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The Yale Review | Alicia Puglionesi: "Spiritualism's Shadows"

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On COVID-19 and false consolation

What has happened to the more than one million people killed by the coronavirus in the United States since March of 2020? Their names are buried, in the san­itary custom of our country, inside a chart or a county coroner’s report. The first year of the pandemic saw public efforts to name and honor the individuals lost, but this generosity quickly ran out. Mourning has been relegated to the ephemeral no-place of social media, compressed into emoji-plated memorials that flit past in an instant. Now the absent presence of the dead is a problem only for their closest intimates. Democrats, Republicans, and a chorus of “apolitical” public health experts exhort us to get on with business, as though nothing bad is happening. In January of this year, the Centers for Disease Control director, Rochelle Walensky, cheered the public with the “really encouraging news” that most vaccinated people who died from COVID had four or more “comorbidities” and were thus “unwell to begin with.” Through canny arrange­ments of data, the dead are summoned to absolve the living—there’s no need to change course, or even to feel sorry. Disclosures of personal grief are met with demands for personal health infor­mation. Strangers on the internet need to know: were there preex­isting conditions? “Is it God’s way of thinning the herd?” asked a reality TV star, invoking the Malthusian intuition that sacrificing the “weak” is necessary and good.

The refusal of collective mourning reveals whose deaths and what kinds of death we consider worthy of honor. Men who perish on the battlefields of a great war must be mourned by the nation, but the sick, whose suffering has no grand purpose, are a reminder that we can’t always control our bodies—knowledge best pushed into the shadows. None of this is new. In 2020, when Americans groped backward to the 1918 influenza pandemic in search of his­torical solace, they found little more than a cloud of amnesia: a marble bench in Barre, Vermont, is among the few scattered mon­uments to flu victims. Journalists mining medical history pried open the closed box of the 1918 flu and found certain resonances: the closure of schools and churches, a desperate shortage of doc­tors and nurses, a push for fresh air and ventilation. In contrast to COVID-19, at first depicted as a disease of the elderly and then recognized as disproportionately afflicting heavily exposed racial minorities and the poor, influenza hit hardest among healthy young people, the group most “valued” by society. Like today, the public looked frantically to medical science for answers, but local efforts to prevent gatherings, close schools, and require masking often cracked under political pressure. Medical experts vacillated, and businesses demanded relief. People were left alone to protect themselves, and to mourn, as their resources allowed.

Faced with the bewildering devastation of World War I and the flu pandemic, many turned to Spiritualism, a nineteenth-century movement that promoted communication with the spirits of the dead. In early 1920, only a month after the last wave of influenza had passed, a West Coast writer complained about bad actors who were “‘cashing in’ on the epidemic.” By “epidemic,” he was refer­ring not to the disease itself but to “the spiritualistic and psychic craze” that followed on its heels. “A wave of spiritualistic investiga­tion is upon us,” reported a Chicago journal of the occult, pursued “by persons of cultivated intelligence as well as by unlettered and credulous followers.” Historians most often credit World War I for the resurgence of Spiritualism, but the flu’s dark cloud also looms large over the scene. Battlefield slaughter was inexorable; the ran­dom deaths of civilians left their families and friends haunted by survivor guilt. The war ended conclusively in victory parades and speeches, however hollow, but no one knew if the scourge of dis­ease would return. Through communion with the other world, mourners learned that their dearly departed were at peace—and they also sought the occult secrets of health that might protect them in the wake of modern medicine’s failure.

Spiritualism was widespread in all walks of life, from seedy stage shows to the halls of Congress. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the eminently rational detective Sherlock Holmes, had been dabbling in this “new American religion” since the 1880s, long before losing both his son and brother to the flu. Doyle, like many others, believed channeling the dead was a scientific practice that proved the immortality of the soul. Spiritualism and detection were twin engines of consolation: they appeared to solve the mys­tery of death, absolving the innocent and condemning the guilty. Both of these practices worked on the individual rather than the societal level, restoring uniqueness and agency to people swept up in events of an inhuman scale. Through the technology of mediumship, the dead were within reach; their words of comfort could make things right. Spiritualists promised a world freed from mourning, but that did not mean a world freed from tragedy. What if easy consolation allows the conditions for tragedy to fester?

in may of 1919, the president of the American Society for Psychical Research, James Hyslop, brought a woman he code-named “Mrs. Drew” to see the renowned medium Minnie Soule, known as “Mrs. Chenoweth.” He also brought a stenographer. Over the course of two months, Hyslop and his assistant recorded the medium’s every word as she muddled through the strange, disjointed signals that pulsed from the other world toward Mrs. Drew, a stolid woman who “does not appear to be of the highly imaginative type.” Despite Mrs. Drew’s opaque demeanor, the spirits laid bare at least one of her private griefs.

During the sitting, the medium scrawled out a message from the spirit of a young woman: “I did not think…I would die did not want to go so soon.”

Hyslop was there to enumerate and fact-check “correspon­dences” between Mrs. Chenoweth’s ramblings and Mrs. Drew’s family history. During the second sitting, the medium scrawled out a message from the spirit of a young woman: “I did not think…I would die did not want to go so soon.” Hyslop immediately recog­nized a correspondence. Mrs. Drew’s daughter had recently “died from influenza,” he commented in his report, “and just when they thought she might improve.” The medium dropped her pencil and cried out in distress. Mrs. Drew stood up and left. Hovering between trance and consciousness, Mrs. Chenoweth muttered, “I just see numbers, numbers. Do you know if anybody among these died with influenza. I just feel it. One of the victims of the scourge, I hear them say.”

Based on “numbers” alone, Mrs. Chenoweth could have been making a likely guess as to recent events in Mrs. Drew’s life. Once Mrs. Drew responded to the suggestion that a daughter was con­tacting her and confirmed that the death was unexpected, the flu was the most logical culprit. In the shock of her first contact, we glimpse something dissonant and coldly impersonal, but in the sit­tings that followed, Mrs. Chenoweth dutifully homed in on the intimate consolation that all her visitors sought. The fundamental tenant of Spiritualism was that humans possess a unique and indi­visible self that persists after death; even in mass tragedies, such as the flu pandemic, the self is recovered in the singular perfection of heaven. Still, Mrs. Chenoweth’s cry of “numbers, numbers” feels eerily epidemiological; coming from some faceless chorus of the dead, it blocks the retreat into individual communion. For all the easy reassurance of the quaint and domestic heaven popularized in Spiritualist writings, the direct output of trances also shows a stranger, more frightening other world.

