12 March 2020

Stress test

I was 38 years old when I flunked my first stress test. It all started with pain that I felt doing aerobic exercises. The doctor put me on a treadmill, wired me up, and increased the treadmill speed until I said "uncle" or some variation thereof. She then referred me to a cardiologist, who examined me with a variety of expensive machines and could not find anything wrong with me.

Ten years later, something similar happened, only this time I was working in a very stressful environment. One busy evening I was running back and forth between two locations, one upstairs and one downstairs, when suddenly I found myself dropping into a chair and almost fainting. After resting, I went home to a normal sleep ... after sending an e-mail to a doctor describing my symptoms. (That e-mail is now a family legend.) After reprimanding me for using e-mail to report coronary distress, my doctor ordered another stress test. Again I flunked. This time at the end of the process I was the proud owner of a Cordis Velocity® stent, which has (apparently) served me well to this very day.

A stress test is not fun. It subjects the body to measured amounts of excess stress, with the calculation that the strain it causes will aid diagnosis without unduly harming the patient. This diagnostic opportunity is the hidden blessing -- maybe the only blessing -- that I see in that global stress test we know as the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

Tyron Siu/Reuters via New York Times.  
Despite what conspiracy theorists say, no Western agents of russophobia, anti-Trump media, or other plotters developed this novel coronavirus. It apparently has the same genesis as countless other viruses in human history, some of which have wreaked similar havoc. It spreads in ways similar to other viruses as well, by contact with respiratory droplets from infected people. Because a typical infected person may spread the disease to several others, the progress of the disease is exponential until people learn to stop giving the virus opportunities to spread. Although much research needs to be done on specific features, treatments, and prevention, nothing about this current pandemic is unprecedented or particularly mysterious.

I don't mean to minimize anything. Once infected, most patients recover, but it's a considerably more dangerous virus than a typical flu, especially if the patient already is vulnerable for one reason or another. (Again, see this WHO site.) But, aside from the medical questions, what are we learning about ourselves and our societies from the stress imposed on us by the coronavirus? Or to put it another way, what stress tests have we already flunked?

Here in the USA, national leadership has utterly failed to follow the paradoxical rule that governs all unpredictable national emergencies: the more serious the response, the better the outcome. Facing an epidemic, people who are told to "relax, it's no big deal" because "the alarmists just want to hurt Trump" -- and who therefore do relax -- will just make a situation of exponential growth that much harder to control. Yes, leadership also needs to avoid panicking people, but that requires telling us all convincingly that we're in it together and that the government is exercising competent stewardship over all the resources required in the emergency. Diagnosis: leadership incompetence. Those not in the personality cult of Trump are, to put it bluntly, not surprised, but now everyone can see how high the stakes are in maintaining competence and confidence.

The existing health care financing "system" has also flunked miserably. A single-payer system would allow the whole health care community to focus on prevention and treatment. In the current emergency, that would have saved politicians countless hours now devoted to negotiating complicated and controversial workarounds, all the while posturing to look good to the incredulous and anxious audience of voters and potential patients. At the end of the negotiations we may cobble together something like a centrally-financed response for this specific emergency, which will probably fall apart completely once the emergency ends.

Finally (at least for tonight!), we see how fragile our global trade and financial markets have come to be. Global actors have never been veritable angels, but Trump and his nationalist counterparts in other countries are weakening the post-WWII ideal of collective security almost beyond recognition. In its place they basically advocate the law of the jungle, however dressed up it might be in Stephen Miller-style pretensions. Markets, left unchecked by an ethic of investment in each other's well-being, inevitably devour anything that gets in the way of profits. Russia and OPEC may be in an oil price war, but for both entities, the ultimate enemy might be the USA's petroleum industry, who will (they hope) be driven into bankruptcy by low oil prices before Russia's reserves run out. Ordinary people in all countries affected by this price war are the last to be consulted and the first to suffer as markets contract.

As we monitor these diagnostic indicators, I hope that Christians, among others, will retain the ability to care for the individuals and communities involved without getting sucked into xenophobia, conspiracy theories, and passive despair. Examining the world's powers and principalities through a godly lens, we see that there is nothing going on that is unprecedented or particularly mysterious. It's just a virus, stressing us badly at the moment, impelling us (if we're faithful) to restore a vision of right stewardship of resources, and right investments in each other's well-being.

Until a couple of days ago, I was expecting to leave on Monday for my first trip back to Russia since Judy and I left our Elektrostal jobs and apartment, back in October 2017. I still plan to make that trip, but not until something resembling normalcy returns.

TOP: "There's a woman president in Estonia. What do you
say: can a woman become president in Russia?"
BOTTOM: "Of course not. I'm not a woman."
(Found on Facebook.)
Martin E. Marty explores the space between decline and renewal in American Christianity.

What about the theory that Trump is an instrument of Christian righteousness?

The Russian constitutional amendments: what will it mean to insert God into the document? And how did the amendment process give V.V. Putin two more terms of power despite his repeated claims that he wanted no such thing?

For Russians, humor is a key factor in the will to survive. Back in 2011, when Putin and Medvedev revealed that the latter, in serving as president for four years (2008-12), was saving the place for Putin to serve a third and fourth term, one of our students said out loud in class, "Putin again? By the time he leaves office I'll be 32 years old! I might as well shoot myself now." Turns out, she'll be 44!

A different kind of blues, from the film Horowitz in Moscow. I am so fascinated by the faces of the audience.

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