We are wearing masks. At school, at work, at the grocery store. I jog with a bandanna tied loosely around my neck, politely lifting it over my face before I pass near other people.
Slowing the spread of a virus from which we have short-duration immunity is dangerous, as I’ve described at length previously, but one consequence of universal mask orders is unambiguously good – the herd immunity threshold to end the pandemic is lower in a world where people always wear masks around strangers.
We all want to get through this while causing as little harm as possible.
Covid-19 is real, and dangerous. Some of the data are complicated, but this much is not: to date, ~200,000 people have died from Covid-19.
Covid-19 is extremely easy to transmit. Because our behaviors so readily affect the health of others right now, we must decide collectively how to respond. My county has decided that we should wear masks. And so I do.
Only those with whom we are closest will see us smile in person. Family. If we’re lucky, a close group of friends.
We share the same air.
During the pandemic, those we love most are our conspirators.
Our conspirators are the select few whom we breathe (spirare) with (com).
I live in a college town. Last week, students returned.
Yesterday’s paper explains that dire punishment awaits the students who attended a Wednesday night party. In bold letters atop the front page, “IU plans to suspend students over party.”
In the decade that I’ve lived here, many parties have led to sexual assaults, racist hate speech, and violence. The offending students were rarely punished. But this party was egregious because “there were about 100 people there.”
IU officials “have seen a photo … that shows a large group of young people standing close together outside a house at night, many of them not wearing masks.”
I’ve seen the images – someone filmed a video while driving by. There they are – a group of young people, standing outside.
Science magazine recently interviewed biologist Dana Hawley about social distancing in the animal kingdom.
When spiny lobsters are sick, their urine smells different. Healthy lobsters will flee the shared den. Leaving is dangerous, since the lobsters will be exposed to predators until they find a new home, but staying would be dangerous, too – they might get sick. To survive, lobsters have to balance all the risks they face.
My favorite example of social distancing in the animal kingdom wasn’t discussed. When an ant is infected with the cordyceps fungus, it becomes a sleeper agent. Jennifer Lu writes in National Geographic that “as in zombie lore, there’s an incubation period where infected ants appear perfectly normal and go about their business undetected by the rest of the colony.”
Then the fungus spreads through the ants body, secreting mind control chemicals. Eventually, the fungus will command the infected ant to climb to a high place. A fruiting body bursts from the ant’s head and rains spores over the colony.
Infection is almost always lethal.
If an ant notices that a colony member has been infected, the healthy ant will carry the infected ant away from the colony and hurl it from a cliff.
The herd immunity threshold isn’t an inherent property of a virus – it depends upon our environment and behaviors. In prisons, we’ve seen Covid-19 spread until nearly 90% of people were infected. In parts of New York City where many essential workers live in crowded housing, Covid-19 spread until 50% of people were infected.
In a culture where everyone kissed a sacred statue in the center of town each morning, the herd immunity threshold would be higher. If people wear masks while interacting with strangers, the herd immunity threshold will be lower.
In a world that maintains a reservoir of the virus, though, someone who hasn’t yet been exposed will always be at risk.
The New York Times recently discussed some of the challenges that colleges face when trying to reopen during the epidemic.
Most schools ban … socializing outside “social pods” – the small groups of students that some colleges are assigning students to, usually based on their dorms.
Most administrators seem to believe that a rule banning sex is unrealistic, and are quietly hoping that students will use common sense and refrain from, say, having it with people outside their pod.
In 2012, The Huffington Post published a list of the “Top 10 sex tips for college freshmen.” Their fourth piece of advice (#1 and #2 were condoms, #3 was not having sex while drunk) is to avoid having sex with people who live too close to you. “Students in other dorms = fair game. Students in same dorm = proceed with caution.”
I had a big group of friends for my first two years of college. After a breakup, I lost most of those friends.
This is crummy, but it would be much worse if I’d lost my friendships with the only people whom the administrators allowed me to spend time with.
We can slow the spread of Covid-19, but slowing the spread won’t prevent deaths, not unless we can stave off infection until there is a highly effective vaccine. That might take years. We might never have a highly effective vaccine – our influenza vaccines range in efficacy from about 20% to 80%, and we have much more experience making these.
Our only way to reduce the eventual number of deaths is to shift the demographics of exposure. If we reach the herd immunity threshold without many vulnerable people being exposed, we’ll save lives.
A college would best protect vulnerable students and faculty by allowing the students who are going to socialize to host dense parties for a few weeks before mingling with others. This would allow the virus to spread and be cleared before there was a risk of transferring infections to vulnerable people.
I’d draft a waiver. Are you planning to socialize this semester? If so, come do it now! By doing so, you will increase your risk of contracting Covid-19. This is a serious disease – it’s possible for young, healthy people to die from it. But, look, if you’re gonna socialize eventually, please just get it over with so that you don’t endanger other people.
With this plan, some young people might die of Covid-19. But some young people will die of Covid-19 even if everyone practices social distancing – slowing the spread of infections doesn’t save lives, it delays deaths. And fewer young people would die of Covid-19 than die of influenza each year.
When confronting cordyceps, which is almost always fatal, ants throw sick colony members off cliffs.
When ants confront less lethal fungal infections, they protect the colony by shifting the demographics of exposure and by ramping up to the herd immunity threshold as quickly as possible.
Malagocka et al. discuss demographics in their review article, “Social immunity behavior among ants infected by specialist and generalist fungi.”
Outside-nest foragers, who have the highest risks of acquiring pathogens from the environment, have limited access to the brood area with the most valuable groups, and are recruited from older individuals, who are less valuable from the colony survival perspective.
Konrad et al. discuss intentional exposure in their research article, “Social transfer of pathogenic fungus promotes active immunization in ant colonies.”
When worker ants encounter an infected colony member, they intentionally inoculate themselves. “Social immunization leads to faster elimination of the disease and lower death rates.”
It feels disquieting for me to defend the behavior of frat guys. Personally, I’d like to see the whole fraternity system abolished. And in March, when we knew less about Covid-19, I was appalled that people went out partying over spring break. But I was wrong. Perhaps inadvertently, those young people were behaving in the way that would save most lives.
the nurse called back and told us to use bleach on anything we touch, she said wash everything in hot water, insisted we won’t treat you if you’re asymptomatic, we won’t, and made us an appointment anyway. so we waited and waited with the dog-eared magazines and recall posters
It’s horrible to face the end. It’s almost worse to know that the things you fear are harmless to others. All the asymptomatic cases are like a slap in the face to those whose friends and family have died.
Braun et al. recently published a study in Nature showing that a large number of people who’ve never encountered Covid-19 may already have significant immunity. Parts of the Covid-19 virus are similar to the viruses that cause common colds, and exposure to those viruses might provide the immunity that lets people recover without ever feeling sick.
