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April 16, 2020

Fighting for Life (with Wes Moore & David Lat)

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On this week’s special episode of Stay Tuned, Preet is joined by two guests.

Wes Moore is the CEO of Robin Hood NYC, a New York City-based antipoverty philanthropic organization. Moore is also a Rhodes Scholar, combat veteran, social entrepreneur, and bestselling author. In the midst of coronavirus, Robin Hood is at the forefront of relief efforts focused on aiding society’s most vulnerable.

David Lat is a Managing Director at the recruiting firm Lateral Link and the founder of the iconic legal blog Above the Law. Last month, Lat spent almost a week on a ventilator after falling extremely sick with COVID-19. Thankfully, Lat is now on the road to recovery and has been sharing his story and his larger reflections on the pandemic on social media, television, and in powerful opinion pieces in major newspapers. Lat–a healthy and energetic 44-year-old–has used his harrowing journey with coronavirus to remind us of our collective risk and to highlight the selfless work of frontline healthcare professionals.

To listen to Stay Tuned bonus content, become a member of CAFE Insider. Sign up to receive the CAFE Brief, a weekly newsletter featuring analysis of politically charged legal news, and updates from Preet.

And if you haven’t already, listen to this week’s full episode of the CAFE Insider podcast for free in the Stay Tuned feed.

As always, tweet your questions to @PreetBharara with hashtag #askpreet, email us at [email protected], or call 669-247-7338 to leave a voicemail.

REFERENCES & SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS

WES MOORE

  • Robin Hood NYC COVID-19 Relief Fund
  • Robin Hood & Columbia University’s Poverty Tracker: The State of Poverty and Disadvantage in New York City (February 2020)
  • The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two FatesSpiegel & Grau (2011)
  • Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American CityOne World (2020)

Poverty in America: 

  • “How the Census Bureau Measures Poverty,” US Census Bureau, last revised: 8/27/19
  • “How is Poverty Measured?,” Institute for Research on Poverty 
  • “The official U.S. poverty rate is based on a hopelessly out-of-date metric,” Washington Post, 9/16/19
  • Rourke L. O’Brien & David S. Pedulla, “Beyond the Poverty Line,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2010
  • Annie Nova, “Many Americans who can’t afford a $400 emergency blame debt,” CNBC, 7/21/29
  • Tracy Jan, “Redlining was banned 50 years ago. It’s still hurting minorities today,” Washington Post, 3/28/18
  • Pam Fessler, “One Family’s Story Shows How The Cycle Of Poverty is Hard to Break,” National Public Radio, 5/7/14

Covid-19 Impact on Vulnerable:

  • Reis Thebault, Andrew Ba Tran, and Vanessa Williams, “The coronavirus is infecting and killing black Americans at an alarmingly high rate,” Washington Post, 4/7/20
  • “What the Racial Data Show,” The Atlantic, 4/6/20
  • Anthony Fisher, “Trump and the government are failing the nonprofits that help the homeless, elderly, and other vulnerable Americans,” Business Insider, 3/18/20
  • Matt Apuzzo and Monika Pronczuk, “Covid-19’s Economic Pain is Universal. But Relief? Depends on Where You Live,” New York Times, 3/23/20

DAVID LAT

Coronavirus Journey 

  • David Lat, “I spent six days on a ventilator with covid-19. It saved me, but my life is not the same,” Washington Post, 4/9/20
  • David Lat, thread on recovery, Twitter, 4/8/20
  • David Lat, thread on being a good patient, Twitter, 3/31/20
  • David Lat, thread on text messaging, Twitter, 4/8/20
  • David Lat, thread on obituaries, Twitter, 4/1/20
  • Caroline Lewis, “‘I Have A Greater Appreciation For Life’: David Lat On His Coronavirus Hospitalization & Recovery,” Gothamist, 4/13/20
  • Lat with Jim Sciutto, CNN, 4/10/20
  • Lat and his husband, Zachary Baron Shemtob, with Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, 4/6/20
  • Lat and Shemtob with Savannah Guthrie, Today Show, 4/6/20

COVID and Society

  • Karen Heller, “The recovered: How it feels to be alive on the other side of the pandemic,” Washington Post, 4/15/20
  • Jennifer Senior, “The One Kind of Distancing We Can’t Afford,” New York Times, 4/12/20
  • Sinéad Baker, “80% of NYC’s coronavirus patients who are put on ventilators ultimately die, and some doctors are trying to stop using them,” Business Insider, 4/9/20
  • Alana Wise, “Trump Falsely Claimed ‘Total’ Authority Over States — Now He’s Backpedaling,” NPR, 4/14/20
  • Elyse Samuels and Meg Kelly, “How false hope spread about hydroxychloroquine to treat covid-19 — and the consequences that followed,” Washington Post, 4/13/20
  • Elizabeth Cohn, “Prominent scientists have bad news for the White House about coronavirus antibody tests,” CNN International, 4/15/20

Lat and the Law

  • George Conway and David Lat, “Don’t like the Wisconsin election mess? Don’t blame the courts,” Washington Post, 4/11/20
  • Jonathan Miller, “He Fought the Law. They Both Won,” New York Times, 1/22/06
  • David Lat, “A Departure Memo, from David Lat,” Above the Law, 5/6/19

Preet Bharara:

From CAFE, welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.

Wes Moore:

This is not just about a virus. This is about an equity. This is not just about an illness, it’s about economic injustice and we cannot pretend like these two things don’t exist simultaneously and show themselves simultaneously as well.

Preet Bharara:

That’s Wes Moore. He’s the CEO of Robin Hood, a New York city based philanthropic organization dedicated to fighting poverty. Founded in the 1980s, Robin Hood funds community organizations that provide essential services like food banks and shelters. It also invests in nonprofits that aim to combat economic inequality through job training and education. Moore is the first to admit that while philanthropy can play an important role in the movement to eradicate poverty, it’s not the solution to this systemic problem.

Preet Bharara:

We talk about the expanding definition of America’s poor where government efforts to provide relief fall short and how COVID-19 has revealed that many Americans are a lot more vulnerable than we thought. Then we’re joined by David Lat, the founder of the legal blog, Above the Law and a Managing Director at the Recruiting Firm Lateral Link.

Preet Bharara:

Last month, Lat was intubated for almost a week after he became extremely ill with COVID-19. He’s thankfully on the road to recovery and talks with us from his parents’ house where he is recuperating with his husband and young son. Lat and I discuss his harrowing experience with coronavirus and the ways that his life has changed since he got sick. He also shares his advice on how to be a good patient and how to honor the selfless medical professionals at the front lines of this pandemic. That’s coming up, stay tuned.

Preet Bharara:

Hey, Stay Tuned listeners. If you haven’t already, make sure to listen to this week’s episode of the CAFE Insider Podcast. The full conversation is available for free in the Stay Tuned Podcast feed. My co-host Anne Milgram and I get into who has the authority to do what during this public health crisis, COVID-19’s impact on the election, and what the constitution advises on the question of presidential succession.

Preet Bharara:

We also talked about contact tracing and the concerns it raises about privacy. Normally we sample portions of our conversation, but this week we made the full episode available for free and this time it’s in the Stay Tuned Podcast feed. If you haven’t already, check it out and write to us with your thoughts at [email protected] As always, be well, be kind, and be safe.

Preet Bharara:

This week I’m joined by two guests, Wes Moore and David Lat. Moore is the CEO of antipoverty organization, Robin Hood, a road scholar, combat veteran, social entrepreneur, former White House fellow, and bestselling author. His 2010 book, The Other Wes Moore, is a thoughtful meditation on the life changing power of opportunity and mentorship. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Robin Hood is at the forefront of widespread relief efforts aimed at helping the most vulnerable in New York city. We talk about whether meritocracy is a myth in America, how to dispel misconceptions about the impoverished, and whether our government has advocated one of its essential responsibilities. That’s next, stay tuned.

Preet Bharara:

Wes Moore, thank you so much for being on the show.

Wes Moore:

It’s awesome, my pleasure. Great. Great to talk to you.

Preet Bharara:

I got to ask you the same question I ask everybody these days before we get to all the other stuff we want to talk about. How are you, how’s your family? How are you making out?

Wes Moore:

Oh man. Then, thank you for leading with that. We’re doing all right. I think my immediate family, I’m thankful because everybody is healthy abiding by our social distancing guidelines and that seems to be at least health wise and working pretty well for some of my extended family and obviously some people who are not necessarily blood-related, but I very much consider family on this planet. It’s been harder and I think for a lot of people it’s both the hard in terms of the physical impacts. But also, I think it’s hard just in terms of the mental health, the asking people to adapt in many ways.

