Wednesday, December 30, 2020

What should we carry into 2021? -- Dec. 31, 2020 column


Four years ago this week, I wrote about “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien’s haunting short story about the weight of things foot soldiers carried in Vietnam.

The soldiers carried necessities as practical as mosquito repellent, as powerful as anti-personnel mines and as personal as memories. The short story is a classic, beautifully written, rich in detail and as poignant now as when it was first published in 1990.

Rereading it made me start thinking about the New Year, what I wanted to carry into 2017 and what I hoped we could leave behind.

I mainly thought we should leave behind the 2016 presidential election. At the time, the wounds of Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump were still fresh. Her supporters were devastated, and recriminations were flying.

Yes, the election was a shock, but we need to let it go, I said.

Commentators were prolonging the agony, and even President Barack Obama opined that he could have beaten Trump in the general election had he been able to run again. I thought that was the kind of wishful thinking Democrats should leave behind with 2016.

In retrospect, the 2016 election was a civics lesson. While Democrats were sad about Clinton’s loss in the Electoral College, after winning 3 million more popular votes than Trump, they did not deny Trump’s victory. No one harped for weeks the election was rigged or voter fraud rampant. Clinton was gracious in defeat.

No one could have imagined then how the Trump presidency would shred democratic norms and values or that it would end in a Trumpian hail of false claims of victory, spurious attacks on election and state officials and even on Republicans who dared to acknowledge reality that Joe Biden won.

But Trump has always been all about Trump. Even after dozens of defeats in the courts challenging election results without producing any verifiable evidence and numerous failed overtures to bully state legislators into overturning the will of voters, Trump continues to rage against facts and truth.

“Can you imagine if the Republicans stole a Presidential Election from the Democrats – All hell would break out,” he tweeted Tuesday from Florida. His temper tantrums are ludicrous but also dangerous.

Trump still has many dedicated followers, and I write this knowing they will see red – and not just their MAGA hats – at my opinion.

Democrats, take note: Trump was the most admired man in America in 2020, Gallup poll reported Tuesday, with 18% of respondents naming Trump compared with 15% for Obama. Trump toppled Obama from the top slot after 12 years.

Biden came in at 6% and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, 3%.

When Gallup asks people the open-ended question which man and woman they admire most, the incumbent president usually wins, the pollster reported. But 21% of respondents this time did not offer an opinion at all and 11% named a relative or friend as the man they admire most.

So what should we leave behind in 2020? I wish we could leave the disputes over the 2020 presidential election, but we know Trump will never concede. He’ll keep flailing in the mud from Mar-a-Lago or wherever he ends up after Jan. 20. But Americans will no longer need to pay attention to his sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Biden has a rocky road ahead, and it’s made more difficult by lies that he gained the office by cheating. Biden, though, already is showing a contrast with the last four years of megalomania. He has the experience at governing that should help restore confidence in our battered institutions.

He’s surrounding himself with a diverse group of competent people, starting with his choice for vice president. Kamala Harris will inspire new generations of young people to public service.

And what should we carry into 2021? You already know. We need to keep our masks and hand sanitizer close and our social distance. We need to fight coronavirus fatigue and be ready to roll up our sleeve to take the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s our turn.

That’s the only way we truly will put 2020 behind us.

Happy New Year.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

When Jupiter aligned with Saturn -- Dec. 24, 2020 column


In the longest, darkest nights of the year, we turn to the light.

We set electric candles in windows, light the Hanukkah menorah and the Kwanzaa Kinara, and decorate Christmas trees with strings of light.

We adorn our houses, trees, shrubs and lamp posts with colored, white, twinkling and flashing lights – the flashier the better.

The light show this pandemic holiday season started earlier and seemed brighter and more sparkly than in other years. Since more people were staying home for the holidays, they evidently amped up their displays. We need it.

Our holiday lights outshine those in the night sky, but this December the heavens offered us a rare treat: the “great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn.

The giant planets aligned and from Earth appeared as one bright star on Dec. 21. The planets appeared to be just a tenth of a degree apart – about the thickness of a dime held at arm’s length, NASA reported.

How rare was it? The last time the two planets appeared to be this close to each other was during the Middle Ages.

