sam harris covid-19

COVID-19: Comprehending the Crisis and Managing Our Emotions | Sam Harris, Ph.D. on The Peter Attia Drive

Check out The Peter Attia Drive Episode Page & Show Notes

Due to the information contained within related to COVID-19, it’s important to note that this episode was recorded on Monday, March 23rd, 2020.

Key Takeaways

  • Will New York get overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases requiring ICU care? According to Peter, it’s incredibly likely. 
  • The moment you begin to notice whatever negative emotional state you’re experiencing—without judgment—it loses its psychological content
  • With mindfulness, it’s possible to let negative emotions go as soon as they stop serving their purpose. Anxiety and fear can be constructive, but for most of us, they overstay their welcome.


Inadequate Preparation for COVID-19

  • “This has been a period of time unlike any other in our lifetimes. There’s really no analogy.” – Sam Harris
  • Between SARS, MERS, and now SARS-CoV-2, it’s not like coronaviruses are going away anytime soon
  • The United States (and the world) should have been much more prepared—Bill Gates echoed this in his 2015 TED Talk
    • Sam’s worried that, despite the pandemic, nothing will change and we’ll eventually get blindsided again

Why COVID-19 is NOT Like the Flu

  • Many people argue that the flu kills X number of people per year and is just as bad/worse than COVID-19
  • Here are the differences:
    • Influenza comes in a very predictable wave, and the infection/mortality is spread out. With COVID-19, we’re still in a period of exponential growth among new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. 
      • Because of the latter, we don’t yet know what COVID-19’s absolute potential for mortality is—the virus is still in its infancy
    • We know influenza’s mechanism of action; we’re still figuring out COVID-19’s
  • Think of the flu as the number of people who die in traffic accidents every year, which is quite high
    • Deaths caused by 9/11 were but a small fraction of this number, but, as is the case with COVD-19, the situation had to be countered with a severe response because of the potential downsides 
  • All of that said, if we could “freeze” COVID-19 right now, and no more people became infected, then yes, the flu would be more severe 

Might the “cure” for COVID-19 be worth than the disease?

  • Meaning: Are the economic impacts of taking aggressive measures to contain COVID-19 worse than its health impacts? The flu has already killed 22k people this year; is it crazy we’re all quarantined when COVID-19 has only killed a few thousand people in the U.S.?
  • “I definitely share the concern that the economic damage could be as bad or worse than anything the virus can do. I’m certainly worried about that. I’m worried we might tip into a depression and the loss of social cohesion that might follow.” – Sam Harris
    • Sam isn’t alone—EVERYONE is worried about what might happen to the economy
      • Because of the above, Sam feels the “shelter in place mode” that most of humanity is attempting to follow is beginning to unwind
  • The reality: If everyone in the U.S. sheltered in place and took it seriously, within 3-4 weeks, COVID-19 would evaporate
    • But the problem: it’s hard to enforce the “stay at home” mandate in a free society like the U.S.

The Trickle-Down Effects of an Overrun Healthcare System

  • Doctors, like Peter, aren’t drawing labs (i.e., doing blood work) on their patients
  • Many patients are forgoing elective procedures
  • Many people are neglecting to go to a hospital/E.R. unless absolutely necessary
  • Peter neglected to finish his new puppy’s vaccinations, and having two young kids, is worried about the dog biting one of them
    • “If one of them gets bit, we’re going to urgent care. I’d rather do a root canal on myself right now than take one of them into urgent care to get IV antibiotics for a significant dog bite.” – Peter Attia
  • The lesson: Be more careful than ever at a time like this. You do NOT want to get injured and end up at a hospital.

Why are some places, like New York, more affected by COVID-19?

  • Here’s why:
    • NY got a slow start (they applied the breaks too late)
    • NY has a high population density
    • New Yorkers have the attitude, “Hey, this won’t be that bad. We survived 9/11. We got this.”
    • All in all: “All of these things combine to have enough kindling, oxygen, and fuel to make this thing [COVID-19] burn from a dull ember into a big fire” – Peter Attia
  • As of March 23rd, NY is doing nearly everything possible to stop the spread of COVID-19, but according to Peter, it’s too little too late—he thinks it highly likely NY gets overwhelmed with ICU cases

What’s the fate of New York?

  • Not good
  • As of March 23rd:
    • NY has ~11-12k confirmed cases of COVID-19. But, we have to assume there are unconfirmed cases as well—Peter estimates the number is ~4-5x the number of confirmed cases, placing NY at ~50k current cases of COVID-19.
      • (Peter has seen estimates at 40x (!) the number of confirmed cases)
    • With re-purposing, NYC has ~3k ICU beds
    • Now, assume ~25-30% of those beds are occupied by non-COVID-19 patients, allotting ~2k ICU beds for COVID-19 patients
    • Assume ~4% of COVID-19 patients require an ICU bed = uh oh

Is a vaccine for COVID-19 even possible?

  • Due to the nature of coronaviruses, it’s challenging to create a vaccine for them
    • “This mirrors the type of virus for which vaccines have historically not been a great alternative because of the risk-reward trade-off.” – Peter Attia
  • Experts have told Peter, “We have to caveat our optimism around how long it will take to make a vaccine for this and how safe it will be”

How to Calm Your Mind and Manage Your Emotions

  • “Right now, so many of my thoughts are unpleasant. They’ve permeated my dreams. I’ve never had more disturbing dreams than I’ve had in the last two weeks.”- Peter Attia
  • “If you understand the mechanics of your own mental suffering—if you understand how anxiety arises from the first-person side… If you’re able to witness it as a matter of experience, moment to moment, that allows you to get off the ride whenever you can remember to.” – Sam Harris
  • Managing your mind is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced
    • “I’ve done enough practice so that when my wheels begin to spin, and I’m suffering unnecessarily—whether from anxiety or some other negative emotion—I can let it go” – Sam Harris
  • “It’s not a matter of banishing any particular emotion or pattern of thought from your experience for all-time—that’s an unrealistic goal; it’s a matter of getting more and more agile in the face of these arising thoughts and emotions so their time course is drastically shortened.” – Sam Harris
  • The moment you can notice whatever emotion you’re experiencing, like anxiety, without judgment, it loses its psychological content
    • Anxiety, fear, whatever the negative emotion—it’s just a physical sensation
  • The end goal: letting negative emotions go when they no longer serve their purpose. Anxiety and fear can be constructive, but for most of us, they overstay their welcome.
    • “The vast majority of moments in which we feel fear or anxiety or shame or regret—any classically negative emotion, most of those moments are wasted. In most of those moments, the negative emotion is driving us to no good purpose.” – Sam Harris
      • If you can’t do something about it, the related anxiety you’re feeling is pointless!

How Sam’s meditation practice helps him manage negative emotions?

  • “It’s not that I don’t get angry or anxious or uptight or have a negative reaction to things; I do … I can definitely be a buzzkill, irritable, and in a bad mood. The difference is, if somebody calls me on it, I can pull the brake and get off the ride … I can let it go.” – Sam Harris

What positive changes does Sam hope result from COVID-19?

  • Experts will further stand out from the crowd of noise
  • The anti-vaccine movement will lose steam 
  • More value will be placed on the scientific community
  • Those with extreme libertarian views will begin to recognize the essential role of government
  • Overall, we have to capture all the lessons we’re learning as we go, so when the next pandemic hits, we’ll be better prepared

What does Sam think of Trump referring to SARS-CoV-2 as the “Chinese virus”?

  • “The reality is this virus did originate in China, and it was born of absolutely bizarre and unacceptable cultural practices of eating bats and other wild species—housing them together while still living so they can brew up their various virus cocktails.” – Sam Harris
  • “China has to be held responsible for these shitty traditions that it hasn’t managed to purge. It’s not only China, but it’s mainly China.” – Sam Harris
  • On top of this, the Chinese authoritarian government briefly concealed the gravity of COVID-19, failing to give the world adequate warning

Additional Notes

  • Different cities in Italy were hit worse by COVID-19:
    • Milan: 2200 deaths out of a population of 10 MM
    • Rome: 31 deaths out of a population of 6 MM
    • Sicily: 3 deaths out of a population of 5 MM
  • Sam has a 6 and 11-year-old daughter
  • When explaining COVID-19 to your kids, don’t lie to them, but consider not telling them the full story if you know it’ll cause them anxiety
  • Peter shared a moment of shame he felt on Instagram after losing his temper on his kids
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Notes By MMiller

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