The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday January 19th

Column: Thoughts almost 365 days into the pandemic

This Saturday will mark the one-year anniversary of former President Donald Trump officially declaring COVID-19 a national emergency. 

I can’t believe an entire year has almost passed since the world turned upside down seemingly overnight. Of all the consequences stemming from pandemic-stricken life, there’s no question surrounding the injection of free time into so many of our lives when the lockdowns initially began. 

For many, the surplus time amplified an unnatural cocktail of emotions in response to a string of policy decisions (or lack thereof) made at the federal level. As someone who struggles in knowing where and how to look for sources of signal among four years of constant noise, I still find it difficult to establish concrete opinions on the legacy of Trump and his response to the pandemic. 

Thanks to a series of agreeable decisions on the part of a new crowd of civil servants, the contrast between my mental state a year ago to what it is now couldn’t be greater. What used to be a generalized state of anxiety has switched to a generalized state of optimism for what’s yet to come.

At the local level, it finally seems like America has reentered the scene of global leadership. More than 80,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are expected to arrive in N.C. later this week. Gov. Cooper’s latest executive order easing stay-at-home orders and occupancy restrictions signals a public effort to return to pre-pandemic life. 

Overall, how can anybody be unhappy about the fall in hospitalizations and rise in public confidence? But as trends stabilize, I’m finding it harder and harder to match my optimism from these magical lipid nanoparticles with a healthy serving of integrity to constantly seek the truth. 

If there’s an absolute truth I’ve learned from majoring in statistics, it’s just how misleading statistics can be. The field of statistical inference as a whole suffers from enormous limitations with regard to its real-world forecasting applications and predictive capabilities. That’s why I’m beginning to find the celebrity-like persona stamped onto public health figures like Dr. Anthony Fauci a little unnerving. 

Even chief policy advisors are capable of mistaking absence of evidence for evidence of absence and other elementary mistakes with probability. 

One example that readily comes to mind is when U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams initially dismissed the use of masks. Or when Fauci threw shade at the AstraZeneca vaccine because of its reduced efficacy rate, an error that will likely delay our recovery. We should be careful to avoid mixing incentives at the individual level with harmful results for the collective.

Fauci and Adams aside, I’m more upset with a new widespread virus I’m beginning to notice —the vast majority of our major institutions are operated by boomer “experts” who have decision-making powers often absent of any rigorous approach. 

I just hope that before daily commutes, traffic and waiting in lines again stow away any recently-discovered pockets of free time, we’re able to save our institutions before we succumb to some strain of permanent chaos.

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