The Kitchen Counter Observatory

Kieran Healy Every day begins in the same way. I get up. I make my coffee. I look at the data. Everything about this is absurd. To begin with, there’s the absurdity that everyone with a job like mine faces each day. Locked down at home with the kids, trying to get things done, unable to properly teach, write, or think. The household is like a little spacecraft, drifting in the void. Occasionally you venture outside to get supplies, or to check the shields. I find the days are speeding up now, because even though things drag from moment to moment, each twenty-four hour period is essentially identical. It reminds me of when my children were newborns. It’s a daily slog that, in retrospect, fuses into a gray blob almost impossible to recall in any sort of differentiated way.

Far better, of course, to have a mild case of lockdown ennui than to be in the situation of those directly fighting the pandemic, those whose health or livelihood has been devastated by it, or those who carry on out in the world, working to fulfill essential roles. I see some of them individually, at my door or in my social media. I see them in the aggregate in the data. There’s so much data. People working at international agencies, universities, newspapers, magazines, and state and local governments put out more each day, trying to capture the scale and scope of the pandemic. And it’s not just official agencies and businesses, either. One of the best sources of daily information on the pandemic in the United States is being run by a rapidly-assembled team of freelance journalists and volunteers. The COVID Tracking Project was brought into existence by the realization that the Centers for Disease Control were failing to provide the sort of daily updates on case counts and deaths that was part of their reason for existing.


driving trends data table


With a laptop, some free software, and a cup of coffee, I can examine what ought to seem like a staggering amount of information. Here, for example, is a picture showing what driving patterns have looked like every day in one hundred American cities over the past four months. As if that were a reasonable thing to be able to know while confined to your house! I drew it using information that Apple has been releasing to help researchers quantify the scope of the lockdown around the world. At this point, the full dataset has about half a million observations in it. Google is putting out a similar resource, about four times as large, that lets you see how busy different kinds of places are around the world over the same time period. This sort of thing doesn’t count as “big data” anymore. Back when I was a graduate student, I spent three days in a library manually copying down a few hundred numbers from a long-shelved report about blood donors. Now I sit here at home, surveying the scope of what’s being inflicted on people across the country and around the world as this disease spreads.

People sometimes think (or complain) that working with quantitative data like this inures you to the reality of the human lives that lie behind the numbers. Numbers and measures are crude; they pick up the wrong things; they strip out the meaning of what’s happening to real people; they make it easy to ignore what can’t be counted. There’s something to those complaints. But it’s mostly a lazy critique. In practice, I find that far from distancing you from questions of meaning, quantitative data forces you to confront them. The numbers draw you in. Working with data like this is an unending exercise in humility, a constant compulsion to think through what you can and cannot see, and a standing invitation to understand what the measures really capture—what they mean, and for whom. Those regular spikes in the driving data are the pulse of everyday life as people go out to have a good time at the weekend. That peak there is the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. That bump in Detroit was a Garth Brooks concert. Right across the country, that is the sudden shock of the shutdown the second weekend in March. It was a huge collective effort to buy time that, as it turns out, the federal government has more or less entirely wasted. And now through May here comes the gradual return to something like the baseline level of activity from January, proceeding much more quickly in some cities than in others.

I sit at my kitchen-counter observatory and look at the numbers. Before my coffee is ready, I can quickly pull down a few million rows of data courtesy of a national computer network originally designed by the government to be disaggregated and robust, because they were convinced that was what it would take for communication to survive a nuclear war. I can process it using software originally written by academics in their spare time, because they were convinced that sophisticated tools should be available to everyone for free. Through this observatory I can look out without even looking up, surveying the scale and scope of the country’s ongoing, huge, avoidable failure. Everything about this is absurd.

Lockdown India – A Look at the Plight of Locked-Out Labor

Juliette DuaraThe COVID-19 pandemic is global; so are the social and economic rifts it is revealing.   Here in the United States stark divisions have emerged between those who can work at home and those who cannot and between those who are financially secure and those who live month-to-month. Similarly, in India the Coronavirus lockdown with its imposition of “social distancing” has amplified the rifts between those who have securely reached the middle class (or more) with homes to retreat to and those who work day to day whose homes are far from the urban centers where they work, are crowded into congested slums, or are nonexistent.

While India’s first Coronavirus case was confirmed on January 30, 2020, the battle against COVID-19 began in earnest only in mid-March.  First, there was the “Janata Curfew” (People’s Curfew) on Sunday, 22 March during which everyone except those providing essential services were required to stay home from 7 am – 9 pm.  With people in their doorways ringing bells and clapping hands on cue at 5 pm that day, there was a festive element to this brief confinement.  Then, on March 24, with scant notice, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that a nation-wide lockdown lasting until April 14 would begin at midnight that night to curb the spreading virus.  This 21-day lockdown has now been extended twice, with some sort of reopening now scheduled for May 17.  Meanwhile, despite these efforts, the trajectory of viral spread has continued upward.  As of May 6, India had registered 52,987 cases of Coronavirus; 1,785 people had died of the disease.

Thus, under lockdown the onslaught of travails for migrant laborers, domestic workers and others at the margins of Indian society is two-fold – the loss of livelihood from their low-wage employment in “non-essential” sectors of the economy like construction, hospitality and domestic help, and the health threat presented by their vulnerability to the virus, whether due to congested living conditions in which “social distancing” is a classist dream, or due to physical susceptibility to the virus caused by malnutrition.  The Modi government has responded to the economics of this crisis with a relief package worth $22.6 billion, yet critics charge that many of those most in need lack the registration with the federal food welfare scheme or other necessary documentation to secure the benefits on offer.  As in the US, those feeding off governmental largesse may be those with the networks, not the need.

Famed novelist, Arundhati Roy, has written about how “[h]istorically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”   As we pass through the portal, have we the will to create a more equitable, ethical world?

How to Avoid the Next COVID-19 Related Crisis

Eric MlynWe can forestall the looming democratic crisis facing the United States, but we need to move quickly.  And since the COVID-19 crisis has shown us that the federal government will not solve this, much can be done if states act quickly.

COVID-19 did not create the crisis of liberal democracy. I spent last semester warning my students and anybody else who would listen about national and global threats to liberal democracy that predate Trumpism.  Though this threat took on many forms here in the United States, voting rights – a necessary but not sufficient condition for the health and sustenance of democracy – have been under assault for many years through things like voter suppression and gerrymandering.   More recently, from the Supreme Court decision on Shelby vs. Holder that invalidated key aspects of the Voting Rights Act to President Trump’s spurious claims of past and potential voter fraud, free and fair elections in the US have faced unprecedented threats.

Now bring on the global pandemic where in the US the likely presence of COVID-19 in the fall makes holding elections as if business were usual nearly impossible.  Witness the Wisconsin primary last month where an inability to reach a political compromise on mail in voting resulted in citizens having to choose between voting and their health.

Like with the steps we needed to take to reduce the economic and public health carnage of COVID-19 – such as social distancing, testing and contact tracing, electoral experts agree that we can make voting safe and inclusive.  Steps such as  expanding mail in balloting, lengthening the time for early voting, making online voter registration easy and accessible, and designing polling locations in November that will allow for social distancing and the safety of poll workers are all necessary and possible. There is no shortage of good detailed plans out there.

So given the federal failures across all levels of planning and implementation during this global pandemic, leadership for averting this democratic crisis is coming from governors and states, and not the federal government.  Moreover, it is coming from both Democratic and Republican Governors, and from a recent bi-partisan report.   It is fortuitous that states control election laws, and many are taking important steps to avoid the COVID-19 democratic crisis that looms before us.  Though the first stimulus bill included $400 million for states to invest in their electoral systems, most experts agree that we need  nearly $4 billion to get us ready for elections in November. Let the feds provide the money and get out of the way so we can avoid yet another COVID-19 related crisis. It is not too early to start learning from our mistakes.


Reflection on Student Productivity and Angst

the zoom notebooks




David MalonePurpose, meaning, hope, productivity, happiness, success, stillness, present moment, future, ethical, inequitable, authenticity, ambition, hope, individual, communal– I have heard these words spoken by my students more often in the last few weeks than ever before as a college professor. Words perhaps now being used as a result of being thrust into a way of living that most of us are unaccustomed to — sitting still with ourselves.

More time and place for simply “being” – now that there is less opportunity for “doing.” And just “being” – as it turns out – can be a little scary and unsettling.

Particularly for young people whose entire lives up to this point may have been ones of “doing.”

A colleague emails me “In conversations I’ve had, students have talked about still using their planners to block out what they will do and accomplish even when it’s things like “take a walk,” “learn to knit,” or “read.” Makes me realize just how much this is a generation of kids scheduled since birth with play dates, sports, Gymboree, or whatever. Without the artificial organization of such things, it doesn’t feel quite right to them. Now they’re missing a sense of purpose in the absence of ticking off what they are supposed to do.” Clinging to certain notions of productivity and perpetual doing.

My students almost invariably frame these words as binaries – two competing ways of being in relational juxtaposition. Success versus happiness. Authenticity versus ambition. Individual achievement versus responsibilities to the communal collective. Driven versus laid back. Being fully present in the moment versus living in a strategically planned future. Even over Zoom I can see their minds processing binaries – I can feel their uncertainty and angst.

One student writes privately in the Zoom Chat: “What I’m struggling with most now is determining what values are most important to me: success or relationships. Which version of me will become happier and self-fulfilled? The authentic person with a soft heart, or the callous successful ambitious robot? Can a person have both?”

From my own Zoom square I try to tell my students that the present moment can be much more than the space between what was and what will be. I quote Abraham Maslow, “the ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.” They aren’t so sure. This is lost, wasted, unproductive time they say.

Over Zoom, we collectively grapple – attempting to make space for the wonderful possibilities that may exist between, outside, and otherwise. This exercise provokes uncertainty and anxiety amongst us all – yet we feel a certain hope and joy as we share feelings and thoughts – and sit together in stillness. Learning as Audre Lorde wrote – ways of “being” more fully in our “doing.”

In trust, COVID-19 and Native America

Last week the New York Times published an article with the headline “Virus Rips through Navajo Nation.” Someone asked me to write a brief response. I said yes and regretted it immediately. What could I possibly say?

I was reminded of Hayden Carruth’s poem “On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam”—a poem in which Carruth refuses to write a poem against the war because he has written other poems against other wars

David Tooleand not one
breath was restored
to one

shattered throat
mans womans or childs
not one not

but death went on and on
never looking aside

except now and then
with a furtive half-smile
to make sure I was noticing.

– Hayden Carruth


Wendell Berry once said of this poem that it seemed to be a response to a problem: “Why do something that you suspect, with reason, will do no good? It is impossible not to see that the poet, in the act of refusing to write a poem against the war, has written one.” Trying to make sense of what Carruth had done, Berry said: “There is a world of difference between the person who, believing that there is no use, says so to himself or to no one, and the person who says it out loud to someone else. A person who marks his trail into despair remembers hope—and thus has hope, even if only a little.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) defines a federal Indian reservation as “land held in trust by the United States for various Indian tribes and individuals.” By the BIA’s count, “there are approximately 326 Indian land areas in the U.S. administered as federal Indian reservations.” I worry about that word approximately. I wonder if it is a Freudian slip—letting us know by mistake that the federal government has lost track of exactly what it holds in trust for the native peoples of this continent.

After the arrival of the first Europeans on the continent in the sixteenth century, diseases like smallpox routinely wiped out indigenous communities. That history adds crushing weight to the arrival of COVID-19 in Native America.

The other day my wife had the New York Times spread out on the dining room table. She was looking at a color-coded map of the United States that showed county-level data for confirmed cases of COVID-19. The darker the color, the higher percentage of cases as a percent of the local population. The darkest colors congregated mostly on the coasts in big urban centers, but there were some exceptions in unlikely places. My wife pointed to one and asked, “What’s that?” I replied, “probably an Indian reservation.”

That was my reply because, at a glance, the map looked alarmingly similar to two other maps: the U.S. Health Map and the map of the Social Vulnerability Index (SVI). The SVI is an estimate of how vulnerable a community is to “a natural disaster like a tornado or disease outbreak.” The scale is 0 to 1. The closer a community comes to a score of 1, the higher their vulnerability.

On the U.S. Health Map, the darkest location in the country is Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota, home to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where life expectancy is 66.81 years. A click on the dark blue of the same county on the SVI map reveals an index of .9908. In Pennington County, the next county to the north, life expectancy is 80.43 years and the SVI is .4011.

