Trapped In Pandemic Spiral Simulating Ants In Death March Pt III
“This part 3 of our pandemic horror is focused on what happened and why we cannot get ourselves out of shooting each other in the foot, by realizing that we are not infallible and following rules doesn’t make us weak. Having a real leader to follow would help tremendously”
4. Personal Blame Over Systemic Fixes
SARS-CoV-2 spread rapidly among America’s overstuffed prisons and understaffed nursing homes, in communities served by overstretched hospitals and underfunded public-health departments, and among Black, Latino, and Indigenous Americans who had been geographically and financially disconnected from health care by decades of racist policies. Without paid sick leave or a living wage, “essential workers” who earn a low, hourly income could not afford to quarantine themselves when they fell ill—and especially not if that would jeopardize the jobs to which their health care is tied. “The things I do to stay safe, they don’t have that as an option,” says Whitney Robinson, a social epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Second, misplaced moralism can provide cover for bad policies. Many colleges started their semester with in-person teaching and inadequate testing, and are predictably dealing with large outbreaks. UNC Chapel Hill lasted just six days before reverting to remote classes. Administrators have chastised students for behaving irresponsibly, while taking no responsibility for setting them up to fail—a pattern that will likely continue through the fall as college clusters inevitably grow. “If you put 10,000 [students] in a small space, eating, sleeping, and socializing together, there’ll be an explosion of cases,” Robinson says. “I don’t know what [colleges] were expecting.” Perhaps they fell prey to …
5. The Normality Trap
In times of uncertainty and upheaval, “people crave a return to familiar, predictable rhythms,” says Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. That pull is especially strong now because the pandemic’s toll is largely invisible. There’s nothing as dramatic as ruined buildings or lapping floodwater to hint that the world has changed. In some circles, returning to normal has been valorized as an act of defiance. That’s a reasonable stance when resisting terrorists, who seek to stoke fear, but a dangerous one when fighting a virus, which doesn’t care.
The powerful desire to re-create an old world can obscure the trade-offs necessary for surviving the new one. Keeping high-risk indoor businesses open, for example, helps the virus spread within a community, which makes reopening schools harder. “If schools are a priority, you have to put them ahead of something. What is that something?” says Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard. “In an ideal world, they would be the last to close and the first to open, but in many communities, casinos, bars, and tattoo parlors opened before them.” A world with COVID-19 is fundamentally different from one without it, and the former simply cannot include all the trappings of the latter. Cherished summer rituals like camps and baseball games have already been lost; back-to-school traditions and Thanksgiving now hang in the balance. Change is hard to accept, which predisposes people to …
6. Magical Thinking
Back in April, Trump imagined the pandemic’s quick end: “Maybe this goes away with heat and light,” he said. From the start, he and others wondered if hot, humid weather might curb the spread of COVID-19, as it does other coronavirus diseases. Many experts countered that seasonal effects wouldn’t stop the new virus, which was already spreading in the tropics. But, fueled by shaky science and speculative stories, people widely latched on to seasonality as a possible savior, before the virus proved that it could thrive in the Arizona, Texas, and Florida summer.
This brand of magical thinking, in which some factor naturally defuses the pandemic, has become a convenient excuse for inaction. Recently, some commentators have argued that the pandemic will imminently fizzle out for two reasons. First, 20 to 50 percent of people have defensive T-cells that recognize the new coronavirus, because they were previously exposed to its milder, common-cold-causing cousins. Second, some modeling studies claim that herd immunity—whereby the virus struggles to find new hosts, because enough people are immune—could kick in when just 20 percent of the population has been infected.
7. The Complacency of Inexperience
When illness is averted and lives are spared, “nothing happens and all you have is the miracle of a normal, healthy day,” says Howard Koh, a public-health professor at Harvard. “People take that for granted.” Public-health departments are chronically underfunded because the suffering they prevent is invisible. Pandemic preparations are deprioritized in the peaceful years between outbreaks. Even now, many people who have been spared the ravages of COVID-19 argue that the disease wasn’t a big deal, or associate their woes with preventive measures. But the problem is still the disease those measures prevented: The economy is still hurting, mental-health problems are growing, and educational futures have been curtailed, not because of some fearmongering overreaction, but because an uncontrolled pandemic is still afoot.
