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Posts Tagged ‘coronavirus

“Not with a bang, but with a whimper”*…



Death Table from Tuberculosis in the United States, prepared for the International Congress on Tuberculosis, September 21 to October 12, 1908. Image: U.S. National Library of Medicine


Recent history tells us a lot about how epidemics unfold, how outbreaks spread, and how they are controlled. We also know a good deal about beginnings—those first cases of pneumonia in Guangdong marking the SARS outbreak of 2002–3, the earliest instances of influenza in Veracruz leading to the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009–10, the outbreak of hemorrhagic fever in Guinea sparking the Ebola pandemic of 2014–16. But these stories of rising action and a dramatic denouement only get us so far in coming to terms with the global crisis of COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic has blown past many efforts at containment, snapped the reins of case detection and surveillance across the world, and saturated all inhabited continents. To understand possible endings for this epidemic, we must look elsewhere than the neat pattern of beginning and end—and reconsider what we mean by the talk of “ending” epidemics to begin with…

Contrary to hopes for a tidy conclusion to the COVID-19 pandemic, history shows that outbreaks of infectious disease often have much murkier outcomes—including simply being forgotten about, or dismissed as someone else’s problem: “How Epidemics End.”

* T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”


As we contemplate the end, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Nettie Maria Stevens; she was born on this date in 1861.  A geneticist– and one of the first American women to achieve recognition for her contributions to scientific research– she built on the rediscovery of Mendel‘s paper on genetics (in 1900) with work that identified the mechanism of sexual selection: its determination by the single difference between two classes of sperm—the presence or absence of (what we now call) an X chromosome.

220px-Nettie_Stevens source


“Study the past if you would define the future”*…



A segment of Danse Macabre, Bernt Notke, late 15th century


“If the Black Death caused the Renaissance, will COVID also create a golden age?”

Versions of this question have been going around as people, trying to understand the present crisis, reach for history’s most famous pandemic.  Using history to understand our present is a great impulse, but it means some of the false myths we tell about the Black Death and Renaissance are doing new damage, one of the most problematic in my view being the idea that sitting back and letting COVID kill will somehow by itself naturally make the economy turn around and enter a period of growth and rising wages.

Brilliant Medievalists have been posting Black Death pieces correcting misconceptions and flailing as one does when an error refuted 50 times returns the 51st (The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad compared to the Renaissance!!!).  As a Renaissance historian, I feel it’s my job to shoulder the other half of the load by talking about what the Renaissance was like, confirming that our Medievalists are right, it wasn’t a better time to live than the Middle Ages, and to talk about where the error comes from, why we think of the Renaissance as a golden age, and where we got the myth of the bad Middle Ages.

Only half of this is a story about the Renaissance.  The other half is later: Victorian Britain, Italy’s unification, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, ages in which the myth of the golden Renaissance was appropriated and retold.  And yes, looking at the Black Death and Renaissance is helpful for understanding COVID-19’s likely impact, but in addition to looking at 1348 we need to look at its long aftermath, at the impact Yersinia Pestis had on 1400, and 1500, and 1600, and 1700.  So:

• This post is for you if you’ve been wondering whether Black Death => Renaissance means COVID => Golden Age, and  you want a more robust answer than, “No no no no no!”

• This post is for you if you’re tired of screaming The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad! and want somewhere to link people to, to show them how the myth began.

• This post is for you if you want to understand how an age whose relics make it look golden in retrospect can also be a terrible age to live in.

• And this post is for you if want to ask what history can tell us about 2020 and come away with hope. Because comparing 2020 to the Renaissance does give me hope, but it’s not the hope of sitting back expecting the gears of history to grind on toward prosperity, and it’s not the hope for something like the Renaissance—it’s hope for something much, much better, but a thing we have to work for, all of us, and hard…

University of Chicago historian, novelist, and composer Ada Palmer (@Ada_Palmer): “Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages.”

* Conficius


As we look back, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to al-Ghazali; (he was born (as nearly a scholars can figure) on this date in 1057.  One of the most prominent and influential philosophers, theologians, jurists, and mystics of Sunni Islam, he published prolifically– perhaps most notably here, the Tahāfut al-Falāsifa (“Incoherence of the Philosophers”), a significant landmark in the history of philosophy, as it advanced the critique of Aristotelian science developed later in 14th-century Europe.  Indeed, al-Ghazali has been credited with kicking off what has been called “the Golden Age of Arabic philosophy.”

Al+Ghazali+2 source


Written by LW

July 5, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Everyday, it’s a-gettin’ closer / Goin’ faster than a roller coaster “*…




The American economy is reopening. In Alabama, gyms are back in business. In Georgia, restaurants are seating customers again. In Texas, the bars are packed. And in Vermont, the stay-at-home order has been lifted. People are still frightened. Americans are still dying. But the next, queasy phase of the coronavirus pandemic is upon us. And it seems likely that the financial nadir, the point at which the economy stops collapsing and begins growing again, has passed.

What will the recovery look like? At this fraught moment, no one knows enough about consumer sentiment and government ordinances and business failures and stimulus packages and the spread of the disease to make solid predictions about the future. The Trump administration and some bullish financial forecasters are arguing that we will end up with a strong, V-shaped rebound, with economic activity surging right back to where it was in no time. Others are betting on a longer, slower, U-shaped turnaround, with the pain extending for a year or three. Still others are sketching out a kind of flaccid check mark, its long tail sagging torpid into the future.

