Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Defiant Superspreaders

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 6, 2020 --  

The effort to contain the coronavirus pandemic has failed. People must learn to live with unending community spread.

When the pandemic's first wave swept from Wuhan to Italy, London then New York, widespread fear of the disease inspired thinking people to rise to action. A scientific consensus quickly formed to implement short-term lockdowns followed by social distancing, mask wearing, aggressive rapid testing and contact tracing. The plan was to use this toolkit to keep the virus at bay and prevent millions of deaths worldwide.

That plan has utterly failed. Despite successes in a few countries on the Western Pacific Rim, the virus has deeply established itself with high infection rates in most countries around the world. A non-compliant minority has often refused to wear masks and rapid testing in the United States has devolved into slow and expensive commercial ventures. Meanwhile, contact tracing in most locales has no hope of keeping up with widespread community transmission.

What caused this abysmal failure? Many Americans would like to blame their unpopular, obstinate and science-denying president who was himself infected by the virus due thorough repeated irresponsible behavior. His own infection was likely related to a super-spreading event he hosted on the White House lawn. And while he undoubtedly bears some blame for inspiring widespread non-compliance with public health guidance in the United States, he cannot be blamed for similar behavior in other countries.

In Israel, where cases are skyrocketing, new infections in ultra-Orthodox communities are occurring at three times the rate of the country as a whole and are responsible for 40 percent of new cases, according to Israel's Coronavirus Czar.1 In the Netherlands, mask-wearing is still remarkably rare, with national public health officials still questioning its efficacy, and the public opposed to a mandatory rule.2 Cases in the Netherlands have been growing all summer, much like in neighboring countries that may be more prone to wear masks, but have other compliance issues of their own.

Clearly, Trump cannot be blamed for the rise in cases in Europe and Israel whose citizens often refuse to follow scientific guidance. Israelis and Europeans have their own reasons for defiance.

Youths around the world often are the least compliant, driven by the "I've just got to see my friends or I'll die!" irrationality common to adolescents across all cultures. Parents have failing to make teenage kids keep their pants on for thousands of years -- is it really surprising when they can't stop them from just hanging out?

Amongst adults, there are other drivers of non-compliance. Lack of fear is key among them. Since April, the death rate from coronavirus infections has declined dramatically. Perhaps this is because hospitals are less overwhelmed. Perhaps this is because care has improved. Perhaps the virus has evolved to be less deadly. Whatever the reason, if the virus appears less dangerous, it is not surprising that some adults will be less averse to risky behavior that could lead to contacting it.

But probably the biggest factor influencing behavior is peer emulation. People want to be accepted by their peers, and work hard to fit in. While this inclination is most associated with youth, it applies to everyone. People in the White House don't wear masks or social distance because they take the signal from their bosses. Orthodox Jews crowd huge funerals in the occupied territories because their rabbis say to do so, and they believe what they are told. The Dutch crowd in bars and coffeehouses because everybody else is doing it. And teenagers everywhere sneak out to meet their friends, because they yearn to fit in.

While these defiant groups may be a small minority of the population, it doesn't much matter. Because as America's president showed in a televised event on the White House lawn, it only takes small minorities of non-compliant people to create superspreading events. One of the most studied incidents originated at a Biotech conference in Boston in late February, and up to 20,000 cases may have ultimately resulted.3 So long as small groups of non-compliant people exist, community spread will keep going and continue to threaten the rest of us.

The tragedy is that it didn't have to be this way. China, Taiwan and New Zealand have all shown it is possible to stop community spread through compliance with the scientific consensus. They have all brought new infections close to zero. Those countries are experiencing the exact benefits that scientists hoped we could achieve by following a few simple rules for the good of everyone -- mask wearing aside, life there has returned to normal. Not so for the rest of us. More than six months on in the pandemic, it is unlikely that behaviors of the defiant superspreaders will change. For the foreseeable future, we have no choice but to suffer life in the world they have created.

Related Web Columns:

Youth Firewall, August 25, 2020

Open Defiance, August 11, 2020

Sunk by the Flunkies, June 30, 2020


1. The New York Times, Israel's Coronavirus Lockdown Fuels Protests, Violence and Confusion, October 5, 2020

2. Politico, As Europe Masks Up, the Netherlands Dithers, August 1, 2020

3. CNN, Covid-19 Superspreading Event in Boston May Have Led to 20,000 Cases, Researcher Says, August 25, 2020