What early Americans could teach Donald Trump about this pandemic


Check out historian Andrew Wehrman‘s piece at The Washington Post:

Thomas Paine, who had helped shift public opinion with “Common Sense” in the spring of 1776, wrote a new book weighing in on the French Revolution from London, titled “The Rights of Man.” It was published in serial form on the front page of the Boston newspaper, the Independent Chronicle, and excerpts and reviews commanded tremendous public attention across other local newspapers, too. Supporters of shutting down the city during the epidemic used Thomas Paine’s words and reasoning to support their position.

He argued that government was “a trust. … It has of itself no rights; they are altogether duties.” He also urged the adoption of a system of “progressive taxation” to support a comprehensive program for the poor “to provide against the misfortunes to which all human life is subject.” The government needed to care for the “laboring man,” who paid all his taxes honestly but still could not afford it “if himself, or [his family] are afflicted with sickness,” Thomas Paine argued.

As the outbreak intensified and the pressure to shut down grew, city leaders announced on Aug. 28, 1792, that the city would close for a general inoculation. The people rushed to inoculate, quarantine and support the poor. On Oct. 8, Cooper declared that the city was free of infection. In all, 9,152 people had inoculated and 165 had died, a mortality rate of 1.8 percent. An additional 232 people caught the disease naturally, and of those, 33 died, a mortality rate of 14 percent. Closing down the city saved thousands of lives. Trade resumed and lives continued, but because the public health efforts were successful, they were largely forgotten.

Today’s leaders should heed the advice of one correspondent writing under the name “Centinel” in 1792. Centinel warned that politicians showed their “highest indignation” to the people by refusing to shut down to halt an epidemic. He argued that government ought to follow “the loud hints of the law, and the broad hints of the people.” He warned that when the public is kept from removing small pests like germs from their society, they will turn their anger on larger pests, like politicians.

Read the entire piece here.

Self-care for graduate students (and faculty)

Stony Brook

Today I came across Alfreda James‘s wonderful piece at Inside Higher Ed on “self-care essentials for graduate students.” I really enjoyed the piece for two reasons. First, a lot of her piece applies to faculty members as well as graduate students. Second, Alfreda was a classmate of mine in graduate school. She is currently assistant director for graduate students and postdocs at the career center at Stony Brook University.

Here is a taste:

Self-care means recognizing the people around us who impede progress, hoard resources and cause physical and emotional exhaustion. Here are a few characters and characteristics within the graduate student community we need to avoid and/or immunize ourselves against:

  • The 24-hour critic: the person who attends every conference/Zoom meeting to hijack conversations with unrelated questions or what-ifs from another field;
  • Permanently agitated 10th-year ABD (all but degree): usually a man who switches advisers frequently and is supported by a long-suffering partner because funding is long gone; and
  • Superhero: the individual who serves on every committee because everything is important.

The 24-Hour Critic. The 24-hour critic can be either a peer or faculty member who will always find more nuance, more research and more evidence for you as a graduate student to produce. He removes all the oxygen from seminar rooms with multiple questions crossing the time and space continuum. He stifles ideas but later uses the research he dismissed. Protect yourself with early identification of the 24-hour critic’s toxic behavior, and then confer with others on ways to limit impact. If you have a scheduled meeting with him, plan to have an ally interrupt the encounter to pause his flow of words. The 24-hour critic thrives by consuming large amounts of your time.

Read the entire piece here.

The Economy Over Public Health: It’s an Old Story


KJZZ Radio’s Lauren Gilger recently interviewed historian Peter Mancall.

Here is a taste:

PETER MANCALL: So the first case happens when the English colonized what we now think was Virginia. It started at Jamestown in 1607. The English arrived there. They’re looking for a way to survive. A lot of people are dying very quickly. They begin to figure out why that is. And yet, they’re still going there and going there, and they’re looking for an economic rationale. And by the early 16-teens, they realized that tobacco was a perfect crop — that is, it’s really why they demanded it. In Europe, it has all these alleged benefits and it has an insatiable market. And so all the English, who are the planters who were running this society, want is to find people to work the crop. And so they go to this mass army of unemployed and underemployed young people in England, most of them men, and they encourage them to go over across the ocean to sign away four to seven years of their life as what was called being an indentured servant where they would produce tobacco. The system kept feeding new people into the tobacco fields, even though living near the James and living near some of these other rivers was very dangerous. So they’re quite aware of the high mortality. But the economic demand for tobacco, nonetheless, allows people to say, “well, you know, human health is essentially less important.” I mean, they didn’t debate it in our modern sense. They didn’t think, “Are these essential workers?” But the overall effect is very similar. Economics drove it. Then a series of catastrophes happen in Britain itself. Plague strikes London, and it’s followed very quickly by what’s called the Great Fire. And so from 1665 to 1666, London loses perhaps about 20% of its population. So people who might otherwise have thought, “I’m going to go to North America because that’s where the jobs are,” instead stayed home. But on the American side of the equation, the planters still want tobacco to be produced, and they’re still looking for laborers. And so they decide to sort of go all in or make much more serious investment in purchasing enslaved Africans.

LAUREN GILGER: So you’re looking at, in history here, essentially, you’re talking about the legalized slave trade, the emergence of that in America and early America and indentured servitude. I mean, those are, they don’t exist today, but you do say that this economic exploitation, the same idea still exists today. How?

MANCALL: So, well, it’s true that legalized indentured servitude, as was practiced in the 17th century, doesn’t exist anymore and legalized slavery doesn’t work. I mean, here instead, what we see are people driven by extreme economic need to go into various fields. And the sort of classic example of this in our modern, our modern age are people who are our farm workers, oftentimes migrant farm workers for whom there are very few protections, who are exposed to all sorts of chemicals in the field — I mean, these are all well-documented. I’m a historian. These are all well-documented — who are crowded together, who seem to have inadequate access to health care. And, you know, it seems another situation where economic need — in this case, for our society, for certain products, no longer tobacco, perhaps, but now strawberries or fill in whatever crop you want — is still sort of putting people into very precarious situations. And so one of the similarities between the 17th century and now is the 17th century, most people would not have willingly said, “I’m going to go and leave my life behind, crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a sailing ship, which could take six or seven weeks, suffer whatever the journey had, and then go work for someone who I’ve never met before and go out in the fields, where I’ve already heard rumors of terrible things happening there, not enough food and all these diseases and even rumors that people were eating each other” or stories about cannibalism that came out of the early Chesapeake. They’re doing it because the economic need, extreme need sort of pushes people in. And so the larger question, the sort of larger moral or ethical question is we can recognize that people need work. What, then, is our responsibility as a society to take care of people’s health?

GILGER: So often as an historian, I’m sure you think about things this way, right? But the trope is in your head that history repeats itself. Have we learned any lessons from history or how would you hope that the lessons of our own country’s history — these really hard ones, right? of slavery, indentured servitude — would inform the way that we look at this issue today?

Read the entire interview here.

Francis Collins on Faith, Science, and Coronavirus


Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health and a devout Christian. Over at The Washington Post religion page, Sarah Pulliam Bailey talks with Collins about the coronavirus.  Here is a taste of the interview:

Have you seen resistance from faith leaders over public-health messages about the coronavirus?

I would think the church would resonate with messages of social distancing, given that the church has always been trying to look out for those who are most vulnerable. And yet it still does seem as if in some instances that hasn’t quite filtered down, maybe because there has been some suggestion that there’s a political aspect of this pandemic, which is truly unfortunate, because there’s not.

There is a lot of false information out there on social media to suggest that maybe this isn’t as bad as it is and maybe there are no risks going to church or gathering outside of church. Those are dangerous activities that might not put you at risk if you’re young and healthy, but you might pass it to somebody else who could potentially get very sick or even die.

What do you think faith leaders could be doing from a public-health perspective right now?

There’s a natural instinct for people of faith who are loving and wish to give themselves to others who are hurting to rush in the direction of people who are vulnerable or who are suffering. And over the course of many centuries, people of faith have, to their great credit, put themselves in harm’s way.

Right now, they could focus their efforts on trying to supply, nurture and support all of their flock who are struggling right now. This is stressful. This may lead to people having fears, anxiety and other mental-health issues. Pastors ought to be doing everything they can to maintain that connection but not put people at risk.

