Pandemics, Inequality, and the #CoronavirusSyllabus

Sociologist Alondra Nelson, Harold F. Linder Professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, is an expert on the intersection of race, inequality, science, and technology. During the COVID-19 outbreak, she created the #CoronavirusSyllabus, a crowdsourced list of resources that sheds light on the social implications of the pandemic. In conversation with Joanne Lipman, the Peretsman Scully Distinguished Journalism Fellow, she discusses the syllabus and the coronavirus’s impact on society. This conversation was conducted on April 9, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Joanne Lipman: What’s the purpose of a “Coronavirus Syllabus”?

Alonda Nelson: You might recall there was a “Ferguson Syllabus” (see sidebar), a prior social media endeavor by other scholars a few years ago intended to help the general public understand the broader social and historical context for the wave of U.S. protests about police violence.

Like that time, this is a moment of shock and disorientation. But scholars have this unique vantage: this exact thing hasn’t happened before, but something not dissimilar has happened before. These are some resources to help you contextualize this moment even if it is in some ways unprecedented.

JL: How did you decide to create the syllabus?

AN: One unexpected consequence of “social distancing” is that there’s quite a lot of writing about COVID-19, but it is quick writing about the contemporary moment. A mentor and friend on Twitter said, “People should be teaching the virus.” And I thought well, why don’t we start a syllabus that provides more depth and context? My areas of research are in the sociology of science and technology, and also the sociology of race. So I knew that there was a lot of scholarly literature to help us contextualize this time.

There can be a comfort in taking a step back to remember that we had to deal with quarantines and the social implications of infectious disease in the past. It helps to make sense of the world.

JL: Is it for a general audience, or for an academic audience?

AN: It is intended for a lay audience. We’ve really gone out of our way to make sure there are items on the syllabus that are open access. This is a crowdsourced effort.

JL: How can people find the syllabus?

AN: It’s a living, growing, Google doc. There is also a #coronavirussyllabus hashtag that you can follow on Twitter.

JL: What are your top picks from the syllabus?

AN: Some of the art and culture pieces, which I didn’t expect. There are hip-hop artists creating songs about what coronavirus means in their communities. There’s a fascinating video by police in Kerala, India, doing a dance to pop music to show people how to wash their hands properly. It’s an interesting intersection of public health information and popular culture.

Another favorite is Susan Sontag’s classic book on Illness as Metaphor. This work offers a way for us to think about why it becomes easy to slip into the language of militarization to talk about coronavirus. We’ve turned quickly to the language of a war. Sontag is so insightful about how we use familiar metaphors to make sense of things that feel unprecedented.

Another is a book called Epidemics in Society from the Black Death to the Present, published a few years ago by a former Yale colleague, Frank Snowden. It’s this wonderful magnum opus that brings to bear a forty-year career, by a very learned historian of medicine, who knows the social history of plagues very well.

Also Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disasteris a stunning work about how common purpose and new social norms may be built in the wake of tragedy and disaster.

And the historian Vanessa Northington Gamble published an article on the experience of African-Americans during the 1918 influenza epidemic in Public Health Reports several years ago. She found that African-Americans were less likely than people of European descent to be reported to be infected with the 1918 flu. Her theory is that there may have been an earlier wave of the flu that impacted African-Americans disproportionately, so these communities had already been ravaged by the disease months prior and this earlier wave was underreported.

JL: As you think about the syllabus, what are some of the major themes we should be addressing now?

AN: The big issue for me is racial health disparities. COVID-19 is a symptom of the institutional discrimination in health and medicine, and in the workforce. These health disparities are the outcome of marginalized communities not having access to medical care and health insurance. The truism is that pandemics and disasters always exacerbate disparities.

We have tried piecemeal ways to address all of these things, like cultural competency training or implicit bias testing. But fundamentally we need to think about a reimagination of the public health system that goes from the medical education piece to the diagnostic piece to the research piece. A wholesale reimagining of healthcare as one of our most important social systems.

JL: Do you expect other enduring structural changes as a result of the pandemic?

AN: Yes, there will be enduring social changes. The question is what they will be and how we want to shape them. The markets are in tumult, some theories say that we will be living with this for one fiscal quarter, others for three fiscal quarters. We don’t know. Millions of people, and potentially tens of millions of people in the US, will no longer be employed.

Many of these workers are coming out of the gig economy, which gives flexibility to consumers, but without any social safety net for workers. We don’t have the basic structure for any kind of social welfare for them. There is a question of their eligibility for even the most threadbare resources of the 2020 CARES Act. I think our perspective on the benefits and risks of the gig economy will be forever changed. My hope would be that we introduce a baseline of new benefits for these and all workers.

There’s been an ongoing struggle in the US to get to a $15-an-hour minimum wage. One can imagine that there will now be a lot more support for that. Many people simply aren’t making enough money and they’re a week, a month, maybe two months away from being homeless, from being impoverished. So I would hope that some socially beneficial policies would emerge out of this moment.

JL: Will we see structural changes in healthcare?

AN: I’ve been thinking quite a lot about this. You know, how do we imagine anew as we rebuild? There can be wonderful opportunities. How do we think about rebuilding in such a way that the deprivation we are seeing in this country will not happen again?

How do we put policies in place that say, don’t come to work if you’re ill, and we would rather pay you $15 an hour not to endanger yourself and others? We need mandatory sick pay and medical leave for all workers.

There was a national protest last week by fast food workers who are not being given gloves and masks at the workplace. The fact that we have people in our communities who don’t have access to the resources they need to work safely is unethical. It’s inhumane. We have an opportunity to build something better.

JL: You also have talked about the problem of allocating scarce medical resources.

AN: I wrote a grant proposal recently with a colleague at UC Santa Cruz on “the sociology of bioethics.” As part of this work, we’re now hoping to address the ethical issues—the decisions that individual health professionals are being asked to make—about access to ventilators and other scarce resources. These issues are being talked about in the public sphere in a quite philosophical and detached sense. And this is my frustration with bioethics, this detachment when these are really issues about policy decisions, about power, about government incompetence, about a lack of federal coordination.

It comes down to one person’s decision about what life is worth living. But wouldn’t it be so much better if a country this wealthy and this well-resourced had been able to provide people everything that they could possibly need to foster health, to make those life-and-death decisions as rare as possible?

JL: Some people call the coronavirus a “great leveler.” Would you agree?

AN: Definitely not. The coronavirus has proven itself to be quite formidable, but I’m not sure that it’s formidable enough to undo decades and generations of inequality.

For those who are proud of this idea of American exceptionalism—this idea that we are this shining beacon on the hill—that’s really been disproven by this moment. But I think this moment is also a challenge for people who hold that ideal to be willing to do what it takes to make it true. To make that true would mean that you don’t have a pandemic in which people are unprotected and left to go it alone.

This moment is shining a light on inequality. But it’s also, more hopefully, shining a light on how important it is that we rely on one another. The symbolism of the face masks that we’re now required to wear is this: it protects others from you. When everyone is working in the best interest of other people, that’s how you “flatten the curve.” This is an instrumental public health insight, but it is also a profound insight about how we need to learn to live together in the world.

Selections from the #CoronavirusSyllabus

Check out the #coronavirussyllabus on Twitter and at this shared Google doc. Below, a list of Alondra Nelson’s top picks.

First published by the Institute of Advanced Study on April 15, 2020. Reposted with permission.

Finding the Protests

by Christian Sandvig

When I saw an Instagram post of my friend with an M.D. marching with Doctors and Nurses for Black Lives Matter, I made the decision to go outside and peacefully protest despite the pandemic. I was worried, but I thought, “If it’s safe enough for the doctors…” 

It was hard to find out where the protests were happening. In Detroit: ample media coverage. In Ann Arbor… nothing. All of the protest hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter were choked with well-meaning messages (or later, black squares) that didn’t contain any information. Some people posted that they found marches accidentally by just wandering around, but they couldn’t find them on social media.

I started searching every social media platform for “Ann Arbor” every morning. Mostly spam. Make a killing in the Ann Arbor real estate market. Our Ann Arbor gym now has workout pods for social distancing. The local donut shop announces it is against police brutality.

Then I found some posts warning me to “watch out!” They said that convoys of armed soldiers were heading for Ann Arbor right now to quell the protests. The posts had a picture of a convoy of humvees on a highway. The photo could have been taken anywhere. When I tried to go back and find these posts again, they had been removed and the accounts that posted them were gone.

I was being a little simple. I thought: “How could they know that some trucks on a highway are heading to Ann Arbor? Highways near here are not arranged that way.” 

Then I saw posts that said, “Pray for us… 6,000 rioters and looters are coming by bus to _____.” But in different posts the blank space had different city names. 

Next I found posts warning that the Department of Homeland Security was following protesters with Predator drones with high-resolution cameras, infrared, radar, etc. I thought: “Great, more misinformation.” That one turned out to be true.

