Don Bigote: Chapter 8

Don Bigote: Chapter 8

The story so far:

  1. Don and Dan Build a Shelter
  2. Don and Dan Take a Flight
  3. Don and Dan Go to Spain
  4. Don and Dan Do Drugs
  5. Don and Dan Find God
  6. Don and Dan Find Themselves
  7. Don and Dan Find Happiness

The Coronavirus Chronicles, Part I

“Wuuhhhuh,” I say, waking up with a start.

My head hurts, my stomach feels shitty, and my left knee is throbbing. Where am I? The light hurts when I open my eyes, so I keep them shut and try to think. What happened? I remember… a kind of trippy cave, a bunch of hippies, some German dudes, and… and… a police raid! How did we get out of there? Last thing I can clearly recall is piling into this sort of weird helicopter thing and taking off through the brush.

I try opening my eyes again, rubbing them and squinting in the sunlight. Everything looks green, very green. It’s some kind of field with lots of trees and bushes around. Okay then… But where’s Bigote?

“He… hello?” I try calling out, but my voice is weak and kind of whispery, like when you’ve smoked a lot and have a bad hangover. I try again: “Bigote?”

“Ah, hah!” I hear a voice from nearby. “It appears that my faithful squire has finally awoken from his slumber.” It’s him.

“Sir?” I crawl toward his voice, still unable to see very clearly. “What’s going on?”

“Well…” This is another voice, a German guy. “It appears that the landing mechanism had a slight malfunction, causing us to impact the ground at a speed that was higher than optimal.”

“How are you feeling, my friend?” This was another German voice—younger. I feel a friendly arm pat me on the back.

“Well, not so great I gotta say. Where are we?”

“Galicia!” Bigote says.

“Ga-what?”

“The northwest of Spain—an ancient land, once populated by celts. A land unconquered by the Muslim invaders and one of the most venerated seats of Catholicism in Europe.”

“Yes, my contraption did not carry us a great distance before we ran into technical troubles,” the older German voice says. I catch a glimpse at the speaker and my memory starts to come back. It’s professor Allesprachen, the guy from that paradise place who we met in Portugal. “I’m afraid there must be a design flaw that I overlooked.”

“Don’t be harsh on yourself, professor,” the younger voice says. I suddenly remember him too: the prince named Franck. “If it weren’t for you, we’d all be in jail right now.”

“Does anybody have some water or something?” I say, sitting back down, holding my head. 

“I am afraid not, my long-suffering companion,” Bigote says. “We have virtually no resources available at the moment.”

“Oh, don’t worry about resources,” Franck says. “We’ve got money to spare. Maybe we ought to find the nearest town and buy some supplies.”

“An excellent idea!” Bigote says. “Should each of us take off in a different direction and return here by sundown?”

“Unnecessary,” Allesprachen says, gesturing to a little black thing in his hand. “I have a device here that can find our location from any point on the earth, and direct us to where we want to go.”

“Marvellous!” Bigote replies. “But how does such a thing work?”

“It uses satellites to triangulate our position on the earth’s surface. I call it ‘Locational Ordinate Specifying Technology,’ or LOST.”

“Brilliant!” Bigote says.

“Isn’t that just GPS?” I say.

“GPS?”

“You know, like Google Maps and all that.”

Before Allesprachen can respond, Bigote cuts in:

“Do not be a fool, Chopin. GPS is a tool of control used by the Muslim-Mexican conspiracy. They use it to monitor the population and enforce that people observe the Call to Prayer and the fasting rules of Ramadan.”

“Well, I cannot say I have ever heard of this Google Maps,” Allesprachen says. “Nor do I know of how it is related with any such conspiracy. But I assure you my device is perfectly safe.”

“Let us go!” Franck says, and soon enough we’re walking through the countryside.

Maybe if I didn’t have a terrible headache, and I weren’t hungry and thirsty, and my stomach didn’t feel kind of like I drank some hydrochloric acid, and my knee didn’t feel like someone hit it with a baseball bat—and if I had clean clothes, a shower, a decent night’s sleep, the prospect of sex anytime soon, or maybe even a nice massage and a tightly-rolled blunt—maybe, in that case, I’d be enjoying this walk through this countryside towards wherever we’re going. But as it is, I feel like absolute garbage.

Luckily we aren’t so far away. Soon, one of these crazy old European towns comes into view, the kind with big walls wrapped around the outside, and all these old stone towers sticking out of it (the pointy kind). We make our way to the nearest bar and shuffle into a booth.

¿Qué vais a tomar, chicos?” the waitress says.

“Ahh, the sweet sound of Castilian. What a beautiful European language!”

“I thought that was Spanish?” Franck says.

“Oh, no—no, no, no,” Bigote says. “Spanish is what they speak in Mexico. In Spain they speak Castilian.”

“But…” Allesprachen tries to say.

Cuatro cervezas,” I say, using some of the only Spanish I remember from Señor González’s class.

Vale, chicos,” she says.

“My word!” Bigote says. “Chopin, I did not know you can speak Castilian.”

“Only a few words,” I say. “I learned it in high school.”

“Astounding! I thought that the conspiracy had removed all European languages from our public schools long ago, replacing them with Spanish and Arabic.”

“Guess my school is a bit special.”

Soon the lady comes back with four big goblets of the good stuff. I gulp mine down almost as soon as I get it.

“So,” Franck says, after taking his own ginger sip. “My good doctor, does your LOST device tell us what city this is?”

“Ah, yes,” Allesprachen says. “We are in a place called ‘Lugo.’”

“Lugo!” Bigote cries out, mid gulp, his moustache dripping. “I have heard of this place. I read about it while researching the Camino de Santiago.”

“Ah, yes!” Allesprachen now cries. “The Camino de Santiago, of course!”

“What is that, my dear mentor?” the prince asks.

“This is an ancient pilgrimage route, established during the darkest ages of Europe. It consists of several different paths, some of them extending as far as our Geheimnisland.”

“But my dear doctor,” Franck says, “what is a pilgrimage?”

“It is a sort of religious voyage that one undertakes in order to feel closer to God, and to purge oneself of one’s sins.”

“I am familiar with the notion of God,” Franck says. “But what is ‘sin’?”

“Well, in this Christian faith, it is the embodiment of God’s disapproval for an action that has been prohibited in the religion.”

“So it is like a cosmic crime?”

“A very astute summary, my prince.”

“What a quaint place this is,” Franck says. “They worship a police officer.”

“Quaint is not the word, my dear friend,” Bigote says. “It is an ancient, noble custom, an homage to one of the pillars of Western civilization—the holy Christian faith. You see, in these dark ages, when this land was overrun by the evil Muslim hoard, Galicia was home to a small pocket of surviving Europeans. This pilgrimage was one of the ways they kept their faith alive, and regained their strength to beat back the invading barbarians.”

“Fascinating,” Franck says. Then, turning to Allesprachen: “You know, my dear doctor, perhaps this is a golden opportunity. I mean, after all, we are searching for a new way of life, a different concept of happiness. Maybe this will help us in our spiritual quest!”

“I think that is a wonderful idea, my prince.”

“Indeed!” Bigote says, newly wetting his moustache. “This is a golden opportunity! And as it is my mission to understand European culture as deeply as I can—before the dastardly conspiracy causes everything to sink into ruin—it appears not only desirably, but incumbent upon me to perform this sacred ritual.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” I say, a knot forming in my stomach. “What are you guys talking about? We only just got here. And I’m sure I would appreciate a few days to relax and eat and recover from all this craziness.”

“Do not worry, my dear squire,” Bigote says. “A pilgrimage, by its very nature, is restful and rejuvenating.”

“For one, I don’t really know what a squire is, or why you’re calling me that. And two—what is a pilgrimage?”

§

“This blows,” I say. “Pilgrimages pretty much suck, I guess.”

So it turns out that all this talk of spirituality and tradition and all that is just an excuse to go on a really long walk. That’s all this Camino de Santiago business is—a glorified stroll. All we’ve been doing is following these silly little signs with yellow arrows on them, which are leading us further and further into the middle of nowhere. 

“Do not be so censorious, my dear Chopin. We have only just begun the journey!”

“I’d like to stop and have a coffee and a ham sandwich or something.”

“Why, was our breakfast not ample enough?”

“A single croissant? No way, man. And also, we could’ve stayed in bed for way, way longer. I don’t know why you had to drag me out at six in the morning.”

“Ah, but my dear Chopin, you must understand that it is only wise to partake of a light meal before spending the day on our feet. And you must admit that it is worthwhile to sacrifice a little sleep if it means that we do not have to walk during the hottest part of the day.”

“I guess… But I’d still like to stop.”

“Oh, my dear Chopin, you have no taste for romance! As I walk this hallowed path, my mind flies back more than a millenia. Think of the nobles, philosophers, saints, and kings who must have trod the very same ground you are standing upon now! Over hundreds of years, facing a relentless foe, these noble Europeans built a culture that remains the envy of the world—gothic architecture, contrapuntal music, three-dimensional painting! It is our sacred duty to preserve what we can of this heritage, before its inevitable destruction at the hands of the conspiracy.”

“I think we should let the conspiracy destroy really long walks…”

“You know,” Allesprachen cuts in, “I must admit, Mr. Bigote, that I am still rather fuzzy on this conspiracy you talk so much about. Can you help me understand better the history and purpose of this nefarious organization?”

“Why, of course, my erudite friend. The conspiracy against civilization has taken many forms in the long course of history. But the most convenient place to start is the Cold War. At this time, the forces of Western destruction operated more or less out in the open, as communists and socialists. But after America’s triumph in the 1990s, these enemies of capitalism, truth, freedom, and justice had to go underground.”

“Underground?”

“Yes, they decided they had to operate in secret, since they could not overthrow the West directly. By establishing a secret network of spies and operatives, they slowly took control—of the CIA, the media—and they set up centers of power in many parts of the less-developed world, like Mexico and the Middle East. This way, they have accomplished through stealth what one hundred years of war could not: almost total control of the levers of power.”

“My word!” Franck says. “But isn’t there some way to stop them?”

“Sadly, I believe it is too late. Yes, at one point I did think we had a chance. The election of our dear leader, Donald Trump, gave me hope. Even now, he is fighting a losing battle against the forces of destruction, buried deep within the United States government. But even a man as talented and brave as he is can never win against such odds.”

“Guys,” I say. “I think I’m going to pass out if we go any further. I’m not cut out for this shit… You know I failed gym class every year since the fifth grade? This is torture.”

“Cheer up, Chopin!” Bigote cries. “We’re almost halfway there!”

§

A few agonizing hours later—with sweat running down my back, blisters covering the soles of my feet, a bad sunburn on the back of my neck—feeling lightheaded, woozy, hungry, thirsty, and generally terrible—just then, we get to the hostel.

It isn’t much. Basically, it’s just a bunch of metal bunk beds in a big white room. They gave us a couple shitty pillow cases for the plastic pillows and also a couple blankets. The bathroom and shower and all that is shared. Luckily there aren’t many people there beside us, so at least it isn’t cramped. But, honestly, if this is what it takes to get God to forgive me, he can hold onto his grudge.