I believe we should be doing more to protect young people. Gun control, ending farm subsidies, fighting climate change. Enacting privacy laws to reign in the surveillance capitalists. Breaking up monopolies. Providing good careers despite automation. Making sure that everyone has clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. Getting nutritious food into our nation’s many food deserts. Providing equitable access to health care.
But, punishing young people for socializing?
We’re not making them safer. And we’re not making ourselves safer, either.
Seriously, I know we humans are selfish, but we have to be able to handle an epidemic better than ants.
My family had spring break travel plans for before the shutdown.
We canceled them.
At the time, we feared for our safety. My spouse said to me, “You caught the flu twice this year, even after you were vaccinated, and the second time was the sickest I’ve ever seen you. I’m really worried about what will happen if you catch this new thing, too.”
She wanted me to cancel my poetry classes in the local jail. My father, an infectious diseases doctor and professor of immunology, recommended that I still go in to teach. “If somebody’s in there coughing up a lung, you should recommend he skip class next week,” my father told me.
But I was spooked. I felt glad when the jail put out a press release saying they’d no longer allow volunteers to come in – I didn’t want to choose between helping the incarcerated men and protecting my family.
My spouse is a high school science teacher. She felt glad that her biology classroom has over a dozen sinks. During the final week of school, she asked all her students to wash their hands for 20 seconds as soon as they walked into the room.
My spouse and I are both scientists, but it wasn’t until a week into the shutdown that I began to read research papers about Covid-19. Until then, we had gotten all our information from the newspaper. And the news was terrifying. Huge numbers of people were dying in Italy. Our imbecilic president claimed that Covid-19 was no big deal, making me speculate that this disease was even more dangerous than I’d thought.
Later, I finally went through the data from Italy and from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. These data – alongside the assumption that viral exposure should be roughly similar across age groups, if not higher for school children and young people who are out and about in the world – showed my family that our personal risk was probably quite low.
Still, we stayed inside. We were worried about harming others.
When I saw photographs of beaches packed with revelers, I felt furious. Did those selfish young people not realize that their choices could cause more people to die?
So it was shocking for me to learn that those selfish young people were actually doing the thing that would save most lives.
If we, as a people, had acted earlier, we could have prevented all these deaths. In January, it would have been enough to impose a brief quarantine after all international travel. In February, it would have been enough to use our current strategy of business closures, PCR testing, and contact tracing. In March, we were too late. The best we could do then – the best we can do now – was to slow the spread of infections.
Unfortunately, slowing the spread of infections will cause more people to die.
There’s an obvious short-term benefit to slowing the spread of infections – if too many people became critically ill at the same time, our hospitals would be overwhelmed, and we’d be unable to offer treatment to everyone who wanted it. We’d run out of ventilators.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that we, as a people, are terrible about talking about death. There’s no consensus about what constitutes a good life – what more would have to happen for you to feel ready to die?
Personally, I don’t want to die. As my mind stopped, I’d feel regret that I wouldn’t get to see my children become self-sufficient adults. But I’d like to think that I could feel proud that I’ve done so much to set them on the right path. Since my twenties, I’ve put forth a constant effort to live ethically, and I’d like to imagine that my work – my writing, teaching, and research – has improved other people’s lives.
I’ve also gotten to see and do a lot of wonderful things. I’ve been privileged to visit four countries. I visited St. Louis’s City Museum when one of my kids was old enough to gleefully play. I have a bundle of some two dozen love letters that several wonderful people sent me.
I’ve had a good life. I’d like for it to continue, but I’ve already had a good life.
Many medical doctors, who have seen how awful it can be for patients when everything is done to try to save a life, have “do not resuscitate” orders. My spouse and I keep our living wills in an accessible space in our home. But a majority of laypeople want dramatic, painful measures to be taken in the attempt to save their lives.
Still. Even without our reluctance to discuss death, there would be a short-term benefit to slowing the spread of infections. The American healthcare system is terrible, and was already strained to the breaking point. We weren’t – and aren’t – ready to handle a huge influx of sick patients.
But the short-term benefit of slowing the spread of Covid-19 comes at a major cost.
The shutdown itself hurts people. The deaths caused by increased joblessness, food insecurity, educational disruption, domestic violence, and loneliness (“loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day”) are more difficult to measure than the deaths caused by Covid-19. We won’t have a PCR test to diagnose which people were killed by the shutdown.
Those deaths won’t all come at once. But those deaths are no less real, and no less tragic, than the immediate horror of a person drowning from viral-induced fluid buildup in their lungs.
And, perhaps more damning, if the shutdown ends before there’s a vaccine, the shutdown will cause more people to die of Covid-19.
Without a vaccine, slowing the spread of Covid-19 has a short-term benefit of reducing the rate of hospital admissions, at the long-term cost of increasing the total number of Covid-19 cases.
All immunity fades – sometimes after decades, sometimes after months. Doesn’t matter whether you have immunity from recovery or from vaccination – eventually, your immunity will disappear. And, for a new disease, we have no way of predicting when. Nobody knows why some antigens, like the tetanus vaccine, trigger such long-lasting immunity, while other antigens, such as the flu vaccine or the influenza virus itself, trigger such brief protection.
We don’t know how long immunity to Covid-19 will last. For some coronaviruses, immunity fades within a year. For others, like SARS, immunity lasts longer.
The World Health Organization has warned, repeatedly, that immunity to Covid-19 might be brief. But the WHO seems unaware of the implications of this warning.
The shorter the duration of a person’s immunity, the more dangerous the shutdown. If our shutdown causes the Covid-19 epidemic to last longer than the duration of individual immunity, there will be more total infections – and thus more deaths – before we reach herd immunity.
This is, after all, exactly how a one-time “novel zoogenic disease” like influenza became a permanent parasite on our species, killing tens of thousands of people in the United States each year. Long ago, transmission was slowed to the point that the virus could circulate indefinitely. Influenza has been with us ever since.
That’s the glaring flaw in the recent Harvard Science paper recommending social distancing until 2022 – in their key figure, they do not incorporate a loss of immunity. Depending on the interplay between the rate of spread and the duration of immunity, their recommendation can cause this epidemic to never end.
And, if the shutdown ends before we have a vaccine, the lost immunity represents an increased death toll to Covid-19. Even neglecting all the other harms, we’ll have killed more people than if we’d done nothing.
This sounds terrifying. And it is. But the small glimmer of good news is that people’s second infections will probably be less severe. If you survive Covid-19 the first time you contract it, you have a good chance of surviving subsequent infections. But prolonging the epidemic will still cause more deaths, because herd immunity works by disrupting transmission. Even though an individual is less likely to die during a second infection, that person can still spread the virus. Indeed, people are more likely to spread the virus during subsequent infections, because they’re more likely to feel healthy while shedding infectious particles.
