Half-pandemic May

Today, Chicago and the state of Illinois lifted most remaining COVID-19 mitigation-related masking and social distancing requirements and capacity limits. It isn’t quite the end of an era, but it is a step forward.

But when I wrote a decent chunk of this post (on June 7), many of those limits were still in place, and Chicagoland region was caught in an interesting half-way state that had as much to do with people’s attitudes as anything that was formally required.

I’ve been Chicagoland specifically because the United States, for better or for worse, continues to be a patchwork of restrictions, regulations and approaches. For the past 12 months, I’ve been able to sit down in coffee shops in Kenosha (Wisconsin) and Michigan City (Indiana), but not in Chicago and most suburbs. Masking has also varied – as I mentioned before, Kenoshans really didn’t mask much until the fall 2020 surge in cases.

In the past two months, we saw two major developments.

In late April, CDC issued a recommendation stating that people don’t have to wear masks outdoors – though it still recommended that unvaccinated people wear masks in crowded outdoor settings. Then, on May 13, it recommended allowing vaccinated people to go maskless indoors, except in public transit, government buildings, hospitals and some other congregate settings. Illinois and Chicago specifically adjusted their respective regulations accordingly – which meant, in practice, that businesses and public institutions such as libraries could continue requiring everybody to wear masks, if they so chose.

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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.

Continue reading “Chicago’s Austin community and the complexities of COVID-19 vaccine equity”

In The News

First of all, I can’t even describe how happy I am with the new child credit included in the COVID relief bill. First time in the US history, it means the guaranteed income. As some of the political commentators say, it feels weird that people pay less attention to that measure than to anything in this bill.

My friends in Finland would not understand why I am so excited about this, because they had child credit forever. But for us – what a difference! Jus$900t think: if this would be on place when I first came to the US, I would have extrs $900 a month! OK, adjusted to inflation it would be more like $600 at that time. But thinking that back then, my monthly net pay was $2,333 and I spent $1000 a month on daycare – can you imagine?! I am so happy for all the parents, and so proud of our country:)

On the same note – finally the vaccinations started to pick up. Although the vaccination efforts are driven by the states, you can see what a difference a leadership on the federal level can make. I am hopeful, like I haven’t been for a long time.

About School Closures and Openings

Last week, Anna sent me a link to one article in the Y TImes, which talked about the schools in Rhode Island: the only Democratic state where schools stayed in-person thought the whole time of the pandemic. 

I wanted to write in-depth about this article, but it is massive, and I feel that I will never have time to write about it in detail. 

I still feel that I should say something about it, especially in connection with the Chicago Public Schools situation, which just got resolved (at least we hope so!) after many weeks of the standoff. 

Here is the link to the article. It re-iterates that every day the child is not in school does some damage and that all efforts should be made to keep the schools open. On the other hand, it does not mean that kids in schools do not pose any risk, and most of the article is dedicated to how the damage can be mitigated. No sugarcoating, very balanced, and very thoughtful analysis. And a must-read for those who what to understand the situation with in-person learning

Maid: A Book Review

This is not the real review, just the short note, since I want to mention this book to my friends who are following what I read.

Another book I finished last week, was Maid by Stephanie Land.You might want to say that “that’s what Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about in “Nickled and Dimed,” except for (as she herself said in the foreword) that’s FOR REAL. Stephanie is not role-playing. it’s not a game, it’s survival.

Working hard is not enough. Working multiple jobs is not enough. Trying your best is not enough

My takeaway from this book is: people who are struggling, need help. They need help from organizations, funds, and people. From individuals. Otherwise, survival mode will stay forever.

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

Continue reading “Scenes from Kenosha, two months after the shooting of Jacob Blake”

The Last Weekend Before Elections

It was another extremely busy weekend, mostly spent on the book writing plus trying to catch some nice weather on Saturday.
Regarding the book, we finally have a reviewer who’s suggestions are exceptionally helpful, but they require us to go back to almost every chapter and make some changes. And all changes have to be reviewed by all three of us :). As of yesterday, we had five different chapters in work: submitting one, drafting a plan for another, replying to the reviewer comments on the third, and waiting for re-review on the other two.
That was my busy Sunday, and I am so glad that it was a Sunday with an extra hour!
I had multiple blog posts in mind for this weekend, and I didn’t have time for any. But there is one thing I still want to write about today, before the election day.
Anna was doing phone banking and leaving literature by the doors over the weekend, and when I think about that, I want to cry. I do not have enough words to describe how proud I am of my daughter.
You know how it is commonplace that only young people and retirees are activists because others are busy working taking care of their families. And here is Anna, doing phone calls and walking the turf. When I expressed my admiration for what she is doing, she told me: I remember how I woke up on Wednesday four years ago, and this year, and now I want to make sure I did everything I could to prevent the same thing happening again.
I wish more people would understand that you can’t shield yourself away from politics “because you are busy taking care of your family.” The future of your family, the future of your children, depends on upcoming elections. There is hardly anything more important than that.
BTW, a couple of weeks ago, our HR sent out this message:

Which made our director of analytics anxiously ask me whether he needs to reschedule a by-weekly Sprint planning, and I told him I already voted:)

Anna messaged me a couple of pictures of Nadia, helping her to canvass. I think that many years later, Nadia would be proud of them. I know that some people would view it critically as “indoctrinating the young children.” But I think about it as teaching civic and being true to your moral values.

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.