The town isn’t much either—just a few stone houses, some fields full of cows, and a single restaurant. Well, at least the restaurant has hamburgers and beer. After dinner, I crawl into my bunk and find it to be almost comfortable. At least I’ll be able to savor a few hours of being unconscious and away from these nutjobs.

The next morning, as usual, Bigote gets me out of bed by jabbing his bony finger into my rib cage.

“Jesus, dude,” I groan. “Can’t you just say my name or something?”

“Oh, my dear Chopin,” Bigote says. “You and I both know that a touch of physical violence is required to rouse you from your slumber.”

“You sound like my mom, except with a much better vocabulary I guess.”

I sit up and rub my eyes. I feel wretched.

“Honestly, guys,” I say, to nobody in particular. “I can’t believe this is how you want to spend your time. Here we are, in Spain, a country with wine, clubs, hot girls, and we’re out here, walking, like somehow this is going to solve any of the world’s problems.”

“Chopin, hurry up!” Bigote calls from across the room.

Somehow, I managed to brush my teeth and dress myself. But just as we’re about to walk out the door, the owner of the hostel rushes in front of us.

¿¡Qué hacéis!? No se puede salir ahora por el virus!”

“Chopin, did you catch that?” Bigote asks me.

“Nah…”

“Wait a moment,” Allesprachen says. Then, he pulls out a device from his bag. “Here is another one of my inventions, the Linguistic Omnidirectional Speech Translator, or LOST.”

“Isn’t the name of your other thing?” I say.

“Oh, you’re right…”

“And isn’t that just like Google Translate?”

“How many times do I have to tell you, Chopin!” Bigote says. “Google is a tool of the conspiracy!”

“Well, let me turn on the device.”

Allesprachen switches a button on the little black box and a green light pops on. He holds it up to the Spanish man and says, “Can you say that again?”

A digital voice then emits from the box, and says: “¿Puedes decir esto otra vez?

The man starts talking through the machine:

“You guys need to know that there’s a virus out there, called the coronavirus. Lots of people are dying and the government says that we can’t leave our houses anymore.”

“Can’t leave out houses!? That’s tyranny!” Bigote cries.

“I don’t make the laws, man, but if you leave here, you could get a big, big fine, and maybe even arrested. All the flights are cancelled so it looks like we’ll all have to stay here for the time being.”

I look around the hostel. Aside from us and the owner, there are about ten people with us.

“Well at least we don’t have to do any more walking,” I say.

“This is not the time for smart comments, Chopin. I’m afraid that this may signify the beginning of the end.”

“What?”

“I have research to do!” Bigote cries, and walks back to his bunk.

“Indeed, I believe I should do some investigating myself,” Allesprachen says, and also retreats.

From that point on, time has started to go pretty slowly. I spend a lot of time sleeping, and a lot more time laying in bed, looking at the ceiling. Among the people trapped here, there isn’t even one hot girl—the closest is a lady in her forties with a big nose—so there’s no relief in that department. Thankfully, we’re still allowed to go out to buy food and, very importantly, alcohol. So that’s helping. And one of the ‘pilgrims’ here has some playing cards, which has helped to pass the time. But that’s pretty much it, as far as my life goes.

Meanwhile, Bigote has disappeared into the internet. He’s been using the hostel’s computer to do his ‘research,’ all day and apparently all night, too. Allesprachen has set up a kind of lab in a supply closet. He says he’s working on a cure for the virus.

After about a week of this, Bigote emerges—his mustache even bigger, scratchier, and messier than usual—and calls a meeting.

“Everyone, gather together!” he yells. “I need to let you know the truth of what is happening.”

We all pull up folding chairs into a little circle, like an AA meeting.

“We have been told that there is a pandemic raging in the world. The mainstream media assure us that a virus, inadvertently transferred from wild animals, has traveled from China to the rest of the world. So-called experts have concluded that the only way to stop the virus from catastrophic spread is to shut us all in our homes and to close all ‘non-essential’ businesses. We are told that the only way to defeat this virus is a vaccine, to be developed by these same so-called experts in their laboratories.”

“Get to the point,” one of the pilgrims says.

“I am here to tell you that none of this is true. Indeed, this entire emergency is, in reality, a meticulously planned power-grab by the conspiracy to seize control of our society. Now, some people have already doubted the official story about the virus coming from wild animals, thinking that it was crafted in a Chinese laboratory. This is only half-true. The horrible truth is that the symptoms of the virus are really the effects of MSG, built up in the bloodstream through years of eating Chinese takeout. Yet MSG is only one half of the recipe. The recently-developed ‘5G’ wireless network is carefully engineered to activate the MSG that has built up in our muscles, nerves, and blood. The activated MSG produces the virus symptoms.”

“Are you sure…” someone says.

“But why would they do this? The answer is obvious. The communist Chinese government, like so many governments around the world, is really just a puppet for the Muslim Mexican conspiracy. You see, it is all connected—vegans, gays, communists, liberals, global warming scientists, identity politics—it is all part of a grand scheme to finally topple Western Civilization. And this fake pandemic is the perfect vehicle to accomplish their plan. The economic ruin alone will bring many governments to their knees. The manufactured disaster will weaken the leaders who have honest, liberal principles, like our dear Trump, and only strengthen authoritarian communist regimes. State control will seem not only desirable, but necessary, and personal liberties frivolous.”

“But what about…”

“When they finally come out with a ‘vaccine,’ it will be the last phase in their nefarious scheme. They will inject hundreds of millions with a devious concoction, laced with gay genes and mind-control chemicals, allowing them to turn us all into obedient subjects, praying to Allah five times a day and eating vegetarian tacos in polygamous relationships.”

“That doesn’t sound so…”

“Unfortunately, if they have been able to come this far, it is probably too late to stop them. All we can do is hunker down and try to ride out the storm of civilizational collapse. Then, it will be our task to start rebuilding what we lost…”

Bigote stops, and the whole room becomes silent. I can’t tell if it’s because these people think he’s really onto something, or if they think he’s batshit crazy, or if they’re just kinda bored like me. Just as the silence starts to get a bit awkward and uncomfortable, one of the pilgrims starts to talk. He’s stocky, bald, and clean-shaven, who looks like he’s about forty.

“You know,” he says, “a lot of what you been saying makes sense to me. You see, I ain’t trusted Muslims, Mexicans, or really anyone from outside the country for a long time. They’re always up to something, these immigrants, whether they’re stealing our jobs or our women. I swear. Hell, a lot of born Americans aren’t trustworthy either, if they’re from the wrong neighborhood, if you know what I mean.”

“I apologize,” Bigote says, “but I did not catch your name, good sir.”

“My name’s Derek,” he says.

“Well, I appreciate your contribution to the conversation!” Bigote responds. “Judging from your accent, it appears that you are, like myself, of American extraction.”

“I’m an American, for sure,” he says. “Minnesota, born and bred.”

“The real heartland of the country!” Bigote says. “What brings you all the way here, on a pilgrimage in Europe?”

“Well, that’s sort of a long story,” Derek says.

“Why, I think we could all use a long story,” Franck says. “After all, we’re stuck here for the foreseeable future. It would be nice to pass the time some way, maybe by sharing the story of how we got here.”

“If that’s what you want, little man,” Derek says, “I’m game. Here we go.”


The Police Officer’s Tale

Well, first of all, I want to set the record straight about my background. People these days talk about white privilege, like all we whites live in mansions and drive Ferraris. That’s a bunch of bullshit. We didn’t have much growing up, my family. You see, my dad worked at the steel mill, so when I was younger it was mainly my mom, my sister, and me. He made a good, honest living that way, but it was hard work, and he’d come back late, tired, sweaty, cranky. You know.

Well, the years rolled by, and I think work got to my dad a bit. He started staying out late, drinking. At first it was only on the weekends, but then it started to be almost every night. And he was a mean drunk. He raised us right when he was sober. He’d smack us into shape sometimes, but he never hurt us. But when he was drunk he’d take it a bit too far, if you know what I mean, and sometimes he’d hit mom too. I didn’t like that.

Well, I think my mom got a bit tired of it. When I was twelve, she took us to her parent’s house, and told us they was getting a divorce. It was pretty ugly. Dad came over a few times, beat on the door, yelling and screaming. One time he even shot his rifle into the upstairs window. I think he smashed up my grandma’s car a bit, too. That all stopped with the restraining order. Anyways, they had to go to court and all that. My daddy, he must have felt pretty bad by then, because he wanted paternity tests for me and my baby sister. Turns out, I was his son, but she wasn’t.

Well, the judge considered that, and decided that the two of them would get joint custody of me, but my sister would stay with our mom full time. So some weeks I’d go over to dad’s, some to mom’s. Mom got a job as an accountant to push us through. But she started going out with some new guy, Carl, who I guess was my sister’s daddy. I didn’t like him. He’d walk in like he owned the place. He’d boss my mom around. I’d fight with him. One time, when my mom wasn’t around, he smacked me. So then, whenever he’d come over, I’d just go to my dad’s.

Well, my dad wasn’t doing so good, either. Without my mom he started drinking more and more. Most of the time when I’d get there, he wasn’t home. I’d sneak in through the back door and just hang out there, all by myself. Sometimes he’d come home and he’d be happy to see me. But, when he was drunk, he was meaner than ever. I dunno, maybe I brought back bad memories of my mom, and he’d rough me up. One time, he came back with a streetwalker and kicked me out.

Well, this sort of continued for a while. But then, one day, there was a big hullabaloo in town. Turns out, the steel mill was closing down for good. They sacked everyone, including my dad, and boarded up the old buildings. Things went downhill for my dad pretty fast after that. His drinking got out of hand. He’d basically just drink from morning to night. The last time I came over, the house was a dump, liquor bottles everywhere, and my dad was passed out on the floor. When I woke him up he didn’t even remember who I was. So I just left him there. He was dead about a week later.

Well, that was pretty sad. Naturally, I wasn’t doing too good in school under the circumstances. I pretty much failed everything and eventually I just decided that it was just a big old waste of time. So I dropped out and started looking for work. Unfortunately, a lot of the jobs had dried up. Of course the factory was gone. But after all the workers lost all their money, a lot of other places went out of business, too. So the only thing I could find was being a dishwasher in the local diner.

Well, that wasn’t too much fun. I worked six nights a week, ten-hour shifts, and the pay was total shit. I had the idea that I’d be able to move out, buy a car, maybe get a girl, just like my dad did at my age. But I barely had enough money for the bus, nevermind a car. And that’s when I started thinking. You know, working as a dishwasher gives you a lot of empty headspace. So I started wondering why things had gone downhill. Where’d all the good jobs go? 

Well, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was we was getting fleeced. The government says they’re gonna take care of all us good, hardworking Americans. But what do they do? They send out jobs to China. Or they let immigrants in and take our jobs from right under our noses. Or they take our taxes and they support all these lazy welfare queens in the cities. Or they just let these criminals rob our money, rape our women, sell drugs—basically run rampant. Basically, I figured we was getting the short end of the stick.

Well, that’s when I decided that we had to fight back. And I decided the best way to do that was to become a police officer. But of course I had a problem: I didn’t graduate high school. So I quit my job, studied a bit, got my GED, and enrolled in the academy. It was a bit hard at first, but soon I started to really love it. Eventually I graduated, got a job in the city, and got to work.

Well, that was really great. Being a police officer has a lot of perks, you know. You’re on a team with a bunch of boys, and everyone has everyone else’s back no matter what. Whether it’s some nosy reporter, a politician, or some activist type, it don’t matter, because we never squeal on each other. Yes, at times the job can be a little boring, like traffic stops and whatnot. But sometimes it’s real exciting. Like sometimes you got to bust into people’s houses. One time, for example, we got a domestic violence call. We get there, the guy refuses to let us in, so we kick the door down. Turns out, guy’s got a gun, and he’s sort of stumbling, reaching for it, so I pop him in the shoulder. 

Well, even traffic stops can be a bit exciting. For example, you know you can basically just ask anyone you want to get out of their car, and you can just search it? So if anyone looks suspicious, or if they’re just giving you some lip, you can have them on the pavement, face down. Anything you find in there is basically yours to keep. Petty cash? Could be to buy drugs, you can put it right in your pocket. And sometimes you’ll find a bit of weed, or you’ll just “find” some weed. Half the time, the guy starts to get upset. He might be insulting you, or even struggling, or trying to stop you. Funny thing is, as soon as there’s any resistance, all bets are off. You can wrestle him to the ground, tear gas him, taze him, anything you want. You get out a lot of anger on the job.

Well, the most exciting things could be the drug busts. That’s when you get all armored up, grab a shotgun, and then just go in, guns blazing. You don’t even need to knock or anything, we can just bust right in. It’s exciting as hell. Admittedly, sometimes we made a few mistakes. One time a flashbang burned a kid, and another time we gave some old guy a heart attack. Yeah, and I admit we don’t always find drugs. But it makes you feel like you’re in an action movie.

Well, I do have to admit one thing. I really was never very good with the ladies. I feel kinda shy and I never say the right thing, so basically dating hasn’t worked out for me. But being a police officer fixed that, too. You see, one part of the job is dealing with the prostitutes. Technically, being a whore is against the law, of course. On the other hand, there’s not a lot we can do about it. We throw them in jail and, next week, they’re out again. Or another girl’s replaced the one we locked away. And of course the demand is always there.

Well, so we basically have come to an understanding with the street-walkers. We go over there once in a while, make a big show of busting them up, taking down IDs, maybe dragging a few to jail for some nights. But mostly we sort of tax them. There’s two ways we do this. A lot of the boys just take some cash and zip off. Me, on the other hand, I prefer to get my rocks off. And you know, I think the girl’s prefer it, too, since it’s their job and all, and they don’t have to lose any money. So it’s a win-win. This way, I’ve basically kept myself satisfied, as far as the ladies are concerned. 

Well, so I was really enjoying this job. Sure, I got into some tight corners. People complained. I injured a few people. I got reprimanded a bit. But they also gave me medals, like for tackling a drunk guy waving a bottle around. The money was good. I had my lady friends. Basically, I felt like I was all set. But it came apart a few weeks ago. 

Well, it started with a pretty routine traffic stop. Some guy with a broken tail light. Honestly, I wasn’t feeling too hot that day. You see, the night before, I had done quite a bit of drinking, not to mention a couple pills I pocketed in a drug bust a few days before. So, basically, I was pretty hungover and just looking to have an easy day. Know what I mean? The end of the month was coming up, though, so I figured I should do a couple traffic stops to make my quota. Best way to do this is to go over to the other side of the tracks, the bad part of town, since everyone’s car is busted up one way or another. Pretty easy to stop people for vehicle violations.

Well, so I see this guy with the broken tail light, I flash my sirens, and he starts slowing down. But then, the crazy motherfucker opens his door, jumps out, and starts sprinting away through a park nearby. Now, when I was feeling hot, I woulda just run after him. I was pretty fast in my glory days. But that day I just felt so dog tired. I wasn’t about to be running with a hangover. So I sort of hesitated for a moment, until I remembered something we was taught in the police academy, that it’s legal to shoot a fleeing suspect. That seemed a heck of a lot better than running, so I pulled out my gun and squeezed the trigger a few times.

Well, soon enough the rest of the boys came. I was a bit worried at first, since I figured he was almost definitely a goner, but they said I was right about the law. Any fleeing suspect is fair game. Of course I had some paperwork to do and all that, but basically it seemed all good. Turns out, the guy was running because he was driving with a suspended license, and that was because he was late on his childcare payments. So basically he was just some deadbeat anyways. Good riddance, I figured.

Well, the next few days were more or less normal. The chief got me on desk duty, since that’s the normal procedure after you kill a suspect. That was fine by me, though. But three days later, everything just went to hell. Turns out, some liberal jackass filmed the whole thing on his cellphone, and it was circulating on the internets—one of those viral videos, you know. Soon as that happened, it just exploded. The media were involved. Reporters outside the precinct. Protests in the street. It got rough pretty fast.

Well, even after all that, I wasn’t so worried. You see, the police, we got each other’s backs no matter what. So I was pretty confident nothing would really change. After all, it wasn’t the first man I killed in the line of duty. And the chief had my back. He gave them media people the facts—I was within my legal rights to shoot a fleeing suspect, he was some deadbeat, and so on. But the pressure kept on building. After a while, the chief told me to stay home for a bit, to help relieve the pressure. But then the reporters were hanging out around my house and I couldn’t do nothing.

Well, after a while the mayor got involved, and told the chief that I had to go. I admit, they gave me a pretty good severance package. Let me keep my pension. Decent unemployment. But that didn’t help the fact that I was notorious. I couldn’t even go to the grocery store without getting funny looks. This didn’t make it any easier to try to find a new job, let me tell you. And you know what? These protesters, they weren’t even happy when they gave me the boot. They wanted me arrested. Imagine that! They don’t know the law. A police officer don’t follow the same rules as normal people.

Well, crazy thing is, they kept saying I killed the guy because he was black. But the truth is I woulda killed him no matter what color he was. I just didn’t feel like running that day.

Well, I got pretty bored all alone in my house, drinking and so on, so that’s when I decided I’d come on this pilgrimage. I had a decent amount of money tucked away, mostly from all the confiscating I did on the job. So now I’m here. And it’s pretty great. People don’t recognize me so I don’t get any dirty looks. And of course all the scenery is nice. But I do miss being a cop. There’s nothing like it. When you’re a cop, you are the boss of the neighborhood. Nobody can say shit to you. And everyone got to do what you tell them to do. Besides, when you’re a cop, you know you’re basically doing a good thing in the world. Without us, who would protect the people from thieves, murderers, and rapists? But do I get any respect? Nope.


Derek stops talking, and we’re all silent for a while.

“What a remarkable tale,” Franck says.

“Wait a second,” I say. “So, you can just take whatever you want from people you stop on the street?”

“Chopin,” Bigote says. “I believe you missed the most important lesson from this story.”

“Yeah?”

“This is a perfect illustration of how the conspiracy has undermined the United States. Through their wily machinations, they have managed to promote trade deals that, they knew, would have disastrous economic consequences for the country. This loss of decent employment, in turn, caused a wave of crime that required additional police to handle. But the conspirators have turned their dastardly ideology on the police, making it impossible for brave officers, such as Derek, to do their jobs. Now, they are demonized, as part of the so-called ‘white, patriarchal, Christian state!’ As the public’s trust in the forces of order erodes, the evil forces of chaos—the Muslim-Mexican conspiracy—get ever closer to their goal of destabilizing the society completely, and ushering in their dystopian world of vegan, feminist identity politics!”

“That’s damn right,” Derek says.

“You know,” Franck says, “I feel that I have learned so much about the world from your story. And this has given me an inspiration. Perhaps all of us should share our stories? After all, we have a lot of time to pass during the quarantine, and I personally am greatly eager to learn more.”

“Want a story?” someone says. “I got one for you.”

To be continued…

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Review: Evicted

Review: Evicted

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.

Yesterday, on July 24, the federal moratorium on evictions—protecting about 12 million renters—ended; and many state-level moratoriums will conclude soon as well. Enhanced unemployment benefits, which gave households an extra $600 per month, will terminate this month, too, meaning that families will lose income at just the moment they are vulnerable to eviction. Meanwhile, as the virus rages on, so does massive unemployment. It seems likely, then, that the United States is on the cusp of a huge wave of evictions. Under these circumstances, I thought it was a good time to read this book.

This is an urban ethnography written about the lives of the desperately poor as they struggle to find stable housing. Matthew Desmond lived for months in a trailer park and then in the inner city, following people around, taking notes and photographs, recording conversations, conducting interviews, and carrying out large surveys. In many ethnographies—especially since the postmodern turn—the author has striven to include herself in the narrative, emphasizing the subjectivity of the process. But Desmond has effaced himself from this book, and has instead written a kind of nonfiction novel of eight families undergoing eviction.

The first thing that strikes the reader is that Desmond is an excellent writer. The narration is gripping from the beginning—dramatic, vivid, and even occasionally poetic—meaning that my first reaction was emotional rather than intellectual. Wrenching pity for the people caught up in this cycle of poverty alternated, at times, with light disapproval at seemingly self-destructive behavior, which disappeared into outrage at the landlords profiting from this situation, and then incredulity that such things can be allowed to go on in a supposedly advanced nation. Often, I found it hard to take in, and had to put the book down to take a breath:

[Crystal] had been born prematurely on a spring day in 1990 shortly after her pregnant mother was stabbed eleven times in the back during a robbery—the attack had induced labor. Both mother and daughter survived. It was not the first time Crystal’s mother had been stabbed. For as far back as she could remember, Crystal’s father had beat her mother. He smoked crack and so did her mother and so did her mother’s mother.

But if this book were merely a collection of such stories, it would be little more than poverty voyeurism. This book has quite an important point to make, though, and that is how eviction is not only a consequence of poverty, but one of its major causes.

Any account of housing instability needs to begin with the fact that most people who qualify for housing aid to not get it—3 out of 4 receive no aide whatsoever. This leaves them at the mercy of the private housing market, which has seen steadily rising rents for years, at a time when wages are stagnant. Though it is normally recommended to pay no more than 30% of your wages in rent, the subjects of this book paid far, far more—in some cases, over 90%. This has serious consequences. Most obviously, if you are paying so much of your income in rent, it is impossible to save, and often even to pay basic expenses. What is more, this means that virtually any unforeseen expense—repairs, medical problems, or a funeral—can make a renter fall behind.

