Posts Tagged ‘Pandemic’

May 22, 2020. As we await the nation finding an equilibrium between Covid-19 deaths and routine life, observers are biding their shelter time forecasting the great social changes that the pandemic will have left in its wake. How much, how transformative, social change can we expect this pandemic to have brought?asteroid

Whether you anticipate profound changes or instead expect pretty much the same America after Covid-19 may depend on how you generally understand the way profound social change occurs. Does it entail “asteroidal” or “glacial” events? I borrow the terms from evolutionary history. An asteroid’s impact about 66 million years ago suddenly transformed life on Earth, including terminating the dinosaurs. On the other hand, gradual alterations in the earth’s spin and orientation expanded and reduced glacier coverage of the planet, which, in turn, slowly forced Earth’s life forms to adapt.

Is the Covid-19 pandemic an asteroidal shock to America, or will, a decade from now, its occurrence hardly be noted amidst America’s glacial changes?


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Sheltering-in-Place, Berkeley, CA. March 23, 2020. Let’s think about the COVID-19 crisis in a cold-blooded, sociological, and historical way. Rough estimates seem to be that between 200,000 and 1,700,000 will die of COVID-19, depending on how completely authorities shutdown in-person interaction. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the trusted face of the national response, said on March 20 that Americans would need to maintain maximal social distance–or, more correctly, physical distance–for at least several weeks.

Flu Seattle cops

Seattle Police to Enforce Face Mask Rule (National Archives, 165-WW-269B-25)

Those would be several weeks of extended economic destruction, school hours lost, severe family stress for many, cratering of civic institutions, and considerable social and emotional pain. The alternative, not locking down as severely and only partly “flattening the curve,” would mean more medical system chaos and tens or hundreds of thousands–some might argue millions–more lives lost. What is the trade-off between the social and economic destruction caused by the lockdown versus lives lost?

Making this calculation seems brutal. Do we not believe that each and every life is invaluable – “valuable beyond estimation: priceless”? No. If we really did, we would have 40 MPH speed limits and make cancer treatments free to all who cannot pay. Our society makes trade-offs. (One rough cost-benefit calculation is here.)

Properly speculating about the answer to the trade-off question requires some sense of what the consequences of the current shut down may be. Perhaps a look at the last great pandemic, the 1918 so-called “Spanish” influenza, can help. Here, I first review some lessons from the 1918 flu (based on an admittedly quick skim of the literature and archives, so sure to have some error) and then explore what they might imply for understanding the trade-off today.


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