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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Needed: More Curiosity, Less Phony Objectivity

David Leonhardt of The New York Times thinks worry about catching COVID-19 is “irrational.” Some people are apparently invisible to him.

January 26, 2022
 
 

How “worried” are you about getting sick from COVID-19 in the next year?

Very worried, somewhat worried, not too worried or not at all worried?

If you are not too worried, or not at all worried, why not? What is working in the background of your lack of worry? What are the conditions that allow you to be unworried about a virus that has killed hundreds of thousands in the U.S. alone?

On that scale above, I would say I am somewhat worried.

According to David Leonhardt of The New York Times, given that I am vaxxed, and boosted, and do not have any of the common complicating factors related to morbidity, I am not thinking rationally or objectively about the risks of COVID-19.

He believes those who are vaccinated (like me) are exhibiting a “remarkable disconnect from reality” to say they’re “worried about getting sick from COVID.”

I think it’s Leonhardt who is not being objective or rational. I for sure know that he’s not thinking deeply about the data from a recent Morning Consult poll that he’s making use of in his piece.

There are a number of objectively poor interpretations of the available data in the piece, but I want to zero in on Leonhardt’s shallow and incurious reasoning about how worried younger people are.

Leonhardt seems mystified by the difference in worry among different age demographics. The youngest age cohort (18 to 34) is the most worried of the bunch, with 23 percent saying they are very worried and 34 percent saying they are somewhat worried.

How can this be? For Leonhardt, the most plausible explanation is “political ideology.”

“Older Americans, as a group, currently lean to the right, while younger generations lean to the left. And no other factor influences COVID attitudes as strongly as political ideology, the poll shows.”

I would like to suggest some other plausible—dare I say even more likely—explanations for younger people being more worried about catching COVID-19.

The central shortcoming of Leonhardt’s analysis is that he equates “worry” about COVID in the survey as worrying about dying, but I can think of a few other reasons why younger people might be more likely to worry about contracting COVID, despite the reality that they are less likely to become severely ill and die.

  1. They are less likely to be able to withstand the financial shock of missing work. When you are living very close to your means without much financial cushion, even a day or two away from work can be a problem. Factor in that younger workers are much less likely to have paid time off, and you can understand their worry.

In fact, a recent report from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice on basic needs insecurity at HBCUs showed that a significant proportion of the student population is already living close to the edge. Forty-six percent experienced food insecurity in the previous month. Fifty-five percent experienced housing insecurity in the previous year, with 20 percent experiencing homelessness.

If I am a college student and housing insecure, I would worry about contracting a disease that requires me to not work and to isolate from others.

  1. If they are in school, a week or two where you are sick and required to isolate may torpedo an entire semester and in turn derail progress toward graduation. Data suggest that once someone has attempted and left higher education, it is very difficult for them to find their way back in.

Imagine not worrying about a disease infecting millions of people a week that could end your college dreams. Hardly rational.

  1. Younger people are more likely to be cohabitating with older people who are more at risk from the virus.

This sort of concern for someone other than oneself is actually laudable.

Twenty-four percent of the students surveyed in the Hope Center research had a family member or friend die of the virus. It would be odd not to worry at least somewhat about being the potential cause of someone else’s death.

Some people literally can’t afford to get sick. It’s as though these people are invisible to Leonhardt. They certainly don’t factor into his “objective” analysis.

I am in a considerably more secure position than these young people, but my worries are similar.

My “worry” is rooted in the fact that I am a self-employed freelancer and that even the most mild case of COVID may prevent me working for a week (or more). I do not have a salary or sick leave. If I am sickened in a week when I am scheduled to do a seminar or give a presentation, I may lose 50 percent (or more) of my monthly income. In advance of those events, I will be taking greater precautions to keep from contracting the virus.

Also, as a self-employed person without the benefit of a group health plan, I have truly crappy insurance. If I get genuinely sick and need hospitalization, I won’t go bankrupt or anything, but the out-of-pocket costs would be a significant financial blow.

And if the odds turned against me and I contracted long COVID, of the kind documented by Washington Post games reporter Gene Park in his Twitter feed, I would fairly quickly cease to have any income whatsoever.

I don’t think this is likely to happen to me, but it could, and the one way I can make sure it doesn’t is to continue to be worried about not contracting COVID. What Leonhardt calls irrational, I see as prudence.

I’m going to live my life as best I can—in fact, I’m taking a trip next week—but I’m also going to practice the same kind of prudence as when I step into a car and put on my seat belt and then drive defensively, knowing that there is a potential danger if I drop every bit of caution.

Just about every day I’m grateful for my somewhat accidental career in market research, where I learned about how complicated data can be from some very smart and wise people. One of the first things I learned is that when drawing conclusions from data, we should be equally aware of what questions are unanswered.

The big one here is: Why are these people worried about contracting COVID-19?

Leonhardt’s incuriousness leads him straight to his own priors—that political ideology is to blame. But it is not true that ideology is the only factor in the data that explains the differences by age.

Other data exist, but we are not privy to them. The reader does not have access to the cross tabulations by age, income, race, education or other demographic characteristics. (Though I’m sure David Leonhardt could have gotten a look at them.)

It would be interesting to know how much economic security or insurance status or any number of other things contributes to worries about contracting COVID in the coming year.

Leonhardt accuses others of not reading the data “objectively,” but I think the bigger problem here is Leonhardt not reading the data deeply, as someone genuinely curious and desiring to help people better understand the world, as opposed to someone who has an “everyone but me (and people like me) is irrational” narrative to push.

Is that unfair of me? Maybe so, but it’s the best I can do from the available data.

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