“You’d have to go all the way back to just before dawn on March 4, 1226, to see a closer alignment between these objects visible in the night sky,” said Rice University astronomer Patrick Hartigan.

Taking such a long view of the natural phenomenon raises questions. What were people thinking and doing in 1226 when they looked up to see this bright “star” in the night sky? Were they as consumed by their daily cares as we are by ours? Surely, they were, but we know little about 1226 except that the “great conjunction” took place.  

More recently, but still about 400 years ago -- as Europe was embroiled in the Thirty Years War and the New World’s Plymouth Colony welcomed two additional ships -- Jupiter and Saturn were nearly as close on July 16, 1623, as they were this week.

In 1610, the Italian astronomer Galileo, using his telescope, had discovered the moons of Jupiter and an oval around Saturn that became known as its rings. There’s no record of Galileo viewing the conjunction of the two planets 13 years later, however.

The timing of the “great conjunction” so close to Christmas this year was coincidental – the planets come together every 20 years, although we on Earth can’t always see the event -- but it called to mind the story in the Gospel of Matthew about the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Three Wise Men. Astronomers believe a similar conjunction did happen around the time of Jesus’s birth.

The very bright “star” is an optical effect. Jupiter and Saturn were 500 million miles apart on Monday. The event was bright enough to be seen with the naked eye. Or, for those under cloudy skies, observatories closed because COVID-19 to in-person viewing parties live-streamed the conjunction.

People around the world paused and looked up. For a few minutes, we could put aside our worries about the coronavirus pandemic, economic hardship and political struggles and marvel at the bigger picture overhead.

Mankind has always consulted the night skies for guidance on sailing the seas and when to plant crops. Looking into the night sky sparks questions about how we got here and how we fit into the universe. The ancient Greeks believed the gods placed the constellations in the sky to give us lessons on how to live.

While most of us have lost our connections to the heavens, astronomical events like the “great conjunction” fire our imaginations and help us feel connected to other inhabitants of our blue dot of a planet.

In his 1994 book, “Pale Blue Dot,” astronomer Carl Sagan wrote about a photo of Earth taken from a space:

 “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

The next time Jupiter and Saturn will be this close is March 15, 2080. Mark your calendar.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.





Wednesday, December 16, 2020

COVID vaccines are a gift -- if we accept them -- Dec. 17, 2020 column


This Christmas, the gifts of Three Wise Men -- make that three pharmaceutical companies -- are COVID-19 vaccines.

The Pfizer vaccine is in distribution, Moderna’s is about to be authorized, and AstraZeneca’s is likely not far behind.

In 2020, these treasures are more valuable than gold, frankincense and myrrh. If we’ve learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that safety and good health are of incalculable worth.

Seeing the first American healthcare workers baring their upper arms to get the shots boosted everyone’s morale. But it’s estimated 60% to 80% of Americans will need to be immune to the devastating virus, either through infection or vaccination, to achieve herd immunity and begin to resume normal life. That will take months.

The arrival of the miracle vaccines also raises a question: Will people get them?

Polls and anecdotal reports indicate a wide swath of the population, and Black people especially, may be wary. Only 17% or Blacks said they’d definitely get a COVID vaccine, compared with 37% of whites and Hispanics, a Kaiser Family Foundation Poll in October reported.

That was before the vaccines were a reality and before people began seeing their peers gladly roll up their sleeves.

Sandra Lindsay, 52, an intensive care nurse in Queens, New York, who is Black, received the Pfizer vaccine Monday, one of the first people in the United States to do so.

Her goal wasn’t to be first, she told The New York Times, “but to inspire people who look like me, who are skeptical in general about taking vaccines.”

Generations of Black Americans have grown up distrusting the federal government’s medical programs since the 1932 Tuskegee study in which Black men who had syphilis were left untreated so doctors could study the effects.

Many Americans are inoculation phobic. Most adults typically don’t even get a flu vaccine.

In addition, since it usually takes years to develop a vaccine, the speed at which the COVID vaccines arrived makes even some medical personnel leery of taking the first shots, although clinical trials show the vaccines are remarkably effective and safe.

