interesting times

The Coronavirus Doesn’t Have a Social Message

Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Most plagues have had scapegoats. There seems to be something deep, deep, deep in human nature that responds to existential threats like this one by seeking to blame someone else, or some other group, or even an errant individual. The most intense example of this in history is the Black Death. It was the occasion for a spasm of pathological and eliminationist anti-Semitism that surpassed anything that had happened in Europe before — laying the basis for a future Holocaust. More poignantly, when smallpox arrived with Europeans to scythe through the Native American population, some indigenous people scapegoated themselves: Since they fell sick while the invaders didn’t, they surmised it was a kind of judgment on their own failure to appease the gods, or a function of the superiority of the God the Europeans worshipped. With HIV and AIDS, the gays were conveniently there to blame or ignore — the stigma was real and, in many cases, also internalized.

We want plagues to have a meaning and to teach us a lesson. Since these events erupt suddenly and inexplicably, humans have always tried to answer why they are experiencing an unusual bout of suffering. We can’t believe suffering and death like this can happen for no reason. We seek to blame the suspects we usually blame when things go awry: foreigners, minorities, the poor (for the rich), the rich (for the poor), the unhealthy, the less hygienic, the immoral, and so on. Or we use the plague as a way to certify our prior beliefs and feelings. We see patterns in a plague that we want to see. We seek to distance ourselves from the randomness of hovering death by “othering” it.

The truth, of course, is that plagues have no meaning. All they are is a virus perpetuating itself inside and alongside us. Period. We know this now — unlike many of our ancestors — because of science. Many epidemics will appear to target certain groups or spare others, but that is a function, in most cases, of biology, or behavior, or a relevant social structure. There is no viral intention. There are merely viral effects. And they are explicable. The Europeans were not spared smallpox for divine reasons: They had acquired immunity in Europe, while the Native Americans had none. And there was and is nothing inherently gay about HIV: It affected gay men the most simply because anal sex is such a uniquely potent means of transmission. Lesbians, for example, are less likely than heterosexuals to get infected.

Take, for example, one of the most striking demographic facts of this epidemic: It kills men almost twice as frequently as it kills women. In New York City, the death rates are 42.9 deaths per 100,000 men compared with 23.1 deaths per 100,000 women. “I’m in the emergency room, and it’s remarkable — I’d estimate that 80 percent of the patients being brought in are men,” Dr. Hani Sbitany, a reconstructive surgeon at Mount Sinai Health Systems treating COVID-19 patients in Brooklyn, told the New York Times. “It’s four out of five patients.” Other doctors have chimed in. Dr. Joseph Lowy, a palliative-care and hospice doctor at NYU Langone Health, told the Times: “I know of no other disease that has that type of predilection for one gender over another,” excluding diseases of the reproductive system. The same pattern exists in Italy and China. It’s close to two-to-one in its reach.

Why? We still don’t know exactly — but the answers will be scientific and have no moral or meaningful component to them. This is not about blame even though that is the temptation. One theory for the discrepancy was that COVID-19 was targeting smokers, and men smoke much more than women (especially in China). But a meta-analysis of several studies showed that “no significant association could be found between active smoking and severity of COVID-19,” and others have found only a small difference in death rates between smokers and nonsmokers. It may be that smokers’ lungs are generally more vulnerable but that “decreased levels of angiotensin converting enzyme 2, the reported host receptor of the virus responsible of COVID-19, are observed in smokers,” and so smoking also helps you survive the virus as well. Hence another study of Chinese patients which found “an unusually low prevalence of current smoking … among hospitalized COVID-19 patients.”

But the most plausible explanation is chromosomal: Women have an extra X chromosome that adds another layer to their ability to hold off infections of various kinds. Author Sharon Moalem explains:

Many of the genes on the X chromosome have to do with making and maintaining the immune system. So having two populations of cells … that can interact and cooperate is an immense advantage when you’re faced with unforeseen challenges in life, such as … pandemics. A specific gene on the X chromosome, TLR-7, is often used to recognize single-stranded RNA viruses like the novel coronavirus. Having two versions gives women an advantage in recognizing the virus.

Sex is not a social construction. “There are profound sex differences in immune systems, and this pandemic is revealing them,” one expert told The Wall Street Journal. A study of SARS found estrogen’s role in boosting women’s immune response.

But none of this core biology denies the power of behavioral factors, as well: Maybe men are more likely to postpone going to the hospital and so arrive there sicker; or they’re less hygienic and thereby more liable to infection; or more risk-oriented about how they live their lives, which may put them at greater risk. I suppose you could attempt to chalk some of this up to “toxic masculinity,” but you’d be imposing meaning on something that knows no such thing.

And the same, it seems to me, should apply to other groups disproportionately hurt by COVID-19. The older die at higher rates for obvious reasons: Immune systems and bodies in general decline with age and are more vulnerable to infections. Again, no meaning to this, just reality. Older people do not deserve to die of a virus more than younger people. They just do. Nonwhites? Again: The reasons for the differences defy easy categorization.

