I just got a frightened text message from a friend who read my last post, and asked me to convince his teenager both to take coronavirus more seriously, and to be more rigorous about social distancing. He’s one of a small handful of people to have expressed horror at that post, either on Facebook or offline.
This is the article that did it for him:
Italy suffered its worst day of the coronavirus outbreak Tuesday, recording 475 deaths. The epicenter of the pandemic in Europe, Italy is further along an infection curve other countries in the west appear to be following, and its healthcare system has buckled under the weight of 35,000 cases.
I agreed to do it. He thanks me for being “Dial-a-Philosopher.”
You know this country has gone to shit when a perfectly competent parent calls a childless philosopher (who would have been an incompetent parent if he’d been one at all) to talk epidemiology with his kid. Worse still when the philosopher in question agrees to do it pro bono. But that’s where we are. You work with what you have.
From what I have heard or read, deaths from COVID-19 vary highly by age. Most dying from it are elderly, with hardly any children. The children might be transmitters, but the virus isn’t even making them sick, let alone killing them.
Italy, with far fewer people than China, is fast approaching China in number dying. Why Italy? It is being attributed to a high percentage of older people, a higher incidence of smoking, lack of medical facilities, and the cultural habit of hugging and kissing. Very sad.
Yes, most dying from COVID-19 are the elderly, but that doesn’t mean that younger people can’t suffer serious illness from it; some younger people have died from it.
On the first point:
On the second:
The percentage of older people, incidence of smoking, relative lack of resources, and habits of hugging/kissing are part of the explanation for the difference between the Italian and Chinese outcomes. But another factor is that the Chinese took much more drastic action, and being an authoritarian country, were able to enforce compliance with public health measures. Italy fell down on both things. They failed to take drastic quarantine-like action early enough, and were unwilling to enforce compliance stringently enough.
As I said in the first of my posts in this “Coronavirus Diary,” there are some differences between the American and Italian cases, but there are enough similarities there to predict an outcome here that approximates the Italian outcome without necessarily exemplifying it. Fifteen percent of our population is elderly. A large number of Americans suffer ill-health from chronic disease–heart disease, diabetes, etc. And contrary to popular belief, young people are at risk from COVID-19. Combine all this with Americans’ tendency to swing from apathy to panic in a crisis, with large numbers of under-insured people in this country, with a shortage of ventilators, with a shortage of usable ICU facilities (not reflected by statistics about the aggregate number of ICU beds we have), with the sheer physical/psychological limits of hospital staff, with the fact that some will succumb to the virus, and with a widespread refusal to practice even basic social distancing, and you have the makings of a catastrophe.
Add a narcissistic, reckless, mendacious president to the mix, along with his millions of brainwashed supporters, and a federal bureaucracy locked in his world view, and you seal the deal. Our response to this crisis has been more similar to Italy’s than it has been to, say, South Korea’s, Taiwan’s, or SIngapore’s. And we will suffer for it, young and old alike.
I’m afraid I’m in the more skeptical camp, apparently an extreme minority view.
South Korea publishes excellent data on what’s happening there. Here is today’s report:
Of interest is the chart “Case distribution by gender and age group.” The case fatality rate for people under 60 is 0.14%. For persons in their 60s, 1.57%. For people >70, 7.4%. It is interesting that most of the people getting covid-19 are in the younger age groups. People in their 20s alone account for over a quarter of all cases. But hardly any of the fatalities. People over 60 account for 90% of all covid-19 fatalities, but only 23% of the cases.
Today, our own CDC has published a report discussing cases in the U.S.:
It doesn’t contain much new information, but it does show a chart of hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and deaths broken down by age groups. It seems, frankly, somewhat designed to push an agenda that young people need to be concerned about the coronavirus. It shows, in the adult groups, a line of bars that is pretty much horizontal across age groups until age 74. Then, for the last two groups, representing ages 75-84 and >84, the bars decline. The bars represent absolute numbers, not rates (i.e., not number of admissions, etc. per case). That is the first thing that is misleading about this chart. Absolute numbers aren’t very meaningful; it’s the rates we’d like to know. The second misleading thing is that the two lowest age groups shown are 0-19 year-olds and 20-44 year-olds lumped together. This creates the appearance that young people are more at risk than they really are. The bars are the same height, but they cover twice (or more) the age range. Fortunately, there is a table below this chart, which does provide rate information and shows that the case fatality rate for people under 45 is about 0.1%, whereas for people around age 75 it is more like 5%. The data in the table are fuzzy because of uncertainty about the status of many of these people.
In fairness to the CDC, it is hard to get satisfactory rate information when nobody is being tested. In the U.S. as of yesterday morning, some 56,590 people had been tested. In South Korea as of several days ago, over 270,000 people had been tested. The population of South Korea is about 15% that of the U.S.
Not that there’s much reason to be fair to the CDC, since the lack of testing here is mainly their fault.
Since people under 60 are not much at risk, and that is most of the working population, why are we shutting down the whole effing country over this? The reason seems to be (okay, you can stop laughing—I don’t really mean to suggest that reason has a whole lot to do with the edicts coming out) that although younger people aren’t dying of this, they are still being hospitalized, including needing to be ventilated in ICUs. So the argument is that we need to take action to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed, as has happened in Italy.
That may be so for now, but it doesn’t mean a total lockdown is an appropriate solution. Indeed, obviously, a total lockdown will not be sustainable for very long.
South Korea has managed to get covid-19 under control without shutting down their country. So, it might be a good idea to see what they did. Here’s a report on that:
Or we could continue to follow China’s “lead.” For help with this, here is a look at some of the propaganda banners sited around the country.
Some choice examples:
“Those who don’t report their fever are class enemies hiding among the people.”
“Those who come visit you are enemies. Don’t open the door for enemies.”
“Please avoid going to crowded places as much as possible; how much pension you will receive at retirement depends on how much you go out recently.”
That’s the stuff!
[NOTE: This is an updated version of this comment. Nearly a quarter of the original got deleted somehow. The changes are my attempt to reconstruct what went missing.]
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Well, just to clarify: I was not defending the Chinese approach. Merlin raised the issue of China versus Italy, and I was making a causal point, not a normative one. Hence my formulation, “are part of the explanation for the difference between the Italian and Chinese outcomes.” The fact that some factor X explains a difference between one outcome and another doesn’t entail that the person offering the explanation is prescribing X. And I’m not. What I said in an earlier post about Bernie Sanders and Cuba applies here. It should be permissible to note a causal fact about the results of an immoral policy without being thought to endorse the policy, or indeed anything like it. China’s authoritarianism partly explains why they have been more successful than Italy in dealing with COVID-19; it doesn’t follow that the person who makes this observation thinks we ought to do as they’ve done.
I’ve praised South Korea’s approach to COVID-19 in other posts I’ve written (I’ve never praised China’s), but it’s one thing to praise them, and another to suggest, at this late date, that we adopt their approach. The relevant issue is not, “Ceteris paribus, what is the optimal way of approaching COVID-19?” but “What are we to do now, given the path dependencies in operation here and now?” Even if we grant that South Korea’s approach was very good or even the best, the fact remains: we are not South Korea, nor can we become South Korea in time to save our asses. South Korea has the capacity to test (widely) for COVID-19; we don’t. Nor are we going to get it in time to stave off mass infection. South Korea has instituted an electronic surveillance system over its population that is every bit as intrusive (and would be regarded as every bit as objectionable and unconstitutional) as our physical lockdowns. I don’t know, but I would speculate, that South Koreans have also taken a more sober and responsible approach to disease control, having suffered previously from MERS. Meanwhile, in Newark, New Jersey, a positive-test COVID-19 patient gave a fake name and address, requiring a multiple city police search:
Not-merely-hypothetical question: do South Korean methods work if (a) you have no testing, (b) no electronic surveillance, but (c) face a large population of risk-imposing people with an ethos like this?
In any case, we are not “shutting down the entire country.” California has effectively been shut down, but California is one state out of 50. For whatever it’s worth, Andrew Cuomo has insisted that New York is not going to be shut down; I was in Manhattan yesterday, which was decidedly not shut down. People were out and about, on the streets, in the parks, and in stores, many of them unapologetically flouting any guidelines re social distancing. Here in New Jersey, we are under a curfew between the hours of 8 pm and 5 am with exceptions made for “essential travel.” I am skeptical of the need for this, but the penalty for infraction is a fine, not detention in a re-education camp. Few people complain as loudly about traffic court as I do. Still, I wouldn’t regard traffic-court like procedures or penalties as tantamount to totalitarianism.
Some business are closed down in NJ, which is regrettable, but which wouldn’t strictly be necessary if people were intelligent enough to maintain a proper distance from each other while transacting business. The hard fact is–they aren’t. (My wife is missing physical therapy as the result of a business closure, and in constant pain as a result, so I’m not unmindful of the problem.) Problem and explanation: many of my neighbors and most of my students (and many other people besides) regard COVID-19 as a hoax or as hype, and make a deliberate point of flouting any recommendation that anyone makes on the subject–on the infantile premise that if someone tells you to do something, that someone is an elitist authority figure inviting immediate defiance regardless of any other consideration.
As has widely been reported, students on spring break regard COVID-19 as some kind of Boomer-inspired fraud designed to undercut the fabulous drunken time they had so meticulously planned for themselves. The city of Clearwater, Florida has taken the draconian step of closing the beaches…once spring break is over. Why rush?
One could wish that there were less blunt instruments for ensuring compliance, but the sharper the enforcement instrument, the more manpower and resources it requires. If you close all and only bars, you need cops patrolling bars. If you close all and only X, Y, and Z, you need to patrol X, Y, and Z. A blunt instrument makes for easier enforcement. I’m the first person to deplore blunt instrument law enforcement. But then, I also wish that my friends in health care–doctors, nurses, EMTs–all had protective gear to keep themselves safe when they do their jobs. But they don’t. We lack resources. We’re in a jam. Counterfactual scenarios won’t get us out of that jam. We have to optimize on the resources we actually have, and take for granted the path dependencies we’ve already incurred. There’s no point in second-guessing your only route out of a disaster until you’ve actually gotten out of it. And we’ve got a long, long way to go before we do.
I never supposed you were praising or recommending the Chinese approach!
Btw, an important chunk of my comment went MIA somehow, so you might want to revisit it if you haven’t seen the correction. It is in what to me was the most important part of the comment, the examination of the numbers from S. Korea and the U.S. Indeed, that any comparison was happening would be nearly impossible to determine from the original comment.
You seem oddly pessimistic about the prospects for an approach based on testing and looking out for the most vulnerable. I would say that if we have $500B of fiat money to send checks to everybody, we have money for tests (and a lot more).
I don’t know what you mean about S. Korea having an electronic surveillance system over its population. Have they put a LoJack on everybody? In America, we don’t need the gov’t to do this, since Google already does it. If you have an Android phone and leave Locations turned on, Google has a record of everywhere you’ve been for as long as you’ve had an account with them. I had no idea this was going on until they started sending me emails urging me to check out my “Timeline.” And indeed I can go to Google Maps and look at a complete tracking of my whereabouts on any arbitrary day I choose that shows where I was, at what time, whether I was driving, walking, etc. I guess if I ever have amnesia I can use Google to find out about the places I used to go. I imagine Apple has the same information. For that matter, the gov’t knows many of your movements, if you use a FasTrak in California for paying tolls, an I-Pass in Illinois, EZ-Tag in Texas, etc. And there are closed circuit TV cameras aimed at you practically every place. Are the two countries vastly different in this regard?
