How much will America accept to live with the pandemic?
I have a poll, but let me explain it first.
Right now the COVID-19 virus seems to be ebbing in many nations. Total infections and deaths since 2020 keep growing (420,908,184 cases and 5,869,200 dead worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins) but the gigantic Delta and Omicron waves are subsiding. Here, for example, are how the most infected nations are faring, according to 91-DIVOC:
That downward slope is great to see and experience.
Hospitalizations and deaths lag, of course, but seem to have stopped rising, and instead hit something like an oscillating plateau:
If no new infectious waves washes through us, we can expect the deaths to gradually drop.
These new developments are inspiring all kinds of calls for societies to “open up” – to end masking, stop pretending to care about social distancing, and get back to the interpersonal activities we did before COVID hit. To resume the economy of fall 2019. To get those haircuts and hit the bars without dread or guilt.
At the same time nobody seriously thinks we’re going to utterly erase COVID-19 from civilization in the near term. Instead, we’re hazily expecting some measure of losses: of hospitalizations, sickness, deaths, and long COVID. We’re starting to rethink cost/benefit as a cold, macro level.
Which brings me to the poll. Let’s focus on the United States for now, where we have had 78,060,327 infections and endured 926,497 deaths, according to the CDC, whose numbers tend to be conservative. Let’s assume COVID doesn’t disappear, but continues circulating through the population, doing some amount of damage.
How much human damage will we come to terms with, in order to re-open?
I’ll narrow it down to a single number for clarity’s sake. How many COVID dead will be accept as the price to pay for a post-pandemic society?
Here’s the poll. More notes below.
This question might seem cold or ruthless, yet it reflects the calculus we perform at some level. As individuals we make risk assessments frequently, as when we cross the street and estimate likelihood of being run down or when we decide to be among people when we’re ill.
As a society we make all kinds of decisions based on estimates of human damage. We set road speed limits by balancing likely casualties and our desire to race along. We construct and adjust projects, policies, and large institutions to reduce deaths based on certain causes: public health campaigns and shots to drop flu infections, calls for exercise and a vast sports domain to keep so many people from dying of certain heart problems, an anti-smoking effort to cut down tobacco-caused cancer cases.
For example, cars kill around 39,000 people per year in the United States. (36,096 in 2019, 38,680 in 2020, or “as many as 42,060 people are estimated to have died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020“) To keep this butcher’s bill from being even worse we teach driver’s education classes, police streets with speed traps, conduct public awareness campaigns, etc. It’s an number to consider – worse when you think of non-fatal injuries – but it’s one we live with, in order to do things we value with cars, trucks, and motorcycles.
We seem to be doing the same thing now for COVID-19. We have a decent sense of who tends to be most vulnerable to injury and death: people over 75, the immunocompromised, those with certain comorbidities. As we end mask mandates and give up on some people who refuse to get vaccinated, we are bargaining that we can collectively bear the number of illnesses, injuries, deaths, and long COVID cases. My question is: what number? How far will we go?
I realize that “we” is a hasty construct to account for the combined decisions of around 330 million people in a wide range of circumstances. “We accept” papers over all kinds of disagreement and dissent. Yet for now I want to focus on crowdsourcing a rough, single number to give a sense of what will result from those combined decisions, that democratic compromise which we collaboratively construct.
I am very interested in the wide range of ideas, assumptions, and behaviors that go into such a large scale decision. Ableism, ageism, capitalism and its opposition, technophilia and technophobia, party politics – all are welcome in the discussion boxes below.
One more thought: please don’t read the tone of this post as being inhumane in a Strangelovian way. I’m writing directly here to get the poll going. As some of you know, I have been terrified and outraged by the horrific suffering COVID has inflicted, thanks in part to certain human decisions which let it rip or made it worse. I have friends and family members who are at serious risk of coronavirus illness, injury, and death. I’m not posting to make light of their experience. Instead, I’m writing to determine how we all choose to value them.
I have also polled people on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I’ll follow up with a post comparing results.