It’s happening: we’re coming out of our caves, and life is not like it was when we went in, back in March. There are new dangers and much uncertainty, even as science is bringing rapid new knowledge (amid overblown headlines). And there are liars fouling the air. What to do?
I posted this on Facebook the other day:
We will all have to be very careful out there as we start venturing out, because while most people are responsible, a lot of people don’t believe all this dumb stuff about hand washing and masks and sanitizer.
In my local Market Basket store in Nashua NH yesterday I saw employees (teens, not that it matters) mostly using masks correctly but a couple with the mask not covering their nose and one with his mask on his chin as he arranged sandwiches on a display, right under his nose, as he looked down at them.
Some people are emerging cautiously (I’m one), some carelessly (those supermarket workers). Sooner or later you’ll emerge, unless you’re in a tiny minority who will stay locked up for a year or two until there’s a vaccine. Which may be never (link). Well, no matter what, I’m not giving up on life, so the question on my mind for weeks has been, how do we do this as safely as possible?
This post is my two cents, based on what I’ve seen. I’m not trying to persuade anyone to do what I do – to the contrary, I only want you to think for yourself, and question everything you read, including this. You are the one who will suffer if things go wrong for you, and nobody has any certain answers yet about this virus. It was only discovered six months ago (November 2019), and even after publishing this post new news has arrived – I’ve added updates below.
1. It’s going to be dangerous out there because a lot of people are rejecting common sense science.
This “meme” got a ton of laughs on my Facebook Wednesday. It’s a poke at people who don’t want to wear face coverings:
As always in my coronavirus writings, I won’t get political here; regardless of who’s right or wrong, the virus is what we need to deal with, and it doesn’t know politics.
What you need to know is that the virus spreads by being honked out of people’s mouths and noses, and masks are a common sense and recommended way to stop that, but a lot of people for whatever reason are refusing to use them, either to protect themselves or others. Example Wednesday afternoon:
If you want, click through to read the replies to the tweet, which show a wide variety in America: some say they see few masks out there, others say it’s still mandatory where they are. And for something much, much worse, read Rayanne Thorne’s appalling FB post about what her Ring video doorbell has shown when potential buyers (and their realtors) come to look at the house. It’s well written. And appalling.
Why are people acting as if there’s not a problem?
I can’t read minds but experience has shown two psychological reasons why a sensible person might behave this way:
- Availability bias: The name of this effect is confusing (“availability??”); just think of it as “the mind believes what’s familiar and doubts what’s not.” The effect is real: the human mind is heavily influenced by what it’s personally seen. If people haven’t seen a threat near them, they’re more likely to be skeptical. It’s human.
- The ostrich effect: the tendency, when faced with an unpleasant subject, to silently say “I’d rather not think about that.” Thanks to Peter Elias MD for this one.
Regardless of cause, be aware: a lot of people out there may not see a need to act safely. Steer clear of them, just as you do with bad drivers, regardless of cause.
2. Combine common sense with what we do know.
Some of what we do know, or strongly suspect:
- It can kill people. This is not a joke. 95,000 in the US so far.
- The virus exits a sick person through mouth and nose. Update: it can also exit via poo, which sometimes gets on hands. Wash them!!!
- From the air it can land on things and be contagious there for hours or days. Update: new CDC guidance says the virus can, but does not easily, spread from surfaces.
- You (and others) can spread the virus even if not sick. This is why people who won’t wear masks are uninformed or selfish or both.
- It appears to be most contagious in periods of sustained close contact. The best example is the excellent research that was published in April about a cluster of cases from a restaurant in China, all caused by someone with no symptoms. He was sitting right under the air conditioner, which propelled his breath for more than an hour past the adjacent tables, where nine people got the virus:
Note that nobody at the next row of tables got sick, nor in the next room – only the people in the direct line of the air conditioner’s flow. (Normally it wouldn’t travel that far, but the AC evidently propelled the guy’s breath.) Update: you can read the full “preprint” article, with other, more vivid illustrations, here.
So, what does common sense say we should do?
These are my own thoughts; think for yourself.
- Be aware that there’s risk out there, and it’s bigger than it needs to be. You always have the option of staying home; if you go out, protect yourself as you see fit.
- Think about how the virus is transmitted, as best we know. Think “Who might have it?” (answer: everyone), and “how can I minimize my risk?”
- Keep your distance. If some selfish person crowds you, move away.
- When you go out, take sanitizer or wipes.
- Wash your hands when you get home.
3. Don’t put much confidence in statistics or advice you can’t be sure of.
Update 11 a.m.: A new article in MIT Technology Review reports that half of all COVID-19 tweets are from bots. That’s never good; bots are programmed by someone somewhere to spread propaganda, which is the opposite of science.
It’s useful to keep an eye on the daily reports of cases and deaths, but don’t stake your life on them. The statistics are published by governments, and in the US (and elsewhere) some governments have other priorities. The US has accused China of faking the numbers, and it happens in the US, too.
Tuesday night on Facebook I posted at length about fraudulent graphics published by the state of Georgia, a state that’s in a big hurry to re-open asap. Look at this graphic, clarified by blogger Joey Devilla:
See how nicely the curve seems to be declining? But if you look carefully at the baseline you see they moved the dates around! April 28, 27, 29, May 1, back to April 30 then May 4, 6, 5, 2, 7 [I mean, what the heck??], then April 26, then May 3, 8, 9.
Here it is with them in actual date order, with the one tall blue bar chopped off for proper perspective on the rest:
Not at all the same picture of steady decline! This is flat-out fraud. It’s exactly the kind of corruption I mentioned in my post about trusting virus data five weeks ago.
Mind you – it took a lot of work to cobble this together – it was no accident. The governor’s own communications director said so, adding “Our mission failed.” (There’s more in that Facebook post, if you’re interested.)
Update: Here’s how they initially displayed the scrambled dates – dark on a dark background.
What was their “mission”?
Update Sunday 5/25: I was astounded to learn that until now, nursing homes have not been required to report COVID-19 deaths and cases to authorities! They will have to starting June 1. Elders have always been known to be the highest-fatality category; what were people thinking??
Be aware also that the President’s son has suggested urgency about his father’s need to hold big campaign rallies, which are not possible until social distancing rules are lifted.
Whatever your politics, just realize – the numbers you see may not be dependable, so be responsible for your choices.
One more thing: let’s hope for a better breakdown of all virus data.
When you’re trying to understand a big messy situation it can be useful to break it into parts. That applies here, too: as the virus statistics evolve over time, two separate issues have evolved as causing most of the cases:
- Problem cities (New York, Milan, London, Stockholm)
- Nursing homes. (For instance, esterday my state New Hampshire reported eight COVID-19 deaths, six of them in nursing homes.)
The vast majority of the population lives in neither. To help people understand the real risk (locally and globally) it would be really helpful to see the total broken out into those categories.
Use your head. Heed the science.
- Avoid contact, especially with irresponsible people.
- Wear face coverings. Remember, it’s not just for you – it prevents spread, and right now you don’t know whether you’re a symptomless carrier. (Wearing one sets an example for others, too. Remember “availability bias”!)
- Wash your damn hands when you come home or after touching stuff. It works! Stupid little soap bubbles deactivate the invisible virus!
- Be prepared to walk away from dangerous places and things.
A true story after I drafted this:
I had an eye appointment today, because I’m preparing for minor surgery soon. I considered whether to postpone it again, asked my PCP, and decided to keep the appointment with my eyes peeled. They had good procedures with plexiglas and distance markers and lots of sanitizer, and everyone did everything right. I was impressed.
Then my tech sneezed into her glove. Then she opened a door with that glove. Then moved a chair toward me with it.
I asked her to get a wipe. She looked puzzled. I said “That’s the glove you sneezed into.” She said “I sneezed in my mouth!” but she went and got a wipe.
This is how it’s going to be, maybe for a long time. Stay safe out there.