Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Musings in a Time of Crisis XIX

The war narrative has an intentional history in public health
campaigns. It seeks to discipline society and mobilize resources
of a nation "under siege." The invisible virus is hard to imagine,
so human enemies must be targeted and shunned....
~ Nayan Shah
Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity and History
University of Southern California


The quote above comes from a recent article by Alex Langstaff in  the Los Angeles Review of Books, "Pandemic Narratives and the Historian" (May 18, 2020). I recommend reading the article for its many insights into the language of the pandemic, how historians of public health, epidemics, and disaster science regard and use coverage of the pandemic, and how the public and media address it. Of particular interest are concepts of "crises," the stories and narratives created in response to pandemic events, the use of metaphors of containment and destruction as well as concealment, the use of scientific facts and how they are construed, the need for scapegoats and stigmatizing, the use of fear, the abstraction of risk, the practice of exclusion and racism, and what the pandemic portends for the future of individuals and the world, especially in terms of social responsibility, redistribution of resources and aid, environmental change, and political power. Along with post-pandemic possibilities, the thoughtful questions raised among so many areas of interest are all rich for exploration and discussion. Any one could be the subject of a dissertation.

The interviewees in addition to Shah are Alison Bashford, research professor in history at University of New South Wales Sydney; Simukai Chigudu, associate professor of African Politics and fellow of St Antony's College, University of Oxford; Deborah Coen, professor, Department of History, Yale University, and chair, Program in the History of Science and Medicine; Richard Keller, professor, Department of History and Department of Medical History and Bioethics, University of Wisconsin at Madison; Julie Livingston, Silver professor of history and social and cultural analysis, New York University; and Paul Weindling, Wellcome Trust Research professor in the history of medicine, Oxford Brookes University. The interviewer lectures at Cooper Union in New York City and is a doctoral candidate in history at NYU.

Some comments worth noting:

Coen: ". . . The media should allow fear to do its vital work, instead of giving disaster experts a platform to explain it away."

Livingston: ". . . This normal cost of doing business in America is now suddenly revealed as the emergency it has long been. . . ." 

". . . The pandemic shakes the system of global capitalism to its core, revealing multiple fault lines. . . The commodity fetish is completely naked now. . . ."

Livingston: ". . . the normal that Americans want to get back to is one characterized by high rates of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses that COVID-19 has surface. . . ."

Keller: "Any 'end' [to the pandemic] will be dubious, illusory, and politically instrumentalized, and will represent a return to a state of extraordinary precarity for most who've experienced it. And the pandemic's continuation will be baked into the local social worlds of those least able to withstand the additional blow. . . ."

Chiguda: ". . . Public health information does not exist in a vacuum; it is inevitably interpreted and contextualized in wider social and political contexts."

Bashford: "The pandemic has made me perceive how far beyond 'globalization' we now are. . . ."

Weindling: ". . . the rationing of resources does raise uncomfortable questions about the valuing of life. . . ."


Old Men on Rikers

What’s there to fear

of the old men on Rikers

condemned to die —

not for their crimes

but for living long

enough to pick up

the lethal virus from

their concrete beds.

No visitors allowed.

The men on the island

can’t speak of how

spring pushes up

not daisies not miracle

cures but takes away

their little breath left

the crown of the virus

colonizing their lungs

robbing their hearts

of energy enough

to beat bad odds.

Bio-containment rules

rule out the six feet

of physical distancing

but not the six feet

down where the trench-

diggers go, where

the bodies, their own,

come to rest four deep.

They rest

not days on end

soon to be hours

and then a few minutes

of palliative care —

another painkiller

a relief in the letting

of hope of dying

of death and of one

last loud hallelujah

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