By I. smiley G. Calderón
I just love talking with my local Fresno City Council member. (How many of you, dear readers, can honestly say this too—and, if not, why not?)
Especially during these critically precarious coronavirus times, when everything seems so uncertain, it’s rather refreshing to know that my City Council member in Fresno’s central southeast District 7, Nelson Esparza, genuinely cares. And I know he does as I often read and hear about the important legislative action he’s taking at City Hall on his constituents’ behalf—on our behalf.
He’s really fighting for us. But not only that, Esparza continues to raise the bar for what it means to be a progressive and effective leader here in the city. Let me explain.
Esparza makes it easy for constituents to get in contact with him; he’s approachable and inviting. And he listens. Which is why I wasn’t surprised he was able to find some time during his busy schedule to briefly talk with me by phone about some questions and concerns I had regarding Covid-19 and our community.
First, I asked Esparza what this unprecedented pandemic experience has taught him as a city legislator and whether it’s changed or affected his view of society. His response was surprising: “Referring to society in general, before this pandemic, I thought that folks on the other side of the [political] aisle from me, I thought we all had a common goal—that we all love our community and our country—but that we just had different ideas on how to get there…
“But since the pandemic, taking a look at how certain folks have responded throughout our country and within our community—no, our values are not the same. Instead, there are some key, hard differences that have been exposed.” And that’s being polite.
He regretfully explained: “You would think that something as serious as life or death would really unite us, but somehow it has managed to divide us.”
Esparza wanted me to see and understand the impact that everyone has on each other and how truly interdependent we are in this pandemic. He told me, “Even though here in Fresno we’ve gained a decent level of compliance, many folks wearing their masks, abiding by our emergency orders intended on keeping people safe—still, ‘many folks’ is not everyone—and we have to remember that this all started with only one sick person—and it’s evolved into a global pandemic.
“So when you hear that 80% or 90% of folks are complying—the remaining 10% that is not is very, very problematic for the entire community—for the public health of the entire community.”
After a slight pensive pause, he admitted: “So, we do have a segment of the population here in the Valley that is making it very difficult for us to get past the virus and get the economy open again.”
In Esparza’s view, the recovery process is being unnecessarily drawn out by residents who do not follow the recommended coronavirus health and safety guidelines, like social distancing and face mask wearing. Even one non-complier can throw a wrench into things for everyone else.
“I think most folks here in Fresno—what I’m proud of—most folks are in it, we’re all in it together, but it’s that very small but vocal minority of residents that are making it very difficult for us to get past this…and it’s very problematic.”
Yes, this is problematic, to say the least. It’s unfair that a small sector of residents can have such a big negative impact on our community. So I asked Esparza about the city and county’s response to the matter.
“I’m largely proud of the city’s record on the action taken during this pandemic,” he told me.
Yet he emphasized: “But, ultimately we (the city) are not a public health agency…so what’s interesting is, when you take a look at the record of both the county and the city in addressing the pandemic, when you compare the responses, you see a kind of lackluster response from the county…And the county is legitimately a public health agency…
“Yet, we as a city are taking real action beyond actual dollars spent—doing stuff that costs no money—that is, implementing emergency orders to keep people safe.”
Esparza’s reassurance that the city of Fresno is taking effective measures to combat the community spread of Covid-19 is refreshing in light of Fresno County’s dull pandemic response. If certain community leaders had their way, the government would have no say in mandating social distancing or face masks for residents. Yet these measures have been proven to save lives.
Esparza made this clear: “I want folks to keep in mind. These numbers and cases and deaths—that’s with us taking action. The alternative—where there is no action taken—the models show much higher numbers of cases and deaths…if the government was laissez-faire about this whole thing, the number of cases and deaths would be far higher.”
Currently in Fresno County, we’ve had a total of more than 20,000 confirmed positive cases (the number is rapidly increasing every day) and 203 deaths. Across the country, we’ve had more than 5.2 million positive cases and at least 167,000 deaths. To think that if our local and state governments hadn’t taken action is unthinkable.
But without any action, Esparza’s right: Things would be much worse. The virus is the real enemy here—not the government. There is no room for conspiracy theories—only facts.
Esparza explained: “What I want to be clear about is the economic loss is specifically because of the threat of the virus. When folks were angry about shelter-in-place and such, what folks failed to understand is that this virus has ravaged the economy—not the government.
“Take a look back at history—that is the nature of a pandemic. A pandemic tears apart your economy because things logistically can’t function as they normally do when you have folks getting sick.”
“But that is the nature of a pandemic,” he continued. “There was shelter-in-place, there were lockdowns and folks felt the economic hardship that way. But, you know what the alternative is? That the government takes no action.
