In 2014 I wrote a column for the North Star entitled “Roots.” I seldom go back into my archives to dig up the past, but our first attempted early spring getaway to ice-free France brought back many of the issues I wrote about in November 2014. They seem even more important in 2020.
Just like the roots of the olive trees that I described in that column, our roots go far back into the past and cannot be destroyed. This is one lesson that the U.S. has not learned and dealt with on a national scale. Until we do, all the slogans in the national political vocabulary will not unite this country. This is immature, sad and dangerous. It divides us as a nation, weakens our society, and insults the many countries from whom most of us originated.
The COVID -19 pandemic has highlighted how we humans see others. The novel coronavirus affects humans no matter their skin color, hair texture, age, eye shape, gender, language, size, shape, mental capacity, education, wealth, religious beliefs, country of origin, or sexual orientation. To a virus these differences are meaningless. The virus needs only one thing, a living host whose cells’ genetic material it commandeers to replicate itself. Human cells, in this case, do just fine.
We humans, on the other hand, are well aware of these differences and many others too and see them in a different light. Over the last four years in the U.S., this awareness has been deliberately used to polarize the country and to divide and immobilize our basic desire and need to cooperate, not just among our fellow citizens but also with other countries. The drastic results of this division have been abundantly clear and made clearer by the attempts to deal with a very complex world-wide public health emergency, COVID-19.
One effect of COVID -19 has been to highlight some of the real societal differences in America that we all know exist and try to ignore. The health of much of the black population is poor. Obesity, diabetes, poor access to healthy food, crowded sub-standard housing and inadequate health care have all contributed to the high mortality rate from COVID-19 in this population.
In some communities, like Flint, Mich., where water supplies are contaminated and inadequate, it is ridiculous to tell people to be constantly washing their hands. They may not even have a fully functioning water system in their homes despite attempted remediation efforts over the past two-plus years. Other poor and minority populations, both urban and rural, may suffer some of these same issues and yet we depend on them as essential workers in our economy.
Another disparity related to COVID-19 is one closer to home here in the Northeast Kingdom: Internet access. Cancelling on-site school classes is an essential health issue at this time but so is educating our kids. There are many areas of the country, not just here in Vermont, where there is no access to high-speed Internet for using on-line class materials. This is beyond belief in the U.S. in 2020, or should be.
A third task that we need to address is researching the discrepancies noted in the, so far skimpy, statistics. This is not easy to do given our current administration’s dislike and distrust of science and the inadequate testing capabilities. Why are children better able to deal with this virus? Why are elders so susceptible especially in care facilities supposedly designed for their needs? Staffing? Training? Inability to follow instructions? Lots of questions and all the answers demand money.
Returning to our attempted French winter getaway, rudely interrupted by the Coronavirus, one thing we did achieve was a visit to a very interesting new museum in Marseille. Marseille has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Center. A well- deserved status for a city with a colorful and rambunctious seafaring past. One of the newer cultural centers is the MuCEM, the Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean. Built on filled land, between a Napoleonic fort guarding the inner harbor and the commercial harbor, it sits almost on the water, at the entrance to Marseille's Vieux Port. The exhibit which I found the most revealing was a fabulous collection of farm and household tools from the European and N. African countries surrounding the Mediterranean.
On a world map, the Mediterranean Sea is a body of water almost enclosed by land, not a huge expanse of ocean. When you are beside it you can see its waters change from flat calm, clear blue, to a surging, churning, dangerous mass in less than 30 minutes. It is easy to understand how dangerous attempting a crossing on a rubber raft must be. People have been doing just that, but in small wooden boats for more than 2,000 years. Today there are 20 separate and diverse countries bordering that sea, all sharing a common cultural civilization but with differing recent historical, religious and political pasts. The MuCEM exhibit was a clear demonstration of how similar the cultures were around the rim of that small, violent sea. It also was eerily familiar in that so many of the artifacts were very similar to those found in museums here in New England. The crops and climates were different but grains, fruits, vegetables, and livestock were cultivated, harvested, prepared, and stored in similar ways. Small carts and plows, tools for spinning and weaving, ovens for baking food, clay bricks, and pottery are examples of similarities between the sometimes contentious neighbors around this small sea. Similarities can also be found continents apart. These are the basics of human survival. These are the things, first and foremost, that bind us together. They give us the power to survive and prosper despite ephemeral political parties and despots of all stripes who depend on the disease of “divide and conquer” to maintain power, alienating citizens from one another and denigrating other countries.
After this bleak, confining time when we can emerge from our enforced hibernation, we must be ready to acknowledge our similarities and rebel against the divisiveness that has damaged our society like COVID-19 damaged so many people world-wide. We need to Make America Care Again.