The Choose Your Own Adventure Stage of the Pandemic
In the absence of a single norm, how do we decide what to do?
This past month, I’ve heard different pandemic experiences from friends from around the world: Laos and the Philippines have been in and out of lockdown. Australia is opening up its borders. Many people from the US are traveling to Mexico. New Yorkers are back to partying while Californa’s Central Valley is starting to ration care.
In October 2020, the rules were clear — don’t go out, keep distance, wear a mask — but now, by October 2021, the rules vary city by city, country by country, state by state, even restaurant by restaurant. The confusion of this moment has created what I’ve taken to calling the Choose Your Own Adventure stage of the pandemic. Some people I know are still pretty much in quarantine, venturing out cautiously with a mask but otherwise staying at home. Others do outdoor, socially-distanced gatherings without masks. Some are back to full business travel. And yet others are having friends over, going to big parties and shows, and generally returning to life more or less as before, but with masks on.
What will it be like when COVID-19 moves from pandemic to endemic? Journalist Sarah Zhang gives us a glimpse of the future:
The transition to endemic COVID-19 is also a psychological one. When everyone has some immunity, a COVID-19 diagnosis becomes as routine as diagnosis of strep or flu—not good news, but not a reason for particular fear or worry or embarrassment either. That means unlearning a year of messaging that said COVID-19 was not just a flu. If the confusion around the CDC dropping mask recommendations for the vaccinated earlier this summer is any indication, this transition to endemicity might be psychologically rocky. Reopening felt too fast for some, too slow for others. “People are having a hard time understanding one another’s risk tolerance,” says Julie Downs, a psychologist who studies health decisions at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the flu, we as a society generally agree on the risk we were willing to tolerate. With COVID-19, we do not yet agree. Realistically, the risk will be much smaller than it is right now amid a Delta wave, but it will never be gone.
We haven’t officially moved into endemicity with regards to COVID-19—I’ll leave that decision to the public health experts. But having lived in places endemic with contagious diseases like dengue, malaria, HIV and the ghosts of SARS and Zika, I’m starting to recognize this feeling: the quiet tension of disease in the air with the wide range of individual and societal choices and constraints to living with, and sometimes ignoring, that tension.
Which gets me thinking about how we, as individuals, make choices. Setting aside societies where strict lockdowns are in place, life right now under COVID-19 is often down to individual and small group decisions. This often means making decisions based on available data combined with pre-existing frameworks and social pressures. Choose your own adventure, in other words: choose your risk tolerance, choose your risk prevention measures, choose the type of life you’d like to live right now.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a concept I’ve been calling peri-information. When we make daily decisions about our lives, there’s always peripheral information that influences how we interpret the existing data and information for the moment. Stepping outside, for instance, do I decide to put on a mask after reading that AQI levels are moderate? That depends on if I’ve concluded that masks are effective against elevated AQI, that I need special protection against PM2.5 particles, and that AQI reports are themselves accurate and trustworthy.
I offer the word peri-information (fully recognizing how academic and awkward this word is) not because it’s a new concept but maybe because it’s a way to think about decision making that focused on the information we take with us, without a value judgment on that information. We all carry with ourselves peripheral views, perspectives, and judgments that shape our actions. Within the generally broad public health guidelines we live under right now, our public health depends on millions of individual choices. Which adventure are you choosing?
Future Thought 👁️🗨️🔮
How do we map the future of life with an endemic COVID-19? As usual, it’s helpful to think about the past. Life with malaria has given us life with mosquito nets and window screens. The legacy of cholera can be found in our sewage systems. HIV prevention relies heavily on widespread condom usage. Vaccination programs are part of yearly life in many countries for kids growing up. In East Asia, long before COVID-19, I’d grown accustomed to wearing masks on the regular.
Take a public health practice used now to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — maybe that’s masks, social distancing, vaccinations or quarantine. Map out points of tension in acceptance — for every action, there’s always a tradeoff. The physical health benefits of quarantine, for instance, come with the mental health harms of long-term social isolation. At some point, individuals make choices to balance once with the other.
For each point of tension, consider the resources required to make that practice a key part of daily life. Continuing with the quarantine example, we’ve needed reliable internet infrastructure, broader unemployment benefits and mutual aid networks to make life in isolation more workable. What other steps might be needed in the future?
Then ask about the peri-information frameworks required to make that practice successful in daily life. What kind of trust do we need as a society in our public health institutions? What about our understandings of science and the evolution of knowledge?
On My Radar 📡
Zen priest Cristina Moon writes about Chado, or the Way of Tea, in a new series: “It might feel shocking for me to call this series, ‘Why Japanese Tea Ceremony is Badass’. But how else can I pithily put into words how potentially powerful and subversive Chado can be? Chado *is* badass. It requires just as much strength and clarity as zazen and martial arts—just a different kind. It demands more of me than certainly reading Zen books and expounding on them with wit and intellect. It has upended many of my beliefs and attachments—to what it means to be strong, to what it means to be graceful, and to taking care of myself before others.”
Speaking of dualities: Wasn’t there some movie warning us about this: Firm raises $15m to bring back woolly mammoth from extinction. (But oh wow baby wooly mammoths are pretty cute.) Oh, and the Chixculb Crater is such a fascinating topic for anyone interested in astronomy, geology, paleontology and dinosaurs.
Happy Moon Festival! NPR reported on a moon-related incident to try to avoid:
Photographer Şebnem Coşkun photographed the incredible waste generated by pandemic life. Writes Valentina di Liscia in Hyperallergic: “The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a detrimental toll on the Earth’s oceans: researchers say around 30% more waste has made its way into the seas in the last year, primarily non-recyclable materials like face masks and plastic take-out containers.”
On 88 Bar, Jason Li reviews Xiaowei Wang’s Blockchain Chicken Farm and Silvia Lindtner’s Prototype Nation: “Read together, Blockchain Chicken Farm and Prototype Nation give a respectively broad and deep understanding of the lived experience of tech production in China. They focus on how technology is shaped by its creators and its users, and highlight how easily ideas and objects in the tech world seamlessly hop between the US and China. Both books offer a rare and honest glimpse into China and help us understand how the systems and nature of tech affects the way we live and grow every day.”
New From Me 💁🏻🆕
Ascension, for which I served as associate producer, has been picked up by MTV Documentary Films! Check it out starting October 8, and major congratulations to director Jessica Kingdon and producer Kira Simon-Kennedy. It’s well-deserved and comes at such a timely moment in mis/understanding about China and its people’s aspirations.
Here’s what I wrote after the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival:
When describing the film to friends, I say it’s like an extended haiku or renga, rather than the usual essay format that many documentaries take. Kingdon and [cinematographer] Truesdell oftentimes train their camera on singular moments, lingering on small details like the way a young woman practices a graceful nod by measuring the distance between her chin and her chest with her fist, or the slow motion reactions of young people barreling down a water park tunnel. In many ways, it reminds me of the times I’ve spent sitting and watching life in China go by, not seeking to explain or understand but just instead aiming to be present. I’ve seen very few films capture that very necessary skill of simple observation in the face of tremendous change.
As Hrag Vartanian wrote in Hyperallergic: “Ascension raises as many questions as it answers, capturing the aspirations of an ambitious new middle class in China, dominated by Han Chinese culture, and we watch it unfold with limited dialogue. By the end, there’s a sense of arrival at a comfortable place, where skyscrapers mimic the scale of giant Buddha shrines and seaside cities evoke the leisure the new middle class seeks solace in. The suggestion is that commercialism is the new religion for a country still climbing the ladder of success, and the film certainly helps you see why this is seductive for so many.”
Yellow Canary Land 🐤 is a monthly look at the future of global media and technology. It’s ostensibly about some distant tomorrow, but really, it’s about how the forces of our yesterdays and todays are likely to shape the times to come. Don’t expect a lot of emails, but do expect a lot of thought put into each one.
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Can’t do a paid subscription right now but want to show some monetary support? This month, you can support Jessica Kingdon’s Ascension by buying tickets for its theatrical premiere on October 8. The director has also recommended donations to the following organizations: