Thursday, July 29, 2021

Steal: Unvaccinated rob America of `summer of joy' -- July 29, 2021 column


In the grocery store for two items, I apologized for forgetting my mask, even though most customers weren’t wearing them.

“That’s OK. You don’t have to wear one,” the masked checker said with a shrug.

I told her I’d just heard news the government is again recommending masks in some public places.

“Oh, I don’t pay attention to the news anymore,” she said.

Some Americans are understandably sick of hearing about the pandemic, but ignoring reality is dangerous to one’s health, as well as to one’s friends and family.

For those of us who are paying attention, the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control was a setback. So much for the “summer of joy.”

President Joe Biden optimistically predicted in June this would be “a summer of freedom. A summer of joy,” mainly because of free and readily available vaccinations against COVID-19.

Despite an array of inducements, only about 49% of the entire population and 57.6% of those 12 and older were fully vaccinated, as of July 27. Meanwhile the highly contagious delta variant is surging, especially among the unvaccinated.

Let’s call the unvaccinated what they are: the Grinches who stole the summer of joy.

Chief Grinch may be Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who tweeted about the new CDC guidance: “Hell no. This is politics, not science.” That’s absurd.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, the minority leader, claimed the masking guidance was “conjured up by liberal government officials who want to continue to live in perpetual pandemic state.”

“He’s such a moron,” reporters heard House Speaker Nancy Pelosi say as she was getting into a car.

So, now, conscientious Americans are helping protect the reckless. Fully vaccinated people need to mask up again indoors in areas with high COVID-19 transmission rates, per the CDC. These include many counties in Virginia

While 80% of those infected with the delta variant are unvaccinated, vaccinated people rarely become infected as well, and their viral load is similar to the unvaccinated, meaning both the unvaccinated and the vaccinated can spread the variant.

“The delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us and be an opportunist,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday in a briefing. “This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations.”

It’s tempting to say the unvaccinated made their choice and deserve what they get. But children under 12 are not yet being vaccinated, and no one wants them to get sick. The CDC also recommends that all students, teachers, staff and visitors to K-12 schools wear masks this fall, regardless of vaccination status.

Fully vaccinated people in areas with low transmission may choose to mask to protect household members who are unvaccinated, immunocompromised or at increased risk of disease.

And there’s another, more important, reason to mask up. The largest concern among public health officials is potential mutations from the delta variant that could evade vaccines, which currently protect the vaccinated from severe illness and death.

Masks are a good step, but the real solution to the pandemic and the key to returning to normalcy is vaccinations.

Sadly, the very people who would benefit most from masks and vaccinations are least likely to follow the guidance. Largely Republican, white male conservatives believe masks and vaccinations are an assault on their freedom and would rather trust false conspiracy theories and misinformation on the Internet than the government.

We’d all be better off if more politicians were like Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader of the Senate, who has promoted COVID-19 vaccinations all along and will spend tens of thousands of dollars in campaign funds on radio ads in his home state, encouraging people to get vaccinated.

Biden is taking the right step in requiring federal employees to be vaccinated or face rigorous testing and social distancing. States and cities are doing the same.  Some employers, notably Delta and United airlines and The Washington Post, are requiring proof of vaccination.

Mandate is a fighting word to many, but we are headed that way, unless more people do the right thing and roll up their sleeves. The Grinches can’t be allowed to steal our future, too.

(C) 2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved. 


© 2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Space age: Wally Funk finally made it! -- July 22, 2021 column


I tried to resist the billionaires’ space race.

The space trips by Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos were exciting, but how rich people spend their money is only of passing interest to me.

I’m astonished anyone would bid $28 million for a 10-minute ride, even to outer space, as an unnamed individual did in Blue Origin’s auction. Even more astonishing, the winner canceled, citing scheduling conflicts. Really?

In that person’s place July 20 was the 18-year-old son of a real estate mogul in the Netherlands. The dad paid a lower, undisclosed sum for Oliver Daemen to become the world’s youngest space traveler. Teens I know are thrilled to get an old Honda. Really.

But then along came Wally.

Bezos, the world’s richest human, invited Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk, an 82-year-old aviator who trained to become an astronaut in the 1960s, as his “honored guest” on his historic space flight. Funk was the oldest person ever in space when she went up with Bezos, his brother Mark and Daemen in the New Shepard rocket, named for astronaut Alan Shepard.

