WHO Knew 2?

According to Mark Twain’s taxonomy there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.  Right now about all we have are in the last of these categories under the most statistical administration in history.  Still, if we want to get out of the house once in a while we need to look for some facts.  I keep coming back to the World Health Organization daily situation report here.  That’s because I trust WHO.  It’s an ethical, international organization not in the rear pocket of the self-proclaimed genius that puts that pocket beneath his holy posterior in the Oval Office.  In fact, just this week said genius threatened to make the United States’ contributions to WHO disappear forever unless they met his demands.  China, on the other hand, upped their contribution by a couple billion.

I don’t have the time, or certainly the numerical capacity, to read the entire report daily.  Nor to internalize all the vast numbers of cases and deaths worldwide.  It’s too much.  Still, I stop to check the places I know, including the one in which I happen to live.  There may be a time delay here since I check the reports early, and since the data from which I’m drawing came from yesterday, but still I have to wonder.  According to the stats provided by our grand ole US of A, there were no new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday.  We went from 1,477,459 to zero in one day.  Actually, the day before (Tuesday) we reported 31,967 cases.  Don’t believe me?  Go ahead and check; I’ll wait.

Not born yesterday (not by a long shot), I know that numbers sometimes have to be adjusted.  I receive a salary, so I know that well.  At the same time, we have a statistician-in-chief that had only days before threatened—blackmail is what we used to call it, if the other party had actually done something wrong, which doesn’t really apply—to remove all funding in saecula saeculorum.  Can I get an amen?  Many of us, perhaps even most, learned early in life that you don’t get what you want by throwing a tantrum.  Of course, most of us didn’t grow up filthy rich.  Most of us can’t afford to buy the presidency.  Heck, most of us have trouble making the rent or mortgage.  So we have this great statistical anomaly whereby one spoiled kid says if you don’t play by my ruse, I’ll take my marbles and go home.  And I’m not lying.

Resurrectionists

“Resurrectionists” was the name given to those who supplied the black market for human bodies when medical science had scant access, back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  They’d rob graves, and sometimes kill their own victims, for the money medical schools paid for cadavers.  It’s just business, some would say, I suppose.  It was illegal, however, and carried its own death penalty at times, if a resurrectionist were caught.  I was surprised to learn that somehow the United States has learned to do large scale resurrection.  Clergy, hang up your stoles—the government’s got it covered!  I discovered this in the most unlikely of places, the World Health Organization’s daily situation reports.

Like many people I wonder when COVID the 19th’s reign of terror will end.  I don’t trust anything that comes out of the White House, so I look to WHO.  The daily situation reports give the recorded number of cases of the virus, which, despite progress, keep going up.  The US, as always, is the world leader.  In addition to giving the number of cases, the website also records the numbers of deaths.  This is a sad and sobering statistic.  Additionally, it informs reader of how many new cases and how many new deaths have been recorded in the last 24 hours.  Here’s where I learned of our godly ability.  On Tuesday the number of new deaths in the United States was -1696.  This represents a mass resurrection indeed.  If only we’d share the knowledge with the rest of the world.

Here’s the insidious nature of statistics and governments who abuse them.  Stalin famously noted that one death was a tragedy but a million deaths are a statistic.  The US isn’t the only nation to play with the numbers—we’re all just statistics after all—but it is a matter of record that the Trump administration wouldn’t let the Diamond Princess land, although in American waters, because it didn’t want those cases listed as part of our stats.  So it still stands.  They are listed, of all the nations of the world, as “Other.”  Lest there be any doubt, the Tuesday WHO situation report ended with a note that American authorities “retro-adjusted” the figures.  You’d think that we’d want to announce with trumpet blast that we’d figured a way of retro-adjusting 1696 deaths.  For those of us listed as non-essential employees this is perhaps meant as a ray of hope.  Our work may be just icing, and we may be a single digit in our uncaring government’s eyes, but we can be brought back from the dead by political fiat.

WHO Believes?

These days it’s pretty clear that if you want to listen to anyone for advice it shouldn’t be the government.  I suppose that’s why I spend so much time on the World Health Organization’s page.  I’m no medical person and I certainly don’t understand epidemiology.  Contagion I get, because religion operates that way.  So WHO has been making somewhat frequent references to faith.  A recent status report noted that 84% of the world’s population reckons itself as religious and that many coronavirus outbreaks have taken place because of continued religious gatherings.  To that I suspect they’ll need to add political rallies supporting governments you shouldn’t trust, but what is such blind faith in leaders who don’t know what they’re doing if not religion?  People want to believe.

