Looking back a year at dealing with Covid

«However, I know, as the prime lesson of my profession, that good intentions are the source of more folly than all other causes put together.»
Star, Empress of the Twenty Universes, in «Glory Road» by Robert A. Heinlein

As the winter semester starts next week, it’s a good moment to look back a year. Last year, at least one university that I know of, started the winter semester by making the situation deliberately «uncomfortable» for unvaccinated students. This included frequent testing only for unvaccinated students and outing of vaccine status (by having to go to a tent on campus, in cases even in front of the class).

For a place that ostensibly searches for truth, knowing it can never be sure to have found it, I was dismayed by the policy. Coercion in health decisions is even beyond what a medical doctor may do. This wasn’t even an individual conversation with an open outcome. It was using social, organizational and economical pressure. Suddenly, forced outings seem to have been okay regarding one’s medical status. And there were lots of opportunity costs due to the frequent testing. Again, only for unvaccinated students, no matter that vaccinated people transmitted Covid as well.

What made it worse was the apparent compliance to it. Even people whom I did regard (in for some, still regard) as having integrity went with it, or did not question it. And yeah, for some, «ignorance is bliss» — as they were (hmm, correct tense) vaccinated, it did not affect them.

And there were good intentions when it comes to these measures — after all, it was to «stop the spread». And those unvaccinated … well, they were (and still are) regarded as freeloaders and as public enemies. I’ve got to hand it to the legacy media and most politicians — they painted a pretty ugly picture.

And it’s in front of this media/political backdrop why I am so dismayed by universities following these policies. I would have expected better. Especially considering where this rhetoric eventually ends up. And yeah, there are — luckily — a lots of steps still missing. But I would have expected a university to stand up at the beginning. First because that’s when it is still possible. Second to show that this is a road we do not take, ever again. Instead, some followed an ordinance because, well, it’s the law. And yeah, there’s a huge conflict of interest here, when universities depend on public funding. Or rather, funding controlled by politicians.

As criticism is easy, solutions are not, what would have been a possible approach? Perhaps this one:

«While we see the need for vaccinations and we strongly recommend them, we respect the dignity of the person. Thus we will not coerce people regarding their health decisions. There will have to be some restrictions for unvaccinated people due to legal requirements. But we try our best to make the situation as manageable as possible. We will not punish unvaccinated people by making the situation uncomfortable for them. Overall, we respect the dignity of the person in making the situation as safe as possible for all involved. Vaccinated and unvaccinated students alike.»

I think that this would have been a position worthy of a university. Adhering both to deontological principles and evaluating whether the outcomes work out. Combining the deontological «dignity of humans» (not treating them as a mere object to reach a goal) with utilitarianism (does it work?).

Note that this requires an actual adherence to these principles. It does not work with «we say we are for freedom, but we punish you if you make the wrong (from our perspective) choice». That’s the hard part, tolerating attitudes and behavior even if you think they are wrong. It was made even harder by a media campaign that essentially states that if you do not get vaccinated, you kill grandma. Everybody’s grandma.

Unfortunately, after any organization publicly commits itself to using coercion, such an approach does not work anymore. The public commitment stands in the way. So, a year ago, that approach would not have been feasible. Judging on the discussions and the reactions (quiet private support, public rejection), nope, no chance.

But after the pandemic is before the pandemic. Or, rather, after the public emergency is before the public emergency. We already have the next type of acute emergency (energy crisis). And there’s always the climate crisis ready for more. Even with Covid, there’s that German health minister who tries to milk it for anything it can give. Or to distract from the actual problems of our health system.

So, while it was not an approach for the past, perhaps utilizing both ethical views might be useful in the future. For those «exceptional situations» that will arise. Just because a person or organization has acted one way in the past, it does not mean that they have to act this way in the future.

One can learn from mistakes.

For my part, I have realized even more that you have to watch out for the beginnings. That no matter how strongly an organization or a person states phrases like «never again», they are blind if that oppression starts small and in another guise. Especially as it usually seems reasonable in the beginning. And related to it, that many people still believe «good intentions» are an argument for something instead of a «warning sign». That was surprising. I would have thought that people know that almost everybody, heck, even the worst person, thinks they have «good intentions». And that thinking you have good intentions makes it harder to see the negative consequences, the side-effects, the long-term effects, the different effects on different people. That it makes it not only harder to see but also to accept feedback and criticism. But, nope, not so. So, it’s even more important to speak up early and clearly.