Wes Moore:

Also, I think seeing how this thing plays itself out, it’s being so focused and so hardened that I think we all understand and that we’re in for a long fight here.

Preet Bharara:

Let me ask you about work. So we’re going to get into a lot of your work and how you’re helping people out as the CEO of Robin Hood. But before we get into that, how is that going during this pandemic?

Wes Moore:

I mean, we’re in a very fortunate position in the fact that about three weeks ago, I had our offices closed and initially we did it just as a test to see could we actually do all of our work if we had to move to a remote status? We’re thankful that the answer is yes. We’ve been able to move organizationally with a speed and a level of deliberateness that has just been really impressive by being able to have everyone even though we’re distant, being able to stay very close.

Wes Moore:

I think about the work that we’re able to do now and frankly as an organization, we’re moving at a clip and at a speed that even though we’re one of the largest nonprofits focusing on antipoverty work in the country, that we’re moving in a clip and a speed that’s pretty unprecedented in the organization. So we’re thankful for that. But I think even as an organization, particularly this New York based, it’s impossible to separate yourself from the fact that New York is still very much the epicenter of this crisis and the impacts that we’re seeing in New York and around the country, but specifically New York have just been absolutely devastating.

Wes Moore:

So we’re thankful that the team continues to move and move well and at the same time, an understanding of what the nature of this virus and of this illness sits on everybody too.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah. Okay. So let’s talk about Robin Hood. So what does that mean? You go around stealing from the rich and giving to the poor? Do I have that right? Isn’t that what Robin Hood did?

Wes Moore:

That’s around a data. Our focus is we make sure that people understand that poverty is everybody’s issue. This is something that we all have to focus on. The level of economic inequality that we have in our society is something that should keep everyone up and we need to be able to use every tool to be able to fight it. Robin Hood now is 32 years old. Started off as an organization initially making about $40,000 worth of grants where some of the initial founders, most of them were in the area of finance.

Wes Moore:

We’re basically saying, and they made a bet to say, “We think that the economy was going to take a hit in 1988,” which it did. But they also said, “But you know who this year is really going to be hard on? It’s really going to be hard on people who were already living in poverty.” They started initially making about $40,000 worth of grants to initially three different organizations within New York.

Wes Moore:

Now Robin Hood has made north of $3 billion of investments in the poverty fight and investing everything from education to housing, to physical and mental health, to early childhood, to justice reform, to job training programs. Everywhere where poverty is either the cause or the consequence are places that we will leverage dollars and leverage influence to be able to try to address. We have over 300 organizations in New York city alone that we fund community organizations focusing on all those vast areas.

Wes Moore:

That’s really kind of where the origins of this fight started from, the ability to use data and metrics to be able to identify who we thought were some of the both qualifiably and quantifiably most effective organizations in the field, what were the things that we could invest in that could actually scale? Because I think one thing organization we also realized is that part of the reason that we had the challenges in our society that we have is not because philanthropy hasn’t done its job, is because we’re consistently fighting against policies that keep on putting people and keeping people in poverty.

Wes Moore:

Then also thinking about it from the respect of how we use other avenues within the work in addition to philanthropy and grant-making. But what are the other tools that we have at our disposal to be able to create levels of change? Because one thing I believe in is that I don’t run a charity because I don’t believe in charity. We run a change organization and that’s really how we try to focus the work.

Preet Bharara:

Can I ask you some basic questions before we get to the difference between charity and change? I think that’s an important discussion. How do you define poverty? Because I think different people have different understandings of what that means. When you say that the organization supports other organizations and agencies that fight poverty, what is the definition?

Wes Moore:

It’s a great question. There’s the federal definition of what it means for people living in poverty and that’s where people who for a family of four are making a little over $25,000 a year. That’s kind of the federal guideline around who was actually living in poverty, which in many ways I think is actually an inaccurate description and not only just because of the financial barrier around it, the fact that this is a number that is hardly moved even since we started first having the initial inception of how people define poverty and what poverty is.

Wes Moore:

It’s also something that I think it’s inaccurate because for folks who were making 26 and 27 and $28,000 a year, they’re not good. They’re not doing okay. It still means there’s something still functionally wrong within that system. Particularly, you consider the fact that many of the people who we’re talking about who are living in poverty, the majority of people who are living in poverty are actually people who are the working poor, right? People who are working one job or multiple jobs.

Wes Moore:

Really how I define poverty is how do we expand the definition that is not just about a unitary financial number, a point that we can save a person’s above it, they’re fine. If a person’s below it, they’re not. But it’s also about this idea of autonomy. It’s about this idea of power. It’s about this idea of respect. Do you actually have the liberty to choose a destiny for your life? Do you have the ability to actually define what success looks like for you and for your family? Even people who we find to be in a situation where we’re asking people to sacrifice and I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice for their children or for that next generation, people who are willing to say, “I’m willing to do X if it means that my kids can get Y.”

Wes Moore:

The problem is that when we’re looking at poverty within our society, poverty has become so stagnant, so generational, so predictable that we’re not asking people to sacrifice anymore. We’re asking people to basically just suffer. When we talk about what it means to fight poverty, it means really to deal with the immediate impacts of poverty. It means deal with the immediacy of food insecurity, of housing insecurity, of equitable school systems, of unfair wages. We’re going to deal with those things that are the immediate,

Preet Bharara:

When someone is poor and living in poverty, what are the first things that happen? In other words, as a real life matter, what are the first things that fall away? Is it health? Is it housing? Is it education? How do you prioritize the things that you want to help relieve people with when they’re living in poverty?

Wes Moore:

That’s maybe one of the biggest questions that I know that I’ve tried to wrap my head around this idea of, what do you prioritize? What do you focus on? What’s the thing that you… If we can address this, we can break the back of poverty in that family and break the back of it having to be a generational occurrence.

Preet Bharara:

Is the goal to bring people out of poverty or is the most important first step to cause people to be able to live through the effects of poverty at a basic level of subsistence?

Wes Moore:

Yeah. In fact, I’ll answer that second one first and then come back because I never understood this idea of an acceptable amount of poverty. That’s a societal choice. Society’s making a choice as to how much poverty we will tolerate. It goes back to the idea when people will come at me and say, “Well, I believe poverty is a choice.” My answer always is, “It is a choice. It’s our choice. It’s society’s choice. It’s our collective choice.” The fact that we’ve allowed people, we’ve made this devil’s deal to be able to say, “How much pain am I willing to tolerate in my neighbors before it actually starts impacting me?” Right?

Wes Moore:

When I think about what it means to be able to fight and counter poverty, it really isn’t just about how are we making poverty more tolerable or how do we minimize the impacts of poverty? Because the truth is, we don’t have to do that. We as a society could make a choice that we don’t have to actually do that. Part of it actually goes back to the first question of, how do we then think about prioritization? We know that certain elements become important that we have to make sure that children are starting off from a basis of early childhood where we can get all the basic fundamentals in place that a child was being born healthy, that when they’re entering school that they have all the basic fundamentals that they’re coming in with understanding colors, and letters, and numbers, and all the basics that they’re going to need in order for them to be able to perform academically.

Wes Moore:

We know we need to address things like chronic absence and we know that we need to address things like the summer learning loss. We have to address the health implications, the fact that we still have so many children in our society that are suffering from asthma, and lead poisoning, and all these things that we know how to fundamentally address, but we just haven’t as a larger society. We know we have to address things like job training programs and also reduce the barriers that people have even when you give them job training. Because if a person comes out, for example, someone who comes out of incarceration and you can give them the best job training programs in the world, but if we still have restrictions as to which jobs they can take, then what’s the point of the job training program that we’ve now given them?

Wes Moore:

When we’re seeing the way poverty shows itself, it shows itself in a holistic way. It shows itself where there isn’t one way that poverty shows itself. When people say like, “Is it education or health or housing?” The answer oftentimes is yes, that’s exactly right because poverty and the insidious way that poverty is, it’s like water. It’ll hit every crevice that you allowed access to. It’ll find every opening, it’ll exploit, and it’ll basically turn out that entire life situation for that individual and for that family.

Wes Moore:

Because poverty has found its way of being able to make itself present and make itself so deadly and so dangerous in so many aspects and all the various aspects of our life, I really have come to the conclusion that the only way that we’re going to address a fundamental breakdown is actually by instituting a fundamental buildup in that every single thing that we actually look to, we look through that lens of actually being able to break the back of economic inequality.

Preet Bharara:

How do you get people to care about the poor? I presume that the people who are living in poverty vote less, probably a lot less. They don’t have their congressmen on speed dial. They don’t have a lot of influence. Often, people who live in poverty are out of mind, out of sight from the people who have power, and influence, and policymaking ability. Is that part of the job to get people to care about the poor? If so, how do you go about doing that?

Wes Moore:

Very much so and honestly, it comes back to, for example, when people think about who’s in poverty and people say, “Well, it’s the person living on the street or the person who is staying in the shelter.” Those things are all real and all those things are all true. But also, part of our responsibility is to be able to draw a true narrative as to who we’re talking about. Because oftentimes, we’re talking about is we’re talking about that the person who actually is working a job and oftentimes multiple jobs. It’s the single mom who picks up her child from school at the end of the day and has to report to a shelter because she’s not making enough to be able to afford to keep them in a home.

Wes Moore:

It’s the father who is waking up at five o’clock in the morning to go to his first job. Because he knows that’s the only way that he’s going to be able to sustain for anything within their family. It’s the person who’s serving you coffee in the morning. It’s the person who’s cleaning the sheets at the hotel that you stayed at last night. It’s the working poor. That’s who we’re talking about. You’re right where oftentimes there’s this narrative of poverty about who’s in poverty, why they’re in poverty, that is not just inaccurate, but it’s amazingly dangerous.

Wes Moore:

Even before, we’re now watching a situation where even prior to COVID-19. We had relatively historic low unemployment rates and we had people, and policymakers, and politicians who would tout it. The reality is also we had about half of the country could not afford a $400 shock, a $400 emergency shock. Well, guess what? We’re seeing that shock in living color and it’s a lot more than $400.

Preet Bharara:

It’s a lot more. Yeah.

Wes Moore:

It’s a lot more than $400 and so we’re watching for our larger society now understanding how destabilizing a moment they now find themselves in. I not only feel like part of our job is to tell a proper narrative about who is actually struggling with economic inequality and who’s struggling with poverty. But actually I think in many ways, it’s an easier story to tell because I think people are seeing firsthand just how vulnerable a vast majority of our society is and we’re seeing what happens when we have systems and structures in place that are there to protect them and what happens when you have systems and structures in place that are not.

Preet Bharara:

I wonder what you think about… I have a lot of questions about how COVID-19 affects your work and how it affects people’s perceptions of vulnerability and poverty. Something that I think has been true for decades and decades in this country when it comes to fighting poverty is there is a perception on the part of some folks or a philosophy on the part of some folks that you don’t give people handouts, that government should not be engaged in the business of charity, that people should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that famous metaphor that has a lot of flaws.

Preet Bharara:

I wonder what you think about that and the perceptions of that are changing and how you can fight for antipoverty programs that can avoid the criticism of the “unfair” and undue handout. Then second, how you square that in current times with so many people understanding that they’re in trouble and are experiencing huge amount of financial shock and there’s a clamor for essentially that government sending checks, no questions asked to people who meet certain criteria. How do you think that all works in the public mind?

Wes Moore:

Yeah. I mean, well, first I would challenge what people are talking about in terms of government handouts. I mean, frankly, if you look at our budget and you look at everything from subsidies and giveaways, we have a whole economic system that is structured on using subsidies. I’m not sure what subsidies and some of these frameworks are that we have in place that in many cases are seen anything other than handouts. The question always then becomes, who are we talking about and who are the recipients of what exactly these “handouts” actually are?

Wes Moore:

The second thing is, there is no more important role of government than support and particularly support the most vulnerable. That’s essentially the role of government. Government is there to be able to build a societal structure that supports all people in their hopes and dreams. We want to have a government that says, “This should be a place where ambition and opportunity should actually meet.” That’s what we’re talking about with all these elements. When you’re having people who were in vulnerable situations and particularly people who are facing and seeming generational vulnerabilities, the only ask is that we can actually come up with a system that gives people an opportunity to be able to both survive and also to strive.

Wes Moore:

I look at what’s happened even in the last form of the CARES Act where, the CARES Act in many ways was a third bite at the apple that the government had to be able to try to stimulate the economy to use the Fed and use government dollars to be able to keep people safe, but also to help to stimulate a form of economic activity. I mean, the reality is that this idea that everybody is going to receive a check actually is not true. We have people who are going to receive universal supports, but it’s also really important to remember who was left out of that.

Wes Moore:

For example, if you are an undocumented immigrant and you don’t have a social security number, you’re not receiving a check coming from the government in the last version of CARES Act.

Preet Bharara:

Even if you pay taxes, correct?

Wes Moore:

Exactly. You have to have a social security number. That’s exactly right, Preet. If you’re a family member of someone who falls into that category, you’re not receiving a check. If you’re someone who was below the poverty line or low income and not making enough money to the point that you weren’t paying taxes, you’re not receiving a check in the last version of the CARES Act. It’s important to recognize that when we’re talking about government handouts and people who are receiving things undeservingly, it’s important the data actually reinforce the argument. Because when you really look into the data, and I’m a very data-driven person, we are a very data-driven organization.

Wes Moore:

If you look at what the data shows us, the data continues to show us and the data continues to remind us that on so many fronts and on so many different levels, we have not been able to come up with policies that really and truly address the level of poverty and economic inequality that exists in our society. I mean, the American rates of deep poverty, for example, are unmatched in the developed world. While spending on federal welfare programs has increased relative to levels of the 1980s, the majority of those resources have not reached the deeply impoverished.

Wes Moore:

Frankly, this is by design. The idea that we’re just handing money out to people who aren’t working or don’t deserve it, again, there is no data that reinforces that argument.

Preet Bharara:

Let’s talk about certain policies then. I don’t know how much Robin Hood advocates and lobbies the government. I’ll mention two things. I wonder what your view is on how effective they would be in combating poverty. One that’s gained some steam in recent months, the universal basic income advocated by Andrew Yang and some other folks. Then second minimum wage. How do you feel about those things?

Wes Moore:

Yeah. In fact a couple of years ago, Robin Hood, we actually built out a policy wing to the organization. A big thing was even when I came in as the CEO, it was important for me. It’s important for us to be able to do this because they said we have to understand why we have the levels of poverty that we have in the first place. We have structural inefficiencies that we have policies that either need to be addressed, certain policies that need to be built up or reinforced or certain policies as they’re being proposed that we have to be able to combat and keep from becoming law. We’ve actually built out a public policy wing and Robin Hood for the first time in history of the organization.

Wes Moore:

It was crucial to be able to do so because so much of what we do is being able to either push up policies that could work or combat policies that don’t. You think about things like the minimum wage. The reason that we need to have an increased minimum wage and the reason that it’s preposterous that we don’t have a minimum wage is on the idea that we can continue having people who were working at the pace and capacity that they’re working in and knowing that we still though have an economic system that is not celebrating work.

Wes Moore:

I think about the case in my own mom’s story, I was 14 years old when my mom got her first job that actually gave her benefits. I was 14 years old when my mom got her first job that actually paid her enough that she only had to work one job. I was 14 years old when she got her first job that gave her stable and consistent hours. No one can tell me that my mom wasn’t working hard, but she was just working a series and multiple levels of jobs that were part time jobs that weren’t giving her enough hours where they should continue to have to do this patchwork assemblage to try to make sure that she could keep not only her three children, but also at that time also her parents afloat. That was our reality.

Wes Moore:

If we’re not coming up with structures of being able to increase a minimum wage and letting people get a fair wage for fair work, then we are doing the same things repeatedly that are decreasing an opportunity for people to move and maneuver into a place of real prosperity and contribution. You think about things like… I love the fact that we have organizations and actually municipalities now that are thinking about this concept of UBI as well. I think about the work of Robin Hood where really over the past three and a half weeks, we’ve now raised over $32 million in a relief fund.

Wes Moore:

One of the things I’m actually most proud of is in addition to the fact that this capital’s come in and people have been remarkably generous with the capital already over 10 million is already out the door and there’s really two main focus areas that we are providing assistance with that relief grant. The first is looking at emergency operational support because one of the things we’re going to see is we’re going to watch a shifting of the social service sector like we’ve never seen before and these are organizations that are doing the vast majority of all the social service work in our society, everything from after school programs to early childhood supports, to job training programs.

Wes Moore:

That’s not the government doing this. These are organizations that the government is in contracting to do the work. Because of this economic pullback, because of these challenges, we’re going to watch it change like we have not seen before in the social service sector, so we’re providing emergency operations support for organizations. In addition to that, the other thing that we’re doing is providing emergency cash assistance and it’s targeted emergency cash assistance, both for the fact that we know even for people who do receive support from the CARES Act, that timing is going to be delayed because it’s going to be at least three weeks before people start receiving the checks.

