A sporadically-updated list of things I found interesting or enlightening that are related to COVID19 or the coronavirus. (Arranged chronologically, collected from March 13 to April 13, 2020.)
Traditions develop because they fit the ecology and biology of the times—and get passed on because the people who do them are better off. The evolution of rituals has already begun in small ways—not congregating, not travelling, or attending meetings virtually. Around the world, many people have stopped shaking hands, a tradition that originated as a sign of trust but is now the most common way of transmitting the disease.
Just as the coronavirus fallout threatens to cause an economic recession, it’s also going to cause what we might call a “social recession”: a collapse in social contact that is particularly hard on the populations most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness — older adults and people with disabilities or preexisting health conditions.
The humanist was never really in the business of making progress. Her job is to acquire and transmit a grasp of the intrinsic value of the human experience; this is a job whose difficulty and importance rises in proportion to the awareness that all of it will be lost. It is the humanist’s task to ensure that, if and when the infertility scenario should arise, things will not stop mattering to people. We must become the specialists of finitude, the experts in loss, the scientists of tragedy.
The pandemic has me noticing how many things I touch that other people touch. God bless bathrooms with automatic faucets and doors you can push open with your elbow. Automatic door buttons are being tapped with a lot of wrists and elbows now. I’ve found that time-limited faucets, requiring multiple pushes, make it impossible to do the recommended twenty seconds of hand washing in one go. I’ve started mentally mapping where public hand sanitizers are.
#Coronamaison: French cartoonists and illustrators are drawing cozy rooms to shelter in.
Choosing to bring someone into this world is already an act of stubborn optimism — delusion, even. As we fell asleep, uneasily, the night Trump was elected, I told my husband we would never have any children now. A couple of years later, I changed my mind, and then his, though not because the world got any better. I argued that our fathers had both been born during the Second World War, his to refugees from Nazi Germany and mine to Zionists whose entire communities back in Eastern Europe had been wiped out, and if their parents could press on in 1944, in the face of literal annihilation and an unknown future, who were we to know better?
This mindset is, quite simply, contagion fuel. And it’s hardest to combat in moments like this one, when the most important actions are preventative ones. Buying toilet paper — but not so much that no one else can get any — sure. Obsessively and thoroughly washing your hands, of course. But we also have to start thinking about how our habits, our compulsions, and our desire to keep living life completely as usual — because there’s (seemingly) nothing wrong with us — will have ripple effects that will almost certainly lead to other people’s deaths or significant illnesses.
Authorities are liable to minimize the threat of an epidemic, Camus suggests, until the evidence becomes undeniable that underreaction is more dangerous than overreaction. Most people share that tendency, he writes, it’s a universal human frailty: “Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.”
One thrill of the movie is its belief in solution-driven competence. (Bonus points for having women embody that competence; they are almost saintly.) The only people who flip out are civilians: Law, as a Blogger Who Knows the Truth and Damon, who loses half his family (Paltrow was his wife) but is biologically immune (classic Damon). Watching movie stars be world-savingly smart really does lower your blood pressure.
There’s nothing like a serial assault to heighten your awareness, and that’s what we’re looking at. We’re on a cycle of about every three years of getting something like this. And each time that happens, there’s more awareness that these investments need to be made and sustained. The problem is getting these monies as part of the annual regular non-emergency funding.
Together, by John Green:
Remember that social distancing doesn’t need to mean total isolation. You can be around other people, in small groups, and keep your risk low by maintaining personal space and using good hygiene.
The world is undefeated. So really then, for all of us, life is not a matter of “winning” but of surviving as best we can — of breaking and enduring rather than bending the world to our will the way we sometimes suspect we can when we are young and arrogant.
Capitalism is killing us. There’s no way around it. While we languish inside, unpaid and uncertain, unprotected by an ideology of American exceptionalism and individualized meritocracy, RuPaul and his capitalist cohort are happily fracking at the end of the world.
Taiwan’s success in fighting an infection that has overwhelmed other places can be credited to its solutions-driven, outcomes-oriented approach to problems large and small.
