Aspen Ideas Festival kicks off with social justice, COVID-19 discussions
The virtual Aspen Ideas Festival kicked off Sunday with roughly 90 minutes of discussion surrounding social justice and the ongoing fight for voter rights in America, the power of music to provoke change, and the latest on the U.S. response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
And while each speaker came from different backgrounds and sectors of society, one loose, common theme was evident throughout the roughly 90-minute livestream: Americans are experiencing an unprecedented time of hardship and reflection that brings with it a great opportunity for collaborative, positive change moving forward.
“We are at inflection points on so many things,” said Stacey Abrams, a former minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives and longtime politician who has founded multiple organizations dedicated to voting rights and tackling social issues. Abrams acknowledged that these inflection points include how the COVID-19 crisis is highlighting historical inequalities when it comes to access to health care, and how the recent instances of police brutality are a symptom of systemic racism in America.
“We are not at a place where everyone agrees with the fact that we have to fix everything, but we are at a moment where there is common cause about fixing the most egregious,” she said.
In a brief discussion with Brittany Packnett Cunningham, a prominent activist, educator and writer, Abrams talked specifically about how making it easier for all Americans, regardless of their socioeconomic status, to vote and doing more to conduct an accurate, more regular census are critical components to ensuring all Americans are represented, especially Americans of color.
She and Cunningham expressed the fact that voting isn’t a “magic pill” and that substantial, systemic change takes time, but emphasized that change relies on persistence and a multitude of efforts — like voting and protesting and participating in the census.
“The truth is it can get better but it will not get better if we abdicate our responsibility. … My understanding of this moment is I don’t have the luxury of giving up,” Abrams said.
“My parents who were civil rights activists as teenagers raised me to say you fix the problems, you don’t simply get to lament; you have to do. And that obligation, that responsibility is what drives me every day.”
But outside of protesting and community outreach, what role does art and do artists have during difficult social times like those we’re experiencing today?
That’s the question Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, posed to David Byrne, an artist and musician best known for co-founding the Talking Heads, on Sunday evening.
“I often ask myself can art make a difference, can it change minds? I know for example that music can unite people, it can make people feel that they belong and that they’re not alone. … Whether music can address social issues? That’s really tough,” Byrne said. However, he went on to explain that through example, he feels music and performance can make a difference, which he realized through the recent Broadway debut of his theatrical concert “American Utopia.”
“We were putting in front of people a kind of evidence of the things that could be different than the way they often are. That’s something music and performance can do; we provide sometimes the evidence of what’s possible.”
Byrne and Walker also discussed their backgrounds, artistic influences and what makes them hopeful for the future during such an uncertain time. They joined other speakers like Neal Katyal, professor of law at Georgetown University, and Emma Robbins, director of the Navajo Water Project, in discussing their ideas and hopes for the future virtually from their offices and homes.
But to conclude the first night of the festival, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and Elizabeth Cohen, senior medical correspondent for CNN, discussed the most pressing and uncertain aspect of the near future: the continued impacts of the novel coronavirus pandemic, mainly focusing on the recent surges in new cases in certain states and how the country is reopening, along with the potential for having a successful coronavirus vaccine by early 2021.
Fauci said there are examples of “A+” phased reopenings in some states and more “C-level” examples of communities that are seeing surges as people choose not to wear masks or social distance — and that it’s “understandable but regrettable” that Americans are responding to the pandemic in different ways.
“In all the years that I’ve been chasing viruses, I’ve never seen a situation that could lead to such confusion because with the same pathogen, you have 20% to 40% of people that don’t even know they’re infected,” Fauci said. “It’s very unusual to have a disease that kills a reasonably, relatively high percentage of the vulnerables, … and that same microbe does absolutely nothing to such a high percentage of people. I don’t know any precedent to that.”
He went on to say that because younger people in particular have a smaller chance of being seriously impacted by COVID-19, they do things to propagate the pandemic in “an innocent, understandable but regrettable way.”
“They don’t realize that while they’re getting infected they’re likely to infect someone else who ultimately will infect a vulnerable person, and then you have hospitalizations or deaths,” Fauci said, referring to younger Americans without underlying medical conditions. “So like it or not, by getting infected yourself you’re not in a vacuum, you’re part of the propagation of the dynamics of a pandemic, so you have to have your own individual responsibility to protect yourself but you really do have a societal responsibility to not be part of the problem but to be part of the solution.”
Fauci also said that based on the data from “phase 1” of clinical trials for a coronavirus vaccine — data he said will be released to the public soon — he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the U.S. will have at least one vaccine candidate that could be available by late 2020 or early 2021.
But even so, Fauci said he recognizes that it’s going to be hard to get Americans to trust in the effectiveness and safety of the new vaccine.
“It’s going to be very difficult. It’s going to require hard work and public messaging by people they trust,” Fauci said. He also commented on the U.S. response to the pandemic as a whole, noting that there are things the country has done well and things it could have done better.
“There are a lot of things that we’re really very happy with and very proud of and there are certainly things we could have done better. Anybody who denies that is not looking at what’s actually going on,” he said.
The virtual Aspen Ideas Festival will continue each evening through July 2 starting at 5 p.m. More than 50 speakers will be featured over the five nights, along with “big idea” pitches and music performances. The festival is free but requires registration through aspenideas.org.
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