As her sessions with Mrs. Drew unfolded, Mrs. Chenoweth hit upon further correspondences. Doctors had barraged the public with warnings that fatigue, stress, and fear could worsen the flu. Mrs. Drew’s daughter, married to a naval officer, spent much of the war anxiously knitting for the Red Cross. The family wondered if this frantic work had worn her down. Through Mrs. Chenoweth, the daughter assured them that being “overtired” was not what caused her to succumb. “I am glad I did as much as I did,” she said with patriotic pride. “I was not a slacker was I.” A meaningless and arbitrary death from disease was transformed into a good death though her honorable service to the nation.

Both news reports and literary portrayals of spirit contact usu­ally featured nonbelievers who were converted by the stunning evidence of their senses. In Doyle’s 1926 novel, The Land of Mist, the skeptical hero, Dr. Challenger, finally converts to Spiritualism when two former patients from the charity ward contact him through a medium to reveal that they died from pneumonia, not from the experimental cure he had secretly dosed them with. For years, the doctor has carried the guilt of killing his patients, and the immense relief he feels when they absolve him wins him over to the Spiritualist cause. As a physician himself, Doyle recognized that many caregivers were tormented by failure and helplessness; he addressed his Spiritualist evangelism to them. Relieving sur­vivors’ guilt served an important purpose in the context of sense­less, relentless death. But the formula of individual forgiveness was often called upon to jump scales; its minute accounting of guilt and innocence also served a larger calculus of necessity, providing justi­fication to society as a whole for the suffering it refused to prevent.

As historian Christine Ferguson writes, Spiritualism’s con­cept of “free will” often amounted to embracing a utilitarian and biologically determined fate. The spirits of those at the top of the social hierarchy—able-bodied, white, and well-off—could affirm their noble choice to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Those with inborn weakness or disability forgave society’s choice to sacrifice them, as they were in a “better and happier place.” If having the spirits of the “unfit” defend eugenics sounds monstrous, it is no more so than inspecting online photographs of COVID vic­tims to diagnose them with preexisting conditions. White medi­ums often ventriloquized People of Color, using their “voices” to justify the violent racial order that subjected them to exploitation and death. It is no coincidence that this practice, which produced apologetics for slavery and Indigenous genocide, was used again in 2020 to speak for George Floyd after his murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. A medium claiming to channel Floyd’s spirit preached “love and forgiveness” and discouraged political action.

In contrast, many founders of the Spiritualist movement had an explicitly political vision of the dead crying out for justice. Spiritualism, which has always attracted antiestablishment radicals of various stripes, was a nexus of abolitionism and women’s rights in the 1850s and 1860s. Speeches by the spirits of abused slaves and repentant accommodationists strengthened the political will of abolition’s supporters. Labor agitators cited prophecies from the other world in their calls for equality and universal brother­hood. While reformers were drawn to the mass mobilizing power of spirit revelations, Spiritualism also appealed to a highly individ­ualized from of justice. The staunchly traditional Doyle was not alone in hoping that the dead might be able to assist the police. In a 1930 book, he assembled a litany of cases where crimes were solved via psychic visions. Indeed, the first messages ever received through the spirit telegraph in 1848 were supposedly from a mur­dered peddler buried in a basement. Such notorious incidents as the “Greenbrier Ghost” in West Virginia often involved women murdered by lovers or husbands, whose only hope for justice was posthumous. Together, Doyle’s popular ghost and detective stories anticipate today’s blockbuster true-crime shows, in which forensic experts are visionary mediums who make the dead speak—only to point to the police and carceral system as sources of redemption.

in addition to offering emotional healing and political direc­tives, spirits from the other world were a prolific source of medi­cal advice. Spiritualism combated bodily weakness with confident prescriptions, rewriting illness as a matter of bad information and insufficient faith. Channeling doctors from beyond lent authority to women’s longstanding healing practices: Mrs. Augusta Messer of Milwaukee, a Prussian immigrant married to a carpenter, was credited with saving “more than eighty people during the influ­enza epidemic” through her mediumship. The spirits of chiroprac­tors, and of premodern physicians, prescribed “natural” remedies that were part of a broad countercultural rejection of mainstream medicine dating back to the early 1800s, when sundry folk healers offered alternatives to the aggressive bloodletting and purgatives of university-trained doctors. Throughout the nineteenth century, a struggle for authority raged between allopathic—mainstream—medicine and its heterodox detractors, who ranged from mesmer­ists to osteopaths to herbalists. Their critique of elite physicians was not without foundation: even after the germ theory of disease led to better prevention in the late nineteenth century, there was no magic bullet to combat germs inside the body, and allopathic doctors still resorted to harsh chemicals like mercury and sedatives like laudanum. Cheaper, gentler alternatives such as chiropractic took on populist appeal.

Like many alternative healers, Riley blamed the pandemic on the unnat­ural tools of conventional medicine.

Before influenza broke out in 1918, American doctors felt con­fident that they were winning the struggle for authority: the first effective antimicrobial drug had debuted in the 1910s, and state boards had formed to push out unlicensed healers and to shut down “inferior” medical schools—often under-resourced Black and women’s colleges. The pandemic assailed physicians’ new­found confidence; even the legendary “microbe hunters” who had captured tuberculosis and syphilis under the microscope could not identify the flu’s cause. Public health officials urged preven­tatives such as disinfecting hands and surfaces, but the absence of an evident pathogen left room for other explanations. In 1919, Joseph Shelby Riley, a chiropractor and founder of reflexology who preached “spinal adjustments” as a cure for the flu, boasted, “We have never had any trouble whatever in controlling the disease. When they were dying all around us by the thousand, we went to many of the worst cases…and saved all we treated.” Like many alternative healers, Riley blamed the pandemic itself on the unnat­ural tools of conventional medicine, specifically the new vaccine for typhoid fever.

