Midway through dinner, I thought I heard a strange sound. A faint bleating, maybe, that seemed to be coming from our backyard. Many musicians studying at the Jacobs School live in the apartment complex behind our house – we can often hear them practicing – but this didn’t sound like a conventional instrument.
I stood up, walked over to the window, and opened it, looking around our yard. It’s currently grackle mating season – watching a male grackle inflate his plumage to double his size is pretty incredible – and they make a variety of noises. So I suspected an ardent bird. I lingered there a moment, looking and listening, trying to determine where the sound had come from.
Those few seconds were too long.
I heard it again, and, with the window open, recognized the distress cry of a young rabbit.
I pulled off my socks, ran outside. Sprinted around our house to the small fenced enclosure where we have our air conditioning unit.
A large rabbit fled from the HVAC enclosure when it saw me. It bolted across the yard and slipped through the back fence.
Yes. Our yard has a lot of fences. We have dogs. The back fence keeps them inside the yard. The fence around the HVAC unit keeps our dogs from crashing into the various wires and tubing and ripping them from the wall (which our younger dog did last year, necessitating expensive repairs).
The distress call had stopped, but now I knew where to look. And there, sprawled on the mulch, was a juvenile rabbit, about as big as my hand. His fur had been ripped from his face, leaving his nose raw and bleeding; he was also bleeding from gaping wounds down his back, and his hind legs were broken. (I’m assuming gender here because I think that’s what triggered the attack – probably a territorial adult male felt that this juvenile was impinging on his territory.)
The mutilated juvenile sat watching me for a moment, then tried to hop away. He couldn’t. His legs kicked back slowly and he toppled.
Prostrate on his side, the wounds looked even worse. He was breathing heavily, watching me.
My children, still inside the house, called through the window to ask what was happening. I shook my head.
“There’s a baby rabbit, and he’s very, very hurt. He’s going to die.”
The kids wanted to come see. I didn’t really want them to – they are only four and six years old – but we all have to learn about death. Our elder child visited her grandfather in hospice while he was dying after a stroke, and she understands that her grandmother died after somebody hurt her. Our younger child is at an age where many of the stories she tells involve death, but I’m not sure she understands the permanence yet.
And the thing I really didn’t want to talk about – but would have to, for them to understand – is the brutality of territorial violence. I hadn’t known that it was so horrific in rabbits. This baby bunny had been murdered by an irate elder.
And the violence that we humans use to claim and protect territory is one of the worst aspects of our species. We are a brilliantly inventive species. Many – perhaps most – of our inventions sprang from the desire to make better weapons.
The world was here before us, but we pound sticks into the ground and say “This part of the world is mine.”
We’re far too fond of building walls.
The kids joined me outside. My spouse came out; as soon as she saw the poor rabbit, she cried. I tried, as gently and non-pedantically as I was able, to explain what had happened.
My younger child clasped her hands in front of her chin. “I’m sad the baby bunny is going to die.”
The rabbit’s breathing was clearly labored. I wonder how well he understood that this was the end.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sad, too.”
The sun was setting, and the air was starting to grow chilly. My spouse went back inside and cut up one of my old socks (I typically wear socks until they disintegrate, and my spouse thinks that any sock missing both the heel and toes is fair game to destroy, so we always have spare fabric on hand) to make a small blanket.
The dying rabbit probably felt scared – I’d asked the kids to keep a respectful distance, but we humans are quite large. Still, I tried to make myself as small as possible as I reached out to cover the rabbit’s torso with the blanket. I left my hand there, gently resting over his chest, for warmth. I could feel his panting breaths rise and fall beneath my palm.
I quietly offered my apologies and said a prayer. The rabbit watched me. I tried to smile with no teeth. I stayed crouching, immobile, until the rabbit’s breathing stopped five minutes later.
Then I went inside and finished eating dinner.
At times, being vegan is a comfort. All of us, in living, impose harms upon the world – that’s the unfortunate nature of existence. To grow food crops, we till the soil. Spray pesticides. And kill all those plants.
Our lives matter, too. If we don’t take care of ourselves, and strive to enjoy our time alive – if we don’t place value on our own lives – then how could we value others?
Still, my family tries to minimize the harm we wreck by being here. We live well, but try to be cognizant of the costs.
I was glad that the meal I returned to was made from only plants.
After I finished eating, I went and sat on our front porch with my children. We spread a blanket over our laps. We watched birds flit between the trees. A chipmunk dashed across the lawn. Two squirrels chased each other through a neighbors yard.
Our elder child clutched me tightly. I hugged her back. We sat silently. I didn’t know what to say.
Then it was time for the kids to go to bed.
It was my spouse’s turn to read the bedtime stories that night, and our dogs wanted to go outside, so I took them to the back yard.
I don’t think our dogs would hurt a rabbit – when my father-in-law died, the dwarf rabbit he’d purchased as a love token for his twenty-year-old ladyfriend came to live with us (they’d broken up a few days before his stroke, which is why she didn’t want to adopt the rabbit), and when our dogs dug up a rabbit’s nest two years ago, they gently carried a newborn bunny around the yard (we returned it to the nest and it survived until it was old enough to hop away).
I didn’t want for the dogs to carry the dead rabbit around our yard, though. Or hide it somewhere for the kids to find.
So I walked over to the HVAC unit, ready to explain to the dogs not to bother it. But the rabbit was gone. The sock blanket was still there, but no corpse.
We don’t live in a particularly rural area – we’re in Bloomington, about half a mile south of the Indiana University campus. Our backyard is shared with a sixty-unit apartment complex. And yet. Even here, the natural world is bustling enough that a dead thing can disappear within twenty minutes. I’ve seen hawks, vultures, crows, raccoons, possums, skunks. Many deer, and a groundhog, although they wouldn’t eat a rabbit. One semi-feral cat. I’ve seen foxes down the street from us, in fields a half mile away, but never in our yard.
