Writing the Virus: A New Anthology

by Andrea Scrima

An anthology I’ve edited with David Winner, titled Writing the Virus, has just been published by Outpost19 Books (San Francisco). Its authors—among them Joan Juliet Buck, Rebecca Chace, Edie Meidav, Caille Millner, Uche Nduka, Mui Poopoksakul, Roxana Robinson, Jon Roemer, Joseph Salvatore, Liesl Schillinger, Andrea Scrima, Clifford Thompson, Saskia Vogel, Matthew Vollmer, and David Dario Winner—explore the experience of lockdown, quarantine, social distancing, and the politicization of the virus from a wide variety of perspectives. The majority of the texts were written exclusively for the online literary magazine StatORec, and a keen sense of urgency prevails throughout, an understanding that the authors are chronicling something, responding to something that is changing them and the social fabric all around them.

The range of this anthology is broad: there’s a haunting story that explores the psychological dimensions of an anti-Asian hate crime with a curiously absent culprit; hallucinatory prose that gropes its way through a labyrinth of internalized fear as human encounters are measured in terms of physical distance; a piece on the uncomfortable barriers of ethnicity, civic cooperation, and racism as experienced by someone going out for what is no longer an ordinary run; and a jazz pianist who listens to what’s behind the eerie silence of the virus’s global spread. Read more »

Can We Ensure Fairness with Digital Contact Tracing?

by Fabio Tollon

COVID-19 has forced populations into lockdown, seen the restriction of rights, and caused widespread economic, social, and psychological harm. With only 11 countries having no confirmed cases of COVID-19 (as of this writing), we are globally beyond strategies that aim solely at containment. Most resources are now being directed at mitigation strategies. That is, strategies that aim to curtail how quickly the virus spreads. These strategies (such as physical and social distancing, increased hand-washing, mask-wearing, and proper respiratory etiquette) have been effective in delaying infection rates, and therefore reducing strain on healthcare workers and facilities. There has also been a wave of techno-solutionism (not unusual in times of crisis), which often comes with the unjustified belief that technological solutions provide the best (and sometimes only) ways to deal with the crisis in question.

Such perspectives, in the words of Michael Klenk, ask “what technology”, instead of asking “why technology”, and therefore run the risk of creating more problems than they solve. Klenk argues that such a focus is too narrow: it starts with the presumption that there should be technological solutions to our problems, and then stamps some ethics on afterwards to try and constrain problematic developments that may occur with the technology. This gets things exactly backwards. What we should instead be doing is asking whether we need a given technology, and then proceed from there. It is with this critical perspective in mind that I will investigate a new technological kid on the block: digital contact tracing. Basically, its implementation involves installing a smartphone app that, via Bluetooth, registers and stores the individual’s contacts. Should a user become infected, they can update their app with this information, which will then automatically ping all of their registered contacts. While much attention has been focused on privacy and trust concerns, this will not be my focus (see here for a good example of an analysis that looks specifically at these factors, drawn up by the team at Ethical Intelligence). I will instead focus on the question of whether digital contact tracing is fair. Read more »

Our Epidemic: Visibility, Invisibility, Blindness, and Race

by Joan Harvey

I learned in New Jersey that to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one’s skin caused in other people. —James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

…American society is blind to hundreds, even thousands of murders perpetrated in its name by agents of governments. — John Lewis

Françoise Soulé Zinsou Duressé, je suis ce que je suis (still), 2018, single-channel video (color, sound), 4:50 minutes, courtesy of the artist.

I had begun thinking about how the coronavirus made very visible the shambles of our society, when the murder of George Floyd took place. Disasters pull aside the veil, and make an underlying reality more apparent. Already the coronavirus had exposed the reality of racism, capitalist economics, the weakness of our food system, our health care crisis, the extreme vulnerability of so many populations, and the built-in structural violence. The George Floyd murder, and the subsequent protests and riots, were police brutality made visible, and rage against the brutality made visible.

Activist and epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves, referring to the way the virus has been mishandled, asks:

How many people will die this summer, before Election Day? What proportion of the deaths will be among African-Americans, Latinos, other people of color? This is getting awfully close to genocide by default. What else do you call mass death by public policy?

His comments apply equally to the public policy that allows so many to be killed by police. Writing in 2014, civil rights leader John Lewis mentions a recent study that reported that “one black man is killed by police or vigilantes in our country every 28 hours, almost one a day.” Read more »

Plague Echoes

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

“A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore, we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is the men who pass away…” —Albert Camus (The Plague)

Photo by Yaseen Hashmi

“So long as each individual doctor had come across only two or three cases, no one had thought of taking action. But it was merely a matter of adding up the figures and, once this had been done, the total was startling. In a very few days the number of cases had risen by leaps and bounds, and it became evident to all observers of this strange malady that a real epidemic had set in.” (The Plague, Page 35)

Death by pneumonia, and then another, and another, advancing in only days to large populations— caused by one of those crown-wearing microbes, a Coronavirus, deadly, beautiful under the microscope. They named it Novel Coronavirus. Once unsheathed, it leapt from animal to human, one town to another, then between land and sea borders. The first confirmed case in the United States was recorded on January 20, 2020. Only 20 days ago, we had wished each other peace and a vision clear as 20/20. But is a year of numbers and blurred vision. The Grand Princess sailed with 2000-plus, 21 infected by the time she passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. By March 18th there were 7,769 cases. Ten days later, on March 28th, they had risen to 116,505.

“The evening papers that day took up the matter and inquired whether or not the city fathers were going to take steps, and what emergency measures were contemplated, to abate this particularly disgusting nuisance. Actually the municipality had not contemplated doing anything at all, but now a meeting was convened to discuss the situation.” (The Plague, Page 15)

There was a memo early on, wasn’t there? One of them asked.
The man had no answers, only mirrors and insults inside. He spoke as if swirling in a perpetual drumroll. He appeared every day for the press conference, knotting a bright tie in a different color, head skewed; most days he favored red— red and oversized, as he snarled or shrugged at a question, red as he made his pounce. Read more »

Will the Taste Revolution Survive?

by Dwight Furrow

I’m sitting in front of my window on the world sipping a disappointing Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley and thinking about travel plans for next summer and fall. I’m proceeding as if everything were normal knowing full well they won’t be, especially not with our “leadership”. Every time I try to write something insightful about wine, these lyrics from the bard of Duluth run through my mind:

Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tightrope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

—Bob Dylan, Desolation Row

There are many tragedies unfolding as Covid-19 ravages the planet. With the massive loss of life and livelihood, the fate of the wine and restaurant industry is not among the worst outcomes, but it nevertheless saddens me when I think about it. Small, artisan wineries, independent restaurants and their employees are going to take a big hit. That’s a lot of skill, creativity, imagination and determination gone to waste. The chains and mammoth, commercial wine companies will survive by doing what well- financed firms with market power and lobbyists do. But it will be hard for the little guy to survive in a business as tough as the restaurant business or the artisan winery business. (I’m writing from the perspective of the U.S. but I imagine the situation is similar worldwide.) These small businesses are the heart and soul of the wine and restaurant industries and they face an uncertain future. Read more »