The false binaries of natural versus unnatural and pure versus contaminated held as much sway then as they do now, and sorted the world in equally inconsistent ways. Alternative healers gave credit to modern sanitation and hygiene for reducing the burden of acute disease, but only because they clung to the nineteenth-century miasma theory, which associated sickness with filth. The prolific chiropractor and nostrum-seller George Starr White held that “the germ theory is the product of a diseased mind and super­stition,” railing against vaccines on the grounds that “diseased and filthy matter is injected into the healthy body.” He preferred to treat patients with colored lights and essential oils, which he promised would “gri[p] the Flu out of Influenza.” “Nature’s laws are immutable laws,” declared White, “and…there is only one way of preventing and curing disease—the natural way.”

Alternative medicine, Spiritualism, and occultism all tended to agree that cures were achieved not with antibodies but with ener­gies. They were informed by the mind-cure movement, a diffuse set of mind-over-matter therapeutics which, to varying degrees, rejected conventional medicine in favor of mental healing. Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science and a widely known proponent of mind cure, remarked of an 1895 flu outbreak, “Our great influenza epidemic is half mental or volitional, and largely depends upon fear for its victims.” The mind cure combated disease-inducing fear with healing faith, and shares a lineage with the positive-thinking philosophies that proliferated in twentieth-century America, promising wealth, health, and happiness to those who turned inward and harnessed their willpower. The belief that fear could cause disease was cruelly evident during the 1918-1919 pandemic. Even New York City’s health commissioner, a homeo­pathic doctor, delayed closing public venues in order to prevent “the condition of mind that in itself predisposes to physical ills.”

The quiet after the storm of pandemic flu was filled with oblique dread. Teas, gargles, and lozenges peddled during the win­ter “danger months” bore ominous warnings: “Never make the mistake of underestimating the menace of a cold.” These nostrums, along with the proliferating self-help advice of positive thinking, promised to restore vigilant consumers’ control over their bodies. In 1920, the new-thought movement magazine Success criticized the U.S. surgeon general for predicting that influenza would recur and “may stay here for years.” Success did not deny the germ theory of disease but adopted a seed-and-soil philosophy: a sound mind and body would repel infection. “Take care of your health; don’t worry; keep cheerful and hopeful, and…you will resist any disease germs that may be floating around.” A natural-health guide con­curred with Success’s advice that each citizen had to “eliminate all fear of the flu,” underscoring that germs “multiply only in bodies heavily encumbered with and weakened by food, drink, and drug poisons”—which included vaccines. Like today’s wellness culture, this strain of popular thought addressed an audience that at least aspired to have enough time and money to buy “pure” products, live in large houses, and banish their worries. Countless charla­tans claimed to have saved every flu patient who came their way, rewriting the recent past when physicians had watched helplessly as thousands of formerly healthy young people succumbed. The seductive promise of individual control discounted effective med­ical and public health interventions that protected all Americans, including those who could not afford exotic lozenges.

The same individualist fallacy, with its outsized focus on con­trolling subjective states of mind, shapes both mainstream and heterodox responses to COVID-19. Guidance from the CDC has repeatedly thrown out public health’s precautionary principle for fear of causing “panic.” Public health leaders incentivized desirable precautions, such as vaccines, with false promises of invulnerabil­ity—Biden’s “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Some mental health experts rejected basic anticontagion measures, arguing that it is more important to keep disordered feelings at bay than to control the spread of pathogens. Doctors with no psychology background issued dire and unfounded warnings about the cost of masks to children’s development, while minimizing the dangers of the dis­ease itself. Another tragedy of medical authorities and pundits clos­ing ranks around a mind-over-matter approach to the pandemic is that the growing population of long-COVID sufferers have their symptoms dismissed as psychological—caused by mental weak­ness and hysteria. And promoters of mind cure and “the natural way” are still here to profit from desperation. This is not only the province of liberal-seeming wellness brands like GOOP, with its holistic long-COVID detox products. For right-wing conspir­acy groups, there is nothing contradictory about calling COVID a deep-state hoax while peddling immune-boosting vitamins and snake-oil antivirals. Telling the public that fear is worse than material threats to their lives—that fear is the “real” threat, and the reality of death and disability an illusion—is a terrifying refusal of political responsibility.

spiritualism provided a distinctive new infrastructure for after­life communication. Its arc was not apocalyptic: it did not antici­pate an end of days when all souls would depart for heaven or hell. It rejected original sin and the mortification of the flesh. Instead, Spiritualists believed the veil between worlds had been lifted so that spirits could guide the Earth toward a utopian age of peace and plenty. All utopias, and the means of their arrival, reflect the values of those who conjure them. Some mediums promoted enlightened progress; others advocated political upheaval. There were strident materialists, railing against the exploitation of industrial workers and the “ever encroaching power of wealth.” What they all shared was the metaphysical belief that heaven is a purified version of this world; therefore, death was also progress. Death was often equated with freedom, and some insisted on “spiritual birthdays” instead of funerals. “No tears of sorrow for the dead,” implored the pop­ular medium Cora Richmond, “but all these for the living.” While Richmond meant to shine a light on social problems, this exalted rhetoric misses the point of mourning. When we mourn the dead, we mourn for ourselves, because we are not separate from them. We acknowledge what is at stake in building movements that push on without a utopian horizon.

Now, I feel a shudder of dread when I hear the mantra, so foundational to Spiritualism, that death is not real.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the intractability of worldly problems drove a further retreat into the occult and mag­ical. Initiates declared that “Man is a spirit here and now”—that those who mastered the secret powers of the mind could sculpt reality itself. Interviewed by one of her critics, a medium claimed to see “no reason why a person cannot be under water a long time and yet live”; people die, she insisted, only “because of the igno­rance which you still entertain regarding natural laws.” Her critic sarcastically retorted that if we follow this line of thought, then “a man thoroughly mangled in a railway accident dies because we believe that life has become impossible to him.” The year was 1919, and more than 500,000 Americans were dead from the flu, but wellness gurus suggested that perhaps they had succumbed to an illusion. The impulse to blame the dead was unsurprising in the context of prevailing American attitudes toward sickness, disability, and death, which had long scrutinized individual character rather than social structures.

