COVID on the Ballot

This week: conversations with Dr. David Shumway Jones and Dr. Nicholas Christakis about the coronavirus pandemic. Listen today at 2 pm or anytime at our website.

Amped-up fear, uncertainty, hatred, and a pandemic that’s already killed over 230,000 of us have set the scene for this year’s Election Day. Voters will inevitably consider the president’s response to the coronavirus, such as his aggressive anti-mask and anti-testing efforts during the pandemic. (The anti-mask stuff alone is estimated to have caused thousands of American deaths.)

Some voters may also recall the February and March conversations with Bob Woodward in which the president acknowledged, contrary to his public statements urging us to treat coronavirus as we would the flu, that he knew the coronavirus was more deadly than the flu, and that he was deliberately downplaying its dangers. One of our guests this week, Dr. Nicholas Christakis, Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale, was one of many health experts who tried to sound the alarm on coronavirus during that time. “I knew what was happening in February,” he tells us:

You know, there were experts around the country . . . who knew what was happening. The president was briefed by the National Security Agency. The president should have known what was happening. United States senators apparently were briefed. Some of them chose to sell stock rather than speak candidly to the American people. They knew what was happening.

Our other guest, meanwhile, tells us what he missed in the earlier stage of the pandemic. On our March 19th show this year, Dr. David Shumway Jones, a historian of medicine at Harvard, said of the incipient pandemic response in America at the time: “maybe we’re overreacting.” He pointed out there were then no deaths in Massachusetts. This was before the U.S. became the world’s leader in COVID deaths, and before the now nearly 10,000 coronavirus deaths just in Massachusetts.

Jones speaks with tough honesty of the hard lessons he’s learned since that March conversation. “I certainly hadn’t predicted in March that we would be facing 230,000 deaths seven months later,” he says (earlier in March, the CDC had estimated that 200,000 to 1.7 million people could die in the U.S.). From Jones:

One of the things I have learned is I think humility. It’s very easy as a historian to look back at past epidemics and think that we understood what happened then and therefore we can understand what’s happening now. And I think history is very useful for telling us those things. But I have also just been perplexed time and time again over the past seven months, things I wouldn’t have anticipated.

Overlooked, especially, were the politics of this pandemic, which became increasingly perilous as the months went on. Jones describes coming to recognize those politics, and the realization that those political complications would contribute dramatically to the course of COVID:

Initially, I didn’t expect how politicized this would be. If you had asked me in March, did I think mask-wearing would become a political statement? I don’t think I would have expected that. Now, in retrospect, it’s not much of a surprise. Everything about our responses to epidemics have always been politicized, throughout history.

And the politics of natural disasters have left deep imprints on the U.S., he tells us:

When yellow fever hit Philadelphia in 1793, when Philadelphia was still the nation’s capital, that epidemic became one of the founding causes of the two party system that we still suffer from today . . . And it’s eerie reading these accounts now in light of the Broadway musical Hamilton, because it split the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans.

So Jefferson was on one side. Hamilton was on the other. It split based on who was more or less allied to France, because one of the major sources of yellow fever was perceived to be French refugees who were fleeing the Haitian revolution and coming to the United States. Jefferson, who was pro France, wanted to let the refugees in. Hamilton, who was less than enthusiastic about France, was more willing to let keep the refugees out.

But history, as Jones suggests, doesn’t always prepare us for pandemic chaos, in part because we have a history of not learning from history, or from experience, or from others. We’ve had a hard time learning, generally. Jones says, looking back over a year of disaster:

When we saw what was happening in Italy and France in late February, we could have acted and prepared more aggressively, but we didn’t. We assumed that we would be more effective than they were and be spared a dire strike from COVID. New York City proved us wrong. That terrible epidemic there was evident by late March.

Nicholas Christakis says:

What this country should have done from the beginning is: there should have been an effort to educate the public for our collective threat. We have a collective peril. It’s like we’re being invaded. And what we needed is, is political leadership and public health leadership that prepared the public for the nature of the predicament we were in, saying look, this is what we are facing. This is what we are going to be called to do. It’s going to be unpleasant. People are going to die. The economy is going to slow down. This is what happens in a time of plague.

Watch: Satyagraha

This week, the Metropolitan Opera’s free “nightly opera stream” has been showing political operas. Tonight (Sunday November 1st only) that free opera is Philip Glass’s Satyagraha:

Following the success of his first foray into opera, Einstein on the Beach, revolutionary American composer and musician Philip Glass soon turned to another great figure of the 20th century for inspiration. Set to lines from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, Satyagraha depicts scenes (arranged thematically rather than chronologically) from the life of Gandhi as he developed his philosophy of non-violent resistance in South Africa between 1896 and 1913. The opera became the second installment of Glass’s Portrait Trilogy, which also includes Einstein on the Beach and Akhnaten and focuses on innovators from across history. Satyagraha arrived at the Met during the 2007–08 season, when director Phelim McDermott made his debut with a production that employed everyday materials like newspaper and corrugated tin to create towering puppets and striking tableaus.

Read: Apollo’s Arrow

In Nicholas Christakis’s encyclopedic and magisterial new book, Apollo’s Arrow, he describes the long history of pandemics along with our current one. And you realize, reading it, that some of the basic ways we could have responded to the pandemic have long been known:

Since it’s generally unrealistic to stop importation, an alternative is to try to contain the epidemic through testing, tracing, and isolation, especailly of early cases arriving or being detected in a given region . . . physicians in the early sixteenth century demonstrated a preliminary understanding of the principles underlying such contact tracing by attempting to track the progression of syphilis through contemporary histories.

Support Open Source on Patreon

The best way to support Open Source is over at, where Open Source’s patrons can find a growing audio library. This week, you can also find Adam Colman’s conversation with the journalist Maia Szalavitz, about the pragmatic kindness or “harm reduction” responses to addiction and other public health problems. Become a patron here!

This week’s ephemeral library

Frank Rich prepares you for some worst-case Election Day scenarios. On the one hand: Jacob Silverman at the New Republic on Glenn Greenwald, the role of editors, and “a new media venture that seems destined to showcase the most insufferable people in American media”; on the other, Taibbi on Greenwald and “relentless pressure to publish material favorable to the Democratic Party cause.” Comparing COVID’s toll to other disasters, as of September 2020. Jane Mayer on the realities Trump could face after the election. Jill Lepore on the trouble with election predictions. The Birth of an Extraordinary Progressive Movement.AOC’s Next Four Years. The US came so close to abolishing the electoral college in the 60’s.

Hang on, hang in there, and vote!

The OS Trackers



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.