Seven types of Covid chatter and why they don't help
You've seen them all and most of us are guilty
The monomaniacal shouting about who's right or wrong about Covid has never been parodied better than in this skit (sound up for this. You won't regret it).
Right, that's your fun over. Let's get into The Problem.
I've been going through an unsettling exercise in identifying how many beliefs I've modified about the pandemic, since it began.
By modifying a belief I don't mean ditching it. But examining a view that hasn't really stood the test of time and letting it soften. Or even go. Those beliefs we all hold that feel right in a certain moment. Usually (I theorise) because they suit a typically hidden personal agenda, such as needing a sense of belonging, or seeing ourselves as a particular type, or even because we just don't want to hold common cause with the sort of people who think the opposing thing because they also hold awful other unrelated opinions.
Checking how my sense of reality evolves seems a worthwhile project because I'm always banging on about intellectual humility. And also because I strongly suspect that we often have such a fragile sense of self that a lot of the time we kind of prop it up by adopting 'correct' positions as opposed to admitting that we're mostly clueless about a lot of stuff.
At this point, anyone who’s paying attention to the world seems to have finally realised that we hold rigid beliefs for x, y or z reason (like historical evolutionary advantage in group formation and cooperation). But just accepting that, without examining a possible way out, seems to me to be a cop out from what is arguably a paramount responsibility to understand and respect each other better.
Healthy respectful disagreement without the inflationary and inflammatory language that turns your opponent off the conversation seems to be rare but desirable.
And yet I still notice in myself a feeling of irritation when others cling to their original fixed view in fluid situations like the pandemic, whichever side of the fence they’re on.
I suspect that we often cling to a position because the cost to change feels high. I notice that my belief revision process seems to come with a mild sense of social peril. I notice a fear in myself of being judged as having swung entirely from one position to another if I consider voicing doubts about principles that previously seemed obviously right.
But, avoiding worthwhile things on the grounds that they carry risk (judgement or contempt from others) also seems a bit pathetic.
Ultimately, allowing a belief to soften feels kind of threatening until you push through that weird need for certainty and also social approval.
Yet another reason why it can feel threatening to relinquish the comfort of certainty is that some things have become so totemic that questioning them takes on an air of apostasy. And you know what happens to apostates.
Here's the sort of thing I mean.
While it was doubtless politically motivated by a libertarian ideological bent it now seems to me that the Great Barrington Declaration wasn't as unreasonable as I thought at the time. I'm not going to pepper this piece with links that prove that I did lots of research, as internet article custom dictates. I'll assume that you know what the Great Barrington Declaration was or that you have the wherewithal to find out. Roughly, it argued that a policy of focusing protection on the vulnerable rather than restricting everyone's normal behaviour during peaks in the pandemic would have been less harmful overall.
Of course, those who seized approvingly on the Great Barrington Declaration weren't always doing so because they had a deeper understanding of optimal pandemic management than the rest of us. For some it just suited their beliefs about the primacy of capital and the evil of interrupting its flow. For others, lockdowns were a lonely or frustrating experience they wanted to emerge from asap. And we've all seen that subset of people online who see the whole attempt to limit Covid mortality as some kind of affront to their honour culture. All those memes about getting up off your knees and not living in fear. I just don't buy that from people who seem terrified that Pfizer is out to kill us all.
It's always possible to be right for the wrong reasons. That's how I still see many of those people who loved the Great Barrington Declaration.
But, now that we are obviously (unless I'm missing something) entering the phase in which the pandemic becomes endemic, I'm thinking that focused protection rather than blanket restrictions seems like a necessary step. And, given how few healthy people of my age and below died from SARS-Cov-2 so far, even during the scariest peaks, it seems we should now be seriously discussing whether or not it would have been a more reasonable approach 12 months ago.
Cancel me now, FTS (follow the science) types. I was glad when a French court overturned the outdoor Paris mask mandate a few days ago and I resent having to cover my face in the streets of Cherbourg still, despite my (fast waning) triple-jabbed status.
In passing, I'm also wondering why there isn't more discussion of building public health services that can handle pandemics. Why the reduction in the number of hospital beds everywhere in recent years isn't openly waved around as a contributor to them becoming overwhelmed when the shit really hit the fan. It seems obvious that lockdowns, curfews and quarantines are necessary to save overburdened health services, but why aren't we having a big conversation about maybe rebalancing the way we run that part of the public infrastructure. How has our idea of life quality been so hollowed out that we accept health system infrastructure and staffing that causes suffering by swapping treatment for cancer patients out for helping sufferers of severe upper respiratory tract infections.