Kurzgesagt explainer video on the coronavirus:
It feels, in some ways, like a dress rehearsal for a future that was already on its way — one in which more and more of us self-isolate voluntarily, interacting with the outside world only from behind screens.
Like Black Lives Matter and Me Too, the Flatten the Curve movement embodies intersectionality, as many of people who shout it the loudest are not members of the subpopulations most effected by the issue: We don’t need to be black to support Black Lives Matter, be a woman or victim of sexual violence to support Me Too, and need not be at risk of serious disease from Covid-19 to support Flatten the Curve. It has fomented a deep and profound social reckoning, and conversations about the roots and consequences of social inequalities.
Will a country that is still bitter about bailing out banks and airlines in the last financial crisis be ready to bail out ramen-yas, pupuserias, vegan sandwich counters, dosa vendors and natural wine bars? It depends on whether politicians and the public see the money as handouts to people who made bad business decisions (beginning, I suppose, with the decision to get into the restaurant business) or as a triage measure that will save the life of a national industry with sales of more than $800 billion last year.
Jason recognizes that non-essential travel is not heroic at this time, but is eventually able to convince King Pelias to trade the throne of Thessaly for three bottles of hand sanitizer and a coupon for free-delivery pizza. Recognizing that the current crisis and the cancellation of their journey to Colchis does not change the fact that the Argonauts have bills to pay and families to feed, the newly crowned King Jason sees that they are paid in full for their originally scheduled hours. Jason goes down in history as a wise ruler not at all prone to breaking off engagements with powerful sorceresses or being killed by his own boat.
A truly horrible thing to read. “I had the nicest plans but dear God does not want it that way.” Well, shit, great-great grandma. We are all now in this boat: people whose daily lives have been obliterated, normalcy and joy replaced with fear and sadness. We will likely get a little sick. We will definitely know someone who gets sick, if we don’t already. Some people will get sicker. Others will die. Children will lose their mothers. And we have no choice but to witness it; we will spend the next few months being suspicious of the air we breathe, anticipating certain pain. We had the nicest plans, but.
Sontag’s work suggests that metaphors of illness are malign in a double way: they cast opprobrium on sick people and they hinder the rational and scientific apprehension that is needed to contain disease and provide care for people. To treat illness as a metaphor is to avoid or delay or even thwart the treatment of literal illness.
Eating food is not any riskier than any number of other activities you perform on a daily basis in which you come into contact with items other people have handled. Indeed, the hygiene standards in place at food service operations make that risk even smaller.
It’s hard to jump from the latest COVID-19 headlines into the high concentration needed to work on that report, so give yourself an intermediate step. After you’ve checked the news, begin working by tackling something work-related, but low effort—like answering straightforward emails, reading an interesting report, etc. That will help turn your attention away from the news and toward your work. Then, after you’ve readjusted, try tackling that high-intensity project.
The best I can say for now is that things are uncertain. I go to work; I wash my hands. I know my son is turning because I saw him do it, once, on an ultrasound. But is that latest flutter him moving within me? I know the virus is out there, in my community, and likely even in my hospital. But is it in me? Is it already passing from the air I breathe into my bloodstream, and through my blood to him?
Resilient. Adaptable and responsive. Like our white cells, stronger together. It is when we lose the integrity of a body, a family, a community, a city, a society, a planet, that sickness creeps in, makes us less than what we are.
We don’t know exactly what this new future looks like, of course. But one can imagine a world in which, to get on a flight, perhaps you’ll have to be signed up to a service that tracks your movements via your phone. The airline wouldn’t be able to see where you’d gone, but it would get an alert if you’d been close to known infected people or disease hot spots. There’d be similar requirements at the entrance to large venues, government buildings, or public transport hubs. There would be temperature scanners everywhere, and your workplace might demand you wear a monitor that tracks your temperature or other vital signs. Where nightclubs ask for proof of age, in future they might ask for proof of immunity—an identity card or some kind of digital verification via your phone, showing you’ve already recovered from or been vaccinated against the latest virus strains.
We’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.
