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'Covid hit us like a cyclone': An Aboriginal town in the Australian Outback is overwhelmed

By Michael E. Miller
'Covid hit us like a cyclone': An Aboriginal town in the Australian Outback is overwhelmed
Wilcannia sits on the Darling River in far western New South Wales, Australia. Many of its residents are Indigenous. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Matthew Abbott for The Washington Post.

WILCANNIA, Australia - The nurses drove up and down the dusty streets, from one family overwhelmed by the coronavirus to the next, until they arrived at a red brick house on the edge of the Outback town.

They were met at the door by two stray dogs lying in the sunbaked red dirt and a slender young Aboriginal woman wrapped in a surgical mask and blanket.

Brooke Johnson had heard the coughs begin to ripple through the crowded home a week earlier but had nowhere to go. Now she feared the virus had reached her 4-year-old son, whom she called outside to get tested.

"He started coughing yesterday," she told the nurses, who donned protective gear to swab the curly-haired boy in a Spider-Man sweater on Aug. 30. "I just want to get him checked because we sleep together and I'm positive."

So were her brother and sister; her aunt and uncle; her two cousins and her nephew.

So was the family of five a few doors down, and the household of nine a few doors up.

So was almost everyone she knew in Wilcannia.

In two weeks, more than one-tenth of the town of 600 people had been infected, making Wilcannia the hardest-hit place in Australia. Soon, the number of cases would approach 150, with about 90% of them Aboriginal people.

The remote community's crisis reflects not only the recent collapse of "covid zero" in Australia but also the country's historical failings.

For 18 months, state and federal leaders had been promising to protect Indigenous Australians, who have higher rates of chronic disease and shorter life expectancies. They were declared a priority for vaccination.

Nowhere was more vulnerable than Wilcannia, where a 2005 study found Aboriginal men had a life expectancy of just 37 - yet the nearest intensive care unit was 125 miles away.

When the pandemic began, the local Barkindji people were so worried that their children made signs begging tourists not to stop. For a while, it seemed to work.

But then an outbreak of the delta variant crept from Sydney's wealthy eastern beaches to its working-class suburbs to the surrounding regions and across New South Wales.

And now, after a year and a half without an infection, Wilcannia was overrun.

"There has been a stunning lack of preparedness," said Linda Burney, a federal lawmaker from the opposition Labor party who is an Aboriginal woman. "The people out there have been sitting ducks."

Health officials say they had a plan but it was upended by a superspreader event that exposed three-quarters of the town.

"Imagine that happened in Washington," said Umit Agis, chief executive for the state's far-west health region. "I don't think the system would cope."

As cases began to climb in late August, a solitary doctor flew in with a portable ventilator he feared he would soon need.

"I feel like I'm in one of those cowboy movies where it's quiet, too quiet," said the doctor, Randall Greenberg. "Someone is about to attack."

- - -

The road to Wilcannia is lined with dead kangaroos. Once a prosperous river port that sent steamboats full of wool downstream, the town has faded into a struggling pit stop on a pancake-flat highway.

Two weeks into its outbreak, Wilcannia's town center was nearly silent. Aside from an open pickup window at the pub, the only sign of life was the store, serving a handful of anxious locals.

As she loaded groceries and diapers into her car, Saphire Hall stopped to vent to a neighbor. The mother of four had already copped a $725 fine for giving her cousin a lift during the outbreak. Now she risked a $3,630 penalty if she visited her elderly and disabled in-laws. Online fundraisers had collected almost $300,000 for the town, but fights were brewing over where the money should go, and residents had yet to see a cent.

"The community is supposed to stick together, but they ain't," said Hall, 37.

"It's not right," said Janell Evans, 61, as her 9-year-old granddaughter sat barefoot on the sidewalk, eating candy. "We can't survive out here."

Evans feared for her nephew, who had lung problems, and her son, who had a weakened immune system.

"They knew this was going to happen," she said angrily through a surgical mask. "They knew it would only take one person to spread it in the whole community."

For a year and a half, Australia prided itself on keeping the coronavirus out of Aboriginal communities. As recently as Aug. 5, Prime Minister Scott Morrison touted his administration's success.

A week later, the virus reached Wilcannia.

Locals had feared what would happen if the contagion came to a place so remote yet overcrowded. Wilcannia sits in the center of the Central Darling Shire, an area nearly twice the size of Maryland but with fewer than 2,000 people. That makes it expensive to build housing, said shire administrator Bob Stewart.

"You're really in the Outback here," he said.

But many feel race has played a role in the treatment of a town that is almost three-fourths Indigenous.

"As First Nations people, we have faced genocide, we have faced stolen generations, we have had Black deaths in custody," said Brendon Adams, who has lived in Wilcannia for two decades but belongs to the Kuku Yalanji people of northeastern Australia. "And we have a Third World housing situation."

In March 2020, Adams and other community leaders met with Stewart, Agis and state officials to urge them to close the town to outsiders. State emergency officials rejected the idea, Stewart said, so locals put up signs pleading for people to stay away.

Health officials understood the virus would tear through overcrowded houses, Agis said, so they contracted with motels and campgrounds in Wilcannia and other towns to serve as isolation facilities.

But when the virus arrived via a large Aboriginal funeral and wake on Aug. 13, contact tracers were overwhelmed and some isolation facilities refused to take positive cases, Agis said.

"Covid hit us like a cyclone," Adams said. "It came in with so much devastation. And we were unprepared."

Less than 2% of Aboriginal people in the Central Darling Shire had been fully vaccinated when Sydney's outbreak began in June, according to data obtained by The Washington Post. When the virus hit Wilcannia two months later, the figure was 17% - half of the non-Indigenous population's vaccination rate.

Ronnie Murray was visiting family in Wilcannia for "sorry business," a traditional Aboriginal period of mourning, after the death of a relative. Police pulled up to the small house in the Mallee - one of two Barkindji neighborhoods bookending the Whiter, better-off part of town - and told everyone inside to walk to the football field to get tested.

By the time his result came back positive, Murray, who was partially vaccinated, was racked with body aches. Five others in the house initially tested positive, he said, but health officials told everyone to stay inside. Within a few days, two more were infected.

Murray's brother, William, who was still negative, moved outside into a tent donated by a community elder. When Murray demanded his brother be put up somewhere, health officials moved William to a motel, then to a campground where he was flanked by positive cases.

"I was going out there to get away from corona," William said, "not live next door to people who got it."

Officials eventually moved him back to the motel, where there were also positive cases, but fewer and farther apart.

"It's like they don't really care about us Black fellas out here," William said.

Agis said every affected family was offered a place to isolate but some did not want to leave Wilcannia. The Murrays deny they were given that choice, however, and Agis acknowledges that officials acted too late.

"In hindsight, we probably could have done everything two weeks earlier," he said.

"I think we all would have liked a better level of planning," added Stewart, the shire administrator.

"There is still no plan!" roared Ronnie Murray as he stood in his front yard near the now-empty tent on Aug. 30. He was on Day 12 of "isolation" in the crowded house. On the news, Australia had been evacuating Afghans from Kabul. But here in the Outback, he felt the nation was neglecting its own.

"We're meant to be the First Nations people," Murray said. "They'd rather go to another country and help people."

- - -

Patricia Wilson walked barefoot to the riverbank and began to snap branches off emu bushes and eucalyptus trees. She stuffed the leaves into a metal tin and lit them on fire.

"They say it kills the corona," the 35-year-old said as she circled the campground in a leopard-print bathrobe, wafting the fragrant smoke.

But it was too late for Wilson and most of those quarantined here. Officials had begun to move positive cases and close contacts to the campground 1.5 miles outside Wilcannia a week into the outbreak. Of the 13 people in the cabins, only five had yet to test positive, and anger was growing.

"Instead of putting all the positives on one side and the negatives on the other side, they mixed us all up here," said Leaetta Hunter, whose teenage daughter had arrived negative but tested positive after being put next to those with the coronavirus.

Leaetta's cousin Raelene Hunter had been the first to arrive after testing positive. A few days later, her 19-year-old son, Jai Kirby, had been put next to her. When the pandemic hit Australia last year, Kirby had spent weeks living by the river to avoid the virus. Now, as he awaited his test result, he was contemplating going back.

Everyone quarantined at the campground was Aboriginal. They weren't allowed to use the washing machines, so some did laundry in the river. Health workers brought hospital food, but few ate it. When a relative dropped off kangaroo tails, Raelene Hunter and Anthony Dutton made a campfire and scooped the coals over the bush meat.

Dutton's family had been made to walk to the park in their flip-flops.

"We passed the police," he said. "We thought they might give us a lift, but all they asked was our names and they kept going."

The trek had triggered such severe breathing problems for his daughter that the 17-year-old, who had already tested positive, was taken to the hospital the next day, he said.

New South Wales Police Assistant Commissioner Brett Greentree said he was unaware of the incident.

