//This Damn Virus

This Damn Virus

By I. smiley G. Calderón | smileygcalderon@gmail.com

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock this past month (which, actually, doesn’t sound too bad in light of current events), you’re now all too familiar with the pernicious worldwide pandemic caused by the deadly virus SARS-CoV-2, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, also known simply as Coronavirus.  Since December 2019, this positive-sense single-stranded RNA novel virus that causes COVID-19, or Coronavirus Disease 2019, has ravaged mankind by infecting over one million people worldwide, killing tens of thousands to date. There are at least 277,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and over 7,000 deaths in the United States, with over 1,800 deaths in New York City alone. In California, there have been more than 12,000 confirmed infections and 278 related deaths. In the Central San Joaquin Valley, there have been 232 cases, and in the counties of Fresno, Madera, Merced, Kings, and Tulare, there have been a total of 6 deaths. So far, Fresno County has 100 confirmed cases and one related death. Additionally, about 400 individuals are currently being monitored for the disease. No doubt, these are unprecedented times.

There is currently no known cure for COVID-19. And there is no SARS-CoV-2 vaccine either, the only way to combat it right now is with social distancing and isolation to prevent its spread. On Wednesday, March 4th, California Governor Newsom proclaimed a State of Emergency. On Thursday, March 12th, he took the additional bold step of issuing an executive order prohibiting social gatherings of 250 people or more. A week later, on the 19th, Governor Newsom issued Executive Order N-33-20, which enforced the mandate given by Director of the California Department of Health and State Public Health Officer, Dr. Sonia Y. Angell, stating, “all individuals living in the state of California to stay home or at their place of residence.” This edict is meant to “preserve the public health and safety, and to ensure the healthcare delivery system is capable of serving all.” 

Governor Newsom made it abundantly clear: “This Order is being issued to protect the public health of Californians…in order to ensure that we mitigate the impact of COVID-19. Our goal is simple, we want to flatten the curve [of infection] and disrupt the spread of the virus.” Of course, we are still free to leave our homes for essential items, like food and medical services, or to go to work at jobs deemed essential. Yet, Californians are further ordered to “at all times practice social distancing.” Details can be found at California’s COVID-19 resource website: www.covid19.ca.gov.

On Sunday, March 15th, the County of Fresno declared a State of Emergency after its second confirmed infection. The next day, on the 16th, the City of Fresno also declared a State of Emergency. But, the City went a step further to ensure the safety of Fresnans by issuing Emergency Order 2020-02 to “Shelter in Place” on Wednesday, the 18th – a day before Governor Newsom’s Executive Order – taking effect the next day, on the 19th at 12:01 am. It was initially intended to last until the end of March. Still, it was extended through midnight Sunday, April 12th, by Emergency Order 2020-08, with the possibility of being extended yet again. Mayor Lee Brand had this to say about it:

“We are making the most difficult decision we’ve ever made…In the end, this is really a life and death situation… and it all boils down to what is most important: to protect the lives of as many people as I possibly can.”  

Mayor Brand and the majority of Fresno’s City Council get it. They understand the seriousness of this pandemic, and Fresnans should be thankful and proud that they acted so swiftly. Councilmember Nelson Esparza of District 7 made it clear:

“The only way that we, as a human species, can beat this virus right now is by continuing our aggressive path of social distancing.”

Yet, these State of Emergency Executive and Emergency Orders are having a horrible economic effect statewide on local business and commerce. Especially restaurants and bars, small businesses, and Mom-and-Pop stores. Layoffs and furloughs are all too commonplace nowadays. Unemployment has skyrocketed. And, Councilmember Esparza, an economist who also teaches at Fresno City College, knows that these are trying times. But he also knows that saving and preserving human life now is more critical in both the short and long run than the consequences of temporarily stifling the economy.  

“We all have concerns about the state of the economy,” Esparza confessed, “but we do know that it is going to get worse before it gets better. When the dust settles, we will work aggressively to help our local economy get back on its feet – We as leaders must protect human life from COVID-19 right now at all costs.”  

At all costs. And there most definitely will be a cost to shutting down our City. Mayor Brand admits, “I fully understand the economic impact these orders have on our community,” but he also remains optimistic, “and my hope, my prayer, is to get people back to work, back to school and back to normal life as soon as we safely can.”  

But this is in stark contrast to other Central Valley elected officials who value economic activity over human life. United States Congressmember for California’s 22nd Congressional District, Devin Nunes, believes we should turn a blind eye to Americans getting sick and dying, and instead focus on making money.

“All American politicians and the media need to stop looking at death counters,” Nunes said in a public interview. “Let’s talk about how we can keep as many people employed as possible. That’s the key right now.”

Good thing Congressmember Nunes, a former so-called dairy farmer, isn’t in charge of city or statewide operations right now. If he had it his way, he’d milk the American people bone dry and then walk over our carcasses after we drop dead.

But some businesses are booming despite the deadly pandemic. Unskilled jobs that are deemed ‘essential’ are in demand. Places like Amazon, Walmart, and Target are hiring to meet public demand as people stock up for Armageddon. Restaurants and beverage spots that offer take-out, delivery, or drive-thru are open, as well as supermarkets and grocery stores. And, in that line, farmers and farm workers are also deemed essential and will continue to work the land during the lockdown. To see a list of what jobs are considered essential or not, and to see what the City of Fresno is doing in preparation and response to the COVID-19 pandemic, visit www.fresno.gov/coronavirus. To see the latest news from the county of Fresno’s Department of Public Health, visit www.co.fresno.ca.us/departments/public-health/covid-19.

