COVID and the Loss of Hope

Over at The Atlantic, Ed Yong has an excellent article summarizing where we are regarding COVID. I don’t know if this style of article can be nominated for a Pulitzer, but if it could be, it should–I recommend it highly. But two things leapt out at me from the article. The first has to do with diminished beliefs about what is possible (boldface mine):

If 1,000 deaths a day is not acceptable, what threshold would be? The extreme answer—none!—is impractical, because COVID has long passed the point where eradication is possible, and because all interventions carry at least some cost. Some have suggested that we should look to other causes of death—say, 39,000 car fatalities a year, or between 12,000 and 52,000 flu deaths—as a baseline of what society is prepared to tolerate. But this argument rests on the false assumption that our acceptance of those deaths is informed. Most of us simply don’t know how many people die of various causes—or that it’s possible for fewer to do so. The measures that protected people from COVID slashed adult deaths from flu and all but eliminated them among children. Our acceptance of those deaths never accounted for alternatives. “When was I offered the choice between having a society where you’re expected to go into work when you’re ill or having fewer people die of the flu every year?” Wrigley-Field, the sociologist, said to me.

This, unfortunately, is why our political betters and their pundit helpers are trying to stampede people to get back to ‘normal’: because if people really start asking, “could things be better?”, then the answers become very uncomfortable for some people. This doesn’t just apply to respiratory virus infections either. We could do a lot better in a lot of areas, if we could abandon the Fierce Urgency of Nope. COVID has made it very clear how certain policy avenues become closed off–and who does the closing.

Then there was this section, which, again, speaks to a belief in diminished possibilities:

Such changes are popular. Stephan Lewandowsky, from the University of Bristol, presented a representative sample of Americans with two possible post-COVID futures—a “back to normal” option that emphasized economic recovery, and a “build back better” option that sought to reduce inequalities. He found that most people preferred the more progressive future—but wrongly assumed that most other people preferred a return to normal. As such, they also deemed that future more likely. This phenomenon, where people think widespread views are minority ones and vice versa, is called pluralistic ignorance. It often occurs because of active distortion by politicians and the press, Lewandowsky told me. (For example, a poll that found that mask mandates are favored by 50 percent of Americans and opposed by just 28 percent was nonetheless framed in terms of waning support.) “This is problematic because over time, people tend to adjust their opinions in the direction of what they perceive as the majority,” Lewandowsky told me. By wrongly assuming that everyone else wants to return to the previous status quo, we foreclose the possibility of creating something better.

Don’t let the bastards grind you down–and, if you’re doing things like wearing a mask indoors, you aren’t the weirdo or the stupid one.

Anyway, it’s an excellent article.

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2 Responses to COVID and the Loss of Hope

  1. GM says:

    The extreme answer—none!—is impractical, because COVID has long passed the point where eradication is possible, and because all interventions carry at least some cost


    It can be eliminated even in COVID shitholes like the US within three months, if the proper methods are applied.

    This kind of thinking is why we will never get out of this mess.

  2. We’re never going back to normal. How can that be? Bringing back the businesses that closed? Bringing back the people who died? I get so tired of hearing this, “going back to normal”. Get over it, it’s never coming back.

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