Tag Archives: Coronavirus

Don’t Let Small Talk Kill Us

I had a busy social calendar in February. I went out to bars and coffeeshops every weekend, where I chatted and flirted with both friends and strangers. I kind of miss those days.

Nor surprisingly, COVID-19 was rarely mentioned in these conversations. 

Americans are notorious for shying away from unpleasant topics in conversations. As the saying goes, “never talk about politics, religion and death.”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Vox’s David Roberts, notes how “small talk” in conversations between strangers or at social events serves a purpose of social bonding, rather than conveying information. Thus, small topic focuses on “topics of reliable comity, and stresses fellow feeling rather than sources of disagreement.”

However, as my past life experience shows, keeping our conversations light and cushy prevents us from confronting issues of grave importance.  

Imagine if we had talked about COVID-19 at the bar. We might have thought about social distancing earlier or even demanded answers from officials hesitant to tell the truth. 

Source: Wallpaper Flare

In the long run, Climate change poses an even greater threat to our existence, but is still considered too awkward and “nerdy” for the cocktail party

By neglecting such topics of social importance, we fail our civic duty as citizens of a democracy to stay informed on the issues we vote on. 

Some might argue that you can only have a good conversation with a person who is knowledgeable of the subject at hand. Yet, conversations about the weather are a core part of small talk, and we aren’t all meteorologists…

This is not to degrade small talk’s role in facilitating social bonding. A certain exchange of niceties at the beginning of a conversation is psychologically needed to initiate contact. This opening small talk should be differentiated from the dominance of superficial yet agreeable topics in many conversations. 

Indeed, American small talk’s aversion to uncomfortable topics discourages people from opening up about their personal troubles or struggles. By foregoing topics that make them vulnerable, participants in a conversation lose an opportunity to establish a deep connection. By pushing discomfort, pain and anguish under the rug, conversational norms further a harmful stigmatization of mental health. 

Having struggled with Obssessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Asperger’s traits for much of my life, I can vouch for the last point being far from trivial. 

Much of the pain and depression I have experienced in my adult life might have been assuaged if I felt more comfortable sharing my feelings with others.


In the current crisis, let’s resist the urge to deflect conversations and shame “negativity” or geekiness. 

Source: Flickr

Let’s give ourselves (and others) space to share and listen, to love and to learn.

And to support.  

Source: PickPik

If We are Serious about Fighting Climate Change, We should not Bail-out the Airlines

The COVID-19 outbreak has crippled the US airline industry. A precipitous decline in travel demand has forced carriers to cut flights by 40 percent. A temporary national shutdown of air travel may be the only way for the aviation industry to stop hemorraghing money.

In the grandest of (American) corporate traditions, the airlines are now lobbying the federal government for money, a “bail-out” to put it bluntly.

With Democrats and Republicans apparently nearing a deal on the Coronavirus stimulus package, it looks like the airlines’ request will be granted (an exact amount has not been specified yet).

The airlines’ collapse has taken a tremendous economic toll across the country. At Philadelphia International Airport, more than 1,000 workers have been laid off since last Wednesday. A total shutdown would put as many as 750,000 airline employees out of work.

And yet, helping aviation workers is not the same as helping airlines.

Its not just that airlines have squandered the last decade’s profits on stock buybacks and executive bonuses (rather than improving worker pay). Airlines have a hefty carbon footprint.

Air travel is by far the most polluting means of transport. According to the BBC, a short-haul flight emits 154 grams of CO2 per passenger per kilometer, triple the emissions per passenger traveling in a four-person vehicle. Collectively, commercial aviation accounted for 2.4% of global carbon emissions in 2018, more than the sixth-heaviest polluting nation, Germany.

Almost one-quarter of global aviation emissions came from flights originating in the United States (two-thirds of which came from domestic flights).

The Democratic draft bill circulating in the House would require airlines to reduce Carbon emissions to 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2050–and have the government buy out old, less fuel-efficient jets–as a precondition for $50 billion aid.

Yet with much of the planet having burned the last few years (and countries obligated to limit temperature increases under the Paris Climate Accord), even this target seems to modest.

The airline industry’s failure provides a once-in-a-life-time to go big for the planet. Emulating Greta Thunberg, we can take radical steps to support airline industry workers while phasing out jet-fueled aviation technology once and for all.

The federal government can do this through the following steps:

  1. Let the airlines collapse. The government could potentially buy up the aircraft.
  2. Provide a separate stimulus package for airline industry workers (could also carry over to cruise industry) by paying pre-layoff monthly wages, up to $60-75K per year.
  3. Invest stimulus money in development of a National High-Speed Rail Network.
  4. Also invest in research into sustainable aviation technology (e.g. electric aircraft) and long-distance maritime travel (e.g. hydrofoils).
  5. Give airline workers priority in hiring for new high-speed rail or sustainable long-distance air/sea travel services.
Navy Hydrofoil or Hovercraft. Hydrofoils “float” above the water, reducing drag and increasing speeds relative to conventional boats.

When the economy recovers, companies might regroup, or the government could (if it bought up aircraft) establish its own airline. But an interconnected high-speed rail network would reduce air travel demand on short-haul domestic routes, where air travel is the least carbon efficient. Airlines would be compelled to focus on long-haul international routes, whose higher fuel costs would increase the incentive to develop sustainable technology.

Democracy in a Time of Crisis: Part II

Nearly a month ago, I pondered whether democratic governments could respond to COVID-19 as effectively as authoritarian China. I hypothesized that democratic governments are better equipped to handle COVID-19 due to public feedback mechanisms (like voting and free speech) and their prioritization of public welfare, but may still be handicapped by public misinformation and interest group politics.

Now, with much of the world shut down by the virus, my hypothesis seems to be bearing out.

The US and European democracies have largely failed to contain the outbreaks. Underestimation of the virus’ risk (by politicians as much as the general public) and misinformation by right-wing partisans (following President Trump’s talking points) led “western” leaders to ignore the virus’ spread within their borders, until it was too late to contain or mitigate an outbreak.

By contrast, East Asian industrial democracies such as Taiwan and Hong Kong have led the way in preventing or containing the virus’ spread.

In stark contrast to the authoritarian mainland, Democratic Taiwan swiftly took action following the first reports of the virus in Wuhan.

In December 2019, Taiwan authorities began screening passengers on every flight arriving from Wuhan. Taiwan soon followed up by enforcing two-week quarantines of passengers arriving from infected countries using mobile tracking devices. Partitions in schools and cafeterias and universal mask-wearing ensured that social distancing was maintained without shutting down the economy. The government nationalized private factories to ramp up mask production, while simultaneously rationing distribution, to ensure an adequate supply for the nation’s citizenry.

Taiwan currently has only 169 confirmed COVID-19 cases, while the US has over 24,000.

Taiwan Metro Commuters wearing face masks. Source: ChannelNewsAsia

Unlike Taiwan, South Korea, had a large outbreak of COVID-19 in February, with more than 8,000 cases by the end of the month. But through aggressive testing and quarantine measures, the country brought the outbreak under control, with little growth in cases in the last two weeks. Like Taiwan, South Korea has used cell phone tracking to monitor the movement and location of confirmed COVID-19 patients.

In both countries, governments have fought COVID-19 by partially infringing on certain citizens’ privacy and property rights. But they have done so in a trustworthy manner (e.g. Taiwan’s cell phone monitoring program is authorized solely for public health purposes) and with the support of their populations.

At the same time, Taiwanese authorities have been remarkably open in sharing case data with the public. Coherent messaging and $100K fines on fake news facilitate public trust in the authorities.

Democracies do respond swiftly to crises-when citizenry are willing to make a few sacrifices for the common good, and when governments earn citizens’ trust through honest and effective communication.

A democratic government with the capacity and desire to maintain its citizens’ safety will contain the crisis and marshal popular support.