And, it’s strange. The dead rabbit lay in our yard for less than twenty minutes. If we had been listening to music over dinner – which we often do – I wouldn’t have heard his cries through the glass windowpane.
Scientists often pride ourselves on our powers of observations. But noticing, this time, only made me sad. If I hadn’t heard that faint sound, I never would have realized that anything untoward had happened in our yard. And I could have remained blissfully ignorant of the ruthless violence that rabbits apparently inflict upon young children.
The natural world is not a peaceful place.
Still. I would rather know. Understanding the pervasive violence that surrounds us helps me to remember how important it is – since we have a choice – to choose to do better.
First, some background: in case you haven’t noticed, most of the United States is operating under a half-assed lockdown. In theory, there are stay-at-home orders, but many people, such as grocery store clerks, janitors, health care workers, construction workers, restaurant chefs, delivery drivers, etc., are still going to work as normal. However, schools have been closed, and most people are trying to stand at least six feet away from strangers.
We’re doing this out of fear that Covid-19 is an extremely dangerous new viral disease. Our initial data suggested that as many as 10% of people infected with Covid-19 would die.
That’s terrifying! We would be looking at tens of millions of deaths in the United States alone! A virus like this will spread until a majority of people have immunity to it – a ballpark estimate is that 70% of the population needs immunity before the epidemic stops. And our early data suggested that one in ten would die.
My family was scared. We washed our hands compulsively. We changed into clean clothes as soon as we came into the house. The kids didn’t leave our home for a week. My spouse went to the grocery store and bought hundreds of dollars of canned beans and cleaning supplies.
And, to make matters worse, our president was on the news saying that Covid-19 was no big deal. His nonchalance made me freak out more. Our ass-hat-in-chief has been wrong about basically everything, in my opinion. His environmental policies are basically designed to make more people die. If he claimed we had nothing to worry about, then Covid-19 was probably more deadly than I expected.
Five weeks have passed, and we now have much more data. It seems that Covid-19 is much less dangerous than we initially feared. For someone my age (37), Covid-19 is less dangerous than seasonal influenza.
Last year, seasonal influenza killed several thousand people between the ages of 18 and 49 in the United States – most likely 2,500 people, but perhaps as many as 5,800. People in this age demographic account for about 10% of total flu deaths in the United States, year after year.
Seasonal influenza also killed several hundred children last year – perhaps over a thousand.
There’s a vaccine against influenza, but most people don’t bother.
Seasonal influenza is more dangerous than Covid-19 for people between the ages of 18 and 49, but only 35% of them chose to be vaccinated in the most recently reported year (2018). And because the vaccination rate is so low, our society doesn’t have herd immunity. By choosing not to get the influenza vaccine, these people are endangering themselves and others.
Some people hope that the Covid-19 epidemic will end once a vaccine is released. I am extremely skeptical. The biggest problem, to my mind, isn’t that years might pass before there’s a vaccine. I just can’t imagine that a sufficient percentage of our population would choose to get a Covid-19 vaccine when most people’s personal risk is lower than their risk from influenza.
When I teach classes in jail, dudes often tell me about which vaccines they think are too dangerous for their kids to get. I launch into a tirade about how safe most vaccines are, and how deadly the diseases they prevent.
Seriously, get your kids vaccinated. You don’t want to watch your child die of measles.
And, seriously, dear reader – get a flu vaccine each year. Even if you’re too selfish to worry about the other people whom your mild case of influenza might kill, do it for yourself.
We already know how dangerous seasonal influenza is. But what about Covid-19?
To answer that, we need data. And one set of data is unmistakable – many people have died. Hospitals around the world have experienced an influx of patients with a common set of symptoms. They struggle to breathe; their bodies weaken from oxygen deprivation; their lungs accumulate liquid; they die.
For each of these patients saved, three others are consigned to an agonizing death in the hospital, intubated among the flashing lights, the ceaseless blips and bleeps. At home, they’d die in a day; in the hospital, their deaths will take three weeks.
And the sheer quantity of deaths sounds scary – especially for people who don’t realize how many tens of thousands die from influenza in the United States each year.
Indeed, when people die of Covid-19, it’s often because their lungs fail. Smoking is obviously a major risk factor for dying of Covid-19 – a significant portion of reported Covid-19 deaths could be considered cigarette deaths instead. Or as air pollution deaths – and yet, our current president is using this crisis as an opportunity to weaken EPA airquality regulations.
Air pollution is a huge problem for a lot of Black communities in the United States. Our racist housing policies have placed a lot of minority neighborhoods near heavily polluting factories. Now Covid-19 is turning what is already a lifelong struggle for breath into a death sentence.
I would enthusiastically support a shutdown motivated by the battle for clean air.
But if we want to know how scary this virus is, we need to know how many people were infected. If that many people died after everyone in the country had it, then Covid-19 would be less dangerous than influenza. If that many people died after only a hundred thousand had been infected, then this would be terrifying, and far more dangerous than influenza.
Initially, our data came from PCR testing.
These are good tests. Polymerase chain reaction is highly specific. If you want to amplify a certain genetic sequence, you can design short DNA primers that will bind only to that sequence. Put the whole mess in a thermocycler and you get a bunch of your target, as long as the gene is present in the test tube in the first place. If the gene isn’t there, you’ll get nothing.
PCR works great. Even our lovely but amnesiac lab tech never once screwed it up.
So, do the PCR test and you’ll know whether a certain gene is present in your test tube. Target a viral gene and you’ll know whether the virus is present in your test tube. Scoop out some nose glop from somebody to put into the test tube and you’ll know whether the virus is present in that nose glop.
The PCR test is a great test that measures whether someone is actively shedding virus. It answers, is there virus present in the nose glop?
This is not the same question as, has this person ever been infected with Covid-19?
It’s a similar question – most people infected with a coronavirus will have at least a brief period of viral shedding – but it’s a much more specific question. When a healthy person is infected with a coronavirus, the period of viral shedding can be as short as a single day.
A person can get infected with a coronavirus, and if you do the PCR test either before or after that single day, the PCR test will give a negative result. Nope, no viral RNA is in this nose glop!
And so we know that the PCR test will undercount the true number of infections.
When we look at the age demographics for Covid-19 infections as measured by PCR test, the undercount becomes glaringly obvious.
Friends, it is exceedingly unlikely that such a low percentage of children were exposed to this virus. Children are disgusting. I believe this is common knowledge. Parents of small children are pretty much always sick because children are so disgusting.
Seriously, my family has been doing the whole “social distancing” thing for over a month, and yet my nose is dripping while I type this.
Children are always touching everything, and then they rub their eyeballs or chew on their fingers. If you take them someplace, they grubble around on the floor. They pick up discarded tissues and ask, “What’s this?”
“That’s somebody’s gross kleenex, is what it is! Just, just drop it. I know it’s trash, I know we’re not supposed to leave trash on the ground, but just, just drop it, okay? Somebody will come throw it away later.”
The next day: “Dad, you said somebody would throw that kleenex away, but it’s still there!”
Bloody hell. Children are little monsters.
It seems fairly obvious that at least as high a percentage of children would be infected as any other age demographic.
But they’re not showing up from the PCR data. On the Diamond Princess cruise ship, the lockdown began on February 5th, but PCR testing didn’t begin until February 11th. Anyone who was infected but quickly recovered will be invisible to that PCR test. And even people who are actively shedding viral particles can feel totally well. People can get infected and recover without noticing a thing.
We see the same thing when we look at the PCR data from Italy. If we mistakenly assumed that the PCR data was measuring the number of infections, and not measuring the number of people who were given a PCR test while shedding viral particles, we’d conclude that elderly people went out and socialized widely, getting each other sick, and only occasionally infected their great-grandchildren at home.
Here in the United States, children are disgusting little monsters. I bet kids are disgusting in Italy, too. They’re disgusting all over the world.
A much more likely scenario is that children spread this virus at school. Many probably felt totally fine; some might’ve had a bad fever or the sniffles for a few days. But then they recovered.
When they got their great-grandparents sick – which can happen easily since so many Italian families live in multigenerational homes – elderly people began to die.
So we know that the PCR test is undercounting the true number of infections. Unless you’re testing every person, every day, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms, you’re going to undercount the number of infections.
In a moment, we can work through a way to get a more accurate count. But perhaps it’s worth mentioning that, for someone my age, Covid-19 would seem to be about as dangerous as influenza even if we assumed that the PCR data matched the true number of infections.
If you’re a healthy middle-aged or young person, you should not feel personally afraid.
That alone would not be an excuse to go out and start dancing in the street, though. Your actions might cause other people to die.
(NOTE & CORRECTION: After this post went up, my father recommended that I add something more about personal risk. No one has collected enough data on this yet, but he suspects that the next most important risk factor, after smoking and age, will be type 2 diabetes. And he reminded me that many people in their 30s & 40s in this country are diabetic or prediabetic and don’t even realize it yet. Everyone in this category probably has elevated risk of complications from Covid-19.)
After you’ve been infected with a virus, your body will start making antibodies. These protect you from being infected again.
Have you read Shel Silverstein’s Missing Piece book? Antibodies work kind of like that. They have a particular shape, and so they’ll glom onto a virus only if that virus has outcroppings that match the antibody’s shape. Then your body sees the antibodies hanging out on a virus like a GPS tracker and proceeds to destroy the virus.
So to make an antibody test, you take some stuff that looks like the outcroppings on the virus and you put it on a chip. Wash somebody’s blood over it, and if that blood contains antibodies that have the right shape to glom onto the virus, they’ll stick to the chip. All your other antibodies, the ones that recognize different viruses, will float away.
An antibody test is going to be worse than a PCR test. It’s easier to get a false positive result – antibodies are made of proteins, and they can unfold if you treat them roughly, and then they’ll stick to anything. Then you’ll think that somebody has the right antibodies, but they don’t. That’s bad.
You have to be much more careful when you’re doing an antibody test. I wouldn’t have asked our lab tech to do them for me.
An antibody test is also going to have false negatives. A viral particle is a big honking thing, and there are lots of places on its surface where an antibody might bind. If your antibodies recognize some aspect of the virus that’s different from what the test manufacturers included on their chip, your antibodies will float away. Even though they’d protect you from the actual virus if you happened to be exposed to it.
If you’re a cautious person, though – and I consider myself to be pretty cautious – you’d much rather have an antibody test with a bunch of false negatives than false positives. If you’re actually immune to Covid-19 but keep being cautious, well, so what? You’re safe either way. But if you think you’re immune when you’re not, then you might get sick. That’s bad.
Because antibody tests are designed to give more false negatives than false positives, you should know that it’d be really foolish to use them to track an infection. Like, if you’re testing people to see who is safe to work as a delivery person today, use the PCR test! The antibody test has a bunch of false negatives, and there’s a time lag between the onset of infection and when your body will start making antibodies.
If you use the antibody test on a bunch of people, though, you can tell how many were infected. And that’s useful information, too.
In the town of Robbio in Italy (pop. 6,000), the PCR test showed that only 23 people had been infected with Covid-19. But then the mayor implored everyone to get an antibody test, and 10% of people had actually been infected with – and had recovered from – Covid-19. Most of them couldn’t even recall having been sick.
