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Sonia Shah: “It’s Time to Tell a New Story About Coronavirus — Our Lives Depend on It”

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The United States hit an all-time high of 75,600 new COVID cases Thursday — the largest number recorded in a single day since the pandemic began. Top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci says the spike in cases resulted from states rushing to reopen their economies. We speak with investigative journalist Sonia Shah about the government’s failed response, the false idea that the virus is a “foreign incursion,” and “vaccine nationalism.” In her latest piece for The Nation magazine, she argues, “It’s Time to Tell a New Story About Coronavirus — Our Lives Depend on It.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. The Quarantine Report. The United States hit an all-time high of 75,600 new COVID cases Thursday, the largest number recorded in a single day since the pandemic began. And that number is expected to be much higher, as it’s increasingly difficult now to get tests across the country. In some places, in Texas and Arizona and other states, the lines are hours and hours long. Texas and Florida hit record COVID-19 daily death tolls Thursday, joining Alabama, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, South Carolina and Utah, which all saw their highest number of dead in a single day this week.

As the U.S. spirals into a disaster that public health experts warn could get much worse in the fall, half of the states in the country have now issued mask mandates. But some Republican leaders are continuing to fight the basic public health measure. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp suspended local mask requirements this week and has sued the city of Atlanta and its mayor, Mayor Bottoms, for its mask mandate. President Trump has repeatedly refused to wear a mask, as he did when he landed in Atlanta this week.

A University of Washington model predicts near-universal mask wearing could save up to 28,000 lives in the U.S. before October 1st. Top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said Thursday the spike in coronavirus cases resulted from states rushing to reopen their economies, and that the economy will continue to suffer unless the virus is brought under control through simple measures like mask-wearing, avoiding crowds, and practicing social distancing.

Despite this, President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are continuing to push schools to reopen in person in the fall. This is the White House press secretary speaking at the White House.

PRESS SECRETARY KAYLEIGH McENANY: You know, the president has said unmistakably that he wants schools to open. And I was just in the Oval talking to him about that. And when he says open, he means open in full, kids being able to attend each and every day at their school. The science should not stand in the way of this.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Sonia Shah, investigative journalist and the author of Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond and The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move. Her new piece for The Nation is headlined “It’s Time to Tell a New Story About Coronavirus — Our Lives Depend on It.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Sonia Shah. What is that new story that must be told?

SONIA SHAH: Well, I think the way we think about infectious diseases, like COVID-19, is as if they are a foreign incursion that we have to repel sort of with military might and weaponry. But, in fact, we’re not passive victims of these things. There’s a lot of human agency involved in the infectious disease process. And I think we need to start talking about COVID-19 and other infectious diseases as the social and political phenomenon that they also are.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about that. Further elaborate on what you think is the real crisis here, and that even finding a vaccine is not going to cure that catastrophe we’re facing.

SONIA SHAH: Right. So, the way we talk about the disease, you know, that is what propels our policy responses. So, if we think of it as a foreign incursion, then we want to do things like close the borders or control people’s movements who are unwanted people’s movements, and we want to create these weapons — vaccines and drugs.

And, you know, that might work for older diseases that we already had under control, but when you have a brand-new disease like this one — and we’re already seeing this — you cannot make a drug or vaccine fast enough to protect people from the first wave. And the first wave is the most deadly wave, because that’s when we have no immunity at all. And so, we’re seeing the effect of that now.

Instead of spending — you know, we should have been spending way more time and resources prioritizing collective actions, which we’re having so much difficulty doing now, sort of after the fact. After we’ve had these huge outbreaks and we have so much virus around, now we’re trying to talk about, “Well, maybe we should wear masks. Maybe we should stay home. Maybe we should close restaurants.” We should have been doing that early on.

And I think if we had told a different story about this pathogen, that it is a social phenomenon, that it is within our ability to arrest its spread by changing our behavior through cooperative actions together, I think we might have been in a different place.

AMY GOODMAN: Some might say that the best vaccine for the coronavirus is Medicare for All, is healthcare for all. Can you fit the disparities, the racial disparities in who lives and who dies, who gets sick and who doesn’t, into that?

SONIA SHAH: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. I mean, I think when we spend — you know, if we look at where we’re spending our resources as a nation, where we’re spending our attention, it’s very much into this market-driven, proprietary vaccine development and drug development. And that serves certain interests, of course. Those companies are going to, you know, make a lot of money, get a lot of glory for creating a vaccine.

And of course the vaccine will help us, if we actually ever get one, but the people who can wait for the vaccine have privileges, right? There’s a lot of people who can’t wait for a vaccine. We need to do collective actions and behavior changes now. And we need everyone on board. So we need to build that trust up again and to think of this disease as something that is within our power. We are not the passive victims that we blame other people for — right? — that they’re bringing it to us, and we need to keep them out, or we need to have weapons to destroy the microbes in their bodies.

