I worry too. But I worry more about all these Covid precautions becoming permanent. I travel for a living, and I am on planes all the time. I’ve had something like 150 flights this year. I hate masks. I can’t stand them. I’m afraid that masks on planes will never go away, because people have no sense of operational risk management.

Operational risk management is a phrase we used in the military. It was a study of how you mitigate risk in proportion to your goals and the benefits gained.

I really worry because so many people downplay the loss of freedom that restrictions have on our lives. The same people that talk about micro aggressions and how they weigh on people, can’t see that wearing masks, or avoiding going out, or any of these other restrictions is a real loss.

20 years later, and we are still taking off our shoes, well actually I am not because I have TSA pre-check, but most people are. It’s silly. We have TSA patting down grandmothers and kids. Theater.

Whenever I get into social media debates with people about mask mandates, I ask them what is their criteria for eliminating them. None of them really have an answer. A surprising number say that they think there should be mask requirements forever.

I really think the Democratic politicians underestimate how Covid restrictions will affect voting in the next election.

I’ve read these articles saying that Biden is gambling his presidency on these vaccine mandates. Which I approve of, because everyone should be vaccinated. However if the vaccine mandates work to reduce cases and hospitalizations, and the restrictions still stay, it will do no good. People will vote for the guy saying there should be no restrictions.

That’s what I worry about.

On a sidenote, I’m on day three of my hotel quarantine, or jail, here in Salta, Argentina. Being locked in a hotel room with no human contact for seven days sort of sucks. It’s also frustrating since I’ve been vaccinated, and actually had a booster shot. I hope this is not a regular thing.

As always, this whole post was dictated on my phone. I only made a half assed attempt to correct grammatical errors. Don’t hold it against me

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Have we not adapted? Global mRNA manufacturing capacity is up orders of magnitude from a year ago. It wouldn’t make sense to shift that capacity to other vaccines when billions are still unvaccinated. PPE is broadly available. Teleworking is more common.

Congress proved once and for all that stimulus works so well it can wake up an economy from deep freeze within a couple months. In March of 2020, I was afraid even four week lockdowns would cause a depression. That fear was common. It has been dispelled.

Finally, the social dissensus over COVID has owes to its having a curiously ambiguous lethality. If it were 5x more lethal, lockdowns would be uncontroversial. If it were 5x less lethal, only scolds would want coercive distancing. Covid isn’t that big a risk for healthy young people but is a moderate risk for older people so it creates a dynamic where some people are fanning hysteria for personally rational reasons and others feel put upon by scolds. The chances the next pandemic is both roughly as lethal and roughly as contagious as covid are actually pretty small.

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Another aspect of September & October 2001 that might not come across if you didn't live through it is that the 9/11 attacks were followed by anthrax attacks and the DC snipers. Everyone was freaking out from the 9/11 attacks, and then letters with anthrax in them starting showing up in politicians' and media people's mail, and random people were getting shot by a sniper rifle in the DC area. And the anthrax & sniper attacks carried on for weeks, constantly in the news. People kept hearing about the latest attack, and worrying about the next one.

So there was a sense that this was the new normal - that the sense of safety that we used to have was illusory because really there was very little preventing someone from killing people if they wanted to. We were under attack, they'd killed a lot of people (9/11), they were capable of sophisticated technical work to make scary weapons (anthrax), and they could strike anyone anywhere at any time (DC snipers).

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We still make people take off their shoes because one guy unsuccessfully tried to bomb a plane with a shoe.

The interesting part of airport security theater is how easy it is to buy your way out of it. I have PreCheck, Global Entry AND Clear. It seems like a waste of money until you are running late and walk right past all the people in their socks awkwardly struggling with their belts.

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I agree that "we" have not learned much from COVID-19 but the mainly I think "they" (the public health people) have not learned: 1) tell the truth, always, 2) use cost benefit analysis in making decisions 3) in those cost-benefit analyses take about of the costs of delay 4) make recommendations to the public on the basis of the benefits to others not just to themselves of following the advice and explain the recommendations that way, 5) Constantly collect data, update recommendations on the basis of changing data and explain why recommendations are changing, 6) make most recommendations in the form of "when X conditions prevail in your environment, do Y" and help decision makers in each environment to have the information about conditions X.

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One of the singular things about 9/11 is so many Americans all saw and experienced it the same way and it was so visceral and clear in its visual presentation as to invite largely the same immediate conclusions. One thing that’s surprised me about the pandemic is that it’s experienced more as millions of individual experiences as opposed to one collective national experience. And most of it is very boring. Some people have family members or friends who have died or have gotten very sick, but those things don’t happen viscerally in front of you. Understanding the pandemic accurately requires some imagination and abstract thought, which is hard. That’s why it would be nice if our public health and political leadership were performing better. They’re supposed to be the ones doing a lot of that thinking for us, but they seem caught up in the same mental traps as the rest of us.

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It’s interesting to look back at the 19th century jurisprudence about vaccines, quarantines, etc. It was a world where communicable disease was an ever present threat - smallpox, yellow fever, typhoid, TB, cholera…

As an example Abe Lincoln had 4 sons - Robert, Edward, Willie and Tad. Only Robert lived past his teens. Edward died at 3 of TB. Willie died at 11 of typhoid fever and Tad died at 18 also of TB. And that was not at all unusual. If you go to any old cemetery you’ll find a lot of tomb stones July, 6 1842 September 1, 1844.

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I think we also tend to forget the impact of the anthrax mail coming a week or so later. That really cemented the panic, especially when it dragged on with no resolution.

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One thing I hope we get is better infectious disease surveillance. That means I want to be able to check the weather site for the current local flu case count report, the way I can check up pollen conditions. If there’s a bad flu outbreak like 2017-18, and it’s bad in my area, I want to get a “flu outbreak warning” or “flu outbreak watch”, the way I get “winter storm warnings” or “tornado watches”.

Just like most of these weather warnings, most of these public health warnings should come with no mandatory conditions, unless things get especially bad. But telling me when it would be good and prosocial to wear a mask or move my meeting to Zoom seems like it would be nice.

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I never, ever shared my countrymen's hysteria post-9/11, and actually never even understood it. I lived in Europe during the 1990s, and terrorism was a regular thing in France and the UK and other places. I flew out of Heathrow in March 1994 while the IRA was mortaring the runways. In Paris when the Metro was bombed by Algerians, the authorities would close the affected station and continue operations as usual. This, I believed, was the correct response to terrorism; anything else, to repeat a cliche, was letting the terrorists win. Terrorism was simply another of many lethal risks we accept every day, and never a very likely risk for any particular individual.

When 9/11 occurred I was airborne, flying from the US to London, and first learned about the attack when walking down the High Street in Richmond I saw the photos on the newsracks. My reaction was, "Well, I guess it was about time." A major attack on the US was inevitable, as far as I was concerned (it was also instantly obvious the same modus operandi could never again be employed for subsequent attacks, which made the erection of a vast security apparatus to defend against similar attacks seem . . . bizarre).

And I waited a week for global air travel to resume so I could get back home. Stop all air travel around the world for a week? Not an overreaction at all!

Somehow I felt no more vulnerable post-9/11 than I did before, since I'd been more or less living with terrorism alongside millions of British and French people for years. I never believed the US was somehow "special," with some kind of native immunity from terrorism; it was simply a matter of time.

Also, I didn't think terrorism could really be effectively prevented in a free society, if that society wanted to remain free. Pretty quickly it became evident that Americans were happy to jettison, wholesale, hard-won freedoms in the wake of 9/11, and were even eager to repeat all the mistakes of Vietnam by invading Afghanistan. I never understood it, and could only goggle incredulously when, after asking an airline worker why I could no longer mail a letter from inside an American airport, the response was, "Because of 9/11!", as if I was a child asking why adult dogs were so much bigger than puppies.

One of the the saddest aspects of the post 9/11 world, to me, was how the British, who had stoically maintained their dignity throughout the Troubles, and the French as well, lost their collective shit along with the Americans. It was as if American fear and neurosis infected an otherwise well-adjusted polity on the other side of the Atlantic.

Twenty years on, our hysterical overreaction to a viral pandemic is no longer surprising.

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I'd like to know more about your personal experience as a budding public intellectual in that era, Matt. I know you've written some about why you were wrong about the Iraq War, but I think there's more to explore there about the interplay of fear, certainty, identity, and epistemology.

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If I was betting, I'd say a cyberattack is most likely to be next attack on the US that has an impact comparable to Pearl Harbor or 9/11, in leaving us shocked, alarmed and angry at how unprepared and caught by surprise we were.

And how to respond to a cyberattack that seriously disrupts civilian life is ambiguous, assuming it's even clear who to hold responsible- should it be met only in kind, with a cyber counterattack, with bombs and missiles, economic sanctions, etc?

It seems likely that a scared and angry US public would get behind some tragic miscalculations and errors of judgment as far as our response to that situation.

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The last Ezra Klein podcast with Tyler Cowen was a surprisingly frustrating listen. They frame up this tension between growth both reducing global inequality and climate change on opposing sides... and then just move on. Then Tyler calls out the loss of academic freedom as a major issue ... an issue Ezra simply has rejected previously as not at all being a big deal - and cuts to commercial. Could have been so much better.

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Pandemics have happened before. They will happen again. While some people have argued that climate change and deforestation is likely to result in more pandemics, as a nonexpert I remain unconvinced - the number of people having direct interactions with animals is if anything likely to decline as agriculture becomes increasingly mechanised in the rest of the world, and cold chains make their way into the remaining places were they do not currently extend.

So there is absolutely no reason to think that pandemics on the scale of covid-19 are coming down the pike every five years or so. Another pandemic could happen tomorrow - the pandemic dice have essentially no memory. But I think it's reasonable to assume that global pandemics of this magnitude won't be a thing we're dealing with every few years.

By contrast, there was every reason to assume the worst about 9/11 - a small group of dedicated terrorists had figured out how to murder thousands of Americans, and it wasn't (and still isn't) hard to dream up plausible ways in which this could be repeated. As you say, that assumption was wrong. But it wasn't totally unreasonable.

*However*, while pandemics are rare, I think we can all agree that this one has been consequential enough that we collectively should invest a heck of a lot of effort into reducing the risk and consequences of another one.

And luckily we've learned a lot about things we can do on both counts.

One relatively straightforward (if expensive) mitigation that sensible governments of rich-enough countries will make is ensuring indoor air quality standards are much improved.

Another thing that we could do is invest in a flexible disease testing infrastructure on a massive scale. Despite the CDC's screwup, we can develop tests for novel viruses within days if needs be; if we could deploy that on a scale that everybody in the country could be tested very regularly during a pandemic *and* isolate those people who test positive, it's going to be pretty damned hard for a respiratory virus of any sort to make much progress (though it has to be very regular because things like flu have a very short incubation period).

The other thing we can and should do (carefully!) is go out and look for other potential pandemic viruses and develop candidate vaccines and therapies for them. We were lucky that research on coronaviruses had identified the spike protein as the thing for a vaccine to target; we should try and do the same - or more - for as many of the other potential pandemic respiratory viruses as we can. Additionally, if we could identify a bunch of candidate drugs that inhibit those viruses, perhaps even run some of them to the point of Phase 1 trials, we'll have a massive head start on the next pandemic.

That said, the USA has a fairly unique problem with pandemic response with a substantial fraction of its population seemingly prepared to die to own the libs. Dunno what you can do about that.

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>>>I hope I’ll be wrong again, this time about pandemics. But I worry.<<<

In my view by far the worry that's most unjustifiably under the radar (that is, people should be a lot more concerned) is nuclear war. I'm old enough to remember the Cold War, and during that time most folks tended to regard an actual USSR-USA shooting war as unthinkable (not literally so, of course, lots of people get paid to think about things like this!) in that it would likely lead to a nuclear exchange.

In recent years we've seen a terrifying (to me, at least, though I sometimes feel like I'm screaming in the in the middle of the forest where no one can hear) increase in geopolitical tension in the Indo-Pacific. One of these days some general somewhere is going to get trigger happy.

It seems like we had a window in the 1990s to *really* do something substantive to minimize the probability of a nuclear holocaust. But we squandered the opportunity. And so here we are back where we started at just about the time Gorbachev came to power.

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I think it is at least a possibility that one reason we haven't seen more terror attacks is that (1) we destroyed the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and denied the organization a physical space to, well, organize, (2) the United States government has engaged in a lot of morally dubious and unsavory, but sometimes effective, covert action around the world to root out "pre-terrorists." Obviously you can't just assume that to be true, nor can you trust the government's word on that (if they were talking), but neither can we assume it's false.

People aren't as afraid of pandemics because they see viruses as non-sentient and therefore predictable as long as the right people are aware of the threat. But yes that's probably overconfident.

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