In its first analysis of the Pfizer vaccine, the Food and Drug Administration found it worked well no matter the volunteer’s age, race or weight. It was 95% effective after two shots three to four weeks apart. Side effects are generally mild, although some experts suggest people might want to take the day off after the second dose in case it brings fatigue, chills or fever.

There’s much we don’t yet know. How well will the vaccine work on children and pregnant women? How long will immunity last? And, while the vaccine protects vaccinated persons from the disease, can the vaccinated still spread the virus through droplets in sneezes and coughs?

The recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is for healthcare workers and long-term care residents to be the highest priority for shots. The Virginia Health Department adopted the recommendation.  

The advisory committee seems likely to recommend that other essential workers be next, followed by those over 65 and those younger who have health conditions that put them at high risk – a plan Virginia also has adopted.

States vary in their priorities. A few states have prioritized law enforcement, prisoners and the homeless in the first group, a review of state policies by the Kaiser Family Foundation found.

The supply of vaccines is limited at present but will increase. By next spring or summer, the general population in Virginia and elsewhere will be eligible to be jabbed.

But will they? A blizzard of misinformation is coming from sources many consider reputable – political figures, radio talkers, posters on social media. By now, no one should believe COVID-19 is a hoax. Not when more than 300,000 in the United States have died of the disease this year and millions more face long-term symptoms.

That’s why everyone must mask up and practice good hygiene and social distancing well into 2021. By next Christmas, with luck and perseverance, we can celebrate the end of the pandemic.

The vaccines are a gift, but first we must accept them.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, December 10, 2020

Biden injects dose of reality -- Dec. 10, 2020 column


It was the shot seen round the world.

At 6:31 a.m. Tuesday, a 90-year-old grandmother in England named Maggie Keenan became the first person in the United Kingdom to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Days from her 91st birthday, Keenan said it was a “privilege” to be first and urged others skeptical about being jabbed to “go for it.”

“V-Day” is coming soon to the United States. The federal government says 20 million Americans could be vaccinated against COVID in the next several weeks.

Suddenly, people everywhere feel the flicker of an emotion as scarce as toilet paper last March: hope.

Life approaching normalcy could return next year. It won’t be as soon as anyone would like. We know the corner is ahead, but, despite the fantasy talk you’ve heard, we’re far from turning it yet.

COVID-19 just became the number one killer of Americans. More than 15 million in the United States have been infected with the novel coronavirus, more than 288,000 have died and thousands more face debilitating effects of the disease lasting months.

President-elect Joe Biden injected a dose of reality to the pandemic Tuesday when he announced his healthcare team and three-point plan for fighting COVID-19.

“My first 100 days won’t end the COVID-19 virus. I can’t promise that,” he said. “It’s going to take some time.”

Biden’s first priority will be for all Americans to wear masks during his administration’s first 100 days. He’ll require mask-wearing in federal buildings and during interstate travel on planes, trains and buses and work with governors and mayors on state and local mask requirements.

Wearing a mask can reduce cases, hospitalizations and deaths, but it will take more than edicts from the White House, statehouses and city halls to make masking universal. It will take all of us choosing to believe in science – or at least in our family, friends, community and country.

A mask “is not a political statement. It’s a patriotic act. It won’t be the end of our efforts, but it’s a necessary and easy beginning, an easy start,” Biden said.

It’s truly great news three effective vaccines are in the pipeline. Vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are expected to gain FDA approval and begin distribution this month with AstraZeneca’s vaccine close behind, but massive logistical challenges loom.

Only a limited amount of vaccine likely will be available in the beginning and, after an initial round, vaccinations could slow and stall, delaying millions from receiving shots for months.

The cold-storage and transportation requirements are daunting. Only some hospitals, typically not clinics or doctors’ offices, have the necessary storage capacity.

Biden’s second priority is a goal of 100 million vaccinations in 100 days. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots a few weeks apart to be effective, so that would mean about 50 million people could be protected.

First in line will be those most at risk -- healthcare professionals and people living in long-term care facilities.

Biden’s third priority is to open a majority of American schools by the end of his first 100 days, so educators will be vaccinated as soon as possible.

