A few early-2023 thoughts on Covid

The trouble with lessons from history is that we usually read them best after falling flat on our chins.

Well, how did the pandemic end — not with a bang, but with a whimper. Strange considering the developments. No more mandatory masking in trains, only a few places remain (like doctors offices).

Strange considering the fear and the outrage. And I wonder whether there will be a looking back on the pandemic and how people and institutions dealt with it. I mean, just a few things on the top of my head:

Covid Policy came between Doctors and Patients

Strange that politicians tried to decide what is best for patients, far beyond what any doctor is allowed to do. Patients have the right not to take medications, hell, even to die. But strangely enough, politicians tried to introduce mandatory vaccinations. They succeeded partly (in Germany): Mandatory for some professions, not mandatory for the rest.

The main concern here is not only the (now more apparent) side-effects of vaccinations, but that was has been done will be done again. Especially when the half-success/failure of mandatory vaccinations will be remembered as «we did it with Covid».

To live in a country in which politicians can decide about your medical procedures — well, that dystopia is here. Unless we learn from the fear-reaction and say «never again».

Employers became unelected enforcers of guidelines

Perhaps worse than the attempt by politicians to introduce mandatory vaccinations were the attempts by many employers to make life difficult for unvaccinated employees. Whether it’s over the top advertisement, strongly worded suggestions, or outright social, economic, and financial pressures. Done mostly end of 2021 and first quarter of 2022, it still remains one of the worst aspects of the pandemic. Especially considering that even universities participated in making life for unvaccinated students (and employees) «uncomfortable». And perhaps a hint of what is to come if corporate and public «partnerships» make individual choice increasingly untenable.

This is something we should learn from and which should never happen again. It is not the job of employees to enforce what the state is not legally allowed to do. Unfortunately, dependence on state money (grants in case of universities, financial crisis support in case of companies) makes this a hard choice. Unless there is a way to ensure that grants/support is given based on merit (quality of research/financial prospects of the company), not on adherence to guidelines (yeah, don’t see a way either).

Highly personal data was collected

I love playing with data — there are some «interesting» stuff you can do with it. Especially used in a way that was not intended. It’s fun, but also scary, when you think what you can do with data. Especially the data that was collected during Covid. Lots of work was done online (videoconferencing, more mails), which means digital traces that can be analyzed. Many carried around apps that tracked their movement, or with whom they did meet. You have also negative data — for example, if you know who did use a Covid app, and you know who your citizens are, you also know who did not use it. Thus, a bit akin to «Captain America — Winter Soldier», you can build a database of people who do not go along with state recommendations. Just «for future reference» (while cool, there is no way today the movie’s carriers would ever fly).

And this isn’t to say that our current government would use the data. But whatever is done, it is not only important what the current government can do with it, but also which doors you open for a future government. One that is (even) less big on our constitution. States usually have a separation of powers to avoid this problem, only that works out less and less.

So, perhaps that’s a moment to think about digital sovereignty, about protecting ones data better. And to explore the downsides that can happen when the state has too much data about its citizens.

Blinder-Thinking did a lot of damage

Looking back at the pandemic, it almost seemed as nothing else existed during that time (well, on the plus side, it removed climate extremists from the news — for a while). Everything was about Covid numbers, as if nothing else mattered. Missed screenings, other dangers — obesity, sedentary life style, unhealthy eating habits — did not matter. This blinder-thinking, looking at only one variable, did a lot of damage. Not only physiologically but also psychologically. I notice it with my students. Some are very good, but I get the impression that some really did not fare well. They are frequently absent (sick?) and sometimes it seems like they have trouble thinking. I don’t mean understanding a difficult topic, but just constructing a thought.

If there is something to be learned here, then to avoid this myopic view on one issue. To take a step back and take the whole situation into account. If everything screams about one issue — then it is time to acknowledge these emotions but also to calm down, take a step back, and decide on the best course forward.

The strange case of Masks

It’s been said quite frequently, but if you had said four years ago that people would walk around with masks on their faces (outside of Carnival), most people would not have believed it. Yet it happened, whether it prevented infection or not.

Even if they would work for the public (and I have my doubts, giving the size of the virus, the lack of sealing, the use outside of a medical setting, etc.), masks would only delay. That was their original purpose (combined with physical distancing) — flatten the curve. Flatten implies the same number of cases spread across a larger time frame to not overwhelm the usually insufficient medical resources.

But somehow they have mutated to a symbol of faith, with some people wearing them even now. Rather strange to see. First it was the people not wearing masks who were looked at strangely, now the ones who do wear them.

Personally I think the most masks did was reminding everyone that we have a pandemic (you did not see people lying in the streets, this wasn’t a bad China-video or the movie «Contagion»). Then they turned into a marker of faith. As a way for people to show they cared about others. That they saved others from infection. At worst, they were socially accepted OCD/neuroticism for adults.

And I think the downsides were underestimated: Weakened immune system, fungus and bacteria infections, impaired social interaction, etc. pp. Safety issues were completely ignored (incl. the maximal time you could wear, e.g., FFP2 masks).

There is a lot that can be learned here. Not only regarding masks themselves or whether or under which conditions they work how well, but also what they do with a population.

Language Games

Whether it is the German minister for health claiming that mandatory vaccinations still only mean that people get vaccinated voluntarily, or the strange use of «freedom» or «responsibility», there were a lot of language games.

If ideology does not fit to reality, and reality always wins in the end, one way to deal with it is to use language to fit what cannot be fitted. The German rail service had an ad saying «For the freedom to travel safely.» Interesting use of the concept «freedom». Freedom gets restricted (mandatory FFP2 masks compared to no masks in planes) in order to be free to travel safely. How about people decide for themselves whether to wear them or not? How is that for freedom? But then again, personal responsibility was also seen negatively. Apparently people cannot be trusted to decide for themselves because they could decide «wrong».

And yeah, there is also something to be learned here. Words per se do not change the underlying reality, no matter what some academics in particular disciplines believe. As someone once said, you can call everything anything, but you should not forget what it is. And this is perhaps another thing to take from the pandemic.


Overall, I think we handled the pandemic badly. Personally, I lost trust in some people and a lot of institutions. But at least something can be learned from it, if only whom never to trust again — and who is worth being trusted.