Perhaps my perceptions are skewed from my location in California, but I can tell you that my sister traveled from Missouri to Texas today, and both legs of her flight had maybe a dozen passengers total. She reports that stores, schools, etc. are mostly closed. Restaurants in Austin are mostly padlocked (this is info from a different source). At the grocery store in Oakland yesterday, we had to line up (six feet apart, of course) outside the door before being titrated in. And everyone I’ve seen or heard of is meekly accepting of all this—whether or not they grouse in private, which many do, but I’ll bet that for every grouser, there are three rah-rahs. So, enforcement doesn’t actually seem to be much of a problem.
What we need is a rational plan that is clearly communicated. What we’ve got is all the loudest voices screaming to shut everything down and politicians falling over themselves to comply.
WordPress has a bad tendency to fail to save the most recent version of a comment, so that when you look at it on screen, you realize in horror that it’s the version you wrote ten edits ago. But I have a feeling I read the finished version of your original comment.
One dispute we have is how serious COVID-19 is with respect to younger people. Is it really true that “people under 60 aren’t much at risk”? I don’t think the quoted claim is true, but I also don’t think it’s relevant to the issue of lockdowns. Let me take those issues in turn, starting with “is it true?”
The South Korean data you’re citing in your first link refer to this page:
I find this data uninformative. “Risk” covers both fatality and serious but non-fatal illness. The relevant chart only covers fatalities.
As for the second link you provide, the one from the CDC, your point is that the data are presented in a misleading manner. Maybe, but it certainly doesn’t follow from that, that “people under 60 aren’t much at risk.” What follows is that plenty of people under 60 are at risk of serious illness; what’s not clear is how dangerous things get the younger you go.
This article describes a Chinese-based study published in the journal Pediatrics, which can’t be accused of having the CDC’s bias.
Here is the conclusion:
It’s worth remembering that the phrase “generally less severe than those of adults’ patients” means that the symptoms ranged from asymptomaticity to an excruciating form of pneumonia. It’s also worth remembering that COVID-19 has a high propensity to mutation. Put these facts together, and I don’t see how it’s possible to say that “people under 60 aren’t much at risk.” Almost everyone without exception is at risk of contracting COVID-19. Even if a rather small percentage is at risk of developing symptoms that could justifiably be called serious, that small percentage, multiplied over a huge population, yields a huge number of cases. A huge number of cases produces backlog in testing and intense strains on hospitals and health care workers. And even the non-serious cases can clog up the health care system if they show up at the ER (as they certainly will)–added to the merely imagined cases, and so on.
So beyond disputing the facticity of “people under 60 aren’t much at risk [of death?],” I don’t see the clinical relevance of the claim even if it is true. If anyone can contract COVID-19 at any age, and a small percentage but a large aggregate number of young people develop serious systems, they will overload the health care system. But even if they don’t develop serious systems, they will demand treatment and overload the health care system. On top of that, whether they overload the system or not, if they don’t practice social distancing, they will infect others who might suffer serious effects, up to and including an extremely painful death. But left to their own devices, many of these people, especially the asymptomatic or those with mild symptoms, will not practice social distancing; they see no reason to do so. (Attitudes have changed in the last few days, but they have changed in part because people have grasped the seriousness of what we face–and they have grasped it because of the “lockdowns” that have been ordered. I highly dispute the use of that phrase, but I’ll come back to that.) One either has to force them to engage in it, or concede that it’s OK for people to contract a disease and pass it on to people in Russian-roulette fashion, killing gigantic numbers of other people in the process.
Your point is that we can avoid a lockdown by resorting to testing, the evidence being that South Korea did it. I don’t think so. Let me deal with that in a separate comment.
