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The Fault in Our SARS | Rob Wallace (pt. 1)
Skewering the scientism of the Biden Administration and the necessity of the People's CDC
Evolutionary epidemiologist and author Rob Wallace returns to Last Born in the Wilderness to discuss his new collection, The Fault in Our SARS: COVID-19 in the Biden Era, published through Monthly Review.
Entering year four of the pandemic, Rob Wallace has diligently, and extensively, written two books worth of essays on the various facets of the SARS-2 outbreak, many of which are examined in this interview. Rob skewers the Biden administration’s political, institutional, and rhetorical approach to the BSL-3 [Biosafety Level 3] pathogen’s burn through the population, picking apart the scientism, employed by both the political elite and their media lackeys to rationalize and normalize the mass death and disability of millions.
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Considering the dystopian realism the parasitic capitalist class is bringing to bear, what does collective care and radical organizing look like in this time? There are numerous manifestations, but one worthy of note is the, “a coalition of public health practitioners, scientists, healthcare workers, educators, advocates and people from all walks of life working to reduce the harmful impacts of COVID-19.” Wallace, in his capacities as a trained evolutionary epidemiologist, is the public face and voice of COVID This Week, a freely available, weekly released video series that coalesces pandemic data, medical research, and public health policy analyses, published on the organization’s website and YouTube channel. I ask Wallace how this collective endeavor began, why it exists in the first place, its strengths and weaknesses, and its growing and continued relevance in our current moment.
This interview was recorded Feb 28, 2023, and released as episode 341 of Last Born In The Wilderness. The transcript that follows is the first half of our conversation, and was edited mostly for clarity, and somewhat for length. Read part two here.
We were just talking about when you were on the podcast last in 2021 and thinking about the specific events occurring around that time—I think mask mandates were being lifted nationwide. I get confused about the timeline. Whether you are experiencing the effects of Long COVID (millions of people are experiencing it now, having memory issues as a result), or just the fact of existing in a pandemic, makes it hard to remember when things happened. It’s a phenomenon that I’m sure has been studied over the centuries when we've had plagues in the past. I don't remember when certain things happened.
Yes, it reminds me of China Miéville's short story about people who can move really fast, and describes being inside an explosion and seeing it happening, not in real time, but slowed down to the point people can get out. I think that's what we're experiencing: an ongoing years-long emergency that has us all on edge and upset about things, and rightfully so. And at the same time, as anyone puts on their fight or flight suit, as it were, and so worried, it has a way of undercutting our capacity to keep track of things because other things are more important, like the dangers and upset that's come about. The country was really upset before when Trump was elected—there's an ongoing divide, people are outraged— and then to have it compounded by a global pandemic screws up people's sense of order, predictability, and expectation. That's my take on it.
This is something I talk about with my partner. We're both very cautious—in fact, we've gotten more cautious.
I was just reflecting on how I bought into some of the sentiments around vaccination as being like a panacea, the thing that was going to make it, so I, a vaccinated person, the virtuous one, can go out and be among the public. "The pandemic is over for us." I remember a brief period where I wasn't wearing masks, but luckily in that timeframe, I didn't get COVID.
I want to comment on the moment we're in when you're releasing this new book: I read an article from Time that was so explicit, asking, "What are we going to do about all these people still cautious around COVID? They should just get infected and move on.” It was arguing a pandemic is a socially agreed phenomena—not an epidemiological and material thing as much as what we collectively agree is real. With the pandemic, we can decide it is over. I read those articles to know what the mainstream publications are really pushing, but it feels so blatant. Now that we're entering into a period of forced normalization around mass disability, death, and ongoing illness in the population, it's really hard for me to stomach. As a result, it's made my partner and me more cautious and intentional in setting boundaries around how we engage with the public.
Yes, there's a cost to be paid for going upon one's own path. But, at the same time, if I've gotten more cautious, it's only in part because I have to do a quasi-weekly program, COVID This Week for the People's CDC. I repeatedly have to report on the latest scientific evidence on the nature of COVID-19 and the virus itself. And even as an epidemiologist, I can't keep track of everything, but it's remarkable the waves of new data coming in regarding the truly dangerous aspect of COVID-19, in ways that when we first had our interview in 2021, nobody really knew anything other than there was a lot of people dying. Fewer people are dying now, but it's becoming apparent that many deaths will be on the far end of an infection. So, it's not about the acute infection in the first 25 days—although 25 days is a long time for an acute infection. Health and Human Services estimates about 36 million Americans have some version of Long COVID. My vision of what COVID is has shifted from an acute infection that can kill people to having some tail end, long-term impacts on some people. Upon Omicron, it switched in the other direction—I think of it less as an acute infection, but more like a long term chronic condition at this point. For organ systems, the amount of damage that accumulates is extraordinary. And that's certainly made me much more cautious.
