Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s 1997 article “The Dead Zones: The Deadliest Virus Ever Known”
The first known case of Spanish flu was reported on March 4, 1918, at Camp Funston, in Kansas. By April, it had spread to most cities in America and had reached Europe, following the trail of the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who crossed the Atlantic that spring for the closing offensives of the First World War. The spring wave was serious but not disastrous, and by midsummer it had subsided. A month or so later, however, the Spanish flu resurfaced. It was the same virus in the sense that if you’d got the flu in the spring you were resistant to it in the fall. But somehow over the summer it had mutated. Now it was a killer.
The surveillance system is also specifically focussed on those parts of the world where flu is prevalent and the interspecies movement that creates pandemic strains is more likely to occur. That means China, where there are as many ducks as people, and where pigs are often raised on farms in close proximity to wild and domestic poultry. China has been the source of the last two pandemics, and most observers think it likely that the next will be from there as well, possibly arising out of the marshy resting sites for ducks both along the nation’s eastern seaboard and inland in an arc extending from Gansu Province to Guangxi, on the southern coast. Over the past few years, the Centers for Disease Control has funded ten flu laboratories in China. The number of strains sent to the C.D.C. from China every year has now reached two hundred, up from about a dozen several years ago.
On xenophobia and racism: Yesterday, I received an email sharing Gladwell’s 1997 piece on 1918 H1N1, excerpted above. Calling it the “Spanish Flu” is, however, inaccurate. Gladwell wrote an eloquent investigation on the topic of the severity of the flu. As I read, I thought about the way he and others named the viruses, and thought about the virulent racism accompanying COVID-19. I’ll try to be brief, but place no bets. Naming a virus is a significant, implicating process. Calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or blaming Asians for the pandemic is xenophobic and racist. While epidemiologists and journalists like Gladwell cite that a few pandemics have originated from China, the reader should acknowledge the observation neither insinuates China is THE source of viruses nor justifies that ideas that Asians are responsible for the spread. That’s simply reductive, ignorant, and dangerous. Journalists and leaders have a responsibility of combating racism and xenophobia, in being mindful about their language and dispelling stereotypes and fake news. Pandemics are a force of nature. History has time and time again shown us that outbreaks have originated from places across the globe. The World Economic Forum re-posted an engaging visual history on pandemics, but the graphic also commits the foul of attaching locality to viruses. Racializing or attaching a locality to a virus is problematic because it’s a process of otherization. Moreover, calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” is fueling hate crimes. Anti-Asian abuse is already rampant, from public transport to schools. This shouldn’t need to be said; racism and xenophobia is wrong and inhumane in fueling hate crimes and endangering the civil rights of Asians. Those social processes are also dangerous in their implications for our solidarity in mitigating the pandemic and our values and virtues. What we can do is call what the virus simply is: the novel coronavirus or COVID-19. We can also not be complacent in abuse and hate crimes, and challenge racism and xenophobia through our language and actions (e.g., supporting Asian businesses, not stand by attacks, speak up, etc.). A few powerful other articles:
- As Coronavirus Spreads, So Does Xenophobia and Anti-Asian Racism
- The Other Problematic Outbreak: As the coronavirus spreads across the globe, so too does racism.
- Epidemic panic and the ecosystem of public speech: Diseases do not discriminate based on language, national identity or political stance.
On kindness, part 1: This was my favorite poem of 2019. Naomi Shihab Nye so artfully and powerfully captures what I’ve known kindness to be: a choice inspired by knowing its antithesis.
Things that were not great today (an eulogy that extends from an imagined spring semester and now to summer): Earlier this year, I was offered an incredible opportunity to assist in clinical research in Kosovo over the summer. However, the pandemic hit and that’s on the docket for cancellation for all intents and purposes. A week later, I was extremely excited to have been offered a summer internship position at NIH. Today, I learned that would also be canceled. I understand of course why they both no longer are options. Social distancing is a top priority, and this pandemic will likely not resolve by June. I’m sad—having done the work of applying and interviewing, having been excited about it, imagined what I would learn, witness, and discover—to be experiencing this loss. I imagine the people who run each of the programs are disapppointed as well. In the grander scheme of things, this is a small loss. A loss is still a loss. Let me mourn for a moment. There’s more to a summer than an internship. There’s more to lose than a summer internship.
Things that were great today: My little sister made scones; I was her sous-chef, as always, even when she was four. I passed my cardiology and respiratory exams! Yay! I connected with some incredible community organizers in the Upper Valley: people who are really ensuring that people’s needs are met in the difficult time. We’re making progress on connecting all the efforts, and hopefully activating medical students into volunteer efforts in our community. I chatted with one of my close friends who safely returned from Europe. We talked about the privilege of mobility: a possibility denied to those in abusive situations, those without capital, those in refuge, those with no other place to go. I went for a walk in the rain and, over phone conversation, got to know a professor with a heart of gold better. He told me about how much wisdom I could learn from my forebearers, how many questions and stories there are to explore, and like always, with a healer’s art, that I am enough. Alhamdullilah.
Life persists. Things will likely get worse before they get better. I think optimism and perseverance is what is going to get us through this. Stay well. Thanks for reading! Much love.
Anyways, here’s a funny text from a former life when sanitizer was cheap: