An Interview with J. Michael Ryan

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Ian McKay: J. Michael Ryan is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan. He served as a researcher for the TRANSRIGHTS project at the University of Lisbon, and has taught courses at the American University in Cairo, in Ecuador, and the University of Maryland. He also worked as a research methodologist at the National Center for Health Statistics in Washington, DC. He brought out Core Concepts in Sociology in 2019 and Trans Rights in a Globalizing World in 2020.

During the pandemic, Professor Ryan has not only given us COVID-19: Social Inequalities and Human Possibilities (Routledge, 2022, co-authored with Serena Nanda) but also a two-volume collection of general essays: COVID-19: Global Pandemic, Societal Responses, Ideological Solutions (2021) and COVID-19: Social Consequences and Cultural Adaptations (2021).  The Routledge Covid-19 Pandemic Series, which Professor Ryan edits, lists nearly a dozen additional volumes, with many more doubtless to follow, making it one to watch for those of us trying to keep track of the impact of the pandemic. Welcome to Syndemic, Professor Ryan.

Michael Ryan: Many thanks for having me. I am honoured by the invitation! I might also mention that I have personally edited four more volumes, and I just found out yesterday that those just went into production. My mind, thankfully not my body, has been full of Covid.

McKay: A productivity level that puts the rest of us to shame. My first question relates to this term “Syndemic,” a neologism coined in the 1990s by anthropologist Merrill Singer, a student of HIV/AIDS, that we have used for our magazine, and which has clearly also influenced your work. Could you give people unfamiliar with this term an insight into why this concept matters to you? And would you be open to the argument that only a radically integral analysis can offer us realistic readings of the underlying causal forces whose dynamic interactions make such diseases possible – an “upstream” as opposed to a “downstream” analysis, so to speak? 

Ryan: The concept has been very influential in my work – not just the term but the concept.  To be honest, it was not something I’d thought about before coming to work on Covid-19 issues. But since I did, I wish I would have been thinking that way a long time ago.

The concept matters because diseases don’t exist in isolation. They share the world with us, and we need to understand the world they live in, which is the world we live in, too, if we’re to understand them.  

In a way, just as human beings are socialized by their environments, so are diseases…. We view these agents as diseases, whereas we are hosts to them. We’re also reliant on bacteria and viruses for our survival. Up to 8% of human DNA is actually in part made up of ancient viruses….

I do also think we need to have an upstream analysis, though this gets complicated in the same ways that I think intersectionality is often difficult and complicated. It’s difficult to include everything and difficult to think about blended interactions, rather than just being additive, which is maybe the problem you’re signalling with a “downstream” analysis. We need to think about the conceptual limits so that we don’t pare everything down to a level that would not be useful for a broader social analysis. We’re all unique individuals with unique experiences, and those are all important to recognize. But also, we need social concepts.

…When I first set about doing this, I initially, narrowly thinking just about sociology, issued a call for contributions for what was supposed to be a single volume on the sociological perspective. I realized really quickly that that was wrong and very short-sighted. I ended up with over 100 proposals. That’s how the first volume morphed into two and from just sociologists to a wide range of social scientists. It got me thinking: We really need to put this work in broader conversations. It’s not just about sociology.

As you’ve noted and as I try to push in my work, we need this broader social scientific perspective as a corollary to (or companion of) the medical perspective…. I often distinguish between the virus (which I see as the more medical) and the pandemic (which I see as more social). But I really don’t do that to draw boundaries but to show how the two are already joined together in a syndemic. These things are all inherently social. How do we classify what a virus is? What constitutes a pandemic? What does it  mean to have a lockdown? What are the policy issues? I agree that things need to be more holistic. Our analyses need to be more syndemic across the board.

We need to take up these broader or more integrated perspectives.

McKay: The thesis sustained by an emergent school of epidemiologists, biologists, social scientists and other scholars is that things like Covid-19 (and global climate change more generally) are complexly interwoven phenomena whose origins lie in fossil capitalism launched over two centuries ago, along with the massive deforestation and industrial agricultural practices such capitalism has more recently entailed. In their holistic interpretation, a “metabolic rift” (in their expression) has opened up between the socio-economic systems upon which humans materially rely and the intricate evolutionary processes of the non-human natural world.

“Capitalism” is certainly present in your book as an object of critique – “medicine must be removed from the jaws of capitalism,” you write (166) – and one is rarely in doubt about your sympathy with the exploited and oppressed. Yet, I was wondering, would it be fair to say that capitalism is still a fairly peripheral concept for you?

Ryan: I would agree that capitalism could be considered a fairly peripheral term in my work. But I would argue that it is a, or probably really the, central concept driving my work. I deal mostly with the epiphenomena of capitalism rather than analysing the system itself. I  think it’s important to do both. That’s why I appreciate the work of people who are taking the system to task. But, I also think it’s important to deal with the effects as well as the causes. I certainly see capitalism as the spectre haunting everything.