Let me now deal with testing. You say:
It’s not that I’m pessimistic about the prospects of an approach based on testing in the abstract. If the infrastructure for testing were in place or viable, I would be screaming at the top of my lungs to test every human being in America (and Canada and Mexico), isolate the infected, and let the rest of us go about our business. But as it stands, that is a logistical impossibility. I wish it weren’t impossible, but it is. And since it is, the best we can do is to act quickly, while discussing the transition to that ideal situation. But getting there will take time–time we have to buy. The only way to buy that time is to force people who will not comply with mere requests to engage in social distancing to do so under threat of (retaliatory) force. Put differently, we have to use force against the many, many people in this country who have higher priorities than making sure not to kill strangers by epidemiological means. And given the bluntness of the tools available to law enforcement, the relevant legal regime has to be similar to the one just passed in New York and New Jersey. I think it’s misleading to call it a “lockdown,” but whatever one calls it, it’s the policy I support:
The $500 billion in subventions the government is sending out seems to me beside the point. When it comes to testing, the issue is not lack of money, but lack of physical infrastructure. Double, triple, or quadruple the allocated budget for testing. The fact remains that money is not a magic potion. The larger the amount of money at hand, the longer it takes to process and disburse. Even if you took all $500 billion and put it into a budget designed to create testing centers, what you would purchase is some marginal improvement in the speed with which we put together testing facilities. But if you didn’t combine those efforts with compulsory social distancing, what difference would that speed make? By the time you got all those tests processed, you’d have lost the game. Hundreds of thousands of people who might not otherwise have been infected will have been infected–and will then test positive for COVID-19. Now what? How do you “isolate” that many people?
Suppose you tell them to go and self-isolate. How will you enforce that? Here is what you say:
Yes, they effectively have. This is from the article on South Korea you cited:
We have no comparable legislation, and no comparable infrastructure for carrying it out. We desperately need it, and we should get it, but that will take time. It’s not some trivial operation that can be done so quickly that we can afford to leave social distancing to people’s voluntary cooperation while we tweak a couple of things here and there to get the wheels in motion. I’ve italicized the word “reconstruct” because the reconstruction in question is far from trivial. We lack the capacity to do it right now.
Again, you say:
The “this” that Google does is not the “this” that the South Korean government is doing. Two things are missing: (1) infrastructure to integrate health data with data about movement, and (2) infrastructure for enforced compliance. Yes, you can consult your Google to figure out where you’ve been. But that is not the same as a third-party’s consulting Google to figure out the whereabouts of every COVID-19 positive test whether or not that test subject wants to be tracked. Getting from “My Google Maps” to “now that we’ve tested you, we’re going to track you” is not (at all) trivial. For one thing, it presupposes mass testing, which we don’t have, and will not get for awhile. For another, it presupposes that we’ve taken all our testing data and connected it with all of our location data and overridden any concerns about refusal to consent. Again, a great idea, but not something that can be done overnight.
This is a little closer to the mark:
This is a better proposal, because EZ-Pass and the like are already owned by the government. They can scoop up locational data because they already have it. They don’t have to go through Google to get it (much less apply for a search warrant to force Google to give it). But you’re assuming that everyone has an EZ Pass-like device. They don’t. (Most people in New York City don’t even own cars.) And even if they did, the government would still need a system for connecting EZ Pass location data to the agency in charge of handling health-related data, like “Who has tested positive for COVID-19?”.
Except that there is no such agency. No agency in this country knows who has COVID-19–not the CDC, not FEMA, not all the state or county Departments of Health added together. If I go to a hospital and test positive for COVID-19, I will of course give my name, address, contact information, etc. Let’s hope I don’t lie about it. But there is no system in place to send that information to any government agency that makes sure that I follow my doctor’s instructions–much less one connects it to EZ Pass! It would be lovely if there was, but there isn’t. Again, it takes time.
So yes, the two countries are different in the relevant respects. We could become as proficient at dealing with pandemics as South Korea, Taiwan, etc. with enough time, effort, and money. And hopefully we will. But since we never actually put the effort in–we were too busy fighting wars against our real enemies–what we have is the potential for an effective system, not its actuality. I don’t know how long it will take to turn us into South Korea, but I know we can’t do it in a few days. It will take weeks, maybe months. We don’t have that kind of time right now. To avoid being overwhelmed, we have to move fast. We have to race and beat the exponential curve of this virus and hope it doesn’t outdistance us or mutate on us in some crazy way. And the only way to move fast is to employ the kind of measures that can be employed quickly, bluntly, effectively, and with the greatest speed possible.
