A Deadly if Dutiful Deference

On March 14, when the current coronavirus hysteria was beginning to get going in earnest, I said “one of the silver linings” of this panic would be that “the people who will be blamed when it is over—which it will be, and soon—are the people who stoked the insanity.”

That was a little over a month ago and guess what? “Soon” is “now.”

I am not thinking primarily about the burgeoning protests against the draconian and largely pointless “lockdowns” and interdictions ordered by power-hungry governors and other high-handed politicians. Those have been gratifying, and I suspect that the protests against really egregious actors, like Gretchen “Cruella de Vil” Whitmer, the wretched governor of Michigan, at least for now, will only gather momentum in the coming weeks.

But I am hoping that the deeper and longer-lasting response will be a quiet revolution in sentiment against the people who abetted this wealth-destroying panic: against the media, first of all, but also the obscure bureaucratic elite that stoked the fear and helped spread the hysteria.

Every day, it seems, brings new reasons to distrust the models and projections that turned the American public into a fearful, quivering jelly. A month ago we were told that unless we turned our world into a giant condom and took care not to touch anyone or anything, millions would die. In recent weeks, those numbers have been revised downwards again and again, even as the strategies for counting cases and fatalities due to the insidious new virus have spiraled upwards. There is a great eagerness in municipalities thirsty for government funding to overstate the number of people affected by the virus.

In New York, the smoldering omphalos of the disease in America, with just over 40 percent of the cases nationwide, a third of fatalities were not even tested. Rather, they are said to have succumbed to “COVID-19 or an equivalent.” An equivalent, Kemo Sabe, like those generic drugs made in China that are supposedly the equivalent of the brand name varieties.

Things are moving quickly now. After losing some 10,000 points in a few weeks, the market has regained more than 5,000 points just as abruptly. Who knows whether that rally will continue. It’s pretty clear, though, that many of the 20 million jobs that evaporated and tens of thousands of businesses large and small that have been crushed will not be coming back. How do we deal with that?

True, a collateral benefit will be the collapse of dozens or perhaps scores of pointless colleges as parents step up their scrutiny and decide that $250,000 for a degree in Gender Studies or Applied Marxism isn’t worth the price. Anyway, why spend up to $70,000 per annum when you can obtain the same skills online for a few thousand, at most? Nevertheless, what will be the result of the assault on the actual substance of the economy—the world’s as well as ours at home—can not yet be calculated.

Over the last few days, several clarifying documents have been published. Two of the most revelatory are a preliminary epidemiological study from Santa Clara, California, and “Moving the Goal Posts—Four Reasons it is Safe to Open America,” an opinion piece co-written by several medical doctors and an eminent biostatistician.

From the very beginning of this epidemic, the most elusive data point was the denominator: what percentage of those who were infected with the new coronavirus would ultimately succumb to it? One favorite number was 1 percent, which would make the virus ten times more lethal than the seasonal flu. Other estimates said two or even three or 3.5 percent, a chilling prospect.

But it has been difficult to get a handle on the number of people who have been infected. That is why the Santa Clara study is so important. It tests for the important number: the people who have antibodies for the virus, meaning that they have been exposed and successfully fought back. There will be many, many more people who test positive for antibodies than test positive for the virus. This is good news, because the more “carriers” the lower the fatality rate.

This is why the Santa Clara study is so important. Here is the key finding, with emphasis supplied by me:

The population prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in Santa Clara County implies that the infection is much more widespread than indicated by the number of confirmed cases. Population prevalence estimates can now be used to calibrate epidemic and mortality projections. . . . The most important implication of these findings is that the number of infections is much greater than the reported number of cases. Our data imply that, by April 1 (three days prior to the end of our survey) between 48,000 and 81,000 people had been infected in Santa Clara County. The reported number of confirmed positive cases in the county on April 1 was 956, 50-85-fold lower than the number of infections predicted by this study.

So why the hysteria, why the lockdown, why the shuttering of the economy?

