Thursday, December 31, 2020

Good-Bye and Good Riddance to 2020

Well, here we are at the end of 2020. I took a peek back at my post about my 2020 goals and unsurprisingly, most of them didn't happen. I was doing pretty well for the first couple of months and then March came and my goals morphed into: stay alive, keep my family alive, and keep us all reasonably sane. Oh, and work to make sure we didn't re-elect Trump. By those revised goals, 2020 was a resounding success. It also sucked.

2020 was exhausting. It was probably the most difficult year of my professional life, as it was my job to keep projects on track while also enabling the flexibility we all needed while also supporting my kids doing school from home. It was nowhere near as hard as what health care workers, public health workers, and other essential employees faced but it was a hard year professionally. 

We also had to revise all our home routines, and I realized how much I leaned on the fact that we had routines. Between the busy work schedule, the need to find new routines for the work of keeping our home running, and the extra attention my kids needed, I struggled to find time for myself. I would often find myself awake before 6 a.m. and unable to get back to sleep, and the silver lining of that was a few minutes of quiet time on the sofa, watching the colors change through the frosted glass on my front door with no one asking anything of me.

But more than all of that, I think the most exhausting thing about 2020 was watching my government and my fellow citizens make bad decisions. It was exhausting to be so continually disappointed, and to need to keep trying to explain the inexplicable to my daughters. Even now, we seem determined to screw up the vaccines, which were the one part of our pandemic response we did well. 

Good riddance to all of that. I know that we are in for more difficult months in 2021, but I am hopeful that we're on the upswing now and that once the new administration is in place we'll at least have a plan for getting through to the end of this pandemic.

2020 brought some things I hope we'll carry forward with us, too. My older daughter discovered a love of long walks. My younger daughter's interest in art really blossomed. The crunch for time forced me to clarify my priorities, and while I hope I can open up more space for the lower priority things soon, I am grateful for that clarity about what really matters to me.

I haven't decided if I'll make goals for 2021 or not. On the one hand, the clarity 2020 brought could probably be channeled into some good goals. On the other hand, I am still exhausted and so perhaps my goal will simply be to make it through to my turn for the vaccine and to re-evaluate then.  

Luckily, I don't have to decide right now. Right now, I need to go make some cookies with my daughter and then settle in for New Year's Eve.  See you in 2021!

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Lessons from Our Pandemic Failures

I have been thinking a lot lately about what we can learn from the current coronavirus pandemic. Ed Yong has a good story out today looking ahead to the next year of this pandemic, and he includes a section about the lessons we might learn, along with an acknowledgement that we may well decide not to learn them.

The lessons Yong highlights are ones I hope we manage to learn, but the focus of my musings has been a bit different. Perhaps it is because I live in a region that managed to do reasonably well at suppressing the virus for months, and then have that effort spectacularly fail to the point that we're now in the midst of a terrible surge with hospitals stretched thin and daily case counts stuck at 10 times their previous level. I have been wondering what happened and why.

We may never know exactly what went wrong, of course - our health department is too busy managing the surge to be able to collect the data that might tell us where the surge came from. It is probably a combination of things: political polarization leading to some groups in the area refusing to wear masks or follow health orders; competing economic and health needs leading to nonsensical rules, e.g., allowing dining at restaurants while telling people they can't gather in their own backyards; fatigue with the rules and the very real effect of loneliness building up over many months; and of course Thanksgiving (and now Christmas) pulling people to gather to maintain their traditions and connections.

I very much hope that people are studying the US's failed response because we urgently need to learn from our failures (and other country's successes), both to prepare for the next pandemic (which, as the WHO's Mike Ryan recently warned may be worse) and to help us address climate change.

One of the most depressing things about watching large swaths of the American public buy into conspiracy theories about coronavirus and refuse to do something as simple as a wearing a mask is the realization that if we can't even get our collective act together to respond sensibly to a pandemic that is literally killing people in all parts of the country, how will we muster the will to respond to climate change before it has reached catastrophic levels?

I mentioned in an earlier post that I recently read Kim Stanley Robinson's Ministry of the Future. I did not find it to be a particularly good novel (although I have heard that perhaps it is better as an audiobook), but one thing it does really well is make you understand what a climate catastrophe would be like. I found the catastrophe that opens the book particularly haunting. A heat wave strikes India, and it raises the wet bulb temperature above the limits of human endurance. Hundreds of thousands of people die a terrible, desperate death. (I did not know much about the potential for this particular catastrophe, so I did a little reading on it. If you want to know more about it, there is a sobering study that came out in May. NOAA has a good summary of it, and the Washington Post has a good article.)

Deadly heat waves will become more common, but since they will first strike in parts of the world that Americans usually ignore, it seems tragically unlikely that Americans will pay attention. 

