“Open everything!” or “Stay at Home:” The Partisan Divide in Perceptions of the Pandemic

When a contagious disease breaks out in a city, the most certain means of preventing it from becoming epidemic, or from spreading, is to prohibit all intercourse between the sound and the infected.
–Dr. William Currie, 1794

We are obviously in a unique time. No school, no sports, no conferences, at least for the foreseeable future. The Olympics have been postponed. All of this, of course, is to hopefully reduce the number exposed and flatten the curve.

Even with “shelter at home” and other social distancing measures, more than 2.7 million cases have been identified with over 191,231 deaths–49,963 in the United States. Last Sunday, The Boston Globe had 16 pages of obituaries. Similarly, the New York Times series “Those We’ve Lost,” is tragically demonstrating just how many people, across age, gender, race, and occupation, have died from COVID-19. Heroic health professionals tearfully describe exhausted efforts to keep patients alive and the devastating last moments with others. Earlier this month, a woman on ventilator gave birth. The stories of sorrow and loss, paired with hope and triumph, are abundant.

Or at least I thought so.

Last week’s protests and the continued push to lift restrictions indicate a rising vocal minority that seem to exist in another reality. Maura Judkis makes a solid comparison in this Washington Post article between the protesters and zombie images in pop culture. Hundreds of people gathered in multiple states demanding that businesses. More terrifying than this request (and the crowd itself) were the barrage of signs: “Fear is the real virus!” “#FakeCrisis,” “COVID-19 is a lie,” and “I want a haircut.”

These crowds of anti-science extremists were backed by Trump, through his tweets of “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” and produced results. The governors of Florida, Georgia, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and a few other states declared their intentions to lift of “stay-at-home” orders and, in varying degrees, allow businesses, parks, and churches to open.

Ensuing debates following these announcements have demonstrated the chasm between the two sides. Within a local Facebook group, a single thread erupted into dozens of comments both for and against reopening. Different online communities had similar polarized conversations, in which the remarks are not so much focused on restrictions. Rather, the central question that fundamentally drives these discussions is do you perceive the virus as a threat?

It’s not surprising that there are individuals who dismiss science or grossly distort it to support their own beliefs. This type of group predates vaccination, drawing from the arguments of staunch anti-inoculators James Franklin and Dr. William Douglass in 1721. However, it doesn’t seem to be the anti-vaxxers this time.

This is a different group, with the American “disease perception” division occurring along party lines–a phenomenon recognized early in the coronavirus pandemic (and well-known, as anyone reading this can attest). Our fragmented, numerous media options have further widened the gap between the two groups, as COVID-19 coverage has differed significantly by media outlet. Most individuals primarily seek out news sources and social media networks that fit with their partisan biases and beliefs. It is likely then that many people are not getting the full story.

So how can these two diverging groups come together for a unified perception of the pandemic? Truly unified is probably unrealistic so let’s take it up a level. How do you convince people that they are at risk? The answer, unfortunately, is that we can’t, unless we have a). more coverage across media outlets and platforms that humanize those who died from COVID-19 and b). an eruption of cases so prevalent that every person is personally and directly affected (as currently experienced in New York, New Jersey, and other areas with high numbers). If people continue to act as recklessly as last week’s protesters, it may not be long before everyone will heed Dr. Currie’s advice from 1794.

Applying Buffy’s “The Wish” Episode to the Pandemic

I just returned from Publix. My grocery trips used to be pleasantly mundane stops. At least when alone, my mind would happily wander as I meandered, occasionally chit-chatting with the helpful employees. But now the world has changed. I am so grateful for Publix and all grocery store workers who keep food in our community and on our plates and are smiling, still greeting, and still helping. This shift I’m feeling is not on them. It’s the entry point into our new “Contagion World,” a universe filled with blue tape arrows, yellow social-distancing boxes, and hidden faces.

As a super TV fan, our new reality reminds me of the “alternate universe” storylines of many fictional shows. Piggybacking off of It’s a Wonderful Life, these episodes demonstrate a butterfly effect, in which one detail of a character’s world dramatically alters reality. The result is always the same, as the hero finds a way to return life to “normal,” as no one else recalls that the parallel reality existed.

In “The Wish” (3.9, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Cordelia Chase wishes that Buffy (the vampire slayer) had never come to Sunnydale. The town is instantly transformed into a dark version of itself. Most of the students have disappeared from high school, as they were either eaten or turned into vampires after the Hellmouth was opened. The remaining ones face a bleak existence, with daily memorials and restrictions on clothing and venturing out at night.

After showing us all of the ways that hero Buffy changed Sunnydale for the better, the wish-granting amulet is destroyed, undoing the spell.

While we cannot smash the amulet or block the Hellmouth, this episode’s messages do hold new meaning in our pandemic state, offering a sci-fi view on peaking versus a flattened curve. In the regular Buffy reality, the Scooby gang prevents the evils of Sunnydale from rising by regularly combating bouts of malevolent entities before they become unstoppable. Buffy and her friends can thwart the attempts of a steady trickle. However, in the alternate Buffy-free universe, the Hellmouth opens, pouring vampires into Sunnydale on one tragic night. Much like an epidemic peak without adequate resources, the town becomes too far gone that even Buffy cannot reverse its course (when she finally arrives).

If you think this comparison is a stretch, consider it a lesson in available resources/personnel in handling sick people. As we’ve already seen, peaking areas have produced more cases than there is equipment or (amazing) health professionals). On the upside, social distancing measures are flattening the curve, curbing spikes in cases so that the ill can receive treatment.

I like the Buffy parallel though. In thinking of “The Wish” during my Publix bewilderment, I take comfort in its resolution. I can trust that the actions that make me feel distressed and well, distant, are also those that will help jump us back to our reality.

Your wise friend was wrong. Analyzing the viral post about influenza and Armistice celebrations.

This message has gone viral, warning people about the potential impact of easing up on social distancing restrictions too early:

Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, MN, from the Minnesota Historical Society

The post appeared without naming the location. Yet, I have yet to identify where this information would have been true. The timeline does not make sense. Summer was not the deadliest time for the “Spanish Flu.” Fall was, peaking in October in both Europe and the U.S. The 3rd wave returned the following Spring, not immediately after armistice celebrations.

Furthermore, many countries did not implement “social distancing” measures because of turmoil due to the war. No one called it that either. Selective quarantine did occur in some places, but it was reactive, not proactive. In other words, even cities and states praised for the best responses didn’t shut down until cases had already emerged. Plans for reopening were already in place when the war ended.

As far as the deaths from war versus disease, it actually depends on the country. More Americans died from disease than combat. However, in England, approximately 700,000 people died from war, whereas 228,000 from influenza/pneumonia.

Besides the misinformation conveyed here, we need to take any comparisons between past epidemics and our current crisis with a grain of salt. This is not 1918 (or 1957-58, 1968, or 2009). We can certainly learn from the past from credible sources, but our technology, resources, and world are not the same.

Thank you to the folks who helped me track down the photo and original post. Iric Nathanson’s article contextualizes this photo.

Together, but not really. Another Push for Asynchronous Teaching

Like many Saturday Night Live fans, I eagerly tuned in to the special at-home broadcast. It was well done, as they did their best with what they had, enhanced by having Tom Hanks host. At the same time, this make-do format sadly reminded me of what we have temporarily lost.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad to have the technology. To be able to see and talk to people, at least for a moment, can be a day brightener. It works great for giving a brief training with screen share for large groups, like a conference Zoom I participated in last week. The virtual meet-up is also nice for touching base with different family members. I’ve also appreciated the platforms (and the people involved) for enhancing home learning time with a poetry workshop, lesson on Helen Keller, and interview with polio survivors.

For regular online class, though, let’s not pretend that Zoom is the same as an in-person experience. So why are many institutions mandating that students “attend” class, sometimes for the full time slot? And for faculty who have choices, why are you requiring students to do this?

Pandemic at-home synchronous is problematic for a lot of reasons. Students signed up for an in-class experience to be held at a college, presumably close to where they reside. A required Zoom class significantly deviates and increases the demands and expectations of the original registration. We are assuming that students are in a safe, stable environment in which they have WiFi and a computer and are able to spend hours of consecutive time to sit in a virtual classroom. This assumption ignores shifted time zones, issues of access, and other newfound challenges that did not exist for the on-campus version — the one at registration.

We are in a new reality in which parents and other caregivers have been cut off from childcare and networks of support. For universities that are still requiring virtual office hours and live teaching, how are parents supposed to do these tasks without disruption? At the same time, how realistic is it to expect students who are parents to sit through hours of virtual lecture through virtual platforms.

Adding to this challenge, is the economic burden on students, many of whom are working entry-level jobs deemed essential (like grocery store employees or take-out restaurants). Others are suddenly unemployed and may have to take whatever work they can find. Time off for class may have been promised in January, but that doesn’t mean it still applies.

Hours and schedules have radically changed for everyone. It is unreasonable to carry over the Spring in-class schedule to the virtual one, pretending that nothing has changed. It’s far more doable to provide recorded videos and materials so that both sides can work around their other obligations.

Aside from the logistics of requiring live class meetings, the meet-up platforms just aren’t the same as sitting in a classroom. Technology issues impact some participants from having audio or video. It’s hard to call on people or to tell who would like to speak next. There’s also the awkward factor of seeing into others’ living quarters, paired with interruption from other family members or roommates. All of this is magnified when class is stretched out to an hour or two and mandatory so that people can’t opt out.

And, as I articulated in my blog post “Flexible Teaching in the Pandemic,” we also need to consider how illness has and will impact teaching and learning. Students and instructors are getting sick, some needing hospitalization. A synchronous model ignores the reason why our classes are online in the first place. If instructors can produce content ahead of time, then class can continue even if they become ill. Likewise, recorded content and flexible submissions can better accommodate students if they get sick or have to care for an ailing family member.

I’m not saying that we should do away with all Zoom interactions, just that we need to think about how we are using these types of platforms. While I do include the virtual meet-ups for my classes, mine are optional and under 20 minutes. Students can choose instead to do an online discussion post at their own convenience for the week. For those who opt for the Zoom, I know they made the choice, not me, so that they want to be there and that it works for them schedule-wise.

If the goal is for our students to learn the course material and ultimately succeed, then we need to consider obstacles and seek ways to overcome them. Virtual class is not the only pathway to success, nor is an equal substitution for an in-person experience. As with the SNL home show, it is a make-do time. If Saturday Night Live can be flexible in changing things up for the pandemic, then so can we.

The Polio Crusade: Exploring Diseases of the Past

Sometimes it’s hard to talk about COVID-19 because we are in the middle of the pandemic. It can be easier to discuss a disease of the past. Polio was a particularly interesting disease because it primarily affected children and was heavily featured in media as part of the March of Dimes campaign, run by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

Watch A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America or The Polio Crusade.

  1. Why were people so afraid of polio?
  2. What were some of the ways that the NFIP raised money through the March of Dimes campaigns?
  3. What were some obstacles that scientists faced in developing an effective vaccine?
  4. Why were most parents willing and eager to volunteer their children for the trials?

Talk to your older relatives and ask about their experiences with polio or with the vaccine. Did they have polio? What was their treatment like? Did they know kids or adults with polio? When did they receive the vaccine?

Why We Need Journalism More Than Ever

Until the number of U.S. cases and deaths recently skyrocketed, many people have been dismissive of encroaching pandemic. A Pew Research survey from the week of March 10-16 showed that 37% of the 8,914 adult participants believed that media greatly exaggerated the risks of coronavirus. Perceptions of media coverage have varied by the amount of news and the specific source primarily consumed. As the tides are tragically turning, with cases skyrocketing in the U.S., this is not a time to criticize or dismiss messages, nor clump all outlets and content into a faceless “Big Brother” media entity.

