Nine “Errors of Intuition” Still Damaging the U.S. Response to COVID-19

Whenever Ed Yong posts something on The Atlantic, I read it. A couple weeks ago he posted another long, extremely well-researched piece about the U.S. response to COVID, and I thought it deserved a post. The article, entitled “America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral,” begins with a fantastic metaphor for our nation’s tragically bad response to the pandemic:

Army ants will sometimes walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the pheromone trails of workers in front of them, while laying down pheromones for others to follow. If these trails accidentally loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped. They become a thick, swirling vortex of bodies that resembles a hurricane as viewed from space. They march endlessly until they’re felled by exhaustion or dehydration. The ants can sense no picture bigger than what’s immediately ahead. They have no coordinating force to guide them to safety. They are imprisoned by a wall of their own instincts. This phenomenon is called the death spiral. I can think of no better metaphor for the United States of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. [is now entering] the ninth month of the pandemic… But the toll continues to be enormous… because the country has consistently thought about the pandemic in the same unproductive ways.

Many Americans trusted intuition to help guide them through this disaster. They grabbed onto whatever solution was most prominent in the moment, and bounced from one (often false) hope to the next. They saw the actions that individual people were taking, and blamed and shamed their neighbors. They lapsed into magical thinking, and believed that the world would return to normal within months. Following these impulses was simpler than navigating a web of solutions, staring down broken systems, and accepting that the pandemic would rage for at least a year. …

And instead of overriding misleading intuitions with calm and considered communication, those leaders intensified them. The country is now trapped in an intuition nightmare: Like the spiraling ants, Americans are walled in by their own unhelpful instincts, which lead them round and round in self-destructive circles.

The time to break free is now. … Now comes fall, the season of preparation, and winter, the season of survival. The U.S. must reset its mindset to accomplish both. Ant death spirals break only when enough workers accidentally blunder away, creating trails that lead the spiraling workers to safety. But humans don’t have to rely on luck; unlike ants, we have a capacity for introspection.

With this fantastic introduction, and the hope that helping us to become more aware of these intuitive mistakes might help us correct them, Yong goes on to lay out “nine errors of intuition that still hamstring the U.S. pandemic response.” Here’s an abridged rundown:

1.) A Serial Monogamy of Solutions

Stay-at-home orders dominated March. Masks were fiercely debated in April. Contact tracing took its turn in May. Ventilation is having its moment now. “It’s like we only have attention for only one thing at a time,” says Natalie Dean…

As often happens, people sought easy technological fixes for complex societal problems. For months, President Donald Trump touted hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 cure, even as rigorous studies showed that it isn’t one. In August, he switched his attention to convalescent plasma… There’s still no clear evidence that this century-old approach can treat COVID-19 either… More generally, drugs might save some of the very sickest patients, as dexamethasone does, or shorten a hospital stay, as remdesivir does, but they are unlikely to offer outright cures. “It’s so reassuring to think that a magic-bullet treatment is out there and if we just wait, it’ll come and things will be normal,” Dean says. …

This brief attention span is understandable. Adherents of the scientific method are trained to isolate and change one variable at a time. Academics are walled off into different disciplines… Journalists constantly look for new stories, shifting attention to the next great idea. These factors prime the public to view solutions in isolation, which means imperfections become conflated with uselessness. For example, many critics of masks argued that they provide only partial protection against the virus, that they often don’t fit well, or that people wear them incorrectly. But some protection is clearly better than no protection. …

A successful response “is never going to be one thing done perfectly. It’ll be a lot of different things done well enough.” …

2.) False Dichotomies

A world of black and white is easier to handle than one awash with grays. But false dichotomies are dangerous. From the start, COVID-19 has been portrayed as a disease that mostly causes mild symptoms in people who quickly recover, and occasionally causes severe illness that leads to hospitalization and death. This two-sided caricature—severe or mild, sick or recovered—has erased the thousands of “long-haulers” who have endured months of debilitating symptoms at home with neither recognition nor care.

Meanwhile, as businesses closed and stay-at-home orders rolled out, “we presumed a trade-off between saving lives and saving the economy,” says Danielle Allen… “That was foolishness of the most profound degree.” The two goals were actually aligned: Epidemiologists and economists largely agree that the economy cannot rebound while the pandemic is still raging. By treating the two as opposites, state leaders rushed to reopen, leading a barely contained virus to surge anew.  

