Anyone who has suffered and survived life-threatening sickness discerns the honest truth of the opening lines of Susan Sontag’s famous work, “Illness as Metaphor.”
"Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place."
First published in 1978, after Sontag underwent treatment for breast cancer, the series of three essays by the late social critic rigorously decouples the experience of being gravely ill – physical misery and aching loneliness – from the words routinely used to talk about it – often, language and rhetoric of the military -- which also serve to provide the well a measure of psychological distance from the diseased.
In the same way, as the U.S. begins to feel the first life-and-death impacts of Covid-19, coverage of the pandemic, a torrent of content disseminated by news organizations, social media and partisan political channels, overwhelmingly focuses on abstract matters, steps removed from the pandemic himself -- an endless flow of reports about medical and economic statistical trends, bail-out bills, scientific research into a vaccine and politicians talking.
Far less frequently do we witness moment-to-moment, real-life perspective of the deadly virus.
This is inevitable, in part, because of the nation’s body of law protecting the privacy of patients and medical information.
However, as the country suddenly confronts a debate that weighs the relative importance of health vs. wealth and lost lives vs. lost jobs, it is worth reflecting, while the vast majority of us are suffering no more than the inconvenience of social distancing, upon the stark difference between Donald Trump declaring himself a “wartime president” ostensibly fighting “an invisible enemy” -- and a frontline physician pleading for supplies because her emergency room is “a war zone.”
What a pandemic looks like. In recalling Sontag's thesis, we’ve curated some best-of-the-web content demonstrating the vast disparity between sickness as reality, and as metaphor.
Today, for example, the New York Times published a print and video package that makes the point profound and plain to see. The lede of the print and web story:
"In several hours on Tuesday, Dr. Ashley Bray performed chest compressions at Elmhurst Hospital Center on a woman in her 80s, a man in his 60s and a 38-year-old who reminded the doctor of her fiancé. All had tested positive for the coronavirus and had gone into cardiac arrest. All eventually died."
More powerful, and more heartbreaking, is a five-minute video of what is happening inside the hospital in Queens, N.Y. It features Dr. Colleen Smith, an ER doctor, who points out a refrigerated truck the hospital was forced to bring in to accommodate the number of dead bodies, describes having to “beg for ventilators” and explains that the acute shortage of N-95 masks requires she use only one on a 12-hour shift.
"It’s America and we’re supposed to be a first world country," Dr. Smith says in the video, which you can find here.
“I don’t really care if I get in trouble for speaking to the media. I want people to know that this is bad. People are dying. We don’t have the tools that we need in the emergency department and in the hospital to take care of them,” she adds, pausing to fight back tears, “and it’s really hard.”
The South China Morning Post has a large archive of video about the coronavirus, dating from the early days of the pandemic's discovery in Wuhan China. This one shows the inside of a hospital and gives voice to two nurses, who cry from exhaustion, grief and stress.
This report from “60 Minutes Australia” shows scenes inside an ICU at a hospital in Lombardy, Italy, and features an interview with the on-scene physician who coordinates the region’s response.
In another report from Italy, Sky News correspondent Stuart Ramsay got a camera inside the emergency room intake facility at a hospital, which was being used to treat critically ill patients for whom there was no room in the overflowing ICU.
CGTN, an international English language news channel that is owned and operated by China Central Television, produced several reports that show everyday scenes from hospitals called upon to treat numbers of Covid patients.
In this one, doctors struggle literally to save a life...
This demonstrates how seven doctors, nurses and attendants are needed simply to turn over a severely sick coronavirus patient in bed…
The Telegraph published a video from a 39-year old London woman, recovering but still in intensive care, who wanted to warn others to take precautions against the virus.
The Straits Times, an English-language news organization based in Singapore, interviewed an Italian doctor, who came out of retirement to treat virus-stricken patients, who says the most difficult thing for him is watching people, prohibited from having visitors, forced to die alone.
And the South China Morning Post showed the mass graves in Iran prepared for Covid victims.
Bottom line. No one yet knows, or can know, what the scope of the pandemic is in Santa Barbara County. The 26 cases confirmed to date represent a far from fully accurate, if not meaningless, expression of how widespread the virus is here.
Amid a national scandal over the scarcity of tests for coronavirus, it is believed that only about 500 tests so far have been administered locally, out of a county population of about 440,000, and an at-risk population -- seniors; folks with pre-existing conditions or compromised immune systems; doctors, nurses and other health care providers; first responders and other front-line workers; those in jail -- of about 50,000, not enough to understand the extent of Covid-19.
Stay home and stay safe.
Images: Cover illustration of "Illness as Metaphor"; Susan Sontag (brittanica.com).