Auckland, New Zealand – Jacinda Ardern is on track for a second term as New Zealand’s prime minister in elections that will take place on Saturday, thanks largely to her handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has helped burnish her image as an effective leader.
While the government has lost some support since the coronavirus resurfaced in Auckland in August, recent opinion polls show it is still polling at 46 percent compared with the National Party’s 31 percent with just two days to go before the election.
Political scientist and gardening enthusiast Georgina Murray cast one of her two votes to the Green Party in a bid “to keep the Labour Party honest”. In New Zealand, people get to express their preference for both – a candidate and a party. This year, the country had a record number of advance votes.
“I normally vote for Labour but I’m voting tactically this year,” she said. “I think Jacinda Ardern is fabulous because she has championed women’s rights, she’s publicly condemned racism, she’s warm, and she has re-envisioned what leadership can look like.”
“Jacindamania” has not always had a hold on voters. Despite leading the country through a “terrorist attack” in March 2019, a volcanic eruption in December, and making the cover of Vogue and TIME magazine, Ardern’s Labour Party had actually fallen behind the opposition National Party in February.
Political commentator Ben Thomas says the dip was because while Ardern won plaudits for her kindness and empathy, many New Zealanders felt she was failing to deliver on her promises of transformational change.
“She made utopian promises, to ‘lift countless children out of poverty’ and to build 100,000 homes in 10 years. By that calculation, 10,000 should have been built by now and we’ve seen less than a few hundred. There were numerous pledges to invest in transport and infrastructure but despite the many press releases I’ve seen no shovel hit the ground,” he said.
But the coronavirus pandemic changed the equation.
“Coronavirus gave Ardern a clean slate,” Thomas said. “She could reset the agenda. You could see it as either the PM has benefitted from crises, or New Zealand has benefitted from the PM.”
Under Ardern’s government, New Zealand has reported fewer than 2,000 cases and 25 deaths, and while the country endured a tough lockdown, it seems to have avoided the calamitous economic impact suffered by countries such as the United Kingdom.
The antithesis of Trump
Treasury figures suggest the economy is likely to contract by just more than 3 percent in the June 2020 quarter, which is slightly better than economists had predicted. Unemployment is expected to have peaked at 7.8 percent in the March 2022 quarter.
“We are bombarded with images of Trump’s America and Boris’s United Kingdom so there’s a sense of relief that we have dodged a bullet thanks to Jacinda.”
Ardern is widely viewed as the antithesis of Donald Trump, and has even become a source of pride for Kiwis, Thomas says.
Labour’s handling of coronavirus has not been without mis-steps: the Ministry of Health did not adequately test those at the border, which probably led to the second wave of community cases in August.
The government was also criticised for having shortages of personal protective gear for front-line staff; failing to keep up with demands for flu vaccinations; and the legitimacy of the first lockdown was called into question before the High Court. The court found that while the first nine days of the lockdown were justified, they were also unlawful.
The National Party has also had its troubles. Despite leading in the polls in February, the party’s endured changing leadership and scores of resignations. Some 19 of its original 56 MPs decided against standing for the 2020 election. Thomas says the leadership was almost “thrust” onto Judith Collins, whose hero is former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as a last resort.
Business owner Ajay Agrawal would usually vote for the National Party, but he was touched by how Ardern handled coronavirus and the Christchurch terror attacks.
“The worries I had before do not matter now,” Agrawal said. “I feel very proud to have Jacinda as my prime minister. A lot of people from my country [India] talk about her, that’s a pretty big deal. I don’t even know who the Australian prime minister is, that says a lot.”
Still, other voters are wary of getting caught up in the hype. There are 15 parties contesting the election and even if Labour win they will probably have to govern in a coalition.
Phillip Craig says he will be voting based on policy.
“It’s a dangerous game to vote according to personality,” he said. “She still has my vote, but I have not been swayed by ‘Jacindamania’. I’m sceptical of all the international news coverage. Where is the meat to Jacinda’s hype?”
John Hughes has also proved immune, but he says he remains a staunch National voter.
“I think the country needs a strong and firm hand,” Hughes said. “I voted for Labour once and it almost destroyed the country in the 70s and 80s. I vowed I would never vote for Labour again. I see Judith Collins as a strong person. She’s a better orator than Jacinda and she’s got that charisma that Ardern doesn’t have.”
Political analyst Geoffrey Miller says while the National Party wants to stress differences in policy, its efforts are likely to prove futile. Voters are not interested in anything but the “here and now”, he says.
“When you see the country having a rugby match where 30,000 people are gathering in a stadium – it’s seen as evidence of the government’s success,” he said. “People look around at freedoms such as meeting friends for coffee and not having to wear a mask. People are feeling grateful to be cut off from the rest of the world.”
While there was always an element of uncertainty with any election, “you can clearly see that Labour is in cruise control”.
Irrespective of the election result, however, New Zealand faces serious challenges ahead.
Senior economist Brad Olsen says questions around moves to open the border, and rising unemployment as the pandemic drags on elsewhere in the world are likely to become more pressing.
And the need for social housing, which Ardern has been promising to resolve since first coming to office in 2017, has still to be addressed.
There are now nearly 20,000 people on the waiting list, compared with an average of about 4,000 in each of the three years to 2016, according to Olsen, and with Maori, young people, and women traditionally most affected by recessions, the situation is going to get worse, he said.
At the same time, housing prices have been rising as those able to afford a 20 percent deposit and a low rate mortgage have been getting into the market – further widening the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Ardern has ridden a wave of popular support thanks to the pandemic, but if she is returned for a second term it will be time to deliver on the transformational change she has long promised.
As Miller says, while most voters have given the government a “get out of jail free card” for this election, “I don’t think voters will do so again.”
Dying of loneliness: How COVID-19 is killing dementia patients
Teresa Palmer is sitting on the back porch of her home in San Francisco when the mobile phone in her hand starts to buzz.