I would assert that we need fragility and vulnerability in our lives. We need people who have experienced struggle, people with a variety of different and uncommon needs to help us design our world. If we respect and include others who are fragile, we are compelled to create a more generous and kinder society, a society that will treat us kindly when we are at our weakest, when we are struggling. People who have difficulty with or can’t use our current systems are needed to move us forward, most innovations we take for granted today were catalyzed by the desire to circumvent a barrier experienced due to a disability. It is the people at the margins of our society that are our stress testers, they provide the early warning signs of the things that will go wrong. They also have the most compelling reasons for innovation.
This mindset is the natural endpoint of America’s hustle culture—the idea that every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement. And in a literal pandemic, as millions of us are trying to practice home isolation while also attending to the needs of our families and communities, the obscenity of pretending that work and “the self” are the only things that matter—or even exist—becomes harder to ignore.
This is not the suspension of politics. It is the stripping away of one layer of political life to reveal something more raw underneath. In a democracy we tend to think of politics as a contest between different parties for our support. We focus on the who and the what of political life: who is after our votes, what they are offering us, who stands to benefit. We see elections as the way to settle these arguments. But the bigger questions in any democracy are always about the how: how will governments exercise the extraordinary powers we give them? And how will we respond when they do?
I am consumed with trying to keep us safe. I wipe down the doorknobs, the light switches, the faucets, the handles, the counters with disinfectant. I swab my phone with alcohol. I throw the day’s hoodie into the laundry at night as if it were my scrubs. I wash all our towels, again and again. When CK wants to shower, I wipe down the whole main bathroom — where T refills his water cup, where he has had diarrhea, where he coughs and spits out phlegm — with bleach, take out T’s washcloth, towels and bathmat and replace them with clean ones, telling CK to try not to touch anything, to shower and go right back to her room. Then I do the same. If T needs to use the bathroom before we’re ready to shower, I do the whole bleach routine again before we go in. Twice, in the first week of the illness, I eased him into an Epsom-salt bath. But not since then. He is too weak. It would be too much. There is no way. When he shuffles down the hall from the bedroom to the bathroom, he lists against the wall. He splashes water on his face in the bathroom, and that has to be enough.
This kind of self-blame in a crisis is both absolutely demented and the most natural thing in the world. We can’t avoid being the central characters of our own lives, after all, and the protagonist usually has some kind of power. Especially if you have always been mostly comfortable, mostly safe, the urge is strong to explain anomalies in some way; otherwise, you have to cope with the fact that the world is cruelly stochastic, and society, even crueler, is deliberately stacked against the most oppressed.
This is the phase in which you begin to fill your newfound time learning that someone you know has the virus, someone else you know is extremely sick with the virus, and someone you know has just died from the virus. The great thickening of friendship and community that came in the days before the virus means that these losses are thicker too. Punch in the throat, punch in the throat, punch in the throat. The frantic schedule of online concerts and quarantinis starts to recede because the days are filled with the horror of what’s been lost and what might be lost and also with taking your temperature, which can take a good deal of time, especially when you’re terrified. And the worst part is the knowledge that it’s still going to get worse.
Know that you are not failing. Let go of all of the profoundly daft ideas you have about what you should be doing right now. Instead, focus intensely on your physical and psychological security. Your first priority during this early period should be securing your home. Get sensible essentials for your pantry, clean your house, and make a coordinated family plan. Have reasonable conversations with your loved ones about emergency preparedness. If you have a loved one who is an emergency worker or essential worker, redirect your energies and support that person as your top priority. Identify their needs, and then meet those needs.
As a result, we have created a frenzied lifestyle in which not a minute is to be wasted. The precious 24 hours of each day are carved up, dissected, and reduced to 10-minute units of efficiency. We become agitated and angry in the waiting room of a doctor’s office if we’ve been standing by for 10 minutes or more. We grow impatient if our laser printers don’t spit out at least five pages a minute. We cannot sit quietly in a chair for 10 minutes. And we must be connected to the grid at all times. We take our smartphones and laptops with us on vacation. We go through our email at restaurants, or our online bank accounts while walking in the park. We have become slaves to our “urgent” appointments and to-do lists and addiction to nonstop stimulation by the external world.