Once behind, it is extremely difficult for a renter to catch up. This effectively puts them at the mercy of the landlord. Even if the house is in disrepair and violates safety codes, missing rent means that the renter can be evicted on short notice. As Desmond describes, some landlords are willing to be lax—at least for a time—and cut deals with tenants. But for many who fall behind, the sheriff will soon be knocking on their door, along with a team of movers, giving the tenants a stark choice: to have their things left on the curb, or put into storage (where they need to pay extortionate fees in order to keep it from being trashed). Most evictees do not have housing lined up, and many end up in homeless shelters.

In a market where buyers are desperate and sellers are relatively scarce, there is little incentive for landlords to reduce prices, or even to make basic repairs of their properties. As Desmond explains, it is often more profitable for landlords to evict late-paying tenants and contract new ones than to make their properties livable. The tenants in these pages put up with rats, roaches, broken walls, smashed windows, clogged plumbing, sagging ceilings, to give just a short list. Desmond himself did not have hot water during his stay at the trailer park, despite paying rent on time, repeatedly asking the landlord, and even informing them that he was writing a book about life in a trailer park.

Eviction is not a rare occurrence—there are well over one million per year in the United States—and it is also not merely a private tragedy. Unsurprisingly, evictions concentrate in poor neighborhoods; and when residence in an area is unstable, it makes it an even less desirable place to life. As Jane Jacobs pointed out, neighborhoods are not primarily made safe by patrolling police, but by the constant presence of people on the street, people with a sense of ownership of the neighborhood. Ejecting residents obviously erodes this possibility—and not only in the area where people are evicted from, but also in the areas they unwillingly move to—which makes the city generally less safe.

Eviction is also not colorblind. Just as black men are disproportionately locked up, Desmond found that black women are disproportionately thrown out. And when you consider that having either a conviction or an eviction record can disqualify you from public housing, and can legally be used to screen potential renters by private landlords, you can see that this disadvantage is compounded. The white families in these pages certainly did not have an easy time finding and maintaining housing, but the black families were significantly worse off. Desmond followed one white couple who managed to find a place despite both of them having eviction and felony records, and one of them an outstanding warrant!

It is crucial to remember that housing instability is not merely the byproduct of individuals navigating private markets. The government is not only culpable for being a bystander to suffering citizens, but for propping up this very situation. Just as government force—in the guise of police officers and prisons—has been used to deal with the social fallout of disappearing jobs, so has government force—in the form of eviction courts, sheriffs, movers, public eviction records, and homelessness shelters—been used to deal with the disappearance of affordable housing. Without this government backing, the situation could not exist.

In many cases Desmond documented, government workers actually encouraged landlords to evict their tenants. Since many properties do not meet building codes, virtually any government attention—whether from the police, the fire department, an ambulance, or social services—can motivate a landlord to eject a tenant. What is more, if too many 911 calls come from an address, the property is labeled a ‘nuisance property,’ and landlords are forced by the police to ‘take action’—usually through an eviction. Even victims of domestic abuse are often evicted, one reason that many victims do not contact the police.

If we can agree that this situation is unconscionable, then of course we must do something to change it. But what? One solution is rent control: establish maximum prices that landlords can legally charge. This can have some quite negative unintended consequences, however. For one, if low-income housing ceases to be profitable, then there is no incentive to create more. This leads to shortage. But what about simply giving people more money, such as by raising the minimum wage or a basic income scheme? The problem with this strategy is that rising rents can easily offset income gains.

One fairly easy, short-term solution would be to provide defendants in civil courts with public defenders. Currently, in the United States, only defendants in criminal courts have such a right, though many other nations also provide legal counsel in civil cases. At the moment, most people do not even show up for their eviction hearings; the majority who show up do not have a lawyer, and most of them lose the case. Legal counsel can profoundly change the odds of evictees. And it is worth noting that, though hiring lawyers is expensive, cycling people through homelessness shelters is even more so—and this does not even take into account the other forms of economic disruption caused by eviction, such as job loss (quite common when people lose their home).

Another solution, popular in the past, has been to build public housing. This has several obvious problems, too. For one, as happened in NYC, vibrant and affordable neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for enormous housing projects. What is more, the design of public housing projects was ill-conceived: enormous high-rises with parks in between. By isolating the poor into these buildings—with no shops or other services nearby, and few good communal spaces—the projects became dangerous and dysfunctional.

It is possible that smarter public housing could play an important role in the housing crisis. If apartments are scattered through the city, rather than concentrated, and integrated with shops, restaurants, and other businesses, then it is much less likely that they will become dangerous. An added benefit to cheap public housing is that they exert a downward pressure on the housing market, since private apartments must compete with them. However, the housing shortage is so acute that public housing alone is unlikely to be enough; it would require too much building.

This is why Matthew Desmond advocates housing vouchers. These vouchers basically pick up the tab for renters, covering anything above 30% of their income. However, there is an obvious problem with such a scheme: landlords are incentivized to overcharge for their properties, since the money is guaranteed. Indeed, according to Desmond, this often happens, which leads to a lot of wasted taxpayer money. Clearly, some mechanism is necessary to establish reasonable prices. But the voucher scheme does have the great advantage of scalability: they can be distributed quickly and widely.

Such a program would not be cheap. And in the United States, welfare programs tend to be politically divisive, since in our individualistic culture we prefer to hold the poor responsible for their own poverty. This mindset runs very deep. Desmond even records a preacher who, after giving a sermon about the importance of charity, refused to help a homeless woman so that she could learn her lesson. And certainly many of the people in this book did make bad, self-destructive choices. But as Desmond points out—and as psychological studies have shown—living in poverty actively erodes people’s ability to choose wisely and to think in the long term. Furthermore, many behaviors which seem irrational to middle-class onlookers are actually sensible adaptations to poverty.

The other important point to consider is that those of us lucky enough not to live in poverty are also benefiting from government policies. The federal government subsidizes mortgages—a policy that mainly benefits people with six-figure incomes. The capital gains exception means that homeowners who sell their house do not have to include much of that money in their income, and thus are not taxed. Indeed, the United States loses far more in tax revenue through these kinds of tax breaks than it spends in housing aid for the poor. This fits into a common pattern in American life: that those least in need of help are those most likely to receive it (and vice versa, of course).

As I hope you can see, this is a gripping and important book. The reader comes away with both an intellectual and a visceral understanding of housing insecurity. There are some things that I wish Desmond included—most notably, what economic trends drove this change—but, on balance, I do not think anyone could have written a better book on this topic. Now, as we face the prospect of mass evictions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps we will summon the political will to do something about the problem.

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Quotes & Commentary #77: Camus

Quotes & Commentary #77: Camus

Really, however, it is doubtful if this could be called a victory. All that could be said was that the disease seemed to be leaving as unaccountably as it had come. Our strategy had not changed, but whereas yesterday it had obviously failed, today it seemed triumphant.

—Albert Camus

We humans are vulnerable to a variety of cognitive illusions, not the least of which is the illusion of control. The idea that an event is completely out of our control is extremely difficult for us to accept, apparently; and so our brain tricks us into thinking that we are the ones pushing the buttons. This can take many benign and amusing forms. For example, many of us repeatedly push the call elevator button or the crosswalk signal while waiting, with the idea that we can somehow speed it up. Or we leave the pit of an avocado in some guacamole, thinking we can prevent it from going bad. 

This behavior often leads to superstitions, especially in situations when chance plays a major role. For example, baseball is notorious for the great many superstitions which abound, as players recruit supernatural intervention to reduce the role of chance. Fundamentally, these superstitions all make the mistake of confusing correlation for causation. So if a batter eats sixteen carrots and then hits a home run, he may conclude that the home run was due to the carrots.

And this process can take place on a societal scale. The classic example is, perhaps, the rain dance—an attempt to control weather patterns through ritual. Indeed, the idea that humans can influence the natural order through carefully prescripted and repeated gestures is arguably one of the psychological roots of religion. 

The reason that I am bringing all of this up is that I believe we can observe this process quite clearly in our response to the coronavirus. All of us badly want to feel as though we can control the spread of the virus, and this has led to some sensible and, I suspect, some far less sensible solutions. I have observed several people in my neighborhood who put little bags on their dogs’ feet. Only slightly less ridiculous are the shoe disinfectant mats being sold online. Even the practice of wiping down our groceries with bleach strikes me as more ritualistic than sensible. 

Indeed, considering that we can get the virus just from breathing in particles, then all this trouble to disinfect surfaces does seem rather suspect to me. I cannot help thinking that, by the time you touch an infected surface, you will have breathed in the virus ten times before. (And by the time you get it from your dog’s paws, you will have gotten it one hundred times before.)

Just as in superstition, irrational virus precautions can take place on a societal as well as an individual scale. The most notorious example of this I have seen was the bleaching of a Spanish beach, in the coastal town of Zahara de los Atunes. While undoubtedly causing significant environmental damage, the benefits to coronavirus control seem doubtful in the extreme. As another doubtful measure, I would offer Governor Cuomo’s decision to disinfect New York City’s subway system every night. Again, if the virus can be breathed in, then the threat from contaminated surfaces may be entirely redundant.

More generally, I think it is fair to say that we do not completely understand the pattern of coronavirus spread. A few days after announcing the nightly subway cleaning—a massive and expensive effort, which displaces the homeless and may impede some people’s commutes—Cuomo announced the results of a study on 600 people who were diagnosed with the virus in a hospital. He was surprised to find that only 4% had used public transportation. The large majority were not working. This result is puzzling. If mere exposure to the virus was enough, then one would expect the essential workers—especially those on public transport—to constitute a far larger portion of cases, since they come into contact with far more people.

Perhaps we have overestimated the importance of mere exposure, then, and underestimated the importance of “viral dose.” (Please keep in mind that I am in no way an expert, and this is pure speculation on my part!) This means that a long amount of time spent with one infected person could matter more than a passing proximity with several. If this is the case, then forcing people to stay in their homes, even if they have symptoms (which was the policy here in Spain), may be somewhat counterproductive, since it would increase the viral dosage of any co-residents.

This would also mean that prohibitions on outdoor exercise were not sensible. Indeed, over two weeks after finally letting children go outside in Spain, no noticeable uptick has been observed (despite complaints that people were not maintaining the correct distance). Other evidence points in this direction as well. This Chinese study could only find one single case of an outdoor transmission, and instead found that the vast majority of outbreaks took place inside the home.

Globally, the data also seems to indicate that we do not fully understand the relevant variables. The virus seems to be striking some countries hard while leaving others mostly untouched, in a pattern that is not easily explained either with governmental action or weather. The case of Spain and Portugal seems especially baffling, as Spain’s small neighbor has so far suffered five times fewer fatalities per habitant as Spain. And this, in spite of never having imposed mandatory stay-at-home orders or closing all non-essential businesses. Though Portugal is given credit for acting early, the two countries entered into a state of alarm at about the same time, closing schools and restaurants the same week. Yet the contrast is striking. 