If you checked out last month’s Fresno Flyer, you might have read my article celebrating Ag week and especially farmworkers. I followed up with a few local friends who work in the fields about the impact of COVID-19. I asked them about work conditions and what their companies are doing or saying about the pandemic. Now, all of the friends that I spoke with are undocumented workers. Hard, honest workers – but undocumented from a Latino country south of the border. One of them surprised me by telling me his company gives him and his contracted coworkers disposable face masks and have taken extra precautionary measures at the worksite. Someone there checks workers’ temperatures onsite and explains the importance of washing hands and wearing masks. Although work is slow and has resulted in fewer days, my friend feels that his company is doing a good job of keeping workflow in line during this pandemic. 

And, because of our awful air [quality], we have a lot of people here living with severe pulmonary related illnesses, like asthma – not good with a virus that attacks the respiratory system.

My other two friends work by the hour. They tell me that apart from the companywide talk about trying to maintain social distancing and washing hands, it’s been business as usual. In fact, they’re angry they can’t get any overtime. I was surprised. I asked them if they felt that it was fair that they were expected to go to work, given the potential danger of this pandemic. They both downplayed the seriousness of the virus and said that they needed to work, or they wouldn’t be able to pay rent or buy food. They reminded me that since they don’t have social security numbers, they wouldn’t be getting a cent from the government, like other taxpayers during this national crisis. To clarify, taxes are taken out of their weekly checks. Still, because they don’t have legitimate social security numbers assigned to their names, they won’t be entitled to any of the recent government relief assistance. Even though these are precisely the kinds of workers who would benefit from it the most. 

They feel like they have no other option but to work in the same way as before the pandemic to survive – despite any Stay Home or Shelter in Place Executive Order. And my friends understand the seriousness of their jobs, too: if they don’t work the fields, the crops will be lost – millions of dollars forfeited.  

Right now, Councilmember Luis Chavez of District 5 wants to propose a city law that issues misdemeanor fines of up to $500 or 6 months in jail for violating the City’s Shelter in Place Emergency Order because it “creates an imminent threat to public health and safety.” But, when I go visit the supermarket in his district’s downtown section, a block from my home, I see business as usual. Of course, shopping for food or working at a supermarket are protected, essential tasks – but what good is a Shelter in Place Order if your essential tasks also endanger you? Because people at these shopping centers near where I live act like it’s just business as usual, without care to practice social distancing. Maybe it’s because they don’t follow the news much – or maybe it’s because this pandemic has yet to become a raw reality for them. After all, Fresno County has only seen one death due to COVID-19 so far – perhaps it doesn’t seem like a thing to worry about in a county of about a million residents. But it is.

I pray that Fresno doesn’t become the next New York City, with countless succumbing to the deadly sting of the Coronavirus. Sadly, if we do not urgently take the necessary protective measures to stop this pathogen now, it could happen. Let’s face it: Fresno is a place full of people with a ton of comorbidities and a lot of obesity – high-risk factors for COVID-19. And, because of our awful Central Valley air, we have a lot of people here living with severe pulmonary related illnesses, like asthma – not good with a virus that attacks the respiratory system. This pandemic could wreak havoc here in Fresno and hit these vulnerable populations very hard if it spreads as predicted, and as forecasted.

Still, during these dark times for humanity, a curious but critical positive externality has coincidentally emerged, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day 2020, commemorated on Wednesday, April 22nd. Not surprisingly, due to global and local lockdowns around the world, anthropogenic pollution has drastically reduced. Earth has finally been able to take a deep breath of relief and experience healing and restoration at some of its most polluted places. For example, in India, where at least 21 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are, residents are finally able to see a clear sky – something that hasn’t been possible for years. Indian air activist and author of “Breathing Here is Injurious to Your Health,” Jyoti Pande Lavakare, is amazed.

“I have not seen such blue skies in Delhi for the past 10 years – a silver lining in terms of this awful crisis.”  

With ambient air PM 2.5 levels usually exceeding 90 µg/m³, after only a week of the economic shutdown, PM 2.5 levels fell 71% down to 26 µg/m³. Now, usually, PM 2.5 levels of 26 µg/m³ are nothing to be proud of (the WHO calls anything over 25 µg/m³ unsafe). Still, the difference here is incredible – and life-saving.

How fitting that Earth Day 2020’s theme is Climate Action. Who would have thought that it would take a globally collective un-action to create a noticeable effect on the climate?

Even during these unfamiliar quarantined and locked down days, there are still some things you can do on your own to celebrate Earth Day. At Earth Day’s website, there are some great resources and ideas on how to act for the Earth while practicing safe social distancing. Check them out here: www.earthday.org/11-actions-for-the-planet-during-a-pandemic.

I don’t know about you all, but for this Earth Day, since it’s 4/20 all month, I’m going to celebrate the way I’ve been observing this whole damn month: by keeping it lit and puff, puff, passing – to myself, of course (since I am Sheltering in Place) – benefitting from the powerful endocannabinoid medicinal properties and much needed calming effects of cannabis during this very stressful time in enduring this damn virus.