Randemic Thoughts

Coronavirus (from the CDC Website)

Believe it or not, over the last year, I have tried to focus, focus, focus my posts on a specific topic within the listed areas in a way that would be personal and informative.  Since late February, I have found this difficult because I have been 100% distracted by the current coronavirus pandemic.  I don’t consider that a contradiction, being both consumed and scattered by a single event.  Trying to stay up-to-date over the last 7 weeks has been challenging and necessary.  It has also made everything else seem trivial.  I can’t break out of the coronavirus thought jacket, but I will wriggle enough here to address some seemingly random but pandemic-related thoughts.

Please understand that we here at home have little to complain about.  Our basic needs are well met and we have financial security thanks to our retirement pensions.  Those closest to us also seem to be managing well, and for that we are thankful.  So, unlike many Americans, we are not worrying about how to pay the rent or keep the electricity on, where our next meal is coming from, or who is going to take care of our parents or children, or do I have to risk infecting everyone at home every time we go out the door.  Nor do we have to worry about medical costs if we do get sick, as we have both Medicare and gap insurance.  I claim the right to whine about minor things, but they are trivial.

How Do We Provide Context?

As an archaeologist, I am always searching for context, i.e., how to understand what is happening now within a larger society.  That has been difficult as I can find nothing in my life that matches this event.  My rock of reference has been the 1918 influenza pandemic and it has been instructive on both what is the same and what is different.  What is different (and this is no news to anyone, really) is that the 1918 influenza was more lethal than the current virus. The 1918 flu was caused by an H1N1 virus; the current disease is a severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), caused by a novel or new coronavirus, named COVID-19.   In 1918, we didn’t know whether it was a bacterial infection or a viral infection (the 1918 influenza was also viral in origin).  Then, we did not understand the value of social distancing.  Witness the September 28, 1918 Liberty Bond Parade in Philadelphia, which was catastrophic to the city’s residents and helped make Philadelphia the hardest hit city in the Country.  The country’s best medical scientists led us to a false vaccine attempt based on a bacterial theory. Even had they suspected a virus, it was unlikely they could have practically developed a vaccine before the end of the outbreak in 1920.  

In this Sept. 28, 1918 photo provide by the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command the Naval Aircraft Factory float moves south on Broad Street escorted by Sailors during the a parade meant to raise funds for the war effort, in Philadelphia.

The 1918 outbreak also coincided with WWI. Then, US troops were the primary agents for spreading the disease across the Country and to Europe. In 1918, in all likelihood the pandemic began in Kansas, and was spread across the country and into the battlefields of Europe.  The disease was also particularly savage on young adults, being less destructive on the very young and very old, and compared to COVID-19 was a nasty little bugger in both symptoms and mortality.  The death toll in 1918 was 675,000, more than the total of all US deaths in combat up to that point, including the Civil War and WWI.  Although we are not yet finished with this current pandemic, with discipline and effort, we should not reach anywhere close to that, even with currently 3 times the 1918 population.  Although there is still some debate about this, the 1918 influenza was more seasonal, hitting harder in the Spring and Fall than in the Summer. We have no reason to believe that the COVID-19 has a seasonal profile.  Finally, we now have the ability to test for the virus and confirm it is or is not in a patient. That we couldn’t do in 1918, although the symptoms were pretty clear.

Digging Trench Graves for Epidemic Victims, Philadelphia. Undated newspaper article,
late 1918 

That being said, I do believe there are some eerie similarities with the 1918 pandemic which are instructive.  First, both viruses are highly contagious, with COVID-19 even more contagious, having a higher R-nought value (2.2) than the 1918 virus (1.8).  In 1918, the disease roared through the cities first, consuming all of the available material. (Infection tends to peter out when everyone who could possibly be infected gets infected and the disease has no new subjects.)  Then it took a break of a few weeks and roared through more rural areas until it had reached every town in America.  The 1918 influenza also came in at least 3 waves, in the Spring, the Fall, and the Winter.  Unmitigated, the COVID-19 should follow a similar trajectory given its infectiousness, flaring up in the cities, then travelling the countryside, in successive waves.

The second similarity is that in both 1918 and today, there is no vaccine.  There may be a vaccine in a year, but not today.  It is a new virus for which we do not have any immunity or way to protect ourselves from infection.  Despite our much advanced knowledge of viruses and abilities to construct vaccines, as of April 21, 2020, we’ve got nothing.  As far as treatment goes, we have roughly the same toolkit we had in 1918 – oxygen and other care for the pneumonia, and antibody treatment.

Public reaction to the pandemic was quite similar – denial (doctors warned the Philadelphia Health Department to not hold the September 28th parade), blame on aliens and immigrants, quack cures, ineffective masks, quarantining of towns.  In 1918, the Federal response was to leave it up to the States and municipalities to manage, but in 1918 the Federal budget and resources were miniscule by comparison.  Also, in 1918, what resources were available were being put toward the war effort and were not going to be diverted to the health crisis.  Although the causes are different today, the results are still the same.  States and municipalities are largely left to fend for themselves.  The Federal medical support to date is largely advisory or token.

Also, similar is the disproportionate impact of the pandemics on the poor, the homeless, people of color, and Native Americans.  Current Federal and State guidance to mitigate the impacts of the current pandemic are all well and good, but only if you have the necessary resources.

So, looking forward to the next few months, I see no coordinated national response, a premature feeling of victory on having beaten this pandemic, along with a premature re-opening of the country in different states.  Unless public health can get the upper hand, we will likely be in two or more rounds of this virus with flash outbreaks and re-emergence in the cities lasting months, until we learn that COVID-19 cares neither for geography nor politics.