Wes Moore:

In addition to that, as we talked about before, many of the people within our population who we support are people who are going to be left out of the CARES Act or left out of any form of emergency cash support. We like the idea and were eager to be able to get cash into the hands of people at a time when they need it most, at a time when there were worried about things like food, and housing, and basic survival. When you’re watching how municipalities are thinking about it… I’m thinking deeply about, for example, what’s happening in Stockton and my friend, Mayor Tubbs.

Wes Moore:

Part of the thing that we love as philanthropy is being able to invest in things that we think have the potential and the possibility for scale, being able to invest in things that eventually we don’t have to invest in it because government eventually will take it over. I think one of the proudest examples of that and there’s many, but one of the proudest examples of Robin Hood has in its history was Robin Hood was one of the first organizations that invested in needle exchanges and we invested in needle exchanges when there was no way anybody was touching that. They’re like, “What do you mean you’re going to give needles to drug users?”

Wes Moore:

But the data kept showing us that actually one of the highest transmission rates and one of the highest means of transmission of HIV/AIDS was for people who are exchanging dirty needles and so we invested in it. We invested in it when no one else would. Now, we don’t invest in needle exchanges. No one does because the government does it, right? We like the idea of being able to put capital and focusing on things like the cash assistance because we think it has a high potential even though it’s early but has a high potential showing as a way that this could actually scale, that people can understand why basic income does matter to people and can help give people a real measure of economic mobility.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah. I find it interesting that a couple of times you have said you don’t think of Robin Hood as charity and I detect something more than the nature of the organization. There was something about the idea of charity and the need for charity that doesn’t sit well with people went for a long time and still in certain communities charity is considered good. It’s considered a great thing. It’s considered some folks’ religion and yet you seem to issue that word. I wonder where that comes from.

Preet Bharara:

Just as a prompt for more discussion on this, you and I once, I think it was maybe a year ago, had a conversation about the work of Anand Giridharadas, who was a guest on the podcast some time ago and he wrote a book called Winners Take All. He and some other folks are making this argument that people who are of means, especially at the highest levels, billionaires, should not be spending their time giving their money away and trying to solve through private efforts, problems we have in society, but they should be using all of their power to cause government to change its policies maybe in terms of minimum wage or UBI or you name it and they don’t do that. Do you have a reaction to what I said?

Wes Moore:

I remember when Robin Hood first contacted me about this, they first reached out and they said, “We’d like to talk to you about becoming the CEO of Robin Hood.” Robin Hood again is one of the largest organizations in the country that focuses on these issues. But I remember my first initial gut reaction was no, and they actually asked the question, say, “What person is running the search that point?” said, “Do you mind if I ask why?” And I say, “Well, there’s a few different reasons.” I say, “One is, we’re still based down here in Baltimore and we didn’t plan on any intention of being able to move my family from there. The second piece was I enjoyed what I was doing before. And the third piece was that I actually walked in skeptical of philanthropy.”

Wes Moore:

I say this as the job that I was talking about before then my mom got when I was 14 years old, was from a foundation. I still want to weight being skeptical of what philanthropy was because what I did not want and what I thought through this idea of philanthropy was I didn’t want something where this was almost like a hand washing exercise where we’re washing our hands of our own complicity of what’s going on. Actually I said this to them and one of the people who I said this to said, “Yeah, we’ve done our due diligence and we saw you’re very public in this comment.” And it’s true.

Wes Moore:

I mean, for years, it’s documented on YouTube, et cetera, some of the concerns I had. But the thing that I also realized was this, was that there is a way for all of us to be able to think about what is our role in creating real structural and systemic change? What is our role of actually being able to both address an immediate human need, but also being able to understand why that human need exists inside the first place? I’m not someone who adopts castigation into my standard operating procedures.

Wes Moore:

I want to find out what do we have to do to be able to bring people together to solve big problems? The measures of economic inequality is a big problem. I’m not trying to pick and choose who should have a voice and who should not have a voice. What I want to do is to be very clear about here are the things that we have to do to be able to address these issues, here are the concepts that we all have to understand and adapt to. This is the team that we want to try to build. I try to do it and I think I come to it and all of us come to it with a real sense of humility about what is the role of philanthropy, right?

Wes Moore:

I mean, there’s a quote that I keep on my desk from Dr. King and it serves as a reminder for me and from anybody else who comes into my office. It says that, “Philanthropy is commendable, but the philanthropists can never forget the economic injustice that makes philanthropy necessary.” Because that’s what we’re talking about. It’s a system of economic injustice when you have so many that have so little. Now, philanthropy has an important role to play in that. I think philanthropy can be catalytic capital. I think philanthropy can help to address very human needs and making sure that we’re supporting these community organizations that are on the ground doing the work right now.

Wes Moore:

When I’m out, whether it’s in the South Bronx or South Ozone Queens or West Baltimore. The people who I’m around, they’re not telling me, “Well, we don’t believe in philanthropy, so I don’t know why you’re here.” These are people who oftentimes are very much trying to say, “Let’s come up with a collective ability to be able to solve something that is a structural and a societal ill. At the same time though, we have to understand that the philanthropic gift alone is not going to get us to any form of a promised land. There’s not enough philanthropy out there in the world for us to be able to tackle these problems that we think that is just going to be giving or individual gifts are going to be able to get us out there.

Preet Bharara:

Can I ask you a question about meritocracy because I know you’ve thought about this and you wrote a book I want to ask you about? But when people ask you about your success and boy, you have a crazy resume, Rhodes scholar, combat veteran, all sorts of achievements worked in the White House as a fellow. When people ask you about your success, do you think you’re a product of meritocracy or the beneficiary of luck or some combination of the two?

Wes Moore:

I remember when I wrote this story, The Other Wes Moore, and it came out now about a decade ago and it’s a story about myself and another guy who actually we grew up in the same area in Baltimore. Literally, there was a point we were living blocks away from each other. As I received the Rhodes scholarship and I was getting ready to head off to England on this Rhodes scholarship at the same time. He was great in getting ready to start a life sentence in prison for he was a Bosch jewelry store robbery then ended up in the murder of a police officer.

Wes Moore:

I’ve gotten to know him and we became very close. He’s now getting ready to start year 20 of his life sentence. It was one of the questions that I know I wrestled with and people who even read the book wrestled with it. Whereas they said, “Well, is this a product of our environment or is this individual responsibility or collective responsibility?” I think there was a couple of different things and Wes actually tipped me off to one of them in a way that I’ll never forget. I told him, I said, “I’ve always heard this expression that people say that people are products of their environments.”

Wes Moore:

I’ve heard that so many times people are products in their rom as the products of their environments. I’ve heard so many times that I never even questioned it anymore. I asked Wes, I said, “Do you think that we’re products of our environments?” He looked at me and I think he was in year four of his sentence at that point. He looked at me and he said, “Actually, I think we’re products of our expectations.”

Wes Moore:

As soon as he said it, I thought to myself, he is absolutely right that we weren’t products of our environments we’re products of our expectations. Someone once said to me, they said, “It’s a real shame that you lived up to your expectations and West didn’t.” I said, “The real shame is that we both did. We both ended up exactly where we thought we would end up at some point.” These messages are being screened to us as children. They’re being screened to us in the communities that we’re living in. We’re saying everything we need to say to kids about what we expect from them by the schools we ask them to attend, by the water that we ask them to drink, by the air that we ask them to breathe, by the communities that we ask them to exist in and grow in and live in and become adults in.

Wes Moore:

When I think about what was the process for me, I’m always careful and cautious where people want to look at my story or my journey as, “See he made it. So therefore, why doesn’t everybody?” My story is littered with luck. My story is littered with people who stepped up and stepped in, in ways that frankly, I think my behavior at the time wasn’t justified and didn’t deserve. I had people that actually did love me so I could impress people that could care less about me. But I still had people who were willing to make bets and punts for me in ways and in times when I didn’t justify or I didn’t deserve. I also know that luck should not be a prerequisite. Luck should not be something that everyone should have to rely on.

Wes Moore:

If our society is one that’s built on success as a basis of luck, no matter whether that luck is who you were born to or that luck is what helps you grow up in or that luck is what school you attend, then that is a society of meritocracy. It’s a society where we are continuing to build up a lie. That’s not the society that anybody should accept.

Preet Bharara:

How much of poverty is result of structural racism in the country? One of the reasons I’m asking that is in the last few days, there has been a lot of discussion, rightly so about the death rates among African-Americans due to COVID-19 that on the one hand, where the New York times and other outlets have observed, you can be the Prime Minister of a country in the UK and you can get COVID-19 or you could be a homeless person on the streets of Baltimore and get COVID-19.

Preet Bharara:

But the fact is that the rate of death is alarmingly high and disproportionate among African-Americans in lots of places in the country, including in Chicago. At Robin Hood and just otherwise, how do you think about the interplay between racism, race differences, and poverty?

Wes Moore:

I don’t think you can look at what’s happening within poverty rates within our society without also understanding the correlation of race. It just simply means looking at history. It means looking at the fact that if we look at the realities of what exists right now, the elevated levels of hypertension, the elevated levels of asthma, the elevated levels of heart disease, all these other elements, it’s important to recognize that those things haven’t changed. It’s not like it’s a new phenomenon the fact that we’re like, “Oh my goodness, African-Americans have higher asthma rates than other members of the population.” That’s been the case. It’s not like it’s been, “Well, it’s interesting that African-Americans are dealing with higher levels of hypertension.”

Wes Moore:

Yeah. That’s not new news. When you’re looking at something like COVID-19, one of the things that makes it so dangerous and so evil is the fact that it targets the vulnerable. It is vicious towards the vulnerable. The fact that if you get diagnosed with COVID and you don’t have a lot of the preexisting conditions, you have a much higher probability of surviving of this not being a fatal occurrence for you.

Wes Moore:

However, if you’re dealing with a preexisting condition or many cases, a battery of preexisting conditions, then the chances of this being your last moments have become very real. When we think about how these disparities show themselves, and there’s a collection of different reasons and historical focus areas why, it’s impossible not to look at elements of housing and how housing policy has impacted the way that people live and the way that people exist if you look at the fact that you have a history of redlining.

Wes Moore:

I’m currently in the city of Baltimore, which is the birthplace of redlining.

Preet Bharara:

Remind people what redlining is.

Wes Moore:

Redlining is basically putting essentially covenants and restrictions on where people could live, where people could receive money and mortgages to be able to live. Essentially, it was compartmentalizing how people could actually exist. When you look at redlined communities, it is literally blocks of separation of affluence and blocks later where you’re watching dire poverty. That’s not by accident. It’s because redlining actually determined where people could live, where they could buy homes, and where they could not buy homes, restrictive housing covenants, restricted work covenants, restricting bank loans.

Wes Moore:

We’ve watched how race has shown itself in the history of poverty within our society ever since the inception of our society. When you have an illness like COVID-19, which targets vulnerabilities, specifically targets vulnerabilities, it should not be shocking to anyone to see why the African-American community, the Latino community, communities that also historically have been in impoverished areas are also getting hit significantly harder by the impact of COVID-19.

Wes Moore:

I think we’re also then seeing it when we’re talking about what are the things we have to address. When people say, “So, what do we do?” We do have to make sure that we’re doing a greater targeted effort to making sure that people are getting tested. If you have people who are… those who lack insurance, those who lack a universal form of insurance, there’s often chance that they’re not going out and getting screened and tested at the same levels of everyone else. We have to be able to target testing to making sure we know where not just what’s happening within populations, but whose health concerns need to get addressed.

Wes Moore:

The second component is we do have to do a better job of focusing on education and knowledge entry into communities to help people understand the importance of social distancing and the things that need to happen when you oftentimes know that that knowledge share has not been equal. Then the other piece is we’ve got to be able to address these underlying conditions that historically and along race lines, we have to be honest about this, along race lines have impacted population, specifically African-American populations and Latino populations at extraordinarily high levels.

Preet Bharara:

What do you think the consequence longterm will be for policy and people’s desires for certain policies based on this catastrophic experience of the coronavirus? Do you think longterm, and I know it’s hard to predict these things, but you’re kind of in this business that longterm people will realize, “Well, we were a lot more vulnerable than we thought, we had millions of people who had jobs and overnight they lost those jobs even though they did everything right and worked hard and played by the rules,” as Bill Clinton used to say. Do you think people will start to realize more than ever before, that this connection that we have in this country between healthcare and employment doesn’t make a lot of sense? Or do you think that we’re just all going to go back to the same old ways of thinking a year or two from now when we’re out of this?

Wes Moore:

I am going to do everything in my power that we just do not return to some form of new normal as if the old normal was okay. My job and my responsibility is to make sure that we come out of this better, that we come out of this more compassionate, that we come out of this more humane because just the short term and the mid term impacts of this, they’re going to be devastating and we know it. It’s not even just the health implications of what we’re talking about, it is the longterm economic implications of what we’re talking about as well where we really could be watching double digit unemployment rates that is going to be months long.

Wes Moore:

But in addition to that, if we really want to desegregate the data and look at what we’re talking about, it’s for people who are living in poverty, it’s for people and communities that have already been vulnerable in the first place. This is going to have a devastating impact. I was recently just reading something that was saying that we think the unemployment rate, even just amongst the African-American community, once this is all said and done, could eclipse anything that we saw during the great depression. We know what the short and the medium term impacts are going to be on the economic implications of our larger society.

Wes Moore:

The thing that I want to make sure though is that we’re also focusing on the long term and the longterm is this idea that these things that we’re wrestling with right now, we should not have to wrestle with. We should not have to have a conversation about whether or not there needs to be a form of healthcare where everyone has a form of coverage and affordable coverage. We should not have to wrestle with a conversation of, should we have people that are able to, for a full day’s work that you don’t also have to live under the burden of poverty and that it’s not just government’s responsibility, but it’s a private sectors. It’s a nonprofit providers responsibility.

Wes Moore:

It’s all of our collective responsibility to be able to do that. We should not have to have a conversation about kids who are going into schools and are still finishing high school, finishing high school, and are still unable read, write, and compete at a level that gets them either college or career ready. We’re looking at that in the state of Maryland right now where even once high school graduates, these are people who are graduating from high school, that we still had the majority of students that are doing mathematics at less than a 10th grade level.

Wes Moore:

This is something that we should need to have a collective conversation as a society about who are we? We also can’t hide behind this narrative of, “We can’t afford it.” We’ve found money now. We basically more than doubled the Fed’s balance sheet within a matter of months. We find the capital to be able to provide the supports of things that we need or to provides capital, sports, and things that we want. Now we have to be diligent. We have to be focused. We have to rely on data and rely on efficacy measures to be able to get us to where we need to get to.

Wes Moore:

But also, we have to make sure that when these crises happen and these crises will show themselves every once in a while, that we also need a society that can be resilient and better prepared to be able to deal and adapt and not just survive but also strive out.

Preet Bharara:

Can I ask you a very concrete pragmatic question? I don’t know if it’s right to ask you, but I will anyway.

Wes Moore:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

There are people listening to the show and many, many, many are struggling, but there are also a number I expect who are fortunate and privileged and have the ability to give to good causes. If someone is out there and they want to do something and they have the privilege of being able to donate $1,000 towards some cause or some people’s lives will be made easier during COVID-19. Do you have any advice to them how they might donate in a way that’s effective?

Wes Moore:

The advice that I would give is it’s important for you to find your passion point. We have a collection of things broken, things that need healing and need repair. It’s important for everybody to find what is that thing that makes your heart beat a little bit faster, right? For some people it’s animals. For some people it’s the environment. For some people it is seniors. For some people it’s children and babies. For some people it’s poverty. For those who want to focus on economic injustice and creating a system where we can have economic opportunity for all, I would love to have you all as part of our Robin Hood team and a part of our Robin Hood family.

Wes Moore:

But I also know that these issues are hard and complex and the reason we’re still wrestling with them are because they are hard and complex. I asked that for everybody, find that thing that makes your heart beat a little bit faster and get engaged, get involved. Find the organizations that are doing really good work. Make sure that these are organizations not just internally, but externally are proven on a repeated basis to be smart and efficient with capital and are really trying to address the issue from a structural basis. Then making sure that you’re making your voice present that you can be generous in the way you can be generous, but generosity does not just simply mean who writes a big check.

Wes Moore:

Generosity also means who’s willing to put in the work, who’s willing to put in some elbow grease, who’s willing to contact whether it’s me as a CEO or someone else in my organization with a really interesting idea or a really cool partnership that we might want to explore. Some of the things that we’ve worked on even during this relief process have been not just the capital that we put out, but some of the really creative and unique partnerships that we’ve been able to build because there’s not one organization that’s going to solve this problem.

Wes Moore:

The thing that I would ask everybody to do is find that thing in our society that you know can functionally address an issue and really put work and time into it. Half of all money that inflow anthropy every single year, half goes into colleges and universities, i.e. alma maters. Nothing against alma maters and nothing against the colleges and universities that people attend. But if we really want to think about what are the big challenges that our society is facing, increasing the endowment of your alma mater, should that be at the top of your list? I don’t know. That’s a personal choice for you to make.

Wes Moore:

The only thing that I ask is that there’s a lot of big issues that people are facing right now and would love your lead.