Contrast that with the response of President Trump, the first true “authoritarian” president of the United States.

First he denied the pandemic, then he downplayed it (hoping to preserve a facade of stock market growth), and finally–once it was too problematic to ignore–he declared war, while blatantly lying about the previous cover-up.

Source: Flickr

Authoritarian states can’t protect us. They only give a &#@ck about their own survival.

Coronavirus Lockdown Menu

Part of HomeBar: Food and Drink Tips to Survive Social Distancing.

Two days ago, Governor Newsom issued a “stay-at-home” order to combat the COVID 19 epidemic here in California. Similar orders have been issued in Illinois, New York and Connecticut and will likely come to other states soon.

These orders have forced all “non-essential” businesses, including dine-in restaurants and bars, to close.

While grocery stores are exempt, their supply chains are squeezed to the limit on many staple foodstuffs. Plus, crowded grocery stores are great places to get infected.

As the outbreak worsens over the next few months, I will try to avoid grocery shopping as much as possible.

To that extent, I have come up with a weekly menus to ensure the food in my pantry lasts for about three months.

I conducted an inventory of my fridge, freezer and pantry last Sunday, after I completed my final round of grocery shopping. I revised the inventory earlier today to account for some deliveries my family received this week. The following food items were in abundant supply:

  • Proteins
    • 10 (14 oz) Tofu blocks
    • 10 (15 oz) cans of Kidney Beans
    • 10 (15 oz) cans of Black Beans
    • 5 lbs of Chuck Meat
    • 3 (14 oz) “meatless” soy meat
    • Four packages of deli-style sliced Turkey (9 slices per package)
    • Four cartons of (12) eggs
    • 5 cans (5 oz), tuna
    • 5 cans (5 oz), salmon
  • Starches
    • 9 (1 lb) boxes of pasta
    • 1 1/2 (2 lb) bags of basmati rice
    • 1/2 (10 lb) bag of Botan short-grained rice
    • 3 (8 oz) boxes of couscous
    • 1 1/2 (1 lb) bags of quinoa
    • 17 whole Sweet potatoes (12-13 lbs)
    • 12 Yukon Gold Potatoes
    • 3 large Russet Potatoes
    • 2 packages of tortillas (1 large,1 medium)
  • Vegetables
    • 12 (16 to 24 oz) bags of frozen vegetables
    • 17 (15 oz) cans of canned vegetables
  • Other:
    • Cereal and Yogurt
    • About 10 packages of Cheese: 2 large (32 oz), 1 medium (16 oz) and the rest small (8 oz)
    • Sauces:
      • 2 pasta sauces
      • 2 Salsas (about 15 servings each)
      • 2.5 cans of coconut milk
      • 1 Tikka Masala Sauce
      • 1 Soy Sauce
    • Spices
    • Baking essentials (e.g. flour, butter, sugar)
    • 7 frozen meals
Cans in my kitchen:)

I will be feeding my mother and myself with these staples.

Based on personal experience, my supplies of black beans, kidney beans, meatless meat, and tofu, will each give me 10 main courses.

The pasta supports more than 10 meals (1 box=1.5 to 2 meals, so about 15 to 20 meals), and the rice supports a little less (One 2 pound bag of basmati rice yields about 4 cups or 6 meals give or take. It looks that there is about 1 meal worth in the partially-open basmati bag and three meals worth in the short-grain rice container). The couscous and quinoa (about 5 to 6 meals each) extend the number of side dishes I can cook. The copious potatoes can feature in both side dishes and main courses.

As for vegetables, a 16-ounce bag of frozen peas can currently complement as many as 10 meals, so I might be able to make ’em last me a year.

Accordingly, I can forego shopping/deliveries for 10 weeks by sticking to the following menu.