Let me deal with the last issue in another comment.
Last point, “lockdown.” The rationale for “lockdown” is this: COVID-19 is highly contagious. Its spread has to be contained. The primary means of transmission is human-to-human, and a significant mechanism of transmission is asymptomatic viral shedding. Since many carriers are asymptomatic, there is no way to know that they are shedding when they are except to test them. But we can’t test them. Put more precisely, we can’t test them fast enough to prevent the spread of the virus to huge numbers of the population. Once that happens, we face a catastrophe: mass death and the overwhelming (to put it mildly) of our medical system. We have to do what is required to avoid that. This is precisely the case that Nozick described in Anarchy, State, and Utopia as one of “catastrophic moral horror,” where libertarian rights yield to consequentialist-like considerations. (I don’t think we need to describe the situation as one of rights yielding to consequentialism; my point is, we’re in the situation that he thought should be described that way.)
What is required is what people have now come to call “lockdown.” A part of me wants to laugh out loud at this. After five trips to the West Bank, I know what a real “lockdown” looks like. In a real lockdown, you are confined to your home. Arbitrary roadblocks are set up. If you fail to comply with military orders, you are shot. But I digress.
Your description of the situation in Missouri, Texas, California:
I don’t see how any of that amounts to a lockdown, or what’s problematic about any of it. Since COVID-19 is highly contagious, and spreads through asymptomatic shedding, it’s a good thing that few people were on the plane your sister was on. Would it be an improvement if it were full, and people were spreading the virus, then landing, and spreading it some more?
Schools should be closed. They’re like petri dishes for spreading this virus. Even if schoolchildren escape the ill-effects of COVID-19, they’ll spread the virus to older people who won’t.
Same with restaurants. Why should anyone want to eat in a restaurant at a time like this? Stay home and cook. It’s doubtful that anyone in this country cooks as badly as I do, and I’m surviving.
If the grocery store in Oakland is open, then Oakland is not locked down. But I don’t understand your implicit criticism of lining up six feet apart at the store. The alternative seems to be to let people into the store, infect one another, get the virus on their food, and infect everyone at home.
I guess I qualify as a rah-rah person, but even if the ratio of us rah-rahs to grousers is 3:1, that’s 100 million grousers in this country. Why should 100 million people be free to spread a virus lethal or dangerous to millions upon millions of people?
The policies adopted by the Murphy government in New Jersey strike me as eminently reasonable. The basic principle is: if your business is necessary for life, or necessary for fighting this virus, it can stay open. Otherwise, mostly not. There are exceptions, and they all seem reasonable to me. There is an implicit promise that if people cooperate reasonably, enforcement will be relatively “soft.” But if they don’t, enforcement will be ratcheted up. I listened to almost the whole of his press conference this afternoon. It struck me as the essence of a rational plan rationally communicated. I guess I don’t understand what anyone is complaining about, at least as far as policies like those passed in New York and New Jersey. I haven’t followed California’s doings with as much attention.
Informative article making the rounds on how South Korea “flattened the curve”:
None of the four lessons cited there, it seems to me, could have been implemented quickly enough in the United States to have averted the need for a Cuomo-Murphy type “lockdown.” It’s an open question whether they can be implemented here at all.
… Problem and explanation: many of my neighbors and most of my students (and many other people besides) regard COVID-19 as a hoax or as hype …
I don’t know whether this would tend to make you more optimistic about student-aged people, or even more pessimistic about the neighbors, but for what it’s worth, Pew’s most recent data indicate that Americans aged 18-29 are much more likely than any other age group to consider Covid-19 a “Major Threat” to the health of the U.S. population. (They are, as a group, also more likely than anyone else to believe that newsmedia have exaggerated the risks; but at the same time, as a group, they’re also more likely than anyone else to believe that newsmedia have not taken the risks seriously enough, or not taken the risks seriously at all; so that looks like the effect of lower trust in the media as such.)
… As has widely been reported, students on spring break regard COVID-19 as some kind of Boomer-inspired fraud designed to undercut the fabulous drunken time they had so meticulously planned for themselves….
Do you think there’s some risk that administrators’ rapid-fire executive decisions about school closures, evictions from on-campus housing, etc. — decisions which have had the cascading effect of effectively putting nearly every bored and horny teenager in America on a now indefinitely extended Spring Break right in the middle of March, and indeed positively requiring hundreds of thousands* of them to leave town during that indefinitely extended Spring Break — may end up having some negative unintended consequences?
(* Lowball estimate: there’s about 20 million undergraduates in the U.S.; I don’t have a good estimate for how many live in on-campus housing that’s both up-to-date and comprehensive, but 10-20% seems like the right ballpark from the aging or selective data that I could find quickly.)
Attempting to reconcile the apparent differences between Irfan and myself, I note the following. My focus was on deaths; Irfan countered with hospitalizations. I referred to children and young adults only implicitly. Irfan referred to young adults but not to children.
Edit of my latest post: I referred to children. I did not refer to young adults, except implicitly.
Granted we are not explicitly contradicting each other. Your claim was that children do not get ill or die of COVID-19, and my claim was that the non-elderly, referring mostly to young adults and teenagers, can certainly suffer grave illness and die of it. But I suppose there’s a difference of emphasis. My point is that in principle, everyone is at risk, not just the elderly.
That said, there is some good evidence that children (including infants) can suffer serious illness from COVID-19:
I don’t know if small children can die from COVID-19, but the preceding article mentions the death of a 14 year-old.
Given the virus’s high rate of mutation, it has several different strains, so I’m inclined to think that anything we say about it is likely to be provisional.
Responding to radgeekdotcom:
Thanks for the Pew study. The point I was making wasn’t generational; it’s just that I happen, given my job, to deal disproportionately with younger people. But the sample in my other post, “Vox Populi,” consisted mostly (not entirely) of middle aged people. The truly shocking takeaway from the Pew study is not that this generation believes this or that one believes that, but how many people, across the board, regard COVID-19 as a “minor threat.” One problem with this survey is that the interviews were conducted across March 10-16, which aggregates interviews taken very early on (when it might have been reasonable to regard the threat as low probability, though not precisely “minor”), as well as those much later on. This was a very fast-breaking story. If you missed a whole news cycle, you found yourself in a new universe. but to have thought that past March 15 shows either deep ignorance or epistemic vice.
I can’t prove this, of course, but I would speculate that among other factors, one that played an explanatory role was the belief that others’ misfortune is of no concern to those who diligently ignore it. “What happens in China or Italy stays there, and doesn’t matter.” Likewise for what happens on the other side of the country, the other side of the state, the other side of the county, the other side of town, or for that matter, down the block or next door.
To the question in your second paragraph: no, I don’t. Or rather, I acknowledge the risks you mention, but still think it was right to evacuate college campuses just as was done.
I don’t mean that as a blank check for every institution out there, but the way my university handled things was on target. (I don’t think anyone can call me a propagandist for Felician’s administration.) It wasn’t a “rapid-fire” decision. They deliberated, had a bunch of meetings, then finally decided to act–just in time, I would say. From a God’s eye perspective, one might have wished they’d made the decision earlier, but it’s unfair to demand omniscience of them. They then told students, if feasible, to go home. They asked for an expeditious but not precipitous departure. As they did, students dragged their feet, bitched, moaned, minimized the threat, and served up snark. The admin responded with firmness, and I’d like to think faculty did what they could to support them. Admin then made arrangements for the rest of the students to stay on campus.
Consider the sacrifice involved of support staff in this respect: most staff wanted (reasonably enough) to go home and forget work for awhile. (They’re on salary, and it’s appropriate that they be paid for staying home.) So the idea of keeping dorms full of reckless students on campus with zero support staff was a non-starter. Admin whittled the support staff down considerably. They then pledged to keep staff on campus with students for as long as was necessary. That struck me as a particularly sensible and generous decision.
Other institutions may have done things differently, or badly, but I don’t think that impugns the idea of getting on-campus population density as low as possible. As late as March 15 and 16, I was hearing privately from students who were saying things like, “Yeah, I’m on campus, so I’m not going to let this shit keep me from hooking up.” I tried to finesse some of this, but eventually I started to lose my patience and temper.
What I strongly objected to was the double standard involved between standard university operations and NCAA sports. We hustled to “close down” (in a special sense of “close down”); they dithered. This mirrored the attitude I described in one of my previous posts, of the friend who was kept at his worksite for appearances’ sake, even though the company had the capacity for online operations.
I think this gets at your concern. Even if, in aggregate and spread out over March 10-16, younger people evinced concern about this crisis, people on the ground having to make executive decisions confronted local sub-populations of extremely irresponsible, reckless young people plus a sprinkling of older staff with the same attitudes. To keep them on campus when more informed people wanted to go home was a logistical impossibility and an epidemiological nightmare. When classes are normally in session, students are in close physical proximity to each other. Even as I taught my last classes around March 11-12, they were laughingly bragging about how close they were, and joking about the “corona bullshit.” That obviously could not continue unmodified. Suppose now you put classes online, but keep students in the dorms. That seems pointless–counter-productive. Now imagine that some sizable number of those students party in town. With this strategy, you’ve basically infected the whole county in about a day–and flooded every ER in the county within a week. That’s just not an acceptable outcome. To avert it, students mostly had to be sent home. You’d like to think that their parents would do something to explain what was going on and how not to handle it.
As for being on extended spring break while at home, two points. First, they are not on extended spring break. Classes are in session. In fact, I’m inclined to say that my admin is being a little too hard-assed about the need to maintain “normality” and “continuity of instruction” for the duration. They want to convey their seriousness to the students, viz. “this is not an extended spring break.” By this time, I think all but the most idiotic students get that. Now the danger is, in taking so severe an attitude toward students’ academic responsibilities, admin is invalidating the very real and very natural (and justifiable) sense of fear and grief overtaking many students (however belatedly). It’s appropriate that they have these feelings, and appropriate that they have them at home, with family.
Second point: I want to write a separate blog post about this, but while I’m pretty loud-mouthed (usually) about the priority of academics to extra-curricular activities, this is not the time for that attitude. Some students are suffering–genuinely suffering. Some have friends and family at risk. Some have lost jobs. Some work in health care (e.g., in pharmacies, doctor’s offices, clinics, as nursing interns, etc.) Some are just plain frightened. The imperative is to help them process, then induce them to act appropriately. I love teaching applied ethics, but at this point, I’d rather that my students cope appropriately with the COVID-19 crisis than furrow their brows over Douglas Husak’s views on DUI in Philosophy & Public Affairs (1994).
I don’t doubt that there are some risks involved here, of just the kind you mention. But I think those risks have to be discounted or ignored. What do you do about the perpetual infant who can’t grasp the gravity of any situation no matter how dire, and wants to party and fuck his way through the COVID-19 pandemic? All I can say is what I told one of them when I got an “OK, Boomer”-type response from him: “keep saying and doing that as you party your way into the ICU, where your life will be in the hands of a bunch of old people.” I put things in that way not because I have anything against Millennials, but because when you’re dealing with one with anti-Boomer attitudes like that, you have to speak to them in a way that will get through.
Yes, students of that sort will go home and have an extended Spring Break. I know some who are. But not all students are of that sort, and there is no cure for the ones who are. If we had kept them on campus, we would have had a problem on campus. If we send them home, there’s a problem in their hometown or wherever they party or hook up. The State of New Jersey is now effectively on lock down; that’s become the default method for dealing with irresponsibility. That was avoidable, and it’s deeply regrettable. But the most irresponsible people among us have pushed us all into a police state. I don’t blame the police for that, or the state. I blame them–the irresponsible people around us–whatever their ages of political sensibilities. My only hope is that when all is said and done, we will get to the other side of this, and they’ll still be around to have learned their lesson.