From the start of the State Government’s response to coronavirus here in Washington (back in March), its tagline was that Washington’s reopening was going to be “guided by science.”
That sounded good and it sounded like something to take pride in. But around me I see an existential plank in many people’s eyes that makes me think science is, in fact, taking a back seat to something more primal.
Example one: I run a music school. The Washington State government has told us the ways to greatly reduce— based on known science concerning the coronavirus — both our individual risk and our chance of passing on the virus unawares. These involve wearing masks, keeping six or more feet apart indoors, increasing air flow and putting physical barriers between people. So we relocate our group band program to a private residence where we have 4 times the physical space, two ceiling fans, double doors that open onto a lake, 6 to 12 feet between each band member and plexiglass panels in front of the singers. We require that non-singers wear masks. We’ve ticked off every box on the government’s list and then some. But a third of families are still too nervous to send their kids to one two-hour rehearsal a month. Ourworldindata.org states the global mortality rate of coronavirus to be about 4%. The CDC says that kids ages 5 to 17 are 16 times less likely to die than a comparison group age 18 to 29. And that’s even if they catch it, which is not a statistical certainty in any particular public situation without safety measures…and our program is following all of those measures.
Example two: Both the CDC and the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) have issued statements over the summer of 2020 urging that kids be physically present in school fall of 2020. These are scientific organizations, looking at the risk of the virus versus other documented risks and deficits from children not attending school in person. The Washington State government is not a scientific organization, but promised us that it would be “guided by science.” Nonetheless recently our Governor urged that all schools be online for Fall. One local Catholic High School —that was going to follow a modified part-time in-person program—caved to this pressure and retreated to an online-only stance…despite their earlier assessment as educators that school attendance justified or counterbalanced the risk.
So why are both governments and people behaving this way? It’s not because they’re liars and it’s not because they’re stupid. It’s because we are afraid. Something frightening —of the order of things we often blithely ignore— has been held in front of our face in stark relief for months, and we are afraid. And it’s OK to be afraid.
The problem comes when we are talking and thinking scientifically, but simultaneously *feeling* an existential angst that we aren’t admitting or dealing with. In any mix of rational-sounding cognition, scientific justification and existential fear, fear is going to come out on top. As my examples make clear, science is not going to quell fear, because apparently following all the rules doesn’t make people *feel* as safe as following the all rules should. What really happens is unchecked fear downgrades the precision of rational argument and scientific thought.
Fear is the reason that thoughtful intervention has spun out of control into a world where only an OCD-level blitzkrieg of anti-corona measures seems to be enough — and then somehow still isn’t enough. Where we feel that we are only safe, or can proceed to the next step in reopening society, if we get a perfect score on compliance and intervention. Where instead of seeing all the immense ways we *have* changed our behavior — and moving on from there to quell our existential fear by accepting that a certain amount of risk and death are unavoidable facts of nature in a complex world, no matter what we do — we label each small forgetfulness or momentary exception an open doorway to death.
We have reached an almost manic point where nothing we do can be simply “good enough” or “close enough”. There is ongoing coronavirus data to be discussed, and tough decisions to be weighed and made. But this part of the 2020 phenomenon is an existential crisis, not a medical or scientific one, and we need to separate our medical research and policy decisions from it.