Knowing that I study the history of Spiritualism and the occult, friends started asking me at the beginning of the pandemic if we would see a revival of these practices in response to mass death, as occurred after the Civil War, World War I and the influenza pandemic, and World War II. The Times (of London) delivered the requisite story on a COVID-driven “21st-century revival of spiritualism.” CNN explored “after death communications” from pandemic victims. The New York Times ran a lifestyle piece about the boom in online psychic services, characteristically blaming stress and anxiety while avoiding any mention of grief.

Repeating the old formula that people turn to Spiritualism to cope with tragedy fails to engage with the politics of life and death that have always been part of constructing the afterlife. Spiritualism and adjacent mind-cure philosophies often promoted individual survival and empowerment alongside a discourse of consolation and necessity. As an unchecked pandemic slashes through a society already wracked by climate change, exploitation, and hallucinatory self-help regimens, consolation for what’s been lost doubles as preemptive consolation for a stolen future. “Life on earth isn’t our ultimate end,” tweeted National Review columnist Alexandra DeSanctis in the spring of 2020, suggesting that there was no moral sense in trying to control COVID-19’s spread. The editor of a Christian magazine chided those who “value earthly above eternal life.” “There are more important things than living,” the lieutenant governor of Texas told reporters. In his estimation, the main thing more important than living was the sanctified “American way of life,” defined as economic productivity. As a his­torian, I had always withheld judgment about the promises made by Spiritualist practitioners. Now, I feel a shudder of dread when I hear descriptions of heaven as a happier continuation of this life, or the mantra, so foundational to Spiritualism, that death is not real.

In the year 2022, the leaders of the United States have openly declared that the disabled are better off dead, that the working class prefers to be sacrificed to sustain the national economy, and that fear is worse than the morbidity and mortality caused by the novel coronavirus. Anthropologist Martha Lincoln calls this stance necrosecurity: the principle that “mass death among less grievable subjects plays an essential role in maintaining social welfare and public order.” For the right wing, the less grievable are the eugeni­cally “unfit” and the racialized, while for Democrats they are people who brought it on themselves by failing to get vaccinated. Each party maintained that only the unworthy would be sacrificed. In May 2020, The New York Times called a hundred thousand deaths “An Incalculable Loss”; two years later that newspaper marked nine hundred thousand deaths with the notorious headline “Many Americans Move On.” Buffered by their demographic isolation from those who have not “moved on,” a group of elites insists not merely that this pandemic defies human agency but also that it is no longer a problem at all. The thing their cohort most grieved was “normalcy,” which they seem to have willed back to life. This zombie normalcy can produce only more disposable people, as repeated COVID-19 infections create preexisting conditions that justify premature death.

Of course, the living need some consolation. There are many ways to confront indelible loss, but the American approach has a strange violence to it: we have to accept what happened as inev­itable and push away our heightened awareness of death to keep our own heads above the perilous waters. When the flu struck in 1918, there was no virology and no bureaucratic state apparatus of disaster planning. Today we have ways of preserving life never previously imagined. We pray at the altar of lifesaving technolo­gies, but their dramatic power obscures the accounting methods that drive us to that altar in desperation. Careful wagers have been placed on how much damage people can absorb in the course of producing value. A great optimizing engine winnows down good subjects for the state and capital. We live under a dogma of indi­vidual responsibility; the heretics are easily spotted because they are poor, nonwhite, sick, or disabled. These souls can be pitied, but not mourned.

As much as I believe that the dead should be allowed to speak, I don’t think they can tell us anything about ourselves that we don’t already know. There are no secrets or mysteries at this moment. We don’t even need the spirits to reveal the killer. Powerful tech­nology and tremendous resources were at America’s disposal, and instead of using them effectively, leaders preferred to let “nature’s laws” operate. The problem is that nature’s laws are also human creations, mystified and unleashed in bad faith. With their vaster purview, the dead can see this, and we can’t ask them for con­solation in advance as we continue to stack up bodies in service to a necrotic ideology. Communion between worlds takes many forms: the practice of Spiritualist mediumship often lends itself to private resolutions, but something larger and more terrible—Mrs. Chenoweth’s “numbers, numbers”—has been let loose and will never be resolved. Spiritualists envisioned a world freed from mourning, and we can see that desire darkly manifested in our present world where no magnitude of disaster can stop the busi­ness of the day. More tragedy becomes inevitable when an entire society refuses to imagine that things could have been otherwise. If there is a higher nature, it consists in recognizing that the lives of others are equal to our own, worth fighting for to the bitter end and beyond it.


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When you say "I'm not worried about Covid because I don't really know anyone affected by covid" you're saying "I don't know many people and the people I do know are largely rich, white, and well" or "I'm such an ass about covid and have such privilege that no one is willing to tell me about how covid has fucked up their life"
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Pandemic Nihilism, Social Murder, and the Banality of Evil

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­­By Nate Holdren

Every day in the pandemic, many people’s lives end, and others are made irrevocably worse.[1]

These daily losses matter inestimably at a human level, yet they do not matter in any meaningful way at all to the public and private institutions that govern our lives. Our suffering is inconsequential to the machinery of power and to those who compose and operate that machinery. This has been the case all along, but in this phase of the pandemic, our suffering has been nihilistically recast as not just inconsequential, but inevitable by the administration and the voices it has cultivated as its proxies. Consider, for example, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre’s remarks during President Biden’s July 2022 COVID-19 infection: “As we have said, almost everyone is going to get COVID.”

The nihilism that the Biden administration displays is both convenient and necessary for the personnel who help intensify the avoidable harms of the pandemic, which amount to what Friedrich Engels called social murder. The goal of much of the administration’s policy is to depoliticize those harms, so as not to face any responsibility for them. There appear to be no built-in limits on what the administration will attempt to achieve this goal: anyone waiting for officials’ consciences to kick in should prepare for a long, hard winter.

To that end, the government officials, employers, and middle managers helping to cause preventable harms exhibit a variant of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil: a willful thoughtlessness and lack of imagination cultivated by the demands of bureaucracy and pursuit of professional success — they are people with “no motives at all” other than looking out for professional advancement. Institutions select for officials who are capable of the appearance of sincerity in doing what they’re told and of rationalizing uncomfortable orders. The more time people spend in such positions, the better they get at these mental operations, and the sincerity becomes more than just appearance.

