The Covid Fable
When we treat Covid as a simple morality play, we can end up making bad predictions.,
In the final weeks of this summer, with Covid-19 cases soaring and the rituals of autumn about to resume, many people assumed that the pandemic was on the verge of getting even worse.
Children were returning to classrooms five days a week. Broadway was reopening, and movie fans were heading to theaters again. In football stadiums across the country, fans were crowding together, usually unmasked, to cheer, sing and drink.
Given all of this — and the Delta variant — public discussion had a decidedly grim tone as the summer wound down. “It may only get worse,” read a Politico headline. “The new school year is already a disaster,” Business Insider reported.
The Washington Post cited an estimate that daily caseloads in the U.S. could reach 300,000 in August, higher than ever before. An expert quoted in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggested the number could be higher yet. In The New York Times, an epidemiologist predicted that cases would rise in September because children were going back to school.
And what actually happened? Cases plunged.
The best measure of U.S. cases (a seven-day average, adjusted for holiday anomalies) peaked around 166,000 on Sept. 1 — the very day that seemed to augur a new surge. The number of new daily cases has since fallen almost 40 percent. Hospitalizations are down about 30 percent. Deaths, which typically change direction a few weeks after cases, have declined 13 percent since Sept. 20.
To be fair, forecasting a pandemic is inherently difficult. Virtually all of us, expert and not, have at times been surprised by Covid and incorrect about what was likely to happen next. It’s unavoidable.
But there is a pattern to some of the recent mistakes, and understanding it can help us avoid repeating them.
Let’s start by recalling a near-universal human trait: People are attracted to stories with heroes and villains. In these stories, the character flaws of the villains bring them down, allowing the decency of the heroes to triumph. The stories create a clear relationship between cause and effect. They make sense.
Books, television shows and movies are full of such stories. But for the purposes of understanding Covid, another form of mass entertainment — sports — is more useful.
Unlike novels or movies, sporting events involve true uncertainty. They are not part of a fictional world, with an author’s predetermined ending. And as is the case with more important subjects, like a pandemic, sports are subject to a lot of predictions. For these reasons, social scientists, including Nobel laureates, sometimes study sports to learn lessons about the human mind.
If you turn on almost any sporting event, you will hear tales of heroes and villains. Sports broadcasters often use moralistic language — with concepts like “clutch” and “choke” — to explain outcomes. The broadcasters turn games into “referenda on character,” as Joe Sheehan, who writes an excellent baseball newsletter, has put it. The athletes with strong character win, and the weak lose.
But anybody who watches sports for long enough will notice that these morality plays do not age well. Many athletes or coaches whom broadcasters long described as chokers (Clayton Kershaw, Andy Reid, Phil Mickelson, Alex Rodriguez, John Elway, Jana Novotna, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dan Jansen and many more) eventually won championships with clutch performances.
They did not have character flaws that prevented them from winning. They had been unlucky, or they had run into better competition. Until they didn’t.
The real world often does not lend itself to moralistic fables.
Vaccines and humility
In the case of Covid, the fable we tell ourselves is that our day-to-day behavior dictates the course of the pandemic. When we are good — by staying socially distant and wearing our masks — cases are supposed to fall. When we are bad — by eating in restaurants, hanging out with friends and going to a theater or football game — cases are supposed to rise.
The idea is especially alluring to anybody making an effort to be careful and feeling frustrated that so many other Americans seem blase. After all, the Covid fable does have an some truth to it. Social distancing and masking do reduce the spread of the virus. They just are not as powerful as people often imagine.
The main determinants of Covid’s spread (other than vaccines, which are extremely effective) remain mysterious. Some activities that seem dangerous, like in-person school or crowded outdoor gatherings, may not always be. As unsatisfying as it is, we do not know why cases have recently plunged. The decline is consistent with the fact that Covid surges often last for about two months before receding, but that’s merely a description of the data, not a causal explanation.
“We still are really in the cave ages in terms of understanding how viruses emerge, how they spread, how they start and stop, why they do what they do,” Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, has told me.
In coming weeks and months, it is possible that the virus will surge again, maybe because of a new variant or because vaccine immunity will wane. It is also possible that the population has built up enough immunity — from both vaccines and previous infections — that Delta will have been the last major wave.
We don’t know, and we do not have to pretend otherwise. We do not have to treat Covid as a facile referendum on virtue.
When caseloads are high, it makes sense to take precautions, even if we can’t be sure how much they matter. When caseloads are lower, it makes sense to take fewer, because almost every precaution has a cost. Other than that, the best we can do is get vaccinated and, as Osterholm says, stay humble.
The school year has been reassuring so far. Here’s an in-depth look.
Children 5 to 11 could begin receiving Pfizer shots next month.
San Francisco will ease indoor mask requirements for vaccinated people.
How to use rapid at-home Covid tests (if you can find them): a guide from Tara Parker-Pope.
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Other Big Stories
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New York City is ending its gifted program — which is highly selective and racially segregated — for elementary school students.
“I didn’t think I would get an offer this quickly”: Hiring of recent college graduates has surged.
Carnegie Hall, the country’s pre-eminent concert space, reopened after 572 days.
Federal prosecutors charged 18 former N.B.A. players with defrauding the league’s health care program.
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Essentialism — the belief that the way we categorize ourselves reflects reality — is damaging our society, David Brooks argues.
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Lives Lived: For 11 years, Neal Sher ran a Justice Department office devoted to hunting down former Nazis. His targets had often lied to enter the U.S. after World War II. Sher died at 74.
ARTS AND IDEAS
A writer of exile wins a Nobel
The Nobel Prize in Literature went yesterday to Abdulrazak Gurnah, who left Zanzibar as a refugee in the 1960s and settled in England. He is the first Black writer to win it since Toni Morrison in 1993.
Many of Gurnah’s books focus on the effects of colonialism in East Africa, and on themes of exile and displacement. In 1996, The Times called his novel “Paradise” — about a boy who travels across Africa as an indentured servant — “a shimmering, oblique coming-of-age fable.”
If you haven’t read Gurnah’s books, The Times Book Review has a guide to his best. — Claire Moses, a Morning writer
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to Cook
These poached pears are a classic cool-weather dessert.
What to Watch
The race for the Oscars is on. The Projectionist has predictions.
The Broadway star Sutton Foster collaged and cross-stitched her way out of anxiety and loss.
The hosts talked about a new report about Trump.
Take the News Quiz
How well did you follow this week’s headlines? Take our News Quiz.
Now Time to Play
The pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was gunport. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.
Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Must (five letters).
If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.
Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you Monday. — David
P.S. The Times won eight 2021 Lowell Thomas Awards, travel writing’s top honor.
Here’s today’s print front page.
“The Daily” is about the C.I.A.
Kitty Bennett, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at email@example.com.