Preet Bharara:

You had a book that was coming out this week and like so many things has been moved, tell us the name of the book and when it’s coming out.

Wes Moore:

Yeah. The name of the book is called Five Days and it’s really about five days in Baltimore through the eyes of eight different people. The five days in Baltimore that I capture are really the five days around the unrest that took place around the death of Freddie Gray. This was exactly five years ago that this all happened. It was amazing because one of the things that I’ve found even now, and what we saw back then is that Freddie Gray died in the hands of… he died in police custody. This was also during a time when this was taking place all throughout the country where you know that the guardian reported that even during that summer of 2015, over a hundred African-Americans died at the hands of police violence.

Wes Moore:

What was really interesting about it was as I continued to dig into this, we saw that what happened to Freddie, at that time, was about the dangers and the horrors of excessive police force and excessive police violence. But the truth is that even if you look at the two years before Freddie Gray in Baltimore and the Baltimore region alone, there was Anthony Anderson and there was Chris Brown and there was Tyrone West, right? There was the other people who had similar circumstances and similar interactions that led to a similar fate.

Wes Moore:

But there was something else about this moment that really triggered something different. One of the things that really captured me about this story and about really wanting to dig in through the lives and those five days in Baltimore through the eyes of these eight people was as heartbreaking as Freddie Gray’s death was. What was also heartbreaking was his life. This was a young man who was born months premature, addicted to heroin, both him and his twin sisters. His mother never made it to high school. She couldn’t read nor write.

Wes Moore:

When they were finally allowed out of the hospital, they moved into a housing project in North Carrie street, which is in West Baltimore. Later on in 2009, actually that house along with over 400 others, were involved in a civil suit because that house was poisoning them with endemic levels of lead. Freddie Gray, at this point, he is born underweight, addicted to heroin, lead poisoned, and by this time in his life, he’s two years old. What we’re talking about here is that if we think that this is a story of just about police force and the need for police reform, we’re also missing a bigger point. It’s about poverty. It’s about the fact that Freddie never had a chance. He never had a chance.

Wes Moore:

What I wanted to show in the book, Five Days, was that we watched a major American city implode in five days, in five days watching major American city implode because we have yet to deal with so many of the crises and the traumas that still exist within our society that have been generations in the making and so the book was set to be released in mid April. It’s now going to be delayed until later on in the year and I’m really excited about the book. The reviews have been absolutely remarkable and I’m eager to get the book out because I think it’ll be an important part of a bigger, broader conversation that frankly shades a lot of what we’re seeing right now when it comes to the responsive COVID-19. This is not just about a virus. This is about an equity. This is not just about an illness, it’s about economic injustice and we cannot pretend like these two things don’t exist simultaneously and show themselves simultaneously as well.

Preet Bharara:

West Moore, congratulations on the book. Thank you for your time. Thank you for your service. Thank you for everything you do. It’s great to have you on the show read.

Wes Moore:

Preet, it’s so good to talk with you. Thank you so much, great in your voice.

Preet Bharara:

Next, legal blogger, David Lat joins me to talk through his near death experience with COVID-19th. Lat, 44 years old and healthy was intubated and in critical condition for almost a week. His story has resonated across the country and the world serving as a reminder that we are all still at risk. Lat and I talk about the role that he hopes to play as we move forward, telling his story, spreading awareness about the virus and honoring the healthcare workers who saved his life. We also talked about the risks of being on a ventilator, the good side of social media and the eerie reality of knowing that newspapers were drafting his obituary. That’s next, stay tuned.

Preet Bharara:

David Lat, thank you much for being on the show. I really appreciate it.

David Lat:

Thanks for having me, Preet. It’s great to be here.

Preet Bharara:

I’ve known you for a number of years because you are a journalist, you’ve been a novelist, you’re a very accomplished lawyer, you write about the law and you’ve covered things in my old office used to do and there’ve been times I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll have David Lat on the podcast.” Never in a million years would I have predicted that in the early part of 2020 we would be in a global pandemic and that you would be appearing on the podcast as a survivor of one of the worst public health crises we’ve seen in a century. These are bizarre times.

Preet Bharara:

Before I ask you to share with us some of your story, I just want to say how thrilled I am and so many people are that you are on the mend, that you’re back home, you’re being taken care of by your husband and your parents. We’re just thrilled. I know it was very harrowing for you, you had a lot of people pulling for you, so really glad you’re doing better. Why don’t you tell us how you are at this moment?

David Lat:

Yeah. No, I’m doing okay. Some of your listeners may be able to hear I’m a little hoarse and that’s a consequence of me having been on a ventilator with COVID-19 for six days, but this is way better than it’s been in the past. It gets a little bit better each day. My other issue is I get short of breath. I used to be a runner, but now I’ll walk across a room or up a flight of stairs and I’ll be panting, but I was told to expect this and it should also improve in time. I count myself very lucky because my energy level is great and I feel very clear headed mentally. A lot of people who spend time in the ICU, as I did for about a week, sometimes have cognitive deficits, but I feel as sharp as ever.

Preet Bharara:

I experience a lot of cognitive deficits without being in the ICU for any period of time at all, especially lately. You mentioned you’re a runner. Let’s just go back and talk about how healthy a person you are. I saw you personally I think a few months ago and you look trim and fit and very healthy. What was your picture of health before you got COVID-19?

David Lat:

Overall, it was quite good. Relatively young, 44, don’t smoke, rarely drink, I’m not overweight, no high blood pressure, no diabetes. Generally when I go for my physical all my blood work is in normal ranges. Years ago, this was admittedly a long time ago, ran the New York Marathon twice. My knees have gotten a little weaker, so now I don’t do that, but I still run a little bit and I go to where I used to go to high intensity interval training classes at the gym three to four times a week.

David Lat:

Overall, going into this, I was in very good shape. The one caveat, and it’s admittedly a big one, is I did have, do have exercise induced asthma. If I work out too hard, I start to wheeze or get short of breath. But it was not something that bothered me in day-to-day life. I would just take two puffs in my little inhaler and I’d be good to go. It didn’t stop me from running marathon. It didn’t stop me from doing these very aerobics gym classes, so it wasn’t really something that bothered me.

Preet Bharara:

As you think back and look back on just being a regular person who is following the news in January, February, early March, like all the rest of us were, and you’re hearing about this coronavirus and you’re thinking yourself as I think many people did, “Am I vulnerable given my age and given the status of my health?” Were you worried that you or anyone in your immediate family was at risk of coronavirus or were you believing what a lot of people were saying early on. the only people that had to have any fear were elderly people or infirm people.

David Lat:

I will admit that early on, I didn’t really think that this would necessarily be something that would affect me. That was the narrative early on in the media that it would focus mainly on the elderly or people with other conditions, so-called comorbidities. Being relatively healthy, I didn’t think that this would necessarily be something that would hit me. It seemed abstract. It was something that was happening a lot overseas. Other countries had outbreaks before we did, so it wasn’t really something that was on my radar.

Preet Bharara:

Then you started getting symptoms in early March.

David Lat:

That’s right.

Preet Bharara:

What di you experience and then how did you try to get tested?

David Lat:

Initially, this was around March 7, 8 I started feeling a fatigue, just very, very tired. Then going into the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I started getting fever and chills and aches, but I wasn’t sure at that point or I wasn’t even confident, I would say at that point that it was coronavirus because at the time, there were fewer than 50 documented cases in New York city, city with a population of more than 8 million. I mentioned it to my husband, Zach, and he said, “Oh, don’t be ridiculous.”

David Lat:

Then Thursday of that week, I got a cough. It worsened over the weekend, due to shortness of breath and then by then I was thinking, “You know what? I actually might have COVID-19.” I went to my local emergency room and what you learn going on a Sunday, March 15 and did ask for a test, but I was unsuccessful in that. People have seen in the news, it’s very hard to get tested. There’s a real shortage of tests. It’s a big, big problem in this country. I was told essentially, “Well, we’ll give you a cold flu test to see whether your flu symptoms are caused by a common strain. And if that shows up negative then yes, we’ll test you but not today. Come back tomorrow.”

David Lat:

Sure enough, it turned out to be negative and they said, “Come back tomorrow,” which I didn’t really understand because I was sick most probably with coronavirus. Why would you want to send me back home, back into the community, risking infection of more people? But I did go back and then Monday I came back Monday, March 16 partly to get tested. But more importantly because by then, my difficulty breathing had worsened. I could barely walk or stand.

Preet Bharara:

Then so you were admitted right away?

David Lat:

Yes, I was admitted right away. They pretty much gave me supplemental oxygen immediately and in the ER instead of just having me in the general area where the patients are separated by curtains, I think by then the doctors thought I was a likely COVID-19 victim. They put me in a separate room, so-called negative pressure room, where essentially the air from that room doesn’t go to the rest of the emergency room because of the difference in pressure, because I think they realized I could have COVID-19 and it turned out I did.