Many said they were angry authorities had stopped Wilcannia from closing to outsiders and then did not keep the virus out. They felt sacrificed for an economy that barely benefited them.

"If they had stopped the flights and things, we wouldn't all be like this," Raelene Hunter said as she stirred the coals.

Two days later, her son received the dreaded news: He, too, was positive. The teen began having a panic attack, Raelene recounted. But then a health worker called back to say it had been a mistake. Kirby was so fed up he left the campground without permission.

Agis said there that had been three false positives in 33,000 tests in the far-west health region and that concerns around the food and laundry had been addressed. But he acknowledged that mixing positive and negative cases at the campground was "not ideal" and that more should have been done to keep them apart.

"It's been a sharp learning curve for us," he said.

By the week's end, the state government's response was finally starting to come together. Tents for emergency workers sprang up on the football field, with 30 motor homes for affected families due to arrive a few days later.

But the damage was done. Aboriginal people had begun to die of covid-19 in the state. In Wilcannia, the tiny hospital now had its first elderly covid patient, and doctors felt it was a matter of time until more arrived. (Agis would later say hospitalizations had proven lower than feared.)

"We're in the eye of the storm," Adams said. "On the other side of the eye is more storm."

In the Mallee, Brooke Johnson's son was now positive and her aunt's breathing was getting worse.

A few doors down, Raelene Hunter had moved back home after being released from the campground. Health workers had told her she needn't worry about reinfection from her relatives, who were still positive, she said.

After everything that had happened in Wilcannia, she wasn't sure what to believe.

Two kids, a loaded gun and the man who left a 4-year-old to die

By John Woodrow Cox
Two kids, a loaded gun and the man who left a 4-year-old to die
My'onna plays a game with her mother at their Washington apartment. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu

She never wanted to be left out, so My'onna Hinton, who was 4, followed her 7-year-old relative down a hallway and into an unfamiliar apartment in Washington. Tee was used to that, because My'onna had been trailing after him since she could first walk.

The two of them had been close all her life, despite their differences. She loved Barbies, Disney cartoons and having her toenails painted bright pink, and he was fixated on football, LeBron James and crashing cars in Grand Theft Auto V. But My'onna looked up to him, and Tee looked out for her.

Now the kids were inside the apartment, and the 9-year-old boy who lived there wanted to show Tee something. With no adults home, and My'onna's mom doing a girl's hair in the building next door, he took them to a back bedroom and opened a dresser drawer. Inside was a gun.

The boy, Tee said later, handed it to him.

"That's not real," Tee responded. "That's a toy."

Then his finger squeezed the trigger, Tee recalled in an interview, and he heard a boom. Then he felt the gun's butt slam against his chest. Then he looked down and saw My'onna on the floor, blood streaming from her neck.

Tee knelt beside her.

"My'onna, are you okay?" he asked.

She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. He tried to pick her up, but My'onna, laying on her side and staring blankly ahead, couldn't move. Tee cradled her head and cried.

It was May 25, 2020, and America had just entered its worst stretch of gun violence in at least two decades. By year's end, bullets would kill more than 43,000 people, including hundreds of kids. Children have paid an especially brutal price in the nation's capital, where 95 of them were shot - nine fatally - last year. But even in cities and states with the toughest firearm laws, America has long struggled to hold gun owners accountable when they leave a weapon somewhere a child can find it, a reality that would prove true for the man whose negligence left My'onna bleeding last summer.

As Tee held her, the boy who'd showed him the gun dashed outside to find Juwan T. Ford, the owner of the unregistered, illegal weapon. Ford, 23, had stayed in the apartment off and on for months and, according to court records, was sitting in a car talking to a friend. Although the boy spoke to him, he didn't move until Tee and another child also ran out. Then Ford sprinted into the building, and all three kids chased after him.

Inside, he found My'onna sprawled in the bedroom's doorway. Ford, who had a child of his own, stepped past her small body and, a prosecutor later said, ordered Tee to hand him the weapon. As the kids fled, Ford wrapped the gun in a black T-shirt, then he walked out, leaving My'onna to die alone.

Brayonna Hinton, My'onna's mom, didn't understand. Tee was standing in front of her, crying, his shirt splotched in red. She feared he'd been hit by a car.

"I didn't know it was real," he told her.

"What?" she asked.

"I didn't mean to do it," said Tee, who is being identified only by his middle name to protect his privacy. "I'm sorry."

She rushed outside, and into the neighboring apartment.

When she found her daughter, Brayonna feared she would pass out. Chest pounding, she called 911, then used a towel in the kitchen to press against the side of My'onna's neck, unaware that the round had traveled through one side and out the other.

"He shot me," her daughter muttered.

Her eyes were still open, but she wasn't moving, Brayonna told the operator. She pleaded with them to hurry. The bleeding was getting worse.

"You'll be okay," said Brayonna, 23, though she didn't believe that. Her only child, she thought, was about to die in front of her.

My'onna had been fading for nearly 10 minutes when a pair of D.C. firetrucks pulled up, and Alex Henry and Eric Budd, both paramedics, darted through a chaotic, screaming crowd and into the building.

The bullet might have struck her spine, the men surmised. They debated stabilizing her back before moving her, but there was so much blood - a trail of it now running at least eight feet down the hallway.

"We don't have time," said Budd, a father of two. "We gotta go."

Henry, a thick-armed veteran of 12 years, scooped the girl up, cradling her 33-pound frame like an infant's to keep her head from moving. Budd cleared a path through the crowd until they reached the ambulance.

Frantic, Brayonna chased after them, but the doors swung shut before she caught up.

"I'm the mother," she shouted, begging to get through, but the first responders kept her away.

Inside the ambulance, her daughter's heart had stopped beating.

As both men scrambled to change into protective gear - gowns, hair nets, gloves, face shields - Henry placed the base of his right palm on her chest, pumping with only one hand because her body was too small for two. A half-minute later, she started breathing again.

The men knew they had to get her to Children's National Hospital, but they knew, too, that she probably wouldn't survive the six-mile drive through D.C. traffic.

"Get us a helicopter if you can," Budd called over the radio before threading a breathing tube down a dime-sized hole in her swelling throat.

Stay calm, the men told each other. Deep breaths.

A Park Police helicopter was soon on its way to a landing zone on Wheeler Road, less than a mile away. It gave her a chance, the paramedics thought, even after she needed a second round of compressions.

At the landing spot, they loaded her into the helicopter, its rotors churning. She was close now, just three minutes from a hospital equipped with what she needed to stay alive, but as the helicopter neared the roof, the men watched her heart rate plummet on the monitor: 90, 85, 80, 75.

By the time they landed, it had dipped into the 60s. By the time they reached the elevator, it had stopped.

Henry began pressing again, but on the monitor, the number didn't climb.

Pump. Pump. Pump.

The elevator door opened, and a team of nurses and doctors awaited. Budd told them what he knew: gunshot victim; entry in the neck; exit through the neck; three rounds of CPR.

But the third round wasn't over. Henry lifted his palm from her chest as a member of the hospital staff pushed one in its place.

Budd and Henry stepped to the side, their gowns soaked with blood and sweat. Combined, the paramedics had treated more than 200 gunshot victims in D.C., and they tried to save every one, but never had the men wanted someone to live more than the 4-year-old whose name they still didn't know.

Pump. Pump. Pump.

Then, at last, a heartbeat.

- - -

She had four choices: red, blue, green and what she called "lellow," which meant yellow.

"Mommy," My'onna said. "I'll be the blue, and you be the red."

"Okay," Brayonna replied on that June afternoon, snapping together the plastic pieces to Hungry Hungry Hippos while her daughter watched from an electric wheelchair parked in their apartment's living room.

Brayonna slid a table over.

"Put your feet up so I can put this right here," she said, because My'onna's legs were still dangling off the front of the footrests.

"You do it," her daughter replied.

"No, you do it," Brayonna insisted.

It had been 13 months since the day of the shooting, the same day that My'onna walked for the last time. In the "before," the single word they now used for their old life, she and My'onna disagreed over her daughter's bedtime or if she could eat another bag of Cheetos. Now, in the "after," what they often debated was whether My'onna would try to pick up a pencil or hold a spoon or move her foot.

This time, the girl relented. She braced her left hand against the wheelchair's armrest and pushed back, staring down at her legs, willing them to respond. Teeth clenched, she hoisted the heel of her left foot up a couple inches.

"I see you moving it. Good joooob," Brayonna said, reaching down to lift her feet the rest of the way.

"Can you feel me holding it?" her mom asked, squeezing her left leg.

My'onna paused to think about it. She wasn't sure.

Brayonna told her to close her eyes and look up.

"What am I doing?" her mom asked, running a fingernail across her shin.

"Oh, you scratching it," My'onna said, and now she was feeling confident. "Do it again."

Her mom smiled. My'onna might have peeked, but it didn't matter. In the after, Brayonna had learned to become more than a parent to her daughter. She was also her chief encourager, near-constant playmate, at-home therapist and primary caretaker, though most days she got help from her boyfriend and nurses provided through a Medicaid program.