A kind, raspy voice inquires from the other end of the line: “Did I wake you?” If the question surprises Palmer, she does not show it. Her reply is plain and swift. “No,” she says: It is past one in the afternoon. She has been awake for hours.
Her mother, Berenice Palmer, is 103 years old. She lives at the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living, a 15-minute drive south from the cheery blue house where Teresa, 68, and her husband live.
But since March, Teresa has not been able to see Berenice, except for the occasional doctor’s visit, plus that one time Berenice fell and had to get stitches at the emergency room. Teresa was given permission to drive her mother back to the nursing home.
Otherwise, all visitation stopped. Until September, even outdoor visits and window visits – where a patient looks through a window to see a loved one outside – were barred under measures the San Francisco Department of Public Health implemented to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
It was a devastating development for dementia patients like Berenice, for whom routine interaction and careful observation are key.
Commonly characterised by a deterioration in memory, thinking and language skills, dementia is a syndrome that can result from any number of diseases or injuries to the brain. Sometimes it is Alzheimer’s. Sometimes a stroke. Sometimes something entirely different.
It is so common, especially among older adults, that the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that upwards of five percent of the world population over the age of 60 lives with dementia. That is approximately 50 million people worldwide.
Berenice is among the more than 5.8 million with the syndrome in the United States. And today, she is worried. She wants her daughter to find the box with her medical records. She fears her cancer might have returned.
Teresa, herself a retired nursing home doctor, calms her down. She has heard these anxieties before. She is more alarmed to hear Berenice say she has been refusing her salt pills: “They taste bad.”
Instantly, Teresa switches into doctor mode. No more “Mom”: She calls Berenice by her first name, asking her, imploring her, to give straight answers. Berenice has low blood sodium, which can lead to confusion and even seizures. The pills are there to help.
It was Berenice who instilled in Teresa a passion for medicine. A born storyteller from a big Italian family, Berenice came of age during World War II, serving in the United States Naval Reserve, a women’s-only branch of the military often called “WAVES” for short.
Berenice would go on to raise two children – Teresa and her twin brother – while pursuing a career as a licensed vocational nurse and community journalist. As a child, she had survived a diphtheria epidemic. She had seen the poliovirus come and go. Teresa was determined she would outlive COVID-19 too.
‘I was just so afraid my mother would die’
Back on her porch, Teresa tells her mother she will call her back. A second later, she is on the phone with the nursing home. No need to introduce herself beyond “Berenice’s daughter”: The woman who picks up instantly recognises her. They talk strategy. Mixing the salt pills in yoghurt has not worked. What about apple sauce?
Feeling reassured, Teresa rings her mother again. They talk at least once a day. “She, unlike others, is alert enough to call me when she has a complaint. And sometimes she calls me instead of the nurses,” Teresa explains. They chat about dinner plans. Teresa promises to order her mother a pizza.
Her mother has increasing difficulty dialling phone numbers, though. She relies on the operator to connect her instead. But even that is a blessing, Teresa says. “God help the people who can’t.”
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, nursing homes and other communal living facilities have been particularly hard hit, with the virus spreading more easily in confined spaces. The elderly are especially vulnerable.
But for those living with dementia, the threat comes not only from COVID-19 itself but from the very same practices meant to stop it, like quarantining. The Alzheimer’s Society in the United Kingdom reports that 82 percent of dementia patients surveyed showed deterioration since lockdown measures were put in place. That includes memory loss, difficulty concentrating and increased agitation.
And in the US, between February 1 and October 9 of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 30,248 more dementia-related deaths than average, compared to data from 2015 through 2019.
Experts fear that isolation and lack of supervision, plus an overburdened healthcare system, may be contributing to the excess deaths. “It’s such a mess that we have to rethink how we do this, completely,” Teresa says. “I was just so afraid my mother was going to die.”
The decision Teresa took to place her mother in a nursing home four years ago was not an easy one. Teresa was suffering from complications of rheumatoid arthritis. Her mother was living in her spare room, and she needed constant attention. Left alone, Berenice could wander out onto the street. She could not remember whether it was day or night.
“My husband and I were both exhausted and had no privacy,” Teresa explains. Hired caregivers would come in and out of the house, and Berenice, always the extrovert, loved to be the centre of attention. “If we would try to have a conversation about something else, she would interrupt us.”
As her medical needs grew too great to handle at home, Berenice went to live at the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living. There, Teresa says, her mother had group activities and other outlets to share her outgoing personality. But much of that interaction stopped with the pandemic.
Teresa first found out that visitors were barred when a friend tried to stop by. “He came back on that Friday, on March 10, and said, ‘They won’t let me in. They shut down’. And that was the first I’d heard of it,” she says.
Suddenly, she no longer had a means to check her mother’s condition. And as a doctor-turned-activist, Teresa knew the risks that came with long-term living facilities. Individualised care is key, especially for patients with later-stage dementia. “They never look or act normal. So, you have to know them pretty well to know when they are worse than normal.”
Even before the pandemic, Teresa says it was crucial for families to be as involved as possible in a loved one’s care. “We have a joke in medicine. You write on the physical exam ‘WNL’: within normal limits. But the other abbreviation is: ‘We never looked.’”
Isolation, depression and weight loss
Lawyer Anthony Chicotel is a colleague of Teresa’s at the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. He says the top priority now is increasing visitation rights, for the benefit of both long-term care residents and their families.
“People are dying from COVID-19 who didn’t have the virus. They’re dying because of the response that we had related to COVID-19. It might be the isolation, depression, the weight loss, the lack of supervision and observation that normally these people would have,” Chicotel says. “The lack of family involvement that they would normally have is hurting people and killing some of them, particularly those with dementia.”
Chicotel admits to feeling a certain “impotence” since the pandemic began. He says it has become increasingly difficult to influence healthcare policy.
