Omicron, false dichotomies, and the ‘new normal’

In September 2020, Ed Yong, of The Atlantic, wrote an article headlined “America is trapped in a pandemic spiral,” in which he listed nine “conceptual errors” that were plaguing the COVID response and the public discussion around it. Second on his list—after the collective inability to focus on more than one public-health intervention at a time (because “journalists constantly look for new stories,” among other things)—came “false dichotomies,” or the persistent temptation to reduce complex problems to a “two-sided caricature.” Yong’s examples included “mild” versus “severe” illness (a “mild” COVID infection might not feel mild at all to the infectee), “sick” versus “recovered” (what about those with long COVID?), “saving lives” versus “saving the economy” (the latter cannot operate without a good baseline of public health), and “lockdown” versus “let it rip” (language that put one in mind of a light switch when many policy choices existed between the extremes). “A world of black and white is easier to handle than one awash with grays,” Yong wrote. “But false dichotomies are dangerous.”

Yong did not frame false dichotomies as a media problem in isolation, and for good reason: when they crept into our coverage, they were often downstream of oversimplified public-health messaging or (especially in the case of the economy example) political spin; indeed, many reporters worked hard to debunk false choices and explain the messiness of reality. Still, while going about the work of making a disorienting new world more comprehensible for their audiences, journalists did often indulge false dichotomies. And Yong was far from alone in diagnosing the problem. In April 2020, during the first wave, I wrote about the foolishness of the lives versus livelihoods “debate,” given the basic complementarity of its supposed poles. Health officials and academics weighed in, too, with one research paper identifying six persistent false dichotomies in pandemic discourse and situating them as drivers of polarization. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia published a “name the logical fallacy” quiz to help health providers spot false dichotomies, as well as red herrings and ad hominem attacks.

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As the pandemic has progressed and new interventions have emerged alongside new variants of COVID, our understanding of the virus and the collective response to it has, if anything, grown even messier, defying reduction to competing extremes to an ever-greater extent. But false dichotomies haven’t left our pandemic coverage; in fact, one could make a convincing case that they’re now as problematic as ever, if not more so. A large part of the reason for the increased messiness is uneven vaccine takeup, and its diverse effect on risk calculations. The vaccinated versus the unvaccinated, of course, is itself a dichotomy—one which, perhaps somewhat ironically, reflects a basic underlying truth (about protection from COVID) more accurately than other distinctions named above. Yet even here, the binary can obscure more than it reveals. Despite much punditry suggesting the contrary, unvaccinated people cannot all be dumped in the same bucket of political motivation and socioeconomic status; the protection of vaccinated people, meanwhile, can differ based on their comorbidities. And early coverage of the vaccines too often presented them as an all-or-nothing tool to stop infection, de-emphasizing their more basic function—to protect against hospitalization and death—and teeing up an eventual panic about breakthroughs.

The emergence and spread of the Omicron variant has perhaps raised the inappropriateness of false dichotomies to the nth degree: since lots of very different things can be true about the variant at once—not least that it generally presents mildly for vaccinated individuals while posing a sharp collective threat to the healthcare system—boiling its impact down to contrary propositions should be particularly difficult. (Even the difference between individual and collective outcomes, as I’ve written before, itself risks becoming a false dichotomy, since bad individual outcomes make up the collective problem.) And yet right-wing commentators, in particular, have sought to draw a clean distinction between people admitted to hospital because of Omicron and people who were admitted for other reasons only to test positive on arrival and be lumped in with the former group in official statistics. This is a fair distinction to probe, but as Yong wrote recently, it isn’t by any means clean: a COVID infection may have imperceptibly tipped an otherwise sick person over the line between not needing to go to the hospital and needing to go; even if it didn’t, any type of COVID admission can overwhelm a hospital, by taking up more space and resources than a typical admission would require.

Omicron’s dynamics have intensified supposed social binaries, too. Media narratives around school closures, particularly in Chicago, have sometimes ossified into dichotomies—pro-opening schools versus pro-closing them; pro-parent versus pro-teacher—that are clearly oversimplified. Then there’s the umpteenth iteration of the public health versus the economy debate. We are categorically not back in April 2020—the virus behaves differently now, and we have effective interventions, not least mass vaccination, that enable a vastly greater degree of safe economic activity. Still, we are now seeing, to some extent, why it was always folly to frame health and economics as a pure tradeoff: the virus circulating at high levels, for instance, leads to worker shortages, which is hardly good for the economy. As Alex Pareene wrote in a widely-shared newsletter over the weekend, pundits who complain about the remaining restrictions on Americans’ behavior often talk as if these restrictions are government-mandated, when they are mostly now a reflection of individual choices and corporate decision-making in response to the fact of COVID’s rapid spread.