We need to think of it as something — you know, all these microbes, they have no independent locomotion. They rely entirely on us to spread from one person to the next. So, even if you have the introduction of a deadly pathogen in a community — and we’ve seen this over time historically — you may not have an epidemic if behaviors don’t sustain it. So, these are things that we have to — we have to rethink what our role is in the disease process.

AMY GOODMAN: Sonia Shah, give us a history lesson. Take us back through the contagions, from 1832, the cholera outbreak in 1832, and come to the present.

SONIA SHAH: So, when cholera first emerged in the 1800s, it was like COVID-19 today — brand-new disease, no one had ever seen anything like it. It tore across the world. It started in South Asia, moved up into Europe and then across into North America. And it was carried through contaminated water. People in New York, physicians, collected data showing very clearly that cholera was coming down the Hudson River, it was coming down the Erie Canal and was heading straight for New York City. But commercial interests at the time said, “Well, we cannot quarantine the waterways, because that would be too disruptive to trade.” And so public health interventions never included any quarantines of the waterways. So, that was part of the resistance to controlling the disease, was just it was too costly to the economy.

But the other part of it was that it wasn’t the way they understood the disease. The way they understood diseases at that time was that contagious diseases were carried in the air, that these were carried by miasmas, these smelly clouds of gas, that if you inhaled them, that that’s what would make you sick. So, rather than quarantining the waterways, people did things like string up sides of beef to soak up the cholera vapors, or they burned barrels of tar to repel the miasmas. In the city of London, people would install flush toilets, you know, what they called water closets, not because they wanted to get rid of human waste and contain human waste, which was in fact contaminated with cholera, but because they wanted to get rid of the smells. And so, since they didn’t care about the contents of their privies and outhouses, they dumped all of that human waste into their drinking water, into the River Thames. And after every cholera outbreak, they actually installed more flush toilets to dump more human waste into the rivers and their drinking water, rather than less, and so they probably made cholera a lot worse. And so, we had these cholera outbreaks continuing for nearly a century, over the 19th century, and thousands and thousands of people died, of course.

AMY GOODMAN: And then talk about how society has dealt with, for example, Zika and Ebola, and how COVID-19 is different from those pandemics.

SONIA SHAH: Well, Zika and Ebola never really became full-on —

AMY GOODMAN: Epidemics.

SONIA SHAH: — pandemics, of course, but as outbreaks, you know, those are much more — have been much more containable. But I think, you know, it’s the same approach, where we look for drugs and vaccines rather than looking at the deep root causes, which are human-driven.

All of these things are coming out of wildlife and animals. All of these microbes live in animals and wildlife and are harmless in those environments. So we think of them as invading us, but what’s really happening is we’re invading their territory. So, when we invade wildlife habitat, we destroy where the bats roost. And so, they don’t just go away. They come and live in our farms and backyards instead. And that facilitates all kinds of novel, intimate contact between wildlife and human bodies, whether it’s wildlife trade or bushmeat hunting or wet markets or, you know, casual contact, any number of those things.

We are not getting at those root causes. And so, since 1940, we’ve had hundreds of these new pathogens emerge, whether it’s Ebola in West Africa, where it had never been seen before, Zika in the Americas, where it had never been seen before, or this new coronavirus. And so, this is a drip, drip, drip of new pathogens that are emerging. And, you know, the underlying reasons are because of the way we’re interacting with the environment and with nature. These are things that are under our control, so we need to start talking about it that way rather than casting ourselves as sort of the passive victims of these foreign, invading germs.

AMY GOODMAN: People, in many cases, are learning the word “zoonotic” disease for the first time, the spillover, the jumping from animals to humans. If you could explain that further, just what you were talking about?

SONIA SHAH: So, about 60% of the new pathogens that we’ve been seeing since 1940 originate in the bodies of animals. About 70% of them originate in the bodies of wild animals. Those are not microbes that cause disease in those creatures. So, just like we have lots of microbes that live in our bodies; they don’t make us sick. You know, we have things in our guts, and they don’t make us sick. They actually are beneficial to us.

So, those microbes are living in animals’ bodies. When we come into novel, intimate contact with those animals — say, for example, if there’s bat excreta around and your kid is playing near a tree and gets a little bit of bat poo on their hands and puts their hand in their mouth, the microbes that live inside the bat’s body then enter the human body. If that happens again and again often enough, that microbe will start to adapt to the human body. And like every other living thing, when it finds a new territory to exploit, it starts to thrive. It starts to adapt and evolve to colonize that new environment.

And so that’s how these new pathogens are being born. We are creating these bridges between wild — between the bodies of wild animals and our own bodies, because we’re destroying so much of the habitat where they live in. So, instead of these animals living in far-off places where they don’t encounter us very much, we are cutting down the forests and paving over the wetlands where they would normally live, and instead they’re coming and living in our farms and gardens and backyards instead — those that don’t go extinct, of course.

