The De-Collectivization of the Pandemic
Five Things You Need to Read Today
1. The De-Collectivization of the Pandemic
Is the pandemic over? Not exactly, but pretty much—if you are vaccinated. Given the general demographics of the audience for this newsletter (educated and middle-class), I'm guessing this is virtually all of you.
It's not likely that we will get any one official proclamation sounding the "all clear" on this pandemic or a presidential speech unfurling a "Mission Accomplished" banner. The closest we're going to get to that is the recent announcement of new CDC guidance on mask-wearing.
Federal health officials on Thursday advised Americans who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus that they could stop wearing masks or maintaining social distance in most settings, the clearest sign yet that the pandemic might be nearing an end in the United States....
"We have all longed for this moment," Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a White House news conference on Thursday. "If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic."
Masks had come to symbolize a bitter partisan divide. Setting them aside in restaurants and sidewalks, in museums and shops, would represent not just the beginning of the end of the pandemic but hope for a return to normalcy.
So for the vaccinated, it's back to normal life. Specifically, it is back to normal life in one very important respect.
The widespread availability of vaccines de-collectivizes the pandemic.
Thanks to exciting new mRNA technology, it took very little time to develop the new vaccines. It took less than a year to test them, and then about another half a year to produce and administer them in sufficient quantity that anyone who wants the vaccine can get it. That is the point we are at now.
Up until this time, the methods for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and reducing the number of deaths largely required collective action. It wasn't enough for you to wear a mask; it was important that the person next to you in the grocery store is also wearing one. It's not enough for you to shelter yourself and reduce your contact with other people, because if the pandemic is raging at high intensity all around you, it's impossible to actually keep yourself isolated. So everybody else had to reduce their contact with other people, too.
You could say, as some did, that every individual could make their own decisions about how much risk they were willing to take, but this was wishful thinking, because the risks you take would spill over unwillingly to others. That's just how a pandemic works.
The vaccine, by contrast, individualizes the pandemic. It (largely) seals you off from the decisions of others—and seals others off from you.
I say "largely" because we're not quite at the point of achieving herd immunity through vaccination.
As of [May 13], about 155 million people had received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, but only about one-third of the nation, 119 million people, had been fully vaccinated. And the pace of vaccination has slowed: Providers are administering about 2.09 million doses per day on average, about a 38 percent decrease from the peak of 3.38 million reported in mid-April.
But the vaccines are so effective, not just greatly reducing the chances you will be infected by COVID but virtually eliminating the chance that it will be deadly or debilitating, that it means the decisions of the unvaccinated do not effect the vaccinated. They can now, in actual fact, make their own individual decisions on the risks they want to take, and that will be their own business.
As you can imagine, some people will have a hard time adjusting to this. The collectivizing effect of the pandemic, the fact that your behavior really did have a potentially life-or-death impact on others, has made this last year the Golden Age of the Busybody. That episode is now drawing to a close, and people will have to get used to it.
The pandemic opened up a window onto an interesting cultural contrast in attitudes toward risk.
One the one hand, there is a cohort of mostly college-educated, white-collar types who tend toward hypersensitive assessments of risk and toward a nanny state elfensafety outlook. These are the people who are insisting on maintaining mask mandates in defiance of the CDC guidance—though I suspect this won't last long or be easily enforceable.
On the other hand, there is a cohort of mostly non-college-educated, blue-collar types who tend to have a very a high threshold for risk and excessively low regard for health and safety. Because of my wife's work, I've spent a fair bit of time on construction sites, and these are the guys who already didn't wear their N95 masks when they should have (for dealing with harmful dust from cutting things like plastic or pressure-treated wood). If that's what they were doing before the pandemic, they're going to be resistant to wearing them now.
What we can expect from here on out is that the pandemic will not go away but split into two tracks, based on these different attitudes toward risk. The vaccinated will go back to living normal life, with a few of them continuing to take unnecessary precautions and obnoxiously scold others for failing to do so. The stubbornly unvaccinated will find their own new normal, taking few precautions and simply accepting the much higher level of risk that comes with it, the same way they do with cigarettes. I don't like that decision, partly for their own sake and partly because a minority of unvaccinated people provides scope for the evolution of new COVID variants. So we should still be trying to get more people vaccinated through education and by offering incentives. But we pretty much have to accept that this is their own business and be thankful that the vaccinated can now go about our own business.
The next stage of the pandemic will be to try to learn its lessons—to figure out which of our responses were helpful, which were unhelpful, and what went wrong. Here's a good start on that, a report on how an old and uncorrected error in the field of epidemiology threw off the early response to COVID-19.
According to the medical canon, nearly all respiratory infections transmit through coughs or sneezes: Whenever a sick person hacks, bacteria and viruses spray out like bullets from a gun, quickly falling and sticking to any surface within a blast radius of 3 to 6 feet. If these droplets alight on a nose or mouth (or on a hand that then touches the face), they can cause an infection. Only a few diseases were thought to break this droplet rule. Measles and tuberculosis transmit a different way; they're described as "airborne." Those pathogens travel inside aerosols, microscopic particles that can stay suspended for hours and travel longer distances. They can spread when contagious people simply breathe.
The distinction between droplet and airborne transmission has enormous consequences. To combat droplets, a leading precaution is to wash hands frequently with soap and water. To fight infectious aerosols, the air itself is the enemy. In hospitals, that means expensive isolation wards and N95 masks for all medical staff.
The books Marr flipped through drew the line between droplets and aerosols at 5 microns. A micron is a unit of measurement equal to one-millionth of a meter. By this definition, any infectious particle smaller than 5 microns in diameter is an aerosol; anything bigger is a droplet. The more she looked, the more she found that number. The WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also listed 5 microns as the fulcrum on which the droplet-aerosol dichotomy toggled.
There was just one literally tiny problem: "The physics of it is all wrong," Marr says. That much seemed obvious to her from everything she knew about how things move through air. Reality is far messier, with particles much larger than 5 microns staying afloat and behaving like aerosols, depending on heat, humidity, and airspeed. "I'd see the wrong number over and over again, and I just found that disturbing," she says. The error meant that the medical community had a distorted picture of how people might get sick.
The whole piece is well worth reading. It's a great detective story about how legitimate scientific results got misinterpreted and then frozen in amber for 60 years by groupthink and bureaucracy, and how some tenacious thinkers managed to correct the error.
2. Crackpot Corner
There is one issue about the pandemic that I have avoided talking about because early on it was very speculative--and very closely tied to dogmatic partisanship and crackpot theories. This was the theory that the coronavirus leaked from a laboratory in China. I did not completely discount the idea, but it reminded me of all those theories about Barack Obama's birth certificate: the evidence was speculative at best, but people very fervently wanted to believe it, conditions that generally make for an epistemological train wreck.
And yet the lab leak hypothesis has eventually gathered enough supporting evidence to make it into the mainstream. Here is the article that heralded that change.
Over the past few decades, scientists have developed ingenious methods of evolutionary acceleration and recombination, and they've learned how to trick viruses, coronaviruses in particular, those spiky hairballs of protein we now know so well, into moving quickly from one species of animal to another or from one type of cell culture to another. They've made machines that mix and mingle the viral code for bat diseases with the code for human diseases—diseases like SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, for example, which arose in China in 2003, and MERS, Middle East respiratory syndrome, which broke out a decade later and has to do with bats and camels. Some of the experiments—"gain of function" experiments—aimed to create new, more virulent, or more infectious strains of diseases in an effort to predict and therefore defend against threats that might conceivably arise in nature. The term gain of function is itself a euphemism; the Obama White House more accurately described this work as "experiments that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route." The virologists who carried out these experiments have accomplished amazing feats of genetic transmutation, no question, and there have been very few publicized accidents over the years. But there have been some.
And we were warned, repeatedly. The intentional creation of new microbes that combine virulence with heightened transmissibility "poses extraordinary risks to the public," wrote infectious-disease experts Marc Lipsitch and Thomas Inglesby in 2014. "A rigorous and transparent risk-assessment process for this work has not yet been established." That's still true today. In 2012, in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Lynn Klotz warned that there was an 80 percent chance, given how many laboratories were then handling virulent viro-varietals, that a leak of a potential pandemic pathogen would occur sometime in the next 12 years.
A lab accident—a dropped flask, a needle prick, a mouse bite, an illegibly labeled bottle—is apolitical. Proposing that something unfortunate happened during a scientific experiment in Wuhan—where COVID-19 was first diagnosed and where there are three high-security virology labs, one of which held in its freezers the most comprehensive inventory of sampled bat viruses in the world—isn't a conspiracy theory. It's just a theory. It merits attention, I believe, alongside other reasoned attempts to explain the source of our current catastrophe."
So perhaps this is worth taking seriously, after all.
Actually, both of these theories are probably doomed to be speculative for some time. With UFOs, we're up against the Fermi Paradox; until the little green men land on the White House lawn and say, "We come in peace," we're probably going to have to be content with just not knowing. And until the Chinese government allows an open and impartial investigation of the origins of the coronavirus—a possibility that seems even less likely—we're going to have to live with not knowing about that, too.
3. The Trumpublican Party
I've got a lot of links saved up on the post-Trump ideological civil war on the right, but I haven't approached the issue with a lot of urgency because the battle is already over. Donald Trump controls the Republican Party and dominates the conservative movement more broadly. There will be no reckoning for the past five years, and particularly for the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill, which Republicans have completely shoved into the memory hole.
The clearest indication of this was the vote to remove Liz Cheney as chairman of the House Republican Conference, a significant leadership position in the party, simply for speaking the truth about the last election. Will Saletan has a surprisingly good overview of the new rules for the Republican Party.
"In 1965, Gaylord Parkinson, the chairman of the California GOP, issued what Republicans now call their 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican." Parkinson invoked this rule to protect Ronald Reagan—at that time, the leading Republican candidate for governor—who had been falsely accused by a GOP rival of collaborating with communists. But now the party of Reagan has become the party of Donald Trump. This week, when a Reaganite conservative, Rep. Liz Cheney, stood up against Trump's lies about the 2020 election, GOP leaders ousted her from the chairmanship of the House Republican Conference. In doing so, they established a new set of commandments, redefining the party as a cult of Trump.
1. You shall have no other gods before Trump. House Republicans purged Cheney not over policy but because Trump kept repeating that the election was stolen, and Cheney kept saying that it wasn't. 'She's attacking the leader of the Republican Party,' said Rep. Andy Biggs. 'You can't be the conference chair when you consistently speak out against the leader of our party,' said Rep. Jim Jordan. 'It's impossible for this party to move forward without President Trump being its leader,' said Sen. Lindsey Graham. Trump is the party, and anyone who contradicts him is out.
2. You shall not correct Trump. Cheney's Republican colleagues blame her for the ongoing dispute with the former president. They ignore Trump's persistent lying, which repeatedly forces her to speak out against him. 'She's escalated her rhetoric,' said former Rep. Mark Meadows, who led the right-wing Freedom Caucus before serving as Trump's chief of staff. 'She continued her tirade against President Trump,' said Biggs. After Cheney's demotion on Wednesday, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie echoed that rationalization. In the Republican cult, Trump's provocations can never be acknowledged. Therefore, anyone who rebuts him must be the provocateur....
8. You shall dismiss inconvenient truths as subjective. While accusing Democrats of relativism about values, Republicans have retreated to relativism about facts. When Biggs was asked about Cheney being forced out for telling 'the truth' of what happened in the election, he dismissed it as 'her vision of the truth.' Biggs complained that she should have set aside her 'personal feelings' and embraced 'what 90 percent of our conference believes.' This elevation of belief over reality makes a mockery of the conservative slogan that 'facts don't care about your feelings.' To protect Trump's lies, today's Republicans cling to their feelings and deflect unwelcome facts.
This last is the reason why the Republican Party isn't going to recover any time soon. A man and an organization can bounce back from an error. But they can't bounce back from a fundamental decision to place feelings over facts.
I don't know if the Republican Party is dead, but it's dead to me. I would like to see someone build a viable, reasonable third party--but that still seems pretty far away. About five years ago, I speculated on what it would take to create a third party.
"1. A large constituency of voters who are dissatisfied with and underserved by the candidates of the two main parties.
"2. A critical mass of successful politicians in other offices--senators, congressmen, governors--who are willing to jump ship or run on a parallel track.