This calculation would be very different if people could be vaccinated.
Obviously, vaccination would be the best way to end this epidemic. In order to reach herd immunity by a sufficient number of people recovering, there would have to be a huge percentage of our population infected. Nobody knows how many infections it would take, but many researchers guess a number around 60% to 70% of our population.
Even if Covid-19 were no more dangerous than seasonal influenza (and our data so far suggest that it’s actually about four-fold moredangerous than most years’ seasonal influenza), that would mean 200,000 deaths. A horrifying number.
But there’s no vaccine. Lots of people are working on making a vaccine. We have Covid-19 vaccines that work well in monkeys. But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of human protection. We’ve made many HIV vaccines that work well in monkeys – some of these increase the chance that humans will contract HIV.
It should be easier to make a vaccine against this coronavirus than against HIV. When making a vaccine, you want your target to mutate as little as possible. You want it to maintain a set structure, because antibodies need to recognize the shape of external features of the virus in order to protect you. HIV mutates so fast that its shape changes, like a villain constantly donning a new disguise. But the virus that causes Covid-19 includes a proofreading enzyme, so it’ll switch disguises less.
Still, “easier to make a vaccine against than HIV” is not the most encouraging news. Certain pharmaceutical companies have issued optimistic press briefings suggesting that they’ll be able to develop a vaccine in 18 months, but we should feel dubious. These press briefings are probably intended to bolster the companies’ stock prices, not give the general public an accurate understanding of vaccine development.
Realistically, a Covid-19 vaccine is probably at least four years away. And it’s possible – unlikely, but possible – that we’ll never develop a safe, effective vaccine for this.
If we end the shutdown at any time before there is a vaccine, the shutdown will increase the number of people who die of Covid-19. The longer the shutdown, the higher the toll. And a vaccine is probably years away.
The combination of those two ideas should give you pause.
If we’re going to end the shutdown before we have a vaccine, we should end it now.
For a vaccine to end the Covid-19 epidemic, enough people will need to choose to be vaccinated for us to reach herd immunity.
Unfortunately, many people in the United States distrust the well-established efficacy and safety of vaccines. It’s worth comparing Covid-19 to seasonal influenza. On a population level, Covid-19 seems to be about four-fold more dangerous than seasonal influenza. But this average risk obscures some important data – the risk of Covid-19 is distributed less evenly than the risk of influenza.
With influenza, healthy young people have a smaller risk of death than elderly people or people with pre-existing medical conditions. But some healthy young people die from seasonal influenza. In the United States, several thousand people between the ages of 18 and 45 die of influenza every year.
And yet, many people choose not to be vaccinated against influenza. The population-wide vaccination rate in the United States is only 40%, too low to provide herd immunity.
Compared to influenza, Covid-19 seems to have less risk for healthy young people. Yes, healthy young people die of Covid-19. With influenza, about 10% of deaths are people between the ages of 18 and 45. With Covid-19, about 2% of deaths are people in this age group.
I’m not arguing that Covid-19 isn’t dangerous. When I compare Covid-19 to seasonal influenza, I’m simply comparing two diseases that are both deadly.
The influenza vaccine saves lives. The data are indisputable.
But people don’t choose to get it! That’s why I think it’s unfortunately very likely that people whose personal risk from Covid-19 is lower than their risk from influenza will forgo vaccination. Even if we had access to 300 million doses of a safe, effective vaccine today, I doubt that enough people would get vaccinated to reach herd immunity.
Obviously, I’d love to be wrong about this. Vaccination saves lives.
Please, dear reader, get a flu vaccine each year. And, if we develop a safe, effective Covid-19 vaccine, you should get that too.
We don’t have a vaccine. The shutdown is causing harm – the shutdown is even increasing the total number of people who will eventually die of Covid-19.
Is there anything we can do?
Luckily, yes. We do have another way to save lives. We can change the demographics of exposure.
Our understanding of Covid-19 still has major gaps. We need to do more research into the role of interleukin 6 in our bodies’ response to this disease – a lot of the healthy young people who’ve become critically ill with Covid-19 experienced excessive inflammation that further damaged their lungs.
But we already know that advanced age, smoking status, obesity and Type 2 diabetes are major risk factors for complications from Covid-19. Based on the data we have so far, it seems like a low-risk person might have somewhere between a hundredth or a thousandth the chance of becoming critically ill with Covid-19 as compared to an at-risk person. With influenza, a low-risk person might have between a tenth and a hundredth the chance of becoming critically ill.
The risk of Covid-19 is more concentrated on a small segment of the population than the risk of influenza.
To save lives, and to keep our hospitals from being overwhelmed, we want to do everything possible to avoid exposing at-risk people to this virus.
But when healthy young people take extraordinary measures to avoid getting sick with Covid-19 – like the shutdown, social distancing, and wearing masks – they increase the relative burden of disease that falls on at-risk people. We should be prioritizing the protection of at-risk people, and we aren’t.
Because this epidemic will not end until we reach the population-wide threshold for herd immunity, someone has to get sick. We’d rather it be someone who is likely to recover.
Tragically, we already have data suggesting that a partial shutdown can transfer the burden of infection from one group to another. In the United States, our shutdown was partial from the beginning. People with white-collar jobs switched to working remotely, but cashiers, bus drivers, janitors, people in food prep, and nurses have kept working. In part because Black and brown people are over-represented in these forms of employment, they’ve been over-represented among Covid-19 deaths.
There is absolutely no reason to think that poor people would be more likely to safely recover from Covid-19 – indeed, due to air pollution, stress, sleep deprivation, limited access to good nutrition, and limited access to health care, we should suspect that poor people will be less likely to recover – but, during the shutdown, we’ve shifted the burden of disease onto their shoulders.
This is horrible. Both unethical and ineffective. And, really, an unsurprising outcome, given the way our country often operates.
If we want to save lives, we need for healthy younger people to use their immune systems to protect us. The data we have so far indicates that the shutdown should end now — for them.
It will feel unfair if healthy younger people get to return to work and to their regular lives before others.
And the logistics won’t be easy. We’ll still need to make accommodations for people to work from home. Stores will have to maintain morning hours for at-risk shoppers, and be thoroughly cleaned each night.
If school buildings were open, some teachers couldn’t be there – they might need substitutes for months – and neither could some students, who might switch to e-learning to protect at-risk family.
We’ll need to provide enough monetary and other resources that at-risk people can endure a few more months of self-isolation. Which is horrible. We all know, now that we’ve all been doing this for a while, that what we’re asking at-risk people to endure is horrible. But the payoff is that we’ll be saving lives.
