Alex Madrigal’s Atlantic Article on Testing Positive for COVID, and Pushbacks

A friend just texted me a link to an article by Alex Madrigal that came out yesterday in The Atlantic. Madrigal described how he made a last-minute decision to attend a wedding and associated gatherings in New Orleans. He knew there would be non-zero risk of infection, of course, but he had been fully vaccinated and he had reason to believe that essentially everyone else at the festivities was likewise vaccinated.  Madrigal had helped to assemble and lead a consortium of journalists who gathered and published COVID data in the early months of the pandemic, before officialdom got its act together on reporting good numbers, so he is well-acquainted with the math of this disease.

He had been seeing maskless people laughing and chatting  in restaurants, and he really liked New Orleans, and he wanted to support his friend who was getting married, and he wanted to enjoy some return to good old normal good times. So, he went and he mingled. Liquor flowed and happy chatter filled the air. And then he flew home.

He has a wife and two children, so to be on the safe side, upon his return he took no less than three PCR antigen tests, a day or so apart. All came back negative, even the one four days after the wedding. He did develop some cold symptoms, and upon his wife’s request, did one more swab at home on the fifth day. That was unmistakably positive, as was a follow-up test.

What followed was a nontrivial amount of inconvenience – – he went and  lived in a rental apart from his family for at least ten days, his kids got pulled out of school, and he worried that if he had passed it to them, they in turn would need to quarantine. He is 39 and in top physical condition, and was vaccinated, so his course of illness was just that of a nasty cold, but that was still not fun. For him the most poignant aspect was the reaction of his two children:

My nonbinary 8-year-old was so mad and maybe so scared that they could barely look at me. My 5-year-old daughter proved her status as the ultimate ride-or-die kid. She brought a chair down the street so she could sit 20 feet away from me outside in her mask, as I sat on the porch in an N95. I’m not sure which reaction was more heartbreaking. It was as if one never wanted to see me again and the other didn’t want to let me out of her sight.

He wrote all this up in “ Getting Back to Normal Is Only Possible Until You Test Positive “. The concluding lines echo the title, “Right now most policies appear designed to make life seem normal. Masks are coming off. Restaurants are dining in. Planes are full. Offices are calling. But don’t be fooled: The world’s normal only until you test positive.”

My reaction, which I’d like to think would be a common reaction to this piece, is sympathy for the hassle that he and his family have been through, and appreciation for this reality check: the newer variants of COVID multiply so fast that you can get sick and spread the disease, even if you have been vaccinated. You probably won’t die, but getting infected could be very uncomfortable and inconvenient. At the macro level, some activities may never get fully back to pre-2020 levels, and on the personal level we should keep all this in mind before entering a room with lots of talking (or singing) unmasked people. In the U.S. there are still a thousand people dying every day from this communicable disease, and Europe is getting hit hard. I guess we all have pandemic fatigue, but a thousand deaths at a pop used to be considered a lot.

That would be a fine observation with which to end this blog post. But I will throw in one other observation: the internet is a pretty harsh place, and Madrigal’s article spawned at least two fairly ascerbic pushback articles.  Claire Carusillo at gawker.com (which I know nothing about), in Alexis Madrigal: I Can’t Believe I, a Really Good Person, Got Covid , takes multiple jabs:

Alexis C. Madrigal, a columnist for The Atlantic and a cofounder of the COVID tracking project, got a mild breakthrough COVID case at a destination wedding in New Orleans. Instead of just going to bed for two weeks like a normal person, he wrote an essay about it wherein the only thing he makes clearer than his dedication to his workout routine is how he believes his story is a horrifying parable for our time.

It isn’t. It’s an unremarkable story from a public health perspective, though Madrigal’s inclusion of specific details make this piece a fascinating study of what it’s like to be an American man with a certain level of privilege who also just so happens to have a huge platform and a deadline to meet. Social distancing, it seems, has inflamed his out-of-touchness with what most people have endured over the course of the last 20 months.

… You may be thinking, spending a few childcare-light days at an Airbnb on your own block with a mild throat “tickle” that does not prevent you from either doing Peloton workouts or writing an essay for The Atlantic does not sound that bad. In fact, you may think it sounds a lot better than the trips I have taken to the Bay Area, particularly the family vacation we took to Alcatraz when I was nine. Either way, how dare you?

Ouch.

Tiana Lowe at the Washington Examiner blames Madrigal’s fear-mongering for his kids’ reactions to his plight, in her article If your nonbinary 8-year-old gets mad at you for getting COVID, tell them to grow up :

Over at the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal engages in some light sadism, dedicating thousands of words to flagellating himself for the great sin of contracting the coronavirus….. He got a mild breakthrough case of coronavirus. But because the vaccines work well, he made a full recovery shortly thereafter.

….Children these days have dramatically calmed down from the bad behavior of the ’80s. This has brought with it the blessing of far fewer pregnancies and underaged smokers. But helicopter parenting, even before the pandemic, produced a significant cohort of children far, far too cautious and not nearly socialized well enough for adulthood. The share of teenagers who have ever had a job, gotten their driver’s license, or gone on a date, all previously the major milestones of young adulthood, has plummeted, and now we’re adding COVIDiocy to that trend?

An 8-year-old capable of making a parent abide by their preferred gender identity is probably also capable of bullying said parent out of having a normal social life. But the real fault belongs to the parent who would let a child live in such fear and fall so deeply into coronavirus delusions.

A virus for which we now have three vaccines and several new, inexpensive treatments does not provide any reason to stop living life to the fullest. To fail to explain this to children is the kindness of cowardice — or even cruelty masquerading as kindness.

Again, ouch. I think the two pushback articles make some valid points, particularly Lowe’s observations on helicopter parenting in general, and it does seem like the Madrigals’ kids had been given overly inflated fears about their dad’s prospects. That said, we need more in the way of civil discourse. The abrasive tone of these reactionary articles says more about their authors’ attempts to garner clicks than about Madrigal’s original earnest cautionary tale. It is a jungle out there.

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