The Morning Jolt

U.S.

Contradictory Conclusions and Assessments

Healthcare workers walk through the Texas Medical Center during a shift change as cases of the coronavirus spike in Houston, Texas, U.S., July 8, 2020. (Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters)

On the menu today: The late comedian George Carlin used to joke: “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” There’s probably a perspective at work in how people respond to the ongoing pandemic — you most likely know someone who seems to be paranoid and overreacting, and you probably also know someone who seems to be taking unwise risks. Why do some people become Karens and some people become lackadaisical? Also, a pollster with a record of being on one end of the range of results suddenly offers a surprising result.

If Someone You Know Seems Too Fearful of the Coronavirus, Here’s Why . . .

The Onion’s first post-9/11 edition offered the hilarious and painfully plausible story: “In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the Cedar Rapids Public Library is undertaking steps to tighten security, library officials announced Monday. ‘As caretakers of the most prominent public building in the second largest city in Iowa, this library can no longer afford to take chances,’ library director Glenda Quarles said.”

After 9/11, we knew al-Qaeda wanted to strike again, but we didn’t know where, and a lot of people could talk themselves into believing that their particular community was a likely target. The good news was that al-Qaeda and like-minded Islamists were not everywhere and were not likely to strike anyone at any time. After a while, people realized that a terror group that seemed particularly focused on passenger airliners and landmarks was not necessarily a major threat to their small town or suburb. Over time, as ISIS replaced al-Qaeda, we saw the threat could strike in unexpected places — the Boston Marathon, the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, or behind the walls of Fort Hood, Texas. And sometimes the terrorists would strike more or less where someone would predict — the El Al counter at Los Angeles International Airport, or Times Square in Manhattan.

By comparison, the coronavirus is seemingly everywhere — more than 61,000 new cases yesterday in the United States with about 1.6 million active cases. The state with the fewest active cases right now is Vermont with 151. New York still has more than 252,000.

With a threat such as al-Qaeda or ISIS, those of us outside of the military, police, or intelligence agencies were unlikely to make much of a difference in the outcome with our decisions and actions, other than following the recommendation, “If you see something, say something.” We had to trust that good people with important duties were doing the best they could, and we had to go on with our lives . . . “otherwise the terrorists win.”

Most human beings try to live life as safely as they can, or at least within the boundaries of their own personal definition of “safe.” If an alley seems dark, they may not walk through it alone at night. If someone they know seems dangerous, they avoid them. If a neighborhood’s crime rate increases, they may move out. Their own definition of “safe” may not be perfectly accurate; they may ignore the risks of smoking, drinking, or eating excessively, etc. But most of us are used to living in a world with clear rules about what is safe and not safe: “Leaves of three, let it be.” Wear a seat belt. Don’t let kids play with matches. Communism has failed every time it has been tried.

The coronavirus is a new danger, and it’s refusing to adhere to hard-and-fast rules. It’s most dangerous to the elderly, except we’ve seen at least three 107-year-old women catch it and recover. It’s not supposed to be that dangerous to children, but we keep hearing stories here and there about teenagers succumbing to the virus.

A 41-year-old Broadway star, with no known preexisting conditions, died after battling the virus for three months. A 27-year-old nursing tech with Type 2 diabetes caught it, was emergency intubated, then put in a medically inducted coma . . . and somehow managed to pull through and is recovering.

One study published on the National Institutes of Health website concludes, “A trial we conducted in Vietnam of 2-layered cotton cloth masks compared to medical masks showed a lower rate of infection in the medical mask group, and a 13 times higher risk of infection in the cloth mask arm,” suggesting that cloth masks may be much less effective than people think. But a Stanford medical researcher involved with shaping the World Health Organization guidelines states, “if constructed properly with high-quality materials, a homemade cloth mask can function as well as or better than a surgical mask.

Public-transportation officials and advocates insist that the threat of catching the virus on subways and buses was always overstated. New York City subway workers begged to differ, pointing to their own high rates of infection.

A study from the team at Henry Ford Health System in southeast Michigan declared that patients given hydroxychloroquine were “much less likely to die.” But the National Institutes of Health halted a trial after concluding “while there was no harm, the study drug was very unlikely to be beneficial to hospitalized patients with COVID-19.

As mentioned yesterday, herd immunity for a virus sometimes requires 90-some percent of the population to develop immunity — but some mathematicians now calculate we could reach an effective herd immunity with as little as 43 percent.

