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COVID-19 has rewired our brains


Yesor probably know someone who has never contracted COVID but whose entire life has been transformed by the pandemic; it now makes sense. They were the most cautious, the most shut in, the most disgusted by the “deniers” in the White House or in their extended family. They haven’t seen their adult parents for over a year. They turned down in-person learning options for their children. The pandemic has skewed their relationships with their neighbors, whom they now treated as vectors of disease, and even moral morons because they did gardening work without a mask. They posted their second “Fauci ouchie” on Instagram a month ago. But they continue to mask or even put glasses on their children, even infants, because they are reading something about COVID spreading through their eyes.

At one point, the pandemic – the tentative and practical judgments in favor of caution that may justify restrictive behavior – became an unwavering moral goal. The real weighing of the risks has gone out the window: there is a fatal disease out there; my actions may help to end the disease or to spread it in perpetuity.

It is as if a circuit has been merged. While caution and restrictive behaviors can be justified by a risk-informed conscience, the human mind can also make calculations based on superstition. And a terribly common thing is the equation of science with truth, fear with realism, and prudence with virtue.

In individuals, one can easily observe these kinds of calculations, with personal tragedies large and small: people who missed a last heartwarming hold of the hands before the death of a loved one, or whose marriages were destroyed by the death. atmosphere of fear and paranoia. But the problem is clearly social as well as political.

Once the truth-prudence-virtue circuit merged, we found it much more difficult to introduce good news and new information. We have lost the ability to recognize the provisional nature of our judgments. The fact that a large portion of America’s vulnerable population has been vaccinated – in many counties well over 70% of people 65 and over are now fully vaccinated – is not changing behavior as quickly as the news about the viruses changed our behavior last. spring.

This is compounded by the fact that the “costs” of many mitigating behaviors are mostly diffuse. They are in a depressed business environment for entertainment, food, and tourism. Or we see them in the increased levels of depression that people experience due to prolonged social isolation. Many people who had the financial opportunity to make their lockdown very tight just don’t come out enough to realize how free and sociable most of the people in their community have been. They got used to the risks and pleasures of life that the less fearful or most essential workers could never shirk.

And this mistaken equivalence of truth, fear and prudence does not only affect individuals or the environment of large cities. It afflicts our institutions. This is why the Centers for Disease Control may be intimidated by the teachers’ union and delay its recommendation to fully reopen schools. Teacher unions have no expertise in public health, no particular knowledge of epidemiology. What they had on their side was a pervasive reflex that more caution can never be wrong or hurtful.

The association of danger with permissiveness has distorted the “expert class” that is supposed to educate the public. Throughout the pandemic, public health officials betrayed their view that they did not trust the public for the good news; they seem to fear that a given inch is a mile taken. And so, even in one of the world’s most successful vaccine deployments, CDC director Rochelle Walensky warned just a month ago. But no catastrophe was in sight.

And the expert class has also become corrupt. The pandemic’s short circuit has led to a dramatic tightening of group thinking among public health experts. One would normally expect various experts to make a variety of recommendations precisely because, like everyone else, they assess risks differently. But instead, the public health pontifiers tried to maintain their authority with an ersatz resounding unanimity.

When Dr Martin Kulldorff expressed his view that stopping the Johnson & Johnson vaccine would do more harm than good, the CDC fired him from its Vaccine Safety Advisory Committee. Four days later, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was again available, but the visible dissent was too much to bear. Kulldorff had pioneered many of the processes by which the CDC detected vaccine safety. But he had expressed his opinion that the urge to vaccinate everyone was also superstitious as being anti-vaccine. Twitter, absurdly, put a disinformation tag on this tweet, based on the superstition that there is only one valid “expert” response – and no valid expert debate. Kulldorff’s worst crime, apparently, was expressing his opinions in person in the presence of Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida.

I used to think the COVID era would end once vaccines removed the danger of the most vulnerable – and the human need to connect would assert itself dramatically in the new Roaring Twenties. Now I am not so sure. A significant portion of the public and some of our major institutions have internalized entirely new ways of thinking and living. The circuit between truth, science, fear, prudence and virtue must be disconnected – and reprogrammed.

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