 I also focus more on the pandemic itself. So for me, the pandemic is the focus, even if it’s undergirded by capitalism, and by other humanly created social systems—race, gender, national borders…. Mine is not a critique of capitalism through the lens of Covid. It’s an understanding of Covid in the era of capitalism.

McKay: I noticed in particular the influence of Karl Polanyi, and thought to myself your perspective was Polanyian. In one place you draw on Polanyi specifically, but I sensed he was important to you more generally as well.

Ryan: I happen to be a big fan. I’m glad that came through. That makes me happy. In an earlier life, I was interested in the relationship between populism and inequality in Latin America, and I was very focused on using Polanyi, especially to understand Bolivarian socialism in Venezuela…He’s too often overlooked.

McKay: He creates a vivid sense of the immense social dangers of a totally marketized society…His general insight was,  you can only commodify things so far, and then there will be a general recoil against total commodification. Contrary to neoliberalism, it’s  just not tenable to render Polanyi’s “fictional commodities” – land, labour, etc. – as straightforward commodities without incurring a massive social costs and risking general social upheaval. That’s a message that surely resonates in 2022.

Ryan: I hope you’re right. Just when I think capitalism can’t surprise me any more, it does. I would not be surprised if a lot more things become commodified. Water is more and more becoming a commodity. I’m told air is becoming a commodity in China…

…I like this idea of capitalism as metonymy, in the sense that it moves the target to the system entirely. And I do think the system needs to be the main target. But it shouldn’t be the only one. Sometimes using that term covers up individual responsibility. There are people, individuals, making choices. Not engaging with that level sometimes eliminates some possibilities for hope…and we could all use more possibilities for hope right now.

There’s been a lot of discussion abut this being a zoonotic disease – where did it come from? Bats, pangolins, foxes…we don’t seem to know.  I also think that we often conveniently forget that we give diseases to other animals as well, including Covid-19. They give them to us, and we give them right back, especially in zoos and other places where animals are constrained….

While the viral jump might be related to environmental forces, the spread of the virus is much more closely related to human, social and political structures.

I guess we could put capitalism at the root of all of that. I do think it’s important to recognize capitalism when we’re talking the pandemic. Where do we put the blame? It doesn’t belong on a bat in China. It probably didn’t want to get eaten in the first place.

McKay: A lot of the scholars who influence me, like Andreas Malm, work very hard to establish a contextualized and nuanced and specific interpretation – not just to go back to a knee-jerk, reflexive turn to “capitalism” as our obligatory term. Others, of course, take a more mechanical approach.

Ryan: We need to ask, what aspect of capitalism, which form of capitalism, whose capitalism, right? The form of capitalism in China is not the same as in the US. It has to become more nuanced. Capitalism is often used as a sort of catch-all.

McKay: Throughout COVID-19: Social Inequalities and Human Possibilities, we find an extraordinary wealth of examples from around the world, and one of its great merits is its breadth of coverage: from Kazakhstan to Kenya, we engage with people and countries struggling with many of the same problems. An extraordinary wealth of examples. I think you can’t really engage with Covid-19 today without engaging with your impressive work.

At the same time, more critically, I was struck by the survival in the text of common-sense Cold War sign-posting  In your treatment of geopolitics in your monograph, for example, we encounter the “democratic state of Israel” (70),  the “autocratic state of Russia” (70), the “totalitarian nation of China…” (77). We also meet up with “The West” (75), contrasted with the “world’s poor nations” (145). There are, it seems, primarily, two regime types: “democratic governments vs. authoritarian governments” (119). I don’t have a fixed-and-firm alternative to these terms, but coming from a Marxist framework, they do strike me as rather static. There are many alternative rubrics, such as ‘empires’ and ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism,’ that are not front-and-centre here.

Is there a case for retaining and developing, above and beyond your primarily ideal-typical description of regimes, an analysis of systems of accumulation and political power that assigns each regime its role in the world order? And, under conditions of capitalist globalization, might not the neoliberal transformation of those systems over the past four decades have placed all scholars under a new obligation to reinterpret a world that is both similar to, and radically different from, the one analysed by twentieth-century sociologists? The boundaries of nation-states don’t mean the same things anymore. You’ve got global processes of accumulation that mean we’re in a radically different world than the one that was occupied by twentieth-century sociologists. What would you say to that?

Ryan: I think I agree with you in that a lot of that terminology is problematic. Part of that arises, no doubt, from my disciplinary training….

I’ve struggled quite a bit myself to come up with better terms. I’m never quite sure what to say, in a way that can be conveyed in an easy-to-understand concept.   “The West” is flawed. “Poor countries” is flawed (I like to think of them more as “impoverished” countries). They’re all flawed. How do we deal with that? I think it speaks to broader issues of using commonly-understood vernacular terms while also trying to work within the framework of intersectional analysis.

