Newswise Live COVID-19 Expert Panel for March 26, 2020


Newswise Live Expert Panel discussion of unique angles to the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects on all aspects of daily life around the world. 

Experts from institutions including Stanford University, University of Michigan, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Georgetown University, will participate in an expert panel covering a wide variety of topics, with questions prepared by Newswise editors and submissions from media attendees. Among the panelist, an expert from the Wildlife Conservation Society will discuss pangolins and the illegal black market trade that lead to the disease jumping from animals to humans. A behaviorial neuroscientists will discuss mental health and behaviorial issues in relation to the pandemic.


Panelist include: 

  • Matthew Kavanagh, Director of Global Health Policy & Governance Initiative at Georgetown University
  • Christian Walzer, Chair, Conservation Medicine Unit - Wildlife Scientist
  • Anat Admati, Professor of Finance and Economics, Stanford Graduate School of Business
  • Stephanie Preston - Behavioral Neuroscientist - University of Michigan


Thursday, March 26th - 2:00 PM EDT


Newswise Live event space on Zoom -

Registration for media, as well as colleagues from participating Newswise member institutions

This live event will also be recorded and transcribed for use by media and communicators after it is concluded.

The transcript of this expert panel is available below.

THOM CANALICHIO: Welcome to this Newswise Live Expert Spotlight Panel. We’ve got several different experts who can talk about various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including Dr. Christian Walzer, who’s the Executive Director of Health Programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society. We also have Matthew Kavanagh from Georgetown University, he’s Assistant Professor of Global Heath and the Director of the Global Health Policy and Politics Initiative. We also have Anat Admati, Stanford University Graduate School of Business, she’s Professor of Finance and Economics and we also have Stephanie Preston, from the University of Michigan, she’s a Professor of Psychology. Each of these experts are going to answer some questions that we have prepared. We welcome the media to please chat your questions to us. I see one already in the que, I’m going to figure out who’s the best person to answer that question Jessie. We also want to invite that the experts can respond to each other. Experts, if you have something that you’d like to add to anything that your peer is saying, just raise your hand and I will go ahead and call on you when they’re finished with their response.

I’d like to start with Dr. Walzer. Dr. Walzer has a specialty in the conversation of rare and endangered species, in particular in parts of Asia. Dr. Walzer can tell us about what we need to know about the wildlife and the origins of this disease. Dr. Walzer, can you explain to us, some real basics about Coronaviruses and the kinds of wildlife that they appear and what we know about them making the jump to humans?

WALZER: Hello everyone. Thanks for this invitation. The Coronaviruses are a really large group of viruses, they are so called RNA viruses, they’re very, very prevalent in domestic livestock. You’ll find them in cattle and pigs, in our pets, they’re quite common in cats and dogs. They don’t -- and obviously also in humans but what we’re particularly interested in here in this context is the large number of Coronaviruses that circulate in wildlife species. We will see those a lot in bats of course, it’s got a lot of press obviously recently, some of the studies have shown up to 500 different Coronaviruses in some species of bats. What’s really important to understand is that Coronavirus are not pathogens in that sense, they’re just carried by the animal, they occur there naturally, they do not cause disease. It is only when they evolve and spill over into other species that they do cause and sometimes cause disease.

THOM CANALICHIO: So, what do we know about the ones that have made the jump to humans, like this current issue? There’s been others in the past right?

WALZER: Right, there have been two important other ones. That’s been the original SARS outbreak back in 2002/2003, where the origin was also sourced in the bat species and then there was an intermediate host, which was the [INAUDIBLE -- 0:03:15.3], which then transferred to humans and then the other one more recent, 2012 is the MERS outbreak where also the ancestral host is assumed to be a bat and the intermediate host is a dromedary camel which can transmit the virus. They are pretty rare events but as you know, when they do occur, they have massive implications. 

THOM CANALICHIO: You mentioned intermediate hosts, a civet, is that a wild cat?

WALZER: Yeah, it’s not a cat but it’s sort of between a cat and raccoon sort of thing.

THOM CANALICHIO: Okay. And a camel being the other, those are pretty different kinds of species. What do we know about, what are the risks for the viruses mutating, passing from one species to another as bridge to humans? How does that happen and how can we defend against it?

WALZER: These viruses have a natural mutation rate, this one is about one-point mutation every two weeks, so this is completely natural process. What we’re talking about is, it’s a numbers game basically. The viruses have to adapt so they can enter human cells, first of all they have to jump the species, either directly into a human or into an intermediary host, so they need to adapt, mostly their receptors have to change, so they can enter the cell. Then, on very rare occasions will this virus that has entered a human cell actually be able to transmit to another human, that really happens very rarely. We have a lot more spill over events going on which we just never know about because they either cause no disease or certainly don’t transmit from human to human. You can see that if you look at the blood of people in rural areas and look at what’s called seroconversion to antibodies, that they actually have contact with a lot more Coronaviruses. 

THOM CANALICHIO: I have a few more questions for Dr. Walzer and we’ll come back to him, I want to ask more but I want to remind the media to please chat any questions that you have about this topic from him or for any of the other experts of course. Dr. Walzer, before we go onto one of the other experts, I want to ask you really quick about what do we know about the COVID-19 virus, was there an intermediary species involved in that infection? I know there have been a lot of questions about pangolins being part of it, that’s maybe not known. What can you tell us about that? And also, importantly, I want to give you an opportunity to talk about the trade in these kinds of exotic wildlife around the world and we have some more questions for you about that.

WALZER: What we know is that or assume at least and all evidence points to, the ancestral host to this COVID-19 virus, SARS Coronavirus 2 is  horseshoe bat somewhere in Southeast Asia, China, that’s the ancestral host but they could not jump directly into humans, it has different receptor properties. There is most likely an intermediary host. We do not know which species this intermediary host or if it actually had one, that is unknown at the moment, it’s really important to point that out. There is a lot of publications out there that are tooting incredible titles that the pangolin or what not, we really just don’t know at the moment. The problem is that the samples from the epicenter or the outbreak are not there, we just don’t have the data. As I said, the most important thing is that these markets in Southeast Asia and in China are very, very special because animals are alive, so they get to the market, they’re alive and they’re shedding viruses and that provides a lot of opportunities for spill over. The multitude of species that you have there really enhances this numbers game as I say and make it easier for viruses to spill over.

