Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 6

There are little narrative snippets that exist in people's minds. I think Richard Dawkins calls them "memes." These aren't funny social media post memes, but concepts that spread among human beings that summarize concepts or events, and not always accurately.

Here's an example: "Elvis Presley invented rock and roll by fusing Southern black blues with his home-town gospel music; the Motown artists took this medium further; The Beatles made rock and roll intelligent, and then the punk revolution stole rock music back from the pretentious prog-rockers."

Is this story accurate? No. Is it more or less the accepted official Rolling Stone Magazine history of rock and roll? Yes. It's a meme. People believe it. People repeat it. Its accuracy is less important than its pervasiveness.

One problem with such memes is that they are impossible to overturn once they take hold. It doesn't matter how much rock and roll was invented by Johnny "Guitar" Watson or Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis. It only matters that they're not in the official meme. Another problem with such memes is that they lend themselves too easily to motivated reasoning. If a person really wants to believe that The Beatles were geniuses, then they're going to accept the meme, no matter what. The fact that there were better, more intelligent, more ingenious musicians around at the same time - both in and out of rock music - becomes irrelevant. The Beatles "just had something," or, "you don't understand unless you were there." The most persistent memes are non-falsifiable and uphold a deep-rooted prejudice of some kind.

And so, it's been interesting to watch memes arise and take hold of the COVID-19 epidemic.

First, social distancing was about saving lives; then it was about not overwhelming the health care system; now, it's about reducing the infection rate to the point that a "track-and-trace" policy can be implemented. What's striking about this evolution is that the meme becomes more refined over time, but its function and a soundbite never diminishes.

I am practicing social distancing and have every intention of continuing to do so. Still, my alarm bells start to ring when the advice I get starts to sound more like a soundbite, and less like a real explanation of anything.

I've been thinking about the spread of COVID-19. In the beginning, we were told that COVID-19 was spread through "close, intimate contact." This was one reason why they told us that "masks don't work." In hindsight, though, it's incomprehensible that an entire cruise ship or aircraft carrier, or an entire Chinese city, could suffer an enormous outbreak through something that requires "close, intimate contact." If infection occurs primarily from the inhalation of infected sputum, then masks should be an important tool to reduce viral load; and we now know, of course, that they are.

Still, for weeks now, we've all been terrified of other people's coughing. Even without specific government-enforced social distancing guidelines, it seems unlikely that the spread would not have slowed despite school and daycare closures, work-from-home policies, the closing of restaurants and bars, and so on. Sure, initially most people would resist the idea of social distancing, but as the stories continue to get worse and the numbers continue to climb, this explanation is no longer sufficient. The meme doesn't reflect reality.

I have no real point here, except to say that I think the spread of COVID-19 across more or less the entire human population is inevitable, and that I don't think anyone really knows how it spreads. I think this is a far more dangerous and mysterious virus than anyone yet realizes, and I think it will be many years, perhaps decades, before the full mystery is revealed.

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