Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Dec 22: The DOJ sues Walmart over its alleged role in opioid epidemic. Trump slams the $900 billion coronavirus relief bill as a “disgrace,” demanding Republican-led Congress adds $2,000 stimulus checks to the payouts already in the bill.

Dec 23: Trump issues pardons to 29 people, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, Republican operative Roger Stone, and Charles Kushner, Ivanka Trump’s father-in-law. Manafort and Stone were convicted for playing roles in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Manafort was sentenced to seven years for bank and tax fraud, among other crimes. Stone was charged with lying to Congress. Charles Kushner, Jared Kushner’s father, served two years for tax fraud and witness tampering. Trump vetoes a defense spending bill, in part because it would permit the US military to remove the names of Confederate leaders who fought against the Union from American military bases. The administration announces it will buy an additional 100 million doses of Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine. 

From the Cutting Room Floor ...

It made sense, given that we were growing close to the end of year that seemed so historic, to reflect on what had happened alongside another professional historian. So, I reached out to Mari Webel, who studies the history of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and had already written a few months ago about the resonances between this COVID pandemic and past pandemics.

“How do you think we will reflect on this year,” I opened. “Will this be our 1918-1920 influenza?”

Webel doesn’t think so, and this is what she’s been trying to clarify almost all year. She smiled, “I was sort of emphasizing to anybody who would listen, ‘Look, this is this is big and it’s scary, and it’s new. But it’s not pandemic influenza in 1918-19. For me the most obvious analogy—the thing that really was rhetorically the most similar—was not influenza but Ebola. Listening to the way that people talked about consumption of meat at the wet market in Wuhan, the same way we talk about bushmeat in the rural hinterlands of Guinea and Liberia and Sierra Leone. That was the resonance point.”

We so quickly racialized the virus. She points out. And that initial rhetorical structure became the way that even the federal government responded. This was utterly different than SARS in 2002-2003. Or even the swine flu just a decade ago. And that meant there was an important difference between how America experienced the second SARS in 2020 and the first one in 2003.

“So, it’s true: we had this fantastic [historical] research from the University of Michigan Research group of Howard Markel and Alex Navarro, and their work on the Influenza Encyclopedia that was published in public health reports about non pharmaceutical interventions, they just crunched all that data and did beautiful work that showed us, ‘These are the correlations we can make from the pandemic a century ago.’ But what jumped out to me was the difference: our world is so different. We don’t have wartime mobilization to sort of both be vulnerable to and fall back on. We have a profoundly divided political ecosystem in the United States, and a situation where anti-intellectualism, meaning skepticism about scientific research in medical expertise, is a way of signaling political loyalties–rather than just something that people think but don’t really voice.”

“Why is it so easy for people to slip into comparing this with the influenza pandemic, then,” I asked.

Webel speculated, “[Like the pandemic flu a century ago,] it certainly is a pathogenic respiratory illness that comes out of nowhere! And we didn’t have any pharmaceutical intervention to deal with it. 1918-19 is the most recent cultural touchstone to watching our health system be overwhelmed by something not fully understood – something like what we’ve seen before, but much, much worse than expected. Those [historical] echoes were loud at first, right? There were those images of the Yale Gym being turned into a ward —an image just straight out of 1919.

“But what I hope [future generations] understand about this moment is the depth at which our [national] political divisions filtered through state and municipal politics.”

“Sure,” I injected, “But we’ve seen deeply entrenched political divisions over and over again in the 20th century. Arguably even in that Great War/flu pandemic era. Why is it worse now?”

Webel thought for a moment. “Two things. [First,] our divisions are performative for much broader audiences; [secondly,] they link [or integrate] from the national to the municipal. In 1919, the complexities of shutdown orders and school closures and bar closures and so forth were litigated basically between state and municipal authorities as the [flu] pandemic rolled across the United States on its East-West trajectory. Now [our experience of the coronavirus is felt on] a distinct urban-rural axis—not just sort of red-state/blue-state, but within states. As a result of performative political allegiances, we now have municipal leaders defying state leaders because the state leaders are trying to protect Memphis and Chicago and Minneapolis and Pittsburgh and rural officials are raging—in order to perform their alignment with national level Republicans—‘I’m not going to wear a mask; I don’t want to shut down my business. I’m not going to do these things,’ even as medical experts were warning, ‘This is rolling toward you next.’”

