Both-sidesing COVID

Being too cautious and careless are not equal sins.

On Wednesday, the NYT’s The Daily podcast featured the first episode of what was purportedly a two-part series featuring David Leonhardt, “We Need to Talk About Covid.” I had planned to write about it after the second part but it has yet to drop. Thursday’s episode, understandably, dealt with the breaking development of Justice Bryer’s retirement and the resulting opportunity for President Biden to replace an octogenarian white man with a decades-younger Black woman. Friday’s episode, though, deals with the regulation of the beef industry. I don’t know if the second part is still forthcoming or why it was delayed.

The New Republic‘s Melody Schreiber didn’t wait to comment and her views overlap mine, although not exactly. Her piece is titled “The Big-Name Journalists Who Are Trying to ‘Both Sides’ Covid.” She identifies the same core issue I had with Leonhardt’s analysis but sees it as much more problematic than I do.

Let’s back up. The episode in question dealt with a NYT survey of American attitudes about the pandemic. Essentially, as I’ve noted previously, Leonhardt thinks there’s very good reason to think that the high transmissibility and relatively low intensity of the Omicron variant means COVID could soon become endemic. And he was surprised by how the poll broke down.

David Leonhardt
I think this is really remarkable. We found a striking degree of similarity among older and younger people about how worried they were about getting sick from Covid. So 17% of people aged 65 and above said they were very worried about getting sick from Covid, and 23% of people 18 to 34 said they were very worried.

[…]

So younger people were slightly more likely to say that they were very worried about getting sick from Covid than older people. Now, when you look across the whole poll — I don’t want to make too much of small differences — what I would say is that the degree of worry is quite similar among younger people and older people. And the reason that’s so surprising is that we know scientifically the risk is not similar. It’s extremely different.

[…]

It’s much higher for older people. It’s so much higher that 3/4 of all deaths in the U.S. have been among people age 65 and older.

[…]

Covid is overwhelmingly mild for younger people. And yet, older people and younger people essentially look at the risks and give extremely similar answers, even though the reality is that the risks are very different.

Michael Barbaro
Well, given all that, what would drive young people to be as anxious as older people about Covid, because the data shows that’s just not in line with the scientific risk. How do you start to explain that?

David Leonhardt
I start to explain it by saying political ideology has to be a big part of this. And we see that repeatedly in the poll. So across most demographic groups, Covid attitudes really aren’t that different. Men and women don’t have very different Covid attitudes. Different racial groups don’t have very different Covid attitudes. The rich, the middle class, and the poor don’t have very different Covid attitudes. Who does have very different Covid attitudes? Democrats and Republicans.

[…]

Radically different Covid attitudes. And I think the most fascinating way to see this is to look at the poll by both partisanship and by age. It’s really remarkable. So if you look across either Republicans or Democrats, there’s almost no difference in how people assess their own personal risk by age. So old Republicans are roughly as worried as young Republicans. Old Democrats are roughly as worried as young Democrats. And as we’ve talked about, that’s just not scientifically rational.

But when you separate out Democrats and Republicans, the gap is enormous. It is so big that older Republicans are significantly less worried about getting sick than younger Democrats. Only 47% of Republicans who are 65 and older say they are worried about getting sick from Covid. 70% of Democrats between the ages of 18 and 34 are worried about it. So when you look at all this, what you end up seeing is that people’s attitudes toward risk doesn’t seem to be driven by rational thought or scientific evidence, so much as it seems to be driven by political belief.

Michael Barbaro
David, it’s interesting you used the word rational. It sounds like you’re saying that there’s a politically-infused irrationality to these divergent views of the old and the young when it comes to the risk of Covid.

David Leonhardt
Yes, I am. And I think there is. I think you see it with Republicans who are refusing to get vaccinated. And I think you see it with Democrats who are really struggling to imagine a future in which Covid isn’t a dominant part of our life.

I always tell people don’t put too much stock into any one poll. But it’s not just our poll that’s finding this. It’s poll after poll. As the folks at Gallup said, “Republicans are consistently underestimating Covid risks and Democrats are consistently overestimating Covid risks.”

The omitted portions are simply Barbaro interrupting with “Mmm” and the like.

There’s a lot more but that’s the basic setup. And I agree with Leonhardt that the poll is indeed evidence of irrationality across the board. Indeed, the poll finds that healthy, youngish, fully vaccinated people—who are at virtually zero risk of dying from the virus—are actually more afraid of doing so than older, unvaccinated people. And I agree with Leonhardt that this is absurd in both directions.

Where I absolutely agree with Schreiber, though, as these irrationalities are by no means equal. The damage done to society by the careless unvaccinated is, quite obviously, much higher than that done by the overly-cautious boosted. The latter are mostly doing damage to themselves (and perhaps their children) by under-living their lives.

But Schreiber goes further, still.

In pieces like these, there is typically little or no discussion of the actual reasons people may be concerned about getting sick. Not everyone is worried about their personal demise. They may instead be worried about spreading the virus to elderly or immunocompromised people or to children who aren’t eligible or allowed to get vaccinated, or they may be concerned about overwhelming hospitals, developing a “mild” course of Covid that nevertheless leads to long-term illness or disability, missing work while sick, losing childcare after they or their kids test positive, or falling behind in school. The choice isn’t a binary between being afraid for one’s own personal safety or carrying on. Mass death isn’t inevitable; being concerned about the vulnerable or the course of the pandemic as whole isn’t pathological.

That’s true! The poll should probably have done more to distinguish the reasons why people are afraid.*

While worrying about getting others sick is “admirable,” Leonhardt said, “those other people have also had the opportunity to get vaccinated.” He worries that pandemic restrictions are the reason behind a rise in violent crime and overdoses, even though the United States hasn’t seen anything approaching lockdowns since spring 2020 and many places saw no restrictions at all.

Leonhardt is working from two data pools here—his poll and the extremely limited statistics on deaths from Covid in vaccinated and boosted populations. But his interpretation of the data misses a few key points. Not everyone who is at risk even after their initial vaccination knows that they need a booster shot, and there is a strong correlation between vaccination status and income and health insurance status. A “mild” illness still has repercussions beyond hospitalization and death. And even when you’re vaccinated, you may still pass the virus on to others.

“By drawing on this (incorrect) personal responsibility argument, he makes the deaths and suffering of those affected seem acceptable,” Dr. Cecília Tomori, director of global public health and community health at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, wrote to me when I asked her about the podcast. “Disturbingly, at one point he highlighted that really only the immunocompromised and elderly are not fully protected after vaccination—as if the impacts on these people were acceptable. That is a eugenic argument.”

This strikes me as unfair in the extreme. He isn’t arguing that killing off the old and infirm is an acceptable price to pay to get on with our lives. Rather, he’s arguing that it’s the old and infirm who should be exercising the greatest precautions whereas others should update their priors based on the effectiveness of the vaccines and the relative mildness of the current dominant strain.

Now, as noted a few days back when I accused Leonhardt of COVID triumphalism, while I share his hopefulness regarding current trends,

Daily new cases and daily new deaths in the US are still are near-peak highs. Hospitals are still having trouble meeting the demand for new COVID patients. And, while Omicron certainly seems far less deadly than Delta and other previous incarnations, “natural immunity,” much like the “immunity” conferred by vaccination, is far from total or permanent. [For new readers: I’m vaxxed and boosted as are my family members and strongly advocate people get their shots. But the reality is that breakthrough cases exist and immunity, even from boosters, seems to decline relatively quickly.]

There’s room for hope that this is the beginning of the end. But it would be foolish, indeed, to condition our public health policy or our personal behavior based on these hopes. Indeed, doing so might well lead to a self-negating prophecy. It’s certainly no time to let up on masking—indeed, we should all be in K/N95s now—and boosting.

Nor is there any guarantee that whatever variant follows Omicron will be as mild or milder. And, while the developed world is vaccinated and boosted at disappointing levels, it’s light years beyond where most of the Global South is. New strains will continue coming.

Leonhardt may well prove right and I don’t mind him having a big platform to spread his message. But, considering that he’s telling so many of us what we want to hear, there’s definitely danger in his drowning out more cautious—and expert—voices.

*UPDATE: Here’s a link to Leonhardt’s 25 Jan. report “Two Covid Americas,” which was presumably the basis for the podcast invitation. And to the raw poll results themselves.

The poll actually does break down fear of getting sick oneself and fear of one’s children, parents, or friends getting sick. It does not ask communal-level questions, though.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    So across most demographic groups, Covid attitudes really aren’t that different. Men and women don’t have very different Covid attitudes. Different racial groups don’t have very different Covid attitudes. The rich, the middle class, and the poor don’t have very different Covid attitudes. Who does have very different Covid attitudes? Democrats and Republicans.