“There is no Virus here!”

Mask Politics OR How Racism nurtures the Attention Economy

by Silvia Lindtner

The other day my Chinese partner and I went for a bicycle ride. We both enjoy biking and with gyms closed, it seemed like a good way to stay active, especially now that the weather in Ann Arbor is finally better. That day we tried out a new route through a hilly neighborhood above the Huron river. The winding road opens up frequently with gorgeous views over the river and surrounding forests. At one point, we passed a golf course that I didn’t know existed. The establishment is located on top of a hill with nice views. Out of breath, I rode past the manicured golf landscape, and was surprised to see it quite populated, mostly men, but not all white. Nobody was wearing a mask. Golf and wealth must be its own form of protection, I remember thinking. 

My partner was already a bit ahead of me, making his way down the hill. I had a bicycle accident in Ann Arbor two years ago when I made my way down a hill and noticed too late, coming around a corner, the construction site that had no signage to warn bicyclists what is harmless to a car – several fairly deep and narrow openings in the road. My front wheel got caught and the bike flipped over. No broken bones, luckily, but some inner scars left for sure. Ever since, when I ride downhill, I struggle with a fair amount of fear creeping up, a voice telling me that accelerating downhill means danger. I was almost down the hill. The street now a dirt road. In the near distance, I see my partner waiting for me before crossing the bridge over the river. I see a white guy on a bike passing him, making his way towards me. I see how the man is gesturing and hear yelling, but can’t make out what is being said. As I pass him, he stares at me in an odd way. My eyes glued to the road to make sure I don’t overlook any creeping holes, I don’t pay him much attention. Finally at the bridge, my partner seems distraught. “Was this guy saying something?” I ask. “He didn’t like that I was wearing a mask,” my partner explained. “He told me, well he kinda yelled at me, ‘There is no virus here! There is no virus here!’ and kept pointing at my mask. I didn’t know what to say.”

I was angry. Angry with myself for arriving late at the scene. I could have intervened. The white woman should be able to convince the white guy to see the world differently, right? He would have to listen… Then, my anger gave way to some other less powerful feeling. I would have likely been just as speechless as my partner, I thought to myself. This is how racists get away with it. Argh! I pictured the guy arriving at home, telling his kids how sad he felt for the Asian guy with the mask, who gave up his freedom, who didn’t care to fight for freedom like he, the American, always would. He had shown the Asian guy what freedom meant in America, he would proudly exclaim, his children looking up to him with admiration. My anger resurfaced. At least, the feeling of anger was better than this other feeling of… inevitability.

Still angry when we got home, I posted about the incident on Facebook. The post got a lot of likes (and angry emoticons) and support from friends who decried the man’s racist behavior. It made me feel a bit better. A little later I felt worse again. Who was this facebook post for? My partner is not on social media (something i admire and still can’t get myself to do). While I shared with him the outpouring love from friends, the act of posting itself suddenly felt terrible. Most of my Facebook posts get very little attention. The amount of labor necessary to turn Facebook’s algorithms favorable towards you – to become something like an influencer in your respective social network bubble was not something I had been willing to commit. But, this post  seemed attention worthy to Facebook. A post about a racist white guy got me attention. My anger had become productively channeled for Facebook’s attention economy. I later pondered how much money Facebook had made off me that day.

I am gonna go off Facebook for a while, I promised myself. There are other, better ways of finding solidarity, I told myself. 

A day later, I was back on.

Nothing to Spare

What Coronavirus Reveals About the Economic Model That Shapes Our Lives

by Cengiz Salman and Anna Watkins Fisher

The US is often imagined as a nation of abundance, even excess. However, mere days into the coronavirus crisis, reports emerged of abrupt shortages: shelves without toilet paper, bread, or flour. More concerning still was the lack of disinfectants, sanitizers, and necessary medical equipment such as masks, gloves, gowns, and ventilators — and, we would learn, state and local governments and health systems were being forced to compete for medical and personal protective equipment, even relying on private donations to fill the gap between need and supply.

For many, the country’s ill preparedness to deal with our current crisis has come as a great shock.

It feels as though we live in a system of abundance — after all, we can order something on Amazon and have it appear on our doorsteps within a couple of hours. But the shortages that have taken Americans by surprise are in fact being produced by the same economic model that makes Amazon possible — and unimaginably profitable.

