You live in a roughly Dunbar-sized group. This does not mean that you live in a small village, but it does mean that your actual personal contacts, the number of people that you have direct social contact with, is about one hundred. One day, a respiratory illness starts to circulate among your social group. At first it seems just like a bad cold; later it becomes clear that it's a really bad cold.
You catch it, and you spend four days in bed with fever, muscle aches, chills, and nausea. Your sense of taste and smell go away. Once the fever breaks and you get out of bed, you deal with another week of sinus headaches and persistent dry cough. This is way longer than a typical cold, but it does eventually abate, and you get back to your normal life. 
In the aftermath, you take stock with your friends and acquaintances. It seems that about half of everyone you knew got the supercold; the rest avoided it by good luck or had such mild cases that they didn't notice. One person had a fever for ten days and almost had to go to the hospital, but they did eventually recover.
Nobody that you know died, though you did hear about a friend's elderly great-uncle who caught the cold and died of complications.
One day shortly after this, a mysterious man in a gray suit approaches you.
"I see that you and your friends have survived the passing of the great and terrible novel respiratory virus," he says.
"Uh, yes," you said, wondering why he refers to it in such an obtuse manner. "Who are you?"
"I am a concerned bureaucrat," the man says. "It also so happens that I am in possession of a time-travel device."
"Whoah, what? How does that work?"
"Never mind that. The point is: I can make it so that your friends do not suffer from the supercold."
"Okay. What's the catch?" You are genre-savvy and know that there is always a catch.
"Well, you'll have to close down many of your businesses for several months."
"Okay... so how will my friends who are waiters or small business owners avoid bankruptcy??"
The man shrugs. "We'll send them a check for a few thousand dollars."
"That's not nearly---"
The man cuts you off. "Also you'll have to give up in-person socializing for the same period. Especially you have to stop big social events like church and synagogue meetings, holiday parties, and weddings."
"But my sister is getting married---"
"And you will be required to wear uncomfortable masks whenever you leave the house for the same time period."
You are starting to have doubts. "But if we do this you promise it'll stop the disease?"
The man shrugs. "Well... maybe. For a little while."
"That's not very comforting. I'm really not sure that this is a good deal. Listen, the disease was about a week of discomfort for most people, nobody died, and if you hadn't showed up to make this pitch to me, I would have been well on my way to forgetting the whole thing. Is this really worth it?"
The bureaucrat begins to get upset. "How can you say nobody died?"
"I don't know a single one. My case was among the worst ones out of my friends, and it was unpleasant but not life-altering."
"What about your friend's great-uncle?"
"He was already quite old. And while his family surely grieves, it's still a fact of life that old people die a lot."
"And so you're going to throw him to the wolves in order to save your friends livelihoods!"
"Honestly... maybe. Really, though, shouldn't we be able to do something to protect the elderly or other vulnerable people without causing everyone else six months of financial hardship and lost relationships?"
"Six months..." the man squirms. "I might need you to do this for a year or two."
"And you said that I still might eventually catch the cold anyway."
"Aren't you listening to me? People died of this disease."
"People die every day of a thousand different things. It is good to save lives, but there is such a thing as a price which is too high. And this price is too high, at least under the terms that you're offering."
"Bah," the time-traveling bureaucrat says. He scowls at you. "I don't need your permission anyway." He pulls the time-travel device out of his pocket and pushes the button, leaving behind only the slightest whiff of brimstone.
There is distinction between COVID "skeptics" and COVID... it's not clear that there is a term for a COVID non-skeptic, but you know what I mean. (This lexical lacuna itself is something interesting, but I don't have time to go into that here.) It is typically proposed that the reason for COVID skepticism is some version of anti-scientific bias, exacerbated by partisanship. In other words, the problem with COVID skeptics is assumed to be one of epistemics: they refuse to believe the clear scientific data about COVID, preferring to believe conspiracy theories and medical cranks.
This view is false. Or rather: conspiracy theories and partisanship abound, but they are downstream phenomena, consequences of a more fundamental reality, and combatting them directly is useless unless and until the underlying cause is addressed. The underlying cause is the conjunction of two things:
- COVID is a non-life-threatening for almost everyone
- The harms caused by COVID suppression were larger than the harms of COVID itself for most people
These facts create a scenario in which a great many people, if they had been given a free choice between getting COVID or putting up with COVID restrictions, would have chosen to just get the disease. But of course they weren't given that choice. The choice was taken from them and made instead by politicians and bureaucrats working with murky legal justification, and thus the very real harms of COVID suppression were felt by everyone while the harms of the disease itself remained abstract, or were experienced and found to be small.
That latter point is important. I have a family member who lives in the rural Midwest, with all that that implies. They mostly complied with COVID restrictions in the early parts of the pandemic, but stopped doing so around summer of 2020 and were in open (if informal) rebellion against such things during the wave of winter 2020 and beyond. As one might predict, their community was hit with an enormous COVID Delta wave. Their entire family was infected and fell ill, as did the majority of their friends and acquaintances, with their church (which continued holding services unmasked this entire time) being a major hub of infection.
And the end result?
There were zero fatalities of anyone actually known to them. Not a single one. Not even a hospitalization.
It's important to point out that this is not an anomalous result. Given the total CFR of COVID (~0.5%), the expected number of fatalities in a Dunbar-sized group is less than one. The modal experience of COVID is that nobody you know dies. The next most common experience is that only one person dies, probably somebody elderly.
And under such circumstances, what are they supposed to think about the supposed dire consequences of failing to comply with COVID regulations? They already endured the full brunt of an unmitigated COVID wave and lived through the worst-case scenario that the government was trying to save them from. At this point, no amount of "believing experts" or "following the science" could possibly dislodge them from their belief, formed by direct personal experience, that COVID is no big deal. And with regards to future precautions, they're not even wrong. Their whole community now has natural immunity which reduces the likelihood of future reinfections and severe complications. It's unlikely that they'll even notice Omicron when it passes through.
I believe that this pattern holds up at larger scales. I do not know of any source which directly compares beliefs about COVID severity with opinions on restrictions, but there was this fairly famous finding reported by the NYT:
If we accept that party affiliation is a rough proxy for one's opinions on COVID restrictions, then we see that having accurate beliefs about COVID severity is correlated with opposition to such restrictions. (I would be interested in any studies which directly measure this.)
This is the scenario which breeds conspiracy theories. People observed the government, media, and large corporations acting in apparent unison to prevent a disease which barely kills anyone, and concluded that something fishy was going on. Conspiracy theories about COVID existed from the very beginning, but I have observed firsthand their spread from a conspiratorial fringe to... basically everyone who is even slightly right-of-center. Even people who are themselves vaccinated have bought into conspiracy theories about vaccines, with their resentment and suspicion only increased by the fact that they were coerced into getting a medical procedure that they did not want.
But it's important to note that this is an ulterior consequence of the way that the pandemic has played out, not the underlying cause. People don't oppose COVID restrictions because they believe conspiracy theories; they believe conspiracy theories because they oppose COVID restrictions.
Now let's return to our poor time-traveling bureaucrat.
The bureaucrat has a spreadsheet which aggregates death rates from thousands of Dunbar-sized communities. His frustration arises because while every individual in these communities may find the costs of COVID to be bearable, they collectively add up to hundreds of thousands of excess deaths, which does not seem to be bearable. Thus, he finds it necessary to do something, and as a bureaucrat his only tool is to pass regulations. Furthermore, while he might notice the financial costs of his policies, the emotional and social costs aren't captured on a spreadsheet at all, and so might as well not exist. So he implements a policy which seems like an obvious win, only to meet something which seems to him like irrational opposition.
The community itself, meanwhile, suffers from the opposite problem of scale. They feel the economic and social costs of COVID regulations directly, but the weight of the hundreds of thousands dead is spread so thin that they barely notice it.
I don't know if there is a general way to reconcile these views. Mostly, I blame the bureaucrat, who is allowing himself to think that his spreadsheet captures all relevant information, and the history of COVID response over the past two years is like a parable about the Goodhart's Law implications of treating COVID case counts as a target to optimized. I do think that the main way to accomplish both the community's and the bureaucrat's goals is to simply reduce the cost of COVID suppression. Here I speak more tentatively, but the following seem to me to be generally true:
- Lockdowns are almost certainly net negative
- Masks are not very effective, but they are cheap and easy, so they're probably worth it. It is probably sufficient to recommend them without mandating them.
- Prevention measures should have been focused on the elderly and otherwise vulnerable. Case counts among the young and healthy population should have been treated with indifference.
- More speculatively, we should have positively encouraged non-diabetics under 30 to catch COVID. They are vanishingly unlikely to need hospital care but still contribute to herd immunity. Every healthy college student who gets COVID is basically a free vaccination. 
Can we learn these lessons in time for the next pandemic? Unfortunately, if the next pandemic is less than forty years away, I fear that we cannot. At this point a big chunk of the population is pre-radicalized against heavy-handed intervention, and conversely the bureaucratic-managerial class seems to have learned exactly the wrong lessons. Somehow restoring a functional relationship between these classes strikes me as a much higher priority than any specific policy change.
This is, to put it mildly, a hard problem, because the existing dynamic is frankly abusive. The past two years have seen the state and elite institutions inflict harmful regulations... and claim that it's for our own good... then the "good" of ending the pandemic never actually materialized... then the continuing pandemic was blamed on us for not obeying hard enough. This is the classic pattern of an abusive parent. Is it any wonder that so many people have taken the tack of vocal rebellion or quiet non-compliance?
And can you honestly claim that any of the FDA, the CDC, the WHO, or your state government actually deserve our deference and respect at this point?
So the real task of pandemic preparedness may not be to think up good policies that our institutions can implement, nor to somehow educate people out of conspiracy theories, nor (worse) to simply suppress such conspiracy theories. The real task is to have institutions worth listening to in the first place.
This is almost exactly how it went when my wife got COVID. I caught it from her a few days later, but I never developed a fever and suffered only sinus headaches and a persistent cough. ↩︎
In the summer of 2020 I wanted to write an article along these lines called "You Should Get COVID". Unfortunately I never got around to it, and at this point it's moot. ↩︎