What’s Lost, What’s Gained…
COVID-19 lessons learned are changing our lives and our relationships. Yes, we don’t know all the lessons yet. But let’s snap a panorama of the landscape whizzing by and see what we can begin to discern.
Social Norm Re-Boot
The older you are, the more likely you are to feel that social norms have changed. The values once promoted by our teachers and leaders don’t cut much mustard now. And one of the COVID-19 lessons learned is that the pandemic has accelerated this trend.
Bye, Bye Altruism
We previously discussed how partisanship affects, and in some ways drives, morality: blogs on political apathy, morality and loyalty. At bottom, political affiliation seems to drive individual moral code rather than the other way around.
In other words, partisanship outranks the Golden Rule. And what about “love your enemies“? We’ll love our “enemies” if they are part of our family, or circle, or clan, or friends group. But if they are outsiders or in another political party? Fugheddaboudit!
With this new amorality, if someone advises us to “wear a facemask to protect other people” we may wonder, why is it my responsibility to protect other people? And if someone we respect tells us, “that’s infringing your freedom,” game over!
By Whose Authority?
Declining respect for authority is another of the COVID-19 lessons learned. At one time we would elect leaders and agree to follow their direction, perhaps with some grumbling. Those who lost an election would pitch in and be part of the team until the next contest. However, we now have a pattern where no one accepts losing. The losers recruit people who already have legitimate grievances, stoke their anger and collect their monetary contributions. The contest is never over, it’s forever being denied and re-litigated.
It this atmosphere, public health officials become labeled with a political party, and only partisans in that party will follow their advice on health issues such as masking, distancing, quarantines and vaccines. Members of the opposing party will not only ignore the advice but loudly or violently counter it. They will even teach their children to lie in order to evade pandemic rules.
Dis- and Mis-Information Has Its Rewards
These denials of traditional social norms are supported and enhanced by the spread of disinformation. Media-savvy individuals and organizations have found ways to profit from packaging and promoting false information:
- In 2016 and in 2020 foreign-created false social media accounts influenced voters, undermined faith in government and magnified hate against other social groups. Russia was only one of the perpetrators, and the United States was only one of the countries affected.
- People protesting the 2020 election results under the slogan “Stop The Steal” collected followers and, notably, their political contributions as well.
- Most recently, antivaxxers created profitable businesses selling dietary supplements, vitamins, fake cures such as chloroquine and ivermectin, and fake vaccination certificates.
- Social media operators such as Facebook earn significant advertising fees driven by misinformation. Thus the media operators are incentivized to encourage falsehood, not regulate it.
- The industry of disinformation has in some ways spun out of the control of its creators.
Science: The Orphan We Love To Hate
This website, ArtChester.net, watches for worthwhile advances in science, and translates them for practical use. How has the pandemic changed attitudes toward science and technology?
As we entered the COVID crisis, recommendations from scientists were accorded some respect. But when people laud “following the science” we must ask, which science?
The US, like most countries, was narrow-minded in addressing COVID. Because the pandemic was a threat to health, political leaders naturally turned to health scientists. Infectious disease experts gave well-intended advice based on their professional values, which emphasize protecting humans from disease. But it was a serious error to let epidemiology speak for all of science.
Health science advice led to lockdowns and closures of businesses and schools. Those in turn caused unemployment, disruption of schooling and hardship to many people, leading to push-back.
Which Science, and Whose Science?
A sensible form for this pushback would have been, belatedly, to bring more expertise to the table: economists, educators and psychologists. Together they could have created a balanced strategy and explained it to the public. But instead, the pushback became politically polarized: its advocates saw no way to object except to deny every fact put forth by the health experts.
A sensible editorial by public health specialist Leana Wen in The Washington Post takes this a step further: to let the scientists make their recommendations, but to make policy decisions based on the preferences and values expressed by the American people. Thus, the question of who should receive boosters and how to prioritize vaccines for other countries versus the U.S. involves not just science but personal values. Public opinion, expressed through our elected leaders, has to have the last word.
Unfortunately, rather than broadening or re-framing the dialogue, our political leaders chose the voices they wanted to listen to, and threw everyone else out of the room. We took guidance not from science, but from the mis-use of science. And as noted, disinformation brought rewards to its promoters.
The promotion of false information was supported by a lack of consistent moral guidance. That is, although leaders give lip service to obeying honored principles, those principles are applied inconsistently. Some would call this hypocrisy. Examples are easy to find:
- My Body, My Rights: It’s my right to refuse vaccines and masking, and to kill a vulnerable person by giving them an infection. However, it’s not your right to abort a pregnancy.
- Local Control: States don’t want Washington to tell them what to do. However, many state governors deny local control to school districts, counties and cities when it comes to pandemic control.
- Truth: Do we value truth? Perhaps not. Conspiracy theories provide simple explanations for complex problems, usually with a villain to blame. For example, speculations that COVID-19 is a pathogen purposely unleashed by evil researchers. The real truth may be hard to find, but it rarely features demons. (COVID-19 likely began in bats, spread accidentally in live animal markets and then jumped to humans. It is much less likely to have come from a lab or lab worker.)
- Vaccinations: Every state requires a list of standard vaccinations for all students and childcare workers. But because COVID has become politicized, some states treat coronavirus vaccines differently than previous vaxes.
How Should A Society Define Freedom?
How will these conflicts resolve? Vaccine deniers assert a personal freedom to say “no” to COVID rules. But “freedom” should not confer a license for every person to do anything they want, or murder and assault would run rampant. Surely a sensible definition of freedom is a gift that society as a whole enjoys when its members cooperate for the common good.
As you can see, the COVID-19 lessons learned have been many, and have not been pleasant. Coronavirus has emphasized social changes that have been evolving for years. In addition, the higher death rate in poorer communities has underlined the unequal access to health care across our population.