Now, as winter looms and the pandemic continues, another dichotomy has emerged: enter another awful lockdown, or let the virus run free. This choice, too, is false. Public-health measures offer a middle road… A city could close higher-risk venues like bars and nightclubs while opening lower-risk ones like retail stores. There’s a “whole control panel of dials” on offer, but “it’s hard to have that conversation when people think of a light switch,” says Lindsay Wiley… “The term lockdown has done a lot of damage.” It exacerbated the false binary between shutting down and opening up…

3.) The Comfort of Theatricality

Stay-at-home orders saved lives by curtailing COVID-19’s spread, and by giving hospitals some breathing room. But the orders were also meant to buy time for the nation to ramp up its public-health defenses. Instead, the White House treated months of physical distancing as a pandemic-ending strategy in itself. “We squandered that time in terms of scaling up testing and contact tracing, enacting policies to protect workers who get infected on the job, getting protective equipment to people in food-processing plants, finding places for people to isolate, offering paid sick leave … We still don’t have those things,” says Julia Marcus… The country is now facing the fall with many of the same problems that plagued it through the summer.

Showiness is often mistaken for effectiveness. The coronavirus mostly spreads through air rather than contaminated surfaces, but many businesses are nonetheless trying to scrub and bleach their way toward reopening. My colleague Derek Thompson calls this hygiene theater—dramatic moves that appear to offer safety without actually doing so. The same charge applies to temperature checks, which can’t detect the many COVID-19 patients who don’t have a fever. … These tactics might do some good—let’s not conflate imperfect with useless—but they cause harm when they substitute for stronger measures. Theatricality breeds complacency.

4.) Personal Blame Over Systemic Fixes

SARS-CoV-2 spread rapidly among America’s overstuffed prisons and understaffed nursing homes, in communities served by overstretched hospitals and underfunded public-health departments, and among Black, Latino, and Indigenous Americans who had been geographically and financially disconnected from health care by decades of racist policies. Without paid sick leave or a living wage, “essential workers” who earn a low, hourly income could not afford to quarantine themselves when they fell ill—and especially not if that would jeopardize the jobs to which their health care is tied.

But tattered social safety nets are less visible than crowded bars. Pushing for universal health care is harder than shaming an unmasked stranger. Fixing systemic problems is more difficult than spewing moralism, and Americans gravitated toward the latter. News outlets illustrated pandemic articles with (often distorted) photos of beaches, even though open-air spaces offer low-risk ways for people to enjoy themselves. Marcus attributes this tendency to America’s puritanical roots, which conflate pleasure with irresponsibility, and which prize shame over support. “The shaming gets codified into bad policy,” she says. …

Moralistic thinking jeopardizes health in two ways. First, people often oppose measures that reduce an individual’s risk—seat belts, condoms, HPV vaccines—because such protections might promote risky behavior. During the pandemic, some experts used such reasoning to question the value of masks, while the University of Michigan’s president argued that testing students widely would offer a “false sense of security.” …

Second, misplaced moralism can provide cover for bad policies. Many colleges started their semester with in-person teaching and inadequate testing, and are predictably dealing with large outbreaks. UNC Chapel Hill lasted just six days before reverting to remote classes. Administrators have chastised students for behaving irresponsibly, while taking no responsibility for setting them up to fail—a pattern that will likely continue through the fall as college clusters inevitably grow. …

5.) The Normality Trap

In times of uncertainty and upheaval, “people crave a return to familiar, predictable rhythms,” says Monica Schoch-Spana… That pull is especially strong now because the pandemic’s toll is largely invisible. There’s nothing as dramatic as ruined buildings or lapping floodwater to hint that the world has changed. In some circles, returning to normal has been valorized as an act of defiance. That’s a reasonable stance when resisting terrorists, who seek to stoke fear, but a dangerous one when fighting a virus, which doesn’t care.

The powerful desire to re-create an old world can obscure the trade-offs necessary for surviving the new one. Keeping high-risk indoor businesses open, for example, helps the virus spread within a community, which makes reopening schools harder. … A world with COVID-19 is fundamentally different from one without it, and the former simply cannot include all the trappings of the latter. Cherished summer rituals like camps and baseball games have already been lost; back-to-school traditions and Thanksgiving now hang in the balance. Change is hard to accept

6.) Magical Thinking

Back in April, Trump imagined the pandemic’s quick end: “Maybe this goes away with heat and light,” he said. From the start, he and others wondered if hot, humid weather might curb the spread of COVID-19, as it does other coronavirus diseases. Many experts countered that seasonal effects wouldn’t stop the new virus, which was already spreading in the tropics. But, fueled by shaky science and speculative stories, people widely latched on to seasonality as a possible savior, before the virus proved that it could thrive in the Arizona, Texas, and Florida summer.  

