Saturday, April 04, 2020

Pandemic Notes

1. It's remarkable how a large-scale catastrophe unites us all in the firm commitment to being right at any cost, and in the equally firm belief that everyone who disagrees with us is literally killing people by disagreeing with us.

2. I think it's important to be honest about what we are facing here. We have no plan. Without a vaccine in hand, all we are doing is trying to slow things down so that the medical system only has to deal with the deaths over a long period of time rather than a short one. And that's all we can do. We have going for us that trying to find an effective vaccine is a truly global project. But it's not the sort of thing for which we can guarantee any timetables. We are all improvising. Every proposal, every single one, is gambling on the truth of assumptions that cannot be guaranteed. There's no avoiding that. But it's important to recognize that every confident proposal for how to go forward is an overconfident proposal. We don't know how we are going to get past the epidemic; we are experimenting with ways to do that on a global scale. We don't know how we are going to recover from the economic problems that it will inevitably cause; we are in the middle of the largest economic experiment that we have ever done, trying things out as we go. We'll just have to see.

Similarly, one should be fairly generous about recognizing that there are lots of different ways to go about responding to the epidemic, and that it may turn out well in the long run that we are not putting all of our eggs in one basket, but instead trying different approaches in different places. We don't know what will save more lives in the long run; some things have better odds than others, but we are all gambling.

4. I've been impressed at the number of people who attack other people for not doing such-and-such thing that they themselves were doing just a few days earlier. The whiplash is going to trip us all up eventually, as we have to somersault over our own heads to adjust to new information. A little tolerance for people who are somersaulting more slowly is in order.

5. Most people are worried about the potential breakdown of medical services; something we unfortunately need also to worry about, but which people seem often to ignore, is potential breakdown of distribution networks. Truckers and the like are on the front line here, suddenly finding themselves in the position of, day after day, being emergency personnel. Transportation is an industry that's hard on people in normal times; it's important not to forget it now.

6. Despite rumors of 'panic buying' or 'hoarding', I've seen very little of it (and when you look at specific cases to which people apply these labels, they very rarely turn out to be accurate). What is happening is that people are reasonably buying more than they usually do, and when everybody is doing that, shelves start emptying out no matter what people are doing. (Although I confess I really don't understand the overbuying of toilet paper; I'd've thought that this was the sort of thing we all keep in large quantities already. I'm a little low and I still have enough in the bathroom cabinet to last half a year. I suppose one of the temptations is that it's something you know you'll use anyway, and perhaps people are sometimes not wanting to rely on their remembering correctly how much they actually have.)

7. Once I would have thought that no government agency could possibly be as despised by Americans as the IRS; after all, everybody hates the taxman. But then the TSA came along and proved that the IRS can have stiff competition in that unenviable category. If there's one thing that seems increasingly to be uniting Americans in these times it is a steadily rising river of loathing for the FDA, which I honestly would not have expected. Unfortunately, they seem very much to deserve it; they both have bungled things for which they should have been prepared and have repeatedly impeded honest attempts to solve particular unexpected problems until the pressure of events has forced them to change. We only started learning, even as late as we did, how bad things were in Seattle, for instance, because doctors became so worried that they started violating FDA regulations governing tests. And it's not become much better since.

But this seems to be the real problem. The people at large have been improvising on a rather impressive scale. But too many of those in charge seem to think it is just business as usual, with slightly more urgency. Both political parties and bureaucracies inevitably grow rigid as they get into the habit of mechanically putting everything into the same categories over and over again, but we have seen in clear light of day how utterly sclerotic it's all become. The interesting question is whether we will learn anything from it.

8. Transition to online teaching has not been smooth, but it's not been especially difficult, either, at least in my experience so far. But that too is all improvising in response to a continually changing situation. On the plus side, I am saving an immense amount of time by not losing any from commuting or having to be on campus. But it all seems a little unreal. I tell myself that that's fine, given the circumstances, but I worry a bit about whether it will affect my ability to get things done that need to be done. Nonetheless, this term looks like it will be quite manageable despite everything. But I have no idea what will happen for summer term, or even for fall. I had the bad luck of deciding that for my summer class I would try a new book and different format, and now I simply don't know what I'll be doing. On the plus side, if you can call it that, the class might not even make; there's no guarantee that any summer class will make at this point. We'll just have to see.


ADDED LATER: An interesting discussion by Stephen Pimentel:

Many Westerners may resist the insight, but competence rests not so much on well-planned systems as on virtue, beginning with phronesis (φρόνησῐς), or practical wisdom acting in the world. Government planning in Western nations too often rests on an overextension of episteme (ἐπιστήμη), or rationally grounded knowledge, to areas of human life and organization in which it serves poorly. The future, more often than we wish to admit, is unknown and unknowable, and the effort that we might expend preparing for it is better spent preparing ourselves.

The consistent error of Western modernity is thinking that everything can be done by method, that if you just have your methods right, everything is guaranteed. But method is not as important as being able to assess the situation and work out what is appropriate for it, which is precisely the function of phronesis. Methods and procedures have their place, of course; but that, too, is determined by prudence.

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