Covid Diary: Reflections at the start of Fall

The long (or did it seem short?  I’m not entirely sure.) and seemingly hot (it MUST have been hotter than normal…) summer is almost over, and so I thought I should reflect a bit on where we are.  Classes start up again at the UW on Wednesday, and I apparently have several Bucky masks waiting for me on campus if I ever find myself back there.  As I predicted, masks have finally become a pervasive consumer product.

The standard thinking — it seems held by everyone, though in direct contradiction to official line — is that the semester will not last long in-person.  Given that there is no universal and frequent testing for covid on campus, it will not take long for a limited outbreak to expand to unacceptable levels.  In the US, covid is simply too pervasive at this point to be put under control without dramatic behavioral changes.  It is unreasonable to expect students to wear masks all the time in dorms, or to refrain from socializing.  There will certainly be parties and other large social events off campus.  And why shouldn’t students act this way?  I take it that young people have largely ignored the lie that covid presents them with a level of risk that they are probably unwilling to accept.  Young people already do things that are a greater risk to them than covid.  The risk of their socializing is primarily on older people and we haven’t given them substantial reason to care about them; after all, these are the same people holding their student debt and constantly remarking about how they are privileged and lazy.  Any non-compliance of theirs’ is a failing of our society more than their rationality.

Though perhaps everything will turn out and UW will make it until the Thanksgiving finish-line without substantial outbreaks.  We shall see.  However, the early casualty of football does not bode well for the rest.

At this point the obsession over testing in the US is starting to appear misplaced.  Although testing is certainly important to indicate the start of an outbreak and to track its progress, at a certain level of infection there are simply too many people to test.  Our system of testing begins to buckle, no matter how much we have spent on it, and test results are returned too late to be of any good.  At that point — which is exactly where those in the US find themselves — people must generally assume at all times that they will encounter infected people.  They should also assume that they themselves are infected.  This means that we simply not act in ways that we could with low levels of infection and surveillance testing (the sort being done in South Korea, China, Japan and Europe).  Indoor dining is probably not safe in most areas, nor are social gatherings outside of a small “bubble.”  Life is going to be a cruel shadow of itself until these things change.

We are at this point in the US because Americans failed to take shutdowns seriously.  Shutdowns were supposed to cut back levels of infection, so that people could generally assume when they went out that they would not put themselves (or others) at risk of infection.  Wearing a mask when in inside public spaces would be enough of a reasonable precaution.  We could return to many of our previous activities.  However, in most areas people were too laxed in their behaviors.  They didn’t take the crises seriously.  Our lack of discipline, especially outside of major cities and among certain political groups, has doomed us to our current situation.

We might be enjoying our patio eating and pleasant mid-day walks now, but that will soon end in the north.  As winter arrives, our lives will become even more depressing.  Alternatively, we might just give up, and accept the sickness and death that comes with infection.  Yeah, that’s probably what we will do.  We are Americans after all — we don’t like feeling sad.

Covid Diary: Denial

I’ve been struck recently by how those who should know better seem to be in denial about our current situation.  I’m not talking about Trump.  He has become a non-entity at this point, like a child hopelessly wishing everything would just get better.  However many serious people seem to be talking about “starting up the economy” without any clear sense that the world we knew before has been lost to us.  Our way of living has been likely lost for years and we will likely never see the world we knew before. There is not likely to be a cure coming soon, or even a very successful treatment for that matter.  There might be a successful vaccine developed, but don’t expect widespread availability until the fall of 2021.  Of course, hundreds of thousands of Americans will die of this disease before then.  Most estimates of deaths from the disease provided by the administration only go up to the end of summer, but this will be with us for far longer.

We have lost our way of life, because we cannot accept an outcome in which millions of Americans die instead of thousands.  In fact, even if we chose the deaths we would still lose our way of life.  One does not simply go about one’s life while so many people die and the healthcare system collapses.  And so we choose to stay away from one another.  We internalize new norms that make the physical presence of strangers (or even our family and friends) mentally painful for us.  That changes us and our society.

I’ll give a somewhat trite example of this change, but one that I think is rather instructive.  Just down the street from my house there is a neighborhood bar, a jazz club, and a breakfast place.  They are all small — you might even say cramped.  I love these places, and they are the soul of the neighborhood.  But their profitability is incompatible with social distancing.  In fact most bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues around the country are not likely profitable in a wold of social distancing, even if we assume that people can once again go to these places.  There will almost certainly be new occupancy rules that require restaurants to cut seating at least in half.  Of course, fancy takeout will be more common but so far demand for this has not come near to replacing sit-down restaurants.  People aren’t willing to spend $50 per person on takeout, and they certainly will not buy alcohol as they do it (which is where many profits come from).

Any innovations to accommodate social distancing in restaurants does not address the basic incompatibility between bars and social distancing.  In bars people socialize with strangers; they have to get close.  In other words bars cannot succeed until Covid has been brought under control.  But this will take a long time.  Even antibody “certificates” would only allow a small portion of the population to go about their business, and only in places that have already been hit hard by the disease.  This means that we will probably lose all of these businesses, as their owners realize that they simply cannot make a living by owning a restaurant or bar.  This will also devastate the commercial real-estate market along with the service industry, and perpetuate the vicious cycle of recession.

That is just one example of how we will lose so much from our communities that make them worth living in.  I don’t think disaster is inevitable, but it will require dramatic changes in public expenditures and laws.  We will need widespread  randomized testing, even of people who are not showing symptoms.  It goes without saying that people who have flu-like symptoms should all be tested and tracked.  However, given how widespread the disease is this is probably not technically possible.  We have certainly shown no ability to do any large-scale well-organized testing.

Additionally, local governments must allow businesses to spread out.  Bars and restaurants should be allowed to spill out into the streets, so that they can maintain distance between patrons while also making a profit.  Open container laws should largely be eliminated.  There are numerous other examples of creative legislation that might help.  We must be willing to be flexible in abandoning some norms and ways of doing business in order to preserve those things that we value.

I don’t expect any of the solutions above to actually be implemented.  And even then they may not be effective.  Our situation is far worse than most of us imagine.