How it is that most of us had never heard of Wally Funk but know way too much about Britney Spears is a conundrum of our modern age. Funk is exemplary, a model of patience, hard work, perseverance and grit.  

So, before we sink back into the morass of Covid statistics and dysfunction on Capitol Hill, let us savor the remarkable, inspirational life of Wally.   

Funk made her first attempt at flight about age 5, donning a Superman cape and “flying” off her daddy’s barn onto a bale of hay. She later made balsam wood airplanes and hung them in her bedroom, she said in an oral history interview.

In learning about Funk, I discovered she and I have something in common. We both attended Stephens College in Columbia, Mo. Stephens started an aviation program for women students in the 1940s. The Flying Susies was the first of its kind in the country. The college ended the program in the early 1960s, before I arrived.

Funk went to Stephens in 1956, earning her pilot’s license at age 17. At that time, Stephens was a two-year “girls school,” and Funk transferred in 1958 to Oklahoma State University, which had a robust aviation program.

In 1961, three years before Bezos was born, Funk volunteered for the Mercury 13 program, a privately funded program aimed at testing whether women could be astronauts. At 21, she was the youngest of the 13 women selected. They called themselves the FLATs – First Lady Astronaut Trainees.

Through dozens of punishing physical and psychological tests, the FLATs were found to be just as qualified, if not more so, than the men training for Project Mercury. Funk endured 10 hours and 35 minutes inside a sensory deprivation tank – longer than anyone else. But the women were not allowed into space.

Then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote, “Let’s stop this now!” on a letter about women astronauts, and in 1962, the FLATs received telegrams saying their training had been canceled.

Funk applied to NASA four times to become an astronaut and was rejected each time. At one point, she was told she didn’t qualify because she lacked an engineering degree and would need to have one in nine months, which was impossible.

She racked up other firsts: first woman Federal Aviation Administration inspector and the first woman air safety investigator of the National Transportation Safety Board. She kept flying, logging more than 19,600 flying hours. She has taught more than 3,000 people to fly.

And she kept her dream alive. In 2012, Funk used her savings to buy a $200,000 ticket for one of Branson’s future spaceflights. Then Bezos asked her to come along for free. A little one-upsmanship there?

After the 10-minute flight, Funk emerged from the capsule grinning, her arms spread wide, as though embracing the world.

“I loved every minute of it. I just wish it had been longer,” she said. They had four minutes of weightlessness.

“I want to thank you, sweetheart,” Funk said to Bezos. “I’ve been waiting a long time.”

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, July 15, 2021

Should non-working parents benefit? New Child Tax Credit revives welfare debate --July 15, 2021 column


It’s Christmas in July. The federal government this week began sending millions of families monthly cash payments through the new, expanded Child Tax Credit.

Through the end of the year, all but the wealthiest families with children will receive $250 a month per child ages six to 17 and $300 a month for each child under six.

Most parents will receive the payments as direct deposits and will take the remainder as a credit when they file their 2021 taxes next year.

“The Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan provides the largest Child Tax Credit ever and historic relief to the most working families ever – and most families will automatically receive monthly payments without having to take any action,” the White House says online.

Families will, that is, if all goes as planned. With 90% of the nation’s 74 million children eligible, this is a massive undertaking.

Sen. Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, hailed the expanded tax credit as “the most transformative policy to come out of Washington since F.D.R. that will effectively cut in half child poverty in this country.”

And it is a huge change in the way the country helps not just the poor but most American families. Since President Bill Clinton signed bipartisan welfare reform legislation 25 years ago, most parents have needed to work to receive benefits. The expanded tax credit goes to families even if the parents don’t work or pay taxes.

It’s a temporary program just for 2021, enacted to help families and the economy hurt by the pandemic. President Joe Biden wants to extend it for another five years and congressional Democrats want to make it permanent.

Biden bucks are popular with recipients – and they vote. But are cash payments the best ticket out of poverty? Some experts warn welfare entitlements can be a tender trap that locks families into dependency.

“If the child tax credit expansion is permanently enacted, it would destroy the foundations of welfare reform. This increased cash benefit without work would take more low-income Americans out of the workforce,” Robert Rector, senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, wrote in an essay.