Indeed, the people who self-isolate will have lowest risk. We’ll be saving their lives.
And no one should feel forced, for financial reasons or otherwise, to take on more risk than they feel comfortable with. That’s why accommodations will be so important. I personally would feel shabby if I took extreme measures to protect myself, knowing that my risk is so much lower than other people’s, but you can’t look at someone in a mask and know their medical history, much less whom they might be protecting at home.
All told, this plan isn’t good. I’m not trying to convince you that this is good. I’m just saying that, because we bungled things in January, this is the best we have.
I should preface these remarks by stating that my political views qualify as “extremely liberal” in the United States.
I’m a well-trained economist – I completed all but the residency requirement for a masters at Northwestern – but I don’t give two shits about the “damage we’re doing to our economy,” except insofar as financial insecurity causes psychological harm to people in poverty. Our economy should be slower, to combat climate change and inequality.
One of my big fears during this epidemic is that our current president will accidentally do something correctly and bolster his chances of reelection. The damage that his first term has already caused to our environment and our judiciary will take generations to undo – imagine the harm he could cause with two.
And yet, in arguing that our response to the Covid-19 epidemic is misguided, I seem to be in agreement with our nation’s far right.
As far as I can tell, the far right opposes the shutdown because they’re motivated by philosophies that increase inequality. Many of them adore Ayn Rand’s “Who will stop me?” breed of capitalism, as though they should be free to go outside and cough on whomever they want. They dislike the shutdown because they think our lives are less important than the stock market.
By way of contrast, I care about fairness. I care about the well-being of children. I care about our species’ future on this planet. It’s fine by me if the stock market tanks! But I’ve written previously about the lack of scientific justification for this shutdown, and I’m worried that this shutdown is, in and of itself, an unfair response.
Quarantine could have prevented this epidemic from spreading. If we had acted in December, this coronavirus could have been contained. But we did nothing until several months after the Covid-19 epidemic began in the United States.
Then schools were closed: first for two weeks, then a month, then the entire year.
Stay-at-home orders were issued: first for two weeks, then extended to a month. No data supports the efficacy of these orders – haphazard, partial attempts at social distancing, from which certain people, like my buddy doing construction for a new Amazon facility, have been exempted. And no metrics were announced that might trigger an end to the shutdown.
Currently, the stay-at-home orders last until the end of April. But, as we approach that date, what do people expect will be different? In the United States, we still can’t conduct enough PCR tests – and even these tests yield sketchy data, because they might have false negative rates as high as 30%, and they’re only effective during the brief window of time — perhaps as short as one week — before a healthy patient clears the virus and becomes invisible to testing.
Based on research with other coronaviruses, we expect that people will be immune to reinfection for about a year, but we don’t know how many will have detectable levels of antibody in their blood. As of this writing, there’s still no serum test.
The Italian government is considering the dystopian policy of drawing people’s blood to determine if they’ll be eligible for a permit to leave their homes. If you were worried about the injustice that the virus itself imposed on people who are elderly or immunocompromised, this is worse!
We know, clearly, that the shutdown has been causing grievous harm. Domestic violence is on the rise. This is particularly horrible for women and children in poverty, trapped in close quarters with abusers. The shutdown is creating conditions that increase the risk of drug addiction, suicide, and the murder of intimate partners.
We don’t know whether the shutdown is even helping us stop the Covid-19 epidemic. And we still don’t know whether Covid-19 is scary enough to merit this response. As of this writing, our data suggest that it isn’t.
Covid-19 is a rare breed, though: a communicable disease where increased wealth correlates with increased risk.
And so we’re taking extreme measures to produce a small benefit for the most privileged generation to ever walk the face of this Earth, at the cost of great harm to vulnerable populations. This is why I feel dismayed.
Hopefully I can present some numbers simply enough to explain.
Many diseases are more likely to kill you if you’re poor.
Malaria kills between 400,000 and one million people every year. The vast majority are extremely poor, and many are children – the World Health Organization estimates that a child dies of malaria every thirty seconds.
Wealth protects against malaria in two ways. Wealthy people are less likely to live in parts of the world with a high prevalence of malaria (most of the deaths each year occur in Africa and India), and wealthy people can buy effective anti-malarial medications.
I took prophylactic Malarone when I visited Ecuador and India. Lo and behold, I did not get sick.
I believe Malarone costs about a dollar per day. I am very privileged.
HIV kills between 700,000 and one million people every year. Again, the vast majority are poor. HIV is primarily transmitted through intimate contact – exposure to blood, needle sharing, or sex – so this virus rarely spreads across social boundaries in stratified communities.
In the United States, HIV risk is concentrated among people living in our dying small towns, people without homes in inner cities, and people trapped inside the criminal justice system.
It seems that these people are all easy to ignore.
Wealth will protect you even if you do contract HIV. We’ve developed effective antiretroviral therapies. If you (or your government) can pay for these pills, you can still have a long, full life while HIV positive. About 60% of the people dying of HIV happen to have been born in Africa, though, and cannot afford antiretrovirals.
The second-highest cause of death among people in low-income countries is diarrhea. Diarrhea kills between one million and two million people each year, including about 500,000 children under five years old.
These deaths would be easy to treat and even easier to prevent.
Seriously, you can save these people’s lives with Gatorade! (Among medical doctors, this is known as “oral rehydration therapy.”) Or you could prevent them from getting sick in the first place by providing clean water to drink.
We could provide clean water to everyone – worldwide, every single person – for somewhere between ten billion and one hundred billion dollars. Which might sound like a lot of money, but that is only one percent of the amount we’re spending on the Covid-19 stimulus bill in the United States.
We could do it. We could save those millions of lives. But we’re choosing to let those people die.
Because, you see, wealthy people rarely die of diarrhea. Clean water is piped straight into our homes. And if we do get sick – I have, when I’ve traveled – we can afford a few bottles of Gatorade.
Instead, wealthy people die of heart disease. Stroke. Alzheimer’s. Cancer.
If you’re lucky enough to live past retirement age, your body will undergo immunosenescence. This is unfortunate but unavoidable. In old age, our immune systems stop protecting us from disease.
Age-related immunosenescence explains the high prevalence of cancer among elderly people. All of our bodies develop cancerous cells all the time. Usually, our immune systems kill these mutants before they have the chance to grow into tumors.
Age-related immunosenescence also explains why elderly people die from the adenoviruses and coronaviruses that cause common colds in children and pre-retirement-age adults. Somebody with a functional immune system will get the sniffles, but if these viruses are set loose in a nursing home, they can cause systemic organ failure and death.
I haven’t seen this data presented yet – due to HIPAA protections, it can’t easily be collected – but Covid-19, on average, seems to kill wealthier people than influenza.