"3. A powerful incentive for a broad coalition of ideological factions and interest groups to overcome their objections to each other and unite around a consensus candidate and agenda.
"4. A big load of money to build an organization and ramp up a campaign."
Right now, we might have point 1, I'm working on point 3, we definitely don't have point 4, and as for point 2, the critical mass of politicians willing to jump ship? Well, instead we've got this.
"Evan McMullin, a conservative ex-CIA analyst so disgusted with former President Donald Trump that he launched an independent presidential campaign in 2016, got on 11 state ballots, and finished in fifth place with 0.5 percent of the popular vote, has co-announced on Thursday a 'new political movement' of 150 mostly right-of-center political figures, including former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, former Rep. Joe Walsh (R–Ill.), and former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, three conservatives so disgusted with Trump that they ran against him in the 2020 GOP presidential primary and lost by a combined 93 percentage points.
"In a joint letter precipitated by the removal of Rep. Liz Cheney (R–Wyo.) from Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, and patterned consciously after the Declaration of Independence, McMullin and his anti-Trump co-signatories 'declare our intent to catalyze an American renewal, and to either reimagine a party dedicated to our founding ideals or else hasten the creation of such an alternative.'
"As a political project, the would-be catalyzers face extremely long odds. The playing field of American politics these past six years has been littered with the corpses of failed or stillborn attempts to challenge Trump from the right. The only lasting third-party alternative in that span 'dedicated to our founding ideals' is one that has put in a half-century of grunt work to get one percent of the vote."
This is from Matt Welch at Reason, so you might detect a certain bitterness from a Libertarian toward these Johnny-come-lately types who want to start a third party. Welch has his doubts about whether it's possible to create a political coalition out of "foreign policy hawks (John McCain, John Kasich, Bill Kristol), libertarian-leaners (Justin Amash, Mark Sanford, George Will), and Mormons (Evan McMullin, Mitt Romney, Jeff Flake)." But he's not exactly doing his part to help and instead spends the whole middle of the piece sniping at Bush-era foreign policy hawks. Libertarians have a long history of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity to build a big tent.
But his more telling point is this:
"The American Renewal letter signatures look like the roster of a political reunion for the Class of '95. In addition to two-time Massachusetts Gov. Weld, there's former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, former California Rep. Tom Campbell, former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, former Oklahoma Rep. Mickey Edwards, former Maryland Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, and dozens of others unburdened by the need to win reelection from the modern Republican electorate."
I don't think we need people who can win election from the current Republican base. But it would nice to have people who are still in the game of electoral politics and not considerably past their prime.
Either the Republican Party will eventually reform itself away from Trumpism, though I don't think this happens until they lose a few more elections and hit rock bottom, or we're going to have to continue laying the ideological groundwork that will eventually draw successful politicians into something new. Either way, it's not going to happen quickly.
4. Jeopardy Jerks
I suppose this was inevitable. If you were to draw a Venn diagram of "Jeopardy contestants," "annoying know-it-alls," and "wokescolds," you would probably see a significant overlap among the three groups. The ability to compulsively memorize an enormous number of facts is often combined with a certain level of cognitive dysfunction in other fields, particularly in recognizing and responding to social cues.
Hence the spectacle of a group of former "Jeopardy!" contestants engaging in an embarrassing witch hunt against a current competitor for holding his hand in the wrong way.
"It is an ironclad rule of the private Facebook group of past 'Jeopardy!' contestants that nobody post about that night's episode before 11 p.m. Eastern time, to avoid spoiling the show for West Coast viewers.
"So the moderators of the group waited until 11 p.m. sharp on April 27 to reassure the roughly 2,800 fellow members that they had the crisis in hand. They had seen a contestant on that night's show, a big white guy with a red tie, Kelly Donohue, make an odd gesture with three fingers of his right hand. 'Based on the evidence we've seen being bandied about elsewhere, there is a real possibility he was giving either a white power or a Three Percenter hand gesture,' wrote one moderator, a middle-school teacher who was on the show about five years ago, according to screenshots provided by another group member. And though 'we can't know his intent,' he continued, 'we're not here to provide safe harbor for white supremacists.'