After she'd fed marbles to the blue hippo, My'onna wanted to play in her room, and that meant Brayonna had to go, too. My'onna maneuvered her wheelchair past the list of rehab instructions taped to her door, past the "Smiles Are in Style" sign on the wall, past the pink Minnie Mouse bedspread covered in a pee pad from the last time Brayonna had changed her daughter's catheter. In the corner of the room, she pulled up to a five-foot Barbie Dreamhouse, studying the current arrangement.

"Mom, let's play," she said, motioning her hand, fingers rigidly curled in a ball, toward one of the dolls. "Take that Black girl. Put her in the wheelchair."

"Oh, she belongs in the wheelchair?"

"Uh huh," she said.

"Get her in the elevator," My'onna instructed, and she pointed to the dollhouse's most remote room, obscured behind two doors in the bottom left corner. "Put her in the basement. And let her lay down."

A year earlier, Brayonna had been told that her daughter might not ever talk again, might never regain feeling below her neck, might need tubes in her throat to help her eat and breathe for the rest of her life.

After the flight to Children's, another helicopter had moved My'onna to Baltimore for an operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The bullet had burst her C5 vertebra, but, remarkably, the round had tumbled millimeters past her major arteries and narrowly missed severing her spine. Her surgeons cleaned out the shards of bone, replaced it with a graft taken from her pelvis and hoped that her body would begin to heal.

And it did. The doctors discovered that she could breathe and eat on her own, and when they took the tubes out, she could speak, too.

"Mommy," came the first word, buoying Brayonna, who slept beside her daughter nearly every night at the hospital.

My'onna could move her arms, though her right didn't work as well, and she struggled to extend her fingers on either hand. To control her Roblox character on an iPad, she used the knuckle on her left pinkie.

"Why can't I move?" she asked her mom one day. "Is it because the bullet did this to me?"

After more than a month at Johns Hopkins, much of it spent in intensive care, My'onna transferred to the nearby Kennedy Krieger Institute to begin inpatient therapy.

On her first visit to the gym, she threw a tantrum, spitting at her therapists. As her child life specialist Emily Winter-Cronan watched, she realized My'onna was reckoning with what the injury had stripped from her.

My'onna could no longer scoot down waterslides or kick her feet in the pool. She couldn't bounce around Chuck E. Cheese, collecting tickets to exchange for cotton candy. She couldn't ride her pink bicycle. She couldn't dance to TikTok videos. She couldn't strike elegant poses in a faux fur coat for the Instagram page Brayonna created to help her daughter become a model someday. She couldn't even pick up a Barbie.

Winter-Cronan began designing "science experiments" that put My'onna entirely in charge. She mixed glue, soap and gardening soil in buckets and let My'onna smear the slime on her hands, face, hair, wherever she wanted. And that was the point.

My'onna studied photos of herself from her time in the ICU and, over and over, asked Winter-Cronan to explain what each piece of equipment had done. She learned to describe what had happened to her - "my spine got hurt" - and obsessed over how other kids' injuries were different from her own.

One afternoon, My'onna called Winter-Cronan closer to her bed and whispered in her ear:

"I got shot."

"He didn't mean to."

"It was an accident."

My'onna knew that was true, but when she returned to life in Washington after three months of treatment at Kennedy Krieger, the consequences of that truth became harder to accept.

"Can I go play?" she would ask when her mom drove past kids on swings and slides, knowing that she couldn't.

The most frequent target of her frustration was Tee, who she still saw all the time.

Sometimes, My'onna demanded that he not join on family outings.

"I can't walk no more because he shot me," she once declared.

Another time, when Brayonna bought her ice cream, she asked that he not get any.

When Tee would call to check on her - "What's she doing? Can I talk to her?" - she'd refuse to speak with him.

It wasn't his fault, Brayonna reminded her. The person responsible was the man who had left the gun in the drawer.

That was the same thing the family had told Tee since the first night, when his mother gave him a bath to wash My'onna's blood off his skin. Tee told himself that, too. But the assurances couldn't stop his nightmares, always of the gun, or quiet his fear that My'onna wouldn't ever forgive him.

Tee never talked to her about what happened.

"If she hear that," he said, "she get mad."

Brayonna fidgeted atop a stool at her kitchen counter, waiting for the man responsible for the after to start talking. Juwan T. Ford, inmate No. 358457 at the D.C. jail, sat in a conference room in front of a camera for his live-streamed sentencing. He had a thin mustache and short hair and wore a white shirt beneath his orange jumpsuit.

"I'm sorry for what happened and I apologize to the family and also to my family," he said, his voice quiet. "There's not a day that I didn't think about the situation."

Ford had been locked up since Sept. 30, four months after My'onna's shooting and five days before she returned home for the first time.

D.C. police had recovered security footage that revealed what happened in the moments after Ford wrapped his gun in the black T-shirt and walked out.

In the front yard, he spoke to a friend, later claiming he told her to call 911. He also shoved Tee, a gesture that police interpreted as a demand to leave. Then Ford ran up the street to get rid of the evidence, investigators said. They never found the gun.

Detectives interviewed Tee before speaking to the two other children present at the shooting, and both claimed in nearly identical accounts that Tee had brought the gun into the apartment. The kids also denied knowing almost anything about Ford, including his name, despite the fact that he had lived in the home off and on for more than two months. Investigators believed Ford had ordered the two children to lie, the prosecutor later told the judge.

After his arrest, the U.S. attorney's office decided not to charge him with cruelty to children, a felony that could have sent him to prison for a decade but would have forced Tee and the other kids to testify. Instead, Ford took a plea deal, admitting to carrying a pistol without a license and attempting to tamper with evidence.

Ford later suggested to a probation officer that he'd taken the gun out of the apartment not to protect himself but to protect the other children, a contention he seemed to raise again at his sentencing hearing, as Brayonna watched on her phone.

"I just wanted to help," he said to D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal E. Kravitz. "All I could do is help."

He's a liar, Brayonna thought, because he'd done nothing to help.

To her, it sometimes felt like no one understood how much Ford's negligence had cost them. Before the shooting, she had envisioned becoming a police officer or enlisting in the Army, but now, all she could do was work nights as a security guard in downtown D.C., because that's when nurses were typically available to watch My'onna. She didn't want to depend on the government assistance that helped cover their meals and rent, but how, as a single mom, could she ever pursue a real career when her daughter would need 24-hour care for years, if not forever?

At an earlier virtual hearing, she'd pleaded with the court to hold Ford responsible.

"How could someone be that careless and that uncaring?" she said, before addressing him directly. "Now you want to act like you care. You didn't care then when that baby was laying on the ground, sitting there bleeding. You walked away. And of course now you care. Now you have remorse because you're facing jail time."

This was his third "armed offense," Assistant U.S. Attorney Emma McArthur had written in a presentencing memo. Although the prosecutor acknowledged Ford's two previous arrests didn't lead to convictions, she argued that he already knew the danger of handling illegal firearms.

And yet, two months before the shooting, Ford made a music video in which he gripped a black pistol in one scene. Even after My'onna's shooting, McArthur noted, Ford posted a video to Instagram in a room with ammunition and what appeared to be a rifle.

"He has gotten a slap on the wrist . . . for each of his arrests," McArthur argued to Kravitz. "Mr. Ford has not once learned that his conduct can have consequences."

Peter Newsham, D.C.'s former police chief, had been making the same argument for years, insisting that the judicial system wasn't doing enough to hold the city's gun offenders accountable.

Through July, 49 percent of the people known to have committed a homicide in the District in 2021 had a prior gun arrest, according to a review by D.C. police. In 2020, it was 53 percent.

The vast majority of the time, Newsham said, people caught with illegal firearms in D.C. - among the country's hardest cities to legally buy a firearm - face less than a year of incarceration, if any. At minimum, he argued, those convicted should face three years.

Kravitz, the judge overseeing Ford's case, had to decide more than just the length of a potential prison term.

Ford's defense attorney, Billy Ponds, who didn't grant a request for an interview with his client, contended in court that he should be sentenced under the Youth Rehabilitation Act, a D.C. law that gives young adults a chance to have their records wiped clean from public view.

The Youth Act, as it's often called, was created in 1985, long before protests for criminal justice reform swept the country. The law's supporters say it helps curb mass incarceration by offering young former convicts a better opportunity to get jobs, loans and housing. An analysis done for the D.C. Council found that people who have their criminal records sealed are less likely to commit another crime.

The law's detractors, including police and prosecutors, have long criticized it for providing a reprieve to violent criminals, because only those guilty of the most heinous crimes - murder and sexual abuse - are barred from consideration. Five years ago, a Washington Post investigation found hundreds sentenced under the Youth Act went on to commit robberies, rapes and homicides.

Despite those findings, the D.C. Council voted unanimously in 2018 to expand the pool of people who qualified, raising the age limit to 24 because of research showing that young minds aren't fully developed before then.