  • Monday
    • Lunch: Open-faced tuna, salmon or turkey/chicken (2 slices) melt sandwich
    • Pasta with tomato or cream sauce, and vegetables
  • Tuesday
    • Lunch: Open-faced fish/turkey melt (2 slices) or pan-fried vegetables+”meatless meat” with left-over pasta
    • Dinner: Kidney Bean/vegetable stew with quinoa/couscous/rice* or sweet potatoes (Start with former and move on to latter as supplies dwindle)
  • Wednesday:
    • Lunch: Black Bean Patties for hump day!
    • Dinner: Leftover stew (tends to make more food) with a new side (quinoa, couscous, rice or potato)
  • Thursday:
    • Lunch: Second day of black bean patties.
    • Dinner: Vegetable Stew/Curry with either Tofu or Potato (Tikka Masala Sauce/Spices and Coconut Milk or Salsa: make enough for two)
  • Friday
    • Lunch: Treat yourself! Toaster oven pizza, frozen meal
    • Dinner: Round 2 on Thursday’s dinner
  • Saturday
    • Lunch: Weekend lunches are kinda TBD. Might push out breakfasts later to reduce consumption (bread slice with peanut butter+cereal+yogurt)
    • Dinner: Meatless Meat Quesadillas (1 large tortilla or 2 medium tortillas per person) with rice/potato as side.
  • Sunday
    • Lunch: See above
    • Dinner: Pasta (same options as Monday)

For weekday breakfasts, I’m sticking to yogurt (have about 6 weeks supply right now) and cereal (1 year’s supply).

I haven’t started the menu yet (I had takeout earlier this week, with leftovers lasting a few days). I will likely change up the days on which I cook particular dishes (e.g. black bean patties earlier in the week and deli meat later), based on my work schedule, how I’m feeling, etc. But I intend to primarily revolve among the set of dishes laid out above.

I will keep everyone posted on how it goes.

How are you planning to conserve food throughout the COVID 19 lockdowns?

Share your menu/recipe suggestions below!

*My mother doesn’t eat quinoa, so I would have to make a second side to accompany the main course.

Universal Basic Income to the Rescue?

One of the more memorable aspects of this Democratic presdential primary cycle was Andrew Yang’s championing of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). The idea that every adult in the US should receive a 1,000$ a month check from the government drew a cult-like following to the candidate.

The UBI, as a permanent mechanism, has gained both admiration and criticism from persons across the political spectrum. 

I don’t have a particularly strong opinion on the use of UBI as a broad social welfare mechanism (though I would consider myself on the “Yes” side). But in the public health emergency we are currently experiencing, a check from the government with no strings attached is essential for the health and welfare of the nation. 

Restaurants closed in Rome due to COVID 19 Outbreak. Source SkyNews

As “social distancing” measures become more widespread, many companies and governments will likely have to close their facilities. 

While some professional jobs (e.g. law, government) can be conducted remotely-to a certain extent-, many restaurant, retail and service jobs cannot. Already, some Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley have had to close doors because of decreased foot traffic driven by fears of the virus. Once more restaurants begin to follow suit, an untold number of cooks, busboys and other staff will be left jobless. 

Many small business owners will have to close with losses, with no quick, easy route to recoup them (you can’t open another store or restaurant when people aren’t going anywhere). 

Even professional firms may eventually have to close doors if clientele slow for a long time.

The sad irony is that many workers’ primary source of revenue will dry up just when their medical expenses start to mount.

Taking a step back, this could have happened at any time. By this I don’t mean coronavirus, specifically, but a shock to the economy caused by a freak disaster be it a wildfire, hurricane, earthquake or illness. 

Our country should have an rainy-day fund, by which citizens contribute revenue in “good times” to ensure their well-being in the “bad”.

Every year, we would pay slightly more in taxes (with the amount varying based on income) to contribute money to the fund. When an emergency strikes, the money would be returned to the persons affected in monthly deposits, sufficient for them to live decently. Personally, I think the amount returned should start off higher than what UBI proposals call for (at 3,000$ a month: which is equal to the living wage in a high-cost state like CA)-for those in the lowest income bracket-and decrease inversely to the income bracket and assets of the recipient. 

Call it Emergency Relief (ER).

ER would relieve Americans of the added burden of economic anxiety (when crises occur). It would allow American workers and employers to take all steps necessary to combat crises. And it would provide a literal safety net, ensuring that the level of protection one receives in emergencies and disasters does not depend on his or her income. 

Democracy in a Time of Crisis

The Chinese government’s draconian response to the coronavirus outbreak begs a question. Do authoritarian regimes have an advantage, relative to democracies, in responding to crises?

A brief refresher on democracy. A form of government “in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)   

A brief refresher on the Coronavirus quarantine. Following the Coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government imposed a quarantine that severely restricts travel into and out of an area with a population the size of California. 

Chinese Police with Face Masks. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In an interview with Scientific American, NYU bioethicist Arthur Caplan upheld the measure as necessary for containing the spread of the disease. In addition, he noted the legal hurdles that might prevent such a measure in the United States. 

“But quarantining an entire large city—or multiple cities—is not an approach that would work in many other places. You’re not going to quarantine the city of New York, ever,” Caplan argues, noting that U.S. authorities could not even effectively enforce a quarantine imposed on one nurse who returned to the country after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone in 2014. “ 

The last sentence refers to the quarantine attempted on Kari Hickox. Upon her return to the states from West Africa, where she had treated Ebola patients, Hickox was quarantined for three days in New Jersey before being permitted to return to Maine. The Maine authorities tried to extend Hickox’ quarantine but Hickox took legal action and won.  

(Hickox was neither infected with Ebola nor showed any symptoms).

There aren’t many other recent examples of an industrialized democracy dealing with a pandemic (though the US imposed a fair number of quarantines in the 19th-century: more on this later). 

However, democratic systems have stumbled in confronting the multitude of crises currently facing humanity. 

Take climate change. In the United States, older, more conservative constituencies support politicians who deny its very existence despite the numerous signs that it is indeed happening.

Even lefties in the US and Europe who claim to care about climate change are loath to take measures to restrict vehicle travel (e.g. ending parking minimums, raising gas taxes) that would actually make a dent in emissions. 

Contentious Hearing on a Road Diet in Los Angeles. “Road Diets”, which reallocate road space from cars to transit and non-motorized travel, have faced fierce opposition on Los Angeles’ west side. Source: Argonaut

What’s happening here? 

In a government where politicians are responsive to the people, prudent action can be hampered by imperfect information, groupthink (i.e. voting based on social identity rather than substantive issues), and lack of political knowledge. Differing levels of political participation not only take the “democratic” out of democracy (as practiced) but allow well-connected minorities to hamper actions that would benefit the populace at large.

And yet, China’s response to the Coronavirus shows that authoritarian systems, in all likelihood, do a worse job of handling crises.

In the first days of the outbreak, the Wuhan provincial government dragged its feet, going so far as to threaten a doctor who reported the first cases of the virus. 

Such misinformation may reflect authoritarian governments’ prioritization of (the facade of) stability over public welfare. They can solidify legitimacy this way (and always have a golden escape parachute in case things get out of control).

In fact, the Chinese government is already sending people back to work, despite acknowledging that the virus is still an issue.

Furthermore, the quarantine may not actually have been the most effective measure. By concentrating persons (both healthy and sick) in a disease-ridden area, it could end up increasing the infection rate in these areas. Restrictions on the flow of goods into and out of quarantine areas create shortages in medicines those infected desperately need. Democratic oversight on this policy would have probably warranted consideration of these issues.

Point being, democracies have stronger incentives and improved feed-back mechanisms for protecting public well-being in times of crisis. How can democracies respond to voters without being beholden to voters’ imperfections, or to the narrow interests of a loud minority?

I wonder how improving the spread of knowledge from expert sources can better inform voters (something social media could aid, if willing to referee). Bringing more people into the democratic process dampens interest group politics, if the focus is on achieving outcomes rather than fighting battles.

Women’s March, January 2017.

Thoughts?