12 Apr How I think about Covid
For my third blog I want to talk about the Covid-19 pandemic. As I consider this casual, conversational writing, and since I’m a physical scientist, not an epidemiologist, I don’t speak as some authority on viruses or infectious diseases. But, I have found that the public conversation on this in the West, at least, has been replete with manias of panic, irrational thinking, poor organization, excessive nonchalance, misunderstandings of statistics, and just lack of the prudence befitting of an advanced civilization. In some ways we got ourselves together, but in plenty of others Covid has highlighted how viscerally unprepared we are when required to make social changes. If we can’t handle a pandemic like grown-ups, how can we expect to handle climate change? So, I’d like to share a little of what I have learned over the past year, a little of my personal experience as a Canadian living abroad during the Covid lockdown in Spain, and how that has been panning out, but also to put forth here some of the nuance that I think would benefit society going forward.
My wife Anna, and I met in Ottawa during the Sars-1 outbreak in the summer of 2003. As with other health crises, it was all over the news and those in charge seemed to be taking it quite seriously, rationally, and prudently informing the public, raising money and awareness, etc. In retrospect, then, it almost boggles the mind that we could have held a record-breaking concert featuring the Rolling Stones and AC/DC among many others, and hosted by Canada’s own Dan Aykroyd. You can’t help but ask yourself, if Sars-1 and Sars-2 are both coronaviruses that lead to SARS, how could we put on a benefit concert with half a million people in close proximity? At first glance it would seem like a cruel joke. Of course, the answer is because they have vastly different transmissibilities. Sars-Cov-1 and the present danger, Sars-Cov-2 are both coronaviruses with what are often misleadingly referred to as ‘spikes’ protruding from them, looking vaguely like a crown (corona) on a 2D microscopy section. 3D computer models show them looking more like some demented extra-terrestrial burdock thistle.
I have since found out that these peplomer spikes are proteins and that their different characteristics are what can make them more or less contagious. Since we are talking about microscopic structures here that are slightly smaller than what is visible to an optical microscope, it seems to me that we are referring to the range of scales over which chemical bonding between molecules has an influence. The particular shape of these spike proteins I presume has something to do with how ‘sticky’ the virus therefore is and hence to how survivable it is as it attaches to and ‘invades’ the cell walls, replacing your cell’s DNA with a new genetic algorithm to make copies of the virus instead. After multiple copies the cell becomes bloated with the virus’ RNA to the point of bursting the cell walls, allowing Sars-Cov-2 viruses to spread out and infect other cells in the same way.
It should go without saying, though, I’ll say it anyway: viruses don’t have in any normal sense, a consciousness, with goals or agendas. It is just RNA, encased in lipids, with protein ‘spikes’, like zombies, hitching a ride in water droplets, which move stochastically through the air governed by the laws of fluid dynamics. Viruses are smaller than the spaces between the fibres even for surgical masks. Masks are nonetheless effective. How could this be? The reason is that their water droplet carriers are much bigger than the spaces between the fibres, so many viruses are therefore stopped by the mask.
Since a virus needs a host cell to obtain its energy and survive (but, I nonetheless still think of it as a lifeform), then the specific size and shape of these proteins somehow makes Sars-Cov-2 more adept at attaching to the cell walls, particularly, the cells of the respiratory tract, which, I presume must have some particular features amenable to Sars-Cov-2, which make them more susceptible to invasion. It is there, in the phlegmy goo of your lungs they find the optimal conditions to proliferate.
I was intrigued a few months ago to read about these proteins in Scientific American. So, if I got this right, the spike proteins on Sars-Cov-2 have optimized arrangements that swing or swivel like microscopic three-dimensional hinges. Supposedly this is what facilitates their attachment to the fats of cell walls. The virus can also build up sugar chains (Glycan) on the spikes, camouflaging it to the antibodies. Since Sars-Cov-2 is more survivable it is therefore more transmissible. Previous coronaviruses I presume did not have this hinge-protein feature and even allowed us to have rock concerts in their name.
So, how does a virus, which didn’t exist before 2019, suddenly come into being? The answer to that is evolution.
Here’s how I think about it. While we imagine evolution as something that occurs only over much longer time periods, viruses (and bacteria, perhaps) are simple enough that small molecular changes to their structures in fact can amount to substantial changes to the organism as a whole, as they are, relatively speaking, not that much larger than individual atoms anyway.
A random mutation can be caused by natural phenomena such as cosmic rays, which rain down on us here on Earth all the time–albeit somewhat subdued by the Earth’s magnetic field and its atmosphere, thankfully. Cosmic rays are atomic nuclei moving through space at close to the speed of light. They likely originate from supernovae explosions or active galactic nuclei.
Most of the time cosmic rays only do local, temporary damage to biological life, which is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But sometimes, one of these speeding nuclei can smash through a cell wall and damage DNA molecules, which may cause a specific combination of base-pairs to recombine in a novel way. Think about that. A heavy nucleus has been traveling through space at nearly the speed of light for millions or billions of years just to damage your DNA. It’s gotta be a Monday!
Most base-pair patterns have no role in telling a cell how to replicate. But, if a part of the DNA that codes replication is modified, we may have a new organism. This new organism is most often not so good at replicating itself amidst the sea of other microorganisms vying for dominance. But as random chance would have it, one particular modification led to the creation of Sars-Cov-2, especially with its characteristic hinge spike proteins.
The consensus narrative in the scientific community seems to be that this happened in or near bat colonies, where the bat somehow transmitted it to a pangolin, which was sold in a wet market in Wuhan, China, where it entered the human population. So, natural selection.
Could it have been artificially selected? I mean, we do this all the time, you know? We create dog breeds by selecting for desirable traits. We do the same in agriculture. Did you know that carrots used to be always white, like parsnips? I guess orange is a pleasing colour to us, so we selected for it. Couldn’t we artificially select for virus characteristics too? Presumably we would select for less transmissible, less deadly strains. Could Sars-Cov-2 have been created in a laboratory by well-meaning scientists researching new vaccines? Possibly.
I have seen the media sometimes ask if it had a zoonotic (evolution by natural selection) or laboratory (evolution by artificial selection) origin. However, I have seen few say that it could have been both zoonotic, and then studied in the Wuhan laboratory. The principle of charity implores us to at least not blame humans for creating this virus, much less, with mal intent; at least not yet. Rather, a more psychologically satisfying and blameless story of zoonotic origin attempts to settle the issue and allow us as a global civilization to tackle the pandemic head on. Ok, fair enough. If more information becomes available, we are free to make a course correction.
However, there is some worrying circumstantial evidence that it was in fact created, or at least, augmented or propagated in the laboratory in Wuhan, China, then, accidentally released to the fish market. After all, the wet market was just a few blocks away from the lab. If true, China has some explaining to do. But, not just China, because, as Nicholson Baker writes in NYMAG, during both the Obama and Trump administrations, funding was provided to studies which deliberately tried to increase the transmissibility of coronaviruses, ostensibly to learn more about them in order to be able to manufacture treatments. Knowledge is power. But, with power comes responsibility, so if this turns out to be true, history may not view it kindly.
The running explanation of the origins of Covid-19 over the past year has been that it had a zoonotic origin. Let’s go with that for a moment. As the story goes, in 2012 some men and boys far from Wuhan, in the south of China were tasked with the, let’s just say, unfortunate job of collecting large quantities of bat guano (compacted fecal droppings of bats on the floor of a cave). They breathed in sufficient quantities of the disturbed guano dust that they then died of acute respiratory failure.
But, if true, why didn’t the virus start to spread like wildfire in 2012? We know obviously that it is characteristically transmissible. Are we expected to believe that between that incident and the 2019 outbreak in Wuhan, the virus either gradually or punctually evolved by natural selection, ending up in the fish market that just happens to be next to the high security biolab, suddenly being highly transmissible?
Well, like, maybe. I can’t rule that out. However, the Wuhan laboratory is the first, and I believe, only Biosafety Level-4 security (BSL-4; the highest level) lab of its type in China. Moreover, the United States had been funding transmissibility augmentation research in that very lab. Please read the article by Nicolson Baker for more details and his informed speculation.
To be clear I’m not implying that this was an intentional bioterrorist attack or anything of the sort. But, we need to face up to these problems because accidents happen. And, in increasingly complex societies, there are increasingly serious consequences for accidents; for ‘playing God’, as it were.
Here are some questions to ponder: does the scientific value of transmissibility augmentation experiments out-weigh the potential drawbacks of an outbreak? My opinion is, no. We could probably learn just as much about how to make viruses more transmissible through computer models, just like we do for nuclear test explosions. But, even digital gene-sequencing and computer modelling of viruses can be a disaster if a sufficiently knowledgeable and malicious person is able to create synthetic life from them, releasing them into nature. This is possible now using techniques such as the Crispr gene-editing tool (which, I might add is an impressive work of science and raw curiosity on the part of its inventors, Jennifer Doudna et al.) That would be scary stuff, indeed, if found to be true. It has existential-risk potential, as Oxford philosopher Toby Ord discusses in his recent book The Precipice, which was published just before the pandemic, yet, is nonetheless impressively on point. Sars-Cov-2 could have been much worse. There is no reason why it could not have been ten or more times more fatal, while still not being lethal enough to fizzle out by killing off its living hosts.
More recent news has been that the W.H.O., after an apparently thorough investigation in Wuhan, has found that the virus was zoonotic in origin. Ok, case closed, right? Well, again, maybe. However, normally a complete scientific study should take many painstaking months, if not years. But, on the other hand, maybe it was something even more nefarious. It is possible (but not probable, in my opinion) that someone deliberately planted the virus (which was zoonotic in origin) in the wet market near the laboratory in order to make the laboratory a circumstantial suspect. It will be difficult to ever know for sure.
By nature and scientific training, I am sceptical about conspiracy theories. I think that one’s belief should be proportional to the evidence. At present it appears to have been zoonotic in origin. So, I will have to accept their findings but remain open to changing my opinion if more evidence is presented.
The “partial findings” of this investigation are very scant on details and they hasten to add that the investigation is going to be a much longer process. However, from a geopolitical point of view, it is probably in the W.H.O.’s interest to not ruffle the feathers of China, especially given how quickly information bubbles are created. They must know that and they may have made a political calculation not to do so. I would imagine that if they came with the opposite partial findings (that it was an accidental leak), then conspiracy theorists (many of those with political influence) would jump at the opportunity to blame China. That would not be good for the world at this point. The virus is here. We need to deal with the pandemic and it must serve as a lesson to prepare ourselves for future inevitable outbreaks.
Lessons for a post-pandemic world
In Fareed Zakaria’s book Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, he spends a chapter discussing the erosion of public trust in “experts”. In the broadest sense, an expert is a person with specialized knowledge on a particular subject. It should go without saying that the more collective knowledge we accumulate, the less of that knowledge individuals can be experts of. For the grammar police, yes, I am aware that the previous sentence ended with a preposition.
The natural tendency is for only certain qualified individuals to become experts. This has been the case throughout history, from the division of labour on down the line. One often sees historical figures labeled at once as a philosopher, a scientist, an explorer, an inventor, a polymath. And, while I personally share that passion for many fields of inquiry, as the world’s body of knowledge grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to be the well-rounded polymath I aspire to be. It is obviously beneficial to have “experts” in various fields of study in order to continue to discover and innovate.
On the one hand people expect experts to solve society’s many dilemmas. But on the other hand, in the West there appears to be a growing mistrust in experts, especially when it conflicts with one’s political beliefs. Zakaria points out how the British politician Michael Gove, when asked to name a few economists who supported his view that separating from the European Union would be good for business, replied, “People in this country have had enough of experts”!
It’s as if all that would be necessary to collectively decide whether to stay or leave the EU would be to just channel your gut feeling. I don’t know about you, but if I were having a sensitive medical procedure, I want an expert. Same goes for getting my car or computer fixed, or pouring cement, or breaking up with Europe.
What’s the deep reason for this mistrust in experts? Part of it probably is that people expect results quickly. Science works slowly, meticulously, deliberately toward ground truth, while (increasingly) society has become accustomed to immediate answers (i.e., the new verb “to Google” something; they even encourage this with their “I’m feeling lucky” button which chooses the first result for you).
Therefore, in this way people can find their own ‘facts’ written somewhere, by someone online, which may or may not comport with reality. We are all researchers and journalists now, apparently. Another reason is that we as scientists simply need to work harder to effectively communicate our findings. Prioritizing funding for outreach activities could be a quick fix for that.
