November 2020

Video: 2020 William C. Stubing Memorial Lecture Offers Historical Perspective on Pain, Prejudice, and Pandemics

Now available on video, The Greenwall Foundation’s 2020 William C. Stubing Memorial Lecture, Whose Pain Matters?: Reflections on Race, Social Justice, and COVID-19’s Revealed Inequalities, drew hundreds of participants to the November 16 live webinar, a provocative and timely presentation about how today’s struggle echoes pandemics of the past.

Keith Wailoo, PhD, Henry Putnam University Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University, gave a wide-ranging presentation about pain and prejudice throughout history. Prof. Wailoo is an award-winning author on drugs and drug policy; race, science, and health; genetics and society; and the history of medicine, disease, health policy, and medical affairs.

From epidemics past to the present crisis, societies respond in similar ways. Prof. Wailoo drew parallels between past pandemics and the current one, comparing social attitudes, fears, and mask debates then and now, illustrated with photographs, news headlines, and political cartoons from the 1800s to the present.

Pandemics expose social inequalities, Wailoo explained. “The question of how to measure suffering and do something about it is not new,” said Prof. Wailoo, explaining how immigrants and people of color were disproportionately affected in past cholera, yellow fever, influenza, and tuberculosis pandemics. Political cartoons from the 1800s to the current day reveal stark racial and class prejudices. Atlanta newspapers in 1910, for example, ran racist cartoons about the threat of tuberculosis to the average white home by domestic workers who “live in filth and contagious disease.” 

Prof. Wailoo also revealed striking connections between the mask protests during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic and today’s protests by people who assert their personal right not to wear a mask, citing, for example, myths about how breathing in their own carbon dioxide would harm or even kill them.

Pandemics expose a range of such social divisions, said Wailoo. In today’s mask protests, he sees deep ironies along lines of race and whose breathing matters. “What kinds of principles should organize our personal interactions and care with respect to others, especially in a contagion that is spread by breathing? The debate about masks has emerged in a year where we not only ask whose pain matters but whose breathing matters,” said Prof. Wailoo. “George Floyd energized the Black Lives Matters protests and made ‘I can’t breathe’ into a rallying cry for equality and fairness. But at the same time, white protestors are using that theme to draw attention to their own grievance about mask-wearing.”

Prof. Wailoo concluded the evening by posing a number of provocative questions. COVID-19 has revealed a lot about the ethics of how we relate to one another; and at the same time, the last four years has challenged us on ethical grounds.” In many parts of society, he noted, the failures of leadership made manifest during the pandemic and before have raised fundamental lessons – “a sort of ‘Civics 101’: Do laws matter? Does truth matter? Do ethics matter? Do lives matter?” His talk concluded with reflections on the challenge of ethics in public health and society looking ahead to 2021.

The Greenwall Foundation partnered with the NYU Center for Bioethics and the NYU School for Global Public Health to host and produce this year’s Lecture. 

About the William C. Stubing Memorial Lecture

William C. Stubing served as President of The Greenwall Foundation for 21 years. In 2016, the Foundation established the William C. Stubing Memorial Lecture in honor of its beloved former President, who guided the Foundation to its current focus on bioethics.

Previous Lectures have covered timely topics in bioethics: genome editing, physician aid-in-dying, and drug pricing. Past speakers are Pulitzer Prize winner, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, University of Pennsylvania President, Dr. Amy Gutmann, and former White House health policy advisor, Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel.