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There’s a Brian Aldiss series of novels about a planet that has 500-year-long seasons, and ahead of each great winter, people get attacked by a virus called the Fat Death, which makes them gain a ton of weight, or else die, or else first one then the other. It’s actually symbiotic, because the virus allows the survivors to make it through the coming cold years, but the people don’t know that, so try their best to avoid it. Each cycle, a few pockets of smart-alecs manage to stave off the virus to remain slim and healthy and smug, but if they’re successful, they realize they’re skinny weirdos who can’t hang out with anyone.
Australia is that pocket of skinny weirdos.
It turns out that when you’re very successful at keeping COVID out of your country, you don’t feel a real urgency to get vaccinated. Only 4% of Australia is fully vaccinated so far, and a sizable chunk of the rest seem reluctant to be injected with something to protect them from a virus that isn’t really present around here.
This is an interesting situation to me because it involves people doing good things that lead to bad outcomes. (I also like the reverse situation, when bad things will lead to good outcomes.) Plus it comes with a big dollop of human inability to assess risk, which is a fascinating topic that I’ve written and spoken about before (essay, video). People are terrible at risk. We’re the evolutionary result of a biological system that prioritized fast decisions over correct ones, which was fine when the risk was saber-toothed tigers, but less fine when it’s blood clots.
We’re instinctively happier with risks that are the result of our own actions, such as swimming in a dangerous current or driving a car, than risks imposed on us by outside forces. And we especially hate risks that are new. We like to classify things into simple categories, with the result that a lot of people now believe driving to a medical center would be perfectly safe, but getting a vaccine there would be dangerous.
I’m not sure how Australia plans ever to open its borders. So long as they remain shut tight, there’s a low enough risk of catching COVID that for many people, it will be treated as zero. And a vaccine that presents any risk at all, however small, will be seen as dangerous.
Do you think young people should get better care or be prioritized in hospitals? For example, let’s say there is a 20 year old and a 75 year old who both have COVID and are in need of a ventilator. But there is only one left. Who would you give it to?
Great question. The easy answer, of course, is to give it to the 20-year-old, since s/he has more years of productive life left, which can be extracted and sacrificed to our corporate overlords. But consider this: Perhaps the 75-year-old is a CEO, or sits on the board of a major company. In that case, he or she is probably capable of stoking capitalism’s engine room with hundreds or even thousands of lives.
So it’s not as simple as it appears. I also have to consider whether the 20-year-old might notice I’m carrying a ventilator and physically wrestle it from me before I can apply its life-giving grace to the shriveled husk of the 75-year-old Chevron board member who’s spent his/her life trading away the planet’s climate for profit. I mean, it’s unlikely, since this 20-year-old needs a ventilator. I can probably fight off someone who can’t breathe properly. But it would be truly humiliating if I failed, and had the ventilator ripped from my hands, under the watery, yellowing eyes of a corporate titan.
Of course, these are the kinds of tough decisions our brave front-line medical workers have to make all the time. Let me tell you, I don’t envy the doctor who has to decide whether a sick patient has enough economic potential to justify the patent-inflated cost of a life-saving medicine. That must be hell. But I suppose you don’t get into that field unless you’re willing to look a patient in the eye and judge their net worth.
Bottom-line, I just hope that one day we have technology to free us from this kind of heart-wrenching dilemma. I imagine a future in which patients can submit their economic potential statements over the internet, thereby saving them an expensive and time-consuming trip to a hospital in the event that the algorithm calculates they represent a negative cost-benefit healthcare scenario. I know what you’re thinking: “But Max, the time and financial hit to economically unproductive citizens is of no consequence. If anything, it’s mildly stimulating to the transport sector.” Still, I like to hope that one day things might be different. Not soon, obviously. Not if it will cost us anything. But let’s keep hoping.
Hi Max, do you think the limited availability of the corona vaccines is beneficial to the acceptance? What do you think the effect would be if someone would, hypothetically, shoot another person trying to get that person’s dose of the vaccine?
This is a great idea. You have a bright future ahead of you, Jonas, in marketing or as the head of some kind of dystopian government.
So we are talking about a Parmentier stunt. Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was an 18th Century French land-owner who managed to convince people to eat potatoes, which had previously been considered to be a fine source of leprosy. It’s not easy to persuade people to eat things that cause leprosy, so let’s take a moment to admire that. Sometimes I hear people arguing that marketing doesn’t really have the power to persuade anyone, and I wish those people could travel back in time and look at French peasants putting perceived leprosy in their mouths.
Anyway, Parmentier hit upon the idea of posting guards all around his potato fields. That way, people thought the ultra-rich were hoarding potatoes for themselves. Then at nights, when the guards were instructed to go to sleep, peasants sneaked into the fields and stole potatoes and ate them. Then they didn’t get leprosy, so the word-of-mouth was good.
Parmentier was also in charge of France’s first compulsory vaccination program, for obvious reasons. If you can convince people to eat leprosy, you are a great person to lead a nationwide program that requires people to let drunk leech-doctors stick them with unwashed needles.
An easily-overlooked aspect of the anti-vax movement, I feel, is that vaccinations involve letting strangers put things you can’t see into your body. I’m strongly in favor of vaccines, but I have to admit, as a general principle, it is indeed a bad idea to let strangers put things you can’t see in your body. So I recognize why some people come at this from that default position.
Today, we have a solid history of the effects of vaccines, and it’s still hard to convince people to get them. In 1805, when doctors liked to try to cure SIDS by removing kids’ teeth, it was probably even tougher. Parmentier didn’t shoot anybody, as far as I’m aware, although it does sound like they vaccinated a lot of orphans up front, or, in marketing speak, initially targeted a low-risk demographic. People weren’t going to miss a few orphans, is what I’m saying.
What I especially like about Parmentier is that he engaged fantasy with fantasy. You think potatoes cause leprosy? Well, actually, they’re at the heart of a wealthy conspiracy. It’s always tempting to combat fantasy with reality, but that’s a loser’s gambit. You can almost never persuade anyone with the truth. But you can get them to believe a better story.
First, I’d like to say how gratifying it is to finally be taken seriously as a news publication. But the interesting part is how Facebook has responded to an Australian law it doesn’t like by nuking users. Here is the story so far:
- News companies got sad because it’s harder and harder to make money, even though what they do is arguably more important than ever, and their products are at the heart of a lot of online activity, generating ad revenue for social media companies.
- The larger Australian media companies had the idea that Google and Facebook should have to pay them for this privilege, and the Australian government, always happy to help out a major media company, so long as it’s supportive, went right ahead and drew up legislation.
- Google launched a PR and lobbying campaign to argue why this was a terrible idea. Facebook was all silent and mysterious and then yesterday just dropped the hammer on every single site that looked Australian, instantly wiping out the Facebook presence of hospitals, charities, newspapers, bald novelists, and everything in between.
- The ban is also retrospective, so while all those home-grown 5G conspiracy theory posts are still up, any posts that debunked them by linking to a news site are gone.
I assume this situation is temporary and either Facebook or (more likely) the Australian government will back down. But it’s a fun reminder that there are now basically three companies in the world who control what everyone hears: Facebook, Google, Apple. When they choose to, as Facebook did, they can excise a big chunk of what would otherwise reach your attention, and it’s just gone.
What happened to antitrust? That’s what I want to know. I’m pretty sure we used to be a lot more interested in breaking companies into smaller parts before they reached Godzilla proportions and couldn’t be stopped from doing whatever they liked. I feel like we should have kept doing that.
But I’m glad I’ve maintained this site, even as we all gave up visiting a list of favorite bookmarked sites and switched over to reading whatever the algorithms told us to. If I’d relied on a Facebook page, everything I’d ever posted would be gone.
I don’t want to be that guy, but honestly, I feel those Trump years could have been worse. They weren’t great, obviously. Not as as good as they would have been if the President had been, say, a random person you pulled off the street. With a random person, you’d have good odds of drawing someone who wasn’t a narcissistic liar with no sense of empathy. So that would be better.
Given the person we did have, I think we got out of that one okay. By “we,” I mean the world. And that’s mainly because Trump didn’t really care about the rest of the world: He was all about America First. I really thought Trump would be unable to resist invading another country, since that’s an excellent, time-proven way to reap some personal benefits while pushing the costs onto other people, a tactic businesspeople especially enjoy. Somewhere around half of all business activity, in my opinion, is about genuinely creating value, while the other half is about gaming the system in order to capture profits while pushing costs onto somebody else.
One of the most shocking things I ever saw was the US after 9/11 transforming into a scary militaristic vengeance machine with no patience for concepts that had previously seemed to be core values, like tolerance and dissent. That was disturbing: watching TV networks and newspapers line up behind the White House like good soldiers, and cheerlead the invasion of an unrelated country. So I’m happy Trump didn’t try to lead a return to that.
Instead, all his enemies were domestic, and he attacked them so crudely and blatantly that they were able to rally and defend themselves, and may even be able to grow back stronger, like an immune system after an inoculation. I’ve always liked how Americans have so many principles, or at least lay claim to them—not at all like Australians, who will roll with whatever seems to make the most practical sense at the time—and 2017-2020 was a great time for putting principles to the test, and finding out who had them, and what they really were.
Therefore, I have to say, as someone who half-expects the world to fall into a corpo-anarchist apocalypse any day now, that definitely could have been worse. I didn’t like the 2017 tax cuts (more inequality, bringing forward the day when the common people begin guillotining the capital classes), the COVID bungling, and the continued breeding of alt-right brain viruses, which don’t just affect the US but also get exported to the rest of the world and spawn things like this:
But nobody got nuked, no-one got sucked into an international conflict that will drag on for ten years, and we all got a good look at what’s actually happening in social media, which might have otherwise bubbled away quietly until it was permanently entrenched.
So that’s pretty good.
One thing I haven’t figured out yet about this pandemic is why we’re okay with so many deaths. Not in the sense of “what is wrong with people,” even though, you know, what is wrong with people. But I try to make sense of the world, and this has been very surprising to me, this sudden blandness toward the idea of masses of people dropping dead from a mystery virus.
That isn’t something I would have anticipated, if I had been writing a book about people dropping dead from a mystery virus: everyone going very rationalist about it. In my experience, people are very twitchy about the idea of dropping dead from something. Especially something that’s new and mysterious and you can’t do much to stop it. That ticks quite a few boxes on the list of things that makes human beings freak right the heck out.
I definitely expected more fear and fewer people calmly arguing that it isn’t actually that many deaths if you compare it to five or ten years worth of influenza, and anyway, you have to die of something, sooner or later, and who knows, it might not even be as deadly as they say.
I’m not saying this is wrong, necessarily. It just feels like an inexplicable, planet-wide rescaling of what makes us hysterical. Because for a long time, it hasn’t required much to make us hysterical. We’ve been ready to overreact to very slim threats.
So what’s going on? There are probably a few factors in play—it surely helps that older people are disproportionately affected, and there are identity politics mixed up now—but maybe it’s simply that we’ve grown tired of it. Because I do remember us taking it more seriously in the beginning. But humans recalibrate. You can get used to anything, I read, in an awesome short story about a man who’s sent to Hell (I forget the title), so maybe you get used to this, too.