Corona’s Distinctions – Numbers, Echo Chambers and Geographies

[Peer Zumbansen] Saturday/Sunday 11-12 April 2020


Maybe it begins with numbers. But, which? Which are relevant, important, more so than others? And what is one to do with them? Numbers don’t lie.

Not an hour, not a minute passes without more unsettling news, each time again from yet another corner of the world. Each time more eye opening and more devastating. The numbers are striking as they continue to ceaselessly and frantically add on and atop previous numbers before being chased away by yet newer, more recent numbers, all together moving as to a metronome on hyper drive. The numbers are overwhelming and unbearable. But, because we see them as signifiers, as indicators, as pointers, as truths, we try to slow them down, process them, unpack them. As we hear and read the numbers, we hope to be able to hold on to them in an effort to make sense of them and of what they stand for. But, how shall we retain them in an effective, let alone doable way in these accelerated, all-and-everything derailing moments of exploding information?

Numbers are and remain crucial in tearing through the noise of outright lies and placations that still accompany so much governmental and ideological emergency communication today. Numbers are also crucial when it comes to strange silences with regard to more or less ‘obvious’ stories that still don’t get picked up by the news, as discussed in a Twitter “thread” this weekend, which highlighted the difference in Covid-19 deaths in Ireland and the UK per 100,000 citizens. Numbers are used to draw a distinction between places, moments in time and events or constellations which are mapped across those axis. Numbers are also used to elevate someone or something from out of a maelstrom. While the waiting times for an ambulance in New York on March 25th, 2020 were reported to possibly take up to 4 hours with calls arriving every 15.5 seconds, we ‘learn on April 10, 2020 that a Covid-19 patient in the U.S. dies every 47 seconds. An April 2nd Bloomberg news story described scenes of 20 ambulances waiting outside a New York hospital’s emergency room’s (ER) reception to deliver their patients to the Emergency Medical Team (EMT). In the same report it said that “Fire Department officials on Thursday [2 April 2020] asked New Yorkers to call 911 only for true emergencies, after EMS responded to almost 6,000 calls the day before. Ambulances don’t provide testing for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and patients won’t be transported to a hospital to be tested upon request, officials said in a Twitter message.” Here is the ad that the FDNY had posted.

Numbers, priorities, distinctions. Infections, deaths, health care workers, ambulance drivers and emergency response personnel (EMT). Food delivery people on foot, on bikes and in cars, nurses in hospitals and nurses in ambulant, mobile care as well as elderly care providers are strained to the extreme. A paramedic in Manhattan compares the present time to September 11th and describes the psychological effect of the virus. Numbers, comparisons and distinctions are now all around us. Every news story begins and ends with numbers. Numbers are used to rationalize the irrational, to halt the rush and to subject the virus to analysis and scrutiny. Numbers are used to count. An organization called Worldometer, which states on its website that it is “trusted by the UK government, Johns Hopkins CSSE, the Government of Thailand, the Government of Pakistan, Financial Times, The New York Times, Business Insider, BBC and many others” and that its numbers have been “cited in more than 10,000,000 books”, reports at 7.01 a.m. Western Pacific Time on April 12, 2020 that there are 1,796,429 Coronavirus cases, 110,030 deaths and 412,102 recovered. At 9.17 a.m., those numbers were: 1,810,963, 112,226 and 415, 131, respectively. Numbers that point to but cannot explain the enormity and the complexity of what we are living now. Numbers don’t lie.

The function that numbers play is contested. In virtually every respect. What is counted, and who does the counting, how something is counted and how often. ICU beds, PPE equipment, morgue vacancies. Millions, Billions, Trillions in bail out and rescue packages. Days until ‘it’s over’. Weeks, months… Time stretches beyond a horizon, and numbers can’t contain its expansion. But despite all the pitfalls of trying to ‘put a number on it’, numbers can be reliable benchmarks and help build meaningful statistics. In all critical reporting, the use of numbers with regard to their origins and authorship, method of collecting and accounting, is considered crucial. What strikes me when I listen to the incredibly rich and detailed news podcast on Democracy Now! is that I want to hear the numbers, I want to understand them and what they stand for. This, my trust in numbers, might be naïve, it actually is, and I know that. But, right now, numbers seem to play an important role in the dethroning of half-truths and demagogy, especially in a context in which Government leaders, spokespersons and experts contradict each other at the same press briefings. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been the voice of reason and sobriety during the otherwise hyperbolic U.S. White House coronavirus briefings, has reportedly received death threats and been “issued with a security detail.”

Numbers help unpack the “rescue” bill for what it is and for whom. Numbers help in revealing what is unevenly distributed in terms of numbers of people infected (because there have been random, not robust tests) and numbers of people actually infected. Numbers help in comparing what private companies are or not doing for their employees. I find myself craving for numbers despite of how helpless they make me feel. But, they put things and circumstances, my own included, in perspective. I yearn for the numbers because I think they are one step, only one, in making us more aware of how little we understand this crisis and how little we actually know about who is affected – outside our little respective bubbles.

Echo chambers.

When I suggest to my students, who use Google etc for “research,” that they might try formulating complete questions, (hypothetical) statements, arguments or concepts, even instead of just keywords, and feed them into the algorithm universe, I make that suggestion out of the belief that ‘there are no stupid questions’ and that one shouldn’t or, rather, that one doesn’t actually start from nowhere, when asking a question or beginning a research project. One might as well try to package an intuition or however strong one’s belief or knowledge or suspicion about something is, into a question or an actual hypothesis to see what comes up. What helps with throwing such slightly more fleshed out or detailed questions or statements into the World Wide Web is, I think, the use of certain terms or key words that might further help in perhaps breaching some of the discursive borders and getting out of and beyond the algorithmically confined echo chambers in which we get trapped. Brexit was a tragic case study of such ‘online echo chambers’. We all know that in our online “research” (this is beginning to sound terrible, innit?) we are constantly being turned back onto ourselves as our self-indulgent, self-referential citation universes, which we have helped build and which are sustained by “recommendations” that continue to somehow ‘come out the blue’, keep us inside an in effect much smaller knowledge space than we would assume. We probably ‘know’ how we are always being re-routed to a specific and confined range of ‘sources’ that are linked to URLs and IP addresses in the “echo chamber geography” where we log onto the net, but we might just resort to sarcasm, which is in this case perhaps just another word for resignation. “Yeah, I know my phone is listening, but hey, what’re you gonna do?”

Numbers, then, can be important, while they are also so very unreliable. This is even more so the case when we see how numbers are being used to describe the development, the spread or the impact of the virus. So, the obsession with numbers might just be to rely on numbers in the midst of something that is so much bigger than something that can be grasped through such a counting category. It becomes obviously absurd in light of the irresolvable uncertainty that attaches to any effort to define the virus’ timelines, its causes and start and its overwhelmingly unpredictable ‘end’.

At this moment in time, numbers occupy and unsettle our thoughts, govern everything from organizing the smallest to the biggest task, demand priority in what we deem important and what we must attend to first – while we try to relate them to the stories of which they are a part. The numbers now disseminated through locally based news outlets – for example the existentially important NPR, APM and the ‘Democracy Now!’ podcast for reporting on New York and across the U.S. – are not in any way secondary or merely evidentiary material that accompanies an otherwise settled and coherent framework of analysis. Numbers drive that very effort of understanding. Numbers turn our attention to ever more places and reveal but glimpses of what is going on there ‘on the ground.’ The numbers are baffling, astounding, shocking, they are quite literally un-processable.

Numbers, then.

Numbers describe, perhaps structure much of the material we are trying to process. Numbers play a role in live recordings with ‘front line workers’, mostly in the health care sector, but also in reports from various large as well as tiny ‘assistance providers’ ranging from hand-made PPE materials to food and medicine delivery. The numbers keep changing momentarily and the stories are glimpses only on how life with the virus unfolds in the lives of real people, in their homes, their families, their villages, cities, and countries. This makes ‘keeping track’ so difficult.

News of the “U.S. overtaking Italy as country with most deaths” come on the heels of a report that there were 2,000 covid-19 related deaths in the U.S. “in one day” and, reportedly, one death in the U.S. every 47 seconds. How can we even relate to that number? Amy Goodman’s breathtaking podcast on “Democracy Now!” broadcasts live every day out of the “epicenter” of the pandemic in the U.S., and her reporting is riveting, eye opening, captivating, literally transformative. An almost unbearable enumeration of numbers and (other) facts makes up the bulk of the report, with interviews and other interventions interspersing. The facts, numbers and contributions that Goodman brings together and presents come from all across the United States and provide crucial insights into the present-moment experiences of those who are – literally – fighting with the virus to save lives. Her and her team’s reporting offers crucial glimpses on and insights into the devastation that neoliberal policies have wrought on the public sector and the effect such policies have been showing even before the current crisis began to unfold. Noam Chomsky’s hour-long interview with Goodman on Democracy Now reminds their listeners of the ‘indescribably destructive effects’ the reelection and continuation of the policies of the last four years would have after November.

Numbers are crucial in making sense of the pandemic in a global sense. National public radio in the U.S. is constituted and distributed by numerous local and super-local partner stations to combine both local and national as well as global reporting on the crisis. Through my already mentioned “tune in” App I am accessing different NPR stations in the U.S. every day as well as other news stations abroad. With 6.6M workers filing for unemployment in the U.S. the week of April 6-10, 2020 alone, that number has risen to almost 17M in three weeks. Generally excluded from much of the rescue package and relief programs are those temporary and un-documented workers while working in many of the industries most severely affected by Covid-related layoffs. The important Business & Human Rights Resource Centre reports on the greater effect the virus has on migrant workers all over the world. Harrowing news are reported from India where laid off migrant workers leave Delhi on foot for walks of hundreds of kilometers in an effort to return to their home villages. In the Phillippines, President Rodrigo Duterte threatens ‘leftists’ and issues “shoot them dead” orders with regard to lockdown violators. Meanwhile, we marvel at Taiwan.

Pre-Corona Destruction.

Adam Gaffney, writing in The Guardian already three weeks ago, on 21 March 2020 (two weeks before the launch of CoronaJournal), noted with regard to the U.S.’ struggle with battling the virus that “[t]his is not a healthcare system – it is atomized chaos. For again, in the American way of paying for healthcare, our hospitals (or increasingly, our multi-hospital systems) are silos, some rich and some poor, each fending for themselves, locked in market competition.” There, of course, have been and continue to be published more and more thoughtful engagements with the importance of the public sector and with the destabilizing if not outright destructive role that the subjection of public health to market competition and privatization has played. And, of course, there are also those who say that the market could fix it, if it weren’t hindered by regulatory ‘red tape.’ When thinking about the ‘before’ and the possible ‘after’ the pandemic, it will be crucial to distinguish between different accounts with regard to ‘causes’ and drivers of the current crisis. Despite being overwhelmed with numbers, information, pronouncements and outright clamor and noise, it remains and will be crucial to have a historically informed perspective and to investigate and engage different perspectives as to how the present moment came to be. Boa Santos wrote a few days ago, on April 6, 2020, that “[t]he pandemic lends a chaotic freedom to reality, and any attempt to capture it analytically is doomed to fail, because reality is always one step ahead of whatever we think or feel about it. To theorize or write about it is to lay our categories and our language on the edge of the abyss.” In his piece, he takes issue with Giorgio Agamben’s warning to use the virus as justification for pronouncing a state of exception and with Slavoj Žižek’s ‘dream’ of some form of global communism before restating his repeatedly voiced concern with placing thinkers on a pedestal, especially now. “[T]he time of vanguard intellectuals is over. Intellectuals must see themselves as rearguard intellectuals, must heed the needs and aspirations of ordinary citizens and find out how to use that as a foundation for their theories. Otherwise, citizens will be defenseless before those who alone can speak their language and understand their deep concerns.” Ralf Michaels, writing on April 7, 2020 in this journal, expressed a similar concern with regard to such attempts at “theory” at this time.


The idea of “making a distinction” arguably occupies a central place in critical thought. The ability to distinguish between A and B represents the power of (human) individuals and non-human institutions to draw lines, to create order and, certainly, hierarchies. Of course, machines, too, have long been entrusted in making distinctions as well, in selecting and, effectively, in including and excluding. In abstract, a distinction is just that, the identification of a difference or, not even, simply of a border between X and Y. In the abstract, it doesn’t seem to matter, what X and Y stand for respectively. The only important thing is the distinction itself. And, in that we probably include or just assume an ability to make the distinction and to – somehow – understand the result of that distinction – namely that X and Y are different. Somehow.

Distinctions are violent. They are existential, and they may actually concern life or death. In the over-crowded lecture halls in Cambridge, Massachusetts, students who had before been lucky in the draw to receive a ticket to attend Michael Sandel’s Lectures on Justice in person, learned to draw a distinction between saving 1 or 5 workers (listen up at 3min, 30 sec!) by directing a runaway rail trolley either this way or that way. The example which the class, both off- and online, was confronted with was harrowing yet abstract. It was hypothetical. An old trick, of sorts, but an extremely useful and compelling device to learn to think critically, to push oneself to really try out how a horrible thought “feels” and what it can do to you once it sinks in, becomes you. It is the combination of hypos and open eyes for their coming-to-life right before our eyes where we might learn to think to the edge. At some point, the distinction you thought of making with regard to ‘a hypo’ stays with you, and it not only becomes more difficult to just set it aside, but, instead, you see how you must try harder to be honest about what you think. That honesty is likely to cause extreme stress in having to make hard decisions about whether or not you shall allow something to “affect you.” But, this honesty in relation to what hypos really ‘are’, might make you perhaps more sensitive to how real they are.

