The pandemic has made debaters of us all. We’ve argued with friends, family, and online strangers about why we need more or fewer restrictions. We’ve shaken our fists in exasperation at the people in the opposing camp, those people who just don’t get it…
The arguments typically go nowhere. That’s because we’re not really arguing about public health or about science. We’re arguing about different ways of seeing the world.
Allow me to introduce Vania and Zeke, two characters who have been fighting for space inside my head, to make the point. Over the past two years, Vania and Zeke have both firmed up their thoughts about Covid policy. Let’s follow them into a coffee shop, where they’re meeting for the first time after a few weeks of texting. Their date gets off to a promising start — until the conversation turns to the pandemic.
— Vania: It’s such a shame. If people had come together and acted as a community, we could have beat this thing by now. Instead, we’re still facing restrictions almost two years in.
— Zeke: Why would you expect close to eight billion people to think and act the same way?
— Vania: It’s a pandemic. We have to work together if we want to solve this.
— Zeke: Any strategy that requires full compliance is doomed to failure. People are different, with different priorities.
— Vania: Sometimes we have to set our individual priorities aside and do the right thing.
— Zeke: Who gets to decide what the right thing is?
— You don’t think protecting people’s health is the right thing?
— You don’t think protecting democratic freedoms is the right thing?
— Your freedom ends where my safety begins. Nobody has the freedom to infect others.
— Living life carries an inherent risk. Take all the precautions you want, but don’t expect the world to stop until it’s scrubbed of all risk.
— Don’t be dramatic. Wearing a mask and social distancing are not stopping the world.
— I beg to differ. Socializing is a human need, not a frill.
— We can adapt our social interactions during an emergency. If only we had the discipline…
— Ah yes, Zoom calls. Or would you like to bring social bubbles back? Forgive me if I take a pass.
— Even if it protects your loved ones?
— There’s reasonable protection and unreasonable protection.
— Just be honest and say you don’t care about lives.
— You don’t care about what makes life worth living.
— To have a good life, you have to be alive in the first place.
— The great majority of people will survive the virus, but restrictions make life worse for just about all of us.
— So does long Covid.
— Long or short, Covid isn’t going away.
— That doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and give up. When there’s a fire, you try to put it out.
— When will you feel safe enough to live normally?
— When cases and deaths are way down.
— What’s way down?
— I can’t give you a number. Low enough that the virus no longer poses a threat.
— What if it takes five years? Or twenty-five?
— Whatever it takes.
— So costs and benefits mean nothing to you.
— Another euphemism for not caring about people.
— You’re delusional.
— You’re an impatient child.
— Newsflash, life ends for all of us. Tomorrow is never promised.
— You’re just rationalizing your selfishness.
— You don’t think it’s selfish to hold everyone hostage to Covid indefinitely?
— We can adapt. Humans are good at that.
— How about adapting to a slightly higher risk?
— Got it. You don’t care about people.
— I care about people’s freedom.
— You’re the sociopath next door.
— You’re the tyrant ruining life for all of us.
— I’ll pay for my own coffee and see myself out.
— Best idea you’ve had all afternoon.
There is no science in the world that can resolve this impasse — no reproduction value or vaccine efficacy study. The real debate, the one beneath the mountains of data we’ve been collecting, is not a scientific one. It’s about what two different people consider most precious in life. As Yuval Harari, author of the international bestseller Sapiens, noted in a Covid opinion piece in the Financial Times, “When we come to decide on policy, we have to take into account many interests and values, and since there is no scientific way to determine which interests and values are more important, there is no scientific way to decide what we should do.”
It’s the conversation behind the conversation, the thought bubbles hovering over the platitudes mouthed by Annie and Alvy in that famous Annie Hall scene. It’s the ideological chasm captured by UK writer Paul Kingsnorth in an essay about the societal response to Covid. Behind all the arguments about masks and school closures, behind the peer-reviewed articles on transmission and morbidity, “glides something older, deeper, slower: something with all the time in the world,” Kingsnorth writes. “Some great spirit whose work is to use these fractured times to reveal to us all what we need to see: things hidden since the foundation of the modern world.”
If you’re more like Vania, her arguments will speak to you and you’ll feel yourself tense up when Zeke makes his points. You’ll gravitate to other Vanias and decry the irresponsible Zekes of the world. If your instincts pull you toward Zeke, you’ll roll your eyes at Vania. You’ll hang out with other Zekes and complain that the world’s Vanias are sucking the joy out of life.
Daniel Hadas, a London-based academic writer, gets to the core of this divide in an article about lockdown centrists like himself: “Each side appeals to a model of human nature, which it holds as self-evident, and which the other side rejects. Debate becomes a dialogue of the deaf, exactly because each side rejects the other’s paradigm.”
It’s a war between two fundamentally different world views, played out on a global canvas, and there are no generals on earth who can win it. The best we can do is to acknowledge that not everyone sees the world the same way we do.