Dear Fellow White People

TL;DR “Fellow white people: sit down, shut up, and open your eyes and ears to what’s happening around you.”

I first arrived in the USA in 1985, a naïve grad student who thought years of watching TV shows like Hill Street Blues and Dallas had given me a decent background on what life would be like here.

My first “things are not what you think” came only a few days later. A friend’s parents invited me to a backyard barbecue—twenty or so well-meaning, educated, middle-aged and solidly middle-class white people. They were delightful; until someone made a comment about race. This was only a few months after the Philadelphia police department had dropped a literal bomb on the roof of a building housing black anti-government activists, and periodic protests had continued through the summer months.

I still vividly remember the comment: “I just don’t understand what these people want!”

Other people at the barbecue joined in, making statements about ”they need educating” and “they’re not really like us” and “I can’t understand what they say.” I was stunned. I’d heard these kinds of comments for years back in the UK, uttered by middle/upper class people against the poor and working class. I’d encountered such people for the first time when I went to university and quickly learned to hide my distinctly working-class and regional accent. I became a chameleon and learned to pass.

But the utterances at that sunny Sunday afternoon barbecue left me floored. Don’t get me wrong, I was profoundly aware of discussions about race—but in Leicester in the 1970s the narrative was all around issues of immigration. “XX go home!” was the chant of the racists pouring out their hatred on people of Indian, Pakistani, and Afro-Caribbean descent. I naively assumed that things in America would be different—the whole country was descended from immigrants (willing and otherwise) and the civil rights movement had happened more than 20 years earlier. America had moved on, right?

I quickly learned otherwise.

Over the years I’d be aware, like any good white progressive, that things were not as they seemed. I remember one day noticing a building site on campus, with 20 or so men of all colors working on the scaffolding. When the whistle blew for lunch, they all climbed down and sat along a wall, unpacking their bags and boxes to eat. All half-dozen or so Black workers sat together on one end of the wall, the white workers sat at the other end, and the Latinos perched uneasily in the middle.

Still, life got in the way. I was absorbed with school, career, family. Every so often I’d shake my head at some awful bit of racist claptrap and think, “there are still some crazies out there,” then get back on with my life.

Then came Obama’s election. The staggering levels of vitriol directed his way during the campaign. The foaming-at-the-mouth hysteria of the so-called Birther movement (people insisting that this Black man wasn’t born in America, so he wasn’t eligible to be president; Trump was a leading proponent). It dawned on me that the racism was more than just a few idiots and that some of them had voices that were heard far and wide. Fox News was suddenly more than a joke; it was spreading this stuff.

But I didn’t really start to wake up until a couple of years ago, when I read a twitter thread that still burns my heart. I’d started following a Black SciFi author whose work I really admire, and through her posts and retweets of other Black writers and commentators, had started to realize that there was a whole lot I just didn’t see. I learned the phrase “white privilege” for the first time (I know, late in life but I’m working on it).

I learned to notice how fiction writers address race—describing the color of a Black or brown character’s skin, but never that of a white character. Because white is the default setting that we all just assume is present.

I learned that yes, I had spent years feeling out of place as I hid my background and accent in order to ‘fit in’, but I can pass as middle class, especially in America where they assume a British accent means clever and cultured. Had I been anything other than lily white it would have been 100 times harder.

I saw the move “The Hate You Give” and realized that yes, as the mother of sons, I had taught them to be respectful and careful around the police: “Don’t answer back, don’t argue, just do what they say.” But I had never once thought that I should teach them how to avoid getting shot during a traffic stop: “Put your hands on the dashboard and keep them there; don’t make eye contact; say ‘sir’ a lot; never ever reach for something in your pocket or the glovebox.” And even if they followed all those rules, they may be get killed. The realization that Black acquaintances carried this burden was gut wrenching.

Then came the tweet: A Black woman asking something like, “Hands up sisters, how many of you have had a white woman stranger just come up and touch your hair?”

I was floored. That really happens? I started reading through the responses, found one who said, “It’d be easier to ask if any of us have never had this happen.”

Fellow white women, think about that. Think about the lived experience where total strangers assume it’s OK to violate your personal space and touch your hair.

And that’s what really brought it home to me, that being white means we get to drift through life in a state of blinkered ignorance, assuming that our experience is everyone’s experience because this society amplifies our voices in a way that silences others’.

So yes, the civil rights movement happened over 50 years ago and yes, we elected a Black president for eight glorious years, and yes, we all carry burdens and have Stuff we have to overcome.

But fellow white people, listen up: Black people have been trying to tell us for years that there’s a profound problem with racism in this country and we either didn’t listen or politely nodded and turned away. So now, when the frustration, the grief, what I imagine must be the utter mind-numbing exhaustion of just trying to Live While Black, finally boils over, stop with the “But the violence! But the looting! What do these people want?”

This moment is not about us, but we are the ones who must listen. Think about the lived experience where strangers assume it’s OK to touch your hair. Let that reality sink in for a while. Then start learning and try to do better.

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Graduation Covid-style

May and June are graduation season in America; everywhere, students mark their high school and university graduations with all-important rites of passage including the senior prom, a walk across a stage wearing a cap and gown, and lots and lots of parties.

I remember Older Son’s graduation from a large university in Baltimore entailed military levels of organization and coordination. We gathered in a massive indoor arena with thousands of other proud family members; endured endless speeches and hours of watching not-my-kid walking up to the stage; and finally cheered loudly for ten seconds as his name was called and Older Son got to do The Walk.

But not this year. So, how do Americans celebrate graduation Covid-19 style? By invoking that most American of icons, the car.

Our neighbor’s daughter just graduated from a University about 150 miles away. Her aunties, who all live nearby and love absolutely any excuse for a big family get-together, are not the types to be thwarted by a mere pandemic and they decided this event needed to be marked. So, they put together a parade down our street. Led off by a police car, about a dozen cars drove by, all honking horns and filled with cheering family members, with a fire truck bringing up the rear. The young graduate was suitably surprised and moved (and probably a bit embarrassed). These pics are swiped from her mum’s Facebook post (with permission).

