Covid Craziness: conundrums and contradictions

This past year of the pandemic has frequently been referred to as a “crazy time.” Crazy not just because we’ve had to live and work in unprecedented ways, but also crazy in the sense of puzzling, contradictory–crazy-making.

A mantra from the first has been the sensible-sounding advice to “follow the science” and listen to the experts. But the science hasn’t always been clear and the experts have changed their minds and disagreed with each other.

From the start there have been issues, some of the most basic, you’ve had to deal with on your own, puzzles you’ve had to puzzle out by yourself.

For starters: how bad is it? Early on virtually every news story included the information that the “vast majority” of cases were mild. Vast majority to me means something like 95%. It seemed a distinct “not to worry” on the part of experts.

But what made the news were symptoms that sounded anything but mild. Even in what seemed like mild cases, there are longterm life-alterating effects. I just read a normally trusted source say that 35% of cases have of longterm effects. I can’t remember when that “vast majority” assurance disappeared from news stories.

Masks have bee seen, unequivocally, as essential and effective—and sufficient– for flattening the curve. But in January suddenly wearing two masks was touted as a big improvement over a single mask, implying that in fact masks have not been largely effective, as we had been reading. Really?

Six feet was given from the start as the necessary and sufficient distance we have to stay apart from each other. Where this practice is maintained (and masks worn where six feet is not possible, as in stores), the virus will disappear, the curve will do down.

But you still see people wearing masks even on remote trails and even with the mask in passing the unmasked (because in the great outdoors) hiker, detouring to achieve 15 or 20 feet. Are they confused on the concept or listening to other experts?

What seems the basic logic of lockdowns as a method of distancing has been called into question by stories reporting that California, a state with strict statewide lockdowns (Disneyland closed) and Florida with no statewide restrictions (Disney World left open since July) have have experienced almost identical outcomes in COVID-19 case rates.

One of the biggest puzzles of all is why some of the poorest countries–much of sub-Saharan Africa, for instance–have a tiny fraction of the cases and deaths of rich countries such as the U.S., Germany, France, etc. that logic would assume would be better prepared to deal with a pandemic.

In A recent article in the New Yorker a respected physician, Siddhartha Mukherjee, goes over some possible answers to the mystery—climate, younger population, inaccurate reporting, etc.–and concludes that although an answer would seem to be basic to understanding this virus, it remains a mystery.

The “Cure worse than the disease” argument rages on. The standoff seems resolved as a false dichotomy by a University of Chicago economist who proposed what he called “the first rule of virus economics”: “The best way to fix the economy is to get control of the virus. ” Until the virus is under control, people will be afraid to resume normal life and the economy would not function normally. This rule would seem to be borne out by the apparent failure of the Swedish experiment of keeping the economy open while protecting the most vulnerable.

Surely as a society we will want to have a convincing statistical sorting out of this fundamental issue.

And now that we are vaccinating in serious numbers, and may be (or not) on the way to herd immunity, the vaccine mandate becomes an issue. Can the large number (up to 30%) disinclined to get vaccinated be legally required to do so? Getting a potent substance injected into your arm would seem to be a matter to be left to individual decision. But if my health and happiness depend on your getting with the program to reach 70% or whatever the number is to reach herd immunity, won’t I be willing to overrule your personal feelings as I would with your personal decision to drive drunk?

You don’t have to be an expert to notice is that there is much about this virus and how to live with it that that eludes us, including the experts. The most thoughtful expertise seems to suggest that it is naïve and illogical to imagine that our species will ever transcend our vulnerability to such primitive and ancient diseases. We may be coming to understand that we who live in bodies will have to live with such diseases as we live with the weather.

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