Many Americans bemoan the normalcy before the lockdown prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Until we can get back to normalcy, however, we can do all the things that make America America by using technology.
The COVID-19 medical and economic crisis remains mostly unaddressed by both the Republican and Democratic parties. They have only passed one piece of legislation that significantly helps workers: supplementing existing state unemployment benefits by $600 per week. Those additional payments expire in four months. Until then many people who are out of work will receive about $1000 a week. If the past is precedent, Congress is likely to renew the law.
Aside from expanded unemployment checks, the government has been useless.
Here are the essential basic things Congress and President Trump must do in order to avoid economic collapse, mass starvation, an epidemic of violent crime reminiscent of “A Clockwork Orange” and political unrest up to and including revolution.
They must do it now.
A Universal Basic Income is the smartest fastest way to stimulate the economy by keeping money flowing from consumers. Neither political party seems to care enough about the prospect of street riots to pass a UBI. But they need to do it yesterday to avoid catastrophe tomorrow. Flat UBI payments are unfair to people who live in expensive cities and states; the cost of living in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio is half of Manhattan. Weight UBIs according to living costs.
At bare minimum, medical treatment for COVID-19 and related ailments (bronchitis, pneumonia, etc.) should be free from a patient’s first test to their last breath in a ventilator. It should be free for everyone: insured, uninsured, homeless, prison inmate, undocumented worker for an obvious reason: if an illegal immigrant contracts the coronavirus, they can transmit it to you. It’s to everyone’s advantage that everyone have access to medical care.
Theoretically, the new Families First Coronavirus Response Act does that. Not in reality. “Our health care system is a mess and the law does not explicitly prohibit charging you if you go to an out-of-network provider. It also doesn’t address other ‘surprise billing’ problems,” Time reports. Treatment for COVID-19 can easily run $35,000 or more—not only should Americans not have to pay, they can’t pay.
Whether you go to your physician or urgent care or the ER, no one who suspects she has COVID-19 should be asked for their insurance card. Healthcare providers should bill the federal government.
No leading Republican or Democrat — Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi — wants to do this. Why? Because they’re stupid, crazy or both.
Draft the Immune
The Centers for Disease Control are rolling out a pilot program of a testing kit that can show if you have been exposed to the novel coronavirus and thus have the antibodies to resist a repeat infection. Authorities are considering issuing “immunity cards” to citizens who have had COVID-19. The idea is that people who are cleared could return to work. So far so good.
As much as I’d like to believe that political cartoonists and columnists are essential workers, if I have had and recovered from COVID-19 I could probably be more useful delivering food to the elderly, volunteering at a hospital, or performing some other essential task currently going undone because the person who usually does the job is either sick or home trying to avoid getting sick. Waiting tables could help save my local restaurant.
The government should retool the Selective Service System to draft recovered COVID-19 victims to perform services needed to help people and restart the economy.
Ramp up Distance-Learning
Parents, school children and college students in many cities are finding online instruction to be woefully inadequate at best. The most pressing issue is unequal access to the Internet. This is a huge problem. Fortunately, it’s easily fixable.
There are about 75 million students in the U.S. 17% don’t have home Internet access. That’s 13 million kids. A Wifi hot spot costs $50 a month. A Chromebook is $300. $4 billion, roughly the cost of occupying Iraq for a week, buys a home computer for everyone who needs one; $10 billion a year covers Wifi access. That’s the worst-case scenario; the government could get a volume discount.
Unfortunately, neither Democratic nor Republican politicians care about our kids enough to act.
Rent and Mortgage Holidays
31% of apartment dwellers failed to pay April rent. Expect that number to soar in May and June. Idiotically, the only relief offered by even the most progressive mainstream politicians is a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. Moratoriums end. Courts reopen. When they do, millions of people could be thrown out onto the streets.
Even if you don’t care about them, think about your own property values. During the 2008-09 economic meltdown, mass foreclosures left millions of homes empty. These eyesores dragged down the values of their neighbors’ homes. We really are in this together.
People who can’t pay their rent or mortgage shouldn’t have to. And at the end of all this, they shouldn’t bear the burden of accumulated debt, interest or late fees. Congress should declare a rent and mortgage holiday until the end of the crisis.