But on a population level, wealth is correlated with increased risk.
Part of this wealth gap is due to age. I’ve made a rough sketch of the risk of death versus age for both Covid-19 and seasonal influenza. Currently we don’t have enough data to know exactly where these risk curves intersect, but it seems to be around retirement age. If you’re younger than retirement age, seasonal influenza is more deadly. If you’re older than retirement age, Covid-19 is more deadly.
In the United States, if you’re older than retirement age, you’re more likely to be wealthy.
Because these people were receiving expensive medical care, they were able to survive despite their other diseases. Imagine what would have happened if these people had chanced to be born in low-income countries: they would already be dead.
This is a tragedy: all over the world, millions of people die from preventable causes, just because they had the bad luck of being born in a low-income country rather than a rich one.
We don’t have data on this yet, but it’s likely that Covid-19 will have a much smaller impact in Africa than in Europe or the United States.
When my father was doing rounds in a hospital in Malawi, his students would sometimes say, “We admitted an elderly patient with …” And then my father would go into the room. The patient would be 50 years old.
Covid-19 is particularly dangerous for people in their 80s and 90s. Great privilege has allowed so many people in Europe and the United States to live until they reached these high-risk ages.
Our efforts to “flatten the curve,” in addition to increasing many people’s risk of death (from domestic violence, suicide, and the lifelong health repercussions of even a few months of sedentary living), will save relatively few lives, even among our country’s at-risk population.
The hope is that we won’t exceed the capacity of our hospitals. If someone’s condition deteriorates after a Covid-19 infection, they need invasive ventilation.
Please note that we can often prevent people’s condition from deteriorating by giving them Albuterol inhalers. And these used to be so cheap! In the early 2000s, you could buy an inhaler for about five dollars. But pharmaceutical companies were allowed to re-patent these and the price has soared to nearly four hundred dollars.
Many news reports have included sensational numbers about how many people in their 30s and 40s have gone to the hospital for Covid-19. These reports rarely mention that many of these hospitalizations could be prevented with a five dollar inhaler.
But we’re allowing drug companies to charge people four hundred dollars a pop for these now, which puts them out of reach for many people.
When I caught what I assume to be Covid-19, I took an inhaler. I am very privileged.
Some young people can’t afford an inhaler, and many elderly people develop symptoms too severe to be treated with Albuterol, so they need care in an ICU.
But the benefit of this shutdown is simply the difference between how many people would die if we did nothing, compared to how many people will die now.
In a recent essay, I gave an estimate for how many people would die if we’d done nothing. New data suggests that my estimate was too low – the numbers out of Italy (where they did nothing until it was probably too late) suggest that around 80,000 people might have died in the United States. Hospitals would have been overwhelmed, and some people whose condition required invasive ventilation would have been denied that treatment.
Even with the shutdown, though, we’re doing a crappy job. Our numbers are pretty much guaranteed to be worse than Germany’s, which has a more equitable health care system overall and is testing enough people to track the spread of the disease and treat people early. With this shutdown, all we’re hoping for is that the severe cases will be spread enough in time that everyone whose condition deteriorates to the point of needing invasive ventilation can have it.
Maybe. The shutdown is so slapdash that hospitals in certain high-risk areas, like New York City, will still be overwhelmed.
Assuming that our efforts to flatten the curve succeed – and neglecting all the other risks of this strategy – we’ll be able to provide ventilation to everyone. But there will still be a lot of deaths. The shutdown will not have helped those people. The shutdown is only beneficial for the small number who would be treated in one scenario, would not be treated in another, and who actually benefit from the treatment.
So we’d actually be saving only a fifth of the people who would have to be triaged if we’d exceeded our hospitals’ capacity to provide care. This could be as few as 10,000 at-risk people.
Their lives matter, too. Many of us have a friend or relative whose life was cut short by this. But something that we have to accept is that we all die. Our world would be horrible if people could live forever. Due to immunosenescence, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep people alive after they reach their 70s or 80s.
And the priorities of elderly people are different from mine. I care deeply about the well-being of children and our planet’s future. That’s why I write a column for our local newspaper discussing ways to ameliorate our personal contribution to climate change. That’s why my family lives the way we do.
These priorities may be quite different from what’s in the short-term best interests of an 80-year-old.
Schools are closed. Children are suffering. Domestic violence is on the rise. All to protect a few thousand people who have experienced such exceptional privilege that they are now at high risk of dying from Covid-19.
Our national response to Covid-19 is being directed by a 79-year-old doctor. I haven’t gotten to vote in the presidential primary yet, but if I get to vote at all, I’ll be allowed to choose whomever I prefer from a selection of a 77-year-old white man or a 78-year-old white man. Then comes the presidential election, where there’ll be an additional 73-year-old white man to choose from.
It makes me wonder, what would our national response be like if we were facing a crisis as risky as Covid-19, but where elderly people were safe and children were most at risk?
And then I stop wondering. Because we are facing a crisis like that.
Our efforts to “flatten the curve” of the Covid-19 epidemic are onerous.
Children aren’t allowed to go to school. We’re forcing small retailers out of business. People aren’t hugging when they greet.
Some people think these sacrifices are worthwhile, though, if they reduce the number of people who die from Covid-19.
Unfortunately, the effort to “flatten the curve” can cause more people to die of Covid-19 — including more of our elders — than if we’d carried on with life as usual.
Antibodies are like the memory of your immune system. After you’ve been infected with a particular virus, your body can destroy further copies of that virus.
This memory doesn’t last forever. Your body will “forget” how to fight off the coronavirus that causes the common cold within a year.
If we carried on with life as usual, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 would probably make its rounds through the population of the United States within a few months. After that, there would be no new people to infect, and so the virus would disappear.
If, however, we practice social distancing and slow the rate of transmission – the same number of infections spaced over eighteen months instead of eighteen weeks – your immune system has a chance “forget” how to fight off the virus while this virus is still circulating in the population. By slowing the rate of transmission, you give yourself the opportunity to contract the infection twice.
If we slow the rate of transmission enough, this coronavirus will survive indefinitely. Then people will continue to die of Covid-19 forever.
Even if you are currently at risk — elderly or immunocompromised — you should still fear this possibility. Will you be less at risk when this virus hits your hometown again in another year?
When a virus infects a cell, it uses that cell’s replicative machinery to make more copies of itself. A virus can’t reproduce on its own – it can only co-opt its host’s cells into making more copies for it.
Each time the host makes a new copy, it must replicate the entire genome of the virus. Our cells are pretty good at copying genomes – every time the cells of our own bodies divide, they produce a new copy of our 3-billion-base-pair genome, and the copies usually have only a handful of mistakes.