“There were anti-mask leagues in the late-teens/early-twenties, though? Are you just saying it was too small and ineffectual to equate to today’s anti-maskers?” I wondered.

“—yes, and framed as vaguely anti-nationalistic in the wake of World War 1. Look at the organizing around Temperance at the same time,” Webel clarified.

I agreed with Webel, of course, that there are some pretty large differences in these two pandemics over the last century. But I wondered, now that we were drawing to the end of a year with this crisis, if there could be any lessons learned from our experiences with these diseases that transcend other differences in time. Longer term implications, perhaps.

“You know, Webel responded, “I always tell my students that History is about learning how to ask good questions. For me right now, it’s mostly structural inequality and social determinants of health—how those play out?  Also intertwined with politics, so we can learn what to do differently next time. And certainly, there are some arguments that we will one day make based on public health data and public health statistics: ‘Look, we can see that this affects X, effects Y. And so if you want to have that same effect of X on Y in a different time period, then maybe you should think about doing these three things.’ Right? That reads very clearly….’”

She trailed off for a second and then leaned closer to the screen.

“Last April or May, I very stupidly gave myself a unit to teach this semester called ‘COVID-19” How did we get to where we are and where are we going?’ As August came and then September, I thought, ‘Oh, how am I going to do this and does it even matter?!’ because the coronavirus seemed to be diminishing and the threat of it seemed lower than in the spring. But by the time November rolled around, the world was again on fire,” she sighed. And then continued: “We experienced a broad based movement for social and racial justice in America in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic and a quite singular political ecosystem. These are not things that you are going to be able to segregate from one another, right? You can’t chop each of these up and say, ‘Well, this variable is independent of this [variable],’ because it’s all — these things are so deeply intertwined. When we have the George Floyd protests in the same moment as we are thinking about disproportionate death toll of COVID on Black and brown populations in the United States — Navajo Nation populations or urban and rural Black populations. You look at the service workers, and you have to challenge [people] to ask, ‘Who is in these jobs? Why and how? How does that impact the experience of disease?”

“It seems like these are borderline moral questions,” I mused.

“Right,” she looked up as she said this, “and I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how historians like you grapple with that convergence. How will we write the history of 2020? You know, there’s such interesting reflective work that we can do here. … It doesn’t mean we’re going to do it differently next time, but it means at least we can be up front about the costs…. There’s this great thing that I teach on smallpox vaccination and coercion and intimidation, and the smallpox eradication campaign. Let’s not try to cover it up that it happened. You know, let’s not cover up what it means to have soft power compulsory vaccination, but rather to say, ‘This is good [for the group,’ but takes a toll on everybody involved, and it has implications for the next thing that comes down the pike: for the people who are compulsorily vaccinated, how they feel about public health authorities, and on the people who are doing the work and what they think about their professional lives. These are the sorts of implications that we have to understand, because those things are going to have consequences, and I think … It’s not happy-go-lucky, right? It’s not that it’s going to be easy to figure out, but that sort of incremental change.”

“It seems so hard,” I admitted.

“It is,” she agreed. And what we can do is tell [those in the future] how to communicate about it, how to open up information, open up a dialogue rather than closing it down. Make clear your moral and ethical positions and admit what you did wrong in the past.”

We concurred. At bottom, this truth-telling about history and health seems like the only way to move away from our simple “might-makes-right” world and toward something more just and sustainable.

Read more

Schwartzapfel, Beth, and Katie Park. “1 in 5 Prisoners in the U.S. Has Had COVID-19.” The Marshall Project, December 18, 2020.

Neff, Joseph, and Keri Blakinger. “Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort Got to Leave Federal Prison Due to COVID-19. They’re The Exception.” The Marshall Project, May 21, 2020.

Lapin, Tamar. “Trump Pardons 26, Including Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Charles Kushner.” New York Post, December 24, 2020.

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