A Covid Christmas Prophecy

by Benjamin Studebaker

A number of people have asked me why I’ve been relatively quiet on the blog lately. There are three key reasons:

  1. My father, Paul Studebaker, died of prostate cancer in August, at the age of 67. The months leading up to his death were very arduous, and it’s taking some time to get wind back in my sails.
  2. I am quietly working on a very big project, and it’s taking a lot of my available energy.
  3. The dominant political issue for much of the past two years has been coronavirus. It is very hard to write anything about coronavirus that has any value, because most people’s positions on coronavirus are irrational.

I want to say a bit more about #3, and then I want to make a prediction.

Twas a coronavirus Christmas | The Blade

Politically, coronavirus is a lot like 9/11. It splits people into two groups:

  1. The people who are irrationally afraid of terrorism/coronavirus, to the point where they’re willing to do anything to reduce the risk, even things that are proven to be ineffective.
  2. The people who irrationally believe in conspiracy theories and deny that terrorism/coronavirus pose any threat at all.

These groups are both motivated principally by fear, and they both fear the same thing. They are both scared that the world might be radically unsafe in a deeply unfair way.

The people who are afraid of terrorism and viruses are really afraid of the possibility that they might be killed in a random fashion. Even though they’ve lived careful lives and practiced healthy habits, they could still be killed all of the sudden by a terrorist or by a virus. They want to believe that there is some set of concrete measures they can take to make themselves safe from the cruelties of fate, but death doesn’t care how virtuous you are. I see through this pretty easily, in part because my father, who was quite a good person, died at 67 of a very cruel type of cancer for no good reason. The same kind of fate will very likely befall me, and you, and most of the people we love.

These fearful people will support absurd measures, trying to restore some sense of cosmic fairness, some link between virtue and survival and between vice and death. They threw billions of dollars at the TSA, even though it’s proven to be mostly ineffective, and they demand an endless series of lockdowns and mandates, even though these lockdowns and mandates cannot stop the spread of new vaccine-resistant variants, because those variants mostly originate in poorer countries where vaccination rates are very low.

The conspiracy theorists claim they fear states and corporations, but they really fear the possibility that states and corporations don’t control everything. They would rather believe that states and corporations are omnipotent and evil than believe that they might not be able to anticipate every terrorist attack and every virus.

American politicians cater to these two groups because they dominate the political bases of each of the two parties. In the early 00s, most Republicans feared terrorism while many Democrats believed Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks. Now, most Democrats fear coronavirus while many Republicans believe the virus is a government or corporate plot. While some politicians have principled views about coronavirus, most focus on winning primaries and turning out base voters in general elections. As American politics has polarized, swing voting has become less common, and targeting swing voters is usually an uncompetitive strategy. This gives politicians little incentive to have nuanced positions.

Those politicians who are unwilling to take irrational positions often try to kick coronavirus questions to somebody else. The federal government kicks responsibility to the states. Some of the states kick responsibility to the cities and the counties. Some of the cities and counties kick responsibility to individual school boards and businesses. All of these layers of government want to make coronavirus an issue of personal responsibility so they can avoid responsibility for onerous restrictions or the lack thereof. Wherever possible, they try to make it a moral issue, to divide us against each other and keep us from pestering them.

The media, for its part, benefits greatly from selling fear. This includes both fear of the virus and fear of governments and corporations. There is little market incentive to make sensible coronavirus content. Therefore most of what appears in the media about coronavirus is enormously insipid rubbish.

This has produced a coronavirus stalemate, in which different parts of the United States have completely different rules. None of the rules really make a lick of sense. None of them are based on “the science”, because there is no single omniscient “science” perspective. They are based on different kinds of fear-driven assumptions, all ridiculous in their own right.

Now the omicron variant has appeared. It looks like the omicron variant is much more transmissible but also much less lethal than previous variants. One study reported that the risk of hospitalization is 50-70% lower with omicron, while another reported that the risk is 70-80% lower.

Will this break the coronavirus stalemate? It’s time for the promised prophecy.

If coronavirus really is like 9/11, then we will probably stay irrational about coronavirus about as long as we stayed irrational about terrorism. In my view, we regained a level of sanity about terrorism at around the time when George W. Bush’s approval rating decisively dipped below 50%, in late 2005:

Presidential Approval Ratings -- George W. Bush | Gallup Historical Trends

George W. Bush last recorded an approval rating of 45% or higher in September of 2005, almost exactly four years after 9/11. But I think you could argue that he only skidded through in the 2004 presidential election, and that we were clearly in the process of coming out of our national fever dream in late 2004, three years after 9/11.

Coronavirus came on the scene in March of 2020. If this lasts roughly as long, we’ll clearly be in the process of getting over it in March of 2023, and we’ll decisively get over it, collectively, in March of 2024, midway through the presidential primaries.

What does “getting over it” look like? Well, I think coronavirus will still be a significant issue in the 2022 midterms. Those midterms are highly likely to be won by the Republicans, because historically the opposition party almost always gains seats in midterm elections. Bush’s Republicans did very well in 2002, but that was at a much earlier point in the post-9/11 period of insanity. November of 2002 was just over a year after 9/11. If we held an election at the same point during the coronavirus crisis, we would have held an election in May of 2021, when Biden’s approval rating was much higher as the initial doses of the vaccine rolled out.

If the Republicans win in 2022, it will be argued that the Democrats’ position on the virus contributed to their losses. Fearing that Donald Trump might use the coronavirus issue to return to power, the Democrats will respond by relaxing their stance on the virus, just as Bush responded to shifting poll numbers by firing Donald Rumsfeld, sidelining Dick Cheney, and pursuing a less strident foreign policy in his second term.

The Democrats will be aided in this by new variants which continue to make the coronavirus more transmissible but less lethal. The variants will evolve in this direction because natural selection favors diseases which spread easily and do not kill their hosts. These agile-but-soft variants will glide through vaccines, but they will cause fewer and fewer hospitalizations and deaths. This will further erode the case for mandates and lockdowns, and mandates and lockdowns will become less and less effective as the virus continues to evolve to beat them.

This will result in a general normalization of some relatively mild–but highly transmissible–variant of coronavirus over the course of 2023. Some number of Democratic primary candidates will talk about new virus policies in the opening months of the 2024 presidential campaign, but these candidates will abandon these policies or lose by Super Tuesday, which will likely occur in March 2024, almost exactly four years after the pandemic began.

As with terrorism, the deeper causes of the pandemic will not be confronted. The economic marginalization of Middle Eastern immigrants and Middle Eastern countries continues, even though we know this marginalization drives people to anti-social behavior. Our heavily globalized world economy allows viruses to spread rapidly all over the world. The travel restrictions we imposed never succeeded in stopping new variants from making their way to the United States, and our high level of internal mobility rapidly spread every new variant throughout the country, even with lockdowns and mandates. But at every point in the pandemic, we prioritized keeping this global economic system running, and we will go on doing that, even though this will endemically produce global pandemics from time to time. We will simply grow used to the idea that sometimes terrorist attacks happen, and sometimes pandemics happen, and life is not fair.

This is part of a general trend in which the consequences of the international political and economic system are normalized, because the system is considered too big to fail. First we are shocked by terrorism. Then we performatively try a variety of expensive and ineffective ways of stopping it. Then we make our peace with it, so that life may go on as before. In the same way, first we are shocked by coronavirus, then we performatively try a variety of expensive and ineffective ways of stopping it, and then we make our peace with it, so that life may go on as before. It doesn’t matter that this is a system that is painfully unfair, that it infuriates many people. No one sees an alternative to it, and therefore it will go on, as the costs continue to mount.