The more that you sacrifice in the COVID-19 fight, the more you believe the fight was worthwhile?

Part of a holiday letter from a friend in the UK:

The British are, on the whole, law abiding. The stringent measures [against COVID-19] have worked quite well, and it reminds me of what the British historian A.J. P. Taylor said about British discipline. It is a little-known fact that during the war Britain evolved, voluntarily, a far more comprehensive state-directed society than was the case in Hitler’s Germany, or anywhere else for that matter.

The old Romans chose a dictator for a limited time when the country faced a crisis. The British chose Churchill. The dictator was given unlimited powers but could at any time be deposed by Parliament. Every aspect of life was state-directed: manpower, the economy, use of housing, agriculture, industry, compulsory female conscription, public health services, welfare – everything, everything within the life of the community. Even my mother, a concert pianist, had to join the WAAF – Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. And all the nation’s town-dwelling children sent off to the country.

No country in the industrialised world had ever seen the likes of this total war mobilisation. Hitler quite simply could not risk imposing such restrictions on the German people, the restrictions, duties and self-denials which the British willingly accepted. When peace came this entire state-run apparatus was dismantled and the so-called full mobilisation left no lasting impression on society.

I am not sure we have all been dutiful and self-denying, but the results are there.

She has given up much of what formerly gave her life value and meaning. We’d met on a Northwest Passage cruise in 2019, for example. and she is a champion skier within her age group. She never married, has no children, and lives alone; quarantine/lockdown means solitary confinement. What is it that convinces her that the sacrifice was effective? It can’t be the numbers. The UK is near the top of countries ranked by COVID-19-tagged deaths (though masked-and-shut-for-10-months Massachusetts has a yet higher death rate).

Could it be the sacrifice itself that makes her think that the sacrifice was worthwhile?

From 2007:

and Oliver Cromwell, who never met an epidemiologist: “A few honest men are better than numbers”. But maybe he predicted American politics: “No one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going.”

12 thoughts on “The more that you sacrifice in the COVID-19 fight, the more you believe the fight was worthwhile?

  1. If she never married, has no children, and lives alone, I think quarantine/lockdown is no big deal for her and, being an athlete, she’s probably far more concerned about maintaining her health than about her social life at the moment.

    • Jennifer: I told the young students in our MIT class (via Zoom) last week the same thing! They’re not married, have no children, and may live alone. I said that if it would cut my risk of coronaplague by 1 percent I would appreciate them staying in lockdown for the next 10 years. I told them that it would be no big deal for them and it might help me.

    • But your response is about your not getting Covid, not the students’ not getting it. Your skier friend, who is surely accustomed to being alone and focused, under extreme circumstances, is most likely okay with lockdown/quarantine in order not to unnecessarily expose herself to the virus. And she’s also glad to be able not to be a potential, unsuspecting spreader to her more susceptible fellow Britons. Serendipitous sacrifice? Whereas most of your students are probably not okay with being shut in, and not terribly afraid of getting very sick should they become infected. And if the likelihood of their spreading the virus is truly so low, then it is clearly an unjust requirement. Yet it won’t last for that much longer in the big picture of their hopefully long and healthy lives. Each situation is unique. Sadly, many who have gotten very sick or died from Covid have had no choice about being in places where viruses spread easily, like meat processing plants. Others choose to be in crowded places indoors and spread it around willy-nilly. Do you think all your students would act in a way that would not spread the virus to more susceptible people, or to people who are in close daily contact with more susceptible people? Maybe, maybe not. Everyone should want that there be space in the hospital, and available, trained personnel, to tend to other conditions that require intensive care.
      In another vein, I’ve been meaning to comment that I think comparing Sweden to most other countries, with the exception of a handful of small, Nordic countries, is not practical. It’s interesting, but not very useful. It’s like equating apples and grapes. They may both be fruits, but the similarities end about there. Context, history, culture, patterns of behavior, living conditions/arrangements, government, access to healthcare, poverty levels, etc. etc. all affect the spread of a virus. Do you ever comment on New Zealand’s successes? They did lockdowns, and it worked. Are they not better-off than Sweden right now, in terms of Covid hospitalizations and deaths? Southern California, India, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, etc. are all quite different from New Zealand. Once again, apples and grapes. National, relative poverty rates are sure to end up highly correlating with hospitalizations and direct/indirect Covid-related deaths. Poverty sucks. Everyone should be doing something to end it.