Of course, a handful of mistakes compounded over time can be deadly. That’s what cancer is – your cells didn’t copy your DNA perfectly, and so you wound up with slightly mutated DNA, and this mutated DNA instructs cells to form a tumor that kills you.
The same accumulation of errors can change a virus. In the 1918 influenza epidemic, huge numbers of people died because the virus mutated to become more deadly.
The longer we allow the Covid-19 outbreak to go on – the more we strive to “flatten the curve” – the more mutations will accrue in its genome.
Consider a city in which ten people live, one of whom has the virus. If they throw a party, the other nine will be infected all at once – they will all come down with the Nth generation of the virus, whatever the current sick person is shedding. If, however, they practice social distancing and get sick one at a time, each passing the infection to the next, the last person in the chain will be infected with viral generation N+9. It could be very different, and more dangerous, than the initial virus.
Mutation doesn’t always make a virus more dangerous. It’s entirely random. It was bad luck that a mutation in 1918 made that strain of influenza more deadly.
But the risk is real. It’s a risk we aggravate if we “flatten the curve.” Right now, very few young healthy people will be hurt by Covid-19, but no one can know what monstrosity we’ll produce if we allow this virus to cycle through enough generations.
Inconveniently for us, Covid-19 is caused by an RNA virus. Our cellular machinary is pretty good at making copies of DNA – every round of cell division makes a few mistakes, but not so many. Our cellular machinary is worse at making accurate copies of RNA. A virus with an RNA genome will mutate faster.
People are worried that, without drastic efforts to slow the rate of transmission of Covid-19, the influx of new cases would overwhelm our hospitals. We might run out of ventilators and be forced to triage, providing heroic medical interventions only to those people most likely to survive. Some number of elderly patients with a low chance of survival would not receive care.
Is this bad?
Most medical doctors have signed “do not resuscitate” orders. I have, too. Most medical doctors, who have seen over and over again what it’s like when elderly patients with a low chance of survival receive heroic medical interventions, don’t want it for themselves. They would rather die in peace.
The New York Times – which, alongside the New York Review of Books, is my favorite news outlet, even though it’s been full of fear-mongering about Covid-19 – printed a quote from Giacomo Grasselli, who coordinates intensive care units throughout Lombardy, Italy. Grasselli is working at the front-lines of the Italian Covid-19 outbreak.
“My father is 84 and I love him very much,” but it would be irresponsible, he said, to make him go through the invasive procedures of an I.C.U.
In the United States, we spent over three trillion dollars on medical care in 2016. A huge fraction of this spending is used for minuscule extensions of life. A third of all Americans have surgery during their last month of life. We often spend more on interventions that extend the life of wealthy patients by a month than we do on all the pre-natal, preventative, and acute care that other people receive, ever.
What’s been missing, in the United States, is a conversation about what constitutes a good life. What needs to happen for people to be able to face death with the thought that their lives have been enough?
Covid-19 has killed thousands of people who were privileged to live to extremely old age. In the United States, the worst outbreak will be in New York City – a city that is so expensive to live in that it harbors huge concentrations of wealthy elderly people.
In the United States, the life expectancy is 78 years. Of course, there are major inequalities. If you are wealthy, you might live longer than that. If you are poor, you’ll probably die younger. My spouse’s parents both died in their 60s.
Covid-19 has a high mortality rate for people who have already exceeded this life expectancy. For people under retirement age, Covid-19 is less dangerous than seasonal flu.
In the United States, life expectancy has been falling. This decline is primarily due to an epidemic of “deaths of despair”: Drug addiction. Suicide.
In the United States, around 40,000 to 50,000 people die of suicide each year. Around 60,000 people die of drug overdose. Around 70,000 people die from alcohol abuse.
Each year, the epidemic of “deaths of despair” kill somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people.
Our efforts to “flatten the curve” will probably increase the number of people who die from deaths of despair.
Small towns across the United states have been gutted by the internet. People used to visit local retailers, which could employ local salespeople. Then we switched to buying things on Amazon, giving Jeff Bezos our money instead.
Now, local retailers are being forced to close due to fears about Covid-19. People have to buy things online. But local retailers still have expenses. They still have to pay rent. The owners still have to eat. Many small retailers will run out of money and never open again after the Covid-19 epidemic is over.
As if our small towns needed yet more punishment.
In general, people will experience more financial woes because of our response to Covid-19. Businesses are closed. Work has slowed. The stock market has tanked.
Thankfully, our efforts to “flatten the curve” aren’t guaranteed to make this coronavirus mutate. Our efforts aren’t guaranteed to make this virus a permanent parasite on the human race.
We might cause these calamities, but we don’t know for sure.
Indeed, we know very little about this illness. We do know that tens of thousands of elderly people have died. But we don’t know whether ten thousand died out of a hundred thousand who were infected, or a million, or tens of millions.
Our perception of the disease would be very different in each of those scenarios. But we do not, and can not, know. We have no retrospective testing, and we have never tested a random sample of the population to investigate viral prevalence.
He concludes that our response is a horrific over-reaction.
The people recommending these policies – social distancing, school closure, stay-at-home orders, or total lockdown – aren’t doing so out of malice. They’re making the decisions they feel to be best. But no policy is neutral, obviously.
These policies prioritize the short-term needs of wealthy people who have exceeded their expected lifespans, at the expense of everyone under retirement age. In particular, these policies do not value the needs of children.
Many of our country’s policies prioritize the desires of wealthy older people over the needs of children, though “Flatten the curve” is just another example.
In many places, we are probably attempting to “flatten the curve” after the epidemic has already run its course.
More likely than not, I already had Covid-19. In early January, a co-worker of my children’s best friends’ parent left China, stayed briefly with her daughter in Seattle, then returned to Bloomington.
A few days later, she came down with a high fever and a bad cough. She went in for a flu test, but tested negative. The doctors sent her home.
A week later, my children’s best friends’ parent – the sick woman’s co-worker – came down with a high fever and a bad cough. His children were sick enough that they stayed home from school for a day. He was sick enough that he missed a week of work.
A week later, on February 10th, my children and I got sick. We had a high fever and a bad cough. The kids felt better the next day. I felt wretched for an entire week. I am an endurance runner with strong lungs – still, I needed puffs of my spouse’s Albuterol inhaler four times a day. I took naproxen but still had a hallucinatory fever. I wouldn’t wish that illness on anyone. For the next two weeks, I was vigilant about washing my hands and tried to minimize my contact with other people.
Over the next month, many other people in town came down with a cough and fever. It would typically last a week, then they’d feel better.
But it was pretty scary for some people. I’d felt wrecked. Another friend of mine — 55 years old, cigarette smoker, & former methamphetamine addict — felt like he could barely breathe. The doctor said that if his oxygen flow had been any lower, she would’ve kept him at the hospital.
