Liberating our Minds - Thoughts about 9/11 and Covid-19

September 11th Covid 19

With the 20th anniversary of September 11 just having passed I felt compelled to make a reference to it in this post. What I find interesting is that after the Twin Towers and Pentagon were attacked and over 3,000 people were killed on American soil, there was almost unanimous consensus to go after Al-Qaeda by invading Afghanistan. 20 years later we have departed Afghanistan and, while there is a lot of consternation over how we did it, there seems to be a consensus that the time to be there had come and gone and that the costs were too high to remain there. 

What I find particularly interesting is that approximately 676,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 and yet after being attacked by this viral enemy there is not only a lack of consensus among Americans about the safety and efficacy of vaccines but there is great vitriol and divisiveness related to it as well. Before citing some statistics about the efficacy of the vaccines, I will first offer that I initially very much took a wait and see, border lining on skeptical, attitude to the vaccines given how fast they were deployed. I in no way wanted to be a guinea pig. With that being said, I did not have a particularly high-risk profile, other than needing heart surgery in February (a minor anomaly to my otherwise good health) so I was perfectly willing to study the data, particularly from Israel, since it was one of the first countries to inoculate its highest risk citizens on a very rapid basis. I would label my mindset as skeptically optimistic. In other words, I absolutely had sympathy for vaccine skeptics early on. The main difference for me, however, from many others who vehemently oppose getting vaccinated and go so far as to adopt conspiracy theories for some of the reasons they won’t, I took on the attitude of John Maynard Keynes who is reported to have said

“When the facts change, I change my mind.” Click To Tweet

So with the delta variant impacting the country and other parts of the world, what are the facts that have led me to go from a wait and see attitude to one of vaccine advocacy? They come from an article last week in the Washington Post. I will highlight the key aspects from my perspective.

Unvaccinated people were 11 times more likely to die of covid-19

I decided to leave the sub-headline about Moderna being the most effective since that is the vaccine I was given. I’m tipping my hat for being lucky to get that one. Plus I had no side effects other than a sore arm.

Let’s cut right to the chase by citing the first paragraph of the article.

People who were not fully vaccinated this spring and summer were more than 10 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 11 times more likely to die of covid-19, than those who were fully vaccinated, according to one of three major studies published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that highlight the continued efficacy of all three vaccines amid the spread of the highly contagious delta variant.

Bono, the lead singer of U2, has said of his guitarist, bandmate The Edge, that he gets a sexual charge out of data. I can’t say I have the same reaction but I do love statistical analysis and the patterns, insights, and conclusions that can be drawn when the sample size is large and well represented, and variables are effectively controlled in a well-designed study. 

I often look at life through the prism of risk-reward and regret minimization. Is the prospective reward from the action I’m taking worth the risk or is the cost of the action worth the risk reduction? Here’s a silly example but one that is very relevant for me. As many readers know, I have been playing a lot of tennis. When playing doubles and serving, if I hit my serve into the net, then my net partner is there to retrieve the ball. There’s obviously minimal effort on my part. When playing singles, however, the burden is on me. Sometimes the thought crosses my mind to just leave the ball on the court and play the point out because I don’t want to expend the effort to retrieve the ball or to slow down the game by doing so. My calculating, rational mind then takes over. I tell myself there is almost no downside of me going to retrieve the ball other than the infinitesimally small risk of tripping and hurting myself getting it. 

In addition, slowing down the game is actually often a benefit because I can get some rest because I can get tired when playing singles because of the physical exertion. What I do know with 100% certainty, however, is that if I leave the ball on the court during the point then my odds of getting hurt have gone up exponentially and I would regret that potentially for the rest of my life if the consequences of the injury are bad enough. Even if my injury is minor or doesn’t happen I would still beat myself up for being a stupid, lazy idiot. This would be even more magnified if I am not able to play the point with full flexibility and freedom due to having to avoid tripping over the ball. The bottom line is there is almost no cost or downside to retrieving the ball and infinite risk reduction by having done so. This is generally how I feel about getting vaccinated. Yes, there is always a risk to having anything injected into our bodies, but the data suggest for the vast majority of people the risks are quite minimal in terms of triggering negative health outcomes. And yes, I recognize that so far all looks good, but these are still new vaccines and we don’t know if there will be long-term consequences to them. Fair point but I’m still banking on that the risk mitigation of avoiding hospitalization and death of Covid far outweighs the risk of having very harmful vaccine side effects.

The following excerpt points to the strong protection from the vaccines in preventing hospitalizations, particularly the Moderna vaccine.

While the three vaccines were collectively 86 percent effective in preventing hospitalization, protection was significantly higher among Moderna vaccine recipients (95 percent) than among those who got Pfizer-BioNTech (80 percent) or Johnson & Johnson (60 percent). That finding echoes a smaller study by the Mayo Clinic Health System in August, not yet peer-reviewed, which showed the Moderna vaccine to be more effective than Pfizer-BioNTech at preventing infections during the delta wave. 

Here is another interesting aspect of the study.

In the CDC report that analyzed vaccine effectiveness by brand, researchers looked at how well the shots protected against severe disease. They measured effectiveness against hospitalization and, separately, against trips to the emergency department or urgent care. Overall effectiveness in preventing emergency department or urgent-care trips was 82 percent. Effectiveness was highest among Moderna recipients (92 percent), followed by Pfizer (77 percent) and Johnson & Johnson (65 percent).

