What comes after 🦠

Reflections on pandemic history and a hierarchy of breathing

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Why was 2020 such a hell year for the world? The answers seem obvious: raging fires, a global pandemic, protests in the streets, an apparent imminent collapse of democracy in so many places. This year of years began quietly, on December 30, 2019, when Dr. Li Wenliang shared these words on WeChat to a small group of 150 colleagues:

The Huanan Fruit and Seafood Wholesale Market has diagnosed seven cases of Sars. Please everyone take care.

His words would soon ricochet around the world, despite local efforts to punish him for supposedly spreading rumors. (It was a chilling repeat of the US government’s early handling of the 1918 Flu, which exacerbated the problems caused by the nascent disease.) There is the internet story and there is the human story. Much has been written on the role of censorship in the early days of the novel coronavirus, and I have little to add there.

So I want to talk about the human story. Two images of the late Dr. Li stand out for me: the first is him wearing a surgical face mask, a natural action for a doctor and person in China and many parts of East Asia to take that would soon become a common practice around the world. The second is him on a respirator, shortly before his death.

These images capture for me what made 2020 so challenging: this year, we learned not to take breathing for granted.

Like Dr. Li, we breathed through cloth masks, and some of us were kept alive through ventilators. We unconsciously held our breaths when passing strangers on the street. As the US opened back up on Memorial Day, George Floyd gasped his final breaths on camera, sparking a reckoning for racial justice summoned by chants of “I can’t breathe.” By September, the entire West Coast was enveloped in smoke and ash that made apps like Purple Air popular for reminding us how and whether to breathe outside.

In the 18th century, Adam Smith explored the water-diamond paradox, the puzzling observation that water, while more necessary for life than diamonds, is considerably less expensive than diamonds. His conclusion at the time was, roughly, that the labor of acquiring a diamond increased its value. Later economists would determine that subjective value is often a driving factor in what makes something costly. Diamonds, in other words, are valuable because we consider them valuable.

Today, the cost of a diamond outshines that of an equivalent amount of water, but at $76 billion, the diamond market is worth less than half of the nearly $200 billion bottled water industry. The US Environmental Protection Agency has estimated nearly $500 billion is needed for the country’s drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years. At the micro scale, water may be inexpensive compared to diamonds, but at the macro scale, it’s a more complex and costly industry.

The commodification and inequities of water have been enabled by climate change, free market forces and imbalanced distribution, all conditions that shape the inequality of breathing today. In 2014, Beijing artist Liang Kegang sold a jar of clean air from Provence, France, for about $850. Perhaps his work was undervalued. Etsy, for instance, sold $346 million worth of masks in 2020, while the respiratory segment protection of the PPE industry stands to grow faster than, say, hand and foot protection. The global air filter market stands at about $10 billion, with continued growth to some $20 billion in 7 years, thanks to HEPA filters, wet scrubbers, baghouse filters, dust collectors and others.

But enough with numbers. Think back to the very moment this year when you realized your breathing could no longer be taken for granted. This has been a reality for millions of people living in Shanghai, Delhi, and Ulaanbaatar, and many other places around the world, whether due to pollution, fear of police brutality, or the prevalence of respiratory diseases.

For me, it was a busy day in early April, when masks were recommended but extremely difficult to find. I happened across some face masks sold in a Korean market, magically tucked away in a corner where no one had noticed them. I paid top dollar for a package, knowing it might keep me and my loved ones safe. For just a few months, diamond sales were down, and masks, hand sanitizer and toilet paper were nowhere to be found.

Will the water-diamond paradox go out the window in a post-pandemic world? Unlikely. The wealthy have become ultra-wealthy, while hundreds of millions are going hungry. What is clear is that we live in a global hierarchy of breathing, and where you sit on the hierarchy affects the relative value of water (or air, as it were) vs. diamonds. If having to wear a mask while grocery shopping is your biggest source of respiratory discomfort, consider yourself living at the top of the ladder.