This problem has only been exacerbated during the pandemic…. It is definitely worthwhile coming up with better terms. I’m just not quite sure what they are or how to do that.

You also raise the question of boundaries not meaning the same thing any more. I find that really interesting. A lot of my work has been around issues of globalization… Many political scientists debate whether states matter any more. I think Covid should change a lot of those conversations, or have a lot to add to a lot of those conversations.

While it’s true that maybe boundaries and borders are mattering less, I think we can see, with Covid, that they still very much matter. When people went into lockdowns, it was all about borders. Your passport absolutely mattered. We saw a resurgence and importance of physical territoriality,  especially for those of us who are not members of the elite. Clearly money was able to flow quite easily, as it always does, but I think human beings took a step backwards….

McKay: And I suppose one could reference the rise of nationalism, which is also all about borders. Many in the 1990s declared nationalism dead and gone, as an atavism that no longer corresponded to economic realities. I don’t think many people in 2022 would say that nationalism is kaput.

Ryan: It’s very much alive and well… One could even say that Covid might have helped nationalism because in places like the US, we had not had such a clear enemy since Iraq or Afghanistan. All of a sudden, it was China…. Now we could definitely blame Covid on them. And why did the Chinese do this? All such arguments were inaccurate and nationalistic, but often effective. Covid seems to have added fuel to this conservative fire.  

McKay: Neoliberalism haunts your book, with one core argument being that the pandemic, far from constituting a crisis of neoliberal order, is actually a kind of “blessing” for it, along with nationalism and neoconservatism.  The “problems of the rich” will continue to be presented as “perils for all of us,” while “their gains, and our miseries, are seen as something individually earned,” you write (21). Can you provide us with a summary statement of your position on the socio-economic origins and ideological framings of the crisis?

Ryan: I go back to a term were already talked about: capitalism. In various forms of inequalities – in racism, in sexism, in heterosexism, completely arbitrary national borders, hierarchical global citizenship schemes…All the inequalities and inequities that were already haunting our contemporary world became more visible….

McKay: …Some of us might think that the neoliberal reactions to Covid-19 have offered a classic example of McDonaldization as analysed by George Ritzer, a contributor to one of your collections. In what ways has Covid-19 served as  “blessing” for it? Some of us might view Covid-19 as the ultimate indictment of a capitalist system and the neoliberal ideological framework established to defend it. Just-in-time production and distribution, the paring down the social welfare state: these are not well-suited to health systems in crisis. We really needed, rather, a “Just In Case” strategy.

So, I suppose one could say that Covid-19 has not been a blessing for neoliberalism, because people will come to see just how deficient these hegemonic models are. You can’t rely on them. And neoliberalism as a form of “hyper-individualism” has been shown to be highly destructive. So, in what sense is Covid-19 a blessing for neoliberalism?

Ryan: Just last night, Ritzer and I gave a talk on Covid and McDonaldization…. One of the things we talked about was this: the just-in-time versus just-in-case argument. The pandemic revealed that just-in-time wasn’t working in public health. Or rather, it works well, until it doesn’t…. And, today, we don’t need “just-in-case” for what might happen, but to think about when the next case arrives.

If we’re thinking about pandemic issues, there will be another pandemic. I hope the lesson we’ll draw from this one is that ‘just-in-time’ doesn’t work. We need to be thinking more in terms of ‘just-in-case’ a flawed term in this case because the question isn’t really about if, but when.

In terms of the broader arguments about neoliberalism and hyper-individualism, I agree with some of what you’re saying. But I’m wondering: Who is seeing these results? Perhaps we are, because it’s the kind of thing we think about. I don’t think most voters are seeing the same thing. I don’t think most politicians are. It was very clear for many of us before the pandemic that hyper-individualism was not sustainable. It is destructive. But, I think the pandemic, for many people, has made them into bigger supporters of hyper-individualism than before. I think we’re seeing reasoning like this: “I don’t care if you have vaccines, as long as I have mine, and I know there’s more, at least for me, somewhere.”

Vaccines are a very interesting case. We really have been talking about a “just-in-case” approach on the part of wealthy countries – those in a position to hoard. Canada, I hate to say,  has been one of the worst offenders. At one point Canada had six times the number of vaccine doses it could use. The US had about five. When you’re beating the US on something like this – there’s an issue there, right?

…Hyper-individualism has been given a boost. We’re seeing the flourishing of neoconservative politicians who have really benefited from the pandemic. They got a big boost. It allowed them to push through neoliberal policies, neoconservative policies, and you weren’t paying attention, because you’re too busy looking over here at the shiny ball to notice what’s happening during the pandemic:  “I can distract you with that. You don’t know what I’m doing under the table….”

In that sense, I think they’ve actually been strengthened by the pandemic…. I hope I’m wrong abut that…I think we’re seeing all signs pointing to things getting worse, unfortunately.

