Pop Culture

How Sean Penn Went to War Against COVID

Seven months ago, if you told me I would be bumming a cigarette from Sean Penn in a parking lot repurposed from Dodger Stadium for emergency use during a viral pandemic, the two of us surrounded by hundreds of cars full of nervous people afraid their bodies harbored an invisible predator that had attacked over seven million of their fellow Americans and killed almost a quarter million of them, all while the same contagion swept the world, shuttered countries, blew up the global economy—I would have said, Oh fuck, yeah, because clearly I’d be on set for a big-budget disaster film starring the two-time Oscar winner, perhaps directed by him, in any case, amazing, beautiful, sounds like 2020 is going to be pretty spectacular.

“Seven months ago” feels a lot longer and bigger than seven months ago.

Seven months ago, zoom was a verb, my wife wasn’t my barber, and I’d never heard my father sobbing on the other end of the phone. In that world, I also didn’t spend my Saturdays volunteering at what may be the United States’ largest testing center for a novel coronavirus—but now I do. I look forward to it all week. Oddly enough, standing in a Dodger Stadium parking lot with Sean Penn barely ranks on the list of weird shit occurring in my life at this moment.

Unlike many famous people, Penn is exactly as tall as you expect him to be. Forthright, friendly, more measured than I would have thought, also present almost in a pained way—which suited the environment. Around us were hundreds of possibly sick people. Several dozen more in gloves and masks and face shields were there to help. I mentioned to Penn the esprit de corps I’d noticed among the staff, that I often felt myself as a volunteer. “It’s even opened my eyes, the way people connect to participating,” he said quietly. “It’s really taken some of the layers of cynicism away. In an incredibly cynical time.”

During a pandemic, time feels elastic, but some things are certain. Winter is coming. Signs indicate a third wave of the coronavirus is about to whack the United States. The absence of government leadership on COVID-19 continues to shock, if not awe—and Hollywood celebrities haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory. At the same time, since March, Los Angeles has been a leader in the fight—and Penn has emerged as an unlikely figure in that success. Thanks to CORE, a nonprofit he cofounded with international aid expert Ann Young Lee a decade ago, in collaboration with the city and the Los Angeles Fire Department and their local testing partner, Curative, anyone can visit the baseball stadium or one of several other fixed and mobile testing sites across L.A. and get a COVID test for free—regardless of symptoms, citizenship, health insurance, or local address—with highly accurate results in under 48 hours. Dodger Stadium handles up to 7,500 patients a day. Los Angeles County can process 20,000. And thanks in part to a $30 million grant from Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, CORE has been able to set up similar programs across the country, focused on vulnerable and underserved communities—37 sites in total, from Navajo Nation to New Orleans to New York City—in what appears to be, based on my research, one of the United States’ largest coronavirus testing programs, if not the largest.

All because a couple years ago at Coachella, Sean Penn walked onstage and asked a crowd if anybody wanted a ride in his bus. And what happened afterward, weirdly enough, offers both ideas and solid hope for how we’ll get through whatever is coming next.

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