Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Instead of insisting that we remain "free from" government control, we should view taking vaccines and wearing masks as a "freedom to" be a moral citizen who protects the lives of others.
- Now that the vaccine is becoming widely available, why do so many insist on not taking it?
- As different episodes in history have illustrated — including the building of an atomic bomb in the U.S. – true freedom is to choose to place the well-being of your family, community, and country above your own personal values.
- We shouldn't confuse the privilege of choice with a threat to personal freedom. In threatening times, our best defense is to act together to the benefit of all.
Pandemic fatigue is beginning to grind. Amidst yet another pandemic wave cresting in America and in Europe, we have to ask ourselves what's going on, now that vaccines are becoming available. Americans are justly proud of living in a country where personal choices—political, religious, sexual—are supposedly free. I write "supposedly" because clearly there is widespread prejudice and judgement of others and their choices. Acceptance of differences and open-mindedness is still on the to-do list for many. Still, at least we don't have army tanks rolling down the streets when people demonstrate their political or social views. Not usually anyway. For comparison, look at what's happening in Myanmar.
What puzzles me is what could be called the ditching of privilege. I look, for example, at the situation in Brazil, where I was born and grew up. A huge shortage of vaccines and a government that has consistently downplayed the science has resulted in massive fatalities. People are clamoring for help while hospitals are nearing capacity. In the U.S., vaccines are becoming widely available for younger sectors of the population. In two to three months, we could reach herd immunity and life could be close to normal again. Yet, many are choosing not to take the vaccine or to wear masks. "It is my choice and no government should mess with it!" This kind of choice illustrates a confusing conflict between personal freedom and civic duty. When should you sacrifice your personal choices and views for the benefit of your family, community, and ultimately, country?
The choice to get a vaccine and to wear a mask is an expression of your freedom to be a moral citizen and to protect your family, community, and country.
I'm going to take a detour here and go back to another time when a group of individuals had to face a very difficult choice between personal views and civic duty. In 1941, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor prompted the US to join the Allies in the war against Germany and Japan. Two years earlier, on 2-August-1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt sounding the alarm of a very possible Nazi nuclear bomb. "In view of this situation you may think it desirable to have some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America," Einstein wrote.
Now, Einstein was an outspoken pacifist, as were many of the physicists then working to understand nuclear chain reactions. When the Manhattan Project to build a U.S. atomic bomb started for real in 1942, the main worry and motivation for the group of scientists working in secrecy at Los Alamos was the fear of Hitler with a nuclear bomb in his hands. A split happened within the group. Some scientists pushed the moral worries of building a weapon of mass destruction aside and undertook the formidable technical challenge as another tough scientific problem to figure out. Others, however, had serious moral qualms in participating in the project, knowing very well what the social and political consequences would be. Still, they pushed their personal views aside and worked to build the bomb. The fear of a Nazi threat and the sense of civic duty, the need to protect their country, their community, their families, and their values took center stage, superseding their personal choice.
Choosing to place community and love for the nation over personal gain or values is what German social psychologist and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm called "freedom to," as opposed to "freedom from." Fromm argued that the course of civilization and industrialization led citizens to an ever-growing process of individuation—the realization of your aloneness as an individual in a large society— where the weight of choosing for oneself became a heavy emotional burden. People that once saw themselves protected by their communities and religious faith were now set adrift by the very progress of democracy and capitalism. Freedom came with a heavy emotional cost. The consequence was the rise of fascist authoritarian governments that effectively chose for the individuals, giving them a sense of relief from the burden of choice.
Most people focus their battles in the "freedom from" category, confused between their individual freedom and their duties to community and country. The scientists that chose to continue working on the bomb against their personal values did so because they were not focusing on their individual choices above all others. They understood that the damage from the outside threat—a Nazi bomb—would have a devastating effect for their lives, families, communities, and country. So, they chose to work on the bomb to protect their freedom.
Let's apply this lesson to vaccines and mask-wearing. At face value, these seem to be personal choices. And if you see them as personal choices then you conclude that any action against your personal choice is a threat to your freedom from government control. But that's a fundamental mistake. The choice to get a vaccine and to wear a mask is an expression of your freedom to be a moral citizen and to protect your family, community, and country. The virus is the outside threat that has already compromised everyone's way of life, caused immense loss and pain, and wreaked havoc with the economy across the globe. By doing something for your family, community, and country you exercise your freedom to protect what's dear to you. This is what an act of love is.
People may be more willing to get vaccinated when told how popular it is.
But an MIT research team centered at MIT's Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE) says this may be counterproductive: When shown basic numbers about how popular Covid-19 vaccines are, the fraction of people reluctant to get the vaccine drops by 5 percent. To reach these conclusions, the researchers drew on a massive international survey about the pandemic, including 1.8 million responses from 67 countries, and developed an experiment covering 300,000 people in 23 countries. The group has described their findings in a working paper and a recent LA Times op-ed.
The MIT team consists of Alex Moehring, a PhD candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management; Avinash Collis PhD '20, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin; Kiran Garimella, a postdoc at the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS); M. Amin Rahimian, a postdoc at IDSS; Sinan Aral, the David Austin Professor of Management at MIT Sloan, co-director of IDE, and author of the recent book "The Hype Machine"; and Dean Eckles, the Mitsubishi Career Development Professor and an associate professor of marketing at MIT Sloan. MIT News talked to Aral and Eckles about the findings.
Q: You have written that there is a "dangerous irony" in public health officials and other people highlighting those who are reluctant to get a Covid-19 vaccine. Why is that?
Eckles: It makes sense for public health officials and others to be worried about vaccine hesitancy, because we need a very high level of vaccine acceptance. But a lot of the time, officials make it seem as if more people are hesitant than is really the case.
Many people who say they're unsure if they'll get the vaccine may be pretty easy to sway, and one way is by telling them, "Actually, a large fraction of people in your country say they're going to accept the vaccine." We found that simply by giving people accurate information about the percentage of people in their country who say they will accept a vaccine, it increased vaccine-acceptance intentions across 23 countries. Part of what's exciting is how consistent this finding is.
Aral: I'd like to add three points. Before this study, there were at least two plausible countervailing hypotheses. One is that if more people heard that others would take the vaccine, the more they [themselves] would be inclined to take the vaccine. The other is that people would free-ride on the vaccine intentions of others: "Well, if they're going to take it, they can create herd immunity and I can avoid taking a vaccine myself." Our research shows pretty clearly that the first is true, while the second is not true [on aggregate].
Second, it's interesting that the treatment most changes the behavior of those people who are most underestimating the amount of vaccine acceptance among others. And third, there's an overarching theme here: Simply providing people the truth, the accurate information, is also very effective at swaying people to accept the vaccine.
Q: What does this teach us about human behavior, at least in these kinds of situations?
Aral: One really important thing is [the power of] social proof. When you see large portions of people behave in a certain way, it legitimizes that behavior. And there are countless examples of this. When a lot of people say a restaurant is good, you're swayed. This is another instance of that.
Eckles: There's an informational process of social learning. People are trying to figure out: What's the quality of this thing? It might seem weird to some of us following the news more, or watching what's happening with [vaccine] trials, but a lot of people are not paying attention. They may know there are these vaccines, but even so, other people's choices can be quite informative to them.
Q: What should be the core of good messaging about vaccination programs, based on your research over the last year?
Aral: As recently as February, a coronavirus task force started its communications by focusing on vaccine hesitancy. That is not, per our findings, as effective as leading with the vast and growing majority who are accepting. That's not to say we think public health officials shouldn't talk about vaccine hesitancy, or that people who are hesitant shouldn't be targeted with outreach to convince them of the safety and efficacy of vaccines — we believe that should all happen. But neglecting to emphasize the vast and growing majorities who are accepting vaccines doesn't increase vaccine acceptance as much.
Eckles: What we're saying is one part of a broader messaging strategy. Giving people this information is enough to shift their motivation to get the vaccine in a lot of cases. Though, getting them motivated is not enough if they don't know what website to go to, or if it's hard to get an appointment. It's good to couple motivational messages with actionable information.
Aral: To our knowledge this is the largest global survey of Covid-19 behaviors, norms, and perceptions. We've been running it since July. We've also done many published studies, whether about social spillovers [during the pandemic], vaccines, vaccine misinformation — all of this is part of a very forceful effort by the Initiative on the Digital Economy to make meaningful contributions to changing the trajectory of this pandemic.
Ultrasound might be able to damage the novel coronavirus in the same way an opera singer's voice can shatter a wine glass.
- The researchers created computer models of the likely structure of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and then subjected those models to various ultrasound frequencies in a simulation.
- The results showed that key parts of the virus ruptured at specific frequencies.
- More research is needed, but the authors noted that the frequencies that damaged the virus fell within a range that's known to be safe to humans.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, scientists have focused on several strategies to contain the spread of the virus: masks, social distancing and vaccines. But are there other ways science might help shield people from the virus?
One method may lie in acoustics. In a recent study published in the Journal of the Mechanics and Physics of Solids, researchers used computer models to test whether ultrasound vibrations might be able to damage or kill the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Ultrasound are sound waves that have higher frequencies than are audible to humans. Medical professionals often use ultrasound for diagnostic imaging; By transmitting ultrasound through the body, they can use devices to record the sound waves that bounce back, which creates images of the inside of the body.
But ultrasound can also be used therapeutically. For example, through a technique called lithotripsy, doctors can use ultrasonic waves to pulverize large kidney stones into smaller pieces. It's similar to a trained opera singer who's able to shatter a wine glass by singing loudly at a specific pitch.
Reconstruction of the 3D model of the spike-decorated Influenza A virus from 2D photographs. Top view (a) and side 3D image. The plane ultrasound harmonic wave is perpendicular to the axis of the sphere joining the North and South Poles.
In the new study, researchers explored how ultrasound might have the same kind of effect on the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Although scientists still have much to learn about the exact structure of the novel coronavirus, the researchers were able to build models of the new virus based on the known structures of other coronaviruses.
"Nature has endowed viruses with a beautiful and dangerous feature – the crown," the researchers wrote. "Many enveloped viruses including influenza, HIV, and SARS belong to this family. The crown is composed of densely packed receptors, commonly named spikes. They are not just for decoration. The receptors play an essential role in the reproductive cycle of the virus. They bind with their counterparts of the invaded cell and initiate the mechanism of injecting the deadly genome into the cell."
The researchers created various models of the novel coronavirus, and then used computer simulations to determine the frequencies at which acoustic vibrations might damage key parts of the virus, namely the shell and spikes. The results showed that ultrasound vibrations between 25 and 100 megahertz caused the shell and spikes to rupture almost immediately.
"We've proven that under ultrasound excitation the coronavirus shell and spikes will vibrate, and the amplitude of that vibration will be very large, producing strains that could break certain parts of the virus, doing visible damage to the outer shell and possibly invisible damage to the RNA inside," Tomasz Wierzbicki, professor of applied mechanics at MIT, told MIT News. "The hope is that our paper will initiate a discussion across various disciplines."
Still, more research is needed before ultrasound can be used as a preventative or therapeutic treatment for the novel coronavirus. But the results are promising, in part because the ultrasound frequencies that damaged the coronavirus fell within a range that's considered safe for humans.
Credit: Marco via Abobe Stock
If future research validates ultrasound techniques, they could become a valuable weapon in the fight against coronaviruses, the authors noted.
"The acquired immunity provided by the vaccine recently developed by Pfizer and Moderna would be an ideal solution to fight SARS-CoV-02. But it would be just temporary because the emergence of new mutations or strains would require the development of new vaccines, as occurs seasonably with the influenza virus, with an investment of time of one year."
"In this paper, we presented a new concept of using ultrasound and mechanical resonance to target SARS-CoV-2 and other enveloped viruses that do not have this time limitation. Currently, we have only outlined the promising first step of this ambitious project that would require more profound interdisciplinary research."
Masks are great, but what happens when we try to throw out a billion masks at once?
- A new study suggests that the huge numbers of disposable masks we're using may end up polluting the environment.
- The materials used to make some of these masks may be especially disposed to break down into microplastic bits.
- Once those plastic bits get into the environment they end up everywhere, including inside people.
The face mask might be the quintessential image of this pandemic. Required attire for almost every activity taking place outside your home, masks are now made by high-end fashion companies in a variety of colors and will likely continue to be worn by many people even after COVID-19 is brought under control.
For those of us who aren't willing to shell out for a Louis Vuitton face mask, cheaper and often disposable options have become the norm. Many of these surgical masks are made of a combination of absorbent fabrics, polyester, and common plastics such as polypropylene or polystyrene.
Despite their life-saving qualities, the incredible consumption of these masks is likely to create a new problem: what to do with the plastics in them as we toss them aside after use. A new study suggests that this might be a bigger problem than we expect.
Remember all that “Nature is healing” stuff from last year? It didn't last long.
Gary Stokes, founder of the environmental group Oceans Asia, poses with discarded face masks he found on a beach in the residential area of Discovery Bay on the outlying Lantau island in Hong Kong.
Credit: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images
According to recent studies, humanity is going through 129 billion face masks a month, which works out to three million a minute. While we go through a lot of plastics in a month, the number of plastic bottles we use has been estimated at 43 billion a month, a large fraction of those have well-known guidelines around them promoting recycling.
Such information doesn't exist for masks, making it likely that most of them are ending up in the trash.