Religious gatherings also provide crucial support.  The community with which I associate has been using Zoom gatherings since mid-March.  It’s not perfect, of course, but during our virtual coffee hour I’ve been put in breakout rooms with people I don’t know.  I’m starting to get to know people I might be too shy to speak with in “real life.”  More than that, I’m asking myself what real life really is.  Technology has been pushing us in this direction for some time.  We relate virtually rather than physically.  I’ve never met many of the people with whom I have some of my most significant exchanges.  The internet, in other words, has an ecclesiastical element to it.  The words “church” and “synagogue” both go back to roots meaning “to gather.”  Faith, despite the stylites, is not lived alone.

WHO suggests that since religious leaders influence millions of people, if they would turn their message to prevention it could have a tremendous human benefit.  Consider how one man’s personal crusade in the mid-nineteenth century led to elections being decided on the basis of abortion alone.  If faith leaders were to take the good of humankind to heart and spread that message, it could well outstrip the virus.  Alas, but politics interferes.  Many religions also want to determine how people live.  There’s power in that.  We’ve seen it time and again with televangelists.  WHO has faith that these leaders might set aside their scriptures for a moment and read situation reports based in science and rationality.  WHO apparently has faith as well.  Until someone smarter than politicians sorts all of this out we’re probably safest meeting virtually.  Who knows—perhaps there are hidden benefits to that as well?

Bats and Bloodsuckers

In what looks (somewhat cynically) like at attempt to add newness to frightfully old news, the World Health Organization has renamed COVID-19 to the much scarier SARS-CoV-2.  The basics remain the same: the virus is transmitted the same way.  If it lands on a non-organic surface it soon dies without a host, rather like the elected officials of an old party once grand.  Like any parasite, it requires the life of another to prosper.  And so we find Mitch McConnell telling states to declare bankruptcy in a move taken from the Bible’s own playbook.  You see, during a famine in Egypt Pharaoh bailed out the food banks, and by buying all the land made peasants in essence slaves of the state.  The Good Book has all the answers.  A few generations later, however, and Pharaoh had to learn how to swim in the desert.  The divine economy is not without humor.

The WHO report also states that the vector has been traced to bats.  Bats make me think of vampires—I can’t help it, I’m a late monster boomer.  While WHO doesn’t make any connections with vampire bats, I researched them when I was younger.  Unlike elected members of the gOP, vampire bats aren’t selfish.  Nor are they greedy.  Finding a victim, the make a small incision with their sharp little teeth and lap up enough blood to survive.  If another bat goes a night or two without success, vampire bats will share their success, realizing in a way that politicians don’t, that helping one another is an assured way of establishing communal strength.  Or you could just be capitalist about it, let the unsuccessful starve, and go seeking another victim of your own.  Bloated bats don’t fly well.

If the Old Party learns from nature we’ll all benefit.  Greed is hardly the basis for sound government.  Nature would suggest that ingesting disinfectant isn’t the best advice to dole out to a nation about which you truly care.  The Old Party refuses to do anything, of course.  Having proven themselves unable to govern, they’re busy pulling together campaigns for November’s election.  With a leader who’s already said on national television that Republicans can’t win without gaming the election process itself, they don’t even blush.  I’m no expert, but it may be because they don’t have enough blood to rise to their cheeks.  If they’re short on blood it might be worth their while to learn a thing or two from vampire bats.

Who’s To Blame?

Back at Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary, we were a closed community.  Well, not completely closed, as much as some may have desired it.  When a communicable illness came to campus it quickly spread.  No wonder—we were required to all gather twice daily in the chapel, and there was the passing of the peace during mass.  And the sharing of a common chalice.  The germs of the Lord were readily spread.  One of the faculty members would refer to the vector of the illness as “Typhoid Mary,” a rather sexist remark in the mostly male environment.  Still, Mary Mallon came to mind as the current crises has settled in.  “Typhoid Mary” was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever.  A working-class girl from Ireland, outbreaks of typhoid followed her in the various houses in New York City where she worked.

Photo credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health (NIH), via Wikimedia Commons

The current coronavirus outbreak in New York City seems strangely similar in some regards.  Although COVID-19 is less likely passed by asymptomatic carriers, according to what I’ve read from the World Health Organization, it is still a possible vector.  While out getting necessary supplies in the area I recently noticed store employees without gloves or masks, both of which I had on.  One of us was underdressed.  I went home, washed my hands thoroughly, and pulled my copy of The Andromeda Strain from the bookshelf.  Self-medication can come in several forms.  Some people still look at me funny for wearing a mask, but many other customers are now doing the same.  The Center for Disease Control recommends it.