First, there has been what he calls a “balkanisation” of public health. Normally, Chicotel would concentrate on lobbying state and federal officials. But these days, cities, counties and even individual facilities have their own COVID-19 rules. “It’s been really hard to get a grasp on everything as efficiently as we could in the past.”
Then, there is the idea that governments should stop the virus at any cost – even if it means suspending the rights of individuals in long-term care, Chicotel says.
“I think it is, to some extent, ageism rearing its head,” he explains. “We’re just, as a society, used to telling older people what’s best for them and forcing them to accept it. We just haven’t seen the same kinds of restrictions on childcare, for example, that we’ve seen with elder care.”
Chicotel considers the restrictions “the biggest civil rights tragedy” in the history of long-term care in the US. And he fears it may only get worse, as facilities relax staffing requirements and residents remain cut off from their loved ones.
“Are these policies actually benefitting as much as we thought they would? Probably not. Are they costing more than we thought they would? As time goes along, absolutely they are,” he says.
One outcome Chicotel predicts will be a rise in prescriptions for so-called “chemical restraints” – drugs used to control the behaviour of patients.
With healthcare staff stretched thin during the pandemic, it may be increasingly tempting to use behaviour-altering drugs for convenience rather than necessity – especially, Chicotel says, “with fewer people to notice that mom or dad is constantly sleeping all of a sudden”.
A ‘perfect storm’ of healthcare shortcomings
Ann Kolanowski, a retired professor of nursing and psychiatry at Penn State University, calls what is happening a “perfect storm” of healthcare shortcomings. Many of the issues facing dementia patients have been long-standing, she explains, but the pandemic has brought them into sharp relief.
Nursing homes in particular – where a majority of dementia-related deaths in the US took place even before the pandemic – were shown to have a “terrific lack of sufficient staff, particularly those with infection control expertise,” Kolanowski says.
They also lacked basic personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and their infrastructure proved largely outdated.
Then, there was the rift in priorities. “What COVID brought to light is this tension that we have between infection control using social isolation – because that’s really our major treatment right now – and quality of life. And this tension is huge. It affects the nursing home residents. It affects staff as well as families,” Kolanowski says.
But Kolanowski argues that preventing infection and providing individualised care do not have to be mutually exclusive. It all comes down to educating family members to be part of the care system – and providing adequate resources for staff.
Nursing home workers often contend with low wages that force them to work in multiple long-term care facilities. Staff turnover is high. Add to that meagre, if any, sick leave, and Kolanowski sees a recipe for carrying the virus from facility to facility, “exponentially causing more transmission”.
Many of these employees care deeply for the dementia patients they look after, Kolanowksi says. Their patients’ deaths can feel like a personal loss. “It’s not like a hospital where you have somebody come in and they’re there for a few days, maybe a week, and then they go home. These are people they’ve known for years. So they are like family.”
It is part of a shift in care practices that Kolanowski has seen since she first graduated from college in 1970. Back then, there was little understanding of neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. Nursing homes were modelled on hospitals. Patients were written off as confused or senile.
“We’re not a society that necessarily values older people, and people with dementia in particular,” she says. While Kolanowski admits our understanding of dementia has come a long way since then, she remains concerned that the need for individual care is still being neglected.
Nursing homes in the US, for instance, are not required to have a registered nurse on staff at all times – something Kolanowski believes is crucial “to take care of these complex people who have complex medical needs”.
‘Some people will only eat when a relative feeds them’
“You can’t think about dementia without thinking about caregivers,” says Marina Martin, chief of geriatrics at the Stanford School of Medicine. “Because dementia means you’re going to need caregivers.”
Martin, like many healthcare professionals, has found herself in a bind. There is no substitute for seeing a patient in person, she says. She can check for new wounds, observe how they move, gauge their reactions. But at the same time, going from room to room to see patients simply is not an option with a virus as contagious as COVID-19.
Even the most basic protective equipment has also proved to be a barrier. “When I go to see my patients with significant dementia, they may not understand why I’m wearing all this stuff on my face,” Martin says, referring to the face shield and N95 mask that now form part of her uniform. “So I try to explain it a little bit. But I get more blank looks or quizzical looks than I used to.”
Likewise, patients sometimes forget why they are wearing a mask too. “They might put it on their forehead. I’ve seen all kinds of things,” she says.
Still, for all the difficulties, Martin is confident that healthcare professionals and families can collaborate to keep coronavirus transmission low, while still providing in-person support for dementia.
These patients cannot wait two years for isolation practices to end, Martin says. They need visitation, however limited, now. “Some people really will only eat when their family member feeds them. I have had two patients with that situation in one of the buildings where I work.”
Digital divide another barrier
Esther Oh, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Memory and Alzheimer’s Treatment Center in Baltimore, Maryland, has found telemedicine – remote care through digital services like Zoom – to be promising though, for certain individuals living with dementia.
Ordinarily, she estimates her centre receives 2,500 visits each year. Many of her patients are not in nursing homes but rather in independent living communities or family homes.
“Of course, I used to be a firm believer in in-person visits only,” she says. But when the pandemic started to spread, her methods had to adapt. “We went from 100 percent in-person visits only – we didn’t do any telemedicine – to 100 percent telemedicine from the third week of March.”
The first week, Oh recalls that none of her patients chose to use video conferencing software. They preferred the telephone. Oh suspects the technology was unfamiliar and therefore, scary.
But as time went on, she saw some caregivers and patients embracing video calls. It was more convenient for patients who otherwise had to travel long distances and caregivers who could sometimes spend hours helping a loved one out of bed.
Since the initial stay-at-home orders relaxed, Oh says she is now back to seeing approximately 80 percent of her patients in-person again. But she also continues to offer telemedicine to those who prefer it.
Video conferencing online allows Oh’s patients to see her full face, without a mask, which helps especially when a patient has hearing problems. Plus, they can invite their loved ones to attend their appointments too, as opposed to in-person visits, where only one individual can enter the exam room at a time.
