There’s nothing so satisfying as believing that everyone else is the problem. For those who are so inclined, the pandemic has provided ample opportunity to wallow in self-satisfaction.
A new dispatch in Axios provides some relief for those with both pandemic-related anxiety and an unsatisfied sense of superiority. Based on an analysis conducted by pollster Frank Luntz, the report posits that many of the headaches associated with those who are resistant to sheltering in place for the duration of the crisis can be ameliorated by rhetorical cleverness. It turns out, skeptics of harsh state-level mandates designed to mitigate the threat of pathogens can be bamboozled by the clever use of synonyms. This is “particularly true for Republicans.”
Luntz’s study advises policymakers to melt recalcitrant Republican hearts by substituting terms like “lockdown” with “stay-at-home order.” Though the latter is of dubious constitutionality, it sounds cozier and less evocative of administrative segregation. Luntz further recommends that administrators replace “mandates” with “protocols,” “coronavirus” with “pandemic,” “science” with “fact-based,” and “government” with “public health agencies.” And you can really trigger the conservative erogenous zone by describing COVID’s onerous burdens and hardships imposed on average Americans as one’s “national duty” or “personal responsibility.”
If this was a public-relations campaign and not a nine-month-old living nightmare, these manipulative suggestions might have had an impact—even if they are dripping with condescension. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the condescension might just be the whole point.
There are many who believe, thoughtfully, that the tradeoffs associated with the public response to the pandemic must be calibrated to diminish negative second-order effects. But there is an assumption, shared by a good portion of the press, that such people are no different from those who insist the disease is some elaborate Communist plot. And items like Axios’s are designed to advance that conceit. It concludes: “These suggestions may fall on deaf ears, as not all officials, newsrooms and business leaders are incentivized to think about public safety over personal objectives.” Indeed, you are the enlightened sort who gets it—not like those mouth-breathing boobs who won’t be led to water, much less drink the stuff.
“If we don’t get this language right,” Luntz avers, “people will die.” This is a tragically familiar formulation. Many have issued such warnings. They are predicated on research and offered with the most altruistic intentions. And in the end, they’re wrong.
In the late spring, when both Georgia and Florida’s governors abandoned the kind of draconian lockdown orders still in place in the Northeast and on the West Coast, their critics assumed that the inevitable result would be an orgy of death. “Georgia’s Experiment in Human Sacrifice,” read the Atlantic’s headline. “Georgia leads the race to become America’s No. 1 Death Destination,” Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank opined. “The Florida governor is trying to kill you,” opinion writer Kevin Manahan wrote, “all the while looking to pin thousands of future deaths on you, too.” And as the summer wore on and infection rates in Florida began to rise even as the Northeast’s declined, media outlets appeared to celebrate the Sunshine State’s misfortune. “Florida Smirked at New York’s Virus Crisis,” the New York Times headline read. “Now It Has Its Own.” But neither Georgia nor Florida ever endured the death toll these self-assured observers forecast, in part, because both states had learned from the fatal mistakes made by the governors of New York and New Jersey.
Public health experts in the United States have long maintained that the first observed case of COVID-19 in America was uncovered on January 21, and those who suspected that the virus arrived in North America earlier were mistaken. That initial assessment was wielded like a cudgel against the many who observed a bizarre late 2019 uptick in respiratory infections in the United States. Snarky headlines were crafted, and “pants on fire” verdicts were issued. “If genomics isn’t your thing, consider this,” Slate’s Jane Hu wrote. “If the virus had arrived earlier [than January 2020], we would have known.” Once again, the self-assuredness was unwarranted. “SARS-CoV-2 infections may have been present in the U.S. in December 2019, earlier than previously recognized,” read the findings of a study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases.
Modeling how complex systems will behave even in the near-term is complicated by the number of variables those models must account for. And when the model must include nearly all of the innumerable interactions and activities that constitute daily life, the model is going to get a few things wrong. Many of the forecasted trajectories of this virus proved to be inaccurate. As Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis explained over the summer, many of the models that states relied upon at the outset of the pandemic overestimated viral reproduction rates and susceptibility to infection. And yet, the analysts forge ahead, issuing new, far-reaching predictions even as they wade through a hip-deep morass of flawed and discarded forecasts.
Some of their predictions: Handshakes are a thing of the past. Though the custom has endured for millennia and all their associated pandemics, this one has done it in for good. Masking will become a “general cultural norm” in the United States. The city as we know it will be far less attractive unless it is reinvented. Business travel is all but extinct, which will make traveling for leisure more expensive and, thus, less frequent. In many of these cases, and depending on the person making the projection, it’s difficult to separate the wish from the thought. But the fact that so many past predictions around this pandemic were flawed seems no obstacle to making new ones or issuing them with the utmost confidence and disdain for skeptics.
If there’s one thing the coronavirus should have taught us by now, it’s humility. Much like toilet paper, though, that is a commodity that remains in short supply.