Friday, June 12, 2020

The Coronavirus: Must We Lose, Give Up on It, or Fail the Marshmallow Test?

United States response to the COVID-19 pandemic is now solidly in a new phase.  We’re past the time when mandated closings dictated what we could or could not do, and are moving on into “reopening.”  With that, there has been a flurry of views suggesting we, collectively, are not doing so well. 

When Paul Krugman said “America Fails the Marshmallow Test” in the June 9th New York Times, he referred to “a famous psychological experiment that tests children’s willingness to delay gratification” by offering them one marshmallow now or two in 15 minutes.  While “other advanced countries, even hard-hit nations like Italy and Spain” now have sharply reduced new infection rates, “it now looks likely that by late summer we’ll be the only major wealthy nation where large numbers of people are still dying” from the virus.  He named South Korea, one of the most prosperous and densely packed countries in the world, and New Zealand, elsewhere in the news for now having zero cases, as achieving great success by not only getting the most from social distancing but by implementing “a regime of testing, tracing and isolating, quickly identifying any new outbreak, finding everyone exposed and quarantining them until the danger is past.”  He blamed us being “too disunited, with too many people in the grip of ideology and partisanship.”  Americans, judge thyselves.

Avoiding the latter, columnist Ross Douthat, in the June 7th edition of that same publication, came out with “Why the Coronavirus Is Winning.”  He quoted a computer science doctoral student (of all people) reminding us that all the organism “wants is targets,” is totally unaware of and unresponsive to “the elaborate social nuances humans have carved out through patterns of communication, representation and discourse,” and in the process “has exposed how much of Western society… is permeated with influential people who have deluded themselves into thinking that their ability to manipulate words, images and sounds gives them the ability to control reality itself.”  Douthat tracked resistance to avoiding coronavirus exposure as starting from Republicans, “who embraced the idea that economic carnage was just the result of misguided government policy,” despite crashing demand being roughly concurrent with legal restrictions, and, after George Floyd’s death, moving “to the public health establishment, many of whose leaders are tying themselves in ideological knots arguing that it is not only acceptable but essential, after months circumscribing every sort of basic liberty, to encourage mass gatherings to support one particular just cause.”  With those most responsible for objective public policy now infected, so to speak, Douthat proclaimed that “there will be no further comprehensive attempt to fight the virus.”  At the least, we must prepare for that possibility.

Observing the same variable standard began “America is Giving Up on the Pandemic,” by Alexis C. Madrigal and Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic on June 7th.  They say “Americans may wish the virus to be gone, but it is not,” as, outside the Northeast, “cases have only plateaued,” and “there’s no point in denying the obvious:  Standing in a crowd for long periods raises the risk of increased transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” with head epidemiologist Anthony Fauci calling these protests and subsequent police actions “a perfect set-up” for virus proliferation.  As well, United States residents “never stayed at home to the degree that most Europeans have.”  Overall, per Madrigal and Meyer, “the problems with our response to the pandemic reflect the problems of the country itself” – I add that they also illuminate cultural differences, specifically our higher independence and risk-taking, the same things that assure that our life expectancy will not match the likes of those in Japan or Norway.

Overall, our chance of getting or giving the coronavirus is now, more than ever, a function of our individual choices.  A great-seeming article idea, which precipitated “When 511 Epidemiologists Expect to Fly, Hug and Do 18 Other Everyday Activities Again” by Margot Sanger-Katz, Claire Cain Miller and Quoctrung Bui in the June 8th New York Times, was neutralized by respondents’ overriding view that it would depend on availability of “an effective vaccine or treatment,” but still provided worthwhile information.  Activities least likely for quick epidemiologist resumption were “sporting events, concerts and plays,” with most expecting to pass them up for more than a year.  “Weddings and funerals,” “airplanes,” and “visiting the elderly” were the most mixed and controversial.  But our own preferences and situations must dictate.  For me, I expect to fly within the year, but think my Chewbacca hairstyle is a small price to pay for avoiding close contact with someone who has had that with many others.  Group protest marches are out, but I can walk for exercise without a mask all I want, as here I rarely get within 20 feet of other pedestrians let alone 6.  As carryout is fine, I don’t want to eat at even a virus-modified restaurant.  You need to think about your own choices, as this thing isn’t ending soon and the law won’t protect you anymore.  Just don’t catch yourself settling for one marshmallow now instead of two soon, as the answer to the title question is “no.”

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