The advance Child Tax Credit boosts the existing credit from $2,000 per child for working parents.

Payments will be based on a family’s latest tax return with no limit on the number of children covered, although children must be citizens with Social Security or tax identification numbers. Those who don’t pay taxes can sign up online.

Families are eligible for the full advance credit if they have an adjusted gross income of up to $150,000 for a couple or $112,500 for a single parent or head of household. The expanded credit phases out for parents with higher incomes, but many are still eligible for the regular Child Tax Credit, in effect since 2018 but scheduled to end after 2025.

Examples on the White House website of how the new credit works include “Alex and Casey,” a lawyer and hospital administrator who are married with two children and make $450,000. The high-income couple won’t qualify for the new credit, but they will still receive the regular credit of $2,000 per child.

One could argue that people of such means should not receive any Child Tax Credit, which should be targeted to those most in need. But that point is rarely heard amid the clamor over non-working parents.

By next tax season, some households with no working adults will receive more than $10,000 in these payments. No work required. Just free money on top of America’s existing safety net,” Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, wrote last month in an essay on Real Clear Politics. He favors expanding the credit for working families only.

In 1996, ending “welfare as we know it” was a bipartisan goal and the bipartisan law Clinton signed ended welfare as an entitlement. The law also mandated work for welfare recipients, limited the time someone could receive benefits, and cracked down on deadbeat dads, among other things.

Clinton insisted welfare would no longer be a political issue, and politicians would not be able to attack each other or the poor.

He was right, but only for a while.

With businesses and Republicans up in arms about unemployment benefits reducing the incentive to work, extending the expanded Child Tax Credit for non-working parents likely will be a hot political issue well into the 2022 campaign.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Time to retire the national anthem? July 8, 2021 column


To celebrate the new Juneteenth federal holiday, Vanessa Williams sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at the end of the “A Capitol Fourth” Independence Day concert in Washington.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is known as the Black national anthem, so, naturally, critics blasted the singer-actress as well as broadcaster PBS for going “woke.”

No matter that opera star RenĂ©e Fleming opened the show with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“There’s only one National Anthem that covers everyone. It doesn’t matter what color you are,” one man wrote on Twitter, expressing a common theme.

Or does it? A national anthem should bring people together in the shared love of country. Does “The Star-Spangled Banner” still measure up?

The NAACP recognized “Lift Every Voice” as its official song in 1919, and over the last century it has become beloved as the Black national anthem.

Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” after watching the British attack Fort McHenry near Baltimore in 1814 and seeing the American flag still flying in victory in “dawn’s early light.” He put words to the tune of a then-popular English drinking song.

But Key was also a slaveholder and a lawyer who argued in court for the “right” to own slaves.

In our time of racial reckoning and reconsideration, statues to Key have been toppled as many people learn about Key and rarely sung verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The anthem’s third verse includes the line:

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or gloom of the grave.” The line is open to interpretation, and Key never explained what he meant. Some academics read it as overtly racist, while others see it as a reference to European mercenaries and enslaved Africans the British used as mercenaries in the War of 1812.

Americans alive today have grown up singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. But it wasn’t always so. “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” ran a cartoon in 1929 with the caption, “Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem.”

That oversight was rectified in 1931, when President Herbert Hoover signed a bill into law designating “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Even then the choice was controversial – though not for race reasons. The New York Herald Tribune said the anthem had “words that nobody can remember to a tune that nobody can sing.”

It was also criticized as too militaristic and too anti-British.

For years, civil rights advocates have called for changing the national anthem.

Doing so would take an act of Congress and 60 votes in the Senate to override a filibuster or presidential veto, so that’s unlikely.

Rep. James Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina, introduced in January a measure to make “Lift Every Voice” the national hymn. Black writer and activist James Weldon Johnson wrote the poem in 1899 to celebrate the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black in Congress, says making the song a hymn would bring people together in “an act of healing.”

That may be a reach. Clyburn has only about 40 cosponsors in the House, and there is no companion bill in the Senate.

Progress takes time. In May, Maryland finally repealed its offensive state song. “Maryland, My Maryland” was written in 1861 during the heat of the Civil War and has references to Lincoln as a “tyrant” and “despot” and suggests Union soldiers are “Northern scum.”

The Virginia General Assembly couldn’t quite bring itself to repeal Virginia’s  state song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,” with its racist connotations. The legislature did demote it to “state song emeritus” in 1997.

Virginia now has an official traditional state song, “Our Great Virginia,” a revision of “Oh Shenandoah,” and an official popular song, “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” which was popular in 1980.

Americans increasingly recognize our history is complicated and certain iconic people, place names and even songs are hurtful to a large swath of the population.

It’s time we consider what we want the national anthem to accomplish.

If it is to bring us together, as I think it should, we should consider retiring “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem.

My choice would be “America the Beautiful.”

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, July 1, 2021

On a holiday for the red, white and blue, we're still red vs. blue -- July 1, 2021 column


 What a difference a year makes. Last July 4th, most Americans were isolated, hunkered down at home under a pandemic cloud.

 This July 4th, in the sunny slogan of the White House, “America’s Back Together.”

 “Because of our vaccination program and our economic response – America is headed into a summer dramatically different from last year’s. A summer of freedom. A summer of joy. A summer of get-togethers and celebrations,” President Joe Biden tweeted last month.

 You can’t blame him for trying.

 The president and top administration officials are out and about -- at parades, baseball games, cookouts, and other events -- to “celebrate Independence Day and our independence from this virus,” the White House said.

 Biden will welcome 1,000 essential workers and military families to the South Lawn for a barbecue July 4. Fireworks will again explode over the National Mall.

 But wait. Independence from the virus? America back together? Not quite. Not yet.

 Biden narrowly missed the goal he set for July 4th of 70% of adults receiving at least one vaccination against COVID-19. His “Month of Action” in June aimed to be a sprint to the finish line but was more a slow walk.

 As of June 2, about 63% of adult Americans had received one shot and by June 30 about 66.5% had one shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Sixteen states, including Virginia, and the District of Columbia have met the 70% goal, but four states have vaccinated less than 50% of adults.

Meanwhile, the delta variant is a growing threat in every state. In Virginia, three-fourths of the 48 confirmed cases of the delta variant were unrelated to out-of-state or international travel, Dr. Danny Avula, Virginia state vaccine coordinator, said Wednesday.

 Still, Virginia’s state of emergency is no more, and the Centers for Disease Control says only the unvaccinated need to wear masks indoors in public places. The fully vaccinated need masks only when required – such as on planes and other public transportation – unless they have a weakened immune system.

 The World Health Organization, though, urges a more cautious approach, advising all the fully vaccinated to continue wearing masks and taking other pandemic precautions. In Israel, half those infected with the delta variant recently had been fully vaccinated.

 “People cannot feel safe just because they’ve had two doses. They still need to protect themselves,” WHO official Dr. Mariangela Simao told reporters.

While the number of coronavirus cases has declined greatly in the United States, more than 600,000 Americans have died of the disease. More than 11,000 COVID-19 cases are reported every day and just under 300 people die of the disease caused by the virus on average per day.

 Those who criticize Biden for missing his vaccination target may have forgotten how untethered from science some in the previous administration were. One year ago, the then-president insisted 99% of COVID-19 cases were “totally harmless” even though more than 129,000 Americans had perished from the virus and several states were suffering record levels of infections.

 That president used his July 3 speech at Mount Rushmore to fire up his base with a campaign-style attack on the “radical left.”

 The Biden administration will continue its no-drama efforts to use science to allay fears and motivate Americans to get vaccinated. People in the deep South and young people 18 to 26 have been slower to accept the need for the shots than others.

This Independence Day weekend indeed is different than the last. Americans are together with their families and friends. But it’s aspirational, at best, to say America is back as a country.

On a holiday dedicated to the red, white and blue, America is still red vs. blue. We have a way to go to bridge that gap, but the partisan divide should not extend to vaccinations.

Just as no one wants to be the last to die in a war, no one wants to be the last to die, or suffer long-term effects, from a disease that could have been prevented or mitigated by free, readily available vaccinations.

Each of us needs to take personal responsibility and do what we can to protect ourselves and each other from COVID-19. Only then will America truly be back together.

 (c)2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.