I’m not advocating that we heed all advice, especially the (mis)information spread by social media. What I mean is that we need to stop demonizing journalists and recognize that we have never needed them more. If we’re lucky enough to be stuck at home, professional and citizen journalists are our link to local, national, and international information. Without our own eyes and ears in the world, we must rely on others to tell us what is going on, especially when the stakes are so high.

To keep reporting and producing media content during an outbreak is an act of bravery. In 1793, Andrew Brown was the only printer to keep producing his daily newspaper throughout the yellow fever epidemic. In an era centuries before computers, the Federal Gazette became the only means of informing and connecting the people of Philadelphia.

While we certainly have an abundance of choices now, it doesn’t make the work less dangerous. Journalism is an essential service. As Chris Kieffer wrote in this letter of appreciation to the staff of the Daily Journal of Tupelo, Mississippi, “Great reporting and photography can’t be done from a safe ‘social distance.’” Reporters have already become sick on the job. And yet, our focus has largely been on criticizing this risky work.

Instead, we should be supporting journalists and producers of media content at this critical time. We need to recognize the value of all people who continue to work to make our society function. Without credible media sources to turn to, we won’t know how the pandemic is impacting lives outside of our own bubbles (which are quite small these days). We won’t know who needs help or ways to help from afar. We won’t know what to do if we have symptoms or where to go. And, without news, we won’t know when the crisis finally subsides and life can return to our new normal.

Social media is great for connecting with friends and family, but it is not a substitute for local, national, and international news content. Recognize the value of those producing content so that most of us can have the luxury of staying home and the benefit of learning through media channels when it is once again safe to experience life first-hand once more.

Learning Through Historical Fiction: Books for Kids and Teens About Epidemics

Reading historical fiction can teach you a lot about experiences people may have had during outbreaks of the past. In this genre, authors weave facts into their fictional stories and characters. I recommend reading these works of historical fiction and then conducting your own research on the epidemic and disease featured.

A notable example is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793, aimed at readers ages 10-14.

She uses documents from the real yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia to tell the story of 14 year-old Mattie Cook. This book is an exciting read and so well-done that it is often used as a teaching tool. Here are study guides that go along with the book.

Joyce Rockwood’s young adult novel To Spoil the Sun explores the devastating impact of smallpox on a Cherokee tribe in the 16th century. More of the story is fictionalized in that it isn’t set in a specific outbreak, but provides a perspective that has rarely appeared elsewhere.

Smallpox Strikes! by Norma Jean Lutz (ages 8-12) and describes the real-life inoculation controversy in the 1721 Boston epidemic. A boy must choose between following his family’s wishes and protecting the town against smallpox through the practice of inoculation (intentionally infecting yourself with disease in hopes that you’ll get a milder case).

For younger readers, book #26 Balto of the Blue Dawn of the Magic Treehouse series (very) loosely tells the story of the sled dogs that saved the children of Nome, Alaska from diphtheria in 1925. Compare Jack and Annie’s tale to the real story as told here.

Here are other historical fiction works about disease:

What makes for a good work of historical fiction? How do authors use facts to create interesting fictional narratives?

Think about the current pandemic. How could these experiences be told in what will someday be historical fiction? Where would you set your story? What factual details would be important to include?

What the Archives Didn’t Teach Me About Life in a Pandemic

In researching my book, I spent months studying primary sources: newspaper articles, pamphlets, public health records, personal correspondence, diary entries and other materials. I never expected that I would see first-hand what a global contagious threat would look like in my life time. I had an idea of the progression of quarantine and the pattern of media coverage. At the same time, no book or microfilm prepared me for a number of aspects in this experience.

