Lest you were hopeful that some semblance of normal life will return in 2021, either due to the development of vaccines or the pandemic fizzling out on its own, the New York Times and 700 epidemiologists have news for you. An article that appeared in the paper on December 4, 2020, entitled “How 700 Epidemiologists are Living Now, and What They Think is Next,” with the subheading “They are going to the grocery store again, but don’t see vaccines making life normal right away,” reveals that most in the profession, or at least the vast majority of those interviewed for the piece, believe that masks and some form of social distancing should continue for years, if not forever.
As an aside, I wonder how these scientists believe groceries arrive at their doorsteps, if not by another human being whose safety is, apparently, less worthy of consideration.
While a minority of epidemiologists interviewed for the article believe that “if highly effective vaccines were widely distributed, it would be safe for Americans to begin living more freely this summer,” these relative optimists are vastly outnumbered by those who think that life should not return to normal for many years, if ever. Indeed, only one third of the 700 plan to “return to more activities of daily life” once vaccinated. The others intend to severely restrict travel, gather only in small groups with close relatives, work from home at least part time, avoid crowded places, and wear a mask, all indefinitely, because they are concerned about the efficacy of a vaccine, as well as issues with respect to distribution and reluctance to get it.
One epidemiologist declares that “[b]eing in close proximity to people I don’t know will always feel less safe than it used to.”
I may not have a background in psychology or psychiatry, but I am fairly confident that before March of 2020, this mentality would have been recognized as some form of ailment of the mind warranting intervention. These epidemiologists implicitly embrace the principle that virus avoidance is a singularly important goal. If not life’s sole priority, it is certainly among its most crucial objectives.
This is a dogma that should be resoundingly rejected. As I (and many others) have written before, there is no reason to assign SARS-CoV-2 a special status as a killer virus, or to view it as significantly worse than many other of the world’s problems that typically go largely unnoticed by educated professionals in the developed world. Over the past year, around 1.5 million deaths worldwide have been attributed to SARS-Cov-2. On average, 1.35 million people die in traffic accidents, 1.7 million people die of AIDS, and 1.4 million of tuberculosis, each year (We know that the counter to this — that if we did not take extreme mitigation measures, the virus would spiral out of control and bodies would be falling in the streets — is not borne out by the reality).
Back to our 700 epidemiologists. Unfortunately, because of their profession – expertise in the incidence, distribution, and control of disease within a population– there is a danger that their ideas will be endowed with undeserved authority. Although not expressly stated, that is, presumably, the article’s objective: to encourage readers to conclude that, if this is what the experts are doing, perhaps I should, too. That is why the Times did not run an article about how 700 lawyers or baseball players or receptionists are living now.
I urge readers not to pay attention to the ideas propagated in that article. These epidemiologists are no better equipped to weigh the competing values that inform how one chooses to live during the coronavirus era than individuals are to make their own choices. To the contrary, we should entirely discount these epidemiologists’ opinions on the topic, as it appears that immersion in the world of infectious disease control has robbed them of perspective.
If you are under 70 and in reasonably good health, there is no reason to rearrange your existence and sacrifice activities that are crucial to your happiness and flourishing in the name of virus avoidance unless, perhaps, that was your lifestyle prior to 2020. And if the concern is others, one could devote resources to saving some of the twenty-five thousand people succumbing to starvation each day or the million children who die annually of malaria, with considerably less disruption to one’s life. It is puzzling that these epidemiologists, so concerned with the spread of coronavirus, have not chosen to devote their time and money to these causes.
Thankfully, more and more people appear to be reaching the same conclusion (including many of the politicians who have been exhorting people to stay home and shaming them for refusing to do so), as evidenced by insubstantial change in how many Americans left their homes and traveled long distances for Thanksgiving this year relative to last.
Of course, we are far from triumphing over the oppression inflicted upon us by politicians and so-called experts, but refusing to give into their absurd dictates is the only path to victory. The more of us who reject the idea that avoiding the coronavirus should inform virtually every aspect of life, the harder it will be for these epidemiologists to achieve their goal of making the new normal last forever.