Of course, there are climate disasters that will hit closer to home - we already see what they might be, with longer and more intense wildfire and hurricane seasons. But humans are really good at adjusting to the new normal and ignoring the warning these events bring. This may well have been a solid survival instinct in earlier times, but it is threatening our survival now. Here again, we have a lesson we can learn from the pandemic, in which people have grown inured to the mounting death toll

As all of these things have sloshed around in my brain, I've developed some thoughts about what we might learn from the pandemic to help us better respond to climate change. These are just the ideas of a moderately informed lay person. Consider them hypotheses. I hope academic studies give us more insight into which of these might actually be correct, and I'll be looking for those studies. But with that caveat in place, here are my ideas:

1. People will make serious sacrifices for the common good - but only for a limited time and with a clear goal in mind. In the pandemic, this meant that the countries that went for eradication or at least strong suppression were able to succeed with stringent lockdowns. In the US, where we always said we'd be managing but not suppressing the virus's spread, we probably needed to pivot aggressively to a different approach. Maybe a message of risk management? Maybe more extensive testing surveillance? I don't know what the better approach would have been, but the soft shutdowns we used were probably always going to fail eventually as people grew tired of the restrictions with no end in sight.

2. If you want people to change their behavior, you have to make it economically possible for them to do so. You cannot expect people who are just getting by to voluntarily take a short term economic hit for a long term greater good. Furthermore, when people are facing the loss of their livelihood or of a business they worked hard to build, they will fight to save it even when that fight causes harm to the community. We saw this in the pandemic with gyms and restaurants fighting against the public health rules even though allowing them to stay open would just prolong the underlying problem. We didn't give them enough support to survive in stasis for the length of the pandemic, and so of course some business owners fought the rules.

Both of these hypotheses can inform our response to climate change. Here's what I think they tell us: 

We should try to limit the personal sacrifice we ask of people as we reduce carbon emissions. This means we need programs to make electrifying our lives economically beneficial for individuals, but it also means that we need to think long and hard about how we handle the fossil fuel industries, which employ a lot of people. Investing public funds to help them transition gracefully may feel like paying ransom to some very bad actors, but we need to be clear-eyed about what the alternative would look like. This may be a case where the best move is to pay the ransom.

If we're going to ask for a sacrifice to achieve a common good, we need to make sure that sacrifice is time-limited and the end point is clear. I am not sure what this looks like in the climate response. Perhaps it is just that when we ask a community to accept change to support our response, we need to be clear what the end point will be for them and how long it will take to get there. Instead of saying "we'll retrain coal miners into other jobs" we need to provide specifics about what the new economic plan for their region is and how we will get them there.

During the pandemic, we have asked people to sacrifice to get back to normal. As we address climate change, we will be asking people to sacrifice to get to a new normal. I think that new normal will be better, but change is hard for people and we need to acknowledge that and have plans to ease the transition to the new normal. If we ever thought we could just tell people what they needed to do for the common good and they would do it, surely the pandemic response has shown us that this is not the case. We must learn from our failures and do better.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Weekend Reading: Our Turn in the Surge Edition

Covid case numbers are high here in San Diego, and all over California. After doing so well for so many months, we're now most definitely not doing well. Vaccinations are underway, but they won't come in time for so many people.  I don't really have an explanation for what happened. Thanksgiving, yes, but our numbers were already headed up before Thanksgiving. Maybe people just got tired and let their guard down. I suspect we missed an opportunity by not giving people better advice about how to safely see friends and family outdoors. Our weather should have given us a great advantage, and I think we didn't use it as much as we could.

The message I pieced together from reading studies and advice from experts was: 

  • See friends and family outside and either distanced or masked. Be careful, but see people now and then because we're in for a long haul and we needed an approach we can stick with for a year or more. 
  • Try not to be inside with people you don't live with (or haven't quarantined to see). 
  • If you can't avoid being inside with people, wear a mask no matter how far apart you are and try to increase ventilation. 
  • If you want to be indoors and unmasked with someone, both parties need to quarantine for two weeks first.
  • If anyone from outside our family needs to be in the house for awhile (e.g., the people who installed our heat pump), we go outside and open windows and run our whole house fan for 20-30 minutes after they leave.
  • Surface transmission doesn't seem to be a major route, but since I follow the news from New Zealand where they traced a few cases to surface transmission I know it is a possible route. My approach is to continue to wash my hands frequently, try to avoid touching my face, particularly when out and about and touching other things, and to clean high contact surfaces frequently.

But I am not a public health expert, so I acknowledge that my rules may not be the ideal ones. I am also not an expert on health communication and risk reduction during a pandemic, so I don't know if something like my rules, clearly communicated from all levels of leadership would have been more successful than the "stay home, don't see people" message was. I also don't know how my more nuanced message would have worked out in our current political moment. Anyone who says there would have been an easy way to avoid the mess we're in has not been paying attention to what public communication is like right now. 

Anyway, we're in the surge now and our hospitals and ICUs are full and it is a tragedy. I have a lot of thoughts about what we might learn from this tragedy in terms of preventing future tragedies, but they are not fully formed and anyway, that's not where I want to dwell right now.

So, on to the links. I don't have many because I've been spending most of my spare time finding gifts for people. Our response to the surge has been to avoid all unnecessary trips to stores, so shopping has been all online this year, which has been hard! 

But here's what I do have:

Here is some concise advice from one of the experts I've been listening to:

David Perry wrote a very good piece on how utterly we have failed our children. I think a lot about how this year is shaping the world views of my daughters and their friends.

Some good news: The Johnson & Johnson vaccine trial is fully enrolled. A third vaccine with a different modality and manufacturing path would surely help our supply issues. I hope for a successful trial.

In political news: I agree with this argument from Josh Marshall that we must not let bad faith behavior from Republican leaders trick us into wasting time on them.

Dan Pfeiffer has a sobering look at why Republican politicians might get even worse over the next few years

Some things that made me happy:

These ice and snow sculptures are beautiful.

What beautiful pictures:

Beautiful embroidery:

O Holy Night is my favorite Christmas song, and somehow I'd never heard Tracy Chapman's beautiful version of it.

Here's your bunny for the week:

Have a good weekend, everyone!

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Weekend Reading: The Starting to Feel Like Christmas Edition

Our tree and outdoor lights have been up since the weekend after Thanksgiving, but I've been decidedly lacking in Christmas spirit.  I wouldn't say I am brimming with spirit now, but I am starting to feel a little less grinch-y.

My kids were bummed that we won't get to see my parents for Christmas and so I decided to try to cheer us all up by having a little fun with these small metal Christmas "mailboxes" my mom gave them a couple of years ago. I decided to put them out on the chest behind the sofa in our living room and put a small gift in them every day from December 1 to Christmas Eve. The baseline is little candies - Hershey's Kisses and Starburst - and every few days I put something else in. I've done fuzzy socks, gloves that allow you to still work your phone, and detangler combs. I have some Christmas-themed masks on their way.

You may be seeing the problem with my idea. In a year in which I am trying not to go into shops, I need to come up with not just stocking stuffers for their actual stockings but also for the mailbox thing. Oops. 

But Petunia is starting to get into the mailbox thing, and Pumpkin is getting really into finding good gifts for everyone... and maybe I can get in the spirit, too. We might start doing some baking this weekend. Baking usually gets me int he Christmas spirit, and at the very least I will have some treats to eat!

Anyway, on to the links.

If you're looking for gift ideas, the Cool Mom Picks site and their associated sites have a bunch of posts full of ideas.

On the pandemic front:

I am going to assume you will find plenty to read on the EUA for Pfizer's vaccine. This is great news, and I remain in awe of how quickly both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are going to be available. This is due to the combined effort of many scientists and others in those companies, the NIH, the FDA, and more. And it is also due to remarkable good luck that none of the myriad of things that often go wrong in a development and clinical trial program went wrong. 

Here is a story about the Sanofi vaccine effort having less good luck. We are now manufacturing-limited in vaccine distribution, so it would have been really good to get another vaccine with a different manufacturing mode. But it looks like we won't get that as soon as we had hoped.

Still, I think it is a good time to stop and be grateful for what we have, and I am thrilled that the health care workers who have been risking their lives during this pandemic will soon be protected. Here is a short thread on that:

The rest of us need to mask up, limit our outings, take steps to reduce risk when we do see other people, and hope for a successful manufacturing ramp up for the vaccines we do have.

I think we need to get better in our messaging about risk reduction, too. We have years of research from the HIV epidemic that tells us "abstinence only" messaging does not really work. I agree with Julia Marcus on the need to help people learn how to reduce risk when they do the things they consider essential, even if we don't consider those things essential.

On the politics front:

I am glad the Supreme Court slapped down that ridiculous suit from Texas. I am horrified that so many Attorneys General and other Republican elected officials signed on to it. We are in a dangerous place, but again I assume you can find news of that on your own.

Here is an opinion piece I strongly agree with: we've stopped expecting civility from Republicans while we still demand it from Democrats. I don't want Democrats to get more aggressively rude and threatening. I want us to stop giving Republicans and the right wing protesters a pass for being rude and threatening. 

On the climate change front:

I finished reading The Ministry for the Future. I am not going to write about it here, because I want to do a larger post on it. I'll just say that it had a lot of interesting ideas, but that the structure of the novel annoyed me sometimes.

There's good news on batteries. Before the pandemic, we had been low-key debating what we'll replace our Mazda 5 with when the time comes, which we thought would be within a year. Now we hardly drive anywhere so are wondering if it might last a little longer. Maybe we can hold out long enough to wait for the next big advance in electric cars. Or if we can't, maybe we'll decide to lease for a bit and wait to see.

As great as it will be to have people in the White House who believe we need to address climate change, I think a lot of the action will remain at the local and state level. Here's an article about Nashville that shows what that can look like. If you're looking for a way to help fight climate change, look at what your local government is doing and see if there are any local initiatives you can support.

David Roberts, my favorite reported on the climate change and environment beat, has left Vox and started his own Substack newsletter, Volts. Here is the first post. The newsletter is free until the end of the year, and after that you only get some of the posts for free. I am annoyed by the move to newsletters - I don't actually want this stuff in my inbox!- and wish we could all go back to old school blogs (like mine!) but I understand people need to make money and so here we are. I signed up as a paying subscriber. This is the first newsletter I've actually decided to pay for. 

(I am a subscriber to Anne Helen Peterson's Culture Study and Zeynep Tufecki's Insight and may eventually convert one of those to a paid subscription but haven't yet.)

Here are some things that made me smile this week:

This article about a man who designed a smartwatch app to help his dad who has PTSD nightmares from serving in Iraq.

This thread is long but delightful:

This thread on dogs recognizing dogs is fun:

My husband found this San Diego band and we enjoyed trying to guess what part of San Diego this was filmed in:

Here's your weekly bunnies. I think this duo is dropping their new album soon:

Happy weekend, everyone!

Saturday, December 05, 2020

Weekend Reading: A Somewhat Grim Edition

Times are grim. They are grim here, and we are in nowhere near as much trouble as many parts of the country. But our cases are up and we've reached the limit on ICU bed space (less than 15% available) that is the governor's new threshold for a stay at home order. I think we'll be under a stay at home order tomorrow. Businesses here are already struggling - there are so many stories about long standing businesses closing for good - and while our county and state have both released some funds to try to help, it is nowhere near enough. We needed federal aid, and Mitch McConnell is instead focused on shielding employers from COVID-related lawsuits. I could maybe see providing such a shield in conjunction with generous aid that allows people to do the right thing without losing everything... but as it is being offered with just a small amount of aid, I think it is a recipe for businesses opening and employees getting sick and dying.

And he hasn't even passed this. Everyone is yelling about what Democrats should or should not accept, and McConnell and the Republicans in the Senate haven't passed a damn thing. There's nothing to accept or reject right now, just a lot of talk. I don't have a clue about why this is how things work now, but does anyone else remember conference committees

We really have the wrong type of federal leadership for this moment. But lots of people - people in places with far higher infection and death rates than my area has - looked at that leadership and said "yep, that's what we want" and so somehow the rest of us have to figure out how to deal with this.

The stay at home order won't change anything about how my little family is living right now. We'd already pulled back as cases rose - no more going to shops for anything other than essentials! - and have been limiting our restaurant patronage to take out from the beginning. 

This week brought us another study showing that indoor dining is just not safe. Masks are off because you can't eat with a mask on. People are talking, because people go to restaurants for a social experience. And people are probably talking loudly due to ambient noise. It is just not possible to make this safe. It is always going to come down to a matter of luck, and with more cases around these days the odds are not with you. 

Zeynep Tufecki has a good writeup of the new study, putting in context of earlier studies as well.

The CDC has released new guidelines that match what my personal guideline has been for quite awhile: Don't be indoors with people not in your household without a mask.

You don't want this disease, and you particularly don't want to get sick during a surge - as this story spells out, hospitals are getting overwhelmed and that means people are dying who probably would have lived if they'd gotten the disease earlier, when case loads were lower.

If you're wondering why FDA emergency authorization of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is taking a little longer than approval in other countries, this article explains it. Personally, I think the more thorough review is a good idea particularly since there are non-pharmaceutical interventions (e.g., masks, avoiding indoor gatherings) that can reduce spread during the review time. The tragedy, of course, is that so many people refuse to follow advice about non-pharmaceutical interventions.

David Roberts argues that Biden should learn from Trump's "flood the zone" strategy and run a blitz to get things done. 

In recommended listening: Ezra Klein's interview with Kim Stanley Robinson did indeed convince me to read The Ministry for the Future. I am about halfway through it now. I will probably write some more about it when I finish it.

Here are some things that made me smile this week:

This is a really interesting story about diacetyl, the compound that makes Chardonnay buttery but also can cause "popcorn lung."

I want a book of these "where are they now" snippets Jane Austen told her family!

This tweet blew my mind. Someone do some historical studies to find out if it is true!

This made me laugh. My husband also does most of our laundry (although I tend to be the one who folds it). That is probably the only thing I have in common with Angela Merkel.

On discovering that you're a meme:

I love little quirks of language like this:

This week's bunny looks so cozy! I am a little jealous.

Have a good weekend, everyone!