This model, known as lean production, is at the core of the business models of monopolies like Amazon, known as lean platforms, which (as the name implies) hinge on policies and practices not of abundance but of depletion. In lean production, reserves — of commodities, of expertise, of workers — are understood as hostile to economic growth; lean production relies instead on the minimal yet rapid flow of commodities and labor as they are needed — a model known as “just-in-time” supply.

The principles of lean production are not unique to the business world. In fact, they have increasingly been used to erode public infrastructure. We must understand lean production and the beliefs that underpin it in order to make sense of the Trump administration’s disastrous response to the coronavirus crisis — particularly given its radical proposal to cut the budgets of institutions, such as the US Center for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, and the World Health Organization, designed to protect citizens from disasters such as pandemics in 2021. But President Trump, whose entire campaign platform was centered around his plan to run the country like a business, continues to frame these cuts as good business. At a White House briefing in late February, he defended his decision to dismantle the National Security Council’s pandemic response team: “Some of the people we cut, they haven’t been used for many, many years …. and rather than spending the money — and I’m a business person, I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them — when we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”

The idea of “reserve” is anathema to the model of lean production, for reserves are signs of a crisis of overproduction. Businesspeople are phobic of warehouses full of commodities that may not immediately sell, of employees whose productivity is not immediately realizable, and of surplus populations who are not immediately productive. Nothing can be abundant, stored, or idle.

The fear of overproduction that spawned the lean ideology in the US grew out of the Oil Crises of the late-1960s and early-1970s, the energy crisis of 1979, and the early 1980s recession, as cycles of overproduction — in automobile industries in particular — alerted manufacturers to the economic threat of waste that haunted the continuous mass production of commodities. In times of economic growth, mass production meant mass profits, for increases in productivity could be met with increased consumer demand. However, the periods of zero or negative growth that disrupted the global economy in the 1970s–90s (in other words, times when supply exceeded demand) made it clear that constant production could not sustainably maximize profits.

The adoption of the lean model in the US is often traced to transformations in the auto industry, the canary in the coalmine of US manufacturing. In 1979, there was a crisis of automobile overproduction: as oil prices went up, consumers drove less, and as the recession tightened spending, they bought fewer large consumer goods. In response, researchers at MIT created the International Motor Vehicle Program (IMVP) to develop more efficient production systems and policies for US auto manufacturers. These researchers turned to the Toyota Production System, developed by Japanese businessman Taichii Ohno in the mid-twentieth century, as a model for transforming American manufacturing to allow it to generate profit, even in times of slow economic growth. Toyota’s new philosophy of business management sought to make the production process more “efficient” — meaning efficient at reducing costs.

The Toyota model was grounded in two core principles. First, it promoted “just-in-time” manufacturing: manufacturers should only produce as much as they could sell on the market at any given time. Predictions of future demand, based on the analysis of historic sales data, determined the number of parts to produce and workers to employ; this would eliminate waste, avoid overproduction, and guarantee a more efficient return on investment. Second, the Toyota model greatly reduced the labor time required for mass production, in part through the use of machines that would either autonomously adjust their performance for quality control or stop producing defective products before humans were able to detect an error in these machines’ performance. Rebranded “lean production” by the IMVP, the Toyota Production System led to what David Harvey has characterized as a sea change in capitalism that fundamentally transformed global production and supply chains.

Lean production finds its most extreme expression in twenty-first century big tech monopolies. The gig economy, as digital economist Nick Srnicek has argued, is built on maximizing efficiency by eliminating all possible costs. The sole asset of lean platforms like Uber and Airbnb is the software they use to mediate the work of independent contractors, who own their cars and homes and pay for the cost of their maintenance. Although most customers do not realize it, even companies like Walmart follow this platform model. Like Uber’s software, Walmart’s stores simply mediate between vendor and consumer: Walmart does not buy its vendors’ products but rents shelf space to them. Vendors remain responsible for any unsold items, so Walmart does not lose money for what it does not sell. Amazon also follows this model by keeping a limited quantity of certain commodities on hand at a given time and purchasing more of this item only to fulfill new orders.

Not only does this model eliminate companies’ need to own and store the commodities that they are selling, but hiring independent contractors that do not need to receive benefits like health insurance or overtime pay also reduces labor costs by nearly 30% and prevents laborers from organizing to demand better working conditions.

Most vulnerable to this efficiency model are the undervalued and overextended workers, gig and service sector employees who are disproportionately women, migrants, indigenous people, and racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities and who are systematically treated as disposable, despite being essential.