Without that change, Ford, who was 23 at the time of My'onna's shooting, wouldn't have been eligible.

Seldom discussed in the debate over the law is how often it's extended to gun offenders in a city where more than 1,600 people were shot between 2019 and 2020, leaving 307 of them dead.

Of the 610 convicts sentenced under the act during that same period, according to court data, at least 51 percent had committed a crime with a firearm.

Kravitz wasn't obligated to add Ford to their numbers, but the defense attorney urged him to, maintaining that his client should be punished only for owning and getting rid of the illegal gun, not for what the children did when they found it. He also detailed Ford's difficult childhood: Section 8 housing, a mother who witnessed a murder, bouncing between relatives, expulsion from high school.

To McArthur, none of that excused Ford's callousness. This was a father, she said, who saw a child dying and thought only of himself.

"Rejecting the YRA is the very bare minimum that can happen in this case," the prosecutor told Kravitz. "This little girl has a permanent lifelong reminder of what Mr. Ford did. She cannot walk into school. She cannot play with her friends. The least that can happen is Mr. Ford has a conviction that tells him that his conduct . . . is not okay."

The judge acknowledged Ford's "chilling" disregard for My'onna, but he compared leaving the loaded gun out to driving drunk. On most nights, the driver would make it home safely, but what if he crashed into another car and hurt someone?

"It depends on how you look at these things, whether you're punishing the conduct or punishing for the effects of the conduct," Kravitz said. "That's a tricky question."

Ford, he decided, deserved leniency, calling his decisions "the crimes of an immature young person."

"I think he's precisely the type of person that the Youth Rehabilitation Act exists for," concluded Kravitz, who, through his office, declined to be interviewed.

He sentenced Ford to 18 months in prison, with the threat of another 12 if he broke the terms of his plea deal before finishing three years of probation and rehabilitation. That means Ford, who received credit for the nine months he'd already served, is scheduled for release next spring, and his record could be cleared by 2025, just before My'onna's 10th birthday.

Brayonna cried. More than anything, she wanted Ford to live with what he'd done for the rest of his life, as her daughter would.

About then, the front door to her apartment opened, and a nurse wheeled My'onna inside. She was asleep, exhausted after three hours of rehab in Baltimore and the two-hour round trip spent strapped into the back of a van. Soon, she would need to wake up to have her catheter changed, as she did six times a day, and after that, she would take doses of a laxative, vitamin D to strengthen her weakening bones, a medication to stop her muscles from spasming, melatonin to help her rest and a drug to ease the pain she felt every day, all over her body.

She called the place "Therapy," a tan, six-story building with vaulted ceilings and sprawling walls of windows that overlooked Baltimore. Three mornings a week, she arrived in a van with her mom or a nurse, waving to the receptionists in the lobby who knew her as "MyMy," passing in her wheelchair by the wall with the cursive inscription: "In my mind, I am full of hope."

Those same words greet thousands of kids with disabilities treated at Kennedy Krieger each year, including nine children left paralyzed in shootings since the pandemic started.

Among them was a 16-year-old shot in the stomach and a 13-year-old shot in the back, a 14-year-old shot on a hunting trip and a 6-year-old shot through his bedroom window during a drive-by.

The youngest was My'onna.

Their emotional wounds make caring for their physical ones uniquely challenging, said Michelle Melicosta, medical director of Kennedy Krieger's inpatient rehabilitation unit.

"How hard do you push a kid to keep going when they've gone through something like this?" Melicosta asked. "Do you cut them slack? Do you treat them like any other kid?"

Beth Myers, a physical therapist, was wrestling with those questions one morning in June as she strapped My'onna into a harness and pasted electrodes to her body. Irritable after a rough night of sleep, the girl swatted at Myers's face shield.

"Get off," she said when Brayonna held her arm down. "I hate y'all."

"Okay, here we go," Myers said, her voice calm, scooping My'onna up and carrying her to a custom treadmill, where a rehab technician clipped the girl into a lift that hoisted her up until each foot sat flat on the walking belt.

My'onna hung in silence.

The belt began to move, rotating at 1.2 mph. The technician held her hips and Myers gripped the back of each calf, pushing and pulling her legs to make them simulate walking. The exercise activated her atrophying muscles and stimulated the undamaged portion of her spinal cord below the injury. She needed those neurons and synapses to stay healthy in case of a breakthrough.

"You're doing a great job, MyMy," the therapist said.

"Are we almost done?" she asked, 30 seconds after they'd started.

They took a break after 10 minutes, and before they started the next 10, she slumped her head to one side, asking the technician to hold it up for her. This had been a chronic problem when she started rehab because the muscles in her neck were so weak, but she hadn't struggled with it in months.

"Okay, you going to have to hold your head now," the technician said.

"No," My'onna snapped.

"We about to start walking."

"Noooo."

Myers sighed. She realized how unfair this must feel. My'onna was 5. She should have spent that summer morning swimming in a pool or running around a playground, not dangling from a machine like a marionette. Myers understood, too, that no one could predict how much movement My'onna would recover, and that meant all these hours of effort were an investment in a future that might be out of reach.

One morning, though, My'onna had been on the treadmill when she asked to pause.

"My sock is coming off," she said.

Myers was skeptical, but she checked anyway, and there, inside My'onna's right shoe, the sock had come off.

"Did you feel that?" Myers asked, realizing that, if she had, My'onna was for the first time sensing something in a place her doctors feared she never would.

"Uh huh," My'onna responded, and her therapist's eyes began to well.

Tee was playing alone with a red rubber ball in Brayonna's living room when he heard a knock at the door.

"Who is it?" he shouted.

Brayonna opened it and in walked paramedics Alex Henry, Eric Budd and five other masked firefighters carrying gift bags and balloons, one reading "You're So Special."

For months, Brayonna had hoped to meet the men who saved her daughter's life. My'onna, she explained, was still on her way back from rehab.

They didn't mind waiting.

"Me and him talk about it an awful lot," Budd said of that night last year, motioning to Henry, who had carried her to the ambulance.

They exchanged memories. Budd and Henry didn't know Brayonna had chased them out to the ambulance, and she didn't know they were resuscitating My'onna in the same moment.

Tee listened from the couch, saying nothing. None of the men knew who he was.

"What you been doing all summer, bud?" asked Lt. Paul Patterson, who'd also responded to the scene. "Staying out of trouble?"

Tee shook his head, no, and the guys laughed.

He tossed the ball to Henry, and Henry tossed it back.

"He's the one who accidentally did it," Brayonna said from the kitchen, her voice low.

"What's that?" Budd replied.

"He's the one who accidentally, umm -"

"Oh, okay. All right."

"How's he doing?" Patterson asked.

Okay, Brayonna said.

The room went quiet. Tee, they knew, was a victim of gun violence, too, just not the kind people brought gifts and balloons to. The third-grader still hadn't gone to therapy but said that his mom wouldn't let him play with toy guns anymore. When anyone talked in front of him about what he'd done, Tee tried not to pay attention.

He tossed the ball back to Henry.

Five, 10, then 15 minutes passed, and Brayonna worried that My'onna wouldn't make it back before they had to leave for the next emergency.

At last, the door opened.

"Hi, My'onna," Patterson said. "You have some visitors."

"I do?" she said, surprised.

Brayonna took her wheelchair from the nurse and moved the girl to the middle of the living room.

"Hey, My'onna," Tee said, waving from the couch, but she didn't respond so he said it again. "Hi, My'onna."

Her eyes remained on the strangers towering in front of her.

"We got you some cool stuff," Henry said, and her mom started to unpack the bags: kinetic sand, slime, a pair of gift cards to buy whatever she wanted.

"Jelly fruit!" she said, immediately settling on the popular candy.

"You say 'thank you'?" Brayonna asked.

"Thank you," My'onna said.

"Of course," Budd told her. "We're so glad we got to see you."

"You want to show them that you can wiggle your feet?" Brayonna asked.

She looked down at her purple toenails and tensed her body, raising her left heel off its footrest for a half-second.

"Awesome," Budd said.

"If you want, we could take a picture with her?" Patterson suggested, and as the men gathered around, Tee tried to get her attention again.

"My'onna," Tee whispered, and she glanced over. "I wanna take a picture with you."

She looked back at her mom and smiled for the photograph, revealing the bottom tooth she'd lost the night before.

Afterward, Patterson turned to Tee, who was curled up on the couch holding a pillow.

"Do you want to take a picture with us?" he asked.

Tee hadn't expected that. He eased over.

"You can get right here," Budd told him, pointing to a spot beside My'onna. Tee knelt down, resting his arm on her chair's wheel. He grinned.

As the firefighters said goodbye, Tee darted back into My'onna's room to retrieve the red ball.

"Myonna, let's see if you can catch it," he said.

He gently lobbed it into her lap, and she corralled it with both hands.

"You catch it, My'onna!" Tee said.

