Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Oct 3: Trump’s doctors report a positive outlook. Biden declares that he will disclose all future test results.

From the Cutting Room Floor...

Here is some irony: while wealthier, whiter countries in North America and Europe have been struggling with coronavirus, nations and communities in Africa and Asia—the very places everyone assumed would have the highest casualties in a pandemic—have successfully contained it thus far.

Western news outlets are so unaccustomed to covering Africa and Asia positively when it comes to disease and natural disasters, that they cannot help but express surprise in their journalism.[1] NBC News has run a story for the last day marveling at Uganda’s casualty numbers being “starkly different” than the predicted mass carnage.[2] Even journals like the Lancet are quick to note the powder keg of African epidemic spread without giving credit to the long term planning and years of experience in dealing with epidemics that leaders have in that part of the world.[3]

I suppose this is how we pay the price for centuries of Western Orientalism, to crib from Edward Said. Since the seventeenth century, it has been a common trope among scholars and leaders to argue that the Middle East and Africa, particularly south of the Sahara, have no “civilization,” and thus no history worth remembering. Only in the last fifty years did that narrative start to shift, and even then, not without resistance. Today, journalists struggle to account for the fact that Europeans and Americans are dying at such a higher rate than in poorer and Blacker countries. The recalcitrance of the West to understand the African and Middle Eastern experiences of this virus is not dissimilar from the nation’s struggles with the notion that Black Lives Matter. As the historian Edward Said noted decades ago, the people of the “Orient” are always just a caricature, filled with rage and misery, or irrational eccentricities.[4] Fun to look at, the way one looks at animals in zoos. Yet this Orientalism the West cannot see them as full human beings, with lives and thoughts and histories that matter. As a consequence, we cut off our ability to share and learn. In this moment, with thousands of Westerners dying every day, maybe we could use a little more cultural humility.



[1] Hannah Beech and Adam Dean, “No One Knows What Thailand Is Doing Right, but So Far, It’s Working,” The New York Times, August 20, 2020, sec. World,; Andy Meek, “Africa Is Fascinating Experts for Having Avoided the Worst of COVID-19 so Far,” BGR (blog), September 29, 2020,; Chris Smith and BGR, “Scientists Can’t Explain Puzzling Lack of Coronavirus Outbreaks in Africa,” New York Post, September 4, 2020,

[2] Smith and BGR, “Scientists Can’t Explain Puzzling Lack of Coronavirus Outbreaks in Africa.”

[3] The Lancet, “COVID-19 in Africa: No Room for Complacency,” The Lancet 395, no. 10238 (May 30, 2020): 1669,; Indi Samarajiva, “COVID Underdogs: Sri Lanka,” Medium, June 24, 2020,; Indi Samarajiva, “COVID Underdogs: Mongolia,” Medium, July 20, 2020,

[4] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979).

Read more


CBC News: The National. “Timeline of Trump’s COVID-19 Diagnosis.” October 2, 2020,

Slisco, Aila. “Hydroxychloroquine Doctor Is Furious Donald Trump Took ‘Experimental Antibody Stupidness.’” Newsweek, October 3, 2020.
Shamus, Kristen Jordan. “Lessons the American People Can Learn from the President’s Illness.” Detroit Free Press, October 3, 2020.
Bump, Philip. “Analysis | How the White House Is Trying to Convince America That Trump’s Illness Isn’t a Big Deal.” Washington Post, October 4, 2020.

Weinberger, Daniel M., Jenny Chen, Ted Cohen, Forrest W. Crawford, Farzad Mostashari, Don Olson, Virginia E. Pitzer, et al. “Estimation of Excess Deaths Associated With the COVID-19 Pandemic in the United States, March to May 2020.” JAMA Internal Medicine 180, no. 10 (October 1, 2020): 1336.

Himmelstein, David U., and Steffie Woolhandler. “The U.S. Health Care System on the Eve of the Covid-19 Epidemic: A Summary of Recent Evidence on Its Impaired Performance.” International Journal of Health Services 50, no. 4 (October 2020): 408–14.

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