This brand of magical thinking, in which some factor naturally defuses the pandemic, has become a convenient excuse for inaction. Recently, some commentators have argued that the pandemic will imminently fizzle out for two reasons. First, 20 to 50 percent of people have defensive T-cells that recognize the new coronavirus… Second, some modeling studies claim that herd immunity… could kick in when just 20 percent of the population has been infected.

Neither claim is implausible, but neither should be grounds for complacency. No one yet knows if the “cross-reactive” T-cells actually protect against COVID-19, and even if they do, they’re unlikely to stop people from getting infected. Herd immunity, meanwhile, is not a perfect barrier. … Pursuing this strategy will mean that, in the winter, many parts of the U.S. may suffer what New York City endured in the spring: thousands of deaths and an untold number of lingering disabilities.

7.) The Complacency of Inexperience

When illness is averted and lives are spared, “nothing happens and all you have is the miracle of a normal, healthy day,” says Howard Koh… “People take that for granted.” Public-health departments are chronically underfunded because the suffering they prevent is invisible. Pandemic preparations are deprioritized in the peaceful years between outbreaks. Even now, many people who have been spared the ravages of COVID-19 argue that the disease wasn’t a big deal, or associate their woes with preventive measures. But the problem is still the disease those measures prevented: The economy is still hurtingmental-health problems are growing, and educational futures have been curtailed, not because of some fearmongering overreaction, but because an uncontrolled pandemic is still afoot.

If anything, the U.S. did not react swiftly or strongly enough. Nations that had previously dealt with emerging viral epidemics… were quick to take the new coronavirus seriously. By contrast, America’s lack of similar firsthand experience, combined with its sense of exceptionalism, might have contributed to its initial sloppiness. “One of my colleagues went to Rwanda in February, and as soon as he hit the airport, they asked about symptoms, checked his temperature, and took his phone number,” says Abraar Karan… “In the U.S., I flew in July, and walked out of the airport, no questions asked.” …

8.) A Reactive Rut

In March, Mike Ryan at the [WHO] advised, “Be fast, have no regrets … The virus will always get you if you don’t move quickly.” The U.S. failed to heed that warning, and has repeatedly found itself several steps behind the coronavirus. That’s partly because exponential growth is counterintuitive, so “we don’t understand that things look fine until right before they’re very not fine,” says Beth Redbird… It’s also because the coronavirus spreads quickly but is slow to reveal itself: It can take a month for infections to lead to symptoms, for symptoms to warrant tests and hospitalizations, and for enough sick people to produce a noticeable spike. Pandemic data are like the light of distant stars, recording past events instead of present ones. This lag separates actions from their consequences by enough time to break our intuition for cause and effect. Policy makers end up acting only when it’s too late. Predictable surges get falsely cast as unexpected surprises.

This reactive rut also precludes long-term planning. In April, Michael Osterholm… told me that “people haven’t understood that [the pandemic] isn’t about the next couple of weeks [but] about the next two years.” Leaders should have taken the long view then. “We should have been thinking about what it would take to ensure schools open in the fall, and prevent the long-term harms of lost children’s development,” Redbird says. Instead, we started working our way through a serial monogamy of solutions, and, like spiraling army ants, marched forward with no sense of the future beyond the next few footsteps. …

9.) The Habituation of Horror

Already, the [pandemic] is exacting a psychological toll that’s unlike the trauma of a hurricane or fire. “It’s not the type of disaster that Americans specifically are used to dealing with,” says Samantha Montano… who studies disasters. “Famines… are closer approximations.” Health experts are burning outLong-haulers are struggling to find treatments or support. But many Americans are turning away from the pandemic. “People have stopped watching news about it as much, or talking to friends about it,” Redbird says. “I think we’re all exhausted.” Optimistically, this might mean that people are becoming less anxious and more resilient. More worryingly, it could also mean they are becoming inured to tragedy.

The most accurate model to date predicts that the U.S. will head into November with 220,000 confirmed deaths. More than 1,000 health-care workers have died. One in every 1,125 Black Americans has died, along with similarly disproportionate numbers of Indigenous people, Pacific Islanders, and Latinos. And yet, a recent poll found that 57 percent of Republican voters and 33 percent of independents think the number of deaths is acceptable. “In order for us to mobilize around a social problem, we all have to agree that it’s a problem,” Lori Peek says. “It’s shocking that we haven’t, because you really would have thought that with a pandemic it would be easy.” This [habituation of horror] is the final and perhaps most costly intuitive error…

The U.S. might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racismschool shootings and police brutalitymass incarceration and sexual harassmentwidespread extinctions and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept.

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