Isn't it incredibly convenient to those in power that social media Covid chatter focuses entirely on shaming and hating each other for what we believe about a virus and what to do about it rather than shaming and resenting the people who let us down by ignoring all the warnings and blithely paring away the health system capacity of advanced western countries while bank executives got richer. For all the politicisation of Covid-19, the actually salient politics are completely overlooked.
Not that I think 'elites' are fiendishly setting ordinary people against each other in a grand plan of divide and conquer. I see it more as a happy coincidence for them that we 'rise up' against each other rather than against them.
There were periods here in France during which I was not permitted to walk in the woods surrounding my hamlet because we were under a 1km radius lockdown. Clearly I was at near zero risk of Covid there but the authorities insisted that if I'd needed medical assistance they already had enough on their plates and so I had a duty not to go there. Never mind that I was at more risk of falling down the stairs here than smashing into a tree there. Today I think this is crazy. Just because something is true (they'd have more hassle helping me in the woods than at my house) does that make it right to legislate against me going for a nice walk?
Amusingly, I ended up coming into closer proximity with other people in this sparsely populated place as a result of lockdown because everyone in and around the hamlet started going for local walks on boredom and health grounds. These were moments when I began to have sympathy with Tea Party types who hate government.
Vaccine mandates. Hmmm...
There was a time when I would have completely bought in to the argument that vaccination is a social responsibility, but I'm not so sure now. I took a pragmatic choice to get me some of the good stuff and I don't regret it. It was my choice but I'm sanguine about breakthrough infection if unvaccinated You gives Covid to vaccinated me. I'm sanguine that you might shed more virus than I will, when either of us gets it. I just can't be bothered with all the moralising on this. I too can make all the arguments in favour of forcing people to be vaccinated or banning unvaccinated people from indoor public spaces (as they now have here) but the whole carry on suddenly seems childish, petty and moralistic.
It also looks like a backdoor into health rationing on grounds of how you live your life.
Unvaccinated? We're not allowing you to do things because you'll be a burden on the health system.
Fat? We're not allowing you to do things because you'll be a burden on the health system.
Of course it's not the same, but there's a relationship there. And we've all heard the argument that smokers shouldn't get the same priority on cancer treatment as non-smokers, so it's not really new thinking. Just another potential divide and I’m suspicious about it. It makes me think about China’s social credit system.
If I wanted zero risk of exposure I could just avoid restaurants and the company of unvaccinated people. I don't want unvaccinated people being banned from the spaces I am free to visit or not. I've got this app on my phone that café and restaurant workers have to scan when I eat or drink en place and last week I noticed that showing it felt like having a little badge to show what a good citizen I am. I used to feel good showing this. I don’t any more. Again I think about China.
Still working through this. I recognise that it isn't entirely rational, but I'm feeling feelings about it and the feelings have come as a bit of a surprise.
Somehow I've ended up sympathising with anti-vaxxers, even while strongly believing still that they are misinformed, confused and often incoherent.
But, what I notice too is that I no longer feel angry that people don't want to get vaccinated. Bonus. I have a PhD in being angry. It's boring and unhealthy.
There's also something in all this around mistrusting 'moral' arguments, which I'll come back to in a future edition.
Cancel me immediately, from liberal leftish spaces. Lest I infect others with the virus of impure thoughts.
At this point it’s tempting to balance this piece by launching into the usual mockery about the unvaccinated, to claw back some credibility as one of the 'good people' who 'follow the science' and prove that I'm still ‘one of us’. Poking fun at how they claim to be against living in fear while simultaneously insisting that vaccines are a genocidal crime against humanity. Or how they mistakenly interpret the hospitalisation data as showing that being vaccinated makes you more likely to come down with Omicron than if you're not. How they think that people actually only die with Covid rather than from Covid. But then notice no dissonance in also thinking that people only die from the vaccine, rather than with the vaccine. People like the bridal accessories maker and pet sitter who keeps being shared into my LinkedIn feed with her confused memes about germ theory being wrong and the miraculous healing powers of Vitamin D all the time.
That kind of lazy mockery earns you high engagement and makes you feel superior in return for minimal effort. I can't think of a better reason not to do it.
Instead, here’s an unhelpful post from a public health expert, because these are people I hold to higher standards than freelance web developers and alternative health bloggers.
That meme made me think of this quote1
"nor have those experts met the gravity of the moment by transcending the pettiness of our divisions and rescuing us from our parochialism; instead, many of them have sunk to the level of social media influencers, adopting the histrionics, ego contests and catty clapbacks of TikTok stars"
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