Hope as a Public Well being Device


The early coronavirus bugs were mostly bugs of over-optimism. Many scientists, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, did not immediately recognize the threat. Neither do we in the media. President Donald Trump made the extreme version of this mistake with a series of false statements that minimized the problem. Some politicians continue to show unreasonable optimism, end masked mandates and allow full restaurants.

But over-optimism isn’t the only type of public health mistake. Pessimism can also do harm. And in our current phase of the pandemic – as the United States ends its first year of Covid-19 dominated life – pessimism has become as much a problem as optimism.

Thousands of schools remain closed to the detriment of children, although epidemiologists say many can safely open. Irrationally negative talk about the vaccines has fed the reluctance to get them. The widespread perception that normal life will not return – if at all – this year has led some people to abandon social distancing and the wearing of masks. They seem to be saying: what’s the point?

Difficult truths can sometimes be an important public health tool. But also optimism. Optimism can help people through difficult times and make sacrifices, believing that better days are ahead.

In a speech at the White House last night, President Biden tried to balance realism and hope. He began with a somber recitation of Covid’s costs, including job loss, loneliness, canceled meetings, missed school days, and most importantly, death. Once he reached into his jacket pocket and removed a card – which he always carries with him, he said – with the current American death toll. The past year, he said, was one “filled with the loss of life and the loss of life for all of us”.

Yet when it was time for Biden to tell Americans what to do – wear masks, maintain social distance, and get vaccinated – he didn’t use darkness as motivation. He used July 4th.

“If we do all of this, if we do our part, if we do this together by July 4th, there is a good chance that you, your families and friends will get together in your yard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout or have a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day, ”he said, standing alone on a podium in the East Room of the White House. “Finding light in the dark is a very American thing.”

The speech contained many reservations about virus variants, uncertainty and more. Clearly, Biden’s political strategy regarding the virus is to make too little promises in order for him to deliver too much. But that’s part of what made the July 4th vision memorable. Even Biden, with all due caution, seems to capture the power of hope in this moment.

After 12 months of a pandemic, it is difficult to inspire people to act with only grim warnings about what could go wrong. People need to know the whole picture, both bad and good. You need a source of motivation beyond fear.

“Over a year ago, no one could have imagined what we would go through,” said Biden. “But now we’re getting through.”

News from the speech:

  • Biden directed states to qualify all adult Americans for a Covid vaccine by May 1.

  • He announced several new measures to speed up vaccinations, including using dentists, veterinarians, medical students, and others to fire the shots.

  • He condemned hate crimes against Asian Americans who were “attacked, molested, accused and scapegoated” during the pandemic. “It’s wrong, it’s un-American and it has to stop.”

Go deeper: On his Times Opinion podcast, Ezra Klein speaks to Dr. Ashish Jha of Brown University on the tension between pandemic optimism and pessimism. Ezra suggests that some politicians, especially in liberal parts of the country, are undermining their own pandemic response by being so negative: “They are not giving people a way out to hold on to.”

In response to Monday’s newsletter on the mystery of the relatively low number of Covid deaths in Africa and Asia, several researchers wrote to me to add a possible explanation that wasn’t on my list: obesity.

Countries with higher obesity rates have suffered more Covid deaths on average, as you can see in this table compiled by my colleague Lalena Fisher and I:

Obesity can cause several health problems, including difficulty breathing, as Dr. David L. Katz told me, and oxygen starvation was a common symptom of Covid. An article by Dr. New York University’s Jennifer Lighter and other researchers found obesity increased the risk of hospitalization in Covid patients.

This is a particularly interesting possibility as it could explain why Africa and Asia have suffered fewer deaths than not only high-income countries but Latin American countries as well. Like Europeans and US citizens, Latin Americans are on average heavier than Africans or Asians.

A morning reading: How Beth Moore’s Bible Studies made it an evangelical phenomenon.

Modern love: A woman takes a vow of celibacy.

From the opinion: American pop culture used to celebrate the natural world. Taylor Swift revives the tradition.

Lived life: Lou Ottens and his team at Philips, the Dutch electronics company, introduced the cassette in 1963 to play music in a portable way. The invention revolutionized the music business. He died at the age of 94.

The four-part series “The Test Kitchen” – a production of the popular Gimlet Media podcast “Reply All” – was supposed to tell the story of racism in the workplace in the food magazine Bon Appétit.

In the middle of the series, it was overshadowed by a story about Gimlet’s own culture. Former Gimlet employees accused the show of hypocrisy, saying its host Sruthi Pinnamaneni and editor PJ Vogt contributed to the working conditions they sought.

Eric Eddings, a former employee, wrote on Twitter about a “toxic dynamic” in the company. Both Pinnamaneni and Vogt, along with several other Gimlet executives, had criticized the union efforts at Gimlet. Among other things, the union tried to address allegations of racial inequality in the company, Katherine Rosman and Reggie Ugwu write in The Times. (Gimlet executives declined to comment on the Times article.)

Gimlet’s story is not unique, writes Nicholas Quah in Vulture. “There were very few black employees in the company,” Quah writes, “and those who were there had the kind of experiences that made them feel that their prospects were trivialized.”

Pinnamaneni and Vogt went on vacation and Gimlet canceled “Test Kitchen”.