You don't get extra points for being a COVID catastrophist

The boring reality is that things are getting better and it is okay to admit that

One of the best things I’ve done recently is follow a Twitter account that simply tweets out the latest UK COVID statistics.

Every day is a treat. Around 4pm, the tweet will appear on the timeline and I’ll punch the air. “Yes! Only four dead today!”, I’ll say to myself, never having expected to be pleased by news of fresh deaths before. But that has been the weirdness of the pandemic.

The good news is that now, at least in Britain, we’re almost certainly on the downwards slope out of the nightmare, and soon I’ll be able to stay inside and not leave the house by choice, rather than because it is against the law to do otherwise.

Thanks to the scientific miracle that is numerous, wildly effective vaccines, we’re almost certainly not going to have to lockdown again. One day soon we’re going to have a day of zero deaths. And then another day of zero deaths. And then another.

Even if the virus mutates, we now have the scientific know-how to adapt new vaccines at speed, the public health infrastructure to deliver any future vaccine top-ups, and a year’s worth of experience dealing with a pandemic to know how best to communicate with the public.

So what I don’t understand is: Why are there people out there who refuse to accept the good news?

The Catastrophists

The people I’m thinking of1 are not stupid. They are educated, and share my scientific worldview. They would claim to be every bit as motivated by reason and evidence as I am. But instead of accepting the numbers really are encouraging, they look for spurious reasons to doubt the data, or for any threads to tug on, that explain why things really aren’t as good as they seem. Are the numbers really as low as they could be?

No, they post. They’re not going to be irresponsible like those other people taking advantage of the newly relaxed rules. They’re going to stay personally at COVID alert level 5 until, well, I don’t think they know exactly2.

There’s almost a conspiratorial tone to it. Despite what the numbers say, and the government relaxing the rules, we must remain in a state of paranoia about the pandemic. And if you feel like maybe you will take a holiday or go for an indoor meal when the rules allow? Then you are not as virtuous as they are.

I bet you know people like this too3.

“Trust The Science”

So what’s going on? Why are there smart people who seem almost fearful of life returning to normal? Or act like they’d prefer lockdown to continue indefinitely? I think there are two factors that play a significant role in explaining it.

First, is the jarring effect of the vaccine programme being so successful and changing the material facts on the ground.

Before it was true that it was only people who were dangerously irresponsible who were not locking down to the maximum extent their personal circumstances could allow. It was true that there was a very real trade-off between controlling the virus and enabling economic activity to take place. And it was probably true that Eat Out To Help Out led to extra COVID cases (though the paper much of the coverage was based on was overhyped).

But now? The vaccine has slashed the rate of infections, dramatically reduced the number of deaths, and crucially has de-coupled infections from deaths. This means that doing all of the annoying stuff that we’ve had to do, like staying home, wearing a mask and refraining from licking any door-handles, will no longer be necessary. In fact, in the not too distant future, every government communique will be urging us to do the total opposite to what we have been doing up until now.

And this is jarring if you’ve spent the last year rightly self-sacrificing, and scolding arseholes like Toby Young and the attention seeking man from Question Time.

It’s like if suddenly the government and their scientific advisors were to announce that public urination was now both legal and socially acceptable. Maybe even to be encouraged. Even if you understood this change on an intellectual level, it would still be unnerving the first time you encounter someone on Oxford Street dropping their trousers after being encouraged by the government’s new Piss For Britain campaign4.

The Unfortunate Truth

However, I think there is also a more profound psychological barrier. The big problem, as my straw people subconsciously see it, is that if you concede that things are getting better, then you’re implicitly conceding that the government did something right.

To be clear, there are many aspects of the pandemic response that I think the government spectacularly fucked up. Announcing a relaxation of the rules in the face of rising cases because Christmas? That was insane. Letting the kids go back to school for one day only before finally caving and announcing the much-needed lockdown? That was dangerously irresponsible. (And so on.)