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Yes, that’s the proud dad perched on the ladder filming.

A number of houses in the area have personalized signs like this at a friend’s house, marking her son’s graduation from university.

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Many friends have been posting camp-and-gown pics on deserted campuses.

But I think this is probably toughest for all the soon-to-be-high-school-graduates, whose final weeks of senior year are supposed to be full of the kinds of events that you remember for the rest of your life. Let’s face it, angst about The Prom is a staple of just about every US high-school based movie ever made. Last week I got a sad text from the mother of one of Younger Son’s long-time friends: “She’s missing her 18th birthday, senior prom, and high school graduation, so friends, please send video messages that we will compile for her to mark this time of her life.” Not a lot of movie potential in that.

The SUV Color Day

Which takes us to one of our local high school rituals that had to be marked very differently this year.

The last Monday in May is Memorial Day in the US, a bank holiday in memory of those who died serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day weekend also marks the start of summer. In our small town, the Friday of Memorial Day weekend is Color Day—a school sports day where all the kids are split into two teams, red or blue, and spend the morning doing jump rope relay races and other goofy games straight out of a 1950s playbook.

School sports days are standard in America, but our school district is so small that the entire school community takes part in one big competition. Each grade has an event, from the five-year old kindergarteners all the way up to the 18-year old seniors, along with track races for the middle and high schoolers. Each win racks up points for the team color.

This pic is from one of Younger Son’s Color Days; I think they’re doing the wet sponge relay race. You can see the school assembled on the stands in the background (around 600 kids aged 5-18), waiting to be called down for each class event.

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In this small town, when your kid is first enrolled at the school, they are assigned red or blue—and they stay that color for life. Literally for life. Subsequent siblings keep the same color and parents identify as either red or blue, even passing on their color to their own kids if they stay here. The local bakery even sells red and blue bagels for Color Day.

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The night before Color Day many houses are decorated with balloons and streamers, and gangs of kids roam the streets attacking rival-color houses with chalk graffiti and throwing toilet paper. The occasional rogue street sign also shows up.

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The morning starts with a parade of the entire school population, led by the youngest kids, with blue on one side of the street and red on the other. Our sons would head off to school that morning sporting blue paint from head to toe. Spouse and I would don our blue shirts and walk down to the school to stand and cheer on the blue side of the street as the kids marched past, all singing and chanting, then hurry over to the high school football field to watch the events. Even after all their kids have graduated, many parents still go to see the parade.

After the final event is run and the numbers are added up, the winning team races to the corner of the football field and paints the big bell that stands there either red or blue.

So, you get what a big deal Color Day is for our little town.

But for the high school juniors and seniors, the day is not over. They now hurry home, wash all the paint out of their hair, then get primped and polished ready for the prom that evening. Prom starts with an hour or so of milling about and taking pictures at the house of one of the graduating seniors. (In neighboring school districts with more kids in a graduating class than we have in our entire school system, prom pictures usually take place at some outdoor venue like a particularly scenic park.) It’s breathtaking to see the morning’s mob of rowdy, sweaty kids suddenly transformed into elegant young men and women in tuxedoes and long dresses. Most schools have separate junior and senior proms—with an average of only 50 kids in each grade, ours combines the two into one event, held at a nearby country club.

About a week or so later comes the graduation ceremony for the seniors, also on the football field (or in the gym if it’s raining). This time it’s the families who sit in the stands while the graduating class marches across the field. Our little town even does high school graduation differently. There are no caps and gowns; instead, the boys all wear tuxedoes (with a red or blue tie, of course) and the girls wear long white dresses and carry large bouquets of red roses tied with blue ribbon.

This is Younger Son’s entire graduating class a couple of years ago assembled on the front steps of the school, before their ceremony got underway.

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But the class of 2020 had none of this. No Color Day, no prom, no graduation.

Instead, our town combined all three events into a car parade for the seniors on what would have been Color Day.

Over the course of a couple of hours, with one family in each car, all of the seniors drove a carefully designed route around the town that covered almost every street and all of the seniors’ homes, escorted by fire trucks and police cars. We all stood out front and cheered and waved as they drove by.

Parents commented in the local community Facebook page that their students were surprised and delighted at the amount of support they got from the town. There was even a brief segment about it on the local TV news station.

Does all of this make up for missing your prom and graduation? I doubt it.

Welcome to adulthood, kids.

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This Lousy Pandemic Script

A few days ago I watched an online talk featuring two of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman and Nora K. Jemisin (you can find it here  here). At one point they note that this pandemic is not the apocalypse that science fiction writers had anticipated.

Your standard plot usually assumes that there are at least some grownups around; and even if it all goes wrong at the start, eventually the grownups take control and show the stubborn bureaucrats what really has to happen so that everyone can survive. But here in the US right now, the reality is not just a serious lack of grownups at the national level but a coterie of leaders who seem to be going out of their way to actively make it all worse. And it turns out that the real heroes of survival are found in the local community groups just trying to do their thing. If this were a movie script?

Rejected. Combines surreal levels of political horror with mundane little acts of caring; unrealistic and unwatchable.

There are grownups in power in some places at the state and local level, mostly Democrats. I count Governor Wolf here in Pennsylvania as one, using a measured and science driven response in the face of impossible demands. In contrast, the Sister-in-Law who lives in Florida is horrified that (Republican) Governor DeSantis is reopening the beaches there. Which has prompted one Floridian to stalk the beaches dressed as the Grim Reaper, as seen in this screenshot from Twitter.

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OK, the optics are funny, but this script is veering into the absurd here, writers; maybe rein it in a little?

And then there’s Governor Hogan of Maryland, telling the Washington Post in an interview that he’d had to enlist the National Guard and state police to protect a shipment of Covid-19 tests from potential seizure by the feds. This came after Massachusetts Governor Baker reported that a planeload of PPE (personal protective equipment) had been seized by the federal government. (Both of these governors are Republicans.)