Thankfully, Oglala Lakota County does not, at the moment, show up as a dark color on the COVID-19 map, but that’s not the case for Navajo County, Arizona, which overlaps the Navajo, Hopi, and White Mountain Apache reservations. A jump to the SVI map for Navajo County shows an index of .9946.

Yesterday when Dr. Deborah Birx was explaining the Trump administration’s guidelines for phasing back into life beyond COVID-19, she stopped to call attention to a specific bullet on one slide. The bullet concerned sentinel surveillance. As the WHO explains, “data collected in a well-designed sentinel system can be used to signal trends, identify outbreaks, and monitor the burden of disease in a community.” Dr. Birx said specifically that the goal moving forward was to establish sentinel surveillance in “communities of particular vulnerability,” including “throughout indigenous populations.”

Maps showing the location of vulnerable communities are readily available. But I worry, because the location of vulnerable communities has never been a mystery. In fact, the SVI is the work of the CDC itself. So why is COVID-19 now ripping through the Navajo Nation?

I worry about that word approximately. I worry that, just now, death glanced my way with a furtive half-smile.

Clean Hands? Scrupulosity and COVID-19

Jesse SummersSometimes we do what is right because it’s right, and sometimes it’s because we’re anxious about doing anything wrong. For those people with scrupulosity, a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that focuses on moral or religious issues, they might do the right thing, but they do it to soothe their anxiety. They are excessively concerned about how any action, however small, could make them a sinner.

One thing we’ve learned during the COVID-19 pandemic is how much more carefully we should have been washing our hands and avoiding others when we or they are sick. Maybe we’ll all start carrying alcohol wipes and hand sanitizer and stop shaking hands. We have already come to look at ourselves and each other differently. We see our hands and “high touchpoint” surfaces as disease carriers and imagine the ways that germs might be inadvertently transmitted.

These ways of looking at the world are exactly how someone with an anxiety disorder sees it. Someone with hand-washing OCD is led by their anxiety that their hands, if not washed thoroughly and repeatedly, could transmit disease. They’re not wrong about this possibility, just as the person with scrupulosity isn’t wrong that the smallest action could have moral consequences. The problem is that those with anxiety disorders are too worried about these possibilities. But if the rest of us weren’t worried enough, then how will we survive this pandemic without developing hand-washing OCD or any other anxiety disorder?

Psychologists distinguish anxiety from fear. Fear is what we feel about a specific danger. I felt fear about the snake in my path on the Al Buehler trail. Anxiety is what we feel when there’s no specific danger: anxiety is what I felt every time I ran past that same spot for the next couple of months. Anxiety is what I feel sitting in my house now wondering about the future.

Anxiety can be valuable. It puts a person on high alert, which focuses their attention on what they need to do to avoid some potential threat. That’s especially helpful when we don’t know or understand much about the threat we’re facing. But anxiety isn’t always proportionate to the danger, and it can survive long after a threat is gone.

For most of us, anxiety responds to reassurance: if I’ve washed my hands thoroughly for 20 seconds, then I feel reassured that my hands are clean enough to touch food and most other things and not to think about them again for a while. But it’s possible that I missed a spot when I was washing. And it’s possible that this piece of paper I’m touching now was touched by a box that was touched by a delivery person 3 days ago who was possibly sick, and the virus just possibly survived that long. It’s unlikely, but it’s possible!

The path from normal anxiety to an anxiety disorder walks alongside these possibilities. As we come to demand more reassurance, we also find more elaborate explanations of how each reassurance might possibly be wrong.

So the test for whether we’re too worried isn’t whether there could be a danger—there are dangers, and we’ll now be more attentive to them. The test, though, is whether we’re responding to the actual threat or to our anxiety about it. Put another way, we should ask why we’re worried and then see what kind of answer we give ourselves. If we’re worried by the virus, then we should be able to identify what kind of reassurance would make that anxiety diminish. If nothing short of living in a bubble seems to diminish it, then our anxiety will have taken on a dangerous life of its own.

Jesse Summers’ book Clean Hands?: Philosophical Reflections on Scrupulosity (with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong) is available from Oxford University Press.
Read more about it here.