THOM CANALICHIO: Thank you Dr. Walzer. I want to continue the discussion, going into some of the global health policy and the politics and the ramifications under those topics with Matthew Kavanagh from Georgetown University. We’ll come back to Dr. Walzer with some further questions and again, media attending, please feel free to chat any questions for any of the experts and we’ll get to those. Professor Kavanagh, can you tell us as a basis for this discussion, the intertwining of international politics and global health policy, how are those two subjects linked and maybe ways that they’re not as linked as they should be in our discourse as a public?

KAVANAGH: Thanks for having me and thanks everybody for joining. When we think about international politics and we think about public health, we often think about them in different realms. We have conversations about in the United States here, whether we should have Medicare for all or whether we should have Obamacare. We have conversations around where should wars happen, etc. but what we are increasingly seeing is that global public health is in fact a massive foreign policy issue. Numerous folks have said for many years that a pandemic like this was likely. The US National Academy’s of Medicine, the World Economic Forum, the World Health Organization, Bill Gates, everybody has been predicting for many years that there would be a global pandemic very similar to what we’re talking about right now and the core question at hand is, will the world be able to cooperate or will the world descend into isolation as an fail to cooperate? What we’re seeing right now is the decent into isolationism and a failure of cooperation. We have right now, a political pandemic that’s actually sweeping the world. 

THOM CANALICHIO: Very interesting. You’d characterize this both as a health pandemic and a political one because of the response in public policy?

KAVANAGH: Absolutely. What we’re seeing around the world is that the responses could be to sit together, use the international institutions that exist like the United Nations, centered on the World Health Organization and a variety of other international fore that exist and were built to respond to global crises but instead, what we’re seeing is a lot of energy out into travel bans, put into isolation as policies and put into singular attention to what happens inside borders rather than an international solution. Particularly dangerous is the lack of engagement by the United States. We’ve seen in past crisis like this Ebola crises being a really good example. The critical role of the United States has played in both coordination and in aid and actually brining the world together to focus political energy and financial resources on responding, in this epidemic and what’s now become a pandemic, we’re seeing the US actually really seed that leadership and it’s leaving a major gap in the global political sphere about how do we actually respond together in ways rather than being competitive are actually cooperative. 

THOM CANALICHIO: If any media have questions for Professor Kavanagh or any of the other experts, please chat them. In comparing the current situation in the US to the early stages of the outbreak in China, have there been missed steps that resemble early missed steps in China here in the US and how would you characterize those?

KAVANAGH: Absolutely. We now have a deeply challenging environment in which we have a global pandemic in the context of US election and in the context of an international trade war between the United States and China. What we see is, early in China when the virus first broke out there were political incentives that really undercut the response, so information was concealed, not just from the international community, which has gotten a lot of attention but also from Beijing, that there was a failure to move information from the frontlines of what was happening Wuhan up to the central government for their capacity to respond. There was every incentive to not tell the leader bad news and to not draw political attention to an outbreak, it then became international for political considerations. The exact same thing is happened ironically here in the United States, where every incentive has been to not draw attention of the leader for the President Trump who is in the midst of an electoral campaign, to play down the severity, to talk about how we will soon be done and if you look at the early moments, what President Trumps response was based on and what the entire Federal Government’s main response was based on, was the idea of keeping a virus out. It very much played into the political rhetoric that’s been going on in the United States about foreign intervention and about keeping dangers out and so the President focused and the Federal Government focused on a travel ban from China, as if we could keep the virus out. Well, what we know is that travel bans don’t work, they haven’t worked and they’re not working now and yet instead of paying close attention to the things that could work, like ramping up testing, including cooperating across the world to ramp up testing, instead there was a really opportunity cost to instead focussing on clamping down borders and trying to stop this through restrictions on travel that frankly, just didn’t work.

THOM CANALICHIO: You brought up testing and we have a question related to that from Jessie Hicks at Vice. She’s asking, I’m sorry, I’m not sure if Jessie is a man or woman but Jessie is asking about at home testing and what are the challenges and realities involved in that? I know you may not be in on the science necessarily but as a health policy expert, what would you say about that Dr. Kavanagh?

KAVANAGH: There’s a wide variety and I’m not a doctor so I won’t speak from that perspective but from a policy perspective, there is a number of regulatory hurdles that at a home test would usually go through that would usually take quite some time. Now, what we know is that FDA has a number of different channels through which it can move much faster in crisis and in which it’s doing so and so there’s the all chances that we will see an at home test coming soon. It’s not that there are no technologies out there, it’s a question of overcoming a number of regulatory barriers and of course testing to make sure that the test itself is effective. That is one path to moving things quickly. Had we taken the time, this is core message that I have is, had we taken the time that was achieved by China’s response overall, we actually had months to prepare for the pandemic when it was coming and so things like ramping up testing, figuring out how to get an at home test, figuring out how to saturate the communities that are affected with testing, that could have put us on a very different trajectory that looks much more like what happened in South Korea, where they were able to engage -- they didn’t have to lock down entire cities, instead they used rational social distancing policies along with blanket testing and what they were able to achieve has been a flattening off of the new infections that looks nowhere near what Italy is seeing or what now the United States is seeing but unfortunately the political choice was not to focus on, for example, making an at home test available sooner. 

THOM CANALICHIO: A question from Susan Burger for the Washington Post, while we do not seem to engage globally, can you address the US response, specifically the White House who is not even on the same page as the scientists? From Susan Burger.