The point of such officials, in part, is to help institutions navigate the larger pressures generated by what the philosopher Tony Smith calls the valorization imperative, meaning the requirement in our society that all social activity be made compatible with the ongoing generation of profit. Much of the banal evil of the pandemic arises from institutions not wanting to bear various kinds of costs that capitalist society generates, even if the result is suffering and death for others.

Indeed, an organization that comes through the pandemic relatively financially unscathed at the price of other people dying is a successful organization, according to capitalism’s social standards: this kind of society selects for antisocial behavior, and this selection pressure acts all the more intensely up the food chain.

I know all of this, but for some reason I still continue to greet the latest twists and turns of the pandemic with disbelief and a gut level sense that surely now public officials will do something. This takes a particular and tiring mental toll, and I know I’m not alone here — I have lost count of the number of friends who have quietly asked me “do you ever feel like you’re losing your mind from all of this?” Perhaps we feel what the powerful refuse to. I’m unsure.

The philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin once wrote that “the astonishment that the things we are experiencing (…) are ‘still’ possible is (…) not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.”

I continue to find myself surprised and appalled all over again each time authorities act consistently with their longstanding pattern of treating the effects of the pandemic as political consequences to avoid, rather than as a health catastrophe to substantively address. In keeping with Benjamin’s observation, I continue to learn from this repeated and distressing astonishment only that I am still in the grip of some myths about the ruling class and their functionaries.

As I repeat the unpleasant realization that help is not on the way from above, and attempt to think my way out of the assumptions that set me up for future unpleasant astonishment, I keep returning to two works of art.

The first is a scene from the film “And The Band Played On,” based on the book of the same name, about the AIDS epidemic. During a congressional hearing, a representative of the blood industry scoffs at the idea of spending a hundred million dollars merely “because we’ve had a handful of transfusion fatalities and eight dead hemophiliacs?” (The film is a bit dated in that some of the heroes work at the CDC … imagine!)

The nihilism of the cost/benefit calculation expressed in that scene — that the dead are simply too few to be worth the cost — is as appalling now as when I first saw it, but it took me some time to realize the degree of elite consensus on that nihilism, both then and now. The same nihilism led to inaction on AIDS, the workplace accidents that regularly occur in the economy, and the government’s response to the COVID pandemic.

The second is “It’s About Blood,” a song by Steve Earle about a preventable mining disaster in 2010 that killed 29 miners. “Look me in the eye,” Earle demands in the opening line, imagining a confrontation with someone responsible for the safety violations that helped cause the disaster, and fantasizing about really getting to them as he concludes the song’s first verse: “before we leave here you’re gonna understand.”

Earle’s song expresses justified outrage over these preventable deaths. As the song’s title and refrain stress, “it’s about blood,” a point he elaborates on by contrasting two sets of value systems: “the state of the economy, fiscal reality, profit and loss, none of that matters once you’re underground anyway,” adding that after the deaths of the 29, anyone concerned with such narrow economic matters “damn sure can’t tell me nothing about cost.” It’s powerful.

Yet, at the same time, what the song imagines in its anger is unrealistic, because it is too optimistic: The fiction of looking the powerful in the eye and having them look back — really see us — is satisfying in part because it helps avoid the ugly reality that they don’t look at us at all, but only through us.

The people responsible for the deaths in the pandemic do not really look anyone in the eye — certainly not when it’s inconvenient for their professional aims — and so they will never understand. They, too, cannot be told anything about cost in the sense that Earle rightly focuses on. That fact — of our lives and loved ones being so inconsequential — is hard to keep in mind, because it is so appalling. (Of course, the persistent political and managerial gaslighting doesn’t help either.)

I would like to believe this sketch is a bit of an overstatement, and to hope people in government and middle and upper management are, in fact, uncomfortably aware of the harms they help inflict on vulnerable people. Feeling some level of squeamishness at their own actions, I’m sure they would try to think about something else, perhaps by pointing to some good they do elsewhere in their sphere of influence (the limits of which they are quick to emphasize).

We know from the Spiderman principle that responsibility is directly proportional to power. Hence the powerful, when in need of restored legitimacy or an eased conscience, minimize the extent of their power. (If I may, the final chapter of my book is about a physician cut from this same cloth, by all accounts a sensitive man and devoted father who built a program of employment discrimination against disabled people, his personal misgivings apparently figuring not at all in what he actually did.)

Government and employers will provide only as much justice as they are forced to by the political consequences we create, no less and no more. To borrow from an old activist slogan, there’s no justice, there’s just us. Our challenge is to figure out what sorts of activism and organizing can create meaningful consequences for the various banal functionaries enacting and abetting this latest evil. Our goal should be to bring the pandemic to a substantive end — by promoting justice and actual human health — rather than by bringing it to a merely ideological end by normalizing social murder. In the longer term, our goal should be to end the social patterns that make this society murderous in so many ways — to make this the last such catastrophe, rather than what threatens to be one of many as the global climate emergency continues to worsen.

I admit I find all of this an incredibly daunting prospect. Still, aside perhaps from sheer luck, there is no other starting place from which we can reasonably expect this nightmare to truly end.

Nate Holdren is the author of Injury Impoverished and an occasional contributor to Bill of Health, Legal Form, and Organizing Work. He lives in Iowa where he is employed as an associate professor in the Program in Law, Politics, and Society at Drake University.

[1] A contrarian may rush to argue with me about what exactly constitutes “many” deaths — an experience I’ve often had in response to my book about workplace injuries — to which the answer with the most integrity is that, as far as any person of conscience is concerned, one who gets out a ruler to argue that what they see before them is in fact a short and not a tall stack of corpses is a ghoul beneath contempt.

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Biden Says the Pandemic Is Over. Is It? | BU Today

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President Joe Biden speaks during a visit to the Detroit Auto Show, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Joe Biden speaking during a visit to the Detroit Auto Show in Detroit September 14. Photo by Evan Vucci via AP Photo

Public Health

BU epidemiologist Eleanor Murray says the president’s statement is premature: “A pandemic cannot be declared over by a single country, since pandemics involve all countries”

September 19, 2022


Here is what President Joe Biden told 60 Minutes over the weekend, while walking through the Detroit Auto Show, when he was asked by Scott Pelley, “Is the pandemic over?”

“The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one is wearing masks, everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing, and I think this is a perfect example of it.”

