COVID-19, the Elephant, and the House Cat

Here’s something special: a headline in The Economist that speaks the truth: “In Europe, and around the world, governments are getting tougher.” You betcha. Last week, I wrote with contempt about San Francisco’s mayor who had just announced she would “legally prohibit residents from leaving their homes except to meet basic needs.” “Well,” I thought, “It’s California, what do you expect?”

But now several other states, including New York, Connecticut, and Illinois, have issued “shelter-in-place” orders. They closed all “nonessential” businesses (nonessential to whom? To the people who work there?) and are throwing their weight around in other ways.

Restaurants: closed, except for take-out and delivery. Gymnasiums: closed. Museums: closed. Concert halls: closed. Public fraternization: essentially prohibited.

Why? Because of the biggest threat to mankind that the world has ever seen: the COVID-19 virus, also know as the Chinese flu, which to date has killed—are you ready—276 people in the United States, almost all of them over 80, almost all with serious co-morbidities.

Two-hundred-and-seventy-six people! And yes, that frightening number will rise. It will be 400, 500 before you know it. Maybe when all is said and done, we’ll see 1,000-1,200 identified who have died from complications that can be traced to this respiratory illness.

Meanwhile, somewhere between 22,000 and more than 50,000 people have died from the seasonal flu in the United States this year. Why is there no panic about that?

The Wuhan virus is a bad bug. But far more lethal than the “pandemic”—it sounds so much scarier to say “pandemic” than “epidemic,” even if the term is not justified—far more lethal, I say, are two other “P” words: panic and passivity.

Unfettered Exhibitions of Insanity

One of the two best pieces I have read about this extraordinary, wealth-destroying episode was written by the Stanford epidemiologist John P.A. Ioannidis. We are making decisions without reliable data, Ioannidis warns. There is still much we do not know about the lethality of the Chinese virus, he acknowledges, and “reasonable estimates for the case fatality ratio in the general U.S. population vary from 0.05% to 1%.” With every passing day, however, the evidence suggests that we will wind up on the lower end of that spectrum. “A population-wide case fatality rate of 0.05%,” he points out, “is lower than seasonal influenza.” The kicker:

If that is the true rate, locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational. It’s like an elephant being attacked by a house cat. Frustrated and trying to avoid the cat, the elephant accidentally jumps off a cliff and dies.

Is the market the elephant?

The panic, the hysteria, the mob mentality that has swept over the country is an amazing and disheartening thing to witness. Unfettered exhibitions of insanity are always disquieting. But even more alarming is the twofold dialectic operating in tandem with the panic. I mean the sheep-like passivity of the public, on the one hand, and the eager exercise, at every level, of state power on the other.

Governors, mayors, city councilmen, and neighborhood watch captains are dusting off their Gauleiter uniforms as they compete with each other to issue the most sweeping prohibitions against the liberty of their charges.

And the media just eggs them on. Scribe after wretched scribe laments the fact that Western countries are not as “organized” and “single-minded” as China was in dealing with the “crisis.”

I put scare quotes around “crisis” because this threat is less medical than characterological.

Perhaps the single best overview of what I like to call Wuhanomania is a long post by Aaron Ginn called “Evidence over hysteria—COVID-19.” (I call it that in homage to Charles Mackay’s classic description of Tulipomania in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.)

Ginn’s essay is partly about data—what the real numbers and the real dangers of the virus are—and partly about despotism: its distinct and troubling rise as the virus makes its utterly predictable way up and then down the bell curve described more than a 150 years ago by the British epidemiologist William Farr.

Just a few salient bits of data.

How easy is it to catch the Wuhan flu? Not as easy as the scaremongers in the media—and, alas, as many policymakers—would have you believe. A study issued by WHO on how the Chinese responded to the virus is one of the most exhaustive studies yet published. The results, Ginn points out, “show that COVID-19 doesn’t spread as easily as we first thought or the media had us believe.” The boldface of the next bit is in the original: “According to their report if you come in contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 you have a 1–5% chance of catching it as well. The variability is large because the infection is based on the type of contact and how long.”

Bottom line: “The majority of viral infections come from prolonged exposures in confined spaces with other infected individuals.”

Then why is your kid’s baseball practice canceled? Well, might you ask. Ginn quotes Dr. Paul Auwaerter, the clinical director for the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “If you have a COVID-19 patient in your household, your risk of developing the infection is about 10% . . . . If you were casually exposed to the virus in the workplace (e.g., you were not locked up in the conference room for six hours with someone who was infected [like a hospital]), your chance of infection is about 0.5%.”