I don’t know who made the tests used in Robbio – maybe they were a little better, maybe they were a little worse. Based on my experience, I wouldn’t be so surprised if the true infection rate with Covid-19 in that town was really just 10% – nor would I be surprised to hear that the chips had a high false-negative rate and that the infection rate was 20% or more.
If you calculate the fatality rate of Covid-19 in Italy by assuming that the PCR tests caught every infection, you’d get a terrifying 10%.
If you instead assume that many other towns had a similar infection rate to Robbio, you’ll instead calculate that the fatality rate was well under one percent.
Italy has higher risk than the United States due to age demographics, smoking rates, and multigenerational households – and even in Italy, the fatality rate was probably well under one percent.
When researchers in Germany randomly chose people to take a Covid-19 PCR test (many of whom had no symptoms), they found that 2% of the population was actively shedding virus – a much higher number of cases than they would have found if they tested only sick people. And when they randomly chose people to take an antibody test, they found that 15% had already recovered from the infection (again, many of whom had never felt sick). According to these numbers – which are expected to be an undercount, due to false negatives and the time lag before antibody production – they calculated a case fatality rate of 0.37%.
That would be about three-fold more dangerous than seasonal influenza.
In the United States, our bungling president gutted the CDC, leaving us without the expertise needed to address Covid-19 (or myriad other problems that might arise). During the first few months of this epidemic, very few people managed to get a PCR test. That’s why our data from the PCR tests is likely to be a dramatic undercount – indeed, when we finally started producing accurate tests, the apparent growth in Covid-19 caseload superimposed with the growth in test availability.
In the absence of good PCR data, we have to rely on antibody data to track infections after the fact. Which is why a town in Colorado with zero reported infections, as measured by PCR, had sufficiently widespread exposure that 2% of the population had already recovered from Covid-19.
Yes, there were problems with the Stanford study’s data collection – they displayed advertisements to a random selection of people, but then a self-selected subset responded. The pool of respondents were enriched for white women, but Santa Clara’s outbreak probably began among Asian-Americans. And we all know that random sampling doesn’t always give you an accurate depiction of the population at large – after all, random polling predicted that a competent president would be elected in 2016.
Now look at us.
It’s also likely that people with a poor understanding of the biology could misinterpret the result of the Stanford study. They found that PCR tests had undercounted the infection rate in Santa Clara county, at the time of this study, by 85-fold.
It would be absurd to assume that you could simply multiply all PCR results by 85 to determine the true infection rate, but some people did. And then pointed out the absurdity of their own bad math.
In places where more people are being tested by PCR, and they’re being tested more often, the PCR results will be closer to the true infection rate. If you gave everyone in the United States a PCR test, and did it every day, then the PCR data would be exactly equal to the true infection rate.
If we had data like that from the beginning, we wouldn’t have been scared. We would’ve known the true case fatality rate early on, and, also, at-risk people could’ve been treated as soon as they got infected. We’d be able to save many more lives.
10% is roughly the proportion of young people who die of seasonal influenza. But only 1% of Covid-19 deaths are people younger than 35. The news reports don’t always make clear how much the risk of Covid-19 is clustered in a small segment of the population.
This has serious implications for what we should do next. If we were dealing with a virus that was about three-fold more dangerous than seasonal influenza for everyone, we might just return to life as normal. (Indeed, we carried on as normal during the bad years when seasonal influenza killed 90,000 people instead of last year’s 30,000.)
Because the risk from Covid-19 is so concentrated, though, we can come up with a plan that will save a lot of lives.
Healthy people under retirement age should resume most parts of their lives as normal. Schools should re-open: for students, Covid-19 is much less dangerous than seasonal influenza. I think that people should still try to work from home when possible, because it’s the right thing to do to fight climate change.
At-risk people should continue to isolate themselves as much as possible.
This sounds crummy, but at-risk people would just continue to do the thing that everyone is doing currently. And the plan would save many lives because the epidemic would end in about 3 months, after the virus had spread to saturation among our nation’s low-risk cohort.
Their data are easy enough to understand. In each of these graphs, they show a blue box for how long social distancing would last, and then four colored lines to represent how many infections we’d see if we did no social distancing (black), medium quality social distancing (red), good social distancing (blue), or excellent social distancing (green).
So, from top to bottom, you’re looking at the graphs of what happens if we do a month of social distancing … or two months … or three, or four … or forever.
And you can see the outcomes in the panels on the right-hand side. The black line shows what would happen if we did nothing. Infections rise fast, then level off after the virus has reached saturation. There are two important features of this graph – the final height that it reaches, which is the total number of severe cases (and so a good proxy for the number of deaths), and the slope of the line, which is how fast the severe cases appear. A steeper hill means many people getting sick at the same time, which means hospitals might be overwhelmed.
So, okay. Looking at their graphs, we see that social distancing saves lives … if we do it forever. If you never leave your house again, you won’t die of Covid-19.
But if social distancing ends, it doesn’t help. The slopes are nearly as steep as if we’d done nothing, and the final height – the total number of people who die – is higher.
(Often, one of their curves will have a gentler slope than the others — usually the good-but-not-excellent social distancing seems best. So you’d have to pray that you were doing a precisely mediocre job of not infecting strangers. Do it a little better or a little worse and you cause people to die. This isn’t an artifact — it’s based on the density of uninfected people when social distancing ends — but let’s just say “mathematical models are wonky” and leave it at that.)
In a subsequent figure, the Harvard team tried to model what might happen if we occasionally resumed our lives for a month or so at a time, but then had another shutdown. This is the only scenario in which their model predicts that social distancing would be helpful.
Even in the extreme case that we mostly stayed in our homes for the better part of two years, social distancing would case more deaths from Covid-19 than if we had done nothing.
That’s not even accounting for all the people who would die from a greater risk of domestic violence, hunger, drug addiction, suicide, and sedentary behavior during the shutdown.
When our data was limited, the shutdown seemed reasonable. We wouldn’t be able to undo the damage we’d done by waiting.
Except, whoops, we waited anyway. We didn’t quarantine travelers in January. The shutdown didn’t begin March, when the epidemic was well underway in many places.
Now that we have more data, we should re-open schools, though. For most people, Covid-19 is no more dangerous than seasonal influenza. We already have enough data from antibody testing to be pretty confident about this, and even if we want to be extremely cautious, we should continue the shutdown for a matter of weeks while we conduct a few more antibody studies. Not months, and certainly not years.
At the same time, we need to do a better job of protecting at-risk people. This means providing health care for everyone. This means cleaning our air, staunching the pollution that plagues low-income neighborhoods. This might mean daily medical checkups and PCR tests for people who work closely with at-risk populations.
Our country will have to be different in the future, but mostly because we, as a people, have done such a shitty job of creating justice and liberty for all. We need to focus on addressing the inequities that we’ve let fester for generations. That’ll help far more than using a bandanna to cover up your smile.
Worldwide, people are making huge sacrifices to quell the Covid-19 outbreak. The burden of these sacrifices falls disproportionately on young people.
Across the United States, universities have closed for the year. My governor has announced that all elementary and high schools will be closed at least until May 1st. Bars, restaurants, and malls have been forced to shut down – their employees have been laid off.
Graduating during a recession greatly reduces people’s lifelong earnings. Young people who have the bad luck of entering the workforce in the next few years will suffer the consequences of this shutdown for their entire lives.
Childhood development has an urgency unmatched by other stages of life. When children don’t learn to socialize at the appropriate age, they will always struggle to catch up with their peers. Across the country, huge numbers of children were first learning to read in kindergarten and the early grades. Now they’re watching television. (My kids, too.) With schools closed until May, and summer break coming soon after, they might be watching TV for months. They’ll have to work harder to match other people’s educational achievements, for their entire lives.
Many students depend on school meals to stave off hunger. Kids on free & reduced-price lunch often dread holiday weekends – now, not only have their educations been yanked away, but they’re also suffering through worse food insecurity. Schools and communities are scrambling to provide resources.
Everyone is being asked to stay at home, to keep at least six feet away from other people.
The cost of social isolation is lower if you’re established in a white-collar or professional career. Many office workers can work from home. The people who were cleaning those offices, or selling coffee and bagels to people on their way to work, get laid off.
The cost of social isolation is lower if you have enough money to stock up on supplies. The cost of social isolation is much lower if you’re retired.
Everyone is being asked to make sacrifices, but young people are sacrificing more.
This pandemic wouldn’t be as bad if people could be tested for the virus. We could quarantine the sick and staunch the spread. But U.S. citizens don’t have access to a test.
As the virus reached into the United States in late January, President Trump and his administration spent weeks downplaying the potential for an outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control [a government agency gutted by our current president] opted to develop its own test rather than rely on private laboratories or the World Health Organization.
The outbreak quickly outpaced Mr. Trump’s predictions, and the C.D.C.’s test kits turned out to be flawed, leaving the United States far behind other parts of the world – both technically and politically.
Anyone who is currently younger than 22 – the people who are being made to sacrifice most during this crisis – was not allowed to vote in the 2016 election.
I was too young to understand the 1980s HIV crisis, but I imagine that it was at least as scary as the Covid-19 pandemic for the people at risk.
That virus was inevitably fatal. The deaths were agonizing. Rampant homophobia and cultural stigmatization – even in the medical community – meant there were few places to seek help.
The only way to keep safe was to make sacrifices. Fooling around is fun, but it seemed like it might kill you. To stay alive, you’d have to tamp down your desire.
But if you made that sacrifice, you’d be safe. The people making sacrifices were the people who’d benefit.
What about now, during the Covid-19 pandemic?
My whole family probably contracted Covid-19. There’s no way to know for sure, because at that time the U.S. didn’t even have tests for people experiencing the acute phase of the illness, and there’s still no antibody test to check whether someone was exposed to the virus in the past.
I fell sick on February 10th. I had a pretty bad case, it seems. I had to take high doses of naproxen, but the week-long fever still left me dizzy at times. The only way I could breathe well enough to sleep soundly was by taking puffs of my spouse’s albuterol inhaler. My joints ached so much that it hurt whenever I went running even three weeks later.
My children were sick on February 11th and February 13th. Each napped for half the morning and then felt better. They’d spiked a high fever, but these lasted less than a day.
Young people are being forced to make tremendous sacrifices. They will suffer the consequences of this disruption to their education for their entire lives. But they aren’t the people who benefit.
Young people have very little risk from Covid-19. It’s no fun to be sick, but when my children contracted what I assume to be Covid-19, it was no worse than any of dozens of other coughs or colds they come down with each year.
Most teenagers – whose lives are being up-ended by school closings – could contract Covid-19 and be totally fine.
My spouse asked, “What would you do about it? Not months ago, but if you were handed this crisis today?”
My answer was the same as always. We should enact a wealth tax – preferably a global wealth tax to undermine the tax havens – and use it to fund a guaranteed basic income.
Right now, there’s another rationale. Young people are making huge sacrifices during this pandemic; older people receive the benefit. A wealth tax used to fund guaranteed basic income would provide some recompense for the sacrifices of young people.
My family is practicing “social isolation,” although it hasn’t been mandated yet. My children are willingly making sacrifices for the benefit of others, insofar as a four- and six-year-old understand what’s happening. And yet I’ve seen little acknowledgement in the news of the enormous, selfless sacrifice that children are making – that young people across the country are being forced to make.
They will endure the consequences of this sacrifice for their entire lives. This sacrifice almost exclusively benefits others. And yet there’s been no talk of recompense. No gesture of gratitude from the people who benefit toward the people who are paying the costs.