Asian-Americans, for example, have died at disproportionately high rates in California, (17 percent of deaths compared with 15 percent of the population) but have lower death and infection rates than their share of the population everywhere else (5 percent of deaths, 7 percent of population). Latinos are dying at a higher rate than would be expected demographically in New York (34 percent of deaths, with 29 percent of the population), but in Florida, it’s the opposite: 18 percent of deaths, with 26 percent of the population, and “across all geographies, Latinos are less likely to die (0.6) than expected, based on their population.” Whites are also at a greater chance of dying, given their share of the population, in Minnesota (95 percent of all deaths), Florida, and California. Elsewhere, whites do better but seem to be more vulnerable than Latinos overall.

With African-Americans, we see by far the biggest discrepancy. At 13 percent of the national population, they make up 32 percent of the deaths. In some places, the disproportion is staggering: In Chicago, over 70 percent of deaths have been black, with 30 percent of the population. In Michigan, black people make up a staggering 40 percent of deaths, with a mere 14 percent share of the population. There are big differences between New York City, for example, and Chicago. There’s only one state where African-American death rates are lower than their population share: Minnesota.

What are we to make of this? The legacy of segregation, poverty, and discrimination has made African-Americans more vulnerable to many diseases — and it is sadly no huge surprise that this is true of this virus, as well. Class, which is related to but not identical to race, also looms large. A 2012 study attributed 80 percent of the difference in life expectancy between white and black men to socioeconomics. And those particularly at risk right now are those emergency workers, bus drivers, grocery workers, Amazon warehouse laborers, post office clerks who have to deal with infectious items and people all day long. And the biggest risk factor for COVID-19 — obesity — is higher among African-Americans (49.6 percent are overweight) than whites (42.2 percent). Not all of this is related to poverty: “Obesity prevalence was higher in the highest income group than in the lowest income group among non-Hispanic black men.”

Another huge factor in the spread of this virus is how soon social-distancing measures were imposed. Even a matter of a few days of delaying social distancing can lead to a much higher proportion of people being infected. And there is some evidence that black Americans were less prompt in changing their behaviors than other groups — in part because of social media’s early fallacious rumors that only whites and Asians were affected by the disease. It’s good that figures like Van Jones, Idris Elba, and even Oprah have pushed back against this disinformation. Tyler Perry pleaded with his fellow African-Americans: “Please, please, please, I beg you to take this seriously. You have to socially distance yourself. That means stop hanging out, stop congregating, stop doing anything that will put not only your life in danger but also the lives of so many others.”

Does this mean that people are “blaming” African-Americans for COVID-19, as Ibram X. Kendi has claimed? The only place this appears to be happening is in China, where scapegoating African migrants is the latest expression of raw racism in that deeply racist country, where “whiteness” is nonexistent. I do not see that in these messages from black leaders. This is not about blame; it’s about explanation, and it’s about prevention. No one wants to get this virus, and no one should be faulted for being sick. Kendi goes on to argue that many “blame the choices made by black people, or poverty, or obesity — but not racism.” But can it not be all of these factors interacting with each other? And what does ascribing this to racism actually do to improve the situation? Nothing, it seems to me. It’s complexity and science — not simplicity and identity politics — that will help us both understand this and get out of it.

There are days when I appreciate how deeply our social and political divides are rooted, even in the face of a deadly epidemic. But there are also days when I hope that the human experience of sickness, death, and grief will help us to see what we have in common rather than what we don’t. And that the collective nature of this experience might help restore a sense of citizenship that has no marker of divisive identity. In an epidemic, we are humans first. No one is to blame. Everyone is at risk. And only relentless, pragmatic empiricism offers a sane path forward.

Too Lazy to Be a Tyrant

One of the things that long kept me up at night when contemplating the Trump presidency was what might happen in a bona fide national emergency. Trump constantly spoke in the campaign and afterward of his own power as unitary and limitless, but in normal times in America, I reckoned, it would be hard to generate a real consensus, even in the Trump cult, behind explicit strongman rule. But during an emergency? After a terror attack? I remembered the atmosphere after 9/11 and wasn’t so sure. I worried that the temptation to seize total power in such a scenario would overwhelm him and that, in such a situation, the masses might rally behind a new Caesar.

And I was almost right. In the midst of an emergency, Trump did indeed claim powers that belong more to kings and emperors than to presidents. He went even further than his previous assertions that his Article II powers give him the power “to do anything I want”; or that he has personal control of the entire system of justice and can intervene in any case at any time, or that he has every right to blackmail other countries into helping him win a domestic election, or that he is exempt from any congressional scrutiny and can defy any and all subpoenas. He described his presidential powers for the first time as “total”:

I’m going to put it very simply: The president of the United States has the authority to do what the president has the authority to do, which is very powerful. The president of the United States calls the shots … When somebody’s the president of the U.S., the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s gotta be.

Let’s be clear: This is a literal claim of totalitarianism. It is, in letter and spirit, the polar opposite of American constitutionalism. It is what we fought a revolution and two world wars to defeat. And it is so screamingly mad, so outrageously wrong, it defeats itself. It is fair to say that if any Democratic president were to say anything close to this, the entire GOP would spontaneously combust. But of course we all know by now, including the Republicans, that it is meaningless. Trump claims the powers of a tyrant, behaves like one, talks like one, struts like one, has broken every norm a liberal democracy requires, and set dangerous precedents that could enable a serious collapse in constitutional norms in the future.

But he doesn’t actually want to be a tyrant. It’s way too much work. It requires real management skills — and Trump has none. He wants to be treated like a king, regarded as a king, and fawned on like a king, but that’s about it. He seems only attached to power insofar as power is attached to fame, and fame without criticism helps assuage his acute and disordered psychic needs.

This, in Bill Kristol’s rather brilliant phrase, is “performative authoritarianism.” It has a real cost — it delegitimizes liberal democracy by mocking it and corrodes democratic institutions by undermining them. But it is not the cost of finding ourselves run by an American Viktor Orbán. Orbán saw the coronavirus emergency the way most wannabe strongmen would and the way I feared Trump might: as an opportunity to further neuter any constitutional checks on him and rule by decree. Trump saw it purely as an obstacle to his reelection message about a booming economy, a blot on his self-image, an unfair spoiling of his term. Instead of exploiting it, he whined about it. He is incapable of empathy and so simply cannot channel the nation’s grief into a plan of action. So he rambles and digresses and divides and inflames. He has managed in this crisis to tell us both that he is all-powerful and that he takes no responsibility for anything.

And I suspect that this creepy vaudeville act, in a worried and tense country, is beginning to wear real thin. A man who claims total power but only exercises it to protect his personal interests, a man who vaunts his own authority but tolerates no accountability for it, is impressing no one. While governors are acting, Trump is chattering. While people are dying, Trump is bragging about his own ratings, signing his name on stimulus checks, pushing quack remedies, and abetting conspiracy theories about Chinese laboratories. And although there is a rump group of supporters who will follow Trump anywhere and may launch tea party–style protests against social distancing on his behalf, I suspect this fundamental unseriousness after responding to the virus so late is finally taking its toll.

The emergency I feared Trump could leverage to untrammeled power may, in fact, be the single clearest demonstration of his incompetence and irrelevance. Combine this with a calamitous depression and I’m beginning to wonder if it matters that Biden is the Abraham Simpson of American politics. Maybe Biden doesn’t need to win this thing. Maybe Trump could lose it all by himself.

Breaking Orthodoxies

In our current Netflix immersion, the only show I have watched without any interruption is Unorthodox. It’s a four-part series based on Deborah Feldman’s autobiography about growing up in a Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And it’s remarkable for a couple of reasons. The first is the performance of Shira Haas as the protagonist, Esty, whose arranged marriage is effectively dead after only one year and whose love of music awakens in her a desire to explore the world beyond the confines of fundamentalist religion. I couldn’t take my eyes off her for more than four hours. As tiny and vulnerable as a little bird, Haas and her often-widening eyes manage to convey such a range and intensity of emotion, I found myself wrenched out of my little world into something larger and deeper.

In one stupendous scene, Esty visits a beach in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee (yes, that Wannsee, where the Final Solution was first mapped out in 1942). Her new friends — a bunch of millennial hipster musicians — arrive and instantly remove their clothes and dive into the water. And for a few moments, you see Esty paralyzed with shock and desire — shock at the immodesty she has been taught from childhood to eschew and desire for the ease and freedom of these alien moderns, where all taboos have been abolished and every sensual experience embraced. And so she begins to undress and then stops, skirt and blouse still on, and wades slowly into the water. Eventually she reaches for her dark wig — conventional among orthodox women — and pulls it off, revealing a young punkish, dykey crew cut underneath, before submerging her entire body underwater. It’s a kind of second rebirth in water, after the first, in which she was submerged in a bathing ritual in order to render her clean enough for marriage.

And what makes this series so engrossing is its refusal to commit to one vision of the world over the other. You expect a classic coming-of-age story with the lesson that you can be all you want to be if you abandon all the lingering ties of repression, tradition, and organized religion. And yet what you see here is a vision of a fundamentalist Jewish community, neurotically attached to every minuscule tradition they have been tending for several centuries, fathomlessly ignorant of the secular world yet somehow finding in this rigidity a bond of mutual love and concern and vitality. Yes, this is an actual patriarchy, where men and women are separate and where men control everything. And yet the women in the series reveal subtlety, autonomy, and agency in ways the men never quite equal. And all of them find a stability in this thickly ritualized community, where all of life’s events, from cradle to grave, are woven together in one meaningful narrative.

And you also see the shallow culture in which the modern millennial swims, shorn of fixed truths, callous in their meritocracy, promiscuous in their loves and desires, contemptuous of the world Esty comes from and which Esty finds herself defending. She is caught between the worlds of modernity and tradition and wrestles agonizingly with both. She is an incarnation of the religious sensibility’s conflict with modern secularism, and as the series progresses, she can only resolve this through music, from her forbidden piano lessons in Brooklyn to her application for a musical scholarship in a top Berlin music academy. It’s as if the only resolution of these tensions is a timeless, transcendent, and beautiful abstraction. Which, of course, it is.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Coronavirus Doesn’t Have a Social Message