They kept playing with the ball until he bounced it, loudly, and Brayonna asked him to stop. Then he started squeezing one of My'onna's balloons, and Brayonna told him not to do that either. Tee got a bag of Doritos but dropped a few on the floor, irking Brayonna again. Afterward, he retrieved the ball once more and the kids played with it until, this time, he started throwing it too hard and too high.

"You going home," Brayonna said, annoyed.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because you too hyped," she said.

He promised to settle down and tried to enlist My'onna's help in staving off exile. She was scrolling on her iPad, considering what else she might use her gift cards to buy just a few weeks before her sixth birthday.

Tee could still remember My'onna from before he pulled the trigger and heard the boom, when she didn't struggle to catch a ball or type on an iPad. Sometimes, he felt nervous around her. She got mad at him a lot, and he understood why, but he wished she didn't. He wished things were the way they used to be.

Now he stood and walked over, waiting beside her while she fiddled with the tablet.

"My'onna," he said, but she ignored him.

"MyMy," he continued. "My'onna. MyMy. MyMy."

Finally, she looked over.

"What?"

"You want me to stay?" he asked. "You want me to stay or leave?"

My'onna turned her head away, pausing to think about it.

"Stay," she said.

Americans wonder: Can we still unite?

By Marc Fisher
Americans wonder: Can we still unite?
On Inauguration Day 2001, outgoing Vice President Al Gore and wife, Tipper, welcome incoming Vice President Richard B. Cheney and wife, Lynne. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by John McDonnell

In the wake of devastating economic collapse, the United States was wounded and divided, plagued by angry extremists demanding the right to define who was an American. Then came Pearl Harbor and somehow, Americans banded together in a heroic war effort that inspired the enduring celebration of the Greatest Generation.

Following a brutally divisive presidential election ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, when the country seemed irredeemably split between red and blue in political and cultural conflict, the 9/11 terrorist attacks overnight generated a wave of patriotic consensus.

But if the experiences of the 1940s and early 2000s led many Americans to believe that major crises could heal or at least paper over severe divisions, this year's trifecta of troubles - a deadly pandemic, an unprecedented insurrection at the Capitol and a chaotic close to the war in Afghanistan - has many wondering if the country has lost its capacity to come together in a moment of crisis.

Bitter discord is not a new response to the frightening spread of a lethal infection: In the 1918 flu pandemic, the country was sharply divided and trust in experts and authorities seemed to collapse.

This year, Sen. Tim Kaine, the Virginia Democrat, and Sen. Tommy Tuberville, an Alabama Republican, have voted on opposite sides 84% of the time, but they share troubling doubts about whether the country could meet a crisis with concerted action.

A constituent from Loudoun County recalled for Kaine recently that after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Democrats and Republicans came together on the Capitol steps, sang an impromptu "God Bless America" and prayed for the country - scenes not likely to be repeated today, he said. Instead, this year's crises have led to images of discord - prominent Republicans minimizing the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, or the spate of physical attacks on flight attendants enforcing mask rules on airplanes to curb the coronavirus.

"The ability of the leaders of the country to pull together is dramatically eroded," the constituent told Kaine, and the senator says "that made a huge impression on me. There is certainly reason for worry."

- - -

When coaching a football team, as Tuberville did for decades before turning to politics last year, "you've got different ideas on your staff, but at the end of the day, you come together for the good of the team," the senator said. "We don't have that now. I hear so many people say, 'It's my way or the highway.' "

The reasons why Americans might not be inclined to join forces in a crisis are themselves examples of the country's divide - and of its history as a nation born in disunity. On the left, many blame Republicans for fomenting suspicion of others, whether they be foreigners, immigrants or minorities. On the right, many say Democrats have splintered the nation by emphasizing ethnic, racial and gender identities.

But there's much agreement across the spectrum on how this pervasive disunity is getting locked in: The rise of social media and collapse of the country's local news infrastructure have funneled many Americans into separate, often contradictory information worlds.

Americans are self-segregating residentially, moving to places where they live primarily among people with similar political and cultural outlooks.

Major life choices such as military service, college education, attendance at religious services and commuting practices often shape or cement people's places on one side or the other of the American divide.

The barriers to joining hands against a common enemy may be most evident in election results, but the underlying antagonism extends far beyond partisan politics. It's plain to see in measures of trust, confidence about the future, even in whom we'll date or marry, with more than 6 in 10 Americans saying it would be difficult or impossible to get involved with someone who disagrees with them on abortion, gun rights or immigration, according to an American Enterprise Institute survey.

- - -

Mistrust of elites, experts, scientists, government and the news media has ballooned in recent years. After the 2000 election, when the Supreme Court ruled that George W. Bush had defeated Al Gore to win the presidency, Americans said by wide margins in a Gallup poll that the high court was the proper place to settle the disputed vote and that its decision did not diminish their confidence in the court. Two decades later, in the same poll, confidence in the high court has eroded.

Similarly, trust in national news organizations, especially among Republicans, has nosedived, falling from 70% of Republicans in 2016 to 35% this year, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

What this adds up to, according to experts on both the left and the right, is enough suspicion and antagonism to stir anxiety about whether Americans can still unite against a common threat.

"Will it take another attack on the United States to bring us together?" asked Robert E. Litan, an economist and fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution who worked in President Bill Clinton's administration. "I'm depressed to give this answer: We just had an attack - covid - and it divided us even more deeply."

If China were to try to take Taiwan by force, or if Russia mounted a military assault on Ukraine or the Balkans, Litan said, "maybe we'd be briefly united in outrage, but then the finger-pointing would start."

After the 9/11 attacks, most Americans believed the nation had been badly traumatized but had also been jolted into a sense of common purpose and indeed had been changed for the better. But over time, that sentiment has flipped: In a Washington Post-ABC News poll this summer, a plurality of Americans said the terrorist attacks changed the country for the worse, leaving a legacy of discord and disunity. In the same poll, a majority of Americans said that after an initial burst of applause for health workers and support for short-term lockdowns, the coronavirus pandemic was tearing the country apart.

The depth of anger and malice in the air has persuaded Robert Jeffress, pastor of the 14,000-member First Baptist Church in Dallas, that this is the most polarized period in the nation's history since the Civil War.

"I don't see any great coming together being possible right now," said Jeffress, who was one of Donald Trump's most prominent evangelical supporters. "And the evidence is the crisis we're in now that has taken 650,000 lives."

Even in his own church, where members tend to be conservative Republicans, the divisions are so deep that Jeffress, who is vaccinated against the coronavirus and strongly believes others should be, too, has decided he will not speak to his flock about vaccines, masks and the like.

"The vaccines are a gift from God, and we all have a responsibility to protect the people around us," he said. "I disagree with Joe Biden on just about every issue, but I happen to believe he's right about the mandates. We've got to stop automatically saying, 'If the other side is for it, I'm against it.'

"But we're not willing to divide our church over this. My calling is not to be the minister of vaccination, but to be a preacher of God's word."

Those who argue that the country is too splintered to confront crises point to the failure to stem the spread of the virus, including threats against school board members over mask and vaccine requirements, and the schadenfreude heard in near-celebratory comments about radio talk-show hosts, politicians and Internet influencers who trumpeted their mistrust of the vaccines before themselves dying of covid-19.

Just three years ago, Litan, the economist, argued that "America has held together through worse times." Even as Trump seemed eager to pit one faction in the country against the other and as swift technological change transformed American life - from the nature of work to where people lived - Litan remained optimistic.

After all, people had found ways to come together even after the Civil War's conflagration over race and slavery and after the generational and social conflict of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

Three years later, Litan has changed his mind. "I'm a lot more pessimistic now," he said. In 1968, "people thought things were falling apart." There were troops in the streets of American cities, riots, assassinations of revered leaders, bombings, violent confrontations on college campuses.

"But we didn't have an insurrection at the Capitol, we didn't have multiple versions of the truth, we didn't have social media, and we didn't have one party actively politicizing the counting of votes to destroy confidence in our elections," he said. "Now, the trust in the election system ain't there, and I don't know how we get it back. We are in a state of cold civil war."

- - -

But hold on: Was there ever really a time when Americans readily and easily found consensus? Paul Cantor, an English professor at the University of Virginia who has written extensively on how popular culture reflects the country's character, looks across history and sees far more discord than harmony.

"This has always been a deeply fractious nation," Cantor said. "The idea of a very contentious country is built into the Constitution - it's what James Madison wanted from the start. The original question about this country was and remains, can you have a country without consensus? The whole idea behind America was that nobody has the truth," so the founders created checks and balances to prevent any one force or faction from gaining control.

Americans have always been suspicious of leaders who preach compromise and consensus. From Westerns to World War II movies, from the counterculture of the '60s to recent works presenting hackers and rogue entrepreneurs as heroes, pop culture has celebrated outsiders who do end runs around the elites and outsmart the experts - a theme Cantor sees being repeated in the backlash against Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser.

It's difficult to coalesce against a crisis when it's not even clear anymore what constitutes a crisis, Cantor argues. In a time of 500 TV channels and infinite space on the Internet, media outlets worked ever harder to build audiences and "news channels began to present everything as a crisis," he said. "The human ability to mobilize around a crisis is diminished when everything is a crisis."

The unity, goodwill and social consensus that many say has leached out of American life was actually a rare phenomenon, widely associated with the 1950s, Cantor said. It was a time of three TV networks, an essentially all-White pop culture, and a narrowly defined sense of what it meant to be an American.

"At the time, people despised it," he said. "They called it conformity."

The following six decades brought battles for civil rights, legal protections for women and Blacks, a dramatic shift in sexual mores and family structures, and fairly constant social strife over abortion, same-sex marriage, affirmative action, immigration and gun control.

"We're always falling apart in this country, and now we are in an era of centrifugal forces," Cantor said.

Cable TV's proliferation of channels for specialized interests and the advent of social media gave Americans the opportunity to follow their own narrow paths, paying ever less attention to the whole.

- - -

The splintered media landscape, the spread of misinformation on social platforms, and disinformation campaigns by the Russians and by domestic extremists have corralled many Americans into news silos consisting of one ideologically skewed version of reality. That has left many suspicious of those on the other side - "inundated with points of view that separate us," said Jeffress, the pastor.

"People now have trouble distinguishing between truth and rumor," and they end up angrily defending their own sheltered enclave of information, he said. "That's true of Christians, too. We're divided along political lines. We need to get back to what St. Augustine said: 'In the essentials, unity. In nonessentials, liberty. In all things, charity.' "

In a more balkanized country, in which many people focus on their ideology, race, gender, ethnicity or sexuality as much as their identity as Americans, the idea of rallying to a shared patriotism has been politicized, said Kevin Gaines, a historian at the University of Virginia who focuses on the country's struggles with racial integration.

"Since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have successfully redefined patriotism as military strength, family values and hard-working White Americans versus racial minorities who were on the dole," he said. President Barack Obama tried to reclaim the idea of patriotism as a unifying force in a country that embraced all its citizens and viewed government as an essential part of the national identity, Gaines said, "but that didn't gain traction," and Obama's efforts to bring factions together with moderate policies failed.

"He was constantly upended by Republican obstruction" that sought to suppress Black voting, the historian said. The country emerged from the Obama years with "an anti-democratic movement in response to the relative unity in Black America," Gaines said.

Despite the country's history of abiding conflict, especially over slavery, race and who gets to be full-fledged Americans, "there have always been moments of unity, often inspired by attacks from external enemies," Gaines said. "We've always had anti-democratic elements, such as white supremacists and proto-fascists in the 1930s, but they fought alongside Black troops in World War II.

"Now, we have the need to rally against an internal threat, and we're in completely new territory, with a level of polarization that overrides the sense of collective purpose."

- - -

For Gaines, education is a key path toward regaining the ability to come together. "History offers us a lot of warnings about the grim future we are facing," he said, "and that's our opportunity to look the facts in the face and hopefully avoid that grim destiny."

But across the divide, education can be an obstacle. Tuberville, who coached at Auburn, Texas Tech and Cincinnati before being elected to the Senate, says that by emphasizing the country's history of racial strife, too many schools "are teaching us division, teaching people not to come together."

Instead, the senator said, schools should focus on moral values and teaching young people how to defend themselves against disinformation and "understand that not everything you read is true."

To Kaine, the way to rebuild common purpose is to demonstrate real progress to a skeptical electorate. In Virginia, even though the death penalty and Confederate statues were divisive, emotional issues within recent memory, "there's been a dramatic change and real consensus," Kaine said, as the state banned capital punishment and removed memorials to the likes of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Although Virginia has become reliably Democratic in recent elections, a huge partisan gulf remains, so when Biden's $1.9 trillion stimulus plan was passed this year, including Paycheck Protection Program loans for people who lost income because of the pandemic, it was unpopular in the state's conservative counties.

But after the bill became law, Kaine visited the town of Damascus, near the Tennessee border, in a county where he won only 28 percent of the vote in his last election, and Biden won just 23 percent last year. There, at the Bank of Damascus, the marquee outside blasted good news: "PPP Loans Are Back!"

"That doesn't solve the divisions," Kaine said, "but getting results can help slowly create a different consensus. I am naive enough to believe that good policy is good politics. It's still possible to win people over, and we still have the capacity to unify against an external threat."

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Our child-care system has been failing women (and men and kids). That may soon change.

By catherine rampell
Our child-care system has been failing women (and men and kids). That may soon change.

CATHERINE RAMPELL COLUMN

Advance for release Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2021, and thereafter

(For Rampell clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Catherine Rampell

Most of the conversation about Democrats' budget bill focuses on its $3.5 trillion in (gross) costs and whether that number should be lower or higher. Relatively little discussion addresses what we get for the money.

So, in that spirit, let's talk about the merits of one particularly historic chunk of this legislation: the largest-ever U.S. investment in child care.

For more than 40 years, the majority of American women have been in the workforce. Which is another way of saying: For more than 40 years, the child-care system has been failing American women. It has been failing American men too, of course, but women are more likely to be their families' primary caregivers.

High-quality care remains elusive and expensive. Full-time care for a child under 5 typically costs more than in-state college tuition. Even with these high prices, slots are often scarce and wait lists interminable. Such conditions have stressed the finances of working families, knocked women out of the labor force and locked kids out of high-quality care for generations.

There have been occasional flash points when it looked as though the country might finally institute something closer to affordable, reliable, high-quality child care -- at least for some populations. Even during the Trump administration, the GOP exhibited renewed interest in greater federal support for child care, which its leaders had been rejecting since the Nixon era. That suggested there was at last, maybe, a moment for progress.

But momentum stalled again.

Today, Democrats are on the verge of passing a bill that would invest $450 billion in reducing the costs of child care for families; raising the wages of child-care workers; and guaranteeing free, universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds.

And not a moment too soon. If the U.S. child-care system was always relatively threadbare, today it is unraveling.

Businesses across nearly all industries have struggled in the past 18 months, but perhaps nowhere are the problems more acute than among child-care providers. Operating costs rose, on average, 47 percent within the first few months of the pandemic, with greater cost increases for programs serving 3- and 4-year-olds. This was driven by new regulations requiring smaller class sizes (so, higher teacher-to-child ratios), as well as the costs of purchasing sanitation equipment and other supplies.

Many providers, already financially fragile, shuttered. As of August, about a fifth of child-care centers nationwide remained either closed or at greatly reduced capacity relative to the same month two years earlier, according to Columbia University researchers Emma K. Lee and Zachary Parolin. Overall industry employment is down, too, by 126,700 positions since the pandemic began. That's about a 12 percent decrease from pre-pandemic employment levels.

Long-suffering restaurants, by contrast, are down "only" about 8 percent.

In fact, as restaurants, retailers and other businesses raise wages to attract scarce labor, they have poached child-care workers. These workers were already underpaid, particularly relative to the certifications and schooling they're required to have in many states; now, better-paying job opportunities outside their sector are booming. And there are limits to just how much child-care providers can raise their wages to compete, because margins are slim and the families they serve can barely afford existing prices.

Other factors, such as the risks of working in close proximity with kids too young to be vaccinated, have also made child-care jobs less desirable.

The resulting care crunch has destabilized much of the rest of the economy and labor force, particularly for working moms. There are currently 1.7 million fewer mothers of minor-aged children employed than there were the month before the pandemic began, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Federal Reserve officials have noted that lack of child-care availability is likely holding back job growth.

This problem won't resolve on its own anytime soon; in a survey released in July by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, more than a third of child-care providers said they were considering leaving or closing their program within the next year. A one-time infusion of cash to help the industry recover, appropriated by Congress this past spring and now being distributed, should help stabilize some of these providers.

Even if the industry does eventually recover to pre-pandemic levels, though, those were clearly insufficiently affordable or resilient.

"In this area as in so many others, the pandemic has shone a light on decades of systemic failure -- in this case, that it's not sustainable to have families bear the cost of child care without serious public investment," said Olivia Golden, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, which advises federal and state policymakers on family- and care-related issues.

The only solution is the one Congress is now considering: using state resources -- generously, reliably, permanently -- to bridge the gap between what families can afford, and what providers need to pay.

- - -

Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

No matter what happens in Congress, the Biden administration has done big things

By eugene robinson
No matter what happens in Congress, the Biden administration has done big things

EUGENE ROBINSON COLUMN

Advance for release Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, and thereafter

(For Robinson clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Eugene Robinson

WASHINGTON -- No matter what happens in Congress over the next few days, the one thing even President Joe Biden's harshest critics cannot say is that his administration's accomplishments are inconsequential. This is a White House that does big things at home and abroad.

It is possible, but unlikely, that the week could end with the Democratic Party doing its best impersonation of a smoking ruin. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., might fail to craft a version of Biden's $3.5 trillion "human infrastructure" package that moderate Democrats will vote for. And progressive House Democrats, in response, might torpedo the $1 trillion "hard infrastructure" bill that the Senate has already approved.

I doubt this Armageddon scenario will occur, since the argument is less about substance than about arithmetic - congressional arithmetic at that, which is much more flexible than the addition and subtraction we learned in school. The numbers involved are so humongous that Pelosi and Schumer ought to be able to find some sweet spot that lets both moderates and progressives claim victory. No Democrat should see failure as an option.

But the fact that we're talking about trillions of dollars instead of mere billions gives an idea of how ambitious the Biden-Harris administration is. Anyone who might have imagined that our oldest president would mostly be a soothing corrective after the insanity of the Donald Trump years was dead wrong.

Look at what Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have done to reshape U.S. foreign policy - an area in which presidents largely have free rein. Previous administrations talked the talk. Biden is walking the walk in ways that have both our allies and our adversaries struggling to keep up.

The Obama administration talked for years about ending the war in Afghanistan and withdrawing American forces, but ended up agreeing to a troop surge instead. The Trump administration signed a bad deal, incompetently negotiated, to bring U.S. troops home but got booted out of office before being able to follow through. Biden could have tried to get out of the bargain. Instead, he went ahead and fulfilled it.

No, the withdrawal wasn't pretty. But it happened. This nation's longest war is over - any way you look at it, that's a historic milestone, and one Biden has used to reshape U.S. goals abroad.

Biden and Harris are pulling off a shift in our foreign policy orientation that has been talked about for more than a decade - a "pivot" or "tilt" away from our traditional focus on Europe and the Middle East toward the region now called the Indo-Pacific, with an eye toward the rise of China as a competing superpower.

Biden secretly negotiated a new defense pact with Australia and Britain that will give the Australians nuclear-powered submarine technology as a check on China's growing naval power. He hosted the first in-person summit of the Quad strategic alliance - the United States, Japan, Australia and India - in another initiative aimed at containing China's regional ambitions. He sent Harris to Southeast Asia to shore up U.S. ties with Singapore and Vietnam.

China's leaders hate all of these moves, which they see as hostile. It is unclear whether Biden's shift in focus makes a potential confrontation over the fate of Taiwan more or less likely. Even if it doesn't come to that, this reorientation matters, and it matters a lot.

Still, it is true that Biden's political standing and the Democrats' electoral prospects will probably turn on the success or failure of his domestic agenda. You can love that vision or hate it, but the one thing it can't be called is modest.

The passage of the Affordable Care Act under President Barack Obama was the most significant shift in the role of government in this country since the Reagan administration. Now, however, Biden is seeking a much more dramatic sea change.

He wants to help Americans buy electric cars and build charging stations to make them practical as a way of fighting climate change. He wants high-speed trains on some heavily traveled routes. He wants everyone to have broadband Internet access. He wants to provide free or subsidized child care and 12 weeks of guaranteed paid family leave. He wants to offer free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds and two free years of community college. He wants to expand Medicare benefits and reduce prescription drug costs.

Okay, he wants everything including the kitchen sink. And that's what the nation needs after four decades of trickle-down economics that created massive inequality and allowed the nation's physical infrastructure and human infrastructure to fall behind.

Biden and Harris have been in office for just eight months. Deduct style points from their score if you like. Acknowledge the failures on issues such as immigration. But they swing for the fences. And they get things done.

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Eugene Robinson's email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

Future political violence feels inevitable. A violent reaction need not be.

By michael gerson
Future political violence feels inevitable. A violent reaction need not be.

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

Advance for release Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, and thereafter

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By Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- American politics -- as some dissident Republicans and state election officials will tell you -- is already conducted in the shadow of violence.

The threat of violence was always a subtext of Trumpism, usually involving the encouragement of assault against hostile protesters or the refusal to clearly repudiate brutality by Trump supporters. This could sometimes be dismissed as barroom bravado. But we entered a new phase when former president Donald Trump explicitly sided with the political violence of Jan. 6 and declared that our current government is illegitimate.

The baseless claim of electoral fraud, in particular, has acted as an accelerant to anger. Trump consistently claims that something -- power, respect or social dominance -- has been stolen from his supporters and that only "strength" will reclaim it. The consequences of failure, Trump declares, would be apocalyptic: the loss of America itself. "If you don't fight like hell," he said before the events of Jan. 6, "you're not going to have a country anymore." This is the cultivation of desperation.

It is little wonder that about two-fifths of Republicans (in a poll this year) expressed an openness to political violence under certain circumstances. People in this group are not being stigmatized. They have the effective endorsement of a former president and likely GOP presidential nominee in 2024.

This line of argument is dangerously congruent with one view of the Second Amendment on the right that long preceded Trump -- a belief that the ownership of guns is the last resort in the defense of liberty. This acts as constitutional permission for the use of force against fellow citizens.

It's difficult to game out what this means for the future. Would some on the hard left respond in kind, as a stigmatized few are already doing? This reaction is not in any way equivalent to what we've seen on the right, mainly because the political party of the left remains committed to liberal democracy. But I suspect a marginally thicker slice of the left would be inclined to "punch a Nazi" during a second Trump term. And it doesn't require many bad actors to cause a violent confrontation.

At the least, these trends threaten to turn any national trauma or trial -- a disputed election, an unjust police shooting, a resented judicial ruling, a bitter political convention -- into an occasion for violence. And a great many elections lost by Republicans will be disputed, given the GOP's philosophic embrace of unconstitutional bad-loserism.

I suspect that a second term for Trump would accelerate all these trends. In Trump's first term, federal law enforcement officers were given license to rough up peaceful protesters (as in Lafayette Square). Trump used violent supporters to threaten and intimidate members of Congress (and his own vice president). High-ranking military officials feared Trump might try to use the armed forces for unconstitutional purposes. Is there any doubt that Trump, empowered by reelection and accustomed to the use of power, would use times of crisis -- particularly civil disorder -- as justifications for broader violence?

The most important response to these unnerving trends is political mobilization to prevent Republicans from taking control of the House, Senate and presidency. But it is possible, in the natural rhythms of politics, for an unfit party to take control. So it is premature, but not irrational, to ask: What might opposition to an illiberal Trump regime look like?

A Democratic friend provides this answer: "Only an organized and ongoing mass nonviolent protest and resistance movement would be the needed counterweight."

The advantages of this approach are the same that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. defined in "Stride Toward Freedom," his account of the Montgomery bus boycott. King argued that nonviolence allows people to fight evil without resorting to violence; allows for opposition without dehumanization; aims at understanding an opponent rather than humiliating them; and prevents the resister from being deformed by hate.

Nonviolence is sometimes criticized on the left as passivity or compliance. That strikes me as entirely inconsistent with the civil rights movement in practice. King argued that an active but nonviolent resistance is not merely possible; it is the only strategy that preserves the possibility of future unity.

The more apt question would be: Who has the cultural standing to lead and train such a movement? It may be someone from the Black church -- or the White church, for that matter. I doubt such leadership will emerge from politics. In our society it could come from anywhere: sports, entertainment, literature, music. We are left to hope that someone feels the call.

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that," King said. "Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. The beauty of nonviolence is that in its own way and in its own time it seeks to break the chain reaction of evil."

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Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

Is this what Joe Manchin really wants?

By alexandra petri
Is this what Joe Manchin really wants?

ALEXANDRA PETRI COLUMN

Advance for release Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, and thereafter

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By Alexandra Petri

WASHINGTON -- What is going on with Joe Manchin and all these bills?

Manchin has repeatedly expressed reservations about the size of the omnibus reconciliation bill, which sounds like legislation meant to settle some bad blood between buses. He has done so in print in the Wall Street Journal. He has done so in the White House.

Manchin also opposed the voting rights bill his Democratic colleagues supported. So he hammered out a version he could be happy with - but now that seems to be going nowhere.

What, though, does he actually want? Why is he behaving this way? What policy aims specifically does he object to? Any of them? All of them? Here are some theories.

1. As a small child, Joe Manchin was frightened by a large number, and he has never felt comfortable around them since.

2. Joe Manchin can be persuaded only when he is on his boat, and he is not on his boat.

3. Joe Manchin is content with things as they are! Can't more people be content with things as they are? Why do people have to look around and see problems everywhere, problems that can be fixed by legislation? Maybe what we need isn't more legislation but a better attitude!

4. Joe Manchin is in the pocket of Big Status Quo.

5. The last words of Joe Manchin's old mentor were "Oppose any bill containing . . . " and Joe Manchin didn't catch the words after that, if there even were words, if the final rattling whisper contained any meaning at all. So he is just being safe.

6. Will heighten inflation(??).

7. Joe Manchin had a dream of seven lean cows and seven fat cows, and he is pretty sure that means he isn't allowed to pass any legislation protecting voting rights. It surprised him, too, that that was what the conclusion was, but he read it on a dream-interpreting app!

8. West Virginia!

9. West Virginia?

10. One morning, Joe Manchin got dressed and put on a tie he particularly liked, and all day long, he waited to see whether anyone would notice it and compliment it, and the only person to say anything about it was Joe Biden - but what he said was NOT even a compliment. Biden almost certainly doesn't remember, but Joe Manchin absolutely remembers, and now he is going to ensure that Biden is punished for it. He wore the tie to their meeting to see whether it would jog anything, but it didn't.

11. Bipartisanship once saved Joe Manchin's life.

12. Three ghosts appeared to Joe Manchin and showed him how the world would be if he ground the legislative agenda to a halt, and he wants to see whether the cataclysms they predicted were correct!

13. Joe Manchin thinks the amount of democracy we have right now is just fine, and he would even be happy with a little less.

14. If Joe Manchin articulates specifically what he wants, the curse that is keeping all his brothers trapped in the form of wild ducks will never lift! He must keep mum about the specifics he desires until the time is right.

15. This is a test to see whether you've been paying attention to Joe Manchin all these years. You should know what Joe Manchin wants without having to be told.

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Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

The danger isn't that China's Evergrande will collapse. It's that it won't.

By megan mcardle
The danger isn't that China's Evergrande will collapse. It's that it won't.

MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN

Advance for release Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, and thereafter

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By Megan McArdle

WASHINGTON -- Have you heard about the crisis at Evergrande? After weeks of rumor and speculation, the Chinese real estate developer has finally missed payments on its dollar-denominated bonds. The company is not technically in default yet, but Chinese authorities have asked local governments to start preparing for the firm's implosion.

Perhaps you are wondering whether we should prepare, too, having read nervous-making headlines about how Evergrande might be China's "Lehman moment." But it is unlikely that we will see a local Chinese financial crisis on the scale of 2008, much less that such ills will start skipping from continent to continent.

The bigger risk is that China won't have the hour of reckoning its economy badly needs.

It is of course possible that an Evergrande collapse will touch off a contagion beyond even the mighty powers of the Chinese government to control. But, more likely, Evergrande can't fail, much less touch off a Chinese recession, unless China's President Xi Jinping wants it to. Still less likely that it will cascade to the rest of us, because, by design, the Chinese financial system is walled off from global capital markets.

Domestically, various levels of government can exercise control over deposit rates and who gets loans. Those governments have a keen interest in keeping employment and property prices high, not just because citizens prefer it but because property sales have been providing a big chunk of local government budgets, particularly during the pandemic. So when property prices stumble, or bankruptcy looms, China faces the temptation to pump more loans into the system to keep everything afloat.

Unfortunately, that doesn't make the losses go away; it just hides them under new debt. Underneath, the fissures keep getting wider and deeper.

Issuing new loans to enterprises that would otherwise go bankrupt -- and should -- locks you into a cycle whereby ever-increasing amounts of capital are diverted from promising new opportunities to old, inefficient, politically protected sectors.

It also contributes to China's epic property boom. China's strictly controlled banking system doesn't offer very good rates on deposits -- someone has to pay for all those nonperforming loans -- and the Chinese stock market is still in its infancy. Add in tight capital controls that make it difficult to invest abroad, and Chinese savers have few good places to park their cash, except for real estate. China is littered with "ghost cities" of unwanted apartment buildings, along with empty "ghost apartments" held by speculators. A 2019 report estimated that fully 20 percent of apartments in China were unoccupied.

Even those that are rented aren't necessarily generating much income. When you look at the buy vs. rent decision in China, "hands down it's cheaper to rent," says Patrick Chovanec, an economic adviser to Silvercrest Asset Management and adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

America has some experience with what happens when people start treating homes as ever-appreciating capital assets rather than places to live. But in China there's another difficulty, says Chovanec, because even nonmortgage loans there tend to be secured by real estate, which will deepen any contraction if property prices collapse.

All of this gives Xi an unenviable choice: Modernize the banking system, recognize the bad debts and weather a nasty contraction -- or put the problems off for another day, perhaps hoping to discourage the worst speculative excesses by punishing Evergrande's chairman. But Evergrande is just a symptom of much wider problems in the economy, and Chovanec is skeptical that this can be changed by making an example of Chairman Hui Ka Yan. The heads of many other companies, he says, are "already so deep in the hole, there's not an option for them to be scared straight."

For years, China has fitfully been trying to put its financial house in order, then backing off as the scale of the potential disaster became apparent. It seems more likely than not that we'll see a similar pattern now.

And what of it, you might say? The economy is still growing. But the export-led growth model that fueled China's rise can only work for so long. World demand could absorb China's excess production when it was a relatively small share of world gross domestic product. But with the world's second-largest GDP, it needs a balanced economy that generates robust domestic demand. America and Western Europe aren't going to start buying three times as much of everything, and China still has a major income gap to close before it truly joins the developed world.

Sometimes, says Chovanec, "the only worse thing than having a recession is not having one."

Developing local demand will mean funneling capital away from asset-heavy manufacturing businesses and toward sectors such as retail, health care and logistics. That can't happen until China develops a more modern, open financial system. But getting there will mean a brutal reckoning that the Chinese government would very much like to put off.

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Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

'Biden's spending plan is dead' and other misconceptions

By e.j. dionne jr.
'Biden's spending plan is dead' and other misconceptions

E.J. DIONNE COLUMN

Advance for release Monday, Sept. 27, 2021, and thereafter

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By E.J. Dionne Jr.

WASHINGTON -- Perhaps President Joe Biden's ambitious domestic program will suffer death by a thousand misconceptions. But as soon as you look at it that way, you'll see why congressional Democrats are more likely to embrace the large measure of social reform they promised in last year's election.

This is because the single largest misconception is that Democrats have a political death wish. Such gloom, encouraged by the torrent of threats and counterthreats now emanating from the party's various factions, confuses the inevitable struggles within a highly diverse political coalition for a party-wide blindness to costs of failure.

"If we were in Europe, we'd be 30 different political parties," Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., told me, with just a touch of exaggeration. But McGovern, who chairs the Rules Committee, believes his colleagues understand the bottom-line truth: "If we can't deliver on this, God help us in the next election."

Still, the ugly process and the relentless focus on the bill's current $3.5 trillion price tag are taking a toll and feeding other misunderstandings. Only rarely is it pointed out that this is spent out over 10 years and thus amounts to just 1.2 percent of the economy. Worse, the focus on a single abstract total means little attention to what the Build Back Better initiatives would actually do - for children, families, education, health care, housing and climate.

"When Democrats allow a debate to be only about a number," Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., a leading moderate, said in an interview, "it's like talking about a Christmas party and only discussing the hangover."

Substantively, added Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., starting the discussion this way gets things exactly backward. "We should work from what policies we want to enact," he said, "rather than an arbitrary number."

Yes, as Van Hollen recognizes, Democrats will eventually have to agree on an overall spending level to work out what fits. Still, the question of what would constitute an acceptable outcome cannot be divorced from deciding which projects would have to be scaled back under a lower figure - or thrown over the side altogether.

Thus, Biden has been pressing Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and other more conservative Democrats to be specific about what they do and don't want in a final package.

At his news conference on Friday, Biden said this was a central theme in his meetings with congressional Democrats this past week. "Forget a number," Biden told them. "What do you think we should be doing?" He added that when some of his interlocutors listed all their priorities, they discovered that "it adds up to a number higher than they said they were for."

And no, the entire cost will not just be thrown onto the national debt. A frustrated Biden pointed out that if all the revenue increases he has proposed were enacted, "it is zero price tag on the debt."

Here's one more misconception: the idea that all middle-of-the-road Democrats are of the same mind. In fact, most House Democrats, including many moderates, agree with the original goal of passing the Senate's bipartisan physical infrastructure bill in tandem with the larger Build Back Better bill.

There will be much teeth-gnashing over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's pledge of a vote on the Senate bill by Monday. It's an artificial deadline, and there is no way a full agreement on the rest of Biden's plan can be reached in time to meet it.

Meanwhile, it's foolish to imagine that more progressive House Democrats will give up their only leverage, which is to hold back their votes for the smaller bill until they know Senate Democrats are fully onboard with the broader one.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, noted in an interview that the bigger bill still under negotiation includes "the majority of the president's agenda and what we ran on in 2020."

"We were promised the two would move together, and we're just enforcing the agreement we made," Jayapal said. Which happens to be true. It may ultimately fall to Biden to persuade the House Democrats eager for a quick vote on the bipartisan bill to show some short-term patience in the interest of longer-term success.

In my ideal world, we would spend more than $3.5 trillion, given how much needs to be done to give low- and middle-income Americans what Biden called "a little breathing room."

But in the world as it exists, compromise is likely to require something smaller. That's OK. What would not be OK: for Democrats to walk away from the best opportunity they have had in at least two generations to repair and reconstruct our nation's social contract. Despite all their grousing, I think they know that.

- - -

E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.

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