COVID-19 vs. Incompetence

A conversation with Arthur Kleinman, David Jones, and Megan Murray about this year’s viral pandemic. Listen at 2 pm today or anytime at our site.

Last week saw an incompetent and strangely xenophobic response from certain U.S. leaders to the coronavirus pandemic. Here in the U.S., we know that we have abysmally low testing capabilities for the virus compared to other countries, and we know that the disease has been spreading, but it seemed that some were more concerned with electability and the historic stock market plunge. Dr. Arthur Kleinman, psychiatrist and anthropologist at Harvard, says on our new show, “Economic language has become the defining language to look at any threat or concern.”

Dr. Arthur Kleinman, author of The Soul of Care.

That language won’t help us understand a deadly pandemic. Where do we look for answers, then? Harvard professor David S. Jones says on our show this week that we might look to the past for cautionary tales as much as for wisdom: “Into the nineteenth century, when there were cholera epidemics in the United States, the government responded by holding national days of prayer. Given some of the characters who are in the current administration, I’ve actually been waiting to see if one of them does do that; I wouldn’t be astonished at this point if people call for divine intervention to try to bail us out.”

Credit to David “Nostradamus” (not his actual nickname) Jones: this is precisely what Trump did shortly after our show. He’s called for disease-themed prayer—this from the president whose misinformation campaign about the coronavirus has imperiled everyone.

Dr. David S. Jones, author of Rationalizing Epidemics.

According to Dr. Kleinman, “There’s an economic denial and, two, a psychological denial, and you could say the third is a denial of government. Whether the government is socialist or whether it’s capitalist, bad news and negative things don’t appeal politically and you play them down.”

But the news is bad, no matter how much we might deny it, or how much the preservation of our normal selves requires that we deny it: the news really is bad. Dr. Megan Murray, also of Harvard, told us, “We’re estimating that somewhere between 40 and 70% of the world’s population could be infected.” Infected with a virus whose kill rate seems now to be somewhere around 1–3.5%. Consider what that means on a planet of well over 7 billion people.

Dr. Megan Murray, epidemiologist at Harvard.

David S. Jones tells us, “Societies are often very slow to recognize the problem that they face . . . I think that you see that in the United States over the past month . . . Once it’s recognized, then societies demand an explanation . . . who is to blame? The blame dynamic has been a part of every epidemic response and it rarely produces anything useful, and it’s been very disappointing to see how blame has played out here, and you can even see it in Trump’s talk . . . about ‘the foreign virus’ introduced to us by China.”

Jones makes clear that a great deal can be learned from history: “One of the things that’s so interesting about epidemics: because societies have been dealing with these for thousands of years, some of the best techniques are really ancient techniques. The thing that has worked so well in part in China and South Korea has been quarantine. Quarantine is a 14th century technology, if not older.”

If there’s a moral here, it’s that we need to be more thoughtful, expansively so, about health. Dr. Arthur Kleinman sums it up: “Care is what keeps our society together, and when it comes down to it, health is of enormous importance, of importance greater than economics, politics, just about everything else. That’s why, it seems to me, this is exactly the moment for people to make the case for supporting public health.”

Listen: McCoy Tyner

McCoy Tyner, photo by Michael Lutch.

The jazz pianist McCoy Tyner has died, leaving an immeasurable influence. From The Guardian:

Tyner’s methods have influenced every generation of jazz pianist since the 1960s, and he stood shoulder to shoulder with such illustrious keyboard modernists as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans.

Listen to McCoy Tyner’s music here:

Read: The Athenian Plague

We’re all at home (or should be at home), so it’s time for ambitious reading, and the more you read, the more you realize how much contagion and plague have figured into literature, history, and politics.

Here’s Thucydides, on the Athenian plague, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, capturing—even in this difficult translation—the grim universality that plague reveals:

[T]hey died some for want of attendance and some again with all the care and physic that could be used. Nor was there any to say certain medicine that applied must have helped them; for if it did good to one, it did harm to another . . . But the greatest misery of all was the dejection of mind in such as found themselves beginning to be sick (for they grew presently desperate and gave themselves over without making any re­sistance). . .

Thucydides also describes the horrible bind of caring-for-the-sick-and-being-infected versus not-caring-and-creating-misery:

For if men forebore to visit them for fear, then they died forlorn; whereby many families became empty for want of such as should take care of them. If they forbore not, then they died themselves, and principally the honestest men. For out of shame they would not spare themselves but went in unto their friends, especially after it was come to this pass that even their domestics, wearied with the lamentations of them that died and overcome with the greatness of the calamity, were no longer moved therewith. But those that were recovered had much compassion both on them that died and on them that lay sick, as having both known the misery themselves and now no more subject to the danger. For this disease never took any man the second time so as to be mortal. And these men were both by others counted happy, and they also themselves, through excess of present joy, conceived a kind of light hope never to die of any other sickness hereafter.

Watch: Chantal Akerman‘s News From Home

If you’re inside, and if you’ve subscribed to Criterion’s streaming service, you can still vicariously venture out into the world through cinema, or at least your TV screen’s approximation of cinema. In Chantal Akerman’s epistolary News from Home, empty streets suggestive of a quarantined city meditatively take you through a lost New York.

This week’s ephemeral library:

Trump now needs the hospitals he’s alienated. Drowning a virus in money. Nativist flailing during a pandemic. Andrew Sullivan: Reality Arrives to the Trump Era. Flatten the Curve. A Cautionary Tale from Italy:Don’t Do What We Did. Capitalism Vs Coronavirus.

Stay safe, wash your hands and do your part to flatten the curve!

The OS Virus Hunters



An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.

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Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.