He wasn’t tested for Covid-19. There were still no tests available. And after a horrible week, he felt better.
And then, on March 12th – after the epidemic had probably run its course in our town – our schools closed. The university students left for spring break, and the remaining populace of our small town began to practice social distancing.
And yet, in mid-March, the first case of Covid-19 was diagnosed here. This patient could not trace the social connections that would have led back to a known Covid-19 outbreak. As should be expected by that late stage of an epidemic.
All around the country, reported Covid-19 cases are exponentially rising. But that doesn’t mean that Covid-19 infections are exponentially rising. It only means that access to Covid-19 testing has risen.
When the epidemic likely spread through my town, it went undetected – no Covid-19 tests were available in the United States, and there’s no way to test whether someone was infected in the past. The reported numbers of Covid-19 cases are guaranteed to be lower than the true number of people infected, because you can only be counted as a Covid-19 if you feel sick enough to visit a doctor, and then somehow manage to get access to the test.
The test will only register positive during the acute phase of the illness. There is no possible way to test whether someone who isn’t currently shedding virus has been infected.
A useful way to consider this epidemic is to imagine what would happen if the Covid-19 PCR test wasn’t invented.
People would still get Covid-19. We would take no extraordinary protective measures, because we wouldn’t realize what they were sick with.
This is like what happened at the beginning of the HIV crisis in the United States. Medical doctors called the disease GRD, or “gay-related disease,” and it was terrifying. Healthy young people suddenly wasted away.
If we lacked a PCR test to accurately diagnose Covid-19, though, we wouldn’t call it “age-related disease.” We would call it “seasonal flu.” This year, about 30,000 people will die of seasonal flu, including many healthy young people. This year, my nephew almost died of the flu. He couldn’t breathe. He needed invasive ventilation to survive.
If we did nothing to staunch the Covid-19 outbreak, somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 people probably would die from it. Combined with the 30,000 deaths actually caused by influenza, we would think that between 45,000 and 60,000 people had died from seasonal flu. No more than a dozen or so of the additional deaths would have been healthy young people.
That’s many more deaths! But nothing exceptional. In 2017, 60,000 people died of seasonal flu.
Influenza is a more dangerous illness, and it’s preventable. But our country’s vaccination rate is too low to confer herd immunity. Even if you are young and healthy, a bad case of the flu can kill you. Even if you are young and healthy, your vaccination protects others.
Social distancing would protect people from the flu, also. Every flu season, we could stay six feet away from each other for a few weeks, and then we’d vanquish the flu. But social distancing comes at a tremendous cost, as we’re now learning.
Or we could get the vaccine. But we, as a people, don’t.
Note: As we’ve gathered more data, it’s become clear that, on a population level, Covid-19 causes approximately five-fold more deaths than seasonal influenza. Because it is more infectious, an unaddressed outbreak of Covid-19 in the United States probably would have caused between 750,000 and 1,000,000 deaths. My original estimates were incorrect.
The front cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is emblazoned with the words “DON’T PANIC.” The authors knew that you might forget some of their advice during an emergency. If you can keep those two words in mind, though, you’ll often be all right.
Right now, the world is experiencing a viral pandemic. Last year alone, 770,00 people – almost a million! – died from this viral infection. There are treatments, but no cure. And the known treatments are out of reach for many people who contract the disease.
Right now, the world is also experiencing an outbreak of oppressive government control. In many European countries, the citizens are on lockdown. In France, people must apply for authorization in order to visit the grocery store.
In the United States, “non-essential” businesses have been forced to close. Children have lost access to their schools. University students were locked out of their dormitories. People are suffering psychological damage from the effects of social isolation and fear.
That sounds scary, too.
But also strange. Because schools didn’t close in response to the HIV pandemic, or the outbreak of gun violence, or lead-tainted drinking water. Schools closed in order to combat the spread of a new zoogenic coronavirus – a virus that appears to be less dangerous than seasonal influenza.
And yet, even though data suggests that Covid-19 is less dangerous than seasonal influenza, lives are being up-ended.
The New York Times has been full of sensational scaremongering. But the subtitle for today’s article about Seattle tells the story of the real calamity:
In a state that has seen more deaths from the coronavirus than any other, the stress has started to multiply. Jobs lost. Kids underfoot. Parents at risk. “It’s exhausting,” one woman said.
Jobs lost, children barred from continuing their education – that’s a problem!
Of the people who have died so far this season, one was younger than 5 years old and another was between the ages of 5 and 17, state health officials report. Two adults between the ages of 30 and 49 have died, and the remaining 17 were people 50 or older.
The seasonal flu is scary! It can kill you even if you are young and healthy. Already, this year’s seasonal influenza has killed something like 30,000 people in the United States alone.
The person who died in Placer County, California was described by officials as “an elderly adult with underlying health conditions.” Most of the people who died in Washington were residents of Life Care Center, a nursing facility. All but three of the victims in Washington were over age 70.
The younger people who died include one man in his 40s and two men in their 50s. Officials said these individuals had underlying medical problems.
The data in the U.S. is similar to Italy, which has been particularly hard-hit by coronavirus […] found the average age among the 105 patients who died from the virus as of March 4 was 81 years old.
And yet, even though the data suggest that Covid-19 is not exceptionally dangerous – less dangerous than seasonal flu for people under 50 – many news organizations have published sensational numbers about the high chance of death. Even the World Health Organization claimed that Covid-19 had a 3.4% fatality rate.
These numbers are obviously false. This is the percentage fatality rate of people who tested positive for Covid-19 … but the only way to receive a test was to have a high fever, cough, and difficulty breathing, and feel sick enough that it seemed prudent to go to a hospital to be tested.
Many other people also had the virus. Those people didn’t get very sick, though, so they didn’t go to the hospital to be tested.
That huge range markedly affects how severe the pandemic is and what should be done. A population-wide case fatality rate of 0.05% is lower than seasonal influenza. If that is the the true rate, locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational. It’s like an elephant being attacked by a house cat. Frustrated and trying to avoid the cat, the elephant accidentally jumps of a cliff and dies.
Even if Covid-19 is as dangerous as the upper bound suggests, however, the advice to “flatten the curve” seems misguided. In the United States, people repeated the phrase “it would be better to have the same number of infections spread out over 18 months instead of 18 weeks,” and proposed the (initial) cure of a 3-week school closure.
A 3-week closure would not magically cause infections to be spaced over 18 months. It would simply delay the exponential growth phase of the epidemic by 3-weeks. To actually space infections over 18 months, you would need at least a year of social isolation.
