Coronavirus dispatches from smalltown America: Part III

Belfast, Maine: April 10.

The news came yesterday. For a couple of days I thought we might escape the worst of Covid-19 here in my small mid-coast town, population 6 700. We started social distancing before our county, Waldo County, had a single confirmed case.  

But then all that changed. Tall Pines senior housing suddenly reported 13 cases. In an instant Belfast went from zero cases to almost double the United States’ per capita number. Then Tall Pines reported one death. Then another. My mother is in senior housing, a big brick building less than two kilometres from Tall Pines. Covid-19 had finally struck home. 

I spent much of yesterday working on federal Covid-19 grants for Native American health centres.  My brother has for years written Indian Health Service grants for tribes, principally the Kalispel of northeastern Washington state. Now he’s swamped with tribes applying for federal Covid-19 Indian funds, $8-billion for general use and $1.3-billion for healthcare. My brother writes and I edit.

My brother is swamped with conference calls, some run three hours. I cover some of them, listening and taking notes. I had to leave one call because I wasn’t a tribal leader. And yesterday I drew the short straw — my brother got the interesting, if bleak, call.  

My call featured a cameo by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who perkily welcomed and thanked everyone on the call for their work.  He sounded competent, a rarity in the current administration, and he sounded like an administration cheerleader — everything sounded gleefully fine and under control. Not so rare.

But my brother’s call drew a bleak, harrowing picture of res life right now. In recent years tribes have come to rely on casino revenue. In the blink of an eye, that’s gone. Completely. Other tribes rely on energy, and oil prices have plummeted. Tribes are now selling oil for less than production cost, but they have to keep pumping or wells may become inoperable.

Around the country, tribal income has collapsed. Food insecurity, the new term for hunger, is stalking Indian country, the poorest place in the United States. Native Americans often live entire extended families cramped into small homes, sometimes only two bedrooms. Social distancing is impossible. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.  

As Bernie Sanders said recently, we are all as vulnerable as the most vulnerable among us. We may be too late to heed those words.

Disaster capitalism also stalks the land: $500-billion for corporate bailouts. That’s $1 530 for every man, woman and child. It’s 30 times the cost of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), the basic federal welfare programme. And it’s all borrowed money. The federal debt service — just interest — is $479-billion. That’s 10.1% of the pre-pandemic federal budget, up 16% from 2019. And it’s 29 times the 2020 TANF outlays. The debt is literally taking food from babies’ mouths. Now it will take more.

Disaster capitalism also stalks Belfast. Fifty days after the first coronavirus diagnosis in the US and one day before the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, Nordic Aquafarms, a Norwegian company, asked the Maine Board of Environmental Protection (BEP) to rush judgment on its application to build a huge land-based fish farm in Belfast that would daily spew  about 725kg of nitrogen and 45kg of phosphorous into Belfast Bay, use 2 385-million litres of fresh water a year, and destroy scores of hectares of wetlands, the habitat of at least one threatened species, the bobolink, an extraordinary bird, and a hiking trail. We bombarded the BEP with emails. The BEP denied the Nordic request and scolded opponents for inappropriate language and for commenting outside official comment periods. No scolding for Nordic’s blithe indifference to a global pandemic.

But the BEP pushes on, moving its corporate acquiescence from office to home.

Two days ago Sanders stopped his campaign for president, leaving only the Democrat’s Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Vast oceans of ink have been spilled over this, but no one is talking about the gorilla in the room. Both Trump and Biden are clearly suffering from cognitive decline and by the general election seven months from now both candidates could be babbling complete incoherencies. They’re already half-way there. The withering skeleton of US democracy may be laid bare for the world to see.  I took out a help-wanted ad in a local paper: Seeking competent administrator without daddy issues. Resume and cover letter to Human Resources, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC 20500.

The supermarket remains low on toilet paper, paper towels and cleaning products. And no hand sanitiser. Only 75 people at a time. Two people at the door keep count. I don’t know why they need two. Jerry laughs at my mask and bounds into the store laughing, oblivious to the counters. In the throes of a pandemic, the odd remain odd.

After shopping I met Lew for an illegal beer in Waterfront Park. I live only three kilometres from the waterfront, but I hadn’t been there since official stay-at-home began. It seemed odd that the bay was still there, the same, nothing had changed — when all else had changed.

A sign at Hannaford supermarket in Scarborough on Friday, March 27, 2020 shows customers where the line to checkout begins and have put tape and signs on the floor to keep customers spaced six feet apart. The supermarket chain has implemented safety procedures and equipment in an effort to keep its staff and customers safe during the coronavirus outbreak. (Staff Photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Lew’s partner Aimee made me a bright cheery mask. I wear it when I shop. Aimee soaked it in tea oil. She says it’s a natural disinfectant, but it’s pungent and it makes it hard to breathe. You have to rinse the mask, Aimee says.

Driving home I pass by my old house, where the new owners have a sign urging a months-ago vote to allow philosophical exemption to mandatory vaccines. I wonder how they feel now.  

But wait, the sign has moved. It’s now more prominent. Wow. Strange times. 

The US is the strangest country in the world, and it is odd to be in such a place in the age of Covid-19. In the midst of a global pandemic I see a man blowing minute amounts of dirt off a roadway with a leaf blower. The wind promptly blows it back. He attacks a leafless lawn. I have no idea why. A neighbour starts her car from within her apartment and lets it run for 20 minutes, to avoid a slight chill. Shoppers leave their cars running while they shop. It’s a modern form of madness.

It snowed last night. Thirty centimetres. Heavy, wet snow. We lost power and my laptop battery is running low. Trees are bent from the snow. The birch outside my bedroom window might not make it. I may lose a friend, and the planet can use every tree it can get. I trudge out to my car and retrieve my camping stove to make coffee. I’m grateful for the stove.  

I haven’t drunk alcohol in a week. Covid-19 could last months and I don’t need the heavy hand of depression on my shoulder.

Heidi in Cologne says some German studies indicate echinacea, an herbal immune booster, may help ward off Covid-19. I check the co-op every day, and after several days they get some. I scoop it up.

I guess I’ll see whether it works. The snow is melting and the birch is coming back.

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Lawrence Reichard
Lawrence Reichard is a freelance writer and substitute teacher in Belfast, Maine

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