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Omicron perhaps points, more than anything else, to the greatest of all COVID false dichotomies: staying stuck in the pandemic forever versus returning to “normal.” There is still no light switch here. As I’ve written before, the “end of the pandemic” is not a set medical threshold; at most, it’s a collective determination, but it’s perhaps more accurate to cast it as a function of millions of personal judgments, not to mention enforced personal circumstances. (The pandemic certainly is not over for the immunocompromised.) “Normal,” ultimately, is not a single, discrete condition. It’s often invoked, in topline coverage of the pandemic, to mean something like a return to the way our individual lives were before 2020. But here, too, there are collective realities that we should want to leave in the past. In the old normal, America’s public-health and healthcare institutions were shockingly ill-equipped to handle a sudden crisis, which was always going to hammer communities of color due to systemic inequities across the sweep of society. Even when a relative consensus emerges that the pandemic has ended, it will be the media’s job to continue to scrutinize these failures, and what is being done about them.

And consensus as to the end of the pandemic in America won’t necessarily mean the end of the pandemic in the rest of the world—another dichotomy that too often goes uninterrogated in US media, and not just in COVID coverage. A number of journalists have long kept an eagle eye on global vaccine inequity; when Omicron first emerged, the fact that it was discovered in southern Africa moved that story closer to the center of the news cycle, since it looked like the scenario that the eagle eyes warned us about. Top-level news coverage, for a time, presented the world as a messy, interconnected place, not “here” and “there.” But that equity focus has fallen away again, becoming less prominent in the news cycle. We need to recenter it. The pandemic spiral has always been a global affair, dichotomies be damned.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • “A terrible idea”: Last week, Yong pushed back on the argument, aired on social media and in various op-eds, that overwhelmed hospitals should deny medical care to unvaccinated COVID patients. “I ran this argument past several ethicists, clinicians, and public-health practitioners,” Yong writes. “Many of them sympathized with the exasperation and fear behind the sentiment. But all of them said that it was an awful idea—unethical, impractical, and founded on a shallow understanding of why some people remain unvaccinated.” A person’s choices, Yong adds, “are always constrained by their circumstances. Even now, unvaccinated people are not all refusers.”
  • “The ed beat”: After schools closed for several days in Chicago earlier this month, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, spoke with Tracy Swartz, an education reporter at the Chicago Tribune, about covering the standoff between the teacher’s union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “I’ve definitely heard from parents on both sides—some who were very upset that their kids couldn’t go to school,” Swartz said, “and then some parents who are upset that the school district did not have a safety agreement in place for this school year.” You can listen to their conversation here on CJR’s podcast, The Kicker.
  • “Forget the polls”: Last week, Walter Shapiro argued, for the New Republic, that it’s foolish for pundits to predict the results of November’s midterms without knowing how the COVID picture will look. “Political handicappers seem determined to treat 2022 as an ordinary election year,” he wrote. “As a result, we are awash in glib forecasts about how the inflation rate, Biden’s approval numbers, or the Democratic stalemate on Capitol Hill will determine the congressional elections. But that’s like ignoring the Depression in making political predictions about 1932… All the experts bloviating on cable TV have no idea whether the pandemic will be raging or waning as Americans vote.”
  • “A jarring spectacle”: Yesterday, thousands of anti-vaccine activists marched in Washington, DC, in protest of vaccination mandates; a team of reporters from the Washington Post spotted legions of Trump fans at the rally, some with posters adorned with election conspiracy theories, as well as people affiliated with extremist militia groups. Ahead of time, NBC’s Ben Collins called the rally “a sign that the anti-vaccination movement that gained traction on social media during the pandemic is spilling even further into politics and real life.” Del Bigtree, a leading anti-vaxxer who spoke at the event, threatened that the movement would “come after the press.”


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Kevin Barrett, in quarantine after his former hospital roommate tested positive for COVID-19, sits in bed as he recovers from an injury as registered nurse Scott McGieson looks at records in the room in the acute care unit of Harborview Medical Center, Friday, Jan. 14, 2022, in Seattle. About half the patients in the unit are COVID-19 positive or in quarantine after exposure. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is deploying 100 members of the state National Guard to hospitals across the state amid staff shortages due to an omicron-fueled spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Inslee announced Thursday that teams will be deployed to assist four overcrowded emergency departments at hospitals in Everett, Yakima, Wenatchee and Spokane, and that testing teams will be based at hospitals in Olympia, Richland, Seattle and Tacoma. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)