Preet Bharara:

At that moment, early on, you weren’t too concerned because a lot of people weren’t. Then you get symptoms, then you test positive, then you get admitted to the hospital. At this point, what’s your state of personal worry and how did your family feel about this development?

David Lat:

At this point, I was actually very anxious because the feeling of difficulty breathing, it’s a very anxiety inducing feeling. As I mentioned, I have had asthma. It was worse when I was a kid actually. When you’re having trouble breathing because of an asthma attack or because of COVID-19, it’s not necessarily painful. People sometimes ask me, “Is it painful?” It’s not painful in the way of getting cut or burned, but it’s like being slowly suffocated and the predominant feeling is one of anxiety, “Am I going to be able to get enough oxygen into my lungs?” That’s the feeling I had initially.

David Lat:

Honestly, when I got to the hospital, I was relieved because they gave me oxygen. I’m surrounded by doctors and nurses. It felt so much better than being in my apartment.

Preet Bharara:

Right. Then a few days go by and during that time, the one thing I’m guessing that you were hoping to avoid was what?

David Lat:

The ventilator. We’ve heard a lot in the news about it. This is so-called intubation. It’s the process of being hooked up to a ventilator, which is basically this breathing machine. It functions as the lungs for a patient who can’t breathe on their own. Early on in my hospitalization, my father, who’s a doctor, warned me, he said, “You better not get put on a ventilator. Not everyone comes back from that.” That was really my big fear.

Preet Bharara:

Not only does not everyone come back from that based on figures I’ve seen now that we can talk about, because we have some data, and I think you maybe cited this also in a piece you wrote. In New York, I think the percentage of people who go on a ventilator of that group, 80% don’t make it. Is that right?

David Lat:

Yes. That does seem to be what I believe Governor Cuomo said at a recent press conference.

Preet Bharara:

Were you aware of how bad that development was for you when you went on a ventilator?

David Lat:

No, I was not.

Preet Bharara:

Good.

David Lat:

Actually, I was like, “Thank God,” because if you told me you have a one in five chance, now look, in fairness, some of those studies don’t adjust for things like age or health. It could be that maybe being younger or relatively healthy is higher than average chance, but I don’t like a 20% chance or even some studies say it’s 50, 50, maybe outside of New York. I still don’t like 50, 50 when the other outcome is death.

Preet Bharara:

Is that your happy child in the background?

David Lat:

Yeah. Sorry about that.

Preet Bharara:

That’s all right.

David Lat:

That’s my two year old I basically-

Preet Bharara:

That is very okay.

David Lat:

He wanted to come in for the interview. I guess he’s a Zencaster bombing, but I told him no harm. [inaudible 01:01:07].

Preet Bharara:

We don’t mind. We have an exception for certain children. He would do the same for Ann Milgram’s. When you get intubated, what’s the last thing you remember? What does that like… you get complete anesthesia, correct?

David Lat:

Yes. The last thing I remember basically was getting sedation anesthesia through an IV. I remember the nurse was basically going through the million questions of, “Do you wish to be intubated?” Yes. “If necessary, do you wish to be resuscitated? Do you wish to be put on life support?” All those questions. I pretty much said yes to all of them. I was thinking to myself as they were intubating me, I don’t want to go. I have a husband, I have a two year old son you heard in the background. I have a lot of things I still want to do personally, professionally. I was thinking it’s not my time yet.

Preet Bharara:

But you thought there was a chance you might die?

David Lat:

Oh, absolutely. Partly because of what my father had said and probably because of what I had read. Although, luckily I hadn’t read the most depressing statistics.

Preet Bharara:

When you were going through this process and you were still alert, and able to read, and I know you were tweeting during this time and your mother was actually posting updates on you on Facebook. I’ll tell you, I have a lot of friends and colleagues who are circulating those updates about you and we all got the news that you went on a ventilator, I think shortly after that because your mother told the world about it. Were you actively doing research about what all these things meant or were you relying only on the doctors? The David Lat I know was probably Googling all sorts of things. Is that what you were doing?

David Lat:

No, I definitely was doing research. For example, I was given medications, I was given a drug called Kaletra and of course I was given the much discussed combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin. I was certainly reading up on all of this researching. I didn’t have much else to do in the hospital. I didn’t have any books. The movie selection was limited. Yes, I was doing a lot of research.

Preet Bharara:

I need to do rational but panicked Google searches. How did that affect your anxiety level, David?

David Lat:

Well, it’s interesting. I feel like you hear one thing and then you hear another thing. For example, the research on hydroxychloroquine has been all over the map and I think especially this was the case in early March. I didn’t know. I was willing to try anything at that point considering my state. It’s very confusing. I mean, I was fortunate because my parents are doctors and so when the doctors would come in on their rounds, I would call up my parents and put them on speakerphone and they could kind of quiz the doctors and make suggestions. May have driven the doctors crazy, but it was nice to have somebody there advocating for me.

David Lat:

Also, if the doctors were rushed, which sometimes they were, because the wards are full right now and overflowing, they could just tell my parents the technical term and then later on my parents would explain here’s what that meant.

Preet Bharara:

Did you have a sense when you were there and you were hospitalized sort of early in the arc of all of this in the New York area? Did you have a firsthand sense of overcrowding and a lot of incoming or that the doctors and medical personnel were worried about that or were you shielded from that?

David Lat:

I did have an inkling of that. Early on, in my stay, I had a private room, but you could tell that the doctors and nurses were busy because sometimes, they might be slightly delayed in responding to something and they would always apologize saying, “I’m sorry we just have a lot of patients right now.” Then eventually, when I got better, I was moved out of a private room and I wound up sharing a room with three other patients and I think it was actually a suite that was meant for two patients, but it had been sort of adjusted to accommodate four. My understanding is when I arrived at the hospital, I think they maybe had one or so floors of COVID-19 patients by the time I left. I think to this day, they have seven.

Preet Bharara:

Did you have any idea how long you might be intubated?

David Lat:

No, I had no idea and I didn’t have any idea when I was in it because it was almost like six days were just subtracted out of my life. I don’t remember anything from being on the ventilator, which is a good thing-

Preet Bharara:

That is good. Yeah.

David Lat:

… because yeah, people have had nightmares on it, so I was glad I don’t remember anything.

Preet Bharara:

Right, because it’s an actual insertion of a tube down your throat, connected to a machine, which says a lot of things including affects your vocal chords and you’re experiencing some after side effects for that reason too, right?

David Lat:

Yes.

Preet Bharara:

Sort of generally, the process of extubation is not necessarily automatically a safe one, is it?

David Lat:

No. A lot of times, sometimes people don’t survive or sometimes people need to be basically be put back on the ventilator because they didn’t do well. The other thing that my doctors were talking about, but I didn’t know any of this because I was all out, my husband told me later, was if I didn’t get better on the ventilator, they were going to go to the tracheostomy, which is where they cut an incision in your neck directly and they insert the breathing tube into your windpipe, essentially. That was the next stop for me.

Preet Bharara:

So you luckily avoided that. Look, and there are some people I’ve been reading who are among the subset of folks who survive a ventilator then come off the ventilator and they never speak again. Isn’t that right?

David Lat:

No, it can be quite severe for people. Six days, my stay, my ventilator standards is actually relatively short. The longer you stay on the ventilator, the more likely you’ll have serious longterm effects.

Preet Bharara:

Then those days between because I remember hearing about it and then you resurface and everyone was really, really happy. A lot of people pulling for you. How many more days in the hospital before discharge?

David Lat:

There were about six days, maybe six days to a week. I had to learn how to essentially breathe again and walk again. They were monitoring me and they were also giving me supplemental oxygen, which they gradually reduced day by day.

Preet Bharara:

Is this whole time that you’re in the hospital, are you being fed via IV or are you actually eating food?

David Lat:

I was fed by IV when I was on the ventilator and then immediately thereafter, I was put on a liquid diet. They put you on a liquid diet because one of the things that can happen being on the ventilator is you have a hard time swallowing. I was on a liquid diet, like soups and constant maize, and broths for days. Then finally, I was able to move to solid foods.

Preet Bharara:

Are you on solid foods now or are you trying to bulk up?

David Lat:

Yeah, it’s funny. I lost 15 pounds during this whole thing being fed through a breathing tube and all of that. I had stomach problems in the hospital, all of that. But now I’m gaining the weight back and it’s fine.

Preet Bharara:

You need a lot of Indian food, David.