Our Rosa Parks Moment

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words and in this case a thousand protesters, which may translate into an additional 200 unnecessary coronavirus cases and maybe 10 unnecessary deaths:

Yes, on April 20th in our Capital of Pennsylvania, certain groups hosted the exercise of free expression, spitting in the face of science and public health policy. 

I was disappointed at the lack of tin foil hats.  If I were king, I would have required each protester to sign a release that waived any right to hospital treatment from coronavirus. As one sign put it, Let Jesus be their vaccine.

The almost economist Stephen Moore has compared these protesters to Rosa Parks, which creates some kind of moral equivalency for any civil disobedience.

 Moore is a lousy economist and even worse moralist.  But it does spark some kind of though experiment.  Who else in history has had their Rosa Parks moment?

Perhaps we should start with a failed Austrian painter who also protested against injustice and loss of liberties in 1923.

Also, how could we exclude Cliven Bundy and his protest against payment for land he rented from the Federal Government?

Maybe that Rosa Parks reference is a bit of a stretch. The Bundy’s got a presidential pardon. Rosa Parks did not.

The Best Health System in the World?

Another randemic thought: if your health insurance is tied to your job and you didn’t warm up to Bernie Sander’s universal health care plan because you didn’t want to lose your good company paid health plan, how does it feel now that you don’t have health insurance precisely because you don’t have a job?  Hmm?

In 2009, we all talked about stress tests for the American banking system.  What if we look at the 2020 pandemic as the stress test for the current American health care system?  Does it show equal access to the same quality health care, regardless of income or geographic area?  Is it robust enough to weather a predicted and predictable public health emergency and can it marshal all necessary resources?  Does it protect the first line of defense, i.e., our doctors and health care workers so they can do their job to protect us?  We all know the answer.  There are doctors, nurses, hospitals, ER rooms, public health offices, medicine, some pretty damn good health care knowledge and practice, and lots and lots of dollars.  Does that make it a health care system? No. Do we have the guts to create one?  You tell me.

Can We Walk and Chew Gum at the Same Time? 

Until March, our existential crisis was the rapidly warming planet.  Coronavirus pushed that off the front page, but does that mean the climate crisis has gone away?  Clearly, we have been given a brief reprieve in CO2 emissions as the world economy has tanked and consumption of fossil fuels have dropped.  People aren’t driving or flying. So maybe, we have gotten a break for the moment.

However, this Administration in Washington has not taken any break from pushing back on climate relief.  In the works is the Administration’s rollback of CAFÉ standards – gas mileage targets – that were set during the Obama Administration.  These rollbacks will add an additional billion metric tons of unwanted CO2 into atmosphere (something like 20% of CO2 emissions in a year) and will be felt as soon as people start driving again.  Under the guise of the coronavirus crisis, the Administration also ceased regular enforcement of EPA laws and regulations.  They have also relaxed mercury air toxic standards, which were an impediment to burning coal for electricity.  As the cherry on top, the Administration also on April 21st finalized the rule rolling back the definition of navigable waters of the United States, which is the chief rule for enforcement of the Clean Water Act.

It appears the Administration can walk and chew gum at the same time, although if they had put the same care and effort into the pandemic response that they put into environmental rollbacks, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the tight spot we are in at the moment.  For those of us who are still concerned about the climate crisis, do we halt our efforts while dealing with the pandemic, particularly when those in power are actively undermining those efforts?  And how do we engage the public, who largely can only handle one crisis at a time (and who could blame them?).

We just passed a bill spending $2 trillion over a few months, with another half trillion on the way, but this was the same Congress that couldn’t imagine spending that amount to address the other crisis over a longer period of time.  Those that are saying there’s no money to address the Green New Deal or its equivalent are being untruthful.  They may not have the will, but the money is there.  Perhaps the best statement on addressing the climate crisis now is by Rhiana Gunn-Wright in a New York Times opinion piece on April 15, 2020. Think This Pandemic is Bad?  We have another Crisis Coming.

Coronavirus Movie Night

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Numerous sites have put forward lists of movies to watch during the pandemic and I do not want to duplicate those.  I would like to forward some movies that these other sites might have missed, but are nonetheless worthy.

In no particular order:

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron (1971).  Set during the black plague in Italy in the 14th century. Wonderful escapism, created in the same way as Bocaccio’s original, which is also worth reading and has the advantage of being 100 short tales that you can pick up and put down easily in a book. Remember books?

Mark Robson’s Isle of the Dead (1945).  Plague in Greece in 1912.  Produced by Val Lewton and starring Boris Karloff not as a monster.  This is a cautionary tale about our deepest fears and superstitions.

Alexander Mackendrick’s Whiskey Galore! (1949).  From Ealing Studios, Mackendrick’s first directorial effort. Substitute whiskey for toilet paper and you have an 82 minute romp about human resourcefulness.  Look for a very, very young Gordon Jackson.

Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel (1962). You think you’ve got cabin fever?

Finally, one film that really is essential.  If you haven’t seen it in a few years, it’s worth a repeat.

Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957).  Set during the black plague in Sweden.  Having seen it very recently, I believe that much of film critique about it being an atheist’s manifesto is just plain wrong.  Max von Sydow’s Antonius Block is no atheist.  Without ruining the plot, let’s just say that Bergman both asks and answers the question, “Where is God?”  I hope you find it as moving as I did.

Everyone, stay safe, stay well, and see you on the other side.