The president’s outlandish behavior as Americans suffer has inspired horror and confusion while alienating allies
The Guardian, Julian Borger in Washington, Helen Davidson in Sydney, Leyland Cecco in Toronto, Daniel Boffey in Brussels, Philip Oltermann in Berlin, Angela Giuffrida in Rome, Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro and Emmanuel Akinwotu in London; 15 May 2020
The Trump administration has repeatedly claimed that the US is “leading the world” with its response to the pandemic, but it does not seem to be going in any direction the world wants to follow.
Across Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, views of the US handling of the coronavirus crisis are uniformly negative and range from horror through derision to sympathy. Donald Trump’s musings from the White House briefing room, particularly his thoughts on injecting disinfectant, have drawn the attention of the planet.
“Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger,” the columnist Fintan O’Toole wrote in the Irish Times. “But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the US until now: pity.”
The US has emerged as a global hotspot for the pandemic, a giant petri dish for the Sars-CoV-2 virus. As the death toll rises, Trump’s claims to global leadership have became more far-fetched. He told Republicans last week that he had had a round of phone calls with Angela Merkel, Shinzo Abe and other unnamed world leaders and insisted “so many of them, almost all of them, I would say all of them” believe the US is leading the way.
None of the leaders he mentioned has said anything to suggest that was true. At each milestone of the crisis, European leaders have been taken aback by Trump’s lack of consultation with them – when he suspended travel to the US from Europe on 12 March without warning Brussels, for example. A week later, politicians in Berlin accused Trump of an “unfriendly act” for offering “large sums of money” to get a German company developing a vaccine to move its research wing to the US.
The president’s abrupt decision to cut funding to the World Health Organization last month also came as a shock. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, a former Spanish foreign minister, wrote on Twitter: “There is no reason justifying this move at a moment when their efforts are needed more than ever to help contain & mitigate the coronavirus pandemic.”
A poll in France last week found Merkel to be far and away the most trusted world leader. Just 2% had confidence Trump was leading the world in the right direction. Only Boris Johnson and Xi Jinping inspired less faith.
A survey this week by the British Foreign Policy Group found 28% of Britons trusted the US to act responsibly on the world stage, a drop of 13 percentage points since January, with the biggest drop in confidence coming among Conservative voters.
Dacian Cioloș, a former prime minister of Romania who now leads the Renew Europe group in the European parliament, captured a general European view this week as the latest statistics on deaths in the US were reported.
“Post-truth communication techniques used by rightwing populism movements simply do not work to beat Covid-19,” he told the Guardian. “And we see that populism cost lives.”
Around the globe, the “America first” response pursued by the Trump administration has alienated close allies. In Canada, it was the White House order in April to halt shipments of critical N95 protective masks to Canadian hospitals that was the breaking point.
The Ontario premier, Doug Ford, who had previously spoken out in support of Trump on several occasions, said the decision was like letting a family member “starve” during a crisis.
“When the cards are down, you see who your friends are,” said Ford. “And I think it’s been very clear over the last couple of days who our friends are.”
In countries known for chronic problems of governance, there has been a sense of wonder that the US appears to have joined their ranks.
Esmir Milavić, an editor at Bosnia’s N1 TV channel, told viewers this week: “The White House is in utter dysfunction and doesn’t speak with one voice.”
Milavić said: “The vice-president is wearing a mask, while the president doesn’t; some staffers wear them, some don’t. Everybody acts as they please. As time passes, White House begins to look more and more like the Balkans.”
After Trump’s disinfectant comments, Beppe Severgnini, a columnist for Italy’s Corriere della Sera, said in a TV interview: “Trying to get into Donald Trump’s head is more difficult than finding a vaccine for coronavirus. First he decided on a lockdown and then he encouraged protests against the lockdown that he promoted. It’s like a Mel Brooks film.”
In several countries, the local health authorities have felt obliged to put out statements to counter “health advice” coming from the White House, concerning the ingestion of disinfectant and taking hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug found to be ineffective against Covid-19 and potentially lethal.
The Nigerian government put out a warning that there is no “hard evidence that chloroquine is effective in prevention or management of coronavirus infection” after three people were hospitalised from overdosing on the drug in Lagos. It was not enough to prevent a fivefold increase in the price of the drug, which is also used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Trump’s decision not to take part in a global effort to find a vaccine, and his abrupt severance of financial support to the WHO at the height of the pandemic, added outrage and prompted complaints that the US was surrendering its role of global leadership.
“If there is any world leader who can be accused of handling the current crisis badly, it is Donald Trump, whose initial disdain for Covid-19 may have cost thousands of Americans their lives,” an editorial in the conservative Estado de São Paulo newspaper said last month.
The newspaper said Trump had only decided to take Covid seriously after finding himself “cornered by the facts” – and expressed shock at his decision to halt WHO funding.
“Even by the standards of his behaviour, the level of impudence is astonishing for the holder of an office that, until just a few years ago, was a considered reference in leadership for the democratic world,” it said.
Nowhere in the world is the US response to the pandemic more routinely castigated than in China. It is hardly surprising. Trump has consistently pointed to Chinese culpability in failing to contain the outbreak in its early stages, and the pandemic has become the central battleground for global leadership between the established superpower and the emerging challenger.
There is a palpable sense of relief among Chinese state commentators that the US president’s antics have diverted some of the anger that would otherwise have been aimed at Beijing.
“Only by making Americans hate China can they make sure that the public might overlook the fact that Trump’s team is stained with the blood of Americans,” said an English-language Global Times editorial late last month.
Its editor, Hu Xijin, tweeted: “US system used to be appealing to many Chinese people. But through the pandemic, Chinese saw US government’s incompetence in outbreak control, disregard for life and its overt lies. Washington’s political halo has little left.”
China’s failure to cooperate fully with the WHO and its heavy-handed diplomacy has won Beijing few friends, despite its dispatch of medical assistance around the world. But the German news weekly Der Spiegel argued that Trump had single-handedly managed to spare Beijing the worst of the global consequences for its failings.
“For a while, it looked like the outbreak of the coronavirus would throw China back by light years,” the magazine argued in an editorial. “But now it is US president Donald Trump who has to spend day after day in a stuffy White House press room explaining to the world why his country can’t get a grip on the pandemic.”
Among the key questions shaping debate around restrictive health measures to combat COVID-19 is how dangerous is the new coronavirus. Is it more like a bad strain of influenza, or is it deadlier?
Health experts say it’s too early in the pandemic for a definitive answer because the basic information to make that calculation — how many people contracted COVID-19 and how many died of it — isn’t fully known due to testing limitations.
But on March 3, before the rapid spread of cases prompted lockdowns around the U.S., the World Health Organization’s director- general reported that “globally, about 3.4% of reported COVID-19 cases have died,” and “by comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far fewer than 1% of those infected.”
Today, by the WHO’s global case and fatality tally, the world’s COVID-19 death rate is twice what it reported in March — 7%. Other organizations tracking figures, such as Johns Hopkins University, show a similarly high global case fatality rate. Regionally, the figures vary more. WHO and Johns Hopkins figures for the U.S. show a rate around 6%, while the WHO’s figures for Europe indicate a rate of 9%.
“COVID19 is a pretty severe disease,” said Santa Clara Valley Medical Center Dr. Heng Duong, who rattled off similar case fatality rates to the Santa Clara County board of supervisors this week. “It is true most people do OK. But when folks get sick, they get really sick.”
By comparison, SARS — Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome — caused by a cousin of the new coronavirus killed 774 — 10% — of the 8,098 people it infected in a 2003 outbreak, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that virus proved not nearly as infectious, so it didn’t spread far.
The 1918-19 influenza pandemic, one of the most severe in history, which killed an estimated 50 million globally and 675,000 in the U.S., is generally estimated to have had a case fatality rate of more than 2.5%.
Duong and other experts said the true case fatality rate for COVID-19 may be much lower because there likely are a large number of people who have been infected with mild symptoms and were not confirmed through testing, which has largely been focused on those seeking hospital treatment or in highrisk settings.
But Duong added that “even if the case fatality rate is closer to 1%, that’s actually very high,” noting that seasonal influenza’s fatality rate is about a tenth of that.
In the U.S., 80% of COVID- 19 deaths have been among those age 65 and older, according to the CDC.
What does all this mean for us? Dr. Robert Siegel, a Stanford University professor of microbiology and immunology, said the relative danger of the disease has been part of a tug-ofwar between advocates and critics of public health lockdowns aimed at checking the virus’ spread. But the specific case rate ultimately doesn’t matter much — the public health response will be the same.
“There is a political component in how these things are being estimated,” Siegel said. “The fact is, we know this is a serious disease. We already know this is more serious than the flu. If you get the disease and the case fatality rate is 1% or the case fatality rate is 5%, I think you’d treat those the same. That would be an alarmingly high rate — you wouldn’t play Russian Roulette with those odds. If it’s 1 in a million that’s something else.”
The debate comes amid recent reports acknowledging a wider array of symptoms and complications in many COVID-19 cases — from “COVID-toe” skin lesions and loss of smell to kidney, heart and neurological damage, blood clots and strokes. Duong noted that influenza can cause some of those symptoms in some cases too, though the frequency has been higher with COVID-19. Still, he said about eight in 10 infected with the disease are able to ride it out at home.
Dr. Stephen Luby, an epidemiologist and professor of medicine at Stanford University, believes broader testing will eventually increase the number of people who have been infected and pull down the case fatality rate. “Some people do become very ill from this virus, but I do not see any evidence that this is substantially worse than the cases reported out of China early in the epidemic,” Luby said. “I still expect the infection fatality ratio to remain less than 1%. I expect that it will be worse than a typical influenza year, but not as bad as the influenza pandemic in 1919.”
April’s coronavirus death toll surpassed the Vietnam War’s, and it tested almost everyone, yet Americans found ways to come together.
The Washington Post, by Marc Fisher, Abigail Hauslohner, Hannah Natanson and Lori Rozsa, May 2, 2020
April was death. Bodies stacked, mothers and fathers discarded in bags piled onto refrigerator trucks in hospital parking lots, dumped into mass graves. People leaving this life without farewells, without a last look of love, without a touch.
April was hope. A frenzy of purposeful energy, scientists and doctors and nurses searching for patterns that might lead to answers. People without fancy degrees snapped on gloves, tied on masks and prayed that the help they gave to people they would never know might not lead also to their own demise.
April was cruel. There have been worse months in the history of human beings, but not many. An average of 446,000 people died each month from August to October in 1942 during Germany’s mania of industrialized murder, the Holocaust. In the United States, the deadliest month was October 1918, when about 200,000 people succumbed to the flu.
The new virus is a swift executioner. In the war in Vietnam, 58,209 Americans were killed between 1960 and 1975. In the battle against the novel coronavirus, 58,760 Americans died in April alone. Both crises leeched into existing fissures, exacerbating political and social divisions. But the war analogy goes only so far; in this conflict, we have no big guns, no ready defense. All we can do at this stage is hide and try to manage the damage.
April 11: U.S. death toll becomes highest in the world (20,429) April 20: U.S. death toll doubles in 9 days (42,128) April 29: U.S. death toll now surpasses nation’s Vietnam War casualties from 1960 to 1975 (58,209)
April 30: 62,557 total U.S. covid-19 deaths
The virus that changed America in April is an invisible and insidious killer, aimed at no one in particular and at everyone at once. This disease, covid-19, has the power to cause searing pain, to turn our bodies against us, to rob us of the thing we take most for granted, the air we breathe. It also steals jobs and money and food and the simplest of gestures — a smile now hidden under a mask, a glance that doesn’t happen because you’re stuck at home, a handshake that now shivers with danger.
By the end of the month, more than 2,000 Americans were dying each day and more than 1 million had confirmed infections — about one in every 325 people in the country.
A desperate month
April was a frantic blur, at hospitals, in makeshift wards in hallways and closets, in formless days as nurses tried to salve gasping patients. After 12 hours of tending to people for whom they had no answers, doctors stole a few moments to trade stories in their Facebook groups, telling what they had seen and what they had tried. Somehow, they hoped, their collective anecdotes might add up to something useful.
“There’s no consensus on what’s the right thing to do,” said Kathleen Kelly, an emergency room physician at Reston Hospital Center in Northern Virginia. “It’s just like nothing anybody’s seen.”
Put the patients on their bellies, give them high-flow nasal oxygen, try this, try that, anything to help them draw air. People came in with breathing so labored that nurses could hear them clear across the ER.
There was no such thing as dropping by to check on a patient. Everything was an ordeal, a detailed process designed to keep health-care workers going beyond where they ever thought they would go.
It took five pairs of gloves just to safely remove one set of protective gear (mask and face shield and gloves and gown and booties): Clean an area, remove the gloves, dump them in a paper bag, put on another pair, clean an area, repeat. It took five minutes to prep for each bedside visit.
“But these people need you in there right now,” Kelly said. “We’re used to running to colleagues for advice, but now, nobody can run in to check with anyone.”
There were so many questions, so few answers. Where, for example, were all the other patients — the heart attacks and cooking burns and car crash injuries? (Okay, that last disappearance was explainable: Hardly anybody was driving.) Were people suffering at home, too scared to come to the hospital? Even the neonatologists wondered: Where are people delivering their babies?
When people did arrive, their situation was bad.
“Heart attacks are coming in too late, and they’re ending up with long-term cardiac damage,” said Kelly, who is 63 and started her career during the first big wave of HIV cases. “You protected yourself then, but it was nothing like this. This is so infectious, and we don’t understand it. I don’t know how I’ll know when to take the mask off.”
April was a scary quest for air, a hunger for the very stuff of life.
Shani Evans, 50, thought it was just menopause. Hot flashes, chills. Then, after two days, the sore throat, headache, and dry cough. Uh-oh.
But she had a job interview — she was in the process of switching from one Lowe’s store to another, where she would be working in the lawn and garden department — and the teledoctor she called told her she probably just had a seasonal allergy.
Then everything got worse. The symptoms stacked up — add nausea and fever to the mix. She called in sick and drove from her home in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to an urgent care clinic 15 minutes away in Charles Town, where they told her she didn’t meet the criteria for getting a coronavirus test. They gave her cough medicine and sent her home.
Then the virus took her breath away.
“I was never sicker,” Evans said. Thirteen days into the suffering, her boyfriend, Ronald Grey, drove her to the ER at Jefferson Medical Center. She was gasping for air.
An intake person said to go back to the urgent care clinic. But when Grey called there from the hospital parking lot, he was told the clinic couldn’t help. Grey stepped back inside the hospital, where he was handed a piece of paper with a number to call at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Someone who answered there said only that Evans didn’t meet the criteria to be tested.
On the third try at the hospital, Evans said, a staffer decided she needed help and rustled up a wheelchair.
Pete Paganussi, a doctor in the ER, saw Evans. “He was so nice,” Evans said. “He stayed with me for hours.”
Paganussi explained that the best thing he could do for her breathing was to intubate her — put her on a ventilator.
“I explained it, and she got up and ran out,” Paganussi said.
Evans said she refused the treatment because “I’m a strong person, maybe stubborn, too. I was scared to go on the ventilator because I didn’t want to lose control. I wanted to keep my lungs moving.” (In a study of covid-19 patients in New York, 88 percent of those who were put on ventilators died.)
Evans went home. The hours crawled by. She drank tea, used an inhaler. She did whatever she could to avoid lying down, because that’s when the cough intensified. She vacuumed the floor, dusted, anything to keep active, keep her lungs going. Not normally given to anxiety, she was scared beyond imagining. Time became a blur. For seven days, she barely slept, getting just minutes of rest at a time because the coughing would wake her.