Let’s return to September 11 for a bit. One may argue whether staying in Afghanistan for as long as we did was the right course of action. What we do know is that there have been no other major foreign terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since that time. Of course, there have been many more countries that we have been working in to help protect the homeland. There is no argument that the cost was tremendous in terms of lives lost, money spent, and resources diverted fighting there. With that being said, Bloomberg put together some charts showing how certain parts of our economy have grown (or not) since 9/11. Pay close attention to the collapse that took place after Covid. This dwarfed anything that happened in the wake of 9/11. Yes, I know people will say that everything would have been fine without the lockdowns and we should have treated it like the flu, but the vast majority of people intuitively knew that the flu is not nearly as deadly as Covid and there was a lot we didn’t know about it so the course of action with the highest return would be to avoid congregating with people, no matter what the government said. The cost was high in terms of losing out on socialization, physical and mental well being, and economic impact, just to name some of the key areas of our lives, but to actively seek out being in large groups of people was perceived to be a higher risk because the virus could do whacky things that confounded doctors and we just didn’t know if we would be one of those that would die from it or suffer long-term consequences (i.e. leaving the ball on the court). 

Not surprisingly, military spending went up, although it has come back down again as a percentage of GDP.

Military Spending Since World War II 1946 - 2020

Employment in the Big Apple got crushed by Covid, far more than 9/11.

Jobs in New York City 1990 - 2020

In the wake of 9/11, I remember the utter fear people (including myself) had of flying and looking at everyone in the boarding area and those getting on the plane with total suspicion that they could be terrorists. And if you looked like you were from the Middle East, there was palpable fear generated by that person. I’m not saying it was right or fair, it’s just what was. Now, look at how much more air travel has fallen off in the wake of Covid

Air Travel - Monthly revenue passenger miles, U.S. airlines, seasonally adjusted 2000 - 2020

Undoubtedly technology via Zoom, etc. has been a substitute that was not available after 9/11 so in some ways, people had to start flying again to get the economy back on its feet. This is not necessarily the case today when it comes to business travel.

Tourists and Business Travelers - International visitors to the U.S., trailing 12 months

My point of all of this is that in the wake of 9/11 there was a consensus that we had to go after the enemy that attacked us and destroy them which also required us to build up intelligence assets overseas and thwart any material threats to Americans at home or abroad. And to get people circulating again we needed to invest heavily in airport security as the following graph shows we have done.

Security Services 1990 - 2020 Employment in (private-secttor) investigation and security services as a percentage of nonfarm payroll employment

We have a viral enemy now that is attacking the world. One could make the case that maybe we way overinvested for a very costly, but anomalous event (9-11), but that was not palatable as the perceived risk of doing nothing was far too high among Americans and its elected leaders and that the cost of taking the fight to the enemy was worth it until it wasn’t. With Covid-19, however, and its variants, there is no question that it is a transmissible disease that kills and has killed millions around the world and may end up killing over one million Americans by the end of next year if we don’t gain more ground fighting it. And right now the only effective way of fighting it if the data is to be believed is by mass vaccination. It’s not 100% risk-free just like the war on terror wasn’t, but it sure beats the alternative of doing nothing and letting more people get sick and die and cause huge problems for our hospital systems and lead to the rationing of care and people dying who otherwise would not have to. With 9/11 we had a plan of attack that we didn’t know it would be successful or even needed. With Covid-19 we have a plan of attack that has proven to be successful and needed. To me pursuing an aggressive strategy of mass vaccination is a no-brainer.

While I’m sure I will get some very negative comments to this post,  I have never lived my life or attained what I have by being concerned about catering to people’s emotions, especially when I think they lead to positions that are ill-informed or personally harmful. When it has come to vitally important decisions related to my health and financial well being I am obsessively focused on data and risk-reward. And by having done so it has paid massive dividends. I have lived my life without crawling under a rock and hiding because I’m fearful of everything. On the contrary, I don’t fear that much that I won’t live my life fully engaged and intent on seeing the world and experiencing new things. With that being said, I have never been a thrill seeker so I will avoid those actions that may give me a rush at the moment but may have irreversible negative outcomes including physical incapacitation and death. 

If you are inclined to post something negative related to this article, I encourage you to pause and ask yourself why are you so upset? Is it because the risk of changing your mind and altering what you believe puts your entire identity at risk? Is it because you will no longer have a core ideology to guide you? You will not know who you really are and you may look at your friends and family differently? For me, when I have gotten to the point where I have realized that I have had to shed some of my beliefs because they were just not right or they were no longer serving me, I have found it incredibly liberating. When I have been able to change my mind, I have found that I have been able to change my life…often for the better.

3 comments on “Liberating our Minds - Thoughts about 9/11 and Covid-19
  1. Becki Gross says:

    Can you call my sister and discuss? Thank you for your gift of eloquent writing and for sharing it! I am certain I will use some info from this blog. Do I have permission?

  2. Dan Fischer says:

    Gary – Love your post! As always, you’re right on the mark. I was pondering the same questions this weekend as I thought of 9/11 and where we were as a country 20 years ago.

  3. Don Engels says:

    Great article. Hopefully you convince a few to get the shot.

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