KAVANAGH: It’s a huge challenge. I think there are deep challenges with trying to respond to a pandemic in the middle of an election and that is what we’re seeing playing out. Unfortunately the mixing of messages on the stage, whether it’s the White House briefings or on other stages of the political messaging and the public health messaging is actually hugely problematic and worrisome because one of the things that we know is critical in an open society, in a democracy is clear communication about what the risks are, what’s happening and clear public health messaging. What we’re looking for right now is the cooperation of the public and the cooperation of wide swaths of the population to do really hard things. To shut down economic activity, to stay home, to isolate, we’re counting on people who have any symptoms to isolate themselves, we’re counting on a massive amount of public cooperation, with public health interventions. That only works if there is clear trust and if there is clear messaging that’s coming out. I was deeply worried to see one of the reports that came out recently that shows that only 37 percent of American’s say they trust what the President is saying and that I think means that we actually have a real problem because the person who needs to be giving clear public health messages needs to be trusted by a heck of a lot more than 37 percent of Americans.

THOM CANALICHIO: Thank you. We’re going to ask some more questions about the degradation of that trust because of these co-mingling of the science and the politics when we come back to Dr. Kavanagh but I want to go next to Dr. Admati about the major relief bill package that’s passing through Congress as we speak, voted on very late last night by the Senate. Professor Admati, can you start us off by just giving us a summary of the key points of this bill in your opinion?

ADMATI: In a bill like this and remember, it is close to 900 pages of text, there are a lot of details. There are the headline numbers and people talk about that, in other words in a political way in which this plays out there is a spin on it and the narrative on it and there is the fact of it. Here again, the headline numbers are that people will get a one-time check, it’s a small check relatively, certainly in the Bay Area where I come from $1,200 one time. In other countries they have given it on a regular basis while relevant. That’s one immediate thing on that individual level, that supposedly there is a check in the mail, that’s one. Then there are big items, enormous amounts of money, just to give people an idea of these headline numbers, two trillion dollar package, that’s the largest ever, but just a trillion, just so you understand that’s 12 zeros come after the one and if you stack up 1000 dollars bills which we don’t even have, one trillion is 68 miles high okay and so two trillion is like 136 miles high of 1000 dollar bills, that is a lot of money. What happens within that bill, there are thousands of pieces to it? The big, big numbers with headline, 500 billion, that’s a quarter of it, goes to the control of [INAUDIBLE -- 0:18:53.0] basically Treasury Secretary to do all kinds of things with it. Some of which it tells it to do, specifically like 50 billion dollars to airlines and another eight for cargo airlines and then there is some small business part. We can go a long time through that. I would characterize it as having occasionally a few useful things but overall, it’s being incredibly evident of the miss guided financialization of the whole entire enterprise. We’re here because we have a health care, public health crisis. Our President in particular and others are extremely focused on call it, the stock market. Metrics of this sort, as if they measure what we need, even as an economy not just as a society in terms of what we value. Now we’re starting to talk about people prioritizing the stock market over people’s lives, let a half million people die they say. Now, I go back to and I’m glad it came up because that was going to be my point as well and I just want to reinforce, testing is critical and again, we are victims right now and ongoing to the broken politics of this country and of the world right now. Exactly echoing the political scientist said, as somebody who is interested in political economy. I can speak to the financial implications and to all the different pieces of this but I’m going to stop right here to say, this favors corporations over individuals and in that sense, it’s very misguided policy. There would have been better ways to spend a lot of money to solve the underlying problem.

THOM CANALICHIO: Thank you, Professor. Dr. Walzer has something he’d like to add to that and we’ll come back to Dr. Admati. 

WALZER: I just wanted to reinforce the point both Matthew and Anta just said, the testing is clear. I’m a wildlife veterinarian, if I worked the way this going at the moment without testing and tried to come up with policies and ideas, that’s absolutely mayhem, there is no way you could work like that. When we state things like there are a lot of Coronaviruses out in bats, that’s because there’s been a lot, a lot of testing ongoing in the last 10 years. I just really want to reinforce that, so that doesn’t sort of disappear. We need to test more on all levels. 

THOM CANALICHIO: Thank you and well said. Back to Professor Admati for some more analysis of the economics of this. We see unemployment numbers spiking in a report today, over 3.2 million new jobless claims. We’ll see the full months reports I guess next Friday. With the Relief Package working through Congress and this news coming out today, how does that support some of the things that you would suggest this package do differently and what else do you predict these jobless claims mean for the economy in the short term?

ADMATI: We have an economy that’s become more of a gig economy, more of a contract labor economy. There is much less safety net then some of the safety nets have been created after the great depression and have eroded and eroded in recent years. We’re seeing the frugality of the economy, the frugality of people who can’t handle a small shock, that’s been discussed for the last few years, how fragile American’s are and that’s what we see, is a hit people cannot take. Then of course we have great inequality which means that some people can take huge hits, are they taking these hits? I don’t know if they are disproportionately suffering as much as they can suffer without even blinking verses the people down who are really not in a position to absorb any shock. What we’re seeing is the fraying of that economy, built so much on temporary work, on hourly wages, on not even being employees and so unemployment claims are not even sometimes people are eligible for them because they are not employed. The expanded it a little bit and they need to do a lot more on unemployment, a lot of it is following people, meaning they won’t work but they’ll still be paid, they’ll still be attacked to their employer because businesses are forced to close for all these stay in place, shelter in place orders that we’re under, that we should be under right at the moment, given that we don’t know who is sick and not and all of that. Yes, unemployment is spiking and will potentially go to 30 percent, we just as a society need to take care of people so that we don’t increase inequality in this country.

THOM CANALICHIO: One more question for Dr. Admati on the big picture economic aspect of this and then I’m going to go to Dr. Preston for some of the psychology of the phenomenon hat we’re witnessing. Dr. Admati, this relief package is clearly going to be adding to our current budget deficit and the national debt and also, we’re presented with the likelihood of recession and a decline in GDP for the year. In light of that, will the US appear more attractive or less attractive when we get through this crisis for investors?

ADMATI: I don’t when you mean more or less, you mean relative to the past? Relative to other countries? We’re not…

THOM CANALICHIO: Any context that you’d put that in is fine by me.

ADMATI: Following up on the point about the US seeing leadership and the world becoming more competitive, I think we’re showing terrible things that have happened to our politics and economics, in terms of again, collaboration verses competition and all of the trade wars and everything else. I think the broken politics is harming also the economy and I think that yes, we can invest wisely to deal with this kind of shock that is putting people, freezing the economy basically. If we had the right priorities, we could do better than by not having the right priorities. Back to how we will suffer longer because we’re not investing in the right things and because we’re going to have a crumbling healthcare system if we don’t have masks and personnel and all of that. That’s where the key approaches must focus and they’re not.  

THOM CANALICHIO: Professor Kavanagh you had something to add to that.

KAVANAGH: Just to add, I think the G20 leaders are meeting and I think it’s a real sign of a very worrying set of trends. I think both China and the United States believe that the Coronavirus may well shift the global order and so what you see is the America First Policy not working out quite as well as planned but instead of collaborating and cooperating with the world’s leading producer of medical supplies and I want to just emphasize that. There is almost no way out of the crisis of personal protective equipment and medical supplies without production from China for the world but rather than collaborating and coordinating and figuring out how we scale those pieces up, what we see is aggressive moves and statements by this administration about using this crisis to gain economic and strategic advantage against China. Secretary Pompeo today was out taking about the rumors and various things and getting caught in the Chinese PR conversation and picking a fight against China rather than actually thinking about how do you strengthen the global economy. There is no economic recovery in 2020 for the United States that’s not linked to economic recovery for China and so the idea that somehow we can divorce these two things and we can go back to a hyper competitive environment coming out of a global crisis like a pandemic, is a folly. Instead of that, I’m deeply worried that what we will see is continued competitive nature and continued harming of the economic poitionality rather than the kind of trust building exercises that could put us on the footing to actually have global growth out of this. The US economy is far linked and Dr. Admati can speak to more than I can but it’s far to linked to the economies of China and the rest of the world, to somehow gain competitive advantage out of this. Our very best-case scenario is to stop the brinkmanship back and forth and instead focus on how collaboration can be rebuilt.

THOM CANALICHIO: Thank you. I want to go now to Stephanie Preston to talk about some of the psychology and the behavioral science with relation to all of these things. Professor Kavanagh talked about masks, we’ve seen those out in public and on news footages, average citizens walking around with those masks, I think that’s emblematic of some of the behaviors that we’re seeing which is maybe dubious about whether or not it’s actually beneficial. Stephanie, you have a lot I think to say about some of the -- what’s wrong with people commentary that’s going on both in the news and on social media, with things like going out in public when there is supposed to be a shelter in place order or behavior at grocery stores with panic buying and stockpiling. Can you put that into context for us and tell us some general thoughts about that?

PRESTON: First I wanted to comment related to on the conversation about shutting down borders instead of being more collaborative that Dr. Kavanagh talked about. It’s a reflex, I get deeply psychological phenomenon where when people are primed to think of disease or contamination or germs, it insights this kind of psychology of avoiding otherness. Any kind of otherness, like out group members, people who aren’t from your culture, even strange foods, ethnic foods you haven’t had before, people start avoiding anything that’s not familiar, highly familiar when you prime them to think of the threat disease. It’s possible that that’s even working its way into the national political realm, probably they do have some strategic goals but also, people have this knee jerk reaction to think of eliminating the other as a good strategy, as a heuristic and it also relates to these masks. Your mask you think contamination means something from the outside goes to the inside. People have this very simple heuristic for how this works. Contamination means something out there came in here that wasn’t supposed. A mask, what they think, going to protect them. The stockpiling is really like a rational response to what they perceive as the threat to themselves. You can’t see how many masks there are in the world, that’s not something you can conceptionalize in your mind, at one time, at one place, we’re not really given any information about that and so you can’t see the health care worker that needs the masks. When you take a couple boxes for yourself, you’re thinking, this is going to protect something from out here coming in here as will for example, cross the street when I see somebody from East Asia even if they were born in Toledo, they didn’t come here from China. People have these bias against other which cause them to take these behaviors. The hoarding of these goods is really a rational strategy that’s evolved in your brain for hundreds of millions or years. Birds and rodents, multiple kinds of mammals’ hoard food, especially during a shortage and these things are set off by stress and perceived uncertainty. In the lab I can cause an animal to start hoarding food by saying depriving it of food or having a neighbor steal some of it’s food or thinking you’re not sure when the next meal is going to come, you can institute hoarding in species, including people. In the lab, we can give people a task where first they read a distressing story with uncertainty about the health of their mother who is in the hospital and then we offer them some products in a seemingly unrelated experiment and people take more stuff when you make them feel uncertain or anxious even if it’s not related to the cause. Hoarding is adaptive and sensible when you actually have a shortage but because it goes through anxiety, if you have anxiety about getting sick, about germs, about the economy, about job loss, about your bank account, that can also come out in this stockpiling mentality. You might just feel like, I will feel more comfortable about this whole situation if I can go to the store and at least feel safe that I have a whole bunch of stuff that I need at my house, even if that anxiety wasn’t actually caused by a perceived shortage. People have no clue if the grocery store is going to go away or run out or continue to be replenished. It’s a high level of uncertainty that no one is addressing. Most people, what they’re doing is total rational and evolved and your brain does this whether or not you’re conscious of it but you have to make sure it’s tied to the cause of the anxiety. Most people have the extreme examples of the brothers who had 17,700 of sanitizer in a storage unit and they’re selling them for prices, gorging prices on Amazon and most people aren’t doing that. If you read the news, you don’t want to go, oh people at large are terrible. People in general are not terrible, they’re getting just enough they think for their family but these cases make it into the news obviously because they are extreme, so you want to be careful not to think of those as representatives of what people are doing. Public shaming worked, they got even death threats because of this hoarding of the hand sanitizer and ended up donating it all to a church and state government in order to distribute to people who needed. We have all these evolutionary built in mechanisms to ensure protection, to ensure we hoard when resources are available if we think they won’t be and we have this built in mechanism to social shame people who think are deviating from the rational level of resource taking. 