I'm as much an American anybody else: I want to flee all this, I'm tired of all this, too. But, I am still wearing masks in a sensibly liberal democratic neighborhood here in St. Paul, in which everyone's back in the café, much along the lines you described. They've been good public health citizens: "I've got my vaccine, I'm all in the clear." But as we've learned, vaccines certainly will help keep you from getting the worst of an infection or dying from it, but it's no guarantee. Think of Colin Powell, who was up to speed on his vaccines and was killed by COVID. It's more of a statistical protection rather than a categorical one: if you vaccinate, it doesn't mean you're in the clear and not going to get infected. In fact, the viruses are evolving out from underneath our vaccines, Paxlovid, and all the other antivirals—there isn't a single monoclonal antibody that works here in the United States anymore.
So, we're really at a point where deaths seem to be going down, but at the same time, many states are no longer reporting in—our statistical infrastructure is in rapid decline. It is more similar to what you describe of a desire to have the pandemic over, and therefore, we're going to declare it so, rather than any notion of where the actual virus actually is. It speaks to the how of the logic of fantasy is imprinted upon the logic of production in a way that getting people back to work is much more important than the well-being and health of the American people.
Yes, it's pretty naked, too. Anthony Fauci was talking about the decision to change the recommendation of time to quarantine after a positive test: originally, if COVID positive, you should, at the minimum, stay away from other people for about 10 days. That's more scientifically based. Instead, they changed it to five days, with some caveats: if you're still infectious, you should wear a mask and go back to work—if we don't do this, the economy will collapse and society will fall apart, which speaks more to how poorly our society is constructed, rather than what should be done to protect people's health. It's really quite astounding.
"Declaring independence from the virus”—it reminds me of when George W. Bush was president, landing his jet on that aircraft carrier and making his victory speech in front of a big banner stating "Mission Accomplished.” The war in Iraq was just really beginning; the reaction to the US's occupation and brutalization of the people of Iraq was just starting. And yet, they can declare it over.
The same thing seems to be happening rhetorically with the pandemic—we can just say it's over. It's obviously not. I remember when your new book, The Fault in Our SARS, was being promoted by your publisher, Monthly Review. As expected with anything being promoted around COVID, somebody had commented in response, "Jesus Christ, are we done with this yet? Can we just stop talking about this?"
We're all just as tired as you are. It doesn't change the reality of what's happening. To act from a place of being informed, but also compassionate towards one another, requires going against the grain in many cases.
How is it going regarding your advocacy, and for the others you're working with right now, with the People's CDC? I've heard from others, and have read comments, this is one of the few sources that presents concentrated, clear, and concise information on COVID, as well as making broader connections. How are you and everyone else involved in this organization faring in this environment?
The beginning of your question, and the actual question itself, are very much connected to each other.
The CDC declared back in December 2021, as you were describing, you no longer had to quarantine yourself with infection for 10 days, but instead, down to five. The 10-day isolation policy is based on the viral dynamics of SARS-2. Although many infections happen in the first five days, there's that tail going off 10 days and beyond, with scientific reports that followed up showing people still testing positive on rapid tests at 14 or 15 days, post first symptom. Epidemiologically, if you just send people back in after five days, a good portion of those people are still going to be infectious.
In essence, they are saying there are things more important than people's health, like keeping the economy running. When we speak about the economy, we're speaking about keeping the employers side of things and profits going—we can't have a situation where we're not in the business of producing billionaires. So, you need to get back to work. That, of course, does not apply to even the very scientists involved who pontificated on this.
In The Fault in Our SARS, I describe how a reporter from the Washington Post Magazine got COVID and didn't want to get Anthony Fauci infected, who she was interviewing. So, she reached out to his people and said, "I'll be in the clear in 10 days—I can show up, right?" Fauci got back to her and said, "Yes, you can show up, but you're going to be wearing a mask, too, and we're doing this interview outside." In other words, all the attributes that are good enough for Fauci are not good enough for the American people. There's a true divide. Rochelle Walensky’s [CDC Director] office all throughout the pandemic, until recently, met remotely. Nobody goes near the President of the United States without being tested first. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, there was a high level of testing and protection, with everybody wearing N95 masks and using UV lights—all sorts of things that, frankly, are not to be given to not just the American people, but people elsewhere in the world. You are a lower class, not just economically, but epidemiologically and as a human being. "We're counseling you have to do these things, while we have no interest in doing them ourselves."
This is what set off the People's CDC. Everybody knew Trump was hideous and awful—this is what distinguishes my first COVID book, Dead Epidemiologists that came out in October 2020, released ten months into the pandemic, from The Fault in Our SARS in February 2023, released 38 months into the pandemic. There's a vast difference between those two points. In October 2020, Trump sucks. Liberals and leftists—we all hate him. We're all bunkered down for the most part, and not quite sure of all the details of COVID. It's not fun at all. Certainly, at 38 months, it's not fun at all, either, but it's mostly turned into a shitshow. Now, everybody's an expert at COVID. Part of it is living through a pandemic, I don't take that away from them—expertise comes in all sorts of different packages. But, where we're at now is also a hideous moment in that regard. You have the worst reports, like one first authored by an Oxford educated COVID denialist saying masking didn't do anything, which completely contradicts the entirety of much of the public health literature, both pre- and post-COVID. Suddenly, it's splashed on every page around the country. Much in the way the Department of Energy report is presently saying COVID originated as a lab leak in China—it deems itself as a low confidence in terms of its conclusion, and yet it's splashed on pages around the US as the done deal as far as the origins of it goes.
So, we had the 10 days cut to five, and it was such an outrage to public health people. I mean, this was a moment in where, along with what differentiates my first book from the second, is that liberals are basically divided. There are some good liberals still very much understanding the nature of the virus and the necessity of public health, and there are other liberals that are going to follow Biden through hell—they don't care. "Biden: whatever he says is true." So, even if Biden returns to exactly the position Trump took, which we all voted against, then it's okay.
As far as all the things have gone down in the pandemic, there are some really horrible, hideous things that have happened, some of them ridiculously funny. I remember the ivermectin folks who were willing to take suppositories in their butt—it's stupid, hideous, awful, and very funny.
For the most part, I don't oppose people who didn't get vaccinated. It's not their fault. The failure to vaccinate is also a failure of access. In the United States, the public health apparatus was responsible for going door to door, whether in cities or farm to farm, to try to convince people to be vaccinated. They refused to do that. Instead, they spun it off as some sort of individualistic intervention. That's not public health at all. Not only did public health suffer as a pragmatic thing, but it's suffered in a way that we've gotten to the point the things by which we joined society together have been undercut.
My heart mourns for the 1.1 million Americans who died, whether I agree with them politically, or not. It's a hideous, horrible thing. And as someone in public health, it weighs on you, and should weigh on you. That's not the case for a whole number of other public health folk who have basically thrown in with Biden and are selling out the American people, in the sense of that their deaths now are considered to be absolutely appropriate. Leana Wen comes to mind, the former Baltimore Department of Health Commissioner now writing for The Washington Post. Other people, like Michael Osterholm at the University of Minnesota, who has continued to say it's still kind of dangerous, but at the same time talks about hoping to move in a direction where people are infected twice a year by COVID-19. I think what he's getting at is, hopefully, the virus will become like a cold or influenza, but repeatedly makes the mistake he's in a position to direct SARS-2's evolution. There are many people who are more interested in connecting to presidential power than public health.
Okay, I am going to answer your question. It gets back to 2021, we're down from 10 days to five days. It was such an outrage to public health folks, that a bunch of us began to organize on a listserv called The Spirit of 1848, and a number of radical public health practitioners and liberals out of the American Public Health Association had our first meeting. There was a line in the sand: this was not going to be able to continue, and we have reached a moment where the CDC does not have the interests of the people. We're going to establish, in January 2022, the People’s CDC. Now, that whole thing is an outrage, you're not supposed to have a People's CDC: the CDC is supposed to be the people's CDC. And, I want to be clear, part of what my book is about is reconstructing history that has been totally lost.
If we remember correctly why the CDC decided to change the isolation time from 10 days to five, it was based on a letter that was sent to them by the CEO of Delta Air Lines requesting this change—it's a two-page letter and makes little reference to the scientific literature. However, the president of the Infectious Diseases Society, Carlos del Rio, signed off on it—he didn't sign it as president of the association, but instead as a paid consultant of Delta Air Lines. It really speaks to the extent to which public health can be corrupted and bought. So, they sent a letter about changing it from 10 days to five, and in a matter of a week, that's precisely what happened. It really speaks to the power of employers to be able to get their needs met, even if it sends hundreds of thousands to their deaths. There are things more important than people's well-being.
So, we set up the People CDC and began to meet every week. I started giving COVID This Week updates about where we were. We weren't getting that anywhere from any government source. There's no sense of where we are with this pandemic, other than to declare the pandemic over. There's no sense of daily or weekly reports about what was going on. It ended up being spun off as its own broadcast, and we launched a weather report every week, providing updates about what COVID was doing and what you should be doing as well.
The People CDC has public health professionals and medical doctors, but also everyday people: retired nurses, teachers, firefighters, occupational hazard people—different people from different parts of the country getting together every week to talk about it in a serious way. But more importantly, the People's CDC is largely driven by its working groups, which are getting things done, like all sorts of reports, but also connecting people trying to show up for community organizations that need someone to fill them in about where we are with COVID, offering, for example, easy to read programs for how to hold a party in this time of COVID. We're not killjoys interested in cutting people off. On the contrary, it is important for people to get together, but if you do, let's do these things to make sure nobody gets infected and shows up infected, if that is at all is possible. That's been going on every week, for over a year now.
To me, it's been a delightful experience. Not everybody agrees about everything—there are strong opinions and disagreements about the nature of things, but people are serious about putting those differences aside to get this work done because of the damage that's accumulating in people's health and well-being.
It's remarkable how successful it's been in terms of reach. We're a small organization, not a $12 billion agency like the CDC—although much of that money is supposed to go back to the states and cities, but we don't have thousands of employees. It’s remarkable that we've been, in essence, able to punch above our weight and to get this position and out there. And, as you described, I think people have been very responsive to it the notion that there is someone speaking for their interests that hasn't abandoned them. I think that constituency is much larger than the press and the government is pretending it is.
I understand why people are exhausted, but poll after poll has shown that if the administration or CDC moves in the direction to recommending masking, many Americans would do that–they're following the lead. I think you pointed this out: once the announcement was that if you are vaccinated, you don't need masks, you took it as your point of departure. It’s totally understandable. Who has time to go through all the literature and keep track of things? And if the scientists at CDC say it's okay, then I utterly understand why the American people would go in that direction. But, it has led, unfortunately, to hundreds of thousands of deaths by virtue of our failure to do this.
Maybe we'll talk about China later, but I'll end with this point: China left "Zero COVID" this past year, but "Zero COVID" protected their country, as difficult as the cumulating anger and upset about it was. If China had as many people die as we have, proportionately, they would have lost 4.6 million Chinese if they did it our way. They consider governance the health and well-being of their own people. And not just China, you had other countries like New Zealand, Vietnam, Iceland, Uruguay, all making efforts that first year and a half to try to protect their people from a deadly disease. And subsequently, that all fell apart.
The People's CDC, by its very nature, certainly stands in opposition to the cynicism of something like the actual CDC and how it operates. But, I imagine a limitation is you are basing your weekly reports off data that's being accumulated by various states, counties, and from the CDC itself. Even though they did change the community guidance around what is considered safe transmission levels, which is obviously done as a way to normalize COVID infection, the data is still available, you just have to know where to look.
What are the limitations of the People's CDC? What do you hope for as you move forward, as these limitations continue to get in the way of having a clearer vision of what's happening around us? Can there be developments in certain directions that can make up for that? I'm curious what the vision is for the future of this organization.
We are happy that we've continued this far. No one had any illusions about whether this would continue. Would there be infighting? Would there just be exhaustion, whether it be the notion of giving up like much of our establishment public health system? There's no guarantee anything will continue. I go back to the Black Panthers or the Young Lords—they were around for a few years, that's it, but had a maximum impact on our imagination and our notions of what could be possible in terms of community response to health crises.
COVID This Week depends on a lot of data from CDC and the states, and you do have to know where to look through and pull out the data away from the CDC version of it. The one they put out, the Community Levels map, basically shows the country entirely green: "Go outside, no problem." They also have a Community Transmission map which is largely red: "Stay inside." The Community Levels map is based on hospitalizations and Community Transmissions based on transmission and COVID testing. All that data is starting to crumble—it’s like looking at a portrait with the wax face starting to melt, but you can still see the face enough. So, that's our objective: data is crumbling, but we still want to get the bigger picture about where the state of things is. We are walking on the edge of a knife in terms of what we can show.
The whole point of the People CDC is to try to direct attention toward the ways that a fundamental federal agency should be acting. We don't oppose the scientists at CDC, thousands of people there understand. We've gotten word from people working on the inside that they appreciate what we're doing. They know what we're after. We're not here for the destruction of CDC. We oppose the leadership of CDC and the way it's been handled, and we oppose the White House in terms of how it treats the CDC as its pool boy to wash up political problems rather than actually deal with concrete realities of a BSL-3 disease that can kill in short order or in the long term.
As for what's next, we show up every week and got work to do. We do get together every once in a while and think about the big picture of what we can do and where we're at. That is part of our strategic planning. It might be that COVID will peter out, and we'll be done with this and can stop what we're doing. It might be this continues on, and we might decide that 500 deaths a week is still not reasonable and continue to work that way. It's an open-ended thing. Where it goes depends on where the virus goes, where the American people are, and where we are.
We continue to get wonderful feedback from large numbers of people. We just set up a letter to President Biden and Congress demanding they reverse their likely decision to end the Public Health Emergency, which would throw 15 million people off Medicaid, reduce Telehealth for older people—a number of things would end. And also, it would be the declaration of the pandemic is over, even though people continue to die. We had a letter that tens of thousands of people signed off on, so there is a constituency of people upset about this.
It doesn't matter what is said about the push that you and other people have felt, the notion “this is over” bared upon us by articles that named us in the specific that we are out of our minds, a ragtag team. I think of Emma Green's article in The New Yorker at the end of last year, a hideous piece that actually blew up in her face. It underscored exactly the thing that you brought out, this pressure to pretend this is over, when the fact people will continue to get sick is a sickness unto itself. We had all sorts of volunteers after that article was published.
Again, we take the view that, where this ends up, we're not certain. Things are not cut in stone, not just in terms of the politics, but the epidemiology of it. It truly speaks to this notion that we are in some sort of endemic phase, where you can predict what strains go where and how many people will be infected. It's completely not true, at all, for SARS-2.
When I think of endemicity, I think of the seasonal influenza. I used to work with Walter Fitch at the University of California, Irvine, one of the fathers of modern phylogeny. He and his team did some amazing work in the late 1990s, showing if you had influenza strains in one season that had the most evolution at 18 codons, they were going to likely serve as the progenitor of the strain that comes next year. Now, that's a level of prediction in detail of what's going to happen next year as far as seasonal influenza. It certainly helps with the flu vaccine, which I recommend, but also doesn't always work. But that's a level of predictability that we are nowhere near with SARS-2 in terms of how the virus is likely to evolve, how it's going to interact with our population, and with immunity as far as what combination of vaccination and natural infection we can stumble together at this point.
To end this point, Omicron has a reputation of being less deadly—that might be more due to levels of vaccination and natural infection—but if you let Omicron rip, it will kill people. SARS-2 basically punches through your nose into your brain; Omicron doesn't punch like the previous variants, causing considerable damage in your respiratory tract and leading to all sorts of potentials for death, but it kind of wiggles its way through our nose and attacks particular segments of the brain around coordination in language, killing particular brain cells and reducing blood flow to parts of your brain. My point is, we are confusing a particular moment with how it's going to happen, and we've made that mistake time and time again, where we entered a valley in the epidemiology of the virus and use that as a declaration that this is over. We act surprised, again and again, that the virus wasn't bending in the direction of our hopes and wishes, and is actually evolving in the direction that most benefits itself.
I am speaking as someone who is a total layman. I'm curious, I like to read, I like to understand things, and I like to talk to people like yourself. I like to recognize what people's intentions are in the so-called expertise that they have.
This leads me to a question I have around scientism, written about in your book. This is an issue where we say, “Just trust the science and scientists; they have all the information, and know what they're doing.” And yes, certainly science is an ever-changing, evolving field. We should all expect that science, as a discipline and practice, is going to discover new things and incorporate it into our worldview of how we understand reality and make decisions. That's all true. And yet, there is this aspect of science where it acts an institution and serves certain socioeconomic and political interests.
You encountered this early on in your career, it seems, and it’s what made you stand apart. It defined your work in contrast to so many other epidemiologists and others studying disease, by asking: “What are the forces that are actually producing the conditions that are leading to outbreaks of certain viruses?” This goes all the way back to your first collection with Monthly Review, Big Farms Make Big Flu.
To get to the point of my question about scientism, I think people need to have this in their vocabulary and understand what's actually happening here. Because like we were describing the People's CDC in contrast to the CDC and its leaders, there is a gulf. You’re working with the same data, more or less, but the ways in which that data is used are so different. It's almost like we're talking about two entirely different realities.
Could just describe what scientism is and how you explore this concept through your critique of how science is used in service to global capitalism, ultimately?
Scientism is the excess of belief in the capacity of science and its techniques, to the point that it's basically deployed to rationalize directions that don't necessarily have a scientific bent to them. Or, if they do have a scientific bent, it's not the only thing going on.
I think of the example of my parents, Deborah and Roderick Wallace. In the 1970s, they pushed back against the Rand Institute that was doing some modeling for the New York City. The models basically said, “We can reduce the number of a fire and ladder companies in minority neighborhoods and remove them, and if there's a fire, we'll be able to use this model to reorient what fire companies are available to cover what's missing.” Of course, it was completely disastrous and burnt down many black and brown neighborhoods. But, if you go to the various public meetings about this, the very scientists there would basically say, "You don't understand this model, this is not what you're saying is going to happen." So, they were, in essence, hiding behind the equations and modeling to run cover for what was a political decision to undercut the Black and Brown neighborhoods and the voting blocks that would have, in essence, voted out the white power structure. That's my earliest encounter with this stuff.
In this case, as far as COVID goes, there is a liberal and leftist notion that science has its place in terms of describing material reality, whether to the extent to which it then acts as a kind of basis of values is an open question. On the one hand, we like to think, "We should wait to make a decision until we have some data and to decide what to do." But, sometimes you don't have that kind of timing. For the most part, generally, you should have some basis for your action.
Now, I'm not talking about people's day-to-day life, I'm talking about governments and decisions about what to do as a society. A decision to go to a movie and take the day off is because it's fun and has nothing to do with data—you might have some notions of whether you have enough cash. But, I'm talking about how science has to deal with collecting data to test hypotheses, and make decisions from that. The applicability of that is in play. The problem, then, is the science turns into scientism when it's just acts as a cover for making decisions that aren't based on any of that, or very little.
Trump tried to do that time and time again, when he was leaning on models that said things weren't all that bad anymore. It was so transparent, everyone was sick to their stomach. Fauci rolling his eyes on that account is entirely reasonable. But of course, we at the People's CDC were outraged when Fauci did the same thing in December 2021, when he said that we didn't need 10 days to isolate, and to go down to five days. There was no scientific basis for that. Emma Green in The New Yorker article tried to take the CDC's side and push back on me by saying, "Most infections are in the first five days," but that's not public health—public health is about populations and variation, not just averages. You need to know the extent of that tail—if you send that tail of people still infectious at 8–14 days, you're going to keep the outbreak continuing on. The whole point of isolating yourself is it breaks the chain of transmission. You do your part, It's not about you do you, it's about helping other people's health, and as a society, we will support you and send some cash to stay home and not infect anybody else.
There's a difference between individualistic notions of health and public health, which is each individual has to engage in this, but we're going to make sure that you're taking care of—we will bring you food, cash, and put a moratorium on your rent. I will make sure that you can do the things necessary to keep other people from being infected and thereby help the economy overall by allowing us to all go to work, not get sick and have to stay home even for the five days.
The scientism is what happens when Biden gets elected. He ran on the notion of science, that we're going to follow the scientists. In the first two essays in my book—the first is from November 2020, the second is from January 2021—I described the Biden plan and gave it a fair airing. There's a lot of bullshit in it, but they took the Rooseveltian notion of big government has its place at this moment, even though they're total neoliberals. They got off that as soon as possible. Instead, they're much better than Trump at using scientific cover to have us exit out of the public health program. The CDC declaring in May 2021, “If you're vaccinated, you don't need to mask,” at a time when all of us knew the Delta variant had emerged out of India and was coming for us. We have hundreds of thousand killed in India. We knew, and decided to make the same mistake Trump did in January 2020 when it emerged in China. It was going to come here, and sat on our hands and pretended this cannot happen to us—the worst of American exceptionalism. Then Biden did it again. Not learning from your mistakes, or not wanting mistakes to be considered mistakes, must be the standard mode of operation—you need to be able to send people to work however much it might hurt or kill them.
