Economic Update 4/2/2020 -- Transcribed by Comrade Joe B.:
The following is a transcript of the interview between Professor Richard D. Wolff and Dr. Harriet Fraad, on the April 2nd, 2020 episode of Wolff’s podcast, Economic Update. Subject of the interview is the psychological and mental health ramifications of social distancing and other public health measures being taken to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Richard Wolff (RW): The coronavirus is a shock to the American people. People are afraid. People are hunkered down because the government tells us to. In our homes, we’re not supposed to see other people. This is a kind of traumatic, sudden, crashing of our lives that then puts us into a kind of condition, I know you had identified as a little bit like children caught up in a world they quite don't understand yet. Fearful that at any moment, at home, on the playground something could go wrong and having to turn to their parents or caretakers for the authority to get through it. How is that being replayed now?
Harriet Fraad (HF): It’s being played because everyone doesn’t know what’s happening. Our President doesn’t know what’s happening either, and we’re all getting contradictory directives the way children get in an abusive household. Where they’re told to do one thing and then they’re told to do the other and they’re punished at every turn. Also, children are helpless. They don’t know what’s going on, and they don't have the vocabulary or the mental apparatus to really inquire about it and say what’s going on and most people here don’t either. We have a particular weakness in our country, of being unconcerned about mental health. Our President doesn’t seem concerned about his own mental health, or anyone else’s. And, so we’re in trouble. People are confined to their homes. And homes are dangerous places to be.
RW: Well let me interrupt. Is it- I want to get this point because I thought that earlier in the conversation you made it very, very clear. There are people who are now, saying that we have to trust authority. I’m noticing in the streets, people are turning, even to Trump when they had doubts or notions about how somehow we have to turn to authority. The way that children kind of count on their parents no matter how those parents act because who else are they going to depend on?
HF: There’s an enormous amount of research on this. Children who were brought up in authoritarian families where they’re not heard when nothing is explained or very little grow up feeling that the authority must be trusted and they dare not question then they go on to into authoritarian religions that tell them what's right and wrong are they dare not question and then they go into authoritarian schools that do the same thing then when they're in a crisis many people think I better obey I've been bad that's why bad things have happened to me obey, obey and that's a dangerous thing to do that was the basis of German fascism and Italian fascism and Japanese fascism those things began to be studied during Hitler's ascendancy and then were followed up later but there's about 20% of people who are will obey Authority no matter what and there's about sixty percent who could go either way and another 20% that have to question that 60% of people is the mass of people who are in trouble right now and we have a leader who demands that he knows that he should be heard as he knows everything he knew that this was no threat animated this virus Coronavirus was no threat and he made that clear that he made it clear that it's a very dangerous thing from China intimating that an ethnicity is at fault and then now he's saying maybe it's not so bad people die in car accidents so what we still keep driving back to work just the economy so there's constant it's like being with an irrational do you have to obey but they're giving constantly different directives.
RW: If I understand your notion of the 20% who are going to be critical of what's going on, and think about it 20% who are terrorized into supporting Authority is it your point that over the next weeks and months the 60% out of the big middle is going to be deciding which of those two directions to take whether to go in the direction of blindly following whatever the authority is which is going to be a problem since different authorities are giving different directions versus people being pulled in the other way to begin to develop a critical understanding of what wasn't done right so A we get through this crisis and B so we don't go through the trauma again.
HF: One of the things that has happened as it happened in Nazi Germany is there was a huge crisis it wasn't a virus it was an inflation so that people needed to bring wheelbarrows of money to the supermarket to get anything our crisis is both Financial but it's also that there is a virus to worry about that could kill us so that people get more insecure and in those moments they need to be reached to question to think or to blindly obey so we're at a moment of Crisis and we look at the different programs for exist for example the excellent program of Bernie Sanders that has totally different priorities from that of Donald Trump with his 500 billion dollar slush fund he wants to give to Banks and businesses to do as they feel like with no strings attached or to create a public health system to create public ways of people be getting help of all swords to create Universe a big crisis of priorities at this time and what happens two people is they can revert to Childhood obedience which would be very dangerous or they can begin to question like adolescents begin to do.
