Esto no es vida but it’s the only one we’ve got

Last Sunday was the first day that my children’s feet touched the street in forty-five days. Tears came to my eyes as I watched them sprint down the sidewalk. Freedom, albeit limited.

On the Monday, we went out when there were much less children and found a quiet path beneath some trees. At first, I felt like I was living in a chapter of The Road, but then I had my own feeling of freedom. In Spain, there is a saying when things are bad: “Esto no es vida” or “this is no life”. But this is our life. It is the only one we’re living, so we have to enjoy it. Who knows what will happen next? Right now we are healthy, tomorrow that may not be the case. Let’s enjoy the small freedoms and all the other ways life is worth living.

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Filed under Friends / Family, Living la vida española, The Quarantined Life

Walking Around

During the past 50 odd days living under the strict confinement rules here in Madrid, Spain, I have often looked out from my balcony towards the horizon where I would have previously seen a constant flow of airplanes landing. These days I have only seen empty skies. When I look down towards the streets where I would have previously seen traffic and people walking around, now the streets seem liberated of human activity save for the stray dog-walker and the occasional empty bus with its lone driver. Except for birds chirping in the early hours of the day and the 8pm applause of neighbors, more than anything else confinement in Madrid has been defined by silence.

And each day, I have thought about Pablo Neruda’s “Walking Around”. Sure, I want my kids to leave the house, go to school, soccer practice, and play with their friends. They need other kids more than anything else right now. And sure, I would love to be able to go to the grocery store or walk out the front door and not fear that inhaling or touching my face were life threatening. I do not want to live in fear. I do not want to breath into a piece of cloth. I do not want to question if and when I will see family again.

But I am not ready to go back. I don’t have any need to ride the bus to work or get into a crowded elevator. I don’t feel nostalgia for the office, for meeting rooms, or dropping by someone’s desk. I don’t want to share the same door handles or bathroom. I don’t miss button-down shirts or proper pants. I am getting along with out them very well. I could use a haircut, but like Neruda’s man who is sick of being a man, I don’t want to walk into a barbershop.

But then today, after seven weeks of silence, adults have been allowed out of their homes, albeit on a limited basis. And suddenly, I look over my balcony and finally everywhere there are people … walking around.

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My Children’s Mental Health is what Terrifies Me about Covid-19

 

We live in Spain, one of the countries hardest hit by Covid-19 and with some of the strictest confinement rules around. Covid-19 has affected people here in many different ways from

  • the health care works living through war-like conditions with war-like causalities,
  • to sick and dying wondering whether they will leave this earth without ever seeing the face or feeling the embrace of a loved one again,
  • to the family-centric Spaniards watching from a distance as their parents and loved ones die without being able to do anything to comfort them or even bury their bodies,
  • to those single people who haven’t had a physical human interaction (other than at the grocery store) in over 50 days,
  • to families like mine trying to juggle work and homeschooling with their children’s extreme cabin fever.

My family has been very fortunate that we haven’t been sick yet and that as non-Spaniards we haven’t had to suffer the predicament of elderly relatives.  So while I recognize that Covid-19 has been much harder on other people here than on us, watching the impact on my children’s mental health and not knowing how to help has been worse than the sleepless nights, the worrying about the future, or when I will see my parents again.

Even when the government lifted the strict restrictions on children leaving the house after 45 days of total confinement, the one hour/day walk they’re now permitted to do isn’t doing the trick. I still witness my children unravel – from one moment to the next – before my eyes. And it terrifies me. More than going outside, they need to interact with other children their age. The need space from their brothers and sisters, from the parents. They need to be with other people that do not live in their same home, and they need to be with them in 3D, not on a flat screen with a blue light.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time in the near future. More than wanting my life back, I want theirs back.

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Hit Me with Music !

With everything thing – big and small – we’ve lost during these days of confinement and that we will lose in the days to follow, I have constantly turned to music: to make domestic choirs and exercise bearable; to sneak in moments of joy with housemates and neighbors; to mute the fear and despair that invade my thoughts.

I keep thinking about Bob Marley’s greatest and most profound lyric:

One good thing about music: when it hits you feel no pain, so hit me with music!

Where would we be without music?