AMY GOODMAN: With the climate crisis contributing — the climate crisis contributing to this.

SONIA SHAH: Yes. Well, because of the climate crisis, we also have wild animals moving in all new — in all different places, right? We have 80% of wild species are on the move right now, moving into the heights and towards the poles And so, they are encountering new human populations as they move into new places. And those movements, of course, are life-saving for them, but it just adds to these collisions between humans, microbes and animals. And that is the process that brings us new diseases.

AMY GOODMAN: Sonia Shah, before we end, I wanted to get into what you think are some solutions. For example, explain the concept of One Health.

SONIA SHAH: So, One Health is a concept in public health circles, and as a theoretical construct, it’s gotten a lot of purchase. The idea is that human health is not just the absence of pathogens or the absence of certain kinds of sicknesses. Human health is connected to the health of our livestock, the health of our wildlife and the health of our ecosystems.

And so, if we think of human health that way, then it’s not just an issue for biomedical experts. It’s not just an issue for drug companies to come up with new medicines and new vaccines for us. What we have to do to create good health is to make sure that our livestock are healthy, to make sure that our wildlife is healthy and to make sure our ecosystems are healthy. So that’s the idea of One Health.

And [inaudible] operationalized on a kind of a low level. There’s a lot more we can do to make the One Health approach more common, but it’s starting, so it’s there. And I think this is something that is [inaudible] promise, as we move into this new era, seeing a lot more of these emerging [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: You know, in our headlines today, we covered the story of the U.K., Canada and the United States saying that Russia is trying to hack the vaccine research that’s being done in different countries. I was wondering — and, of course, Russia is denying this. If you can talk about vaccine nationalism? Instead of sharing knowledge to cure the world, countries are racing to be the first to make the vaccine and then get a monopoly on it. We just spoke to Dr. Ali Khan, who is a former CDC official and now dean of the school at University of Nebraska. And he just tweeted that if all of this were open-source, then you wouldn’t have the time spent on these accusations.

SONIA SHAH: Absolutely. I think he’s absolutely right. It needs to be open-source. And this goes back to the whole way we think about diseases as a problem of foreign invasion. You know, it really lends itself to these nationalistic kind of enterprises, saying, “Well, we need to come up with our own thing to protect our people with our weapon,” instead of — but what we would have already seen is the only thing that is helping in this last six months is international solidarity.

It’s the fact that we understand so much about the disease because scientists in China and Europe and elsewhere have been sharing data with other scientists around the world. That’s what is actually helping us understand: How does this thing spread from one person to another? How much pathogen do you need to have an infectious dose? Do masks really work? Does hand washing really work? All of these things we’re learning because of international solidarity across borders, these international scientific collaborations, which are really unheard of. You know, it’s unprecedented, the amount of collaboration that’s happening across borders right now.

And that’s what we need to support, moving forward. This whole idea of a vaccine search that’s funded through taxpayer dollars, to a large extent, and yet being capitalized and creating — you know, that we’re creating proprietary products instead, is going in the absolute wrong direction.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s a front-page piece in The New York Times today, “Unproven Firm Got $1.6 Billion to Find a Cure,” for vaccine research. But this issue of where the money goes and where the money could be better spent makes me think about Jonas Salk, who refused to make the polio vaccine — let it be trademarked. He said it must be free to all.

SONIA SHAH: Yeah, absolutely. And I think the other part of it, Amy, is that we have put a lot of faith and stock into vaccine development. And I think, you know, if you look at the history of our viral threats, our microbial threats, there’s been very few that we’ve been able to control or even eradicate through vaccines. There’s only been one that we’ve actually ever eradicated through a vaccine, and that was smallpox. And that was actually — the smallpox vaccine was not based on a proprietary, high-tech process. It was based on a folk remedy that had been developed for hundreds of years in Asia and Africa.

So, you know, this idea that we can very rapidly produce this product and it’s going to save us all, I think, is a little bit exaggerated, when you really consider the whole history of how vaccines have been able to control contagious diseases. In almost all the big diseases we’ve encountered in our history, whether it’s cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, etc., it’s been behavior change that has saved us from them. It’s been housing reform and social reform, sanitary reform, clean water, all of those things — hard-won social changes that actually build us out of the contagious way of life.

AMY GOODMAN: Sonia Shah, I want to thank you for being with us, and end with the exact quote of Jonas Salk. He was asked by Ed Murrow, “Who owns this patent?” Salk replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” he asked.

Sonia Shah, science investigative journalist, author of Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, as well as The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move. We’ll link to your latest article published in The Nation. It’s headlined “It’s Time to Tell a New Story About Coronavirus — Our Lives Depend on It.”

When we come back, the Center for Disease Control says unhoused people living in encampments should be allowed to remain there, which will help stop the spread of COVID-19. We’ll go to Philadelphia. Stay with us.

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