Context and proportion. If there are two things lacking in today’s viral kefluffle, it’s context and proportion.
Context: A bad flu season kills about 75K-100K Americans. Something in that range died in the 2017-18 flu season. A really bad flu season, which has happened twice in the last century or so, could kill about 300K Americans. Adjusting for population, the Asian Flu of 1957 killed that many. The Spanish Flu, the worst one is modern times, needs to be heavily caveated, as the conditions of WWI, with vast troop movements and other travel, military hospitals packing sick people in and then sending them elsewhere (to spread whatever they had), lack of modern medical care, and general chaos, makes it hard to draw any firm conclusions from it.
Proportion: So: if 100K people die of the Kung Flu, that’s a bad flu year. If 300K die, that’s a twice-a-century bad flu year. The Black Death, by comparison, would sometimes wipe out entire towns, and typically killed one third to one half of the people wherever a bad outbreak took place. The only truly horrendous viral plagues I’ve ever heard of is somewhat hypothetical: the American aboriginal population, having been presumably isolated from the diseases of Eurasia and Africa for maybe 15,000 years, died in appalling numbers, as high as 90% in some places, when smallpox and other diseases were inadvertently introduced by European explorers and rolled through the population over the course of a century or more. Maybe the flu was among the diseases that killed people off? Maybe, although compared to the smallpox and the plague, seems minor. But who knows?
Yet, somehow, this disease today is worth terrifying people over? Have your heard these people? Seen their panic? They are stone certain that we who aren’t panicked are going to get them all killed! Seriously. We take at least one long walk a day along a local canal path, and gratifyingly meet many cheery people (usually, not wearing masks) but we do meet some who seem terrified, masked up, scooting past at the max distance the path will allow. And these are the braver, less terrified people – the real rabbits are cowering at home, huddled with their cookies and mountain of toilet paper, watching CNN like slasher movies on loop.
Terrified. And fed terror every hour. At this point, saying anything to frighten people even more is worse than shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater. Is more like locking the people inside and setting the theater on fire.
Of course, I’ve said all along – check the archives – that, based on what we knew or could reasonably surmise at the time, the world’s reaction has always been overblown to the point of insanity. ‘We’ were not making decisions based on knowledge or science, despite that incessant claim.
Most people do not understand claims, especially medical claims, made in the name of Science, and wildly, and I mean wildly, overestimate the level of certainty of such claims. We all know this is true from personal experience: how many health claims have you heard asserted with cold certainty, such that disobeying was tantamount to wishing death on one’s self or others, only to have something else, often the exact opposite, asserted later with the same cold certainty? And then changed again? Over and over and over again? This does not mean there isn’t good medical science out there, just that, for the non-expert, picking it out from the haystacks of nonsense can be very difficult.
Add to this basic problem the jargon and bafflegab in which the supposed science behind such claims are routinely couched, and the challenge can cause despair. Thus, every sane person ‘knows’ the ‘science’ around COVID 19 supports utter, terror-stricken panic, revocation of constitutionally-guaranteed rights, the destruction of the economy and the subsequent leap in suicides, overdoses, careless accidents, anxiety and stress, and the imposition of a police state. Add political and financial motives (got to have those COVID cases to get the COVID medical relief funds), and indeed, it looks hopeless.
All I’m doing is, frankly, all but ignoring the preliminary findings and claims except insofar as they comport with the basic science outlined below. Why? Because, as stated above, medical claims are highly suspect and subject to multiple, radical revisions, and even medical scientists are often demonstrably unclear on what the results they present *mean* and are, in any case, habitually overcertain. The person who is enough of a philosopher, scientist, medical specialist and political adroit such that his opinion is both worth listening to and likely to get a hearing is as rare as Sasquatch. Fauci, Brix and Ferguson are not that person. Our talking heads and politicians are not. William Briggs almost is – extensive professional experience with medical data, and an authority on statistical analysis and modeling. He lacks the political platform.
So, what should we keep in mind and check what we hear against? The basic science of viral outbreaks starts here:
- Viruses are ubiquitous. People are exposed to many viruses every minute of every day
- Viruses and humans have coevolved for millions of years. Viruses have not yet wiped us out
- Viruses, like all life, evolve through mutation – by changing into ‘novel’ forms. Viruses have always done this, therefore, people have always been exposed to novel viruses
- Coronaviruses are one common type of virus. Like every other virus, they mutate with abandon. We are always exposed to novel coronaviruses
- From an evolutionary standpoint, a parasite – that’s what cold, flu and COVID 19 viruses are – is maladapted if it severely impairs or quickly kills its host. The virus that makes its hosts only slightly sick or not sick at all will survive and spread better. Empirical evidence strongly supports that that’s what happens in practice: severe and lethal diseases quickly burn through hosts and cause other potential victims to flee, and thus tend to die out. In technical terms, natural selection favors mild diseases.
