Sunday, August 01, 2021

Variation on a Theme

The resurgence of coronavirus infections from the Delta variant seems like a variation on the tragedy of the commons.

As originally proposed, a tragedy of the commons refers to individuals acting independently in their own self interest, ultimately depleting a natural resource until it's no longer available to anyone. The players pursue their short-term interests without considering the needs of others nor their own long-term interest. A group of farmers who let their cows graze on a shared field (the common) until the grass is gone was reportedly the example used to illustrate the initial concept. A real, current example: restrictions to prevent overfishing the waters off New England.

Turning to the variation: the SARS-CoV-2 virus keeps mutating, a clear example of evolution, with the surviving variants better adapted to infecting people and propagating the virus. The Delta variant first appeared in India last fall, where a huge unvaccinated population provided a fertile environment. Travelers then carried it other countries, and it seems to be the dominant variant in the U.S., hospitalizing and killing the unvaccinated. As troubling, it is infecting the vaccinated, who have mild symptoms yet serve as carriers to spread infections.

It's a tragic reversal for Americans, just as we were shifting back to "normal" and enjoying the summer.

The best way to defeat the virus hasn't changed since the start of 2021: get vaccinated, avoid gatherings with groups in tightly packed spaces, and wear a mask around anyone who could be a carrier. Straightforward, yet some Americans feel being told to get vaccinated and wear a mask are infringements on individual liberty. They resist and protest, encouraged by political leaders who fan the "don't tread on me" flames.

And so we have a tragedy, like a tragedy of the commons. As individuals exercise their personal liberty, society suffers. Infections increase and people die.

Governments and businesses are now imposing vaccinate or test mandates and requiring that people wear masks. Ironically, this response could have been avoided if only those advocating personal liberty had chosen to get vaccinated and wear a mask "for the good of the country." Unfortunately, paraphrasing Voltaire, no snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche.

Initially published on August 1, 2021 on my HEY World blog.