  • The Waiting Game: Nothing that I’ve read addressed what it is like to feel fine, have your family feel fine, but know that the danger is coming. . .for months and is not a matter of if, but when. I’m sure the people in the army camps of 1918 that got hit with the March/April wave of influenza felt similarly–just no one wrote about it.
  • Balancing Crisis Mode with Everyday Life: In the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, townsperson Elizabeth Drinker made daily notes in her diary that combined mundane activities like taking a walk with notes about the latest death toll and friends who had passed. I never imagined how strange it would be to do the basic things we have to do, like buy dog food, within the context of the COVID-19 cloud. Everything is the same, yet it’s not the same.
  • Some people are fools. Newspapers of the past occasionally mentioned individuals that broke quarantine and were then arrested. Since they didn’t have social media in 1925, for example, there weren’t Instagram photos capturing crowds flaunting their poor choices and lack of consideration for others.
  • Parenting in a pandemic: This is a big one that NO ONE talked about in the past. Children were part of past epidemics, of course, and were mentioned when they became ill and died, but the stories of active parenting during such a time were not documented and a preserved. As parents, it’s a tricky time. Not only are we juggling childcare and work, but we are also trying to balance crisis and despair with making sure our kids are fed, engaged, and have pretty good days. We have the added challenge of explaining and demonstrating this new reality without terrifying them and inciting panic. At the end of the day, our kids deserve to think that the world is good, they are safe, and this will pass.
  • How much I would miss the world during social distancing. I am certain that the groups of students quarantined at the University of Kansas and other schools felt lonely, bored, and isolated. However, we don’t have their personal testimonies about the experience. We are privileged to be safe here as a family. Yet, I will fully admit that I mourn our normal reality.
    Being extra-extroverted, I knew that I would have these feelings. But it’s not just my friends that I miss. I love being part of a community–like a normal one, in which you see the same faces at stores, parks, karate, and on campus. I miss teaching to human students sitting in front of me, even if they fall asleep sometimes. I want maskless faces to slightly breech the six-foot distancing just to chat for fun, comment on the weather, or to just return a “hello.” Someday we’ll get back to a new version of that world.

What does this all mean, aside from my own lamenting? We need to be writing our stories and recording the diverse experiences of others so that future generations can better understand what living at this time was like.

Nothing is normal. We’re in a pandemic. Shifting Expectations in the Midst of Crisis

In 1751, George Washington’s diary entries stopped for 24 days because he was ill with smallpox. Forty-two years later, the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia forced President Washington to relocate to Mount Vernon. Disruption due to disease was frequent and expected.

This pattern continued with other epidemic moments as well. When influenza hit in 1918, Kansas, like many states, canceled all group meetings and conferences, closed businesses and schools, and prohibited public loitering. The University of Kansas canceled all classes and mandated quarantine. Even though students were stuck on campus, they were not expected to continue their studies. Healthy male students practiced drills and smuggled cigarettes into the makeshift hospital for their ailing friends. Female students cared for the sick, but were also encouraged to go on hikes and roast hot dogs.

In the midst of an epidemic, historical precedent suggests that life dramatically shifts to revolve around the outbreak itself. We are in that moment. For months, we’ve seen it coming. Videos and images from other countries have been showing us what will happen, how bad it will become.

I’m not advocating that we completely shut down working from home, online learning, or virtual activities. However, we do need assume that everything we do, task we assign, and decision we make is shaped by the current and future reality of this global pandemic. Our expectations in our normal, pre-social distancing world do not directly carry over.

Even if we are fortunate to not be sick, the current situation dramatically influences all of our routines. A month ago, this was my typical Friday morning: Wake up, care for dogs, make breakfast, wake up kids, get kids and husband off to school, exercise dogs, do some writing or other work, drive to campus, hold office hours, teach, stop at the grocery store, eat lunch. Now my Friday morning consists of juggling parenting, attempted home-schooling, attempted online teaching, and attempted writing. Added to the mix are my worries and concerns unique to this time: Will the kids get to see their teachers or friends? Am I doing enough to help them through this? And then, the questions plaguing all of us: Will the stores have milk? What about people who are less fortunate than we are? How will local businesses survive? What will happen to the economy? Does it make sense to plan anything in the next 6-8 months?

