The sun has barely risen over Los Angeles when a line of cars is already starting to form at the entrance to Dodger Stadium on this balmy February morning. Home of the eponymous baseball team, the stadium has not seen the shadow of a spectator since March 2020. Cars, on the other hand, by the millions, have crossed its huge parking lot right through. Until January, their drivers received Covid tests there, which they administered themselves, without leaving the cabin; since then, people have come to be vaccinated according to the “drive-in” principle that governs so many activities in this metropolis of the automobile. Just as you grab a Starbucks coffee to drink while driving on the freeway, you can get the vaccine injected in a parking lot with your hands on the wheel. However, it takes longer than for an espresso: count at least an hour, more realistically two.
The largest American “vaccinodrome”, Dodger Stadium currently welcomes nearly 10,000 patients per day (with a peak of 11,000). But its capacity could easily double, Sean Penn assures us, if only sufficient vaccine doses were available. Sean Penn? Himself. The actor-director is at the origin of this pharaonic project with his NGO, Core. As the epidemic spreads to the city in March, he requests a meeting with the governor (Gavin Newsom), the mayor of Los Angeles (Eric Garcetti), and offers them his help. They accept without hesitation. “Since the earthquake in Haiti, we have learned to respond to emergencies,” explains the star. We first worked with the Los Angeles fire department on small operational test sites, and then we were able to put in place, very quickly, what you see there. ”
With Ann Lee, co-director of Core, and Alex De Jesus, his communications director, Penn is visiting us. He first details the general logistics of the site. A forest of orange traffic signs (30,000, boasted mayor Eric Garcetti at the opening on January 20) stands out below, a veritable labyrinth where thousands of cars meander continuously, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., six days a week. Then, in each of the three divisions (“Alpha, Bravo and Charlie: we see that it is the firefighters who designed the system”, slips Alex De Jesus), the motorists wait patiently for a group of sworn caregivers come to them, equipped with simple coolers where the vaccine doses are located (Moderna, less demanding in terms of the cold chain) and all the equipment to administer it. IPad in the left hand (to check all the patient’s information), syringe in the right, the employees of Carbon Health (the medical company with which the city has contracted) prick their arms, one after the other, and make sure, within half an hour, that the person does not have an anaphylactic shock. We are certainly in the land of privatized health, but it is largely public money that finances the operation, with a few patrons in addition.
“We are the only organization to do this in the United States”
And Core in all of this? Its 350 employees are the backbone of the vaccinodrome. In yellow vest and mask on the face, they are divided into two teams, morning and evening. The firefighters supervise, the doctors vaccinate and the Core team organizes, explains, channels, makes sure that everything is as smooth as possible. Most are young people, unemployed or driven from their campuses by the pandemic, who have found this a useful way to earn $ 20 an hour (a generous fee, in a state where the minimum wage is around $ 13). . Others are retirees, who work here as volunteers. This is the case of Lynn, a former teacher who proudly wears a purple mane: “I was bored, alone at home. When I learned that I could be of service here, spending my days surrounded by energetic young people, I jumped in my car and volunteered. ”
Quadra resolute, Ann Lee joined the NGO to take the lead in 2016. She insists on what makes the strength and the specificity of Core, in emergency situations: “Although we are not exclusively an organization of health, we know how to act quickly, understand priority needs. Sean Penn underlines the decisive role of the mayor of the city, who, faced with the lack of national coordination and the carelessness of President Trump, was able to take the lead in March, in particular allocating resources for masks and the tests.
We saw the actor-director in early April 2020, planted on the edge of Sunset Boulevard. Recognizable by his voice, his quickdraw, despite his sanitary mask hiding his face, he went to meet the cars, indicated the tent where to be tested. For him, the Covid-19 pandemic, although unprecedented, has something familiar. As one more episode in this long list of natural disasters, plagues, disasters, which he has faced all his life: Hurricane Katrina, Typhoon Matthew, Haiti earthquake, Iraq war, he went over all the fronts. When there is an emergency, he goes for it, without asking too many questions. Because he knows from experience that the first moments are crucial, in this kind of situation, to save lives. We remember these images worthy of an action film, in the middle of the Katrina slump in 2005: a man alone, on a small boat, oars to recover desperate victims, mounted on the roof of their house.