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Spanish Leadership, Casa de Papel and Covid-19

This is my twentieth year living in Spain, and during this time I have learned to appreciate Spaniards for their modesty, compassion, intelligence, tolerance, family values, kindness and generosity. Spaniards are as forgiving as Americans are vindictive. They are great colleagues and great neighbors. Spain has an incredibly competent workforce with a high level of expertise and excellent professionals, including doctors and scientists. In many ways, the government works surprisingly efficiently with many processes like paying taxes almost fully digitalized.

But where Spaniards lack is in leadership. Culturally — with high value placed on consensus, modesty and conformity — it is very difficult for a Spaniard to raise her voice. Standing out in a crowd and being noticed is vulgar. Where Americans all dream of being the guy who gets to take the penalty kick or the last second shot to win the game, Spaniards never want to be the trigger man. Prior to the generation of Pau Gasol, Iker Casillas, and Rafa Nadal, Spaniards were losers. Not because they were worse athletes, less skilled or didn’t work as hard, they lost because they were afraid to succeed.

This inability to lead and to make the hard decisions also translates into a management culture of passiveness and indecision, where a crisis is not met with urgency but with paralysis like a deer in the headlights. The bosses are more worried about getting it wrong than focused on getting it right.

The Spanish TV series Casa de Papel (The Money Heist in English) — a story about a hostage crisis at the Spanish national minta — is the perfect microcosm of this culture. The show is excellent. The writing, acting and production are world class. The chief investigator in charge of managing an unprecedented crisis of national security, intense political pressure and non-stop press coverage nonetheless find the time to leave the war room to:

  • Take numerous coffee breaks during the day
  • Go to the bar to grab a beer and unwind
  • Go home for dinner every night
  • Fall in love with a stranger

There is a national crisis, yet the chief investigator does not interrupt the daily essentials of Spanish life: her coffee, her caña, her family obligations, and her personal life. There is no urgency. There is no concept of prioritization. The wealth of competence is interrupted by other earthly distractions causing an inability to focus.

Yes, like Hollywood, the show takes lots of liberties to make the story more entertaining. I get it, but this is in fact exactly what Spanish management culture is like. It is exactly how the Spanish government is managing the Covid-19 crisis.  Again, Spain is a country full of scientific experts, competent doctors, hard-working health care workers dedicated to putting their own lives at risk to save others, police and citizens ready to lend a hand. It is an amazingly praiseworthy society. These are people I admire. Nevertheless, the leaders are simply incapable of leading.

I don’t blame this particular government. I’ve lived here long enough to know that any of the other political alternatives would have failed in exactly the same ways. I also get that the politicians and experts are overwhelmed, exhausted and facing a once in a century crisis. I do not question their earnestness. But while the U.S. leadership is made up of sociopaths who make decisions out of malice or for self-gain, the Spanish government is simply paralyzed by its inability to act.

There is no plan. Just lockdown. After 40 days of confinement there is no end in sight. Just indecision and improv.

So where is the urgency? Where are the leaders? Where are the Gasols, Casillas, and Nadals convinced of their ability to win carrying them to victory? Just as they represented a landmark cultural shift in Spanish sports, we desperately need a change in Spanish leadership culture. It is a matter of life or death!

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Either Trump is an Idiot or He is Convinced You Are

Trump announced yesterday that the U.S. will close its borders to immigrants. That was news to be me because I would have thought that in Trump’s infinite wisdom this was already the case. Most countries in Europe, for example, took those steps in March and have strictly limited not only the entrance into the country but even domestic travel.

Come on! What impact would this announcement have. Hasn’t almost all travel been halted?

But another thing confuses me. We keep hearing from Fox News and the president himself that we should immediately open up the economy and remove restrictions. They say things aren’t so bad after all. So we should open up, then why do we need to keep the borders closed?

Oh, there’s the jobs arguments. If we don’t let in foreigners, then they won’t take the jobs of unemployed Americans. But who is going to work the fields? Who is going to take the jobs that Americans don’t want or aren’t qualified to do? How can you get your economy back on track if your food supply chain is severely hindered by not having field workers or if your companies cannot compete with the best workers? Didn’t Republicans tell us for years that regulating the labor market was bad?

Maybe Covid-19 has finally lifted the veil of the American lie and has George Packer writes, “We Are Living in a Failed State”:

When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills—a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public—had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.