“All their children from out of state can actually Zoom in. So they really like that,” Oh says. “It’s literally a Zoom click away. So sometimes we have four or five faces on the screen.”
Still, it is no silver bullet. Some people living with dementia find video conferencing acutely distressing. And for a certain segment of the population – one that includes both patients and caregivers alike – a digital divide exists: They lack the access to technology that would make video conferencing even possible.
“We just assume everybody has an iPhone or an Android,” Oh says. “Even if you provide somebody with a mobile device, they would have to have a data plan or Wi-Fi and know-how, in terms of how to download Zoom. So it’s actually a really complicated process. When I do webinars now for caregivers, I do wonder who is not there.”
‘This is new. And I’m blaming it on COVID’
Pamela Montana and her husband, Bob Linscheid, of Danville, California, work to represent the voices of those living with dementia and their caregivers. They serve on the Governor’s Task Force on Alzheimer’s Prevention and Preparedness in California.
Their expertise comes from first-hand experience. Montana, 65, was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. Her dementia changed both of their lives.
She first noticed something was wrong while she was at work. Montana had a high-pressure job at Intel, the US technology company, that often required her to multitask. “At Intel, you had to or you wouldn’t make it,” she explains.
But she started to notice at staff meetings that she wasn’t able to absorb what was going on any more. “I had to write down almost every word they said, to let it sink into my brain,” she says. “I cognitively wasn’t grabbing it.”
Linscheid started to observe changes, too. He had known Montana since the 1970s when she was an undergraduate at California’s Chico State University, balancing school with a job manning the copy machine at the student union.
“We hit it off,” Montana recalls, but it was only decades later, when Montana pulled an alumni magazine out of the mailbox with Linscheid’s face on it, that they reconnected. They got married in 2012.
Since then, they have made annual trips to Hawaii in December. But one year, as they drove back to their getaway home to take a conference call, Linscheid noticed Montana seemed disoriented. She kept asking what was happening.
“I pulled over the car, and I said, ‘Do you realise this is the third time you’ve asked me this question?’ And with a straight, solemn face, she said ‘No’,” Linscheid says.
Back in California, it was a struggle to get Montana diagnosed. She would pass the cognitive assessments doctors gave her, but then forget, for example, where she went to school for her master’s degree.
“If I hadn’t forgotten that, I don’t know if I would have been diagnosed even now,” she says. Linscheid, meanwhile, had grown frustrated that Montana’s doctor was not taking her condition seriously. “It didn’t seem to be that urgent to her.”
Those kinds of experiences fuelled their work as advocates. Nowadays, they sometimes find themselves on panels with scientists and politicians, representing the relationship between patients and caregivers.
Even for those with relatively mild cognitive impairment, like Montana, the COVID-19 pandemic has had serious consequences. “Bob could probably do a much better job explaining how my short-term memory is, but it is pretty much almost non-existent,” she says. “This is new. And I’m blaming this on COVID.”
She used to organise her calendar around lunch dates, dinner plans and coffee. “I am – as you already know – super chatty,” she laughs. All the interaction she had built her life around ground to a halt in March. And phone calls, for her, can be exhausting. “I feel like I lost my freedom in some ways.”
These days, Montana finds herself picking up her phone to text someone, only to forget who and what she was texting. Every day, she will walk into a room and wonder what she is doing there. “Six months ago, I wasn’t doing that,” she says. “It just hit me hard.”
Linscheid, too, has remarked that her energy waned as social distancing has dragged on. There was one occasion when Montana did not get out of bed all day.
He says he checks in on her constantly, at least 10 times a day – something that is possible because the former president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce left his job there after her diagnosis. Unlike many families, they say they had the financial wherewithal to cover medical costs, while Linscheid pursued a more flexible career. He estimates he lost $60,000 to $70,000 of earned income before he was able to settle into his new work.
These days, Montana fills her time knitting and watching TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy – even though she has seen it four or five times, she laughs. And then every Friday, she logs onto a virtual Alzheimer’s support group to meet with others isolated during the pandemic.
Some of her friends there are older than her and doing fine. Others are younger and suffering more. The lesson, she says, is that “everybody’s Alzheimer’s is different”.
“The words I get sometimes are, ‘Well, you look great.’ I just want to punch them. Because yeah, I do look great. I moisturise and I dye my hair, otherwise it’d be grey. I take good care of myself the best that I can.”
This, she likes to say, is what Alzheimer’s looks like too. And even though you may not see it, the pandemic is exacting its toll.
The vicious cycle of never-ending laundry
Hating laundry is not rational, but I do. Laundry has never been easier; to give a serviceable performance requires minimal labor and even less skill. We have not only washers now but dryers, soaps that whiten whites and brighten brights, wardrobes of machine-washable clothes. According to the Census Bureau’s 2020 American Housing Survey, more than 85 percent of Americans can do it without leaving the house. Yet despite all of technology’s best efforts, the problem still exists. There is always more laundry.
This is not for lack of trying. We have been doing what is recognizable as modern laundry — using soap and water to make what was dirty clean — for 200 years now. We have outsourced it and insourced it and mechanized it and developed apps for it, but while we have made it easier, we have not made it less. Like so many basic functions of life maintenance — eating, showering, cleaning, sleeping — laundry has yet to be hacked out of existence. But what makes laundry special is that it has also not improved.
Laundry defies the rules of lifestyle innovation and the promises of capitalism. In the years after World War II, automatic washing machines and accompanying in-home dryers became suburban household staples, and laundry now looks more or less as it did then. It has not been elevated to the status of a wholesome “hobby” (cooking), nor has it been successfully captured by the wellness market (washing your face). Laundry is instead an intractable condition. And if we are in a multi-decade stalemate, the only option is to change ourselves.
