Archive | March, 2021

COVID, Alex Jones, and pseudoscientific discrimination

23 Mar

Yesterday, noted huckster Alex Jones was on Yale’s campus to film a video in front of the Skull and Bones Secret Society. A Yale Daily News article described the scene as, “Jones stood outside of the Skull and Bones tomb on High Street…He came to New Haven with bodyguards and a cameraman; neither Jones nor those who accompanied him wore masks.” The article goes on to present two students’ contrasting views on whether Alex Jones should be on campus, maskless, during a pandemic.

This framing of this debate strikes me as deeply misguided (but if you’re here for a screed against campus cancel culture, you’re not going to get it). Jones was standing on a public sidewalk in New Haven. His visit was entirely outdoors. Outdoor transmission of COVID can happen, but it is significantly, significantly less likely (18.7x according to this study, or basically never according to this one). Wearing a mask outdoors is preferable to not, but it’s important to recognize that its marginal effect on COVID risk is very small, because the underlying risk is already tiny. While someone like Alex Jones deserves mockery, scorn, and protest, he deserves it for political reasons, not for his maskless, outdoor appearance in New Haven.

I think this matters for two reasons. First, it is important to recognize that most people can’t totally eliminate COVID risk in their lives, and therefore one should be clear about what is more and less risky. Being outside unmasked is simply far less risky than being inside with others masked. Wearing a mask and good ventilation are far more important than sanitizing surfaces. A year into the pandemic, it’s worrying how many of these differences in risk levels are not commonly understood or incorporated in government policy.

Second, there’s the issue of who is on the end of pseudoscientific COVID-shaming. I’m not really concerned about the Alex Joneses of this world. I am concerned that misdirected social sanctioning inspired by COVID can be used as another way to exclude and punish marginalized populations. When mask-wearing orders went into effect in New York, unsurprisingly, some of the first people violently arrested outdoors for violating it were black. In another viral video, a man berates a Hasidic Jewish man walking on an empty sidewalk for carrying his mask. Neither of the victims posed any serious public health risk.

The pandemic has limited our ability to move in the social spaces we normally would, and has also understandably led us to try to decrease the number of people with whom we come into contact. But there’s a dangerous path in which well-intentioned, health-inspired social sanctioning ends up targeting people for engaging in normal, responsible behavior. This social sanctioning will almost inevitably be racialized, as whites continue to get COVID vaccines at a higher rate than non-whites. Ultimately, pseudoscientific COVID-shaming can create even more unequal views and policies about who belongs to different public spaces.

To return to where I started, Yale currently asks visitors to stay away from campus because of the pandemic. While there is certainly a public health rationale to the policy, I sincerely hope justification is never used to prevent regular New Haveners, the majority of whom are non-white, from walking through Yale’s public spaces.