Covid Panic is a Site of Inter-Elite Competition
to be the most consumed with fear of Covid is just another PMC laurel
This month, I’m challenging my readers to raise $12,000 for the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). I’ve donated the first $2,000. You can contribute here.
I got my Covid booster yesterday, along with a flu shot. I’ve always seen flu shots as a bit of a strange ritual - some people get really self-righteous about everyone getting them, despite the fact that they very frequently fail. I can’t really see the harm, though, so I get them. The booster however seemed like a no-brainer to me; I have had Covid, which confers a strong degree of protection, and I received both shots of Pfizer as directed, but the booster was free and looks like it will only cost me a day of being too drained to lift weights or do much work. The vaccines work. And, you know, there’s a pandemic on.
Covid is a serious disease that has killed a lot of people, but it does not kill different people at the same rates. Obviously, one of the greatest risk factors is being unvaccinated. But you’d still rather be a child and unvaccinated than be a 50-year-old and vaccinated if you’re trying to avoid Covid. Nor do different adult populations have the same risk profile. The vast majority of those people who have died of Covid have been elderly, immunocompromised, or ill. Those who have been hospitalized by Covid have also been disproportionately obese, to a startling degree. Covid discriminates, and not just against the unvaccinated. I don’t know why our media has decided that reflecting the plain scientific reality that different people have profoundly different Covid risks should be so taboo, but it’s precisely the sort of thing that causes a loss of trust among the skeptical. In any event, I’m not among the highest risk, or particularly close to it - I’m 40 years old, generally healthy, overweight but not obese, and vaccinated. People like me have died from Covid, but they are a very small minority of the deaths. Most who catch it from my demographic profile experience the disease the way I did in April of 2020: as an unpleasant but entirely manageable fever and mild respiratory illness.
It’s certainly possible that the very unlikely will happen and I’ll catch a breakthrough infection, the infection will be serious, and I will die. That could happen. But I have taken the appropriate cautions through vaccination and masking and am unwilling to surrender any more of my emotional life to the disease than that. Rare and fatal events sometimes occur; that’s life. When you can you mitigate the risk. Death from a car accident is far more likely for me than death from Covid. It’s still rare, but there’s a risk, and putting on a seatbelt is a reasonable mitigation tactic. Simply never getting in a car, though, would not be reasonable. The risk reduction would not outweigh the considerable costs. So I don’t make that bargain. And thus with Covid. I’m vaccinated, I mask in most indoor settings, and if I develop symptoms I’ll immediately seek a test and quarantine myself. Those are acceptable tradeoffs, for me. As a now triple-vaxxed person who has had the virus previously I am intent on living my life as normally as possible, which includes not unduly worrying about it or demanding others do so. And I would argue that expecting otherwise from me would make you functionally an anti-vaxxer.
Your risk calculus might be different, but that’s all it is, a little back-of-the-envelope math. Dealing with Covid is just acting as your own private actuary. That’s it. Your relationship towards Covid and the steps you take to mitigate its risks are fundamentally self-interested decisions that you should try to make as unemotionally as possible. It’s not a mitzvah.
Imagine my confusion, then, at the number of vaccinated people, almost all of them educated, liberal, and upwardly mobile, existing in a state of constant anxiety and dread over Covid, despite the fact that these feelings confer no survival advantage at all. While I have no issue with people feeling what they’re naturally feeling, I would argue that those with large platforms have a responsibility not to contribute to panic. Unfortunately many people with huge followings are being remarkably irresponsible, openly spreading fear and engaging in baseless speculation about mass death. This despite the fact that almost all of them fall in demographic slices with low risk. The immense popularity of overstating one’s personal risk from Covid, and of structuring one’s whole life around that exaggerated risk, can’t be explained in logical terms. It can only be understood with the animal logic of the force that dictates the living conditions of our entire elite class: their competition against each other.
I read something like this bonkers Ian Bogost essay in The Atlantic - read it, please, before you assume I’m being uncharitable - and I wonder, who is this for? And when he says “you,” who is you?
Bogost’s piece is an absolute classic, maybe the classic, in a particularly strange form of worry porn that progressives have become addicted to in the past half-decade. It’s this thing where they insist that they don’t want something to happen, but they describe it so lustily, imagine it so vividly, fixate on it so relentlessly, that it’s abundantly clear that a deep part of them wants it to happen. This was a constant experience in the Trump era - liberals would imagine that Trump was about to dissolve Congress and declare himself emperor, they’d ostensibly be opposed to such a thing, but they were so immensely invested in the seriousness and accuracy of such predictions that they’d clearly prefer for it to happen. I wrote about Chris Hayes and his bitter yearning for Trump last week, and he’s a good example, someone who ruminates on Trump and the dystopian future he might bring about with such palpable emotional pathology that it’s clear that, on some level, he needs it to happen, so that he can say “I was right.” And so with Bogost here; that level of anxious catastrophizing always carries with it the quiet, throbbing need for the bad dream to come true. Covid is already bad, very bad. I am always so confused that so many people seem desperately to want it to be worse.
