As new cases have surged over the past few weeks, some hospitals are already overrun with unvaccinated victims of the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic. Many find it hard to believe, since we thought we were so close to putting it all behind us. But this extremely transmissible and more deadly variant is already the dominant cause of new cases and the numbers are accelerating exponentially.
Some beliefs make us feel much better than others. And we find hope in good news. The general decline in new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic certainly offered great hope that we could put away our masks, hug our friends, and make plans to attend concerts and baseball games without fear of severe sickness or worse. However, as military analysts say, once the shooting starts battle plans always go out the window.
The initial failures of politics in many nations to take the pandemic seriously and enact strict public health measures to suppress its spread, made early control of the pandemic increasingly unlikely. Then we thought the vaccine along with uneven masking and social distancing helped cause its decline in recent months.
Nevertheless the continued spread of the virus worldwide, meant that among the many mutations that occur in its replication, a particularly virulent strain would eventually emerge and cancel out much of the progress made. Well, it did.
The Mathematics of Maybe
Unfortunately, the way humans think—especially in industrial-consumer societies where so many take for granted both the necessities and luxuries of life—does not fit well with the trajectory of a pandemic. The most effective methods for protecting ourselves from its destructive effects are widely perceived as an unnecessary inconvenience. We don’t want to be bothered and we don’t want some government official to tell us what to do.
Statistics is the science of maybe, that is, it focuses on making estimates of how probable it is that a given event may happen. For those focused on convenience maybe is not good enough, even when maybe represents a strong probability.
Epidemiology is in great part the application of statistical analysis to the probability of disease spread, where and how fast it may invade and spread through a population of potential victims.
Global pandemics in the modern world result mostly from the intensity and ubiquity of international travel. The Bubonic Plague devastated Europe in medieval times because it spread between people closely connected to one another—through family and economic connections. But it did not spread around the world because most social networks were local.
Today, viruses spread because of weak social connections among highly mobile people—that is, through contacts between people who may not even know each other but travel between social networks all over the world. While disease still spreads among those with strong connections, its global spread occurs because people with weak but global connections are so mobile that the virus can easily hitch a ride anywhere in the world.
A traveler from Australia visiting Beijing, for example, is infected at a food market. S/he then travels to London where s/he infects a couple of Brits at an airport, one of whom soon departs for a business meeting in New York, where the he infects a lawyer who a few days later infects his client and others in a courtroom, and on, and on. The other Brit catches her flight to Milan where she infects several close family members at a birthday party for her neice.
In the context of modern mobility, maybe easily becomes probably. And if the virus spreads easily people all over the world become infected in a matter of a few weeks.
Epidemiology of Denial
These facts of epidemiology do not comport well with the expectations and desires associated with the modern industrial-consumer culture or lifestyle, even for some we might consider well educated. A key element of consumer culture of course, is the ideology of individualism and the cult of “me first”—that is, the privileged attitude of entitlement. Although youth are characteristically narcissistic, more and more adults have not grown out of it because it is built into the consumer culture.
These kinds of attitudes engender universal dissatisfaction and the drive to stand out and feel important in a world that often does not notice. That, of course, drives the compulsion to buy both products and entertainment in order to find a few moments of self-satisfaction and validation. Advertising and marketing are forms of predation; they prey on such psychological weaknesses to stimulate ever more sales. Consumers are encouraged to hold to images of themselves powerfully engaging the world through whatever product or entertainment is on offer.
Confirmation bias is the widespread psychological defense mechanism that filters perception and to accept only knowledge that is consistent with one’s prior beliefs. For example, if one believes himself to be entitled to go anywhere, do anything, and especially buy whatever s/he desires, then conforming to social constraints can be a serious impediment to self-satisfaction. That leads too many to deny the importance of inconvenient public health measures. Confirmation bias has no respect for evidence; it defends the fragile ego against facts.
When scientific fact meets the self-indulgence of confirmation bias in a culture of extreme individualism, many easily dismiss, deny, or ignore the facts in order to sustain their sense of place in the world. So it is with public health recommendations for stopping the spread of a virulent virus among the population.
In the US in particular, the responsibility that must accompany freedom in any plausible moral universe, has taken a back seat to self-importance and entitlement as attitudes with which to face the world. Extreme individualism tends to negate or ignore one’s responsibility for his/her actions. When demagogues play on these mental defects in order to pursue their own will to power, social disorganization and chaos follow as denial and conspiracy theories flourish. This provides an open field for the spread of a virus as well as the spread of fascism.
Delta Does Not Care
Now that a particularly infectious and far more dangerous variant of the COVID-19 virus has mutated and spread worldwide as public health protocols slacken under political pressure, the Delta variant now has great opportunity. The vaccination of a small majority of the US population helped slow the spread of the original virus strains.
The modest level of vaccination also provided an easy form of cultural relief from the fears that might otherwise have held on. Nobody wants to have to go through another surge of infection. The rapid spread of the new Delta variant could not have come at a worse time.
Those who have had enough sense of biological reality to get vaccinated are unlikely to become extremely ill when exposed to the now dominant Delta variant—although I know of some vaccinated folks who were exposed to it and were very sick for a week or so. Because the Delta variant can rapidly replicate in the nasal cavities of anyone, including vaccinated people, they can infect others even though they may not get sick. Being vaccinated only means that you have significantly lowered the likelihood that you will become seriously ill or risk death.
None of this, however, means anything to the Delta variant since it simply does what it does to replicate and spread. It cares not whether humans believe in the facts or choose to sustain their confirmation biases in order to go on living in the delusional bubble of consumer culture. It cares not whether its victims believe conspiracy theories about vaccines instead of looking at the facts. Neither that bubble nor paranoid fantasies, however, can shield against infection; it only shields the denier against facing reality until reality strikes in the most terminal way.