McKay: As a scholar of sexual minorities, with specific reference to the struggles of trans people, you are really distinguished in the burgeoning field of pandemic studies for your consistent focus on the LGBTQ+ community, not only in your co-authored book but in your collections of essays.

I’d like to ask two related questions about this. First, related to the questions we’ve already touched on, do you think that the pandemic signals a paradigm shift in the way such minorities are conceptualized– that we, in essence, have moved from being rights-bearing individuals free to make most of our own decisions about how we manage our sexualities, to vectors of disease posing a menace as ‘foreigners’ to the societies in which we live? Can this not be seen as a major opportunity for people who want to push back on the rights of LGBTQ+ people?

And second, have you noticed how thoroughly the HIV/AIDS epidemic has been shunted to one side in historical assessments of Covid-19? I keep noticing, in summary histories of pandemics past, everyone goes back to 1918-20. Again and again, one reads: “This is the most dire pandemic since the Spanish Flu.” The last big pandemic. Never anything like it since. A ‘Black Swan’ event….Doesn’t one have to say to these folks:  “Sorry, but you’re just wrong”? HIV/AIDS, with an estimated death toll of around 33 million globally, still far outranks Covid-19 (estimated death-toll, from the latest statistics, of 15 million) in terms of its tragic consequences. So,  all that we’ve been told about this being an unprecedented pandemic is, in a way, wrong.

The excision of HIV-AIDS (along with the many other spill-over diseases from the 1970s on) could suggest an almost wilful blindness to one of the more damaging implications of capitalism as a way of life – i.e., its unplanned, chaotic, but pervasive and dangerous intensification of human interconnectedness – and to the fact that we have been living for four decades in what some call the “Pandemicene.” Zoonotic overspills have become quite normal, and pandemics are likely to arise from them. Would you agree?

Ryan: On the first part of your question, I don’t think there’s been a transition from being rights-bearing individuals free to make most of our decisions about how we manage our sexualities, because I don’t think most of us have ever known that privilege, to have it as a point to transition from. Certainly not most people in the world. Even in places where that might be the case for the privileged, it’s still something relatively new. So I’m not sure there’s been a transition, because I’m not sure we were ever at that starting point. Certainly not everyone…

You know, I identify as a gay man. I’m married. I have a husband, not a wife. So I’ve had some of this personal experience moving around the world, and in many places I’ve lived which would generally be seen as fairly homophobic, I’ve fared much better than when I go back to my small town in Indiana. I’m from a small town of about 500 people in the rural corn fields. Trump belt. Mike Pence was governor. He put Indiana on the map for the anti-LGBT laws he was passing.

It gets quite complicated in that sense. I think our ability to manage our sexualities is also something we have to look at more intersectionally. I have more privilege to manage mine, in lots of cases, because I’m from the US…. As I live abroad I’m often seen as a foreigner first, right? So who cares what I do? I’m also often seen as wealthy in the countries that I live in, so that brings advantage.. I’m a college professor, so that brings some advantage. I certainly have a much easier time of it than my LGBT+ students here.

…It’s complex for LGBT+ people who have become a target. There have been some documented instances of this. In South Korea, for example, there was a huge backlash when an outbreak there was traced to a gay night club. There has been passage of homophobic and transphobic bills in a number of countries…. I’m kind of surprised they haven’t become more of a target in some places.

Being a member of a sexual minority also puts you in a more precarious position during a pandemic because of pre-existing issues for a lot of people. The ability to access medical care. Housing discrimination. Lack of support for those in same-sex relationships, not getting the same bail-outs for your families, because our families are not recognized….

As for the second part of your question, you know I’d actually be a little reluctant to draw many parallels between HIV-AIDS and COVID-19. I think we can draw some, but I’d be against many comparisons for a couple of reasons.

They’re very different diseases – different types of diseases. They spread in very different ways. I think we could draw useful parallels between other diseases in general which have been side-lined, such as malaria, tuberculosis.

Take hydroxychloroquine, commonly used to treat malaria. Suddenly, they ramp up production of it. Now it’s being stored in warehouses all over the place, because they ended up not using it. I was scratching my head about it. Where has this been? Millions of people are dying every year of malaria. Why are you doing this? Why are you now letting it sit in a warehouse when you could be wiping out malaria?

Well, the answer is (and this also applies to HIV-AIDS): we don’t care, right? It’s not something that’s probably ever to kill me or kill you, or kill most people with economic resources. I’ve lived in many malaria zones, and I just take a pill, right? I have access to the pill, I am able to pay for the pill. When it’s not a threat to people like me, it gets ignored. When it’s not a threat to those in power, we sweep it under the rug.

The same thing applies to HIV-AIDS (which was first called GRID, gay-related immunological deficiency). It was completely swept under the table, because it affects people who didn’t matter in most eyes. It was men having sex with men, drug users, sex workers, people that society does really care about – this was the perception, even if it was completely wrong…. A number of countries have downgraded it in fact to from a deadly disease to a chronic condition, akin to diabetes – something to manage. Now, it’s just killing people in Africa, not so many Europeans, so we allow ourselves to forget about it.

