This is the last Morning Jolt until May 26; enjoy your Memorial Day weekend.
Our Response and Reopening Plans Are Designed for Robots
Jason Pargin is the former editor of Cracked.com. He usually writes comedy, but also often offers really keen insights on human nature, which is arguably one of the purposes of comedy. Pargin asked for the right term for the fallacy that a policy, plan, or idea will work as long as human beings act like perfectly programmed robots, instead of the myriad, unpredictable, flawed, flesh-and-blood creatures that we are. (A strong contender for the right term, but perhaps not quite on the nose, is “the engineer’s fallacy,” the idea that the logical solution is the best solution, regardless of how that solution actually works in the real world.)
Pargin observed, “Whatever it’s called, I feel like some of us have strayed into it in the pandemic — assuming that humans would simply go without real-life contact with other humans for months on end. Assuming they function on a cold, machine-like calculation of risk rather than emotion/impulse.”
The “It is too risky to reopen now!” crowd needs to come to terms with the fact that we are wrapping up week ten of the restrictive measures, and the public mood and willingness to obey those measures is going to be really different now than it was in week one or two. As of this writing, the highest Rt factor in the country right now is North Dakota at 1.02.
Earlier this week, South Korean high-school seniors returned to classes. But almost any measure, South Korea’s response to the coronavirus ranks near the top. Compared to Americans, South Koreans have much more respect for authority, much higher levels of social trust, and much more willingness to sacrifice for the good of their community. That country’s preexisting habits for mask-wearing, respecting quarantine, and avoiding dumb risks are pretty much a health-policy expert’s idealistic fantasy.
Students at 66 schools in Incheon, just west of Seoul, had to leave after two students at one of the schools tested positive for the virus Wednesday. The two students didn’t attend classes on Wednesday, but authorities decided to temporarily close all schools in their area, according to the Incheon Metropolitan City Office of Education.
The two students had been in a karaoke room visited by another student who tested positive for the virus after taking private classes from a person who visited an Itaewon club, according to Incheon city officials.
Teenagers are going to sneak out to the karaoke clubs — or someplace to get together, particularly when protective measures stretch into their third month. Ironically, South Korea didn’t try a full-spectrum lockdown like some states here; they quickly put together a comprehensive test-and-trace program, with considerable cellphone-based tracking and monitoring.
Here in my neck of the woods, some kids have been playing in the tunnels of the Authenticity Woods storm-drain system. I might not have believed the stories from neighbors if I hadn’t seen it myself; during one of my walks recently, a couple of kids popped out of a manhole like ninja turtles. I wouldn’t encourage any kids to do that, but I can’t entirely begrudge their appetite for mischief and some rule-breaking. Since mid-March, their lives have been overtaken by once-unthinkable rules.
You can keep kids out of school and away from all organized activities in order to keep them and their loved ones safe from a potential infection with the coronavirus. But some South Korean kids are going to end up in the karaoke bars, and some American kids are going to start wandering through the storm drains. There is no “everybody avoids all risky behaviors” option, so we need to find “the fewest number of people take the least-consequential risks” option.
I can’t begrudge those kids in my neighborhood because in-person school classes have been canceled since mid-March, along with all afterschool activities, Little League, flag football, performing arts, church groups, you name it. Playgrounds are fenced off, the gym is closed, everyone is supposed to social distance from Grandma and Grandpa, restaurants and ice cream parlors only do take-out . . . you’re left with the public parks. On top of it all, the weather’s been lousy most of this spring. A couple families are trying socially distancing play dates. This week, just about all the summer camps and programs were officially canceled, too, ensuring the next few months will be more of the same. (Apparently outdoor summer camps are too dangerous, but the New York City subway system is still running. I suspect fear of lawsuits is influencing our decisions as much as fear of the virus.)
By mid-March, no one could deny we were facing a seriously disruptive threat. Now we’re heading into Memorial Day weekend, and the message to the nation’s children is, “Sorry kids, we may have had nearly three months, but our leaders can’t figure out any solution that gets us back to anything resembling normal human interaction. Forget everything we said about too much screen time and how Fortnite turns your brain to oatmeal.”
There are few responses less helpful than the ill-considered cry, “Kids today are overscheduled! The summer of 2020 will be like summer when we were kids! They’ll be unsupervised!” This coming summer will be nothing like when we were kids — assuming your summers were Stranger Things-ish without the monsters. Back when you were a kid, no one expected you to stay six feet away from other people! You could get together with your friends without their parents freaking out. Back when you were a kid, your world had plenty of places where people gathered in large groups with no risk — movie theaters, arcades, carnivals, theme parks, water parks, public pools, baseball games, museums, zoos, aquariums. Most of those places will either be closed this summer or greatly curtailed. Back when you were a kid, the local grown-up who seemed determined to make sure no one was having any fun was the odd one; today we have no shortage of “Karens.”
It’s not all gone. We can still do backyard barbecues. We’ll still have popsicles on a hot day. If you live near a beach or lake, most of them are reopen or will reopen soon. Maybe the mini-golf courses will reopen with metered use? We might be able to salvage this summer, but that doesn’t mean shoehorning this global catastrophe into our preexisting narrative about how these darn kids today are spoiled by their helicopter parents.
Our state, local, educational, and societal leaders’ inability to put together a good solution for our kids for the summer raises real doubts about the ability to put together a good solution for our kids for the autumn. Hopefully your child is doing fine in distance learning; a lot of them aren’t. It is mostly disastrous for kids with special needs. We laugh at the comedy videos of parents struggling with the insanities of distance learning, because they’re true. Teaching is a full-time job, and a lot of parents are expected to take on that job while trying to do their other full-time job from home. Over at Slate, they fairly ask what the point of distance learning for kindergartners is.
ADDENDUM: “If Americans had known we had thousands of infections on February 29, people would have accepted a lockdown on March 1!” William Saletan argues. Yes, and if pigs had wings, they would fly. That counterfactual is pretty moot to the question I attempted to answer, which was whether it was realistic to expect Americans to go into lockdown on March 1. People weren’t going to alter their behavior until they perceived danger, and the danger was not as easily perceived then. We can argue that it should have been — I’d argue that it should have been; you probably read what I was writing back then — but it wasn’t.
It didn’t help that for most of January and February, many voices in our national media had confidently declared that the common flu was more dangerous than the coronavirus. A Wired headline helpfully informed us, “Travel Bans and Quarantines Won’t Stop Coronavirus.”
You’ll notice that quite a few responses to that piece angrily reacted as if it was an attack on Trump. He’s not really the focus of the piece; the focus is that the Columbia study is wishing we had taken a course of action the public would have been unlikely to support at the time, based upon what was known. Then there were the angry responses that thought the piece was a defense of Trump. I suspect they stopped reading before the paragraph that includes, “President Trump’s management of this crisis has been pretty bad.” Quite a few people in the comments sections angrily contended that lockdowns don’t work. Again, this is a separate question from whether Americans would have accepted those orders on March 1.
One of the more frustrating aspects of our public discussion at this moment — particularly on social media — is that whatever part of the pandemic is being discussed, people want to steer it back to their preferred aspect of it: “Yes, but Trump is bad!” “Yes, but Bill de Blasio is bad!” “Yes, but China is bad!” “Yes, but Fox News said the virus wouldn’t be that bad!” “Yes, but the WTO said it wasn’t contagious!” “Yes, but Amazon is making a lot of money!” “Yes, but masks don’t work unless they’re used properly!”