With CHARLIE HARPER
Even as the American congress throws hundreds of billions of dollars at the COVID-19 public crisis and debate on restarting the economy continues to rage between Republicans and Democrats and along regional lines between the coasts and the Midwest and South, the pandemic steamrolls on. American reported deaths passed the 45,000 mark the other day, among nearly 850,000 confirmed cases. Those figures give the term American exceptionalism new meaning. Just not in a good way.
How do we compare the American figures with those in The Bahamas? Using the current data on The Tribune’s website, the local figures look comparably pretty good.
Consider that the number of confirmed cases in the US as a function of overall population is estimated at nearly 15 times the comparable percentage in The Bahamas. The resulting death rate in the US is reportedly nearly seven times higher than it is here.
We can argue about different circumstances in the two countries. But really, when you think about it, The Bahamas looks like it might well be coping with this pandemic better than our colossal neighbour to the west.
Further perspective on The Bahamas’ performance during the crisis was provided the other day by Dr. Jon Andrus who leads the University of Colorado’s efforts to advocate for the evidence-based use of life-saving vaccines in the world’s poorest communities. Andrus is also an adjunct professor of global health at George Washington University in Washington DC, where he teaches a course on global vaccinology. He has more than 30 years of experience working in global health at all levels of the health system.
Closer to home, Andrus has served as a Deputy Director at the Pan American Health Organization. At PAHO, he logged extensive field experience in the Caribbean region, especially in Haiti during the catastrophic cholera epidemic in 2010 which claimed over 9,000 lives.
Andrus spoke with reporters the other day and was asked specifically about the US and The Bahamas. Here is some of the Q and A:
Q: “If some states like Florida are going to reopen soon, how dangerous is it?”
A: “States reopening – again, let the evidence show that and lead the way. The decision to reopen state economies has to be driven by the evidence. If you reopen too soon and base your decision on some arbitrary date rather than the evidence, that’s imbalanced with more of a concern of the economic situation and less so about people’s lives, then you’re putting the citizens at risk.”
Q: “What about the smaller island nations of the Caribbean like The Bahamas, who are, I think, particularly vulnerable because of their dependence on tourism. What’s your sense of how they’re coping so far? And is there a realistic lag time between when the US begins to really seriously reopen and when these nations should do so?”
A: “That’s a tough one to answer. I’ll do my best. One thing that the island republics in the Caribbean benefit from is a phenomenon called island epidemiology. And due to the confinement and insular isolation of those nations, i.e. the island geography, a kind of natural immunity kicks in and will help them with their efforts.
“My message to the nations of the Caribbean would be to be sure you’re tracking cases very aggressively; you’re implementing the contact tracing procedures, testing, quarantine on top of what you’re doing with sheltering in place, social distancing, and the individual behaviours of handwashing and so on; that all those in combination will help protect their citizens who are, as you mentioned, highly dependent on tourism. And I imagine they’re suffering greatly because, as you again mentioned, their economy depends so much on tourism.
“But we’ll get through this, and the Caribbean countries have led the way over the decades with immunisation efforts in the Americas. If you really look critically at the polio eradication initiative for example, it was many of the island republics that came forward with the best practices, as happened with measles and rubella. (The last polio case reported in the Caribbean was in 1991.)
“There was a great effort emerging from the Caribbean, a history of leadership, that I think will also be applied to the current situation. But I would, again, rely heavily on the scientific evidence and be very aggressive and take advantage of the island epidemiology and be cautious about opening up. There will obviously have to be some relationship with the US and what they do, because many of the tourists come from the United States.
“But above all, I would urge The Bahamas and its leaders to be prudent and cautious. The lives of their citizens depend on their wisdom and sensibility. What’s more important than protecting human lives?”
America's first family of jazz loses its leader
Periodically a discussion breaks out in the US about what is America’s greatest cultural contribution to the world. That depends of course on your definition of culture. But consider a few of the following.
Is the best of American culture the collected works of playwrights, poets and authors such as Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and so many others? Bibliophiles can make a strong case for this.
Advocates for achievement in classical art, dance and music may have a tougher case to argue. But the movies - that’s a different story. The cinematic arts may not have started most strongly in the US, but America has been among world pacesetters for the past 100 years or so.
And how about television? Enough said about that.
Does sports fall under culture? Sure! Let’s start with baseball, American football and basketball, all of which are building worldwide brands.
And pop music? From Elvis Presley to Chubby Checker and LL Cool J? Even if you concede the greatest rock n rollers of all time, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, are from the UK, it must be admitted America has more than held its own. And don’t forget country and western music. The list of influential American cultural achievements is impressively lengthy.
And yet, many cultural mavens will concede that America’s most original, most enduring contribution to the culture of the world is none of these. It is jazz music.
Springing from roots in heavily Caribbean-influenced New Orleans, American jazz music remains for many observers its most significant original cultural achievement. Following social migration from the American South to the big cities of the North, Midwest and California after World War II, jazz became entrenched in urban America where it still flourishes.
Speaking of which, it was last August, in the rising heat and humidity of late summer New York. A big crowd had gathered to listen to Wynton Marsalis, the trumpeter who founded the transformative Jazz at Lincoln Centre orchestra and may just be the most famous jazz musician in today’s world.
Leading his all-star band through the works of American musical icon Duke Ellington, Marsalis paused between songs to subtly educate his audience about jazz and its central role in American cultural development. Then came the unforgettable moment in the evening.
After the band had finished and acquiesced to the audience’s demand for an encore, Wynton Marsalis paused.
“I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet,” he said.
The lights dimmed. A solitary spotlight shone on a door at the back of the giant stage. Everyone held their breath.
Ellis Marsalis, father of Wynton and patriarch of America’s undisputed first family of jazz, moved slowly across the stage to the piano. The band’s regular pianist, clearly a rising star, moved deferentially aside. Ellis, looking every bit as old as his 84 years, took his seat carefully. There wasn’t a sound in the auditorium.
This aged giant then produced the evening’s triumph, a rousing, flawless rendition of Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A Train.’ A master playing a masterwork.
No one present will ever forget that moment.
As it turned out, Ellis’ performance that evening was one of his very last. He joined the long, sad, impressive list of COVID-19 victims earlier this month.
Talk about dynasties: This man, in addition to renowned Wynton, sired saxophonist Branford, who led the Tonight Show band for years and toured with Sting; trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason. They all could, and occasionally did, form a distinguished quintet.
As the number of coronavirus deaths rises inexorably, there will be much discussion of its disproportionate toll on African Americans. It seems inevitable that other jazz giants will also fall, just one more vivid reminder of the dangerous, terrible times we are experiencing.