At least four major factors are terrifying economists and weighing on the recovery: the household fiscal cliff, the great business die-off, the state and local budget shortfall, and the lingering health crisis…

Annie Lowrey (@AnnieLowrey) unpacks a painfully-plausible worst-case scenario featuring the four horsemen of what could be an economic apocalypse– the four major forces at work today that are terrifying economists and weighing on the recovery: “The Second Great Depression.”

For more on the fourth and most terrifying force Lowrey cites, see here (and the research that underlies it).

* Buddy Holly


As we take necessary steps, we might recall that it was on this date in 1867 that Lucien B. Smith patented barbed wire (U.S. No. 66,182).  Eventually competitors produced more than 1,500 different types of barbed wire; but Smith’s patent gave him pride of invention. His simple idea that was an artificial “thorn hedge” consisting of wire with short metal spikes twisted on by hand at regular intervals. For prairie farmers and cattlemen natural fencing materials were scarce, so the invention gave them an accessible way keep their cattle safely away from crops.  It also created tensions between farmers and ranchers: inexpensive barbed wire allowed farmers to fence in their fields, preventing ranchers’ livestock from feeding off of the farmers’ fields, and making it more difficult for cattle drives to cross farmers’ lands.   Ultimately ranchers too recognized the benefits of fencing their herds… and the days of the open range came to an end.

Copy of Lucien B. Smith’s wire fence improvement (barbed wire) Patent, 66,182, dated June 25, 1867 (source)


“We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good”*…




If one takes Donald Trump and his administration to embody modern conservatism, it is easy to see in their response to the coronavirus pandemic the right’s final divorce from science and expertise. There was the case of Rick Bright, the Health and Human Services scientist who claims that the Trump administration retaliated against him when he objected to the administration’s rapid push to distribute anti-malaria drugs that were largely untested for treating coronavirus patients. There are reports that the president for months ignored his own intelligence experts’ warnings that the virus threatened our shores. There was the ongoing drama over whether Trump would fire Anthony Fauci, who has headed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. And there was the president’s daily passion play—the White House press briefings where he’d stand next to scientists who grimaced as he speculated that the death toll was exaggerated and that sunlight inside the body might kill the virus.

The White House’s sorry Covid-19 track record has sparked a chorus of dissent recently distilled by New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, who argues that the crisis displays conservatives’ long-standing “antipathy to science,” owing to “populist distrust of experts, religious rejection of information that undermines biblical literalism and efforts by giant corporations to evade regulation.” But this narrative is too pat. While something is plainly amiss in the relationship of the Trumpian right to science, it is hardly as principled as the religious objections of, say, creationists opposing evolutionary theory. Neither is it straightforwardly hostile.

What’s more curious about the response by the president and his allies to the virus is rather their embrace of scientific expertise of a sort…

The story of the crisis is not quite that of scientists who knew the answers and one political party that just wouldn’t listen to them. Rather, it is a story of fracture—of conflict and confusion, of experts earning mistrust, of each side cultivating its own class of experts to own the other’s. It is also a perverse story of how a group of self-styled truth-telling outsiders turned science’s mythology against its institutions, warping it from a tool to fight the virus into a tool to attack the establishment.

How did we get here?…

Ari Schulman (@AriSchulman) explains how a new class of outsider experts is exploiting institutional failures and destabilizing knowledge: “The Coronavirus and the Right’s Scientific Counterrevolution.”

TotH to Byrne Hobart, who notes (in his nifty newsletter, The Diff):

… this essay obviously takes a side, but it tries to be fair to the side it disagrees with. Which means there are two Straussian readings: maybe it’s an essay about how science is on one side in an American political context, and the other side only makes vague gestures towards empiricism. Alternatively, it could be an essay on how science never answers political questions, but politics corrupts science. (Why doesn’t science answer political questions? Because you can’t build a coalition out of stating the obvious, but you can build one from denying it—if your beliefs are crazy, you can spot members of the ingroup. So most scientific questions are irrelevant to politics, and when they’re relevant, politics wins by default in the short term, even if it loses long-term. To build a coherent and healthy ingroup, you need beliefs that are crazy but don’t lead to bad decisions.)

Pair with another of Hobart’s suggestions: “On Cultures That Build” (and the reasons why, the author argues. the U.S. is not one).

* Carl Sagan


As we commit to learning, we might note that today is the birthday of not one but two extraordinary mathematicians:  Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646; variants on his date of birth are due to calendar changes), the German  philosopher, scientist, mathematician, diplomat, librarian, lawyer, co-inventor, with Newton, of The Calculus, and “hero” (well, one hero) of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy…  and  Alan Turing (1912), British mathematician, computer science pioneer (inventor of the Turing Machine, creator of “the Turing Test” and inspiration for “The Turing Prize”), and cryptographer (leading member of the team that cracked the Enigma code during WWII).

Go figure…

Turing (source: Univ. of Birmingham)

Giambattista Vico was also born on this date in 1668.  A political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist, Vico was one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers.  Best known for the Scienza Nuova (1725, often published in English as New Science), he famously criticized the expansion and development of modern rationalism and was an apologist for classical antiquity.

He was an important precursor of systemic and complexity thinking (as opposed to Cartesian analysis and other kinds of reductionism); and he can be credited with the first exposition of the fundamental aspects of social science, though his views did not necessarily influence the first social scientists.  Vico is often claimed to have fathered modern philosophy of history (although the term is not found in his text; Vico speaks of a “history of philosophy narrated philosophically”). While he was not strictly speaking a historicist, interest in him has been driven by historicists (like Isaiah Berlin).



Written by LW

June 23, 2020 at 1:01 am

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