In one of the essays, there was a terrible joke about Yale University being a kind of mutual fund with a campus attached to it, and that the US is a stock market with a country attached to it. There are some things more important than the very country, even though all these politicians make appeals to patriotism, the United States, and the flag, but they have no problem killing more than a million Americans. I can't believe that nobody talks about that: you killed a million Americans, and now you want to shit on people who don't want that to happen anymore, and do so in the notion of those of us who don't want more Americans to die are anti-American. That gets to your point about how things are so flipped around, that the logic of fantasy comes front and center.
Speaking to the way time feels warped under the blanket of a pandemic, it also feels, as this proceeds, this is the worst time of the pandemic. For those of us that are still doing this, you could say gaslighting is high: we are being told we are fucking crazy—literally, with more words than that. It really comes down to: "Are you crazy? Stop being crazy."
I just don't know how to talk to most people about it without eyes glazing over. It's a difficult thing. It's a difficult environment to do the kind of work that you're doing with People's CDC, where, again, releasing a second large collection of writings about the pandemic in the midst of it is eliciting eye rolls, unfortunately. But, at a certain point, you wonder if we’re only speaking to people that get it, and it's hard to convert people over to this other side, so to speak, and convince people we should pick up these mitigation tactics and protections again. Much of the time when I hear people doing this, it is because they have been personally afflicted and affected by COVID and have their assumptions and worldview shaken by it.
I imagine a challenging aspect of being in this position is not only trying to speak to those that already understand the situation well enough, but to those that don’t as well.
On a personal level, from me to you, I would say something along the lines of: You don't want to get infected with this thing. The more infections you have, the more likely you'll get into Long COVID, with terrible damage. I do this, I keep my head down. I want my kid healthy and clear. I do have my professional impulses and obligations with the People's CDC and otherwise to say things, but on a personal level, I'm not getting this again. The accumulation of damage is so gruesome.
The notion that any of us have any understanding about what risk we're at is completely off the wall. Yes, those who are immunocompromised are more likely to have suffered Long COVID. But many a healthy person has gone down in flames—they get it once, they're fine; they get it twice, no big deal; come third or fourth time, they're suffering badly. The data, in terms of the accumulation of it, under all different vaccination statuses, increases the likelihood of getting terrible Long COVID. And, getting Long COVID is like dropping into a hole that you can't get out of. There’s no help for you. The medical system doesn't know what to do with you, they can't even identify that you have it. As far as the gaslighting goes, the gruesome aspect of being told, back in the days of Lyme disease where nobody knew what it was or even believed it existed, Long Covid is ten orders of magnitude worse.
So on a personal level, I'd say keep your head down and do the best you can to get through a period of time in our country's existence that we'll look back on in astonishment, and not in a good way. You let a virus rip through your population, you let kids get it—more kids have died than we'd like to admit. But what's going to happen in the next 10–20 years when they start accumulating their own comorbidities? How's COVID going to react to that?
Here are some of the things I've learned in the past couple months: COVID infections continue on, up to a year, maybe more, after you first get it. So, let's say you have an acute infection; you do 25 days, you're done. But, it’s still circulating and replicating in you. They have done autopsies where they looked through the body parts of people infected a year ago, now on a slab for other reasons, detecting active replication of COVID-19 in different parts of the body. These are people, even after being refrigerated for about 12 days, get pulled out, and on the 13th day, they're still finding active replication of the virus.
So, you're doing this to kids, they're getting infected, maybe not as bad. But what happens when they get older? What happens when the rough and tough of life starts to accumulate, as it does to all of us? We will all end up being susceptible or immunocompromised, whether early or later in life. We don't know what we did to our kids, we have no clue, and we don't care because they're not dying in the short term. That quite a risk that we’re choosing.
In the scope of things, a couple of bad years having to batten down the hatch while we figured out what this thing is probably would have been a good exercise of the precautionary principle. Again, there are things more important. After 9/11, America's Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said the first thing you need to do is go shop. So, it's clear what's more important than your well-being.
Rob Wallace is an agroecologist, economic geographer and evolutionary epidemiologist at the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps in St Paul. He is the author of Big Farms Make Big Flu; Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of COVID-19; and The Fault in Our SARS: COVID-19 in the Biden Era. He has consulted for the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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