Public Health Across the Pacific

Illustration by Susan Coyne.

This week: a conversation with Jim Yong Kim and Warwick Anderson about public health disparities between the Asia-Pacific region and the United States. Listen today at 2 pm or find it anytime on our website.

Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the public health expert, former president of Dartmouth College and former president of the World Bank, brings essential clarity to the questions that should be on everyone’s mind now: why have countries in the Asia-Pacific region—like Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, China, and South Korea—responded so well to the coronavirus, maintaining death tolls that are a fraction of a fraction of the U.S. coronavirus death toll? What explains the catastrophic loss of life in the U.S.—a catastrophe that other places have avoided?

As they say on public radio, let’s do the numbers. Look at deaths per capita: New York State has 900 deaths per million New Yorkers; Malaysia has 3. Massachusetts has lost 460 people per million; New Zealand 4. Connecticut — 600 people per million population. China: 3.

America seems to have barely any grasp of strategies other countries have used to control the virus. For Kim, it’s simply a matter of public health policies that are in place across the Pacific and not here.

They not only did the social distancing, they did it often much more strictly than I said, but in some cases they did it less strictly in Singapore, in Korea. They did it less strictly. But what they all had in common is that they tested much more broadly. They traced contacts. In other words, whenever there’s a positive case, they would go and find out all the people that that positive case had been in touch with. And then they quarantine them—in other words, got them out of circulation until they knew what they were, positive or negative.

Dr. Jim Yong Kim.

And then when they found people who were positive, they isolate. Isolation is the word we use for separating people who are proven to be positive. And they quarantine (which is the word we use for people who are suspected to be positive) quarantine them in in places where we knew they were not going to transmit the infection. So the whole point is stopping the transmission, and the the social distancing part. . . . The Asian countries that have been successful, this is what all of them knew. They knew that social distancing would only go so far. Social distancing can stop transmission between households. But then what happens in every place? What’s happening in Spain and Italy now is that . . . the cases then start coming from transmission within households. So social distancing alone can not stop transmission within households. For that, you need testing, tracing, isolation, and quarantine.

Warwick Anderson gave us a case study of Australia, which has kept the death toll from coronavirus also impressively low. One of the few missteps there, he says, was barring foreigners from entering the country but having an exception for Americans.

That was the problem, because most of the infections in Australia have come from Americans or Australians who have been to America rather than from China. But the problem was that we trusted the US government when they said that there wasn’t much coronavirus . . . And so it was a bit like Indonesia. Indonesia even now claims there’s not much SARS-Cov-2 in Indonesia because they don’t test. If you don’t test, you won’t find it, obviously.

Watch: Black Narcissus

We’re not going outside like we used to, but if you can access movies, you can access a kind of outside. For example, Powell and Pressburger’s 1947 Black Narcissus (a story of a convent in the Himalayas), is, according to the BFI:

very much a landscape film. The Himalayan topography is a Technicolor dream — vibrant like the hidden fantasies of many of the characters. The dramatic shot of Sister Clodagh ringing the convent’s bell in desperation summarises the film perfectly. In the matte painting of the mountain chasm (by the brilliant Walter Percy Day, with assistance from his sons, Arthur and Thomas), the gulf looks as though it could descend infinitely. But it’s equally the precipice of Sister Clodagh’s inner world. The world of her past passions is an emotional chasm that the landscape around forces her to confront — alongside Mr Dean’s impossibly short shorts, of course.

It’s a movie that deserves rigorous critique; it brings out the artificial and dehumanizing grandiosity of imperial imagination. The old-magazine-looking matte painting landscape, in all its vast uncanniness, activates that artificial enormity in a way that haunts and continues to linger in Marvel movies or Star Wars films.

Listen: Barry Lam on our Patreon

This week, Open Source Patreon patrons can find a conversation with Barry Lam, host of Slate’s Hi-Phi Nation podcast and a philosophy professor at Vassar College. Lam talks to Adam Colman about the philosophical considerations brought to mind by social isolation and quarantine. The way lockdown limits possibilities and our sense of social timeframes, he says, radically alters our senses of ourselves.

Read: Carson McCullers

On the subject of social isolation, you should also read Carson McCullers, whose fiction makes much of the drama and imaginative tension of loneliness. Consider, for instance, her collection The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, where you can read about how solitary deceptions—the mind’s exploration of possibilities that Barry Lam describes—might make up a life. The following is from one of the stories in the collection, “Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland”:

Day and night she had drudged and struggled and thrown her soul into her work, and there was not much of her left over for anything else. Being human, she suffered from this lack and did what she could to make up for it. If she passed the evening bent over a table in the library and later declared that she had spent that time playing cards, it was as though she had managed to do both those things. Through the lies, she lived vicariously. The lies doubled the little of her existence that was left over from work and augmented the little rag end of her personal life.

This Week’s Ephemeral Library

Jim Kim: It’s Not Too Late to go on Offense Against the Coronavirus. Jeff Sachs: What Asian Nations Know about Squashing Covid. Donald Trump is Vector in Chief. Laurie Garrett on years of death and rage. Together Alone. Finding infinite worlds in music with Daniel Levin Becker. What Rousseau Knew About Solitude. And finally a poem: At The Ruins of Yankee Stadium by Campbell McGrath.

That’s all from us! Get outside and enjoy the sunshine while maintaining safe distances. Please support all your favorite shows and podcasts, and send us a note about how you’re doing.

Your contact tracers at OS.




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

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

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