to be the most consumed with fear of Covid is just another PMC laurel
This strongly reflects my experience living through this thing.
First, due to a series of continual failures, I am a car crash lawyer. I can tell you that everyone underrates how dangerous those damn things are. When you're daily exposed to the horrors of the automobile - rarely a day goes by I don't talk to someone involved in a fatal crash - it really changes your risk assessment of those beasts. I probably spend more time thinking about dying on the road than most of the other readers combined. Maybe that improves my overall risk management abilities, I don't know, but it does make that analogy - and the general abandonment of risk/reward thinking - stand out. Covid sucked, my heart is still screwed up, but if the alternative is perpetual April 2020 I know choice I'm making.
Second, I was definitely one of these people briefly. It was in January when my boss dictated we had to return to the office. Looking back, I realized it was emotionally driven because I liked my life at that point. My job sucked, I liked WFH, I could still have a social life, bars were mostly empty (my dream come true), roads weren't full of traffic, I had lots of free time. I wanted that version of the pandemic to last forever.
I don't think I was unusual. I would wager that a lot of people on either side of this divide are there because (subconsciously) they either prefer the current version of their life to pre-pandemic or they are the opposite. We overrate how much of our thinking is rational.
Finally, I would note there's an element absent from this piece that is related to last week's: war is fun. The desire for the never ending emergency is very similar to the desire for war. Most educated people realize (on some level at least) the sheer fucking meaninglessness of our existence. We were promised more and yet here we end up in bullshit jobs that we know make no difference. If my life was dedicated to writing articles about Trevor Noah for the Daily Beast, I'd want something to give my life meaning. The pandemic, like war, does that. Suddenly, my life writing listicles on "14 Times a Trans POC DESTROYED Mitch McConnell" is really important because I'm saving lives. By, ya know, staying inside and ordering Doordash. There's a lot of the last 20 years - whether it's fighting climate doom, saving civilization from radical Islam, stopping the trans genocide, averting the Hitlerian menace of Saddam/Putin/Xi/Whomever - that's just people trying to infuse their lives with meaning. Isn't the pandemic just, like, the best and easiest way to do that?
As a homeless rights advocate, I have been DISGUSTED by the behavior of the upper middle classes regarding the Covid pandemic.
When the pandemic first hit, every source of running water, food, toilets, community, and protection from the elements was immediately yanked away from homeless people by the "progressive" assholes who were suddenly petrified of the virus.
What a bunch of pathetic WIMPS!
I begged my (now former) church to let me clean the bathrooms before and after each homeless person used it so that we could keep the bathrooms open to them.
So much for fucking "faith".
Homeless people on the street live at constant risk of Tuberculosis; Sepsis; Necrotizing Fasciitis (flesh eating bacteria); typhus — a disease spread by infected fleas on rats and other animals; Shigella bacteria, which is spread through feces and causes the diarrheal disease Shigellosis; Bartonella quintana, which spreads through body lice and causes Trench Fever;Hepatitis A, also spread primarily through feces; Scabies, a contagious skin infestation caused by mites; Hookworms, an intestinal, blood-feeding, parasite that causes an infection known as Helminthiases.
But what are the precious little powder puffs of the PMC worried about?
Honestly, fuck them.
I'm vaccinated and boosted. I'm living my damn life.
But let's please spare a thought for the people who are ACTUALLY at risk of deadly disease.
While I don't doubt that a significant amount of the Covid panic is status-seeking behaviour, we cannot underestimate the number of people who have been brainwashed to the degree they are legitimately afraid of death by Covid. Many people in my social circle have a true, honest fear of the disease to a degree that completely outstrips their actual risk from it.
Lately I've taken to asking people in my circle what they believe is the actual rate of hospitalization of the unvaccinated. Most people so far have replied somewhere from 30-40%, which is dramatically higher than actual reported rates which sit somewhere <1%. These are not virtue-signaling types, but regular people who perhaps consume a little too much news and are a less likely than average to start their own investigations and review the data (or "the science") themselves.
I have also seen a lot of very bad or outright deceptive presentations of statistics. My doctor's office sent out an email a few months ago trying to assuage parent concerns about heart issues from Covid vaccines. They included a chart that showed heart problems in children and youth from Covid itself - trying to convince parents that the risk of heart problems from Covid was far greater than from the shot itself. Naturally, they decided not to highlight that the chart showed heart issues in only *hospitalized* children and youth which is a far cry from the general population. I assume most people would gloss over the little descriptive label that indicated where the data was collected from, and would therefore not be seeing the entire picture.
The irony of this all is that many of these people frequently parrot the "trust the science" narrative but then have an approach that is far closer to "trust the media".
This sort of thing is fascinating to me, because I feel like I was supposed to turn out just like this, but I somehow dodged the bullet. I did great in high school, did competitive speech and debate (which was, at the time, considered the best ticket from my Midwestern world up into the government/pundit class), went to a competitive undergrad school, and got good grades and did lots of those striver-class things.
But somewhere in there I deliberately chose to drop out of the competitive race. I stopped shooting for an academic career in history or English literature, started being totally fine with getting Bs, and ended up becoming a librarian (which still required grad school, but easy-mode grad school that I could do while living at home with my parents).
I basically have no ambition, and in fact I consider ambition to be almost entirely a vice. My goal isn't competitive success, but leisure -- the classical ideal of leisure, being both freedom from excessive work and capacity for self-cultivation. And I find that I seem to have a lot more leisure right now earning $45k a year in the Midwest than some of my friends have earning three times that on the coasts.
Would I like more money? Sure, but I would absolutely refuse to work twice as hard for twice the pay. Would I like to be the boss? Eh, I almost became a library director at one point, but now I'm glad I didn't get that job; it would have meant being the most responsible person in a dysfunctional organization.
I'd rather be where I am now: a cataloger in a very pleasant and well-run public library, where I basically do the exact same thing all day every day with very little prospect for eventual advancement, but I've got the freedom and the time (like right now!) to do stuff like read essays and write comments on them if I feel like it.
I want to add that I think A LOT of elites have soft-a authoritarian tendencies. They have strong feelings that when they personally are in control bad things won't happen so they actively desire that control. For COVID it means doing something - anything - that allows them to exhibit some degree of control in the face of the uncontrollable. Do these controls really make life better? Probably not. It doesn't really matter. The point is that when they are not actively in control they are mortified of what may happen, so even if that control is meaningless they want to have it. I think this is the best explanation for a lot of mask mandates that are publicly and openly not enforced by local authorities. Cities keep passing them, but if they are not enforced in any way what exactly is the point? What is it supposed to accomplish? It's designed explicitly to create that illusion of control.
I like a lot of this but you're exaggerating in saying that this is a "fundamentally self-interested decision." Parents of infants, people helping to take care of elderly relatives, people whose partners are immunocompromised, professionals like nurses who are in regular contact with people who are elderly or sick, etc. are making decisions not on the basis of the risk to themselves but on protecting their loved ones and society at large. And that's good! The idea that protecting yourself from a highly contagious virus with enormously different risk profiles to different groups (as you note) is a purely personal decision is a bleak symptom of an age where people feel little obligation to take care of one another.
I still think we need to push return-to-office back until COVID is over. After that, we need to push it back until the common cold and flu are cured. After that, we need to push it back until we're really sure we can fend off an alien invasion.
I'm at the point of frustration for this where I want to say "if you're so worried about COVID, get an N95 mask, learn to properly wear it, and shut up." I don't really think of that as the only answer, but I'm feeling a lot of frustration around what looks like a form of motivated helplessness.
Surgical and cloth masks are of dubious value, as I understand it. There is conflicting data. However, as I understand it, N95 masks worn properly provide *significant* benefits, and benefits specifically to the wearer.
I'm not suggesting this means everyone should be cavalier; I'm suggesting that those who are most afraid have highly effective tools available to them. Why not use those tools?* It feels like everyone is looking at problems and worries and reasons to fear and few of those who are most worried are looking for practical solutions.
*I see the CDC still recommends reserving those N95 for healthcare workers. Is there still a shortage? I can find them trivially on Amazon. If there is, why is this not one of the things we have massively ramped manufacturing for?
Very good piece. I feel the same way about Climate Change. I can't bring up any form of skepticism without a lot of emotional pushback. And do you think it might be time for us to stop taking our shoes off at airports? That one also seems a bit performative, like wearing masks outside. I thought it was me seeing things differently while getting older, but this piece at least gives another reason.
I know people who died of COVID.
I also know more people who died of everything else.
And everyone I know will die of something.
And I'll die, too.
A lot of these young people freaking out about COVID are freaking out about death existing at all. Yeah, we die. I figured this out when I was 12? Why didn't you?
I know a lot of old people. They are, mostly, quite rational about COVID because they know they are going to die. If not COVID, something else will kill them quite soon. So... why ruin the rest of your short life being afraid of something that is still unlikely to kill you? A baseline estimate for an 80 year old gives one a 93% chance of surviving COVID, unvaccinated. An 80 year old has a 4.26% chance of dying in the next year from something else. Vaccinated, COVID is not a big deal anymore because you are probably going to die of something else soon anyway.
Yeah, wear your seat belt. Get vaccinated. But don't panic about dying in an auto accident, which is more likely than dying of COVID at this point for almost everyone.