It wasn’t always like this. There was a time before laundry, although it was less romantic than one might hope. Until the 19th century, most outerwear, made from wool, leather, or felt, couldn’t be washed, and while linen underlayers could, they often weren’t, explains Suellen Hoy in her history of cleanliness. It wasn’t until cotton became the fabric of our lives — in part because it was so easy to clean — that American women entered the era of perpetual washing.
“This development was no doubt viewed as an improvement by many people,” writes technology historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan in her landmark analysis More Work for Mother — one imagines it certainly improved how many people smelled — but it also introduced the nation’s women to yet another chore. Nineteenth-century laundry was performed and dreaded weekly. Historian Susan Strasser points to the diaries of one Nevada woman who, in 1867, called laundering “the Herculean task which women all dread” and “the great domestic dread of the household.”
The descriptions of this process defy nostalgia: Sort the clothes, and soak them overnight in separate tubs. In the morning, drain that water, and then pour “hot suds” over the “finest clothes.” Rub each item against a washboard. Wring out each item, and “rub soap on the most soiled spots, then cover them with water in the boiler on the stove and ‘boil them up.’” Repeat with plain water. Wring. Rinse with bluing (a trace of blue dye to restore whites to optimal whiteness). Wring. Dip items in need of starching in starch, and wring again. Hang dry. Start again. Generally, this would take place on Monday, conveniently freeing up Tuesday for intensive ironing.
Presumably, at least one 19th-century contrarian must have enjoyed this process — there is always one — but it was mostly loathed and whenever possible avoided. “From all available evidence — how-to manuals, budget studies of poor people’s households, diaries,” Strasser observes, “it appears that women jettisoned laundry, their most hated task, whenever they had any discretionary money at all.”
To know how a society feels about a task, you only have to look at who gets the honor of performing it. In the South, enslaved and then free Black women. In the North, often young, unmarried immigrants. Whenever possible, it was delegated to laundresses, or outsourced to commercial laundries, and by the end of the century, the majority of American households had at least some of their washing done by someone else.
There is an alternative version of history where laundry left the home and stayed out — most of us don’t mill our own flour, for example, or churn our butter, or bake our bread, and when we need or want new clothing, we buy it at the store. But commercial laundries peaked in the 1920s. Then laundry came crawling back, thanks to the rise of the electric washing machine. The promise of the electric washer was that it did the hard labor of scrubbing for you, although you’d still have to fill it, empty it, and wring out the wet wash.
The promise of the automatic washing machine, which first hit the market in the late 1930s, was that it did everything. But rather than cut down on laundry, that ease created more. “Modern labor-saving devices eliminated drudgery, not labor,” argues Cowan, noting that as laundry has gotten easier, our standards for cleanliness have only gone up. Because it is more manageable, you’re expected to do it all the time. “You are doing much more laundry than your grandmother did.”
“I always think about the change that came with the advent of electricity,” says Jessamyn Neuhaus, a history professor at SUNY Plattsburgh and the author of Housework and Housewives in Modern American Advertising: Married to the Mop. “Electricity could ease the burden of women keeping house, but also when they turned on those electric lights, a lot of people were like, ‘Shit, my house is so dirty.’” So it is with laundry: It is so easy now to turn a dial and toss in a capful of detergent that what excuse is there for stains?
As any number of advertisements will confirm, the answer is: none. There is no excuse, only danger, and for the better part of the past century, detergent brands have been busy warning potential customers about the perils of being inadequately clean. Advertisers did not invent these anxieties — they only seized upon them — but the result is real-time documentation of America’s social fears.
Early laundry ads make it very clear that laundry is the responsibility of the housewife, Neuhaus writes, and there are so many ways for her to fail. For example: hiring help. “Table linen can be hopelessly ruined by an incompetent laundress,” warned a Borax ad from the late 1800s. A 1918 ad for Lux suds urged women: “Don’t hate the laundress! She has no grudge against your filmy things. She doesn’t want to ruin them. She’s simply keeping on washing them in the only way she knows.” Laundry, the ads suggest, is too intimate to be outsourced, never mind the many years it had been. No one cares like you do. Good help is hard to find.
And there were racist health concerns. Just as white commercial laundry owners had attacked competing Chinese laundries for being, as one scholar puts it, “filthy places where various diseases were likely rampant,” some late-19th-century publicity campaigns suggested that laundry should not cross racial lines, says Emily Westkaemper, a professor at James Madison University focused on US women’s history.
It was a convenient anxiety. In post-Civil War Atlanta, for example, where Black women often took on washing work as an alternative to domestic servitude, “there would be publicity campaigns: If you’re sending your laundry out of the home, and these predominantly minority women are doing it, there are these supposed ‘health risks’ that might result in exposure to disease.” It was, Westkaemper points out, a concerted effort to deny African American women jobs that would give them autonomy, cloaked in the language of public health.
The more possible laundry was, the more it became necessary. Proper washing could fend off germs, protecting families from the contaminants of the outside world, but increasingly, at least based on the advertising, the threat was coming from within. “She has ‘IT’ — but not what you think,” sighs a 1933 Lux ad, explaining that, despite her natural beauty, “she” never gets a second dance and will likely die alone, on account of body odor. It was an act of love, the ads said, and specifically an act of maternal love. “My mommy does laundry one, two, three, four, a million times a week!” proclaims a 1958 commercial child, explaining her mother’s allegiance to Rinso Blue. The archetype persists. “The image of Mom taking care of her family still seems to be working,” Neuhaus says. “As a culture, we’ve kind of settled on that as our impossible-to-obtain ideal.”
Other vestiges of nuclear-era housework have been elevated to new and extremely photogenic heights. The reclaimed, not-your-grandma’s domesticity of the mid- to late aughts has been replaced by a steady stream of aspirational content about women organizing closets. The trouble with laundry, though, is that we never successfully figured out how to lose it in the first place. Domestic projects can become quaint hobbies only once they’re optional. Knitting is fun because you rarely have to do it. Many, if not most, home gardeners could alternatively buy basil at the grocery store. But in the case of laundry, there are no alternatives. Laundry is forever. “The fact is,” Neuhaus says, “we do have to wash our clothes.”
