Saturday, February 27, 2021


 “Where can we hide in fair weather, we orphans of the storm?” ~ Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited


I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
for anarchy
and I am waiting
for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for the Second Coming
and I am waiting
for a religious revival
to sweep thru the state of Arizona
and I am waiting
for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored
and I am waiting
for them to prove
that God is really American
and I am waiting
to see God on television
piped onto church altars
if only they can find
the right channel
to tune in on
and I am waiting
for the Last Supper to be served again
with a strange new appetizer
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for my number to be called
and I am waiting
for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting
for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth
without taxes
and I am waiting
for forests and animals
to reclaim the earth as theirs
and I am waiting
for a way to be devised
to destroy all nationalisms
without killing anybody
and I am waiting
for linnets and planets to fall like rain
and I am waiting for lovers and weepers
to lie down together again
in a new rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for the Great Divide to be crossed
and I am anxiously waiting
for the secret of eternal life to be discovered
by an obscure general practitioner
and I am waiting
for the storms of life
to be over
and I am waiting
to set sail for happiness
and I am waiting
for a reconstructed Mayflower
to reach America
with its picture story and tv rights
sold in advance to the natives
and I am waiting
for the lost music to sound again
in the Lost Continent
in a new rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for the day
that maketh all things clear
and I am awaiting retribution
for what America did
to Tom Sawyer
and I am waiting
for Alice in Wonderland
to retransmit to me
her total dream of innocence
and I am waiting
for Childe Roland to come
to the final darkest tower
and I am waiting
for Aphrodite
to grow live arms
at a final disarmament conference
in a new rebirth of wonder
I am waiting
to get some intimations
of immortality
by recollecting my early childhood
and I am waiting
for the green mornings to come again
youth’s dumb green fields come back again
and I am waiting
for some strains of unpremeditated art
to shake my typewriter
and I am waiting to write
the great indelible poem
and I am waiting
for the last long careless rapture
and I am perpetually waiting
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn
to catch each other up at last
and embrace
and I am awaiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder

~ Lawrence  Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind


We are all waiting for so many of these things (by the way, how long have we been waiting for nuclear disarmament? Or for the change to the metric system?)

Or for the end of nationalism and tribalism of all sorts, and the bigotry they breed . . . 

I am waiting
for a way to be devised
to destroy all nationalisms
without killing anybody

Predictably perhaps, I especially like the waiting to see God on TV if only they can find the right channel. Even now some people talk about tuning in to the right vibrations, the right frequency. They’ve been talking about the divine frequency for  how many decades now?

And of course I adore "I am waiting
to get some intimations
of immortality
by recollecting my early childhood"

~ that totally wrong-headed poem with some glorious lines.

I love the reference to the Grecian Ode as well . . . It's fitting that it comes toward the end of this glorious rant.

"The withering away of all governments" reminds me of a history lesson when we were studying something written by Marx, or at least a summary thereof, and first heart the prophecy of the "withering away of the State." The thirty-some of us burst out laughing, then quickly stifled the laughter, realizing it wasn't safe to show we intuitively knew how absurd this idea was, and not even just in a dictatorship, but of course especially so.

Coney Island, 1918. Ferlinghetti was born in 1919.



~ “His program (as quoted on the back of his book) is ‘to get poetry out of the inner esthetic sanctum and out of the classroom into the street’ He puts it most honestly in his verse: ‘I am a social climber/climbing downward/And the descent is difficult.’ For like many writers who keep pointing to their bare feet, Ferlinghetti is a very bookish boy: his hipster verse frequently hangs on a literary reference. His book is a grab bag of undergraduate musings about love and art, much hackneyed satire of American life, and some real and wry perceptions of it: ‘I am in line/for a top job./I may be moving on/to Detroit./I am only temporarily/a tie salesman.'” ~ Harvey Shapiro, The New York Times, September 7, 1958

“Like the best books of its generation, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind has lost none of its luster over time. It is also bracingly superior to a lot of poetry it has influenced. 

It is not news that A Coney Island of the Mind is the work of a gifted man who has faced the abyss and refused to be overcome by what must not be denied. Art, truth and citizenship – of country, of world, of the individual and collective spirit – are in need of each other with an ongoing urgency. And make no mistake. The classic poem ‘Christ Climbed Down’ can still be used as legitimate prayer, and as a reminder of how, at their best, his followers have always been unsettling.

‘I contain multitudes,’ Whitman famously declared. Ferlinghetti’s expansive reach in his own early work has rightly been considered equally liberating. For 50 years, he has bestowed permission to ‘goose statues’ and to do whatever else it takes to move life and letters toward a more humane, celebratory place.

Ferlinghetti is a tonic for a world thirsting for the loving outrage and energetic reverence that helped reignite and sustain the enterprise of bard-fueled citizenship. A Coney Island of the Mind was, is, and always will be, a necessary joy.” ~ Barbara Berman, The San Francisco Chronicle, April 7, 2008

“As a social phenomenon Coney Island of the Mind is truly remarkable. With roughly a million copies in print, few poetry collections come anywhere close to matching its readership. Raw sales, though, only tell part of the story. Along with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Ferlinghetti’s classic helped lay the artistic foundation for the counterculture movements of the 50s, 60s and beyond, to the point where even today it’s a standard entry point for many wishing to explore the serious literary underground.

But it’s far more that just a cultural signpost. The reason Coney Island of the Mind has held up so well is that it also marks the first full flowering of Ferlinghetti’s considerable poetic gifts. Employing open elastic lines that often seesaw across the page, Ferlinghetti’s verse is a unique combination of Whitmanesque proclamation and Dionysian celebration, where a deep love for life and art is interlaced with call for the human race to finally begin living up to its potential. ~ Rob Woodard, The Guardian, August 19, 2008

“I first found Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind while an undergraduate, finding the wry attacks on the established order refreshing and invigorating. Ferlinghetti protests and rages against the madness of the nuclear age, against the misuse of religion and politics to enslave humanity, and against the colossal indifference that allows all this to happen. He pronounces: ‘Christ climbed down/from His bare Tree/this year/and ran away to where/there were no rootless Christmas trees/hung with candycanes and breakable stars.’ Ferlinghetti aches for a return to the sources, while at the same time deconstructing those sources in a humorous and graceful fashion.

But Ferlinghetti goes beyond the deconstruction of literary antecedents. At first lines like ‘Let us arise and go now/to the Isle of Manisfree’ seem like parody or ridicule. But as layers upon layers of literature are laid down, the names and phrases disappear into the music of the poetry. A strange harmony takes shape between the jesting of jazz and the classical forms it plays upon. ‘Manisfree’ is more than a parody of Yeats’ actual place name ‘Innisfree;’ it demonstrates a new sensibility within the form of earlier work. ~ Eric D. Lehman, Empty Mirror, January 27, 2012

~ Longings I didn't know I had suddenly sprung to life: Mine was the heart Ferlinghetti described as a foolish fish cast up and gasping for love "in a blather of asphalt and delay." I wanted to be robust, uninhibited and wide open to the world like the dog trotting "freely in the street... touching and tasting and testing everything.”

When I left the store, I may still have been the middle-class kid I was, diffident, self-conscious and too eager to please. But from then on, I was inwardly transformed. I lived a secret life in the poetry I went on to read — and in the poems I began to write. On the page, I undermined the rules I lived by off the page. I dreamed of the world Ferlinghetti invited me to enter, a world of impulse and imagination where lovers went " the profound lasciviousness of spring in an algebra of lyricism.” ~ Alan Shapiro, 2012


Ferlinghetti and Bukowski — whatever our take on their blasphemies against the middle-class values, and our quite reasonable awareness that there is a dark, self-destructive side to the supposedly lyrical anarchy of the counterculture — these two have been cultural giants who are not going away. They remind us that humans are far from rational, and must find an outlet for their wilder side or else they become insufferably bored and boring. They are the “return of the repressed,” as  Freud would put it (horrified as Freud would be at their trying to dispense with “civilization  and its discontents”).

