The Grind

Fatalism is the true disease

Dec. 19, 2021, 5:35 p.m.

The reignition of COVID-19 hysteria is somewhat resemblant of a nuclear fusion reactor. Indifferent lightweight particles violently smash into one another as modern physicists hasten to control ionized gas that blazes with the passion of the sun. Others decide to fire lasers at pellets of uranium-235. The energy produced through the fusion of atoms is absorbed as heat in the walls of the vessel — although that does not always work. So why are the physicists doing this again?

Evidently, the worlds of nuclear fusion and infectious disease are alike in that they contain many variables and sometimes lose a sense of direction. It is impossible for one person or a group of people to keep track of so much. There is a wealth of information out there to be discovered about how plasma behaves and how the immune system behaves, but such insights are far from being substantially understood.

Optimists believe that the first proof-of-concept fusion reactor demonstration will dazzle the world in December 2025, and a complete commercial rollout will come sometime around 2040. Merely saying the word “optimist,” however, is enough to make a prisoner at this juncture roll their eyes at this point. Indeed, there’s a litany of reasons to believe that fusion reactors will not arrive on time, just as there’s a litany of reasons to believe that we will not return to in-person instruction on time. And the logic of such a statement has little to do with logic at all by this point. Rather, it’s the process whereby another disillusioned member of Generation Z is looking to predict how untrustworthy institutions will save face this time. That’s the way this works, after all.

By now, the reasoning does not revolve around case numbers or hospitalizations but rather public perception and the powers that be. At least 95% of University students, staff, faculty and postdoctoral scholars are vaccinated — and yet, for example, if the aging population of professors and other faculty are weary of exposing themselves to the Omicron wave, then I suppose we can toss our beloved metrics into the waste bin.

As easy as it is to claim that I am the fatalistic one, resorting to our 2020 playbook is a worse concession than carefully relaxing restrictions, I believe, as the former feeds into the bottomless, irrational fear on which the virus thrives.

Of course, I don’t mean to minimize the threat that this virus poses, especially to the immunocompromised and the elderly. All that I mean to insist is that the daily choices that you made before the pandemic were also risk calculations. Families drive cars even though crashes harm significantly more children than COVID-19. We go on morning runs or bike across campus even though some of us from time to time will end up injured as a result.

What is the endgame? Eventually, we have to take our lives back. We can’t cower to the constant stream of panicked, blasé Atlantic articles forever.

From personal observation, I’ve seen that some members of my cohort are planning to stay off campus for the first two weeks, perhaps to gallivant around the world some more or to avoid pricey airline tickets. We can either accept COVID-19 infection as inevitable or we can delay the inevitable, as many students may live off campus for the first two weeks. Would you rather have students living on campus, where 95% of people are vaccinated, or would you have them living among the general population, only to bring disease to campus?

Most of the spread, I would imagine, will take place in dormitories and illicit social gatherings rather than classes. Not to mention, students aren’t going to follow these protocols in their dorms anyway, because the protocols are intrusive and most residential assistants are reasonable enough not to breathe down our necks during trying times like these.

A couple of months ago, I was exchanging emails with a professor who was encouraging me to take a new course of hers. “It would be lovely to have you as a student again, this time in person,” she wrote. Perhaps she spoke too soon — and perhaps I should not have gotten my hopes up.

Admittedly, I think I’ve come to expect disappointment, defeat and dissatisfaction so much that I don’t have a reaction or a take. When I woke up the morning after Thanksgiving to news of a new variant, I merely thought, “Oh, yes. Of course this is happening.” When word spread that the first two weeks of class would be online, I thought, “Checks out. After all, this is the crummy world I was destined to live in anyway!”

The reverberations are real — as are the divisions. In March 2020, we had some zest in the tank and truly believed that we were “alone together.” Time has proven that insipid phrase to be hilariously false. Schisms have deepened between racial groups, political creeds and generations. The undercurrent of animosity and indignation in this moment becomes harder to ignore as the exhaustion drags on. In fact, a September study by the European Council on Foreign Relations noticed “a widespread sense in many societies that the futures of the young have been sacrificed for the sake of their parents and their grandparents.”

In the words of Ian Bogost, “Everyone knows the past is gone, but now the past’s future feels lost too. I hope it’s not, but I can’t shake the feeling.”

I have a confession. I haven’t unraveled my incessant mindset of victimhood in this piece. Fatalism is more clever than some 30-odd mutations on a spike protein. At a certain point, despair becomes seductive, and hope becomes a destructive narcotic. Grief becomes cumulative, and once you arrive at that point, nothing can be processed. You just shut down, and you come to see your life as I have, through the chaotic lens of a boxer. Maybe Floyd Patterson. Even for the 1960s, he had the utterly plausible body of a featherweight, yet he ended up with his back against the ropes as the future heavyweight champion Sonny Liston landed one hook after another across his face. Patterson surrendered to his fate.

Matthew Turk ’24 is a managing editor for The Stanford Daily. He leads the mobile app development team as well and is majoring in computer science. This summer, Matthew is a software engineering intern at The Washington Post. His novels, An Invincible Summer (2021) and Baba Yaga (2022), are in stores. Ask Matthew about astrophysics, football and the automotive industry. Contact him at mturk ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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