How do you spell “negligible”?

From Data to Despotism

Ginn goes on to point out that 93 percent of people who get tested because they think they have the virus turn out not to have it. He also notes that, as testing increases, so will the total numbers of cases reported. But both the fatality rate and “the severity case mix” will fall. We’re told by the media and some policy spokesman that COVID-19 “Is not just like the flu.” But the more data we have, the less plausible (and more alarmist) that claim looks.

It is about at this point in the discussion that people start shouting “Italy! Oh my God, what about what’s happening in Italy?” But the situation in Italy is vastly different from the situation in the United States. For one thing, Ginn notes, “99% of all deaths” in Italy “had an underlying pathology. Only 0.8% had no underlying condition.” Then, too, Northern Italy, where the disease first sprouted, had been overrun by people from China who carried the virus with them.

It is at this point that Ginn pivots from data to despotism by way of damage.

First the damage. “Local governments and politicians are inflicting massive harm and disruption with little evidence to support their draconian edicts.” This is true.

So is this:

Every local government is in a mimetic race to one-up each other in authoritarian city ordinances to show us who has more “abundance of caution.” Politicians are competing, not on more evidence or more COVID-19 cures but more caution. As unemployment rises and families feel unbearably burdened already, they feel pressure to “fix” the situation they created with even more radical and “creative” policy solutions. This only creates more problems and an even larger snowball effect. The first place to start is to stop killing the patient and focus on what works.

Here are some things that don’t work and militate against the Hippocratic oath, which applies in politics as much as in medicine:

  • Shuttering the local economy. This irritates and depresses people and shoves a drainage pump into local businesses, bankrupting them by the scores and hundreds. The evidence, Ginn points out, is “overwhelming” that airborne or “aerosol” transmission is “not a threat.” In more and more places, you can’t go out to eat, you can’t go to the gym but “We don’t have significant examples of spreading through restaurants or gyms.”
  • Hoarding. It’s silly. It’s counterproductive. It “demonstrates an irrational hysteria (stocking up on useless masks, trying to corner the market in toilet paper). But the hysteria, the fear, is ultimately being driven by governmental action, by fear of “what the government will do next.”

Acute Political Passivity

Which brings me to that minatory, nauseating phrase: “an abundance of caution.” Out of an “abundance of caution” we are going to close your schools, forbid you to travel, make you stay in your house, prevent you from socializing with your friends. “Let’s be frank,” Ginn says, with refreshing candor: “these acts are emotionally driven by fear, not evidence-based thinking in the process of destroying people’s lives overnight. While all of these decisions are made by elites isolated in their castles of power and ego, the shock is utterly devastating Main Street.”

These days are precarious as Governors float the idea of martial law for not following “social distancing”, as well as they liked while they violate those same rules on national TV. Remember this tone is for a virus that has impacted 0.004% of our population. Imagine if this was a truly existential threat to our Republic.

And this is where the threat of despotism comes in. The other side of the hysteria and panic that has swept like an emotional tsunami across the land is an even more worrisome phenomenon: an acute political passivity that is at the same time a failure of character.

What is the fitting response to COVID-19, whereby “fitting” I mean worthy of citizens in a free society?

First, practice good hygiene. Wash your hands. Take care about sneezing and coughing. Second, stay home if you feel ill. Be careful about shaking hands. Third, if you are older and have underlying health problems, isolate yourself from others until this episode passes. Those simple steps would have gone a long way in achieving what our masters are trying to achieve now with their draconian closures and interdictions, but without the huge costs.

Ronald Reagan once observed that the nine scariest words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” One can only speculate about what Reagan would have made of this gargantuan, Manhattan-Project-like mobilization of state power.

“When this is all over,” Ginn writes, “look for massive confirmation bias and pyrrhic celebration by elites. There will be vain cheering in the halls of power as Main Street sits in pieces. Expect no apology, that would be political suicide. Rather, expect to be given a Jedi mind trick of “I’m the government and I helped.’”

The political philosopher James Burnham once observed that civilizations tend to end not because they are invaded by an external enemy but from an inner collapse. They are not murdered; they commit suicide. The really scary thing about this latest health scare is not the disease but the unexpected depths of passivity it revealed.

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