We are hearing the rhetoric that COVID-19 does not discriminate, and that everyone is equally at risk. While the virus may not discriminate, human systems do. Everyone infected does not have the same resources, and not everyone will be affected equally. We have seen in this time how inequality has deepened. One class of people goes to work on the frontlines largely in low-paid service jobs, while another, richer, class of people gets to sit home. Race widens those gaps.
Now the choreography of the streets has taken on higher stakes. It’s the difference between health and sickness, life and death. Inside we’re alone. Outside, a new alertness is in order, one that demands a deep connection to the position and movement of the body — or proprioception, sometimes referred to as the sixth sense. Close your eyes and balance on one foot: However much your proprioception, or sensory information kicks in, it will help you to remain upright. Wobbles and falls are normal, but that means it’s time to work on balance.
When you can’t go see live music anymore, at all, because everyone is forced to stay home, you revert back to the world of your own impulses. Your mental boundaries constrict to the size of your home, and you become a cult of one. You can learn things about yourself, but little of other people. For most of us, music lives in our heads as a rumor, something more or less indistinguishable from the sound of our thoughts. When you stream music, the sound simply materializes. It has the quality, however subconscious, of a hallucination, something happening in your own nervous system with no real analogue to the material world.
Anthropologists have long observed that people across cultures tend to perform more rituals in times of uncertainty. Stressful events such as warfare, environmental threat, and material insecurity are often linked with spikes in ritual activity.
Exercise, the outdoors, and sunshine are essential, not just as luxuries but as ways to sustain population health and resilience. That makes it important to set the right policies now. Once parks are closed, opening them back up will be harder. Authorities may dig in their heels and the issue may become more polarizing. Instead, we should start with sensible and viable policies as early as possible.
The French language helped to give the English-speaking world the term “quarantine”, which derives from quarantaine, meaning a period of 40 days. There are references to its use in French, presumed to be of biblical origin, as early as the 12th century. It was during the plague in the 14th century that Italy used the word quarantena to refer specifically to isolation for reasons of disease. Venetians employed the term to describe the period of time a ship had to wait in port as a sanitary precaution before its crew could disembark. In short, the English language borrowed the word from French and the definition from Italian.
The collective psychology of neoliberalism encourages self-interest and short-term thinking. It both creates and requires human lives that are organized around the kind of constant insecurity and stress that actively prevent us from thinking beyond the next fiscal quarter. The diseases that are most successful in the coming century will, as always, be the diseases that exploit our major failure modes and popular delusions.
In Asia, masks aren’t just shields. They’re also symbols. They’re an affirmation of civic-mindedness and conscientiousness, and such symbols might be important in other parts of the world too. If widely used, masks could signal that society is taking the pandemic threat seriously. They might reduce the stigma foisted on sick people, who would no longer feel ashamed or singled out for wearing one. They could offer reassurance to people who don’t have the privilege of isolating themselves at home, and must continue to work in public spaces. “My staff have also mentioned that having a mask reminds them not to touch their face or put a pen in their mouth,” Bourouiba noted.
We do human-challenge studies for less deadly diseases quite frequently. For example, for influenza, typhoid, cholera and malaria. There are some historical precedents for exposure to very deadly viruses. The thing that demarcates the design that we propose from some of these historical instances is that we feel there is a way to make these trials surprisingly safe.
Anticipating the need to allocate ventilators to the patients who are most likely to benefit, clinicians should proactively engage in discussions with patients and families regarding do-not-intubate orders for high-risk subgroups of patients before their health deteriorates. Once patients have already been placed on mechanical ventilation, decisions to withdraw it are especially fraught. Less than 50 years ago, physicians argued that withdrawing a ventilator was an act of killing, prohibited by both law and ethics. Today, withdrawal of ventilatory support is the most common proximate cause of death in ICU patients, and withdrawal of this support at the request of a patient or surrogate is considered an ethical and legal obligation.
(This post was last updated on April 13, 2020. For more links, pandemic-related and not, visit my recent Weekend Reading blog posts.)