Some evil spirits then laughed at a staging, without knowing that, far from a simple bravado, Penn’s approach to helping victims of crises is part of a very thoughtful process. So much so that his NGO is now considered a model of its kind by the American authorities, combining responsiveness and long-term programs. On January 12, 2010, when an earthquake of unprecedented magnitude shook Haiti, nearly 250,000 people died there. In a few hours, Penn mobilizes a network of doctors, rescuers, civil servants, to act immediately, on the spot. Core was born. Community Organized Relief Effort puts forward, as its title says, two notions: the community, in the American sense of the term, that is to say the local, the civil society (as opposed to the federal, to the government) and “the relief effort” (relief effort): it is about coming to the aid of deprived, discriminated and marginalized communities. “We’re the only organization doing this in the United States,” says Ann Lee. A lot of the culture we have created comes from Sean’s temperament. He’s the kind of person who tells you without hesitation, “Sell my car if needed! You have to do what is necessary immediately, and the money will arrive soon after ”. Impossible to see, under the mask, if the compliment makes him blush. He immediately follows an anecdote that is close to his heart. It takes place in Savannah, Georgia, a predominantly African-American, poor city, where Core is also present through mobile units deployed in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods: “There, we understood that the only people what older people listen to, who can be stubborn, are their grandchildren. To get the message across, you have to send the 6-year-old children to their grandmother, explain to them that she will have to prepare for the arrival of a hurricane. The important thing is not just the message you send, but who you send it to, ”he concludes.
Sean Penn is something of an anti-Hollywood legend, you might say. On screen, he likes the characters of beautiful losers and lively skinned, depressive, alcoholic, vulnerable, does not hesitate to disguise himself (“This Must Be the Place”), leaving the Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and others the care to embody the american hero full of testosterone, flying to the rescue of the widow and the orphan. In real life, on the other hand, he undeniably has this temperament to which we can associate the somewhat overused notions of courage and heroism, a hothead tendency. Like, among other things, going to Istanbul to investigate the assassination of Saudi journalist Khashoggi; in Iran and Iraq, to meet opponents of power; or in Bolivia, free an American hostage from the hands of a militia. So much so that we were worried, at the end of 2019, when the fires of Malibu were unleashed. We already knew him, we went to his house, this house located right in the middle of the disaster area. We had followed, hour after hour, the progression of the flames on the Internet. We had imagined him braving the fire alongside the firefighters. And it was not lacking, as common relations let us know. When we found him three weeks later, in the same house, ultimately spared by the flames, which had only passed a few meters away, he preferred not to dwell on the incident. In his living room, under a gigantic portrait of his friend and mentor Charles Bukowski, still lay a few blankets. His whole house, inside and outside patio, had been transformed into a rescue and accommodation center. Dozens of people who fled the fire, acquaintances or quidams, were gathered at his home.
In his toilet, framed, this letter he wrote to George W. Bush in 2002, published in the “Washington Post”: “Like you,” he writes, “I am a father and an American. […]. Like you, I am a patriot. However, I do not believe in a simplistic and provocative view of right and wrong […]. Many of your actions taken or proposed today seem to violate all the defining principles of this country of which you are president. […]. ”He then described to us what he feared for his country: an unprecedented climate of violence, as he recounts in his first novel,“ Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff ”. A very dark allegory of a paranoid America, the book recounts the misadventures of a builder of septic tanks, wandering in search of a meaning to give to his life, from the United States to Iraq. “It’s a bit like the mise en abyme of the American dream,” he told us at the time. The idea that if you push this dream all the way, you’re going to find yourself in some kind of civil war. The civil war, the United States finally resisted, despite the temptations of some, and despite the oil thrown on the fire by its former president. The new one, fortunately, “takes the problems head-on,” he rejoices. Starting with this epidemic which obviously did not disappear on its own, contrary to what a Trumpian prophecy announced. That the massive vaccination campaign at Dodger Stadium began on January 20, the day Joe Biden was inaugurated, is of course a coincidence, but it is loaded with symbols.
After a slow start in the state of California, the pace is picking up, with doses arriving faster, thanks to better federal coordination. Penn would like to go even faster, even harder. And for that, change mentalities. We live in a globalized world that is not limited to the United States. With the worsening climate crisis, governments can no longer do it all alone. We will have to recognize that organizations like Core can no longer be the exception. We need citizens to act. »With his experience in the four corners of the world, he now calls for the creation of a compulsory civil service, to mobilize the youth in the face of the looming cataclysms. Starting with the climate emergency, another of Core’s spearheads. Once the visit is over, he greets us, slips two words to his accomplice Ann Lee, and rushes into his car, a large gray engine, flanked by the Core logo, equipped with a ram bumper to break through. passage on congested grounds. Good luck to whoever wants to stop it.