At the same time, our face-to-face outlets for dealing with stress and working through situations have been cut-off. Without lunches with friends, gym workouts, or (gasp) in-person meetings, it’s hard to emotionally process it all. I’m glad that we can have online classes, connect over social media, and take virtual karate. But let’s not pretend it is the equivalent of the real experiences that we all crave right now.

My point is that we need to adopt a communal understanding about this time. Our standards and goals, even for daily productivity, should not be the same because our lives are not the same. What we do now will inevitably affect the future, but it doesn’t mean we are setting the bar (or lowering the bar) for next year and beyond. In other words, we need to asterisk * the things we think, decide, do, and communicate with the pandemic grain of salt.

This * is already happening for many people. If you are sick or care for someone who is, or if you work in healthcare, you are already there, where the details of a pandemic are all that concern you. A month into the yellow fever epidemic, every article in the Federal Gazette mentioned disease–even those that talked about a local fire. Every poem and parable printed focused on the epidemic. Ads only addressed “remedies” and other related goods and services. Even if we are lucky enough not to be in this place and can play with the kids, teach our online classes, and do “regular things,” we need to remember that not everyone shares our fortune.

This is a strange time full of uncertainties. Enjoy the moments that feel a bit normal, especially if they bring hope and optimism. But let’s also give ourselves permission to take a breath and just try for average, not exceptional, since every accomplishment is extraordinary right now. If Washington could ease up multiple times because of disease, then so can we.

Understanding Media Sources in the Pandemic

Why can’t we have sleepovers, play on the playground or go climbing? What have you heard about coronavirus (COVID-19)? How does it spread? Who can get it? What happens if you do get sick? At this point, I’m sure you’re heard a lot of different pieces of information, most of it probably from other people. Today, I want you to focus on doing your own research, gathering facts from credible sources.

What are credible sources? “Credible sources” refer to organizations and media outlets known for producing fact-based, trustworthy information that has undergone a gatekeeping process (meaning several tiers of people check and verify the information before it is released to the public).

We’ll start with health organizations. For health issues, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), national public health institute for the United States. Use the CDC’s resources on COVID-19 to answer the following questions:

1. How does the COVID-19 spread?
2. What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
3. How can your family prepare if someone gets sick? What should you do?

The World Health Organization (WHO) is a global public health agency and has produced wonderful resources about COVID-19. Look at WHO’s page of mythbusters. Identify 3 myths about what can kill the coronavirus.

We can also turn to news outlets for information. Like other news sources, The New York Times and The Washington Post have produced a plethora of stories on coronavirus, covering many angles on what it is, how the disease affects groups of people, and its profound impact on society. With news stories, it is important to look at the source and the date. Articles written about coronavirus in January had a very different purpose and tone compared to stories produced this week. Compare this January 29th story: “New York is Bracing for the Coronavirus” to this one from today, in which there are more than 15,000 cases: “New York Prepares for a Week at the Pandemic’s Center.” What was the purpose of each story? How has the tone shifted?

Compare local news to national news or look across media platforms. Broadcast news stories (television news) are packaged differently than ones created for print and online sources. For example, watch this Nashville News Channel 5 broadcast and discuss its focus.

What are not credible sources? We have what feels like unlimited media choices. It can be hard to tell what sources we should trust. How do you determine what are not credible sources? If “information” does not have to pass through a gatekeeping process (or doesn’t reference a source that does), it may not be credible. Social media posts, blogs, memes, email forwards, and personal websites are all examples of media content with no screening process. Anyone can create posts or memes and publish them, without others checking the information.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from these types of media products, but take them with a grain of salt (be a little skeptical about the information). This means that if you read something about coronavirus on social media or on a website, look up the information using a credible source (organization or news outlet-produced) before you believe it, or even worse, share it with others.

For example, a number of people shared this meme on social media about preventing coronavirus by gargling salt water [FALSE INFORMATION].

Why do you think people believe in such “remedies?” Even worse, why do people share “information” even though it has no factual basis?

News stories and factual resources are vital at this tough time. Knowing where to look for credible information will help us stay updated and not be misled by fake remedies or other myths of the coronavirus.