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Unity During Coronavirus Pandemic; COVID-19 Hits Africa; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Former Liberian President, is Interviewed About Unity in Fighting Pandemic; Italy`s Prime Minister Threatens to Leave Block; Tourist Season in Europe Continues; Paolo Gentiloni, European Commissioner for Economy, is Interviewed About Europe; Rick Bright Testifies Before Congress; Interview With Harvard University Professor Sarah Lewis; Interview With Former Acting U.S. Surgeon General Boris Lushniak. Aired 2- 3p ET
Aired May 14, 2020 - 14: 00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Amanpour." Here`s what`s coming up.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. RICK BRIGHT, FORMER DIRECTOR, U.S. BIOMEDICAL ADVANCED RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY: Our window of opportunity is closing. If we fail to
improve our response now, based on science, I fear the pandemic will get worse and be prolonged.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Ousted U.S. vaccine chief turned whistle-blower, Rick Bright, tells Congress the Trump administration peddled untested drugs and warns
that without a coordinated effort, the nation will face a dark coronavirus winter. Former U.S. acting surgeon general joins me.
Plus, what happens when coronavirus moves from the most powerful to the poorest parts of our world? It has reached every corner of Africa now and I
ask former Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, how she mobilized a global fight against Ebola in her region.
Then, Europe will see tourists this summer. That promise from economy commissioner, Paolo Gentiloni. But I`ll ask him, at what cost.
And Harvard professor, Sarah Lewis, tells our Walter Isaacson about the power of images and how seeing is believing.
Welcome to the program, everyone. I`m Christiane Amanpour working from home in London.
It`s been just over two months since the W.H.O. declared COVID-19 a pandemic and the virus continues its deadly spread. Congressional hearings
in Washington reveal a road map to dysfunction. A top vaccine adviser in the Trump administration says that he was demoted when he repeatedly warned
about shortages in the supply chains and the need for a national coordination. We`ll dig into that in a moment with the former assistant
But first, to Africa, where only a global effort was able to stop the deadly Ebola virus back in 2014 and it took a couple of years. Back then,
the world united to tame the disease, which even reached Texas. But there is no such unity right now. So, what is the way forward out of this? All my
guests say there has to be a global coordinated response and that`s what it will take.
Former Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf led and won the battle against Ebola in her country and she`s joining me now from the Capital of
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, welcome to the program.
Just let me ask you about what you -- you know, you`re hearing all of these hearings, you hear the calls for global coordination, national
coordination. You did it yourself. Give me an idea about what you faced when Ebola started in Liberia and how long it took to actually gather a
united front to fight it.
ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF, FORMER LIBERIAN PRESIDENT: Thank you, Christiane. It`s good to be talking to you once again.
We faces -- when Ebola struck us, we faced fear, fear of the unknown. That led us to take some action that in effect were missteps. We quickly had to
correct that action to be able to admit to our misstep we had to communicate properly to our citizens information that gave them confidence
to be able to comply with the restrictions and the approaches that we took to combat the virus.
The response was very slow. First, our own response, because of a lack of knowledge. Lack of weak health care systems and the resources, financial
and capacity that`s required to fight the virus. The response from our partners, slow because, again, there were one to three west African
countries battling with something they didn`t know, not having the means to be able to fight it. It took a while, but it did come. And when we got the
AMANPOUR: OK. So, I`m going to --
SIRLEAF: -- my effort, the letter to the world, and, you know, telephone conversation with the president of the United States. Go ahead, Christiane.
AMANPOUR: No. Actually, I was going to get into that, but I just want to ask you, before I dive into how you made that letter to the world and then
got the united front with the U.S. and the rest of the major global organizations, just want to ask you whether now, those lessons and that
experience is helping Liberia, which I believe has 20 deaths, which is not a huge number, maybe they`re newer numbers, but is what you learned then
being implemented now?
SIRLEAF: Yes, it is. Liberia`s response to COVID-19 is as good as it can be with the available resources that they have. They have already put into
place the necessary protocols, using the examples of Ebola. They`ve established a coordinating mechanism, as we did in the case of Ebola. And I
believe they`ve started to mobilize partnership support by reaching out to their major bilateral, multilateral partners who are responding.
The citizens are complying, as much as they can, given the fact that we have communities with large populations, young population. Those that have
to face the fact that they can`t go to markets, they`re used to subsistent living. Teaching themselves by their income on a daily basis. But with all
of that, I think Liberia is doing what it can to combat the virus and I think lessons from Ebola has helped.
AMANPOUR: President Johnson Sirleaf, you know now that coronavirus has actually struck every single part of Africa now, every country now as of
just recently, has actually got some cases. Clearly, Africa has less developed health -- you know, public health services. We`ve got, you know,
a report that it`s possible that half the population there could lose their jobs. There`s poverty in many parts of the continue continent, although
there are some successes.
I guess the question is, do you fear it coming to really batter your continent? How do you explain the fact that it hasn`t been so virulent in
Africa yet as it has been in Africa yet as it has in Asia and in Europe and in the United States?
SIRLEAF: I do believe that weather conditions may have something to do with it. I know that our people have listened to some of the experiences. I
tell you, we`re trying to grapple too. We`re very pleased that our numbers have continued to remain small. Our effort despite our inadequacies in
resources have been as robust as they can be.
Do I have to answer as to why this virus has not penetrated us as much as others? I have to say that it`s a part of the immunities built in our
genes, our, you know, weather conditions. And also, the fact that we have continued to live the way that we`ve continued to live in a very over way.
Maybe those are the things that have helped. We certainly have not had the capacity to deal with it.
I think our biggest concern would be should we have a spread as has been predicted in some places, we will not have the means to respond adequately
to fight it. And so, the measures had been taken -- yes?
AMANPOUR: And that is what`s very worrying. And today the W.H.O. said that they believe that coronavirus would smolder in hot spots across Africa for
a long, long time. So, I want to ask you, because you have signed a letter along with other current leaders, heads of state around the world and
former presidents and prime ministers calling for any vaccine that`s developed to be provided free to everybody in the world. That there must be
no patenting, no profiteering from this vaccine, if and when it`s ever developed. Can you just describe to me what your fears might be about a
competition for a vaccine?
SIRLEAF: We must all come together with a strong call for equity when it comes to the means to combat the virus. It was Ebola. Today it`s COVID.
Tomorrow it`s likely to be something else. A global remedy that may come from vaccines of other measures was also be seen as a global good, with
access to everyone.
It`s going to be difficult enough for African countries that have deficiency in infrastructure of getting remedies to the poor, particularly
in rural areas. And so, it will require that we get the kind of recognition of the fact that a pandemic, it`s a threat to all if it`s a threat to one.
And this is why that call for equity must, must, be very strong. And we hope that the developed world is going to respond to that and see that by
supporting Africa to recover, not only from this, but recover from the economic fallout that we know is going to be our greatest challenge, we
expect that their response would be one that will ensure a better Africa, but in return, and show that they too are safer in a developed world.
AMANPOUR: Yes. And as you know, in America itself, in the United States, there`s still an unanswered question as to whether a vaccine will be
provided to all people there if it`s discovered, regardless of their socioeconomic abilities and status.
Can I ask you, because you talked in the beginning about missteps in the early years of Ebola? And we know, because everybody holds it up as an
example of what it looks like when you have a global coalition, a united front to really come together and fight a pandemic, like Ebola was.
Describe how you got the United States onboard, President Obama, how the U.N. and all the other -- what did American leadership do at that time?
SIRLEAF: Well, I think, first of all, there is -- we have to say to the world, this was not a West African, a poor country threat. This was a
global threat. I don`t think we were believed when we first made that call. And then we wrote a letter to the world and the consciousness improved.
Then we had to go to President Obama, through a personal telephone call, and say, this is going to hit America if you don`t do something about it.
You know, it`s going to go across the border. There`s not going to be any restraint or any containment from something like a virus.
And I believe President Obama responded and responded so graciously and so fully and he then sent the U.S. -- sections of the U.S. army to build a
military hospital. He then mobilized -- and I must say, we got support from German, from China, from Norway, and from many of our other countries. And
our African countries, African solidarity. The African Union mobilized resources from the private sector, and they were able to fund for young
Africans to come from several countries and to join our citizens in Liberia, to be able to combat this disease.
This was an extraordinary effort of alliance, cooperation, collective action and I hope that that`s what we`ll see from COVID-19. That we`re
going to see global alliances improve, more collaboration. We live today in an unequal world. And COVID-19, I hope, will lead to consciousness, to
promising action, to reduce the inequities of the world, recognizing that anyone left behind becomes a threat to those (INAUDIBLE).
AMANPOUR: Can I just ask you one final question, President Johnson Sirleaf? You mentioned the success, the relative success, there were only,
and I say only, with regret, but there were 11,000 deaths of Ebola then and that was much less than it could have been.
Now, there are some border restrictions around the world, but also in Africa. And you think it`s actually important for that to happen right now.
Tell me, if you can, your reason for thinking that, you know, the idea of closing borders against coronavirus is appropriate.
SIRLEAF: No, I don`t think so. I think the containment of movements --
AMANPOUR: Oh, you don`t?
SIRLEAF: -- it may be necessary in the beginning. We have a lockdown in Liberia, a lot lockdown in Africa, like it is in the world. That has to be
temporary until measurements are put into place, you know. And I think that`s what`s happening.
And let me say that we have to go beyond COVID and Ebola. There are other infectious diseases that require support. More people in Liberia and other
countries have died from malaria, and malaria is still lacking the kind of support and a vaccine that what should have been, perhaps, discovered a
long time ago.
And so, it calls for us to make sure that we begin to look at where common diseases are likely, how can we build the national health care systems to
respond to them. How can we have the kind of collaboration to be able to do that, the support that has come, has come in response to an urgency, but we
needed to have the report that comes in a very normal way so that we`re able to build responsive systems all over the world to protect everyone.
AMANPOUR: That is the hope for the future. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, thank you so much for joining me from Monrovia with that real
lesson from the past and warnings for the future.
Now, unity is under stress in the European Union, as well. Italy`s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, whose country was ravaged by the pandemic, is
threatening to leave the block if it pushes ahead with its current plans for green corridors for tourists. Some countries are taking steps to reopen
borders, but the stakes are high amidst fears of a second wave.
Joining me is Italy`s former prime minister and current E.U. economy commissioner, Paolo Gentiloni.
Commissioner, welcome back to the program.
PAOLO GENTILONI, EUROPEAN COMMISSIONER FOR ECONOMY: Yes.
AMANPOUR: Can I just ask you, there seems to be a bit of a, you know, a sort of a battle between yourself and the current Italian prime minister.
He says he`s going to pull out of the block if you continue to push this idea that there will be a summer tourist season in Europe. How is that
going to work out?
GENTILONI: No, I think, definitely, we will have a summer season, tourist season in Europe. We will have it for sure, also in Italy, which is one of
the most attractive country in Europe for tourism. For sure, it will not be the same tourism that we experienced in past years, because tourism will
have to keep some measures of social distancing that we have learned in the last couple of months. But this doesn`t mean that we will not have tourism.
What is at stake, I think, is one of the main industries in Europe and I think that inevitably, this industry will lose parts of its revenues this
year, but the summer season is something that -- not only the industry, but European citizens strongly want. And the commission will fight to avoid any
discrimination among member states and gradually, the reopening, the returning of a normal situation at our borders.
AMANPOUR: Just tell me what you think it looks like. What is this -- what kind of relaxation of borders do you think or what will the border
situation be within Europe? Will people be allowed to come from outside Europe to partake in this season that you`re talking about? And don`t you
think there`s a big risk of a second wave?
GENTILONI: Well, in fact, we are in, sad to say, unchartered territories. What we know is that at the very beginning of this outbreak, we were
fighting, as a commission to limit some reactions of member states. I remember, at the beginning of March, member states deciding bans on exports
of medical equipments among the states of the union. Bans on ventilators, on masks.
And then I remember the dozens of kilometers of tracks in some borders, in Romania or in Austria and Northern Italy. And then gradually, we were able
to reopen this trade of fundamental goods, establish green lines at all borders, and safety of medical equipments and of essential food was
I think that now, in the new process of reopening after the lockdown, we will probably have a different but a similar task, we, the commission to
avoid discrimination and to keep all member states in the same path of a gradual reopening. Gradual means that you have to continue to look very
seriously to social distancing. You have to trace situation where small outbreaks are coming to avoid a second wave. A second wave would be
obviously devastating. But I think that numbers until now are show showing that this gradual relaxing of confinement measures is functioning.
AMANPOUR: I guess, what some of the numbers are, I mean, there have been little few spikes in some of the places which have gradually eased, like in
Germany and other places. I know Europe was hoping for something like 1.4 billion before COVID for this summer tourist system. That`s -- you know,
it`s a lot of money. And I know it`s important, especially in these terrible times.
But you remember that the February skiing season was one of the sources of the spread of COVID, when everybody just went skiing and came back, not
knowing, not being tested, nothing and spread this. And they are very concerned that everybody coming to the beaches is going to be -- you know,
is going to be dangerous. I mean, the W.H.O. expert or official for Europe said, it`s time to celebrate -- not to celebrate right now, but to prepare
for the next wave.
GENTILONI: Well, I don`t share this point of view, but I share the attitude of caution. And this is also what our CDC, our Center for Disease
Control, is suggesting to all member states. Yes, I think numbers now allow to relax these measures, but we have to keep the social distancing main
principles. And I think this will bring only gradually to return to normality in our borders.
Normality means, as you know, within Europe, no passports, no border control among member states. Well, to go back to this situation, we will
need a certain amount of weeks if there is no return of outbreak in this situation.
But I repeat, the February season you were rightly mentioning was in the very high period of the curve, now, the situation is slowing down and we
don`t have, for the moment, dangerous return of the outbreak. But we should be ready. This is correct.
AMANPOUR: OK. So, I want to ask you about the economic devastation, really, that`s going on around the world, including in in Europe and also
the recovery plans that are being put in place and a lot of the money that`s being pledged to help that.
You yourself have said that you are worried about an uneven recovery, that the -- you know, the richer parts of Europe will do better than the poorer
parts and that that could cause some real difficulties. And I just wondered, because you`ve called it, you know, an existential threat to the
future of the union. And I wonder, because you`ve seen existential threats, you`ve seen Brexit, you saw the reaction in 2016 of populism around Europe.
How do you rate this existential threat and how do you rate the health of the E.U., the Union, out of coronavirus?
GENTILONI: Well, the threat is real for two simple reasons. One is single market. The single market is one of the fundamental assets of the European
Union. And if we have after this unprecedented crisis a -- something that is disrupting the level of playing field in the single market, this is very
And second is if differences among member states that were already there will increase, also, this is very dangerous. This is the reason why we are
trying to put in place common measures, common fiscal measures for short- term work, for health care systems, for small and medium enterprises and now, working for a new recovery plan and fund to avoid these differences to
put at risk our European building.
But I have also to say a more optimistic impression that I have, it is that European citizens were also experiencing during this crisis the strength of
the European project. The fact that we have a public and open to all health care system. The fact that we have transparency on data about the
coronavirus outbreak. The fact that we have social protection schemes that make completely different the unemployment situation that we are facing
which is serious from the one that other countries, like U.S., for example, are facing.
So, the European model is showing also its strength in these weeks. And I think we have to preserve it for this reason.
AMANPOUR: That`s very good observations. Paolo Gentiloni, thank you so much for joining us. E.U. economy commissioner. Thanks so much.
Now, in the United States, Rick Bright, the ousted director of a crucial agency that looks for a vaccine for COVID-19, testified today before
Congress. He says he was demoted for blowing the whistle on the Trump administration and he gave lawmakers this stark warning.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. RICK BRIGHT, FORMER DIRECTOR, U.S. BIOMEDICAL ADVANCED RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY: There will be likely a resurgence of COVID-19 this
fall. It will be greatly compounded by the challenges of seasonal influenza. Without better planning, 2020 could be the darkest winter in
First and foremost, we need to be truthful with the American people. Americans deserve the truth. The truth must be based on science. We have
the world`s greatest scientists. Let us lead. Let us speak without fear of retribution.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, joining me now from Maryland to discuss is this is the former U.S. acting surgeon general, Dr. Boris Lushniak.
Welcome to the program, Doctor.
Let me just ask you just to tell me what you think of the fact that Rick Bright went before this committee and testified and talked about, you know,
a very dark winter ahead. As I said, he sort of described a road map to dysfunction, a lack of coordination. What do you make, just from the
outset, of what he told Congress today?
DR. BORIS LUSHNIAK, FORMER U.S. ACTING SURGEON GENERAL: Well, you know, first of all, having watched part of his testimony today and reading a good
part of his whistle-blower complaint that he put in, a lot of disturbing components to this. First and foremost is that the agency, the authority
that he was in charge of, the Biomedical Advance Research and Development has a key component.
And I -- when I was in a position as an assistant commissioner for counterterrorism policy at the Food and Drug Administration, worked closely
with this authority. Their key job is to do what? Is to make sure that countermeasures against emerging threats, such as pandemics against
biothreats, right, in the world of terrorism that they`re studied, they`re looked at, and ultimately invested in.
And what I heard in today`s testimony is what? Is that there are allegations from him of interference in the scientific process, first and
foremost, right? The idea that political influence, the idea that business influence may have played a role in terms of trying to make the decisions
that needed to be made on scientific merit.
The second component of today`s testimony, I think, that was very disturbing was the fact that he -- again, he presents it that he was out
there early in January talking about the shortages that needed to be taken care of and that he was not listened to. So, this was very concerning to
AMANPOUR: To your point about science and lives and this and that, he was asked many times -- well, several times -- whether he could say that, if
science was not totally followed and that politics entered the equation, that would cause more deaths or result in more deaths.
And, eventually, he said, yes, basically, science has to lead. Otherwise, there can be, you know, these terrible consequences.
Today, we have heard the secretary, the current secretary of health and human services, and also the president push back on these allegations which
he`s made specifically against them, the top of the administration.
They have said he`s disgruntled. They have said, you know, he`s out of tune, because some of these things he`s talking about have been fixed and
are in operation now.
So, are they? What do you make of the supply chains? He says that there`s a small window of opportunity to get a national coordinated response going.
Do you think that`s even possible at this stage?
LUSHNIAK: Well, I think there is a window of opportunity in front of us.
And the specific examples that were used both in the whistle-blower complaint and in today`s testimony dealt with the N95 respirators, right,
where we still have a massive shortage of this?
Now, this is critical for a public health response and specifically for the medical response. How do we protect those health care workers? We need to
have the N95s. We need to have them in huge numbers.
And what we see here is still a lack of those supplies coming down. Now, the reality is that we need to be able to ramp this up. We need to be able
to have this supply on hand, and not do what we`re doing now, which is, in essence, is using them quite inappropriate. Right?
These were supposed to be used single use as respirators. And what we`re seeing now is, we`re coming up with contingency plants. We`re coming up
with improvised ways of cleaning them. That is a good stopgap measure in the midst of a crisis. We have got to pull ourselves out of this crisis.
AMANPOUR: The other issue, obviously, was the malaria drug, which has now had a huge amount of publicity. And I don`t know whether today`s hearings
will put a full stop on whether this is useful or not.
But what do you make of the current effort for therapeutics? Let`s just take therapeutics and the fact that there seem to be so many studies and
trials going on, not just all over America, but around the world, but yet no central database where each and every one can be tested and evaluated
for whether it works and then potentially used or not.
So what is actually going on right now in the system that could -- that needs to be done to help in terms of even finding a therapeutic, much less
LUSHNIAK: Well, first of all, I think this coordination is going to be critical, right?
Right now, we`re talking about hundreds of trials that are going on, testing very many different candidates that potentially will be forms of
therapy against COVID-19. In addition, we have multiple candidates for vaccines.
The key feature here is a coordinating approach to all this, right? Everybody`s out there doing their own thing. Science needs to be open and
to be able to share information with each other as everyone`s pursuing this.
The attempt here in the United States is trying to do this through our National Institutes for Health, right, the NIH, in terms of serving at
least part of that coordinating body. But, at the same time, you have to realize -- you bring up the issue of the anti-malarial drug
The reality is, that was part of the disturbing testimony today as well, which is, here`s a drug that, yes, it`s used, it`s used for other reasons,
but the whole issue of trying to force that drug into, right, a system such as this BARDA, this authority, is supposed to be doing, which is
scientifically evaluating projects, taking Americans` taxpayers dollars and investing in them, but only investing in them when they have been somewhat
And the reason I say somewhat is, I will be the first to admit, I`m humble as a scientist. Science is not perfect. And we have to have humility in our
decision-making, but it`s got to be based on scientific grounds.
AMANPOUR: Well, to that point, I just want to -- it was quite shocking, actually, this whole business about hydroxychloroquine, because Rick Bright
believes that it lacks scientific merit, just the initial sort of publication of it and the promotion of it.
Then he reached a compromise with the FDA that said that it could be used, but only in strict medical supervision and very restricted cases. But he
claims he was then ordered to make it more widely available, despite the FDA decision and, he says, regardless of the risk to the American public.
Do you recall a similar situation when something like that might have happened in your time, that, regardless of the risk to the American public,
this stuff was being promoted?
LUSHNIAK: No, I never recall a situation like this.
And again, that`s quite disturbing, when, in fact, again, what BARDA does and does well, when it functions well, is taking scientific evidence,
right? It is using incredible levels of expertise that review the products that are potential products.
Now, this is, at times, a high-risk venture, right? This is oftentimes investing in smaller companies that are coming up with much-needed new
products, maybe new technologies altogether.
So this isn`t 100 percent each and every time, but it`s scientifically based, looking at the idea of, is this product, first of all, safe to use
for everyone? Secondly, is it going to work? Is it efficacious? And then thirdly is, is it worth the investment dollars to be able to do what?
To ultimately assure the safety of the population. It`s all about safety. And, here, what we`re seeing is taking a product that, yes, was well-known,
that is not a perfect product from a safe profile, but also was not proven, was not proven against COVID-19.
How do you invest in something like that? And, unfortunately, what he`s presenting is that he, in essence, was being told, it`s time to buy this
thing. And it goes beyond the realms of what usually BARDA does in terms of a scientific approach to its decision-making.
AMANPOUR: OK, very, very quickly, because we`re almost out of time, you were there when the response to Ebola happened.
And that was the U.S. coming and creating this global coalition. Do you think that`s even possible in today`s real world under the Trump
administration and what we have seen right now? Is that possible to try to claim back that ground and fix it? Because that`s what Bright said. It
takes a global effort and a national coordinated effort.
LUSHNIAK: Without a doubt.
I hope things change for the better here, global coordination, working together. I saw President Sirleaf on your program just earlier. I spent
three months in Liberia. The success story in Liberia was what? First of all, it was different, a regional epidemic, as opposed to a world pandemic,
but, at the same time, global cooperation and ultimately serving that affected population with many minds, many efforts, and, yes, many dollars
That`s what it`s going to take.
Thank you so much, Dr. Boris Lushniak. Thank you very much, indeed.
And it`s often said that a picture in many of these crises is worth 1,000 words. But, during this pandemic, many of the images of those suffering and
dying, of course, are behind closed doors, in hospitals and in care homes. And, instead, our screens have been saturated by statistics and press
briefings, important, of course, to keep us informed.
But our next guest says that we need to see the victims to better understand and connect with the human impact of this devastating virus.
Sarah Lewis is an associate professor at Harvard, and she is discussing the vital role of artists and photographers during a crisis with our Walter
WALTER ISAACSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, Christiane.
And thanks, Sarah Lewis, for joining us.
SARAH LEWIS, HARVARD UNIVERSITY ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR: Thank you for having me. It`s a pleasure.
ISAACSON: You have always written about and talked about the importance of pictures, of visuals to make us understand a situation.
Why do we not have good visuals, good pictures of this coronavirus crisis?
LEWIS: This is a live question, and it`s an urgent one. It`s one I asked myself when I began to not see the images of mass devastation that globally
we`re experiencing for the last few months.
It became more important to me to consider the question when many of my loved ones and colleagues began to die. So, I began to think back over time
about when in history we have seen images that have moved us to act in moments of injustice and crisis, of the kind which we`re experiencing now.
ISAACSON: The beginning of that probably was Mathew Brady in the Civil War, right?
LEWIS: Yes, Mathew Brady was one of the incredible photographers, Alexander Gardner and others included, who documented the Civil War.
And it gave people a sense, more so than statistics alone, of what we were actually coping with.
I was talking with an incredible historian, Drew Faust, former president of Harvard and my colleague, and she reminded me of something I had forgotten
in reading about the Civil War, which is that the term realized was used in the literal sense.
Photographs gave people a sense of what was real in front of them. We know the death toll count for the Civil War now was 700,000 souls lost.
And that`s difficult for the mind to comprehend. So, pictures gave people a sense of that when they went on view and his gallery in downtown New York,
in his Broadway gallery.
ISAACSON: We had those visuals very much in the Vietnam War. And it changed our sense of that war.
Did something happened after Vietnam, where we changed our social norms, and we don`t use pictures of the dead as much?
LEWIS: It`s a great point. Absolutely.
So, images galvanized the opposition to the war during the Vietnam War. And the question then became political. How are we going to use images in our
media and in politics?
So what changed was, after the Persian Gulf War, during the H.W. Bush administration, there was a shift in terms of the policy regarding images
of the dead. So, you began to not have images circulate for the subsequent 19 years, until 2009, when, under the Obama administration, there was a
change in policy.
And so we then finally saw images of the sacrifice and the cost of our crises around the world. And so the question that you asked me at the
start, why are we not seeing images of the pandemic, in terms of human cost, is really a cultural one.
It`s a matter of the shifts that have happened over time.
ISAACSON: And we see pictures of the pandemic, but it`s either the president in the Rose Garden or some visualization of a spiky coronavirus
ball or maybe a health care worker.
ISAACSON: Are there visuals of the true suffering, and they`re just not being spread around? Or what`s the problem?
LEWIS: There are many ways to consider it.
I would just outline three. First, American medical privacy laws do respect the dignity of suffering and dying. And that`s a good thing. So, HIPAA laws
do prevent us from having a sense of the cost.
On the other hand, there are ways around us this that other countries have found that are effective, in terms of giving people a sense of what`s
really at stake.
So, there are questions about that. And it`s -- I`m not in the medical field, but what I do know historically is that there have been moments in
which we have been allowed to see the human cost of a political act, or, in this case, of a pandemic. And it`s been important and effective.
I think the other reason that we`re not seeing this, in part, is because we`re -- we haven`t figured out or calibrated what our cultural norm is
going to be around images of death.
We don`t talk about death very much as a culture. And there are many reasons for that. But photography is one of the moments in which we`re able
to rally around how it is we want to honor human lives. Mathew Brady is one example of how we have done this. There are many other examples.
ISAACSON: One of the other examples was down here in Hurricane Katrina, where we suddenly got galvanized as a nation with the absolutely shocking
photographs of the people who had been killed.
So, we see these moments in which we cannot comprehend the gravitas of a moment without pictures, without images. And Hurricane Katrina is one
incredible example. There are many others.
If you think about this going even farther back in time, think about the Great Depression, right? The Farm Security Administration is an example of
how the government marshaled the power of photographs to give people a sense of the catastrophes that were being experienced, especially in rural
And then you can fast-forward up to the current day. We have instances of racial terror, which are galvanizing people to finally have a greater sense
of accountability and to act. There are many examples.
ISAACSON: During the Depression, it was the federal government who wanted to document it.
And didn`t Walker Evans, wasn`t he one of the great photographers who did that and helped change our sense of the policies?
LEWIS: He did.
So, FDR`s New Deal inaugurated the sense that photographs could give people a sense of what was possible after devastation. So, Walker Evans was one of
the many, along with Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange, who were commissioned by Roy Stryker, who led this organization that we call the FSA, the Farm
And some of our most iconic photographs have come from that effort. So, Dorothea Lange`s Migrant Mother is an extraordinary example of that, 1935
photographs, where she was showing us a family, a mother in a moment of crisis.
There`s a pea picking village that`s north of Los Angeles, about 175 miles north, that`s -- in which there`s just starvation that`s rampant. So,
Dorothea Lange at the time was actually on a temporary basis hired, working with her -- man who would ultimately become her husband, Paul Taylor, in
order to illuminate the suffering.
And she brought this print that was almost -- it was barely dry to the San Francisco News Agency, and they called immediately back a relief agency,
were able to airlift food to that area in California.
And then, subsequently, the image was published by the United Press. So it gives you a sense of the way in which images actually can galvanize the
public and can activate and catalyze policy too.
ISAACSON: One of the iconic photographs we do have is of that mass burial on Hart Island and the trenches being dug. I think it was taken using a
drone. Tell me the backstory there.
LEWIS: So that`s an extraordinary photograph.
George Steinmetz attempted to document the mass burials that are happening on Hart Island, and very few people know what`s happening there. It`s
largely a place where you are interred or buried if you don`t have the private funds for a burial or next of kin doesn`t claim you.
And many who died of COVID are being buried there. So, George Steinmetz, in an act of, I would say, real vision and bravery, was attempting to show us
the human cost of COVID.
Now, his drone was intercepted, and he was only able to take three photographs. You have to have a permit from the Department of Corrections
in order to do this. And so he wasn`t able to really capture, I think, the full scope of what he had intended.
But it`s an example of the impulse that artists have, that photojournalists have to give us a real sense of the gravitas of the moment.
ISAACSON: One image that actually had an impact, because it affected the president of the United States, was the photograph of freezer trucks being
brought into the borough of Queens.
And it actually caused Trump to reevaluate some of his thinking for a little while, right?
LEWIS: It did. It did.
This is really one of the central questions in terms of the history of photography. How can images inspire empathy? When do they and when do they
not? So, Trump is an example here of offering as a sense of being moved to act.
And this is, of course, a president who was eager to reopen the country by Easter prior to that moment of seeing images of the dead in his hometown in
Queens, New York, or close to it, as he said.
ISAACSON: The last time we had a viral crisis, it was very well- documented, which was HIV/AIDS.
Compare and contrast what happened during that epidemic and now in terms of visuals.
LEWIS: That`s a fascinating compare-and-contrast example, because I think there`s some differences here that put an even greater onus on the power of
I think, in the HIV/AIDS pandemic, we were dealing with stigma surrounding the gay community at the time. And the question then became, well, how do
you humanize those who are suffering, who are suffering also in the face of government inaction?
So those images played a really crucial role. And they were artists, yes. There were also collectives, such as Gran Fury, doing some of this work.
What you see with HIV/AIDS imagery is also the endurance of that effort, how long it took, how many years and decades it took to continue to
document the crisis.
And for us, I think the question about duration is different. We now have - - we have to act very quickly, and it`s affecting us in a global sense. And so the question then becomes, how can we marshal our artists to get these
images out, yes, to politicians, it seems, if we`re going to use President Trump as the example, as we just mentioned, but really to all of us, so
that we will honor the stay-at-home orders, that we will actually take seriously this crisis?
ISAACSON: In your book "The Rise," you talk about how creative achievements sometimes arise from failure or challenges or things going
How do you think the coronavirus will affect creative achievements?
LEWIS: Whew, what a question.
During crises, artists do get to work. And this is what -- it gives me a kind of silver lining of hope about the moment. And part of what animated
that project was to consider the extraordinary achievements that have come from the improbable foundations of all kinds, and the arts in particular.
So this moment is fertile for them. I think people dig into themselves during crises. They`re able to understand their own capacities. And if
there is any, I would say, almost eternal truth about the arts, it`s that it forces this reckoning between who we are and who we think we are and who
we actually could be.
ISAACSON: What would you urge photographers and visual artists to be doing now, as we go through this pandemic?
LEWIS: One of the main tasks that I hope artists consider is not what the answer to the crisis is, but what the right questions are for whatever new
normal we emerge into.
I think, often, we consider artists as those who point the way or who remind us of when we have fallen short of a particular goal.
So, I think a way to get us to consider that is by asking these questions, regardless of the medium. Now, practically speaking, I know that there are
restrictions on how it is that we move around.
But that kind of deep probing is still possible from wherever it is that we sit.
ISAACSON: As we go through this pandemic, I think we`re reminded of how art is always connected to justice. Art helps pave the way for justice.
Tell me how that plays into this current situation.
The crisis was making me think back to this extraordinary eulogy that President John F. Kennedy offered after Robert Frost died. And he said
that, really, he was thinking about the function of the artist during a time of crisis.
And he said that if our artists are most critical of our society, it is because of their sensitivity and their concern for justice that must
motivate any true artist that makes him aware of when we fall short of our highest potential.
I think that`s almost a direct quote. It`s an extraordinary line and I think an eternal truth about what the real quarrel, as James Baldwin might
put it, the quarrel, the kind of lover`s war that an artist has with their society is actually about.
So, today, if artists are finding themselves responding to the crisis, I would say it will probably be to quarrel with our society, to find ways in
which we can reanimate and reconsider who it is that we really want to be as a society, as a country, as individuals.
So this is really, I think, what the function of art is, in the end.
ISAACSON: We aren`t seeing many images of those most affected by COVID-19, people of color.
ISAACSON: What long-term effect will that have?
LEWIS: Well, this is really -- it`s a huge question.
I mean, one of my colleagues, Evelynn Hammonds, the chair of history of science at Harvard, has an extraordinary "New York Times" piece about
racial disparities in COVID.
And one of the things it explains is that we are able to see the structural inequalities and also the implicit and explicit biases that we have always
lived with in a more pronounced way.
I would wish for myself, as an art historian, that we would have the images that would continue to underscore that reality and that fact, but we don`t
fully. And I don`t know that we will.
But the irony, of course, is that, if there was any silver lining of COVID that I personally had, it was that we wouldn`t have images of racial terror
as much. But that`s been taken away with our -- the images at least of Ahmaud Arbery and others.
So, in terms of the lasting impact, I think it will force us to question how race intersects with our willingness to confront human suffering and
cost. Are we more willing in some cases than others?
This is still, I think, a question for scholars and historians.
ISAACSON: You mentioned the video of the fatal shooting of the jogger Ahmaud Arbery.
ISAACSON: How does that fit into what you`re saying about race and justice and visual images?
LEWIS: So, the hyper-visibility of racial terror is really nothing new in American life.
Scholar and cultural story and Jasmine Nichole Cobb is extraordinary on this point in her book "Picture Freedom." She looks at the way in which the
legacies of slavery in particular have given us this kind of ocularity to citizenship.
It`s given us a culture of surveillance of black bodies. And, ultimately, what we`re seeing with the Ahmaud Arbery video is another example of that.
It`s -- it shows us this long history.
But what`s changed, I think, is how it`s animating our discussion of how it is that images can spark a conversation about race and belonging and human
-- and honoring human life.
So, what it`s allowed for is a kind of accountability. That image has led to accountability. It hasn`t necessarily led to justice. And -- but what is
happening is, I think, this robust conversation about images and race and justice, which we sorely need in our country.
ISAACSON: Sarah Lewis, thanks so much for joining us. Stay well.
LEWIS: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Walter.
AMANPOUR: Great conversation, of course, resonates with me from all those years as a foreign correspondent, knowing that images, the pictures of
humanity are vital to telling the accurate and the full story.
And, finally, as countries start to move beyond the first peak of coronavirus, many, as we have said, and now easing their restrictions.
Sweden famously chose not to impose a national lockdown, instead advising citizens to follow voluntary social distancing.
And residents are finding novel ways to embrace it. Table for One is a small pop-up restaurant. It has no servers and just one guest a night,
encouraging diners to enjoy the quiet.
And in New Zealand, which locked down hard and early, families and friends are coming together for the first time in seven weeks today. The country
says it has for now eliminated the virus, and towns and cities are coming back to life, as people start returning to shops and hair salons.
And that is it for now. You can always catch us online, on our podcast, and across social media.
Thanks for watching, and goodbye from London.