Plague Year Two
This week: conversations with Camara Jones, Nicholas Christakis, and Frank Snowden about our pandemic year. Listen today at 2 pm or anytime at our website.
One year ago, we aired our first show about COVID-19, turning to specialists on the subject of plague. Now, at the start of our second pandemic year, we’re looking back on what happened since then. Frank Snowden, a Yale historian and author of Epidemics and Society, was a guest on that first show on the subject (exactly one year ago yesterday), and he talks to us again this week:
One of the most poignant questions raised during the pandemic in any country was the question that our president (then) raised: who could have known? And the point is that everyone could have known and should have known and we should have been prepared and we did not do that. And the result has been this calamity on this scale that we’re facing. . . We seem not to be willing to be patient with the measures that need to be taken. And we’re always looking for good news and we don’t wish to hear the bad news.
And I think there’s good news and bad news right now. It’s great news we have a whole wonderful new weapon in the vaccines, and I believe that’s fantastic. But at the same time, there seems to me a kind of irrational optimism that we know what’s really going to happen and we keep hearing again and again and all the media that “by summer, surely.” I think that disarms us in a very unfortunate way because it is still a perilous situation and we don’t want to make the mistake of disarming ourselves when we can actually really do something about the pandemic. We’re risking disarming ourselves. We don’t have data on the number of cases. We’ve stopped taking testing.
So we don’t actually — when we talk about the numbers falling — we don’t really know. And then we know that some of the variants now are problematic, but unlike the UK, in our country, we don’t do genetic sequencing. And so we don’t track the variants. We don’t know they’re here when they’re here. And that is something that we’ve almost chosen to do. It wasn’t inevitable. We don’t seem to wish to have a coherent national combined strategy.
America’s pandemic failure relates also to longstanding inequalities in healthcare, as we discussed in our “Viral Inequality” show from April 2020. Morehouse School of Medicine’s Dr. Camara Jones, a guest that hour, joins us this week to talk about this ongoing crisis, of which the pandemic is just another terrible chapter:
I know in Washington, D.C., they say, well, you go four stops on the metro and it’s a ten year difference in life expectancy. They’ve done it in Chicago on the L and it’s just, you know, this little distance and this amount of difference in life expectancy. So many cities have used those data to help people understand that it’s the conditions of our lives and not our genetic ancestry, nor even our health behaviors. And I would say this: our health behaviors are constrained. They are limited by the conditions of our lives. You cannot make a healthy choice if it’s not a choice at all to you.
Sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis recognized the peril of COVID-19 early. Now he’s back on our show to tell us what the outlook appears to be:
We’re going to live in this changed world between now and the end of 2021, but afterwards we will enter the intermediate period, which will last another couple of years until the end of 2023, approximately. And that’s when we recover from the social, economic, psychological and clinical shock. It’s like a tsunami washing over our nation.
Read: The Magic Mountain
In the comments on our show with George Saunders about Russian literature, our commenter Potter praised Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain for its own Tolstoy-like, snowy confrontation with human extremity. The character Hans Castorp of Mann’s novel spends seven years at a TB sanatorium in the Alps, where he discovers so much that applies to our past year, too: sickness triumphant, Enlightenment in crisis, frenzied political rumination, and blearily ruminative life in a time of social distance.
The novel’s moments of recognition include a terrifying and exhilarating passage when Castorp gets lost in the mountains, then loses himself further in dreams and ecstatic thought (the following is from the John E. Woods translation of Castorp’s thoughts):
Death is a great power. You take off your hat and tiptoe past his presence, rocking your way forward. He wears the ceremonial ruff of what has been, and you put on austere black in his honor. Reason stands foolish before him, for reason is only virtue, but death is freeom and kicking over the traces, chaos and lust. Lust, my dream says, not love. Death and love—there is no rhyming them, that is a preposterous rhyme, a false rhyme. Love stands opposed to death—it alone, and not reason, is stronger than death . . . For the sake of goodness and love, man shall grant death no dominion over his thoughts.
Sátántangó, Béla Tarr’s 7.5 hour 1994 film about an anomic farming collective under government surveillance, is, above all, 7.5 hours long. It emphasizes your experience of time as much as its own story, as much as the stark lines and ordered disorder of its staging. Sátántangó might be, then, the best film about your connecton to time in a world of social murkiness (a popular subject ever since the pandemic warped our temporality and social coherence).
Jonathan Rosenbaum has written about the Faulknerian demands of this long, long Hungarian movie, which implicate the viewer more than shorter films can. You have to work with Sátántangó, because it’s basically as long as a work day. While watching it, you’re cooperating with the camera as a sort of investigator, trying to figure out what’s here, why is it here, why is it worth watching for so many hours. You’re taking your time as an investigator would, and you have to in order to make your way through Tarr’s muddy universe. Sátántangó gives you that time in such abundance that if you don’t take it you would abandon the movie. Here’s Rosenbaum:
Part of the greatness of Béla Tarr’s radical film adaptation of László Krasznahorkai’s first novel, Sátántangó, is a curious combination of faithfulness and what might be described as the theoretical limits of any possible faithfulness in the “translation” of prose into sounds and images. There’s something undeniably startling as well as radical about converting a novel that’s only 274 pages long (in its graceful English translation by George Szirtes) into a film that lasts 450 minutes, but the relation between the long sentences of the former and the long takes of the latter is central to that conversion. The experience of following a sentence may not necessarily be identical to the experience of following one or more characters, whether this is on a page or on a screen, but the existential aspect of implicating us in the shape and duration of an event while we attend to it, with all the moral and political ramifications this “collaboration” implies, is common to both experiences.
This week’s ephemeral library
Robin D.G. Kelley on the Cornel West tenure fight. Annie Lowery on the success of Stockton’s basic income experiment. The Don McNeil Saga continues in McNeil’s Medium posts. Benjamin Wallace Wells on vaccine-resisters.