“And walk yourself down that path—what’s going to happen to the economy then? It’s going to get destroyed anyway—and probably in a much worse manner than the path that we did take.
“Bottom line: You can’t have a functioning society if the majority of people are sick—your employees are sick, your customers are sick and out of work and not buying anything.”
And then Esparza hit the nail right on the head: “One of the biggest enemies of taming this virus is misinformation.”
And he’s right. Which is why he’s also perfectly suited to take head-on the many infectious alternative truth coronavirus conspiracy theories out there with the power of data. As a popular economics instructor at Fresno City College, Professor Esparza encourages critical thinking and data-driven approaches to societal and economic problems.
“Long before Covid-19, I used to refer to the Bubonic plague as an example when teaching certain lessons in my economics class,” he told me. “I would ask the class, ‘What happens to the supply and demand if your customer base is literally dying off…?’ And my students would always laugh. But I suspect now that if I ever would try to use that kind of example in class, it would no longer be a laughing matter.” Exactly. When real life unexpectedly spills into the classroom it’s a rude awakening, for sure.
But, does it make sense for Fresno to shut down the city for (only) 200 deaths?
No, Esparza doesn’t look at it that way because he says coronavirus deaths alone do not account for the total, full cost of Covid-19’s broad impact.
“Here’s the issue,” he adamantly explained. “When you measure the impact of the pandemic in just the number of deaths, you’re not capturing the full costs because ‘recovered’ is a very misrepresented term in this pandemic.
“‘Recovered’ just means that you are no longer carrying [the] active virus…so, if you had a mild case, you may be walking around like normal—or, maybe like many countless others who still have to painstakingly self-administer liters of oxygen everyday even after leaving the hospital ‘recovered,’ your life is changed forever…
“And so when I say you’re not capturing the full cost—and if you want to measure the impact of the pandemic in the number of deaths—okay, 200—so who wants to volunteer their family members? Those are all real people.” Indeed.
And it is rather refreshing to hear a government official recognize our collective humanity and put it at the forefront, especially one who many might expect to only be focused solely on business and economic profits. But no, Esparza is different.
“We have to take into account humanity,” he stressed. “What if it were your loved ones or you? Then the calculation changes, because when it comes to your loved ones or you—you can’t put a price tag on that…it’s priceless.” So true.
And so I pressed Esparza on what he personally has done in his role as a City Council member to combat Covid. Without any hesitation, he elaborated: “I was one of the biggest advocates of shelter-in-place since the beginning and I was disappointed to see it lifted too early on, really.
“When things got lifted in May, we saw the immediate consequences in June and July—increased numbers of cases and deaths—not only here in Fresno County but all across the country. And so, leading up to that, just wanting to keep everyone safe, and as cases started to rise, I felt the need to tighten the existing measures that we did have, so I introduced an ordinance at City Hall that revised the already existing coronavirus emergency order and clarified certain important things.”
The Council member’s revised ordinance specifies that face masks must cover both mouth and nose, and it expanded the wearing of masks to outside when social distancing is not possible. “There’s this myth that people believe you can’t get Covid-19 if you’re standing outside,” he told me, astounded. “But, you certainly can if you’re interacting with folks.” Precisely.
The coronavirus is widely known to spread through person-to-person contact whether you’re sweating inside a stuffy office or pleasantly enjoying a wide-open field outside.
The revised ordinance also mandates that employers notify employees of reported coronavirus infections at the workplace in a timely manner within 24 hours of confirmation, something Council Member Esparza feels especially strongly about. “Because employees—our workers, especially our essential workers here in the city—have a right to know if Covid-19 is spreading in their workplace.”
Focusing on the rights and protections of individuals and residents instead of companies and corporations should be the objective of every elected official. But not only that, putting pressure on businesses to promote safe coronavirus practices is also important for everyone. And creating additional incentives for all employers throughout the city—businesses, nonprofits, government, including City Hall—to do what they can to prevent the spread of Covid-19 is crucial.
Esparza admitted: “It’s up to everybody—all of us—whether you’re a customer, employee or whether you’re the employer—we all got to work together to prevent the actual spreading of it in our workplace.”
As I did at the beginning of our call, I again asked Esparza what the pandemic has shown him about Fresno. And he was honest about his assessment without pulling any punches. “It has shown me different key fractures,” he confessed. “But at the same time,” he was hopeful, “it has convinced me that we can come together and take on big issues.”
His much needed optimism resonated well with me during these dark times. But before he got off the phone, he cautioned: “We need to be more proactive. We have the building blocks in place. We just really need to amplify those building blocks into a more solid, comprehensive focused effort.”
Sounds like the perfect pandemic prophylaxis.
I. smiley G. Calderón is a Gen X Chicano and lifelong educator who spent a career in academia in Southern California but is most proud of being a father.