If we are going to effectively combat this virus, then I think this means doing our best to resist the illusion of control. This is because the cognitive illusion blinds us to the real effectiveness of our strategies. If we embark on a maximal strategy—doing everything we can think of to stop the virus—and the virus indeed abates, we may conclude that it takes a maximal strategy to beat the virus. But in that case, we may end up like the carrot-eating batter, drawing false conclusions from a mere correlation. And since so many individual measures are rolled into a maximal strategy, we remain in the dark as to which specific measures are the most helpful, which are basically useless, and which are counterproductive.

This information is vital if we are to achieve anything resembling a functional economy. Our goal should be to uncover which measures have the lowest cost-benefit ratio—inexpensive and minimally inconvenient strategies which effectively curb the virus. If indeed masks work, then widespread mask usage would be such a strategy, since they do not significantly disrupt normal life and cost mere pennies to produce. If it is not too late, increased security measures for senior care homes would be another such strategy, since age is a major risk factor.

Perhaps the easiest way to determine such measures would be surveys. Governor Cuomo has already demonstrated the knowledge that can be gained by surveying incoming hospital patients. Indeed, we probably should have been doing so from the beginning, allowing a more detailed picture to emerge of which activities tend to increase risk. Widespread serological testing for antibody prevalence can also be easily supplemented with detailed surveys. With any luck, certain patterns will emerge from this data, which will point us in the right direction.

Another way to find out more about how and where the virus spreads would be to turn our testing capacity away from patient diagnosis and towards investigative studies. This would mean testing representative samples from relevant populations, to ascertain the prevalence of the virus in different areas and professions. Such testing may reveal useful patterns in the virus’s spread. Contact tracing—once we have the ability to do so—can be similarly used as an investigative tool.

But as it stands now, I often get the impression that officials (here in Spain at least) are like a blindfolded boxer, swinging left and right hopping to connect with the target. The result is rather incoherent. For example, when people were finally allowed outside to walk and run, the officials decided to impose time constraints for these activities. I am not sure what they hoped to gain from this. But the result has been that everyone rushes out the door as soon as the clock strikes, and the streets are consequently packed.

Adding to this, officials decided not to open the parks, so there is less space for walking. To compensate, they tried converting several roads in the city into pedestrian zones. But I cannot help wondering: how is a pedestrian zone any safer than a park? Last weekend we were treated to the absurd spectacle of joggers squeezed into a narrow, tapped-off zone, jogging in one big circle around Madrid’s Retiro park, which remained closed. 

Such policy mistakes are harmless enough, I suppose. But I think we need to be very wary of what this blind swinging can lead to. Traumatic events can provoke a panicked response that can do more damage than the threat we are trying to avoid. America’s last traumatic event—the September 11th attacks—provoked some very sensible changes, like increased airport security, but also set off a series of interventionist wars that cost far more lives than the original attacks themselves. Such wars seem rather absurd to many of us now; but at the time, when the threat of terrorism seemed to overshadow every other consideration, we were willing to react with a maximal strategy.

Does this crisis present us with a similar danger? I think it may. And if so, we need to do our best to avoid the coronavirus equivalent of an Iraq War, and focus on finding strategies equivalent to bomb screenings and reinforced cockpit doors—easy, cheap interventions that can save lives, rather than a giant quagmire that only adds another problem on top of the one we already have. If we are the blindfolded boxer, we need to focus on removing the blindfold, rather than swinging as hard as we can.

Review: Plagues and Peoples

Review: Plagues and Peoples

Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Looked at from the point of view of other organisms, humankind therefore resembles an acute epidemic disease, whose occasional lapses into less virulent forms of behavior have never sufficed to permit any really stable, chronic relationship to establish itself.

It is risky to write a book like this. When William H. McNeill set out to analyze the manifold ways that infectious diseases have shaped world history, it was almost an entirely novel venture. Though people had been writing history for millennia, specialized works focusing on the ways that civilizations have been shaped by illness were few and far between. This seems rather strange when you consider that it was only in the twentieth century when disease reliably caused fewer casualties than enemy action during war.

Perhaps thinking about faceless enemies like viruses and bacteria simply does not come naturally to us. We personify the heavens readily enough, and do our best to appease it. But it is more difficult to personify a disease: it strikes too randomly, too mysteriously, and often too suddenly. It is, in other words, a completely amoral agent; and the thought that we are at the mercy of such an agent is painful to consider.

This tendency to leave diseases out of history books has come down to our own day. The 1918 flu pandemic is given a fraction of the coverage in standard textbooks as the First World War, even though the former caused more casualties. Curiously, however, that terrible disease did not even leave a lasting impression on those who survived it, judging by its absence in the works of the major writers of the day. It seems that memory of disease fades fast, at least most of the time. The 1968 Hong Kong flu killed 100,000 Americans that year (which would translate to 160,000 today), and yet neither of my parents remembers it.

This is why I think this book was a risky venture: there was not much precedent for successful books written about the history of diseases. Further, since there was not much in the way of prior research, much of this book must perforce consist of speculation using the spotty records that existed. While this does leave the historian open to the criticism of making unfounded claims, as McNeill himself says, such speculations can usefully precede a more thorough inquiry, since at least it gives researchers an orientation in the form of theories to test. Indeed, in my opinion, speculative works have just as important a role as careful research in the advancement of knowledge.

McNeill most certainly cannot be accused of a lack of ambition. He had completed an enormous amount of research to write his seminal book on world history, The Rise of the West; and this book has an equally catholic orientation. He begins with the emergence of our species and ends with the twentieth century, examining every inhabited continent (though admittedly not in equal detail). The result is a tantalizing view of how the long arc of history has been bent and broken by creatures lighter than a dust mite.

Some obvious patterns emerge. The rise of agriculture and cities created population densities capable of supporting endemic diseases, unknown to hunter-gatherers. Living near large masses of domesticated animals contributed much to our disease regimes; and the lack of such animals was decisive in the New World, leaving indigenous populations vulnerable to the invading Europeans’ microbes. Another recurring pattern is that of equilibrium and disturbance. Whenever a new disease breaks in upon a virgin population, the results are disastrous. But eventually stasis is achieved, and population begins to rebound.

One of McNeill’s most interesting claims is that the great population growth that began in the 18th century was partly a result of a new disease regime. By that time, fast overland and sea travel had exposed most major urban centers to common diseases from around the world, thus rendering them less vulnerable to new shocks. I was also surprised to learn that it was only the rise of modern sanitation and medicine—in the mid 19th century—that allowed city populations to be self-sustaining. Before this, cities were population sinks because of endemic diseases, and required constant replenishment from the countryside in order to maintain their numbers.

As I hope you can see, almost fifty years after publication, this book still puts forward a compelling view of world history. And I think it is a view that we still have trouble digesting, since it challenges our basic sense of self-determination. Perhaps one small benefit of the current crisis will be an increased general curiosity about how we still are, and have always been, mired in the invisible web of the microscopic world.



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Quotes & Commentary #76: Thucydides

Quotes & Commentary #76: Thucydides

Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.

—Thucydides

In my previous post I bemoaned the conversion of a public health crisis into yet another partisan fight—with those on the left for the lockdown, and those on the right against it. In this regard, I think it is striking to reread this passage of Thucydides, as it encapsulates a common occurrence in times of crisis: the preference for extreme measures over moderation, for decisiveness over prudent hesitation.

The reason for this is our very human need to feel safe and secure. Having a plan, especially a drastic plan, is one of the ways we accomplish this. Carrying out extreme measures at least gives us the illusion of control; and control is what everyone craves in an emergency. But I do not think we should let this very human need prevent us from being critical, open-minded, and moderate. These are good qualities in the worst of times as well as in the best of times.

My main concern is that I think that too many people—especially on the left—are advocating long, strict lockdowns as the only possible option. Calls to reopen are being dismissed as irresponsible or even nefarious, and respected epidemiologists like David Katz (who advocates more measured policies) can only get a hearing on Fox News and Bill Maher’s show. This makes me worry that the left is backing itself into an ideological corner, insisting that lockdowns are the only way to fight this virus.

There is certainly a noble impulse in this: valuing human life over profit. But I think that the situation is far more complex than this dichotomy implies. A narrative is starting to emerge that it is our evil corporate overlords (Elon Musk, most notoriously) who want us to return to work in order to satisfy their greed. Already in Georgia, people are compiling lists of businesses which are reopening with the intention of blacklisting them for doing so. But are we really willing to vilify people for reopening when remaining closed would mean bankruptcy, financial ruin, and losing their livelihoods? The anti-corporate, pro-lockdown messaging is ignoring the simple truth that the economic effects of the lockdowns will hurt the poor far, far more than they will hurt the rich. 

Granted, we could and should be doing much more to help the poor and disadvantaged during this time. Also granted, our economy was rife with structural inequalities before all of this, which ought not to have been there to begin with. But we must work with the economy we have and with the options that are politically possible—not with the economy we should’ve had and the things we should be able to do. And we also must be sure that our policies are shaped by prudence rather than fear or ideology.

So here is my worry: if the left (of which I consider myself a member) becomes the party of lockdowns, this may not appear so wise in retrospect. This is because the efficacy of our anti-virus measures is still very much an open question; and it is thus very possible that some of our policies will have done more harm than good.

As a prime contender for this, I would submit school closures. As I noted in my previous post, young children seem both safe from, and hardly able to transmit, the virus. The idea that they were major transmitters was an educated guess, and it seems to have been wrong. Keeping children out of school, however, will undoubtedly be harmful to their development and detrimental to their futures. And it will most certainly do the most harm to the poorest among us. Furthermore, keeping children home puts more pressure on parents, and may take some doctors and nurses out of commission.

At the very least, I think it is wrong to close schools in a “better safe than sorry” mentality, without very thorough consideration of the costs and benefits. As a teacher myself, I can say with confidence that virtual learning is no substitute for being in the classroom. If my students must miss class, I want to be sure that it is to protect them, and not simply to make us feel safer. I am not willing to sacrifice their education to satisfy my panic.

Here is the trouble with a total lockdown: it combines so many different measures into one sweeping global approach that we have no opportunity to see which specific parts of the lockdown—closing restaurants, canceling concerts, calling off school—have the highest cost-benefit ratio. It simply cannot be taken for granted that a total lockdown is the single best strategy going forward. In the absence of more data about the virus’s lethality and total spread, we cannot even be confident that it was even a wise strategy to begin with. (A study by the Wall Street Journal—which admittedly has its own biases—found that there was no correlation at all between coronavirus mortality and the speed of lockdown in U.S. states.)

The case of Sweden should give lockdown advocates pause. Sweden has become notorious for its lax coronavirus measures. Shops and restaurants are open, and life carries on without masks or gloves. Meanwhile, most other European countries instituted strict lockdowns. Spain had one of the strictest lockdowns of all. Parks were closed, and people were not allowed to go on walks or to exercise outside. All non-essential businesses were shuttered, and people could only leave the house to go to the pharmacy and the supermarket. Police patrolled the streets, giving out hundreds of thousands of fines, and making hundreds of arrests, in enforcement of the lockdown.