RW: Yeah, it seems to me that the thrust of what I would like to be doing on this program is to cultivate the ability to think about this to learn lesson not to throw yourself on the authorities the authorities are the very people who didn't manage to anticipate plan for or now cope very well with all it's a staggering to think that's a failure to deal with this situation is now going to become the possible way for people to support the very failed authority.
RW: So I want to turn next to this remarkable a failure to understand that mental health implications of what is being done now to cope unfortunately a little bit late in the day with this virus in the United States and I'm particularly interested in the demand being made on millions and millions of our fellow citizens not to go out of the home hardly at all except maybe to the drug store or to the food market many of us Millions not to go to work anymore thrust together alone if they single individuals in an apartment they virtually cannot leave, with a spouse, with children there is an imposition into a very small place where you have to stay everything I know about mental health but I'm here to ask you says that this puts all kinds of strains with long-term consequences on people that haven't even been talked about let alone planned for.
HF: Well we can first look at the people who live alone in a city like New York City with us a million people house of people live alone countdown contact with other people at work and after work going to bars going to restaurants people live in little abodes little apartments and they socialize outside of their Apartments they're all so used to being interactive with the people at the drugstore with the people at the food market with whoever and that interaction is crucial we are social animals we need each other there are basic needs that are so basic that a child doesn't survive unless the child has talked to or sung to and held we need one another very very badly in order to survive so to be isolated is terrible but also and we will talk about the loneliness a little later but also to be isolated in one's family has huge consequences it's no accident that child abuse in the United States plummets at 6 years old and that's good children are out of the house for at least six hours a day at school well if the children are in the house there in far greater danger if they're in their house with their frustrated parents who are isolated and worried about the economics of their situation about their own lack of contact with people that they need about their sense of a future things are a lot worse.
RW: So there’s a real Danger and I need to be blunt there’s a danger to children of our society that nobody has even spoken about that I'm aware of let alone taking any steps to cope with
HF: That’s right. Child abuse is soaring in the United States more and more children are taken to emergency rooms seriously injured by their enraged parents. Babies have a spike in shaken baby syndrome where the parent is so frustrated at a child's crying a baby's crying it shakes that baby until its brain turns to jelly and they die or until they lose a basic sense like sight or hearing. Very dangerous. Battered women's shelters are full. We have made no Provisions for battered women
RW: In other words, had this been planned for, had you understood what a virus can be, what a pandemic from a virus can be, like the one in 1918, or in any of the others that have happened since, you should have, as we did not only taken care, which we failed as a system to do, the physical health, but you’re pointing out that the mental health consequences here are equally profound and dangerous and make the whole failure to cope even worse.
HF: It is, and the mental health problems lead to physical health problems. So that we have since they found out about it in December and they did nothing. You have more and more children who are terribly abused. Taken to emergency rooms full of sick people. You have women who were abused, who are brutalized, and who feel that they can’t escape. You have men whose frustrations are mounting and they’re not going to go to the gym, so they’re not going to do a lot of exercises to work it off. They’ll probably be punching out their wives who are on hand, or their children. They have a real problem with physical violence without any provision, no mental health workers there, no social workers there to help, no programs to counsel people on what this does to them.
RW: Right there’s no, that’s what blows my mind to be honest. No preparation. No training. Even since December, where you might have had crash courses for a hundred thousand people, particularly those who don’t have any job anyway to get them to be able to help in a situation where we would know in advance this is going to put tremendous stress on spouse relationships on parental relationships on lonely people living alone, and it’s really mind bending what wasn’t able to be done in this system. What a failure if nothing else comes out of this, the learning of that failure is so crucial.
HF: Well what’s even more, there’s nothing being done now. There aren’t programs that people can watch on TV or on their internet about what to do with tensions that mount when your children are home all day. When you have to teach them and you don’t have the patience. When you are angry, and frustrated, how not to take it out on the people around you. There are no programs, there is no help, there was no help and preparedness, well there’s no help now either.