Future Thought 👁️‍🗨️🔮

Project outward 5-10 years. What other seemingly simple life functions (drinking water, breathing air) stand to be disrupted (from the Latin for “tear apart,” or “tear asunder”) by the forces of social inequity, racial disparities and the ongoing effects of climate change? 5-10 years ago, the answers were readily apparent in places like Beijing and Ferguson but often were regarded as isolated, rather than interconnected, problems.

As we think about a decade hence, it’s worth considering the potential ripple effects of what we’re seeing now. During times of crisis, it helps to look at three factors: the past and how it’s shaping us, the present conditions and reality, and what’s likely to come.

One thing worth noting about the pandemic is its second order effects. In other words, there’s what the pandemic is causing — death, illness, anxiety — but also what it’s causing that’s causing other things. Take, for instance, the boom in the dog market, alongside a drop in calls to domestic violence hotlines. These second order effects are harder to assess in advance, but they’re often more consequential, as they affect more people both during a pandemic and after.

There’s an exercise I like to do in group facilitations. It involves a simple sheet of paper:

  1. Fold up a sheet of paper in half and then half again, so you have four columns.

  2. Label the columns in order: (1), (2), (3), (4)

  3. Label the first two of these columns (1) World Before and (2) World Now.

  4. Skip a column, then label (3) World to Come.

  5. Pandemics and crises, while moments in themselves, are also moments of transition. In columns 1 and 3, write down, in bullet form, working assumptions about the World Before and the World Now in 3-5 bullet points. It should be simple and straightforward, aimed for a brief snapshot of what you’re thinking. You can journal things out first if you need more time to reflect and analyze. The goal here is to document the transition from our vantage points.

  6. In Column 4, write about what some new working assumptions might look like, taking into account some of the tremendous changes of the past year.

  7. Now back to that missing third column. Here, write (3) How We’ll Get There. This is where you capture what we need to do now to realize the world to come, or, if you sense is that things might get worse, to try to prepare.

  8. Keep this sheet of paper in a place visible at your desk, as a guide during the inevitable turmoil we should expect in 2021.

  9. Revisit your assumptions as needed.

Let me know what you learn. You can also see this exercise on Medium. Feel free to share it with others.

History Lesson 🧮🏺📜

I’ve been scouring the interwebs and books for analyses of the Spanish Flu and what came after, but I’ve made sure to turn on an important filter — nothing before January 2020. Not that it’s not useful to know what people are thinking now, in the middle of the pandemic. But it’s helpful to see what historians, science journalists and epidemiologists and others were discussing without the daily stressors of COVID and the SEO opportunities of the current news cycle.

Here’s the BBC’s Laura Spinney on how the (1918) pandemic shifted discourse on public health. Unfortunately, it seems like much of that discourse was left behind in the United States by the time 2020 hit:

The pandemic revealed the truth: that although the poor and immigrants died in higher numbers, nobody was immune. When it came to contagion, in other words, there was no point in treating individuals in isolation or lecturing them on personal responsibility. Infectious diseases were a problem that had to be tackled at the population level.

Starting in the 1920s, this cognitive shift began to be reflected in changes to public health strategy. Many countries created or re-organised their health ministries, set up better systems of disease surveillance, and embraced the concept of socialised medicine – healthcare for all, free at the point of delivery.

Three researchers in The Conversation talk about how the Spanish Flu sparked progress for women’s rights in the US, a bumpy road that continues to today:

Increased participation in the workforce allowed many women to obtain social and financial independence. Leadership positions within the workforce could now be occupied by women, especially in the garment industry, but also in the military and police forces. The U.S. even got its first woman governor, when Nellie Taylor Ross took her oath of office, in 1923, in Wyoming. An increased ability to make decisions in their personal and professional lives empowered many women and started to elevate their standing.

It seems natural to expect that, once we’re allowed to hang out again, the parties will be pretty epic. Richard Zelade, author of Austin in the Jazz Age:

“Part of the jazz lifestyle was escapism. Paris was the place you wanted to escape to — in theory — during the titillating, titubating, tumescent ’20s. It was a reaction to World War I’s misery, destruction and waste. As well as the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed millions of mostly young people, and the conservative moral values that brought on Prohibition and frowned on sexual freedom.”