“I was in and out of my mind,” she said. “It was really weird.”
She tried to watch TV. She put CNN, Fox News and MSNBC on split screens and she had no idea what to believe. “Everybody says different things, and I don’t know what to do with it,” she said. “Fox plays it down and CNN takes it more serious, and I can’t get anywhere with it.”
Paganussi kept calling from the hospital and leaving messages. No answer.
“I was afraid she’d died,” the doctor said.
On the third day after the hospital visit, her breathing eased. She called the doctor back. She was okay, she said.
“It’s been a long month,” Evans said. “A very long month.”
The sickness lifted. The cough lingered, then resolved. But the anxiety remained, even after her employer paid her for her time in quarantine. Her boyfriend is okay, and she’s back at work, but “mentally, I’m changed,” Evans said. “I don’t know how I’m going to go back to going places.”
Her doctor shares her anxiety. “I’ve been a doc since 1985, and I’ve never been afraid to walk into a room,” Paganussi said. “This virus scares me.”
Before every shift, he reads the 91st Psalm to the nurses: “You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.”
April was still. Silent schools and eerily empty highways, shuttered shops and deserted offices. Outside their homes, many people were muffled — masked, gloved, fearful, possible vectors of a contagion that knew no bounds.
Even death seemed more still than usual. No bedside farewells, no last hugs, no comforting gatherings of loved ones.
From their homes in the Boston area, Shannon, Jean and Kellie Lynch could only listen on the phone to the beeping monitors in their mother’s Florida hospital room. A nurse propped the phone on Carol Lynch’s pillow at the Villages Regional Hospital.
“We love you,” said Kellie, 59, the eldest. “Mom, if this is too much and you can’t do this, you can let go.”
And then, Kellie said, “all of a sudden, the beeping stopped.”
Carol Lynch was 84 when she died of covid-19. She died alone, and that is not how the Lynches pass from this world.
“In our family,” said the middle sister, Jean, 56, “we’re all there by their side when they die.”
They were there, at home, when their father, James, succumbed to a stroke, in 1999.
“I administered his last dose of morphine,” said Jean, a real estate agent who lives in Chelmsford, Mass.
When the fourth sister, Susan, died of leukemia at 23, her parents were by her side.
Now, Carol was gone.
“Can you imagine being surrounded by people with face masks, no one you know?” Jean said.
Their mother had suffered from occasional bronchitis but was otherwise healthy. When the virus struck, Carol thought it was her usual ailment. The daughters persuaded her to see a doctor, who said she had “a teeny bit of pneumonia,” Kellie said. Carol wanted to charge ahead with planning her birthday party. Her daughters told her to cancel it because of the virus.
“They get their news from Fox down there,” Kellie said. “They believe what Trump tells them. She said she had a lot of shopping to do for the party. I said ‘No, you’re not.’ She grumbled and complained, but she canceled the party.”
The decline came swiftly. One day, Carol was cooking up a storm, making beef stew and meatballs for her friends. The next day, she was delirious, with a high fever.
Kellie — who owns a fitness studio in Cohasset, Mass., where the youngest daughter, Shannon, 50, also works — went down to Florida to bring their mother home. But when Kellie arrived, hospital staffers wouldn’t let her into her mother’s room.
A few days after Carol died, Kellie received a box containing their mother’s ashes.
“I just kept moving it around the house,” Kellie said. “Finally, my girls were like, ‘Mom, you have to open the box.’ When they unpacked the urn, I started to shake all over.”
She put it in the living room, near a picture of her mother.
There could be no family gathering. “No big funeral, no wake, no ritual,” Shannon said. “There’s a lot to be said for having your people around you, where you can express your pain and cry your eyes out.”
The daughters hope to arrange a small family funeral in May, as well as a celebration of Carol’s life in June in Florida.
Jean said she has been “crying so hard that it actually hurt me. I couldn’t hold a thought. I was like, what the hell is wrong with me? Why do I feel so heavy? I called a friend, and she said, ‘That’s grief.’”
April was punch after punch, a beating that knocked some families down, then slammed them again.
Miguel and Maria Hernandez were inseparable. Their love came late — they were already in their 40s when they met in a shopping mall — and endured through civil war in El Salvador, migration to a new country, and years of troubled health.
In Elizabeth, N.J. — where the couple settled and raised their son — Miguel, 77, and Maria, 80, were rarely seen apart.
“If people saw one of them alone, they’d be like ‘Where’s your husband?’ ‘Where’s your wife?’” said their son, Jose. “They were attached at the hip.”
Miguel and Maria lived upstairs in the family’s main house; Jose, now 36 and married, with one son, lived in the apartment below.
In recent years, Miguel had battled prostate cancer, and then heart problems. He had a pacemaker installed. He was shocked with a defibrillator twice.
When the epidemic began, the family was cautious. But, as March ended, Miguel fell ill. For many years an active bicyclist, he stopped eating, struggled to climb stairs, lost his balance. He grew confused and dehydrated.
At the beginning of April, Jose, Maria and Miguel donned masks and drove to the hospital.
Almost as soon as Miguel was admitted, Maria, who had long suffered from asthma, began to cough. They both tested positive for the virus, and Jose shuttled them back and forth to the hospital.
