttered London theaters, William Shakespeare wrote poetry.

COVID-19 has shut down just about everything. What are you doing?

It’s tempting – and depressing -- to obsess on the rising numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths. Bingeing on Netflix will get old. How many puzzles can you do?

Or, you could take a cue from Shakespeare.

“Tradition has it that Shakespeare wrote his two long poems, `Venus and Adonis’ and `The Rape of Lucrece,’ during a period of forced unemployment in 1592-94, when an outbreak of the plague closed London’s theaters,” according to Folgerpedia, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s encyclopedia.

The bubonic plague or black death, spread by fleas on rats and mice, was a recurring and devastating fact in Shakespeare’s time and in his personal life. He was born during a plague period of 1563-1564, and his three sisters died of plague. His son Hamnet also died of plague.

When the plague death toll rose to 30 a week in London, the government shut down the theaters. Shakespeare and others who could headed for the countryside.

In our time, we stay home. Lucky people are working from home; others face “forced unemployment.” For how long, no one knows.

Congress and the White House are working to ease financial hardship, but after years of wishing we had more time at home, many Americans are discovering we have too much time on our well-soaped hands.

In Washington, the Folger, Smithsonian museums, National Zoo, National Gallery of Art, Library of Congress, Capitol, Supreme Court and Arlington National Cemetery are all closed to visitors.

Most tourist favorites around the country have exchanged the “Welcome” sign for one that reads “Do Not Disturb.” Almost all diversions are suspended. Gyms are closed, and bars and restaurants are operating under shorter hours or take-out only.

Large gatherings are out, so you can’t go to the movies, see a play or a concert. Sports are on hiatus too. The Outer Banks has banned tourists as a precaution for residents.

But nobody said you must stay indoors – just six feet away from other humans.

National and Virginia state parks are open, although visitors’ centers are closed. National parks that charge admission fees are waiving them, an incentive to get outside. It’s a good idea to take your own water bottle and not drink from water fountains, experts say.  

Take up bird watching, gardening or another hobby you never had time for. Stuck inside? Bake bread.

Or watch an opera from the Met in New York, streaming free at 7:30 p.m. daily for as long as the Met is closed. You may find a crowd online, but each opera is up for 20 hours, so you can check back.

The Library of Congress has canceled its wonderful concerts and other programs for now, but its YouTube channel puts previous performances at your fingertips.

Or tour a museum through, which offers an amazing array of cultural sites.

It’s worth remembering that most of us are not sick and won’t get sick, especially if we follow good hygiene and social distancing rules. We are being asked to change the way we live – for a while – to help our family, neighbors, community, nation and world.

It could be worse. In 1603, as plague again swept London, King James I issued orders to try to stem the disease. Houses where someone was sick were “to be closed up” for six weeks. Clothes, bedding and other items belonging to those infected were to be burned.

People were urged to avoid the company of others, and if they did leave home, they were to mark their clothes to warn others of their disease. Getting caught not obeying the rules could land someone in the stocks.

Shakespeare took up his pen and wrote. In his time, he was more known for his 154 sonnets than his 37 plays.

What’s that? You say iambic pentameter isn’t your jam? No worries.

Herbert “Tico” Braun, history professor at the University of Virginia, recently urged his students and former students to keep a record of this period in “one or more different forms of your own choosing, a journal, a blog, an e-portfolio, a film, a series of artworks,” Braun told UVAToday. 

“Each individual perspective is valuable, and adds to the whole,” he said.

Who knows, it might lead to something great.

 © Marsha Mercer 2020. All rights reserved.  

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Fight coronavirus: No more elbow bumps! -- March 12, 2020 column


Like many others, I’m learning how to live in the time of coronavirus.

I was glad to hear handwashing is the first line of defense against the aggressive disease – until I learned I’ve been washing my hands wrong my whole life.

Simple handwashing is actually a seven-step process involving special attention to tops and bottoms of the hands, each finger and wrist and should last 20 seconds – long enough to sing the “Happy Birthday song” twice, not just once.

Fortunately, “Stayin’ Alive” by the BeeGees and “Jolene, Jolene” by Dolly Parton are among other tunes with 20-second choruses.

I feel guilty touching my face, which I still do countless times an hour, despite my best intentions.

Greetings and good-byes are now fraught with danger. I automatically accepted someone’s outstretched hand for a handshake on Capitol Hill the other day.

“We really shouldn’t,” I stammered.

“It’s OK! I have this!” he assured me, happily waving a bottle of hand sanitizer. 

Somehow, members of Congress and Hill staffers have oodles of hand sanitizer, while the rest of us haunt the empty aisles of CVS, waiting for restocking. But I digress.

If handshakes are 20th century relics, so are air kisses – and don’t even think about an “innocent” peck on the cheek or mouth kisses. Fist bumps are out, and, just as I was getting the hang of them, elbow bumps were too.  

Elbow bumps put us within a meter of each other, and that’s about twice as close as we should be, the director general of the World Health Organization said. Maintaining 6 feet from other people is best.  

“I like to put my hand on my heart when I greet people these days,” tweeted the director general, who has the splendid name Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Some members of Congress wave or give Spock’s Vulcan salute.

I’m learning a new vocabulary. “Social distancing” is the term for public health actions designed to contain contagion. When dozens of colleges and universities around the country suspend classes, that’s social distancing, not extended spring break.