Which, unfortunately, is how our country has often worked.
Note: the original version of this post included a section on individual teacher ratings. I could not find public references for the statements I made, and have deleted these two paragraphs. My apologies!
I recently placed a copy of How to Lie with Statistics in a little free library near campus. Not because I want people to be more deceitful – if you don’t understand how to trick others, then you yourself will be easy game. Numbers sound like facts. They can be used for malicious ends.
Consider medical ratings. These are ostensibly beneficial – prospective patients get to learn how well-trained their doctors are!
Saurabh Jha wrote an excellent essay explaining why these rankings are misleading, “When a Bad Surgeon Is the One You Want.” In brief, doctors who take easy cases will improve their ratings – their patients are more likely to have good outcomes. When doctors are assessed on their patients’ outcomes, then the doctors who take hard cases will appear to be incompetent. Even if they are much better at their craft than others.
The same phenomenon holds in teaching. Schools and teachers are often evaluated based on their students’ performance, without normalizing for the unique challenges faced by different populations of kids.
This week, the Indiana Department of Education released federal evaluations of local schools.
The elementary school located amidst our town’s most expensive houses, at which the lowest percentage of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, was rated as “exceeding expectations.”
The elementary schools that serve our town’s most disadvantaged students – one of which holds bilingual classes in English and American Sign Language to support deaf children, and has 86% of students receiving free or reduced-priced lunch – were rated as not meeting expectations.
My spouse and I are sending our own children to one of the schools that was rated as not meeting expectations. We know a fair bit about education – among other things, my spouse is the editor-in-chief of a national journal of teacher writing. I’ve observed classrooms in this low-rated school, and they are excellent.
But teacher morale is low, because the teachers are continually evaluated as being sub-par, despite the fact that they have chosen to work harder than others. Our school district is mandating that teachers in the low-rated schools spend time on unfulfilling test-prep regimes, even though these practices are known to further alienate under-resourced students.
Our nation’s school administrators ought to read How to Lie with Statistics, it seems. They’ve looked at a set of numbers and allowed themselves to be misled. Which bodes ill for the learners in their care.
When we attended my grandmother’s memorial service, my children sat in the front pew. They flanked my mother and mostly succeeded in sitting quietly, despite having just ridden for two hours in the car. We were proud.
The service was held inside the Presbyterian church where my grandmother worked for twenty-five years. Large stained glass windows poured colorful light into the room. The walls were adorned with Christmas decorations.
“It’s so beautiful,” said our five-year-old.
The minister was wearing a white robe with gold trim. Before he began to describe my grandmother’s complicated hair and meticulous proofreading, he told stories about Jesus. “We must welcome the Lord into our heart,” he said from the pulpit.
“Myrtle has joined Him there,” he said.
Our younger child – three-and-a-half – turned and asked, quite loudly and clear as a bell, “Which sky ghost do these people believe in?”
Driving home from the ceremony, the song “Heaven’s Only Wishful” by MorMor came on the radio.
“Heaven is the name of the sky ghost kingdom in Christianity. That religion isn’t always kind toward women – there were thirteen apostles, but one was a woman and the people who wrote the Bible left her out – so there isn’t a queen in the stories about Heaven. There’s a prince, the kid, Jesus, and there’s a king, the father, usually just called God, or Yahweh, and there’s a grandfather figure, the Holy Ghost.”
“And maybe you’ve seen in books … like in Mr. Putter and Tabby, whenever Mr. Putter really likes something he says it’s ‘heavenly.’ Which means the cake or whatever is so good that you could serve it in the sky ghost kingdom. Even Jesus would think it was delicious.”
“His grandfather is a ghost?” exclaimed our youngest.
“When your father said ‘grandfather figure,’ maybe he misspoke,” my spouse said. “When people feel moved, when they see or hear something really beautiful, sometimes they say they’ve been visited by the Holy Ghost.”
I clarified. “But that’s how people think about their grandparents – and great-grandparents, and great-greats – in a lot of religions that include ancestor worship. Do you remember in Moana when her grandmother comes to visit her?”
Of course they remembered. Our kids love Moana. When they’re sick, they listen to the Moana soundtrack. Twice a year – to celebrate special events like the winter solstice or the end of school – they watch the movie on my tiny laptop computer screen.
“Her grandmother came and sang to her. But her grandmother had died. She wasn’t reallythere. They drew it that way because they wanted to show you how it felt. It was as though her grandmother had come to her, and that gave her the courage to do a really hard thing, to take back the heart all by herself.”
“Take it to Te Kā, the lava monster!”
“Yes, the lava monster. But the difference is that in cultures like Moana’s – and Daoism in China, some Native American religions here – the ghost or spirit who visits is your ancestor. Someone personal. Family. The story in Christianity is that everyone shares the same dead grandfather figure, the Holy Ghost.”
“I would want you to visit me, Mama,” said our older kid. Which I believe was meant sweetly, like I want you instead of the Holy Ghost, and not I want you instead of my pedantic parent.
“Yeah,” agreed our younger. “I’d want Mama. And Te Kā!”
Ah, yes. From lava monsters do we draw our strength. I’ve clearly taught my children well.
The choices we’re making might cause everyone to die.
kind of sad. I like being alive, and I
like the thought that other humans might be alive even after I am gone.
Some people – the original Millennials, for instance – prefer to imagine that the world would end when their world ends. But for those of us who feel that helping others adds to the meaning of our lives, it’s more satisfying to imagine humanity’s continued existence. Each good deed is like a wave, rippling outward, causing people to be a little kinder to others in turn.
These waves of kindness can’t last forever – our universe began with a finite quantity of order, which we use up in order to live – but they could persist for a very long time. Humans could have many billions of years with which to colonize the stars.
Unless we go extinct sooner. Which we might. We’re destabilizing the climate of the only habitable planet we know.
