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You Can’t Handle the Real Numbers

How frequently is COVID-19 transmitted outdoors? Recent scientific estimates suggest the rate of outdoor transmission is under 1 percent, meaning that, out of all COVID contractions, fewer than 1 percent of them occurred outside.

That’s the latest research, but the CDC’s official guidelines proclaim that the transmission rate is “under 10 percent”, which still sounds relatively safe, but it’s off the new number by a factor of ten.

Understandably, some folks online are miffed about this — we want our scientists to give us accurate information, and the CDC’s number (assuming these recent estimations are correct) seems like a pretty hefty exaggeration.

But I’m all in with the CDC on this one. For one thing, to be a pedantic bitch, one percent is “under ten percent” — that’s accurate. But I’ll freely acknowledge that that on its own is a bad argument. 

My real beef is this: from the start, the CDC has been giving us the best information they have, and we’ve been routinely using it as license to do dumb shit. At the beginning of the pandemic, when they suggested people stay six feet apart to reduce or eliminate transmission, we all watched helplessly as self-assured humans put on their big brains and estimated that 36 inches was “pretty close” to six feet. Retail workers were tasked with marking queueing positions six feet apart from each other under the assumption that people would stand on top of them and not use them as gravity points to mindlessly orbit around with masks tickling their chins.

When the latest virus data suggests that the infection rate is going down or could go down, we took that inch for a nautical mile and reopened everything. When we learned that only a small percentage of those infected with this disease would die from it, we chose to interpret “small” as “stupid and unimportant” and promptly threw away our masks and tried to return our shipping containers of toilet paper.

For a while, things had fallen to the point where my pessimistic depression engine of a brain got bummed to see good news about the virus, because we’d made an industry out of sensationalizing it and using minor victories as evidence that the pandemic was over.

I am acutely aware that I have been super fucking annoying the past year. I put on my “pandemic doomsayer” hat week two and haven’t taken it off for a minute. I think the people around me think I’m overreacting. I often think I’m overreacting.

But for anyone who’s been glued to pandemic stories since the beginning of this thing, I feel like it’s becoming harder and harder to trust anything. Scientists put out accurate information, and science and government groups make accurate statements with it, but then the American public turn both inside out. A notable reduction in the infection rate leads intelligent people to estimate that the pandemic could be over with earlier than we’d assumed: Americans extrapolate that the pandemic should be over this time next week and head maskless to the movie theater to book a flight to India. Scientists and governments estimate it might be safe to dine outside: restaurants reopen floor space at 100% capacity and Americans are thrilled.

It feels like there’s a Newtonian law of virus intel: for every piece of good news, there’s an equal and opposite overreaction. So whenever the CDC announces that something good happened, I assume Americans will make the absolute worst of it and things will get bad again.

I don’t want to needlessly scare people. I don’t think I can consciously ask the government to lie to me. But it’s also hard to yearn for public availability of accurate statistics when we know the public is going to read them inaccurately.

If knowledge that the outdoor infection rate is low will properly inform Americans to make solid decisions, that’s great. But my expectations lead me instead to assume that an aware public will declare Open-Mouth Kiss Mondays at the most cramped park in the city.

Am I overreacting? Probably. Salient in my mind are the massive upticks in virus contraction that seem to occur every time we let our guard down, but, to be fair, the worst of those happened in cold weather, when people congregated indoors instead of out. And as we pass a third of Americans vaccinated and near the half-way mark for half-vaccination, the present situation is clearly different when compared to, say, this time last year.

But regardless, the pandemic left me with a discomfort I don’t think I’m going to shake off soon: can we trust each other anymore? Are we to blame for our shitty handling of the pandemic, or are we just dumb? Maybe we spent a year standing two feet apart because we didn’t give a shit and were callously uncaring about whether or not our neighbors got sick. Or maybe we legitimately don’t know how far six feet is. Maybe we care more about our ability to spend a week at a resort in a poor country than we do about the safety of our peers, or maybe we simply do not know how to read scientific data.

It’s worth wondering how much value accurate data is to people who cannot properly interpret it, especially if they’re liable to use it as a justification for bad decision-making.

But here I am, having dug a hole that I now stand in, having to decide how much of a piece of shit I want to be and whether I want to actually make the argument that dumb people can’t be trusted with the truth (and, thus, should be lied to), or if I instead want to keep circling around and merely implying it.

Obviously, creating an environment where we ask our government to lie to some people is slightly dangerous at best and catastrophic at worst. It’s hard to imagine how this would even turn out positively. FOX News would point out (accurately, this time) that the government is lying immediately, and the people we most need to believe the lies would turn against them in turn.

So I guess I’m not advocating lying. But maybe, maybe, a situation where we’re given the safer number (under ten percent), with the more accurate numbers readily available to those who are willing to look for them, things wouldn’t be so bad?

If not that, we have to acknowledge something: that preparing exclusively for the best case scenario, that everyone will be obedient and listen to guidelines, is not a worthwhile use of our time when we have so much evidence that something closer to the worst case scenario is the norm. We have to start acknowledging the consequences of a society so prone to fucking up.

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