One year of COVID-19: What will we learn?
Pandemics have historically given way to social revolution. What will the post-COVID revolution be?
Marcelo Gleiser is a professor of natural philosophy, physics, and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a recipient of the Presidential Faculty Fellows Award from the White House and NSF, and was awarded the 2019 Templeton Prize. Gleiser has authored five books and is the co-founder of 13.8, where he writes about science and culture with physicist Adam Frank.
- The US is approaching 500,000 COVID-19 deaths. What can we learn from one year of loss and chaos?
- The lessons are clear. Among them are realizing our fragility as a species, our codependence as humans, and the urgent need to move beyond social injustice and inequity.
- As with the Renaissance following the Black Plague of the 14th century and the explosive creativity of the 1920s post Spanish influenza, this is our turn to redefine the course of history. Let's not mess this up.
It's been almost a year now since COVID-19 brought the world to a halt. Everyone has been affected, to a degree that varies from the no-so-much to the profoundly tragic. In March 2020, a few weeks into the pandemic, I wrote an opinion piece for CNN where I advanced a few ideas about what changes could unfold due to the challenges ahead. Now that we are well into this mess, and with the growing hope of stepping out of it within the next few months, it's time to reconsider some of these ideas.
First, some facts.
This is the biggest existential threat of our generation. We didn't face the tragedy of two world wars and, so far, escaped the ongoing threat of nuclear warfare. It's important to compare the tragedy that we are going through now with the devastation of the Spanish Influenza of 1918, with numbers that seem almost incomprehensible. It is estimated that about 500 million people, some one-third of the world's population then, were infected by the virus. Of those, 50 million—10 percent—died worldwide, 675,000 of which were in the US. In today's numbers, this would mean that about 2.4 billion people would be infected, and 240 million would die. At the time of writing, there have been about 109 million confirmed infections (surely an underestimate) and 2.4 million deaths. While the numbers are much better worldwide this time around, this data doesn't make us feel any better. We are approaching half a million deaths in the US, another incomprehensible number, getting closer to the number of US losses during the Spanish flu. Denial, the lack of federal leadership, the top-down silencing of scientific evidence and support, complacency, science denial—these are all to blame.
Science is essential.
A global pandemic of this magnitude is first and foremost a public health issue and the first line of defense is through science and public policy working in tandem. The fact that we are faring comparatively better than in 1918 speaks to the power of medicine to save lives: ventilators, antiviral drugs, better sanitation, better understanding of how this virus operates. The numbers could have been much better if health policy measures had not become politically weaponized and added to the current ideological divide with tragic consequences. The fact that we now have extremely effective vaccines, some using entirely novel technologies, speaks again to the power of science to save lives. This is a moment to celebrate science in service of humanity's greater good.
We need to rethink who we are.
Earth has existed for 4.5 billion years; our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for about 200,000 years.
Credit: desdemona72 via Adobe Stock
The pandemic has exposed our perennial fragility as a species. Nature operates under rules that don't include compassion for loss of life. We are not above nature. Technology may give us the impression that we can control the ways of the world, but we are still very much part of the process of natural selection, getting ill as mutant forms of this virus and others create new public health challenges. Natural selection is an endless battle for survival. We cannot trick it into a permanent stop, only into momentary halts. Indeed, as the environment changes, new forms of life emerge and not all of them will be beneficial to us. The melting of the permafrost is bringing up diseases that hit our distant ancestors and against which we are defenseless. Rethinking who we are calls for humility. Humility in the face of our limited resources, humility in the face of forces that are much more powerful than we are. We can dig deep holes and tunnels through mountains, cut down forests and make oceans retreat. But every one of these actions has a profound environmental impact that costs us dearly. Rethinking who we are calls for a reframing of our relationship to the planet. Earth has existed for 4.5 billion years; our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for about 200,000 years. We have just arrived here. Earth will continue without us. We can't continue without it, space exploration notwithstanding. The future of our project of civilization depends on our rethinking of our planetary role.
We are a human hive.
