Delta Straussians Know How to Live with Covid
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As the delta variants spread, and as the number of vaccinations continues to rise, a new Covid stance is evolving: Namely, we should not look too closely at the new situation for fear of being spooked by high case numbers.
There is the hyper-careful view found in “blue” locales such as San Francisco, there is Covid denialism (most prominent in the South), and now a third attitudinal alternative is emerging — what I call delta Straussianism, after the 20th-century political theorist Leo Strauss. Invoking Plato’s idea of the “noble lie,” Strauss had argued more broadly that polities could not look all social truths squarely in the eye: The “noble lie” in this instance is that it is better not to obsess too much over case numbers. Proponents of this attitude — let’s call them delta Straussians — simply proceed with their lives and business and hope for the best.
The delta Straussians also don’t want to debate safety claims very much. They fear that studying the data more closely will worry and paralyze us more, without much limiting the overall number of infections. In their view, vaccines have made things about as safe as they are going to get, and the contagiousness of delta will create lots of infections, albeit mostly relatively safe ones.
That’s what the proprietor of one of my favorite local restaurants believes. He is aware of the delta strain, and knows it is worse, though without being up on the numbers or the details. Earlier in the summer, he lifted the mask mandate for his restaurant, and he isn’t interested in restoring it. He is not a “Covid denialist,” but he figures normal business has to continue at some point and that point is now. Someone may well catch Covid in his restaurant, but those people might well have caught Covid anyway.
Our school reopenings face a similar paralysis-inducing dilemma. If we test every child every day, it will seem as if we have far too many cases of Covid, and the schools will shut again quickly. Nonetheless, given that delta is highly contagious, many of those children will catch Covid whether or not they go to school.
I am not a delta Straussian. Instead, I obsess every day over the new data released through social media (I try to keep a cool head about what I learn and I have largely gone about my business). An individual living with an immunologically comprised family member also does not have the luxury of being a delta Straussian. Nor do I want my policy makers to shy away from the full truth. It is a great and inexcusable failure that our federal government has not done more to track the new variants. Can you believe that in May the CDC stopped tracking breakthrough Covid cases for the vaccinated? That was a huge unforced error.
That said, I do not rue the growth of delta Straussianism among my fellow citizens. If you can’t do anything about delta, if your institution needs to reopen sooner or later, if the booster shots in large numbers are not right around the corner, and yet another new variant might be coming along anyway, maybe you really do just need to get on with things. Restaurant reservations are robust, and the gym industry is surging back. I do not wish to reverse those trends, and it is hard to believe those customers are only the Covid denialists.
Britain is experiencing its own version of delta Straussianism with the current complaints over the country’s test-and-trace system. Individuals receive electronic notices if they have (possibly) been exposed to Covid; in response they are supposed to isolate themselves and also get tested. Execution and enforcement are highly imperfect, but many British people are in fact stepping back from their jobs in response to the pinged messages they receive. In one week in July, 600,000 people were told to self-isolate. The result has been high absenteeism and significant shortages.
How well this British system is protecting people is still unclear — is it so great if the pinged people head down to the open pubs instead? But the notifications are increasingly unpopular. The new term is “pingdemic,” as a sarcastic complaint. The critics in this case are asking for less information about possible Covid status rather than more information, an essential marker of delta Straussianism. Given that testing systems are imperfect and slow at times, maybe people should not be self-isolating just because they had close contact with another Covid-positive individual.
We don’t want our public health leadership to be in denial or poorly informed. But perhaps we Americans are now at the point where it is fine if a lot of the public just get their vaccinations and then stick their heads in the sand. Just don’t tell anyone that is what they are doing.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."
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