In times of crisis, distinctions are among the most determinative forces. They matter instantaneously and in the long run, and, for sure, they are no longer hypotheticals. Firemen, or bystanders who run into a burning building on the slimmest chance of saving a stranger stuck on the top floor, nurses around the world or nurses like some of my evening students at law school this semester, who, two weeks before their exams, take on back-to-back shifts in Los Angeles hospitals while being compassionate with their exhausted colleagues, or citizens in Wisconsin, who waited in line for hours to cast a court-ordered “in person” vote on in the midst of an astonishingly public, yet not unprecedented, act of voter suppression on April 8, 2020 – all these are real people in real situations that involve real distinctions. Those who have to make them are well aware of the consequences of these distinctions and of their desperate choices.

A lot, but certainly not enough and not shared widely enough, of valuable reporting these days sheds some light on those who make those distinctions and who choose to invest themselves – literally – in the saving of others, in the maintenance of a health care system stripped of the operational essentials (who until recently knew the meaning and the dominant industrial sectors’ uses for “PPE”?) and, dramatically, of public-governmental endorsement, and offer their very own life-threatening personal assistance and support, over their self-preservation.

Another side of the numbers of infections and deaths are the unknown numbers in each of these categories. While the deafening and numbing noise of “reported” cases continues to swell and swell, journalists and epidemiologists are working overtime to remind everyone of the skewedness of any such accounting in the absence of actual mass testing. The gap between known and unknown yet existing, thus real, numbers is getting more destructive the longer it is being normalized, either by presenting it as unreal or irrelevant.

But, “unknown” relates also to another figure, namely those who “die at home”, for various reasons, including out of a very rational fear the hospital would turn them away for lack of insurance. This results in the perverse consequence that the actual number of death is assumed to be much higher than the already staggering number of deaths recorded, for example, in New York hospitals, due to those who never made it to a clinic. You don’t need this post to note how every crisis reveals deeper, structural layers of its origins and its scope. But, it is an entirely different thing to actually grasp, unpack and engage these structures. What is made, in a perverse way, clear, is the obviousness and the sheer obscenity of what the crisis shows – literally to everyone. And, I want to believe, that despite politically engineered algorithms of information selection and dissemination, that it might still get increasingly difficult to really look away and to tune out from the actual sh*t the world is in now. Maybe I am delusional to think that even for those who, for ideological reasons or just stupidity, try look the other way, this is not as easy as it once was with just a few TV channels available. But, as I say this, I realize, I am wrong. I must be.

And, still, to think that something ‘bigger’ must be and must have been wrong, not just now, but well before, if this crisis hits a country such as the U.S. with such might, I think is no longer confined to a particular political camp or ‘the left’. But, again, I am surely wrong about that, too. It is just that the reporting of the completely unsurprising, uneven distribution of the virus’ casualties in poor and ethnically as well socio-economically discriminated neighborhoods is neither fringe nor radical. Or, is it?  

News and their dissemination.

“When the next major pandemic strikes, it will be accompanied by something never before seen in human history: an explosion of billions of texts, tweets, e-mails, blogs, photos, and videos rocketing across the planet’s computers and mobile devices.

Some of these billions of words and pictures will have useful information, but many will be filled with rumors, innuendo, misinformation, and hyper-sensational claims. Repeated tidal waves of messages and images will quickly overwhelm traditional information sources, including national governments, global news media outlets, and even on-the-ground first responders. As a result, hundreds of millions of people will receive unvetted and incorrect assertions, uncensored images, and unqualified guidance, all of which, if acted on, could endanger their own health, seriously damage their economies, and undermine the stability of their societies.”

This is, hold on, from an article published in summer 2016 in ISSUES in SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, an online journal published in a collaboration between the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine and Arizona State University. Its author, Jay Walker, continues: “

“The impact of technology on pandemics is as old as mankind. When new technologies such as jet travel and global mass transit appear as they did in the 1950s, we update our thinking and containment strategies.

In terms of pandemics, the consumer information revolution today is just as significant a development as the commercial jet was in the 1950s. Within just the past few years, an entirely new worldwide information architecture has emerged. Modern communications enable uncensored, user-generated words, voices, photos, and videos to be broadcast globally by anyone, anywhere, 24/7, at no real cost and often anonymously.

Relatively new technologies, such as texting, chat, blogging, posting, and voice-over-Internet, as well as media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, Skype, and YouTube all began as secondary “backchannels” in a much larger information universe. That is no longer true. In the next major pandemic, when fatalities in a developed country start mounting past a few dozen, these backchannels will outrun and overwhelm the front channels of traditional media and official sources in terms of speed, volume, relevance, and credibility. Twenty billion personalized web and mobile messages a day could easily become the norm.”

That might as well be the last word in this post. For now.

Published by pzumbansen

law professor.

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