Amazing Grace and Courage Amid the Plague

Amazing Grace and Courage Amid the Plague

Amazing Grace and Courage Amid the Plague

But also racism and xenophobia, as Trump sows ever more chaos and hatred in his bid to win reelection.


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Let’s begin today’s column with some righteous Noise. On Easter Sunday, the singer Andrea Bocelli performed a concert, accompanied only by an organist, from the empty interior of the cavernous Duomo cathedral in Milan, Italy. Streamed live on YouTube, it was one of the most glorious, moving, and emotionally devastating affirmations of the human power to endure that I have ever experienced.

Bocelli sang inside for nearly 20 minutes, with the soaring columns and wondrous stained-glass windows of the cathedral his backdrop; and then, the silence broken only by the sound of his shoes clacking on the stone floor as he walked toward the exit, he left the cathedral, and, with the impossibly intricate carved exterior as background—surely one of the most stunning buildings ever erected—he performed a magnificent version of “Amazing Grace.” As he sang, viewers around the world saw images of empty streets in locked-down Milan, Paris, London, and New York, with views of the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, Trafalgar Square, Times Square.

Those scenes of eerily quiet, empty metropolises conveyed both the horror of the moment but also the remarkable cooperation that humans are capable of: All of those absent people are doing their part to socially distance, no matter how emotionally draining the isolation is, to keep other people—their neighbors, friends, and family, but also strangers they might pass casually on the streets—safe.

I cried as I haven’t managed to cry throughout the past month of lockdown, all the angst and grief and rage pouring out of me as I listened to Bocelli’s voice. I cried for the brave doctors and nurses and frightened patients in New York whom I had read about over breakfast a few hours earlier in powerful profiles by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times. I cried for my Covid-positive friends in New York and all the fear they have lived through these past weeks.

I cried for the sheer horror of a moment in which the president of the United States purportedly wanted to let the virus “wash over” America, no matter the human cost, simply to keep the economic numbers good enough to give him a chance to win reelection. I cried for this beloved country, where a man such as Rush Limbaugh, who has turned bigotry and know-nothingness into a fine art, is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, while frontline health care workers are showered with empty praise but left to put garbage bags over their clothing as improvised personal protective equipment because the government frittered away two months ignoring the public health crisis instead of urgently stockpiling necessary supplies. A country where the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which under this administration is working pretty much full-time to protect employers rather than employees, can make the Orwellian decision to allow companies to not report Covid-19 cases among their work force.

After the Bocelli concert, I scrolled through the comments from viewers on the YouTube page. Two, in particular, struck me: From Porto Alegre, Brazil, someone wrote: “Isolated inside our homes, we had our hearts fluttering for about thirty minutes. I am grateful! We will win, we will overcome all this. As long as there is love and music in the world, we will be fine.” From Milan, another declared, “We are waves of the same sea.”

What wondrous words, what defiance, what poetry amid calamity! As inspiring as Milwaukee residents—forced to vote in person last week after five members of the US Supreme Court denied requests to extend Wisconsin’s vote-by-mail deadline—turning up at the few open polling sites in their beleaguered city to stand in line for hours and exercise their fundamental right to vote.

Which brings me on to the Signal. Republicans have now latched onto the obscene strategy of limiting vote-by-mail options in the middle of the pandemic, on the assumption that suburban and rural conservatives will have enough polling sites open in which to vote safely, whereas many urban voters, who tend to lean Democratic, will end up staying home and not voting to avoid getting sick.

Trump has given up on touting the good economic times, since they have been replaced by something that looks more and more like the Great Depression. Instead, he sows ever more chaos, so as to drive people away from the polls on election day; to convince his base, in advance, that if he loses it will be because of voter fraud unleashed by the use of insecure vote-by-mail systems; and to shift the focus of his nativist bigotry from Mexicans, Central Americans, and Muslims to his new bugbear, the Chinese, the purported instigators of this viral tragedy.

Witness the extraordinarily racist, xenophobic, and dishonest ad that his campaign spewed out last week seeking to portray Biden as cozying up to the Chinese. The malevolent ad even had a cameo by former Washington governor Gary Locke, who apparently looks Asian enough that a picture of him next to Biden will be seen by Trump’s team as a way to hurt the presumptive Democratic nominee.

There isn’t an ounce of empathy, humility, or humanity in this administration. It is cruel and ruthless, and it knows only how to pit people against one another. I am convinced that for those reasons it will ultimately be consigned to history’s trash heap. For we humans are better than this. We are all indeed, as is becoming clearer as this crisis intensifies, waves of the same sea.

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