Expert sources of knowledge and trust in that knowledge is eroding in correlation with more available information. In principle you don’t need to go through the rigorous process of copy-editing and peer-review to publish something anymore一some people even self-publish blogs! As a result there is more misleading, overly complicated, or plain wrong information available. If scientific outreach were monetized, we could begin to bridge the gap between experts and the general public as knowledge grows, and therefore trust in scientists would begin to improve. Scientists are normally paid (or, funded by public or private interests) to acquire and analyze data, publish their findings through a rigorous peer-review process, communicate among other scientists in their field, and to teach students一regrettably not the general public. Suffice it to say, science communication is poorly funded. Why? Cui bono? The reason is that such activities, like education in general, are long-term investments with only long-term, difficult-to-quantify benefits that play out over generations, while democratic politics plays its game over just months and years.
That being said, there are some great resources on the internet where you can find good science summaries (e.g., brilliant.org), but for better or for worse, they are generally still financed by an advertising model.
Science can be wrong, especially when quick results are expected. But, the beauty of science is that it is self-correcting (in theory!), so that the antidote to poor science is more, better science. Instead, our fantastic access to information and the “attention economy” leads to some ideas (they could be bad ones) being publicized more efficiently than others, thus reaching a wider audience, thus being more influential on public opinion of science, thus leading to increasing mistrust in scientific experts. Scientists then feel that the effort is futile, and give up. Sigh…
Frankly, science doesn’t really work by consensus, but in an everyday sense you do have to choose one explanation or another in order to move forward as a society. Generally, your best bet is to go with a consensus opinion, keeping your mind open to change as information becomes available. Eventually science will ferret out the answers, but it takes time by its very nature. Climate Change is a great example. The majority of climate scientists could be wrong, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.
Another reason perhaps for the communication gulf between scientists and the general public might also have something to do with the personalities of scientists. While there is plenty of variation, I would guess that most scientists tend to be the somewhat introverted, contemplative types. I definitely would characterize myself that way.
Those personalities, when combined with poor financial incentives, the growing body of knowledge and access to that knowledge, together work against effective scientific communication with the general public. Moreover, there are very few scientists in decision-making government positions, where they would have the opportunity to communicate to society on the national or international stage. Scientists are under-represented in government. This has to change.
All these factors contribute to mistrust in the institution of science and therefore to the public being poorly informed. Covid-19 has been a shining example of that.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we were told to follow some general guidelines to mitigate the outbreak. Now, a year later, science has accumulated enough data to show that some of this was unnecessary. While the precautionary principle is in play here and it’s better to be safe than sorry, self-serving politicians often use these “mistakes” to discredit scientists in order to serve their own agendas. The loudest voice often wins. But, as I think I have pointed out by now, some of these facts we simply did not know a year ago. For example, we now know that Sars-Cov-2 is almost exclusively an airborne virus, not spread via fomites (surface contact).
At the beginning of the pandemic, it was with much stress and anxiety that we gazed onto the street here in Catalonia to see hazmat-wearing officials disinfecting the sidewalks against this supposed fomite spread, implying that basically everything was infectious. It conjured up images of the future which didn’t particularly inspire hope. In retrospect we could have probably focused solely on airborne transmission, but we didn’t have the data or the time to carry out an in-depth cost vs. risk analysis. We did the best we could.
Hand washing and disinfecting wasn’t for nothing. It probably prevented other fomite transmissions of viruses and bacteria, which we normally would have either just tolerated (statistically, as a society), or not even attributed to any given pathogen because we didn’t have the control data to verify it. This generally helped us ‘flatten the curve’ by reducing the load on hospitals.
A few weeks before the declaration of a global pandemic by the W.H.O., Covid cases really started to increase in Italy and Spain. At the time, there were very few instances in North America, and the spread in China was getting way out of control. It was too early to know how things would play out in other countries, but it was totally obvious to me that the US under the Trump administration was going to handle it poorly. At the same time, on both the left and the right, the US mainstream media was an enormous cacophony of misinformation and “yes, but” counter arguments that were expressed as if they should or could be treated in isolation. I followed casually in disbelief on the outrage machine known as Twitter.
Amid the chatter, one of the clearest, most responsible thinkers on Covid was Nicholas Christakis, who has since written a brilliant and comprehensive book on the subject, called Apollo’s Arrow, which I highly recommend. It was from him, especially during interviews with Sam Harris on the Making Sense Podcast (Episode #190, here, and the more up-to-date Episode #222, here), that I learned for the first time, the terms ‘social distancing’ and ‘flattening the curve’, the efficacies of mask use and hand washing, and where I was occasioned to ruminate on how complex societies make decisions.
In Apollo’s Arrow, Christakis, a sociologist and physician at Yale, spells out the differences between symptomatic and asymptomatic spread, the incubation vs. latent periods of infectious diseases, and Ro vs. Re values, community spread, case fatality rate and the statistic of ‘excess death’ as a clear measure of the number of deaths above average. Excess death should settle the debate once and for all whether deaths had been over-reported, or that pneumonia or influenza had been mis-diagnosed as Covid-19, ostensibly to artificially inflate the number of Covid cases toward asserting that things weren’t as bad as you might think… i.e., business as usual.
As Christakis points out, if you look simply at the statistics of ‘excess deaths’ in a given period of time, you clearly see that we are in a real, enduring pandemic situation. In other words, you don’t need to definitively find Sars-Cov-2 viruses in every single patient to know that we have a problem. The book goes on to delve deep into how in times of crisis we may band together, but we also are pulled apart by grief, fear, and lies, Us vs. Them mentalities, and tribal thinking.
This is especially pertinent in these post-Covid times that are uniquely characterized by the flood of information, mis-information, and dis-information inherent in social networks. It’s easy to understand why so many people are confused.
How it went for us
In Spain, the situation really started to go south at the end of February, or early March just after a spike in cases in Italy. We had just taken a ski trip to the Pyrenees for my birthday, and while not enjoying the slopes we were trying to make sense of the news of Covid spread in China, how they had mobilized to impressively build a massive makeshift hospital in just a few days, and how this story would just not go away.
When we got back from the slopes, we pretty much took on life as normal. Anna had some geophysical field work on the horizon and I was about to present the results of a photometric study that I had done, which quantified the growth of a local landfill, the Abocador de Can Mata, which has become a notable eyesore, but also is a potential long term health risk for people in my village, Masquefa.
Before all this, in between copy-editing jobs and photography, I gave science outreach talks at local schools, especially the one where my kids attend, El Font del Roure (which would translate from Catalan as ‘Oak Springs’).
There, we had recently observed the transit of Mercury in front of the sun, exploded Diet Coke volcanoes and played with lasers and augmented reality sandboxes. But during the time in question, I was prepared to go and discuss local environmental issues to the general public. Then came the call from the school’s principal informing me that we would have to postpone the presentation as a precaution against the spread of Covid, which was becoming increasingly a threat. That moment, standing in my kitchen by the dishwasher, is when it finally felt real for me. It definitely didn’t seem like previous infectious disease outbreaks. It was Wednesday and we decided to keep the kids home the rest of the week out of an abundance of caution and see how things played out over the weekend.
And, boy did they! The capital of our county of Anoia (Igualada) remained cordoned off and under strict lockdown as we prepared for the same. We started to get our first reported cases of Covid in Masquefa and nearby villages, especially in senior’s homes, where the excess death rate was evidence enough that things had changed forever. Future demographic charts will show this clearly. Between moments of apparent panic there were odd extended moments of eerie calm. The busy street on which we live was now quiet. The view towards the Martorell, the Llobregat valley, which is at the confluence of two major motor ways was, within just a few days, noticeably free of its characteristic brown smog. Some almond trees were still in bloom and before long the swallows would be back from Africa. Would they notice that something was up?
Police began to patrol the streets announcing on megaphones for everyone to stay put, to avoid coming outside except for essential services. There were still those guys in Hazmat suits spraying disinfectant on every surface. I remember thinking that it felt very ominous, but, on the other hand, we felt this sense of good fortune that our village was taking it so seriously and that we had a roof over our heads, not to mention that we could work from home (so far, we felt safe). Kids started posting inspirational messages in the windows… every little thing is gonna be alright… Some neighbours had rambunctious rooftop rock n’ roll lockdown parties as the reality of the lockdown sunk in.