The pandemic has given us ample proof of our codependence. We need each other at all levels; the first responders, the farmers and drivers, the supermarket workers bringing food to our tables. It is said that the stability of society is nine meals away. If we don't eat for 3 days, society unravels. And we need energy, supplies, banking systems, clear roads, clean cities, political stability, news, and fast internet. In a beehive, all workers contribute to the survival of the hive as a whole, every job is important. We are a human hive, and must respect all labor, and ensure that all workers are properly compensated. To live with dignity is not a luxury, it is a right.
We must rethink social structure and inequality.
The uneven toll of the pandemic has exposed systemic racism and social injustice to levels that can no longer be tolerated or overlooked by anyone, and certainly by those in power. Since at least the origins of agrarian civilization, our ancestors divided into tribes so as to guarantee social cohesion against battling economies. Defined mostly by religious beliefs and social exclusion, such tribal walls have been the signpost of cultures across the globe. We now have a different view of humanity's place on this planet, our togetherness exposed to us in ways that many dislike. A virus doesn't care what you believe in, the color of your skin or how much money you have in the bank. It will attack opportunistically and hijack your cellular material to reproduce. But the extent to which people can protect themselves against such attacks does reveal societal inequities in transparent ways. If you share an apartment with eight people and must go to work every day, taking public transportation to get there, you will be walking into the war zone without a weapon or shelter.
We need to rethink how we work.
With fast internet, it's abundantly clear that much of the dislocations to and from work, or frequent trips to distant places for meetings, is unnecessary, costly, and detrimental to the environment. Huge expenses with business real estate can be avoided, and funneled into higher compensation for workers and better computer and connectivity equipment. The notion of a downtown where people go to do business is quickly becoming obsolete. Travel will be mostly for fun and adventure. However, for this to become the new normal, fast connectivity and better equipment must be accessible to all, like electricity and clean water (there's some work still to be done here for sure.) Otherwise, we will be creating another tribal divide (it's here already), between those who have fast access to information and resources and those who don't.
The Black Death of the 14th century helped usher in the Renaissance, a spectacular blossoming of human creativity. The Spanish influenza was followed by the Roaring Twenties, an era of explosive cultural dynamism that brought us jazz, Art Deco, and a renewal of our capacity to celebrate life and be productive: automobiles, telephones, aviation, the film industry, electrical appliances, rapid industrial growth. What will be our post-pandemic revolution? The old ways are about to go; they are going already. There is a new world order emerging, the signs are everywhere. Not everyone is willing to see them, or to embark into this new venture. But I hope that those who do will inspire many to follow them. All this loss has to swing around and usher a new page in human history.
Cow cuddling is getting ever more popular, but what's the science behind using animals for relaxation?
- An Indian non-profit hopes to help people relax by giving them cuddle sessions with cows.
- This is not the first such center where you can chill out with cattle.
- Like other emotional support animals, the proven health benefits are limited.
Who needs a therapy dog when you can hug a cow?<p> Located outside of the Indian city of Gurugram, the new Cow Cuddling Centre will be run by a non-profit <a href="https://interestingengineering.com/ngo-launches-cow-cuddling-therapy-center-in-india" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">headed</a> by the former Chairman of the Animal Welfare Board of India, SP Gupta.</p><p>Pitched as a way to escape the stresses of modern life and "forget all your problems," the founders of the establishment have high hopes for it, suggesting that spending time with the cows can cure "respiratory diseases, blood pressure, spinal pain, heart problem, depression but also sadness, anxiety and all kinds of tensions" in a <a href="https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/cow-science-exam-may-be-postponed-but-an-ngo-is-launching-a-cow-cuddling-centre-in-haryana-535024.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">press statement</a>.</p><p>While you might be thinking that cow cuddling only exists in India because of the cultural importance placed on the animal there, <a href="http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20201008-is-cow-hugging-the-worlds-new-wellness-trend" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Dutch beat them to it.</a> Cow cuddling farms exist in the United States as <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/12/style/self-care/cow-cuddling-therapy.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">well</a>.</p>
Is there any science behind the idea of cuddling with a cow over a more traditional, travel-sized pet?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/QG3fOOT7xWQ" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Like many claims about emotional support animals of any kind, there is a limited amount of data on this.</p><p>What studies do exist on emotional support animals are <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08927936.2015.11435396" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">small</a>, <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15228932.2013.765734" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">limited</a>, and should be considered to be the beginnings of more extensive <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1479-8301.2009.00268.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">studies</a> which will settle the question of how much help these animals can <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5127627/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">provide</a>. This is different from work on well-trained service animals, which are <a href="https://content.iospress.com/articles/neurorehabilitation/nre1345" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proven</a> to be very <a href="http://www.cf4aass.org/uploads/1/8/3/2/18329873/psd_and_veterans_living_with_ptsd_-_gillett_march_23_2014_2.