The ancient sages counseled moderation in all things. But poetry needs passion, even madness. And while most poetry is melancholy (“an unending funeral” ~ Billy Collins), now and then it’s refreshing to see it take off like a wild horse. When life feels monotonous, the best of the likes of Bukowski and Ferlinghetti can feel like taking off too tight clothes so we can breathe again.


~ Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, was not surprised [by complaints of zoom fatigue]. He had spent more than two decades studying the ways virtual communication affects individuals, and he quickly penned an editorial suggesting the unique fatigue that accompanies a day of videoconferencing could be due to a kind of non-verbal-cue overload that occurs when one substitutes virtual platforms for in-person interactions.


The first cause for Zoom Fatigue suggested by Bailenson is the state of stressed hyper-arousal generated by excessive stretches of close-up eye contact. Unlike an in-person meeting, where participants will shift from looking at a speaker to other activities, such as note taking, on Zoom everyone is always staring at everyone.

The anxiety generated by a number of faces staring at you can be likened to the stresses of public speaking but amplified to a degree regardless of who is talking. Bailenson explains, from a perceptual standpoint, Zoom turns every participant on a call into a constant speaker smothered with eye gaze.

Another factor at play compounding the stress of constant eye gaze can be the size of faces on your monitor. Landmark research from cultural anthropologist Edward Hall in the 1960s suggested interpersonal distance fundamentally influences emotion and behavior.

Summarizing Hall’s work for the digital age, Bailenson says a person’s intimate space spans a radius of about 60 cm (23 in). Interactions inside this space are generally reserved for family or intimate friends, but depending on your monitor size and Zoom settings, large faces of strangers can often be presented in close proximity.

The short-term solutions to mitigate these issues are to reduce the size of your videoconferencing window, and try to move away from your computer monitor. The goal, Bailenson notes, is to increase the personal space between yourself and other Zoom participant’s faces.


The additional mental resources needed to interpret video cues means it takes more cognitive work to communicate.

Bailenson says the constant barrage of complex non-verbal cues, both being sent and received, during a Zoom interaction can be a major influence on the novel sense of fatigue generated by the technology. He suggests long Zoom meetings should require audio-only breaks, to help relieve the cognitive load of video interactions.

“This is not simply you turning off your camera to take a break from having to be nonverbally active, but also turning your body away from the screen,” explains Bailenson, “so that for a few minutes you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless.”


“Imagine in the physical workplace, for the entirety of an 8-hr workday, an assistant followed you around with a handheld mirror, and for every single task you did and every conversation you had, they made sure you could see your own face in that mirror,” Bailenson writes.

Perhaps the strangest part of modern videoconferencing is one’s reflection constantly staring back from the screen. For decades researchers have investigated the effect seeing oneself in a mirror has on prosocial behavior and self-evaluation.

In general this body of work suggests there may be a small negative affect generated by intensive mirror image viewing, and this is potentially underpinned by the way a reflection of oneself amplifies critical self-evaluation. But Bailenson points out this particular factor is perhaps the most profoundly understudied aspect of videoconferencing as most prior mirror-image research has only focused on the influence of seeing oneself for short periods of time.
So what's the solution? The answer is as simple as hiding the view of yourself during a Zoom call. Bailenson also recommends the platforms should not make the view of oneself a default option during video calls. Once you have sorted yourself in your frame, close your self-view window.


Twenty-five years ago author David Foster Wallace’s epic novel Infinite Jest presented a stark picture of a future world. Among the novel’s many prescient observations, Wallace imagined a world where videophones were only popular for about a year.

Wallace suggested people would quickly revert back to audio-only communication once the novelty of video-calls had worn off. He figured one of the strengths of audio-only communication was how it enabled people to enter a fugue-like state where they wandered around doing other minor tasks while talking.

“A traditional aural-only conversation […] let you enter a kind of highway-hypnotic semi-attentive fugue: while conversing, you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles, compose phone-pad haiku, stir things on the stove; you could even carry on a whole separate additional sign-language-and-exaggerated-facial-expression type of conversation with people right there in the room with you, all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone. 

And yet – and this was the retrospectively marvelous part – even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided,” Wallace imagined back in 1996.

Bailenson points out a growing body of research is finding movement can improve cognitive performance. One recent study, for example, found walking on a treadmill can enhance creative divergent thinking compared to sitting.

Even in conventional face-to-face meetings people tend to move about the room, stand while presenting information, or pace around while thinking of new ideas. Zoom meetings, of course, can remove all of these locomotive factors and in some cases this can lead to less efficient meeting outcomes.

Here Bailenson suggests the medium a meeting is conducted in should be closely considered. Does every meeting need to be via Zoom? Is there a benefit to certain interactions moving back to audio-only platforms?

For meetings that need to take place on Zoom, Bailenson recommends creating more distance between oneself and the camera. This can be achieved through the use of an external camera, separate from a computer, generating personal distance that allows for one to move about a room.

* *

Bailenson is frank in pointing out many of his conclusions in this new study are entirely hypothetical. But that is part of the point he is trying to make. Over the last year hundreds of millions of people have, on a massive scale, embraced a profoundly new form of communication. And we need to do the research to understand what potential negative effects there may be, and how we can be optimizing our use of this technology.

“While [these arguments] are based on previous research findings, almost none of them have been directly tested,” Bailenson concludes. “It is my hope that others will see many research opportunities here, and will run studies that test these ideas.” ~


All of this sounds plausible. I think introverts are hit hardest. I can’t stand talking to someone with TV or radio playing on — especially TV. Introverts tend to augment stimuli, so they are easily overwhelmed by excess.

But I was especially struck by the point about seeing your own face. I survived only one (sic)  zoom session, but that was the part that felt the most unnatural, creating self-consciousness. For me, writing is the most comfortable means of communication — I can concentrate on it without worrying what I'm wearing or if the background behind me is attractive. And of course there is the luxury of deleting and revising, though on the whole writing prose feels spontaneous and liberating to me. 

Email is best, but sometimes I feel like more social interaction with someone pleasant. A friend and I occasionally schedule “phone visits” — and yes, it’s a hit of oxytocin. But this reminds me that many people prefer to socialize with a pet — the affection is so pure and simple, without the kind of cognitive complexity that we have to process when we socialize with humans. Not that the shouldn’t socialize with humans — it’s a good cognitive workout that keeps dementia away.  But no zoom for me — that’s overload. 

(By the way, it’s so interesting that David Foster Wallace predicted that video phones would not be the kind of hit that sci-fi writers commonly envisioned. Now we see that with iPhones, many people prefer to text rather than have an audio interaction.)

(A shameless digression: Talking on the phone — audio only — reminds me of the good old Sundays in church before Vatican 2. Basically, the mass was the priest's business. You could sink into reverie while Latin washed over the heads of the inattentive faithful. You could pray about your personal concerns. One of my aunts had a French dictionary which she disguised as a prayer book, and used the time to study French.)


My own experience with Zoom meetings has been mostly positive, a chance to see and hear and share work with others when local readings are not possible, and no travel is involved.  The hardest and most distracting thing for me was exactly as stated facing my own image on the screen for so much time.

 First, I was stunned to see that I was my grandmother!! Looking so much, and sounding so much like her, it was startling...that constant image is much different from seeing your own image in a mirror. For one thing, our mirror encounters are fairly brief, making ourselves presentable, checking hair etc. It's not a prolonged and steady gaze.  Seeing yourself on screen is distracting, it seems to interfere with attention directed to what you want to see and hear beside yourself . It takes more concentration to focus on what else is going on, to listen closely, for instance. I found myself wanting to close my eyes to concentrate on the speaking voices without distraction--then thought oh no, it will look funny for others to see me here with closed eyes, they'll think I'm bored and dozing off!!! And I found it almost impossible to listen with attention and also comment..although that may be something that gets easier with time.

And another thought, on movement being conducive to thought..I find composing poetry infinitely easier when walking, driving, or riding in a rises up and carries me along..The movement is like a guided meditation, focusing attention while allowing ideas the freedom to flow without check or interference.


“When I was 15, I spent a month working on an archeological dig. I was talking to one of the archeologists one day during our lunch break and he asked those kinds of “getting to know you” questions you ask young people: Do you play sports? What’s your favorite subject? And I told him, no I don’t play any sports. I do theater, I’m in choir, I play the violin and piano, I used to take art classes.

And he went WOW. That’s amazing! And I said, “Oh no, but I’m not any good at ANY of them.”
And he said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: “I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.”

And that honestly changed my life. Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could “Win” at them.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut


Of course one needn’t be a chef to enjoy cooking, or an  artistic genius in order to “dabble in art” the way a child rejoices in blobs of color. As someone famously countered an old proverb, if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing even badly.

At the same time, there is no denying that having a lot of skill at an activity can make it rewarding in a way that is beyond an amateur’s grasp. It’s worth it to choose one activity for mastery — and also to do something like gardening just for relaxation and variety. Or, to get away from the achievement aspect entirely, to spend time with a cat or dog. Talk about being  instantly “in the now”! Animals are our great Zen teachers.  

"It's always so early in here, before the crossroads, before the irrevocable choices. Thank you for this life! Still I miss the alternatives. The sketches, all of them, want to become real.” ~ Tomas Transtromer


For me, now, “it’s always so late here” — after the choices, or the irrevocable lack thereof (no one would choose to be past a certain age, and with a handicap). It’s too late for depression — that was a life-saving insight. But it’s also too late for some things I really wanted to do; I feel a strong need to make the best of the skills already gained, to build on the foundations I have laid. Regrets about the unlived alternatives? Yes, a certain melancholy at times — but basically it’s also too late for regrets.

“Nothing to do but stretch out comfortably on the rack, in the blissful knowledge you are nobody for all eternity.” ~ Beckett

Fearlessness is what love seeks. Love as craving is determined by its goal, and this goal is freedom from fear. ~  Hannah Arendt

Shelley’s grave, Roma, Italia, Cimiterio Acattlolico


~ Writing from prison in the 1930s, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci dubbed our modern economic system Fordism—invoking the system of automotive production developed by Henry Ford. On the factory floor, Fordism described the powerful synthesis of scientific management and the moving assembly line, which revolutionized industrial production. Applied to the economy, the term captured Ford’s move to higher pay for his workers—the famous $5-a-day wage—that enabled them to buy the cars they produced. At a broader societal level, Fordism catalyzed the shift to a mass suburbanized society.

As Ford himself once put it: “We shall solve the city problem by leaving the city.” The car enabled the American suburban dream, prompting the relocation of the middle class, industry, and business from the city. In doing so, it helped shape the relatively short-lived era of post-World War II prosperity and the rise of a stable, blue-collar middle class, stoking economic demand for the products coming off the country’s assembly lines.

But today, the car plays a central role in worsening America’s social, political, and economic divides.

This can be seen in a simple statistical-correlation analysis by my colleague and frequent collaborator Charlotta Mellander. Mellander ran correlations for the share of workers who drive their cars to work alone, along with three other types of commuting: taking transit to work; walking to work; and biking to work. She compared these to certain key features of our economic and political geography, including income, education, and occupational class; population size and density; and political affiliation and voting.

As usual, I point out that correlation in no way infers causation, but simply points to associations between variables. (All of the correlations reported below are statistically significant.)

She found sharp differences between metropolitan areas where a high share of people drive their cars alone to work and those where greater shares of people take transit, walk, or bike there. These are especially striking in the light of the fact that an overwhelming share of Americans—85 percent of us—drive alone to our jobs. Also, car dependence encompasses both liberals and conservatives: 73 percent of independents, 86 percent of Republicans, and more than three-quarters of Democrats say that they depend on their cars to get to work.
The key is not individuals’ car use, but the way we sort into communities based on our reliance on cars.

For one, the geography of car use tracks with income and wealth: Car-dependent places are considerably less affluent. Metros in which a higher share of people depend on their cars to get to work are poorer, and those where more people use transit or bike or walk to work are considerably more affluent. The share of commuters who drive to work alone is negatively correlated with both wages and income. Conversely, in more affluent metros, a higher proportion of commuters use transit, walk, or bike.

America’s geography of car dependence also reflects differences in the kinds of work we do. Car dependence is a feature of working-class metros, while metros with higher concentrations of knowledge workers and the creative class have much higher shares of people who use transit or walk or bike to work.

We see the same basic pattern where we look at metros that are knowledge and tech hubs. Driving to work alone is negatively associated with the innovativeness of metros (measured as patents per capita), whereas the share of commuters who use transit or bike or walk to work is positively associated with innovation. 

America is an increasingly polarized and politically divided nation, and the car both reflects and reinforces those divisions. Car-dependent places are much more likely to have voted for Trump in 2016. Although the associations are stronger for Trump votes, the same basic pattern holds for Romney votes in 2012. On the flip side, metros that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2012 have much higher shares of commuters who use transit or walk or bike to work. 

Of course, voting patterns differ based on the size and density of places as well as their educational and class composition. It is well-known that Trump took the presidency by winning smaller and medium-sized places and rural areas, whereas Hillary Clinton took America’s largest, densest, and most productive areas. Car dependence is negatively associated with the size and density of metros. People in larger, denser urban areas are more likely to commute to work by transit or bike or walk (although the correlation between population and biking to work is statistically insignificant).

All of this raises the question: How exactly does this geography of car dependence work to divide us? 

The detailed historical research by Stanford political scientist Clayton Nall offers some clues. Nall’s work shows how road infrastructure that has promoted car use—and in particular America’s massive investment in the federal interstate highway system—played a profound role. 

The car and car-dominated infrastructure propelled suburbanization and white flight. They split our society into white, affluent suburbs and poor black and minority cities. The car shaped the rise of what Richard Nixon identified as a “silent majority” of suburban whites back in the late 1960s, and is a precursor to the suburban and rural backlash that lifted Donald Trump to victory in 2016. 

Nall has written that “Democrats and Republicans have adopted increasingly different positions on spatial policy issues such as transit and highways. Transportation infrastructure has been a necessary condition of large-scale suburban growth and partisan change, facilitating migration into rural areas that were previously unoccupied and inaccessible to metropolitan commuters and workers.” In other words, the car and the infrastructure that enables it had a huge influence on the disparities that vex us today. 

The car’s politically divisive role extends beyond America. It has helped shape the politics of my adopted hometown of Toronto. Indeed, dependence on the car was a key factor in whether or not someone voted for the city’s late, dysfunctional mayor Rob Ford. Ford singled out so-called “urban elites” for waging a “war on the car,” and promised supporters he would remove bike lanes to give more room on roads to drivers. According to detailed research by political scientist Zack Taylor, commuting to work by car and living in the suburbs (inside the city limits) were among the strongest factors in electoral support for Rob Ford. 

I’m not trying to blame the car for everything that’s wrong in America. But it is increasingly clear that in addition to wasted time and productivity, reduced quality of life, and even fatalities, the automobile takes another toll. It may be that cars are not only the chief destroyer of our communities, but are tearing at the nation’s political and social fabric. ~


The car has profoundly reshaped the world in multiple ways. The existence of the interstate system is one of its most obvious effects, an amazing achievement in itself, and one that shapes how we understand and experience the world. The system creates a web of connections  linking crucial points — large cities, hubs of population and industry. All the rest gets passed by in a blur of speed, accessible only if you go "off road," easily forgotten and eclipsed. All that's truly important is part of the network, the rest is like the "fly over" territory for air travel. Cars and the interstates make travel easy and fast, but only if you go where it takes you.

