In this week’s interview, volunteer Thomas Smiley discusses having a sense of agency in a pandemic and possible next steps in health policy. (Interview has been edited for length.)
Gavriel: Can you tell me about yourself, like where you are and what you do with your time?
Thomas: I live in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. I test metals for the aerospace industry–I’m really good at turning a wrench, essentially. In my free time I used to like to swing dance and do acro-yoga and a lot of social things that I can no longer do. I’ve come up with a lot of simulacrums for what we had in the past with virtual things–I hosted a dance show, my pride and joy for months.
Gavriel: How did you learn about 1Day Sooner initially?
Thomas: I saw Abie [Rohrig] on the CNN interview. It gave me the idea that, as an individual, I had agency. It really resonated with me that we could try some very novel ways to approach this crisis. I immediately reached out to 1Day Sooner saying if there’s anything that you can use me for, I want to do it. I wanted to be part of something that would allow us to understand more and allow people that are way smarter than myself to be able to make some progress into ending the pandemic.
Gavriel: Can you tell me what the COVID situation is in Ohio right now?
Thomas: There’s a divide that has made what should be a nonpartisan public health issue incredibly volatile. People are adamantly refusing information and best practices because of their desire for freedom. I have to fight to just get people to understand the basic facts of what the situation is. We speak in these numbers that seem so far-fetched and impossible to internalize: a thousand people are dying per day and that there are a hundred thousand new cases. I have people very close to me that refuse vaccines, and believe that this will all go away, and their freedoms mean more than then public safety. We’re not as united as we should be.
Gavriel: You emphasized agency earlier — have you been able to have a sense of agency when the atmosphere around you is so conflicted? Have you discussed vaccination with people who disagree with you?
Thomas: I’ve reached out. I want to educate and give people the ability to understand. I have learned that you’re not changing people’s minds, quite frankly. People are dug in. The group [1Day Sooner] allows me to use my skill set to move us forward toward a goal, which makes me feel better. There are a lot of other societies that I hold in a high regard because there’s a lot of utilitarianism and pragmatism to how they address these issues. I remember when the Fukushima disaster happened, [a retiree Yasuteru] Yamada and a bunch of his old engineer friends said, we want to go in and we want to help. Why? Because it’s what we have to give. I hope that we see a world where we understand that we are not self-contained. If a wind moves in the east, it will have repercussions in Ohio. I feel as though there’s value to bringing people understanding as opposed to confrontation. And that is something that I try to promote but it becomes very difficult in this particular country.
Gavriel: What public health policies would you advocate for or what public health changes would you like to see?
Thomas: I would hope that we come to an understanding to be prepared for everything, not to cut things to such a razor thin margin, every logistics chain had to be just-in-time manufacturing. We wanted everything right now and it all really took a hit. I would like to see us say there is room for error so that people’s way of living does not collapse. If we have catastrophes, which are going to happen, unfortunately, I would like to see us have more of a plan for when these situations arise and I’d like to see us become more of a global society. As the old adage goes, we are only as strong as our weakest link.
Gavriel: What do you see as the potential next steps forward?
Thomas: This may be quite controversial, but I would like to see a little bit more aggressive track. Without being too incredibly provocative, I think the next step should be a little more aggressive mandates and more aggressive tracking — the company I work for mandated vaccines. They essentially said, you either have a job here or you don’t and I do like that very definitive, very binary idea. And you have to understand how fearful that makes me. I don’t know that people are always capable of making the best decisions globally, or nationally, or regionally. So I would like to see an agency that has a wealth of knowledge looking out for the best interests of those under them putting forth more strict provisions. Having the conversation riddled with misinformation or conflicting opinions, or having a platform for people that aren’t necessarily the most well-versed seems to do a great deal of harm. I am very much circumstantially pro vaccine mandates, recognizing very tangible historical precedent that I just can’t shake. If people should choose to do something different, there should be some sort of accountability. I am pro accountability. That’s the best way I can say it.
Gavriel: I’m very sympathetic to ambivalence; I think it’s the most reasonable mood here. Organizations that are supposed to be sources of authority don’t always act the way that they should.
Thomas: It’s really hard. You can think and believe and have options for what you want to do, but you can’t just do anything. The democratization of information and voices in this 21st century landscape has been both one of the best and maybe one of the worst things that has ever happened to us. The idea that all information is equally good is not true.
Gavriel: Let’s get to the fun questions. I was going to say, tell me something you love about where you live…but you live in Ohio.
Thomas: Hey, you live in one of the big confusing square states.
Gavriel: I live in one of the big square states which is also one of the most beautiful places on earth. But okay, tell me something you love about where you live.
Thomas: What do I like about Cincinnati? It’s not Detroit. Next question.
Gavriel: That’s not allowed to be your answer.
Thomas: Jokes aside, in Cincinnati, there is an incredible amount of unique individuals, an incredible amount of talented people and brilliant minds that have shown me that I can be myself. The idea that there is a place for you is really refreshing. It may be hard to find, but there is a home for you if you do anything in Cincinnati. The people are really nice and really warm.
Gavriel: What’s the deal with your radio host set up? I want on the record for readers that you sound very much like a radio host.
Thomas: I started a podcast, because I think I have a gift in being able to connect with people and trying to get people to understand the nuances of a person. People easily get clumped into groups and I think there’s a lot of nuance to every human being, every individual. I would talk one on one in my studio and have a conversation and ask weird questions and try to show to the audience how they shined. To let my audience see what I saw in this magical, interesting, weird, wonderful human. It eventually morphed into a show where I would do the same thing, but put on dance numbers and played music and games. It was awesome. There’s only one episode archived of the dance show. The ephemeral nature of life is something that really appeals to me. Things exist and they go away. They live their life and they’re gone and the magic that was can’t be replicated.
Gavriel: What are some things you’re curious about or topics you like to learn about?
Thomas: I’m getting into a deeper dive of the psychology of comedy and performing — how it works, the mechanisms that we use to elicit laughter, how to host, and how to MC. Psychology and marketing are always big appeals to me, threaded through with comedy. So now, I understand the nuanced differences between Stephen Colbert, Graham Norton, and Jimmy Fallon, etc. There are a lot of nuances and differences between the ways they host and I love to study that.
Gavriel: Is there anything else you want to add?
Thomas: We touched upon pragmatism and utilitarianism. Those are the things that really drive me to do what I do. If I have the ability to do something and you do not, I’m more than happy to go a little bit further if it will help the totality of what we have. I like the idea of doing that which provides the most utility. Maybe we should find what does the greatest amount of good and “say this is something that needs to be done for a larger goal”. We actively did some of those things in the 20th century, like rationing resources.
Gavriel: I think there’s something about acute situations that really pulls people together. If the public mentality around COVID was that we’re fighting a war and our enemy is a virus, I think we would have pulled together very differently.
Thomas: It’s interesting because all the parallels are there, you know — a lot of death, needing to do things for the greater good, a common enemy. We are so used to convenience, it was very difficult to have a lot of groups of people forgo those conveniences. Myself included! I’m only 36 years old. I’ve had it pretty easy.
Gavriel: Okay, thanks for the interview!
Thomas: I’m sure it’s been taxing. I promise nothing and deliver even less.
Gavriel: That’s a good one. I think I can use that as the last sentence.