The Danger of an Excess of Irony

In Beijing, ~150 new COVID-19 cases have been confirmed since last week, triggering the reimposition of a number of restrictions to prevent the spread of the disease. In New York City, we’ve continued to confirm 300+ new COVID-19 cases per day and are on pace to enter Phase II of reopening on Monday, according to the latest from Governor Cuomo. Finally, with Phase II, we’ll be able to enjoy outdoor dining again! Except, wait, for anyone living in Manhattan, the idea that outdoor dining wasn’t reinitiated like two weeks ago is a joke. (Here’s a good piece by Ross Barkan entitled, “We Need New Public Health Guidance: Local and Federal Officials Have Lost the Script” – the tl;dr: Mass protests in defiance of public health regulations, but supported by many of the very elected officials who’d been declaring the importance of those same regulations, have blown the lid off our COVID-19-control paradigm, and only clear, coherent, contextual guidance from elected officials and public health experts can avert a return to the free-for-all days of early March. Glenn Greenwald makes a related argument in this episode of System Update.) I’d only add that, in view of our rapidly evolving understanding of COVID-19 transmission, guidance is necessarily changing, and I’ve grown more optimistic, both about the prospects for controlling renewed epidemic spread in New York, and about the possibility that we may not see subsequent spikes. Maybe that’s just the sunny weather talking though, and, as usual, time will tell.

Incidentally, Beijing is more than twice the size of New York City.

The frightening situation at the Sino-Indian border has, for now, failed to escalate further, but is certainly another sign both of shifting great power geopolitics and of the fraught global moment in which we’re living. Bill Bishop of Sinocism dismisses the “heavily hyped” Harvard study – which I mentioned in passing last week – “claiming to show evidence [based on satellite and search engine data] the COVID-19 outbreak may have begun in Wuhan in August” as “relying on sketchy Baidu data for key assertions” among “several obvious issues with it.” At the same time, analyses – including this one from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – less obviously politically motivated than the wild assertions of the Administration in DC, have emerged in recent weeks with titles like, “Did the SARS-CoV-2 virus arise from a bat coronavirus research program in a Chinese laboratory? Very possibly.” (This 2014 paper on “Laboratory Escapes” of “Potentially Pandemic Pathogens” makes for alarming reading.) Long-short: No one credible seems to be supporting conspiracy theories about an intentional release of SARS-CoV-2 by the Chinese Government, but we still don’t know how it was that the virus spilled over into humans.

The data on new confirmed cases in the US are beginning to show a clear upward trend. Perhaps that’s just because of increased testing, though reports from a number of states suggest otherwise. Meanwhile, according to Quartz, “US teens on TikTok are making “I love China” videos”; these “satirical” videos are meant to improve their analytics on the platform. If the peak hipsterism of the aughts should have taught us anything, it’s that what starts out as an “ironic” gesture can very easily become your life.

Anyway, I’m just finishing up Sonia Shah’s book, Pandemic, and can happily recommend it as a primer. It’s written in the jaunty, personal, accessible style of a New York Times bestseller (which if it wasn’t pre-pandemic, it almost certainly is now), and I found this passage (from page 209) particularly striking. Enjoy:

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