Bending the Covid Map

I re-read Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. This is the first time I’d read the book since the Covid-19 pandemic started.

An important feature of survivors is that they accept the world as it is, not how they’d like it to be. When the environment changes, they adapt.

Meanwhile, many people die before old age because they failed to adapt to the change in their circumstances. This is not just a matter of knowledge. As Gonzales describes it, we base our decisions on ‘emotional bookmarks.’ For example, I’ve touched a hot stove. That gave me the emotional bookmark that ‘touching hot stoves hurt.’ Therefore, I avoid touching hot stoves without thinking about it.

Emotional bookmarks formed in one situation may betray you in another. Gonzales gave the example of snowmobilers who drove up a slope during prime avalanche conditions–some died. They all understood, on an intellectual level, that going up the hill under those circumstances was likely to trigger an avalanche which would bury them. But they had old ‘emotional bookmarks’ which told them that taking snowmobiles up snowy hills was fun, whereas no avalanche had buried them before. The emotional bookmarks didn’t take into account that this was a different environment.

If you’re old enough to read this in 2022, you have many emotional bookmarks which predate the Covid-19 pandemic. I do too. They may betray us.

I also have some emotional bookmarks which may have directed me to make decisions which protected me from covid. Most notably, my infection with pertussis as a teenager left me with some emotional bookmarks. I know, in my gut, that a respiratory illness can be worse than a ‘common cold’ or ‘ordinary flu.’

It also left me with distrust of acquired immunity. Evidence available now shows that the pertussis vaccines which were available during my childhood in the United States are flawed, and that is a contributing factor to rising pertussis cases in the United States in the 21st century. Maybe pertussis evolved to better evade the vaccine. On top of that, pertussis infected me twice, about a year or two in between infections. Was my second case milder? Yes, much milder. It still happened. The first infection didn’t leave me with perfect immunity.

My body knows that vaccines and immunity from prior infection alone are not to be trusted.

Vaccines help. I recommend vaccinating all children against pertussis unless there is a medical reason not to. Though some will get pertussis anyway, many won’t, thanks to the vaccine.

Pertussis never put my life in danger. The case fatality rate for teenagers with pertussis is practically zero. I didn’t even need antibiotics (pertussis is a bacterial infection, therefore antibiotics are useful in severe cases). However, despite not threatening my life, despite not being severe enough to justify antibiotics, it still sucked. I had to lie in bed all day because I didn’t have the stamina to do anything else. Worse, I felt like I had lost control of my body–and no cold or flu has made me feel that way. A respiratory illness doesn’t have to be deadly to be worth avoiding.

The way that some people speak of Covid—that as long as the risk of killing you is low and you don’t need to go to the hospital, it’s not a big deal—feels wrong to me. Maybe these people never experienced a full-throated pertussis infection.

I also don’t trust vaccines or prior infection without other measures to protect me. (As far as I know, Covid-19 has never infected me, so I definitely can’t count on prior infection).

(Wow, I didn’t expect that pertussis anecdote to run that long).

Over and over, I’ve seen people choose to believe about covid what’s convenient for them instead of what the evidence shows. Alas, that includes the United States’ main public health institutions.

About a year ago, I had a conversation with someone who worked at USCF who told me that the covid-19 pandemic was ‘on its last legs.’ I expressed skepticism and asked ‘what about if there’s a new variant?’ I don’t remember what she said in response, but she wasn’t impressed.

Weeks later, Omicron came to the United States.

I would’ve preferred to have been wrong.

I encountered a Moderna study in early 2021 which indicated that the vaccines would only be effective for a few months and that booster shots would be needed to keep antibody levels up. I cited that study to multiple people who insisted that the vaccine would end the pandemic and there was no longer any need for masks or other counter-measures. They mentioned their credentials (which are more impressive than mine), then told me it was just one pre-print study and they doubted it. Well, to be fair, I wasn’t certain the study was right myself, but wasn’t it a possibility to take seriously?

That study was right after all.

I noticed the evidence. They didn’t.

Sometimes, I read articles about how we need to tell the public to keep up with their ‘annual Covid booster’? Um, excuse me? All the scientific evidence I’ve encountered shows that the boosters are effective for a few months, not a full year. What about all those months when people are effectively unvaccinated if they take ‘annual’ boosters?

That doesn’t mean I’m in favor of everyone getting a booster every 3-4 months: I’m not (for various reasons). What I mean is that we need measures other than vaccines for controlling covid.

