Guest Blog: Not Living in Fear

The President of the United States said, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”

Fearless. I know some fearless people. One is Piper Beatty Welsh. I met her through a mutual acquaintance and shared interests. She is a lawyer and an advocate for Cystic Fibrosis research. She is a survivor of that disease and cancer, as well as lung transplants. I have featured her wise and passionate articles in this space before, and I just can’t help sharing this one too. The President says not to live in fear. This is important.

Guest Blog Article by Piper Beatty Welsh

So I’m gonna be honest: the public conversation around “living in fear” of COVID has raised some interesting points for me as a person with (now multiple forms of) chronic, potentially fatal illness. The irony here is that I personally have used similar language before to explain my own life choices — although in absolute fairness to myself I don’t think I’ve ever been so callous as to label people who take more precautions than myself as “living in fear.” But whatever, I digress.

To me there’s a very big difference between refusing to “live in fear” and taking reasonable steps to avoid preventable harm. And, yes, I’ve had real life experience with both. For example, when I was faced with a projected 3 to 6 MONTH life expectancy last year (not the first time in my life I’ve been handed that sort of diagnosis) I looked my doctors straight in the eye and told them that I’d be taking a trip to Japan with my husband in the middle of chemo therapy. We flew literally around the world to a place where neither of us spoke a word of the language in the middle of a course of extreme chemo, with an IV line hanging out of my chest and a carry on bag stuffed to the brim with medical supplies for the simple reason that Japan was a lifelong dream and we wanted to experience it together, and we had good reason to believe that would be our last chance. So we spoke with my doctors and had all the necessary conversations — not to ask “permission” but to make sure that we had all the information and advice we needed to make smart choices and stay as safe as possible within the boundaries of our personal risk choices. At the time, we chuckled that the decision was “so Piper,” so like the woman who toted IV meds to law school classes and kept her treatment machines in her office at the firm so she didn’t have to go on disability. I’ve always taken pride in my decisions to prioritize my dreams while still managing my health, and while I know I’ve made mistakes along the way, it’s still something I value deeply.

Fast forward a year and suddenly random strangers on the internet — folks who in some cases have never faced a true medical emergency — are sitting behind their keyboards gleefully calling out all the “cowards” who “live in fear” of a “simple cold.” Mind you, it’s a simple cold that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and increased our annual death rate by approximately 20% in this country, but hey, who needs facts? According to these brilliant online philosophers, there are only two choices: live life exactly as you did before this virus, or “live in fear.” No other options exist. There is never any reasonable middle ground.

But here’s the thing: most folks who have truly stared death in the face will tell you that it’s not that simple. Living life to the hilt in a mortal world actually means taking responsibility for your choices and being smart enough to know which boundaries are worth pushing. The greatest climbers in the world will tell you that they’re highly aware of the risks they take on the side of that mountain. They spend tons of time planning their route, examining their equipment, practicing their moves, and learning from experts before they ever place a hand on that rock. The great ones don’t ignore the risks, they adjust and work with them to achieve their most important goals anyway. Same with skydivers or extreme skiers or race car drivers or deep-sea divers or the woman with breast cancer who desperately wants to attend her kid’s band concert despite immunosuppression and intense treatment. These folks make a plan, they understand the risks, they prepare themselves and their bodies beforehand, and then they do what is most important to them WHILE protecting their own life and the lives of those they love, because THAT’S what truly living is all about.

So pardon me, keyboard warriors, if I choose to stay home instead of hanging at the bar — that’s not an experience I’m willing to take large risks to enjoy when so many safer socialization options exist. And excuse me for a moment if I opt to follow the expert advice when I go out in public — my lifetime of medical experience tells me that public health is worth protecting. And please control your rage when I dare to wear a mask in your presence — I hate to offend, but my life means more than your delicate feelings. And don’t be surprised when you come at me with your rantings about “living in fear” and being a coward and you start to detect a slight smirk behind that mask of mine — because after all I’ve been through it’s gonna take a heck of a lot more than your silly words to bring me down.

And I’m not afraid to say it.

Be brave, beautiful people.

Robert E. Lee Statue: Virginia Governor Announces Removal of Monument

It had to be done. Not only the Lee monument but all those Confederate statues.1 I wrote in 2017, “As the saying goes, take it as you will, ‘They’re history.’” 2

Two years after arriving, reluctantly, at the realization that the Confederate statues in my old home town would have to be removed, I revisited Richmond and was a little surprised they were still there. I drove along Monument Avenue, circling the statues in their roundabouts. I walked around the lovely park up on Libby Hill overlooking the James River, with its stately granite column honoring Confederate soldiers and sailors. People were out strolling, some resting on benches. There were no signs of graffiti, no other signs of strife. People, Black and White, greeted me as they walked by under the gaze of the bronze soldier standing relaxed, as if weary, atop the column.

Protesters gather around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia A large group of protesters gather around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue near downtown Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Steve Helber / AP (Click on photo to go to AP story on NBCNews.com)

Yesterday I watched the memorial service for George Floyd. It was a ceremony of respectful reflection on his life by his family and others who knew him. It was also an expression of determination and resolve to force changes to systemic American injustice, far stronger than the “We Shall Overcome Some Day” of years past. It was a church moment, one different from the other church moments3 punctuating the turmoil that has defined these days of disruption.

Just last week I wrote about Trump’s Covid-19 response, and trying to get the nation to pull together in spite of him (The Value of Hatred). In doing that I was criticized for not being sensitive to the systematic oppression of Black people. Things I wrote about Trump were interpreted in light of the President’s (later) actions and statements on the demonstrations following the brutal killing of George Floyd. There’s no point now in trying to explain what I was trying to say about hatred and how it is so destructive in handling the pandemic, but I was not writing about George Floyd. Well, that was then. Covid-19 is no longer at the top of the headlines, and now our attention is focused on racial justice. So let’s turn to that.

It’s about time.

The depth and extent of racial injustice in America is not misunderstood. It is ignored.

If you condemn the protests and do not condemn the cop slowly choking George Floyd until he died, you are ignoring the cause. If you think protesters are looters and window smashers, you are ignoring not only the cause of the protest but the reality of the protest. Protesters and looters are not the same people. Looters came in cars to take advantage of the situation. In Minneapolis, the epicenter of the unrest, almost all of those arrested for looting were from out of state. *[Edit: See 6/7/2020 comment] Many of those arrested were identified with White supremacy groups. If you condemn the violence when protest got “out of control” did you ignore the fact that there were as many White people as Black people involved? Not that it changes anything, but where was your angry voice when Philadelphia “celebrated” their Super Bowl win in 2018? Stores were looted, cars were overturned, street lights were toppled. People set fires, fought with each other, and damaged property to the extent of millions of dollars. Oh, that was different. You might also be ignoring video evidence of the police provoking peaceful protesters in the current protests. Your Mom’s old question of “Who started it?” does no more good now than it ever did. “See what a scourge is laid upon your hate… ”

“… All are punished.”

Does a burning police car upset you more than police killing a man by kneeling on his neck? If it does, is it because you are sure it will never happen to you? And is that because of your skin color?

If you’re White like me and you want to do something but don’t know what to do, here’s a list. (Thanks, Sid. I hear you.) 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice. Read the whole list, then pick one to start. By the way, you don’t have to be a White to do these things; it’s just that the list is made for us because we need to catch up.

The Value of Hatred

I read an article in our local newspaper, headlined “Stop the malicious, divisive hatred of Trump during this unprecedented pandemic.”1 It’s here, if you want to read it. It will probably make you mad. If it doesn’t then most of the comments from readers will make you mad. It didn’t make me mad. It got me to thinking about some of my friends, some of my dearest friends, who have been overcome and controlled by blinding hate. They cannot think of the President of the United States without being immersed in a burning, seething rage. I have other friends whose rage centers upon the former President. He’s out of office, but the hatred burns just as hot.

President Donald Trump is accompanied by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, left, during a tour at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Sure, Trump actively pursued the fiction that it would all go away as the virus started to spread, because if it took hold it would hurt him politically. Sure, he locked the door on Chinese immigration, “after the burglar was already in the house.” (Remember though, how he was criticized as racist for doing that at all, rather than for doing it too late. Damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.) Sure, he said that he had no responsibility. Sure, he chose to blame China, the World Health Organization, the White House Pandemic Office after he dismantled it, the former President, and then later the governors, the medical establishment, and anybody else in sight. He does stuff like that, Haven’t you come to expect it? He’s a jackass. But hate? What good does that do? Who does it hurt? Weren’t you in church when they covered that?

Did you read that article, by the way, the one I mentioned at the top? Never mind, here’s the heart of it:

He may be suffering from narcissism and adult attention deficit disorder. But the nonstop, vicious, hatred of the president, during a time of national crisis, is simply wrong.

I am reminded of the “Not My President” people. Not your President. Who, then, is? Denial has consequences, almost invariably destructive. Hatred as a motivation works out badly for all desired outcomes except destruction. Destruction, in this case, of our system of government from the top down. You want to talk about blame? You want to lay it on Trump, that incompetent, bloviating, self-centered Toddler-in-Chief? Hate him for his incompetence and for what he is? If you satisfy yourself by doing that you’re stuck in a dead-end alley. Hating him won’t make things better. Here, more from the article:

Dr. Anthony Fauci and President George W. Bush, among others warned about it in 2005. Bill Gates gave a stern warning in 2015. Such an event would require massive stockpiles of protective gear, ventilators, and ICU beds. It would take years to accumulate this stuff. Yet despite the warnings, for decades no president, no congress, no governor, or mayor did much of anything at all to prepare for it. By the same token, the governing boards of our nation’s roughly 6,100 hospitals failed to prepare for it. It caught us all off-guard, but certainly not unaware of the distinct possibility of its arrival. There was no way that in a span of a month or two Trump, or anyone else, could have made up for those years of inaction.

In January, February and into early March Dr. Fauci and other experts were assuring us that the “the risk is low.” Trump believed him, and so did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who as late as February 24 was urging San Franciscans, to come to Chinatown and that “everything is fine here.” No one, not even Fauci, had a crystal ball.

Will it ever be possible for our tortured system of government to return to being functional? It must. Surely this aberration hasn’t made the ideals impossible: the ideals of a free people living in a democracy, working and living together, being productive in industry and congenial in leisure. It can never work if we are separated from each other by hate. Hate won’t fix it.

When I started writing in this space a few years ago my focus was on Eastern Europe, and Bulgaria in particular. Well, our topics have drifted through an epoch of change, and shifted inexorably back home. We’ve talked about refugees (a lot), and racism, the Greek economy, Crimea, Confederate statues, capitalism and democracy, and threw in some poems too. If you’re curious about Bulgaria though, I can tell you that they’re “past the peak” on the Covid thing. So is, famously with their near-eradication of it, New Zealand. (You can google “coronavirus statistics by country” and get a little interactive chart.) In terms of new cases per day, Taiwan is down to about zero, as is Japan. Hong Kong is pretty much over it, though heaven knows they’ve got enough other problems now.

What do these countries have in common? I think a big part of their success is that each one has a disciplined population. Here in the Land of the Free, people don’t line up quite so readily when the government starts barking orders. That Freedom thing, you know… it’s a conundrum. In the effort that it took to win World War II (as told in rose-colored retrospect) Americans pulled together in a way that we can’t imagine now. They worked together, toward a common goal.

Hate won’t move us in that direction, not one small step. Working for good, hatred has no value. None.