Like any other object with plastic in it, improper disposal can cause the plastic to enter the environment. Where the tiny bits of plastics spread into water and soil before eventually working their way into animals. The authors of this study, doctors Elvis Genbo Xu of the University of Southern Denmark and Zhiyong Jason Ren of Princeton, argue that the specifications of these masks make them particularly likely to contribute to plastic pollution:
"A newer and bigger concern is that the masks are directly made from microsized plastic fibers (thickness of ~1 to 10 micrometers). When breaking down in the environment, the mask may release more micro-sized plastics, easier and faster than bulk plastics like plastic bags. Such impacts can be worsened by a new-generation mask, nanomasks, which directly use nano-sized plastic fibers (with a diameter smaller than 1 micrometer) and add a new source of nanoplastic pollution."
At the moment, no data on how much masks have contributed to the amount of plastic in the environment exists.
The authors suggest that there are steps to be taken to prevent this problem from getting out of control. They include helping people switch from disposable plastic masks to reusable cloth ones, inventing biodegradable masks, designating special disposal areas for masks, and standardizing waste processing procedures concerning these plastics.
Why should we care?
Plastic pollution is pretty terrible for the environment. Animals can confuse small bits of plastic for food, consuming it instead of something nourishing and starving to death as their stomachs fill. The chemicals in plastics can also cause various ailments if consumed, even if the amount eaten isn't enough to kill the animal.
Before you say that you don't care about fish, birds, or any other kind of wildlife, remember that studies are finding ever-increasing amounts of plastic in people, too. Many of the chemicals in these plastics are associated with health risks, including cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
The benefits of face masks are beyond debate, but the side effects of throwing out so many disposable masks may prove to be quite terrible if we're not careful.
A psychologist and a doctor of emergency medicine explain.
People are eager to return to normal after a year of coronavirus, but is the U.S. there yet? Hardly. The ongoing psychological and spiritual damage caused by the pandemic is rising, too.
Guilt and shame are two prevailing emotions surrounding COVID-19. This guilt stems in part from the fact that anyone could be a potential carrier of the virus – so anyone, then, could unwittingly pass it to another person. Guilt can also arise when a person looks at the national and global death tolls and wonders how they were spared.
Guilt also happens when family members can't visit loved ones undergoing treatment at a hospital, or when someone with COVID-19 survives but reads about a infected stranger who died. A particular type of response called survivor's guilt can occur when people lose loved ones due to a traumatic event, or when they themselves experienced the threat but survived it.
As a psychologist and a doctor of emergency medicine, we have personal experience with patients suffering from survivor's guilt as they watched loved ones succumb to COVID-19. And as the pandemic continues, we expect to see more.
Survivor's guilt is complicated
Survivor's guilt can occur whether or not a person caused an event to occur. It can happen to a sole survivor of a plane crash who had nothing to do with the accident, or an intoxicated driver who crashed his car and killed his passenger. Either way, the person feels they were spared an event while others perished, and feelings of grief and anxiety result. Survivor's guilt can affect up to 90% of survivors of traumatic events. COVID-19 survivors in Bergamo, Italy, one of the world's hardest-hit towns, have experienced this on a widespread basis. Some people have reported a type of survivor guilt when they have been vaccinated, with many wondering why they have been so fortunate.
Conflicting messages from the federal and various state and local governments haven't helped. Because some leaders have suggested that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, millions of Americans did not wear masks. By some estimates, not wearing masks could have contributed to 130,000 deaths.
Also, a person can spread COVID-19 without knowing they have the disease. This uncertainty combined with loneliness might have led to social gatherings that weren't the safest. Perhaps an elderly parent decides to risk illness rather than spend the holiday alone. Many parents, including our own, say they want to make the most out of the time they have right now; they cannot bank on being around next year.
In the world of palliative medicine, there is no shortage of examples of patients choosing quality of life over quantity, sometimes refusing lifesaving but invasive treatment so they can spend time engaged in activities they might not otherwise be able to enjoy. This is not unusual at any age – it's not at all uncommon for people to make choices that have potential tremendous costs, from smoking to skydiving.
So is someone who inadvertently passed along COVID-19 at fault? For example, how do we cope with the guilt when we know we passed the virus on to a family member? Generally people don't ascribe this kind of blame when they inadvertently pass the flu to someone who gets sick, or perhaps even dies. We do not see countless news stories assigning blame when someone with the common cold does not wear a mask at the grocery store. We believe that people should be forgiving of themselves should they accidentally transmit COVID-19. Self-forgiveness requires recognition we cannot control everything and that our motives were benign.
Dealing with survivor's guilt
Symptoms of survivor's guilt include anxiety, depression, headache, nausea, sleeplessness and fatigue. It can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. Managing survivor's guilt is an individual process, and what works for one may not work for another. Interventions include deep breathing, meditation, relaxation, exercising, a healthy diet, journaling, adopting a hobby, getting a pet, watching comedies and reaching out – volunteering or engaging with family, friends and co-workers. For some, spirituality and faith are also important.
Nonreligious people may find comfort by connecting directly to nature, where life and death are part of a grand cycle, and nature itself may have a purpose that ordains when one person succumbs while another survives.
As people pass through the grieving process, healing comes by recognizing our interconnectedness to each other. But when the U.S. quarantined, many people lost that most basic and primal coping mechanism. Instead, Americans, sometimes alone, have had to explore existential truths that may have been painful, even devastating. Yet in many ways, the country has already prevailed. Through mourning our losses and suffering heartbreak, our medical, psychological and spiritual well-being remains a strength.
Whose responsibility is it to ensure that there is affordable access to employment?
What responsibilities do employers have in terms of supporting their workforce's commute to work?
There are great examples of efforts from employers to facilitate commutes to work, but the same mobility perks are much harder to offer for small business employers, non-traditional employers, contract workers and the self-employed.
For those groups who don't enjoy employee commute perks, transportation and access to jobs is yet another hurdle, especially during COVID.
In some tech companies, employers are offering stipends for their employees to deck out their remote working areas. Other firms are incentivising a return to work by offering additional mobility benefits that ease the struggle of a commute.
In fields like investment banking, it is not uncommon for employees to receive an allowance for a taxi home after working long hours. Ironically, these individuals could easily afford an Uber ride themselves. For most employees working for an hourly rate the same benefits often do not apply, and many essential workers in the food and healthcare industries fall into this camp.
Through the outbreak of the pandemic, employers have answered these questions, albeit inequitably. Some identify a responsibility to support their workforce commute. Recognizing their responsibility of giving their workforce the opportunity to protect their health and that of their loved ones, others still have helped non-essential employers establish alternatives to office commuting over the last year.
While some firms have attempted returns to the office, the understanding in many workplaces remains that employees are entitled to choose the risks to which they're exposed in order to get to work, even if there might be costs for collective productivity.
COVID has removed employees' needs for self-funded commutes, democratizing access to work. This historic shift triggers a broader conversation point: whose responsibility is it to ensure that there is affordable access to employment, if affordable is defined in terms of dignity, safety, finances and time?
The commute as part of an obstacle to employment
Questions abound surrounding the commute and responsibility: Should the public sector help subsidise commuting solutions for underserved communities, to help combat unemployment? Should employers take the same care of their lower-waged employees as they do of their higher earners? Should contractors guarantee mobility support for the essential workers they provide, so they can continue delivering their services regardless of circumstances? Security guards would be one such example.
The ease or difficulty of a commute impacts worker performance, worker health and the length of stay of employees in the company. Commuting is an unspoken part of the job without any financial, social or environmental recognition. For many there is no financial returns for commutes; it's just the energy time sink you invest in to keep a job.
Environmentally, it's the unacknowledged pollution and traffic sink. But as a society we can choose not to perpetuate this broken reality.
When funding commutes is in the financial interest of the firm
In some industries, it can be relatively easy to quantify the costs of having an employee become unable to perform overtime. Associates in law firms, for example, track billable hours.
Without that allowance for a late-night taxi — i.e. if they just declared they were not comfortable getting back to their neighborhood via public transport late at night and therefore decreased their hours — employee bonuses and overall compensation would be proportionately lower, as would the revenue produced by the firm.
Some associates bill over $1,000 an hour. Some law firms then charge a fee on top for a supervising associate to review and approve the work. The math is simple: a $30 ride and a $50 dinner can yield a huge ROI for the firm.
The same math becomes much more complicated for the janitor who comes in at 10pm so he can clean the office before the next morning without bothering the managing partners or distracting high-paying customers. But isn't this person equally entitled to not jeopardize his safety, "just" so he can keep his job — financial gain for the firm, or otherwise?
COVID-19 has created a crystal clear understanding of the risks everyone is taking each time they step into an indoor space. And yet, in spite of the use of mask wearing to get on with our lives to some degree, the world has largely reached a consensus that COVID-19 was dangerous enough to justify not forcing commutes to the office.
The world now has an enormous learning opportunity. In re-evaluating the commute, we see we might have spent decades missing opportunities for greatly increased ROI for global economic development via corporate reform. We've taken the first steps towards democratizing commutes: let's stay on track.