Businesses are sending employees home to telework, canceling travel and large meetings. Clubs and volunteer organizations are also choosing to meet virtually or not at all.

The Gridiron Club, Washington’s premier journalism group, canceled its annual white-tie dinner and musical show lampooning politicians for only the second time in 135 years and the first time since 1942.  

The World Health Organization Wednesday declared COVID-19 a pandemic, meaning it is widespread around the world. More than 1,000 Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers. More than 30 people in the United States have died of the disease.

Many people without symptoms put themselves into self-quarantine after learning they had dinner or interacted in other ways with someone who has been infected.

We’ll likely see less of each other as more people go into personal isolation in months to come.

“Many people in the United States will, at some point in time, either this year or next be exposed to this virus, and there’s a good chance many will become sick,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said Tuesday, but “we do not expect most people to develop serious illness.”

Most – about 80 percent – will get a mild case, but about 20 percent could get severely ill and die. The disease hits older people hardest, and CDC this week suggested people 60 and over avoid crowds, stock up on groceries and medications, and stay off cruise ships and long plane trips.

For the latest on the disease and staying healthy, avoid the bogus cures and lies on social media. Check out

Among the CDC’s tips besides washing, but not shaking, hands: Avoid sharing food and open windows at home, in offices, taxis and ride-shares and on buses. 

The irony, of course, is many offices, hotels and other commercial buildings are sealed tight so you can’t get a breath of fresh air.

Nor can we wave a magic wand and make coronavirus disappear. But we can learn how to reduce our chances of exposure and infection, and if we get sick: Stay home!

And since coronavirus doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican, this is a fight we must make together.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

A running mate matters more this year -- March 5, 2020 column


Democratic voters have spoken, and they’ve said “no” to presidential candidates who are 1) youngish, 2) female, 3) black or 4) rich.

Gone are candidates Cory Booker, 50; Pete Buttiegieg, 38; Amy Klobuchar, 59; Kamala Harris, 55, and many others. Tulsi Gabbard, 38, is forgotten but not quite gone. 

Money didn’t buy presidential hopefuls love or victory. Mike Bloomberg spent an astonishing $560 million on TV, radio and digital ads as of Tuesday, according to CNN, and dropped out Wednesday after winning only America Samoa on Super Tuesday.

Tom Steyer spent $210 million on ads before he dropped out after coming in third in South Carolina, winning no delegates.  

So, we have a Democratic contest between two white male senior citizens: Biden, who will be 78 on Election Day, and Bernie Sanders, a heart attack survivor who will be 79. 

Both are said to be fit for the rigors of the job, as is President Donald Trump, who will be 74 on Election Day. Trump’s unscheduled visit to Walter Reed hospital last year remains a mystery.

Elizabeth Warren, 70, is assessing her future, as of this writing, after coming in no higher than third in any state. She is a smart, effective senator who has much to offer in the Senate.

Biden, the new frontrunner, won at least nine of the 14 Super Tuesday states, including Virginia. Sanders won Colorado, Utah, Vermont and is projected to win delegate-rich California, which is still counting votes. 

A presidential election between oldies is not necessarily a bad thing. In a country where the average life-expectancy age is 76 for men, though, running mates may become a bigger deal this year. Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, is 61.

First and foremost, the running mate should be qualified to be president. The Constitution requires only a natural born citizen at least age 35 and a resident of the United States for the last 14 years.

To energize women disappointed by the lack of a viable woman in the race, the nominee should pick a running mate who is not an old, white male. Sorry, Sherrod Brown, whose name often appears on short lists of potential running mates. The U.S. senator from Ohio is 67.

Another temptation to stifle is picking a running mate with more sizzle than substance. We’ve seen what happens when a presidential contender of a certain age wants to juice his campaign with a younger outsider running mate.

In 2008, Republican John McCain, 72, picked Alaska Gov. and self-described “Mama grizzly bear” Sarah Palin, 44. The disastrous choice made people wonder about McCain’s judgment.

A running mate can also be reassuring. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama, 46, wanted someone with “gray in his hair” who he thought would not aspire to the presidency. Biden, 65, was a safe choice with decades of Senate experience, which Obama lacked.

Should he win the nomination, Sanders already has said his running mate must back Medicare for All, his controversial single-payer health-care plan. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 30, is too young to be VP. Thank goodness.

Biden, should he win, will need to show he’s stable but not ossified. He has teased several women’s names as potential running mates – among them Stacey Abrams, failed gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, and Michelle Obama. Obama has repeatedly said she’s not interested in running for office.

Abrams said she’d be “honored” to run for vice president and “absolutely” wants to be president herself. She is African American, 46, a Yale law school graduate, former Georgia state representative and Georgia House minority leader.

But, she has baggage as a tax lawyer who didn’t pay her own taxes in 2015 and 2016. She said during the 2018 campaign she needed the money to pay her family’s medical bills.

Republicans attacked her on the issue and likely would again, even though last year she reportedly paid off the $54,000 in federal taxes she owed as well as $170,000 in student loan and credit card debt.

While presidential nominees usually shy away from picking former rivals as running mates, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar are all attractive former competitors who’ve been vetted and would balance a Biden or Sanders ticket.

Nobody votes for a president based on the running mate, but the choice is a candidate’s first big decision. Whoever wins the Democratic presidential nomination this year will need to make the choice seriously, carefully and boldly.

(C)2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.