I am not a science doubter. I trust firmly in experimental and experiential knowledge. I accept that there will be contradictions and critical holes in that knowledge but know that this will in no way invalidate either specific things that we know nor generally the scientific method of knowing them. I also believe that there are many other ways of arriving at equally valid knowledge — and that these also may conflict but will not negate anything else.
However, I further know that there are many voices claiming the authority of science who are speaking untruth, and this muddles the message of science. It makes it hard to know what is science and what is not. It makes knowledge much more like belief, which I do not generally endorse, epistemologically speaking… Some of this stems from the natural holes and contradictions in science, some comes from personal ignorance. However, much of the most prominent spoken untruth is intentional lying to promote an agenda that has very little to do with knowledge, with science, or, in fact, with reality. This is increasingly a problem everywhere in society, but particularly in the areas of science that affect health and well-being.
Thus far, though this entire writing project was created by and nurtured within pandemic times, I have not talked directly of this disease. This has been intentional. I am not knowledgeable on any aspect of this issue. I also happen to have a sister who is a high-ranking epidemiologist at the CDC and know just how fragmented our official knowledge is. When the experts are flailing about (or, in her case, crying… a whole lot), the rest of us best just keep our opinions to ourselves and muddle through. But as I’m sure you’ve noticed, that is not happening… and those opinions are causing mayhem.
So I am going to tell my own COVID stories.
By now, I know more people who have had the disease than not. I have had the disease myself — twice, in spite of vaccinations — and the effect on my previously electrically dysfunctional heart has been alarming and debilitating. And apparently permanent. I have another sister who still hasn’t fully recovered from her bout with long COVID last fall. She remains tired most of the time, still has trouble climbing stairs some days, and has little sensory input from her taste buds and nose. I have had friends die, though, fortunately, no immediate family. So far…
…and this is critical. This “so far” is where the loud opinions diverge from my lived experience. The loud opinions are saying that the risk of losing family is over now, that I have nothing to worry about… even as I daily learn of someone else in my close social sphere who has contracted the disease… even as I watch the numbers (“helpfully” reported by Weather Underground with the daily meteorological conditions) of county-wide reported cases and official deaths rise… even as we are still seeing hospitals across the nation buckling under COVID case load strain… even as we learn about omicron-delta cross breeds which may have all the nasty strengths of both and yet few of their weaknesses.
The loud opinions are saying otherwise. Which would be insulting enough if they weren’t also framing their opinions as science-based truth. They would have us believe that the pandemic is controlled, that it is over, that it is now “endemic”, by which they mean that it’s just another disease we have to deal with… forever. They’re calling it “another flu”. Go get your annual (or monthly… or, maybe soon, weekly…) COVID booster and get on with life.
We can go unmasked now. We may need to provide proof of vaccination; but we can fly on planes, go to movie theaters, eat in enclosed spaces with strangers (served by more strangers who are not doing so entirely of their own volition). Indeed, we are exhorted to do all these things “just like normal” because the years of not doing them have crushed our economy (which is also presented as rebounding… in the face of all lived evidence to the contrary). Most importantly, they are saying that we now have no reason to fret, that we should not feel hesitant about doing all these things, that worrisome evidence from our own lives is inconsequential if not false. They are telling us that all contrary experience to their opinion is, in effect, superstition, unscientific, irrational. Untrue.
Of course, they have to say this. They are paid to protect this socio-economic system that is being battered by disease and our logical responses to disease (including death…). Their opinions exist to praise the system that benefits them. And it must be said that they didn’t show much concern for the welfare of most people before COVID was introduced into the equation anyway. The early days of COVID were telling. As my Navajo friends were narrating absolute horror stories and my son was going through emotional breakdown in the midst of almost continual death on all sides of his Brooklyn apartment, what did the loud opinions talk most about? Suburban sourdough cultures and gardening trends, toilet-paper hoarding and the difficulties of caring for one’s own progeny. They showed a particular horror of — gasp — staying in one place… Their narratives were completely irreconcilable with my lived experience, disrespectfully so, disconcertingly so. And this continues to be true. Because this is what they are paid to do. Tell the official narrative of our socio-economic system. Loudly.
