NY Times newsletter: Maybe these COVID fears are a bit irrational

David Leonhardt wrote a piece for the Times today titled “Irrational Covid Fears.” The piece opens with a story a Yale law professor shares with his students every year.

He tells the students to imagine a god coming forth to offer society a wondrous invention that would improve everyday life in almost every way. It would allow people to spend more time with friends and family, see new places and do jobs they otherwise could not do. But it would also come with a high cost. In exchange for bestowing this invention on society, the god would choose 1,000 young men and women and strike them dead.

Calabresi then asks: Would you take the deal? Almost invariably, the students say no. The professor then delivers the fable’s lesson: “What’s the difference between this and the automobile?”

What we’re supposed to take from this is the idea that we tend to ignore big systemic risks unless they are new to us. Actually, I think the professor’s story isn’t a very good stand in for the automobile so allow me a couple paragraphs to argue the point before we move on.

For one thing, in the story the students are given a choice, meaning they have a specific responsibility for accepting or rejecting the deal being offered to them, one which results in the deaths of the 1,000 young men. But most people alive were born into a system of cars and roadways that already exists. They never received an offer like the one described in the story. They could oppose it of course or choose not to get a driver’s license, but that wouldn’t change the outcome for the rest of us. So, first off, there’s no sense in which individuals are specifically responsible for the deaths that occur on the road like the story suggests.

Secondly, the story suggests the deaths of the 1,000 men will be random. This adds an element of unfairness to the bargain since there’s nothing the men can do to avoid becoming a random sacrifice. But according to the CDC, 28% of traffic deaths in 2016 (about 10,497 in all) were related to alcohol-impaired driving. Another 3,000 people die every year because of distracted driving, i.e. texting while behind the wheel. And then there’s speeding. According to the NHTSA, “In 2018, speeding killed 9,378 people.” Obviously, you can still find examples of people who did nothing wrong and died in a car accident but a significant percentage of the accidents that happen every year involve individual decisions made by the driver (or by the driver of the other car).

If you can put all of that aside, Leonhardt does eventually come around to a point I think is a good one: People are more afraid of the virus than they really ought to be at this point, especially those who’ve been vaccinated.

The vaccines have nearly eliminated death, hospitalization and other serious Covid illness among people who have received shots. The vaccines have also radically reduced the chances that people contract even a mild version of Covid or can pass it on to others.

Yet many vaccinated people continue to obsess over the risks from Covid — because they are so new and salient…

If you’re vaccinated, Covid presents a minuscule risk to you, and you present a minuscule Covid risk to anyone else. A car trip is a bigger threat, to you and others. About 100 Americans are likely to die in car crashes today. The new federal data suggests that either zero or one vaccinated person will die today from Covid.

Leonhardt doesn’t spell it out, but he’s really talking to progressives in blue states who polls have shown are far more likely to be worried about the dangers associated with the virus. You don’t even need polls, just look at what teacher’s unions have been doing around the country. Six weeks ago, Jonathan Chait called the behavior of unions “zeroism” the idea that we need to bring the risk to zero before anyone can be expected to do anything. It’s a perspective which has, unfortunately, been allowed to do a lot of damage to students and to the economy over the past year.

But despite grasping the problem with this outlook, Leonhardt also knows his audience and so he quickly undercuts his own point:

It’s true that experts believe vaccinated people should still sometimes wear a mask, partly because it’s a modest inconvenience that further reduces a tiny risk — and mostly because it contributes to a culture of mask wearing. It is the decent thing to do when most people still aren’t vaccinated. If you’re vaccinated, a mask is more of a symbol of solidarity than anything else.

It would be one thing if Dr. Fauci and others were saying what Leonhardt is saying, i.e. this doesn’t matter much but it’s a cultural symbol of solidarity. At least then people could just openly disagree and say, ‘sorry, but I’m not in solidarity with this any more.’ But the experts mostly aren’t saying that. Instead they are arguing as if there is still a risk from vaccinated people, one that needs to be endlessly mitigated even among people who were vaccinated months ago.

To sum this up, there are a lot of problems with this column but there are also a few admissions against interest that make sense and are moving in the right direction. The story ends with a doctor from Brown University who said, “There are going to be some challenges to re-acclimating and re-entering [the normal world]” He added, “But we’ve got to do it.” He’s right and it’s worth pointing out that some people, mostly on the right, who have already re-acclimated to the risk have been saying the same for months.