Jared – the expert – has become the poster-boy for the final nail in the American-greatness coffin:

So when his father-in-law became president, Kushner quickly gained power in an administration that raised amateurism, nepotism, and corruption to governing principles. As long as he busied himself with Middle East peace, his feckless meddling didn’t matter to most Americans. But since he became an influential adviser to Trump on the coronavirus pandemic, the result has been mass death.

. . .

To watch this pale, slim-suited dilettante breeze into the middle of a deadly crisis, dispensing business-school jargon to cloud the massive failure of his father-in-law’s administration, is to see the collapse of a whole approach to governing. It turns out that scientific experts and other civil servants are not traitorous members of a “deep state”—they’re essential workers, and marginalizing them in favor of ideologues and sycophants is a threat to the nation’s health. It turns out that “nimble” companies can’t prepare for a catastrophe or distribute lifesaving goods—only a competent federal government can do that. It turns out that everything has a cost, and years of attacking government, squeezing it dry and draining its morale, inflict a heavy cost that the public has to pay in lives. All the programs defunded, stockpiles depleted, and plans scrapped meant that we had become a second-rate nation. Then came the virus and this strange defeat.

You almost wonder whether the president is an idiot. Or maybe he just thinks you are the idiot who is going to buy one of his steaks or a degree from his university.

We need to being screaming “the Emperor is naked” at the top of our lungs or we’ll never survive !

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How Quickly Everything Changes

One month ago

Easter weekend is coming up. We were supposed to be in Florida on vacation, but now we’re quarantined here in Madrid until further notice. My children have literally not left the house in 26 days. I leave my apartment building only to take out the trash, grab the nerf ball when it goes over the balcony, or to go grocery shopping which I aim to do only once per week (but it usually turns out to be once every 5 days).

Today

Today we are out of milk and bread. We have very little fruit or vegetables left, so I have no choice but to make a mask out of whatever I can find in the house, put on gloves and venture out.

I go shopping at the grocery store in Palacio de Hielo next to where we live. As mentioned previously, the ice-skating rink (which is located on top of the grocery store) has been converted into a morgue. Exactly one month ago, just days before schools were closed, my son was at a birthday at the ice-skating rink.

Every aspect of our lives and the world around us have changed. All very quickly.

 

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What’s the Plan, Jerry?

 

Jared F-ing-Krushner, folks. Jared Krushner has addressed the nation. Jared did a bunch of research and, despite his lack of a scientific background or any academic training in how to conduct research, Jared Krushner has pulled it off again. He is now qualified to address the American people on undoubtedly the biggest humanitarian and national security crisis in American history since World War II.

I did a little experiment. I posted a few lines on facebook to see if my two or three (out of 1000) openly Trump supporting friends would bite, knowing full well that it would take a huge leap of intellectual dishonesty and hours of Fox News to come up with a rationalization for (i) why Jared even has a position in the White House, and (ii) more importantly, why Trump’s son-in-law is more qualified than any of the other +300 million Americans to address the nation in a health crisis where hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk, as well as Pax Americana.

Here is what I posted:

Sorry for the political nature of this, but at the time of the biggest crisis facing the world since WWII, why is Jared Kushner addressing the nation? Who the hell is Jared? Besides what he is saying makes absolutely no sense, He clearly has never taken a civics course. We mind as well ask Hunter Biden give press conferences! Please can we let the adults do their jobs and leave the children at home!!

I also recognized that in this press conference, Jared sounded just like I do whenever I have to speak publicly about something I don’t really understand. No beating around the bush: Jared doesn’t understand the science, and he doesn’t understand civics. He seemed to believe there was some Federal territory where the Trump family lived where stuff belonged to them, and then the states where everyone else resided where people had to make do. It was surreal. Maybe in a small family-run business you can get away with play-acting, but this is not Reality TV.

My personal favorite defense of Jared (which I alluded to above) was but Jared did all of this research. Again, I don’t care how much research he has done. Jared has no training in how to do scientific research of this nature. You don’t agree? Then let me ask you a question: if your life was in danger and you needed an urgent medical procedure, would you allow Jared Kushner to perform the operation because he done a lot of research? Why not call Hunter? Maybe he’s free.

