I have mixed feelings about the covid pandemic and the surrounding hysteria—but I suppose this fact exposes my thesis. The global pandemic was both a real health emergency and a manufactured crisis. Whether or not the offending virus was engineered in and escaped from a lab, its effects were and still are undeniable. As I recover from my second round with the resulting disease, I figure it’s time to reflect on this duality.
First, though, I give my caveats. I’m not a scientist, nor am I a medical professional. I’m merely a historical observer and just another anecdote among billions. I have no special or secret knowledge and can’t judge the veracity of the many competing claims about the virus itself or about its vaccines.
Second, for the record, I was vaccinated in May of 2021. I received the traditional single-dose vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson. I did so willingly, but I’ll come back to this later.
Third, I should acknowledge where I was in my life when the pandemic began. In 2019, after several years of gloomy uncertainty, I had consciously chosen to be optimistic about the future. Indeed, as 2020 opened, I reached a new professional high point in my public-service career. The pandemic thus became the opening act of my own two-year crash back to the mean.
As of today, covid has been blamed for over 6.9 million deaths worldwide since January 2020 (Worldometers). We’ll probably debate whether these estimates are too high or too low for many years to come, if not forever. Canonically, George Floyd may have been the only person to die with but not from covid, so while I’m clearly in the too-high camp, I also have no doubt that the disease killed many people. If I take Switzerland as a representative example of a developed nation that didn’t suffer significant concomitant social unrest during the pandemic, she still experienced an all-cause mortality rate six percent higher than expected in 2021 (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).
Six percent may not seem like a lot, but my own arbitrary threshold for concern in such matters is one percent. Nevertheless, the Swiss example was a rate change, not an absolute mortality figure. Averaged over the last three years, covid has had a gross mortality rate of less than one percent overall—or about 0.34 percent per year—assuming the high numbers I cited earlier. I’ll note that this is still over three times higher than the best worst-case scenario I described in January of 2020 (Twitter).
Accordingly, while the pandemic was arguably worse than my blithe expectations, it also demonstrably fell below my threshold for concern in retrospect. Hindsight is great, but I had only suspicions at the beginning of the outbreak—though I consider these confirmed at this point.
For many years, I had watched what I took to be psychological operations come out of China and spread through the Western media. Stoking fear of an invisible threat was an easy, low-cost strategy for a socialist state to attempt to influence geopolitical rivals without resorting to the risks of kinetic warfare. Before covid, there was bird flu, SARS, swine flu, and other potential pandemics. These diseases were all real and had real victims, but the psyops never took hold.
Covid was different, whether because the media ecology had changed or the virus itself was more infectious than previous examples. This time, we fell for the psyop. Remember the videos of people dropping in the streets of Shanghai? Obvious theatrics, looking back, but even I went along with the official narrative, despite my skepticism.
I participated in the efforts to limit the spread of the virus when they were voluntary but bridled when they became mandates. Still, I set aside my principles to enforce the mandates—and got sued for the privilege. That this took a moral toll on me shouldn’t have been a surprise. I broke somewhere along the way, but that’s another story.
I never feared for myself, but I worried for the more vulnerable. I was glad, for example, that both my parents had retired before the outbreak. They could more easily avoid dangerous environments while the virus attenuated and vaccines were developed.
I took the vaccine with the protection of others in mind. I didn’t want to become a vector for something that would hurt other people. It seemed like the right thing to do, but it didn’t work. It didn’t provide immunity at least.
Did the vaccine mitigate the danger of the disease? I don’t know. Without positive test results, I couldn’t have distinguished my two bouts with covid from any other common cold I’ve had over the years. On the other hand, my reaction to the vaccine made me sicker than I’d been in at least a decade.
Thousands and thousands of people have reported vaccine injuries. Again, I don’t know the veracity of these claims, and some number of adverse experiences have to be coincidental. What I do know is that I won’t be taking a booster anytime soon. I hope I did make the right decision, but I have to allow that it’s a toss-up at best. Either way, the man I tried to become in 2019 died during the pandemic, if not because of it.
My psychological injuries aside, other damage from the pandemic response was less subjective. Businesses were destroyed. People lost jobs. Children were cheated.
The current educational paradigm is collapsing—which is another topic entirely—but the slapdash approach to “protecting” children during the pandemic robbed the model of what little benefit it still had. Academic outcomes went down across the board (Education Week). I watched my own daughter struggle in online classes. Despite my encouragement and help, her grades suffered during these, her middle years of high school. She bears some of the responsibility for her shortcomings, but I’m sure many of the problems would have been resolved had she actually been in the classroom.
Nevertheless, I remain cognizant of the human negativity bias. It helps you survive in a dangerous world, but we’ve made ourselves so much safer than ever before from privation, from disease, from predators, and even from each other that our natural threat-detection algorithms are out of balance. We now too easily see small risks, dangers, and obstacles as existential threats. Maybe this was another reason why the covid hysteria was able to grab hold of us.
Therefore, though I regret what we lost and lament the damage done, I hope—I think—we will learn from the pandemic. As always, there are positive agents and forces at work, and our arc of history has shown that these succeed over time. Humanity’s unlimited future may be a victory harder to win than even I expected a few short years ago, but all of the ingredients are still there. We just have to put them together.
Cellular biology is mostly about chemistry, and we can do chemistry. If we don’t throw civilization away in some tantrum or another, it’s only a matter of time before our technology can mitigate all biochemical threats. I understand now that the price will be almost unbearably high—even if I hope this perceived downside of up is my own negativity bias spinning out of control—but I also have to see success as baked into the equation.
That is what remains of my optimism from 2019. The pandemic changed my course and undoubtedly helped push me onto a darker path, but painful as this blow was, it broke chains too—which is yet another topic for yet another day. The truth behind the emergency may never be fully known, and we probably won’t agree on it if it ever is, but we did learn a little more about ourselves and our world … for better or for worse.