Is it that simple? The president of the United States, in a spontaneous comment, says the pandemic is over, so it’s over? More than 30,000 people remain hospitalized and more than 400 are dying each day from COVID-related illnesses, according to seven-day averages compiled by the Washington Post.

We took Biden’s words to Eleanor Murray, a Boston University School of Public Health assistant professor of epidemiology, who has spoken out in the past about the importance of clear communication during the COVID-19 pandemic. She had some strong words about Biden’s declaration.

(Murray recently appeared on MSNBC’s Chris Hayes’ podcast talking about the same subject.)

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Wouldn't it be lovely if we tracked respiratory infections and publicly and regularly released the data? And had mask mandates when covid levels were very high? And required vaccines for school & work? And improved ventilation and air cleaning in all our buildings?

So much illness prevented, so many lives saved, so much *money* saved.

But instead most people seem to be split between "the pandemic was a hoax" and "i'm fine and so are all my young rich healthy friends, so the pandemic is over!"
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What Long COVID Is Like For These 14 People

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Disability (In)Justice is a package exploring where the fight for disability rights and inclusion stands.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been filled with unexpected and difficult health challenges, many of which researchers are beginning to understand better. But among the challenges that still remain is long COVID — a complex and often taxing illness that scientists can't yet fully explain.

Long COVID (also classified as “post-COVID conditions” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is a group of symptoms that can form a complex chronic illness, triggered by a COVID-19 infection. Symptoms of long COVID are often (though not always) multi-systemic, and can be disabling, including fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, neurological issues, gastro-intestinal symptoms, and post-exertional malaise (PEM) – symptoms worsening after mental, emotional, or physical exertion. Long COVID can persist for weeks, months, or years, and shares similarities with other chronic illnesses, like ME/CFS and dysautonomia, which are also sometimes triggered by a viral infection. Researchers estimate that long COVID may develop in as many as 30% of all COVID-19 cases (including initially mild or asymptomatic cases), though other research suggests much lower numbers. Some cases may go uncounted, and long COVID is an umbrella term that includes a range of experiences. Current COVID-19 vaccines may not prevent long COVID, according to a 2022 study, but they may reduce the risk slightly overall.

Because there's so little information on it, some people with long COVID are initially surprised to be experiencing disabling health issues. For a lot of young people, long COVID is the first time they’ve had to grapple with a chronic health issue, or the possibility of permanent disability. For others, earlier life experiences with disability have provided crucial frameworks through which to understand long COVID-related struggles, like unemployment, loss of relationships, and access issues.

Long COVID can impact everyone differently, and symptoms can be wide-ranging, so we talked to some people who are experiencing the condition. They talk about symptoms, what it feels like to have long COVID, and the many ways it’s impacted their lives. Here, 14 long-haulers describe life with long COVID.

Sarah Louise, 31

When the pandemic hit, Sarah was working as a neuro-rehab assistant, but was redeployed to an intensive care unit. Antibody tests, she said, later revealed she had likely been infected with COVID, though she wasn’t aware. She said she was reinfected in October 2021 and again in March 2022, and her health has significantly deteriorated. Sarah described her condition as “toward the severe end of the severity spectrum.” She deals with limited mobility and debilitating cognitive dysfunction that makes it very difficult to read or concentrate. In order to get through the day “without crashing,” Sarah said she has to rest in a darkened room for at least 20 minutes after every 30 minutes of activity. She still hopes to one day become a physiotherapist, using her experience as a patient to help others. “I will never…assume that a patient is pretending to be ill or that their illness is their fault,” Sarah said.

Morgan Baker, 22

Morgan got COVID-19 in July 2021, while singing with the Yale Whiffenpoofs. Since then, they said they have developed symptoms consistent with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a form of dysautonomia, and ME/CFS. After Morgan got sick, college became “really difficult.” At first, Morgan said they tried to overcompensate, but pushing through worsened their symptoms. “I was in a post-exertional malaise spiral, though I didn’t know it at the time,” Morgan said. Eventually, Morgan learned more about long COVID, organized a chronic illness support group at Yale, and was approved for accommodations through Yale’s disability office. During her worst symptoms, Morgan practiced a form of “radical acceptance,” to avoid pushing herself too hard again. “I [worked] on…identifying my needs and honoring them, even when doing so might look like laziness or giving in,” they said.

Holly MacDonald, 31

Before she contracted COVID, Holly felt her career was poised to “shift and expand.” She was working as the director of a small agency leveraging pop culture for social impact, and DJ-ing on the side. Then, long COVID hit, and Holly’s “ability to work totally disappeared.” After six months had passed, Holly wondered: “what if I don’t get better?” Since then, she said she’s experienced some improvement, but that her life “sits within limitations now.” To navigate this transition, she’s formed a care network called Bed Collective that meets via Zoom. “The six of us have been a crucial collective of support for each other,” she said.

Jenna Bitar, 30

Jenna is a queer Palestinian American organizer and artist. Before the pandemic, they lived a busy life that “relied on grind culture.” When Jenna contracted COVID-19, they said they were forced to quit their “beloved” job at a media advocacy organization. While Jenna was born and raised in New York City, the sensory stimulation of the city now exacerbates their symptoms, so they’ve spent the past year in lower-stimulus environments, burning through their limited savings. Jenna said it’s impossible to predict long COVID symptoms, and hard to plan for the future. “My forms of activism are evolving as I learn to contextualize my needs,” they explained.

Ashley Jackson, 23

Before she got COVID-19, Ashley was a full-time actress, studying screenwriting at Spelman college. When she first began exhibiting signs of long COVID, she worried that stigmas about chronic illness would hinder her career in the entertainment industry. Because of the risk of reinfection, Ashley said she initially couldn’t consider jobs on-set. Instead, she’s been working remotely in Disney’s General Entertainment’s Apprenticeship Program; she hopes to one day start her own production company. Ashley has also found a team of medical professionals who believe her, after initially facing what she called medical racism. “Processing these changes while…in my early 20s is not an easy feat,” she said. “My value system has changed for the better.”

Ryan McDonagh, 30

Ryan was living in London and finishing a masters degree when he developed long COVID. As a child, Ryan was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and more recently, with epilepsy — experiences he said provided him with useful insights for navigating long COVID. He said that he’s faced more skepticism from providers about long COVID than he has for other disabilities. Ryan spent the majority of his first year with long COVID in his bedroom, and is still “housebound” and more dependent on others than he was before the pandemic. “It’s taught me how important it is [to stay] creative,” he said. “I still make art everyday and don’t plan to stop. I cherish it more than ever.”

Anna Roberts-Gevalt, 34

When she first became sick, Anna was getting an MFA in sculpture and working as a freelance musician and composer. After developing long COVID, Anna relied on pandemic unemployment assistance until the program ended in September 2021. Since then, she has been running through her savings and relying on her family for financial support. Recently, Anna said her application for Social Security Disability Insurance was denied. This summer, Anna re-entered graduate school, after two years, and has been advocating for hybrid class options so she can participate on days when she’s too sick to leave her bed. Anna urges non-disabled people to think more about accessibility: “Consider it not an ‘extra’ effort, but a step towards a more liberated and truly inclusive world.”

Melodie Stancato, 31

For the last five years, Melodie has been living in the same apartment in Crown Heights. When they got sick with COVID, Melodie was working at a bookstore in Queens, teaching singing lessons to children, and running a performance collective in Bushwick. “I was quite active in the ‘before-times’,” they said. “It’s difficult to remember that version of myself now.” Since contracting long COVID, Melodie has learned that post-viral illnesses are not new, and has immersed themself into the “long history of medical neglect and mistreatment” of chronically ill people, tackling their own internalized ableism. “Though my life has been marked by sickness…it wasn’t until this year that I was able to understand my experience through a lens of chronic illness,” Melodie said.

Iz Floresta, 41

Iz worked in shipping and receiving in the cannabis industry in Canada when the pandemic hit. As an autistic person, Iz was already familiar with the impact of ableism on people with invisible disabilities, but these issues were “compounded” when Iz got long COVID. “I have always felt like an outsider, but I have felt further alienated, as I watched the world seemingly move on from the pandemic, while little has changed for me,” Iz said. Iz grew up poor in the U.S. with limited access to healthcare; both they and their partner were immigrants to Canada. After they both developed long COVID, they said they faced homelessness and returned to Iz’s partner’s home country of Brazil, where they now live with friends on an Indigenous Reservation.

Bilen Berhanu, 42

Bilen is a full-spectrum doula, and identified as chronically ill prior to catching COVID in March, 2020. She said past experiences with illness helped her find language and community support for what she was experiencing when she caught COVID. But, her experience wasn’t easy. Bilen said she has experienced medical bias and trauma. “I feel no more capable of navigating our broken care system than I did before,” she said. “I had very little trust and now I have none.” Bilen lost income and a major part of her emergency savings when she got sick. She’s since returned to working with a much smaller pool of clients. Bilen also expanded her doula practice to include grief and death work, which she said is “directly informed by the overwhelm of collective grief of this season of life.”

Ruth Castellanos, 40

Before she got sick with COVID-19, Ruth was a part-time college instructor, running two small businesses. “I had finally found a balance and joy,” she said. Earlier in her life, Ruth was diagnosed with a hypermobility spectrum disorder, which she said taught her a lot about how to navigate medical systems. Still, she said she has faced gender bias from providers; it was only after she started bringing her husband to appointments that this treatment improved. Looking back, Ruth wishes she would warn herself about post-viral illnesses. “I didn’t know one could become sick after a viral infection,” she said. “I feel robbed of knowledge.”

Una Aya Osato, 39

Una is a performer, writer, organizer, and sex educator. Before the pandemic, Una said she “conceptually understood and supported disability justice, but didn’t actually get it.” Long COVID changed that. Una’s symptoms make it hard to work; screen-time can trigger migraines and constantly shifting symptoms make it hard to plan in advance. “I’ve really had to adjust what my career goals and the timeline for them are,” they explained. Una has struggled to find Western doctors who can help, but has found some relief through Chinese medicine and other non-Western practices. After her medical leave ran out, Una said she was forced to return to teaching in-person. “I love my students and my co-workers [but] it’s really taxing on my body,” they said.

aerik woodams, 42

Before COVID, aerik identified as “mad, sick, and neurodivergent.” For the past 15 years, they said they have been living in public housing with a close friend, relying on social assistance, and participating in “care sharing, mutual aid, and activism within queer and disabled communities.” When they developed long COVID, these networks became even more vital. For a long time, aerik didn’t have consistent access to the internet, but shortly before the pandemic, someone in their network helped them get online. They began exploring virtual communities for chronically ill and disabled people. “My pre-COVID self already knew that systems were never designed for multiply marginalized disabled folx to thrive,” aerik wrote in an email. “What I hadn’t completely absorbed yet was the extent to which disabled folx can and always have co-created alternatives.”

Alice,* 49

As a development consultant, freelance writer, and community leader, Alice was often busy, but sometimes struggled to make ends meet. After she was infected with COVID-19 two times in 2020, she said she no longer had “the strength and stamina to juggle multiple assignments.” Alice said her current building has pests, unsafe water, and no heat or working stove. Because she lost her sense of smell from COVID, she initially didn’t notice a gas leak in her kitchen. “I’ve suffered in silence, embarrassment, and exhaustion…fighting to get repairs done [with] limited energy from long COVID,” she explained. “I make too little to afford another apartment, but I make too much hourly to qualify for rental assistance and low-income housing.” Alice is now looking at every affordable housing alternative she can find – from eco-villages to housing co-ops. “There aren’t a lot of options for people who have nontraditional and inconsistent incomes,” she said.

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Association Between BNT162b2 Vaccination and Long COVID After Infections Not Requiring Hospitalization in Health Care Workers

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Long-term immunogenicity of BNT162b2 vaccination in older people and younger health-care workers.

Tober-Lau P, Schwarz T, Vanshylla K, Hillus D, Gruell H; EICOV/COVIM Study Group, Suttorp N, Landgraf I, Kappert K, Seybold J, Drosten C, Klein F, Kurth F, Sander LE, Corman VM. Tober-Lau P, et al. Lancet Respir Med. 2021 Nov;9(11):e104-e105. doi: 10.1016/S2213-2600(21)00456-2. Epub 2021 Oct 20. Lancet Respir Med. 2021. PMID: 34687656 Free PMC article. No abstract available.