Success for his plan depends on several factors, including where distribution stands when he takes office Jan. 20. He called on Congress to provide funding to ensure vaccines reach all parts of the country and for public health measures in schools to safeguard students, teachers and staff.

Success also depends on persuading large numbers of Americans to shrug off fear and misinformation and take the vaccine. We’re likely to see celebrities baring their arms for the cause.

Biden isn’t sugarcoating the situation. Vaccine distribution will be “one of the hardest and most costly operational challenges in our nation’s history,” he said.

“All I can tell you is the truth. We’re in a very dark winter; things may well get worse before they get better.”

But Biden also exhibits calm, competence and confidence that are refreshing and reassuring. When he uses the pronoun “we,” which he does a lot, he means all of us.

“We know that we can overcome and heal together as one nation,” he said. “We can do this.”


© 2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Sore loser hurts himself and the country -- Dec. 3, 2020 column


On Wednesday, the United States reported nearly 3,000 people had died in one day from the coronavirus, and President Donald Trump released a speech on video.

It could be his most important speech ever, he said, but it wasn’t about the record loss of life for a single day or that as many Americans died of the coronavirus in one day as perished on 9/11.

Instead, the president railed for 46 minutes about “bad things” in the election, again making baseless claims about fraud, ballot “dumps” and conspiracy theories.

Trump is doing a disservice to the country and to his legacy with his continuing attacks on the electoral process. He will go down in history as a president who was impeached, lost his re-election bid and spread more conflict, distrust and hatred on his way out.

Unfortunately, many of his supporters believe his unsubstantiated claims. History shows repeating a lie often enough makes it seem credible, especially a lie from a trusted figure.

Trump has spun his web of deceit into a successful fund-raising effort that reportedly has reaped $170 million since the election. He claims it is for his lawsuits but could use it for the 2024 comeback presidential campaign he is said to be considering.

He is still being aided and abetted by many Republican members of Congress. And yet, some Trump allies and hand-picked subordinates are finally standing up and refuting his lies.

Attorney General William Barr told the Associated Press Tuesday, “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”

That prompted Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, to claim there hasn’t been “any semblance” of an investigation into Trump’s complaints.

But Barr Nov. 9 authorized U.S. attorneys around the country to pursue “substantial allegations” of voting irregularities even before the vote tallies were certified, despite the lack of any evidence of widespread fraud. The Justice Department’s top elections crime official left the post after Barr sent the memo.

Trump badgers Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, as “hapless,” and urges him to use his “executive powers” to undo the election, even after the state counted, recounted by hand and certified the election for Joe Biden. Kemp rightly says he does not have such powers.  

Trump also tried to stop Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, from certifying that state’s electoral votes to Biden.

Ducey had made “Hail to the Chief” the ringtone of Trump’s calls, so he wouldn’t miss one. But when the tone played while Ducey was on live TV at the certification ceremony, Ducey put down his phone and signed anyway.

Trump threatened that Republicans “would remember.”

On Nov. 17, Trump fired by tweet Christopher Krebs, a Republican, Trump appointee and Senate-confirmed director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in the Department of Homeland Security.

Krebs had batted down the president’s claims that election systems were hacked or manipulated, saying in a tweet “59 election security experts all agree, `in every case of which we are aware, these claims either have ben unsubstantiated or are technically incoherent.’”

One of Trump’s legal henchmen said Krebs should be executed. He later said he was just being sarcastic.

Trump previewed his obstinacy long ago. In 2016 and this year, he insisted he could not lose unless the election was rigged. But because someone can’t stand to lose is not grounds to toss out millions of legal mail-in votes.

Courts around the country have shut down Trump’s legal efforts to overturn the election, citing a lack of credible evidence of fraud.

When U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Brann in Pennsylvania ruled Trump’s allegations were “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations . . . unsupported by evidence,” team Trump tried to discredit him as an “Obama appointee.”

Yes, but. Brann is a conservative Republican and member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group. The state’s two senators, one Republican and one Democrat, recommended him to Obama for the judgeship.

We rely on free and fair elections to choose our leaders. Trump’s refusal to accept reality exacerbates the gulf between Americans and is dangerous for the future of our democracy.

If Trump wants to run again in 2024, that’s his business. Now he needs to put the country first.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.