“Freedom” during a Pandemic

From the Midstory Studio, our team chats with Victor Ogundipe, a data analyst at the University of Michigan with a background in sociology and computer science. Get perspective on how we re-conceptualize key tenets of American—and human—life during COVID-19: freedom, privacy, leadership, politics and hope.

During bad circumstances, which is the human inheritance, you must decide not to be reduced. You have your humanity, and you must not allow anything to reduce that. We are obliged to know we are global citizens. Disasters remind us we are world citizens, whether we like it or not.– Maya Angelou

Browse by topic or read the transcript of our interview below.

Topics covered:
[00:54] The idea of “freedom” being challenged in the U.S. today
[04:27] Freedom in discipline for the collective good
[07:24] Government measures and “draconian measures”
[09:07] How COVID has made character & leadership more important than political party lines
[11:21] Memory of crises and how we move forward
[14:08] Citizens’ right to privacy
[17:14] The content of “American exceptionalism”
[19:27] Going through COVID-19 with an immunocompromised child.
[21:49] Keeping hope on the horizon

Samuel Chang: It is my pleasure today to introduce a good friend and colleague of mine. He currently works as a data scientist for the University of Michigan and he has a background in computer science and a master’s in sociology. If you haven’t checked out a podcast episode that we had previously, we actually recorded an audio file of his personal journey with his family back to Toledo, Ohio. I think it’s definitely worth a visit if you haven’t checked that out before. We’re gonna be talking just a little bit about the impact of the coronavirus on a very human and social-cultural level, Thank you for joining me today, Victor. It’s great to have you in.

Victor Ogundipe: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

SC: So, I mean, I guess we can just jump right into it and talk about something that I’ve been really curious about for a while, which is the concept of freedom. I think freedom in today’s—you know, the way that we think about freedom, of course, is an integral value of American society in a way that we think of the United States is us, is a, you know, community founded under that premise. What are your thoughts today as we think about freedom in terms of a pandemic, in terms of a crisis—does that change our views of freedom? I mean, what were your thoughts on that?

VO: Yeah. You know, I think it’s a really complicated issue right? Because I mean, we do value freedom. And I think that, you know, that’s one of the things that makes our country dynamic, right? It’s when one of the things that, you know, makes it special, if you will. But at the same time, it’s like this pandemic is forcing us to think about it in different ways, right? So you know, if you say, you know, I’m free to do whatever I wanted to do, you know— so let’s think of freedom of movement in this time. It’s like, you know, that is now something that can be potentially deadly, right?  And so, you know, now you have a situation where your concept of freedom, or the way that we look at freedom it seems like at the minimum, you know, we kind of have to revisit it, right? Because, you know, just pure unbridled freedom in this situation could lead to actually increasing deaths.

SC: Right.

VO: And I think one of the other things I always like to think about is the other side of the equation. 

SC: Right. 

VO: You know, we have these rights, but, you know, what are some of the responsibilities that they come with—you know, this freedom and these rights that we have?

SC: Yeah. 

VO: So I think as we kind of see, we’re kind of—as a collective, we’re kind of struggling with that right now. 

SC: Okay.

VO: We’re struggling to, you know, determine. The scary part is, time is of the essence.

SC: Yeah. When you say struggle—can you elaborate a little more on your thoughts today as we think about freedom in ways that we’re struggling as a community, and what we can perhaps do to, maybe, change the way we think about freedom in this country?

VO: Yeah. I think we’re struggling. When we hear some of the stories…I mean, some states, you know, still don’t have stay-at-home orders. Even states where they do, you have people that might not be following those. And of course, we understand there are certain instances, you know, where you might not be able to stay at home. You might have medical issues. I think, even from an economic perspective: how much money do you have saved up, you know? If you don’t work, you can’t eat. So, I mean, we all kind of see— we all kind of know the situation. It really kind of stresses people, just in terms of, you know, survival. But then, a lot of the—I don’t know what word I want to use—but a lot of the not-following these recommendations or orders is just by choice. Again, go back to rights, you know: “I have the right to do it.”

SC: Right, right. I think as a concept, freedom, I think, oftentimes is associated with independence and individualism. I think freedom, or liberty, and that term perhaps in a different context, in not an American context, does not necessarily associate itself with those terms. I mean—is that something correct in thinking that freedom is associated with those words? Or is that something that perhaps we should change? 

VO: Well I—so I think, one of the things you talked about is like my background in sociology. So, one of the things I’m always looking at is the collective. And, I think again— I mean it’s a tough thing, but I think that we have to—when we talk about freedom, one of the things I think is that, maybe freedom is discipline, right? I give the idea of a sports analogy. You see a sports player do something that’s amazing. And it’s like, man, you know—how are they so free, to be able to move like that, or make that split-second decision? But when you really think about it, that freedom comes from discipline because they have a regime. It’s because they work out. It’s because they get enough rest. It’s because they spend years and years working on their craft. So, I think the beauty part of freedom often comes out when it is tempered by some kind of discipline. Here, we’re talking about freedom in the sense that, yeah, you do have these rights, and these rights are a beautiful thing, but, you know, what is the point of a freedom that doesn’t take into consideration the collective? What is the point of a freedom that lets you do things that may or may not benefit you, but hurt others? So I think the big question is: What is something that we can all agree on? I think one thing that we could get broad [agreement] on is that freedom should be life-affirming. It should promote life. It should give people the opportunity to live safely and healthily. And so, I think this kind of view of freedom as something disciplined that opens things up more for the collective, is probably the kind of concept that we should move toward. 

SC: You’re speaking of the collective. That certainly is perhaps a more socialist community [way of] thinking, or whatever term you want to use. They’re thinking in a more collective form. And I give the example of the Korean government, or the Japanese government, in which there’s a very centralized government that’s thinking about the public. And, if you look at a place like Taiwan, which is where I’m from, there’s a sense that I have to take care of being a part of this larger community. So you see buy-in all the way from the [public] level to the home level. So there’s a central kind of a pride, but also a realization that they’re all part of the collective, and that is able to enable a lot of these more centralized governments to create the policies that are in place right now in response to COVID-19. I think it’s very different in the United States. I don’t think it’s about which one is better or not—there are certainly qualities and aspects of both that challenge one conception of freedom.

VO: Again, like I said, it’s tough. But yeah, I mean, let’s look at this situation first. One of the words I kept hearing come out, in the context of many Asian countries and them dealing with the pandemic, was the term “draconian measures.” Like everything was draconian. “Oh, you know, we would never do this in the States because it’s draconian. We couldn’t do this because this would be draconian in terms of our civil liberties,” and things like that. But then you started seeing a shift where it was like, “Well, if we don’t do these things, we’re gonna be like Italy.” The fear of becoming like Italy. Then it’s like, “Oh well, we’re already on the Italy curve.” And then it’s like, “Oh, maybe our curves are going to be worse.” And so then you start seeing discussion and debate around all of these quote-unquote “draconian measures.” And so I think one of the things we have to begin to understand is that, to subsume the individual for the collective is not something that should be always considered draconian. Sometimes, subsuming the individual for the collective is not only morally sound—it’s not only, you know, the best thing for the situation—I think it’s just something that a person should know how to do. 

SC: I’m thinking, on a political scale and political level, how we’ve become even more divisive politically as a nation. 

VO: Yeah. 

SC: But when talking about COVID-19, I think, suddenly, you see that those divisions almost don’t matter. How does this affect politics? How does this affect the way that we see the world? 

VO: I think the big question for us is: when this is over, will we remember? But when you look at politics or partisanship, I mean, to some degree, it almost feels like it’s almost disappeared. I mean, clearly it’s still there. But in terms of just looking at Governor Dewine, Governor Cuomo— I don’t think anybody is thinking like, “Oh, you know, this is a great Republican speech today.” I think the thing that’s kind of become clear is—and even if we look at the response, there are some Democratic governors that, maybe their response hasn’t been so good, and Republican governors’ response maybe wasn’t so good. It hasn’t been any clear distinguishing along partisan lines. I think what’s come to the fore is people of character. What is a person’s character? What is their capacity to lead? How humane are they?

SC: Yeah I think, having studied disaster policy as well, it seems that human beings—and, you know, not just Americans but human beings in general—are short-sighted until something hits them in their face, when they experience crises. So, I mean, I definitely think that in terms of preparedness, but in terms of our mindset as a collective, how can we really be prepared for crises before they even surface? And I think that level of preparation and our understanding of the world is perhaps something that—it’s not colored by red or blue; it’s something that on a very human, community level that we can come together and realize life is what’s leading this country and what should lead this country. 

VO: Yeah, I definitely agree. I mean, I think the big question is how do we maintain that energy, like you said, in times when we don’t have a crisis? And you know, I think…I don’t know, it’s just steady work. And I think memory is a huge thing. I think about, in my lifetime, I mean— so there’s the COVID crisis, there’s 9/11, there’s the Great Recession, there is Columbine, there is Sandy Hook. And these are just examples, right. And so, I think when you say that at first, it’s like, “Oh well, that’s kind of depressing. Lots of other things have happened. We’ve gone up from dial-up internet to 5G, so I mean, yeah, it’s not all doom and gloom.” But, you know, these things are unique in the sense that they are times when we’ve come together. And so I think memory—memory as an inspiration, you know, I think is another thing that’s very important. Not allowing us to forget these occurrences, these stories, because you think even in this situation, there are so many stories happening all over the world right now. Like, I mean from an art perspective, you wonder—and I know it’s even a privilege to be able to kind of think about this—but, I mean, I think art is—we’re talking about making a change, we’re talking about long term— I mean, art is a vehicle, right? And so, [art is] one of the stories that will come out of this, and how those will inspire people. So I think memory, social memory, and political memory, memory of compassion—how do we kind of memorialize these things in the culture in a way that makes us say, “Okay, we are not gonna forget this story,” and because these things happen, “This is the kind of country we want to live in—this is the kind of world we want to live in”?

SC: Yes, absolutely. I think that when we think about the political divide in our country and these crises that almost force us to come together as a nation, I think it’s a very powerful story in and of itself, And hopefully, we can learn from these lessons that actually, the true power of the United States— the true power is that we’re able to come together and solve problems, and to really come together to see these things through. And actually, your background in computer science, talking about that also, perhaps, is something that’s at the core of people’s thoughts at this point in time, in moments of crises, as it deals with technology in that intersection, where you see people giving up their rights to privacy in these moments, and they’re enabling their governments to come in. And you saw that as well after 9/11, basically those policies come out. What are your personal thoughts on what we should do as a collective in terms of and given these kinds of situations, and just to give the audience and viewers some background, essentially they’re developing these mobile trackers that are able to track individuals in quarantine. Yeah, I don’t know what are your personal thoughts in terms of privacy in that area of technology?

VO: Yeah, you know, again, complicated area. But I mean, I think a few things. One, I think usually the argument I hear against giving up privacy, even in times like this where, you know, it could be beneficial to the collective, is the slippery slope argument. 

SC: Yeah. 

VO: So, you know, “I give up this right today…tomorrow…”

SC: What’s tomorrow.

VO: Yeah. Tomorrow, the government is sleeping in the bed next to me. It’s like—that is a risk, right? Sounds funny, but I don’t want to act like there’s nothing to that argument. There is that potential anytime, citizens, you know, anytime members of a country give up rights that they will continue to be eroded. I think the more pragmatic approach though is to—and the challenge with this approach is it’s more of a burden on us, right?—but the approach of continuing to take it by situation. Right? Each situation is kind of unique. I don’t think anybody is writing a blank privacy check to the government. I don’t think anybody is saying that. 

SC: I think it’s pretty much okay to say that we are, the United States is the epicenter of COVID-19. And I think that’s unfortunate that, about two months, a month and a half ago, you know, I had conversations with my friends and they’re looking at Wuhan, China, and, “That’s a foreign infection. It’s never gonna come to the United States.” And they’re almost downplaying the severity. 

VO: I mean I think one of the things you talked about—that sense, pervasive sense, like throughout society, that it wasn’t gonna come here. It was—as if a virus respects nation-state boundaries or something like that. And some of it, to some degree, I think, is this idea of American exceptionalism. And, you know, most of the time when people talk about American exceptionalism, they talk about it from a negative perspective. You know this idea of feeling better than—but you know, I don’t want to lose that, right, I think it’s good to want to be exceptional. The question is, exceptional at what? So you can imagine an alternate universe where we took it more seriously, and you know, we decided we were gonna be exceptional at making sure this thing didn’t get out of hand. And so you know, I think we should continue to try and be exceptional, but, I think, do so in a more humble manner.  I think really, this is the question that we have to ask, is that, if we’re gonna continue to think this, then what is the actual content? I think another thing that has been interesting to this, like in all this talk: this presidential cycle of socialism. 

SC: Yeah. 

VO: It’s almost like a referendum on whether socialism is American or un-American. And, the weird thing is, so the first—one of the first responses to this situation was socialism. Right? We’re gonna mail out a check. You know. A certain amount of money to all American families. Like, that is not letting the market play out—it’s just, it’s not. I guess, you know, people will say, “Well, yeah, it wasn’t called socialism—it wasn’t branded that,” and I guess it was socialism as a tool. But I think that, even in that, there’s a lesson. I mean, I think with all of the situations that we’re experiencing—I think this is gonna be something that we will start talking about more. 

SC: And that’s like what we’re talking about in terms of the lines being a little blurred. 

VO: Exactly. 

SC: Just a little bit about you, personally, in this situation. You and your family—and we’ve covered your story before, the reason why you came to Toledo, Ohio of all places in the United States. It was very specific and it’s very meaningful to you and your family. How does this situation affect—how you guys are experiencing in terms of hospital care on the ground here in Toledo? And what does that mean to you and your family? 

VO: You know, personally, that is an aspect of everything that has been really scary. Because, as you know, our daughter has sickle cell [anemia]. She’s been lucky enough to have a milder case. But, what this all means is that sometimes she definitely needs access to not just hospital, but a hospital skilled in caring for people with sickle cell. 

SC: Right. 

VO: And so this is kind of the other side of the medical system being overwhelmed. You know, not just that it’s overwhelmed with COVID patients—that alone is horrible, you know. But the fact that, you know, people who have other conditions or other things might have access. So, you know, my daughter, she also has a lot of allergies, so we had an incident where she ate something and her cheeks swelled up, and we gave her something, but when we called, they said, “Oh, well, I think you should probably give her an EpiPen and bring her in.” And so it’s like, we have to think, “Well, yeah, we could—we could, but then her immune system is a little more sensitive because of sickle cell, and so, is this taking her to go and get COVID, basically? And then we don’t really know—there’s not much information on how sickle cell and COVID interact. Right? And so, all of these—it just makes you realize how much you take for granted on an everyday basis.

SC: Yeah, so is this, personally speaking, for yourself, I mean, is this a world—is this a time of anxiety for your family? Or, you know, is there hope on the horizon? What are your thoughts on this? 

VO: Yeah, so I think there’s definitely anxiety. But the anxiety is a bit drowned out by hope. Some of that is just because I’ve been lucky, or blessed, so some of it is factors out of my control to some degree. And some of it is just because, you know, whatever is gonna happen, the thing is that we have right now, right? We can spend this hour just being anxious. Or we can spend this hour together. We can spend this hour talking. We can spend this hour being thankful that we have this hour. And so, I think that it’s almost a situation [that] when you really look at it clearly, it’s only so anxious [as] you could probably allow yourself to be. Because like I said, you just don’t know. But what you do know is that, like I said, you have now. So you know, I think if you take it as, “What do I do in this now,” I think it kind of eases the anxiety. 

SC: Yeah. I love that. We all have a now. And we’re responsible for now, and we’re responsible for what happens as a result of our now. And I think that as a community member, as a citizen in the United States, you know, I think that we all rely on that hope that tomorrow will be better. But that is determined by our now. 

VO: It’s something that’s really simple. And it’s just that, we’re humans. [Laughs] We’re humans, and, as humans, we can choose to do things in a humane manner, right? We can choose to put our humanities first. And I think that, if we put that first, we put that first in our day to day, and we put that first in our decision-making, I think that we’ll be better prepared in general. And so it’s a kind of loose guidance, but then you think about it a little deeper and it’s the only guidance that we need. Because I think that is our core thing, you know. How do we develop a society, a way of living, a way of thinking, a way of being that is just more centered around this concept of humanity, human dignity, for all? 

SC: Yeah. 

VO: So I think that starts again with putting humanity first in everything that we’re doing

SC: Humanity first. I think that is the key for all this. Thank you so much for joining us here today, Victor.

VO: Thank you. Thank you for having me. 

SC: Well, I hope you enjoyed that conversation with me today. As much as today’s COVID-19 is dealing with the science and the healthcare aspect, it’s also a human issue. And that requires us to be responsible citizens to be a part of that solution. I think there was a lot to be unpacked in that conversation with Victor, and I hope that if you like this, give us a like, give us a share, a comment below. I think this will be a really good opportunity for us to revisit and reconsider this time that we’re in, and hopefully we can bring up more conversations in the future. Thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll see you soon. 


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