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Get vaccinated, but also those rates are still way too high to be doing fuckall about transmission
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The worms under the English Riviera might save your life

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“The English Riviera”. A phrase that sounds like a classic example of British acerbic humour, and I had already emotionally prepared myself to laugh despondently at the sight of some especially bleak industrial waterfront. But when I drove down to the South Coast of England, through hours of the most glorious “sunlit uplands” countryside you ever saw, and the low hills parted to reveal a glimpse of the jewel tone shoreline and palm trees? (Palm trees! in England!) The whole scene has been surprising and delighting Americans since at least 1986 if you go by this article in the Los Angeles Times:

“Exotic plants and palms unexpectedly thrive in this mild southwesterly climate. The palm-lined waterfront walk leads along a green park with fountains, flowers and a pavilion built in the wonderful British Raj architecture of Queen Victoria’s time.”

A closer inspection of the beach, however, revealed some blemishes on this ritzy scene. As we made our way across the wet sand toward the water at low tide, we found the whole expanse pocked with a regular pattern of little wet gasping holes. Each hole was accompanied by a small pyramid of what looked like thin, brown, squiggly sausage. You cannot look at this and think anything but ‘poop’. 

Gingerly and with great distaste, I picked my way through this minefield, taking great care to miss them and wincing elaborately when my children exhibited no such self-preserving instincts. Splat splat splat went their little bare feet smashing through the poop pyramids.

Despite the ick factor, however, I had to grudgingly admit that the regular spacing did look cool so I took a picture. Then the friend I was visiting there explained that the little piles were not poops at all but sand sculptures; the stuff that had been displaced to excavate the little holes. Construction rubble, basically.

New question. What was responsible for all this excavation? 

I lay down in the sand and peered down into one of the holes, getting my eyeball as close to the edge as I could. 

Had I remembered my LWON colleague Jennifer Holland’s 2018 post about the animals that live in those holes, I’m not sure I would have assumed this position.

Less than a foot below my eyeball, writes Jennifer,

“there is a beach-size horizontal worm layer (think sand-worm tiramisu) … that makes up almost a third of the biomass of an average beach in their range, so the tiramisu metaphor isn’t far off.”

The tiramisu is comprised of a thick stack of these guys: they are called lugworms or, more charmingly, “blow lugs”.

I immediately googled what they look like and found this picture in a post by Kevin Stam at Future Frogmen.

Each of these fat wrigglers is between 10 and 20 centimeters long and decorated with external gills that look like spikes but are used for breathing. They live under the holes where they snack on the organic matter left by the receding tide.

In the 1970s biologists noticed something strange about their blood. (And yes they have blood. All segmented worms have blood – most of them even have red blood just like us. I did not know that.)

Lugworm blood contains 40 times more oxygen than human blood, thanks to its giant hemoglobin molecule, which scientists think evolved because they have to sit at the bottom of those holes for 8 hours waiting for the tide to go out.

But what’s most relevant to our interests is the weird way their hemoglobin is suspended freely in their blood – which makes them a universal donor. For you and me, our hemoglobin is bound to our red blood cells, but the catch is that different kinds of red blood cells (which determine our blood type) are festooned with different kinds of defensive proteins called antigens. So if your blood type is A, it means your red blood cells have A antigens. If you’re type B, your red blood cells have B antigens. Mix them together and there’s big, life-threatening trouble. Only blood type O lacks those dangerous antigens, which is why it’s the universal blood type.

Complicating matters further, only a subset of type O blood can be given to just anyone on demand. 

But if you have lugworm blood to hand, you don’t have to contend with any of these complications, freeing you to ignore blood types and pernickety subtypes. No blood cells, no problems.

This was all very interesting but largely irrelevant until in the early aughts, when mad cow disease left a hole in the blood supply. Researchers started to wonder if lugworms could fill the hole, so to speak.  

In 2006, French scientists caught local lugworms and purified their hemoglobin for a test on some lab mice. Most animal blood substitutes result in an immune response. The lugworm blood had no such side effects. (This has since been replicated in rats and dogs.)

Soon a new company called Hemarina started working to take this success into humans. Within ten years, reported Hakai in a profile of Hemarina, their product seemed to improve outcomes for transplants:

“Hemo2Life underwent a major test from 2016 to 2018: 60 patients received kidney transplants of organs that had been stored in Hemo2Life. The patients recovered faster and had improved renal function than those who received organs in the traditional electrolyte preservation solution.”

And then the pandemic came along and revealed a constellation of new use cases. As you probably know from grimly following the doomscroll over the past two years, covid-19 really does a number on your blood. It causes blood clots and more famously, causes blood oxygen levels to drop dangerously. Researchers at Harvard and Pomipou Hospital have hypothesized that intravenous administration of lugworm blood could quickly reoxygenate blood. They also think its unique properties might even stave off the infamous immune response called cytokine storms.

You can farm a lot of worms, but can you possibly harvest enough of these tiny critters to fill a whole human? One alternative would be to study their hemoglobin and create a synthetic version. Which version of blood subsitute will prevail? Maybe all of them. There’s certainly room. The pandemic has created a major, worldwide shortage in the blood supply. A 2021 market research report for synthetic blood substitutes predicted that the growth market for substitutes – any and all of them – will be enormous, shooting from less than $4 billion last year to well over $15 billion in 2027. (They identified Hemarina as a key player, even though one of the company’s covid trials was suspended by the ANSM [the French version of the FDA] in 2021.)

But yeah, if you ever happen upon those little piles of Riviera worm poo, take note. But you probably shouldn’t try to harvest any yourself. If you follow the link at the end of Jennifer’s post that shows you how to suck the lugworms out of their holes, you’ll quickly understand why.

Post-script: I am immediately informed, 5 minutes after publishing the post, that the squiggles are, in fact, poo. But I protest that this is a technicality. It is sand. It’s sand that has been through the worm, but only because the worm took out the organic matter and bits of algae that were hidden in the sand, so if anything, the worm squiggles are a purer form of sand than it started out with. But fine, if you want to be a pedant about it, it’s poo.

Photo credits:

British Riviera picture is actually Lyme Regis, but it all looks the same. Sally Adee

The holes and pyramids: Laura Harrison

Lugworm photo from ‘The Long-Held Secret Of Lugworms’ by Kevin Stam.  Photo: Phillipe Giraud

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