As I write this the United States is in what appears to be the beginning of the third major surge of the Covid-19 pandemic, or maybe the fourth or fifth depending on how you define such things, with the number of new infections having risen above 100,000 per day from July 30 on, up from a June 14 low of 8,069. There is as yet no evidence that new infections will start to decline in the near future, especially with the normal winter flu season yet to begin. It is not expected that the number of new daily cases will reach the peak above 200,000 that the U.S. reached in mid-January, but the current caseload has surprised health authorities who didn’t expect a new surge until October.
The question is why the pandemic has defied such expectations. It may be a characteristic of highly infectious diseases. Certainly the 1918 pandemic had three major surges, two of them “off-season” in a pattern similar to Covid-19. But we also cannot ignore the fact that this July’s sharp increase in new Covid infections follows closely on the widespread reduction in social controls that optimistically followed the low figures in June. In early July most states and municipalities eased or removed masking and distancing requirements, at a time when vaccinations were still below 50 percent overall and well below that in regions where the populace is resistant to vaccination. The real question is why we expected any other result? Why would we not expect a “pandemic among the unvaccinated”?
The immediate problem is, and has been, that far too many people refuse to take part in the reasonable actions that have been shown to control the spread of disease. Admittedly, outright shutdowns of concerts and bars and restaurants and other venues where people congregate in large groups were extreme solutions, difficult for the economy, but such shutdowns have worked, in the United States and in many other countries. Less drastic options such as social distancing and wearing masks are more reasonable, and they were shown to have helped not only with Covid-19 but with the 2020-21 flu season as well. From September 2020 to May 2021 only 1,675 cases of “normal” influenza, and no deaths, were documented, a vanishingly small fraction of the usual seasonal numbers, in which tens of millions contract the flu each year and more than 20,000 die. Even distancing and masking, however, were met with serious, and often violent, opposition. That happens to be another commonality between Covid-19 and the 1918 flu; the spread of the latter was also aided by anti-mask protesters and political leaders who refused to halt large public gatherings. Even the president in 1918, Woodrow Wilson, refused to get the federal government involved in fighting the disease.
I have discussed the issues surrounding Covid-19 on a variety of social media platforms, from individual messaging to a neighborhood forum to Facebook. I’ve probably heard most of the reasons that people use to avoid wearing masks and to refuse vaccination. I’ve been told that masks are useless because nobody wears them correctly or because the virus is smaller than the pores in the mask fabric, or worse, that they promote diseases or create oxygen deficiency or weaken the body’s immune response. Vaccines are apparently also horrible., and not just the anti-Covid type. They contain poisons or the remains of aborted fetuses, can cause infertility or cancer or autism or autoimmune disorders or Alzheimers. It is claimed that the Covid vaccines actually alter the body’s DNA or cause the virus to mutate rapidly to become more dangerous. They also contain miniaturized computer chips that allow Bill Gates, or the illuminati, or both, to track people across the globe. And government Covid mandates are infringements on the freedom of choice of the American people, unnecessary restrictions because the pandemic is really a hoax covering up for symptoms caused by 5G phone service or devised to scare people into acceding to the social control agenda of George Soros, or the illuminati, or both.
Obviously, all of the above assertions are untrue. Or maybe that isn’t quite so obvious, because a large number of people, perhaps more than a quarter of the people in the United States, believe enough of them to refuse to wear a mask or to get the vaccine. And some of them also protest. It’s not just our country—there are currently riots in France in which largely unmasked people are taking to the streets to oppose the use of a national vaccination pass, the “pass sanitaire,” as a requirement for travel or eating in restaurants or other participation in public events.
Discussions of these issues, no matter where they occur, tend to follow certain patterns. In online exchanges regarding masks or vaccines I’ve found a higher than usual incidence of people attempting to back up their statements with citations of web sites. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there is any equivalence between those in favor of mitigating actions and those who reject them. The differences appear in the types of evidence cited. In short, when those in favor of mask use or vaccines refer to evidence, the material is most often an article in a scientific journal or an unbiased news source that describes findings in a scientific journal. In contrast, when anti-mask or anti-vaccine advocates provide a citation, it is almost always a video presentation by talking heads, either a single anti-vaccine doctor like Geert Vanden Boscche or “plandemic” promoter Judy Mikovits, or a small deviant group like the “Bakersfield doctors” or the hydroxychloroquine promoters who are self-titled “America’s Frontline Doctors.” Videos of this type have gone viral in the past year. In the few cases when they don’t cite videos, anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers supply links to articles in highly partisan sources, Fox News or OAN or others. On that side there is a vast echo chamber of web sites that often copy statements almost verbatim from one another, and their adherents ridicule any statements from mainstream media. On the other side, pro-mask and pro-vaccine advocates generally eschew videos in favor of written articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals or politically neutral sites that summarize the information from such journals.
These sourcing tendencies are not limited to the pandemic controversy. It has often been noted that in order to deny the reality of climate change, or to deny that it is a human-created (and human-solvable) problem, you must reject the arguments from some 97 percent of the knowledgeable atmospheric scientists and their peer-reviewed documents in favor of a small coterie of mavericks. The same is true of those who deny evolution by rejecting almost all of the relevant scientific data.
The problem is that there is at best a broad ignorance of science, at worst a strong opposition to scientific expert pronouncements. Those who depend on video arguments demonstrate a failure to understand the importance of peer-reviewed messaging and the vital scientific concept of reproducible results. Science is not just what results from speculative logic or Socratic monolog. It is, in practice and fact, the result of observation and data collection efforts that can be repeated.
There is also another disturbing element to discussions of the pandemic and climate change. That is the degree to which it mirrors the modern societal divide between conservatives and liberals. On one side are groups that believe in the primacy of the individual and individual rights, those who, for example, refuse to wear masks because it is a personal imposition that they don’t feel they need. On the other side are groups that stress the individual’s dependence on, and responsibility to, society and to the social fabric that supports our lives, those who argue that masks are less important in protecting the individual wearer and more important as a block to avoid spreading infections to everyone else around them, just as vaccines also serve both purposes.
It is even more extensive and troublesome than that. Individual “free choice” is being praised, in opposition to government health “mandates.” Unsubstantiated personal opinions are favored over the large-group expert-reviewed studies employed by science. Personal lifestyle preferences and corporate profit-based decisions are touted in resistance to the societal changes needed for environmental remediation and improvements. The demand by individuals to retain their own tax money argues against the need to raise money for government infrastructure, regulation, and social supports. The demands of individual investors to receive larger dividends trump a company’s social obligations to its customers and employees and their local communities.
In short, a wide range of individual and short-term preferences are being allowed to undermine the broad range of longer-term strategies needed to maintain society. Unfortunately, our experiences in the past half-century, highlighted by the current pandemic, demonstrates that the modern conservative devotion to the individualistic Thatcherite doctrine, that “there is no such thing as society,” and that “we must look to ourselves first,” can be destructive to the very concept of modern civilization.