Plagues, Pathogens, and Panic

Stuff we’re all learning in coronavirus time: the word miasma, for example, meaning noxious bad air; that we touch our faces 23 times an hour; that sanitizers like Purell were made to kill bacteria, not viruses, and they’re not worth $70 a liter on Amazon; more important maybe: that all our Ibuprofen and most of our prescription meds are made in China; that the face masks you can’t find on the shelves anymore don’t work anyway; and of course: that we don’t have a vaccine for this coronavirus. Crazy stuff, too, like: it takes two weeks for urban populations to go cannibal after everything else runs out.

A CDC poster from 1964, with timeless wisdom.

Take a deep breath. Wash your hands for 20 seconds, and don’t touch your face. We’re talking about the coronavirus out of China before we have solid grasp of its spread, its pre-symptomatic incubation time, and its kill rate among all the people who catch the virus. Neither do we have the means of testing big populations yet, much less a vaccine to inoculate us. We are speaking of a black swan in the form of a microscopic new bug that tears at commerce and culture all over the world. No school, all schools in Pakistan, Japan and Italy, for example. And on the trade routes across the Pacific, a pileup of stalled containerships between China and the California ports of Oakland and Long Beach. The plague for our times hasn’t yet sorted itself between impulses to cancel everything or brave it out, to shore up borders, or get our heads into a borderless age of pandemics.

Guest List
Frank Snowden
Historian at Yale University.
Nahid Bhadelia
Infectious diseases physician.
Kyle Harper
Classics professor at the University of Oklahoma.
Jamie Heywood
CEO of PatientsLikeMe.

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