Then, of course, there is the fact that absolutely everything the Trump administration has said about Covid-19 since the first reported case has been absolutely wrong. They have had to walk back every statement from soon there will be zero infections to there will be a miracle to it will be over by Easter Sunday. We now know that the US will be one of the worst hit countries hit in the world. Meanwhile, South Korea which reported its first infection at the same time as the US has been incredibly successful at controlling the virus. We have not.

Many leaders around the world have made mistakes, so I am prepared to forgive some of these fatal missteps assuming that our leaders have a plan. So as Jake Tapper just raised “Mr. President, what is your plan?” Shit, I’d like to know.

Or should we wait for Jared-when you meet him you’re going to love him … only the best people-Kushner for the answer? Forget about his inability to fill out a security clearance form or his billion dollar real estate losses. But for his father-in-law being the president, would anyone ever ask Jared for his opinion on anything let alone on how to save hundreds of thousands of live?

Sure, Jared’s no microbiologist or doctor, but he’s read up a lot. He’s not an expert and therefore technically does not have an expert opinion. But as the president’s official son-in-law, we’d like him to address the nation. Can we really trust anyone else?

So Jerry, what’s the plan?

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Remember 911? You haven’t seen nothing yet!

I moved to Spain in September 2000. Almost a year to the day later 911 hit and the world changed. Once I made all the necessary calls to make sure my friends and family were safe, my next thought was that this was going to be really, really bad. I never considered that the terrorist would win but that the U.S. would over-react, ignore its traditional allies and take revenge. That is in fact what the U.S. did. We singlehandedly destroyed Iraq and went on to occupy Afghanistan for 19 years and counting, the longest war in American history against an enemy that likely cannot find the U.S. on a map. None of the terrorists were even from those countries!

And now nineteen years after 911, the U.S. and the world are facing another unique national security and health crisis. Again, I am sitting in Spain watching it all unfold before my eyes. Already the U.S. president is calling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus”. Why is only the U.S. president trying to turn this into an enemy with a name and place? Besides obvious concerns that China will benefit from the outbreak, when American leaders feel threatened outside of their control (and/or it is an election year), their instinct is to fabricate a new enemy, take advantage of the situation and then funnel trillions of dollars to the benefit of special interest groups and government contractors. Covid-19 will surely kill more Americans than at 911 and all the terrorist deaths since 911.  So forget the Patriot Act, enhanced interrogation, or warrantless surveillance (the kind Trump thinks were unfair when applied to his campaign staff). Expect our leaders and their donors’ companies to have a field day! Any criticism of the steps they take will be tantamount to blasphemy. Have you seen this movie before?

You ain’t seen nothing yet.

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If you think the Cure is Worse than the Disease You are either a Psychopath or in Self-Destructive Denial

UPDATE BELOW

Are there really lots of smart people debating whether the economic pain is worse than the cure? I honestly don’t think that anywhere where people are dying in the hundreds per day anyone is having that argument. That argument is murder. Make no mistake.

This is funny coming from people who claim to be Pro Life or who complained that Obama Care would create Death Panels. But precisely what these people are saying is that we should sacrifice potentially tens of thousands of lives (maybe hundreds of thousands) in order to avoid short or mid term economic loss. That is literally the government deciding who lives and who dies.

But before we get there, a little context: I live in Madrid, Spain. In a country with a population of 40 million, as of March 25, 2020, some 3,400 people have died in the past two weeks (more people than died in China). Today alone, 738 people – all human beings like you and me – died. Life over! Yesterday the number was +500, the day before +400, the day before +300. So many people have died in Madrid that there is no place to put the bodies. In fact, they have converted the shopping center literally across the street in front of me – the only place I go these days to buy groceries and to go to the pharmacy – into a make-shift morgue. I kid you not. This isn’t a fucking joke. This isn’t a fat lady that Trump can insult.

A friend’s sister is a nurse here. She says that her hospital sees 4-5 new ICU patients every hour. These are not just grandma and grandpa. They are people of all ages who desperately need respirators. All of the medical staff at her hospital have tested positive, but they work on. They have no other choice. Either they work or even more people die. Again, this is not a fucking joke. This isn’t a fumbling, senile Democratic presidential candidate Trump can make fun of.

Just to give you another quick example, I spoke to two people on the phone today who are positive. They haven’t been tested because hospitals and the authorities don’t have time to waste testing people. They ask you a few questions about your symptoms and make a quick determination. Both of these people are at home, their children are also positive, but the hospitals won’t take them until they are on the verge of respiratory failure. There is just no space in the hospitals. Not enough doctors. This is not a fucking joke. This isn’t CNN you can whine about on Fox News for treating you unfairly.