If lockdowns were really an effective way of controlling the virus, then one might expect Spain to have a substantially lower death rate. On the contrary, Spain has suffered twice as many deaths-per-million as Sweden. Indeed, Sweden is in the ballpark of Ireland and Switzerland, two countries that took swift, decisive action to shut down their economies. And Sweden’s “curve” seems to be leveling out anyway. To say the very least, it has not been an unmitigated disaster in the country. 

Admittedly, if you compare Sweden to its Scandinavian neighbors, Finland and Norway, you can see that their lax policy seems to have resulted in a higher mortality rate. Does this prove that Sweden has taken the wrong course? I think we should not rush to judgment. First, it is easily possible that, as Finland and Norway open up, their death rates will climb to approach Sweden’s. Furthermore, by minimizing the damage done to their economy, there is a very real possibility that Sweden inflicted less total harm on its society.

(We also should not rush to declare New Zealand’s tough policies a success, which for the moment seems to have eliminated coronavirus from their shores. While this is impressive, it remains to be seen whether this was the best strategy for the long-term, since it is possible that it will only make it that much more difficult to reestablish open channels with the outside world.)

My own personal fear—which apparently is not shared by many—is that the left will put itself in a bad position if it becomes the party of the lockdown. At the present moment, there is an awful lot of fear of this new virus. But in six months, when the elections roll around, what will be at the forefront of people’s minds: the virus, or the economic depression?

My guess is that, as time goes by, fear of the virus will fade, and concern for ruined businesses, blasted retirement accounts, and lost careers will only grow more acute. So far, it seems that Republicans have shifted most decisively in the direction of economic concern, with Independents shifting somewhat in that direction, while Democrats have hardly budged.

Such flagrantly political concerns should not guide our policy. Concern for human welfare should. And I am afraid that we may be developing myopic and unrealistic ideas about the lockdowns in this regard. First, somewhere along the line, many people seemed to have forgotten that our original idea of “flattening the curve” was to prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed. The idea was never that we would absolutely prevent people from getting sick. Unless we are willing to stay inside until a vaccine is widely available—an unknown timeline, but still many months away—we are simply going to have to accept some risk from the virus.

Now, perhaps some rich countries could afford to stay shut up indoors until we have a vaccine. And maybe this would benefit these rich countries (though I doubt it). However, I think such a prolonged and severe period of economic inactivity would be horrendous for poorer countries. Telling people to stay inside is simply not feasible where people live in shacks and have no savings. And governments in poor countries could not afford drastic social policies to keep their people fed, especially during a severe depression. (Remember that a depression in richer countries means a depression everywhere.) A months-long lockdown could easily result in food shortages in many parts of the world, which might claim significantly more lives than the virus itself. 

What is more, prolonged economic depression has serious political repercussions. Economic instability easily translates into political instability, and political instability easily translates into violence—even war. The 2008 financial crisis has already had an awful effect on worldwide politics, eventually resulting in waves of populist right-wing parties, and a growing polarization which has resulted in increasingly dysfunctional governments. And this is only to speak of rich countries.

In countries already struggling with low standards of living and ineffective governments, what will be the results of an economic crisis much more severe than 2008? Will every government be able to take the pressure? We must keep in mind that, if any government fails, the consequences will be bad for everyone. As we have learned, power vacuums leave the door open for the most dangerous among us to gain control.

For those of us on the left, I think it behooves us to examine the complete picture, and not to fall into easy rhetoric about workers being sacrificed for the economy. These are the hard facts: the virus is here to stay; and if the economy is not working, it will be very, very hard on millions of people—especially poor people all around the world. Our governments could and should do more to alleviate the economic suffering. But many countries around the world simply do not have the resources to do so, and a severe depression will only make this more true. Of all people, we on the left should know that poverty hurts and kills, and we cannot afford to turn this into yet another purity test.

The hardest truth of all, perhaps, is that we are in a horrible situation that requires us to make painful compromises. An ideology that promises easy answers and readily-identifiable villains will not get us very far.

Quotes and Commentary #75: Franklin

Quotes and Commentary #75: Franklin

So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

—Benjamin Franklin

Our brain has an astounding ability to formulate justifications for believing things that we want to believe. As I have already remarked, the current pandemic—a major historical event—seems to have changed nobody’s mind. Socialists are calling for universal healthcare, capitalists are calling for corporate bailouts, and in general the old battle political lines are as strong as ever.

Indeed, at a time one might expect people to turn towards experts, I have observed some even embracing—of all things!—anti-vaccination. Really, if a pandemic cannot convince somebody that viruses really do cause disease and that we ought to prepare for them, then I do not see much hope for reasoned debate.

Considering that our collective response to a novel virus has somehow turned into a partisan fight, then I do think there is ample reason to suspect that many of us are not reacting rationally. And there are powerful emotional reasons for this. Specifically, I think that we have been impaled on the twins horns of fear and foolhardiness.

A part of our brains is terrified of contagion and disease, while another part is prone to wishful thinking. And it seems that these two emotional reactions are coming to dominate the two sides of the political spectrum: the left is fearful, while the right is foolhardy. The problem is that I think both emotions lead to irrational and unsustainable responses.

Giving into fear means embracing long and even indefinite lockdowns. Better to be safe at home than putting oneself and others outside at risk. And of course this is not wholly unreasonable: the coronavirus is real, and it has taken lives. My concern is that the original justification for the lockdowns is being forgotten. The idea of “flattening the curve” was to prevent our healthcare systems from being overwhelmed, which was a real danger in places like Madrid and New York City. The idea was that, if we flatten the curve, we will save lives—not by reducing the total number of infections, but by spreading out the infections so our healthcare system could handle them.

But somehow this thinking got lost, and I am afraid that there are many who think we can somehow eliminate the virus altogether by staying inside. The virus will be there, waiting, whenever we leave our homes. A virus has no timeline and infinite patience. So unless we are willing to wait until a vaccine has been invented, mass-produced, and widely distributed—which will be such a long time that it could cause unprecedented economic harm—then the only reason to wait, as far as I can see, is to make sure our hospitals will be able to handle the influx of patients. In places where the healthcare system is not nearly at maximum capacity, I do not see what would be gained by an extra month of waiting inside, other than allowing people to feel safe a little longer.

Demanding long, strict lockdowns even in areas where the virus is not widespread strikes me as a response motivated primarily by fear. And the problem with fear is that it gives you tunnel-vision, focusing all your attention on the source of danger, and reorienting all of your priorities around the new threat. This can lead to some obviously irrational behavior—in nearly all of us.

For example, a person may refuse to walk across a bridge because of his fear of heights, but may smoke cigarettes and drink heavily (much more serious risk factors for health) on a regular basis. Collectively we may focus frantic attention on a mining disaster that kills dozens—launching inquiries and investigations and instituting reforms—while we completely ignore hospital-acquired infections, which kill tens of thousands year after year. The human brain is wired to respond to immediate threats, and especially the kinds of threats (like violence and disease) that shaped our evolution. Much more serious threats, which kill through slower and less spectacular means, are easier to ignore. (Global warming is probably the best example of this.) 

The problem with our great fear of the virus is that I think it may cause us to neglect the costs of our containment measures. The success of a country’s policies cannot be measured in the number of its coronavirus cases and deaths alone. A profound and prolonged economic depression will both reduce lifespans and, directly and indirectly, also cause deaths. But the suffering caused by the depression will be slower, longer, less spectacular, and thus less scary. However, such damage is just as real, and it is just as much a consequence of our policies.

As I have argued before, a truly moral response to the crisis requires that we try to reduce harm as much as possible, all across the board. Fearfully focusing our attention exclusively on the coronavirus will lead us to be not only irrational, then, but potentially immoral.

Let me give a concrete example of this. From what I can tell, there is a growing amount of evidence that young children are in negligible danger from the virus. Moreover, according to this study performed in Australia, children are apparently not even a significant source of contagion. Indeed, in Switzerland they are apparently confident enough that children do not pose a danger that they have given young kids permission to hug their grandparents.

If it is true that children neither pose nor suffer a significant risk, then that would make many of our school closures questionable at best. In Spain, for example, schools will not reopen until the fall. But keeping kids out of school does serious, lasting harm to them—harm that disproportionately falls on poorer students, and harm that must also be taken into account when we make policies. (Also, Spain’s policy of keeping children confined in their homes for 6 weeks also seems hard to justify in this light.)

My point is not to advocate for school reopenings, per se (though it does seem reasonable to me), but to make the more general point that the current environment of fear makes even a rational discussion about school closures impossible. Instead of balancing the risks and rewards to students, many on the left seem to instinctively dismiss such conversations as frivolous and irresponsible. I do not think this is a productive mindset.

The mirror image of fear is foolhardiness, and I can sense it taking hold in certain sections of the right. We see it most clearly in the demonstrations in front of state capitals, in which participants deliberately flout safety guidelines in order to demand an economic reopening, often for pretty superficial reasons (like a haircut). It seems that many people still believe that the virus is not a significant threat and does not require any special action. But judging from what happened both here in Madrid and in my own state of New York, I think there is ample evidence that this virus is, minimally, a significantly greater threat than the seasonal flu. A policy of “do-nothing” is clearly inadequate when bodies are outstripping coffin-production and morgue capacity.

Foolhardiness also leads to another kind of cognitive blindness: wishful thinking. We all have the tendency to grasp at any data which supports our hoped-for conclusions. We can see this at work in a viral video of a certain Dr. Daniel Erickson (since removed from YouTube), who claimed that the data showed that coronavirus was, in fact, already widespread and far less deadly than the flu. But his argument was a product of wishful thinking, and rested on a basic error of statistics—extrapolating from a non-representative sample.

Erickson used our current coronavirus test records to extrapolate to the entire population. This does not take into account the obvious fact that most testing is done on people who are sick or who otherwise suspect they may have the virus. Our testing records, then, will obviously show much higher rates of coronavirus than the general population. Extrapolating from this data is simply nonsense. However, this video gained traction in rightwing circles and was even used on Fox News to argue against the lockdown.

A rational and moral response will be neither fearful nor foolhardy, but will take measures to minimize the total harm to society—both from the virus and the economic downturn. This is easier said than done, of course, especially in the world of politics. Personally, I think this is the ideal time to try out something like Universal Basic Income, which I think would ease the economic pressure and also give us more flexibility in combating the virus. But sadly this does not seem likely.

Given the real possibilities, then, I think that it is our obligation to cut the best path we can through both fear and foolhardiness, balancing the risk posed by the virus against the risk posed by a major economic depression. This means that we cannot let our fear of the virus be the only factor we consider; but we also cannot let wishful thinking cloud our judgment.

Acting rationally means fighting against the universal human tendency to give in to our hopes and fears. Both hope and fear, in different ways, distort the real danger.

Review: The Plague

Review: The Plague

The Plague by Albert Camus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic.