Hey, what idiot thought it was a good idea to have “state governments having to fight a venal federal administration in a desperate bid to keep doctors and nurses safe” as a major plot point?

Meanwhile, who would have anticipated that you could storm a state Capitol building while waving an assault rifle, as long as you are part of a group of similarly incensed white people squawking about not being able to hang out at your favorite bar. (If black protestors had done this, we’d be reading their obituaries, even supposing they’d been able to get within half a mile of any government building while carrying guns.) Yes, this really happened in Michigan. The same people who are always going on about the importance of law and order and “support the men and women in blue” were screaming into the faces of the cops standing in front of them.

Ugh, another ludicrous plot twist, writers.

What is it about this country that it seems to have more than its fair share of whack-jobs? They’re a very small minority, but the embarrassing relatives you hope will keep quiet at family gatherings are now out and about, screeching that they have the right to get sick if they want to and equating not being allowed to get a haircut with the policies of Hitler. As shown in a photo series at The Columbus Dispatch on April 18 (photo gallery), one of which is shown below, the slogans on the placards waved around in Ohio were distinctly, peculiarly white American.

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The “don’t tell me how to live my life…no forced testing or vaccines” slogans are of course coming from the same people who protest outside abortion providers.

Oh, come on, that’s just too unsubtle; this script really has been penned by rank amateurs.

Meanwhile, America’s fault-lines have been laid bare, particularly the profoundly disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on people of color. PA Governor Wolf has announced a task force to examine why this is so.

Maybe start with the ongoing impacts of 400 years of systemic racism? Did anyone do any research before starting to write this?

In this unexpected apocalypse script, the real heroes are the people slogging through their days as essential workers—the nurses, yes, but also the janitors and the Amazon warehouse workers and the bus drivers. The grownups keeping us all going are not leather clad warriors carrying rifles, they’re neighbors getting together to make sure elderly people get their groceries (because, forget deliveries, they just aren’t happening reliably around here). They are the many people helping out at our local foodbank and the restaurant owners who are donating food to the hospitals. They are the teachers figuring out how to keep kids educated online, and our local home and school association trying to create special memories for the soon-to-graduate high school class of 2020.

Another hero in our community is the local amateur photographer who launched a Porch Portraits project—walking around the neighborhood and taking pictures of people on their front steps and porches, then posting in the local community photography Facebook page. (Someone caught the pic below of him doing his thing and posted it online.) Many neighbors have asked that his series of pictures be turned into a book when this is all over. The local “buy nothing” Facebook group is also up and running again, with people posting stuff they can swap or donate, from clothes to kitchenware, plant cuttings to kids’ toys. This is how we survive.

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It turns out survival for me includes figuring out how to join a family Zoom for someone’s 65thbirthday (with nine family groups on the call, it was chaotic and noisy, just like our in-person gatherings, but definitely better than nothing). It also means re-reading some of the books on my shelves—but not the ones in Mira Grant’s post-zombie apocalypse NewsFlesh series. These books are brilliant but just a bit too on point right now.

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For all the whining of some protestors, the US version of lockdown is downright tame compared with the rigorous shutdowns enforced in Spain and parts of China. While parks and public spaces are closed here, there’s no limit on how much you can go outside, on foot or in a car. Despite being Covid-central for Pennsylvania, restaurants in this area are allowed to stay open for takeout. So, another key aspect of survival is restaurant managers figuring out how customers can order online or over the phone and do safe pickups.

A couple of days ago, I picked up hoagies for the family (that’s a long roll sandwich with a distinctly Philadelphia accent). This meant calling the local Lee’s Hoagie House, ordering and paying by credit card over the phone, then sitting in my car in their parking lot while a young person with a clipboard (and mask and gloves) checked my order number on the list, then collected the order from the restaurant and brought it out to the car. Not exactly a hardship.

Face masks are now required when you go out and about where we live, so I’m adding the neighbor who knows how to sew to my list of unexpected grownup heroes. www.SewSistersSew.org  makes masks that are CDC compliant, with washable double layer cotton, ties in the back, and a metal strip to shape over your nose. She even made us a kid-size one for the World’s Greatest Granddaughter.

I have no idea how this god-awful script will reach any kind of satisfying conclusion. Governor Wolf has released a color-coded map for Pennsylvania (below, from the state website) showing what counties will start to see some controls lifted in the next week or two. We’re in Montgomery County in the southeastern corner, firmly in the red still, with (at time of writing) 4,839  confirmed positive cases and 393 deaths county-wide since March 7.

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At the national level, election day is November 3 and the presidential inauguration isn’t until January 20, 2021. That’s a lot of time for the virus and its attendant whack-jobs to wreak havoc on this country.

OK people, scrap all this; clearly, the country that brought us the brilliant movie ‘Parasite’ is the only one that came up with a good script for Covid-19.

But wait, there’s more! Murder hornets have been spotted over in Washington State (the top-left hand corner of the USA). Our beleaguered honeybees are now at risk of getting their heads bitten off by an invasive alien species twice their size. So, compared with honeybees we have nothing to complain about?

According to National Geographic, there’s a strain of Japanese honeybees who co-evolved with the murder hornets and can defeat them— these bees surround a hornet in a big ball and flap their lil’ bee wings so fast it creates a heat vortex that literally cooks the hornets…which is not only metal as hell, it sounds downright inspirational.

Coming soon to your favorite streaming service: Sensible people forming swarms and flapping scientific papers and full copies of the constitution so fast it makes the alt-Right idiots spontaneously combust.

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Life Under Lockdown

So, on the surface the leafy-suburbia version of the apocalypse turns out to be a rather mundane affair involving furious debate on the community Facebook page over whether it’s still OK to use the school playing fields (hint: it isn’t) and a strange obsession with toilet paper and paper towels (because both of those items have been essential to human survival for millennia?).