Sorry, but if your biggest concern is the economy, then you are a psychopath. According to Wikipedia, psychopathology is “a personality disorder characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, and egotistical traits.”

OK, maybe saying that we should prioritize jobs over the lives of tens – maybe hundreds – of thousands of human beings in Trump and Biden’s age range is rational and not psychopathy. Fine, I will concede that point if those making the argument agree to forgo treatment if they become ill. Any takers? And guess who is infecting all of the elderly? You guessed it: younger people who are asymptomatic or have yet to show symptoms.

So far the best article I have read about the current predicament is the Hammer and Dance. If governments and people take responsibility now – meaning that they engage in extreme social distancing and make some economic sacrifices, in a few months this pandemic will likely be under control. In the meantime, governments should be using what resources and expertise they have to ramp-up medical supplies like protective gear for health care workers, urgently manufacture mechanical respirators, and order tests. After they have taken those measures, then they can engage in aggressive spending initiatives to protect business and individuals affected by the short and mid-term economic impacts of the absolutely dire measures to protect lives. But saying that we should merely accept the deaths of tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives (which would otherwise be preventable) for short term economic stability and to maintain the comfort of our daily routine is EXTREMIST by definition. It is also delusional.

Imagine what would happen if we did nothing. No quarantines. We let people go to the stores, get on planes, hang out at Mar-a-Lago. What would the economic impact be? Clearly it would be worse than the cure. Not only would more people get sick, more people would need hospitalization and instead of people Trump and Biden’s age dying, people in their 30s and 40s would be dying because the current infrastructure simply cannot manage the increased volumes of patients. The infrastructure can’t manage under quarantine conditions, so it certainly cannot manage without them.  What would happen next? People would start social distancing anyways. People wouldn’t go to the store, to a hotel or get on a plane. It would never be worth the risk! The hospitals would be so overloaded that they would have no bandwidth to manage even the run-of-the-mill medical emergencies you have during normal times, like kidney stones, appendicitis, car accidents, or kids needing stitches. Unless of course you just stop treating anyone with Covid-19 and left them to die on the streets.

Even in places like Hong Kong, South Korea or Singapore where they have engaged in less social distancing, they have imposed very strict testing and control measures, and no one is traveling. No one! I was told today by a colleague in Singapore that anyone entering the country is put in a hotel for quarantine for 14 days, and if you are a non-citizen resident who leaves the country and comes back infected, the national health care system will not cover you. Everyone wears masks to work, and everyone wipes the button on the elevator with alcohol before selecting their floor. Is America ready for that?

So please stop saying that the cure is worse than the disease. It is bull shit propaganda. It is about politicians who are too scared that that an increase in unemployment or a poor economy will ruin their chances at reelection. If they are not sociopaths, then they are in absolute denial – straight from The Plague — that their own lives are at risk. Don’t ask me, walk across the street from where I live. It is full of dead bodies.

If you are not convinced then ask yourself these questions: are you willing to reject a respirator in favor of helping the economy? Would Trump reject a respirator to protect the Dow Jones or his chances at re-election? Would you rather save your job or your parents’ lives?

I can promise you that until it hits your neighborhood – and when it hits, it hits so sudden you never saw it coming — you have no idea what you are up against. This is no joke.

And what is the US government about to do? It will pass the largest stimulus bill in American history. But it will do so without first taking the absolutely necessary measures to protects the lives of its citizens. It will prioritize the livelihood of its economy first. That is by definition … well I don’t need to say it. You already know what it is.

UPDATED March 26, 2020:

Let me explain it another way: Covid-19 presents the moral test of our time. The only way to save lives is for individuals — people like you and me — to make sacrifices to our normal, daily way of life. We need to stay indoors, limit our outings to a bare minimum and to the bare necessities. We need to manage life with our children at home, instead of outsourcing their care to schools. More importantly we must assume that we ourselves are infected but asymptomatic. Therefore, we — each one of us —  are the biggest risk to our fellow human beings and to society. If all you care about is your job or your routine, then you are the one killing your neighbors. This will only be resolved by each individual taking personal responsibility for the situation.

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