I’ve been mulling over responses to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic because, even though the tide in the West eventually shifted swiftly, it still appears valuable time was squandered and the level of denial is still so high. Too slow to prevent the kind of consequences none of us want. Having gone through the stages of disbelief, denial, shock, and so on months ago after China had it’s own mass realization, I want to provide a framework for those now coping with this legitimately surreal moment so that some may find acceptance quicker. What I’ve come to understand is that a virus can be a cunning predator. It preys upon our psychology as humans, not just our physical bodies, by making itself easier to spread and using the very qualities that make us human against ourselves.
A Modern Predator
Early in humanity’s or hominid history we battled real threats from nature. ‘Monsters’ like wolves, snakes, big cats and whatever else were feared as real threats and predators of the weakest among us. Monsters that were substantial, threatening both an unacceptable amount of life but also the order needed to live normally. The cycles of viral outbreaks that occur from time to time are in a way an echo of that high level threat as the only ‘predator’ from nature that can can be a threat anymore. A threat to not only humans, but civilization and order generally. However, it’s a predator that doesn’t exactly want to destroy everything because it needs to spread and have new victims. Additionally, it’s a predator that wants to not spook its prey or seem all that scary.
Early in our self-quarantine, 50 days ago now, we binged the Nat Geo TV short series “The Hot Zone” based on the non-fiction book of the same name. Best description is that it gives the HBO Chernobyl series treatment to an Ebola scare that happened in the 80’s. The observations reveal something about the nature of viruses in general, not only Ebola.
The character Wade, portrayed by Liam Cunningham (Davos from Game of Thrones), is representative of the alarmist point of view, having seen the virus’ graphic results firsthand in African villages. He refers to it as the ‘monster’ as a personification. It comes off as fear-mongering and silly. Sure. How can something like a virus have a consciousness that ‘acts’? Contemplate the imagery because it illustrates larger truths.
The virus is ‘the monster’ to Wade because the mutating and changing nature of viruses possess a kind of evolutionary intelligence that learns to adapt and attack us better each time they reappear. He concluded that the Ebola cycles are short-lived because the virus burns through the population so quickly that it in turn burns itself out. He also noted that the attack of Ebola on its victims is visually disturbing and gruesome, so it sparks fear and therefore swift response to contain and avoid it. By the end of the series, his future fear is the time when a virus adapts to a point that it overcomes those obstacles and spreads further with more disastrous results. A virus that can conceal how serious it is and one that has this slow burn doesn’t seem so scary at face value, but it’s mass spread would be more serious than one that produced volatile results and disturbing images in a smaller selection.
“The Monster” Today
Which brings me to COVID-19. It may be the ‘monster’ that adapted the way Wade feared. The way it spreads is really more terrifying than something like Ebola, even if the visuals aren’t as striking. You can be healthy and asymptomatic and be spreading it far and wide. Perhaps if you are a relatively healthy person it may not seem so bad, even mild for many people. This, however, only provokes false security and enables spread. As it compounds and overloads the system, the rate of those dying rises because the ones who had it and weren’t worried passed it to those who were a more vulnerable demographic.
Not to pick on the NBA player who has tested positive, but this is a perfect example and has justifiably been resonant in the mainstream. He unknowingly had the virus. He felt fine, even ready to compete. That’s to be expected given incubation periods, his demographic, and the conditioning of a pro athlete. Prior to knowing he was positive, the healthy way he was feeling instilled a sense false bravado and confidence. From the video clip it seems that humor as a coping mechanism is his natural response to uncertainty. It’s a familiar human trait. As a joke he recklessly acted around reporters in a way that almost certainly spread it. How many in that room are of a demographic that is more vulnerable? Reports also indicate he acted that way excessively off camera and around his teammates. It was hardly surprising when another was tested positive.
This is a microcosm of what’s happening everywhere around the world. It shouldn’t be condemned and shamed, many of us would behave the same manner given the same circumstances and knowledge. It illustrates though that people fear the virus somewhat relative to their individual risk level, but they don’t adequately fear that they could be an asymptomatic spreader and not realize it. Sincerely contemplating the consequences of that reality is difficult and uncomfortable for anybody. It calls for a level of selflessness that is neither particularly noteworthy nor heroic.
I know I don’t personally fear it beyond a certain level. However, say Natalie and I traveled early on in Spring Festival and one of us became (or already was) a carrier that spread it to her parents and older relatives? What if I panicked and ditched China early on while I could (it was never going to happen, not going to leave my fiance alone here) instead of calmly staying put, and done the same to my parents and relatives? Knowing what you knew now, what would you say if I had taken either of those brazen, yet human, approaches? That’s the reality of what’s going on with this spread whenever seemingly healthy people are on the move, simply wanting to be human.
How it Preys
The virus preys upon our psychology as humans, not just our physical bodies. A virus uses the very qualities that make us human against ourselves. Defeating a viral spread such as this demands denying our own humanity because the very qualities that make us human make us vulnerable.
-Humans are social creatures and that’s the key to its spread. We are empathetic and loving with our family and close friends. A virus really wants this close contact, like really really badly. If you distance yourself from a loved one, that worry of offending them seems so much more important than concern over something you can’t even see with the naked eye.
-We unconsciously care about social hierarchy and prize people who are brave and outgoing and so on. So asking people, even for a relatively short span, to be meek, reserved, cautious comes off as cowardly. The virus wants this, it feeds on our arrogance and ‘bravery’.
-Humans have a massive normalcy bias; we don’t think our normal lives are ever going to change. That security insulates our mentality and is how we don’t overwhelm ourselves with constant worry. A virus wants normalcy to prolong as long as possible. It doesn’t want you to be afraid of it and change your actions.
-Humans are tribalistic. This is by nation, political sensibilities, religion, identity, race, and whatever else. When problems happen you can bet a human will defend their tribe and criticize an opposing side no matter the facts. You see this happening with this outbreak, people looking who to put blame on the ‘other side’. Or, analyzing the outbreak through the lens of their pet ideologies. The virus wants this because the more time you’re thinking about other humans outside your own tribe as threats, the less time you mentally invest in what you and others can do to fight the real opponent.
-Humans are individualistic. We gauge risk and how we act primarily through an individual measure. The virus wants this because the less people act in concert, the easier it is to pick ’em off (like a damn horror movie monster trope of somebody ditching the group to handle things by themselves). In this case though the individual actions spread risk beyond themselves and the consequences are felt by somebody else. Or, they also become one of the unlucky ones.
-Humans seek efficiency and an optimum outcome for all our various concerns. I see a lot of ‘bargaining’ and, I’m not sure how to describe it, mitigating. It’s a lot of wanting to ‘have your cake and eat it too’. We look at our normalcy and values, and then look at the level of response that had to happen in other countries in order to flatten the curve and can’t imagine how anything can be done. Now of course it’s a balancing act between preventing spread, not overwhelming hospitals, and keeping something of an economy going. However, this ‘bargaining’ behavior seems to believe that somehow you can get away with going halfway. That the ‘control’ over the situation can be so surgical and foolproof that we’ll just pick and choose which necessary responses to do a la carte because, “oh no no no, going too far will just be too uncomfortable”. This is the stage many Western countries seem to be at still. Not quite in full necessary response mode. Well, viruses crave this, especially one that seems so virulent and able to spread so insidiously. It doesn’t want a comprehensive defensive approach from its prey. It wants cracks and weaknesses to exploit.
All of these aspects and more make it such an uphill battle to convince people to act as necessary. ‘Alarmists’ must argue that to beat this you actually need to deny your own humanity on many levels, if only for a while. It’s one of the toughest asks to make. Still, the facts as I see them at this point show that it’s needed in order to preserve those very things once this fizzles out. That’s why even though I still see so much denial, joking around, nonchalance, trying to find a middling approach, outright anger and mocking towards sincere alarmists, etc., I read it as merely that people are tied so strongly to those very traits that make us human. It’s honestly hard to fault them for that. I just hope their minds change sooner rather than later and we pin our collective boot on the monster’s neck until it’s snuffed out.
My next post I’m going to write about my own experiences with Natalie in our isolation during the past 50 days. I know that is the kind of reality many of you will be entering very soon.
Necessary Links So Far
These are just links I’ve posted at various times prior to writing this. I just compiled them here if you haven’t come across them and still have questions or need more convincing.
Peak Prosperity Youtube Channel– Since very early on I’ve been following Chris Martenson’s near daily updates about the virus and its spread. It’s my favorite aggregate of the recent news and has thoroughly consistent and rational analysis that I feel has been missing from most officials and outlets.
Amazing breakdown of the numbers by Tomas Pueyo. Just read it all.
Matt Ridley, a perennial rational optimist who has made a reputation from debunking the various panics that become popular from time to time conceded that COVID-19 is the ‘wolf’ that should be feared properly.
Delays in testing showing that private labs wanted to test early but were prevented by stupid government regulations.
Glimmer of hope in Colorado opening drive-thru testing location, a method that was extremely important in South Korea to stymie the exponential spread.
Indefensible lack of testing and heroic civil disobedience of a private Washington lab to reveal the reality of what’s going on.