Takeaways from one year of lockdown

As of today, I’ve been in full-on, hardcore lockdown for an entire year. I have a lot of feelings – both about the personal social impacts of lockdown and about society being broken – that I won’t go into in this public space. What I want to figure out in this post is what rationality-relevant lessons I can draw from what happened in my life this past year.

(Meta: This post is not well-written and is mostly bullet points, because the first few versions I wrote were unusable but I still wanted to publish it today.)


Some facts about my lockdown:

  • I have spent 99.9% of the year within 1 mile of my house

  • Up until last month I had spent the entire year within 10 miles of my house

  • Between February 29th and June 15th of 2020, I did not set foot outside of my front gate

  • I have not gotten COVID, nor has anyone in my bubble

  • I have incurred an average of 0 microCOVIDs per week

  • The absolute riskiest thing I’ve done this whole time cost ~20 microCOVIDs

  • I can only remember talking to a friend not-in-my-bubble, in person, twice

Some observations about other people with similar levels of caution:

  • Almost no one I know has caught COVID, even though Zvi estimates that ~25% of Americans have had it (the official confirmed rate is 10%). I know of only one person who caught it while taking serious precautions, and I know a few hundred people about as well as I know this person. (see also)

  • I was recently tracking down a reference in the Sequences and found that the author was so afraid of COVID that he failed to seek medical care for appendicitis and died of sepsis.

On negotiations:

  • A blanket heuristic of “absolutely no interactions outside of the household” makes decisions simple but is very costly in other ways

  • microCOVID spreadsheets are useful but fairly high-effort

  • I went on a date once. The COVID negotiations with my house were so stressful that I had a migraine for a week afterwards.

On hopelessness:

  • I spent a fair amount of time trying to get vaccinated early, and failed. I now appear to have a belief that I will never succeed at getting vaccinated; and further that other people can succeed but I never can.

  • Related: My system 1 believes that lockdown will last forever. Also that vaccines aren’t real – not that they don’t work, but that they’re a lovely dream, like unicorns or God, that ultimately turns out to be a lie. A vaccine cannot cause me to leave lockdown because lockdown is an eternal, all-consuming metaphysical state.

  • I would have liked to be dating this year, but the first date and the surrounding ~week of house discussion was so stressful that I gave up on dates entirely after that.

  • I notice that I feel the lack of friendships, but wasn’t motivated enough about any particular friendship to put in the effort to make it work despite the situation. By contrast, some people I know did do this and have benefited a lot.

  • My house had ~3-hour meetings ~3 times a week at the very beginning of the pandemic, where people did math on the board and talked about their feelings and we tried to figure out what to do. In retrospect, this burned me out so much that I gave up on trying to figure anything out and defaulted to an absolutely-zero-risk strategy, because at least that was simple.

  • The fact that SlateStarCodex went down at the same time everything else in life went to shit destroyed my soul.

  • Oops I have started talking about feelings and will now stop.

Taking all these observations together, it’s clear to me that my social group has been insanely overcautious, to our great detriment. I think this has been obvious for quite a while, but I didn’t and still don’t know how to act on that information.

It seems like extreme caution made sense at first, when we didn’t know much. And by the time we knew the important, action-relevant information like transmission vectors and all that jazz, we were already used to being afraid, and we failed to adjust. Looking back at case counts, my behavior in the summer was completely unreasonable – I felt afraid of my housemates going on walks while wearing masks!

So one blocker on expanding the range of actions we were taking was that we’d gotten used to it. Another blocker was that, even if I were to have gone back to living my life as normally as I could, that would still not be very normal. I think it didn’t seem that worth it to me to take any risks at all, as long as I couldn’t have my life back anyway. I briefly entertained the idea of a Berkeley rationalist ‘megabubble’, but backed off when case counts went up again, someone I knew got long COVID just from outdoor, masked, distanced socializing, and also I realized that it would just be really a whole fucking lot of work to coordinate.


Here are some takeaways re: rationality:

  • Trivial inconveniences are enough to make it so that you never do anything at all

  • I underestimated how hard it is to get your system 1 to understand numbers

  • I underestimated how quickly my new normal would ossify /​ how difficult it would be to modify my behavior in response to new information

  • I think there’s a reasonable level of COVID caution that is not just “live life as normal”, but rationalists have been COVID-cautious to an extent that far surpasses that and wraps around to being harmful again (with the sepsis death as an extreme example)

    • This is especially true because most rationalists are in their 20s and 30s, and so, barring other risk factors, it would probably have just been fine for most of us to get COVID

    • You might say “but tail risks!”, which, yes, is most of the reason for trying to avoid getting COVID (the other reason being spreading). My response to that is “but a whole year of destroying huge amounts of value!” It’s not clear to me which way the scales would tip here; I haven’t tried to estimate it.

  • It’s way harder to be a good rationalist in stressful situations. This is a point I’ve seen discussed elsewhere on LessWrong but I can’t remember where.

  • Not tied to the above observations, but – I think that despite rationalists being ahead of the curve on taking precautions, figuring out the nature of the virus, etc., we developed a kind of learned helplessness around being in lockdown; we, like everyone else, have just been waiting for it to end.

    • I think if we had been more serious about taking matters into our own hands, more of us would have gotten interested in RaDVaC sooner (even if you don’t think it works, we still should have discussed it earlier), and more of us would have signed up for vaccine trials.

    • The creation of microcovid.org is a counterexample, since it materially helped many people I know to return to some semblance of a normal life.

    • Generally I think we frontloaded our effort and then ran out of steam. Not clear that it was wrong to go really really hard at the beginning, but it ended up being costly in the long run.

  • Even people as critical of official recommendations as we are can still be swayed by them. My example is that due to the surgical and cloth mask propaganda, it didn’t even occur to me to wear the P100 I already owned until many months into the pandemic. Noticing that I could do this would have greatly expanded the range of actions I felt comfortable taking.

  • Negotiating in emotionally fraught situations is a very difficult skill, and despite all the training they receive in talking about feelings and what-not, being a CFAR instructor does not make you good at this skill (source: almost everyone in my house was a CFAR instructor or mentor).

  • Sometimes I just didn’t think of things, and I’m not sure what would have helped with that (maybe fixing my GTD system sooner?). I didn’t send my parents vitamin D until September despite taking it myself the whole time, and I didn’t realize my mom didn’t have a P100 (and had only been wearing surgical masks to grocery shop!) until December(!).

    • Maybe I would have caught these if I had just set a five-minute timer and written down all the things I should be doing to protect my parents. I did not do this or even think about doing it.

    • A more generalizable takeaway is perhaps that it’s easier to remember to act when there’s an acute problem than when there’s a chronic one. Perhaps pay more attention to the chronic issues in your life?

  • I underestimated how powerful fear is (as a motivator, as a force in negotiations, etc)

I have now run out of time to write this post, which is probably for the best since it is just rambling at this point. I will end with a quote:

Sometimes you go through things that seem huge at the time, like a mysterious glowing cloud devouring your entire community. While they’re happening, they feel like the only thing that matters, and you can hardly imagine that there’s a world out there that might have anything else going on.

And then the Glow Cloud moves on. And you move on. And the event is behind you. And you may find, as time passes, that you remember it less and less. … And you are left with nothing but a powerful wonder at the fleeting nature of even the most important things in life, and the faint but pretty smell of vanilla.