    Does Leonhardt mean Covid attitudes aren’t different across demographics groups once you normalize for other factors? Because Democrats and Republicans have very different racial, gender, and wealth makeups, so I would actually be pretty shocked if there was a big difference between Democrats and Republicans that didn’t show up at all in any of the underlying group differences as well.

    That is, I could see it being the case that white Republicans don’t differ from black Republicans and white Democrats don’t differ from black Democrats, but given 90% of blacks are Democrats, I find it unlikely that whites and blacks are the same in raw terms but Democrats and Republicans are very different in raw terms because it seems like that would violate Baye’s theorem

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  2. gVOR08 says:

    David Leonhardt discovered people aren’t very good at estimating risk. Gotta be a Pulitzer in it, maybe even a Nobel.

    This was apparently a poll Leonhardt commissioned and I didn’t see a link to the poll results. What did it ask? The discussion seems to slip casually between fear of death and fear of getting sick. With Omicron widespread kids fearing getting sick is pretty rational, as is fear of spreading it to the more vulnerable.

    Leonhardt seems to be dancing pretty close to the false dichotomy common in conservative discussion, there is only living your life in constant fear or bravely ignoring COVID altogether. Can’t I just go on living mostly normally but taking reasonable precautions?

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  3. CSK says:
  4. Argon says:

    My major concerns with getting COVID are:
    1. Infecting someone else, particularly someone more vulnerable.
    2. Putting additional strain on the health system
    3. Burdening someone else to cover my absence at work.

    People wearing masks, getting fully vaccinated, being tested, maintaining distance and reducing contacts are not the major problem here. Omicron is not a variant with greatly reduced effects and it doesn’t come close to the 10-20x increased risk of hospitalization and death compared to the vaccinated.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08: I’ve appended links to the bottom of the OP.

  6. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    The one link doesn’t =)

  7. Cheryl Rofer says:

    What Leonhardt misses is that this is a collective problem. It doesn’t matter that he feels he is invulnerable to the virus, a too-common masculine approach to illness of all kinds. What matters is that we – all of us, the collective, the public in “public health,” society – must get the prevalence of the virus down. That means young and old, whether they feel personally invulnerable, must contribute to the effort. If they are not contributing, they are delaying the end of the pandemic that Leonhardt so desperately wants. And Leonhardt, by pressing for something he feels comfortable with as “normal,” is delaying the end of the pandemic.

    He calls himself a data journalist, but he has NO SENSE AT ALL of the numbers involved. I ginned up a very simple Excel model back when my numerical intuition failed me, and it showed me what I had missed. One might think a data journalist could do the same, but Leonhardt’s intuition has failed again and again. He’s called the end to the pandemic at least five or six times. And Barbaro and their editors are worse.

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  8. de stijl says:

    @Argon:

    My first response to getting Covid (November 2020) was who else did I inadvertently infect. What ripples did I cause?

    My personal malady was way less important than who I might have infected.

    At the time I was in a relationship. I was freaked out that I’d infected her or her mother. (Her mother was super pissed at me for bringing taint and disease into their home. Chinese mom.)

    I felt shame.

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  9. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    He’s called the end to the pandemic at least five or six times.

    I’m reminded of the joke about the “New Warnings from financial analyst who has successfully predicted 10 of the last three stock market crashes” headline

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  10. Mimai says:

    The social dynamic seems relevant here.

    To express high worry (and act accordingly) about COVID sends a fairly clear signal. Like what color jersey one wears in a two-team competition.

    To express less than high worry (and act accordingly) about COVID sends a less clear signal. Is this person a COVID denier? Vaxed, boosted, and low risk? Sick of COVID restrictions? etc… In other words, it’s less clear what color jersey they wear.

    My team vs. other team? We look for obvious signals to reduce the noise of everyday life. Of course, despite their obvious nature, such signals are error prone. But we accept this trade off.

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  11. Kathy says:

    Even if they are at low risk of severe disease, hospitalization, or death, the young have the most to lose from long COVID. Imagine living another 50 or 60 years with that.

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  12. Gustopher says:

    While worrying about getting others sick is “admirable,” Leonhardt said, “those other people have also had the opportunity to get vaccinated.” He worries that pandemic restrictions are the reason behind a rise in violent crime and overdoses, even though the United States hasn’t seen anything approaching lockdowns since spring 2020 and many places saw no restrictions at all.

    Those who get on their high horse about “too much caution around covid” are always assigning all sorts of crazy costs to too much caution that don’t reflect reality.

    And, for the record, I think the increase in violent crime is just that more people are showing the fact that they need killin’. The last few years we’ve seen the belligerently stupid really asserting themselves, and belligerently stupid people tend to respond poorly to other belligerently stupid people.

    My theory is at least as sound as Leonhardt’s.

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  13. gVOR08 says:

    @Gustopher:

    And, for the record, I think the increase in violent crime is just that more people are showing the fact that they need killin’.

    I’m sore tempted to agree. But it hasn’t, from the numbers I’ve seen, been an increase in violent crime, just an increase in homicides, which is really weird. Among a lot of speculation, the only credible explanation I’ve seen is a correlation to a big bump in gun sales during the pandemic. Which itself seems weird. You can’t go out, so you sit at home worried about who’s coming to take your stuff? You’re bored, so like Madison Cawthorn, you clean guns during Zoom calls and you ran out of guns to clean?

  14. Monala says:

    @de stijl: Same. Those “I might have exposed you to Covid” calls were some of the hardest I’ve ever had to make.

    —————-

    In my county, it’s neither the old nor the young who are currently most likely to get sick and die. Instead, it’s the middle aged, the folks between 50 and 64.

    It makes sense—the elderly were the first to get vaccinated, before Fox News and other right wing agents politicized the vaccines, and so in many places the elderly have 90%+ vaccination rates. By the time vaccinations opened up to all adults, anti-vax propaganda was widespread and many didn’t get the shot. For middle aged folks, while their risks of serious illness and death are less than for the elderly, they’re much higher than for young people.

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  15. Monala says:

    Has anyone else noticed that the Atlantic has had a rash of articles by non-famous journalists (people from small media outlets or freelancers) writing about how they’re over COVID, or how they’re no longer Democrats because of supposed Democratic overreaction with COVID precautions, or how COVID precautions are harming our children?

    There have been so many of such articles that the Atlantic seems to have an agenda promoting this theme (COVID is over, stop masking and such, Democrats are to blame). This despite the magazine having its journalist Ed Yong win the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for his excellent writing about COVID. In fact, it was through reading an article by Yong that I first learned about long COVID.

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  16. CSK says:

    @Monala:
    I’ve noticed that.

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  17. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Monala: My take (I get an Atlanticupdate/whatever a couple of times a day) is that they’re running out of other Covid information and using these things as filler for the too many dailies they’re sending out. When I started subscribing to The Atlantic again, I was getting one email with features from the magazine from them every 2 or 3 days as I recall. Then it became daily, then 2 or 3 a day. Now it’s however many a day plus 8 or 10 (IIRC) blog subscriptions. I don’t think you can keep the kind of quality the magazine has a reputation for publishing needing the equivalent of a magazine’s worth of content every other day or so.

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  18. steve says:

    I think Leonhardt has generally been pretty reasonable. He has sometimes been wrong but so is everyone else and he often admits to being wrong, unlike lots of other people. I do think that the goal of zero covid is not likely tone achieved. The virus mutates slowly enough that vaccines work for quite a while but too fast for vaccines not to have higher than wanted failure rates. There are some negative effects when you restrict gatherings and while I dont think it proven yet it is not beyond the pale that kids have had negative effects that may or may not persist from at home schooling and even masking. I dont think it off limits to explore this.

    This is all outweighed by the refusal of those on the right to not get vaccinated, but I dont think that means we should explore other negative effects.

    Steve

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  19. Gustopher says:

    @steve:

    There are some negative effects when you restrict gatherings and while I dont think it proven yet it is not beyond the pale that kids have had negative effects that may or may not persist from at home schooling and even masking. I dont think it off limits to explore this.

    Just on masking, I wonder if there are any negative effects at all? Given how sensitive kids are about their looks, and the low self-esteem, and how cruel the little monsters are, it’s possible that making them all mask up is actually beneficial.

    Like school uniforms, it equalizes things.

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  20. steve says:

    Could be, but I dont know of any really good research either way.

    Steve