As with all of Camus’s books, The Plague is a seamless blend of philosophy and art. The story tells of an outbreak of plague—bubonic and pneumonic—in the Algerian city of Oran. The narration tracks the crisis from beginning to end, noting the different psychological reactions of the townsfolk; and it must be said, now that we are living through a pandemic, that Camus is remarkably prescient in his portrayal a city under siege from infection. Compelling as the story is, however, I think its real power resides in its meaning as a parable of Camus’s philosophy.

Camus’s philosophy is usually called absurdism, and explained as a call to embrace the absurdity of existence. But this is not as simple as giving up church on Sundays. Absurdism is, indeed, incompatible with conventional religion. Camus makes this abundantly clear in his passage on the priest’s sermon—which argues that the plague is god’s punishment for our sins—an idea that Camus thinks incompatible with the randomness of the disaster: appearing out of nowhere, striking down children and adults alike. But absurdism is also incompatible with traditional humanism.
The best definition of humanism is perhaps Protagoras’s famous saying: “Man is the measure of all things.” In many respects this seems to be true. Gold is valuable because we value it; an elephant is big and a mouse is small relative to human size; and so on. However, on occasion, the universe throws something our way that is not made to man’s measure. A plague is a perfect example of this: an ancient organism, too small to see, which can colonize our bodies, causing sickness and death and shutting down conventional life as we know it. Whenever a natural disaster makes life impossible, we are reminded that, far from being the measure of all things, we exist at the mercy of an uncaring universe.

This idea is painful to contemplate. Nobody likes to feel powerless; and the idea that our suffering and striving do not, ultimately, mean anything is downright depressing. Understandably, most of us prefer to ignore this situation. And of course economies and societies invite us to do so—to focus on human needs, human goals, human values—to be, in short, humanists. But there are moments when the illusion fades, and it does not take a pandemic. A simple snowstorm can be enough. I remember watching snow fall out of an office window, creating a blanket of white that forced us to close early, go home, and stay put the next day. A little inclement weather is all it takes to make our plans seem small and irrelevant.

A plague, then, is an ideal situation for Camus to explore his philosophy. But absurdism does not merely consist in realizing that the universe is both omnipotent and indifferent. It also is a reaction to this realization. In this book, Camus is particularly interested in what it means to be moral in such a world. And he presents a model of heroism very different from that which we are used to. The humanist hero is one who is powerful and free—a person who could have easily chosen not to be a hero, but who chose to because of their goodness.

The hero of this story, Dr. Bernard Rieux, does not fit this mold. His heroism is far humbler and more modest: it is the heroism of “common decency,” of “doing my job.” For the truth is that Rieux and his fellows do not have much of a choice. Their backs are against the wall, leaving them only the choice to fight or give up. An absurdist hero is thus not making a choice between good and evil, but against a long and ultimately doomed fight against death—or death. It is far better, in Camus’s view, to take up the fight, since it is only in a direct confrontation with death that we become authentically alive.

You might even say that, for Camus, life itself is the only real ethical principle. This becomes apparent in the speech of Tarrou, Rieux’s friend, who is passionately against the death sentence. Capital punishment crystalizes the height of absurdist denial: decreeing that a human value system is more valid that the basic condition of existence, and that we have a right to rule when existence is warranted or not. To see the world with clear eyes means, for Camus, to see that life is something beyond any value system—just as the entire universe is. And the only meaningful ethical choice, for Camus, is whether one chooses to fight for life.

This book is brilliant because its lessons can be applied to a natural disaster, like a plague, or a human disaster, like the holocaust. Indeed, before the current pandemic, the book was normally read as a reaction to that all-too-human evil. In either case, our obligation is to fight for life. This means rejecting ideologies that decree when life is or is not warranted, it means not giving up or giving in, and it means, most of all, doing one’s job.



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Review: And the Band Played On

Review: And the Band Played On

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The story of these first five years of AIDS in America is a drama of national failure, played out against a backdrop of needless death.

Though this book has been on my list for years, it took a pandemic to get me to finally pick it up. I am glad I did. And the Band Played On is both a close look at one medical crisis and an examination of how humans react when faced with something that does not fit into any of our mental boxes—not our ideas of civil liberty, not our categories of people, and not our notions of government responsibility. As such, this book has a lot to teach us, especially these days.

Randy Shilts was working as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. This position allowed him to track the spread of this disease from nearly the very beginning. Putting this story together was a work of exemplary journalism, involving a lot of snooping and a lot more interviewing. What emerges is a blow-by-blow history of the crisis as it unfolded in its first five years, from 1980-85. And Shilts’s lens is broad: he examines the gay community, the epidemiologists, the press, the blood banks, the medical field, the research scientists, and the politicians. After all, a pandemic is not just caused by a virus; it is the sum of a virus and a society that allows it to spread.

The overarching theme of this book is individual heroism in the face of institutional failure. There are many admirable people in these pages: epidemiologists trying to raise the alert, doctors struggling to treat a mysterious ailment, gay activists trying to educate their communities, and a few politicians who take the disease seriously. But the list of failures is far longer: from the scientists squabbling over claims of priority, to the academic bureaucracies squashing funding requests, to the blood bankers refusing to test their blood, to the government—on every level—failing to take action or set aside sufficient funding.

A lot of these failures were due simply to the sorts people who normally caught AIDS: gay men and intravenous drug users. Because both of these groups were (and to some extent still are) social pariahs, major newspapers simply did not cover the epidemic. This was crucial in many respects, since it gave the impression that it simply was not worth worrying about (the news sets the worry agenda, after all), giving politicians an excuse to do nothing and giving people at risk an excuse not to take any precautions. The struggle in the gay community over how to proceed was particularly vexing, since it was their very efforts to preserve their sexual revolution which cost time and lives. As we are seeing nowadays, balancing civil liberties and disease control is not an easy thing.

But what made these failure depressing, rather than simply frustrating, was the constant drumbeat of death. So many young men lost their lives to this disease, dying slow and agonizing deaths while baffled doctors tried to treat them. When these deaths were occurring among gay men and drug users, the silence of the country was deafening. It was only when the disease showed the potential to infect heterosexuals and movie stars—people who matter—that society suddenly spurred itself into action. This seems to be a common theme to pandemics: society only responds when “normal” people are at risk.

Another common theme to pandemic is the search for a panacea. At the beginning of the AIDS crisis, there were many claims of “breakthroughs” and promises of vaccines. But we still have neither a cure nor a vaccine. Fortunately, treatment for HIV/AIDS has improved dramatically since this book was written, when a diagnosis meant death. Pills are now available (Pre-Exposure Prophylactic, or PrEP) which, if taken daily, can reduce the chance of contracting HIV through sex by almost 99% percent. And effective anti-viral therapies exist for anyone who has been infected, greatly extending lifespans.

Unfortunately, these resources are mostly available in the “developed” world. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where resources are scarce, the disease is still growing, taking many lives in the process. Once again, a disease is allowed to ravage in communities that the world can comfortably ignore.

One day, a hardworking journalist will write a similar book about the current coronavirus crisis and our institutions’ response to it. And I am sure there will be just as much failure to account for. But there will also be just as much heroism.



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Review: The Great Influenza

Review: The Great Influenza

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

People write about war. They write about the Holocaust. They write about the horrors that people inflict on people. Apparently they forget the horrors that nature inflicts on people, the horrors that make humans least significant.

Like so many people nowadays, I have been scrambling to wrap my mind around the current pandemic. This led me, naturally, to the last major worldwide outbreak: the 1918 influenza. I have a distant connection to this disease. My great-grandfather (after whom I was named) was drafted out of Cornell’s veterinary school to work as a nurse in a temporary hospital set up for flu victims. I read the letters he sent to his mother, describing the experience.

John Barry’s account of this virulent flu is sobering to say the least. In a matter of months, the flu spread across the world and caused between 50 and 100 million deaths. More American soldiers died from this flu than from the entire Vietnam War. In most places the mortality rate hovered around two percent, but it struck much more fiercely elsewhere. In the Fiji Islands, 14 percent of its population succumbed; in Western Samoa, twenty-two percent; and in Labrador, a third of the population died. And because the disease mainly struck young people—people in their twenties and thirties—thousands were left orphans.

Barry’s book is not, however, simply a record of deaths. He sets the historical scene by giving a brief overview of contemporary medicine. In the early 1900s, modern medicine was just coming into its own. After centuries in which it was thought that bad air (“miasma”) caused illness, and in which bleeding was the most popular “cure,” researchers were beginning to discover viruses and bacteria, and were beginning to understand how the immune system combats these germs. Major public health initiatives were just getting underway. The John Hopkins School of Public Health had been founded, and the Rockefeller Institute was making new types of research possible. It was not the Dark Ages.

The other major piece of historical context is, of course, the First World War. Undoubtedly this played a major role in the epidemic. Not only did troop movements help to spread the disease, but press censorship virtually guaranteed that communities were unprepared. Barry notes how newspapers all across the country consistently downplayed the danger, which ironically only further increased panic. (The pandemic is sometimes called the “Spanish flu,” because the press in neutral Spain was uncensored, and so reported freely on the disease.) The war effort overrode all of the warnings of disease experts; and by the time the disease struck many communities, most of the available doctors and nurses had been sent to the military.

Barry’s narration mainly focuses on the United States. Partly this is because this is where he believes the disease originated (there are several competing theories), partly this is because the disease’s impact in Europe was overshadowed by the war, and partly this is simply because of the amount of easily available sources. I did wish he had spent more time on other countries—especially on India, which suffered horribly. The sections on science—both on the history of science, and summarizing what we know now about flu viruses—were in general quite strong. What was lacking, for me, were sections on the cultural impact of the disease.

But perhaps there are not so many. As Barry notes, no major novelist of the time—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lawrence—mentioned the pandemic in their works. I have noticed the same thing myself. I cannot recall a single mention of this flue in biographies and autobiographies of people who lived through the pandemic, such as John Maynard Keynes or even John D. Rockefeller (who personally funded research on the disease). This is perhaps understandable in Europe, where the deaths from the pandemic were swallowed up in news of the war; but it seems odd elsewhere. What is more, the pandemic did not seem to exacerbate existing racial or class tensions. In many ways the virus seems to have swept through communities and then disappeared from memory.

(Barry does have one fairly controversial claim in the book: that Woodrow Wilson contracted the flu while negotiating the treaty of Versailles, and that it caused him to capitulate to Clemenceau’s demands. If this is true, it would be a major historical consequence.)

It is illuminating to compare the 1918 pandemic to the current crisis. There are many similarities. Both are caused by easily transmissible viruses, and both spread around the world. The H1N1 flu virus and the SARS-CoV-2 virus both infect the respiratory system, causing fever, coughing, and in severe cases pneumonia and ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome). In both cases, no vaccine is available and no known treatment is effective. As in 1918, doctors are turning desperately to other therapies and medicines—those developed for other, unrelated diseases like malaria—and as in 1918, researchers are publishing at a frantic pace, with no time for peer review. Police are again wearing masks, hospitals are again overrun, and officials are struggling to catch up with the progress of the virus.