If anything, the U.S. did not react swiftly or strongly enough. Nations that had previously dealt with emerging viral epidemics, including several in East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, were quick to take the new coronavirus seriously. By contrast, America’s lack of similar firsthand experience, combined with its sense of exceptionalism, might have contributed to its initial sloppiness. “One of my colleagues went to Rwanda in February, and as soon as he hit the airport, they asked about symptoms, checked his temperature, and took his phone number,” says Abraar Karan, an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “In the U.S., I flew in July, and walked out of the airport, no questions asked.”
Even when the virus began spreading within the U.S., places that weren’t initially pummeled seemed to forget that viruses spread. “In April, I was seeing COVID patients in the ER every day,” Karan says. “In Texas, I had friends saying, ‘No one believes it here because we have no cases.’ In L.A., fellow physicians said, ‘Are you sure this is worse than the flu? We’re not seeing anything.’” Three months later, Texas and California saw COVID-19 all too closely. The tendency to ignore threats until they directly affect us has consigned the U.S. to …
8. A Reactive Rut
In March, Mike Ryan at the World Health Organization advised, “Be fast, have no regrets … The virus will always get you if you don’t move quickly.” The U.S. failed to heed that warning, and has repeatedly found itself several steps behind the coronavirus. That’s partly because exponential growth is counterintuitive, so “we don’t understand that things look fine until right before they’re very not fine,” says Beth Redbird, a sociologist at Northwestern. It’s also because the coronavirus spreads quickly but is slow to reveal itself: It can take a month for infections to lead to symptoms, for symptoms to warrant tests and hospitalizations, and for enough sick people to produce a noticeable spike. Pandemic data are like the light of distant stars, recording past events instead of present ones. This lag separates actions from their consequences by enough time to break our intuition for cause and effect. Policy makers end up acting only when it’s too late. Predictable surges get falsely cast as unexpected surprises.
These errors crop up in all disasters. But the COVID-19 pandemic has special qualities that have exacerbated them. The virus moved quickly enough to upend the status quo in a few months, deepening the allure of the hastily abandoned past. It also moved slowly enough to sweep the U.S. in a patchwork fashion, allowing as-yet-untouched communities to drop their guard. The pandemic grew huge in scope, entangling every aspect of society, and maxing out our capacity to deal with complexity. “People struggle to make rational decisions when they cannot see all the cogs,” says Njoki Mwarumba, an emergency-management professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Full of fear and anxiety, people furiously searched for more information, but because the virus is so new, they instead spiraled into more confusion and uncertainty. And tragically, all of this happened during the presidency of Donald Trump.
Trump embodied and amplified America’s intuition death spiral. Instead of rolling out a detailed, coordinated plan to control the pandemic, he ricocheted from one overhyped cure-all to another, while relying on theatrics such as travel bans. He ignored inequities and systemic failures in favor of blaming China, the WHO, governors, Anthony Fauci, and Barack Obama. He widened the false dichotomy between lockdowns and reopening by regularly tweeting in favor of the latter. He and his allies appealed to magical thinking and steered the U.S. straight into the normality trap by frequently lying that the virus would go away, that the pandemic was ending, that new waves weren’t happening, and that rising case numbers were solely due to increased testing. They have started talking about COVID-19 in the past tense as cases surge in the Midwest.
The pandemic is now in its ninth month. Uncertainties abound as fall and winter loom. In much of the country, colder weather will gradually pack people into indoor spaces, where the coronavirus more readily spreads. Winter also typically heralds the arrival of the flu and other respiratory viruses, and although the Southern Hemisphere enjoyed an unusually mild flu season, that’s “because of the severe precautions they were taking against COVID-19,” says Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University. “It’s not clear to me that our precautions will be successful enough to also prevent the flu.”
Schools are reopening, which will shape the path of the pandemic in still-uncertain ways. Universities are more predictable: Thanks to magical thinking and misplaced moralism, the U.S. already has at least 51,000 confirmed infections in more than 1,000 colleges across every state. These (underestimated) numbers will grow, because only 20 percent of colleges are doing regular testing, while almost half are not testing at all. As more are forced to stop in-person teaching, students will be sent back to their communities with COVID-19 in tow. “I expect this will blow up outbreaks in places that never had outbreaks, or in places that had outbreaks under control,” Murray says. Further spikes will likely occur after Thanksgiving and Christmas, as people who yearn to return to normal (or who think that the country overreacted) travel to see their family. Despite that risk, the CDC recently dropped its recommendation that out-of-state travelers should quarantine themselves for 14 days.
But many of the experts I spoke with thought it unlikely that “we’ll have cities going full New York,” as Bergstrom puts it. Doctors are getting better at treating the disease. States like Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey have managed to avoid new surges over the summer, showing that local leadership can at least partly compensate for federal laxity. A new generation of cheap, rapid, paper-based tests will hit the market and make it easier to work out who is contagious. And despite the spiral of bad intuitions, many Americans are holding the line: Mask use and support for physical distancing are still high, according to Redbird, who has been tracking pandemic-related attitudes since March. “My feeling is that while things are going to get worse, I’m not sure they’ll be catastrophic, because of situational awareness,” Bill Hanage says.
Meanwhile, Trump seems to be teeing up a vaccine announcement in late October, shortly before the November 3 election. Moncef Slaoui, the scientific head of Operation Warp Speed, told NPR that it’s “extremely unlikely” a vaccine will be ready by then, and many scientists are concerned that the FDA will be pressured into approving a product that hasn’t been adequately tested, as Russia and China already have. Many Americans share this concern. A safe and effective vaccine could finally bring the pandemic under control, but its arrival will also test America’s ability to resist the intuitive errors that have trapped it so far. Vaccination has long been portrayed as the ultimate biomedical silver bullet, separating an era when masks and social distancing mattered from a world where normality has returned. This is yet another false dichotomy. “Everyone’s imagining this moment when all of a sudden, it’s all over, and they can go on vacation,” Natalie Dean says. “But the reality is going to be messier.”
This problem is not unique to COVID-19. It’s more compelling to hope that drug-resistant bacteria can be beaten with viruses than to stem the overuse of antibiotics, to hack the climate than to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, or to invest in a doomed oceanic plastic-catcher than to reduce the production of waste. Throughout its entire history, and more than any other nation, the U.S. has espoused “an almost blind faith in the power of technology as panacea,” writes the historian David Segal. Instead of solving social problems, the U.S. uses techno-fixes to bypass them, plastering the wounds instead of removing the source of injury—and that’s if people even accept the solution on offer.
A third of Americans already say they would refuse a vaccine, whether because of existing anti-vaccine attitudes or more reasonable concerns about a rushed development process. Those who get the shot are unlikely to be fully protected; the FDA is prepared to approve a vaccine that’s at least 50 percent effective—a level comparable to current flu shots. An imperfect vaccine will still be useful. The risk is that the government goes all-in on this one theatrical countermeasure, without addressing the systemic problems that made the U.S. so vulnerable, or investing in the testing and tracing strategies that will still be necessary. “We’re still going to need those other things,” Dean says.
Between these reasons and the time needed for manufacturing and distribution, the pandemic is likely to drag on for months after a vaccine is approved. Already, the event is exacting a psychological toll that’s unlike the trauma of a hurricane or fire. “It’s not the type of disaster that Americans specifically are used to dealing with,” says Samantha Montano of Massachusetts Maritime Academy, who studies disasters. “Famines and complex humanitarian crises are closer approximations.” Health experts are burning out. Long-haulers are struggling to find treatments or support. But many Americans are turning away from the pandemic. “People have stopped watching news about it as much, or talking to friends about it,” Redbird says. “I think we’re all exhausted.” Optimistically, this might mean that people are becoming less anxious and more resilient. More worryingly, it could also mean they are becoming inured to tragedy.
The most accurate model to date predicts that the U.S. will head into November with 220,000 confirmed deaths. More than 1,000 health-care workers have died. One in every 1,125 Black Americans has died, along with similarly disproportionate numbers of Indigenous people, Pacific Islanders, and Latinos. And yet, a recent poll found that 57 percent of Republican voters and 33 percent of independents think the number of deaths is acceptable. “In order for us to mobilize around a social problem, we all have to agree that it’s a problem,” Lori Peek says. “It’s shocking that we haven’t, because you really would have thought that with a pandemic it would be easy.” This is the final and perhaps most costly intuitive error …
9. The Habituation of Horror
The U.S. might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racism, school shootings and police brutality, mass incarceration and sexual harassment, widespread extinctions and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept