Monthly Recommendations (October 2021)

I have tried to stay away from COVID-19 on this blog. Most people are writing nearly constantly about it and I don’t have many original takes on this topic. But this month, I reverted back to a way-of-life that was typical for me before the pandemic began. I traveled to another city to meet relatives; I went on a vacation; I traveled to some places in the city that I am in; I went out to restaurants and dined-in. These experiences signal a return to normalcy which seemed unlikely in March 2020, 18 months ago. These experiences also shined light on a change within myself: I have gotten used to not being among strangers. Going back to a previous lifestyle, seeing and listening to strangers again has been an interesting return to normal. (I am glad that the “new normal” was transient.) So, this month’s theme is a receding pandemic. I look back at some of the articles which I read at various milestones during the pandemic, starting from the beginning of the pandemic in Japan last year, through the emergence of the vaccines, and right up to the most recent article about the long-term effects of this crisis.

  1. Existential Inconvenience (Dyer)

    New Yorker (archived), 23 March, 2020

    This article was written right when the pandemic was beginning. Realizations like “knowing that you will not be able to do something is better than knowing that it is still possible but unlikely” seem obvious. But having them articulated at you is also clarifying. I am not sure why that is the case. (I am trying to figure that one out still.) The author calls these “existential inconveniences,” I think that’s an apt name. They don’t really rise up to the level of problems (For e.g., I could not see Bob Dylan perform live in Japan in April 2020 because his show got canceled.) but they are at least inconveniences.

  2. Memoranda (Rozzo)

    New Yorker (archived), 18th May, 2020

    War analogies are morose. But they are also effective because every war has an enemy, and all wars end, even the ones that seem to drag on forever. These two crutches are required for prolonged belief in the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.” This article is a set of poems written by a soldier who arrived in New York during the worst art of the pandemic there. The soldier (who remains anonymous) was able to write poetry to capture the moment and escape from it himself. The poetry is simple and beautiful; at times, it simply restates facts. But I am not sure I would be able to write something this good when I need to focus on crisis management; and this is the main reason I am recommending this piece. It’s a reminder about what’s possible when one is in an unprecedented situation.

  3. Weaponizing Uncertainty in COVID-19 Lab Leak Theory (Rogers)

    Wired Magazine (archived), 20th May, 2021

    There was a recent report from the US intelligence community about the origins of COVID-19. (I have not read the full report; I have read the first few pages and reporting about it.) Indulge me and pretend that new evidence matters. Indulge me further and pretend that new evidence has the power to change already formed beliefs/opinions/facts. The report can be used to prove any opinion that the reader has already arrived at. For e.g., for those who believe that China is not to blame for the disastrous handling of the pandemic in US, Europe, and UK, they can go to this line:

    Area of Broad Agreement: Virus not developed as biological weapon; Virus not genetically engineered

    And for those who want to blame China, they can use this line:

    China’s cooperation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of COVID-19. Beijing, however, continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information, and blame other countries, including the United States.

    Even though the report goes on to say that “Beijing’s lack of cooperation on origins not diagnostic of either hypothesis,” this second point is mostly glossed over in second-hand reporting of this report. It says that the report does not explicitly blames China for the virus, but it does blame China for not sharing enough information. The retort that everyone is familiar with rises: “If they don’t have anything to hide, why are they not sharing all the information that they have?”

    I will not pretend to have any answer. I am fairly certain that there is no answer. Even if there is one, this answer will not be found. So, what is the point of all this coverage of the virus’ origins? Biden needs to win the mid-terms; Europe needs a scapegoat for their disastrous handling of the pandemic; Most other countries have upcoming democratic elections where voters will demand to know why their government failed where China succeeded. This take is clearly cynical; and this article supports this take from the point of view of weaponized uncertainty: Not being able to find something casts suspicion on the institution which most likely has the coveted evidence.

  4. Moderna’s Next Act Is Using mRNA vs. Flu, Zika, HIV, and Cancer (Langreth)

    Bloomberg Businessweek (archived), 14th July, 2021

    How did we get a vaccine for the coronavirus so soon? The strategy of using a vaccine as the path out of COVID-19 was considered reckless and foolhardy in March 2020. “Vaccines take years to make. The earliest period of time in which we have been able to develop safe vaccines in the past was 4 years.” Policy makers had different reactions to these warnings from vaccine scientists. Vaccine manufacturers like Pfizer and Moderna stayed quiet and worked on finding the vaccine. The announcements in November 2020 about the 90+% efficacy that vaccines had shown in Phase 3 clinical trials was perhaps the best piece of news in the past year. This article explains why the mRNA approach to vaccines is modular and configurable, features which are at the core of scalability in software, and apparently also in vaccine development. This article elaborates on how mRNA could turn into the ticket out of future pandemics and existing incurable diseases.

  5. We’re Losing Our Humanity, and the Pandemic Is To Blame (Smith)

    ProPublica (archived), 7th October, 2021

    The pandemic has been the comfortable scapegoat for a lot of uncomfortable truths that have come to light in the past few months. Particularly, about “losing humanity,” I wonder if the changes we have seen in behaviors over the past 1.5 years were just latent tendencies which were triggered by the pandemic. The ongoing pandemic is a mix of three things: a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, a conspiracy theory breeding ground, and an event that increases fervor about already held beliefs. The period of lockdowns in 2020 was also the first time in my lifetime where I had limited contact with strangers for that long a period of time. This has made returning to the world and interacting with strangers again a shocking experience. Recently, returning from a vacation, I found that many of the strangers around me were in an anxious and nervous state which made them take actions which lacked empathy and considerateness. This was not something that I was noticing for the first time; nevertheless it hit me like a rock wall and left me confused for a few days. For that feeling of confusion, I am certain that the pandemic is to blame.