This reminds me of some blogger who said that death has become so uncommon that we don't notice, a remark which was widely ridiculed but was deeply informative about a certain class of people. If you are from a highly educated family and don't interact with retired people, you can pretend that death doesn't really exist for a really long time. Your parents may live until you are in your 50s, and if you don't have friends with dangerous hobbies you may not know anyone who dies until then. This is not a common human experience for most of human history.
If you are from any other background, people die all the time. People get in accidents, they get shot, they overdose, they commit suicide. COVID is just another thing. It's not the end of the world, and people who insist it is are obviously crazy. Death is normal.
I was reading a blog early in the pandemic, and an 80-something year old had a really insightful comment that I also think plays into why young liberals are more afraid of this than many other groups, even the elderly.
His comment (to paraphrase, I can’t remember which blog unfortunately): I’m 80 and in good health. Every remaining year of my life is the best year I have left - I’m not going to lock down in fear. Next year I might not be able to walk anymore; I’ll wear my mask and get the shot when it comes out but I’m not changing my lifestyle at all.
If you are 35 and still trying to climb the ladder, staying at home and not living your life for 2 years is a lot lower of a cost than it is for this 80 year old. You have a lot of life ahead of you, and dying from covid costs you many more remaining years.
I think expected value of years of life lost, or years with permanent damage, for your demographic, is probably a better way to analyze the risk of covid than just “chance of death” or “chance of permanent damage”.
I am a scientist that knows a lot of other scientists, and we all putatively "follow the science". But so many of my friends and colleagues have been in utter panic mode since March 2020. They were still wearing double masks after getting vaccinated, some wearing masks outside, avoiding any indoor socializing, and acting as if their children were at risk of imminent death (that is still going on for those with kids younger than 5).
I have had some mild criticisms of COVID restrictions, and am seen as a borderline anti-vaxxer. I can only talk about it seriously with close friends, and even they think I'm acting a little reckless because I take my vaccinated kids to the movies or let them see friends indoors without masks.
Private universities are also tripping over themselves to follow whatever the first movers are doing. Mandating boosters, closing for early January, etc. No attempt to learn to live with this virus or acknowledge that most college students are at virtually no risk.
Freddie, are you familiar with Peter Turchin? Can't remember if I've seen him mentioned in your stuff, but he has a theory of social cycling that involves two key forces leading to social crises: overproduction of elites (primarily second and third sons in feudal systems, but you can see the rise of the ultra-wealthy and their PMC orbiters as a similar phenomenon in modern societies) which in turn causes intra-elite competition; and what he calls "immiseration of the poor."
The miserable poor become susceptible to populism and outbursts of revolutionary anger; the elites tend to channel this rage in order to weed out some of the competition, often in exchange for concessions that make the lives of the poor temporarily better. For a while tensions are eased... until the elite class grows again, more and more resources are diverted from the main body of the population, and the cycle begins anew.
While Covid is the big baddie, I think 'this specific panic (tm)' is downstream of some sort of performative know-everything-ism from the PMC. I think it's status signalling that they have the free time to 'know everything about everything' because their jobs are pixels on one screen while shallow researching and doomscrolling on the other.
Meanwhile, those that are less plugged in manage to be content not knowing or having to demonstrate they know everything about every fractal complexity of every kerfuffle.
I think the story of the pandemic is it changed terminal onlineness from some sort of personality malaise into a virtuous skill and status signal.
I liked this piece a lot. There is no surer trait of the Professional Managerial Class and its aspirants than one-upsmanship in catastrophizing literally everything possible.
This even goes beyond obvious things like C19. For example, checking PMC bluewave icon having/pronoun listing Twitter comments: did you know the failure of the Build Back Better bill will destroy democracy itself in America? And that this failure will surely lead to a second American civil war? Now I'm just waiting for someone to claim it will lead to nuclear holocaust.
No matter the thing itself, the catastrophization escalation game continues apace, completely oblivious to how absurd it can, and eventually always will, get. It's mystifying.
I'm a leftist, but being very math-friendly has caused me to resign myself to the fact that I'll have Covid at some point. The R_0's of delta and Omicron mean (basically) everyone is going to get exposed. All you can do is take precautions, and wait your turn. I look at the Vax's as something like weightlifting - you're just training a physiological response by adaptive stress.
A metaphor i use for COVID's trajectory is from machine learning. Generally, training a neural network, you don't run all of the predictor data (X's) through at once to map to the labels (Y's). You take them in *batches* of 32 or 64 (commonly). Once the algorithm has seen all of the data this way, it's called an Epoch. Coronavirus is doing something like this with humanity, and we're not through Epoch 1 yet. It's gotta see everyone a couple of times at least (most likely), before reaching optimal form. And hopefully that's a milder one.