David Lat:

Oh no, I would totally. Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

I don’t know. But I think you have to stay away from-

David Lat:

No, not really. Not really. I think I’m pretty much allowed to eat anything now and I have been.

Preet Bharara:

You have said a couple of things on your social media accounts about the experience. I want to just have you share them with folks. One is just for you personally, you talked about what it was like knowing the risks when you were about to be ventilated, but you actually, I think, tweeted something like that feeling when you find out from colleagues that the New York Times was reaching out to folks for the purposes of writing your obituary.

David Lat:

To be clear, I don’t believe, it wasn’t the Times, although they may have been in the works too, but one friend told me, “Oh, I was contacted when you were on the ventilator by a paper that wanted to interview me for your obituary.” I told them “No, David’s going to pull through.” I tweeted that and then a friend of mine who was a reporter at a different paper said, “No, no, no. We never assigned a reporter. We just discussed it at our staff meeting.” There were actually two papers that were thinking about this, and I can’t blame them. I was in critical condition in the ICU for about a week. That is usually when you start pre-writing.

Preet Bharara:

Right. I actually discuss this issue because I guess I have a bizarre household at the dinner table with my kids who are shocked to find out that anyone makes any effort to prepare for any obituary until the person is actually deceased. I said, “Well, for some people who are very, very prominent, the obituaries are pre-written.”

David Lat:

Yup. It’s often the case. I mean, also it depends on the person’s health. A lot of older people who are very accomplished, their obituaries are pre-written and just updated. Whereas prominent people who are… You’re in great health. I don’t think they started one for you or I wouldn’t guess they have.

Preet Bharara:

I’m going to live forever.,David. There’s been a lot of debate and I know you’re not a doctor, but you’ve gone through this and you’ve been researching it and talking to doctors. What is your current status of contagion or being contagious and what is your understanding of whether or not you’re immune and you have antibodies to prevent you from getting it? Again, because we keep hearing governors and the president and others talk about how we can go back to normal and reopen the country when a certain number of people have been infected and resolved in a serious way like you, but unless you’re a suede on the part of other people, do you have an understanding of what the medical opinion is about whether or not you and your husband who also had a milder case of it, are good going forward?

David Lat:

This is just based on the current understanding which can certainly evolve. What I was told when I was discharged actually not just the hospitalist or internal medicine person who was looking after me, but actually by an infectious disease doctor who came by to collect my blood for a study I agreed to participate in. What the ID doctor told me was, “You are not contagious because you’ve had symptoms for…” So generally, what I’ve heard is if you’ve had symptoms for two weeks and then you have 72 hours or so of no symptoms, you are usually good.

David Lat:

For me, my symptoms started on March 7, so I’ve been without symptoms for quite some time and so I was told I was not contagious. I also believe, again, based on what the current state of research is, that I should be immune from getting it at least short term. A lot of our experts, including Dr. Fauci have suggested that, but we’re not sure how long the immunity lasts. There are some odd reports of maybe people getting reinfected, but it’s not clear whether that’s actually the case or whether it’s a problem with the tests. There’s a lot of ambiguity here. As a result, we’re not going anywhere. We’re just staying at home.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah, that probably is smart. I know you’ve written about this and it’s very moving and appreciative what you’ve said about the doctors and nurses and other medical professionals that took care of you and are taking care of tens and tens of thousands of Americans. What do you have to say to them and about them?

David Lat:

Oh gosh. I mean, they’re just heroes. I mean, I know it’s a cliche, but it was just amazing. I mean, they were just so dedicated, so hardworking, and I just thought to myself, “Wow, it’s a good thing I went into law or journalism because I could not do what they do.” I mean, it’s just there. The other thing is they just do it without complaint. I think in my whole time there… And I interacted with so many people, not just doctors and nurses, but physicians, assistants, nurse practitioners, nutritionists, a speech pathologist for my voice.

David Lat:

I interacted with so many healthcare professionals and everybody was just always upbeat. I think there was only one person who seemed a little grumpy. It must have been dozens of people I dealt with because I was in the hospital for 17 days and they just were unfailingly polite, and upbeat, and even cheerful. I mean, it’s amazing what they’re doing and putting themselves at risk and putting their families at risk because they might get this virus, they might take it home. I’m without words.

Preet Bharara:

When you were there, did you get the sense that there is sufficient PPE for the medical professionals there?

David Lat:

When I was there, at NYU Langone, great hospital, I did have the sense that they were okay. But remember, this was weeks ago, so things change and certainly a lot of patients have flooded into the hospitals since then. I was admitted on March 16.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah, pretty early on. You’ve also written some advice to people who may either contract COVID-19 and need medical care, but I think your words are more generally directed to anyone who at any point has to go and seek medical care in a hospital or in a doctor’s office. You have advice to people on how to be a good patient. You want to share some of that before we go?

David Lat:

Yeah, absolutely, because I saw all kinds of patients. I had a couple of pieces of advice. I’ll share just a few. I mean, one I think was just try to be a participant in your own care. Try to keep track of what you’re going through so you can accurately inform the doctors and nurses so they can treat you properly. This is just common sense, be polite and be empathetic. These doctors and nurses, they’re on their feet, they’re working such long hours, try to see the world from their perspective. Don’t ring the call bell every five minutes with some minor random requests. There are a lot of people in the hospital. You have to understand that and respect that.

David Lat:

Then I guess the last thing I would just say was, this is the term that they use a lot in medical circles. Try to be compliant. If they tell you to do something, try to follow that because they don’t have time to necessarily explain the reasons, but there are reasons for pretty much every protocol in a hospital.

Preet Bharara:

David, we’re following your progress and you were tweeting and posting on social media that you were doing better and you’d come off the ventilator. I thought it might be nice to have this conversation, but I was not sure that I should reach out to you and then I did and you responded very quickly. Even though I think you were still in the hospital. I think it was March 30th, so two days before you were released. Then of course, you’ve done a number of interviews and you’ve done some writing. What is the reason why you were being so public in describing what’s a very personal and painful experience? What are you hoping to accomplish by doing that?

David Lat:

Well, so initially when I took social media, it was just to notify people I had interacted with that if they got symptoms, they should get tested because it was very difficult to get tested unless you could point to an interaction with a known carrier. I wanted to let everybody know that, but I got such a strong response to those initial Twitter and Facebook postings that I thought, “You know what? Why don’t I try sharing my realtime story of dealing with this disease with a broader audience? Because again, there’s just such a hunger for information about this new and unknown disease.” That’s what I’ve been doing over the past few weeks and it’s been really gratifying.

David Lat:

I mean, I’ve heard from a lot of other people struggling this disease. I’ve heard from the loved ones of people going through it. I try to offer whatever inside I can. Again, I’m not a medical or public health expert, but to the extent that something from my experience can help someone, I try to share that and I’ve tried to use the platform I have to emphasize a couple of points that this is a very serious disease that it can affect even people who are young and generally healthy like myself. I’ve also just tried to emphasize all of the public health warnings in terms of staying home and washing hands and wearing masks because I don’t know how I got this, it was so-called community spread, but I don’t think I was taking precautions.

David Lat:

I mean, I know I wasn’t taking those precautions back in early March or late February, which is probably around the time that I got infected. I think if we’re going to beat this, we really need to take concerted action and keep up with what we’re doing.

Preet Bharara:

Thanks again. Good luck to you and your family. Thanks for talking about these things. I know it can’t be easy. There were a lot of people pulling for you. We still are and continue to be an important voice, not just on COVID-19 and the issues relating to the disease, but also on all the legal things you care about and I look forward to talking with you and seeing you soon.

David Lat:

Thank you so much both for your support during the past few weeks and for having me on the show just now, Preet.

Preet Bharara:

Thank you, David. The conversation continues for members of the CAFE Insider Community. To hear the Stay Tuned bonus material with West Moore and David Lat and get the exclusive weekly CAFE Insider Podcast and other content, head to cafe.com/insider. Right now, you can try a CAFE Insider membership free for two weeks at cafe.com/insider.

Preet Bharara:

Well, that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks again to my guests, West Moore and David Lat. If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show. Send me your questions about news, politics, and justice. Tweet them to me @PreetBharara with the hashtag #AskPreet or you can call and leave me a message at 669-247-7338. That’s 669-24 Preet or you can send an email to [email protected]

Preet Bharara:

Stay Tuned is presented by CAFE. The Executive Producer is Tamara Sepper. The Senior Audio Producer is David Tatasciore, and the CAFE team is Julia Doyle, Matthew Billy, David Kurlander, Calvin Lord, Sam Ozer-Staton, and Jeff Eisenman. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara, stay tuned.

 

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Fighting for Life (with Wes Moore & David Lat)

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