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Even so, there are true horror stories coming out of New York, Florida, and mental health institutions and prisons everywhere. A friend who lives on Cape Cod notes that the usual influx of New Yorkers moving out to their summer homes has started very early. (“We have one small community hospital here with only a couple of beds, what happens if people get sick?”)

The lockdown—announced for the whole of southeastern Pennsylvania just hours after my last post—is finally, slowly, taking hold. The grocery stores are still open; neighbors complain online that there are used medical gloves scattered all over the parking lots. I haven’t been shopping since the 18th but apparently our local Acme supermarket has taped X’s on the floor marking where people should stand at the various counters, arrows indicating a one-way system around the aisles, and plastic shields to protect checkout workers. Not a coincidence that this particular Acme branch is also unionized. A number of the local restaurants have closed but about half are still offering takeout.

Covid-related ads are starting to pop up on the TV, which is kind of surreal; mostly from restaurant chains boasting about their “zero-contact” takeout options. Most worrisome, layoffs are starting to take a toll across the state—Pennsylvania has reported the sharpest ever surge in unemployment claims in the last two weeks of March—and our local food bank is seeing a record demand for help.

And yet, when I ventured out on the 28th to pick up some takeout for dinner, there were still a surprising number of cars on the road—less than usual at 6:00 p.m. on a Saturday evening, but certainly not the deserted streets I’d been expecting. And just yesterday the lawn care company came by and gave our grass its first mowing of the season; landscaping contractors are considered “essential”, which I guess is good for the workers but seems kind of an odd decision.

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Wild goats are coming down out of the hills to roam the streets in Llandudno, dolphins have been spotted in Venice, and hungry monkeys are going on the rampage in Thailand because they can’t score food from tourists. Maybe the traffic still on the roads around here is the only thing stopping hordes of bears from venturing out of their lairs in the Pocono mountains to ravage the trash cans of suburbia?

Meanwhile, the local hospital’s social media appeals for protective gear are getting more urgent.

Which may explain why the chair of the County Board of Commissioners Val Arkoosh—a doctor, who has been a voice of calm reason and fact in near-daily media briefings—issued a decidedly testy message on the 30th. Noting that there had been a marked jump to just over 500 tested-positive cases in our county over the past week, and 6 deaths, her statement concludes:

There are now six families grieving the untimely loss of their parent, grandparent, husband, or wife. Many more families in our community will experience this tragedy if you don’t take steps right now to stop the spread of COVID-19. You must stay at home except for life-sustaining activity. By leaving your home today for any unnecessary reason, you are taking someone else’s life in your hands. Even if you feel fine, you could unknowingly transmit the virus to someone else. Your carelessness could kill them. Is that trip to the store worth it? Is seeing your friends in person worth it? Make the right choice. Stay at home.”

That was two days ago. This morning’s tally on the county tracking website is 8 deaths and 564 positive cases, and no doubt it will have jumped higher in this evening’s update.

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Everywhere there are stories about private companies and institutions stepping up to organize medical supplies and protective gear. Younger Son’s university did an Instagram story last week describing the boxes of stuff they’ve been putting together for donation: masks and gloves from the biology labs; adapted protective gear from the athletic departments; and masks and gowns sewn from surplus stuff in the theater costume department. There are also reports of private organizations setting up field hospitals and some cities trying to adapt convention centers and sports venues for non-intensive hospitalization.

But it’s all very ad hoc. Because the reality is that there is no national healthcare coordination in this country—unless it involves regulation of drugs and corporate pricing. Even at the state level, any coordination is fractured because all the facilities and networks are essentially privately owned. I assume the various hospital networks are communicating to try to figure out who has what resources, but there is nothing like the national coordination seen in the UK via the (flawed but essential) NHS.

fullsizeoutput_1116Note the sharply rising bright pink line in this graphic from the Financial Times. Yep, that’s the best-in-the-world US of A. And these are just the reported tested-positive cases.

Of course, there could have been national-level coordination via the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and the pandemic response team at the National Security Council—but the former has seen its funding slashed and the latter was disbanded two years ago. Trump did not create Covid-19 but the staggeringly incompetent and venal actions of his government over the past three years have certainly ensured that way more people will die because of it.

And a number of state Governors are refusing to order strict containment measures, essentially saying, “We’re not like New York or California and the president says it’s not necessary.” Yes, they’re all Republicans. The list includes Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and South Dakota – and Florida. Yes, Florida. The state where thousands of college kids were partying on the beaches just two weeks ago and the state with a disproportionate number of retired folks. Wonderful.

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So, it’s left to the likes of county-level elected officials to remind us that we’re all in this together, along with New York’s Empire State Building, which sent out this tweet on the 30th:

“Starting tonight through the COVID-19 battle, our signature white lights will be replaced by the heartbeat of America with a white and red siren in the mast for heroic emergency workers on the front line of the fight.”

If you can, catch a video of the 9:00 p.m. rotating light show, it’s pretty cool.

As for me, the biggest challenge right now is keeping three adult males fed. A few days ago, I baked bread for the first time in many years (25? 30?). I used a recipe from blogger Autumn Ashbough called Shaker Bread. You can find it here.

Got to admit, I’m pretty proud of how well these loaves turned out. Unfortunately, they were both gone in less than 36 hours, and I only have enough yeast for two more batches.

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UPDATE:

A few hours after posting the above, I decided to make an excursion to the above-mentioned local supermarket; what I found was horrifying. I can’t remember the last time I have felt that scared when out and about in public.

Yes, the store had installed shields at the checkouts and markings on the floor to aid in distancing and yes there were plenty of disinfectant wipes at the door. But none of that helped because almost no-one there–and the store was pretty crowded–paid any attention.

*No-one else I saw wiped down their cart.

*Lots of shoppers were wearing a medical-style mask and/or gloves–but that just made them more lazy. Did they not realize the problem with touching every thing on the shelf while play with their phones, before choosing their one item? And come to think of it, unless they were all front-line workers or immune compromised, why were they wearing that protective gear and not donating it to a nurse who really needs it?

*There were whole families there with 3-4 kids, one whose kids were romping around as if in a playground.