"They weren't the only ones who noticed the gesture. About 50 viewers had tweeted about it, suggesting variously that it was a symbol of the Ku Klux Klan or of QAnon. And 'Jeopardy!' contestants searching Mr. Donohue's personal Facebook page saw what they considered other, damning evidence, including a picture of Mr. Donohue in a red MAGA hat. One leading member of the group wrote up a public letter. Another emailed the Anti-Defamation League to report the incident.
"A full 595 former contestants eventually signed on to the final draft of the letter, asking why 'Jeopardy!' hadn't edited out the moment. It went on to proclaim: 'We cannot stand up for hate. We cannot stand next to hate. We cannot stand onstage with something that looks like hate.'"
This is obviously stupid.
"Mr. Donohue's three fingers, Snopes pointed out, symbolize the number 'three.' After his first victory, he waved one finger. After his second victory, he raised two. And after his third, he showed three fingers. He awkwardly folded his index and forefingers into something that looks as if it could be some kind of sign, but doesn't resemble the 'OK' signal that white supremacists have sought to appropriate."
Even it was the "OK" gesture, you know what that would mean? It would mean "OK." In recent years, one of the stupidest things done by otherwise smart people is letting a handful of Internet trolls convince them that the "OK" symbol is a "white supremacist hand gesture." And these are otherwise smart people, which is what makes this interesting.
"So the element of this story that interests me most is how the beating heart of nerdy, liberal fact-mastery can pump blood into wild social media conspiracy, and send all these smart people down the sort of rabbit hole that leads other groups of Americans to believe that children are being transported inside refrigerators. And, I wanted to know, how they could remain committed to that point of view in the absence of any solid evidence."
I don't think it's that much of a mystery. It reminds me of Russell Crowe's character from A Beautiful Mind, a mathematician whose skill at recognizing patterns goes awry and causes him to see patterns that aren't there. Like I've said before, there's nobody as dumb as a smart person, because when they make an error, they use their extra brainpower to spin out complex rationalizations for it.
This is how we should view wokism: as a socially respectable and encouraged form of madness.
5. The Carbon Fairy
I wrote recently about the perverse and pathological incentives of altruism when it comes to the coronavirus vaccine. That something would actually help other people is far less important, to the really committed altruist, than the imperative that you have to suffer for it. Sacrifice and suffering are ends in themselves, not means to some benevolent end.
You can find many examples of this, such as the suggestion that Israelis' capacity to defend themselves from rocket attack is inherently unjust because it creates a "significant disadvantage" for the people trying to kill them. The way for Israelis to regain the moral high ground is clearly for them to agree to become passive victims.
Or take this revealing thought experiment used by an environmentalist who is an advocate for nuclear power.
"Yascha Mounk: You alluded to your work on climate change. What is the question that you like to ask audiences about a kind of "carbon fairy"?
"Mark Lynas: This isn't my original idea. I can't remember where I first heard it. But if you're in front of an audience of 200 to 300 people who are desperately, deeply concerned about climate change, who would do anything to stop this problem and are devoting their whole lives to it, and you say to them, 'Well, imagine there's a carbon fairy that can wave a magic wand and the problem goes away. Would you do that?'...
"Well, almost nobody waves the wand, and I find that utterly fascinating. It tells us there's a lot more going on here than just the wish to reduce CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere or stop burning fossil fuels....
"[T]he wand is symbolic for nuclear power, in that there's been a technology that is completely scalable, completely ecologically benign, and has been around for 50 years. And yet we're choosing not to use it....
"The magic wand and the 'carbon fairy' are a symbol for the fact that most environmentalists don't want to solve the climate problem by reconciling with industrial capitalism.... Or at least the people who are motivated by, or think they're motivated by, addressing climate change don't want to do it.
"Mounk: There is an idea of an original sin, and that part of the reason why it would be bad to wave a magic wand is that we've sinned against nature. In order to make the world right, and in order for us to be in moral balance again, we need to self-flagellate."
I don't grant the premise that global warming is an impending disaster that requires an urgent solution. But it is revealing that those who do believe this will not accept such a solution unless it involves mass suffering and sacrifice. That is altruism at work in people's brains.
We keep seeing the pathologies of this creed demonstrated in such obvious ways, on such a large scale. When will we finally be willing to learn from it?