Car ownership or accessibility has also become essential for employment. The places we live are usually not in walking, (or biking) distance convenient enough for a daily commute. Not having a car can preclude employment for many, especially if public transit is inadequate or the way cars have reshaped the landscape makes good public transport essential in population hubs. In really dense, large cities, like New York, a car can actually become a liability (traffic, parking!!) — but that is an exception.

Owning a car is also much more of a financial burden now than it was for Ford's assembly line workers. Cars are the second most expensive item on any list, after housing. So expensive financing times have kept increasing so that buyers can cope with the payments, with the result that many are never without a monthly car payment. By the time it's paid off the car my be only worth replacing — because cars don't last, aren't built to last, especially now, though some "vintage" cars were much better built and functioned much longer.

A demonstration of how cars have defined our  perceptions is that on long journeys, passing individual or small groups of houses "in the middle of nowhere" I was always puzzled, wondering "But where do they work?? What do they do??”


Yes, I’ve often asked myself that question when passing a  house in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps they are farmers, or perhaps they don’t need to work, thanks to an independent income. But then what do they do? Just watch TV? Somehow I don’t see them as taking long walks —  that’s completely un-American. That’s why you need a  car.  

But the typical car is indeed a commuter’s car — and some people around here are willing to commute to work more than an hour each day, since housing near the work place is unaffordable. And yes, a car is horribly expensive — and dangerous (40,000 fatalities a year), and polluting, and requiring sprawling parking lots, and more. And think of gigantic traffic jams that are seen as completely  normal. How did we fall into this trap? Is there any way out?

Human population WILL fall, but you and I won’t be around to see it — another disturbing thing  to contemplate. The one thing that cheers me up is that my next car will be electric.

This already is a divide, though a minor one at this point: people who already own electric vehicles, and those driving the old gas-burning dinosaurs. But eventually, eventually . . . 



~ A Republican senator, Mitt Romney, joined Democrats this month in supporting an idea: a monthly child allowance for parents. One reason, he said, was to increase the number of births.

Family policies have lots of goals, including decreasing child poverty, helping parents manage work and family, and improving children’s health and education. But would a child allowance increase fertility?

Research from around the world suggests that, like other fertility policies, payments to parents do slightly increase the number of babies people have in the near term. But no move has made a major long-term difference, and payments are not as effective as other policies, particularly subsidized child care.

The proposed payments also raise another question: whether encouraging people to have more children should be a policy goal in the first place.

“Much better, more effective and better for human rights is to create conditions that allow people to control their fertility, and have children if they want to,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist studying demographics at the University of Maryland.

Government benefits to encourage women to have children, known as pronatalist policies, are common in other rich countries, where the birthrate began falling well before it did in the United States, around 2008. Governments worry about declining fertility for many reasons; for one, they count on the next generation to finance the safety net and provide the caregivers, inventors and public servants of the future.

The birthrate in the United States fell in part because of large decreases in births among two groups: teenage and Hispanic women. The Great Recession also contributed to the fertility decline — births have sunk below replacement level since then, and there are indications that the pandemic may decrease fertility further. American women are also waiting longer to have babies.

There are many reasons. Would-be parents face challenges like the rising cost of child care, record student debt, a lack of family-friendly policies, workplace discrimination against mothers and concerns about climate change and political unrest. At the same time, women have more options for their lives than ever and more control over their reproduction. As countries become wealthier, and as women have more opportunities, fertility rates decline, data shows.

The problem, social scientists say, is if would-be parents are not having babies they want because society has made it too hard, too expensive and too solitary a job. This is called unmet fertility, and financial concerns are a driving factor.

“The framework I prefer is about reproductive autonomy,” said Sarah Cowan, a sociologist studying fertility at New York University. The concern, she said, is if people who want children cannot have them because they cannot afford to: “That’s an inequality that I can’t abide.”
This is where family policies can help, including child allowances. Research from other countries shows that direct payments lead to a slight increase in birthrates — at least at first. In Spain, for instance, a child allowance led to a 3 percent increase in birthrates; when it was canceled, birthrates dropped 6 percent. The benefit seems to encourage women to have children earlier, but not necessarily to have more of them — so even if it increases fertility in a given year, it doesn’t have large effects over a generation.

In addition to the international evidence, there is data on the effect of direct payments on parents in the United States. Alaskans get a payment each year, based on oil revenues. Because it varies annually and increases with the number of children, researchers have been able to examine its effect on fertility. Payments increased fertility, their studies have shown. A study that covered the years 1984 to 2010 found the increase was bigger for some groups: Alaskan Natives; those without college degrees; and unmarried women.

“These groups had economic barriers to enacting their fertility goals, and this cash somehow was enough,” said Kiara Douds, a doctoral candidate in sociology at New York University who wrote the study with Professor Cowan.

Some countries have focused their policies on encouraging larger families, largely as a way to fend off immigration, a strategy common among right-wing populists. Hungary has given women who have at least four children a lifelong exemption from personal income tax; provided free fertility treatments; and subsidized cars with seven or more seats for families of three or more children, among other measures.

President Biden has proposed a monthly child allowance for a year, to help get families through the pandemic, while Mr. Romney’s plan would keep going. Experts say it would be more durable and effective to pursue a full package of policies that support families.

“Cash now might help cushion the immediate decline associated with this crisis, but I think health care, child care, housing and job support would all matter more,” Professor Cohen said.

Public child care is the only policy that has been shown to increase fertility in a lasting way, research shows, especially if its quality is high, and if it’s available for children of all ages and covers a range of work hours. Parental leave helps if it’s paid, and if it’s not too long (otherwise it can end up making it harder for parents to keep up at work). So can policies that decrease obstacles to having babies: things like subsidizing fertility treatments, education and housing.

Long work hours, especially in countries where men work 45 hours or more a week on average, are associated with decreases in fertility. So are work cultures that make it difficult to work part time, or to increase or decrease hours as family responsibilities change.

France, which has among the higher birthrates in Europe, has policies focused on improving the well-being of both children and parents. The policies include family allowances; tax breaks for families; housing assistance; public child care; and 35-hour workweeks.

Japan has put in place many family policies to try to reverse sharp population declines. But they have been offset by other factors, including long, rigid work hours and strict gender roles.
Single policy measures are unlikely to increase fertility, especially when they are modeled on the outdated assumptions about families and gender roles,”according to the Wittgenstein Center, a research group in Vienna that studies population dynamics, in a paper for the United Nations Population Fund.

“Policies should respond to diverse needs of the population and not to the ideological beliefs of the policymakers,” they wrote.

In the United States, Democrats have generally been more supportive than Republicans of publicly funded family policies, seeing them as ways to decrease child poverty, recognize the value of parents’ unpaid labor and help women continue to work after becoming mothers.
Recently, some Republicans have argued that the party should do more to support families, but they have long tended to disagree on how much or whether mothers should be working. A child allowance appeals to them because it subsidizes families — regardless of whether mothers work — and gives parents freedom in how to spend it.

The United States is a challenging place to raise children, as the pandemic has made painfully clear. Family policies are unlikely to do much in the way of significantly increasing fertility. But they could provide parents with relief, and make for a more family-friendly society. ~


Remember when some thought it was “selfish” and even “irresponsible” to have children? Now all that “population bomb” thinking has shifted to worry about the low birthrate, especially when it comes to educated women — some of whom wouldn’t have a baby if you gave them a million dollars.

But maybe not. Come to think of it, if you had that extra money, you could always hire a nanny, or pay for expensive daycare. It’s the chores of rearing children without help that are the deterrent. Mothers who have plenty of help from in-laws and/or other sources aren’t as stressed and exhausted. The availability of quality childcare has already emerged as the crucial factor.

My take-away here: "payments are not as effective as other policies, particularly subsidized child care." 

Yet few seem to know this fact. Ignorance rules, and it's not bliss.

Picasso: Woman in Mauve Beret, 1937. Are we perhaps too much into the pleasures of art and other grown-up pursuits to be willing to sacrifice them for the duties of parenthood? But with enough help, could we perhaps have the best of both worlds?



~ Upon entering a psychology laboratory, you and a small group of other participants are tasked with matching a line to one of three other lines of varying lengths. Participants are asked in succession to state aloud which of these line segments have the same length. Sometimes the others’ choices are the same as yours. But occasionally they all seem to agree with each other but not with you.

When it’s your turn to voice your judgments, do you go along with your peers, or stick with your initial assessment?

It could depend a great deal on where you are from.

This experimental task, which has fascinated psychologists and undergraduates alike since the mid-20th Century, shows that an important fraction of people will conform to the inaccurate responses of their peers. This occurs even when the judgement is easy: when people are alone or answer first in a group, they give the correct answers more than 98% of the time.

Such findings raise two questions. First, despite entering the textbooks as how “people” think, nearly all studies examining this effect were conducted among US students. Yet social commentators, going back to at least Alexis De Tocqueville, have noted that Americans are particularly individualistic and independent. So, are Americans good psychological representatives of Homo sapiens more broadly, as the textbooks imply? Second, why was this result so striking to both researchers and their students?

To tackle the first question, researchers in the 1990s analyzed studies using the experiment described above – known as the Asch Conformity Task – from 17 different countries. They found that the participants from the US hold down the low end of the global conformity distribution. While students in places like France and North America go along with their peers about 20% of the time, those in Ghana and Fiji support their peers about half the time. Other populations, including students from Japan, Hong Kong and Lebanon, fall somewhere in between.

Research lead by the cognitive scientists Jennifer Clegg, Nicole Wen and Cristine Legare at the University of Texas, Austin, further illuminates these patterns and may help explain why conformity was so eyebrow-raising to psychologists. The research team had adults in both the US and Vanuatu, in the South Pacific, watch two videos of children making a necklace. In both videos, the child first watched a demonstrator make a necklace, then were given a chance to make their own. However, in one of the videos, the child assembled a necklace that precisely matched the one made by the demonstrator in its bead colors and sequence. In the other, the child produced a necklace with a different sequence of colored beads.

When asked which child was “smarter”, 88% of adults in Vanuatu pointed to the “conformer”, compared to only 19% of US respondents. When asked why they selected the non-conformers as “smarter”, the adults in the US explained that the child was “creative”.

When asked who was better behaved, 78% of adults in Vanuatu thought the conformer was better behaved while less than half (44%) of US respondents felt similarly. Instead, most Americans (56%) thought the conforming and non-conforming children were equally well-behaved.

This underlines the fact that calling someone a “conformist” is a compliment in many places, but not in the US.

Conformity, however, is not some idiosyncratic case of cultural difference, but represents the tip of a psychological iceberg. The database that dominates our understanding of human psychology derives primarily – approximately 95% of it in fact – from populations that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (Weird), and these Weird populations turn out to be distinct in many ways.

Unlike much of the world today – and most people who have ever lived – Weird people are highly individualistic, self-obsessed, guilt-ridden and analytical in their thinking style. They focus on themselves – their attributes, accomplishments and aspirations – over relationships and roles. When reasoning, Weird people tend to look for abstract categories with which to organize the world. They simplify complex phenomena by breaking them down into discrete elements and assigning properties – whether by imagining types of particles, pathogens or personalities.

Despite their seeming self-obsession, Weird people tend to stick to impartial rules and can be quite trusting, fair and cooperative toward strangers. Emotionally, Weird people are relatively shameless, less constrained by the eyes of others, but often wracked by guilt as they fail to live up to their own self-imposed standards.

Where did these psychological differences come from and why are European populations, along with their cultural descendants in places like North America, at the extreme end of these global distributions?

A growing body of research traces these psychological differences to the structure of families – what anthropologists call kin-based institutions. This work suggests that our minds calibrate and adapt to the social worlds we encounter while growing up. Until recently, most societies have been undergirded by intensive kin-based institutions built around large extended families, clans, cousin marriage, polygamy and many other kinship norms that regulate and tighten social life. These institutions persist in many parts of the world today, especially in rural areas.

By contrast, many European populations have been dominated by monogamous nuclear families – a pattern labeled the “European Marriage Pattern” by historians – since at least the end of the Middle Ages.

Where did these psychological differences come from and why are European populations, along with their cultural descendants in places like North America, at the extreme end of these global distributions?

A growing body of research traces these psychological differences to the structure of families – what anthropologists call kin-based institutions. This work suggests that our minds calibrate and adapt to the social worlds we encounter while growing up. Until recently, most societies have been undergirded by intensive kin-based institutions built around large extended families, clans, cousin marriage, polygamy and many other kinship norms that regulate and tighten social life. These institutions persist in many parts of the world today, especially in rural areas.

By contrast, many European populations have been dominated by monogamous nuclear families – a pattern labeled the “European Marriage Pattern” by historians – since at least the end of the Middle Ages.

Testing this idea, analyses reveal that people from societies rooted in more intensive kin-based institutions show greater conformity, less individualism, more holistic thinking, fewer guilty experiences and less willingness to trust strangers. These patterns emerge whether we compare countries, regions within countries or second-generation immigrants from different backgrounds living in the same place. As the first and often the most important institution we humans encounter upon entering the world, the structure of our family networks plays a central role in explaining global psychological diversity.

But why do families organize themselves in such different ways across societies, and why were European families already peculiar by the end of the Middle Ages?

While the diversity of kin-based institutions found around the world has been influenced by many factors, the European Marriage Pattern traces primarily to a religious mutation. Beginning in late antiquity, the branch of Christianity that evolved into the Roman Catholic Church began to gradually promulgate a set of prohibitions and prescriptions related to marriage and the family. The Church, for example, banned cousin marriage, arranged marriage and polygamous marriage. Unlike other Christian sects, the Church slowly expanded the circle of “incestuous” relationships out to sixth cousins by the 11th Century.

Despite often facing stout resistance, this enterprise slowly dissolved the complex kin-based institutions of tribal Europe, leaving independent nuclear households as a cultural ideal and common pattern.

To test the idea that the medieval Church has shaped contemporary psychological variation, it is possible to exploit the unevenness of this historical process by tracking the diffusion of bishoprics across Europe from AD 500 to 1500. Analyses show that Europeans from regions that spent more centuries under the influence of the Church are today less inclined to conform, more individualistic and show greater trust and fairness towards strangers.

Globally, national populations with longer historical exposures to the Church not only show weaker kin-based institutions, but are psychologically “Weirder” today.

Most of us might prefer to think of ourselves as independent, rational thinkers. But how we think, feel and reason – including our inclinations toward conformity and preferences for analytical explanations – has been shaped by historical events, cultural heritages and incest taboos that stretch back centuries or even millennia.
Understanding how history has shaped our minds is part of exploring and embracing our diversity. ~


At times this article reads like a diluted version of an article I posted some time ago, one that effectively argued that the church was in fact against marriage and extolled virginity and celibacy as a virtue. Entering a monastery was seen as more holy by far than getting married. The power of the church could outweigh the power of the family.

But the special value of the current article lies in its first part: it demonstrates that Westerners are not as “collectivist” and less likely to conform as people from traditional cultures. 

It is perhaps a leap to say that breaking up family clans built on intermarriage led to non-conformist thinking. After all, the church required conformity to its own teachings. But that conformity received a severe blow at the time of the Reformation, when trying to comprehend the Scripture according to one’s own reason became acceptable. The Enlightenment and the progress of science dealt further blows. Most scholars see a connection between Protestantism and Western prosperity — though of course many other factors, such as affordable printed books, had to be present. 

Also, each family is different. Some manage to  be suffocating without being large. A balance needs to be struck between not enough connection and too much connection and consequent lack of solitude and privacy. That balance changes with age: first the constant need for mommy, then a desire to be free of mommy-pleasing and to strike out on one’s own. 

The newest factor is the impact of social media on connection and conformity. We are in the middle of a great experiment.



~ I called a friend in Mumbai, Shashank Joshi, who is a member of his state’s COVID-19 task force. “Our I.C.U.s are nearly empty,” he told me. Joshi is a doctor with seemingly infinite reserves of energy: a stethoscope perpetually dangling across his chest, he has spent the past several months carouseling among slums, hospitals, and government offices, coordinating the state’s response. Early last spring, when the first serious spread of COVID-19 was reported in India, Joshi jumped into action. Dharavi, in Mumbai, is Asia’s largest slum: a million residents live in shanties, some packed so closely together that they can hear their neighbors’ snores at night. When I visited it a few years ago, open drains were spilling water onto crowded lanes. (The next monsoon season, three young boys fell into the drains and died.) The tin roofs of the houses overlapped one another like fish scales; a roadside tap dripped a brown fluid that passed for potable water. When a toddler ran out from an open door onto the street, a neighbor caught him and lifted him up. Someone in the family—I counted six people in a single room, including an elderly couple—sent another child to retrieve him. In that episode alone, I later realized, I had witnessed at least nine one-on-one contacts.

After the pandemic was declared, last March, epidemiologists expected carnage in such areas. If the fatality rate from the “New York wave” of the pandemic were extrapolated, between three thousand and five thousand people would be expected to die in Dharavi. With Joshi’s help, Mumbai’s municipal government set up a field hospital with a couple of hundred beds, and doctors steeled themselves to working in shifts. Yet by mid-fall Dharavi had only a few hundred reported deaths—a tenth of what was expected—and the municipal government announced plans to pack up the field hospital there. By late December, reports of new deaths were infrequent.

I was struck by the contrast with my own hospital, in New York, where nurses and doctors were prepping I.C.U.s for a second wave of the pandemic. In Los Angeles, emergency rooms were filled with stretchers, the corridors crammed with patients straining to breathe, while ambulances carrying patients circled outside hospitals.

And there lies an epidemiological mystery. The usual trend of death from infectious diseases—malaria, typhoid, diphtheria, H.I.V.—follows a dismal pattern. Lower-income countries are hardest hit, with high-income countries the least affected. But if you look at the pattern of COVID-19 deaths reported per capita—deaths, not infections—Belgium, Italy, Spain, the United States, and the United Kingdom are among the worst off. The reported death rate in India, which has 1.3 billion people and a rickety, ad-hoc public-health infrastructure, is roughly a tenth of what it is in the United States. In Nigeria, with a population of some two hundred million, the reported death rate is less than a hundredth of the U.S. rate. Rich countries, with sophisticated health-care systems, seem to have suffered the worst ravages of the infection. Death rates in poorer countries—particularly in South Asia and large swaths of sub-Saharan Africa—appear curiously low. (South Africa, which accounts for most of sub-Saharan Africa’s reported COVID-19 deaths, is an important exception.)

As the pandemic engulfed the world during the past several months, I kept returning to the question of what might explain these discrepancies. It was an epidemiological whodunnit. Was the “demographic structure” of a population the real factor? Were the disparities exaggerated by undercounting, with shoddy reporting systems hiding the real toll from public-health analysts? Was government response a critical variable? Or were other, less obvious factors at play? Perhaps any analysis would prove premature. If new viral strains, such as the South African variant of the virus, known as 501Y.V2, were to sweep through Africa, every prediction of mortality might be overturned. But as I started speaking with colleagues from around the world I found that my puzzlement was widely shared. For many statisticians, virologists, and public-health experts, the regional disparities in COVID-19 mortality represent the greatest conundrum of the pandemic.

“However you might think of it, the mystery remains,” Mushfiq Mobarak, an economist at Yale who has helped research COVID-19 response strategies for developing nations, told me. “Tenfold differences, or one-hundredfold differences—these aren’t minor. You have to account for other factors. You can’t just wave the numbers off. It’s going to be a lesson for this pandemic and for every future pandemic.”

Mobarak, who grew up in Bangladesh (a hundred and sixty-three million people; eighty-three hundred reported COVID-19 deaths, or 3.5 per cent of America’s, on a per-capita basis), studies populations and health. When I asked him about the puzzle, he began with what everyone accepts is the most potent variable for COVID-19 severity: age. The median age in India is twenty-eight. In Spain and Italy, it’s forty-four and forty-seven, respectively. After the age of thirty, your chance of dying if you get COVID-19 doubles roughly every eight years.

[Yet] Mexico has a median age similar to India’s; the percentage of the population that’s over sixty-five is within a point or two of India’s. Yet India’s reported rate of COVID-19 deaths per capita is less than a tenth of Mexico’s.

So perhaps other populational features are significant. Take, for instance, the structure of an individual family and its living arrangements: who cohabitates with whom? Since the virus is often spread by close contact among family members—a grandchild infects a grandmother—we might want to know how often the elderly are found in multigenerational dwellings. As a rule, the higher a nation’s per-capita G.D.P., the smaller the household size of the elderly. In the United Kingdom, where the per-capita G.D.P. in 2019 was forty-two thousand dollars, the average household size is 2.3. In Benin, where the per-capita G.D.P. is twelve hundred dollars, the average household size is 5.2, and nearly a fifth of these households have at least one member above sixty-five.

Mobarak suspects that, in places like the United States, “the spatial distribution of the elderly” probably also matters. Around a third of the deaths in the United States have occurred among residents and staff of long-term nursing homes. How do you assess the relative risks of the “warehoused elderly” in the developed world and the “homebound elderly” in the developing world, where seventy- and eighty-year-olds often live with a handful of younger family members? Is the grandfather of the Orou family in Benin, sharing a home with children and grandchildren who go out and about in the city, more vulnerable than the Smith couple, seventy-five and eighty-two years old, who reside in an assisted-living facility in Long Island with dozens of other elderly people, attended to by a rotating crew of visiting nurses?

Ideally, we’d also take account of the average level of contact among individuals. In densely populated, highly social contexts—urban environments, with wet markets, shantytowns, or subways—that number is high; in rural environments, it tends to be low. The virus spreads more easily in crowded spaces.

The task, then, is to factor in both intrinsic vulnerabilities (such as age or obesity) and extrinsic vulnerabilities (the structures of households, the levels of interpersonal contact). And here you start to get a sense of the challenges that our medical mathematicians must contend with. There are trade-offs battling trade-offs: are the risks greater for a younger country with a larger family size but with infrequent social contacts or for an older country with a smaller family size but frequent contacts?

The epidemiologists with whom I spoke agreed that these variables were the important ones to factor in. Accordingly, amid the spring surge, researchers at Imperial College London enlisted these variables in building models of COVID-19 mortality—with options for dialing up or down the level of interpersonal contact and viral contagiousness, and generating a range of possible outcomes.

The models didn’t always provide a time period when these deaths would occur; perhaps the worst is yet to come. Still, for rich countries, deaths predicted by the model weren’t far from what we’ve seen, or, anyway, what we can now reasonably extrapolate. (The pandemic is far from over.) The surprise emerged when looking at South Asia and most of sub-Saharan Africa. The model—which, it should be emphasized, took age differences into account—appeared to be off, in most cases, by a staggering margin. Pakistan, with a population of two hundred and twenty million, was predicted to have as many as six hundred and fifty thousand deaths; it has so far reported twelve thousand. Côte d’Ivoire was predicted to have as many as fifty-two thousand deaths; by mid-February, a year after the pandemic reached the continent, it had reported under two hundred.

I called Abiola Fasina, an emergency-medicine physician in Lagos, Nigeria. In the early days of the pandemic, a prominent sponsor of public-health initiatives in Africa had envisaged “bodies out on the street” there. Between April and July, Fasina had run a field hospital and an isolation unit for COVID-19 patients. At first, she told me, “we were seventy or ninety per cent full. When I walked through those wards, I remember that the patients were mostly asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic. But as the pandemic continued patients mostly remained mildly symptomatic. It’s all quite mild over here.

I asked Fasina, who is also a health-policy expert, to look out her office window at the street life below. “You know, life goes on pretty normally,” she told me. “The markets are open. If you walk around the city, there are some people with masks and some without.” Watching a video of street life in Lagos, I had a similar impression. In December, 2020, as London entered another stringent lockdown, the storefronts on Lagos’s Nnamdi Azikiwe Street and Idumagbo Avenue were open. Carts shaded by brightly colored umbrellas were doing a brisk business. A woman carrying a basket on her head navigated gracefully past a man pushing a trolley full of gasoline canisters.

A policeman pulled a motorist over—because he was unmasked? No, because he was smoking, and in Lagos State it’s against the law to smoke while driving. Meanwhile, dozens of maskless people pushed past one another through shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrian traffic.

Lagos is many things, and it’s New York in Africa—activity on steroids,” Olajide Bello, a lawyer there, told me. “We practically all live cheek by jowl, with almost no green spaces.” The city, with fourteen million inhabitants, has returned to its usual chaos, Bello found. In late January, amid a new surge in COVID-19 infections, a national mask mandate was enacted, but enforcement has been spotty, and so has compliance.

Nigeria was predicted to have between two hundred thousand and four hundred and eighteen thousand COVID-19 deaths; the number reported in 2020 was under thirteen hundred. Ghana, with some thirty million residents, was predicted to see as many as seventy-five thousand deaths; the number reported in 2020 was a little more than three hundred. These numbers will grow as the pandemic continues. As was the case throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, however, the statistical discrepancy was of two orders of magnitude: even amid the recent surge, the anticipated devastation still hasn’t quite arrived. The field hospital that Fasina had helped set up in Lagos was packed up and shut down.


The data problem could be worse in some countries, better in others. We’d expect that the amount of undercounting would vary from place to place because public-health resources vary, too. Westerners often think of sub-Saharan Africa as an undifferentiated landscape of underdevelopment, but that’s far from the case. Zambia’s per-capita G.D.P. is just sixty per cent of Ghana’s or Nigeria’s. Burkina Faso’s is sixty per cent of Zambia’s.

What to do when you can’t take coroners’ reports at face value, assuming that you even have a coroner’s report? Public-health experts have a saying: “It’s hard to hide bodies.” So a surge of deaths under any description—“all-cause mortality”—might help us glimpse the true dimension of the problem.

What’s the story in India? I turned to Ajay Shah, a soft-spoken economist from New Delhi, who has performed a notably detailed analysis of deaths in India during the pandemic. Rather than relying on hospital data, Shah and his co-author, Renuka Sane, have used a longitudinal household survey, in which each household is assessed three times a year, to examine the number and the pattern of deaths. They found that the total number of “all cause” deaths reported between May and August almost doubled in India compared with the same period in each of the past five years.

“Is that because the number of COVID deaths in the country has been vastly underestimated?” I asked.

“It’s impossible to have a decisive answer,” Shah told me. “But the pattern of the excess deaths doesn’t really shout out COVID as the cause. It just doesn’t.” When his researchers analyzed the data by age, location, and gender, they found that excess deaths tended to be observed in younger cohorts, and in rural rather than in urban settings; nor was there evidence of the usual coronavirus skew toward greater lethality in men. “The telltale signatures of COVID just aren’t there,” he said. 

He won’t venture any hypotheses about the cause of the excess deaths. But among the possible candidates are indirect consequences of the pandemic: wage loss, displacement, malnourishment, forced migration, and disruptions in health care—the skipped clinic visit for malaria, diabetes, TB, or hypertension. According to World Health Organization analyses, disruptions in medical care and prevention programs related to malaria, TB, and H.I.V. will have cost many more lives in sub-Saharan Africa in the past year than the coronavirus. In poorer regions, especially, infection isn’t the only way that the pandemic can cost lives.

What if the storm simply hasn’t yet arrived in the countries reporting oddly low death rates from COVID-19? Patrick Walker, another Imperial College epidemiologist and modeler, cautioned, “There’s a time element that has not been built into the model. There have been waves after the first wave, and we still don’t know how many deaths each wave might carry.” It’s certainly true that, in much of the Global South, reported COVID-19 deaths have risen substantially this season. To what extent have low-mortality regions simply avoided exposure to the pandemic?

In July and August, the health economist Manoj Mohanan and a team of researchers set out to estimate the number of people who had been infected with the new coronavirus in Karnataka, a state of sixty-four million people in southwest India. Random sampling revealed that seroprevalence—the rate of individuals who test positive for antibodies—was around forty-five per cent, indicating that nearly half the population had been infected at some point. Findings from a government survey last year showed that thirteen per cent of the population was actively infected in September. A large-scale survey in New Delhi, according to a recent government report, found a seroprevalence level of fifty-six per cent, suggesting that about ten million of its residents had been infected.

It’s difficult to get seroprevalence numbers for Nigeria, say, but it’s far from a secluded enclave; in 2019, it had an estimated twelve thousand Chinese workers, and, in a typical year, millions of people fly in and out of the country and within it. “Oh, there is probably a lot of endemic COVID transmission going on over here,” Fasina, in Lagos, told me. “But we are just not seeing the extreme severity.” (Most African deaths, the W.H.O. finds, are associated with such risk factors as hypertension and Type 2 diabetes.) In Niger State, which is the largest in Nigeria and is situated in the middle of the country, a seroprevalence study conducted in June found an infection rate of twenty-five per cent, comparable to the worst-hit areas in the United States. Fasina expects that the rate in Lagos and its surroundings will be higher. Nearly a year after Nigeria confirmed its first infections from the new coronavirus, Niger State has reported fewer than twenty deaths. The country’s numbers are climbing—but they’ll need to grow exponentially in order to catch up with the models.

But what to make of the much discussed reports about how everyone in India started to wear masks this fall? My colleagues in India were doubtful about the reported level of compliance; they also noted that the recorded incidence of COVID-19 deaths in the country was creeping down almost as gradually as it had crept up, which didn’t signal an abrupt change in behavior. My mother (who is under strict instructions to wear a mask and maintain social distance) routinely sends me pictures of gatherings in Delhi with dozens of maskless minglers.

Government actions in Ghana may have been better than in some of its neighbors, but mask-wearing in crowded urban centers remains intermittent. I was told of a bill-payment center in Accra, Ghana’s capital, that, early in the pandemic, had mandated masks for entry. There weren’t a lot of masks around, so the bill payers who had queued up took to wearing a mask to enter the building, and then handed their (used) mask to the next person in line when they exited, treating the mask mandate like the dress code at New York’s Metropolitan Club—you put a “loaner” necktie on to get in, and hand it back for the next person to use when you leave. Yet New York City’s official COVID-19 death toll in December was almost three times as high as Ghana’s for all of 2020.