See the Vox piece linked to in the tweet above, where the headline reads “The world as we know it is ending.” The person who wrote this wrote it on a functioning computer, passed it off to her superiors as part of a more-or-less unaltered business operation, and it was uploaded to the internet, where it can be accessed by billions of people wireless through the use of technologies that require an exquisite amount of collaboration across vast distances of geography and circumstance. In other words, the world as we know it is apparently ending in such a gentle way that the most basic economic, technological, and communicative infrastructures of our civilization are puttering along nicely. If you’re someone who is not predisposed to think that the world is ending, and people are flailing their arms and pointing at a society that seems to be functioning very similarly to how it always has, wouldn’t you just tune out all the doomsaying? You can’t keep ringing the bell over and over again.
Or take the casual statement, in this piece for the Ringer, that “Faced with a story about a pandemic that sweeps the globe and ends life as we know it, some will understandably balk at the prospect of reliving the last two years.” I have a, shall we say, somewhat less alarmist take on the last two years, where for the vast majority of the human species life as we know it has not ended.
Something like 5.3 million people across the world have died of Covid, which is indeed a tragedy. But the 1918 flu pandemic killed ten times that amount, when the world population was about a fourth of what it is now. Yet life went on. Institutions still functioned. There were stock markets, they held parades and fairs, people got married in grand halls. And the flu was very, very bad and it killed a lot of people. But what is the purpose of this kind of serial exaggeration of the impact on day-to-day life for the vast majority of people? 40% of people who catch Covid-19 never develop symptoms, a number that jumps to >60% among young adults. More than 80% of symptomatic cases are mild. We have vaccines that have proven remarkably effective at preventing hospitalization and death, and though Omicron appears to spread more quickly we have no reason to believe it undermines those benefits of vaccination. The vast, vast majority of people are going to survive this pandemic, and the remarkable efficacy of Pfizer’s upcoming antiviral will fundamentally change treatment, dramatically lowering deaths. I write all of this knowing that what I’m saying is responsible and buttressed by evidence. But the environment our media has created is so wildly sensationalistic and addicted to doomsaying that I get anxious just writing this. I’m afraid I’ll be called an antivaxxer for… asserting the power of vaccines.
Why do they want it to be worse?
I keep chewing on what function this disaster porn performs. It’s hard to say that it has any bearing on public health; does anyone think that the problem with the vaccine-hesitant is that they just haven’t been told loudly enough that Covid is bad? No. I do think that this worry is a performance, but I don’t think the unvaccinated are the audience. I think the audience is, as for so much of what these people do, their peers, other people in the broad world of the educated, the liberal, the upwardly-mobile if not affluent, the very online. These people compete against each other relentlessly, habitually, ritualistically.
I have made this basic observation in several different context before: our striving class is made up of people who are raised to compete and who structure their emotional lives around competing with each other. They go through the grindhouse of K-12 competition, running themselves ragged for scarce seats in the kind of colleges they feel they simply must attend. When they get there, they grind out the best grades they can get and busily occupy themselves with clubs and activities that will help them assemble the best resume for jobs or grad school. They might get a masters degree, or maybe do Teach for America or the Peace Corps, but sooner than later they enter professional life in fields where education, attitude, and vocabulary are hugely important, sectors of the workforce where your ability to convey that you are A Certain Kind of Person ia as important or more important than the quality of your professional output. And I find that, often, when they get to a certain station in life they have a kind of spiritual crisis because they now lack the structure and purpose that constant explicit competition provided. Academics, journalists, writers, researchers, nonprofit bureaucrats, “consultants” of all kinds, PR reps, marketing people - professions that are filled with people who find as they ease into middle adulthood that they are materially comfortable but miss the simpler existence of trying to climb the ladder. So they compete in less explicit arenas.
When this major international crisis arose, they felt a lot of legitimate fears and worries, which just makes them human. But when it became clear that the public health response to Covid involved denying ourselves things we wanted and enjoyed, including non-negotiably important things like in-person schooling and face-to-face human contact, they (subconsciously) saw an opening: if denial of human pleasures is virtuous, I can be more virtuous than my peers. If caution is noble, overcaution must be even nobler.
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s book The Sum of Small Things lays out the essential psychology brilliantly. As she demonstrates, changing norms among bourgie liberals has made conspicuous consumption crass, declassee. But the urge to compete, to win, trumps all. So our striving castes have developed all manner of other signals through which they subtly assert their superior virtue, their superior lives. Covid now fills such a role. With Covid, you never need an excuse to assert your superior seriousness, never need to wait for the right moment to insist that you’re doing it better than all of your peers. You can just openly tell the world “I am more responsible than you,” and the circumstances seem to justify it, even if the behavior is not in fact justified by The Science. (Like, say, by masking outdoors in regular conditions.) Currid-Halkett calls them the aspirational class. The point is not that they strive - we all strive - but that for this class of people striving is a end itself, not a means to an end. And so something like Covid becomes more grist for the mill.
For some people, it seems, being more freaked out about Covid is quite like an I Voted sticker or a BlackLivesMatter sign in their window. It’s another way to let everyone know that they have the greatest wealth of all, the wealth of superior character, of greater moral standing. They’re fond of pointing out those 5.3 million people who have died, in the midst of their self-aggrandizing diatribes. I would perhaps invoke the dead in a different way: even this, even now, even them, you turn into yet another way to let the rest of us know how advanced you are.
The danger is far from over. But when we got the vaccines case rates decoupled from the rate of hospitalization and death. Therefore if you are breathlessly reporting increases in case rates without reference to those other metrics, you are engaged in, yes, misinformation. For you normal people out there? Get vaccinated. Get boosted. Be smart. Then live your life. Defy the virus. Defy it.