As for the organizations, at the moment, Covid policy seems to go for voluntary masking. That might seem like a good sign. But it is again going with the flow, not a change of policy or attitude. My concern is that there will be no consequences from these events. I don’t mean punishment for people who coerced others into a medical decision. Decisions that might have led to «very rare side effects». That would be nice, but that is very unlikely. Unless it turns out that, e.g., there was major corruption that cannot be hidden anymore. No, I mean rethinking how to treat members of the organization in the future, instead of forgetting about it and doing business as usual.

That would at least be one positive consequence form this crisis.


One addendum (more a second posting)

It was a deliberate decision not to directly address the effectiveness of these methods. This is something that cannot be known at the beginning of the crisis. Making arguments about the (lack of) effectiveness before the studies are out is hard to do. Even though there were warning signs. Just look at how masks were treated, from ignoring the time restrictions in wearing them (for FFP2 masks) to the lack of training, fitting, and infrastructure (shouldn’t it be biohazard waste?). Or the vaccines, you have to get a flu shot every year, and Covid was likely to be like flu, not, e.g., like measles.

And even now masks and vaccines are is still a contested issue.

There are people who still swear by masks and who focus only on presumed Covid protection. I think that even with an FFP2 mask, it’s like trying to stop a mosquito with a volleyball net. It provides a false sense of safety. Even worse, I think the side- and long-term effects are vastly underestimated. Impeded social interaction is the most obvious issue. But there are also bacteria and fungi in the masks. After all, they are used by laypeople, repeatedly, in unsanitary conditions, and not in a hospital. Just look at the places where masks are stored between use. And as for time restrictions in wearing them — anyone ever had headaches after wearing an FFP2 for longer periods of time?

As for vaccines, they were advertised as protecting from infections and stopping transmission. Later it became reducing the risk. Then reducing the risk only of the worst outcomes. Might still be true, but it’s hard to assess without accurate data. Especially with pharma companies essentially doing their own testing and removing control groups by vaccinating them. Or the abysmal state of measuring hospitalization of/with Covid or vaccine status. This includes at times treating infected with unknown status as unvaccinated. On a more anecdotal note, how many people do you know that were vaccinated yet still got Covid. How was it? It’s like using a condom, getting a VD, and thanking Trojan.

But effectiveness is not the main issue here. It would make it about whether it works, not about whether it should be done.

Even worse, discussing the effectiveness is no-go issues for many people, given the commitment to masking or the vaccines. It’s very hard to affect a change here. Someone who walks around with an FFP2 mask all the time made a strong public commitment to its effectiveness. It’s a bit like forcing women to wear a garb as sign of their religious adherence (or men, for that matter, although for them it seems to be the hair). It also ingrains a habit that becomes normalized and is no longer questioned. After all, «everybody does it» — and apparently willingly. Same with vaccinations, only more so. You cannot remove a vaccine from the body. Once you got it, you are vaccinated. (Well, unless you lose the status after a few months — again, SCNR). And given the frequent side effects — even if only the usual pain/fatigue on the day of the injection — people did pay a price for their decision. If they suffered for it, it must work. They are unlikely to accept that it turned out to be a … not-that-helpful decision. At least it must have helped for some time. Or to prevent the worst outcomes. BTW, I apply the same processes also to myself (regarding other issues). It is just deeply human. Cognitive dissonance is a thing.

Many people are also too invested in the «your body spreads disease if it’s not masked and vaccinated» argument. They need masks and vaccines to be effective for it to work. No matter that irrespective of its questionable effectiveness, this is true for a lot of other infections as well. That’s why we have an immune system that needs to be confronted with pathogens to work properly. Living in a sterile bubble is a very bad idea. There are nice demonstrations with liquids that glow under UV light to illustrate just how easily germs can spread. That’s just another aspect of … well, life. Something that was brought to the attention of a lot of people that is usually only known to people with an interest in biology and a microscope.

So a purely utilitarian discussion about the presumed effectiveness will not only be impeded by a limited data base. It will have a strong confirmation bias with those who have invested publicly in masks and vaccines. One of the reasons why a deontological perspective (people aren’t things) is needed. Even if masks and vaccines would work (and adherents will be totally convinced that they do), this still is not a good enough reason to coerce people into making a health decision about their own body.

And again, perhaps that is one thing we can take from that crisis.