Screaming into a void

Like chicken soup, I suppose, it can't hurt. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

I have a theory. Maybe it’s crazy. But, I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

It goes like this. Imagine if President Trump had won reelection.

Alternatively, imagine if the COVID vaccines had been announced a few weeks earlier than they were in November 2020 (so, pre-November 3).

In this alternate world, do you think it’s possible that some Americans might have landed on the exact opposite side of the vaccine discussion, compared to where they are in our current reality?

  • Some (not all) of today’s vaccine skeptics and mandate opponents, especially those who strongly supported President Trump, might have viewed the vaccine as an enormous accomplishment on Trump’s part— and a small, patriotic price to pay to move the nation past COVID.

  • Meanwhile, some of today’s most vaccine-trusting evangelists, especially those who vehemently opposed Trump, might have been a lot more skeptical of the vaccines’ efficacy and safety—concerned that the FDA might have cut corners in order to give the administration a political boost.

I’m trying hard to play this down the middle, and I don’t think you have to believe that the sides might have been switched because of bad faith.

It’s more that the forces that lead our media and politics, and the people who literally choose the terms we use to discuss all of this, might have viewed the world through a different prism.

It certainly can’t be proved one way or another. But, I do think we’ve reached a point where Americans don’t even use the same language on the pandemic.

For support of this, I turn to Dr. Katherine Wu, who has a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunobiology from Harvard University, and who was a New York Times reporter until the beginning of this year. She’s now a staff writer for The Atlantic, focusing almost 100 percent on the pandemic.

Recently, she put together a sort of compendium of pandemic-related words that she says people are largely using incorrectly. And if we can’t even agree on what some of these words and phrases mean…

Here are a few of Wu’s examples:

1. COVID test

We start with a small misnomer, but as Wu puts it: “The virus, SARS-CoV-2, is what actually infects us, what actually transmits, what tests actually detect. Not COVID.

(I am screaming into a void here, but that also means there’s no such thing as a COVID test, and there’s no such thing as asymptomatic COVID.)”

2. Mild COVID

“[A] euphemistic term that’s still commonly used to describe all cases too ‘inconsequential’ to land someone in the hospital.” That’s difficult because mild cases can still be very consequential.

“Mild might be useful for collecting population-level data, but a lot of experts dislike the adjective because it elides the debilitating and sometimes very lengthy illnesses that can unfurl from a SARS-CoV-2 infection, including long COVID.”

Quarantine

“Two years into our run with COVID, that’s still one of the terms we most commonly mess up.

Correctly used, quarantine describes the period of time when people who think they’ve been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 are supposed to cloister themselves—a precaution in case an infection manifests. If you know you’re infected, thanks to, say, a positive test or legit COVID symptoms, you’re going into full-blown isolation.”

Asymptomatic

Another that’s more misapplied than completely misunderstood:

“The boundary between no symptoms and symptoms is also surprisingly fuzzy. COVID-19 symptoms vary enormously from person to person, and are somewhat subjective: A headache two days after a positive coronavirus test could be a COVID symptom or an ill-timed hangover.”

Fully vaccinated

“[O]h boy, is fully vaccinated also a nightmare to define. For starters, being fully dosed isn’t the same as being fully immunized, because it takes a couple of weeks for immune cells to learn the contents of a shot and react. …

‘Fully’ also implies completeness, even invulnerability, when no vaccine in existence can ever confer such a thing.”

Natural immunity

“[L]ong before the pandemic started, scientists used [natural immunity] to describe the protection left behind after an infection by a bona fide pathogen.

But in the age of COVID, the phrase has become weaponized into a false binary: If infection-induced immunity is natural, some have argued, immunity obtained through different means must be unnatural—artificial, undesirable, a dangerous hoax, or even, in some cases, a moral failure.”

I heard Wu on a radio interview the other day talking about these definitions.

I have to admit now that I was more hopeful that we’d all find common ground while I was listening to her talk, than I am now, reproducing what she had to say in written form here.

Am I tilting at windmills? Or screaming into a void as Wu put it? Maybe. But, it might be nice if we could all agree on some basic definitions.

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