    • Jennifer: In 2019 and before, science meant putting forward a hypothesis and then testing it with data. By this standard, the Swedish MD/PhDs were 95 percent correct. Back in February 2020, they said that European countries, including Sweden, would end up with similar cumulative death rates by April 2021, regardless of government policy (e.g., lockdowns versus no lockdowns; not sure they contemplated that Californians would be willing to do a one-year lockdown, depriving children of school, etc.). The Swedes also said that China would be able to use its more powerful government to squelch the virus via lockdowns.

      Science circa 2020 evolved into “Wait until all data are available, find an outlier, then declare that it would have been trivial to become the outlier.” After nearly a year of data, therefore, we say “Laos and Cambodia had zero Covid-19 deaths, so we could have been like Laos and Cambodia” or “New Zealand was able to suppress the virus and therefore we should have too” (ignoring that NZ is surrounded by the world’s best border wall, i.e., the Southern Ocean, and that if it were easy for a country with land borders to become NZ the Swiss or some other European country would have done it).

      We’ve seen this with California. Back in November when the cumulative death rate was low, scientists looked back and spun a tale of how California’s policy had resulted in low deaths. Now that California has a high death rate, scientists look back and spin tales of how it was inevitable that California would have a high death rate.

      If we had picked comparison groups back in February, these country-to-country comparisons would make some sense according to Science v2019. Nobody in February was saying, however, “It would be stupid to compare Sweden to the UK, Belgium, or Spain and the only obvious comparisons are Finland, Norway, and Denmark.” It is only now that we have all the data available that we decide which countries are the best comparison (and, coincidentally, these show that our religion is true and the Swedish religion is false).

      We’re seeing this new form of science right now. We look at in which the U.S. is #5 (out of nearly 200 countries) in COVID-19 vaccinations per 100 people. We see that Israel is an outlier at the top and say “It is obvious that the U.S. should have been the outlier.”

      (Separately, my skier friend was NOT accustomed to being alone prior to coronapanic/lockdown! She had an incredibly rich social life at her home, not to mention regular ski trips with friends, cruises like the one we were on, etc. She happens to be in the club, which leads to high social status and a lot of social interaction.)

    • The interesting pattern I’ve seen is that people only complain about how unreasonable it is to compare different states or countries when the comparison reveals something they don’t want to believe. For instance, in June/July, Florida began to reject the Church of the Shutdown and the ritual of the Mask. Reputable news agencies immediately began to point out how Florida had much worse coronavirus than other states and countries, for instance,

      Their terrible infection rate was attributed to their heresy against the Shutdown and the Mask.

      Was that comparison reasonable? Nobody complained then.

      Now, California is averaging 637 deaths per week and Florida is averaging 188:

      Per capita, California has 2x the death rate of Florida. Is it reasonable to compare the states now? If the earlier Florida spike was evidence in favor of Shutdowns and Masks, is the current data not much stronger evidence against Shutdowns and Masks?

    • is a good example of how Science v2020 can work. On April 28, the New York Times thought it made sense to compare Sweden to Ireland, Britain, and France:

      Sweden’s death rate of 22 per 100,000 people is the same as that of Ireland, which has earned accolades for its handling of the pandemic, and far better than in Britain or France.


      But with a few months of additional data, we simply assert that comparing Sweden to Ireland, Britain, or France is obviously ridiculous and the only natural comparisons are Finland and Norway (Laos and Cambodia would make the Swedes look even dumber for being heretics!).

      What if we followed Science v.2019 and stuck with the NYT’s original comparison set?

      shows that Sweden has a lower COVID-19-tagged death rate than the UK (“Britain”) and France (“Frogland”) and nearly double the death rate of Ireland.

    • Sweden’s initial response to the pandemic was appropriate and effective, though it expedited the deaths of the elderly and infirm who would have died relatively soon anyway. Some may be okay with this, others not. The approach suited their national psyche and was doable within their economic, political and cultural context. Approximately 50% of Swedish households are single-person, accounting for about 20% of their population. They generally don’t engage in public displays of physical greetings and affection, and they highly value their personal space. They also have relatively low poverty levels (although somewhat comparable to most of the EU), are a generally healthy, active people who spend a lot of time outdoors and who maintain good immune systems. Most relevant, perhaps, is that they tend not to question their health authorities and trust that the public health experts have their best interests at heart, so they follow the guidelines and respect the rules. These are all behaviors that dovetail well with Dr. Tegnell’s initial recommendations, which did not involve severe restrictions on social and economic life. The point of my previous comment is that this approach would not have worked well, or even have been feasible, in more crowded, poorer, multi-generational household, high public display of affection/kissing countries of Europe, most of Latin America and parts of the United States, such as southern Florida, southern California, etc. I understand that even with severe lockdowns and restrictions these places have fared poorly in coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths, but it surely it would have been even worse for them had they blindly emulated Sweden’s very culture-specific approach. So, kudos to Sweden for maintaining a relatively normal level of existence during this pandemic, but kudos also to all of the other governments that have managed to do relatively well by their people, even if that has involved severe lockdowns and restrictions. It seems the U.S. doesn’t quite fall into either category, unfortunately.

    • Jennifer: The Stanford Medical School heretics can’t find any benefits to government-ordered lockdowns. See this January 5, 2021 paper:

      If these Stanford folks are right, leaving out the powerful organized police states and the islands, a government that did nothing at all in response to COVID-19 would be just as good, in terms of COVID-19 death rate, as any other government. (Since humans tend to be fearful and a lot of people would retreat into bunkers if they heard that the plague was circulating. So you’d end up with reduction in travel and mobility whenever a plague was raging.) Also, of course, a government that doesn’t impose a lockdown will save a lot of lives by avoiding lockdown-related deaths.

    • I concede that the Stanford data shows that the countries included that have implemented less-restrictive, non-pharmaceutical interventions (Sweden and south Korea) have experienced similar, or even less, Covid case growth than that experienced by the countries included that have implemented more-restrictive, non-pharmaceutical interventions. BUT, these numbers cannot tell us how much worse it might have been had the countries with more-restrictive measures instead implemented less-restrictive measures. Once again, it is like equating apples with grapes. Sweden and south Korea are highly organized, disciplined societies in which less-restrictive measures are mostly followed, contact tracing is done meticulously or even by the infected themselves (in Sweden), etc. Also, but unrelated to the study’s objective, the Stanford data does not tell us which segments of society are being infected, hospitalized and dying, and who is following the restrictions, because they can, as compared with who is not because it is a matter of survival to put food on the table and keep a roof over their family’s heads. As much as people might want to retreat to avoid a plague, many simply can’t (e.g. meat processing workers in South Dakota and every domestic and under-employed service worker in the developing world), so the latter end up getting infected, super-sick or dying, regardless of their government’s approach/restrictions. I cringe to think of how much worse the infection, hospitalization and death rates would be in the urban centers of Ecuador if the government had not imposed restrictive interventions and closures. Overflowing hospitals and sick and dead people piling up even higher in the streets is what would have happened. The situation is horrific enough as it stands.

    • Jennifer,
      Do you have an example of country which you consider NOT a “highly organized, disciplined society” to quote you in which less-restrictive measures produced deadlier results then in the Unites States, those states that lock up? Your logic seems to be (relative success with less restrictive measures) => (country/people is/are anyway organized). Swedes are not known for their love of marching is straight lines. Neither are South Koreans, even though they have to maintain powerful military.

  2. Gustave Le Bon offers an intriguing way of understanding Coronapanic: as a collective hallucination of “the crowd”. He offers numerous examples, such as:

    ‘The frigate, the Belle Poule, was cruising in the open sea for the purpose of finding the cruiser Le Berceau, from which she had been separated by a violent storm. It was broad daylight and in full sunshine. Suddenly the watch signalled a disabled vessel … and every one, officers and sailors, clearly perceived a raft covered with men towed by boats which were displaying signals of distress. … On nearing the object sighted, the sailors and officers on board the boat saw “masses of men in motion, stretching out their hands, and heard the dull and confused noise of a great number of voices.” When the object was reached those in the boat found themselves simply and solely in the presence of a few branches of trees covered with leaves that had been swept out from the neighbouring coast.’

    The perceptions of a crowd are highly unreliable: “The events with regard to which there exists the most doubt are certainly those which have been observed by the greatest number of persons.”

    The judgement of the crowd is emotional: “Crowds are only cognisant of simple and extreme sentiments; the opinions, ideas, and beliefs suggested to them are accepted or rejected as a whole, and considered as absolute truths or as not less absolute errors.”

    The obvious objection is that, in a world under lockdown, where is this crowd? Answer: on the Internet, as a phenomenon emerging from social networks. Coronaplague might be the first ever world-wide hallucination. So to answer your question, the sacrifice was worthwhile because the “crowd”, of which your friend is a part, demands that it is worthwhile and will not tolerate dissent. It would be interesting to see what correlation there is between the intensity of a person’s usage of social networking and the strength of his belief in Coronaplague.

    Le Bon is unlikely to be featured favorably in any mainstream outlet today. One more quote will show why: “…Among the special characteristics of crowds there are several – such as impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgement and of the critical spirit, the exaggeration of the sentiments, and others besides – which are almost always observed in beings belonging to inferior forms of evolution – in women, savages, and children, for instance.”

Comments are closed.