In the face of drudgery, there are generally two options: You can either overhaul the experience and remove the drudge, or you can rebrand it as an act of personal indulgence. In the first category: TaskRabbit (the drudge of chores); Instacart (the drudge of buying groceries); Seamless (the drudge of ordering takeout by speaking to another person); Blue Apron (the drudge of kitchen measurements); Billie (the drudge of remembering to buy and replace razors).
The second category is harder to define. It is organizing all your books by color. It is everything at the Container Store. It is Dyson vacuum cleaners, status dish soaps, and artisanal brooms. It is a never-ending roster of products that promise to transform the oppressive mundanity of personal maintenance into a minor luxury. It is the difference between washing your face and practicing a “skin care routine.”
In 2013, a laundry startup called Washio launched in San Francisco, the value proposition being that doing laundry is unpleasant, and wouldn’t it be nice to press some buttons on your phone to summon someone who could do it for you? Washio was not alone in its assessment: In major cities across the country, other VC-funded laundry startups — FlyCleaners, Brinkmat, Cleanly, and Rinse — were racing to dominate the techno-laundry market, like Uber but for dirty clothes. “When people in a privileged society look deep within themselves to find what is missing,” quipped Jessica Pressler in her profile of Washio, “a streamlined clothes-cleaning experience comes up a lot.” You might think this means that we could find it, but like reliable printers or consistently responsive Siri, it remains forever out of reach.
Washio failed. Then FlyCleaners laid off its staff. Cleanly merged with a boutique dry cleaner to “vertically integrate” but seems to be having some trouble lately keeping track of people’s clothes. The tenuous promise of laundry robots is yet unrealized. Laundry remains remarkably undisrupted.
Certainly, it is possible to outsource the misery of washing — it would arguably be more efficient — but in the United States, in practice, sending out our laundry simply isn’t something we do. (There are, of course, exceptions: the very wealthy, city dwellers devoted to their drop-off wash-and-folds.) For the most part, though, we are, in this one case, a DIY society.
If slick on-demand services cannot make laundry frictionless, then there is only one move left: to turn that friction into pleasure. The basic laundry process may not have changed much since the mass introduction of the automatic washer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t elevate the Laundry Experience. “The laundry room, once the dull afterthought of the home, has gone upstairs and upscale,” declared the Chicago Tribune in 2003. In fact, the pinnacle of laundry spaces were not “rooms” at all: “These days, think laundry ‘center’ or ‘family studio,’ the term Whirlpool favors for its clothes-care system, which includes a ‘sink spa,’ ‘ironing station,’ ‘drying cabinet’ and Personal Valet ‘clothes vitalizing’ system,” urged the Tribune. “Think fine, custom-built cabinetry to hold the laundry soap. Wait! Don’t think laundry soap at all: You’ll be wanting ‘Spa Treatment’ laundry detergents with aromatherapy scents, and don’t forget the $17.50 fabric softener from Williams-Sonoma or the $10 linen spray from Caldrea.”
According to Caldrea’s founder, a very stressed-out generation was discovering that, with the right pear-blossom-agave-scented products, laid out on gleaming granite countertops, the tedium of laundry could take on certain “meditative” qualities. What it offers goes beyond cleanliness: Luxury laundry wants to be a retreat from the chaos of the world.
Perhaps the biggest name in high-end laundry is the Laundress, which sells 85 hyper-specific cleaning products, packaged with understated, old-moneyed elegance. When, last year, the company was acquired by Unilever, co-founders Lindsey Boyd and Gwen Whiting were clear about the reason for their success. “We turn everyday chores into a luxurious experience,” Boyd told Forbes. “Our fundamental premise was that you don’t need to send your clothes to the dry cleaners,” Whiting explained in Fast Company. “We focused on creating different formulas for different types of fabric, which was different from many detergents that have a one-size-fits-all approach.” To maximize your laundering experience, you needed to spend more time on laundry, not less.
The Laundress has an eco-friendly product for every situation: There is a specialized delicates detergent, yes, but also a sport detergent, a denim wash, a wool and cashmere shampoo, a stain solution, a fabric conditioner, a bleach alternative, and an “aprés laundry cream” (for hands).
In one obvious sense, the luxification of laundry — elevated by becoming more time-consuming and expensive — is a sinister exercise in excess. “It’s all about how much money you have to spend on yourself and on your consumer goods,” Neuhaus notes, quite reasonably. But there is also something perversely radical — craven, perhaps, but also radical — about a $20 bottle of highly specialized detergent. It suggests that laundry, archetypical women’s work, underpaid and undervalued, is in fact a worthwhile way to spend your time.
I like this idea, in theory, and in practice, $20 is a lot and I still hate laundry. Here is my laundry experience: I gather my clothes and sort them. I put them in a bag. I take the bag to the laundromat, where I put the contents in high-powered machines. I add an unscented eco-detergent pod. I push buttons. I wait. I like to use this opportunity to stare blankly at my phone. Laundry requires so little, and I despise it so much. It is possible I might feel differently if I had my own in-home washer, as most Americans do, but then again, there is strong evidence I might not.
“It’s time-consuming, unceasing, and there is so very much that can go wrong,” wrote professional Clean Person Jolie Kerr at the New York Times. Lifehacker called it “the world’s most boring chore.” On Etsy, craft platform and societal mirror, there is a whole cottage industry of anti-laundry merch in bridesmaid font: “Laundry Sucks,” reads one sign, presumably meant for a laundry room. “Fluff, Fold, Fuck This.”
It is difficult to find reputable data on people’s least favorite chores, but according to a survey from a company selling “shelf liners,” Americans rank it somewhere above “organizing the garage” but below “pitching empty shampoo bottles.” “There’s no creative element to it whatsoever,” says Kate Haulman, an associate history professor at American University who studies gender history, affirming my feelings. It’s “invisible, until it’s not done,” at which point it becomes a moral failing. In the game of laundry, you can only lose.
In the interest of fair representation, we have to acknowledge that laundry enthusiasts do exist and walk among us. Moreover, it is possible that in some sense, they are right. “Everyone, no matter how rich or poor or domestically uninclined, can not only benefit from acquiring laundry skills and learning about fabrics but will also find considerable satisfaction in doing so,” writes Cheryl Mendelson in her staggeringly exhaustive treatise on the many nuances of laundering, 400 pages, titled, accurately, Laundry. To invest in laundering as a skill to be developed, rather than an ordeal to be tolerated with as little thought as possible, “helps to reawaken us to the part of the world that we experience most intimately.”
“I am not exaggerating when I say that I love taking care of my clothes,” says Elizabeth Cline, whose most recent book, The Conscious Closet, positions thoughtful laundering as one tenet of an ethical wardrobe. “I love figuring out how to remove a challenging stain. It’s satisfying to have that knowledge. It’s satisfying to understand fibers and clothing enough to be able to keep them going.” Treating laundry as an experience best forgotten immediately, like childbirth, is in her view to rob ourselves of “all of these incredibly gratifying points of connection to our clothes.”
Neither she nor Mendelson is arguing that we should be spending more time on laundry. We are spending so much time already! What they are instead prescribing is a fundamental shift in attitude: To embrace laundry requires finding pleasure in maintenance, to revel in the joy of keeping things exactly as they were.
I understand. I agree. It has yet to help. “Fluff, Fold, Fuck This,” I think, again. No matter what you do to laundry, some basic truths remain. “You’re still carting it around,” says Haulman. “You still have to fold it. It retains, I think, that vibe of drudgery.” Even the act of laundering creates laundry, if you wear clothes while you’re doing it. There is no single moment when all possible laundry is done.
The problem with modern laundry is not that it is taxing, physically, but that it is hopeless, existentially. It is a constant losing battle, you and your gross body versus the steady march of decay. You wear clothes, and then you wash them, and in the absolute best-case scenario, you manage to erase the evidence that you were ever there. It will work until it doesn’t. Eventually, through time or user error, the fabrics will disintegrate. Someday, somewhere, you will do your final load. But the laundry will continue. It always does.
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How South Carolina became one of 2020’s most unexpected Senate battlegrounds
South Carolina is the Senate battleground that no one saw coming.
In a state where no Democrat has won a Senate seat for more than two decades, former South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison has fielded an incredibly strong challenge to incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham, a high-profile Trump ally. Although early polling had Harrison lagging Graham by as much as 17 percentage points in February, recent surveys have the two lawmakers in a statistical tie.
The support he’s gotten has surprised many — including Harrison himself.
“I’m amazed by it,” he told Vox. “I got into this race because I knew I had a shot, but not in my wildest dreams did I imagine a campaign growing like this campaign has grown.”
Longtime South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), whom Harrison previously worked for as a congressional staffer, has echoed this sentiment. “Not a single soul alive believed when he announced for the Senate that he would be sitting here 30 days out, 48-48,” Clyburn said in an early October interview with Politico.
By raising a staggering amount of money, and positioning himself as a moderate with close ties to the state, Harrison has been able to garner strong support from Democrats and independents, as well as a sliver of moderate Republicans. And now Graham faces one of the closest races of his political career.
Graham has acknowledged this by making appeals for donations during several Fox News appearances, and campaign spokesperson T.W. Arrighi seemed to project a mixture of optimism and realism in a statement to Vox: “Make no mistake — our internal polling has us on track for a victory in November, but Senator Graham is fighting for every vote as he never takes anything for granted.”
Overall, the contest between Harrison and Graham could hinge on voters who split their ticket between the presidential and Senate races. President Donald Trump is still expected to win in South Carolina — even if it’s by much narrower margins than he did in 2016, when he was ahead by 15 points. This means some Trump voters would likely need to defect from Graham — in favor of either Democrats or a third-party candidate — for Harrison to edge out the longtime Republican lawmaker.
That scenario, Winthrop University pollster Scott Huffmon says, is “Harrison’s narrow path on a Nepalese cliff.”
How Harrison closed a double-digit polling gap, briefly explained
Harrison’s strength as a candidate and his ties with national Democrats (he’s an associate chair of the Democratic National Committee) are among the factors that have helped him launch a robust campaign that’s attracted millions in donations from both inside and outside the state. As of September, Harrison had raised $85 million compared to Graham’s $58 million, and that advantage has translated to a huge presence on television and in digital advertising.
Harrison’s massive fundraising haul has been critical in establishing him as a formidable challenger in part because it has allowed him to quickly go from being less well-known to having wide name recognition across the state.
“Jaime Harrison has done what no Democratic candidate has successfully been able to do, and that is raise enough money to take the fight to Lindsey Graham in every part of South Carolina,” says Anton Gunn, a strategist and former state political director for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Harrison tells Vox this support has been driven by grassroots energy. “We have gotten thousands of volunteers, I think we’re on [14,000] or 15,000 people who signed up to volunteer for our campaign. We’ve gotten well over a million contributions,” he said. As the Guardian reported, both Harrison’s and Graham’s campaigns have seen a high proportion of their contributions coming from out of state.
Experts also note that Harrison began putting out advertising early in the year — months before Graham began mounting a comparable effort on the air — enabling him to introduce himself to voters by focusing on his background, family, and values. Throughout his campaign, Harrison’s messaging has emphasized his ties to South Carolina and policies that relate to the state, like rural broadband access, rather than his partisan affiliation or opposition to Trump. A native South Carolinian who grew up in Orangeburg with a single mother, Harrison frequently talks about his personal connection to the state.
He’s also taken more moderate positions broadly, shying away from support for Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal and noting that he wouldn’t back eliminating the filibuster, for now. “It’s about opening a Pandora’s box, and the question is, there may be short-term political gains, but are we comfortable with long term repercussions for that?” he said.
As the focus on health care has grown during the pandemic, Harrison has instead emphasized the need for Medicaid expansion. Graham, meanwhile, has continued to oppose the Affordable Care Act and has said he would prefer a system that involved block grants to states, which he says would give South Carolina more flexibility.
Because of the effects of the coronavirus, health care is a top issue for many voters. “The Trump administration’s failure to address Covid-19 early and emphatically weighs on the minds of far too many South Carolinians.” said Democratic strategist Lauren Harper, who’s also the spokesperson for the Lindsey Must Go super PAC. “That failure has exacerbated the need for quality and affordable health care here in our state.”
Broadly, in his messaging, Graham has characterized Harrison as being tied to the “far left,” while emphasizing his own commitment to what he has referred to as “law and order.” The senator has made it clear that he opposes criminal justice reforms like defunding the police (which Harrison has also said he’s against). And Graham has argued that he not only has strong connections to the state but has brought South Carolina federal funding for projects like the development of the Port of Charleston.
Harrison has been able to counter Graham’s campaign rhetoric so successfully, according to Furman University political science professor Danielle Vinson, because his ideological positioning and personal story make him an “ideal Democratic candidate for South Carolina.”
“He’s not too far left; he knows the state really well having been the South Carolina Democratic Party chair,” Vinson says.
The coalition of voters Harrison needs include independents, moderate Republicans, and ticket splitters
Because of the political stance he’s taken, Harrison has been able to connect with Democrats as well as a strong segment of independents and a small group of moderate Republicans who are likely turning away from President Donald Trump. To win, he’ll need massive turnout from Democratic base voters — including the Black voters who comprise 60 percent of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina.
Per a September Quinnipiac poll of the state, Harrison has the backing of 97 percent of Democrats, 54 percent of independents, and 5 percent of Republicans. Gunn estimates that the state usually falls 55-45 in favor of Republicans, so securing GOP voters — especially moderate Republican women who may be moving away from both Trump and Graham — is vital for Harrison. Concerns about the president’s handling of the pandemic, as well as his rhetoric, are among the factors turning these voters toward Democratic candidates.
Cook Political Report’s Jessica Taylor has noted, too, that Democratic candidates for federal office have historically capped out at 48 percent of the vote in South Carolina, meaning eking out even an improvement of a few percentage points among swing voters could secure the race for Harrison.
There are some other trends in the state that could raise that 48 percent cap Democrats have struggled to surpass in the past. Among them is an influx of new residents who have moved from other left-leaning places. “New folks from other parts of the country that tend to be a little more blue are moving to South Carolina,” says College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts. “That’s been something that Democrats have been able to tap into.”
In addition to garnering the support of all these groups, Harrison will also have to convince some Republicans who are still aligned with Trump to break with Graham and split their ticket.
It’s unclear how Graham’s weakness with conservative voters will affect the race
One of the biggest variables in the race is the bloc of conservative voters who support Trump but still aren’t that excited about Graham.
Graham — like Republicans in some of the other contested races — is feeling the pressure from both wings of the GOP. On the conservative side, there are voters who think he still doesn’t back Trump enough, despite his staunch defenses of the president’s controversial Supreme Court nominees: first during a fiery moment in Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings in 2018, and more recently in the hearings for nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
Graham, before Trump’s election, had been viewed as a more moderate figure in the Senate who aligned himself closely with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), which many conservatives in the state weren’t happy about. “Five years ago, certain elements of the Republican Party were burning him in effigy because of his affiliation with McCain,” says Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist who’s also an adviser for the Lincoln Project.
There’s a question of whether these conservative voters’ concerns with Graham are still so strong that they’ll split their ticket: If they do, experts think a small fraction could vote for third-party for Constitution Party candidate Bill Bledsoe, though they’re less likely to cross over to Democrats.
“I don’t think there will be a lot of people who will vote for Trump and not Graham,” says Felkel. “I think there are some former Tea Party members — now Trump enthusiasts — who might choose to vote third party, but I don’t think there will be a lot of them.”
Concerned that support for him would lead to Harrison winning the election, Bledsoe dropped out of the race in early October and endorsed Graham, saying, “President Trump has asked that conservatives stand together and reelect Lindsey Graham in order to help make America great again, and I agree.”
But because his exit came so late, Bledsoe’s name will still appear on the ballot. Harrison, hoping to take advantage of this fact, has recently put out advertising aimed at swaying this segment of conservative voters in favor of Bledsoe, including digital ads arguing that he is “too conservative” for South Carolina. Given how close the Senate race has shaped up to be, any narrow gains made from this strategy could potentially be decisive.
Graham has tried to avoid this scenario himself by shoring up his conservative bona fides, and proving his closeness to Trump — most recently playing a prominent role in the advancement of Barrett’s nomination, which is a top priority for the president and many Republican voters.
And, in fact, Arrighi, Graham’s spokesperson, highlighted Graham’s push to seat Barrett as one of his key achievements, saying, “Senator Graham is fighting for South Carolina, helping families and businesses get through the pandemic, and working to ensure a conservative Supreme Court with Judge Amy Coney Barrett as the newest member.”
Barrett’s confirmation process, too, has highlighted the role a Republican majority plays in the Senate. If Republicans were to keep their majority, they’d be able to obstruct Democratic bills in a potential Biden administration, and continue advancing judges in a Trump administration. This could be a reason that some conservative voters ultimately back Graham, even if they don’t fully agree with his record.
With just a few weeks to go, this race is poised to be close to the very end. “I think it’s going to be razor-thin margins,” said Gunn. “It’s not going to be a blowout either way.”
The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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