Podcast: Is It Over?

Our pandemic podcast is ending, though the pandemic hasn’t ended around the world.

Though the coronavirus continues to spread around the world, the end appears to be in sight in the United States. And with that hopeful end, this will mark the last episode of Social Distance.

James Hamblin, Maeve Higgins, and returning co-host Katherine Wells gather to say goodbye to the show, reflect on what we’ve learned these past 15 months, and listen to voicemails from past guests.

Listen to their conversation here:

What follows is a transcript of their conversation and voicemails, edited and condensed for clarity:

Maeve Higgins: We have a voicemail from Dr. Stephen Thomas that I’d love to listen to.

James Hamblin: Yeah, he was one of my sources early in the pandemic talking about disaster preparedness. And then, coincidentally, he ended up becoming the coordinating principal investigator for the Pfizer-vaccine clinical trial and kept me updated on that throughout.

Hi, this is Dr. Stephen Thomas calling. I’m a physician-scientist of infectious diseases from Syracuse, New York, and the coordinating principal investigator for the Pfizer-BioNTech [COVID-19] vaccine trial.

So what would I recommend [for] people to keep themselves informed about public health? I think the first thing is to make sure that you are going to multiple sources: your local Department of Health, the CDC, magazines like The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the L.A. Times. Journalists have done an incredible job at getting to the facts in a very nonpartisan, evidence-based way.

In terms of what I’ve learned personally and professionally—I guess, professionally, what I’ve learned is: Leadership matters. Whether you’re a leader or a follower, you can make a big difference in situations like the one that we’re still in right now. You always go farther and faster if everyone’s in the boat [facing] the same way and rowing at the same time. A lot of us have been saying for a long time that a pandemic like this was possible and that the planets would align someday.

Personally, I think that it’s been a very interesting experiment, seeing how people view science, how people view medicine, and how people make decisions about their health. There’s been a lot of very promising aspects and also some somewhat concerning trends that we’ve seen in the country. And I think there’s a lot of work to do on that front.

Higgins: We also heard from the amazing Dr. Art Caplan, Jim. Great guest.

Hamblin: Yeah! He’s a renowned bioethicist who was on very early, talking about how we think about rationing care and, more recently, about how we think about privacy, vaccine passports, and vaccine mandates.

Hey, it’s Art Caplan calling from NYU. Living through the pandemic, I’ve learned that a lot can be done professionally on Zoom. (Laughs.) We don’t have to go to work five days a week. We won’t be doing that at NYU in my shop ever again. I’m sure we’ll stick to three days. I’ve learned that it’s very important to make sure you know how to cook. I hadn’t given that much value, but a year indoors has convinced me that that’s a vital skill to be completely cultivated. (Laughs.)

And how do we hold our institutions to account? We better make sure that politics can’t influence science. We’ve got to build more walls between our science agencies and politicians. Donald Trump and his henchmen wound up undermining scientific messages, even though they’re out after Dr. Fauci based on nothing except revenge and ideology. Politics goes after science. Science is weak. It isn’t able to protect itself very well. We’ve got to figure out structures that let the science be heard without letting the politicians bully or threaten or undermine the content of the messages that scientists and doctors have to offer. They’re not the last word, but they ought to be heard.

Hamblin: We also heard from F. T. Kola, a writer and a friend of yours, right, Katherine?

Katherine Wells: Yes, I actually got to see her the other day for the first time since the pandemic began, and she’s very well. She got COVID very early in the pandemic. She’s one of the many people who had a severe case of COVID, recovered, but dealt with long-COVID symptoms long afterwards. There are still so many people who are dealing with those effects. And she called in with some lovely reflections on this past year:

I want to thank you for the show. I will miss it, and I know a lot of people will too. My greatest lesson [of the pandemic] was to see how intimately, inescapably, deeply connected we are to the people around us. I feel like that has informed every rule of how to get through the pandemic, what to do, and how to do it.

If we want to be well, if we want to be safe, if we want to be happy, the only remote chance of guaranteeing that comes from caring for each other, particularly and especially the most vulnerable.

One of the most beautiful, simple things we did during the pandemic is to wear a mask. It’s a beautiful thing to wear a mask, knowing that the benefit is experienced by the people you protect by doing so. You don’t necessarily do it for yourself. And I think that that responsibility you have to each other is obviously ongoing. We need to ensure that everybody has access to vaccines globally.

And that goes beyond the human world into the environment, into the other species that live on this planet … I will never get over the utterly bizarre fact that a minuscule virus living in a bat or some other host on the other side of the world would wreak havoc in my lungs six months later. Just the idea that it had traveled through many people to me and that I was the end chain in its journey is kind of fascinating, from an epidemiological point of view. But it’s also a tangible and real chain of human experience and human suffering.

In the hospital, I also really learned what love might look like. It looks like a nurse at the beginning of a global pandemic—who knows very little about the virus they’re encountering because nobody knows very much at that stage—putting on PPE and entering my room to bathe me or feed me or just provide some human comfort at potential great risk to themselves. It just looks like caring for a total stranger. And I don’t think that we can get out of this or other imminent challenges to come—future pandemics, the consequences of climate change—unless we think about what others across the globe or down the street need. It’s not easy. I’ve made many errors. It’s hard to do it without stumbling.

I’m hoping there will be a time of remembering and memorializing the people we’ve lost. And I hope that our love and duty towards each other is a scene in that. Thanks for everything.

Higgins: We talked to people while they were sick with COVID. We talked to people while they were still suffering with long COVID. It’s put so many people through so much grief, if they’ve lost somebody, and pain, if they’ve experienced it themselves.

Hamblin: Yeah, and speaking of which, I was texting with Bootsie Plunkett. [She] got COVID pretty early on, was on the show with us, and had some longer-term symptoms in recovery. But she’s doing well now. She tells me she went to Red Lobster, as she was looking forward to during her long convalescence.

Higgins: So the podcast is ending. And the pandemic is kind of ending in the U.S. We’ve done episodes about how this pandemic could follow past pandemics, in particular AIDS, where people treated that as an emergency that ended. But obviously it never ended, especially in marginalized communities and poor countries. This last voicemail came in from a listener on the anniversary of the AIDS pandemic in the U.S.:

Jim, Katherine, Maeve, Kevin, A. C., everybody who’s a part of the show, I just wanted to call and say thank you. As I hear you announce the penultimate show, it’s a bit emotional. I’m just leaving the National AIDS Memorial in San Francisco today.

This is Saturday, June 5, which is the 40th anniversary of the first clinical reports of AIDS, another pandemic that we’ve all faced. And it’s not the same in any way as COVID—dramatically different. But some of the themes that you’ve covered, the discriminatory responses, misinformation and missteps in the federal government, they apply too.

And AIDS is not gone. And I appreciate what you’ve said many times, which is that we won’t live without COVID. But I’m so, so grateful to all of your team for the work over the last year and four months. Thank you for doing this.

Higgins: Beautiful message. Thank you so much for that. And thank you both, Jim and Katherine. Thanks to the producers. Thanks to The Atlantic, to all the incredible writers and scientists and doctors and guests and, just, people who know about COVID from having COVID who spoke to us. And Jim, thank you for all those nights that you didn’t even sleep so that you could try and come up with answers. We really appreciate you.