The Endemic Mindset

There really aren't any more just-the-flu-ers these days.

OK, sure, there are still some solitary specimens sticking to their guns, so please don't send me screenshots of your crazy uncle's Facebook feed. But by and large, over the last several months the just-the-flu meme has faded, having evolved into another species that is far more well-adapted to our environment. Far more resilient.

The ecological niche in our politics previously filled by the just-the-flu meme has been all but conquered by virus-gonna-virus.

So what is virus-gonna-virus? It is a versatile memetic construction built from some combination of one or more ideas. What are those ideas? That everything we're doing to combat COVID-19 is counterproductive safety porn. That nothing we could have done really would have changed anything about the virus's spread. That every country is going to end up in the same place. That most of the public discussion promoted in the news is designed to support the institution of new social controls and disproportionate criticism of politicians the media do not like.

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  1. The death rate in my county is 5%. 5%. Mask wearing is required, as is distancing. Most people have been pretty good. But despite this our rates are abysmal. Why? Combine a lousy hospital system with an older, much more unhealthy population and you get death printer go brrr. I’ve taken this thing seriously since January. I still do. I’m not fear-based, so I know a lot of what we’re doing (or at least a lot of what we did early on) is and was safety porn. I wish I could care more, but I cannot. My emotional capital has been drained. I’ve done my part. I’ll continue to do my part. But when a coworker decides to jet off to two locations, both of which have almost no real rules, then comes back positive a week later I’m Seacrest out. Tomorrow I start doing something I never wanted to do: working from home. F*ck it, if I’m surrounded by imbeciles then I’ll stay home and be the responsible one.

    That’s where I am. My wife and I will continue helping our older neighbor with her leaf removal, I’ll keep sending checks to the local food bank, but I’m done caring about the numbers. I don’t want to be done, but I’m failing to find the strength to do it. So this note hits home.

  2. aah, the 3rd stage of Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief: Depression & Helplessness. Transitions between mindsets seem to follow familiar patterns. Although some aspect of human emotion is emergent and memetic, it seems that evolutionary design predisposes us to learned helplessness. Will will bargain our way out of helplessness, because unlike dogs, our free will can interrupt conditioning with greater reliability. What i worry most about, is the nature of this ‘bargain’. All systems seek balance, but in a near infinite set of ‘types’ of autopoietic balance, many will have a negative long-term impact on socio-cultural development. If governments create a new set of constraints that, through policy, force vaccinations, create an identity passport, dictate the manifestation of social norms within private residences, or any other form of Orwellian control. Are we to be happy with the ‘bargain’?

  3. The antidote to the endemic mindset is the magic bullet, in this case the Vaccine - with a capital V. In your terms, after advance work by Gates et al., the meme of the Vaccine was drummed into us relentlessly, first by Fauci and Birx, and then by Trump and Biden, and now more recently by Pfizer and Moderna. CNBC banners the 90+% and 94+% effectiveness of the respective Vaccines and then compares them to vaccine effectiveness for smallpox, measles, and polio. The latter benchmarks were for actual prevention of the disease. The Pfizer and Moderna benchmarks are reportedly for mild disease. Hopefully, prevention of mild Covid19 disease is highly correlated with prevention of all Covid19 disease, and the Vaccine is not a just-like-the-flu vaccine but with a much more effective marketing strategy. At least we’ve made some progress; time will tell; and now back to the endemic mindset.

  4. Rusty - always enjoy your writing, and ET overall. This time, I think you missed an opportunity to do what we, as a pack, should always do: teach. Wearing a mask is not enough. We should teach by example by wearing a mask that actually works & is not a fashion statement. According to 3M, a surgical mask is to prevent the surgeon’s respiratory droplets from reaching the patient, and are rated at 100 microns. Drywall dust is about 3 microns and a virus is about .1-.3 microns. Wearing a fabric or surgical mask is like throwing a tennis ball in your open garage and expecting the walls to block it. Wear what works - K95, KN95, rated at 3 microns, and help those around us to obtain them. And we can teach without being jerks. Help our elderly friends & neighbors with gifts of K95-KN95 masks and disposable surgical gloves. Use them yourself when you deliver them, so they can feel confident about getting out of the house.
    Although you didn’t come out & say it in these words, we should live a can-do life, confidently, and try to inspire those around us out of any helplessness they may feel.

