Reflections on a terrible year

Albert on global health and Taiwan; Michelle on togetherness and a year of separations

Happy New Year, friends! We hope yours is off to a promising start.

Albert on the cold comfort of Taiwan’s pandemic success story

If for whatever reason you want to get your blood boiling, I recommend Lawrence Wright’s incredible New Yorker piece on how the United States botched its response to the COVID pandemic. Wright channels his anger with precision, detailing how the Trump administration, beset by denialism, actively downplayed the severity of the situation at every possible moment.

Wright also takes aim at the Chinese government, which did not allow investigators from the Centers for Disease Control to visit and assess the situation at a crucial juncture. As reports from the summer confirmed, officials from the World Health Organization repeatedly ran up against the Chinese government’s recalcitrance and secrecy during the early stages of the pandemic. Publicly, WHO officials praised the Chinese state for its speedy response; behind the scenes, however, they were frustrated that it had sat on the virus’s genome for at least two weeks before releasing it to the global community. As David Harvey reminds us, “in any exponential growth process there is an inflection point beyond which the rising mass gets totally out of control,” and earlier collective action could have prevented a lot of deaths.

As somebody who’s spent the last few years working on a history of global health and thinking about the power—and limitations—of international organizations, I feel for the WHO, which is constantly caught in a tough spot. Since it relies on the cooperation of member states to report information, it couldn’t risk alienating China, lest it be shut out of crucial information channels; it also has to balance a delicate PR situation and not offend the sensibilities of the Chinese government. To cite just one ridiculous incident from the past year, when Hong Kong journalist Yvonne Tong interviewed WHO assistant director-general Bruce Aylward on March 28, she asked about Taiwan’s role in the pandemic; Aylward hung up abruptly and pretended the call had dropped. When Tong called again, Aylward said he had already addressed the situation in “China.”

His refusal to even mention Taiwan by name captures the absurdity of the situation: in this moment of global crisis, Taiwan had real expertise and materials with which to aid other countries, but it was shut out of the WHO due to its complicated geopolitical standing. We now know that by December 31, 2019, the day China reported the emergence of a cluster of new pneumonia cases in Wuhan, Taiwanese government officials had already begun inspecting passengers arriving in Taipei on flights from Wuhan for symptoms of pneumonia or fever. By early January, suspecting the possibility of human-to-human transmission of the virus, they were testing anyone with a travel history to Wuhan, warning those with high temperatures to self-quarantine and stay vigilant. They also started coordinating with manufacturers to mass-produce face masks; by March, as Wright reports, the country of twenty-three million people was making ten million masks a day. (Meanwhile, White House officials refused to wear any.) According to an analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association, nationwide travel reports and a centralized command structure for tracking virus cases were among 124 actions that Taiwan deployed effectively to keep the outbreak under control. Despite its proximity and economic interdependence with China, Taiwan took aggressive action and was able to slow the initial wave of infections.

Anybody who knows me knows I’m as pro-Taiwan as you can get, but I feel no joy in enumerating these achievements. In March, the Trump administration tried to use Taiwan to score political points, seeking to delegitimize organizations like the WHO in order to deflect attention from its own failures. But for years Taiwan’s entire strategy has been to seek inclusion in these international organizations: it has shared data and taken its observer status seriously. It has worked to strengthen the WHO, not weaken it. Yet Taiwan’s public health success was celebrated by Trump for geo-political reasons: Taiwan was once again the pawn in the Great Power conflict between China and the United States. Neither took the lessons of Taiwan seriously and both failed to respect it as an independent actor.

My overwhelming feeling looking back on this year is a sense of loss, of missed opportunity:  the pandemic could have been an opportunity to bolster the legitimacy of these global institutions, but instead it was used as leverage to invalidate them, and by association the possibility of international solidarity. By all means, let’s expose the political games that sow distrust in the very institutions that are meant to unite us. But let’s not turn away from them altogether. The global vaccine rollout will be another test of equitable access to health care, and the WHO can and should play a crucial part in facilitating equal access. I know this is naive, but my hope for the new year is that we forge a radically different political vision for global health, rooted in economic and social justice. Perhaps this can still be a moment in which we untether ourselves from Great Power rivalries and envision and remake new forms of global solidarity.

Michelle on togetherness in a bad year

2020 was so, so bad. You don’t need me to tell you that. Mass death around the world. Unemployment. Suicides. Grief. Bitter divides that tore families apart, exacerbated by venal politicians and media corporations. And the mental-health toll of separation. I have friends who spent the year basically alone, because they’re single or old, and I felt—still feel—great guilt for not being there with them.

All the lockdowns and quarantines made me think about my girlfriends during and after college, when we were all mostly single and dreamt, half-jokingly, of creating a commune for loved ones, homeless people, and strangers who needed a couch. Mostly we just wanted to live with each other, and each other’s families too, if it came to that. We knew the nuclear family model would constrict our imagination around how to arrange our homes and whom to love, but we already loved each other with the intensity of husbands and wives, parents and children—perhaps even more unconditionally—and we wanted to be like that forever. Maybe I’m idealizing, but we lived together, took care of each other, and we weren’t even each other’s lovers or blood. Okay, two were lovers, but that’s not the point.

Or maybe it is the point—that radical queer life teaches us to “dedicate ourselves to friendship as our organizing, bedrock principle,” as Fenton Johnson writes. I think now about the utopian LGBTQ movements of the 1970s, people who were banished by their families and went off to create their own makeshift ones. I think about lesbians who nursed dying men during the AIDS crisis, the intensive ethic of care born from it. During a year that was terribly lonely for so many, I had the luck of living with the world’s kindest husband and a smiley baby with tofu-textured feet. But the perfectness of these people only further convinced me that we can and should imagine our homes differently. We still need the love and friendship of others. We’re capable of taking care of more than “our own.” We have more love to give than this.

I’m a teacher, but I’m not sure what I taught this year. (My apologies to any of my students reading this.) It’s hard to know whether you’re really connecting on Zoom. And though I’m already pretty non-hierarchical in my pedagogical style, whatever hierarchy there had been collapsed; my students definitely spotted my unmade bed or watched as I scooped up a crying baby and babbled nonsense to her. They were forgiving and I was too. We were all having a hard time. Some were living alone in nine-square-meter chambres de bonne; some lost their jobs and moved back home. Impressed by their resilience, I made allowances where I could. I didn’t mark late papers late, that sort of thing. If there’s one thing I want to carry into the new year, it’s that spirit of giving each other the benefit of the doubt.

Naïve optimist that I am, I’m a sucker for New Year’s resolutions and the promise of transformation. This year I want to be more mindful, to limit myself to one task at a time. I want to listen more and talk less. I want to read more and go to bed earlier. I want to be off my devices by 8 p.m., unless it’s for a call with friends. I also want to explore faith. When I was pregnant I prayed every day—not something I usually did before—and as soon as the baby was born I just stopped. What was I doing? Perhaps I was afraid I didn’t deserve a healthy baby. (I, who don’t even believe in desert.) Or perhaps I was just anxious for some sense of connection.

Like many of you, I discovered that while virtual contact is no substitute for the real thing, people really are just a Zoom call away. One of the year’s great joys was reconnecting with formerly incarcerated students back in California, now thriving out in the world; I also signed up to be a pro bono lawyer for the Stanford Three Strikes Project, where I’ve gotten to work with an incarcerated client who was recently granted clemency by the governor of California. And, as I mentioned two weeks ago, Hannah Taieb, Kassia Aleksic, and I are starting a nonprofit to bring together formerly incarcerated people around the world—even if “bringing together” looks very different now from what it was a few years ago.

Still, so much screen time made me desperate for other ways to connect. For one thing, I started writing physical letters again. There’s something about putting ink to paper that converts the memory of friendship into a kind of presence. And then there’s this—the letter you’re reading now. Starting A Broad and Ample Road was Albert’s good idea: he wanted to write about global health and share things he loves, like that delightful music video about non-GMO tofu farming in Taiwan, but I think he also wanted to write in a way that felt direct and unmediated. Similarly, I wanted to reach readers without the usual steps—pitching an editor, waiting and worrying, sending a link to a publication that’s probably behind a paywall. I wanted to write without being too precious about it, without the paralyzing self-interrogation that comes with writing in academia: why should I do it when somebody else knows more? should I even bother if I don’t have the deep knowledge of the scholars I respect? is it stupid to write about myself? So far, it feels not-terrible (my baseline emotion), and on occasion I even feel I’ve recovered a more creative part of myself.

This is all to say, thank you for being here with us. I wouldn’t have taken the time to think through what it means to me to be a new mother if I didn’t have you. Nor would Albert and I have put together a tribute to my grandmother, who passed away in November, and a reconstruction of her life. Whatever topics and ideas we explore next, they’ll be richer because we can share them with you. I’m grateful to you for reading—and if you want to talk, I’m always a Zoom or a letter away.

With love, Michelle

Some Links for the Week

Last but not least

Some holiday greetings from the sixteen-month-old:

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