All posts filed under: COVID-19

Splendid Triviality: Philosophy, Art, and Sport in a Time of Crisis

One of my philosophy professors in college remarked that philosophy flourishes in a time of decline or crisis. No, that doesn’t mean that philosophers all secretly pray for catastrophes. But it is true that darker times call for philosophical reflection and that philosophy, like the arts, might have something to offer the human spirit when things cease to make sense. A crisis certainly seems to bring out the worst in us, and it’s hard not to wonder if Hobbes was right about human nature. Certainly many of the headlines from the current crisis document the endless depths of human selfishness. The man in Tennessee who stockpiled 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer and sold them at exorbitant prices comes to mind. But we have also seen stories of courageous selflessness in the service of others, from healthcare workers risking their own lives to young people delivering food to the sequestered elderly. If you read the introduction to the Decameron, set in Italy during the 14th-century plague, it’s clear that, in Boccaccio’s estimation, the bad outweighed the …

The Fear and Fantasy of COVID-19 Vaccination

This article has been expanded and adapted from prepared remarks delivered at the Researchers.One panel “The Science and Social Impact of COVID-19 Vaccines” on March 25th, 2021. The current state of COVID-19 vaccine administration in the United States, with its high levels of vaccine hesitancy and skepticism, can be explained by a model composed of three layers of interconnected system(s) malfunction. Disconnect between scientists’ interests and the public’s concerns, the erosion of trust in the peer review process, and politicization of “narrative” around the novel coronavirus. The stakes for a strong and legitimate public health response have not been higher in our lifetime. With novel coronavirus strains on the way to becoming endemic globally, it is crucial that we re-evaluate our systems and institutions with an eye to making the improvements necessary for robust coordinated operation in the future. Layer one: scientific interest vs. general interest There is an asymmetry between the interests and incentives of the scientific community and those of the lay public. Scientists maintain a culture in which claims without evidence are …

Taboo: Why Is Africa the Global COVID ‘Cold Spot’ and Why Are We Afraid to Talk About It?

The first COVID-19 case in Africa was confirmed on February 14th, 2020, in Egypt. The first in sub-Saharan Africa appeared in Nigeria soon after. Health officials were united in a near-panic about how the novel coronavirus would roll through the world’s second most populous continent. By mid-month, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed four sub-Saharan countries on a “Top 13” global danger list because of direct air links to China. Writing for the Lancet, two scientists with the Africa Center for Disease Control outlined a catastrophe in the making: With neither treatment nor vaccines, and without pre-existing immunity, the effect [of COVID-19] might be devastating because of the multiple health challenges the continent already faces: rapid population growth and increased movement of people; existing endemic diseases… re-emerging and emerging infectious pathogens… and others; and increasing incidence of non-communicable diseases. Many medical professionals predicted that Africa could spin into a death spiral. “My advice to Africa is to prepare for the worst, and we must do everything we can to cut the root problem,” Tedros Adhanom …

The End of Pestilence

Humanity had a vaccine that prevented COVID-19 in January last year. What we did not have was a regulatory system to facilitate rapid assessment of its safety and efficacy or the capacity to manufacture and inoculate at scale. COVID-19 subsequently caused immense human suffering: over 2.5 million deaths and lockdowns upending the lives of billions. It will be years before most of the world is vaccinated and the global economy recovers. It need not be this way in future. Humanity is on the cusp of overcoming one of our oldest foes: pestilence. But to achieve this ambitious task it will take a new way of thinking about vaccine development. Last year there were many who warned of the “risks” of accelerating vaccine development. The Trump Administration’s Operation Warp Speed was criticised for the “potential to cause harm” by loosening safeguards and inciting an antivaxx backlash. If these “go slow” advocates were successful we would still be waiting for vaccines, rather than inoculating millions, saving lives, and on our way to ending this dreadful pandemic. “It’s …

Bunker Boy: Preparing for Apocalypse Since 1979

When I was 11 years old, back in 1979, my mother helped me build a nuclear bunker. It was kitted out with about 50 cans of beans and pulses, tuna, and peaches; every shelf was stuffed with bags of rice, crisps, and chocolate bars; I lined the walls with tin foil (to protect us from gamma radiation from the impending nuclear blasts), and we had three torches, a huge supply of batteries, a home doctor manual, a first aid kit, iodine, a ton of toilet roll, and a bucket for human waste. Although it wouldn’t have been particularly effective in a nuclear war and was little more than the closet under the stairs with all the shoes and mops thrown out to make space, this was my first serious attempt at “prepping” for the end of the world. I spent a lot of time in that little bunker reading up on what to do when the bombs fell and the end began. I recall being worried that I might have to choose between my dog …

With Theatres Shuttered, I Tried to Stage a ‘Zoom Play.’ (It Didn’t Work)

I have always been a playwright. When my grade-six teacher told us to compose our imaginary life stories, mine was called Autobiography of a Playwright. Even back then, I was writing skits and persuading the neighbourhood kids to perform in them. My inspiration (and this will tell you something about my age) was Bing Crosby in Going My Way—a priest who cajoled local juvenile delinquents into singing for the church choir. When I was eight or nine years old, I told my mother I was depressed. “I don’t have anything to look forward to,” I said. She suggested that my father set up a little stage in the basement—complete with a curtain. I was in heaven. As a young man, unfortunately, I watched the cinematic representations of stereotypical playwright characters morph from respected geniuses to laughable neurotics. In the 1950 drama All About Eve, playwright Lloyd Richards was portrayed as a typical pipe-smoking intellectual of the 1940s. Richards casually name-drops “Miller” and “Sherwood” (Arthur and Robert, respectively), situating himself in the context of the day’s …

Lockdown Scepticism Was Never a ‘Fringe’ Viewpoint

Whether or not lockdowns are justifiable on public-health grounds, they certainly represent the greatest infringement on civil liberties in modern history. In the UK, lockdowns have contributed to the largest economic contraction in more than 300 years, as well as countless bankruptcies, and a dramatic rise in public borrowing. This does not mean that lockdowns were the wrong policy, since they might have been necessary to prevent the National Health Service from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 critical-care patients. (And such measures are justified, proponents argue, on the grounds that they prevent infected individuals from harming others by inadvertently transmitting a deadly disease.) But as I will argue below, there’s plenty of evidence that supports those on the other side of this issue, notwithstanding the efforts of politicians, experts, and social-media companies to paint such dissent as marginal or even dangerous. * * * Throughout the pandemic, the British government has assured the public that it is being “led by the science.” However, a number of scientists and other commentators have disputed this claim. These “lockdown …

Do Lockdowns Work? Only If You Lock the Borders Down, Too

For almost a year, the central policy debate in most Western countries has been whether—and for how long—to impose lockdowns. Advocates of stringent lockdowns argue that measures such as stay-at-home orders and forced closures of businesses are necessary to save lives and prevent health-care systems from being overwhelmed. So-called “lockdown sceptics,” on the other hand, argue either that such measures are ineffective, or that their benefits are outweighed by the associated social and economic costs; and that a focussed protection strategy is preferable. (The term “lockdown,” as I am icelusing it, does not encompass all non-pharmaceutical interventions. In particular, I am excluding non-onerous, common-sense measures like asking symptomatic individuals to self-isolate, encouraging vulnerable people to work from home, and restricting large indoor gatherings.) The evidence suggests that lockdowns have been effective, but only when they were combined with strict border controls. Looking across the Western world—Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—just six countries have kept the rate of confirmed COVID-19 deaths below 300 per million. Those six are: Iceland, Norway, Finland, Cyprus, …

COVID-19 and the Ongoing Global Workplace Revolution

For most of the recent past, economic geography has shifted to ever-larger cities across the globe. By the end of the last decade, many were convinced that we were entering a supreme era of the glittering, high-rise “superstar” city that would inevitably swallow all the best bits of the economy, and serve as unparalleled centers of tech, culture, political activism, and global trade. Globally, the ranks of city-dwellers more than doubled over the last 40 years, from 1.5 billion in 1975 to 3.5 billion according to data from the OECD. Yet now this urban-centric pattern may be slowing, and even reversing. Three critical factors are at play here. First, of course, the pandemic has weakened the appeal of urban life by the very logic of social distancing and higher levels of infections and fatalities. The second factor has been an alarming uptick in urban crime and disorder, particularly in the United States but elsewhere as well. Finally, there has been a move to dispersed and online work, which enables people and companies to shift their …

Man vs. Wall: Solitary Sport and Surviving the Pandemic

This is the second instalment in Simple Pleasures, an occasional Quillette series about some of the new joys that our writers have discovered as a result of the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Writers interested in contributing may contact Quillette at pitch@quillette.com. The benefits of exercising with friends are compelling. For instance, people who make a habit of social sports like tennis and golf seem to live longer than those who don’t. Such findings have influenced me over the years, reinforcing lots of participation in my local tennis league. Then, COVID-19. Back in March, many of my hitting partners went on hiatus from the sport, honestly admitting their fears of getting sick, or blaming close family—they were the ones who were worried, refusing to let them play. Others rediscovered their inner teenage rebel. I heard about and saw esteemed members of the professional class—doctors and lawyers—ripping red tape, cutting locks, scaling fences, and squeezing through service gates to access public courts closed by the government. I was invited on these excursions but chose to …