  5. Avatar for mckett mckett says:

    I had a conversation with a client exactly like this last week, and frankly it depressed me a bit (he is a biologist). Thanks as always for the illumination

  6. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Barry, I appreciate the feedback. I think we’ve been pretty open about our belief in N95 and KN95 masks, as they represent the core of our affiliated PPE distribution effort. We’re familiar with the literature on cloth/surgical masks against these higher grade options. You’re right that they’re not the same. But the garage analogy provided is somewhat exaggerated. Cloth, especially multiple ply, does a pretty passable job at reducing transmission of >10 micron particles, which remain a mechanism for transmission. Aerosols are less good, but studies certainly indicate a reduction, and viral load continues to be an important factor in outcomes. It matters, and getting people who are ill-inclined to do anything to do something matters. Gatekeeping people we’re trying to get back in the game by being excessively specific here wasn’t really our aim.

    And as for trying to inspire people out of any helplessness they feel…I completely agree! I’m not sure what you meant by me not coming out and saying it, though. That’s the whole point of the piece. That’s the point of the final big paragraph. I’m with you on this! :slight_smile:

  7. Avatar for rwgood rwgood says:

    What if a large number of the dogs receive a shock that is no worse than a little tickle such that that do not even care what section of the box they’re in. No need to whimper. I know of one elderly person who died as a result of her exposure. I also know of a large number of people most between say 16 and 55 who were infected and experienced little or no symptoms. Those people did not learn to whimper in helplessness.

  8. The brutal part of this, as all but said by Rusty, is the complete failure of our politicians: those on one side downplaying it and those on the other using it to advance non-Covid agendas (yes, I’m talking to you president Trump and to you governor Cuomo).

    If there was ever an opportunity to help break the widening gyre - to bring everyone together - this was it. Leaders at all levels - local up to Federal - should have put bipartisan commissions/task forces/etc. in place and told them to work for the best outcome, period. True Republican leaders should have been calling out the BS in their own party’s narrative as true Democratic leaders should have been doing in theirs.

    But no, a global pandemic just turned into another game of “your side is evil.” And let’s not kid ourselves, both sides picked and chose the science it liked.So here we - all normal Americans - are, essentially on our own, trying to decide who has the “right” science. Instead of being able to follow a few government sites for smart guidance on what to do, we all had to become our own Covid-19 experts, which is something, I know, I’m not qualified to do, but I had no choice.

    I get your point Rusty about how now we should be playing defense to a foreseeable goal, but we all have to make that assessment ourselves as no one believes anything any of our politicians say - idiot Rs not wearing masks and holding rallies or idiot Ds not denouncing leftist non-mask-wearing “protests” or telling us to stay home and then going to get their own hair done.

    I’m amazed there is such partisanship in the country as both sides simply make me sick.

  9. Avatar for mwc mwc says:

    Don’t forget, Learned Happiness can be ‘learned’ just as quickly (or gradually) as Learned Helplessness. I mean, the good Dr. has a book on it!

  10. I fear that this is what breaks us – the slow erosion of public spiritedness by watching people around you take more and more liberties. I’ve had the same thing here, to the letter: watching a colleague take their planned international trip the week after I cancelled mine out of desire to avoid being a contagion vector; having to continue telling my friends that no, I can’t to come to their birthday party to which dozens of others are invited; taking my carefully socially-distanced midday walk while watching tightly-clustered groups of young people laughing and playing within inches of one another.

    It’s not the lacklustre official response that breaks us. It’s looking to our left and right and seeing those close to us starting to defect that drives us into a tragedy of the commons equilibrium.

  11. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I hear and feel every bit of this. 100%.

  12. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I think you’re right. I also think that the vaccine news IS a chance to lead a change in this behavior, to make clear the opportunity from non-defection. Maybe our best chance left.

  13. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I’m not at all convinced that bargaining with the state is the only option we have to emerge from that learned helplessness. But yes, there’s a path that leads in that direction and it is a deeply uncomfortable one (to me, anyway).

  14. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    It’s a worthy topic for our ET Live tomorrow: if the vaccines peter out (due to unwillingness to take or disappointing real-world efficacy), is there anything in narrative world that can fight off the return of the endemic mindset?

  15. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Well, in the parlance of the article, I think those people are more or less indistinguishable from the third group of test subjects, not because they’ve learned helplessness, but because they’re sick of hearing about statistical realities when their anecdotal experience tells them something different. It’s a difficult sell in many cases.

  16. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Too right, although I think contentment hits nearer the mark, even if it wouldn’t have been as catchy a title!

  17. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I know the heart behind what you’re saying, and while I share your rightful disdain for the inability of public figures and institutions to seize the opportunity, I’m pretty content that “doing it ourselves” is still what we need. I haven’t given up on our finest hour yet. I believe clear minded and full hearted people can pull each other up to get us to whatever the finish line looks like here without the help of the Rs, Ds or media.

  18. I am an Australian subscriber. We have had a total of 907 COVID19 deaths from a population of c.26million. The only recent cases (until yesterday in Adelaide) have been from returning travellers where you must spend 2 weeks at your own expense confined in a hotel.

    I live in Sydney. We are politely encoraged to wear a mask on public transport and get tested if we feel unwell. Life is back to normal, except we can’t travel- currently not even interstate. We have no locally transmitted cases for some time.

    In Victoria, it is a different story. The virus got away from them and they have had 819 out of the 907 Australian deaths because they bungled the hotel quarantine regime for returning travellers (the guards were sleeping with the guests). They have had no cases for more than 2 weeks but are forced to wear a mask. They are also resticted from any travel outside the state. The government has imposed the strictest regime globally and it worked.

    Most interstingly, a recent study has cited the huge increase in trust that the Australian general public have for both state and federal governments as a result of the government’s response to the coronavirus - since the federal election in 2019. Let me know if you want the link to that study.

    While I have the highest regard for a my local and state governments, the control measures have had a huge cost. I am noticing a significant impact on young people and those who have been unable to see their familes. The economic cost has also been staggering.

    While our travel plans are probably on hold until a vaccine rollout or more likely 2022, the value of human life in Australia has been put at the forefront of policy meaures. This has been even more surprising when you consider that the average age of a covid death is 85 years of age in this country.

  19. I agree, in part, because we have no choice and, in part, because, in life, you pretty much have to do almost everything yourself with your small tribe of genuine family and friends. I’m less upset at being “on my own” with Covid as that’s been my life, but I am upset that, one, the government (Rs and Ds) abjectly failed us (a lot of our income and spending is taxed, it would be nice to see those dollars do something good in a crisis) and, two, an opportunity to show how compromise and true bi-partisanship can work was missed.

  20. K shaped recovery, K shaped politics, K shaped news, K shaped covid … I don’t feel helpless, I just don’t know who to believe.

  21. I can’t help but point out that the strategic pivot from “it’s just the flu” to “virus gonna virus” is tactically just like the pivot from “global cooling”/“global warming” to “climate change”. Taking a falsifiable position, distilling it to the essentials for narrative control, and rendering it unfalsifiable.

  22. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    That’s a really sharp observation that I hadn’t considered.

  23. What you say about our politicians is that they are politicians not medical experts so why listen to them. There are several medical sites available one is “Medscape” and as a medical doctor I look at it often, but I think others can get it. If not there are others available that do not have an axe to grind.

  24. Virus gonna virus. There’s a lot of different flavors of it. My area was a hotspot particularly for servers/bartenders/clerks in the resort area, and also the immigrant workers at food processor plants in the industrial side of town. The infection rates rocketed up quick, but hospitalizations never got above mid 20’s for the area even at the peak. We never saw the huge spike in hospitalizations or deaths. We did however have a big spike in hospitalizations (the mid 20’s) when our Governor shipped Covid positive patients back to nursing homes, and refused to mandate testing for all nursing home employees and visitors.
    It’s hard to not be “virus gonna virus” when you personally know many people that have had it, and only personally know an extremely few that have suffered.

  25. I agree, but also, I failed to make my point clearly (my bad). It’s not that I wanted to blindly follow our politicians or that there isn’t good advice a thoughtful person could find away from them, but that they - our government leaders - are in a unique position to craft a coordinated societal response.

    If some things - like mask wearing, social distancing, reducing capacity in public places, etc. - are rational to do, then only our government leaders have the power to make that policy. You, Rusty or I can find the smartest individual advice without the government, but only the government could lead the societal top-down response.

    This is where the partisan bickering and point scoring from both sides failed us. It was the time when that should have been put aside and a sincere best efforts made to have a bi-partisan government-led response that balanced all the issues - not just the uncertain science of Covid, but the economic and social costs of a shutdown - to come up with an objective plan.

    Would it have been perfect - of course not. But if the public believed in the sincerity of the effort and the effort was reasonable, it could have helped versus the chaos that has ensued. That’s it. As a small government guy, I see a limited role for government, but coordinating a measured response in a pandemic is one of those roles.

  26. Avatar for Hobbes Hobbes says:

    This comment may very well start a fight pretty quickly, having very little to do with the pandemic, but I see a considerable number of people who, in my opinion, fall into the “virus gonna virus” mode because of their religious beliefs. I’ve heard directly a number of times, “We’re all going to die someday, and if God wants to take me now with Covid, then I’m okay with that, and I won’t be wearing a mask thank you very much”. How does one argue against this seemingly unimpeachable viewpoint - that there is something bigger out there controlling day to day life, so why fight it?

  27. My wife is a very devout Christian. I am…not nearly as good as she is, but I try. I can tell you that she and her circle of friends from her old church are infuriated by exactly the kind of people you’re talking about. The angriest she has been this whole time was when that preacher down in Florida (I think, double check me on that) who was openly defying orders and basically commanding his flock to show up to close-quarters services. We tend to view those people as a combination of clowns and mass shooters. They are usually a joke, but sometimes they can do extreme damage.

  28. Rusty, I worship at the altar of the Pack. But, But, But as Axios says…a vaccine could be 100% effective AND used to cure people with the disease and there are a high percentage of people (everybody knows that everybody knows© who they are) who will not take it. They will not have their freedoms impinged by a mandate that they have health insurance, so when they are hospitalized we all pay for it as part of our taxes and insurance (Should have to have it tattooed on them so they can be put in the side ward while those responsible people get treatment). They will not be bossed by gummint to take anything because it’s controlled by Bill Gates/George Soros/Zionists/Antifa/Communists (Fluoride?) and-or they deny it/hoax it/reject it etc.

    I despair that we will ever get to herd immunity anyway because i think that studies are mixed about the longevity of antibodies from either being infected or vaccinated. I will wait at least 6 months, maybe a year before I trust it because I am a skeptic. There a gazillion unknown unknowns about the virus. I think there’s a reasonable likelihood that it is a weapon that got out of control, open to being wrong.

    Meanwhile Chris Martenson a pretty reasonable guy reports that contrary to the nudging media,and the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy©, Hydroxychloroquine, Z-Packs and Zinc when applied early have markedly better outcomes and costs almost nothing compared to Regeneron’s multi thousand dollar cocktail because nobody is a lobbyist for the former and major pharmaceutical companies and their trade groups spent almost $50 million dollars on lobbying in the first quarter of 2020, which included the opening months of the coronavirus crisis and involved multiple lobbyists who were former members of the Trump Administration. BITFD. I’m a Cubs fan as well.

  29. I check all your boxes - mask - distance - local - help - jerk avoidance. I still struggle with endemic mindset. Our “essential” small business in Houston has not had a day away since the March madness kicked in and to date still sports an R0 = 0. Zero. How is that possible given our owner thinks herd immunity should be encouraged?

    I’ve spent evenings reading medical reports that required a medical dictionary for every other word. Learned a good deal - enough to know what we already knew: you don’t want to get it. My work clothes all sport bleach burns.

    Epsilon Theory is a salve and a stimulant for sore neurons. And the comments: dialog without riot gear. How cool is that? Thank you all. Go Pack Go

  30. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    It is a very divisive issue within churches for a great many reasons. I see it in my own church. In my (very personal) opinion and experience, this is a papering over of the underlying political identity alignment cause of this point of view. It is not typically deemed acceptable to say, “I’m not on board with masks and distancing because that would signal that I buy into what the political left and media are saying” in evangelical churches in particular, while something akin to what you are describing is sometimes acceptable.

    Bit awkward for someone like me in churches who are, in fact, conservative in any historically relevant sense, but who feel rather strongly about the behaviors we need to adopt.

  31. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    It is very hard. And the safety porn aficionados don’t do us any favors by adopting “shut down everything everywhere” when it’s entirely reasonable that certain areas aren’t experiencing infection and spread rates that don’t come close to warranting those efforts.

  32. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I don’t know that there’s much there I have to disagree with there, AND I think it’s important that we realize we are unlikely to reach a perfect outcome AND I think it’s important to realize that there are gradations short of “permanent herd immunity” that are demonstrably better than where we’re at today.

    It’s a mess, to be sure, and while I’d love (for the benefit of that small group who CANNOT safely take a vaccine) for us to do enough that we have eradicated this as a pandemic, I think it is likely that we will have a partial result (not great) or something similar to forced or effectively forced (required for various public services) vaccination (maybe even worse). Still, for a substantial portion of the population that wants to return to something much closer to normal within their network, a vaccine makes it possible to do so.

  33. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I struggle with it all the time, too, Thomas. The regional diversity of spread should be influencing policy, but the overarching influence of the Widening Gyre - driving policy toward “right sounding thoughts” - has absolutely influenced us in both directions.

    I’ve got family in Montgomery County who legitimately know no one personally who has contracted COVID-19. They work in workplaces with no positives and go to schools with no positives. I’d still be wearing masks and distancing - because I can, and because it costs me very little - but I GET the source of people’s frustrations and why virus-gonna-virus becomes such a seductive meme.

  34. I get the same sense. Not wearing a mask to own the libs is often the underlying sentiment, irrespective of what the surface reason given is.

  35. Avatar for Greg_S Greg_S says:

    Rusty, your comment in the last paragraph, “If that isn’t enough to motivate us to pull one another’s legs over the partition, to reinvigorate our own and our community’s commitment to small, personally sacrificial action for our neighbors, I don’t know that anything will”, made me pull out my copy of Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning. He states, “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. … Our answer (in being questioned by life) must consist not in talk and mediation but in right action and in right conduct”. I’ve seen the power of small actions to help neighbors in our own little part of the universe. They work.

  36. These are trying times.

    Try not to get sick.

    Try not to go broke.

    Try to help where you can.

    Try not to burn out.

    And give yourself some credit for trying.

  37. I wish I could up-vote this. Best comment I’ve seen today.

  38. I am not quite sure how the two things connect, but I think learned helplessness is strongly correlated with hopelessness. For myself, hope is grounded in faith. I am curious how others “source” hope? And how could hope be provided to those who are hopeless, those who need to be picked up and placed on the other side of the partition.

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