How are you thinking about your own faith in the middle of all of this?

It’s a challenge. One does not like to see happening across the whole world a sudden outbreak of the sort that will cause enormous suffering and early deaths for so many people. It is hard to get your head around that. I guess I find myself more engaged in prayer than usual. I’m just trying to, in some small way, trying to get in touch with all of this and what my role ought to be. It is heartbreaking. I am glad I have the faith that I can lean on in this circumstance, but I have questions that don’t have good answers. I know how this happens scientifically. I ask God for help for all those who are suffering and grieving.

Read the entire interview here.

Rich: “We’re Relying on Trump to Care About Our Lives”


Last week, New York governor Andrew Cuomo asked mental health professionals to volunteer their services during this coronavirus crisis. In today’s press conference, the governor announced that 6000 mental health professionals have signed-up to offer free services to those in need.  Every state in the country should be doing this.

Perhaps I missed it, but I have yet to hear Donald Trump address the question of mental health. As Frank Rich recently argued in his column at The New York Times, Trump seems incapable of this kind of empathy. Here is a taste of his piece “We’re Relying on Trump to Care About Our Lives.” A taste:

During Sunday evening’s briefing, when he was supposed to be comforting Americans on the precipice of financial ruin, he instead lamented the billions of dollars he had supposedly forgone to be president. Our self-glorifying “wartime president” morphed into a self-pitying Daddy Warbucks.

“I think it’s very hard for rich people to run for office,” he said. “It’s far more costly. It’s a very tough thing. Now, with all of that being said, I’m so glad I’ve done it. Because, you know, there are a lot rich people around. I’ve got a lot of rich friends, but they can’t help and they can’t do what I’ve done, in terms of helping this country.” I’m glad he’s glad. Scratch that. I’m dumbfounded.

It has been observed, accurately, that he’s exactly the wrong leader for this crisis because he has thinned the ranks of responsible professionals in government, because he has hollowed out relevant departments and agencies, because he devalues science, because he degrades information and because he parted ways with credibility years ago.

But it’s worse than that. He’s facing judgment calls that require an emotional depth and a moral finesse that simply don’t exist in him. America is relying on him, of all presidents, to care as much about vital signs as about dollar signs.

He did that when he asked the nation to stand still for 15 days, but can he continue to do it? I’d have doubts if the economy were merely the biggest of many bragging points for him, if it were just a major part of his political profile.

Read the entire piece here.

Trump’s Shocking Answer to a Reporter’s Question at Today’s Press Conference

Watch Trump’s answer to Yamiche Alcindor‘s question during today’s coronavirus press conference:

Trump’s answer is quite shocking, and not just because he called Alcindor’s question “nasty.”  He seems to have no clue what’s going on in his own administration. In May 2018, John Bolton, the National Security Adviser at the time, eliminated the Global Health Security team in the National Security Council set up to in the wake of the Ebola outbreak.

Here is The Washington Post on May 10, 2018:

The top White House official responsible for leading the U.S. response in the event of a deadly pandemic has left the administration, and the global health security team he oversaw has been disbanded under a reorganization by national security adviser John Bolton.

The abrupt departure of Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer from the National Security Council means no senior administration official is now focused solely on global health security. Ziemer’s departure, along with the breakup of his team, comes at a time when many experts say the country is already underprepared for the increasing risks of a pandemic or bioterrorism attack.

Ziemer’s last day was Tuesday, the same day a new Ebola outbreak was declared in Congo. He is not being replaced.

Pandemic preparedness and global health security are issues that require government-wide responses, experts say, as well as the leadership of a high-ranking official within the White House who is assigned only this role.

Read the rest here.

On May 8, 2018, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown also expressed his concerns in a two-page letter to Trump:

Sherrod Brown 1

Sherrod Brown 2

As Brown wrote, “In our globalized world, where diseases are never more than a plane ride away, we must do all we can to prepare for the next, inevitable outbreak and keep Americans safe from disease.”

Alcindor asked a question that deserved an answer. Trump’s response shows the incompetency of the Trump presidency.  I am reminded of homeland security expert Juliette Kayyem‘s remark yesterday: