The Tyranny of the Risk Averse

Confusing being mortal with being threatened can occur in any realm. The fact that something could go wrong does not mean that we are in danger. It means we are alive. Mortality is the sign of life … Experiencing anxiety does not mean that anyone is doing anything to us that is unjust.

Sarah Schulman, Conflict is Not Abuse

The subject of this essay is the question of whether people and governments are overreacting to the threat of Covid – yes, obviously – and what the psychological motivations are for that overreaction.

Before discussing that, it’s important to define some terms and deal with some possible objections. By overreaction, I mean things like ongoing restrictions, lockdowns, curfews, mask mandates, etc. For instance, in Quebec, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the entire world, they are going into a second curfew with restrictions that are more stringent than the first lockdowns. They are the only area in North America to enforce a literal government ‘curfew’ to try and (once again) slow the spread of the virus. People are not allowed to leave their homes after 10pm – not even to walk their dogs. The reasoning for this – which seems to be one of two justifications left for people who are in favour of restrictions – is the idea that we need to resort to restrictions whenever there is a ‘rise in cases’ in order to ‘free up hospital capacity’. The other remaining justification for restrictions is the view that the mitigation of Covid is essentially a social responsibility, and that measures should be in place that impact everyone so that the most vulnerable won’t contract the virus – namely, the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions.

These justifications don’t hold water for various reasons. At best, they’re delusional, at worst – as this essay will argue – they’re hysterical and harmful. The alignment between public hysteria and public policy is an example of what Sarah Schulman in her book Conflict is Not Abuse calls “the state’s protective machine [becoming] an additional tool of harassment”. Even when proven wrong, the most hysterical among us will double-down by deferring to ever-changing public policy to justify their positions, thus creating a feedback loop. After two years, it should no longer be news that Covid does not pose as serious a threat to most people as previously believed.

In December 2020, 35% of Americans believed that half of the people with COVID-19 required hospitalization. The correct figure was 1%-5%. Americans also estimated that the share of COVID-19 deaths for people between 18 and 24 was 8%. It was actually 0.1%. These incorrect assumptions were influenced by anecdotes, shocking media coverage, and early projections like the influential Imperial College model, which predicted that without lockdowns there would be 40 million COVID-19 deaths worldwide. The model assumed an infection fatality rate (IFR) of 0.9%, but the actual IFR of COVID-19 is 0.15% and the median IFR for people under 70 is 0.05%. … While the CDC projected a one-year decrease in life expectancy for the U.S. population, the overall decrease in life expectancy was only five days, and the U.S.’s excess mortality in 2017 was greater than its [Covid] mortality in 2020.

Once the argument about overall risk collapses, the narrative shifts to ICU capacity. But even before Covid, it was not unusual for ICU’s to run at 80-90% capacity. A more logical approach would be to expand ICU capacity, rather than hold the rest of society hostage as if daily life is beholden to ICU capacity. Even during the initial wave, expanded capacity initiatives like field hospitals and the Comfort ship were sent away early while cautious restrictions remained in place. Part of moving on to an endemic perspective is accepting that expanded capacity will sometimes be needed, and that we ought to adjust to that reality, rather than to the idea that we interrupt normal life whenever cases rise. Putting an entire province on curfew and closing indoor dining and bars, for example, seems disproportionately cruel and nonsensical when nurses are still allowed to work with Covid and we’ve shortened isolation periods because we’re finally recognising human impact. Either we’re in a singular emergency or we’re not: you can’t expect people to suddenly ‘play emergency’ because of rising ICU occupancy.

As for protecting the elderly, aside from the reality that it’s been two years and vaccines are widely available, there is a significant and growing body of evidence that mitigation attempts and the consequences of them result in more life years lost than gained. We can’t afford to press an emergency brake on society every time ICUs near capacity limitations, or every time more people over the age of 80 die, because the consequences of these never-ending mitigation measures on society at large are dire and exponentially worse. Being neurotically hyper-focused on one issue is blinding us to all the adverse consequences of trying to mitigate that issue. Lockdowns and their consequences have been a disaster for the human race. Wherever you look – increased domestic and child abuse, deteriorating mental health, an increase in drug overdoses – every segment of society is suffering long term damage from the hysteria of the past two years. Children have lost nearly two years of learning and normal educational developmental trajectories. Loss of income and businesses lead to deaths of despair. It isn’t selfish to say we can’t afford to do this. Those concerned with trying to mitigate harm to the elderly need to come up with ways to do so that don’t cause lasting and profound damage to everyone else.

The impulse to ignore all of the evidence and to continue to singularly obsess over Covid and insinuate that anyone seeking a return to normal is somehow abusing you or causing you harm is rooted in a trauma response wherein people cannot differentiate between conflict and abuse.