That is a question that is going to be asked early and often in the coming weeks. The New York Times and other organs of the anti-Trump Democratic propaganda machine have been endeavoring mightily to score points against the president, making him seem responsible for the coronavirus (e.g., “He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus”). But the great unanswered question is why we just attempted national suicide because of a pathogen that represents a serious threat to a tiny part of the population which, moreover, can effectively be isolated from exposure?

There will not be a single, definitive answer to the question. But I think that an excellent aid to inquiry is in the essay “Moving the Goal Posts” by Dr. Jonathan Geach and a handful of colleagues. Geach shows that key criteria for dealing with the coronavirus epidemic have mutated as public awareness of the disease progressed—and as the public health political establishment came to understand the crisis, like all crises, presented opportunities for exploitation as well as challenges.

The original goal of “mitigation”—a nice Latinate word for “social control”—was to “flatten the curve” of new infections so that the health care system would not be overwhelmed. But the curve has been flattening for weeks, the health care system, even in New York, never came close to being overwhelmed, and yet our masters have just extended the shutdown, to May 15 in the case of New York. Indeed—and this is Geach’s second point—the health care system is not overwhelmed, “it is underwhelmed and being damaged.”

[H]ealthcare workers are being laid off and furloughed in droves as a result of healthcare centers having neglected patient care not related to COVID-19 in fear of a COVID-19 surge that failed to materialize on a nationwide basis. This means tens of millions of patients are failing to receive the medical care they need in a timely manner. Almost every hospital outside of the hotspots is empty.

And it’s not just small suburban or country hospitals that are affected. “Mayo Clinic is empty: 65% of the hospital beds at Mayo Clinic are empty, as are 75% of the operating rooms. This is the world’s premier medical center. If Mayo Clinic is empty, imagine how dire the situation is at smaller, community-based healthcare centers.”

One original goal of the flood-the-zone response to the coronavirus was to determine the real lethality of this new bug. But this brings us back to the Santa Clara study. The number that matters is not the percentage of those who get sick and then die but rather the number of those who have been exposed to the virus.

Case fatality rate is the chance someone will die after testing positive for a disease. In many studies, the case fatality rate has fallen from 3–4% to around 1%. However, the CFR is not what we think of intuitively as the true mortality of the disease. The true mortality rate, or infection fatality rate (IFR), is the proportion of those who died of the disease among those who were infected, whether or not they were tested.

To put this in perspective, consider the seasonal flu. “The CDC states,” Geach notes, “that 247,785 people tested positive for the flu this winter and about 24,000 died. This makes the CFR for the flu 10%; nine in ten people who get the flu don’t die of it! While only 247,785 people tested positive, the CDC estimates that 39 million people were actually infected with influenza this winter. Hence, the IFR for the flu is around 0.1%.” [Emphasis in the original.]

The fourth movable goalpost takes a peek into the future: what about a “second wave” of the virus come fall (the prospect of which already has some colleges thinking about delaying the resumption of classes until 2021)? If we let people get back to work, back to life, it might “pour gasoline on the fire” and rekindle the holocaust.

But this is to ignore, Geach notes, the widespread “herd immunity” that will be abroad in the population. And even if there is a second wave, it will be less severe and we will be much better positioned to deal with it, having spent the last months manufacturing protective equipment, ventilators, and various drugs to treat the disease.

We have often been presented with a false dichotomy between saving the economy and saving lives. This is a false dichotomy because, as Geach points out, “the state of our economy is not just a monetary risk, it is a health risk.” For one thing, “when people lose their jobs, they typically lose their health insurance.” He notes that there were more than 10,000 “economic suicides” as a result of the 2008 recession. There is also a spike in cancer deaths, drug abuse, domestic violence, and other pathologies.

The most awesome toll of this new coronavirus is not the number of lives it has claimed—tragic though the loss of every life is—but rather the stupendous damage we have done to ourselves. The American public has been dutiful to the point of self-harm in heeding the injunctions of the people who manage their lives and livelihoods. I suspect that that deference is evaporating. I regard that as a good thing, for it means that neither the instinct for self-preservation nor the taste for liberty has been entirely bred out of the body politic.

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