*I got sneered at for carefully using a disinfectant wipe to open a fridge door to pick up milk.

*I had one guy push past me, literally knock into me, all annoyed because I didn’t want to get within a couple of feet of someone else just so Mr Oblivious-And-Entitled could get where he wanted to go 30 seconds faster.

*And finally, there were discarded wipes all over the store floor and a lot of masks, gloves, and wipes littered around the parking lot.

I saw maybe two other people who seemed to know what they were doing (virtual hugs to both of them). The rest? Honestly, I despair.

 

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How our world has changed

When I posted on March 13, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (aka Montco) had just started a supposed two-week shutdown of all non-essential businesses to try to “flatten the infection rate curve.” Within days it was clear that few businesses were willing to close—my local hairdressers stoutly declared that their sanitation practices were excellent so clients should not worry, and most restaurants not only stayed open but were surprisingly full.

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So, on March 18 the Governor issued a detailed list of which Montco businesses must close (hint: most of them) and which ones can stay open. The restrictions were also extended to additional counties. Needless to say, hairdressers were not deemed essential, and restaurants can now only offer takeout.

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A few days ago, the Philadelphia Police Commissioner announced the city would be “delaying arrests” for nonviolent crimes such as theft, drug offenses, and prostitution. People will still get charged once the emergency is over but for now, they want to avoid clogging up the jails. This triggered some hysterical social media posts about the breakdown of law and order and (because, America) “we all should go out and buy guns.”

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Then on Sunday afternoon, Philadelphia’s mayor announced a stay-at-home order, effective 8:00am Monday 23rd, prohibiting all public and private gatherings outside a single household. We are about three miles north of the city boundary; how long until we get the same order here in Montco?

According to the ongoing tally from Johns Hopkins, the US now has the third largest total of positive cases, second only to China and Italy; of course, the total is really much higher, but without widespread testing no-one knows the actual number. Montco now has a drive through testing facility, but you have to have an appointment via your doctor, and can only be tested if you have a notable fever (over 100.4 Fahrenheit, 99.6 for ages 65 and older) AND a cough; or, are a first responder or health care worker who’s potentially been exposed. For the rest of us, if you have a nasty cough and don’t feel great? Just stay home.

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It’s finally dawning on people that the “two-week shutdown” will actually extend for much longer. May and June are graduation season in America—already, high schools and universities are announcing the cancellation or postponement of in-person graduation ceremonies, which will be an awful disappointment for millions of students and their families.

I moved Youngest Son home from his university on the 15th (armed with copious amounts of sanitizer, wincing every time he hugged a friend goodbye, and dumping all his stuff in the garage for three days to detox). Like all the rest of the nation’s students, his classes have restarted online; but nothing can make up for the fact that his spring dance shows will never happen. I met some friends of his on the 15th, one of them a senior. “Oh,” I said, “I’m so sorry this is how your four years are ending.”  She gave me a wan smile. “It’s OK. I’ve pretty much run out of tears, now.”

Five US states, together accounting for almost a third of the US economy, are now closed for all but non-essential business. As reported by Reuters, 5.4 million residents in those five states do not have health insurance. The state-wide shutdown includes New Jersey, the state next door to us, where everyone must just stay home unless they are an essential worker, going to buy groceries, or headed to a doctor’s appointment. I cannot imagine how this will be enforced.

Our local hospital network is already appealing for protective gloves and masks, asking businesses who may have them (beauty salons, landscaping companies) to please donate. According to a nurse who posted on the local community Facebook page, the standard protocol of using one N95 mask per nurse, per patient, has been changed to one mask per nurse and make it last as many days as you can. Local crafty-types are figuring out how to sew hospital-compliant masks to donate.

Our school district and local food bank together organized a weekly grocery distribution for families whose kids get free school lunches. No-one knows how long this may have to continue; the food bank reports heavy demand, and the work layoffs are only just getting started.

I made a trip to the local supermarket on the 18th in search of salad vegetables. Thankfully, there seemed to be plenty, along with a full complement of fresh fruit. As expected, there were no paper goods (toilet paper, napkins, towels) and no cleaning supplies. There was also very little milk or frozen pizza, and no fresh chicken. I have no idea what it says about America, that these are the things people panic-buy.

Unfortunately, not only was the place much more crowded than usual for the middle of a weekday, but no one else seemed to use the sanitizing wipes by the door on their shopping carts. And forget staying six feet apart—I almost shouted at the lady who came bustling up behind me in the self-checkout line, especially when she made a “Oh, here we go!” remark as I carefully wiped down the register before using it.

The supermarket has now announced that weekday mornings, 7:00-9:00 a.m. are set aside for elderly shoppers (age 60+) and those with high-risk health problems. That sounded like a great idea—but a neighbor reported stopping by on Friday morning at 7:30 and finding the place so packed she turned right around and went home again.

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‘Specialty’ food stores have had to close so Spouse made a last run to the local cake shop to stock up on cupcakes. Hey, we each have our own definition of what counts as essential supplies (especially as I seem to have no baking chocolate in the pantry).

Meanwhile, it is astonishing how much technology is helping to keep some aspects of life going.

There are scores of free online workout sessions available from gyms, yoga instructors, etc. Yesterday, a friend ran a live feed for her local church group, so they could watch the pastor’s sermon online. The local community’s Facebook page is full of links to resources for parents to keep kids entertained and educated, from celebrities reading stories to YouTube tutorial pages to live feeds from zoos.

Many kids, of course, won’t be so lucky. A young friend who teaches second grade (7-8-year olds) in a low-income neighborhood posted online that she is very worried that missing weeks of school will leave “her kids” irrevocably behind in their reading and math skills.

On the plus side, one of the most impressive feats of adaptation has come from the local dance studio. Within a couple of days of the initial restrictions being announced, the owner and teachers at Edge Dance Co. had figured out how to continue to run classes online via Zoom. So, on Saturday morning Oldest Son set up his laptop in the living room and World’s Greatest Granddaughter had her usual 10:00 a.m. dance class, led by the teacher from her own home. This actually worked much better than I would have expected with a dozen or so three-year-olds—except for the one clueless parent (there’s always one!) who failed to mute their laptop, thereby treating the whole class to their exhortations of “Look, see what Miss Rachel is doing? Look, do this!”

I think World’s Greatest Granddaughter was just thrilled to have an excuse to don her ballet slippers and pink tutu. It’s been hard for her to understand why she can’t see any of her friends at nursery school or go to swim class or the playground.

“Daddy, go playground?”

“No, baby, people are sick so we’re not going to the playground.”

Furrowed brow: “Playground sick, Daddy?”

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Oldest Son created a backyard obstacle course to entertain World’s Greatest Granddaughter, which actually did a pretty good job of wearing them both out. Thank God we have a decent size back gaden.

And so, we try to hunker down and wait. Spouse is working full time from home—fortunately, we have a dedicated home office thanks to my own 18 years of telecommuting. Oldest Son continues to work on what freelance projects he can for as long as he can. Youngest Son gamely tries to complete his semester at college, using group chats and Facetime to connect with friends. And I write, read through my (fast dwindling) supply of library books, and try not to panic whenever one of us coughs. With all the extra walks going on, only the dog is happy.

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And so it begins

Three weeks ago, a family member laughed at me when I admitted I was starting to quietly stock up on essentials (like soap, pasta, and canned goods). Two weeks ago, many people I know were still dismissing the headlines (“It’s no worse than the ‘flu and we’ve all had that”).

Four days ago, Youngest Son’s university announced that students who go home for spring break, which starts tomorrow (March 14), should plan to stay there for a couple of weeks, while the administration figured out the best way to proceed. This is a 250+ year-old elite institution full of Very Smart People—so this email was a clear heads’ up that the proverbial was about to hit the fan. I found myself wondering how long it would be before the rest of the semester was cancelled outright; I figured maybe a couple of weeks? A handful of other (private) universities made similar announcements.

At my Writer’s Group meeting three days ago, Covid-19 was pretty much all we talked about (when not writing). Should we be worried? What do the different experts say? What is social distancing? Does anyone believe the advice coming out of DC? (Surprise: no one did.)

Then two days ago, Youngest Son’s university amended its plans: all students must vacate the campus by end-of-day on March 19, with all classes to be conducted online through the end of the semester in May. The only students who can stay on campus are those who need to finish senior thesis work; those who would have serious problems with housing, finances, or visa issues if they left; those from places with limited internet access; and international students who shouldn’t return to level 2/3 countries like Iran or Italy.

 

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And yesterday afternoon, the Governor of Pennsylvania announced closures of businesses in Montgomery County starting today and lasting for two weeks. Why? Because most of the so-far-diagnosed cases in the state have been in Montgomery County. Guess where we live. All schools, daycare, adult daycare centers, gyms, etc., must close. Grocery stores, gas (petrol) stations, and doctor’s offices and pharmacies have to remain open; everyone else should close.

Driving home from an appointment about two hours after the news broke, I decided to be extra-prudent and top up the car with gas. Turns out many others had the same idea—4:30 in the afternoon on a regular weekday and there were actually lines of cars waiting to use the pumps at the local station. Oldest Son stopped off at a grocery store to pick up supplies for his partner and daughter and reported nary a box of pasta nor bottle of hand sanitizer to be found. An aunt who lives nearby (but not in the county) said her local Target store was so busy it was “like Christmas eve.”

By 7:00pm my email was full of notifications from local businesses that they would be closed for the next two weeks: the dance studio (so, no watching three-year-old granddaughter having fun on Saturday morning, sad face); the movie theatre (ugh); the local ice cream place, Sweetly Scooped (oh no!); the nearby Willow Grove Mall (ouch, that’s gonna hurt); the library—wait what? The library? But I only have two books on hand!

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Montgomery County, or Montco as we call it, is immediately north-west of the city of Philadelphia. It’s the third-most populous county in the state, with a population of 828,000, and covers 487 square miles. There is farmland and open countryside in the far northern parts of the county, but the central and southern areas (where we live) are densely populated suburban neighborhoods. The county was created in 1784 (yes, I looked it up), which makes it one of the older counties in the USA. There are a slew of colleges and universities in Montco; a couple of really big hospitals; 22 distinct school districts; a handful of big business parks; and the massive King of Prussia Mall, the second largest in the USA. That’s a lot of stuff to close for two weeks.

Two weeks of shut-down doesn’t seem all that bad—until you start to think about the ripple effects. Many of Montco’s residents work in the city of Philadelphia. No school/daycare = a lot of people can’t work, even if their place of business stays open. Service economy workers, freelancers, small business owners: two weeks can be a big hit to their earnings. How do you pay the bills if you have no income for two weeks? What if the shutdown lasts longer and spreads to other areas (I wouldn’t be surprised)? A couple of new restaurants just opened in our town—will they make it through the month without any patrons in these first few weeks?

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I was at the local supermarket just two days ago and it seemed to be business as usual—no empty shelves, no more shoppers than usual at mid-day on a Wednesday. A neighbor just posted this picture of the same store this morning on social media, showing stripped-bare shelves. Someone else mentioned going to the Super Giant yesterday afternoon (a couple of miles from us, open 24 hours), and finding a jam-packed parking lot and two-hour waits to check out (she left). Someone else said the store had had to lock the doors near the alcohol section last night because people were stealing the booze.

Meanwhile, the testing debacle continues. Everyone knows there must be way more cases “out there” that we don’t know about because the tests are just not available. US-based social media are full of stories of people, including doctors and nurses, who are symptomatic but cannot be tested because they “don’t meet the criteria” (e.g., haven’t recently been in a Level Three country or had a close family member with a positive diagnosis), or the wait list is just too long. Oldest Son has a close friend in Florida who has had a severe cough for days and is still waiting to be tested. In contrast, South Korea has apparently devised drive-through testing stations—which sounds tailor-made for a country like the USA, if only we had the leadership to make it happen.

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www.flattenthecurve.com

This website has the best summary I’ve seen so far of why this pandemic is particularly problematic for America—no universal healthcare; lots of people who can’t afford to seek medical treatment; not nearly enough hospital beds available—along with sage advice on what we should be doing.

I’m actually relieved that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has taken action here in Montco—I’ve read enough about flattening the infection rate curve and social distancing to understand how necessary it is. And I’d like to think that we’ll be OK, that people will rally round and look after each other and calm down once they realize they don’t need 27,000 rolls of toilet paper.

But then I think: Americans are singularly un-prepared for the kind of long-haul restrictions on their daily activities that we are now facing. What happens if Amazon stops delivering, the Starbucks drive-through is closed, and there’s no-one to staff the local pharmacy because they’re all home caring for their kids or, worse, their sick relatives?

Because the reality is, that while state-level authorities can take action, they are hampered in their response effectiveness by the crippling lack of leadership—including funding and coordination of resources—at the federal level. Even the right-wing media are starting to realize this, with critical articles starting to pop up; if Fox News turns on Trump, it really will feel like the end times.

So, tomorrow I drive over to New Jersey to pick up Youngest Son and bring him home for the duration. This afternoon I’ll make one last trip to the library to stock up on books. And maybe I’ll refresh my bread-making techniques; it’s been 30+ years but I’m assuming it’ll come back to me—wait, did I pick up yeast last week?

 

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The Cost of Healthcare in America

As the US presidential election race grinds onward, the issue of the nation’s healthcare system—or, rather, the lack of it—has been getting some airplay. I recently saw a video of people in the UK being asked what they think health care actually costs in the States. Everyone was deeply shocked and horrified that such a system could actually exist in the 21stcentury. I’m here to say: it’s all true. I’ve written elsewhere about America’s approach to healthcare. Today, let’s take a journey through the maze of private insurance in America. Be prepared to add up some significant costs.

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Copays and Coverage

First, the issue of private insurance and what it does and doesn’t cover. Three months ago, on a trip back to the UK, I was bemoaning the costs of medicines to a British friend, pointing out the high monthly cost of insulin. She was staggered. “What? A life-saving medicine and you have to pay for it? I thought you had insurance?!” We do; but just because something is insured doesn’t mean you get it for free.

Private insurance comes with a job—not every job, especially not if you work part-time work or for a small company. Larger companies and the private sector usually offer some kind of plan; unless you work for a low-paying service sector company like Walmart, many of whose employees are encouraged to get Medicaid. The scores of different insurance companies each offer many different plans, with different levels of coverage. It’s up to the company what they choose to offer; bearing in mind that the company will be paying a hefty chunk of change to offer any kind of plan to their employees. According to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average cost to an employer for providing coverage for an employee’s family is now over $20,000 a year.

Now, to the first cost: almost all of the plans come with copays—meaning, the amount you have to fork over for prescriptions, doctor visits, procedures, etc. Our current insurance plan comes through Spouse’s work. There’s a $30 copay for every doctor or office visit. That doesn’t sound too bad, right? But then there’s prescription copays, which for us, under our current plan, vary widely from $1.25 for a one-month supply to (on one memorable occasion) north of $100.

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That’s assuming your meds are covered. I still find it surreal to be discussing a problem and treatment options with the doctor, then have her stop and say, “Wait, what insurance do you have? They don’t all cover X.” It’s also often the case that the insurance may insist the doctor provide documentation proving that options A, B, and C have been tried and rejected before they will approve treatment X. Doctor’s offices have to waste inordinate amounts of time dealing with demand for documentation from multiple insurance companies.

It gets better. Each insurance plan also has a ‘formulary,’ a list of what meds they cover, at what level, and what they don’t. Every year, in November, the plans send out their information for the coming year, including how much your monthly premium will be (it always goes up, always) and any changes to the covered/excluded meds. Yes, that’s right, a medicine that was covered this year may not be covered next year because of some reason (usually financial) that makes sense to the insurance company, but not to you or your doctor.

Premiums and Deductibles

About those premiums—that’s the monthly cost for your insurance. Almost all employers that offer health care require premium sharing. That means that the insured has to pay some portion of the premium before even using the plan. A relatively new “innovation” is for the employer to pay for the insurance of the employee only, with the employee picking up some to all of the premium costs of insuring a spouse and any progeny. A sister-in-law used to be employed as a social worker for the county; she told me she never had to pay a monthly premium, one of the few perks of an otherwise low-paying public sector job.

The premium will depend on the plan your company offers, the state you live in, and a whole host of other factors. The Big Corporation I used to work for was headquartered in Chicago, where we lived for a while, which is in the state of Illinois. As a pretty big local employer, the company was able to offer decent health insurance for a family of four for a premium of about $300 a month. The premium can come straight out of your pay, pre-tax.

When I first started work in the early 1990s, we had a choice of 4 different plans with different levels of coverage and costs. Gradually, the number of options dwindled as the costs for even a Big Corporation became more extreme. By the time we moved to Pennsylvania, there was only a choice of two plans for Illinois-based employees; and for those in Pennsylvania, a state with only a handful of employees, there was only one plan on offer, take it or leave it. When I last worked for them, our monthly premium for 4 was about $700.

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This is from the web–an example of the kind of statements you get from an insurance carrier, showing costs, coverage, copay, etc.

So, you’ve got copays and premiums to add up. But wait, there’s more! Meet, the annual deductible—that’s the amount you have to pay out of pocket every year BEFORE the insurance kicks in. Again, how much depends on the plan; it could be $500 for each family member and a total of $2,000 for the family as a whole, or even more. One little wrinkle is that if, for some reason, you change plans mid-year, the deductible for the new plan begins all over again, regardless of what you paid already under the old plan.

Employer Role

OK, so it’s a very expensive way to fund your healthcare costs; but at least private insurance gives you peace of mind, right? If only. Many of us, most of the time, don’t realize it but our healthcare options are dependent on the choices made by our employers. And sooner or later, that reality hits you, hard. Three years ago, the Big Corporation I’d worked at for 25 years told me, “We’ve reorganized the department and your role has been eliminated.” The family health insurance came with my job so, on top of everything else, we had to scramble to make sure we could switch to using Spouse’s firm’s health insurance, and also check to make sure it covered the various doctors and medicines we each used. Federal law says you can continue using your company health insurance for up to 18 months after leaving a job for whatever reason, but unless the employer provides a subsidy you have to pay the full premium yourself, i.e., both the employee cost and the company cost—which for us would have been well over $1,000 a month. Needless to say, we switched to Spouse’s coverage (and yes, had to meet a new annual deductible that year before the coverage kicked in).

Incidentally, you can only switch plans at the beginning of a new calendar year, making your choice in the November before the new year. The only exception that lets you change mid-year is if there’s been a “life-changing event,” like changing/losing a job, having a baby, or marrying.

A year ago, when Spouse’s firm merged with another one, the plan changed yet again, meaning we had to check whether our existing doctors, including a couple of specialists, would still be “in network.” Fortunately, they were, but if you have an unusual or particularly expensive condition, you may be stuck with some hefty costs. Paying “out of network” for a visit to a doctor can cost upwards of $150 as soon as you walk in the door. And, of course, we started again with a new annual deductible—in October.

Finally, the quality of insurance plans varies widely. I’ve mentioned the gradual reduction in choices at the Big Corporation over the 25 years I worked there. In the final couple of years, we were stuck with an 80:20 plan, i.e., after all the premiums, deductibles, etc. the plan only covered 80% of the costs of anything. For doctor visits that meant a co-pay of about $25 each time; but, had any of us needed any kind of procedure, especially something major like in-patient surgery, the cost would have reached well into four digits.

All Hail the Affordable Care Act

One of the many reasons I will always love former President Obama is the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the provisions of which were fully effective by 2014. Among other things, this stipulated that insurance companies could no longer deny coverage for existing conditions. Under this lovely little wrinkle, when you first attained new insurance the company would likely refuse to cover anything related to a pre-existing condition for the first year. This could be anything from high blood pressure and cholesterol meds and insulin, to pregnancy, and even cancer care. If not for the ACA, our two insurance company changes in the past three years could’ve cost us thousands of dollars.

And when I was laid off three years ago, what if we hadn’t had the option of switching to Spouse’s insurance? Neither of us is old enough to qualify for Medicare (federal senior health insurance which kicks in at age 65). So, I could have ‘bought’ my old insurance for a year; prayed I found a new job with benefits asap; spent our way into penury in order to qualify for Medicaid (health insurance for the poor); or, thanks to the ACA, we could have purchased a personal plan from one of the 20+ offered in the state of Pennsylvania. I looked into this briefly at the time, and quickly got overwhelmed at the number of options, with premiums that ran from $200 to $2,000 a month for a family of four, depending on family income, coverage, deductions, etc.

Meanwhile, Oldest Son is now 24. Thanks to the ACA, he has to be covered on our insurance until the day he turns 26. If, by then, he doesn’t have the kind of job that comes with health insurance (very possible given the field he works in), he’ll have to buy his own ACA plan.

Finally, everything I’ve talked about here has referenced basic private health insurance—none of which covers dental care and most of which do not cover vision care (unless it’s for something awful like an injury that is considered “medical”). So, in addition to the monthly premium for our family health insurance, which is about $450, we pay $116 a month in dental insurance (I have standard grew-up-in-Britain-in-the-1960s-and1970s teeth, they need a lot of help); and another $25 monthly for vision care (we all wear glasses and two of us use contact lenses, so everyone gets two vision checks a year).

A Surgery Story

Earlier this year I had surgery of the “do this now or eventually things will be much worse and potentially fatal” type. This necessitated multiple doctor visits ($30 each time), culminating in three hours in the surgical suite followed by two nights in the hospital. The process started with my regular doctor recommending a specialist who in turn recommended a surgeon—each time, I had to go home and check that these recommended doctors were in network. And each time, it took weeks to get an appointment as these specialists were in high demand. (So yes, there can be long wait times under Britain’s National Health Service, but the same is true here, too.)

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(No, I wasn’t actually operated on by staff from Grey’s Anatomy!)

Eventually, I met with the surgeon who would be working on me (who, for the record, was absolutely wonderful). After she explained everything, I met with her admin staff to book the procedure. That person handed me many pieces of paper along the lines of “what to do/not do and what to expect” and one laying out the expected cost under our insurance: about $1,500. Had we not been able to afford that, there would have been no surgery, and I would be in increasing pain and getting steadily sicker.

After I was back home and recovering, the bills started to trickle in, listing the cost, the insurance payout, and the amount that we owed— sometimes things like the surgeon, the operating staff, the anesthesiologist, and the post-surgery nursing care are all on one bill, sometimes they bill separately. I do remember seeing the paperwork after Oldest Son was born and realizing that without insurance, our 36-hour delivery and stay would’ve cost about $10,000. That was 24 years ago; today, it would be closer to $30,000.

Missing the NHS

Back in 1992, I got one of those dreaded phone calls: “Mum’s in the hospital, it’s bad, you’d better come over.” Cue an emergency plane trip, and three harrowing days of discussing options with the doctors while holding the hand of a dying woman. The care Mum received was exemplary, the nurses unfailingly kind, and her death as dignified as was possible under the circumstances. And in all that crisis, there was one burden that never had to cross anyone’s minds: who was paying for all this?

So, when someone goes on a rant about how expensive a publicly funded health insurance scheme would be, how much people’s taxes would have to go up, and how much such a system “rations” healthcare, I tell them to take a step back. Add up how much you actually pay, out of pocket, for your healthcare—the premiums, deductibles, and co-pays. I’m pretty sure the tax cost would be less. And remember, too, that healthcare decisions in this country are made as much by the insurance companies as by the doctors.

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