Jim McDermottJanuary 22, 2021
Registered nurse Nikki Hollinger cleans up a room as a body of a COVID-19 victim lies in a body bag labeled with stickers at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus has eclipsed 400,000 in the waning hours in office for President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)Registered nurse Nikki Hollinger cleans up a room as a body of a COVID-19 victim lies in a body bag labeled with stickers at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus has eclipsed 400,000 in the waning hours in office for President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

If you look toward the ocean at night on the west side of Los Angeles, you can see what looks like fireflies dancing above the Pacific. They are the lights of planes waiting to land. For the 11 years that I have lived here, I have drawn comfort from watching those glimmering points of light and thinking of all the people looking out the windows of those planes, waiting to come home. In a city whose sprawl can leach away at the textures of life until everything feels superficial and monotonous, those little lights remind me of the millions of actual lives being lived here—quiet, resplendent and beautiful.

But we don’t see so many fireflies in the skies above these days. Instead, our L.A. nights are filled with sirens.

In the last month Los Angeles County has suffered 500,000 new Covid-19 cases—as many as the previous nine months put together and more cases than there are people living in Kansas City, Atlanta or Miami. Many of our intensive care units have reached zero capacity and our mortuaries are overwhelmed.

Every six minutes, someone in the county dies of Covid-19. Over the last two months the fatality rate among the county’s Latino residents has soared 800 percent. Things are so thoroughly bad that L.A. county lifted its air quality restrictions to allow more cremations.

It is as though there are two parallel universes co-existing here, one hopeful and “normal for now,” the other overwhelmed by suffering.

Strangely, the world around us offers few hints that acknowledge this unfolding catastrophe. It’s blue skies and 80 degrees here during the day, sweater-cool and crystal clear at night. Our flora is in flower and our malls are open for business—supposedly at 20 percent occupancy, though that does not always appear to be the case. The day before New Year’s Eve, a friend told me his butcher shop was packed.

It is as though there are two parallel universes co-existing here, one hopeful and “normal for now,” the other overwhelmed by suffering. Only 15 percent of Unite Here Local 11’s 30,000 hotel, stadium, convention center, airport and restaurant workers have worked since March, according to union co-president Kurt Petersen. “And we’re currently losing a member a week” to the virus, he told me; in December the positivity rate for members of the union who got a Covid test for themselves or members of their family was an astronomical 51 percent.

At hospitals like Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, where Mark Ciccone, S.J., works as a chaplain, “We’re overwhelmed in the sense of the sheer numbers that we need to treat, who are sick enough that they can’t be sent home.” Most of those people will eventually get better, Father Ciccone added, and those recoveries give the staff hope. But he described the situation as often “very stressed.”

For now Providence has the supplies it needs, a situation not true of every Los Angeles hospital; after Christmas, five facilities had to shut down to all ambulance traffic because their oxygen systems could not handle more demand. A number of those institutions serve predominantly working-class, Black or Latino communities.

The burden of care faced by the staff is not just about numbers and equipment, Father Ciccone said, but about the kind of care that is needed. Under normal circumstances family and friends would be present providing emotional support to their sick and dying loved ones. But as a result of the pandemic, most nurses are “simply alone,” he said.

In the last month Los Angeles County has suffered 500,000 new Covid-19 cases—as many as the previous nine months put together.

“They are the last people attending someone who is actively dying. And they’re not just holding the patients’ hands—they’re doing recordkeeping, monitoring drugs” and trying to mediate the fears and wishes of anxious families who cannot be present.

“Some people call two or three times a day,” wanting to Zoom or FaceTime with family and medical staff, Father Ciccone said. And of course the hospital wants that for them, but that is just not possible; there are too many other patients to care for and too few staff.

Local nursing homes that managed through the first nine months of the pandemic without recording a single case of Covid-19 now find themselves inundated with cases and new demands. Residents have to be confined to their rooms, their meals brought to them. Demands and tensions are rising in these institutions, but city officials continue to resist ordering a municipal lockdown.

Faced with the rolling disaster that has been the last four years of federal government policy, many Californians have taken solace from our state’s continued insistence on progressive policies, including the protection of immigrants and the environment. But the pandemic has revealed both the state's and Los Angeles County’s feet of clay.

We have no equivalent figure to New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo, beaming fortitude into our homes every day and informing, cajoling and challenging us to remember each other. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has almost entirely vanished from view; when he recently announced he was not going to be joining the Biden administration, derision at his confidence that he was even being considered for the job was matched by disappointment that Los Angeles would have to continue to endure his lack of leadership.

That is how this strange dual universe seems to work. We are all very willing to call someone else on their behavior, but it is harder to see our own.

Meanwhile, in November, Gov. Gavin Newsom was caught attending a lavish dinner party without social distancing just two hours after he told Californians not to gather with their families for Thanksgiving. “The fact that I find most disconcerting,” Union 11 leader Petersen said, “is the workers at that restaurant had to make a choice: ‘Do I go to work and have to be around these people who are unsafe or do I tell the boss I’m going home and he fires me?’”

While Mr. Newson later apologized to the state for his behavior, he never mentioned those employees.

And that is how this strange dual universe seems to work. We are all very willing to call someone else on their behavior, but it is harder to see our own. Many Californians (and people around the country, for that matter) traveled to visit family members for Christmas, despite every city official warning them not to.

A viral video that made the rounds after Christmas showed an anti-masker in a Los Angeles CVS yelling at attendants. Her behavior was outrageous, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the person behind the camera was doing at a CVS during this crisis anyway. Maybe they had a good reason, but the fact they stopped to record and shame someone makes you wonder. (Also, CVS and pretty much everywhere else does deliver!)

No matter the astronomical number of cases and new concerns about even more infectious Covid strains, much of the thinking in Los Angeles seems to be, “I’m still fine to go wherever I want as long as I’m being safe.”

Our isolation from one another is perhaps part of the problem. “There’s a dissonance,” said Mr. Petersen. “You hear [about cases and fatalities], but you don’t go to funerals.” Statistics and news articles can only do so much.

Every six minutes, someone in Los Angeles county dies of Covid-19. Over the last two months the fatality rate among the county’s Latino residents has soared 800 percent.

Those at the front lines of the pandemic are finding strength in one another. “We decided early on that we were not going to let this pandemic dictate our future job security,” Mr. Petersen said. “We’ve done dozens of actions, picket lines for health care.” He has seen that sense of community action fortify his members.

For Mother Marguerite McCarthy, L.S.P., who runs St. Jean Jugan Residence, a community for senior citizens in San Pedro, encouragement has come from the example of the residents. “They know what sacrifice is,” she said. “They have memories of wartime; they’ve had times in their lives when they’ve had disappointments and tragedies. Many have had to see their children die. When you live to be in your 80s and 90s, you’ve about seen it all.”

Jean Jugan resident Mary Jane Mariani seems to embody that strength of character. “I try to look at things as opportunities from Him,” the former Virginia schoolteacher said. “This is something else for me to overcome, to do the best I can with. I’m just an individual. What can I do for others? I pray. I pray a lot.”

“We’ve had people retire because they can’t handle this stress,” said Father Ciccone. “What’s amazing is how many have just stuck with it, come in every single day.” He has watched as staff huddle to support each other when someone starts to get overwhelmed.

They kid each other about being “Covid O.K.”: “It’s us acknowledging this is really difficult, but I am here and I’m going to do what I need to do.”

His deeper questions regard the future: “There’s going to be a price to pay,” said Father Ciccone. “All our medical staff gritting their teeth and saying, ‘We’re going to keep on doing this because it’s humane, it’s holy’.... Our whole profession is dealing with long-term trauma..”

We are all starting to hear stories of people we know getting the vaccine. Nearby Orange County has even set up a vaccination center in Disneyland’s parking lot, which seems perfect. It will be “The Happiest Place on Earth” indeed. And the average number of new cases for the last week is down from over 14,000 to 12,250.

The sense of new life we feel when we do go outside seems a reflection of the fact that things are getting better.

Except for many people here, like the residents of Boyle Heights and East L.A., where the infection and mortality rates are running many times higher than elsewhere, they’re actually not.

That’s the thing about Los Angeles right now: New hope and catastrophe are happening all together. We’re living in a terrible war zone, it’s just that for some of us—including many of those privileged and white—the front lines remain comfortably out of sight.

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