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">helpful</a> when doing the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0965229913002148" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">tasks</a> they are specially trained for. <br></p><p>Regarding cows, the <a href="http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20201008-is-cow-hugging-the-worlds-new-wellness-trend" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">BBC</a> suggests that chilling with cows can cause relaxation by boosting oxytocin levels in humans, though they do not cite a specific study supporting that stance. One often-referenced study from several years back suggests the cows might like and get relaxation out of cuddling <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0168159107000445" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">too</a>.<br></p><p>However, Dr. <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/contributors/michael-ungar-phd" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Michael Ungar</a> suggests in this <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/nurturing-resilience/202001/cuddle-cow-the-new-psychotherapy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Psychology Today</a> article that cow cuddling might be comparable to equine therapy, which, while also lacking in rigorous scientific support, does seem to provide some people certain benefits.</p><p>The news magazine <a href="https://www.indiatoday.in/india-today-insight/story/cuddling-a-cow-the-latest-wellness-trend-1764558-2021-01-31" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">India Today </a>featured a brief interview with professor Ritu Dangwal, who also suggests that cow cuddling might have some benefits:</p><p> "As a psychologist and someone who herself experienced it, being with cows is extremely therapeutic. We are stuck in a rat race and our anxiety is at an all-time high. Being with an emotive animal, one that has no judgement and loves unconditionally, does wonders."</p><p>What relaxes some people might be somewhat surprising to others or difficult to generalize in a scientific study. While you might not get prescribed a day in the pasture anytime soon, cow cuddling is an increasingly popular way to relax that gets people back into nature and interacting with animals in a way that many of us rarely get the chance to. While the science isn't quite all there, some people might find it worth the time.</p><p>Just be sure to wear closed-toed shoes if you go.</p>
Millions of doses of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine could be distributed as early as next week, if the FDA and CDC authorize it.
- The FDA and CDC will soon vote on whether to authorize the distribution of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine.
- If approved, it would become the third vaccine available in the U.S., the other two being vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
- The new vaccine has a lower efficacy rate, but clinical data suggest its highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death.
Mediteraneo via AdobeStock<p>What makes Johnson & Johnson's vaccine unique is that it's effective after just one dose, while the vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna require two doses administered over several weeks.</p><p>And unlike the other two vaccines, Johnson & Johnson's vaccine doesn't need to be frozen during shipping and storage, it just needs to be refrigerated. That's because the vaccine protects against COVID-19 by delivering coronavirus proteins to the body through a common cold virus known as adenovirus type 26. In contrast, the other two vaccines perform a similar function, but they do it through mRNA, which is more delicate and requires freezing.</p><p>Not having to freeze the single-shot vaccine will make it cheaper and easier to distribute across the country, and it could result in many more people getting vaccinated.</p><p>But it's worth noting that Johnson & Johnson's vaccine doesn't seem to be as effective as the other two vaccines. According to the FDA analysis, the vaccine is about 66 percent effective at preventing moderate to severe cases of COVID-19, "when considering cases occurring at least 28 days after vaccination." Meanwhile, clinical data show that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are about 95 percent effective at preventing severe cases of the disease.</p>
peterschreiber.media via AdobeStock<p>Still, that doesn't necessarily mean Johnson & Johnson's vaccine is inferior. The FDA analysis found that nobody who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was hospitalized or died due to COVID-19 (at least among cases that occurred 28 days after getting the shot).</p><p>So, while some people who receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine may still contract coronavirus, the vaccine does seem to significantly reduce the severity of COVID-19. The same holds true for the other two vaccines: Getting the shot (or shots) won't completely protect you from the virus, but it does protect you from the disease, reducing the chances of becoming hospitalized or dying to almost zero.</p>
COVID-19 vaccines and transmission<p>But what's less clear is the extent to which the vaccines prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Because the vaccines don't completely protect against infection, it might be possible for a vaccinated person to spread the virus. But COVID-19 vaccines might make transmission less likely.</p><p>After all, even if a person who gets vaccinated contracts the coronavirus, the virus would have a harder time replicating in their body, because the vaccine bolsters the immune response. So, one would expect that person to "shed" less of the virus out of their mouth and nose. In short: fewer infections means less replication, less shedding and less transmission. </p><p>That's the theory, anyway.</p><p><span></span>Scientists are still working to understand how exactly these vaccines affect transmission. But early data is promising. In a <a href="https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.02.06.21251283v1.full-text" target="_blank">preprint paper published on medRxiv</a>, Israeli researchers measured the amount of coronavirus within about 2,900 people who had received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Analyzing positive SARS-CoV-2 test results following inoculation with the BNT162b2 mRNA vaccine [the Pfizer vaccine], we find that the viral load is reduced four-fold for infections occurring 12-28 days after the first dose of vaccine," the paper said. "These reduced viral loads hint to lower infectiousness, further contributing to vaccine impact on virus spread."</p><p>But until the data on vaccines and transmission become clear, the CDC recommends that vaccinated people still wear masks and practice social distancing.</p>
How does philosophy try to balance having free will with living in a deterministic universe?
- People feel like they have free will but often have trouble understanding how they can have it in a deterministic universe.
- Several models of free will exist which try to incorporate physics into our understanding of our experience.
- Even if physics could rule out free will, there would still be philosophical questions about it.
Hard Determinism<p> Some philosophers have taken the argument of casual determinism mentioned above and used it to say that there is no room for free will at all. This stance, called "hard determinism," maintains that all of our actions are causally necessary and dictated by physics in the same way as a billiard ball's movement. </p><p> The Baron d'Holbach<strong>, </strong>a French philosopher, explained the stance:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"> "In short, the actions of man are never free; they are always the necessary consequence of his temperament, of the received ideas and of the notions, either true or false, which he has formed to himself of happiness; of his opinions, strengthened by example, by education, and by daily experience."</p><p> While physics and philosophy have both advanced since the enlightenment era, hard determinism still has supporters.</p>
Indeterminism<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/DMNZQVyabiM" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> As some of you are probably thinking right now, quantum physics, with its uncertainties, probabilities, and general strangeness, might offer a way out of the determinism of classical physics. This idea, sometimes called "<a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/incompatibilism-theories/" target="_blank">indeterminism</a>," occurred to more than a few philosophers too, and variations of it date back to ancient Greece.</p><p> This stance holds that not every event has an apparent cause. Some events might be random, for example. Proponents of the perspective suggest that some of our brain functions might have random elements, perhaps caused by the fluctuations seen in quantum mechanics, that cause our choices to not be fully predetermined. Others suggest that only part of our decision-making process is subject to causality, with a portion of it under what amounts to the control of the individual. </p><p> There are issues with this stance being used to counter determinism. One of them is that having choices made randomly rather than by strict causation doesn't seem to be the kind of free will people think about. From a physical standpoint, brain activity may involve some quantum mechanics, <a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22830500-300-is-quantum-physics-behind-your-brains-ability-to-think/" target="_blank">but not all of it. </a>Many thinkers incorporate indeterminism into parts of their models of free will, but don't fully rely on the idea. <br><a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22830500-300-is-quantum-physics-behind-your-brains-ability-to-think/" target="_blank"></a> </p>
Soft Determinism<p> Also called "<a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/" target="_blank">compatibilism</a>," this view agrees with causal determinism but also holds that this is compatible with some kind of free will. This can take on many forms and sometimes operates by varying how "free" that will actually is. </p><p> <a href="https://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/philosophers/mill/" target="_blank">John Stuart Mill </a>argued that causality did mean that people will act in certain ways based on circumstance, character, and desires, but that we have some control over these things. Therefore, we have some capacity to change what we would do in a future situation, even if we are determined to act in a certain way in response to a particular stimulus. </p><p> Daniel Dennett goes in another <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/iphi/files/free_will_2016_01.pdf" target="_blank">direction</a>, suggesting a two-stage model of decision-making involving some indeterminism. In the first stage of making a decision, the brain produces a series of considerations, not all of which are necessarily subject to determinism, to take into account. What considerations are created and not immediately rejected is subject to some level of indeterminism and agent control, though it could be unconscious. In the second step, these considerations are used to help make a decision based on a more deterministic reasoning process. </p><p> In these stances, your decisions are still affected by prior events like the metaphorical billiard balls moving on a table, but you have some control over how the table is laid out. This means you could, given enough time and understanding, have a fair amount of control over how the balls end up moving. </p><p> Critics of stances like this often argue that the free will the agent is left with by these decision-making models is hardly any different from what they'd have under a hard deterministic one. </p>
Libertarian Freedom<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UZmpUGl6eRc" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> This is the stance with the premium free will people tend to talk about—the idea that you are in full control of your decisions all the time and that casual determinism doesn't apply to your decision-making process. It is "<a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/incompatibilism-theories/" target="_blank">incompatibilist</a>" in that it maintains that free will is not compatible with a deterministic universe. </p><p> People holding this view often take either an "agent-casual" or "event-causal" position. In an agent-casual stance, decision-makers, known as "agents," can make decisions that are not caused by a previous action in the same way that physical events are. They are essentially the "prime movers" of event chains that start with their decisions rather than any external cause. </p><p> Event-casual stances maintain that some elements of the decision-making process are physically indeterminate and that at least some of the factors that go into the final choice are shaped by the agent. The most famous living proponent of such a stance is Robert Kane and his "<a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/incompatibilism-theories/#2.3" target="_blank">effort of will"</a> model.</p><p>In brief, his model supposes an agent can be thought responsible for an action if they helped create the causes that led to it. He argues that people occasionally take "self-forming action" (SFA) that helps shape their character and grant them this responsibility. SFAs happen when the decisions we make would be subject to indeterminism, perhaps a case when two choices are both highly likely- with one being what we want and one being what we think is right, and willpower is needed to cause a choice to be taken. </p><p> At that point, unable to quickly choose, we apply willpower to make a decision that influences our overall character. Not only was that decision freely chosen, but any later, potentially more causally-determined actions, we take rely at least somewhat on a character trait that we created through that previous choice. Therefore, we at least partially influenced them. </p><p>Critics of this stance include Daniel Dennett, who points out that SFAs could be so rare as to leave some people without any real free will at all. <br></p>
Can’t we just outsource free will to physics?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/R-Nj_rEqkyQ" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> No, the question of free will is much larger than if cause and effect exist and apply to our decisions. Even if that one were fully answered, other questions immediately pop up. <br></p><p>Is the agency left to us, if any, after we learn how much of our decision-making is determined by outside factors enough for us to say that we are free? How much moral responsibility do people have under each proposed understanding of free will? Is free will just the ability to choose otherwise, or do we just have to be responsible for the actions we make, even if we are limited to one choice?<br></p><p> Physics can inform the debate over these questions but cannot end it unless it comes up with an equation for what freedom is.</p><p>Modern debates outside of philosophy departments tend to ignore the differences in the above stances in a way that tends to reduce everything to determinism. This was highlighted by neuroscientist Bobby Azarian in a recent Twitter <a href="https://twitter.com/philipcball/status/1356244216385560581" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thread</a>, where he notes there is often a tendency to conflate hard determinism with naturalism—the idea that natural laws, as opposed to supernatural ones, can explain everything in the universe. .</p><p> Lastly, we might wonder if physics is the right department to hand it over to. Daniel Dennett awards evolutionary biology the responsibility for generating consciousness and free will.</p><p> He points out that while physics has always been the same for life on Earth, both consciousness and free will seem to have evolved recently and could be an evolutionary advantage of sorts—not being bound to deterministic decision making could be an excellent tool for staying alive. He considers them to be emergent properties we have and considers efforts to reduce us to our parts, which do function deterministically, to be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joCOWaaTj4A" target="_blank">unsound</a>. </p><p> How to balance our understanding of causal determinism and our subjective experience of seeming to have free will is a problem philosophers and scientists have been discussing for the better part of two thousand years. It is one they'll likely keep going over for a while. While it isn't time to outsource free will to physics, it is possible to incorporate the findings of modern science into our philosophy. </p><p> Of course, we might only do that because we're determined to do so, but that's another problem. </p>
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