Saturday, July 4, 2020

Death by Smugness

Just Getting Started

The numbers are going up. To round numbers it's now about 2.5 million cases and 125,000 deaths. So about 5%.

So one in twenty of us who get it are scheduled to die until we have an effective vaccine or a cure. Meanwhile our job isn't just to avoid spreading something, but to avoid spreading something we cannot see and don't know is there.

By nature, we prefer to react to visible threats. As a species we invented science as a kind of superpower to help us with invisible threats, to let us see ahead to coming things that might matter but are beyond our senses. But as individual members of our species, we struggle with accepting the things science tells us.

2.5 million infected. It sounds like a lot. But given how easily transmitted this virus is, and given the sense of extreme urgency to “return to normal” we see played out on the news every day. It could soon enough be 250 million infected and 12 million dead. So with 5% of 2.5 million dying, we may just be getting started.

Invisibility Plays Tricks on Us

The difficulty of fighting something invisible is that you don't know if you are fighting it. You might be. You must convince yourself to behave as if every encounter mattered. Just in case.

And yet the paradox is that you become adept at thinking, "I am good at this. I am daily fighting this thing, and winning. I am an expert." It's a natural feeling. But deadly wrong.

The truth is that every experience might matter. Things we do or things we have previously done might have saved our lives. But then again, maybe not. With an invisible threat, we have no proof that anything we have done is working. The virus might simply not have reached us yet. It might be we haven't yet faced it.

It's tedious to keep taking precautions. But, unlike us, the virus is not bored with how things are going. It's patiently looking for a way in. We mustn't give it that opening.

The Avoidable Danger

Yes, some people are being stupid, and that will cost. Maybe they will get sick or die. Maybe nothing will happen directly to them but they will pass things on to others. There is probably nothing we can do to keep people who are bent on doing stupid things from actually doing them. It's not a perfect world.

But some of us are trying to do the right thing, and even we can get tricked because invisibility is hard to reason about. That is the danger I see. That is the avoidable danger. We have to make sure we're thinking right.

We've been doing this awhile now, and our urge is to declare ourselves experts. We think we've seen it. We think we're good at it. We think we can streamline it. A few people go back to work, and no one has died, so we figure we're doing it right and maybe a few more can come back. That's faulty reasoning.

We can take a test, but as soon we're out of the room where we took it, we're contacting things again. We do not go through the day with an aura of testedness protecting us. We can contract the virus on the doorknob as we leave the testing room.

The one thing we know, as there are more cases, is that there will be more chances to find out that what we are doing is insufficient. But we do not know if we are being daily stressed and our defenses are good, or if we're just lucky our neighbors have been careful, and so the virus hasn't reached us at all.

A Deadly, Paradoxical Conclusion

With more and more virus out there, we're tempted to conclude we are surviving more and more onslaught. But we cannot know. For now there is only one thing to do: Be relentlessly safe.

No, let me put that in even stronger terms. Be more safe. Don't think yourself practiced. Think of yourself as still new, still learning, still all too able to make mistakes if you fail to pay attention. Rather than try to streamline what you're doing, find ways to bolster your protections, because what you're doing so far may not be enough as numbers rise and the invisible enemy is ever more likely to be really making contact.

Some of the risk can't be avoided. The existence of people too lazy or indifferent to care may be an inevitability. But getting too smug about that can kill us, too. We need to all stay humble in the face of this, so we don't fail to address the issues that are within our control simply for not having taken the time to look for them.

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