Back in January 2020, I was reading about this mysterious virus spreading in China. I became more concerned as it spread to Italy and the Middle East. I watched videos of sick people in Wuhan, filling hospitals. I saw clips of people stumbling around the street, or facedown in a ditch, dead. The Chinese government scrambled to build a massive new hospital in a week – something the US would seemingly never be able to accomplish. To me, it was only a matter of time before our globalized system delivered SARS-CoV2 to our doorstep. But, though it's hard to remember such ancient history, at the time there was little concern in the US. And it wasn't just Trump downplaying the virus; popular news media figures from across the political spectrum were publicly nonplussed about what would become the biggest pandemic in a hundred years.
I had been commuting to Cambridge twice per week, on a packed commuter rail train. Occasionally, sick people coughed up their lungs beside me. By the end of February, I contracted something – probably not COVID, but who knows? At the same time, the infamous Biogen conference in Boston ended up being a superspreading event, responsible for at least 300,000 infections. While I was sick, I worked from home, but even after I recovered, I decided not to commute into the city, because I was following the news about the obvious calamity headed for us. A few weeks later, in mid-March, the office was shuttered, along with much of the economy.
I stocked up on dry food and essentials and assumed that, if everybody stayed home for a couple of weeks, we'd stop the virus in its tracks. At the same time, I was following news from China, where their version of lockdown involved police barricading people in apartment buildings, and beating up anybody on the street. The epidemiologists' models told us that, if we instituted strict policies like Wuhan did, we could drastically "flatten the curve" of infections, ending the pandemic before it had a chance to pick up steam. But as I looked around at Massachusetts' policies, we clearly were not choosing the Wuhan treatment. Instead, the US went with 50 states worth of varyingly half-assed regulations, resulting in at least 600,000 deaths after several waves of infection.
Personally, I enjoyed having more time to hike and explore new areas around my town. I enjoyed the seclusion with my partner and could sometimes pretend that we were the only two souls left alive… that is, until lots of people started figuring out that they could also explore the outdoors. I missed being able to go into libraries, as a respite from "working" at home. Otherwise, I didn't miss much of the economic activity we're supposed to care about. Without easy access to quick and crappy food, I ate much better at home. As time dragged on, however, the social cost of government restrictions became clearer – while Amazon and Netflix posted record profits, local community activities and groups suffered greatly. Human relationships have suffered, if only because our fear kept us apart.
I recognize that I was in a very fortunate position – living in a rural area which was never particularly hit hard, with a job that I could do at home. But I also don't know anybody who has died from COVID, and only a handful who even contracted it. Maybe two of them had symptoms. None of them live in my area.
My small, Trump-loving town did have a few vocal COVID-denying idiots who railed against any restrictions. Even our local board of health's public notices never mentioned wearing a mask, long after State and CDC guidelines caught up with the reality that the virus was, in fact, airborne. Still, I don't know any of the 319 positive cases in my town (6% of the population). They were likely some of the strident anti-mask people I saw around, but I'll never know.
Some of the smaller towns around here essentially never saw a trace of COVID. It's important to realize that regulations which are necessary for stopping a pandemic in high-density areas may not apply to low-density areas (for instance, outdoor mask mandates are especially pointless when you're the only one walking in a 1 mile radius). The state did try to indicate varying risk levels by color-coding each town based on infection rates, but when most of the towns started turning "red", the state changed their formula in order to make the situation look better. Compounded by poor communication of the convoluted "phases" and "stages" of reopening and color codes, I still don't know what was supposed to happen if a town changed color on that map. After a while, the state abandoned the map, since nobody paid attention to it.
The primarily-urban spread of the disease, and the devastation it wrecked in nursing homes and disadvantaged communities, has traumatized many of us, regardless of our actual degree of risk.
From the start of the pandemic, officials have done a terrible job communicating the risks involved with exposure to SARS-CoV2. Early on, it's somewhat understandable that we would have an unclear picture, but as data from cases poured in from around the world, and peer-reviewed papers proliferated, the message to the general public did not become much clearer. Even though scientists quickly learned that the virus was airborne, it took months for the CDC to publicly acknowledge. Earlier indoor mask mandates (and distribution of N95 masks) could've saved countless lives. We now know that the guidance around obsessively cleaning surfaces was a waste of time. Instead, we should've been focusing on improving ventilation and air filtration.
It now seems clear that outdoor transmission is very rare. The outdoor mask mandates were probably entirely unnecessary, since the virus does not spread well outside. Indoors, your risk of infection depends on a few factors:
I don't know if these factors could ever be quantified in such a way to calculate an easily-understood risk percentage. But there is one obvious scenario which I don't think people consider. If you are in a room with someone and are certain that neither of you has the virus, there is no risk of infection. In fact, you can have an entire town of people who are not infected, and cram them into a room together, and none of them will become infected. The virus does not spontaneously appear. As the number of cases in your town/state/region dwindles toward zero, your risk of infection obviously also drops.
I believe the guidance thus far has inculcated fear and suspicion in everybody. Instead of assessing whether somebody might be infected, we treat everybody as if they were. It's not the only way to behave during a pandemic, but it's perhaps the simplest and most fear-based.
Once one does contract SARS-CoV2, the next thing to assess is your risk of actually being symptomatic, let alone seriously ill. The majority of cases are asymptomatic, while the remaining cases are usually not serious. COVID-19 is a real, fatal threat if you're over 70 years old, or are overweight or have other serious medical issues. For most everyone else, a symptomatic case might amount to a head cold. The jury's still out on "long COVID" effects, including permanent heart and lung damage. What is the chance of healthy people contracting enough of the virus to lead to permanent damage? I have not seen any data, and I think that there will be less incentive to study and explain the risk factors, now that the vaccination campaign has clouded most of the discussion around COVID.
As we know, the argument that COVID is not a big deal because the death rate is extremely low has been trotted out over the past year in order to justify removing all restrictions. I had always found this reasoning obnoxious, because it seemed to come from a selfish place – "I want to go back to "normal", and I think I'll be fine, therefore, we should all do whatever we want." Of course, the retort to that is: you may be fine, but you could asymptomatically spread the virus to your aged relative, who will promptly drop dead. In fact, that has happened many times over the past year. So, I understand and support the need for restrictions on movement, etc, in order to protect the most vulnerable. But I object to the slippery slope of forcing the entire population to take experimental vaccines in order to prevent 80-year-olds from dying. If vaccines prevent serious illness among the most vulnerable (elderly or unhealthy), then it may make sense for those people to become vaccinated, if that is indeed their only option to avoid the risk of suffering from COVID.
Before I get to the available options for addressing COVID, I want to mention something that I am worried about: Lyme.
In my area, contracting Lyme Disease is a present and increasing risk. I've pulled several ticks off of my body this season (many more than usual); tick-borne diseases are my greatest fear. The longterm effects of Lyme Disease are terrible. I want to avoid contracting it, as much as I can! If I were "rational" and wanted to completely eliminate my risk of contracting Lyme, I'd stay indoors forever or move to a sterilized urban environment. Or else I could treat all of my clothing and skin with a carcinogenic chemical, which would also have the unfortunate side effect of trailing poison everywhere I went. And yet, I'm outside all the time, and I don't employ insecticides to eradicate every potential threat to my health.
Part of the search for a more harmonious way of life with the non-human world has to involve acceptance of the entire family of other beings, including the risk that they may harm me at some point. But that is a much bigger topic, for another time.
If you are in an area where COVID is likely to be spreading, what can you do to avoid becoming deathly sick? (Avoiding infection is a separate issue. The current vaccines don't prevent infection, only serious illness)
Well, one major factor is to be younger than 70...
The other factors relate to general health: don't be overweight, smoke, etc.
Most hospitalized patients are severely vitamin D deficient. I have often said that the government could've ended the pandemic if they sent everybody two weeks of nutritious food and vitamin D supplements, and prevented all transportation. It would've been a hell of a lot cheaper than spending billions to develop and administer vaccines, along with months of unemployment and trillions of dollars pumped into corporate coffers. In fact, they could still try my plan, and it would still work! But, here we are…
From the start of the outbreak in China, doctors employed western medicine as well as Traditional Chinese Medicine to control symptoms and prevent transmission. The Chinese medicine treatments have been totally ignored in the West. Their doctors have adapted anti-viral treatments from the earlier SARS epidemic, using traditional herbal formulae. TCM hospitals have shown great success preventing infection among staff by taking simple decoctions daily.
A recent, fascinating paper identified many common plant chemicals which may help fight SARS-CoV2: Astragalus, Licorice Root, Ginger, Japanese Knotweed, even vegetables like broccoli and onions. Immune-system-boosting teas and tinctures may be as effective as any western medicine protocol, but they'll never be deeply researched in the West, or receive the gold-standard randomized controlled trials, because nobody can make billions of dollars by patenting ginger.
I think philosophical differences have resulted in disparate outcomes. Chinese medicine practitioners treat illnesses based on observed symptoms and complex diagnostic criteria, using recipes that have been effective for hundreds of years, and they quickly adapt and share knowledge with eachother. Whereas in the West, doctors thought that, since there was no FDA approved "cure" for COVID-19, there was essentially nothing they could do to treat patients who showed up to the emergency room. Patients were given basic pain-relief, while their condition spiraled toward death. Recall the shortage of ventilators across the country. People ended up on ventilators because doctors would not intervene earlier in the course of the disease.
Some frontline doctors have been developing an effective treatment protocol, using cheap, widely-available medications and vitamins. The same medication can be used to prevent infection, and has been deployed in other countries, before or instead of mass vaccination campaigns. Because of the conservative, industrialized nature of Western medicine, these treatment protocols have not been widely adopted in the US.
And here we get into thorny, politicized terrain. The current vaccines, based on mRNA technology which has never been approved for human use were given Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA and rushed to the market. EUA can be granted only if there are no other viable medications available. The cheap, off-patent drugs I mentioned are being used and studied, but there is little incentive to approve them when corrupt drug companies stand to earn billions of dollars in profit from developing patented vaccines, and then expect to continue profiting from yearly booster shots.
Aside from the documented and rising incidence of vaccinated people dying or becoming seriously ill from immediate complications, there is not enough data on the long-term side effects of mRNA vaccines. I have seen concerns around potential fertility issues, particularly among young people. Given that young people face very little risk of experiencing serious illness, it makes no sense to me that they should be forced into vaccination.
In addition to receiving billions of dollars from the government and given a guaranteed income stream, the drug companies also were granted immunity from lawsuits resulting from vaccine side-effects. This does not inspire confidence, nor compel me to participate in a mass medical experiment.
We would all greatly benefit from improving general health and boosting our immune systems. I don't drink, smoke, take drugs, or consume poisonous processed foods. For me, the path of maintaining health and supplementing when necessary is achievable and reasonable. I understand that many people have pre-existing health issues that make it much more challenging, and make a simple vaccine seem more appealing.
As I said, the current vaccines do seem to prevent serious COVID symptoms, for most people. Whether they cause long-term problems remains to be seen. Since they don't prevent infection or transmission, they allow the virus to mutate into new variants, making it more likely to evolve vaccine-resistance. New variants are already killing vaccinated people. I think we will learn within a year whether this mass-vaccination campaign during a pandemic will eliminate the virus, or whether it creates the perfect breeding ground for a worse COVID variant. Stay tuned.
We rarely consider the long-term or indirect costs of technological solutions. We accept medical experimentation on animals for things as trivial as what chemicals to add to makeup. We imprison horseshoe crabs and harvest their blood as an essential ingredient in medications. The list goes on and on.
Did you know that the Pfizer vaccine production process requires two transatlantic flights in order to transport the various stages of the product back and forth between different facilities? Does anybody factor in the energy and ecological footprint of all of this activity? Is there any accounting of the vast mountains of plastic medical waste dumped into landfills?
This pandemic shines a light on some of our worst tendencies. We have shown that we will head at "warp speed" to develop a technological fix to one perceived risk, while completely ignoring the ecological and social costs. Once the fix became available, we raced to acquire it, oblivious to the most vulnerable millions around the world who could not afford to jump the line. We still have not waived patents on the vaccine, proving that big Pharma, enabled by our government, values profit over lives.
I'm concerned that, if our psychopathic political leaders ever decide to take the climate and ecological crisis seriously, they will implement another mad-dash toward short-term techno-fixes which continue trampling the Global South and exacerbating the problem.
I'm not against "lockdowns", restrictions on economic activity, or general public health policies to mitigate a pandemic. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, most economic activity should halt, for the sake of the planet. If we were wise, we would have used the temporary respite to completely rethink our priorities. But as soon as vaccines came into view, we seem to have collectively developed tunnel vision and tribalistic behavior around the entire issue.
To me, this vaccination campaign represents a delusional hope to return to normalcy, coupled with the worst kind of capitalistic greed, and enabled by authoritarians.
Finally, I strenuously object to the new slogan, "follow the science", or politicians who advertise their "belief" in science. They clearly don't follow the science, when the science doesn't suit their political or economic views. Climate scientists have been warning (and now, screaming) that global civilization faces collapse due to climate and biodiversity breakdown. We know we have reached ecological and resource limits, yet we plow full-steam ahead in the pursuit of economic growth. We know that the status quo will lead to levels of warming that result in billions of people having to migrate and then perish in conflict, famine, and catastrophe.
The risk of all of this happening is far greater than your risk of dying from COVID-19, and yet, we do not "follow the science" when it comes to this existential threat. If we did, our behavior would drastically change. Industries would have to shut down; travel would stop; unsustainable living arrangements would be abandoned.
Since this science threatens the economy (and primarily the elites who own and run it), it has been downplayed, avoided, ignored, obfuscated.
Let's not become duped into believing we're "the good guys" for believing in science. Science is a process and a dialogue which can help us understand the world. Scientists are not infallible. Institutionalized science has increasingly become corrupted by politics and capitalism. We can either blindly accept what media and policy makers represent as science, or we can use our own wonderful faculties to participate in the scientific process. As Ivan Illich wrote:
The institutionalization of knowledge leads to a more general and degrading delusion. It makes people dependent on having their knowledge produced for them. It leads to a paralysis of the moral and political imagination.
This cognitive disorder rests on the illusion that the knowledge of the individual citizen is of less value than the “knowledge” of science. The former is the opinion of individuals. It is merely subjective and is excluded from policies. The latter is “objective”—defined by science and promulgated by expert spokesmen. This objective knowledge is viewed as a commodity which can be refined, constantly improved, accumulated and fed into a process, now called “decision-making.” This new mythology of governance by the manipulation of knowledge-stock inevitably erodes reliance on government by people.