Venus used to be habitable. We humans could’ve flown there and set up a colony. But a blip of excess greenhouse gas triggered runaway climate change. Now Venus has no liquid water. Instead, the planet is covered in thick smog. Sulfuric acid rains from the sky.
rather we not doom Earth to the same fate.
There are things you can do to help. In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer lists the (abundant!) evidence that animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change.
should still turn off the lights when you leave a room. If you can walk to the park instead of
driving, do it! Every effort you make to
waste less energy is worthwhile!
But it helps to take stock of the numbers. If everyone with a conventional automobile could suddenly exchange it for a hybrid vehicle, we’d still be emitting 96% as much greenhouse gas. If everyone decided to eliminate animal products from their diet, we’d be emitting 50% as much.
to hybrid vehicles wouldn’t save us.
Deciding to eat plant-based foods would.
it’s hard to make this switch.
Not least because the peril we’ve placed ourselves in doesn’t feel
compelling. It’s like the difference
between venus flytraps and pitcher plants.
With a venus flytrap, you can see the exact moment that a bug is
doomed. Those spikey mandibles close and
that’s the end! When a bug lands on a
pitcher plant, though, its fate is sealed well before the moment when it
finally topples into the digestive water.
The lip of a pitcher plant is sloped and slippery; the actual boundary
between life and death is unnoticeable.
climate change will be exacerbated by so many feedback loops, by the time we
see the precipice it’ll be too late.
In Foer’s words,
The chief threat to human life – the overlapping emergencies of ever-stronger superstorms and rising seas, more severe droughts and declining water supplies, increasingly large ocean dead zones, massive noxious-insect outbreaks, and the daily disappearance of forests and species – is, for most people, not a good story.
planetary crisis matters to us at all, it has the quality of a war being fought
over there. We are aware of the
existential stakes and the urgency, but even when we know that a war for our
survival is raging, we don’t feel immersed in it. That distance between awareness and feeling
can make it very difficult for even thoughtful and politically engaged people –
people who want to act – to act.
not only makes a good story in retrospect; good stories become
history. With regard to the fate of our
planet – which is also the fate of our species – that is a profound
problem. As the marine biologist and
filmmaker Randy Olson put it, “Climate is quite possibly the most boring
subject the science world has ever had to present to the public.”
that Foer tries to wring empathy from this dull story. He writes about his personal struggles to be
good. If it were necessary to blow hot
air from a hairdryer into a small child’s face each time we bought a
cheeseburger, few people would buy them.
But it’s more difficult to restrain ourselves when we instead know
vaguely – rationally, unemotionally – that each cheeseburger we buy will
exacerbate the hot air – and floods, and droughts, and malaria – that children
will one day have to bear.
brains are good at understanding cause and effect when they are closely linked in
time and space. Push a button, hear a
sound! Even babies understand how to
work a toy piano. Even my ill behaved
dogs know better than to misbehave in front of me (chew the pillow, get shut in
My dogs struggle when an effect comes long after the initial cause. Furtively chew a pillow, get shut in bathroom several days later, once the human finally discovers evidence? That’s not compelling for my dogs. The punishment is too long delayed to dissuade them from mastication.
Buy a cheeseburger today – make our children’s children’s children go hungry from global crop failure. That’s not compelling. Our brains can’t easily process that story.
understand it, but we can’t feel it.
that’s the message of Foer’s book. How
can we – collaboratively – create a world in which it’s easy to do the right
thing? How can we make cheeseburgers feel
An intellectual understanding – cheeseburgers requires farms with cows, cows emit methane, cows take space, farmers destroy forests to make space, cheeseburgers cause climate change – isn’t enough to create that feeling. Climate change is too dull a story.
worse, climate change isn’t even the most boring story to tell about our
extinction. In We Are the Weather
– an entire book in which Foer castigates himself for contributing to harms
that will befall his descendants some 100 to 200 years in the future (because
that’s when climate change will get really bad) – Foer doesn’t even
mention that he’s also causing harms that will befall his descendants 30 to 60
years in the future.
change is dull. Antibiotic resistance is
even more dull.
pretty bad when something is more boring than talking about the weather.
Most farmed animals are constantly given low doses of antibiotics. As it happens, this is exactly the protocol you’d use for a directed evolution experiment if you were trying to make antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
There’s an old story about a king, Mithridates, whose father was assassinated with poison. Mithridates trained his body with exposure to low doses of poison so that he would be able to survive higher doses.
It was a
clever strategy. We’re helping bacteria
do the same thing.
world will be nightmarishly different once antibiotics stop working. My own children are three and five years
old. They’ve gotten infections that we
needed to treat with antibiotics about a dozen times. Two weeks of taking the pink stuff and my
kids got better.
world with antibiotic resistant bacteria – which we are creating through
animal agriculture – any of those dozen infections could have killed my kids.
You should watch the New York Times video about antibiotic resistance. By 2050, it’s likely that more people will die from antibiotic resistant bacterial infections than from cancer.
Huge quantities of money are being spent to develop new anti-cancer drugs – new ways for elderly people to stave off time. Meanwhile, it’s not just that we spend so little developing antibiotics. We are actively making these drugs worse.
resistance isn’t a compelling story, though.
To feel a connection between a cheeseburger and your someday
grandkid dying in bed, feverish and septic, you’d have to understand the
biochemistry of lateral gene transfer, DNA replication, mutation, drug
metabolism. You’d need to be able to see
in your mind’s eye the conditions that farmed animals are raised in.
honestly? People who can vividly picture
a concentrated animal feeding operation or slaughterhouse probably aren’t the
ones buying cheeseburgers.
But if the world doesn’t change, their grandkids will die too.
