Updated: Mar 8
"The Blame Game (Covid Style)"
(Paranoid Planet Podcast: Season 1, Episode 4.2, Chapter 1)
It takes no great insight to say that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a good deal of pain and frustration to millions of people across the world. Most people listening to this podcast likely know someone who died recently either from contracting this virus or as a result of the many complications resulting from our attempts to keep it contained—like the postponement of some other medical intervention, or a worsening health due to poor eating, less exercise, or substance abuse, or deteriorating mental health problems that culminate in self-harm. Many have also experienced economic disruptions such as the loss of income, employment, or business, or a stressful change in work habits. Many have been forced to work or study from home, using complicated new technologies to network remotely with colleagues, teachers, and clients, or are required to commute and work in sterilized environments, following many safety precautions that make the experience tedious and uncomfortable. And then there are all of the limitations imposed on our social lives and interactions with family, friends, and communities, the loss of simple pleasures like going to a library, a pool, a restaurant, a gym, or movie theater, and a general loss of human contact as we spend large parts of our days secluded in front of a screen. While covid-19 is nowhere as contagious or deadly as the Bubonic plague or the Ebola virus, nor is it as cataclysmic as a tsunami or raging wildfire, there is no doubt that it caused the same sort of wide-reaching trauma that afflicts the survivors of natural disasters----psychological harm that can take years to recover from.
And as is the case with other natural disasters, pandemics leave us with a certain emotional void, namely the discomfort of never really knowing why it had to happen. Wars, assassinations, terrorist acts, plane crashes, and all sorts of engineering failures—what philosophers call moral evils—can easily be blamed on one or more individuals who, acting malevolently or carelessly, can be condemned and punished for the suffering they caused to others. Moral outrage is not a pleasurable emotion, but it is empowering insofar as it gives us a sense of being in the right, a conviction that we are the victims of a specific injustice that can be corrected or avenged, and in doing so offers us closure: the bitter-sweet assurance that our suffering wasn’t in vain. Discovering that some free human agent (or group) is the probable cause of a crashed passenger jet, a back-alley mugging, or an act of military aggression can give us a sense that the evil can be opposed, and that justice will ultimately prevail. It might even push us to devote our own time and resources to make sure it never happens again. Some of the world’s most determined activists are themselves survivors of a moral evil.
But natural disasters do nothing of the sort. They may, if we are inclined, remind us that life is short and unpredictable, that we should put our hopes in something more permanent than comfort and unbridled freedom, and that we should savor the small things that make life worth living. But they can also foster despair, and a profound bitterness directed at nothing specific, eating away at our hope, our faith, and our trust in others. Despair is less empowering and harder to process than moral outrage, and this is why the first easily morphs into the second, giving rise to popular theories that behind every “natural" disaster lies a scheming enemy with cruel intentions, whether or not this perceived enemy is in fact responsible for our pain. It is therefore not surprising that many prefer to believe that covid-19 is not a biological accident—or what philosophers might call a natural evil—but rather a man-made disease produced and spread by covert biological warfare programs, malevolent political oligarchies, a ravenous pharmaceuticals industry, rich Silicon Valley technocrats, decadent foreign cultures, totalitarian socialists, fascistic libertarians, or a clandestine network of satanic pedophiles. There is no doubt that all of these claims—as ludicrous as they sound to those who reject them—offer their believers some sense of control and closure that help them name the evil in question and offers them the belief that it can be thwarted and punished.
The apparent purposelessness of this pandemic—which I have no reason to believe is not a natural accident—is compounded by the problem of “information confusion”. Unless you are lucky enough to have broken free from the addictive torrent of information produced by electronic media—and if you are, podcasts like this one are likely not your thing—you’ve likely struggled to decide how much to trust all of the media claims about Covid-19 that flood us each day: from your own actual risk of infection, to the various precautious you need to take to avoid catching it, to the way national infection rates are calculated, to the many theories about covid’s origins. In some cases, there is simply too much data for most of us to know how it applies to our personal situations. In others, the information is too complex, based on many speculations, or keeps changing every few days or weeks. Unsurprisingly, most people will gravitate towards sources of information that tell them what they want to hear, which may not be any more accurate than the sources that don’t. So much media coverage of Covid-19 is based on general approximations or brought into question by various political factions, professional communities, and religious or activist groups who use covid statistics to alarm us about preventable deaths, the loss of civil liberties, creeping socialism, or institutional racism. It is no wonder that our collective heads are either spinning or burning in anger at those who don’t share our own concerns.
I must confess that I have myself struggled to determine what media sources to trust to assess my own covid health risks. Despite voraciously reading the news and doing a good deal of research on this subject, my eyes still glaze over when I hear experts drone on about the science of epidemiology. On some days I’ve felt like Casey Schuler, the character played by Kevin Spacey in the film Outbreak, perpetually anxious that my hazmat suit will suffer a tiny puncture that might lead to a horrible death. On others I’ve felt like Roy Neary, the Richard Dreyfus character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who rips off his gas mask during a false nerve gas emergency to breathe in the clean Wyoming air. When I rein in my emotions and submit my impressions to critical thinking, I soon realize that the best way to navigate this crisis is to avoid both paranoia and alarmism, by accepting that the danger of infection is real, but that my need to live a normal life is real too, and that a careful balancing act is required to make sure I remain both healthy and sane. For those of us who fear death more than control, the greatest safety is the obvious default position. For those of us who fear deception more than physical harm, a certain amount of freely accepted risk appears to be warranted. The question is, when is it reasonable to take a risk with our health and the health of the people who surround us each day, and when does it become willful neglect or callous disregard of others?
In her book The Vaccine Debate, science writer Tish Davidson identifies some of the not-so-scientific ways most of us make up our minds about whether or not to trust vaccines and other pre-emptive medical treatments. Our attitudes, she writes, are equally “influenced by the individual’s interpretation of statistical information, unconscious psychological factors, exposure to [different] vaccine narratives, and personal experience. […] Risk assessment can never predict what will happen to any single individual in the group […so] it becomes difficult for [individuals] to make an accurate, reasoned evaluation of risk.” Our gut feelings about the reliability of vaccines, or of the pharmaceuticals industry, or of the medical establishment in general therefore depend on a wide set of values, experiences, and implicit judgments that vary from person to person and from community to community, especially when trust in traditional authorities is compromised. Some of the biases that shape the way we make health choices include:
Confirmation bias: the tendency to accept information that confirms what we want to believe.
Omission bias: the preference to do nothing rather than risk taking the wrong decision.
Availability bias: the tendency to accept or remember the first information that we hear, not that which is carefully tested and found to be more accurate.
Temporal bias: The fear of immediate harm, like the possibility of an adverse vaccine reaction, over a more distant or long-term harm, like catching an illness that currently presents no imminent threat.
Optimism bias: The belief that bad things generally only happen to other people.
Philosopher and health risk consultant Conrad Brunk also reminds us that “the concept of acceptable risks is complex.” Individual healthcare choices—like the choice to wear a mask or get vaccinated—are often not based on scientific considerations, which are frequently too technical and complex for the average person to fully understand. Instead, “different people use different values when reflecting on the acceptability of risk”, just as they might when they board an airplane, swim in the ocean, or play contact sports. “It is not just a matter of simple ignorance or scientific illiteracy,” he writes, “often it is a matter of mistrust in that science, even though it might be well understood.” Indeed, vaccine resisters often spend long hours studying the science and history of vaccines—more so than the average vaccine supporter—though not necessarily from the most qualified sources. Nevertheless, they often can cite many examples of accidents or apparent conspiracies that vindicate their fears that mainstream medicine is dangerous and that alternative treatments, or no treatments at all, is preferable to being compelled to accept an intolerable one. The risks we choose, after all, are always more tolerable than the ones that are imposed.
This may explain why conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and its vaccines are so prevalent. When forced to choose between two potential dangers, most people are likely to do what conforms with their existing beliefs, irrespective of which choice is in fact more dangerous. And if those beliefs involve mistrust of the government, doctors, or corporations, and fear of coercion and “unnatural treatments”, they are likely to choose the option that gives them more peace of mind and less cognitive dissonance, even if that entails playing a game of Russian roulette with their lives and those of others.
It is tempting to blame all our woes on a single nefarious organization, or on some scheming foreign enemy, or on a brood of fanatical luddites. A sobering argument against those who believe that Covid-19 is the product of a massive conspiracy, or that vaccines are intentionally harmful, comes from historian Niall Ferguson, the author of Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. Catastrophes, he writes—even those that appear wholly natural—are almost invariably facilitated by humans, neither maliciously nor intentionally, but through poor planning, bureaucratic incompetence, or the desire to save time and money. From the sinking of the Titanic, to the international spread of the Spanish Flu, to the global lack of preparedness for the novel coronavirus (including in countries whose leaders were not bungling populists), the problem was caused by the failure of entire bureaucracies, not powerful individuals. “Catastrophes are often administrative affairs,” writes Ferguson, “system failures, in which leaders are symptoms of the bureaucracies that produced them.” In other words, it is more likely that the Covid-19 pandemic, like its many predecessors, is the result of multiple haphazard decisions, unexamined habits, blind chance, and casual mishaps that, compounded together, produced a “perfect storm” that led us to where we are now. Rarely can the blame be fixed on a single individual who fell asleep at the switch, and even less on some powerful villain able to controls all of the chaotic forces of nature and of human ineptitude that underlie most catastrophes. And since our world is more than ever interconnected through international travel and trade, it makes it even more likely that when natural forces and bureaucratic ineptitude clash, that the repercussions are global.
Since the dawn of vaccines, there have always been holdouts who view them as a greater health risk than the viruses they’re made to destroy. This is, Tish Davidson tells us, a natural and predictable reaction. Some are merely misinformed, and some are mistrustful contrarians who will never follow the crowd. But many have legitimate fears, even if these fears are not tethered to the strongest available facts. Nonetheless, we must bear in mind that forging a public consensus takes time, and it requires great effort by all types of leaders of opinion to bring opposing parties together by appealing to their common values. Coercive measures may appear favorable in the short run, but we must also understand that the more compliance to health norms are forced, the deeper the mistrust of these holdouts will grow, and the more Balkanized our societies become. It is also good to remember that nature often has its own way of settling such problems. As the number of unvaccinated persons infected with covid grows, and the number of vaccinated persons stay healthy, it is reasonable to predict that self-interest will eventually win out over paranoia and scientific moralizing.
It’s hard to care for the well-being of someone we perceive to be an enemy, who presents a risk to our safety and well-being. But then, no human activity is ever entirely safe, including our efforts to live together in peace. The best solution may not be for us to insist too hard that the enemy changes, but that we force ourselves to see the enemy as a potential friend, and to show real concern for their well-being, lest our moral outrage give rise to a much deeper crisis.
Michel J. Gagné, 2021.
 Tish Davidson: The Vaccine Debate, Greenwood Press, 2019, p.141-5.  Conrad G. Brunk: “The Role of Risk Perception in Vaccine Hesitancy and the Challenge of Communication,” in Bramadat et al, ed.: Public Health in the Age of Anxiety: Religious and Cultural Roots of Vaccine Hesitancy in Canada. University of Toronto Press, 2017, p.82-85.  Interview with Niall Ferguson, The Michael Shermer Show (Episode #179), May 8, 2021. https://www.skeptic.com/michael-shermer-show/niall-ferguson-doom-politics-of-catastrophe/  Jared Marcel Pollen: “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe—A Review,” Quillette, May 6, 2021. https://quillette.com/2021/05/06/doom-the-politics-of-catastrophe-a-review/
Readings and videos related to episode 4.2:
1. Tish Davidson: The Vaccine Debate, Greenwood Press, 2019.
2. Conrad G. Brunk: “The Role of Risk Perception in Vaccine Hesitancy and the Challenge of Communication,” in Paul Bramadat et al, ed.: Public Health in the Age of Anxiety: Religious and Cultural Roots of Vaccine Hesitancy in Canada. University of Toronto Press, 2017.
3. Niall Ferguson: Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. Penguin Press, 2021.
4. Interview with Niall Ferguson (Episode #179), The Michael Shermer Show, May 8, 2021.
5. Jared Marcel Pollen: “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe—A Review,” Quillette, May 6, 2021.
6. Bronwen Dickey: “Climb Aboard, Ye Who Seek the Truth!” (On Leonard Horowitz, Andrew Wakefield, and Conspiracy Crusies), Popular Mechanics, Aug.17, 2016.
7. Keziah Weir: “How Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Became the Anti-vaxxer Icon of America’s Nightmares,” Vanity Fair, May 13, 2021.
9. Harvard AIDS Initiative: “Q&A with Jacques Pepin,” T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University, 2012.
10. “The Origin of AIDS” (Interview with Dr. Jacques Pépin), TVO: The Agenda with Steve Paikin, Dec. 1, 2011. YouTube.
11. Sandra J. Judd, ed.: AIDS Sourcebook, fifth edition. Omnigraphics, 2011.
12. Sara Nelson Glick et al: “A comparison of sexual behavior patterns among men who have sex with men and heterosexual men and women,” Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, May 1, 2012 - Volume 60 - Issue 1 - p 83-90.
13. Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19. Directed by Mikki Willis. Starring Dr. Judy Mikovitz. Elevate Films, 2020. (Wikipedia article).
15. Plante et al.: "The variant gambit: COVID-19’s next move," Cell Host & Microbe (2021), 29, April 14, 1-8.
16. Weissman et al.: "mRNA vaccines – a new era in vaccinology," Nature Reviews Drug Discovery 2018 April; 17(4): 261–279. (https://doi:10.1038/nrd.2017.243)
17. Di Pasquale et al.: "Vaccine Adjuvants: from 1920 to 2015 and Beyond," Vaccines 2015, 3, 320-343. (https://doi:10.3390/vaccines3020320)
18. Da Silva et al.: "Safety assessment of adjuvanted vaccines: Methodological considerations," Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics 11:7, 1814-1824; July 2015.
19. "Table: Excipients in Vaccines per 0.5 mL dose," Institute for Vaccine Safety: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, January 15 2021.
20. "Vaccines Licensed for Use in the United States," U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), n.d.
21. Joe Sachs: “Aristotle: Poetics,” (see section 3: “Tragic Catharsis”), Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d.
22. Contagion. Directed by Stephen Soderberg. Starring Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Lawrence Fishburne. Warner Bros., 2011.
23. The Seventh Seal. Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Starring Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot. Svensk Filmindutri, 1958.
24. The Andromeda Strain. Directed by Robert Wise. Starring James Olson, Kate Reid, and Arthur Hill. Universal Pictures, 1971.
25. 28 Days Later. Directed by Danny Boyle. Starring Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, and Brendan Gleeson. DNA Films, 2003.
26. Les Affamés (The Ravenous). Directed by Robin Aubert. Starring Marc-André Grondin, Monia Chokri, Charlotte St-Martin. Christal Films, 2017.
27. The Omega Man. Directed by Boris Sagal. Starring Charlton Heston, Rosalind Cash, and Anthony Zerbe. Walter Seltzer Productions, 1971.
28. Outbreak. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Renee Russo, and Kevin Spacey. Warner Bros., 1995.
29. Life Force. Directed by Tobe Hooper. Starring Steve Railsback, Matilda May, and Patrick Stewart. Tri-Star Pictures, 1985.