Back to work.
Last week I went back to work. I’d been away from Savannah Canoe and Kayak for two months. Georgia stay-at-home guidelines were changing. I figured it was time to get back into the mix.
My plan was to follow the 6-foot rule and carry a mask just in case I ended up in a situation that would require being a little closer than that to a customer.
What I discovered is that it was almost impossible to maintain a six-foot distance between myself and our customers. Few of the people who came in to the shop wore masks. Most of them closed in on me as we were talking, despite my best efforts to Mind the Gap. If there were young kids it was pointless. Kids are just going to walk up to you and touch you.
Let’s face it. If somebody isn’t wearing a mask they are signaling that they aren’t concerned about the risk of catching COVID-19. If you put on a mask in their presence or protest that they should keep 6 feet away from you, you’re signaling that you think they’re wrong. Or ignorant. Or stupid.
Signaling to someone that you think they’re stupid or ignorant or worse isn’t an effective way to sell a kayak.
One of you is a kook no matter what. Either you’re a kook for putting on a mask, or they’re a kook for not wearing one. It’s awkward.
This whole situation set me up for some serious cognitive dissonance. Which is interesting to observe in yourself when you can notice it.
I was trying to hold two completely incompatible thoughts in my mind. First was that COVID-19 is a serious situation that requires social distancing and masking. The second was that it was practically impossible to do this and do my job well.
As I discussed in my post Loserthink, cognitive dissonance is a very uncomfortable feeling. It’s the sort of feeling that we try to resolve as quickly as possible. To my mind there were only two options: decide that everybody was overreacting to the whole coronavirus thing, or stay home.
Two bad choices.
At the end of the day I gave Nigel a call and talked through my concerns. I told him I might need to stay home for a little while longer. He was understanding and supportive.
Not really. I can’t stay home forever. Not only can I not afford to, I don’t want to. I think we all need to find our own way back into the world and out of isolation. We need a middle way between isolation and infection. Problem is, nobody knows how to do that safely.
What’s Real and What’s Fake?
It doesn’t help that we can’t trust any of the information we’re getting from the media these days. It seems like everything we hear turns out to be wrong or at least uncertain. The models were wrong. Remdesivir works. No, wait, it doesn’t affect death rate. We don’t know if people who have recovered from COVID-19 have immunity from reinfection. We think they do, but Fauci can’t say for sure. Now it seems we’re not even sure if asymptomatic shedding is causing infections. Can asymptomatic people spread the disease or not?
What the hell is going on?
A couple things. First off, science reporting is terrible as a general rule. Second, the current media model is so broken it can’t provide us with real news.
A lot of science reporting is terrible.
I know because I trained to be a science reporter.
Ever wonder why news about science seems to contradict itself every few months? Or, these days, every week?
It’s because science reporting, like all reporting, is about generating content, and many science reporters don’t know enough to ask good questions. The result is stories that are incomplete, insufficiently skeptical and misleading. If we’re lucky, another story comes around later that sets the record straight. But which story should we believe? Who knows?
Of course, there are some excellent science reporters who have a deep level of experience. That doesn’t necessarily change how the sausage gets made. Craft is craft.
Here’s how it works. As a science reporter you scan the weekly updates from scientific journals for something new and interesting. A new study that was published. A press release. Something you can dig into and make into a story.
Once you find something that seems interesting you make a few calls. Try to get in touch with the authors of the study. Call some people in the field that you can ask about details. A few professors at the state college. A nutritionist friend of yours. Someone working in public health.
As you do this, you’re looking for a narrative. A story that moves from one detail to another using effective quotes. You try to fit things together into a coherent thread. If you do it right you lead the reader to a conclusion at the end of the piece that is reinforced with a great kicker quote. A quote that completely encapsulates that point of the article.
You’re on a deadline so you can’t take forever to flesh things out.
On top of this, you might not be familiar with the science you’re writing about. Even if you have a science background (which science writers don’t necessarily have) you can’t know everything about every field. There aren’t enough jobs in journalism to allow for a dozen different reporters to cover everything on the science beat.
What’s worse, a story that doesn’t have a point is a bad story. So you need to make sure the story goes somewhere and reaches at least a tentative conclusion. There’s an incentive to create a narrative that lacks ambiguity.
Generate content. Tell a good story. Get it out there.
A Vaccine is on the Way
Consider the story from this week about the promising vaccine trial from Moderna.
I suspect the origin of the story are the press releases from Moderna on May 15-18. That, or a call from a source at Moderna to the reporter. Moderna did an 8:30am conference call that reporters could connect to. The story was published May 18. It touches on a few details that are presented in the press releases.
One is that Dr. Moncef Slaoui, a board member of Moderna, has been appointed to head up Operation Warp Speed; a White House initiative to speed vaccine development. A second is that the vaccine was successful in creating an immune response in study participants without significant side effects. It also mentioned that Moderna stock went higher on the news. And that the market seems optimistic in general.