Part of the answer may have to do with how T cells recognize pathogens. It’s natural to think of our memory T cells as brandishing a criminal’s mug shot. But what they “remember” is more like the curve of a nostril, the shape of an ear—distinctive snippets of a larger protein picture. Now, suppose a former intruder’s much worse cousin shows up; it’s a fresh face, but it shares a family trait—maybe those batwing ears—that could alert at least some of the memory T cells. Could the novel coronavirus share such traits with previously circulating pathogens?
He told me about an island in Italy, Isola del Giglio, that, he thought, might have been swept by a respiratory infection a few years ago. “But, when COVID-19 came and swept through Italy, the Giglio islanders were all spared,” Sette said. “It may just be a story, but it makes you wonder whether one infection might protect you from another, perhaps via cross-reactive T cells.”

Ben McFarland, a structural immunologist at Seattle Pacific University, had some thoughts about the possible origins of cross-reactive T cells. Last spring, McFarland assigned his undergraduate students a project. “The university was under lockdown, so I had to think of something that the students could complete in their kitchens with the simplest of computer tools,” he recalled. “And I thought, Why not line up the sequences of all the proteins from the different coronaviruses—both from the ones that cause common colds and from SARS-CoV-2—and look for fragments that they might share?”

It was akin to putting a bunch of closely related criminals in a lineup—some relatively harmless, some murderous—and asking the students to find closely matching features: a distinctive chin cleft or ear shape. The results were suggestive. “The students found a number of peptides”—the building blocks of a protein—“that could possibly induce T-cell cross-reactivity,” McFarland told me. That novel coronavirus wasn’t entirely novel. Even if the T-cell reaction wasn’t strong enough to prevent an infection, he wondered whether it might diminish the severity of the disease.

Although the La Jolla researchers saw T cells in pre-pandemic blood samples which reacted to SARS-CoV-2, they didn’t find antibodies that did so. This wasn’t so surprising: they were looking only for a certain type of antibody, the “neutralizing” type that binds to a particular area of the spike protein. And, where T cells are guided by the equivalent of a flat snippet of a picture, antibodies typically attend to the full three-dimensional structure of a protein fragment. The antibodies are therefore more discriminating, less likely to fire in error—to be triggered by a criminal cousin.

If it turns out that certain previously circulating pathogens can indeed induce a helpful level of immunity, then the specific geography of their reach—possibly in Lagos and not in Los Angeles—could show up in geographical disparities in death rates during the current pandemic.

Shashank Joshi is among those who are inclined to credit the prior-immunity hypothesis, albeit tentatively. He told me that, in Mumbai, “there are plenty of infected older people living in crowded circumstances, such that we’d expect many hundreds or even thousands of deaths. But that’s nowhere close to what happened.” He made another observation: “In India, we’ve found that most people had really high levels of antibodies after an infection, and the levels don’t decay, even among the older people. They stay on for a long period.”

It reminded me of people who, having experienced chronic trauma, react to even the faintest trigger. Joshi was reluctant to speculate further about differences in immune reservoirs among populations: “It could be T cells, or it could be some other aspect of the immune response. But we are definitely seeing signs of it in India.”

Once you enter the zone of the plausible but unproven, other theories arise. Some researchers wonder whether the disparities are, in effect, dose-related. “I think one possible factor driving low deaths in India could be the low viral loads,” Mohanan ventured. He and his lab-testing partners had found unusually low virus levels in infected patients. He went on, “One possible explanation for low viral loads is the open-air ventilation, which is more common in warmer parts of the world. This ‘low-dose exposure’ hypothesis is also consistent with the huge share of asymptomatic infections we’ve seen in India.” Just as epidemiology calls for a truly detailed sense of a population’s demographic structure, it might benefit, too, from a more intimate understanding of a population’s immunological and socio-ecological profile.

What researchers have described to me as the pandemic’s most perplexing feature may turn out to be the epidemiological version of that mystery on the Orient Express: there’s no one culprit but many. With respect to the raw numbers, underreporting is an enormous problem; differences in age distribution, too, make a very deep cut, and perhaps the models must further calibrate their weightings here. Plainly, certain countries have benefited from the strength of their public-health systems, fortified by a vigorous government response. (Our country has suffered grievously from corresponding weaknesses.) In New Zealand, raising the drawbridges and stringently enforcing quarantines made all the difference. But to come to grips with the larger global pattern we have to look at a great many contributing factors—some cutting deeper than others, but all deserving attention.

Many officials are seeing a second wave decidedly worse than the first, as both the highly transmissible British variant and the South African one have started to crop up across the continent. Ghana recently suspended its parliament after an outbreak among members and staff. Throughout western, central, and eastern Africa, health officials hope that the mortality rates will stay relatively low, but know better than to assume that they will.

Dr. Joshi is still shuttling between hospitals and clinics in Mumbai, although, with a substantial proportion of the local population having already been infected, he expects that new cases will keep declining. ~


Yes, the answer is probably multifactorial. Yet nobody mentioned parasites. People in poor countries live not just with all kinds viruses and bacteria, but also with parasites. And parasites lower inflammation (they don’t want their host to die).

How come the bats that carry the coronavirus don’t get sick from it? Their immune system is such that they don’t develop high inflammation. And don't forget that wild rats can live in sewers. Pathogens of all kinds are just old friends. They don't provoke deadly inflammation.

The mortality rate for many diseases, including covid, roughly doubles for each decade of life. The prime suspect is again inflammation, which dramatically increases with aging. Chronic inflammation is involved in cognitive decline and all the diseases of aging. The presence of inflammatory compounds increases with age, interfering with energy production and thus the cells’ ability to defend themselves.

One of these compounds is the cytokine TNF-alpha (Tumor Necrosis Factor alpha). It is the target of extremely expensive (thousands of dollars per month) and toxic drugs such as Humira, Enbrel, or Remicade. Naturally, it would be splendid if a natural compound could be as effective without the side effects. The usual "alternative" answer is  curcumin (the active compound in turmeric) — but there is a huge catch. Most commercially sold curcumin is so poorly absorbed  that it’s worthless. Even adding piperine doesn’t solve the problem. 

Apparently only the relatively expensive liposomal curcumin does decrease inflammation, if we can trust mouse studies. Of course compared to the pharmaceuticals, that cost seems like nothing. And there are other foods and supplements that decrease inflammation. The older we get, the more we need  to keep the immune system in check (though it seems a losing war; I suspect the theory that it's our immune system that kills us in the end is correct).

So no, I don’t think we don’t need to ingest parasites to fight inflammation, as has actually been proposed by some scientists ("therapeutic helminths," anyone?) But let’s learn how parasites modulate the immune system (e.g. do they produce certain anti-inflammatory compounds?) We need to know how to lower inflammation in really effective ways. 


A higher inflammatory response is one of the consequences of obesity. This, too, may be a part of the  answer to the puzzle of why Covid has caused  more deaths in  some countries than others. Mexico, for instance, has a relatively young population and should have been hit no worse than India. But Mexico, and Latin American countries in general, have a higher rate of obesity. Obesity is known to be linked to both cardiovascular diseases and  respiratory diseases. It's not the whole answer,  but it's part of the answer.

ending on beauty: 

~ Of course, no story ever ends.

Our time on this Earth, in this Universe of ours, is merely a part of something greater, vast even.

One chapter may conclude but also surreptitiously merges with the next.

The story spans time and eternity so limitless that it makes us gasp for breath if we ever catch a glimpse of it. Whenever we think we have reached an ending it turns out to be just the taking in of breath in order to continue. We don't even know who the storyteller is because each of us lives our story and sees things happen through our own viewpoint... but that individual next to us is doing exactly the same thing and already the story is taking on different forms and the tapestry becomes more complex. And there are millions, billions like him. ~ Mieczyslaw  Kasprzyk