Chicago’s Austin community and the complexities of COVID-19 vaccine equity

For the most part, Illinois is till currently in Phase 1B of the vaccination program. In order to get inoculated, you have to be 65 or older, or (with a few exceptions) an essential worker, or a teacher, or (in most parts of the state) be an adult with some kind of a long-term health issue. This means that most adults and none of the kids still can’t get it.

For the most part.

In the end of February, the City of Chicago quietly launched the Protect Chicago Plus initiative, where the city is offering vaccinations to everybody age 18 or older who live in certain community areas and set up temporary vaccination sites. The idea is that the majority-black and majority-Hispanic neighborhoods have seen higher-than-average number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, but also have fewer opportunities to get the vaccines. For example, the Lakeview neighborhood up on the North Side has a number of doctors’ offices, clinics and pharmacies. In North Lawndale, you can count those on two hands and still have fingers left over.

The city decided to set eligibility based on community areas, which makes sense. Neighborhoods come and go, their borders shift, and there isn’t always consensus on what they’re called and borders even are, while Chicago community areas have endured, with very few changes, for almost 100 years.

But it does create some interesting wrinkles.

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Scenes from Kenosha, two months after the shooting of Jacob Blake

As I’ve commented before, we journalists have a tendency to swoop in when there’s a crisis/controversy, and then forget about it once the heat dies down. And that is something I’ve personally been trying to avoid, even when I don’t get paid for it.

Kenosha has been on my radar long before the shooting of Jacob Blake. I visited it several times – the first time back in college, in one of my “how far can the [then $5] Metra weekend pass get me” day trips. I wanted to see the only midwestern town within communing distance that had some form of tramway (a heritage-style streetcar loop that, as I quickly realized, was little more than a tourist attraction for the HarborPark development in downtown Kenosha). I visited it a few times since, because it’s the only way to go to another state on a Metra weekend pass, and while I don’t have as much inexplicable fondness for it as I do for Michigan City, it has its charms. I even visited Kenosha twice during the pandemic – once in May (when, by a strange coincidence, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the state’s stay-at-home order) and once in June.

So, when the shooting happened, I already had some context. I already knew that it was a manufacturing town those existence once revolved around several major auto plants (the aforementioned HarborPark development was built on the site of large American Motors Corporation lakefront plant). I knew that the city was home to more African-Americans than many people might assume, with some living there since the days of the Underground Railroad. When protesters marched on Kenosha County Courthouse, and when riots swept through downtown and Uptown areas, I had a pretty good idea where several of those streets were.

I originally planned to try to get to Kenosha on August 24, what ended up being the second day of riots (and the day before Kyle Rittenhouse killed two protesters and wounded another), but I missed the mid-day train. Because Union Pacific North Metra Line is running on a limited schedule in these pandemic times, it meant that there was no point catching the following train, since I would basically only have time to walk around for a few minutes before I had to catch the last train back to Chicago. Paying work kept me from making another attempt until Friday, August 28. By that point, the protests continued, but they were mostly peaceful, and National Guard was brought in

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Breaking the rules in private vs protesting in public and the Soviet mentality

Last week, my mom wrote about the seeming contradiction she’s seen with her Russian friends, who’ve seen even peaceful protests as somehow innately bad, while not minding violating laws on the sly.

I definitely get where she’s coming from. Growing up in Russia, I’ve often seen grown-ups express the attitude that it’s almost virtuous to take advantage of loopholes, and there’s nothing wrong with violating the rules so long as they aren’t effectively enforced. Similarly, I’ve seen plenty of people take pride in following the letter of the law while violating the spirit. And it’s not even a solely Russian thing – as I got older, I saw the same kind of attitude in many other ex-Soviet countries.

I’ve already been thinking about this a lot during the pandemic. During the Illinois lockdown, people weren’t supposed to go outside except for essential reasons, such as buying groceries. But there were several professions that were exempt from that, including journalists. So long as it was in the service of performing journalism duties, we were allowed to go wherever wanted.