It’s also true that the government’s decision making on restrictions and lockdowns were not made in a public health vacuum. Over the course of the pandemic, the government has been forced to decide where to set the dial in a trade-off where one extreme is marked “lockdown to stop the virus” and the other is marked “economic growth”. This is in part the reason why the response has felt, at times, chaotic and mismanaged, as the government has haphazardly alternated between trying to satisfy these two mutually incompatible outcomes5.

But the vaccine programme? Both the rollout, and the appointment of Tory crony Kate Bingham? These have been absolutely spectacular successes and the grim reality for my political team6 is that this means admitting that the other side did something good.

This is the real reason why the catastrophists need that whiff of conspiracy7. Because the government doing something right is a puncture in the story that they had been telling themselves, that the corrupt, evil Tories are managing the pandemic badly, and are letting people die because… something something… Dominic Cummings…?

From this perspective, the successful vaccine rollout is a threat to the entire worldview. And that’s why they start looking for any other reason why the seemingly obvious story must be wrong.

Have You Heard The Good News?

Obviously if you’re reading this, and you’re one of my straw-people, then reading this might be infuriating. I could be totally, embarrassingly wrong8.

Maybe loosening the restrictions will cause deaths to spike again, but I am unconvinced. The evidence shows that the vaccines are effective, and every day that goes by results in more double-vaccinated people, making life even harder for the virus.

I can also imagine, even if I don’t think it is especially likely, a situation worsening again. Perhaps there will be a new mutation9. Or maybe when the weather gets worse again the Autumn, the virus will be once again spread more effectively, necessitating the reintroduction of social distancing or lockdowns.

Until the rest of the world is vaccinated, we are going to have to worry about the virus. This is why I think the government’s most urgent task after everyone is vaccinated is to support vaccination efforts around the world.

But for now? There’s no point in voluntarily locking ourselves down when the situation doesn’t require it. There’s no point in going down to the nuclear bunker until the sirens start to sound.

So, I urge you, accept the reality. The news is good. There is no need to catastrophize. The vaccine is working. A return to normal life is imminent. This is good. And you don’t get extra virtue-points for pretending otherwise.

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1

OK, writing a Substack-length subtweet of.

2

There’s also a huge layer of privilege baked into this position. According to figures released by the ONS a couple of days ago, just 35.91% of people in Britain have done any working from home during the pandemic. So most people still have to go out into the big, bad, COVID-soaked world to work.

3

And if you don’t, you can make a big show of attacking this piece for constructing a straw-person.

4

Imagine the public information campaign where the Prime Minister goes on TV and takes a piss on the flowerbeds outside Downing Street. Celebrities post videos on Instagram about how empowering a public piss is, to encourage the piss-hesitant. Buckingham Palace releases a statement announcing the Queen has successfully pissed in a drain on Windsor High Street.

5

It’s also worth noting there is a very real trade-off here. As much as we on the left might wish to pretend that we should just lockdown forever until COVID hits zero cases worldwide and that the economy is just something bankers care about, the reality is that economic activity is good and is the reason we have, you know, food and shelter and jobs and iPads. And unless you’re an absolute de-growth nihilist who wants to live in the woods, you agree.

6

Team “People somewhere on the left/centre-left who subscribe to all of the correct right-on causes, and have variously floated between voting for the LibDems, Labour and Greens over the years.”

7

Don’t worry, it’s not a conspiracy like the ones the northern rubes who voted for Brexit believed about the EU, this is a real, organic Waitrose conspiracy for savvy, post-graduate educated Londoners.

8

The game will be can you snark this post back at me before I get a chance to quietly hide it.

9

Though the recent Indian variant is worrying, my understanding is that scientists currently believe it is not vaccine resistant. So even if it does spread, it’s only spreading because we haven’t completed the vaccine rollout yet. Maybe we’ll have to delay the end of the restrictions for a few more weeks until more people have been vaccinated, but even in this scenario, we already have the solution to the problem and the virus will still go away just as soon as the very good at vaccinating vaccine programme hits critical mass.