Covid Absolutism

Feb 12, 2021 Travel News

Covid Absolutism

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In a public health emergency, absolutism is a very tempting response: People should stop any behavior that creates additional risk.

This instinct has led to calls for gay men to stop having sex during the AIDS crisis. He has also stimulated campaigns for abstinence among adolescents, in order to reduce sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies. And in the fight against obesity, people have been drawn to fads like eliminating trans fats or carbohydrates.

Nowadays, there is a new absolutist health fad: discouraging – or even banning – any behavior that appears to increase the risk of coronavirus infection, however small.

People continue to yell at joggers, walkers and cyclists who are not wearing masks. The University of California at Berkeley this week banned outdoor exercise for campus students, masked or not, saying, “The risk is real.” The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has banned outdoor walks. He encouraged students to exercise by “accessing food and participating in twice weekly Covid tests.”

A related trend is the “hygiene theater,” as Derek Thompson of The Atlantic described it: the New York subway closes every night, for example, so workers can do a deep clean.

There are two big questions to ask about these actions: How much are they doing to reduce the spread of the virus? And do they have drawbacks?

The answer to the first question, according to many experts, is: they seem to be doing little good. Banning outdoor activities is unlikely to reduce the spread of the virus, nor to encourage people to wear masks outside.

Around the world, scientists have not documented any cases of outdoor transmission unless people had a close conversation, Dr Muge Cevik, an infectious disease specialist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “The small number of cases where transmission to the outside has occurred”, she wrote on twitter, “Were associated with close interactions, especially prolonged duration, or environments where people mingled indoors and outdoors.” The newer variants of the virus are more contagious, but there is no indication that they will change this pattern.

As my colleague Tara Parker-Pope says, “Avoid breathing the air that others breathe out.”

A student walking across campus – let alone a masked student – poses little risk to another student who stays at least six feet away. The same goes for joggers in your neighborhood.

The story is similar for deep cleaning. “Scientists are increasingly saying that there is little or no evidence that contaminated surfaces can spread the virus,” my colleagues Mike Ives and Apoorva Mandavilli wrote. The only surface that is important to wash, frequently and vigorously, is the human hand.

Which brings us to the second question – whether there is a downside to absolutism. Covid-19 is a horrible disease. And the idea that a jogger somewhere could infect someone she passes, even from over six feet away, is scientifically plausible.

So why not take all possible precautions at all times?

The short answer is: because we are human.

Taking every precaution possible is unrealistic, just as telling all gay men and teenagers to abstain from sex was unrealistic. Human beings are social creatures who crave connection and pleasure and cannot minimize danger at all times.

Despite the risks, we eat carbohydrates, drink wine, sled and even ride in cars. We love to go for walks in the open air and drink a cup of coffee on a public bench. Many people who exercise find it difficult to do so with a mask. “It’s kind of like suffocation,” Shannon Palus wrote in Slate.

I have noticed that some of the clearest voices against Covid’s absolutism are researchers who have spent much of their careers studying HIV, including Cevik, Julia Marcus, Sarit Golub and Aaron Richterman. They know the story. The demonization of sex during the AIDS crisis has contributed to more unprotected sex. If all sex is bad, why focus on safe sex?

There is a similar dynamic with Covid. “People don’t have unlimited energy, so we should ask them to be vigilant where it matters most,” Cevik wrote.

Telling Americans to wear masks when not needed undermines efforts to persuade more people to wear masks where they are vital. Remember: Americans don’t do a particularly effective job wearing masks when they make a big difference, indoors and when people are close together outdoors.

Prohibiting students from walking in the open air will not require them to stay in their dormitories for weeks. But that will likely increase the chances that they will surreptitiously congregate inside.

And spending money on deep cleaning leaves less money on safety measures that will protect people, like a faster vaccination.

“The rules of really showing you’re doing something rather than doing something that’s really effective” are counterproductive, Marcus told my colleague Ian Prasad Philbrick. “Trust is the motto of public health.”

Modern love: During the lockdown, a long marriage shakes and then settles down again.

From the review: Stacey Abrams and Lauren Groh-Wargo on turning Georgia into a Blue State.

Lives lived: Chick Corea, an architect of the jazz-rock fusion boom of the 1970s, has spent more than half a century as a leading jazz pianist. But he never gave up his first love, the acoustic piano. Corea died at 79.

We read a lot of other newsletters here at The Morning, and we’ll occasionally tell you about some of our favorites. Today, Sanam Yar has a recommendation:

There are a few times when I feel joy opening my inbox. Getting the “Unsnackable” newsletter is one of them. Every week, Folu Akinkuotu brings together an assortment of international snacks and drinks that you probably won’t be able to buy. She also occasionally includes photos of her jaw-dropping baking projects.

Her brief descriptions of the snacks are delicious: Coconut and pandan popsicles “would earn your Tide pen’s respect for being a mess worth it.” Back in the days when traveling was safe, visiting grocery stores was one of my favorite forms of tourism – a quick way to observe local culture. Reading “Unsnackable” briefly transports me to the aisles of a supermarket abroad, instead of the apartment where I have spent much of the past year.

There are salted potato wafers from Estonia, cashew fruit soda from Brazil, salted egg yolk sauce from Thailand, and sweet corn ice cream from Singapore. Did you know that there are caviar Lays crisps in Russia? Or that chocolate bars filled with cola marmalade exist – also in Russia?

The translated descriptions of some of the snacks are also very pretty: A cream puff sprinkled with chestnuts, translated from Japanese to English, is “a surprise that upsets the common sense of cream puffs.” If this sounds interesting to you, you can subscribe (for free) through Substack.

The Spelling Bee pangrams of yesterday were coffin, entrust, entrusted, trust and confined. Here is today’s puzzle – or you can play it online.

Here are today’s mini-crosswords and a hint: CIA agent (five letters).

If you want to play more, find all of our games here.


Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you Monday. – David

PS Axios reports that The Times is developing a digital subscription for families, called NYT Kids, which will include crafts, recipes and games.

You can see the first printed page of the day here.

Today’s episode of the “Quotidien” focuses on French secularism. On “The Ezra Klein Show,” a former Senate staff member discusses the filibuster.

Lalena Fisher, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can join the team at themorning@nytimes.com.

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