But of course, there are many important differences, too. One is the disease itself. The 1918 flu was almost certainly worse than the novel coronavirus. It was more deadly in general, and it killed younger people in far greater numbers—which resulted in a much bigger dip in life expectancy. (Young people died because their immune systems overreacted in what is called a “cytokine storm.”) The H1N1 flu also had a far shorter incubation period. This meant that the gap between infection and the first symptoms was short—often within 24 hours—and patients deteriorated far more quickly. Barry describes people being struck down within mere hours of showing their first symptoms. The challenge of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, however, is the very long incubation period—potentially up to two weeks—in which people may be infectious and yet not show symptoms. This makes it very difficult to keep track of who has it.

The explanation for this difference lies in the nature of the virus. A virus is basically a free-floating piece of genetic code incased in a protein shell. It needs to highjack animal cells in order to reproduce; and it infiltrates cells using proteins that link up with structures on the cells’ surface. Once inside, the virus begins to replicate until the cell literally bursts, spilling virus into adjacent cells, which in turn get infected, and which in turn burst. Each burst can release thousands of copies. The rate at which the virus replicates within the cells determine the incubation period (between first infection and first symptoms), and coronaviruses replicate significantly more slowly in animal cells, thus explaining the slower onset of symptoms. Their greater speed also means that flu viruses change faster, undergoing antigenic drift and antigenic shift, meaning that new strains of the virus are inevitable. The novel coronavirus is (likely) more stable.

Another potential difference is seasonality. Flu viruses come in seasonal waves. The 1918 virus struck first in spring, receded in summer, and then returned in autumn and one last time in the winter of 1919. Every wave hit very quickly—and then left just as quickly. Most cities experienced a sharp drop-off in cases after about six weeks of the first patients. The seasonality of the 1918 flu was partly a result of the genetic drift just mentioned, as the different waves of this flu were all at least subtly different strains of the virus. Atmospheric conditions—humidity and temperature—also presumably make some difference in the flu virus’s spread. COVID-19 may exhibit a very different pattern. It may, perhaps, be less affected by atmospheric conditions; and if it mutates and reproduces more slowly, it may linger around for one long wave rather than several short ones. This is just my speculation.

Well, so much for the virus. How about us? The world has changed a lot since 1918. However, not all of those changes have made us better prepared. Fast and cheap air travel allowed the virus to spread more quickly. And economic globalization did not help, either, as both medicines and medical equipment are often produced overseas and then imported, thus rendering countries more vulnerable to supply-chain disruption than in the past. As we witness countries and states compete for supplies, this vulnerability is very apparent.

But of course we have many advantages, too. Many of the deaths caused by the flu and the coronavirus are not from the virus infection itself, but because the virus renders us vulnerable to secondary infections by bacteria, causing pneumonia. Antibiotics (which did not exist in 1918) can save many lives. Another advantage is medical care. The most severe patients of both epidemics were struck with ARDS, a condition with an almost 100% mortality rate for those who do not receive intensive medical care (using a ventilator machine). In 1918 they were able to administer oxygen, but far less effectively than we can. Even so, even with the best intensive care, the survival rate of ARDS is between 40-60%. And our ability to administer intensive care is quite limited. The ventilator shortage has become a global emergency in itself, as hospitals are overrun.

Medical science has also advanced considerably. Now we can isolate the virus (which they could not do in 1918), test individuals for it, and work on a vaccine. However, testing has so far been unable to keep up with the virus. And the most optimistic estimate of an available vaccine is in a year. Arguably a much bigger advantage is information technology. The press is not censored—so citizens have a much better idea of the risks involved—and experts can communicate with each other in real time. We can coordinate large-scale societal responses to the pandemic, and can potentially even use technology to track individual cases. As we come to better understand the virus, we will be able to use more sophisticated statistical methods to understand its progress. None of this was possible in 1918.

One thing that we will have to contend with—something that is hardly even mentioned in Barry’s book—is the economic toll that this virus will take. Even in the ugliest days of the 1918 pandemic, governments did not require businesses or restaurants to close. War preparations went on unabated. (In 1918, after years of slaughter and at the height of the war, life was simply cheaper than it is now.) Our societal response will likely mitigate the health crisis but will create a secondary economic crisis that may ultimately be more difficult to solve. The solutions to this crisis could be our most lasting legacies. Already Spain’s government is talking of adopting universal basic income. Though of course it is far too early to predict anything with confidence.

Comparisons with 1918 are partly depressing, and partly uplifting. Depressing, because we knew this was possible and did not prepare. Depressing, because so many governments have gone through the same cycle of early denial and disorganized response as they did back then. Uplifting, because we do know much more than we did. Uplifting, because—after our early fumbles—we are finally coordinating as a global community to deal with the crisis. Perhaps most uplifting of all, despite some ugly stories here and there, the crisis has revealed a basic sense of solidarity in the face of a universal threat. Hopefully, unlike 1918, we will not do our best to forget about this one.



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Review: Deadliest Enemy

Review: Deadliest Enemy

Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs by Michael T. Osterholm

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a critical point in history. Time is running out to prepare for the next pandemic. We must act now with decisiveness and purpose. Someday, after the next pandemic has come and gone, a commission much like the 9/11 Commission will be charged with determining how well government, business, and public health leaders prepared the world for the catastrophe when they had clear warning. What will be the verdict?

If I had read this book in more normal circumstances, I do not know how I would have responded. Perhaps I would have been slightly unnerved, but I think I would have been able to sleep soundly by dismissing most of it as alarmist. In fact, I did just this a few months ago, when I read Bill Bryson’s book on the body, and scoffed at his claim that another 1918-style pandemic was easily possible. Nowadays, however, reading this book is more depressing than anything. Those in the field saw this crisis coming from miles away, but few of us listened. The epidemiological community must feel rather like Cassandras right about now: uttering prophecies that nobody pays any attention to.

(As Osterholm was responsible for most of the ideas in this book, and as it is written from his perspective, I will refer to him as the author in this review.)

This book attempted to be the Silent Spring for infectious diseases. That it did not succeed in doing so is attributable just as much to human nature as to the book itself. Limiting the use of pesticides is fairly easy and relatively painless for most of us. But mobilizing the political will necessary to prepare for health crises in the hypothetical future—preparations that would involve a great deal of money and many institutional changes—is not such an easy sell, especially since we had been lulled into a false sense of security. As is the case with climate change, the dangers seemed so remote and theoretical that for most of us it was difficult to even imagine them.

After witnessing what this new coronavirus has done to our entire way of life in a few short weeks, I was quite disposed to take Osterholm seriously. And I think the entire content of the book—not just the warnings about a potential pandemic—are valuable. Osterholm turns his attention to a wide array of threats: Zika, AIDS, Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Malaria, Ebola, MERS. We are vulnerable on many fronts, and we are generally not doing much to prepare.

One example are the many diseases that are transmitted by mosquito bites. As modern transportation has introduced disease-carrying mosquitos into ever-more parts of the world, and global warming expands the geographic range of mosquitos, this will be an increasing concern. (Silent Spring may, ironically, have contributed to this problem.) Another worry is bio-terrorism. Now that we can see how paralyzing even a moderately lethal virus can be, imagine the damage could be inflicted by a genetically-modified virus. And the technology to edit genes is becoming cheaper by the year. We have already experienced bio-terrorism in the US on a relatively small scale with the 2001 anthrax attacks. This is just a taste of what is possible. According to Osterholm, a mere kilogram of the anthrax bacteria could potentially kill more than an atomic bomb. And it would be far cheaper to acquire.

But these are not even the biggest threats. According to Osterholm, we face two virtual certainties: another flu pandemic, and the imminent ineffectiveness of antibiotics.

The latter is quite terrifying to consider. Antibiotics are not easy to discover, and our arsenal is limited. Meanwhile, bacteria constantly evolve in response to environmental pressures, including to the use of antibiotics. It is inevitable that resistance to available antibiotics will increase; and this could have a profound effect on modern medicine. Even routine operations like knee-replacements would be unsafe if we did not have effective antibiotics. Slight injures—a scratch in the garden from a rose-bush—could result in amputations or even deaths. And yet, antibiotics continue to be widely prescribed for ailments they cannot treat, and given indiscriminately to livestock, which only accelerates the impending bacterial resistance.

The other major threat (as we are learning) is a pandemic. Now, Osterholm was not precisely correct in predicting the cause of the next pandemic, since he thought it would be a flu virus (though he does have a good chapter on coronaviruses, and in any case a flu pandemic is still just as possible). But he is certainly correct in identifying our many structural weaknesses. He notes our lack of stockpiles and correctly predicts a shortage in protective gear, face masks, and ventilators in the event of a pandemic. And though medical science has advanced a lot since 1918, in many ways we are even more vulnerable than we were back then, most notably because of our supply chains. Since so many of our medicines and medical equipment—among other things—are produced overseas, shortages are inevitable if trade is disrupted.

Osterholm is quite illuminating in his discussion of pharmaceutical companies and their incentives. As private businesses, they have little to gain by investing in preventative vaccines or in new antibiotics. In the former case, this is because vaccines have to undergo thorough testing and pass FDA approval, requiring millions in investment, only to face the prospect of uncertain demand once the vaccine hits the market. The case of SARS is instructive. After the disease was identified in 2002, companies rushed to make a vaccine; but when SARS receded, interest in the vaccine disappeared and pharmaceutical companies, cutting their losses, stopped work on the vaccine. We still do not have one.

The incentive system is just as ineffective when it comes to antibiotics. Finding new antibiotics is costly; and since there are currently many cheap antibiotics on the market, a new patented antibiotic probably would not turn a large profit. Besides, effective antibiotic stewardship requires that we use them sparingly, thus further limiting profit potential. Drug companies have much more to gain by creating products that would require continuous use, such as for chronic conditions. Letting the free market decide which drugs get developed, therefore, is not the wisest decision. Osterholm advocates the same approach as taken by government in weapons contracts, wherein the government essentially guarantees payment for any product that meets specifications.

Osterholm’s most ambitious idea for government funding is for a new universal flu vaccine. The flu vaccine we are all familiar with is based on old technology, and can only provide protection from a few strains of flu. Scientists essentially must guess what sort of flu will be circulating in a year; and they must do so every year. But Osterholm thinks that there is good reason to believe that a universal flu vaccine is possible, and recommends we devote at least as much money to such a vaccine as we devote to AIDS research. This seems very sensible to me, since the next pandemic will likely enough come from a flu virus.

I am summarizing Osterholm’s book, but I do not think I am doing justice to its emotional power. Now that I am living through the events that Osterholm predicts (in surprising detail), I feel a strange mixture of outrage and fear: outrage that governments did not listen when they had time, and fear that we will repeat the same mistakes when this current crisis is over. I cannot help but be reminded of another situation in which we comfortably ignore the dire warning of scientists: climate change. My biggest hope for the current crisis, then, is that afterwards we will be more willing to heed the warnings of these nerds in lab coats.



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