- Occasionally, however, a nastier virus may appear, such as the Spanish Flu. Such nastier viruses tend to die out very quickly, or mutate into a less dangerous form, for the reasons above
- Airborne viruses die in the sunlight. That’s why flu has a season that starts when there is less sun, the weather turns cold and people stay indoors huddled together, and ends when there is more sun, the weather turns nice and people go outside more
That’s a fair summary of what is known about viruses as diseases. This is the framework within which we should understand this virus. On to the more specific information, what was discovered very early on:
- COVID 19 is closely related to the 2002-2004 SARS virus. Both are coronaviruses
- SARS died out in less than 2 years, with only a comparatively minor and localized outbreak in the second year. Spring weather killed it
- COVID 19 is more infections than SARS, but far less serious
- The infection and case fatality rates of COVID 19 are very much dependent on location. CFR varied greatly from place to place, as did number of cases.
Here’s where we come to a logical deduction: Wuhan was a uniquely bad situation: dense population, poor sanitation and hygiene, comparatively poor healthcare, dead-of-winter outbreak typical of airborne viruses lead to ideal conditions for the virus to spread, conditions very different from most of the world most of the time. This suspicion was soon confirmed by experiences in the rest of China and the first areas outside China where the virus spread: in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other places, the spread and fatalities never approached the levels seen in Wuhan, and were in any event much different.
Then came South Korea, where it is suspected a conscious effort was made by some religious fanatics to spread the virus. Even then – nothing burger. 252 deaths. We *can* ascribe the rapid containment of the virus to the supposed superhuman effectiveness of the South Korean mitigation efforts. Or, it could be that the virus simply never was as bad as all that. It was likely a little of both.
Iran next made the news. There have been a little over 6,000 deaths there on a population of 83M. In context, especially the context in which the government there likely disappears that many people in a good month, nothing. Some prominent public figures died. I looked over some listed on Wikipedia: Ages at death: 81, 72, 68, 55 (!), 91, 67, 63, 79, 62. Maybe not so surprising.
Then came Italy, and all hell broke loose.
At each step, more information became available, much of it confusing. Medical treatments changed. Ventilators, about which we were assured any shortage would result in people dying in the streets, proved ineffective or worse. More and more minor and asymptomatic cases were uncovered. Estimates on the number of infected grew, pushing the fatality rate radically downward. Child-to-adult transmission has not been verified, despite efforts to do so. And so on.
We had to flatten the curve – effectively, prolonging the pandemic – in order to not overwhelm our hospitals. With the possible exception of a breif period in NYC, no hospitals were overwhelmed. Without the theoretical lives saved due to not overwhelming hospitals, all flattening the curve does is have the same number of people die spread out over more time, increasing the economic and social damage of the mitigation steps. Each passing week made the idea of a general lockdown less and less defensible.
At no point did ‘we’ act on the best information available.
It was clear by the end of January that 1) there were vulnerable populations – the elderly and sickly – that represented almost all, as in 95%, of the deaths; 2) that kids and healthy adults were at, essentially, 0 risk; 3) that different areas had very different results, even within China; 4) that the models reflected none of this, and were therefore useless; 5) that the common assumptions used in the models represented crazy levels of worse-case scenarios; and 6) that these worse-case input numbers were based on fundamental misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the underlying information.
Acting on the best information available would have meant: restricting travel from areas of outbreak; screening incoming travelers; taking steps to protect the relatively tiny vulnerable populations. Thos steps, affecting maybe 5% of the populations, would likely have gotten us 95% of the benefits of the lockdown – and avoided the health disaster created by the lockdown.
And spared the economy.
A look at the trends show that Italy and Spain, a month into Spring, are nearing a total collapse of fatalities, as in, we should see single digit daily deaths soon. The US, despite retroactively classifying thousands of deaths as COVID 19 and expanding the classification rules twice over the last few months to be more ‘generous’, still looks unlikely to hit even 100K deaths. Spring has finally reached the Northeast, meaning that this airborne virus will die out in 3 or 4 weeks – as it appears to be doing.
Today, which doesn’t show up in that graph, 1,126 deaths were recorded – down again, the 6th straight day of decline. California still has 2,500 deaths on a population of 37M, and is logging under 100 death a day, even with the ‘generous’ counting.
The time to end this lockdown fiasco is long past. Sure, restrict some travel, take care of the vulnerable. And wash your hands. But the notion that going to get a haircut or grab a burger or attend a wedding is so dangerous that it must be banned is pure insanity. Or pure evil. We’ve terrified the rabbits to the point where their anxiety is much more of a health risk than was ever posed by this virus.