Optimism vs Despair on COVID-19 (and possibly good vaccine news)

In 1965, Admiral James Stockdale of the U.S. Navy was shot down over North Vietnam and became the highest-ranking U.S. officer to become a prisoner of war, suffering isolation, privation, and repeated torture until his release in 1973.

He went on to become a university president (and was a Ross Perot’s vice-presidential pick in his quixotic run for President), but history may best remember him for what has become known as the Stockdale Paradox, about how to survive harrowing times.

Broadly paraphrased, what he said about his experience as a POW is this: those who fared worst were not only the pessimists (who gave up), but the excessive optimists (whose hopes were repeatedly dashed). What worked better, he said, was a cautious optimism that believes that eventually, things will come out right—you just don’t know when.

It’s perfect advice for today’s uncertain times.

Much of what I’ve been presenting in these posts reflects my own attempt to live Stockdale’s advice, even though it’s only very recently that I heard of it.

Don’t pin too much hope on anything specific, but don’t give up hope. (And, I would add, do your best to live each hour as it comes, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Which brings us to this bit of news on research I’ve been tracking for about a week.


The New York Times, today, reported that a group at Oxford has a potential COVID-19 vaccine so far advanced that they might have millions of doses ready to administer as soon as September.

What gave them the head start, the Times is reporting, is that they’d been working on a vaccine for the coronavirus that causes MERS, a deadly disease with many commonalities to  COVID-19. They’d already proven their approach safe, and other researchers have shown it to be effective in rhesus monkeys. That means it’s now poised to go into the next stage of human trials, designed to see if it works in people.

If it passes this test, these researchers might bring us an effective vaccine 6-9 months earlier than anyone had previously thought possible.

There will be those who point out that the vast majority of promising medical treatments, including vaccines, bomb out during testing.

They are correct. But I prefer to remember the Stockdale Paradox. There will, eventually, be light at the end of this tunnel. Whether it’s this light, from Oxford, or something else, I don’t know. But there is light, somewhere, even if it proves to be somewhere around a bend in the tunnel, currently out of sight.

So, don’t bank too much on this study (or other studies that came out today, suggesting that we may be closer to “herd immunity” than we thought possible a month ago), but don’t lose hope that the tunnel will emerge into the light somewhere, some time.

One thought on “Optimism vs Despair on COVID-19 (and possibly good vaccine news)”

  1. It’s not so much that the glass is half full or half empty. It’s that I know what’s in that glass, keep it away from me!

    As to the light at the end of the tunnel, It’s just the flash of a detonating hydrogen bomb. (An optimist might say, it was just a fission device.)

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