To mitigate the hardship on landlords and lenders, real estate and other taxes should be waived during the same period. So should utilities like gas and electricity. Congress should consider a tax credit for property owners. Banks should receive Federal Reserve funding at zero percent.
So far, no mainstream politician is talking about this.
A War Holiday
Secretary-General António Guterres of the United Nations is calling for warring parties in the world to lay down their arms for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he said, emphasizing the fact that war makes it hard for humanitarian assistance to reach victims of coronavirus.
War is a tremendous waste of lives, resources and money that could be better spent elsewhere, and that has never been more evident than today. Yet at this writing President Trump has ordered the U.S. Navy off the coast of Venezuela in a classic demonstration of gunboat diplomacy. His administration is continuing Barack Obama’s benighted proxy war in Yemen. American drones are slaughtering innocent people in Somalia.
This is all monstrous BS and should stop forever but, at minimum, wars of choice can wait until the end of the coronavirus crisis. Yet here again neither party, Democrat or Republican, has endorsed the Secretary-General’s idea.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of the biography “Bernie.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
Nothing embodies the law of unintended consequences more than weapons systems. When drones were first introduced as possible battlefield tools, contractors said that there was nothing to worry about in terms of them being converted into weapons systems. They would only be used for surveillance. Now we’re using them to kill top government officials.
War, many people believe, often results from cultural differences and misunderstandings. President Trump’s assassination of General Qassem Suleimeni has Americans considering the possibility that we may soon add Iran to our list of unwinnable wars in the Middle East. As that calculus unfolds, no one questions the assumption that there are irreconcilable differences between our two peoples that can only be worked out via more bloodshed.
Nothing could be further than the truth. No other people in the world are more temperamentally similar to Americans than Iranians. Certainly, the Iranians’ religion is different. So is their language. But we are a lot more like them than most Americans, and that includes members of the news media, assume.
The problem is, very few Americans have been to Iran. The absence of diplomatic relations following the 1979 Islamic revolution and the ensuing hostage crisis that brought down Jimmy Carter’s presidency, coupled with trade sanctions that prohibit American airlines from providing direct air service make it all but impossible for the most intrepid of travelers to get inside the country and see what’s going on for themselves.
I’m not an expert on Iran. But this seems like an appropriate time to share what I learned nine years ago when I visited that country.
As I said, getting in wasn’t easy. I paid numerous visits to the closest thing Iran has to a consulate in New York, Iran’s Mission to the United Nations, to little avail. Ultimately I shelled out a $5700 “arrangement fee” (some would call it a bribe) to a Washington D.C.-based agency that worked through the Iranian Interests section of the Pakistani embassy there to secure visas for myself and two fellow cartoonists.
The main purpose of our trip was travel through Afghanistan for a book I was writing. Since our itinerary through that war-torn country would end with the Afghan city of Herat near the Iranian border, we wanted to leave via Iran after some tourism and rest and relaxation.
You can get an idea of how unusual our plan was from the incredulous reaction of the Afghan border policeman who greeted us after we crossed the border from Tajikistan. “Point of exit?” he asked. When we told him Iran, he laughed. “You are American! There is no way,” he replied. When he showed our Iranian visas to his colleagues, they couldn’t believe their eyes. “How did you get these?” they wanted to know.
Several weeks later, we walked across the border between northwestern Afghanistan and northeastern Iran. It seemed incredibly simple. We were already stamped in and on the curb outside the customs office waiting for a taxi when three bemused agents of Iran’s feared Ettela intelligence service tapped us on our shoulders and invited us into separate interrogation rooms. They grilled us for hours. Before they released us my agent asked me: “Do you know why we questioned you so diligently?” I didn’t. “You three,” he replied, “are the first Americans to cross this border since 1979.” I don’t know if that’s true. Clearly we were rare birds.
The first thing that struck me, especially compared to the bleak devastation of Afghanistan, was how modern Iran was, even in this remote corner of the nation. Americans have an impression of the Middle East as a bunch of dusty pockmarked ruins and sand, but Iran looked and felt like Turkey or Israel in terms of its terrain and infrastructure. The second was how nice everyone was, even/especially after learning we were American.
As required by the government, we had arranged for a travel agent to meet us and shepherd us around. He was a nice guy even though he liked to scam our money; we kept being put up in two-star hotels after we paid him for four.
From the start, Iran wasn’t what we assumed. On the train ride to Mashhad, our fixer disappeared for about an hour. Upon his return he apologized and explained that he had picked up a woman who had taken him to her cabin for a quickie. His promiscuity wasn’t unusual. We were repeatedly flirted with or propositioned by women. The desk clerks at our hotel asked our fixer about our long beards, which we had grown out in order to blend in in rural Afghanistan. “Are your friends fanatics?” they wanted to know. “Would they spend the night with us?”
Along with our beards we had acquired the traditional shalwar kameez white robes worn by conservative Afghans. Our fixer suggested we had a unique opportunity to smuggle ourselves into the haram (forbidden) section of the Imam Reza shrine so we could check out the stunning Timurid architecture. If anyone talked to us, our fixer advised, pretend not to understand them. Muslims come from all over the world to pray there so we could pretend to speak a different language. Worshipers circled the tomb of the 9th century Shia martyr Ali al-Ridha seemingly in a trance but, whenever someone spent too long in the center an attendant lightly dipped a pink feather duster strung from a pole onto the offender to ask him to move on.
Two incidents stood out for me.
At our hotel in Tehran we overheard a European couple complaining to the desk clerks that they had been mugged or pickpocketed, I don’t remember which, the night before. They had been robbed of €1200. The clerks repeatedly entreated them to report the loss to the police but the Europeans were understandably hesitant. The next day I encountered the pair in the elevator. “You won’t believe what happened,” the wife told me. “We went to the police and they gave us €1200.” There was a law that foreign tourists had to be made whole if they suffered a financial loss due to crime. Iranians we talked to were surprised that it wasn’t the same in the West.
We flew from Tehran to Istanbul. At our last security checkpoint in Iran airport security personnel ordered us to remove our baggage from the conveyor belt leading to the x-ray machine. Great, I thought, we’re going to be detained. “You are guests in our country,” the equivalent of the TSA guy advised us. “It would be rude to subject you to a search.” We were Americans, citizens of the Great Satan, at Ayatollah Khomeini International Airport!
Not everything was sweetness and light.
There was always a sense of tension that comes with knowing that law-breaking could come with grave consequences. For the most part, however, we followed the rules. Most of the people we saw obeyed them too, but just barely. Many women wore the tightfitting manteau and barely covered their hair.
When our Turkish Airlines flight lifted up from Tehran, many of the women on board dumped their chadors, revealing skin and sexy outfits and makeup. People smiled. Flight attendants began serving beer. This is what Iran would feel like if Iran’s government, which is not popular, were to go away tomorrow.
Trump’s latest actions and America’s myopic foreign policy, however, ensure that the religious government will probably remain in place for the foreseeable future.
So does the fact that very few Americans have gotten to know Iran.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
He was a difficult personality and his policy toward Native Americans was atrocious, but Andrew Jackson had an actual record of military accomplishment when he ran for president. No one could argue that Ulysses S. Grant wasn’t ready for the presidency when he ran. Dwight Eisenhower led the biggest naval armada in human history and played a crucial role in defeating Adolf Hitler. JFK is experience as the captain of the PT 109 during World War II was a legendary example of grace, courage and leadership under terrible circumstances. Now Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who by all accounts never experienced combat, is bragging about his desk work in Afghanistan to convince us to vote for him.
Democratic and many Republican voters share the same priorities in their lives. They want to live in a safer world. They want a real healthcare system, a cleaner planet, jobs that pay well, less poverty all around. So why is the Democratic Party singularly focused on impeaching President Trump over his attempt to influence the president of Ukraine?
Democratic centrists say nothing is more important than defeating Donald Trump. That’s their argument, again, for why progressives should support a centrist Democratic nominee. But it’s not like progressives suffered when Hillary Clinton lost or that they would be better off if Hillary Clinton were running for reelection today.
President Trump’s order to withdraw American troops who created a buffer zone between Turkey and Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq was a controversial movie seen as a betrayal of a long-time American ally. But there’s a long history of US forces making extravagant promises to local forces, then withdrawing and leaving them to the wolves.