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Pandemic still colors everything


It’s impossible to forget: I was on the phone one dank morning in the spring of 2020 with Brother John, who lives just a block east. We were isolating at home trying to figure out what to do with the newspaper. Should we just shut it down?

Lake Avenue was dark. Advertising disappeared within a week of the Newell-Fonda girls winning the state title. John was on Social Security, and I was eligible. We could walk away, taking nothing and leaving nothing. We decided we couldn’t quit.

We’re okay now, but the thought of it still traumatizes me.

Storm Lake pretty much shut down. Even Tyson did briefly. People were dying every week. Some businesses never came back.

We’re still living it. The latest iteration of Covid spreads as classes resume. The psychological trauma persists. Friendships eroded through isolation and political extremity. Eating habits changed from dine-in to carry-out. Church attendance dropped even farther.

Shocks to the food system continue to ripple, exacerbated by coincidental livestock pandemics like avian flu. The pork and poultry industries are beset by trouble as supply chains work out the huge whipsaws of the past four years. Food prices have moderated, but continue to fire inflation sparked by the pandemic shutdown.

Add in climate apocalypse and an attempted overthrow of the Republic (which I believe was fostered by people gone mad from isolation), and you have a foul kettle of fish.

The pandemic rewired world trade. China is reeling. Brazil has become the most-favored soybean trader with Asia.

These are huge changes that have not been fully digested.

Inflation is down. Interest rates are up, after a long period near zero. We paid higher loan rates in the 1990s when things were supposed to have been so good. Investment in U.S. manufacturing is growing. Wages are now rising faster than inflation. Storm Lake is building new housing like we haven’t seen since Doc Pierce opened Emerald Park when I was a kid.

Yet, the polls show that President Joe Biden is running even with Donald Trump — who faces 91 criminal indictments.

That is some built-up angst against the established order of things.

It existed before the pandemic, as much of middle America had been living on an austerity budget since the 2008 financial meltdown.

A deeply divided Congress came together  briefly to pass a massive Covid relief bill including the Payroll Protection Program, which pulled our fat from the fire along with so many other small businesses. Then Congress passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill. It appeared for a moment that we could come together as a nation. Voters rejected Trump and elected Biden. When the economy started to chug, the parties reverted to their extremes and took up the interminable partisanship again.

The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers are just now going to jail. Most Republican politicians in Iowa argue that Trump suffers from a political persecution, because that’s what the faithful have been led to believe. The House of Representatives wants to impeach President Biden because his son was addicted to cocaine and, as such, became a moron.

This is a lot for any nation to absorb. We are still working through it.

Slowly, Republicans are realizing that despite early polling that confirms a general angst over everything — call it the blues or clinical depression — the odds are not with Trump. Nikki Haley performs better against Biden. Yet Trump gains GOP strength with every court hearing and conviction of an associate.

These have been crazy times like we have not seen. Never before have we banned books across Iowa. Iowans say they hate partisanship and consider themselves moderate but they voted to go hard right and limit freedom for the cause of freedom. Teachers and health care workers quit in frustration.

The pandemic casts a shadow over on our personal lives, our communities and politics. Supply shocks, inflation, rewriting world trade, and unkinking food supply chain links all are moving parts in this complex machinery. Considering all that, Storm Lake looks pretty good. American resilience is amazing. Democracy and justice have prevailed so far. We’re not out of the woods. Avian flu and African swine flu and the next flu we haven’t heard of lurk. Climate catastrophe is a constant, a new normal.

We proved we could roll out new vaccines on a dime. Voters gave the Republicans the narrowest majority in the House to keep the Democrats in check. Warren County voters just threw out an appointed auditor who posted election denial conspiracies. We are again funding USDA research into livestock disease after a long hiatus (which may help explain how we got caught flat-footed when Covid broke out in 2019). Iowans remain skeptical of siphoning funds away from public education following a pandemic overreaction. Storm Lake is investing more mental health resources into schools. Meatpacking wages are up.

Still, we are not post-pandemic. It colors everything. Gov. Reynolds last week rejected the idea of any more lockdowns. “My answer — not on my watch,” she said.

Not that anybody in Iowa was actually suggesting another shutdown. It just shows how the trauma of it still animates us.


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