According to Pew Research Center data, workers who are at higher risk of job loss due to Covid-19 are low-wage workers who work in transportation, retail trade, accommodation, cleaning and child care industries. This research shows that women, black and hispanic workers, and young people disproportionately make up the workers in higher risk industries in the US and will be hardest hit by virus-related layoffs.

These workers’ disproportionate vulnerability to layoffs reflects the broader picture of health inequality exposed by the virus. Compounding histories of economic, political, and environmental racism means the coronavirus is disproportionately affecting Black and indigenous communities. We write from Michigan, where (according to a report on April 3rd) African Americans make up 14% of the population but represent 40% of cases and 35% of deaths from coronavirus. Similarly, a historical lack of US federal investment in Indian Health Services and the fact that the federal government does not guarantee distribution of medical supplies to indigenous communities has left tribes with a severely circumscribed ability to respond to the pandemic.

Coronavirus is revealing our national dependence on lean businesses, and the lean political and governmental institutions modeled on them. It exposes an infrastructure, run on depletion, that is hanging on by a string — jobs lost without warning, small businesses underwater in mere weeks, lives lived paycheck-to-paycheck unable to absorb any financial disruption. In only the past two weeks, approximately 10 million US workers have filed for state unemployment insurance benefits and the Fed recently estimated that the current pandemic could lead to a 32% unemployment rate, meaning that 47 million people might be forced to live without a secure income.

This crisis is making visible the fragile social relations that have until now invisibly underwritten the new American way of life. But in this moment of recognition there is the promise for turning away from this model of depletion and toward policies and practices that recognize the necessity of reserves without resorting back to overproduction. What is needed, now more than ever, is an equitable and sustainable system of production.


First published on Medium on April 8, 2020; cross-posted with permission.

Gig Workers Won’t Take the Beer

by Christian Sandvig

I keep beer at home for guests. No one at my house likes beer. As the mandatory stay-home order stretched out, it seemed pointless to save it. Doesn’t beer go bad?

We were getting all of our groceries delivered. I tend to overthink things, so I worried about the decision. Was I taking delivery slots away from the immuno-compromised? The elderly? Was I putting low-wage grocery-delivering gig workers in more danger so that I could be safe? 

After reading a philosopher’s answer in a newspaper column I decided grocery delivery was the right thing to do for everyone’s safety. I decided I wouldn’t cross any picket lines and I would try to favor the gig platforms that were good to their workers.

But there weren’t any gig platforms that were good to their workers, according to everything I found online. I eventually found local farmers and co-ops that would deliver some groceries and meats but I still needed other things from regular grocery stores. 

I figured, “I’ll go ahead and use the big platforms, but I’d be sure to tip extremely generously.” And: “Why don’t I also give them the beer?” 

I left the beer out with a note but the driver didn’t touch it. Next time, I tried a different, more obvious location. Nothing. Did they think it was a trap? Was there a policy against it? I wasn’t encouraging them to drink and drive — they could take the beer home. I didn’t put a bottle-opener next to it or anything. I don’t have cameras on my porch.

I wrote a longer note explaining that we didn’t drink beer. It didn’t work. Then I started texting the drivers just before they arrived. They would answer all of my texts about item substitutions and delivery directions but the texts about the beer didn’t get a response. No one will take the beer. I’m not sure what this means.

The Sense of Unreality

by Christian Sandvig

The dog needed more medicine. I called the vet and they said to park by the traffic cones, remain in the car, and call them again. When I arrived the spacious parking lot had a pattern of SUVs in front of traffic cones, parked far apart in a way that seemed like an art project or a quilt. It seemed uncanny.

As I waited, two vet techs came out of the building wearing face shields, masks, and some sort of plastic poncho thing. They approached one of the SUVs and the person in the driver’s seat pressed a button. The rear door slowly opened on its hydraulic arms. In the trunk was a giant plastic pet carrier. It seemed like budget-conscious cosplayers trying for a spaceship docking scene in Interstellar.

The techs lifted the big carrier out of the trunk. They moved it gingerly, taking some care, and I thought of Outbreak and Contagion. By all appearances what was in the carrier must be some deadly poison, but I got a glimpse of a tiny terrier, much too small for the crate. 

The dog stood, panting happily, but as the masked techs delicately maneuvered it indoors the feeling of unreality deepened. Their deliberate movements evoked a bomb-defusing scene from Mission Impossible. The terrier seemed happy, but he could explode at any time.

Lonely, I tried to make eye contact and wave at anyone from the other cars, but no one would look up.

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