If these articles made a case for why boosters should only be taken annually and what they would do about the period when people’s antibody levels are low, I’d listen. I’ve yet to see anyone make that case. To me, it seems that they are ‘bending the covid map’: they want covid to be just like the flu, so they assume it is, rather than recognized that covid is covid.

Likewise, more and more people speak of the pandemic being over. Scientifically, it’s not, but I care more about what practical steps I and others should take. Do we maintain covid precautions or not? With flu pandemics, we don’t know which wave is the last one until enough time has passed after the last wave without another one coming. The last wave of the 1918 flu in the United States occurred in 1920, and it took a few years for people to confirm that wave was the final one.

I’ve noticed that covid cases have dropped locally (not sure about national data). Since people are getting laxer about anti-covid measures and school is back in session, I assume that something has changed at the biological level. Have so many people here gotten BA5 that they have enough immunity to stave off more infections? If so, will the immunity last? Will other variants come? Is something else that I haven’t thought of going on?

It’s possible that the last wave is over… but I won’t believe it until we go through a winter with low death and low hospitalization rates.

Another factor in survival is getting comfortable in new circumstances.

I’m comfortable wearing respirators, and the risk of covid would have to be extremely low to persuade me to not bother.

While I was working on this post, I encountered this tweet which makes some of the same points in a more succinct manner (though I think it’s a little pompous).

What Sending Fanmail Taught Me

One of my ‘pandemic’ hobbies is sending fanmail (both emails and physical letters).

In sending fanmail, there’s the question, ‘will they read this?’ Some people say, ‘I’d send them a fan letter if I knew they’d read it, but I don’t know if they would.’ I understand this. Nobody likes the idea of putting effort into a letter which the recipient will never see.

I once sent a fan letter and received no reply for half a year. I wondered, did she read it? Did she read it and hate it? Later, I sent a much shorter letter congratulating her on her new project. She replied, and said that she loved my first letter, and had even written a draft of a response, but she hadn’t sent it.

Some celebrities say they read all fan mail, but because of the limits on their time, they sadly can’t reply.

Before I started this hobby, I expected that less famous people would reply more often and more quickly than more famous people. That’s… not the case.

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Are These the 10 Best Onsen in Japan? (Spoiler: no)

I originally planned to write about how railroad company executives in the United States are holding the economy hostage so they can avoid wages increases which match inflation and giving their workers paid sick leave… but plenty of other people write about that better than I. I find it astonishing that Congress and the POTUS are avoiding the obvious solution: force a contract which gives the railroad workers what they want. Well, it’s not astonishing. The Railway Labor Act, which allows Congress to block otherwise legal strikes, gives the executives too much power and workers too little. It’s ‘rational’ for executives to abuse this imbalance by denying shipping service to force the government to impose a contract which allows them to squeeze as much as they can out of workers for profit. Workers can’t retaliate with a strike. Except… many railroad workers have been quitting for a long time because the railroad companies penalize them for going to necessary medical appointments. If the railroad companies lose too many workers to stay functional, that’s also a kind of labor strike.

Anyway, instead of writing more about that, I feel like writing about something frivolous: Japanese onsen.

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Western Europe’s Cost of Living Crisis Makes My Jaw Drop

I’ve seen numbers for how the cost of electricity and fuel in Western Europe is rising. Some Western European businesses say they can’t handle the surge in prices and that if this continues, they must close. Many people in Northern Europe need fuel to get through winter—to prevent pipes from bursting and keep the physically vulnerable alive.

All this I understand intellectually, but my feelings refuse to accept this as truth.

We’re going through our own energy crisis in California now. The heat wave has led to more air conditioning, which has overwhelmed our electrical grid. Some people (including some of my contacts) have had blackouts. This is minor compared to what Western Europe faces.

If change doesn’t happen fast, it’s obvious that some businesses will fail. (Dutch greenhouses have already closed). Jobs will be lost—and how will the people who lose their jobs pay these rising energy bills? It looks like a downward spiral. Once some of these businesses are taken down for the winter, some might not come back in spring, even if energy and fuel are cheaper.

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Will 15% of Our Society Experience Long-Covid Caused Disabilities at Once?

I’ve seen predictions that, if we don’t implement policies which do much more to restrict covid transmission, we’ll face having 15-20% of people disabled by long covid, and our society can’t handle that, therefore our society will collapse.

My prediction is that having 15% of people in the United States with a long-covid disability as severe as ME/CFS at the same time has a 5% chance of happening within the next five years.

That I don’t rule out the possibility—that I think this has over 1% chance of happening—is horrifying. But I don’t think it’s the most likely scenario.

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