Which is where the gray area came in. There is only so much journalism one can do from behind the computer screen. Sometimes, one has to go to places, see things as they happen, take pictures, talk to people. And sometimes, you need to see conditions on the ground to figure out what’s worth writing about. And so, as those of you who followed me on social media know, I took trips to the suburbs, just to get out of the house and have a change of scenery. I took pictures and took notes that could be used for the article. A few times, I even legitimately got story ideas this way, or took pictures that were actually used in articles – but there were times that I didn’t. And there were some instances when I took pictures for fun and wound up using them in articles because it just happened to be apropos. But there were also times when I didn’t use them for anything.

My mom wasn’t amused by any of this, chiding me for doing non-essential travel, but I honestly didn’t feel bad. Who was to say that any given trip wouldn’t retroactively serve a journalistic purpose? To quote Harry Dresden from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, it was a technicality I intended to hide firmly behind, if anybody asked (which nobody did).

Honestly, I was more confused why my mom took issue with that. She actually grew up in the Soviet Union, and i know for a fact that, back then, she did things that weren’t legal, and things that were on the gray side.

It was the same thing with my visits to the Chicago beaches during the summer. While the beaches weren’t closed, the closures weren’t enforced after 7:00 PM. I didn’t feel bad about not following the rules when they weren’t in any way enforced, especially when other people did the same thing.

Now, unlike my mom’s Russian friends, I have no issue with protests, at least not per se. Even when I don’t necessarily agree with the goals, I don’t have this common Russian reaction of “what are they doing, they’re just stirring up trouble.” Protests bring attention to issues. They make a statement that the way things are won’t be tolerated. What is so wrong with people risking arrest and injury to stand up for their beliefs?

(Now, people wanting to protest without being willing to risk anything is another story)

As I commented on my mom’s blog, I don’t think the contradiction she talked about is that much of a contradiction at all. She and her friends grew up in the Soviet Union. Protest actions get people in trouble – ergo, those who start trouble are trouble-makers. Now, exploiting the blind spots of law enforcement, exploiting the loopholes and the legal particulars, doesn’t get you in trouble (if you do it right), so that’s okay.

I think it relates to the phenomenon Suki Kim described in Without You, There’s No Us, a book about her time teaching college students from North Korean Workers’ Party elite. She was struck by how her students lied constantly, without good reason, and how lying seemed so natural to them, and speculated that it was the consequence of growing up in a society where being truthful was a liability. DPRK apparatus is basically Stalinism on steroids, and my mom’s friends weren’t old enough to experience Stalinism in its original form directly, but I do think that any society where expressing one’s opinions has severe consequences makes lying feel more natural, and makes concerns about self-preservation all the more overwhelming. And, as my own example shows, one doesn’t need to live under Soviet repression to absorb some of the lessons it taught its citizens.

And, thinking at it now, I think another factor that may play into this is that my mom’s generation came of age during Perestroika, when protests helped end the Kremlin Coup and end Soviet Union once and for all – only to experience the economic devastation, privatization creating a class of oligarchs and plunging so many people further into poverty, things like job guarantees vanishing overnight… Might put a few people off protesting,

I don’t think it’s necessarily one thing, but an interaction of all three, with perhaps some factors I haven’t considered mixed in.

I will end with one side note. As several second-generation Russian-American immigrants have observed on Facebook, it’s been kind of fascinating to watch the same people who cheered on protests in Belarus complain about BLM protesters, and the same people who’d complain about police brutality in Belarus excuse police excesses in United States.

But that goes to a whole different, albeit related, bundle of traumas.

Children of the Great Patriotic War

Author’s Note: I posted this on my personal blog yesterday, May 9, on what we Russians and people in many other Soviet countries celebrate as Victory Day, to mark the surrender of Nazi Germany and end of World War II in Europe. In European countries, it’s celebrated a day earlier, as Victory in Europe Day. For some  reason, Americans don’t mark it on either day, in spite of U.S.’ very substantial contribution to the war effort.