RW: The amazing thing, we could have the most popular actors and actresses, and athletes, giving a quick training, get up there where everyone will see you or listen to you on the radio, talking about these issues that help people, but there’s nothing. It’s as dramatic a failure as not having enough beds for people or not enough testing kits, or not enough ventilators. Let me move on, these issues are so fundamental. Many books are and you’ve talked with us before, talk about a kind of loneliness in American culture and American society. Not only in this culture, but a kind of sense of loneliness of being isolated, the breakdown of the family. There are a lot of arguments about how and where it broke down but it’s a serious problem. That problem can only be made worse if you are now barred from contact with other people. You are told it is unsafe to be in a group of people, the loneliness is crowding in on you. And it’s not a big step if I understand it correctly, from loneliness to depression. Tell us about that, and tell us about how this is an urgent problem.
HF: It’s urgent because loneliness is a signal to the mind and body. It’s a psychophysiological signal. Just like when you’re hungry, it’s a signal to your mind and body, “get something to eat” because you need food. If you're thirsty, get something to drink. You need something to drink. When you’re lonely, you need connection with other people. We are social animals, and already, before this catastrophe, and the failure to handle it, 25% of Americans had nobody to talk to. Even in the worst crisis of their lives. So we’re talking about a terrible problem. The most popular program in the US are the 12-step programs. Millions of people are in them. People aren’t allowed to go to meetings. You can’t be feeling the connection between those other people at meetings. There are some meetings on the internet, but it’s not the same. Connection is necessary for people and its physical connection, its physical proximity. The brain has to work much harder to connect with people on media than it does with people physically.
RW: Would you advocate getting people together and then having that social spacing of 6-10 feet, would it be worth it in order to cope with the mental health consequences?
HF: Of course. And if we did what Sweden did, knowing that young people and older people end up being alone. Building a vast number of apartments with very small private compartments and big, share space. So that people could see a film, sitting 6 feet apart.
RW: Right, the way that the reporters when there’s a press conference, Mr. Trump stands at the front and the reporters sit in every third, or fourth seat, so that there’s an appropriate, safe distance, but at least they can get together and function. And if you did that for the President’s news conference, why couldn’t you do that for the society as a whole?
HF: Of course, you could have little microphones at every seat and have a discussion. You could have a presentation and a discussion whether it was about what’s going on here that makes people so afraid and lonely or whatever it is. Because we need something called a biochemical that we produce called oxytocin. It makes people feel comfort, and pleasure. It comes from physical touching. It’s not something you buy at a drugstore like oxycontin, it’s something you get through physical touch. And whether that physical touch was putting the money in someone’s hand at the store, or physical touch with a hug or somebody saying “good going” and patting you on the shoulder, or physical touch from holding hands with someone you like, or shaking their hand. It’s an enormous physical need, and people are doing without it. And anxiety is created, and anxiety leads to all sorts of problems. People are already becoming more obese, because they’re feeding themselves and eating their hearts out in loneliness. And diabetes leads to heart trouble and all sorts of other problems.
RW: So, if I understand you, we all know that depression is a major problem in American society. I can tell you from economics literature that it’s a major problem in how people work, the quality of the work they do, the quantity, the number of times they’re absent from work. The impact on the economy of worsening the depression that people have is not even mentioned, and yet it could in the end, be one of the most profound consequences not only of the failure to prepare for the pandemic but the failure to come up with ways that might have compensated for the additional loneliness that was produced.
HF: One of the things that happens with depression is that a person sinks into themselves and they can’t think of anyone else, and they can’t communicate with other people, so that it feeds on itself. And depression is a pattern that can happen, and that’s very, very, dangerous.
RW: I know that you’re not charged with this, I wish you were. I know there’s nobody talking about this. What can you tell our audience, what are some of the things that could be done, that might be done, to begin to cope with these mental health consequences that are getting too little attention?
HF: To try and, first of all, try to understand that there’s nothing wrong with you personally. That being isolated is a terrible condition, and that you need to do whatever you can about it. You need to communicate with whoever is close to you. On the internet, on the telephone, on anything you have. And you need to say “this is not a punishment sent by god because I’m bad.” This is a disease and understand how it happened. Also, talk to people, have contact with people. If you live with someone, hug them, hold them, give each other physical touch and physical comfort. If you don’t, reach out however you can. Reach out by having friends have a discussion on the internet, on google chat, or whatever. Where they share feelings, needs, and reactions to this crisis.