Spacing infections over 18 months also makes them more dangerous. In the 1918 flu epidemic, the virus mutated midway through the season and became much more lethal. Right now, Covid-19 poses very low risk to people who are under 50 years old and in good health. But there’s a chance that it could mutate and become more dangerous.
The probability of mutation increases with the number of viral generations. Let’s say we start with a sick person and nine people who have not yet been exposed. If these people all go to a party together and get infected, the nine new cases will all wind up with the same viral generation. Then they’ll clear it, and there’ll be nobody new to infect.
If they instead practice “social isolation,” then the virus will hop from one person to the next. The tenth person receives a virus that has undergone many additional replications, potentially mutating to become more dangerous.
Our society would be better off if every young healthy person were exposed as quickly as possible – this would get the epidemic over with as quickly as possible, and reduce the pool of potential carriers.
It’s reasonable for people who feel like they are at high risk of death from the virus to practice social isolation until the epidemic is over. But it’s not reasonable for everyone else to do it.
Out of misguided fear, though, we are causing real harm. We have disrupted children’s schooling. We’re destroying businesses. Local retailers have struggled for years – now many cities are forcing them to close, shifting even more business to Amazon. Out of misguided fear, we’re accelerating the forces that are destroying our country.
Ioannidis ends his analysis with a warning:
In the most pessimistic scenario, which I do not espouse, if the new coronavirus infects 60% of the global population and 1% of the infected people die, that will translate into more than 40 million deaths globally, matching the 1918 influenza pandemic.
The vast majority of this hecatomb would be people with limited life expectancies. That’s in contrast to 1918, when many young people died.
One can only hope that, much like in 1918, life will continue. Conversely, with lockdowns of months, if not years, life largely stops, short-term and long-term consequences are entirely unknown, and billions, not just millions, of lives may be eventually at stake.
To be perfectly honest, I was spooked, too. It’s hard to stay calm when so many news organizations are publishing sensational stories. When I went out to the climbing gym with friends, my spouse asked me to change out of my potentially-infected clothes as soon as I got home.
Then we looked up the data, and realized we’d been hoodwinked. We had panicked over nothing.
Except, wait, no – there is reason to panic. Because this lockdown is scary! Needless social isolation for the masses is scary!
And the chance that our proto-fascist president uses this faux-crisis to commandeer even more control? That is really scary.
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.
At a buddy’s house recently, I played a cooperative board game. In Vanguard of War, each player controls a character defending a church from an army of demons. Many games of this ilk have been produced recently – Pandemic and Ghost Stories are among the most popular.
But my impression is that these games are best with a single player. You’re attempting to solve a (typically randomized) puzzle created by the designer. Maybe you’re the sort of person who enjoyed doing math homework with friends – if so, this type of game would probably be fun to play with a team.
Perhaps it’s a failure of my own education that I rarely worked through chemistry or physics problems in groups. After all, few really big puzzles are solved alone. To the best of my knowledge, no tech company of one is going to stop climate change or start a colony on Mars.
But something I look for in games – in any group project, really – is for the identity of the participants to matter. There’s an increasing awareness that people from different backgrounds will often come up with different approaches to even highly technical problems. A world in which only white males hold management positions at tech companies doesn’t just produce economic and social inequality – it also makes crappier technologies.
Some cooperative games have an element of this. I played The Mind recently, in which players are dealt random cards from a numbered deck of a hundred, and without communicating (other than wait times) are supposed to dole out their cards in ascending order. Any set of players should converge toward the game’s simple solution (waiting a constant duration per card number before tossing down your next), but it was still fun to play. I imagine that a kid could enjoy ten or more games, especially with different teammates. Will you reach a rhythm soon enough?
But in many of other cooperative games, the identities of the actual humans sitting around the table don’t matter. If you’re talking through decisions with your teammates, each player’s personality is subsumed by the game. In something like Vanguard of War, where each player is the primary controller of a single character, that game character’s personality matters more than your own.
And let’s say you play a game several times: with many cooperative board games, the way to maintain an interesting challenge as you improve is for your teammates to play worse. Otherwise the game becomes easier precisely when you need it to be more difficult. When a game is a pre-set puzzle, you and your friends can’t keep having fun by growing in experience together.
This is unfortunate, because I’d wanted to introduce cooperative games to my kids. Isn’t that what all parents want? For their kids to get along, to be the sort of friendly, helpful ally that people are happy to work with later on in life?
But then I realized that the best thing for me to do is simply change how I think about playing games. A two-player “competitive” game like Go or chess (or Hive, a recent household favorite) doesn’t need to seem adversarial.
In chess, each person is given an objective, and, yes, those objectives are mutually exclusive. But completing the objective isn’t really the point. The purpose of the game is to have fun solving puzzles, and the person you’re playing with creates the puzzles for you. The players in chess actually are cooperating, because they’re both setting aside reality in favor of an arbitrary set of rules that both follow for the duration of the game – and the game is only interesting if both players work together to create it. If anyone doesn’t follow the expected rules, it wrecks the puzzle.
Part of what makes “competitive” games interesting is that both players are striving to win – to capture the king, control the most territory, what have you. A human consciousness is manipulating the puzzle that you’re trying to solve in real time. Of course, this works best when both players have a fair chance of completing their objectives, which is a reason why I like Go better than chess. There’s a built-in mechanism to accommodate less-experienced players. And until the players have “solved” the game (like knowing the exact best strategy in tic-tac-toe or checkers), they’ll continue to have a fun challenge as they grow in experience together.
So I shouldn’t have been worried about introducing competitive games to my children. I just needed to change the way I think about them. If only I’d paid more attention to ecologist Mark Bekoff!
I was surprised to learn that [dogs’] bows are used not only right at the beginning of play to tell another dog “I want to play with you,” but also right before biting, accompanied by rapid side-to-side head shaking, as if to say, “I’m going to bite you hard but it’s still in play.” Bows are also used right after vigorous biting, as if to say, “I’m sorry I just bit you so hard, but it was play.” Bows serve as punctuation, an exclamation point, to call attention to what the dog wants.
Infant dogs and their wild relatives learn how to play fairly using play markers such as the bow, and their response to play bows seems to be innate. Pigs use play markers such as bouncy running and head twisting to communicate their intentions to play. Jessica Flack and her colleagues discovered that juvenile chimpanzees will increase the use of signals to prevent the termination of play by the mothers of their younger play partners. Researchers who study the activity always note that play is highly cooperative. I can’t stress enough how important it is that play is carefully negotiated, that it is fine-tuned on the run so that the play mood is maintained. There are social rules that must be followed.
Just the other day, my kid asked if we could play a game of “chest.” I momentarily demurred. But now that I’ve had time to reflect, I know – I don’t want to play against her, but I will happily play many games of chess with her.