The rest of the article discusses vaccines. It talks about how some believe that vaccines are the best if not only way to reduce infection and reopen closed economies. How this new process creates the hope that a vaccine could be ready by the end of the year. It then dives into some details of the vaccine, which uses a new technology that promises to allow for more rapid matching of future vaccines to novel viruses. Closes up with a nice kicker quote about how the technology is new and unproven but promising.
The overall tone is optimistic and is made more optimistic by the headline, which mirrors the kicker quote and brackets the whole piece nicely.
Good story. Easy to read. Ticks the boxes of obvious questions a reader might ask. Good quotes that advance the story. Solid craft. What you would expect from a seasoned science reporter.
But why are we reading about this anyway? Really?
We’re reading about it because the PR people at Moderna nailed it. They dropped the news that one of their board members is the new head of an influential government vaccine initiative. Then they dropped their preliminary test results, which look decent. Then the NYT ran a story about it. Looks like Moderna is going to be a good stock to own.
Did you notice that Moderna also put up $1.25 Billion in common stock for sale on the 18th?
The study had 8 people in it. Eight.
It uses a technology that has never produced a vaccine before. The piece mentions this.
This isn’t even news. It’s nothing.
We’re reading about this trial because news media need content. And because the company is using the media to sell stock.
Maybe the vaccine will work. After the second phase trials happen we’ll have a better idea. After they try it in 600 people. Or a thousand. That would be the logical time to write a piece like this.
Maybe after the next phase it doesn’t work. Maybe there will be a story contradicting the first. Doesn’t really matter at this point. Everybody’s already made their money.
Modern news media are broken. I wrote a post about this a few weeks back, largely based on Scott Adams’ insights in his book Loserthink, which is about unproductive ways of thinking and how they derange our civil society.
I won’t retrace too much ground here, you can read the other post if you want the whole story. Suffice to say that media today make money by keeping our eyeballs glued to the screen and they’ve discovered that the best way to do that is with content that makes us angry or afraid. They have all the tools of Big Tech at their disposal to do so. Their success in capitalizing on our fears and anger is one of the chief reasons that our country is so divided today.
News coverage builds on our preexisting biases and dispositions and uses them to drive us into highly profitable political camps. People typically consume their news from within a media bubble that’s aligned with the political left or right. The news reported inside each of these bubbles is often completely contradictory.
If you want to know what’s happening in the world you have to consume media from both the left and right. If you don’t you’ll have an incomplete picture of reality.
Most people don’t do this.
Our unbalanced information consumption leads to unbalanced responses to COVID-19. Everything gets politicized. Aligned with one of the two sides.
This is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it prevents people from making rational decisions about the best way to move forward.
[If you’re looking for a truly great book on this topic you should check out Matt Taibi’s Hate, Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes us Despise One Another. Especially if you like to consume news from the left side of the screen. I think it’s fair to say that Taibi’s reporting has trended toward the progressive side through the years. In Hate, Inc. he skewers the entire news industry, left and right. If you want to truly understand this topic Hate, Inc. is the place to start.]
If you see someone on the street wearing a mask, can you guess whether he voted for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? I bet you can. All of a sudden, mask wearing has become identified with lockdown/stay-at-home and the political left. NOT wearing a mask is a symbol of the freedom loving right that’s ready to get back to work.
This is dangerous.
It’s dangerous because wearing a mask is a good idea. It helps limit the chance that you might infect others if you’re sick. It also reduces the chance that you’ll be infected yourself. Depending on your personal risk profile and where you are going, wearing a mask is absolutely the right call.
You know what else is a good idea?
Going back to work.
Media on the left is banging the drum that reopening the economy is only being done because Republicans are greedy and want to kick people off unemployment. That narrative increases fear. This is dangerous because scaring the hell out of healthy people is going to keep the economy shut down regardless of what governors decide.
COVID-19 is dangerous. Depressions are dangerous too. Economic disruptions have serious health consequences. People die. Not just from suicides and overdose. Being broke is bad for your health.
On top of this, people are avoiding medical care now because they’re afraid of getting sick by going to the doctor. All manner of health interventions are being sidelined as we attempt to prepare for a wave of infections that has the potential to strike anywhere.
We all need to be able to make informed choices about how we will personally mitigate our risks of harm. Both from economic contraction and from COVID-19. Without good information this is impossible.
No Easy Choices
Given how polarizing our media are today it’s difficult to find a middle way. Yet that’s exactly what we need to do.
We’re in a depression. Unemployment has cracked 25 percent because of the disease and our response. The likelihood that we’ll see a functional vaccine before 2021 is vanishingly small. We can’t stay locked down until we have a vaccine because the economic consequences of that choice would likely be as catastrophic as the disease itself.
We’re going to open back up again. We have to. And people are going to get sick. We’re going to see hot spots. Clusters. Increased infection in certain areas and situations.
Bad things are going to happen. Every time they do it will be tragic.
Since we can’t stay locked down until they create a successful vaccine, we should probably stop hoping for a vaccine. Maybe we’ll get a vaccine. Maybe we won’t. At this point it’s irrelevant.
What appears certain is that, over time, enough people will contract and recover from the disease that its spread will slow. We will build so-called herd immunity.
This is going to happen whether we want it to or not. If we’re smart, we may be able to take steps that limit the harm that will come to at-risk populations while the process is unfolding.
The middle way comes from doing everything we can to insure that those at greatest risk will not be infected, while those who have a low risk of harm from the disease are able to go back to work.
I broke my arm as a kid. Falling out of a tree. Since then, I’ve been hit by a car cycling, T-boned in my Honda Civic, broken my leg ice climbing, almost drowned in a flash flood, had an unplanned bivy on the side of a mountain, and swum Class V whitewater.
I’ve had a crash course in risk and consequences.
Going back to work carries a risk. Staying at home carries a different but equally real risk. We all need to evaluate our risk profile and choose what to do for ourselves and our families. Choose whether it is more prudent to continue to self-isolate or return to the workplace. Choose how to implement protective measures if we venture outside the home. Choose when and where we’ll begin to work ourselves back into the fabric of the economy.
We all need information to help us make the best choice. What do we actually know?
People at Risk
After a couple months of fighting COVID-19 we know a few things about who is at greatest and least risk from the disease. We know that the vast majority of deaths are among those over 75 years old. We know that there are vanishingly few deaths for people under 30.
If you look at the rolling CDC provisional numbers on fatalities it’s clear that people over 65 are at a much higher risk of death from the disease than those younger than 65.We also know that people younger than 65 with certain preexisting conditions like heart disease and diabetes are at higher risk of death than healthier people of the same age.
It goes without saying that the oldest among us and those in the worst health are among those highest at risk of dying from the disease.
With this information we have we can sort ourselves into groups by risk. Healthy people under 50 are at lower risk. People over 65 and younger people with certain preexisting conditions are at moderate risk. Those over 65 with serious health issues and perhaps all people over 75 are at highest risk.
Green. Yellow. Red.
There’s some grey area, of course. Some shading between categories. The cutoffs in the CDC data are somewhat arbitrary. Obviously someone at 64 does not automatically shift to a higher risk profile if they have a birthday. How should people in their 50’s and early 60’s act?
I don’t know.
That said, there are also obvious categories. An 87 year-old in a long-term care facility with chronic health issues is condition red. A 19 year-old cross-country athlete is green.
I’m 48, in good health with no preexisting conditions. I figure I tilt toward the green end of things.
Our parents, in their 70’s are looking pretty red to me.
If you’re interested in a rough calculation of your personal risk of dying from COVID-19, there are a number of calculators on the web. This is one is easy to use.
Of course, there are problems with a calculator like this. Chief among them is that it requires you to input information that we don’t have. Like the percentage of the population infected with COVID-19. Since we don’t know how many people have had the disease and recovered or may have the disease and be asymptomatic, this number is impossible to calculate.
Here in Chatham County we currently have 135 confirmed cases per 100,000 people. That would be an infection rate of 0.001. Georgia, with 40,000 confirmed cases and a population of roughly 10 million would be 0.004 overall. Those numbers are likely WAY lower than the actual number of infected individuals because of a lack of testing.
Fine. We have to guess. We have to guess about everything these days.
I put in a 5 percent infection rate for the sake of calculation and came up with a current odds of dying for myself at 1 in 30,000. For comparison the average American’s risk of dying from a variety of other causes can be found here. Annual risk of death in an auto accident is 1 in 8,300.
Places of Risk
Its obvious by now that certain environments are higher and lower risk. Inside your home or apartment that you share only with your spouse is lower risk. Outside in the sunshine and fresh air, away from other people is lower risk. Subways and slaughterhouses are high risk. The grocery store and hardware store are somewhere in between. The more people packed into a place and the closer they are together the more risk that environment has.
Different regions have different risk profiles. New York City is not rural Wisconsin. The disease spreads most easily by contact with respiratory droplets from infected people. If you live in a place with lots of infected people, you’re more likely to come into contact with someone who could pass the disease to you through the air. Hot spots for the disease like Albany, GA or Manhattan are the highest risk. The back side of nowhere Wyoming is lowest.
[If you click the link above to the CDC you’ll see they now say that COVID-19 does not spread easily from surfaces. I don’ think that means we should stop washing our hands and sanitizing everything.]
Using what we know about the potential risk of different places we can categorize them as low risk, moderate risk and high risk.
Green. Yellow. Red.
We’re all at risk from COVID-19 and that risk is causing most of us some understandable anxiety. One solution to that anxiety is to hunker down at home and minimize any nonessential contact with the world. Another is to decide that the whole thing is no big deal and go about your daily life as if nothing has really changed. Those are the most likely ways to resolve the kind of cognitive dissonance that I felt when I first returned to work at the shop.
There is another way. A middle way.
The middle way is to choose to deliberately increase your risk in a small amount in some of your activities while maintaining high standards of hygiene and social distancing at all other times.
Why would anyone do this?
The most obvious answer is that it will allow for at least a limited return to work for many of us. Without significantly increasing our personal risk of contracting the disease.
A less obvious but perhaps more important reason is that choosing risk deliberately tends to make us less afraid. When we confront our fears directly we learn to become brave. Over time, our anxiety decreases.
This is something that I first heard listening to a lecture by psychologist Jordan Peterson. Peterson is the author of, Twelve Rules for Life and has published a series of lectures on YouTube exploring the Bible from a Jungian psychology perspective.
In one of these lectures, Peterson explained that our brains actually respond to dangerous situations differently depending on how we orient ourselves. Deliberate choice to engage with risk uses one neural pathway. The pathway associated with approach and challenge. Being forced into a dangerous situation activates a completely different neural pathway. The one that causes us to respond with withdrawal or defensive aggression.
This knowledge has led psychologists to an effective treatment for people with phobias. If those people deliberately choose to take steps in the direction of their phobia, over time they can reduce their anxiety and fear.
The steps are incrementally small. Walking to the door and looking at it. Touching the doorknob for 5 seconds. Ten. Turning the knob but leaving the door closed. Tiny steps, chosen deliberately to create the feeling of agency and control that is essential for overcoming fear.
Fortunately we don’t all suffer phobias. But likely we all likely experience a certain amount of anxiety around COVID-19. Ignoring this fear is a bad choice. It makes us more likely to act carelessly and unsafely. Succumbing to the fear is an equally bad choice. Deliberately engaging in a small amount of increased risk is a third option. A middle way that has the potential to bring us back into the world in a small way and reduce our economic and psychological suffering.
The Middle Way
I don’t like bad choices. Caught between a rock and a hard place I would rather find a line that threads the difference between the two. A middle way.
The middle way is not deciding that they whole coronavirus thing was overblown to begin with. If you choose that path you’ll remove valuable tools that are available to help you mitigate risk for yourself and others. Masks. Social distancing.
The middle way is also not deciding that we need state and local governments to enforce draconian lockdowns for the foreseeable future. Doing so risks a backlash against effective safety measures and greater harm from protracted economic hardship.
The middle way comes from mitigating risk wherever possible while returning to activities that restart the economy. Both for ourselves and for the country as a whole. Different people should make different choices based on their personal risk profile and environment. We all have to choose for ourselves.
How am I planning to resolve the conflict between my desire to return to work and my concern about exposure to COVID-19?
By choosing to increase my risk exposure slightly when at work, while maintaining full safety protocols at all other times.
Most of the time I’ll stay home. When I go to the grocery store, hardware store or other yellow zones, I’ll mask up and limit my time inside. I’ll do my best to avoid red zones at all times. I’m fortunate that my work doesn’t require me to enter these places. Not all of us are so lucky.
If I visit family or friends who are at higher risk than I am I’ll wear a mask or maintain a strict 6-foot distancing. This will dramatically reduce the chance that I might pass infection to someone who is at greater risk than myself.
When I’m at the shop, I’ll do my best to maintain a 6 foot distance between myself and others, but I’ll accept that this isn’t necessarily possible at all times.
I’m planning to go back to work a couple days a week. Somewhere under 15 hours.
I’m not letting down my guard. I will take the risk of COVID-19 seriously, just like I take the risks of driving or handling a firearm. But I will also actively engage with that risk, by choice, and take steps to reduce the economic harm the virus and shutdowns have caused.
That’s my choice. We all have to make our own. If you decide to come in to the shop to talk about kayaks, I won’t mind if you wear a mask.
See you out there in the world.
If you enjoyed this post, please share it on your favorite social media site using one of the buttons below. If you want to see more, consider subscribing to our website by using one of the links in the menu on the right side of the screen. If you’re on a mobile device you’ll find the Follow button if you scroll down from here. Thanks!
Kitchi-Gami is an Amazon Associate account. This means that if you click through a link in one of our posts and decide to purchase something from Amazon we get a small commission. There’s no extra cost to you. It’s a painless way for you to give us just a little help with the site. If you see a book you like and want to purchase it from Amazon, please consider using one of the links on our posts and pages. Thanks!