THOM CANALICHIO: A couple of questions from the chat that I think would be great for you address in that context. First from Jessie Hicks from Vice. Do you believe it was a mistake early on, public officials telling people to not and buy and use these masks because the average person wouldn’t use them correctly and now that they could be useful as the epidemic has increased, is that public trust degraded because of the confusing message about that? When it comes the psychology understanding of that behavior, the message changing, has that made people suspectable to not trusting the advice?

PRESTON: I think these are such fluid situations. People have a very good capacity to shift their information processing and their decision making online dynamically. New information or changing information I don’t think is that bad. What is bad for degrading trust is if the individual delivering the news has been shown to be obscuring information or to have systematic bias, especially in these polarizing times and with the early discussions about China maybe not releasing transparent information about the level of threat. I think individuals become tagged as untrustworthily and then their messages are difficult to convey, that’s definitely a problem. People are taking direct information from what they can see. People have no clue, the man who hoarded the hand sanitizer, he was crying in a video saying, I’m so sorry I didn’t know. My job as a person in the business world is to acquire goods, I think that are coming hot and then sell them and then move on to the next hot thing. I’m just doing that all the time and I bought hand sanitizer but I didn’t know it was going to become a threat of this magnitude. As soon as he realized it was a threat of that magnitude it fed into his response to give it all up. People have to be provided with very salient, visual, concrete images of this shortage and the healthcare workers and the drastic measurers they’re needing to take because your brain can only respond and sympathize with and integrate information, it really encounters abstractions have very little impact on your behavior. 

THOM CANALICHIO: From Susan Berger with the Washington Post, isn’t it also true that we feel more in control by hoarding since nothing else right now is in our control? What would you say to that?

PRESTON: I think that’s exactly right. The uncertainty is unsettling and then feeling like you have enough or even more than enough or a little more than enough maybe, is making you feel secure. Security is like, I have the threat controlled and one aspect of that we have to be careful of though is, the grocery store is one of the only things still open. People stay home, they get bord, they ger anxious, buying stuff makes them feel more secure, they want to make sure they are replenishing supplies but the degree of contamination is going to keep increasing in the United States and the risk of going to the grocery store is going to keep increasing. You have to be careful that you don’t use the grocery store as a displacement behavior for all of your anxiety because it’s going to put you at an increasing risk as time goes on in the next couple of weeks. Just like I said with the visual threat, you can’t see germs, you don’t know where they are and it doesn’t even matter if you’re six feet away from somebody, if 10 minutes ago somebody walked through the air and coughed particles into the air and then you walked through and sniffed it. They’re saying you can get it from these droplets in the air that last for three hours, we can’t see these things. People are going to have to use a little bit of top down control over these impulses and be a little self aware so they don’t put themselves at increasing risk. 

THOM CANALICHIO: Thank you. I want to turn again to Dr. Walzer. Please in the chat, media, please ask any questions that you have. Dr. Walzer, it’s been brought up about some of this fear and anxiety, especially with otherness and there has been a lot off issues and reports about discrimination and prejudice against Asian’s, other races that can be viewed as a threat in this situation and I understand that policy about the wildlife trade, both legal and illegal and whether or not China should crack down on that is a big issue for you and for your organization. How do you think we can balance advocacy for a safer appropriate policy with respecting culture and traditions and respecting the fact that some of these prejudices can come about during cases like this? What do you think about that?

WALZER: Just to start off with, I just want to make it very clear that the government of China has decided at the highest echelon to ban wildlife trade in relation to consumption and Vietnam has followed suite, sometimes we’re even behind what the respected governments have already decided so that ban is in place. At the moment there is actually on a ban on all wildlife trade in China and it’s being rigorously enforced as teams in the country tell us. But China is now moving to permanently ban all consumption of wildlife, be it farmed or wild caught, legal and illegal, if it’s sustainable, all of these things really don’t matter in the context of an infecting and Vietnam in following suite, so that’s the first thing. The other thing I think we always over estimate is this whole cultural context. There is obviously a long tradition, as we have here in the United States or in Europe where I come from, we eat wildlife, we hunt it, we eat it but there is a big difference in trading. You can go out and hunt your deer here in New York, in the States but you can’t go and sell it to the restaurant or drop it off at a restaurant or actually go catch it alive and bring it into the restaurant which would be a much closer analogy of what’s happening in China. Now, the other thing is a large part of this trade does not have thousands years of culture, it is actually a reaction of some of the biggest hunger disasters which happened the end of 1970’s in China, where the central government tried to get the rural population to breed wildlife to just meet their nutritional demands, basically to get their protein. Then that was reinforced about 20 years ago to lift the rural population out of poverty, one of the strategies was, we’ll have them farming wildlife and these are a very few species, a lot of bamboo rats, porcupines and civets for example.  There is this cultural context, we have to very careful, especially we have to be cognizant of the fact that there are large populations, especially in the indigenous peoples and local communities that are dependent on wildlife for protein intake, they don’t have alternatives. What we’re talking about here is mostly urban populations which are consuming wildlife as luxury item. It’s again this problem of inequality. We have people who have money, the rising middle class that are buying pangolins illegally, consuming them. We really need to be careful, yes we need to be cognizant of the fact that some populations do need this protein intake and there is in alternatives but on the large scale, these are huge urban markets where a lot of criminal networks are making a lot of money trading animals on a global scale. Remember, pangolins are not locally caught, they’re coming from Africa most of them now because they’ve managed to get rid of most of the Asian ones, so this is a huge market with a lot of profit to be made. 

THOM CANALICHIO: Thank you for clarifying that for us Dr. Walzer. I want to go next to Dr. Admati and I think this is a question I’d like all the experts to address from your own point of view of course. Dr. Admati, as an economist, how can we get people, how can we incentivize people having more faith in our institutions that really shine in moments like this with good experts and expertise and competence? Separating that from political messaging. How can we get people to differentiate between those things and believe in them?

ADMATI: I think this is a great question. My entry in being here came out of the financial crisis 2008. When I stepped in from my protected shell of being a theorist in finance, I was shocked to discover both the politics and eventually the psychology as well, which is why I’m really grateful that you put together a panel like that because Dr. Preston was talking about people needing to trust the person speaking but we also have this phenomenon of what’s called willful blindness and it was mentioned what’s real verses abstract or what you can see, more disengagement, how you can disengage, like the person who bought sanitizer disengaged morally from what he was doing, he wasn’t thinking about it, he wasn’t aware of it. Going back to your question about experts, again a few of us here who do know some pieces of this puzzle are saying, look at all the ignorance out there and I’m always shocked by just how people believe what they want to believe and where you can have the nonsense winning a policy debate. The first manifest I wrote 10 years ago was called Follicles Irrelevant Facts and Myths, it was about things that were a little bit esoteric and then I wrote a book to try to explain it, to staffer, to journalists, little bit of my discipline in words and really what you see is, we already heard that people have been warning about pandemics. We heard in my area, people are warning about excessive debt and excessive fragility and crisis and nobody wants to hear it, while it’s kind of an extract threat and that’s where we find ourselves. The short sidedness and this refusal to listen to the people who really know and be thoughtful about polices, really part of why we sometimes suffer all these consequences, financial crisis of pandemics like that. When there is bad polices and then politics around. I think that’s where a lot of us come into alternative facts and myths and all kinds of anti vax and all kinds of other things that are social media makes worse.

THOM CANALICHIO: Thank you. Professor Kavanagh, we talked a little bit before this about the degeneration of trust in politics and democracy, when we see contractor messages out there and we see those things intermingled too much, misinformation along with good information. How do we convince the public to differentiate between those things and have confidence in competent experts?  

KAVANAGH: I think one key is to understand that we cannot separate out public health messaging from political messaging, the two are deeply intertwined and as has been talked about a few times, the messenger matters a lot. There are a few things to keep in mind. One, we should be hearing a lot more from the public health experts who allowed to speak on their own. We should be hearing from Dr. Fauci and Dr. Berks, we should be hearing from the about public health messaging about what that looks like with applause from behind from our pollical leaders, so that we have one voice that’s speaking. We know over and over again that in a time of crisis being able to separate that out and have people’s ability to understand both messages, political and public health and intertwine them but we also need to understand in the broader context the ways in which trust is going to be built is what they see political actors doing. We know for example that we are in the middle of an election cycle and that means that everyone engaged in the political class is trying to win elections, everyone knows that, that’s not big surprise. The core question is, can they see them coming together on issues that matter to the public and can we get accurate information? We’ve seen ways in which the worry about democracy is actually infusing everything else that’s going on. One of the things around the world is that we’ve actually seen a decrease in the democratize character governance in countries across the board, overall, the world has become less democratic. Overall, political scientists judge the United States to also be becoming less democratic and that’s very worrisome because we saw in China that what happens when the state shuts down open medial and free expression, when they engage in a lot of propaganda activities, we’ve seen that when that goes unchecked that undermines pandemic response. The same is true here in the United States. When you see attacks again and again on media as ineffective and partisan and the idea that there is no truth out there, that actually can really -- it’s a political message and it’s an intentional political message but it can undermine trust in democracy and that’s what we’re seeing in the measures across when we do surveys and so that’s deeply worrying. 

THOM CANALICHIO: Thank you. I want to go next to Professor Preston with the same question. How do we address and maybe inoculate people against the susceptibility to confusion and mistrust because of these issues with contradictory messaging out there from public officials and getting them to trust in the experts who are competent? 

PRESTON: I fully agree with what was just said, that we need to be able to hear it from the horse’s mouth as it were. For some reason our politicians are always the one standing at the podium and then doctor, the scientist is standing back here and they don’t ever get to say anything and they’re the one actually knows. People understand expertise and they would trust the words of these people but we have to hear it from them, we have to be able to have a line of communication open with them. Forums like this are important because the scientist’s need to learn how to speak to people in a way that doesn’t seem abstract or obtuse or too hard to understand. I think the trust in scientist’s themselves isn’t as high as it use to be. In the 1950’s people thought scientists were awesome because they were getting us to the moon and curing diseases that were worldwide and now, it’s like there is these eggheads and I can’t understand anything they’re saying. Just tell me the bottle line. Am I suppose to go or am I supposed to stay? We’re always hedging to make it more accurate and we’re always throwing out hedge words. We need to get better at communicating directly and clearly with people and having some bottom line as to what we think they should do. I think one of the biggest problems is sort of referred to this intertwining with political bias, we’re living in these bubbles. If my social media is by bubble, then I have no clue what’s happening in the other bubble. When the election of 2016 happened, I was completely shocked because everyone I heard from was in my bubble and they were just saying what I thought, which was for sure going to go this way and then it goes another way. I am getting literally a thousand posts in Facebook a day about flattening the curve but I have no clue if they’re getting these graphs in the other bubble and are these graphs clearly conveying what people are supposed to do? Most of them don’t have an X axis, there is no numbers on it, okay we’re going to flatten and when do we stop flattening? When do we come back to life? None of them have information in them. I think we have to get a little better at our communication skills and tailor them to how people are actually getting their information. People shouldn’t be expected to be doing research projects at home, they have to go to work, they have to take care of their kids, they’re already stressed beyond belief. Doing a research project about statistics is literally the last thing on most people’s minds.