With his mother hospitalized and his father at home, Jose juggled his hopes and his emotions, his duties to Miguel upstairs and his concern about his wife, Kimberly, and their 5-year-old son, Marius, downstairs. Jose wore a mask and a separate set of clothes to feed and bathe his father.
Miguel couldn’t sleep. He struggled to pull in air. “He would close his eyes, start to drift off, but he wasn’t breathing right,” Jose said. “He’d open his eyes, startled.”
Jose called an ambulance. The paramedics showed up looking like first responders at a chemical spill.
At the hospital, Miguel was placed on a ventilator. Within three days, he died in his sleep.
Jose couldn’t tell Maria. He knew it would break her heart.
But then Jose got an urgent call from the hospital. As doctors prepared to intubate Maria, too, they asked Jose whether they should start chest compressions if her heart stopped — as it would — warning that performing CPR on an 80-year-old in her condition might break her ribs and cause serious harm.
Jose thought of what his mother had told him a few years earlier when his grandmother died: “I don’t want them keeping me alive when I’m not really alive.” Now, Jose told the doctor: No chest compressions.
Just like that, his parents were gone. Married for 37 years, dead within three days.
On top of the loss, Jose faced the sudden cost of two funerals — $12,450 for two plots, two caskets, two services.
Miguel had worked hard his whole life, doing maintenance in warehouses. And Jose had a full-time job as a supermarket security guard. But money to cover the cost of dying simply didn’t exist.
Jose’s aunt — Miguel’s sister — and her children set up a GoFundMe appeal. They posted pictures of the man who played the guitar and loved mariachi bands, who regaled relatives with stories of the old days, who was always up for a game of checkers.
The money arrived in 500 donations — $10 here, $100 there.
“No one should have to worry about funeral expenses while mourning such a painful loss,” one man wrote.
Jose would have to wait for the funeral. For now, at home in a house left only half full, he and Kimberly searched for a Disney movie that might help explain the death of a loved one to a 5-year-old. The only one that came to mind was “The Lion King,” in which the father lion is killed, but it didn’t seem quite right.
Jose and Kimberly put off telling Marius about what had happened to the grandparents he had visited every day, with whom he played and watched cartoons. But he soon began asking. Where were they? Were they feeling better?
April was lost — jobs evaporated, bank accounts run dry. Liquor sales soared, as did prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications and calls to suicide hotlines. Food lines and empty grocery shelves became commonplace in a nation accustomed to a life of plenty.
In the California valley that prides itself on being the nation’s salad bowl, Yiling Cui named her farm Everlasting Garden, and for more than two decades, the name seemed accurate. She grew tiny French breakfast radishes and lemon grasses and six kinds of basil for high-end San Francisco restaurants.
Like many other business owners across the country, Cui saw the impact of stay-at-home orders almost overnight. With restaurants closed, she went from 55 clients to none. Cui was left with five acres of food she couldn’t give away.
She tried to shift to serving her neighbors. She tore out those specialty crops and planted foods people needed now that they were cooking at home: baby carrots, scallions, fava beans.
Cui, 67, put notices on Facebook and went to farmers markets. While locals were happy to buy some greens — they drove up, popped their trunks, and Cui deposited a box of produce — the revenue was a tiny portion of what she usually brought in.
She had no work for her two seasonal employees. She and her partner did all the labor now — mostly sad work, plowing in plants that used to end up on $30 plates in Bay Area eateries.
“Every day now, we just try to figure out tomorrow,” she said. “I just try to keep going. At least we can eat what we grow.”
At Andrea Osorio’s house in San Antonio, they planted seeds for beans, tomatoes and squash in the front yard and started building a chicken coop in the back.
It’s not enough. After she chastises her sons for eating more than two eggs, after she calculates how much she owes the bill collectors, and after she feeds the men in her life frijoles — refried beans — for the fifth night in a row, Andrea retreats to a corner of her living room to cry.
The panic felt tighter each April day without work, without a way to buy food. On this night, the worry left her breathless.
Before the pandemic, Osorio, 46, did not have to ration. The undocumented domestic worker found a way to provide for her Mexican American family. If work was slow, the mother of four pushed harder. She usually made nearly $500 a week cleaning houses in San Antonio, bolstering her husband’s construction wages.
Before, Osorio’s 75-year-old father, Victorio, did odd jobs to help bring in money. Before, her youngest, Osvaldo, a plump 10-year-old, would sneak snacks and his mother would let it go. Before, Osorio sent what money she had left over to her mother in Mexico.
Now, the mother eyes her son warily in the kitchen. Now, the old man stands at attention after each dinner to deliver a formal thank you to his daughter.
“At the beginning, I thought I could do this,” Osorio said. “But two weeks became three and then four and now who knows when I can work again? I cry, but never in front of them. I wait until they go to sleep and I’m alone.”
Her husband, Oscar Sanchez Sr., leaves every morning before 7 to finish off the roof of a resort home miles away. At least they have that, Andrea said.
They are paying their bills in bits and pieces. Ten dollars toward the monthly car payment. One hundred for the taxes. Twenty bucks for the water and electricity. Undocumented families don’t get stimulus checks. They can’t apply for unemployment. With so little money coming in, they emptied their freezer for the first time.
While her husband works, Andrea struggles to assist her youngest son with homework. He receives special help at school and attends a tutoring program. But his parents had to stop payments for the tutor.
Andrea came to San Antonio from Mexico as a teenager, learned some English, graduated from high school and wanted more. But not having papers meant not having chances, she said. She married, escaped an abusive ex-husband shortly after becoming a mother and saw her two oldest children go to college. Her daughter’s college diploma is the first thing on display inside the family’s front door.
For Andrea, April has meant tears, often shed alone in the living room. But not every day was bleak. Oscar Sanchez’s boss paid him a bit extra. The other day, a man called offering Andrea some work. And Oscar found an envelope stuffed with $240 in their mailbox.
For the first time in April, the family had meat for dinner.
April was families forced into close quarters, roles reordered — parents becoming teachers, students left to learn on their own, rites of passage skipped over.
Laura Simons held her 5-year-old daughter’s hand in her left palm as she scrolled through slides of physics equations with her right.
On the child’s laptop, set up next to Mom’s, a teacher sang “Days of the week, days of the week!” The singer asked her pixilated pre-kindergarteners to cheer because “yesterday was Thursday,” meaning today was Friday.
Chloe Simons yanked her mother’s hand. Chloe said she did not understand: “Why are they cheering?”
Laura had an hour and 44 minutes before she had to log in to Zoom to teach her AP Physics 1 class. But she pulled away from her preparations to peer at her daughter’s screen.
“Well, normally when you go to school,” Laura told her daughter, “you get to stay home on Saturday and Sunday.”
Had Chloe forgotten weekends already? Weekends no longer really existed here. The line between school and their home in Springfield, Va., between work and family — a line she’d fought to find through her decade in Alexandria City Public Schools — had vanished, too.
Throughout April, Laura, 37, had led online classes in the kitchen on weekday mornings, with Chloe underfoot and her 17-month-old son, Oliver, on her lap.
Laura’s 109 physics students knew by now that Oliver liked to dump anything in the lowest kitchen drawers onto the floor. That Chloe spilled Cheerios and pretzels. Laura had canceled class once when her children dissolved into simultaneous meltdowns.
She spent weekends in her basement — drawing up lesson plans, evaluating student work — while her husband, a bridge engineer also working from home, focused on the children.
How much longer, Laura wondered, could she keep this up?
She picked up her son’s fidget spinner — hardly a good replacement for how she would usually teach that day’s lesson on angular momentum. She should have been asking her students to step onto turntables. She should have been handing them spinning bicycle wheels. She should have been laughing at their shock when they, too, began to spin.
Thankfully, the AP test had been adjusted, like everything else in Laura’s life, and would no longer focus as heavily on rotation. But things still didn’t feel right.
She had added two questions to a recent online assignment: “How are you doing?” “How’s life?”
“I miss school so much,” one student wrote, adding, “never thought I’d say that.”
“The middle of the night,” wrote another, “is my most productive time.”
The middle of the night was when Laura awakened now, her dreams colored by the fears she represses by day: Worry for her 70-year-old mother, who is prediabetic. Terror over what would happen to Chloe and Oliver if she and her husband caught the virus and died. And constant anxiety: How can she possibly teach next year’s physics students if school doesn’t reopen in the fall?
Better, she told herself, to focus on this year’s class. Forty students joined her Zoom session. Laura whipped the fidget spinner to a frenzy, then flipped it over. “It feels weird, it fights you,” she said, “and this is angular momentum.”
One 12th-grader’s eyes widened. Another threw his hands above his head.
Laura laughed: “I see your little brains breaking on your faces. I miss that look.”
April was boredom and heartbreak, sports unplayed and sweethearts unkissed. With schools closed and games canceled, the embers of teamwork could be tended only from afar.
As the month began, Cy Harwood, a star infielder at Huntingtown High in southern Maryland, was not ready to concede his senior season. He pushed himself with the possibility that everything might return to normal. He lifted weights in his basement, did throwing drills with his father in the driveway and went on long runs through his neighborhood, still driven by the dream of returning to his friends and their mission to win a state championship.
But in mid-April, Maryland’s governor extended at-home learning through May 15. Harwood took out his phone and crafted a message to his team’s group chat.
“This is obviously the worst news ever,” he wrote. “I wish we could have our season and our chance to win it all. I’ll always be here for every single one of you no matter what.”
That last part was hard. He was one of the team’s captains and had known some of the other players since he was 6 years old. And this was supposed to be the year they broke through.
Harwood had a shot at setting some school records at the plate this season — at-bats, hits and RBIs, his coach said. Harwood had committed last summer to play baseball after graduation at Salisbury University, a Division III program two hours from home. But some other colleges had shown interest last fall, and in early March, Harwood called Salisbury to de-commit. That had been a long, hard conversation with the head coach.
Three weeks later, after the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc, sending high school recruits across the country scrambling for opportunity, Harwood called Salisbury back for a harder conversation: He told the coach he was sorry, he’d made a mistake and now he was again excited to be a Sea Gull. They took him back.
Harwood ended the month at home, playing baseball video games, watching sports documentaries, spending at least three hours a day on his craft — lifting, throwing and sprinting with an eye toward college.
A crater had opened in the part of his existence where Huntingtown baseball once thrived.
“It’s not the same when you’re not out there,” he said. “There’s just been no way around that. We have to accept it.”
Seven hundred miles away, in Sparta, Mich., April was spring. Birds beckoned and flowers bloomed, and many who were stuck inside found ways to plant seeds of hope.
Kendyl Bjorkman’s spring was a quest for new diversions. She and her two sisters baked and cooked and played cards — Garbage and Exploding Kittens — escaping from remote school into their yard as often as possible.
Kendyl is 14, a freshman at Sparta High School and determined to get through this without wallowing in the unfairness or the boredom.
“The month was so long and lonely,” she said. But she didn’t want to look back 10 years from now and “say I spent all that time watching YouTube.”
She and her sisters, who are 17 and 9, wrote and recorded song parodies about the epidemic.
“Stay at home, stay at home, can’t go to school anymore,” they sang, to the tune of “Let It Go” from the Disney film “Frozen.” “Stay at home, stay at home, soccer season is no more.”
The order had come seemingly out of the blue. “It was just one Thursday and then you never go back to school again,” Kendyl said. “I don’t think it’s going to be back to normal for a long time.”
She does an hour or two of school work each morning, but it’s busy work, mostly. To make the new life palatable, you have to create your own satisfaction.
“You have to enjoy each other’s presence,” she said. Her family — her mother is a teacher, now working from home, and her father still goes to the office, at the local health department — plays games. The girls go outside. “It’s good to be in your yard because it can get sad in the house,” Kendyl said.
She wakes these days around 8 or 9 — a welcome respite from the usual 6 a.m. school day alarm — puts on her running shoes, and takes off, flying along empty streets, training for cross-country meets that will not happen.
No school, no church, friends are only images on a screen, so Kendyl sings: “Stay at home, stay at home, will I ever be set free?”
Eugene “Gene” Campbell learned he had covid-19 days after he turned 89. Everyone feared that was the end.
He was one of more than 120 mostly sick and elderly residents infected with the coronavirus at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, a nursing home near Lake Washington, northeast of Seattle, site of the first major coronavirus outbreak in the United States. More than 40 people died.
Campbell had arrived in February for two weeks of rehabilitation after a stroke. But fever and cough soon racked his body, and an ambulance took him to the hospital.
At the Swedish Edmonds emergency room, his frightened sons could only watch through glass doors as their father shook, hacking.
“He just seemed so alone,” said Todd Campbell, one of Gene Campbell’s three sons.
Within days, the symptoms faded, and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams hailed Campbell at a White House briefing as proof that even the elderly could vanquish the virus.
But in April, Campbell was still confined to a hospital room with a bed, television and an empty chair. He needed two negative coronavirus tests to return home to his wife, Dorothy, 88, known as “Doe,” at Vineyard Park, an assisted-living facility in nearby Bothell.
“I just want to get out of here,” Campbell would say.
He endured multiple invasive nasal swabs, but never got consistent results. In early April, after a sixth swab came back positive, he began to refuse the tests.
“This is your ticket out,” Todd told his father. “If you don’t do it, you are stuck there.”
Nobody could remember a time when Campbell had been sick — or alone.
He had been student body president of Lynden High School’s class of 1949. He sang in the choir and captained the football team. The yearbook called him “a born executive.” He finished college, was drafted into the Army, married Dorothy, and taught their three sons to clean their plates, work hard and save their money. He worked his way up to president of a textbook distributor — a job he didn’t like — to provide for his family.
“His number one priority as a father was to teach us how to survive,” said Todd, 59, an industrial engineer.
Gene Campbell spoke through his actions; he never told his boys, “I love you.”
When he arrived at Life Care, his sons told him they loved him, and they prodded him to say it back.
“He’d say ‘Yeah, okay,’” said son Charlie, 61, a retired registered nurse. Their father would wave them off with a smile.
Then the virus invaded. Barred from visiting, his sons could be with him only by phone.
Campbell told his sons one night that he had decided to refuse meals. He said his “quality of life going forward wouldn’t be worth living.” His sons hung up and cried.
But by the next morning, Campbell cheerily reported that he had just finished breakfast and the eggs were a little cold.
As April crawled by, with tests both positive and negative for the virus, Campbell seemed to change: At the end of each call, he told his sons, “I love you, too.”
Finally, on April 17, Campbell got the word: He had received two negative test results in a row.
Smiling behind face masks, his boys picked him up outside the hospital on April 20, hugged him and helped him into Todd’s SUV.
In all its complexity, in all its despair, in all its glory, April was life.
Campbell still faced two more weeks of quarantine at home, but first he had 30 minutes in the car with Todd and Charlie. Now they could envision another Christmas together, maybe another Seattle Mariners game, certainly another phone call to tell their dad they love him. And to hear him say it back.
Rozsa reported from Central Florida. Arelis R. Hernández in San Antonio and Michael Errigo, Ellen McCarthy and Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.
Design and development by Joanne Lee. Graphics by Joe Fox. Photo editing by Haley Hamblin. Copy editing by Gilbert Dunkley.
Weekly unemployment claims from the Department of Labor. Cause of death data from the CDC.
The IMF calls the revelation “shocking” and says the figure is an “extremely robust” estimate of the true cost of fossil fuels. The $5.3tn subsidy estimated for 2015 is greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments.
The vast sum is largely due to polluters not paying the costs imposed on governments by the burning of coal, oil and gas. These include the harm caused to local populations by air pollution as well as to people across the globe affected by the floods, droughts and storms being driven by climate change.
Nicholas Stern, an eminent climate economist at the London School of Economics, said: “This very important analysis shatters the myth that fossil fuels are cheap by showing just how huge their real costs are. There is no justification for these enormous subsidies for fossil fuels, which distort markets and damages economies, particularly in poorer countries.”
Lord Stern said that even the IMF’s vast subsidy figure was a significant underestimate: “A more complete estimate of the costs due to climate change would show the implicit subsidies for fossil fuels are much bigger even than this report suggests.”
The IMF, one of the world’s most respected financial institutions, said that ending subsidies for fossil fuels would cut global carbon emissions by 20%. That would be a giant step towards taming global warming, an issue on which the world has made little progress to date.
Ending the subsidies would also slash the number of premature deaths from outdoor air pollution by 50% – about 1.6 million lives a year.
Furthermore, the IMF said the resources freed by ending fossil fuel subsidies could be an economic “game-changer” for many countries, by driving economic growth and poverty reduction through greater investment in infrastructure, health and education and also by cutting taxes that restrict growth.
Another consequence would be that the need for subsidies for renewable energy – a relatively tiny $120bn a year – would also disappear, if fossil fuel prices reflected the full cost of their impacts.
“These [fossil fuel subsidy] estimates are shocking,” said Vitor Gaspar, the IMF’s head of fiscal affairs and former finance minister of Portugal. “Energy prices remain woefully below levels that reflect their true costs.”
David Coady, the IMF official in charge of the report, said: “When the [$5.3tn] number came out at first, we thought we had better double check this!” But the broad picture of huge global subsidies was “extremely robust”, he said. “It is the true cost associated with fossil fuel subsidies.”
The IMF estimate of $5.3tn in fossil fuel subsidies represents 6.5% of global GDP. Just over half the figure is the money governments are forced to spend treating the victims of air pollution and the income lost because of ill health and premature deaths. The figure is higher than a 2013 IMF estimate because new data from the World Health Organisation shows the harm caused by air pollution to be much higher than thought.
Coal is the dirtiest fuel in terms of both local air pollution and climate-warming carbon emissions and is therefore the greatest beneficiary of the subsidies, with just over half the total. Oil, heavily used in transport, gets about a third of the subsidy and gas the rest.
The biggest single source of air pollution is coal-fired power stations and China, with its large population and heavy reliance on coal power, provides $2.3tn of the annual subsidies. The next biggest fossil fuel subsidies are in the US ($700bn), Russia ($335bn), India ($277bn) and Japan ($157bn), with the European Union collectively allowing $330bn in subsidies to fossil fuels.
The costs resulting from the climate change driven by fossil fuel emissions account for subsidies of $1.27tn a year, about a quarter, of the IMF’s total. The IMF calculated this cost using an official US government estimate of $42 a tonne of CO2 (in 2015 dollars), a price “very likely to underestimate” the true cost, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The direct subsidising of fuel for consumers, by government discounts on diesel and other fuels, account for just 6% of the IMF’s total. Other local factors, such as reduced sales taxes on fossil fuels and the cost of traffic congestion and accidents, make up the rest. The IMF says traffic costs are included because increased fuel prices would be the most direct way to reduce them.
Christiana Figueres, the UN’s climate change chief charged with delivering a deal to tackle global warming at a crunch summit in December, said: “The IMF provides five trillion reasons for acting on fossil fuel subsidies. Protecting the poor and the vulnerable is crucial to the phasing down of these subsidies, but the multiple economic, social and environmental benefits are long and legion.”
Barack Obama and the G20 nations called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies in 2009, but little progress had been made until oil prices fell in 2014. In April, the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, told the Guardian that it was crazy that governments were still driving the use of coal, oil and gas by providing subsidies. “We need to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies now,” he said.
Reform of the subsidies would increase energy costs but Kim and the IMF both noted that existing fossil fuel subsidies overwhelmingly go to the rich, with the wealthiest 20% of people getting six times as much as the poorest 20% in low and middle-income countries. Gaspar said that with oil and coal prices currently low, there was a “golden opportunity” to phase out subsidies and use the increased tax revenues to reduce poverty through investment and to provide better targeted support.
On renewable energy, Coady said: “If we get the pricing of fossil fuels right, the argument for subsidies for renewable energy will disappear. Renewable energy would all of a sudden become a much more attractive option.
Shelagh Whitley, a subsidies expert at the Overseas Development Institute, said: “The IMF report is yet another reminder that governments around the world are propping up a century-old energy model. Compounding the issue, our research shows that many of the energy subsidies highlighted by the IMF go toward finding new reserves of oil, gas and coal, which we know must be left in the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic, irreversible climate change.”
Developing the international cooperation needed to tackle climate change has proved challenging but a key message from the IMF’s work, according to Gaspar, is that each nation will directly benefit from tackling its own fossil fuel subsidies. “The icing on the cake is that the benefits from subsidy reform – for example, from reduced pollution – would overwhelmingly accrue to local populations,” he said.
“By acting local, and in their own best interest, [nations] can contribute significantly to the solution of a global challenge,” said Gaspar. “The path forward is clear: act local, solve global.”