New York Times’ David Leonhardt on Covid
My guest on this week’s episode of The Interview is David Leonhardt, New York Times senior writer who helms the paper’s highly influential morning newsletter, The Morning.
The Morning, which goes out to a reported 14 million readers each day, has earned buzz thanks in part to Leonhardt’s clear-eyed writing on the Covid pandemic — writing that often challenges the conventional wisdom of the pundit class as well as the Times’s own readers.
Recent affronts to prevailing narratives include a piece on the harm we are inflicting on children, on Omicron being milder, on masks not having quite the effect many believe, on learning to live with Covid, on whether the massive Omicron surge has peaked, and just this morning, on Covid partisanship on the Supreme Court bench.
Leonhardt has been at the Times for more than two decades. In that time he served as Washington Bureau chief, worked for the Opinion section, created The Upshot, and picked up up a Pulitzer Prize as a columnist for the Business section.
I called up Leonhardt on Thursday to discuss the latest on the Omicron wave, what he makes of media coverage of the Covid pandemic, misinformation from the right and left, as well as his career in journalism, and the future of the New York Times.
Read some highlights below.
On Omicron and the flu
I think it’s probably milder than the the flu. My reading of [the evidence] is that for a vaccinated 75-year-old, the risks pre-Omicron were pretty similar to the flu, and they’re now lower than the flu. The big caveat there is that flu is bad if you’re 75, or can be really bad… Which is to say the flu is quite damaging. Of course, the flip side of that is, we don’t shut down society because of the flu.
On whether we are close to Covid being endemic
We’re going to come out of Omicron with a whole bunch of big advantages. A lot more people are going to have immunity from having gotten Omicron. Huge numbers of people have gotten vaccinated. And so I think when we don’t have the vertical line wave [of cases] like Omicron, I think it is very easy to imagine a situation in which — based on the science, as people like to say — we could start to treat this as an endemic disease. There is a separate question: whether significant numbers of Americans are psychologically ready to do that, even if it is the rational thing to do.
On the partisan pattern of concerns about Covid
What I find kind of fascinating and frankly a little befuddling is that there is a partisan pattern to these concerns. And I think that’s part of what you see on Twitter, right? Conservatives, many of them, have been irrationally blasé about the pandemic, to the point of not getting vaccinated. People may genuinely feel that the vaccine presents more risk to them than Covid. They are wrong about that. But it is a genuine feeling. And I think a lot of liberals have said, Oh, look at those insane conservatives with their anti-science views.
But there is a liberal version of that. It is not as bad as not taking the vaccine. But it’s dangerous and it’s anti-science. If if liberals are essentially unable to re-engage with normal society, if they’re unable to let their kids go to school and sit with their friends at lunch and talk with their friends at lunch without a mask for months and months and months or years after this, that’s not believing the science, as people like to say, and it’s deeply damaging. And so I think there’s going to be a really interesting question about how can progressives get to the point of putting Covid in the proper perspective.
On facing criticism from the right and left
I’ve heard from some conservatives who think I’m exaggerating how good vaccines are. I’ve written multiple times that vaccine mandates work. They’ve worked repeatedly over history, not just for Covid. They eliminate disease. They protect the people who don’t want to get them. Most people react to a mandate by actually getting the vaccine. Only a tiny percentage would, say, quit a job or be fired from it. Conservatives don’t like that.
And I’ve definitely gotten a significant, or some amount of backlash from liberals who say, How can you say that, there are kids who are hospitalized right now with Covid? That’s true. There are kids hospitalized with asthma and bronchitis and mental health problems. There are many, many, many more kids going to the hospital from vehicle crashes than from Covid. There are many more kids going to the hospital because of an injury in sports in a normal month when we actually let kids play sports, than from Covid. So there has been some of that. I try to take it seriously.
On the effectiveness of masks
It’s really tricky because I think we often want to go to an all or nothing conclusion. The conclusion with masks is: they work, their effect is modest. If you’re trying to save lives, they’re often worth it. But you should really weigh the cost-benefit because, particularly for kids in school, masks have costs. They impede communication, particularly kids with learning disabilities.
On conservatives claiming that their vaccination status is “private medical information“
It’s wrong to call it private information, right? It’s like saying it’s private information if I had two martinis before I got behind the wheel. Because if you haven’t gotten the vaccine or gotten boosted, you are more likely to infect other people. If the risks to vaccinated people were zero, then I’d feel like, OK, you’re just putting at risk other people who are voluntarily exposing themselves to vaccine risk… But the risks to vaccinated people are not zero. And so Ron DeSantis, if he in fact has not been boosted or vaccinated, he is putting at more risk 85-year-olds and people who have gotten organ transplants and people who are getting cancer treatment in his community. It’s not a private matter.
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