Before I’d ever heard of Nashotah House, I worked in a grocery store.  I was a college graduate with facial hair that had to be removed.  “Customers don’t trust a man with a beard,” I was told.  Back then if you walked into a store with a mask on there would’ve been trouble.  Contagion can drive you crazy.  Nobody wants to be a “Typhoid Mary,” and yet it’s difficult to be out in public with a mask on.  “Who was that masked man?” they used to ask of the Lone Ranger.  From the theater and psychology I’ve studied, I know that hiding behind a mask can be a liberating experience.  Aware that nobody knows who you are, you are free to act most any way you please.  But this is different.  Maybe it’s because my mask is made of a paisley-ish bandana,  the kind old westerns show outlaws wearing.  Or maybe it’s because of the guilt a religious upbringing so generously left with me.  After all these years the old cliches are coming back to life.

Bunny or No?

Since we’re in the midst of a smaller holiday season (capitalistic societies can only get away with one major holiday season because the workers must work) many people are wondering whether they should go to church for Easter tomorrow.  I’ll confess I woke up from a nightmare this morning where I accidentally forgot about COVID-19 and went to church.  I stepped inside and the building was full.  I tried to find an empty pew to socially distance myself from all but the Divine, and there was no room.  I felt infected as others started to cough around me.  In real life I’d just read from the World Health Organization’s situation report (number 80, located here, in case you want to see) that we’ve just reached day 100 since WHO received its first notification of this new disease.  The report has guidance for those who feel compelled to gather for religious services.  It makes for very interesting reading.

WHO, like certain political parties, knows that people will listen to their religious leaders rather than reason.  (And still our universities cut positions in their religion departments since, apparently, it is best not to know about such things.)  Recognizing that a secular, science-based organization simply can’t compete, WHO urges religious leaders to spread the word about evidence-based responses to the outbreak.  Don’t gather large Easter-day crowds (they also mention Passover and Ramadan), but, interestingly, do keep the services going.  WHO recognizes the psychological (you can’t say “spiritual”) value of religious belief.  It gives people hope and comfort.  It keeps them going in difficult times.  Call it mental health, but the World Health Organization has wellbeing right there in its title.

Photo credit: ItsLassieTime, via Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, the same day I saw an email from the other acronym in my life, SBL (the Society of Biblical Literature).  They were releasing their annual report showing the dismal job market figures for the discipline over the last year.  These jobs are fading and although WHO recognizes billions of people are motivated by religion our smartest institutions are shifting their money away from understanding it.  The COVID-19 outbreak puts us in this strange place where disjunctures become focal points.  If you look at a field of uniform gray long enough you’ll stop seeing anything at all.  You need contrast for vision to work.  WHO recognizes that religious observance constitutes a major challenge for the effort to keep people isolated.  Universities now in isolation, continue to see no reason to study this.  I’m waiting to awake from this nightmare.

WHO Cares?

During this time of crisis my employer has suggested keeping an eye on the World Health Organization website.  I’ve been doing that with a nearly religious fervor.  I’ve been looking over the daily situation reports.  These not only contain advice not poisoned by government agendas, but also list the new outbreaks and provide pages of statistics.  The numbers differ from many news sources, but WHO tracks new cases, the number of deaths, and the vectors of transmission.  I’m trying to make a learning exercise out of this, instead of just further cause for panic.  More secretive world states, WHO warns, are preventing containment by under-reporting.  You’d think that in a time of global crisis that even autocracies would want to cooperate.  You’d think wrong.  

Photo credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health (NIH), via Wikimedia Commons

WHO has indicated that some nations (the usual suspects) are keeping numbers down not through effective measures, but through not reporting them.  Since honest reporting helps to trace, track, and understand transmission, such nations are essentially holding out hope that they’ll somehow bend this crisis to their advantage and appear stronger than they actually are.  I’m guessing these nations are male. 

Interestingly, the names of the countries on the overall list don’t always match those I’ve learned in my own study of geography.  The Vatican, for example, is listed as “Holy See.”  I know that’s its name, but it seems kind of odd against Lichtenstein, Peru, and Mozambique.  The Holy See, last time I noticed, had 6 cases.  The number gave me pause.  With a population of just over 600, Vatican City does seem to be a male nation.  It’s a country of clerics. 

Those in ministry toe a difficult line during a pandemic.  Governments are telling people to isolate themselves to halt the spread of disease, and yet clergy, like medical professionals, often have to put themselves in harm’s way.  I think of how Pope Francis had laid hands on the sick, even when it must’ve been difficult to do so.  Local churches have, for the most part, shut down.  Clergy are self-isolating, social distancing.  It is the socially responsible thing to do.  How it fits within an ecclesiastical view of life, however, must be quite a balancing act.  I often think of how I’d be acting if I were a minister.  Would I go to the home of someone suffering in isolation, or would I be afraid of infecting my own family?  Would I be a nation reaching out to the rest of the world with largess, or would I be a holy see cut off from the people?  I don’t have an answer.  I wonder if anyone does.