As soon as it was feasible (judged politically, not epidemiologically), they told us to get off our collective ass (and Zoom screens) and get back to the water cooler where management could once again control our every waking minute through monitored busywork. This official position has continued throughout the delta wave, through the holiday surge, through omicron, and it continues today, with the NY Times reporting that we should probably put the masks back — because apparently I’m not the only person who has had this disease more than once in spite of full inoculation — but don’t even consider staying home! Learn to live with this risk, dammit! Because that’s the only message the NY Times can peddle that is consistent with the persistence of the NY Times. If we actually restructure society to lower the risk of contagion, many things, the NY Times among them, will probably fall by the wayside. At best, their advertisers will be losing money. Meaning so will they.
The NY Times has a very loud opinion, and being venerable and so on, it affects the credibility of fact. Yes, there is an intentional double entendre there. The Times is pretending to offer fact in its pages of opinions, and it is altering the state of fact with this pretense. In telling a story
that is counter to lived experience — loudly — and clothing that story in the garb of science, the Times is casting the pall of doubt on science. It is making science hard to believe. It is making science a belief, and not knowledge that flows from experienced reality. It is unmaking fact.
As a scientist and as a trained journalist, I am deeply offended by this. If it were true that these loud opinions were merely ignorant, that would be bad but maybe excusable. But these are not ignorant people. Inasmuch as we know anything about COVID, they know the truth. Or at least these high profile institutions have access to the similarly high profile elite knowledge that comes closest to representing the true facts on the disease. But they choose to ignore it and to disseminate their opinions instead. They choose to… and that is what makes this indefensible.
I am offended as a scientist… but as a human facing these risks, I am terrified. Not only is there the risk itself, but with this unmaking of truth, there is the compounded risk of not knowing what to do. How do you effectively prepare for something — something that can kill you, by the way — when you are bombarded with all sorts of conflicting information —some of it intentional lying, some of it merely ignorance — and have to sort through it all to even judge what, in fact, you are preparing for!
Consider the history. We were told that a round of vaccinations, particularly on the elderly and infirm, would be enough to arrest the spread. We were then told that we needed booster shots and that perhaps everybody, even the children (who still mostly have not had vaccinations), ought to get them. We were then told that the disease would probably infect a majority of the population but that most of us would have mild, even asymptomatic cases. And the story continues its mutation, even more quickly than the mutation of the virus…
Throughout all this there was the constant message that everything was under control, that all we had to do was listen and obey, that the suffering and death around us was perfectly preventable and therefore our fault. And there has not been one day in the last many years when I could say exactly what of all this was the truth, what was ignorance, and what was lies. How do you protect yourself from something you can not see clearly? How do you protect your loved ones? What does the truth even mean when falsity of this magnitude can stand in its stead…
So here is my COVID story. I was vaccinated fully in May of 2021. I worked in retail and was exposed to the virus in November. I had a mild case that did not test positive on a home test (which is more common than is reported…). This mild case, nevertheless, triggered the precipitous onset of severe hypertension, though I used to have chronic and sometimes dangerously low blood pressure. My doctor tells me this is not an uncommon story though I had never heard of such a thing even as recently as March of this year.
I had a booster shot in the last week of December and have not been working in public since mid January. Yet in early April, I was exposed again — because Son#1, also fully vaccinated and with the immune system of an abnormally healthy ox, also works in retail and carried it to me. This time I had a very bad case, with high fevers and a wracking cough that lasted for almost three weeks and then a relapse of the cough that developed a couple weeks after testing negative and that persisted well into May. (Which is also a common story, but not one that I had ever heard.) I am still woken up with coughing now and again and have not really had a good night’s rest since March. I will be getting my second booster in a few weeks, though I don’t doubt that I could get the disease again regardless. I still wear a mask and am still reluctant to be in crowded places. I have voluntarily been to exactly two public events since January of 2020 (when my CDC sister first described what was coming). I do not dine out, have not gone to the movies, and do not travel (for many reasons…). I am attending a concert tonight (Ólafur Arnalds) and am undeniably anxious about that…
This is my story. I could tell others. Most of the stories I know deviate from the official loud opinion in rather substantive ways. But this, what I experienced, is the truth of COVID as I know it. I have to keep telling myself this in order to know how to deal with this disease. And I encourage you to do likewise. Tell your own stories. Write those stories down so that you have some clear record to reference when the opinions muddle your memory. If it helps, write to me. I know a witness to what you are experiencing can be crucial to developing knowledge from that experience. (Otherwise, it could all just be in your head… as it likely is, after all…)
Above all, know that there is truth and that you have lived it. Whatever is said, even by those who are earnestly stating the facts as they know them, is not as valid as what you have experienced.
This is the truth. This is science. This is the only thing worth knowing and believing in.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022