Darwin Awards

Mark Pottenger


The Darwin Awards, often given posthumously, "honor" people who, through incredible stupidity, remove their own genes from any future human evolution.

The COVID-19 pandemic is producing an unprecedentedly large pool of potential candidates for Darwin Awards.

In my Utilitarian Statistics musing, I presented an argument for vaccinations based on altruism and fairness. Someone responded that the people who need to understand the argument are already inoculated against rational arguments.

I would modify that slightly to say the classes of people I discuss below are not mentally inoculated (vaccinated), they are mentally infected with unreality (false beliefs). They are living a variant of First Level Awareness shaped by a pernicious set of illusions that direct their attention away from reality, just as the attention of the audience of a stage magician is misdirected. To frame this in Kahneman System 1 / System 2 terms, these people are currently not using the System 2 parts of their brains. Just as vaccinations after infections can actually improve immunity against physical diseases (including COVID), arguments can sometimes counter mental infections. The success rate is usually low, but it is still worth trying.

This time I will focus on selfishness: the life you save may be your own.

In Utilitarian Statistics, I mentioned COVID-19 death rate figures of 2% (2 per 100) among the unvaccinated and 0.0004% (4 per million) among the vaccinated. As with all numbers related to the pandemic, the uncertainty is high because of many data collection and reporting problems and ways the pandemic has changed over time. We can still use the numbers to give us an estimate. Dividing those numbers tells us that getting vaccinated makes you 5,000 times less likely to die of COVID-19.

A CDC site about breakthrough cases, listing data as of June 28, gives some national numbers. A table of patients with COVID-19 breakthrough infections who were hospitalized or died shows:

Fully vaccinated: over 154 million

Deaths: 879 (footnote: 223 of these were asymptomatic or not related to COVID-19)

Dividing these numbers gives a vaccinated death rate of only 0.0000057 or 0.00057% (using the 879 count), or 0.0000042 or 0.00042% (using 879 minus 223). This is consistent with the number I found and used before.

To show just how uncertain all the COVID-19 numbers are, an article in the July 3 Los Angeles Times mentioned that 99.8% of COVID-19 deaths in L. A. County since December were people who were NOT vaccinated. This means 0.2% (2 per thousand) were vaccinated, which means getting vaccinated made people in L. A. County 499 times less likely to die of COVID-19.

So, to see how much vaccination improves your chances of surviving COVID-19, national numbers working down from a whole population give a ratio of 5,000 to 1, and numbers only from deaths in one populous county give a ratio of 499 to 1. I suspect that the county numbers are more reliable. Either way, those are huge improvements.

Beyond death rates, there is the major mess called "long COVID"—a term for weeks or months (or more) of various aftereffects of catching COVID-19. Some of these are mild, but a lot are nasty, even debilitating/disabling. One recent article mentioned as many as 15% of COVID-19 cases leading to long COVID, though again, the actual percentage isn't well known and varies with time and place. Vaccination reduces the severity of COVID-19 cases when a breakthrough infection occurs. Vaccination also reduces the likelihood and severity of long COVID, even if given after someone caught COVID-19. Vaccination also produces stronger and longer-lasting immunity than surviving an infection, reducing the risk of re-infection.

Vaccine hesitancy—not getting vaccinated when vaccines are available and your age and health make you eligible to get vaccinated—is a form of contagious suicidal stupidity, making people potential candidates for Darwin Awards. Actual risks of vaccine-caused problems are a few cases per million, so fears of those tiny risks or other dangerous beliefs are leading these people to avoid improving their odds of living through the pandemic by 499 to 5,000 times.

The Darwin Awards exclude people whose deadly stupidity also kills innocent bystanders, so the next class of people are worse than the vaccine hesitant.

Active anti-vaxxers, COVID deniers, COVID down-players, and conspiracy theorists are manifesting contagious murderous suicidal stupidity. They don't just endanger their own lives. They actively spread disinformation to encourage vaccine hesitancy in other people, endangering the lives of anyone who listens to them AND the population as a whole. When such people are in positions of power, they endanger lives in whole states and countries, as we saw in the U. S. in the first year of the pandemic or in India more recently.

If we don't vaccinate enough of the population to achieve herd immunity (a high enough percentage of the population with immunity to stop the spread of the virus), the pandemic will continue until EVERYONE IN THE WORLD either gets vaccinated or catches COVID-19.

Due to poverty and inadequate healthcare infrastructure, much of the world still doesn't have an adequate supply of vaccines, producing more suffering and deaths, and providing a breeding ground for new viral variants.

The combined percentage in the population of the vaccine hesitant and anti-vaxxers may be high enough to prevent nations that have adequate supplies of vaccines from achieving herd immunity, prolonging the pandemic and increasing the likelihood that new and more dangerous variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 will continue to evolve.

In fact, public health officials would already be justified in saying "I told you so" about this. The delta variant of the virus, first seen in India, is twice as transmissible as the original variant and is rapidly becoming the main variant in many countries. I have not seen anything definite about whether the delta strain is also deadlier, but if the pandemic is prolonged enough, the evolution of a deadlier strain is almost guaranteed. Depending on what evolves, the world could face more deaths from first infections, more long COVID complications, more reinfections of COVID infection survivors, or, in the worst case, variants that bypass the immunity from the currently deployed vaccines, sending everyone back to lock-downs, shutdowns, swamped hospitals, and death surges.

In conclusion, everyone healthy enough to get vaccinated should do so ASAP, to increase their own chances of survival by 499 to 5,000 times and to help end the pandemic.

Copyright © 2021 Mark Pottenger

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