Last winter, a familiar refrain I noticed in New York amongst myself and many others was “stay safe”. It became the new “have a good night”, it was instinctual and communal. I even started saying it without realising it. It is meant as a compassionate slogan, but it’s also an imperative. You’re being told to do something: stay safe, which suggests the possibility of danger or threat. But why were we suddenly all saying that to each other? I chalked it up to the strangeness of those times: a new ‘Covid wave’, extreme uncertainty, the city still felt emptied out, and crime was up. “Stay safe” and the little things we could do for each other were like linguistic pacifiers, offering us a reprieve from the endless media reminder that we were in ‘unprecedented’ and ‘uncertain times’ and that, despite this, we were ‘all in this together‘.

I started to think about the other phrases that encapsulate an overabundance of caution which masquerades as compassion. And at what point does overemphasising caution become its own form of harassment? Certainly, we are seeing rising incidents of shunning and neuroticism since the start of the pandemic. These are notions favoured by the laptop-class: people who want to live in March 2020 in perpetuity, clamouring for more lockdowns and ‘stimulus’. Some people in the United States seem convinced – quite literally – that they are going to die. This is a problem. They perceive themselves as being in great danger when they aren’t, and view others as a threat in an overstated way. This is dangerous. I noticed that they also seem to take a strange sort of glee in telling others what to do – adult hallway monitors run amok. There was something fundamentally pathological about the sheer pleasure people – usually women and men who seemed off the deep end into over-socialisation – took in events being cancelled for ‘the greater good’. When LCD Soundsystem announced, due to public pressure, that they were abruptly cancelling the last three shows of their reunion performance here in NYC everyone started talking about ‘the greater good’. Those who voiced their disappointment in various comment sections were ostracised, while those who were sanctimoniously, righteously having their ‘concern for safety’ met seemed pleased to have their virtue reaffirmed. To be clear, I don’t necessarily think they enjoy the ongoing restrictions: I think they enjoy the righteousness of their perceived sacrifice.

The chorus they kept repeating was ‘this was a tough call, but it’s the right thing to do!’ and ‘see you when it’s safe’. The issue is that for these people, it will never be safe. And they are holding the rest of us hostage in the meantime. What struck me as odd was that if anyone dared to complain about this over-zealous and overstated concept of risk, if anyone pointed out that these people were beginning to make life seriously miserable, the neurotics would double down and accuse us of that which they were guilty of: ‘Stop throwing a fit’, ‘Oh poor you, little baby, you can’t go to a concert’. Sadomasochistic glee. Anyone who has spoken out against restrictions knows that the social ostracising is rampant: you’re either accused of ‘lacking empathy’ or of actively ‘wanting people to die’. It is bizarre to me that a civil conversation can’t be entered into under the shared assumption that neither of us want people to die and that you can be simultaneously against lockdowns and in favour of reducing suffering in general. But there is a reason why traumatised people would act this way, why it’s useful for them to paint others in broad strokes, and like many insights it starts with a question, one I had recently read in Schulman’s book:

Why would a person rather have an enemy than a conversation? Why would they rather see themselves as harassed and transgressed instead of have a conversation that could reveal them as an equal participant in creating conflict? There should be a relief in discovering that one is not being persecuted, but actually, in the way we have misconstrued these responsibilities, sadly the relief is in confirming that one has been “victimised”. It comes with the relieving abdication of responsibility.

Shrieking at someone and calling them a selfish murderer is a lot easier than rational self-assessment. But voicing concern about ongoing restrictions – where does it end? – doesn’t make you selfish; it makes you human, which is where real compassion lies. It isn’t normal to take virtue or joy in the cancelling of public life, in the banning of dancing, in the destruction of any kind of collective artistic experience.

Who is the one throwing a fit? People who are rightfully angry about every aspect of their lives being disrupted for two years or the people who endlessly clamour for this to continue at every turn? Acknowledging that this was a ‘tough call but the right thing to do’ is a Kafka-trap of a phrase as it doesn’t invite any room for questioning. The sentiment presupposes its own necessity and moral superiority. It doesn’t give others any room to object, to say ‘I don’t consent’ to being overprotected. It acknowledges the difficult part – ‘tough call’ – but only to minimise or downplay it. Other phrases came to mind: for your safety and the safety of others. Out of an abundance of caution… what occurred to me was that I never asked to be kept safe. In fact, myself and many other people are quite well adapted to certain levels of risk as we were not raised in what Jonathan Haidt refers to as ‘antifragile’ environments. The cancelled concert in question, by the way, required proof of vaccination to enter and if you felt so inclined, you could of course wear a mask while you were there. What’s more, it’s hard to imagine that the average age of attendance was much higher than 35. These cancellations came during the onslaught of the Omicron media-panic and were followed by more cancellations and more restrictions. The concert was going to be, by all measures, as safe as it could possibly be. The alternative to cancelling it was simple enough: if you don’t feel comfortable, as with anything else, don’t attend. Problem solved.

It’s time for the public and public policymakers alike to admit that sometimes ‘an abundance of caution’ is an overabundance of caution. After these observations, I started to draw parallels between this schism in society and other areas where the same issues were arising. The first parallel can be found in Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind, which explores the rise of ‘safetyism’ on college campuses and the exponential increase of anxiety and depression that leads to a higher perception of threat and a lower tolerance for risk or conflict. Even before the pandemic, the catalyst for a hysterical response mechanism was in place. Students were construing certain words as ‘literal violence’ and cancelling events that threatened their worldview. A virus – and a media class that convinced them, falsely, that they will literally be hospitalised if they catch it and wind up on a ventilator and die – has clearly sent them over the edge.

In September, Bill Maher accurately blamed the establishment media for egging this on. He discussed polls which show how absurdly inaccurate the perception of risk regarding Covid is, with nearly half of Democrats thinking that there is a 50% or higher chance that someone with Covid will be hospitalised (the real statistical likelihood is between 1 and 5%, although for Omicron it’s considerably lower). The same poll, conducted by the NYT, showed that 70% of Democrats had an exaggerated perception of risk. In ‘blue’ cities like NYC, what this means is that anytime there’s a rise in cases, people panic – even if that rise is divorced from hospitalisation metrics, as with the Omicron wave.

I wonder if any of the people polled are aware that the leading cause of death in 2020 for people age 18-45 was fentanyl overdose, which are no doubt ‘deaths of despair’ related to ongoing social disintegration. As many who have been paying attention know, the median age of death with Covid in many places is around 83, oftentimes higher than average life expectancy. The average age of death for the Spanish flu, by comparison, was 28 – at a time when the world population was much smaller. Obesity is the main risk factor for developing a severe case of Covid, and yet this is hardly ever discussed in the media. If the social reaction to ongoing restrictions is increased overdoses and a decay in mental health, not only are these ongoing mitigation measures bad at offering much protection to their intended target group, they’re actively harmful to the vast majority of people.

During a particularly bizarre incident last March, a group of seemingly middle-class young women began a hysterical argument with me on a street corner for not wearing a mask outside. This is when I started to understand what was going on. Data and risk didn’t matter, the extreme unlikelihood of outdoor spread didn’t matter: these women were conditioned to view me as a threat because, like many people before and after the pandemic, they are traumatised. They’re having a trauma response wherein they’ve been conditioned to be hypervigilant about what they perceive to be risks, threats and the potential for harm. And people who are acting this way, despite coming from a place of trauma themselves, are in fact propagating real harm: as the saying goes, hurt people hurt people. In Conflict is Not Abuse, Schulman explains the damage that traumatised people can inflict on others:

We react constantly through life. Breathing, noticing, thinking, swallowing, feeling, and moving are all reactions. Most reactions are not really observed because they are commensurate with their stimuli, but a triggered reaction stands out because it is out of sync with what is actually taking place. When we are triggered, we have unresolved pain from the past that is expressed in the present. The present is not seen on its own terms. The real experience of the present is denied. Although reacting to the past in the present may make sense within the triggered person’s logic system, it can have detrimental effects on those around them who are not the source of the pain being expressed, but are being punished nonetheless. They are acting in the present, but are being made accountable for past events they did not cause and cannot heal. The one being falsely blamed is also a person, and this burden may hurt their life. The person being triggered is suffering, but they often make other people suffer as well. [My emphasis.]

Understanding why people overstate harm is crucial for understanding what I will call the ‘hysterical response’. Schulman details the conflation between ‘normative conflict’ and outright abuse, as well as the appeal of victimhood for traumatised victims of past abuse. She makes a clear distinction between conflict and abuse: conflict is power struggle, abuse is power over. Conflict is mutual, whereas abuse is unilateral. Of traumatised people, she writes that they are: “…hypervigilant to see abuse and are often reacting to past offences in the present – projecting. ‘If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.’” Schulman draws a parallel between abusers and traumatised people invested in their own victimhood, writing that “when they overreact, both the supremacist and the traumatised person insist that others not resist or object to their orders. They expect complete control, but in reality they produce instability in others in the form of unnecessary pain.” The latter half of this idea resonates as well: Schulman is careful to draw a distinction between those propagating real harm versus those reacting to it. In other words, resistance to abuse is not abuse. Depending on your understanding of events or the sequence of events, she writes, you may see someone reacting to abuse – resistance – as the perpetrator, rather than the aggrieved. Quite simply, it seems to me that the Covid hysterics are taking up the mantle of victimhood and then construing any resistance to their pathology as abuse, when really it’s the opposite.

Schulman explores the danger of what happens on a community level when mere conflict is mistaken for outright abuse, when the notion of ‘harm’ is weaponised by being overstated. This creates a clear-cut dichotomy between victim and perpetrator, a dichotomy which isn’t always cut and dry. In the case of communicable diseases that are easily transmissible, for which exist adoptable preventative measures like vaccines and antibody treatments, and which present drastically different levels of risk depending on age and other factors like pre-existing conditions and body weight, the idea of ‘keeping everyone safe’ is not only impossible, but further: it’s harmful. It does more damage than good, and it almost always includes blanket measures that require force – lockdowns and the consequent social disintegration. It can no longer be considered the moral high-ground, despite the linguistic grandstanding of its proponents. Overstating the risk of harm is harmful, calling anyone questioning this ‘selfish’ after two years is its own form of selfishness. Their goal is to reify the notion that no amount of risk is tolerable, which robs you of your personal agency and decision making abilities. A false notion of collective compassion is weaponised in an attempt to infantilise everyone as being hopelessly dependent on said pseudo-compassion. It is the psychological manifestation of the hysterical mother archetype: a hypochondriac helicopter parent so neurotically insistent on keeping their child ‘safe’ that the child becomes a permanent child.

Schulman goes on to outline how shunning and marginalisation are used by people experiencing conflict who are more interested in blame than finding a resolution. These are tactics that are eerily reminiscent of the animosity towards unvaccinated people. She explores, in detail, the power of the victimhood narrative alongside the power of seeing oneself as ‘abused’ and wanting to yield that power, rather than find resolution – which is what is happening right now on a mass scale as people accuse others of being threats merely for breathing or existing, where anyone not capitulating to the whims of the distressed group is deemed an abuser. The limits of collective responsibility are being tested on a mass scale and we’re seeing what happens when collectivism and compassion-claims collide to create a Kafka-trap safety-regime that pre-supposes its own moral purity by sanctimoniously claiming to care about the greater good while harming you individually.

We need to stop privileging Covid and the hysteria around it. These are no longer merely reasonable ‘mitigation measures’ like staying inside if you feel sick. They are one-size-fits-all policy blunders that uphold the supreme importance of one issue (Covid) at the expense of all other issues: in short, this is harm reduction transformed into authoritarianism. A fundamental part of living in a free society is the ability to assume a reasonable level of personal risk and act accordingly. Government officials are not your parents and we are not their children. These measures seek to fundamentally reorganise society in ways that have never been done before. It is not logical or sensible to think that a five year-old should have to show proof of vaccination to dine indoors. The risk of contracting Covid is not so important that such extreme and radical measures are justified. Why are we reorganising every whim of public life around the fear and alleged ‘mitigation’ of this one pathogen? Again, this is where we can analyse the logic of what is truly selfish. If you are that terrified of contracting a cold, or flu, or Covid from dining inside, the onus of responsibility is on you to protect yourself in whatever way you see fit – that doesn’t include suddenly demanding that everyone, including five year olds, produce their medical records to enter a public space. That is the tyranny of the risk-adverse.

People who disagree with this position will fall back on the March 2020 line of ‘slowing the spread’ and ‘not overwhelming healthcare capacities’. But after two years, this, too, is an illogical fantasy. Public life and the ability to live your life free from the molestation of others’ fear is not contingent on hospital or ICU capacity. It never was before. We never had mandatory exercise decrees to mitigate heart disease, mandatory dieting or healthy eating to mitigate obesity. We’ve never before organised society around the theory of the butterfly effect (if I let my child go to school normally or if I go to a concert, someone in a nursing home may get sick). Never before has the containment of one threat and the prevention of hospitalisations for one single disease been the sole focus of a society upon which everything else depends, and for good reason: there are different levels of risk and risk tolerance for different groups. It’s past time to acknowledge that and act accordingly. Likewise, it’s time to acknowledge the reality that people who want a full return to normality are not being unethical. They’re not the perpetrators of any kind of abuse, they’re resisting the abuse of the traumatised hysterics. There is nothing radical about advocating a full return to normal life: it’s the hysterics who have been radicalised – the people who insist on never-ending restrictions – and they need to be, quite literally, deradicalised. It’s time to stop negotiating with hysterics and return to reason.

Nick Comilla is a New York based writer.

February 2024
Free Speech Union

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