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JOURNAL FROM THE CITY

Portland: Pandemic in Portland - Notes

“Journal from the City” is a report on the city by Chignitta contributors around the world.
In this issue, we will look back again at the “lockdown” caused by COVID-19 which we first faced in the spring of 2020, from each city.

Cynthia, a San Franciscan who enjoyed the Beat movement of the 1960s and the hippie culture that followed in real-time, is my best guide to Beat culture. A lover of art, literature, and music, she currently resides in Portland and is active in writing, collage, and other creative activities. With a journalistic perspective, she looks back to the night in Seattle when the first cluster occurred in the US.  This journal was written before the Presidential election of the USA, therefore names and descriptions remains at that time. (Junko Sasanuki)

Cynthia Romanov

Cynthia Romanov worked as the creative director for design and communications firms in the SF Bay area. She’s a writer and editor who also creates collages and mixed assemblages. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

■ Part One

At first, few people were concerned. The emergence of new and nasty viruses is cyclical, and the flu vaccines that most Americans submit to each year are adapted to the strains of influenza virus most prevalent that season. Those first reports of what many non-medical people assumed were just another mutated strain of influenza virus (spoiler alert: it wasn’t) did not seem unduly alarming. China, where the new virus originated, seemed very far away. This perception was quickly proven wrong: the relevant distance between Wuhan, the site of the initial outbreak, and Seattle, where the first case in the United States was reported, is not 7,500 miles. It an 11-hour flight.

My husband and I were in Seattle the weekend that the first patient presented with the first symptoms at a hospital a few miles from our hotel. We went to a crowded music venue, rode in several Uber cars, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a packed bar while waiting for a table at a popular restaurant. We browsed through bookstores and shops in Pike Place Market, had drinks in the busy lobby bar of the hotel, and ate brunch in another crowded restaurant. When it was time to return home, we took a filled-to-capacity train back to Portland, a scenic journey of a bit less than 4 hours.

■ Part Two

Seven months later, none of these formerly common activities is possible. We’ve been on some form of lockdown since mid-March, roughly two months after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the U.S. During these months, the world watched in astonishment as one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries on the planet bungled its response to the pandemic, with catastrophic consequences.
It’s impossible to separate the personal from the political when considering the impact of COVID-19 on daily life. Long after the rest of the world took aggressive action to slow the spread of the virus, American leaders continued to deny that COVID-19 was a threat to public health. Unlike most other wealthy countries, the United States still has no cohesive national plan to respond to community outbreaks. Information that could save lives is suppressed, and disinformation that results in unnecessary deaths is spread on social media.

Scientists who have devoted their entire careers to preparing for just such a pandemic are publicly slandered, their expertise denigrated because it doesn’t align with the political goal of getting the American economy moving again. The nation’s pre-eminent infectious disease expert, a respected advisor to six previous Presidents of both major political parties, receives death threats while Trump pushes ineffective (hydroxychloroquine!) and flat-out dangerous (bleach in the lungs!) remedies. Encouraged by Trump, a significant segment of the nation’s population views wearing a mask in public as an intolerable assault on individual freedom, and after nearly six months of lockdown there is still no national mandate requiring masks. In areas of the country where local leaders are loyal to the current administration, refusal to follow the guidelines issued by the World Health Organization has resulted in thousands of deaths from massive viral outbreaks that transmit across state lines and endanger the lives of all.

■ Part Three

Today, the United States leads the world in COVID-19 infections and deaths. It’s no wonder that the borders of most countries are closed to Americans. So we, like 331,002,650 million other Americans, stay home.
Home is where most American children are schooled in front of computer screens, isolated from their friends and teachers. Home is where those who are lucky enough to still have jobs juggle working remotely with trying to care for their families. And for the 16.5 million people who have lost jobs in the wake of the pandemic’s economic devastation, homes are being lost to eviction and foreclosure while Trump’s Republican party refuses to provide adequate unemployment benefits.

When one of our adult kids has hospitalized with COVID-19 in Minneapolis, we stayed home (thankfully, he recovered with no ill effects). When my husband’s oldest friend was on his deathbed in Yokohama, we stayed home. We haven’t seen our family in San Francisco since last December. We haven’t been to a music event, movie, museum, art gallery, bookstore, bar, restaurant, friend’s house or non-grocery store since mid-March, because none of these activities is safe in Donald Trump’s America.
We’re lucky. Portland is a liberal city with near-universal mask compliance and one of the lowest rates of infection in the country. These two facts are not unrelated. Compared to the staggering losses of life and livelihood suffered by so many, our social and emotional sacrifices are minor. We haven’t lost a loved one to COVID-19 or fallen ill ourselves. Our income has been only mildly affected. Our four kids, all adults, are all still employed. My husband is a doctor with access to medical databases and impartial research that help our family make informed decisions about risk.

Unacceptable risk to ourselves and others is what keeps us at home, cycling through fear and boredom and anger. Fear because Trump’s stream of lies and denial about the deadliest pandemic in a century put every one of us in ongoing danger. Anger that decisions about public health are still being driven by political considerations, not science. Boredom because we haven’t been more than a few miles from home in months, and there’s a limit to how long we can distract ourselves by making sourdough bread.
There is promising news about vaccine development, but it’s going to take more than a safe, effective vaccine to end the pandemic. It’s also going to take elected leaders whom we can trust with our lives. Americans will take our collective anger to the ballot box on November 3rd, because voting out of office the unprincipled thug whose incompetence and ill will has resulted in the world’s highest COVID-19 death rate is the only way we can move beyond fear and boredom, reclaim our lives, and move forward into the future. The world is watching, and I, for one, am going to try not to let it down.

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