THOM CANALICHIO: Well said professor. I want to go to Dr. Walzer as well for this same question and then I have another round of questions for each of the experts, kind of more focused on your area. Of course, any of the media that have any questions, please do chat them, we’d be happy to get those in as well. We’re getting close to an hour but if we’ve got enough time to do that we will. Dr. Walzer, what are your thoughts about that questions? You mentioned for example the comparison between testing bats in the wild for instances of Coronaviruses that might be a threat and how thorough that’s been done in the past and why can’t we test people that might have been exposed to this Coronavirus. How in light of contradictions like that can we get people to start paying better attention to the experts who have confidence in these areas?

WALZER: I really agree with what everyone said just before me. It’s interesting who’s doing the speaking and who actually has the knowledge, there is obviously a disjunct there which is massive. The other one, it’s come up several times, we knew about this. I just want to point out that already in 2018, the WHO had put this so-called Disease X on their list, which exactly what we have now, it’s not a surprise. There have been media reports, in the fall of 2019 there was an exercise, a scenario just to see about responsiveness here in the United States and I’m sure this happened somewhere else, it’s not only about it happening here. Where this pandemic was played out and everyone realized well this isn’t going to go well, we need to do something else. The problem of translating I think has come up as well today, translating science into policy we really failed there sometimes, the time is too long and too complicated and then obviously we all suffer from discounting the future. Future threats don’t harm us as much as what’s going to happen tomorrow.

THOM CANALICHIO: There was a question about the PPE, the personal protective equipment and policy about that and some healthcare workers having consequences when they complain publicly about it. I did miss that as we were discussing some other topics. I’m not sure if any of the experts that are still with us might want to respond to that? Nurses and other healthcare workers facing consequences, like losing their jobs when they complain publicly about the lack personal protective equipment. Dr. Admati, did you have anything you wanted to say about that?

ADMATI: Whistleblowers often suffer and I’ve encountered some in the context of all kinds of corporate wrong doings and financial fraud and other things like that and so now the people on the frontline are these nurses and healthcare providers and if they are put in a position where they have to risk their lives, they are also endangering others and we really need them. If we have breakdown of the governance of our healthcare system in terms of the people in the frontline and the people making decisions who are suppose to supply them with these masks and this equipment, it becomes an economic question. Back to the competition, our President and our Federal Government has allowed states to go competing for masks in the open market and that is just unconscious able. We have to collaborate, even within this country, rather than start fighting over these things that are so essential for people’s lives. Once again, you see a cynical way of approaching it rather than the sensible, human, sociable way of approaching. I would be worried about whistleblowers and I would find channels for them to speak so that they are not suffering the consequences, it’s hugely important.

THOM CANALICHIO: Any other comments on that Professor Preston?

PRESTON: I just want to say how hugely important it is to public health to allow these people to speak because those are the times when people get a very salient, meaningful understanding of threat. You have to see it from the frontline to really internalize how big a problem it is. It’s to the hospital’s benefit for people to understand how grotesque things are at the hospital right now because then they’ll take more precautions and then you won’t have so many people showing up at the hospital. This morning there was women who said, I don’t care if I get fired from my job, you need to know what things are like and she mentioned having a refrigerated truck to put bodies and it’s almost taboo to even say something like that. It’s so terrible. You need to know how terrible things are to titrate your risk and people, if they don’t know how terrible it is, they’re not going to avoid risk.


ADMATI: People risked their lives in Wuhan to tell us the story.

THOM CANALICHIO: Right, absolutely. Very good examples. I hope that answers your question Lynn. Dr. Walzer, more back to your area of focus. What would you recommend or steps that we should be looking at now to prevent the possibility of another Coronavirus type mutation jumping from animals to humans? What policies need to be put into effect? What nations are areas that should be focussing on this kind of thing? Any thoughts about that as you just mentioned the inherent bias of discounting the future because it’s unknown, we’re going to listen to you, a competent expert telling us what you might predict and what we should be looking ahead to.

WALZER: One thing we do know, we know the wildlife is teaming with these viruses and we know that the Southeast Asian context and China, the markets having live animals brought to these markets, mixed together, mixing multiple species, slaughtering onsite, all these things provide an absolute super interface or spillover event. Respect of this now when we trace this one back to some intermediate host, closing these markets permanently for consumption, these live animal markets throughout Southeast Asian, that’s China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Northeastern India that’s the first thing we need to do. We need to stop these live animal markets that are creating wildlife, that’s really the most important. We obviously need to work on the education and change in behavior. We do want to work on multiple pillars, we can’t just say, okay you can’t eat this, it needs to be supported with a broad education campaign on the risks. Then, unfortunate we also have to address it on a more global scale, there are several other hot spots around the world which we’re not addressing at the moment because we’re focused so strongly on Southeast Asia at the moment but there is obviously in Latin American there is a broad area where there is a lot of potential for spillover and then of course, the Central African similarly where there is wildlife trade going on and movement of meat and products out of these areas with their respective viruses. Banning the wildlife trade for consumption is really key to reduce the risk, it’s not going to eliminate it, that’s also really important, everyone has to understand there is always going to be risk but we’re just going to reduce the amplitude of that risk.

THOM CANALICHIO: Thank you, Dr. Walzer. For Dr. Admati, a question from the chat, Jessie Hicks a Vice asks, how can we best take advantage of this current crisis to potentially remake our economic system in a more just way? You’ve talked a lot about, very eloquently I might add, about the frugality of the banking system and how that’s a feature and not a bug, is this an opportunity for transformation?

ADMATI: I hoped that about the last crisis, needed to really reflect on why that didn’t really happen, always say, yeah stuff happens and then let’s go back, let’s forget it and not learn the lessons. Will we learn the lessons about the policies that were just proposed? Did we learn the lessons from the kinds of proposals that simple, straightforward proposals that I’ve made after the crisis, which I had to conclude it take a village to maintain a bad system because there are so many enablers to the continued distortions and dangermen that goes on in the financial sector, completely unnecessarily because of bad policy. We have bad policies everywhere. The economic system and our entire democracy really need some work. Maybe this shakes people up, maybe people understand more, that we need unconflicted experts to be there and hold politician to account and the public then needs to hear from unconflicted experts to know how to do the politics and therefore then how do our governance so we can have the collectively the right actions being taken on our behave. That would be the fixing of the economic system as well as other systems that our society seems to have let deteriorate.