In the following week, when the official lockdown began, Anna and I looked at each other with incredulity that this was all happening so fast. The schools were now closed until at least after Easter. The kids were of course delighted to not have school, blissfully unaware of the dangers; as we all were, to some extent, I suppose. I cancelled a planned trip to London with friends. Life was changing by the hour.
There is a strange sense of solidarity that comes with collective crises. It had that sort of consoling feeling that you get when you find out that in fact, most people failed that exam. You still failed. But, knowing you’re not alone is always very comforting.
We still kind of thought that this would all soon pass, and we were content to just wait it out, working from home, enjoying the moment as best we could, and joining in weekly video chats with family or with friends for a vermouth and chips, in place of meeting at the town square.
One of the most poignant moments came every evening at 8 O’clock when we would all emerge onto our balconies and just start clapping. I don’t know who started this, but every evening it brought a tear to our eyes and a chill down our spines as we ‘social distanced’ with our neighbours on our respective balconies in this unique way to recognize the sacrifice of the brave health care workers, who didn’t have the luxury to work from home.
Learning from our failures
So, here we are, a year later. What has changed? Sociologist and computer scientist Zeynep Tufecki speaks eloquently to our collective mania, which she attributes partly to the poor job the mainstream media has done with regard to its messaging on Covid, pointing out how they have focused on lists of activities that we still aren’t allow to do (even after vaccination), and how they focus on the fact that treatments are not 100% certain or effective (of course!) without communicating a sense of proportion, which leads to people thinking that there is no point in compliance with recommended guidelines. In her article in The Atlantic, she outlines five pandemic mistakes that we keep repeating.
Risk Compensation: that people respond to preventative measures by adopting a nonchalant attitude toward perceived risks. This is akin to, in the past, people asserting that seat belts would cause us to drive more recklessly, having a false sense of security. To be clear, a false sense of security is a real thing, it’s just that it is a second order effect that is far outweighed by first order benefits.
Rules in place of mechanisms and intuitions: given a set of fixed faux precise rules, people find it easy to technically and pedantically circumvent them. For instance, to avoid penalties or fines, people or companies ridiculously game the rules to technically not be in violation of them. Like, for instance, she writes how people would avoid breaking the standard for “close contact” by stepping back a few centimeters from the recommended guideline to be technically in compliance. To her point, faux precision isn’t more informative; it’s misleading. In retrospect, knowing that it was an airborne virus, we should not have had the same contact standards for indoors and outdoors. Indoors in a poorly ventilated room, the risk is high. Outdoors, it is just the opposite, the virus is easily diluted and the sun and other environmental factors work to deactivate it by evaporating water droplet carriers or breaking down the lipids which protect the viral RNA. Furthermore, the virus is “over dispersed” meaning that just a few people do most of the transmission, while most people do not transmit the virus at all. So, because there are fixed rules/guidelines instead of actually educating people with all the nuance that would be necessary, one is led to believe that stepping back a few centimeters, while indoors, is sufficient; whereas, in reality, being outside is much safer, even if closer. Personally, I would feel safer outside without a mask rather than inside a small crowded space with one. But masks are also a symbol of solidarity with others一especially those infected. So, please do wear one for the coming months at least, even after you’re vaccinated.
Scolding and shaming: finger pointing is an ineffective way of changing people’s behaviour and it entrenches polarization while discouraging honesty. (I for one, should know. In the early 90s I incessantly annoyed my parents and siblings by turning off the water while they were brushing their teeth in order to ‘save the planet’. Sorry, guys!) At the beginning of the pandemic there was the real issue of mask/face covering shortages. But history has taught us that when you only allow the sick to wear masks (because of a perceived shortage; think tuberculosis), then you invite stigmatization and marginalization of individuals and groups. Those groups are correlated in various ways with economic status, sex, race, and ethnicity, so it risks exacerbating those tensions too. That being said, if you see someone refusing wearing a mask, it may in fact be not worth the effort, or it may even be counterproductive to commence a shouting match with them over it.
Harm reduction: risk can never be completely eliminated, so the messaging should instead be focused on mitigation rather than futile attempts to reduce risk to zero. By focusing on the virus only, we neglect other important aspects of life such as stress reduction, food and shelter, and the meaning of life in this new abnormal. I would also add that not enough attention is being paid to eating good wholesome foods and thereby maintaining a healthy immune system. Instead, Western medicine focuses on cures, not prevention. Some argued that wearing a mask was in fact harmful, because, apparently, people would, what?… touch their faces more? Really? As if touching your face without a mask is less harmful? Again, these are second order effects.
The balance between knowledge and action: this is related to the last point I think, but it remains to be said that just because we don’t have 100% of the information to act, doesn’t mean we can’t justify some precautionary measures. We should have also done more to acknowledge that there are no good options, only trade-offs between different downsides. Yes, wearing a mask may have some secondary negative effects. But on the whole, masks are effective. It’s literally better than nothing. Finally, the statements by official authorities could have been much clearer; people can handle a little nuance. For example, the W.H.O. stated that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”一in January 2020! Rather, it should have said that “it was increasingly likely that human-to-human transmission was taking place (given the chaos in China at that time) but that we need more evidence to know for sure.” Similarly, we should be lauding the great success of such a rapid vaccine development, not worrying that vaccines aren’t perfect. Or, instead of dwelling on variants and the effectiveness of vaccines in that respect, our leaders should be saying something like “we have reason to believe that the vaccine will be effective against known variants, but we need more data to say how long it will provide immunity”. We need more scientists as elected officials.
Some of these points highlight a disturbing trend, which is diminishing public trust in institutions, which I touched on in my first blog. Yes, scientists make mistakes, both individually and broadly as part of the general edifice of science. But we should resist the urge to distrust them. Afterall, the established scientific institutions are where many of the best scientists are. This might have something to do with how tenure, or career job stability in general, facilitates scientists to focus on longer term science goals. We are living in a world where everyone has the equivalent of a supercomputer in their pocket with access to the sum total of the world’s knowledge, as well as the speed of access to enable us to spread opinions dressed up as fact. What we need now more than ever is trust in our institutions. They are not perfect, but together, we can make them better by broadening our participation in them.
To me one of the main takeaway points of Tufecki’s article is that guidelines are just that, a generality, not applicable to every situation, and that governments and other authorities shouldn’t hesitate to emphasize careful, accurate information with an abundance of nuance. We can handle it.
So, here we are in what some would call the 3rd quarter of the pandemic. There is a certain subjective 3rd quarter blues addressed in an article by Tara Law of Time magazine, describing what isolation researchers studying extended stays in Antarctica for future Mars missions have found. It’s that feeling that the light is at the end of the tunnel, but we still have a hard slog ahead of us. That’s where we are now. We’re headed toward land in a patched up boat, but we cannot yet see the shore for the curvature of the Earth.
We should learn a lot of lessons from this global experience. One lesson is that, science, indeed, expertise is what will end this pandemic. The vaccines are of course a technological fix; it won’t fix the root sociological problems which led to or exacerbated the pandemic, but, tech fixes are much easier, even while they only offer proximate, not ultimate solutions. Be patient, your turn is coming. And, regardless if you are one of the first or the last to get vaccinated, the principal benefit in vaccinations is herd immunity. For that, individuals are not as important as the collective. If Covid-19 has taught us anything it should be that this is a global problem and we should tackle it as a global community, instead of sulking back into antiquated nationalism.
From a sociological standpoint, one interesting aspect that is emerging is how different societies managed the same pandemic. For a thorough primer on how different societies deal with crises, I recommend Jared Diamond’s recent pre-pandemic book called Upheaval, written a few years before the pandemic, which compares and contrasts individual vs. national crises in various countries. He discusses whether societies in fact may require an upheaval in order to initiate change at all.
Separately, in a recent article, historian Gwynne Dyer analyzes society in this respect by pointing out a study by Michele Gelfand, a cultural psychologist at the University of Maryland, who seems to have hit the nail on the head on how different societies deal with crises differently. Why is it that two of the richest countries in the world一the United States and the United Kingdom一have fared the worst in death rates-per-million? While accounting for the differing demographics between first world and third world countries (specifically, there being more elderly in the former, who are more susceptible to Covid-19), Gelfand, in her new book distinguishes between what she calls tight and loose societies. Tight societies embrace discipline, while loose societies embrace a culture of rule-breaking.
Notably, countries and regions that embrace discipline (e.g., Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong), were much more pro-active at tackling the virus head-on. According to Gelfand, so-called loose societies, like the UK and the USA, had some five times the infection rate of tight societies. And it’s not just that (for the example countries I give) they have more experience with infectious diseases–think how the first Sars in 2003 briefly ravaged parts of Asia. It’s also that countries that have a recent history of dealing with national and international crises (in general) are more psychologically prepared to do what is necessary in an organized way. For this I redirect you to Jared Diamond’s book. Anyway, it’s not the single determining factor, but it does highlight how difficult it is in many Western democracies to mobilize against what most people paradoxically would have no trouble calling a “common enemy.”
So, coming back to the title of this blog, how do I really think about Covid? Well, first of all, I don’t hate it in any real, emotional sense. If you look inward just a little bit you will find that it’s almost impossible to hate something that doesn’t have any independent agency, save for its molecular instructions to make copies of itself. It’s a part of nature and nature is neutral in the grand scheme of things. Viruses are going to do their thing. It’s up to us to respond to this real threat rationally, prudently, collectively. We know what viruses are. We know how to control them. Indeed, science just invented many ways (vaccines) to do exactly that. We should be giving ourselves a pat on the back, or celebrating, or at least, planning the party for when it’s very safe to do so.
I know, it’s always going to be much easier to criticize the failings of societies in dealing with crises than it is to celebrate their successes. But we should give ourselves some credit. During historical outbreaks, before the theory of the atom, or germ theory, we knew there was something ‘in the air’, but at least this time we didn’t blame it on witches. We got our act together (to varying degrees) and came up with a technological fix to a societal problem. It’s much, much, harder to come up with a permanent sociological fix, but we’ve made inroads in that direction reflected in changing rules and norms that will see us better prepared to respond next time. I think my mother-in-law picked the perfect metaphor in her recent personal memoir of life under the lockdown in Catalonia, when she described all this as a ‘flassada de colors’, a colourful patchwork quilt. In spite of imposing some order to the quilt (society) by choosing the arrangement of patches, there is still a certain chaos in order, as it were, with each pattern and colour reflecting the complexity of this great global civilization.
There is plenty of reason for hope going forward. One thing that is striking about looking at the 1918 pandemic in retrospect is that the same tried-and-tested rules and norms are now being applied to prevent community spread. Vaccines were not as common a hundred years ago, and, as Walter Isaacson pointed out in a recent interview, they were essentially very simple facsimiles of the virus or bacteria in question hoping to spur one’s immune system into action and create antibodies. But, now, thanks to pioneering genetic code breakers like Jennifer Doudna, and others, and to science and technology like Crispr, we can use RNA to tell our immune systems to create antigens to target only specific viruses and their strains. This should give us tremendous hope in the fight against the next novel virus.
In the past year there have been plenty of life changes for us personally that probably would not have come about except for the pandemic. Here are a few examples: We have become more liberal with screens and screen time with our kids. Basically, although we try to still limit it, it is becoming clear that screens will increasingly be ubiquitous in the future, especially with regular personal and professional video chats, online school classes and, just the wonderful availability of knowledge on the internet. Another change has been general hygiene. We have always encouraged regular hand-washing with our kids, for instance, but now we also have hand sanitizer at various places around the house, and wearing a mask, although uncomfortable, is not a big deal anymore. There are the little things, like how wearing glasses has become slightly more annoying because breathing through the mask fogs up the lenses, to say nothing of what one notices of one’s breath in a stuffy mask. Seemingly gone forever are the many cordial greetings such as handshakes and the kisses on both cheeks typical of much of Europe. These have been replaced by the fist pump or the Elbow bump, or nothing at all. I have even seen the occasional awkward bow. It will be interesting to see how much this custom will change as a result of the awareness raised by Covid. Will we become a more socially distant society in general?
So, here’s wishing you all some more months of that hope, with a dose of peace and serenity during the final leg of the pandemic, one that, in spite of the heartaches, we will come out of this better prepared. When the pandemic is over, let’s all celebrate. Hang tight. Hug your family. It’s going to be ok.