I wrote this post in OpenWriter, just in case my mom asked me to repost it here. Which, suffice to say, she did. I hope that, if Nadya and any of my mom’s grandkids that may come along read it, they will get something out of it, even though many people in this post aren’t related to them at all. And I hope that people who aren’t family that come across it will get something out of it as well.


This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Nazi Germany’s surrender. But with the shadow of COVID-19 hanging over the world, VE Day/Victory Day commemorations have been scaled back significantly in Europe and the parts of former Soviet Union that still celebrate it. (Except, God help us all, in Belarus)

In Chicago, the big banquet that would usually be held in honor of veterans, Holocaust survivors and Siege of Leningrad survivors was, of course, cancelled – though the Chicago Association of World War II Veterans and the Jewish United Fund have been congratulating them over the phone and delivering presents.

In the last decade, the number of veterans, and people old enough to remember the war first-hand has been plummeting, as more and more of them die of natural causes and illnesses. Great-Grandpa Viktor barely said two words about his service, and he’s no longer around to ask. Great-Grandpa Fyodor passed away when I was four. I have only a vague idea of what Grandma Kima’s, Grandpa Roma;s and Grandpa Slava’s lives were like during the war, and I can’t ask them now. So I decided to share some of the stories I did hear, from family members who are still around, and those who are no longer with us.

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Black health professionals, pastors talk COVID-19 racial disparities

Back in April 13, I covered a panel that tackled how the COVID-19 pandemic affected majority-black communities. This was around the time that the broader Chicago was starting to catch on to the fact that African-Americans were getting sick and dying at larger rates. As someone who’s written at length about issues with access to healthcare on Chicago’s West Side, how the fact that the area has several hospitals but not much in the way of doctors who can treat patients on day-to-day basis, how shortage of grocery stores makes it harder to get fruits and vegetables, how greater stress and less access to healthcare make for a terrible combination, how people who have to choose between going to work and going to a doctor would usually choose work, the not entirely unwarranted belief that white doctors don’t take them seriously….For me, the fact that COVID-19 was hurting those communities more wasn’t really a surprise, but apparently, it surprised a lot of people.

The article was supposed to go into the April 22 issue of Austin Weekly News. As of this writing, it hasn’t been published, and I’m not sure it ever will be – so I decided to put in here, while it’s still relevant.

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Getting Into College And Soviet Anti-Semitism

From Hettie:

Several years ago, one of my followers on the LJ platform asked me to write a post about anti-semitism in the Soviet Union, specifically in the college admission process. Many people didn’t believe her that these things had happened, even when they were living in the USSR at the same time.

I promised to write about it, and it took me a while – it was excruciating to recall these episodes. Later, my older son Igor translated my blog post into English. I think his translation is quite accurate, so now that I am collecting all my memories in this blog, I’ve asked him to repost his translation here.

First, I thought that I will make some edits, but turned out that even reading it again was way too emotional, so I decided not to make any changes. Maybe I will do it sometime later. But now – no edits, no comments, all “as is”. Here it comes:

A few weeks ago, in a friendly LJ, I promised to talk about entering college in the end of 1970s/beginning of 1980s in the last century, in USSR – particularly about state antisemitism. I will only talk about what I saw and heard personally, or about what people directly involved in the events told me. I promised to do it by New Year. I started writing this a few days ago, but it was very painful, so it came out slowly. And so, as a result, I am posting another very non-holiday post. Yulya – I couldn’t manage to write everything that I knew about it. It was very difficult to write any more.

I know that the situation I’m writing about lasted literally a few years. By 1983, the situation already changed. Most likely, it was different in other cities, and it was definitely different in other colleges.

Because vast majority of the people involved are still alive and I’m not Elena Chizhova :), I won’t give any names, and I ask all my readers who witnessed or were involved in the events to do the same. It’s not that I have any doubt in you :). I just want this to be a public post.

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