THOM CANALICHIO: Thank you, Dr. Admati. To Professor Kavanagh, about the current campaign season and the upcoming primaries, changes to schedules of certain things, if this pandemic draws out it may impact conventions over the summer and get out the vote efforts in the fall. What are your thoughts about what factors we need to be aware of and looking at in terms of the political process and what that does to our democracy in light of this pandemic?

KAVANAGH: This is a really hugely challenging thing to think about how to maintain democratic openness in a moment of a global pandemic without a cure and without widespread testing. I think first of all, my hope is deeply that we are able to ramp up testing quickly because that’s basically the only way we are likely able to leave our houses and do the kinds of things the administration is talking about wanting to do but simply will not be possible without this level of testing. But on the elections, I think we need to be very careful. Iran held a set of elections on February 21st and now 10 percent of MP’s have contract Coronavirus and so we need to recognize that the virus is real, that it poses some real challenges on democratic practice but we can use the tools of technology that we have and communication to actually move ahead with things. One of the things we saw and we’ve talked a bunch about trust is that in the Democratic Republic of Congo they delayed elections in one of the areas that was hardest hit by Ebola and it deeply undermine trust in government in ways that have not been recoverable. I think really thinking about how do we move this forward? Even in 1918 under the massive flu that happened, the elections in the United States still went forward. In 1864 there were elections during the Civil War and proposals to postpone them were not agreed to. I think it’s time to say how do we have elections? How do we use mail in elections? How do we use virtual campaigning? The mail in elections piece would take changes, acts of Congress and then probably throughout acts of each of the states to be able to allow that to happen but I can and it’s important that we do keep the election on track and that we allow that democratic openness and just move to where it is. One side note is simply that the President does not have the power to change the date of the election or to change anything about the election. It’s important for us to all be very clear about that because we can be sanguine about many things but the idea of democracy being a rock that can’t shift is something we should be very careful of because we’ve seen over time that democracy is about practice, it’s about what happens and it’s not just inherently there, so we should guard against any moves to undermine democracy and to delay elections.

THOM CANALICHIO: Thank you, Professor. Last but not least, I want to give Professor Preston to answer one more question and we’ll be pretty much out of time. Professor Preston, for people dealing with the anxiety and the fear of all this uncertainty, we’ve talked about some of the hoarding and stockpiling of resources and there are obviously other manifestations that these kinds of things can take as a stressor to our daily lives. What signs and self assessment and self care would you recommend that the average person consider for themselves to try to understand when their behavior crosses the line from things that are adaptive to things that are maybe disordered?

PRESTON: It’s sometimes hard to know, how much toilet paper is enough? I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m doing something excessive or normal. I don’t know how much you have. I don’t necessarily want to tell you how much I have. There is this lack of transparency and information flow that makes it difficult to know if what you’re doing is normal or typical or okay. I think one important thing that that tells is social norms are very important. You might not want to go against delayed discounting if there is something you really want but you would if everyone around you would think that was bad. If everyone around you think it’s cool to do X then you’ll think it’s cool too. With the endangered species, if the rich people are still thinking it’s really cool to have a party and serve this dish of rare species, there are going to keep doing regardless of what the law is. People are going to keep going out and meeting with their friends if they think it won’t be socially judged. In my little bubble, if I showed a picture on my social media of me at party, people would freak out and start yelling at me, that’s a social norm, like a pressure being enforced on my behavior. If you feel like you’re getting stressed, you have to do the same things you would advise yourself to do any other time. Ways to avoid getting overwhelmed or to keep your focus or to not use all these displacement behaviors, you want to have a schedule, so you don’t get bored and eat all your food or you don’t get bored and go to the grocery store and infect yourself. You have a schedule of things you’re going to do, include exercise, exercise increasing your heartrate, stimulates your mind, it avoids this tendency to feel like a sloth and want to eat and get depressed which can happen if you’re just at home all the time and you’re under stimulated. You need to find people who you value in your social life to communicate with on a daily basis. You don’t have to be a social person, not everyone feels like an extrovert but somebody you trust and care about, communicating with them adds a lot of depth to someone’s life. Lastly and most importantly maybe, giving to other people is a way that we know from science, increasing your wellness and decreases morbidity. It can directly lengthen your life if you’re giving to others more than focused on yourself. A little daily dose of checking in with somebody or donating to the business you’re worried about going under or something like that, these little ways of giving bring people a lot of wellbeing enhancement and then they’re less likely to do these more destructive things that you can be self aware that you might do in these different situations. 

THOM CANALICHIO: Wonderful. Thank you very much for that advice. Altruism has a place in the response to this crisis it sounds like and that’s something that’s going to help us to cope and survive. This discussion is helping me cope and survive. Thank you to all of our excellent experts. Chris Walzer, Stephanie Preston, Adnate Admati and Matthew Kavanagh, thank you so much for your time with us today. For all of the medial who are in the call, we are going to make sure to share with you contact information so that you can get in touch with these experts if you have follow-ups that you want to discuss with them. We also are going to provide a video and transcript and alert you when that is all prepared, should be later today for the video and probably early tomorrow for the transcript, these things take a little bit of time. I want to toss it to my colleague Jessica Johnson, the CEO here at Newswise for any closing thoughts and then we’ll wrap it up. Jessica.

JOHNSON: Thank you all. I love this variety of thoughts and ideas and how they intertwine together, so thank you all for joining and all the participants. I wish we could have kept going for longer, there is still so much to say but hopefully we can do it again. Thank you all.

THOM CANALICHIO: Thank you, Jessica. 



Meeting Link: COVID-19 Expert Panel 3-26-2020