When our eldest child was two years
old, a friend of ours built a caterpillar home from some window screens we
found in the dumpster. Our neighbor gave
us milkweed, and we raised some monarchs.
In recent decades, increased use of
pesticides and the decreased abundance of milkweed along monarch migratory
routes have caused butterfly populations to plummet. And so many suburban homeowners began to
cultivate milkweek in their yards.
Exceptionally dedicated butterfly conservationists began to raise
caterpillars inside, keeping them safe from predation, and checking to make
sure that the butterflies were free of parasitic protozoans before release.
The hope is that, with enough concerned citizens pitching in to help, monarch populations might rebound. Within the span of a single lifetime, insect populations around the world have fallen precipitously, in many regions by 90% or more, a travesty described eloquently in Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm:
It had been the most powerful of all the manifestations of abundance, this blizzard of insects in the headlights of cars, this curious side effect of technology, this revelatory view of the natural world which was only made possible with the invention of the motor vehicle. It was extraordinary; yet even more extraordinary was the fact that it had ceased to exist. Its disappearance spoke unchallengeably of a completely unregarded but catastrophic crash in Britain of the invertebrate life which is at the basis of so much else.
Korea may have destroyed Saemangeum, and China may have destroyed its dolphin,
but my own country has wrecked a destruction which is just as egregious; in my
lifetime, in a process that began in the year I was born, in this great and
merciless thinning, it has obliterated half its living things, even though the
national consciousness does not register it yet.
been my fate as a baby boomer: not just to belong to the most privileged
generation which ever walked the earth, but, as we can at last see now, to have
my life parallel the destruction of the wondrous abundance of nature that still
persisted in my childhood, the abundance which sang like nothing else of the
force and energy of life and could be witnessed in so many ways, but most
strikingly of all in the astonishing summer night display in the headlight
beams, which is no more.
Our kid loved watching the butterflies hatch. Metamorphosis is an incredible process, especially for a little human undergoing her own transition out of a helpless pupal stage. Ensuring that our yard is a safe stopover for the monarchs’ journey helps the species survive.
But the monarchs overwinter at a select few sites, such as the mountains of Michoacan. This state has been ravaged by the drug war. A huge percentage of the population is mired in poverty, which abets illegal foresting, including cutting down many of the evergreens that the visiting monarchs roost on. Worse, a large mining company hopes to begin extraction in the butterflies’ overwintering site. If this project is approved, the monarchs will die, no matter how much milkweed Midwestern homeowners plant in their backyards.
people of Michoacan should not be expected to cheerfully endure poverty so that
others can look at butterflies. A major
argument in favor of a global wealth tax used to fund a guaranteed basic income
is that it would alleviate some of the incentive to destroy our shared
environment for private gains.
inhabit a single planet – as far as we’ve determined, the only habitable world
in the known universe. And, although our
world is very large, we’ve learned recently that individual decisions can have
a hugely destructive impact on us all.
In The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells spends two hundred pages describing what life might be like for our children if we allow our planet to warm by two degrees.
emergent portrait of suffering is, I hope, horrifying. It is also, entirely, elective. If we allow global warming to proceed, and to
punish us with all the ferocity we have fed it, it will be because we have
chosen that punishment – collectively walking down a path of suicide. If we avert it, it will be because we have
chosen to walk a different path, and endure.
solution to our problems is obvious – but I am writing as a wealthy,
well-loved, well-educated individual. I
own a home where milkweed can be planted.
My days are happy enough that I don’t feel the need to buy as much stuff
as other people.
world has treated me pretty well.
should somebody who has been treated like garbage feel compelled to pitch
In Brazil, under-served people voted Jair Bolsonaro into the presidency. Bolsonaro hopes to extract value from the country now, which means destroying the Amazon rain forest. Which means – because this expanse of forest acts akin to a set of lungs for our whole planet – destroying the world.
An interesting comeuppance – as a citizen of the United States, usually it’s the autocratic decrees of my own president that send the world teetering toward destruction. Indeed, even though 45 has less influence over our planet’s climate than Bolsonaro, he too has been promoting environmental devastation for the sake of extractive industries.
economics of extraction are interesting.
Because the things we pull from the Earth are all limited resources,
their value will presumably rise over time.
People who have money now, like citizens of the U.S., should choose to
wait. Even if we wanted to burn every
last bit of the world’s oil and release all that carbon into the atmosphere, we
in the U.S. would be better off waiting to pull up our own oil, buying it cheaply
from other people now, and then selling ours at a massive profit later on once
it’s more scarce.
oil companies have been operating under an addiction model. They continue to increase production even
when prices are low, as though fearful that an unsteady supply would lead
people to kick the habit. Their future
revenue stream would dry up.
Renewable energy has been getting cheaper, so maybe they’re right. In the meantime, global consumption has been rising every year, even though we know it’s killing us. Both because our own homes will become less habitable, and because the world will descend into chaotic violence. From Molly Crabapple’s “Where Else Can They Go,”
world has come no closer to ensuring the rights of a human without a
country. Mostly, governments propose
quarantine. Internment camps grow in
Tornillo, Texas, in Lesbos, in Zaatari, and in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. It won’t work. Each year, the world grows warmer. The oceans rise. Wars are fought for ever-scarcer
resources. If the wealthy West worries
about one million Syrians, what will it do with millions of climate refugees?
Wealthy nations pillaged the world in the past. Huge amounts of capital were accrued in the meantime, because human productivity was supercharged by the stored fuel of hundreds of thousands of years of extra energy, all that sunlight captured by ancient plants and compressed into oil.
if other nations repeat that process, the world will be destroyed.
solutions aren’t so hard to come by. A
global wealth tax. Guaranteed basic
income. These would ameliorate a lot of
the world’s problems. But they require
the people who are in power now to willingly accept less. And the little voice whispering in our ears
has quite a bit of practice chanting more.