Politicians assure us they’re making their decisions based on “SCIENCE” — whenever California governor Gavin Newsom insists upon using all capital letters like that, I like to think he’s quoting Magnus Pike’s appearance in Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science” music video — but what does that mean when scientists are making such contradictory statements?

There are a lot of contradictory conclusions and assessments out there. Some of it stems from good-faith disagreements from smart people looking at the evidence they can gather and coming to different conclusions. Some of it stems from people who had a preexisting opinion — “Public transportation is good”;“My party’s governors are good, the other party’s governors are bad”; “Unelected public-health officials are apolitical wise men/part of the deep state, power-hungry and untrustworthy”; “Everything the president says must be wrong/must be right”— and who are hell-bent on shoehorning the evidence into a narrative that fits that preexisting worldview.

Right now, half a year into this pandemic, there are still a lot of things we don’t know. And as H. P. Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

The “Karens” of the world can drive me bonkers, and whether they want to admit it or not, they get a not-so-secret thrill from calling out someone for violating their sense of “the right thing” and a frisson of joy from publicly showcasing their moral superiority. But I also know that in the minds of the Karens, they are certain that they are helping those whom they publicly confront and criticize. They call out others because they care (in a particularly annoying way); they believe they are saving lives.

This is one of the rare times when actions you take can have big consequences for the people around you — maybe even life-and-death consequences.

Why Someone You Know Seems Insufficiently Fearful of the Coronavirus

As far as crises go, the coronavirus pandemic is an odd one. For a couple of months, most people perceived it as being far away in China and not that much of a problem, and then all in one night, the president cut off travel from Europe, the NBA season was canceled, and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson contracted it.

Just about every crisis in American life — 1929 stock market crash, the Cuban missile crisis, 9/11 — began with some sort of distinct and memorable visual that instantly communicated the danger and the stakes of the situation. When you see planes crashing into skyscrapers and giant towers crumbling to the ground, witnessing the deaths of thousands of people, you instantly understand the extraordinary consequences of responding to this problem the wrong way.

With the coronavirus, we don’t see much of the danger. The virus itself is microscopic and invisible to the naked eye. Those who pass away are doing so far from television cameras, in hospitals, nursing homes, and long-term care facilities. Even hospitals nearing capacity don’t have frantic scenes outside their doors, such as those immediately following a natural disaster.

By comparison, we can see the effects of the shutdowns — closed businesses, empty theaters and ballparks, fewer cars on the roads, bills piling up for those out of work, long lines of cars waiting at food banks. Is it any wonder that some people see the shutdowns as a bigger threat than the virus? They can see and feel the effects of the shutdowns, while government officials and most of our chattering class on our televisions have their own form of immunity from that particular condition.

We’re visual creatures; some studies indicate that 90 percent of the information processed by the brain is visual. If we could accurately assess the danger of things we cannot see, we would have done something about the national debt a long time ago — not to mention our cholesterol. If SARS-CoV-2 was a baseball-sized green sphere with red spikes floating through the air, people would run away from it.

A few paragraphs ago, I laid out all of the contradictions in information about the virus from well-informed, bright scientists. This is a moment where we, as ordinary citizens not working in a scientific field, need to understand science — and the scientists themselves are having a hard time coming to hard-and-fast conclusions about the virus, what works, and what is risky. I suspect a lot of Americans hear the contradictions, conclude no one knows anything, and start tuning it all out.

(The average American is probably not quite as bad at science as the cynics believe. For many of us, our high-school and college science classes are a drag, dissecting frogs and memorizing the Periodic Table, and full of stuff we think we’re never going to need to know or use. Maybe we remember that force equals mass times acceleration from physics class, or the baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano projects. Maybe we need to throw some virology into the curriculum and see if kids pay more attention.)

I mentioned up above that after 9/11, most of us had to trust that good people with important duties were doing the best they could, and we had to go on with our lives . . . “otherwise the terrorists win.” I suspect quite a few people want to apply this approach to the virus — there’s so much they can’t control, that the best course of action is to try to go about their lives. In their minds, trying to go about their lives as they were before the pandemic is an act of defiance, an attitude that has been baked into the cake of this country’s character since the beginning. You don’t have to agree with this perspective to understand it.

ADDENDUM: You think Rasmussen Reports is part of the vast effort by pollsters to overstate Joe Biden’s lead nationally? They had Biden up ten points, 50 percent to 40 percent. Rasmussen is the pollster that usually has the friendliest numbers for Trump. (Note that Scott Rasmussen is no longer affiliated with the organization that bears his surname.)

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