I also think the impact of Covid has been different. HIV-AIDS has killed 33 million people, but that has been over four decades. Meanwhile, Covid-19 has killed about 15 million, we think, in about two years. How many people will it kill over four decades? And Covid-19 is also getting more attention because of the kinds of people Covid is killing. Now, it’s killing international jet-setting folks from more privileged locations. That’s different. Now, it’s a global crisis, now, it’s an epidemic.

McKay: Taking all your really good points – that HIV-AIDS and Covid-19 are really different diseases and their social and medical trajectories have been quite dissimilar – they are still comparable in another sense: that they’re zoonotic diseases, reaching humans from other animals, likely as a consequence of the development of hitherto unexploited terrains in the Global South. They both testify to the challenges of human connectivity…. They would both be unthinkable without the radical new forms of human interconnectedness that emerged in the 1970s-1980s.

…For all the benefits of that global interconnectedness, in its unregulated, capitalist form, it has turned out to be one of the most dangerous weapons pointed at ourselves,  ironically, through the human connections we all would treasure. Through mass tourism, because of insanely accelerated levels of accumulation and just-in-time processes of production and distribution – we’re all in harm’s way. We’re all in each other’s pockets, all the time. This is in some ways a very good thing, but it can also be a very dangerous thing, if it’s unregulated, if it’s driven by purely capitalist motives.

The very global interconnectedness that is so valuable in sharing ideas and crafting movements is also really a dangerous phenomenon when it takes an unregulated, hyper-capitalist form. That would the basis of the comparison. They are both zoonoses that became pandemics through the instrumentality of global capitalism…

Ryan: Yes, I can see that connection. I think again I would probably broaden it out to other zoonotic, and non-zoonotic, diseases…

…The issue of interconnectedness is something we’ve all thought about during the pandemic, both on the physical and social levels.  I’ve thought about it quite a bit.  I have some unique experiences over the last couple of years.

From March to November 2020, I was here in Kazakhstan, at the university. I actually live on campus; we’re in a gated compound right on the edge of the city. When I look out my window right now, it overlooks the vast steppes of southern Siberia. This is an area I might not normally want to be in. But during a global pandemic, it was kind of nice. There aren’t many tourists. I’m on the edge of the city. I’m very isolated. So, in that sense, I felt much better than if I were living in Manhattan.

I left here then, and my husband and I went to the Canary Islands… where I’m undertaking research to study the impact of the pandemic on tourism there. We ended up staying there for seven months…. It was interesting to see the impact of Covid-19 on the locals, because about two million people live there, but 14 million people arrive every year for tourism. This is a place that runs on that. We stayed in very remote houses, very isolated, but we would on occasion drop in to tourist centres. There weren’t many tourists, but you recognize them. Because they were the ones who weren’t wearing masks. They were not acting socially responsibly.

…Then I went to my small town in Indiana, a small, isolated community.  No one was following health protocols. Nobody’s wearing a mask. There’s a big push-back against vaccines. It was frightening – there, more than anywhere, I felt isolated. Yet it’s the place where I had the most people physically around me. I just wanted to be away from them.

Throughout the pandemic, we have had to recognize the difference between “physical connectedness” and “social connectedness.”

…A lot in this pandemic has come down to the idea of “social distancing” – one of my pet peeves. I correct it every time I hear it: “No, no, no, physical distancing”…  I think conflating those two terms is inaccurate, and scary, in lots of ways. Health measures don’t rely on being socially distanced, they rely on being physically distanced.

McKay: I know a lot of South Asian scholars have also queried the term, since it’s redolent of many of the worst aspects of the caste system and its destructive consequences for those occupying the lower rungs of it….

Ryan: Yes, in one of our forthcoming books, we have a chapter looking exactly at that – at Covid as a new form of untouchability.

McKay:  In North America, there has been much polarized discussion about lockdowns, with schools in particular attracting a vast amount of commentary. I found your book really refreshing in its willingness to grant some credibility, give some time to, critics of lockdowns, especially in the Global South, where masses of people risked starvation as well as further sickness as a consequence of them….  So, is this one lesson to be learned from Covid-19 that comprehensive testing and tracing (on, say, the Japanese or Vietnamese models) is to be preferred to comprehensive lockdowns? Over the past two years, have we discovered both the strengths but also the limitations of lockdowns as ways of handling pandemics?

Ryan: I am not such a fan of testing and tracing, I have to say.  It’s expensive. There’s a lot of environmental waste. There are a lot of flaws. It’s good –  I’m not saying stop testing and tracing, but there are better ways.

And practically speaking, once I’m tested, I can contract COVID-19 again. I think there are better ways. And one of them is lockdowns. I think the problem with them was often the way they were enforced and who they were implemented to benefit. You know, globally, if we had been able to tell everyone, “Go home and don’t leave your house for two weeks,” at the very start of the pandemic, it might have been over in two weeks. It’s idealistic, of course, to think we had the capability to do that. Still, it could have happened, had we dedicated our resources to it.

Making sure people had food, making sure people weren’t locked in situations where there was violence, giving them a safe space, making sure people had a home in the first place…

So I think the problems have arisen from the way they were handled. Lockdowns were carried out in a very patchwork manner. That made them inefficient. It’s not effective if I’m locked down and my neighbour doesn’t obey the rules. Why am I locking down, doing my part, and they’re not?

The push-back against lockdowns got overblown in a lot of ways. We were clearly not locking down those protesting against lockdowns, so it was a little hard to see what they were protesting against. Same thing with the anti-mask demonstrations. A lot of people weren’t masking in the first place.

It’s not that we used lockdowns, but that we didn’t use them correctly.

McKay: An historian might make the point, too, about how meaningless it is to talk about lockdowns in the abstract, if you’re not talking about when they were imposed, without any sense of their context or timing. In the US, for example, lockdowns happened after the virus had been allowed to circulate for months. Critics of lockdowns were, in a sense, right, in that they said, “Imposing this now is not going to change the situation.” When you’re three or four months into the pandemic, the horses are out of the barn, to use a colloquial expression.

Whereas, if you locked down quickly, right away,  and rigorously, you might achieve a very different result. Yes, you are going to make some false calls – as the WHO has done in past years. But one lesson of Covid-19 would seem to be: Act fast and demand a high level of adherence to what you’ve decided to do for a short period of time – three weeks, perhaps, but not two years. These are surely questions to be asked about lockdowns: when? where? for how long?

Ryan: …Lockdowns can’t keep going on forever, right? But that was never the intention. They should have been very short and if everyone would have adhered to them we would have forgotten about Covid a long time ago….

And yes,  we did it too late. And the people driving the policy themselves didn’t adhere to it. I really have no problem pointing the finger at them, the people who violated health protocols. I don’t have much tolerance for that sort of thing. They’re often the ones protesting. I’m not afraid to go up to them and say something. It  can be exhausting, but it needs to be done. You know it needed to be done.

…It’s maybe a case where language matters quite a bit. “Lockdowns” sounds like being in a prison. Perhaps “shutdowns”? Or “pauses”? Or “stay-at-home social responsibility?” Or even a “staycation”? … It could have been framed that way, instead of having this penal connotation. And we might have then found greater compliance….

McKay: One of the great aims of your book is to “add the social voice to the medical conversation” (xxvii). In the two-volume set of primarily sociological/anthropological interpretations of Covid-19, we encounter a myriad of different schools, the result, one imagines, of the transformation of  these disciplines in the wake of poststructuralist and postmodern influences hegemonic over the past four decades.

But, might it be a time for sociologists to supplement their often very sensitive and stimulating sense of the power of political and economic ideas with a sharper appreciation of the class realities underlying them – to trade in, so to speak, some of their volumes of Derrida, Foucault, Latour and Butler for the older works of Polanyi, Tawney, and Macpherson – or maybe even Marx, Engels and Gramsci? If the pandemic has constituted, as you write, the “working-class crisis” (25), does this suggest that some of the themes of contemporary sociology need to be revisited, given how many sociologists since the 1970s have bid a dry-eyed “farewell” to the “working class”?  I don’t get the feeling they were too choked up about saying goodbye to the working class – they wanted to move on to sexier topics…

Ryan: I think what sociologists focus on depends a lot on where they’ve trained. There’s quite a difference between the sociological training you’ll get in Europe, for example, versus the US. The “post-“ influences you talk about were very popular in Europe. They were more short-lived in the US. I didn’t read a lot of them for my graduate classes, though I have read many of them since. I’m not sure I ever read Derrida as a student….

I’m not really a fan of those “post” works myself. In the context of the pandemic, they often don’t push for change. They’re not political enough for my taste. I think they’re politicized, but a lot of them actually advocate against radical changes – and leave one just sitting back and enjoying the problems they reveal…

And they’re often written in intentionally very complicated terms. Sometimes they’re purposefully written to be impossible to understand. I don’t find that useful.

I think that the role of academics, sociologists included, should be to write in a way that people can understand it. Many academics write mainly for each other, and that’s about it. We write to get published, and not to make social change. I think that’s really problematic.

…There’s been a marked shift in social sciences away from the humanistic principles we might find in Marx and others. Ideas of helping society have taken a back seat to professionalization –publishing articles, generating citations. I think academics are turning into assembly-line workers, instead of thinkers. Students are turning into customers. And universities are turning into corporations. So, there’s less room to be critical of the class system, if that system is supporting your institutions. When you do that, you’re at risk of losing your job, and if you don’t work, you don’t eat. That’s probably also pushed people away from a lot of those topics. They have become too professionally risky.

I also think there’s been a distortion that has fueled all of this, that is, the way we view experts. Who is an expert? That’s been really key during the pandemic. If we’re looking at Trump or Cardi B or these people posting conspiracy theories on Twitter – more people are getting their medical news from those sources than from medical professionals….

McKay: I’m really struck by the way that people seem to want science to deliver certainties. They will rake someone like Dr. Fauci over the coals, because he changed his mind on this or that issue. I’m not saying he should be beyond criticism, that he shouldn’t be challenged in the public sphere, but to hope that science will give you certainties is to fundamentally misunderstand the scientific enterprise. It is not going to give you certainties. It’s going to give you a range of probabilities and useful concepts and techniques for reading the available evidence, all subject to future revision and further development.

Many people do not want that. They are in search of something that looks quite a lot like a secular religion. They want inerrant truths.

Ryan: This was the first time people were exposed to how science works, and especially how vaccines are developed…. There are, inevitably, errors. There are lots of mistakes. There are people who get sick during trials. Normally, we don’t know that – it all happens behind closed doors, over a decade. Suddenly, it was in the spotlight.

When someone like Fauci, or whoever, shifted their best advice, many people became unglued. “You said this! Then you said that!” Well, that might have been correct at the time, but it isn’t now….

Science has changed. The empirical evidence has changed. A lot of people don’t understand that. In some ways, the pandemic was a missed opportunity to educate people in how science works….

We call them “clinical trials” for a reason. This was a new disease. We didn’t know too much about. We still don’t know as much as we need to know.

People want certainty. They don’t want you to change your mind based on the best available evidence at the moment. Or at least it’s been politicized that way.

I’m not sure the average person minds that much on other issues. They don’t seem to mind when that happens with other issues, like advice about smoking (although former Vice President Mike Pence said there’s no evidence that smoking kills people, but he’s a little behind on most things). When that sort of  evidence changes, most people seem open to that. But I think when they came to Covid-19, they could be very close-minded. I think the analogy to religion is a good one. They wanted a solid answer. You better not change your mind. But it’s just not good science to stop asking questions.

McKay: “Memories will fade,” you write (124) – and one senses that they are already fading. Without decisive battles, valiant heroes, sneering villains, clear-cut turning points, or conclusive armistice agreements, …the pandemic is very unevenly drawing to a close – or perhaps we’re just entering a new phase with new variants. It lacks the narrative shape of a war.  Not even close.

If some of the problem of fading memories and inaccurate representations lies in the self-interest of those with every reason to forget how they mismanaged the situation – “that was then, this is now, let’s forget all about partygate” –   could a cultural theorist also make the argument that an additional reason why Covid-19 will likely fade in memory is that our militaristic metaphors fail to capture an event that  fails to conform to our narrative expectations? I don’t think the pandemic is ever going to yield a narrative with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end. Would you agree that, for all the militaristic metaphors people have thrown at the pandemic – your books are great on this – Covid-19 really has not conformed to our narrative expectations?

Ryan: Let me start by saying that I think a lot of those contrasts between strong men and sneering villains and valiant heroes are not clear cut. It depends on who you are and what your perspective is. A hero in my eyes might be a sneering villain in somebody else’s. Also, a lot of people are not trying to turn the page to hide their mismanagement, because I think a lot of them would say they managed it very well.

Science doesn’t sustain that conclusion, nor do the facts – but these folks tend to be people who weren’t really concerned about facts, anyway. Trump, for example, remains convinced he handled Covid-19 really well…. I don’t think they want to turn the page, because I think they think they did a great job.

Unfortunately, at least in the US, since Trump, we’re living in this universe of alternative facts. I think that makes analysis difficult. I think it makes understanding these populations difficult.

In terms of using metaphors, I think they are both problematic and useful. They’re problematic in that they’re not precise enough. They’re useful because they can help us understand what’s going on, …especially for people who aren’t experts. I’m really interested in astrophysics, I find it fascinating, and Neil Degrasse Tyson can communicate the subject through metaphors. I’d never be able to understand it otherwise. Metaphors can be very useful.

…I definitely don’t think the pandemic is drawing to a close. I think you’re right that people want to turn the page. I get a little nauseous every time I hear someone say, “Living with Covid.” It makes me nervous and upset.

McKay: That was actually even the title of an official British policy paper, released when Boris Johnson suspended a lot of the precautionary practices associated with Covid-19 in February, 2022.

Ryan: It makes me nervous, for several reasons. One, we don’t have to be living with Covid when we have the tools to wipe it out. We could enforce them. So, that’s frustrating.

…Second, we’re still very much in the throes of this pandemic. The kinds of numbers we’re seeing from some countries are way above what they were in 2020, right? Globally, we’re still averaging around a half-million cases per day. It’s actually just falling a little bit under that. When it first hit half a million cases per day, everyone became unhinged: “What a catastrophe!” Now, nobody cares, and the situation has actually gotten worse. So, we’re not past it.

…I think we’ve subordinated our social awareness of the pandemic. Not just about things like masks and lockdowns. A lot of people don’t think twice about going to a crowded bar or a big birthday party.

It was graduation on campus here today. My apartment window overlooks  the main part of campus. I didn’t see a single mask. It’s largely under control in Kazakhstan, but we’re not that far out…. I think we need to challenge the mentality of people who think we’re past the worst of the pandemic. That mentality needs to be reframed. Another one is coming.

I get a lot of proposals from scholars who want to study the post-pandemic world. I largely reject those. I think we can speculate, perhaps make recommendations, but we can’t analyse a period that we’re not yet living in yet.

…Why do we forget? There are historical events that are historically highlighted, that we will never forget – one thinks of 9/11 in the US. Or something like “Remember the Alamo.” I don’t think most people know why we’re supposed to remember the Alamo or really know where or what the Alamo was. But they do know this slogan. I think, similarly, that we are already forgetting the pandemic. Already, and too soon.

I don’t think we’re going to build museums to the pandemic, along the lines of the ones we  constructed for 9/11 or the Alamo. I think we’re going to sweep it under the rug, because it has unveiled the weaknesses of capitalism (to come back to that word and tie together a lot of our discussion). It’s fuelled inequalities. It’s also put them in our  face in ways that are much more difficult to ignore. We just want to ignore them. We want to take the pill and go back into the Matrix.

That, of course, is very dangerous, because when we go back in, it’s going to grow even worse, in the future. The fact that we kept ourselves in the Matrix, to continue with that analogy, is a lot of the reason why Covid-19 has had the devastating impact that it has had….

…I’ve had a lot of people ask me, what surprised me about the pandemic? My answer is, Not much…. I was not surprised that it affected people unequally, based on sex and gender and sexuality and economic standing. I don’t think most people were surprised. That might prevent us from being able to move forward in a constructive way. We should have been surprised that the pandemic would have such a socially unequal impact.

The virus doesn’t discriminate. Human systems, human beings,  discriminate.

…We’ve grown accustomed to these sorts of inequalities, perhaps we’re not even looking to change them.

McKay: Which means, perhaps, that Covid-19 has not constituted the cultural turning-point some of us hoped it would be?

Ryan: … In the early days, I was much more optimistic that the pandemic could be a turning-point. Time wears on. I’m less convinced of that. People are so eager to forget, they’re so eager to move past the pandemic. It rarely makes the headlines in the US. Take the one-million-death point: I could not easily find it in the media. You had to dig for it. It should have been a “Boom” moment, right? But it wasn’t. I’m not sure we’re going to take lessons from this…

The pandemic is fuelling inequalities. People who already pulled the wool over our collective eyes now have more money. It’s well worth noting that the pandemic was not economically devastating for everyone. We are now witnessing a race between Bezos and Musk to determine which is the richest man in the world. And “man” is an important word there. That’s making more headlines than the numbers of people pushed into poverty….

The pandemic has fuelled a lot of arguments against science, against education. The anti-vaxx movement wasn’t so very big but it has become very vocal. It’s a small group – they’re just very loud. I think that group is going to grow bigger.

Unfortunately, I think the pandemic might be fuel for an even more unequal and unjust world. It’s not a very happy note. I’m a sociologist. I’m trained to be depressing…. I honestly hope I’m wrong.

A big part of what motivates me to do all this work on Covid-19 is the way it is shaping up in memory and culture. I’m frequently asked: “When do you sleep?” I have put out a lot of material. It’s really overtaken my life, purposefully. I see it as activism in a sense, because I want this information to get out there. I want to push and promote understandings of what’s going. I want it to stay in our social and cultural consciousness. I am not a medical doctor – I can’t help out in a hospital. I am a social scientist and hopefully I can help out with these understandings. That’s what’s been driving me. The push to make myself wrong – this analysis that things are going to get worse. I really want to be wrong about that. I want to do everything I can to make sure I’m wrong about that.

McKay: It’s almost an intellectual duty to rise to this occasion?

Ryan: Yes. I also hope that Covid-19 doesn’t become another fad. Studying Covid became sort of a bandwagon thing, right? Everybody suddenly hopped on board. I think people are now hopping off board rather quickly…. Some people are weary of it….It can be exhausting to think about. I hope it doesn’t just seen as something that’s segmented, isolated, because we’ve seen the possibility it has to be this turning point.

It is going to change society. It has already changed the direction of society. We just have to decide how. Are we angling further down or angling further up? Further down, I suspect, but I’m going to keep skipping breakfast until I can help us be turned back up again.

McKay:  Thank you so much for visiting Syndemic, and for your marvellously informative and theoretically rich explorations of the crisis we have all experienced. Thank you very much.

Michael Ryan visited Pandemic on 10 June 2022.