The outcome most on my mind, though, is a prosaic one. If we see a repeat of the Spanish Flu, this period in history will simply be forgotten. Linda Poon in Bloomberg:

Yet few know the details of the Spanish flu of 1918. (Even its name misleads—it has nothing to do with Spain.) In fact, as seasonal flu outbreaks come and go, [Sarah Henry, curator of a show on germs and disease] said there isn’t a collective awareness of the topic itself. “As a culture and as a city, I think our attention in public health tends to turn more toward lifestyle and environmental illnesses,” she said. “So much of the day-to-day awareness of infection that dominated the lives of our predecessors has receded from our mind.”

Mark Honigsbaum in The Conversation looks at why that might be:

One obvious reason was the way that the pandemic was overshadowed by World War I. The second wave of the pandemic coincided with the Allied assault on Cambrai in October 1918 and the collapse of the Hindenburg Line. Then in mid-November, just as flu deaths were peaking, came the armistice. The result was that many families buried their dead to the sounds of bells and hooters as people flocked to the streets to celebrate the peace.

Another was that at the time people had little appreciation of the scale of the mortality (in 1927, epidemiologists estimated the global death toll at just 21m).

But perhaps the most important reason is that, unlike the soldiers who gave their lives for king and country, the flu dead did not readily lend themselves to narratives of nationalism and sacrifice. Instead, they became the forgotten fallen.

More thoughts on this later, but as we consider what to expect in 2021, it’s worth looking at what we’ve seen in pandemics past.

On My Radar 📡

A few years ago, I met a number of activists in Argentina working on the #AbortoLegalYa (Legal Abortion Now) movement, which was filled with social media-savvy and online-offline techniques. The country just legalized abortion Wednesday, making it the third South American country to do so. Here’s Lea Happ on how they adapted for the pandemic:

To sum up, the ability of the Socorristas to mobilise the internet and social media to maintain and strengthen their support network during the current pandemic crucially not only contributes to the safety of abortion during COVID-19. Their activism postulates women and other people who choose to abort as agentic political subjects in a time which has seen the resurgence of traditional gender roles and relegation of reproductive issues to the private and secondary. In proactively counteracting these isolating and restrictive heteronorms through their activist practice, they enable people to emerge from the experience of abortion “stronger, […] more feminist, […] and above all more powerful”.

If we’re to use this time of social distancing and crisis to reimagine society, we should also reimagine how media work. Here’s Meredith D. Clark on reparative journalism:

Like peace journalism and social journalism before it, reparative journalism troubles the assumptions of the dominant culture. It is a tool for rupture, severing our reliance on an inflexible binary of winners and losers for understanding our world.

It begins with placing the most vulnerable among us at the center of reshaping our norms and practices, which is why I start with Black women. Black women are also disabled women. We are gender non-conforming people. We are also immigrant women. And we are trans women. To paraphrase Patricia Hill Collins, the sociologist whose works so many Black women activists and academics have echoed, when life improves for Black women, it will improve for everyone.

And something for the digital book shelf:

First Wave: Comics from the Early Months of China's Outbreak

This anthology collects over 100 pages of comics that were published in China from January to March, 2020. Ranging from autobiography to science fiction, the work by these cartoonists captures the anxiety and resilience of those living through the first wave of the global pandemic.

New From Me 💁🏻🆕

Nieman Lab: 2020 isn’t a black swan — it’s a yellow canary

2020 is not our swan, not our rhino. It’s our canary.

The phrase “canary in a coal mine” comes from the fact that canaries — which are more susceptible to methane than human beings — were brought to mines as an early warning system. If the canary died, it meant methane was leaking, and that the miners needed to evacuate immediately. The canary was an indicator that something was structurally wrong, a sign of greater danger.

🕯️ Rest in Peace Dr. Li Wenliang


Yellow Canary Land 🐤 is a monthly look at the future of global media and technology. It’s ostensibly about some distant tomorrow, but really, it’s about how the forces of our yesterdays and todays are likely to shape the times to come. Don’t expect a lot of emails, but do expect a lot of thought put into each one.

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