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Great America

Did CDC’s Focus on Social Justice Reduce Its Readiness?

The Centers for Disease Control should spend its money and time fighting disease, not playing politics.

You had one job, CDC: to prepare America to combat infectious disease. It’s a sign of what’s happened to the government generally over the last 20 years, that CDC used its resources to advance left-leaning agendas instead of focusing on positioning itself to fight infectious disease. 

We’ve seen the headlines blaming the president for the lack of readiness in response to the outbreak. In mid-March, the Guardian reported, “Trump’s staff cuts have undermined Covid-19 containment efforts.” You can find other such headlines here, here, and here

Most of these accusations are either completely untrue or wild distortions of the facts. The get-Trump media are so obsessively politicized that much of the coverage of the virus has been corrupted in the same way that Russian collusion coverage was so unreliable. PJ Media, for example, published this list of the “Top 10 Lies About President Trump’s Response to the Coronavirus.” 

Lost in the debate over whether CDC had enough money to prepare for the crisis is this critical question: What was the CDC doing with the money it already had?

Why, for example, is the CDC spending resources to study transgender health? There are 2,287 search results for “transgender” within the CDC website. The CDC published the following guidance for LGBT youth: 

Having a school that creates a safe and supportive learning environment for all students and having caring and accepting parents are especially important. Positive environments can help all youth achieve good grades and maintain good mental and physical health. However, some LGBT youth are more likely than their heterosexual peers to experience negative health and life outcomes.

 

CDC uses its disease-fighting appropriations to fund “education and health agencies in states, territories, and large urban school districts to conduct the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The YRBS monitors the health behaviors of U.S. high school students. Starting in 2015, the national YRBS questionnaire and the standard YRBS questionnaire (the starting point for the state, territorial, and large urban school district questionnaires) included questions about sexual identity and gender of sexual contacts.”

A search of the CDC website for the term, “climate change” yields a whopping 5,578 results. The CDC proudly exclaimed, “CDC’s Climate and Health Program is excited to celebrate 10 years of supporting state, tribal, local, and territorial public health agencies as they prepare for specific health impacts of a changing climate.” It reports funding over 18 “grantees” around the nation to support the “BRACE” framework, an acronym for advancing climate change agenda (essentially political propaganda for Green New Deal-type public policy). The CDC is quite open about using its scientific credentials to “Serve as a credible source of information on the health consequences of climate change.”

The CDC sees its role in the climate change debate as providing, “leadership to state and local governments, community leaders, healthcare professionals, non-governmental organizations, the faith-based communities, the private sector and the public, domestically and internationally, regarding health protection from the effects of climate change.” 

That’s right, instead of fighting disease, the CDC bureaucrats use their scientific credentials to “lead” our local governments on climate change. In a true republic, unelected bureaucrats are not the ones “leading” elected officials. 

Bureaucratic culture undermined the CDC’s early response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some blamed the FDA’s complicated “Emergency Use Authorization” protocol which was so complex that it required weeks to clear. 

Although the United States had a 10 companies with the technical capacity to mass-produce COVID-19 tests, the CDC instead exerted a government monopoly over test production. But the CDC proved unable to produce sufficient working tests to meet the immediate demand leading to a missed opportunity to assess and contain the early penetrations of the virus in the United States. 

Across government, social-justice priorities have gradually diluted and even displaced core missions of government agencies. CDC used a not-insignificant portion of its scarce resources to create a platform for unrelated priorities. We don’t have time for that crap anymore. 

If CDC employees want to use their own time and money to promote climate change and transgender social issues, they should be free to do so. But taxpayer money should not be used to advance political agendas—particularly when those agendas are completely unrelated to an agency’s mission. The Centers for Disease Control should spend its money and time fighting infectious disease, not playing politics.

Great America

Lessons from the Burst Zika Bubble

Disease epidemics are messy, fast and frightening, and they’ll keep coming. To prepare for the future, the least we can do at the end of one is to use the benefit of hindsight to assess how well we conducted ourselves.

Sometimes phenomena flare into public consciousness, crowd out other concerns, then disappear. Only later we realize that judicious assessment of the evidence might have saved a great deal of distress.

There are disturbing clues that the Brazilian Zika scare might have been one such phenomenon, fueled by fear, haste, and fallacious conclusions instead of scientific rigor.

The World Health Organization declared the Zika virus a global emergency in 2016 and introduced drastic measures. People panicked not because the mosquito-borne virus causes direct illness—mostly there are no symptoms or just mild malady—but because of the small heads, or microcephaly, that it was believed to inflict on babies born to infected mothers.

The media went wild, and there were calls to cancel the 2016 Rio Olympics. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control told women who were pregnant or might become pregnant to stay away from nearly 100 countries or regions.

The United States spent more than $1 billion battling the virus’s spread. The 6,000 or so Zika-research articles funded and published after 2014 represent 500-times the previous 50 years’ total.

But let’s zoom out 1,200 miles from Rio to look at the northeast Brazil city of Recife with its endemic poverty, tropical temperatures, and mosquito-friendly open sewage-canals. This was ground-zero for Zika and the babies with underdeveloped brains. It was here physicians perceived more small-head-circumference babies being born amongst the poor.

One of the first microcephaly babies to arouse suspicion of a viral cause was a non-identical twin whose brother was completely normal. Microcephaly is usually an inherited genetic condition or caused by the mother’s alcohol abuse or other toxin-exposure. With her personal clinical assessment that the appearance implied infection, a prominent neuropediatrician inferred a novel cause, despite the brother’s normality under identical circumstances.

She teamed up with a clinician who was investigating other neurological problems associated with an unknown mosquito-borne infection. They joined a WhatsApp group of physicians who communicated rapidly between themselves.

A lack of objective science followed. They issued an alert for small-head-circumference babies and gathered an increase in reports. But was the increase real? Clinicians couldn’t check, because Brazil had not been compiling microcephaly data against which to compare. When scientists eventually looked back at reconstructed data, they found no evidence of a Zika-coincident epidemic.

Second, the Zika diagnoses relied not on lab results but on mothers’ recollections of first-trimester symptoms, such as mild rash or fever. Brazil had no experience of Zika, so it was not equipped for unambiguous diagnosis. In any case, serum tests do a poor job of distinguishing whether the infecting virus was Zika, or its flavivirus-”cousin” dengue. Neither can they reveal how recently the infection occurred. The test that specifically detects Zika does so only briefly after the virus infects a patient.

Third, varying criteria seem to have been used to diagnose microcephaly. Perhaps clinicians used medical standards of normal head sizes that came from richer cities with better-nourished mothers and adults about three inches taller? Babies born into poverty tend to be smaller overall due to a gamut of poverty-related ills. Confusing smaller heads with microcephaly is akin to categorizing every short person as a dwarf. Looking back, it’s clear that in Recife the microcephaly prevalence tracked with income.

Furthermore, there were lower rates in parts of Brazil further away from the WhatsApp-axis.

In 2015, there was a perceived microcephaly increase and there were possible Zika or dengue infections. Any meaningful link between the two was vanishingly rare. An international team of researchers reported that in early 2016 there were 4,180 reported cases of microcephaly in Brazil suspected to be associated with Zika infection, of which only a fifth were investigated and classified. In the end, just six babies were positive for both Zika infection and central nervous system malformations.

Medical knowledge is dispositive: Zika is essentially harmless to humans. In the 60 years prior to 2007, only 14 human infections were documented, all mild, and none causing congenital issues.

More common flaviviruses, such as hepatitis-C and dengue, never cause congenital neurodevelopmental problems. Rubella-virus, which does, damages essentially all infected first-trimester embryos. The highest estimate for Zika puts its hit-rate at 7 percent.

This was likely a case of human instincts’ bowling over scientific rigor. The first instinct is to love babies and care for our young. Nobody wants to be responsible for something that delivers new parents their worst nightmare. Another is the tendency to see patterns whether they are there or not—particularly when you’re looking for them. Two tools that rein in this instinct are the scientific method and the analysis of statistical significance. They were not employed.

The Zika bubble has burst. The failure of the predicted pandemic to materialize is being put down to populations’ developing immunity. But following the initial 2015 Zika outbreak, there was a 2016 spurt of Zika cases in Brazil. In that year, however, according to a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, there was no reported increase in newborns with microcephaly.

No increase was found during the 2018 outbreak in Rajasthan, India, either.

Disease epidemics are messy, fast and frightening, and they’ll keep coming. To prepare for the future, the least we can do at the end of one is to use the benefit of hindsight to assess how well we conducted ourselves.

Great America

Social Distancing Must Not Destroy American Greatness

John Adams could teach 21st-century Americans a thing or two about persevering in the midst of a crisis. Above all, we should think twice before abandoning our freedom of association.

What did it mean when John Adams wrote that our Constitution was created for a “moral and religious people,” and thus, by implication, without faith our government could not be maintained? For many of America’s Founders, religion meant Christianity, and Christianity meant the idea that God was incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ, was sacrificed for our salvation, and then, after having died, rose from the dead, thus demonstrating the reality of divinely offered eternal life.

Put slightly differently, and in a slightly less sectarian manner, our revolutionary-era governments relied on the bedrock principle that there was a higher being than humans, one who, as the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 put it, rewarded the good and punished the wicked. Mere temporal sanctions would not assure good government, that was something only belief in God could do.

To state these ideas is to reveal their strangeness, at least to many contemporary Americans, because the story of the late 19th and 20th centuries is a loss of faith caused by the horrific European wars and the Holocaust and the proliferation of an educational system divorced from its original grounding in religion.

Young people, who only a few weeks ago were still on their college and university campuses, now seem to be obsessed with two things—climate change and inclusion. Their ideology of equality and immediacy deprives them of perspective, and the similar narrowness of focus of their professors, teaching highly specialized topics, makes it all but impossible for many to reach for something greater, to regain the spiritual sense that once permeated American higher education.

What Makes American Life Unique

The creed of one once-great American university, “For God, for Country, and for Yale,” which captured an earlier ethos, has a dissonance to the modern ear.

That old Ivy-League summation channeled Adams, however, and revealed an objective and timeless truth: that meaning in life comes from association, from identity with a religious tradition, with patriotism, and with intermediate institutions such as schools, churches, clubs, and fraternal associations.

It was this association and these institutions that impressed Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited America in the early 19th century, and he correctly concluded in his masterwork Democracy in America, that without these essential aspects of our national character American self-government could not flourish.

In this time of coronavirus crisis this lesson remains valid, and we now face a real danger that American freedom of association, the absolute essential to preserve popular sovereignty, good government, and what makes American life unique and worthwhile may be lost.

As this is written, California, New York, and Illinois are in something close to total lockdown, other states may be contemplating the same thing, and the citizens in those states, essentially, are prohibited from associating with each other, save within their families. Intermediate associations are on hold for an indefinite period, and though they may still have some virtual existence on-line, this is an impoverished simulation of the real thing. Institutions need real human contact to endure, and if confined only to cyberspace they will eventually evaporate into that ether.

The Only Imperative

It is not hard to understand how we have arrived where we are. When there is a national and international loss of faith in life eternal, earthly existence is all there is, and the desire to prolong that temporal being, the instinct for self-preservation, becomes the only imperative.

The World Health Organization and our own Centers for Disease Control and the White House Coronavirus Task Force are now, for all practical purposes, our international and national governments. They have somehow managed to convince our leaders that our paramount goal is to, in the words of the task force’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, to “flatten the curve,” to reduce the potential level of coronavirus infection—by social distancing—so that fewer are infected, and thus fewer die.

But there is nothing in our Constitution about “flattening the curve,” and the suspension of American businesses, the destruction of American wealth in equities, the concomitant economic chaos and growing unemployment, and, in general, what amounts to the removal of not only freedom of association, but also the suspension of freedom of contract and the use and maintenance of private property, is something unprecedented, deleterious, and a danger to our very way of life.

The Constitution and our other institutions and practices are strong enough to sustain us, the American people still have common sense, and we are not so obtuse that we require bureaucrats to dictate how we must live our lives.

God willing (if one may still write in such a manner) this current panic will subside in a few weeks, life will return to near normal, in the fall school classes will resume, and the financial markets will come roaring back.

Still, a precedent will have been set, and who is to say that the next pandemic (and there will be one, indeed one probably every flu season) will not result in the same measures.

Learning to Recover What’s Been Lost

This is the way in which liberty can be permanently lost, this is the manner in which popular sovereignty is replaced by the tyranny of specialized experts, and this is what happens when faith erodes, and the preservation of fragile lives, and, indeed, lives on respirators, becomes the most important goal.

We have all but forgotten what life is for, what once made this country great, and what could still sustain it. Life is fragile, but it is that fragility that also gives it beauty and inclines us to reverence and awe. Health measures are, of course, necessary, but life—and death—are part of the natural order, and humans cannot change that, however much we place our faith in science.

While we have this period of enforced federal and local disassociation—the implementation of the truly dreadful concept of “social distancing” (something only icy-souled secular technocrats could have created)—perhaps we can spend some time reading Tocqueville, G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, or—better still—the Old and New Testaments to recover something of that world and nation we’ve lost. It’s what John Adams would advise.

Great America

Can We Prepare America for the Next Pandemic?

If some politicians can’t or won’t address pressing questions in order to prepare America for the next “worst-case scenario,” then vote out the bums who put politics ahead of the public health; and put more responsible public servants in their seats to meet the people’s needs.

With every passing moment, nations are establishing precedents for how to contain and ultimately stop a global pandemic. Because the novel coronavirus apparently originated in Wuhan and was immediately covered up by the Chinese Communist Party, the health and welfare of the Chinese people and all other affected populations have suffered from this lethal malfeasance.

But one of the less reported consequences of the Beijing regime’s cover-up (and subsequent propaganda blaming the United States for the virus) is that nations are being forced to establish pandemic precedents on an ad hoc basis, largely upon what we do not know rather than the little we do know about the coronavirus.

Yes, in the United States one can point to and endeavor to compare the annual infections of the flu and its mortality rate, or past instances of the swine flu or other contagious viruses, and question whether our country and others are overreacting to the threat of the coronavirus. (Why the swine flu was treated differently by the national media is another matter.)

But the facts on the ground have rendered the public health point moot. The fundamental decision has been made: at the urging of the medical profession and public health experts, federal and state governments will err on the side of caution, with an overreaction preferred to an under reaction or inaction. (Politically, of course, for the elected officials this makes sense, as no one wants to be featured in an ad that claims they let people die.)

Once the pandemic subsides, no matter how it does, the proponents will be able to argue their measures worked, largely for the same reason their actions occurred—namely because of the unknown. Their argument that more lives would have been lost absent such drastic public health measures will be difficult, if not impossible, to refute. And any argument that public health should be endangered for the sake of the economy will be a nonstarter in the public square.

Setting aside the dismal political shenanigans aimed at politicizing the pandemic, it’s fair to say there have been no well-established public health protocols or precedents during a pandemic for phasing in—however rapidly—measures to protect the citizenry; and there appears to have been no planning whatsoever for the economic consequences of the public health measures necessary to stem the contagion.

Thus, there are hard questions for policymakers, medical and public health professionals, and all interested stakeholders—starting with the sovereign American people who must consent and delegate their power to their government servants to implement the necessary measures during the next pandemic.

Though obviously not exhaustive, and all based upon the premise that a novel emerging virus initially will have little known about it (like this coronavirus), here are three of the most fundamental questions:

Can the rate of infection and/or mortality form the basis for a phased-in escalation of public health measures to contain a novel virus’ spread?

A staged implementation of public health measures to combat the pandemic based upon the facts at hand would be optimum. Easier said than done.

For instance, if the numbers of cases and deaths are within the United States, it will still require time for the numbers to develop; and that means people will be afflicted and many will die. If the numbers come from outside the United States, as we have seen with the deceitful regimes in Communist China and Iran, can the numbers be trusted?

And what of nations that make a good faith effort to report their numbers, but lack the resources that can ensure their accuracy? What happens if, despite the best efforts of everyone, everything needs to be done immediately?

Bluntly, what is the extent to which one can proactively prepare for a pandemic based upon the “known unknowns”?

Can an economic recovery plan be proactively crafted and then implemented for future pandemics?

The coronavirus pandemic has wrought economic devastation and dislocation on a global scale. In so doing, it has revealed our country’s workers and businesses who are most at risk from both the virus and from the public health measures implemented to combat it. Like so many of the government’s actions in the present pandemic, the relief package will prove to have sound and unsound policies and practices, the latter needing to be prevented in the future.

Because the fear of being economically harmed by these public health measures impairs their successful implementation, the assurance that such economic harm will not occur is crucial. The success or lack thereof of the pending remedial economic policies will shape the public’s expectations—for better or for ill—during the next pandemic.

Again, the economic recovery policies we enact today as well as their impacts can instruct policymakers how to improve them for future pandemics—which worked, which didn’t, and why did they or didn’t they work? Who actually needed relief and to what extent? When should the economic mitigation occur, during or after the pandemic? Should all workers and industries receive relief at the same time? How should relief be calculated—per capita, pro-rated, means-tested, etc.? Are direct cash infusions preferable to tax relief or loans? Should there be combinations of all of them?

Importantly, should there be established by federal law a mechanism for instituting a temporary Pandemic Economic Recovery Board, along the lines of World War II’s War Production Board, which can streamline the assessments and implementations required to speed America’s return to economic normality? If battling pandemics is truly a war against a virus, doesn’t it make sense for the temporary creation of an organization to implement what would amount to a post-pandemic Marshall Plan for America?

Such planning does not prioritize the economy over public health; it is a recognition and proactive remediation of the economic consequences of a pandemic and requisite public health measures.

How will proactive pandemic planning and its implementation affect federalism?

Unlike Communist China and the barbarous Iranian regime, despite its fitful start, one of the strengths of America’s response is its flexibility and transparency.

In addition to the federal government, governors have broad powers to implement public health measures to protect their citizens. Should the governor’s powers be increased? Alternatively, would a further nationalized response be more beneficial? Or is the present system sufficient?

Further, while the governors have the power to implement public health measures, such as shutting bars and restaurants, should they be responsible, in whole or in part, for the economic consequences of their decisions? If so, could this adversely impact states’ implementation of public health measures due to fiscal constraints?

Ultimately, federalism must be preserved to the greatest extent possible because, again, when properly functioning it allows for the most rapid, powerful, and effective approach to helping Americans.

At any time during a pandemic, should our constitutional rights be suspended?

The answer is no. But the question comes up because in a time of crisis some would be tempted to answer in the affirmative.

For example, let’s look at a group in disfavor with conservative-populists. In its more lucid moments the press has the ability to report on the course of the pandemic; provide critical information about how to avoid the contagion and about what measures are being implemented to combat it; and reveal legitimate problems with the government and the public’s response to the pandemic. That so many in the media find this hard to do without coming off as fearmongering partisan hacks is regrettable, especially in a time of crisis. Regardless, the First Amendment—and all of our God-given enumerated constitutional rights—must be protected at all times. (“Give me liberty or give me death,” remember?)

I admit the fundamental questions examined above raise a host of other queries, which I tried best as possible to also incorporate. Let’s just say I erred on the side of “overreaction.”

Planning to make the next pandemic less painful than the present one is going to be very difficult, especially given today’s political climate. But that is one ailment easily diagnosed and cured.

If some politicians can’t or won’t address these and so many other related questions in order to prepare America for the next “worst-case scenario,” then vote out the bums who put politics ahead of the public health; and put more responsible public servants in their seats to meet the people’s needs.

Great America

Dangerous Curves

If this is the new normal, where incomplete data and media-fueled panic rule the day, that is an even more frightening prospect than what’s happening right now.

If you weren’t very ill in late January or February, you probably know someone who was. The complaints often sounded the same: A fever for days, a stubborn and unusual-sounding cough, a persistent sore throat—the severity of the symptoms seemed worse than the usual influenza.

Doctors, assuming it was a version of the seasonal flu, administered flu-fighting drugs without testing. (My college daughter was very sick with the same symptoms; her flu test was negative.) Plenty of afflicted Americans just stayed in bed without ever seeing a physician.

Obviously, anecdotal evidence that the COVID-19 illness has been around for at least the past few months isn’t enough to make the case that there’s a chance the worst days of the outbreak are behind, not ahead, of us. But data from the Centers for Disease Control seems to support the possibility that the country has been besieged by the novel coronavirus since the start of 2020.

And while political leaders and medical experts push for more and more draconian measures to “flatten the curve,” it raises some questions. Are we looking at the right “curve?” And how accurate is the current curve if it doesn’t include possible cases before the height of the hysteria began in late February and early March?

The curve, according to one report, “refers to the projected number of people who will contract COVID-19 over a period of time.” To date, the novel coronavirus curve undoubtedly looks ominous. Only a smattering of coronavirus cases was reported in the U.S. during January and February; that figure jumped at the beginning of March due to testing availability.

The first known American victim, a Washington resident who had traveled back from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, was confirmed on January 21. The U.S. coronavirus graph basically flatlines from that date until the last few days of February.

But since the disease originated in China in December at the latest, it’s highly unlikely the number of reported cases in the United States between January 1 and late February is accurate. (It’s important to note that in its order prohibiting most noncitizens from entering the United States from China, the White House confirmed that an average of 14,000 people per day traveled between the two countries in 2019. That means tens of thousands of potentially infected people entered the country for weeks prior to the travel stop.)

Therefore, how could a highly-contagious virus remain nonexistent in a free-moving society for several weeks?

The answer is, it probably did not. The CDC tracks a category called “influenza-like illness,” or ILI. Since symptoms of the flu and coronavirus are very similar, it’s instructive to look at this data, which is based on visits to health care providers in all 50 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. “For this system, ILI is defined as fever (temperature of 100°F or greater) and a cough and/or a sore throat,” reads the CDC webpage on influenza-like illness.

“What influenza-like illness is saying to us is that you have a virus likely affecting your respiratory system that is making you feel crummy and, currently aside from influenza, there aren’t good therapies for these other viruses, so we just treat the symptoms,” Dr. Michael Ison, a professor of infectious diseases at Northwestern University in Chicago, told WebMD.com in January. The underlying cause could be any number of undetected respiratory viruses.

During the week of January 18, 2020, the number of people complaining of ILI started to spike dramatically. That week, nearly 90,000 Americans visited a health care provider with ILI symptoms; by the following week, that figure jumped to more than 107,000. For the next two weeks, into mid-February, the number stayed about the same. And that doesn’t include people with symptoms who didn’t see a doctor.

During the same period, testing for influenza A and B also spiked. Positive tests for both flu strains began to climb during late January and plateaued in mid-February before declining. At its peak, about 20,000 people per week were diagnosed with influenza—but it also represented a positive rate of around 30 percent. That means lots of people were tested for the flu, had flu-like symptoms, but did not have the flu.

Now, again, one can dismiss those figures as the usual discrepancies in any given flu season. But another CDC chart shows that, with the exception of the highly virulent 2017-2018 flu season, this year’s measurement of ILI reports from January 1 until mid-February is the second-highest in the past decade. Then, from the third week of February until now, nationwide reports of influenza-like illness surpassed the 2017-2018 season and now have leveled off.

Again, that too could be written off as a fluke and unrelated to coronavirus. But the CDC acknowledges a connection between coronavirus and reports of influenza-like illnesses: “Clinical laboratory data remain elevated but decreased for the fourth week in a row while ILI activity increased slightly. The largest increases in ILI activity occurred in areas of the country where COVID-19 is most prevalent. More people may be seeking care for respiratory illness than usual at this time.”

So to recap: The current coronavirus “curve” cannot be accurate since it does not include suspected cases of the illness before late February. (It’s unclear why scientists have not yet produced any models that attempt to calculate the virus’ presence here until testing was available.) A big increase in symptoms very similar to coronavirus occurred a few weeks after the first case was recorded, a timeline in accordance with the estimated trajectory of the illness’ spread. And roughly 70 percent of those expressing flu-like symptoms did not have the flu. So what was it?

It’s not unreasonable, in fact, it’s necessary and responsible, to consider that COVID-19 has been in the states since the first of the year; that people suffering similar symptoms to the flu actually had COVID-19; and that the peak of the outbreak occurred last month. The number of people now testing positive for the virus does not mean that the outbreak is accelerating because the data is incomplete.

That’s not the only concern about the veracity of data related to the transmission, spread, and fatality rate of the disease. Experts are cautioning that the available data is not sound and should not be used to justify draconian government measures now enacted at the federal, state, and local levels at a tremendous cost.

“The data collected so far on how many people are infected and how the epidemic is evolving are utterly unreliable,” Dr. John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Stanford University, wrote this week. “Given the limited testing to date, some deaths and probably the vast majority of infections due to SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19] are being missed. We don’t know if we are failing to capture infections by a factor of three or 300.”

The encouraging news, for now at least, is that the coronavirus does not appear to be as deadly as the seasonal flu in terms of sheer numbers. Based on CDC estimates—again, important to note that even the detection of influenza-caused hospitalizations and deaths is not an exact science—between 36 and 52 million Americans have contracted the flu since last October and anywhere between 22,000 and 55,000 have died.

While the number of detected coronavirus cases continues to rise due to widespread testing, about 150 people reportedly have died from the infection. Nearly half lived in the state of Washington; many states are reporting single-digit fatalities. Further, hospitals are not yet overrun with coronavirus patients and, according to the CDC, hospitalizations this year due to the flu “is lower than end-of-season total hospitalization estimates for any season since CDC began making these estimates.” Good news if indeed the number of coronavirus sufferers requiring hospitalization actually materializes.

This is a dangerous time and not just because of the threat of a treatable disease. Americans are willingly surrendering to government their freedom, their livelihood, their long-term economic security, and their mental well-being over unjustified panic about a virus that might have already spread and now is abating. If this is the new normal, where incomplete data and media-fueled panic rule the day, that is an even more frightening prospect than what’s happening right now.

Great America

Failures of the Administrative State in the Pandemic Crisis

This isn’t the time to change our leadership in the White House. It’s time to change the government the person in the White House oversees. The American people deserve better.

Within the next couple of weeks, the American people will have a clearer sense of how great a challenge our nation faces in the months and potentially years ahead. Despite Democrats’ insistent focus on making this pandemic crisis about President Trump and his Administrationand the media happily jumping on that bandwagonthere are facts that cannot be ignored, and many of them are things the Democrat members of Congress (or former members of the Obama Administration) don’t want the American people to know.

Recall that Democrats like David Axelrod and members of the Obama national security team attempted to claim that the Trump Administration had “gutted” or “eliminated” the National Security Council’s “pandemic” desk. That turned out to be a lie. In fact, the Trump White House had reorganized that team to better coordinate with other parts of the federal government. 

Then there were Democrat efforts to claim that the Obama Administration’s efforts to address the “swine flu” epidemic in 2009 were peerless. This despite the fact that Obama didn’t move forcefully on the issue until millions of Americans were infected and a thousand dead. 

The fact is that the same challenges the Trump Administration has faced over the past monthlack of testing, lack of coordination at the federal levelwere endemic a decade ago.

This is the most important point: over the past decadeand actually going back far longerour federal government has become bloated with bureaucrats and do-nothing Washington desk jockeys who in spite of alleged responsibilities, have done nothing to ensure our society is protected from things like pandemics. Our emergency response apparatus is no better today than it was a decade ago when these same careerists promised to fix the problem. 

Why, when a decade ago getting enough tests out to the states and healthcare facilities was a challenge, has there been no change in how the public health system engages with the private? To remind people, H1N1, otherwise known as the swine flu, infected somewhere in the neighborhood of 61 million Americans, hospitalized nearly 300,000 and killed anywhere from 13,000 to 17,000 Americans between 2009 and 2010. So we’ve seen pandemics before, in recent times, yet there is no improved process? 

People attempted to ridicule President Trump for telling governors that they should purchase medical equipment like ventilators through state procurement. Why? Because the federal process is too slow. That federal procurement process is the same one that was in place more than a decade ago. 

For a long time, Iand many othersbelieved the key to another term for President Trump was cutting the size of government; you drain the swamp by breaking apart the Administrative State. I still believe that to be the case. But just as important as cutting the size is fixing the government that actually is critical to the American people.

In the coming weeks, when we have a clearer sense of the challenges we face, we also have to know that people in the Trump Administration are thinking about the next wave of challenges we face. President Trump must set up a bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel that gets to the bottom of why the CDC and other federal agencies for more than a decade have not adapted to the needs of our communities and citizens. There are officials who must be held accountable; there are systems and processes that must be fixed immediately. 

My concern is that if America ends up dodging a massive tragedy through the fast, backfilled actions now being put in place by the Trump Administration, state and local governments, and private industry we may fall back on the bad habits that our government has practiced for decades. 

Most American citizens, who work hard and pay their taxes actually draw very few government resources and expect very little day to day from their governments. They expect that our military and law enforcement is keeping them safe. They expect that our Treasury and some segments of the Commerce Department are keeping our economy chugging along. Perhaps they expect the State Department to ensure their passports and visa requests are dealt with promptly or that their military pension checks or Social Security checks arrive on time. But what most if not all Americans expect, and are entitled to expect, is that when a national emergency hits our government will function well and keep them safe and our infrastructure running smoothly.

But when’s the last time anyone can remember any of that actually occurring? Certainly not in the Obama era. Not in the Bush or Clinton eras. And remember, for all of the remarkable heroism and sacrifice by our Greatest Generation, Pearl Harbor was a surprise attack; our nation’s leaders knew of the threats unfolding in Europe and Asia and still were not prepared for what was to come. After almost a century, isn’t it time that we expectedactually demandedmore from our fundamental government agencies?

At some point in the next few months, politics likely will return to some level of what passes for normal nowadays. We should remember this: Joe Biden and the Democrats have had decades of opportunities to fix these problems and have even claimed to fix them even as they have not. We have a president now who moved as quickly, if not more so than others in his position, only to run up against the same bureaucratic mess that let other presidentsand usdown. 

This isn’t the time to change our leadership in the White House. It’s time to change the government the person in the White House oversees. The American people deserve better.

Great America

Covid Closures Expose Insidious Effects of Michelle Obama’s School Lunch Program

Reexamining the community eligibility program, which has created a middle-class entitlement program while teaching kids all the wrong lessons, should be on the administration’s to-do list. Its deep reach is just one more flawed government approach now exposed by the current public health threat.

As schools shut down across the nation over fears of the COVID-19 illness, it appears that administrators are less concerned about how to educate children and more worried about how to feed them. A basic parental task—making sure your child has breakfast and lunch during the day—like so many aspects of family life, has been relegated to government bureaucrats thanks in large part to Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Signed into law by Barack Obama in 2010, the bill initiated a massive overhaul of the nation’s school lunch program. The first lady’s pet project imposed restrictions on salt, sugar, and saturated fat content in an effort to slim down America’s youth. Nonfat dairy like skim milk replaced whole milk; whole grains replaced white flour. Some schools reported rations on pickles for sandwiches while students were caught smuggling in salt packets to make unappetizing meals more edible. Nearly a decade later, there is no evidence the costly and burdensome effort had any impact on childhood obesity rates.

But one part of the bill has met, even exceeded, its intended outcome: The expansion of taxpayer-subsidized meals to millions of American children and teenagers.

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), enacted nationwide in 2014, allows entire districts rather than individual families to apply for “free” or reduced-price meals based on low-income rates in the area. If at least 40 percent of the students in a district qualify, every student in the district is then entitled to a free breakfast, lunch, and snack.

“Schools that participate in community eligibility often see increased participation in school meals and a reduced paperwork burden, allowing school nutrition staff to focus more directly on offering healthy, appealing meals,” according to a report by the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group. “Moreover, offering meals at no charge to all students eliminates the stigma from the perception that school meals are only for low-income children.”

Over the past five years, participation in CEP has doubled. Nearly 14 million children eat free breakfast and lunch at school each day. Millions more receive reduced-price meals. And these figures will continue to rise; only about half of the eligible school districts have adopted the program. Overall, according to the Department of Agriculture, the agency that administers all federal food programs, more than 5 billion lunches, 2.6 billion breakfasts, and other school-based meals such as snacks will be served in American schools this year at a cost of $31 billion. (This includes government reimbursements for paid meals, too.)

So, after abdicating responsibility for feeding children from parents and guardians to the state, including for families who don’t need the assistance, the Wuhan virus crisis is forcing schools to figure out how to keep the free meals flowing for at least the next few weeks and possibly the rest of the school year.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last week, the lobbying group for school nutritionists urged him to devise a plan to make sure kids still get a free lunch. “Expanding opportunities for [districts] to serve students during anticipated school closures would help combat food insecurity, prevent massive amounts of food waste and spoilage in school cafeterias nationwide, and ease subsequent financial losses for school meal programs and school districts,” wrote the heads of the School Nutrition Association on March 5.

A few proposals include organizing a “grab and go” system so kids can pick up their meals; distributing meals at satellite locations in the district to make it easier for families to get the food; and easing regulations to “launch emergency feeding operations.” Perdue has promised to “do our very best to give you all the tools you need to get those kids fed.” A few states are giving away free grocery store gift cards to compensate for shuttered cafeterias.

One of the reasons why New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio initially refused to close the nation’s largest school district was over fears children would go hungry.

“I’m very reticent to shut down schools for a variety of reasons,” DeBlasio said on CNN over the weekend. “Not just because that’s where a lot of kids get their only good meals, where they get adult supervision, especially teenagers, who otherwise would be out on the streets.”

The mayor announced Sunday that schools would close until April 20. DeBlasio and New York governor Andrew Cuomo are now working on a plan that, among other things, would ensure New York City’s more than 1 million students are properly fed.

Now, there is no doubt that children living in poverty-stricken areas, low-income homes, and in the foster care system need and deserve our help. Economic and cultural conditions have created hardship circumstances for millions of children through no fault of their own. There should be no argument about making sure vulnerable, neglected children are fed.

The problem with the current law is that free school meals are expanded to families who don’t need the help. Yes, most moms will admit that preparing school lunches is one of their least favorite chores (although it’s funny how you miss it when those lunch-making days are over) but it is a central parental duty especially if you can afford it. But now, parents, children, and educators have been taught that the responsibility for providing food for their children resides at school, not at home—a bad precedent. And it impacts crisis situations like the one the country now confronts.

The Trump Administration has been rolling back some of the more draconian measures of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, including baseless limits on food ingredients and stringent rules that overburdened school lunch ladies. Reexamining the community eligibility program, which has created a middle-class entitlement program of sorts while teaching kids all the wrong lessons, should be on the list, too. Its deep, insidious reach is just one more flawed government approach now exposed by the current public health threat.

Great America

The Real Threat(s) from Coronavirus

Social distancing is nothing compared to a crisis that leads to mass casualties, economic collapse, and a legacy of bad policies that leaves the country weaker than ever before.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, said Sunday that Americans must prepare to “hunker down” to avoid a worst-case scenario with the rapid spread of the Chinese coronavirus. Nevertheless, plenty of skeptics are asking if coronavirus is “something” or if it is “nothing.” That’s the wrong question to ask. And asking the wrong question leads you to the wrong answers.

Of course it is something, but what is it? That’s the question we need to answer.

I know that people reading this will fall broadly into two groups. The first group, which is strongly represented among political conservatives, maintains that coronavirus is nothing or, if not precisely nothing, then it is asymptotically approaching nothing. For them, it is as real as the Fusion GPS dossier on President Trump.

Then there is the other group. These are people who are concerned that an outbreak in one or more American cities that goes undetected and thus uncontained for too long could cause a repeat of the Wuhan or Northern Italy scenario. Those scenarios followed roughly the same pattern: the virus went largely undetected due to a lack of testing capacity and soon became widespread before public health officials could act.

This led to a surge in hospitalizations that overloaded existing resources and spiked the number of fatalities as well as the fatality rate. That’s why the delay in increasing testing capacity in the United States until the past few days has been a cause for concern. The Wuhan virus should not have a high mortality rate, but when left unnoticed and thus unchecked it can spread and lead to deaths of people who would be able to recover if they’d had proper treatment.

The scenes from Italy have been horrible. By Sunday, Italy had nearly 25,000 confirmed cases, more than 1,800 deaths—and 368 of those deaths came in the prior 24 hours. That single-day death toll exceeds the worst day China ever reported.

And the Italian situation appears to be worsening. Mauro D’Ambrosio, a nurse at Fatebenefratelli Hospital in Milan told Euronews that ICUs are dangerously overburdened. He says the average stay in ICU for a patient who has developed COVID-19 as a result of infection with coronavirus is 15 days compared with an average ICU stay of 5-6 days. Another nurse, speaking on condition of anonymity said that “Anesthetists—despite them playing it down a little bit on the media—have to choose who they attach to the machine for ventilation, and who they won’t attach to the machines.” And Dr. Roberto Cosentini told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, “If this new wave does not subside, the health system is heading towards collapse: triggered by what we can compare to a natural catastrophe,” he said.

When there are more patients than resources, for example, more patients who require intubation and a ventilator, than there are ventilators, then doctors have to choose who gets a treatment that under normal circumstances would be available to any and all who needed it. And then the fatalities shoot up.

That’s the situation we’re trying to avoid. The way to do that is to slow the spread so that the virus is either arrested or makes its way through the population slowly rather than quickly. This video created by the CDC is a helpful illustration.

It does us no good to make comparisons about deaths from the seasonal flu or deaths from auto accidents. That’s beside the point. Taken even at face value, the “it’s just the flu” argument points to a dangerous scenario. The United States has averaged over 400,000 hospitalizations from the flu every year. And in a country with very little excess hospital capacity adding another 400,000 hospitalizations from a second virus—which is what the “it’s just another flu” scenario implies—would over-tax the system and lead to more deaths from conditions that would normally be treatable. As a point of comparison, the United States has 2.8 beds per thousand while Italy has 3.2, China 4.3, and South Korea, which has done an excellent job containing their outbreak, has more than 12 beds per 1,000.

That means that we must be honest about what type of threat coronavirus really is. Data to answer that question is emerging every day. What we’re learning is that coronavirus is not a highly contagious form of SARS or MERS that will kill tens of millions. That horrific scenario—conceivable, if unlikely, during the first weeks of the outbreak in Wuhan—is off the table. But it remains a real public health threat that doctors and scientists are trying to quantify.

In America, we are fortunate, as we have been throughout our history, to be separated from Europe, Asia, and Africa by two large oceans. They are a buffer that, in this case, means we are dealing with our outbreak after Asia and Europe so we can learn from their experience.

Dangers and Opportunities

At present, coronavirus presents three main threats:

  1.   The potential for a public health crisis that leads to mass fatalities. For example, this particular coronavirus becoming a second, additional virus in our population causing as many or even more hospitalizations and deaths than the seasonal flu. At the moment, our system isn’t built to take it.
  2.   An economic contagion that causes a significant systemic breakdown or long-term destruction in a particular industry, region, or worse, the whole country or globe. This is likely to be the most widespread consequence of virus and the responses to it. But a slowdown, even a major slowdown, while painful, is something from which we will recover if not hampered by bad policy or mass death. If history is a guide, the former is more of a threat than the latter.
  3.   Bad policy. There is an almost irresistible temptation for policymakers to “do something” and many of the incentives combined with the preexisting condition of bad ideology will militate toward bad policy. We do not, for example, want the government to create a “temporary” surveillance commissariat to monitor everyone’s body temperature or anything like that which could become a permanent fixture in American life. Think of the prospect of an agency equivalent of the TSA but patting you down every time you venture into public. Its logo would be a fist encased in a latex glove.

Each of those threats requires a distinct, discrete response, but they are also so intimately intertwined that policymakers and the people who advise them need to be aware of unexpected correlations and unintended consequences.

There are also opportunities, which I will address at greater length later, but they relate to rebuilding our manufacturing base, rationalizing our supply chains, becoming more self-sufficient and thus anti-fragile as a nation, reforming work and education to allow for more of both from home, and the necessity of solutions to this and future viral outbreaks based in new science and technology.

Avoiding the worst-case public health scenarios means two things: slowing the spread and increasing the availability of mass testing to identify infection clusters and contain them. This plays into the economic impacts. Uncertainty is a killer, both literally and figuratively. When doctors can’t make a decisive clinical diagnosis it makes it harder to treat and harder for public health officials to make good decisions. So what do they do? They err on the side of caution.

That’s one of the reasons we’re seeing mass closures of, well, just about everything. And people become hesitant to go out or even to make plans for the near future. That’s a big hit to the economy. But with more certainty, people can make better decisions and start to resume their normal lives. Fortunately, new tests became available at the end of last week that will begin to make an impact. Most important of these is the test developed by Roche that increased the nation’s testing capacity by a factor of at least 10. To illustrate the importance of testing, consider that Italy has nearly 25x the dead compared to South Korea which did 9x more testing than Italy. Korea learned a hard lesson from the 2015 MERS outbreak that temporarily tanked their economy.

The big economic news of the past few weeks has been the massive sell-off in the stock market. But bear in mind that stocks had been on a 12-year bull run, a portion of which was the result of a lack of sound money exemplified by the massive amount of liquidity pumped into the economy by the Federal Reserve which has nowhere to go except into financial assets. The lack of better investments than financial assets is a subject for another time, but holders of those assets can take some solace in the fact that when the coronavirus is brought under control—and it will be—the world’s central banks remain committed to printing massive amounts of currency and they will, as night follows day, find their way back into financial assets and the people and industries that benefit from the Cantillon Effect will continue to do very well.

Reasons to Take Heart

In the meantime, we should not treat the Wuhan virus as a death sentence as some of the media’s breathless, overhyped coverage—for instance dramatically releasing daily increasing tally numbers of confirmed cases—seems to suggest it is. It’s not. The caseload is useful information and newsworthy, but bear in mind that in 80 percent of the cases they’re reporting are of people with a mild cough and a fever who will fully recover in a week or so. How about also reporting with equal alacrity the number of recovered patients?

More than anything, we should take heart. Mankind is strong, resilient, and endlessly resourceful. Our bodies are wonderfully made and adapt to viruses and build immunity over time. And when that is insufficient, we use our God-given reason to create other solutions like vaccines and therapeutic drugs. Remember that the bubonic plague killed something like 30 percent of the population of Europe. It now kills less than a few hundred worldwide every year.

Whether one thinks this virus is especially nasty, contagious, and deadly, or is an overhyped version of the flu, realize that time is on our side. And while the world takes an unexpected, unwanted pause, use that time wisely.

Kids are home from school. Concerts and sports and movies are canceled. People are keeping to themselves. Don’t let this time be a waste or even a burden. Enjoy the time with family even in spite of any additional burden it may create. If you’re home from college, do something. Anything. And check in on folks you know who are lonely. Facetime them, they’d love to hear from you!

A friend who grew up in Beirut during their civil war has been very encouraging. He says he remembers huddling in shelters with his family while bombs were falling sometimes for days, with no water except what they had filled in containers and bathtubs. There was no electricity and food was scarce. But they encouraged one another, they played board games, and they prayed. They continued to live.

We are, mercifully, far, far from that sort of situation. We should remember that—and we should learn from their example.

Great America

This Is An Emergency!

For the good of the country, and especially for the good of our leaders, we must prorogue Congress. We must do it today! And since we do not know how long this plague will last, we must do it indefinitely.

At a time of national crisis, it is important that we do everything possible to make sure that the important people without whom our society could not function are safe. I refer, of course, to our politicians, especially our distinguished members of Congress. Where would we be without their wisdom? How could we stagger on without their selfless dedication to the commonweal? Now that the Wuhan virus is cutting a wide swathe through our country, something must be done to protect these great men and women, many of whom are so dedicated to our welfare that they have stayed in Congress for decades—decades, just for us. 

As I write, the news has just come in that a total of 60 people—60!—have died from the scourge of the Wuhan virus. No wonder people feel like the procession of flagellants in “The Seventh Seal.” This really is a pandemic akin to the Black Death. 

Do you realize that in this country you have a 0.000000155963303 chance of contracting and dying from this dread disease? Especially if you are over 80 and in poor health. We must take action, and we must take action now, to preserve the lives of all those who govern us, who set our taxes, who impose all those rules and regulations that make everyday business such a joy to conduct.

They who entertained us with months of television drama trying to impeach the president: what would we do without them? This morning, I received a robocall from the mayor of our town, warning about the dread effects of the Wuhan virus. In order to counter the assault, he was essentially shutting down the local government, canceling all events on city property, and banning gatherings of more than 100 people. 

Did you know that in addition to 100 senators there are 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives? Yes, that’s right. There they are crowding together in the Capitol building, shaking hands and breathing on one another and their thousands of aides. It’s unsanitary. It’s unsafe. It’s a national emergency. For the good of the country, and especially for the good of our leaders, the men and women without whom we would be lost, we must prorogue Congress. 

We must do it today! And since we do not know how long this plague will last, we must do it indefinitely. All members of Congress must self-quarantine, they must shelter in place in their Washington flats, until we put this health nightmare behind us, which might be never. 

Do-or-Die Time

I just got a notice from one of my favorite groups of restaurants in New York. We are all, the notice said, “navigating uncharted territory with no preexisting roadmap or compass.” Yes, this might be like the Black Death, except worse. “Nothing matters more than the safety and health of our team members, guests, and communities,” the notice said. Accordingly, they have made the “difficult decision to temporarily close our restaurants until we believe it is safe to re-open.” Who knows when that will be. Next month? Next year? Never? 

Edvard Munch, where art thou? This is the moment for your iconic image: “The Scream.” Some 19 people, all over eighty, all with serious underlying health issues, all in the same nursing care facility, have died from the Wuhan virus out West. At least, they had the virus. Maybe they died of something else. Anyway, this is an emergency. 

One of the silver linings of this latest example of what Charles Mackay diagnosed as “the madness of crowds” is that the people who will be blamed when it is over are the people who stoked the insanity from the start.

This is spring break time for many schools and colleges. All across the land, the bulletins have gone out: do not come back after the break! Stay home at least for two more weeks. Many institutions—Stanford, Princeton, Harvard—are going on-line only for the rest of the semester. Why stop there? No two people should ever be in the same room again. We can’t be too careful. Close all the universities permanently. Turn the dormitories into hospital wards. Haven’t we been told that our hospitals are about to be overwhelmed? Patients will be lying on gurneys in hallways. If there are any gurneys left.

We should convert all the desks in every college and university classroom into makeshift cots. American derring-do can make it happen. Besides, once tuition-check paying parents realize that the tender props and supports of their old age can learn just as much at home as they can at their expensive colleges, and can do so without fear of progressive indoctrination or consciousness-raising in anti-American sentiment, I wouldn’t be surprised if that many parents will opt not to send their sons and daughters back to school even when they do open. 

Irrational Exuberance Redux

Well, we’ve been through worse before. Remember the panic of 2009 when the H1N1 virus cut a devastating path through the U.S. population? There were 115,000 cases in the United States, 15,000 hospitalizations, 3,500 deaths. [UPDATE: I understated the severity of the 2009 H1Ni flu. According to the CDC, in the US there were some 60.8 million cases, 274,304 hospitalizations, and 12,469 deaths.] Our entire society ground to a halt. All airplanes were grounded, subways and buses stood motionless in their garages and depots, schools closed, as did restaurants, gyms, and grocery stores. Lawmakers everywhere blamed President Obama for the historic tragedy. 

Just kidding. None of that happened, nor should it have. So what’s different this time? 

One thing is the market. A week or two back it got spooked. Panic begot panic and we saw an historic sell-off. And here’s the thing about widespread irrationality: At some point, the only rational response is to give in and act irrationally yourself. If you are really worried that the grocery stores will be stripped bare, you had best queue up and grab all the swag that you can now. Who knows when or if the shelves will be restocked? 

Writing to A. C. Benson in 1896, Henry James said that he had “the imagination of disaster—and [sees] life as ferocious and sinister.” What would James say today? 

I believe that Donald Trump has shown exemplary leadership during this episode. He banned flight from China at the end of January, just as the House impeachment folly was beginning its denouement. At the time, Joe Biden, among many Democrats, condemned him for his “racism” and “xenophobia.” Then the panic got going and they blamed Trump for not taking the crisis seriously enough. 

I’ll bet they’re sorry now. Trump’s declaration of a national emergency on Friday sparked the biggest market surge ever: nearly 2,000 points in about an hour. I suspect that the rise was due not so much to the declaration of an emergency as his announced mode of dealing with it: the critical player was not going to be Congress but private enterprise. 

All Good Things Must Come to an End

When will sanity return? It’s hard to say for sure. What Heather Mac Donald calls “virus porn” exercises an irresistible attraction on susceptible souls. They are secretly, or not so secretly, ecstatic. They want the drama to go on forever. Ordinary citizens can stay home from work, students are actually forbidden from going back to school, and of course, for anyone in political power, the Wuhan virus has been a godsend. Now they can do what they like doing most—order other people around—and seem like heroes for doing so. 

Consider the town of Champaign, Illinois. They just held an emergency meeting to deal with the “Impact of the COVID-19 Virus.” The city council proposed to grant extraordinary powers to the mayor, which include:

  • Banning the sale of firearms and ammunition;
  • Banning the sale of any alcohol;
  • Closing of all bars, taverns, liquor stores, etc.;
  • Banning the sale or giving away of gasoline or other liquid flammable or combustible products in any container other than a gasoline tank permanently fixed to a motor vehicle;
  • Directing the shut-off of power, water, gas, etc.
  • Taking possession of private property and obtaining full title to same;
  • Prohibiting or restricting entry and exit to and from the city. 

I asked a friend who lives nearby whether this was a joke. “Apparently not,” was her answer. 

All good things come to an end, of course, even crises. For one thing, people grow tired of any given emergency. There is only so much emotional energy around to fuel panic. Eventually, it runs out, and the panic, like a fire, gutters. 

Then, too, the word that is on the lips of the wise today—“denominator”—will soon be on everyone’s lips. That number in this country is about 327 million.

The incubation period for this latest Chinese import is typically five or six days. It can be a bit shorter, or a bit longer. But the places first affected—China, South Korea—have already seen a marked drop in new cases. We will in a matter of days. There has been a great hue and cry for more widespread testing. If that happens, the number of diagnosed cases will go up, maybe dramatically. What won’t go up much is the number of fatalities. 

Panics are a species of moral intoxication. Like the physical kind, they are typically followed by a hangover. Not an upset stomach or headache, but a feeling of chagrin and resentment about one’s own gullibility, which quickly translates into irritation and resentment directed at the people who fueled the panic in the first place. 

One of the silver linings of this latest example of what Charles Mackay diagnosed as “the madness of crowds” is that the people who will be blamed when it is over—which it will be, and soon—are the people who stoked the insanity.

Great America

Prepare, Don’t Panic

The restrictions being imposed around the country may be justified. But let’s apply them with caution, with perspective, and with an awareness of what we’re sacrificing.

A month before our first child was born my wife and I took one of those baby safety courses. It was taught by an emergency medical technician who had seen many horrific deaths of babies and children, and had become an expert at preventing such tragedies.

The course was like a sick parody of the old Irving Maimway skit on “Saturday Night Live.” The instructor kept ranting about dead babies, screaming “You just killed your baby!” at people who gave what he considered the wrong answers to his questions. 

Lollipops were a particular obsession of his. Children’s airways aren’t developed enough for them until about age eight or 10, he claimed, and pediatricians who gave them to younger patients were ignorant of the current literature and irresponsibly putting children’s lives at risk. 

You can imagine what he thought about slides and seesaws.

Of course, by virtue of the nature of his work, he was speaking from the unfortunate experience of having seen all the horror stories he railed about—the lollipop deaths, the monkey-bar maimings, the dead 2-year-old in Central Park whose father had given him a piece of apple. He was immersed in them, and he’d studied up and become an expert on them. But as a result, he’d totally lost perspective and common sense, monomaniacally focused on averting death to the exclusion of all the joys of childhood and the capacities of most parents to mitigate risk on their own.

This story has come back to me in thinking about the coronavirus pandemic and the reaction to it, because it illustrates two of the three reasons why I’m in the “Don’t panic” camp: skepticism of the temperance of so-called experts, and concern about the human and social costs of a worldview that maximizes mere self-preservation over the joy of life. 

A third reason is a practical political one that I think should give pause to those on the Right who are hopping on the panic train: encouraging inordinate physical fear of anything ultimately will help the Left on everything—including the border security issues.

I’m not going to focus here on the statistical disputes about the constantly changing estimates of transmission rates and case fatality rates, or on reports that up to 80 percent of cases are either mild or have essentially no symptoms at all. Nor am I even going to argue about all the other pandemic scares that fizzled: H1N1, West Nile, Swine Flu, SARS, MERS, Zika, etc. The concerns I raise are important even if—perhaps especially if—this time the experts have finally cried wolf about a real wolf, and this really is The Big One.

The Experts. We’re hearing a lot of counsel demanding we listen to the medical and scientific “experts,” and mockery of President Trump for his skepticism about trusting their judgment to the exclusion of all else.

But just a few weeks ago some of those very same medical experts, from the World Health Organization and the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, published a preposterous report purporting to show that the United States scored only 39th among the world’s nations in “child flourishing,” largely because we are supposedly outranked by third-world countries on “sustainability.”

This politically correct folly was no one-off aberration. In 2018 the leading science journal Nature editorialized that “institutions have a moral and ethical duty to make scientific research more diverse and representative. Improving the participation of under-represented groups is not just fairer—it could produce better research.” Another scientific journal recently ran this article calling for “a Critical Approach That Centers Inclusion, Equity, and Intersectionality.” And in January The Lancet lectured that “defending whiteness . . . kills.”

This is all voodoo, not science. I would go so far as to call it anti-scientific, ideologically driven, quasi-religious nonsense. And sometimes it goes beyond being silly and threatens monstrous, irreparable harm to vulnerable human beings—as with the current policy of the American Academy of Pediatrics banning treatment of gender dysphoric children except to allow them to begin “transitioning” with puberty-blocking hormones as early as eight and mastectomies or castration as early as 16.

If we only cared about maximizing everyone’s odds of survival we really would raise the drinking age to 55 and lower the speed limit to 21. Thankfully we don’t.

So, as I struggled with in this short piece a few years ago, we’re really at sea in trying to make sense of scientific issues these days, with so much of “the scientific community” not just hopelessly politicized but having gone down a cult-like ideological rabbit hole. This is not to say that they’re always wrong, and it’s certainly not evidence that they are wrong about COVID-19. 

But like all of us, scientists and doctors are humans subject to passions. And so many scientists and doctors have become zealots about theirs—on everything from the environment to sex identity that we can no longer take them at their word with blind faith. All we’re left with is our common sense and perspective, which should always counsel a bit of healthy skepticism, particularly when the experts’ warnings just happen to line up both with their institutional/bureaucratic interest in expanding their domains, and their philosophical/occupational tendency towards fearfulness. (Remember that baby safety course instructor.)

All this, by the way, would have been good advice for policymakers even before the age of political correctness. Experts notoriously get things wrong. It’s the job of government leaders to bring policy perspective and experience to bear on their recommendations (for example, by asking how a new virus strain compares to previous ones and to the common flu). It will be important to keep perspective in mind going forward, and not rotely accept “expert” prescriptions on a range of questions from trade to climate change, even if they turn out to have finally gotten one right on the Wuhan virus.

Political Implications. The ideological lines have been more blurred than many realize over coronavirus. A writer in Slate advises that the virus “isn’t as deadly as we think” while several conservative intellectuals such as Claire Lehmann of Quillette and Rod Dreher are leading the drumbeat for the most extreme and socially disruptive responses. This view is most common among my own faction of the Right—populist-nationalist cultural conservatives—and is perhaps understandable given what the spread of the virus says about the dangers of globalization. And about the criminal scandal of allowing 97 percent of our drug supply to be controlled by China.

But they’re still making a mistake politically if they throw in with panic. 

To be blunt, the major political-cultural divide of the era is between John Wayne and Pajama Boy, between fear and dependence on the one hand, and strength, toughness, and courage (“toxic masculinity” if you will) on the other.

Between “the Mommy Party and the Daddy Party.”

Yes, I know, I know; I can hear the shrieks of derision: “What’s strength and macho got to do with it? You can’t beat up a virus, you stupid Neanderthal.” And of course, you can’t. But I’m talking about a mindset here. And to the extent that public policy encourages a mindset of fear it will always redound to the benefit of the Mommy Party.This should concern not just social conservatives like me who worry about things like “toughness,” but economic conservatives who worry about dependence on government.

To take one obvious example, which also ties in to the discussion above: if we teach people to fear calamity, and to accept the word of the experts, how do we dispute the “97 percent scientific consensus” on global warming—and what will likely soon be the consensus of the politicized scientific community that only measures like the Green New Deal will avert the imminent catastrophe?

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Broader Considerations. There are broader concerns as well that counsel against encouraging fear. These overlap a bit with the political considerations, but they should be of concern to people across the political spectrum.

The first issue is “the human cost of a widespread economic shutdown,” as Steve Malanga discussed in City Journal the other day. Concern about “the economy” is not just about the stock market and corporate profits; it’s about real people losing jobs and having to scrounge to support their families. Financial deprivation and anxiety about it entail health risks that have to be weighed along with the risk of the virus. Economic disruptions like shutting down public places may be necessary, but should not be undertaken hastily out of undue fear.

Beyond this, there are more fundamental questions about the import of a populace cowering in fear, and about a worldview that elevates maximizing the odds of survival above all else. I don’t know how to quantify these intangibles, but somehow they have to be factored into the risk equations.

And policymakers, particularly right-of-center policymakers, have generally done so in other areas. This is captured by one of my favorite political quotes, from an upstate New York State Senator named Vincent Graber, who said in response to liberal arguments about “the death rate” in a debate on one of the following two issues: “We could really reduce the death rate if we lowered the speed limit to 21 and raised the drinking age to 55.”

The social and human impact of a populace cowering in fear—physically afraid of others and, as necessarily follows, looking out only for themselves—should scare (pun intended) both tough-guy conservatives and touchy-feely liberals. Do we really want to live in a world without either heroism or hugs?

My point is not that it’s courageous to expose yourself to the small risk of disease, but that a public steeped in fear, encouraged to indulge rather than overcome that fear, will be less likely to display courage on anything. Will they run into the Battery Tunnel towards the burning towers as the off-duty firemen did on 9/11? And where are we as a society, what kind of people are we, without these objectively foolhardy actions?

Finally, as a 64-year-old with what might qualify as a pre-existing respiratory issue, I think I understand one reason why, paradoxically, older people seem to be no more panicked about the virus than younger people—and far less supportive of drastic responses to it. The older you are the less likely you are to maximize the odds of self-preservation over all other considerations.

We hear that younger people shouldn’t hug grandma, shouldn’t even visit her, lest they infect her; as a matter of fact, grandma should sit inside alone, cut off from all human contact. But a hug from her grandchildren, or a visit with friends, or just the dignity of going about her life, may all mean more to grandma than mere life extension.

This is why Senator Graber’s joke rings so true. If we only cared about maximizing everyone’s odds of survival we really would raise the drinking age to 55 and lower the speed limit to 21. Thankfully we don’t.

I’m not saying the restrictions being imposed around the country are necessarily unjustified. But let’s apply them with caution, with perspective, and with an awareness of what we’re sacrificing.

Great America

A Sign of Hope in the Coronavirus Pandemic

As the weather warms, we have reason to hope for a respite. Yes, ironically, the key to humanity’s salvation (not doom) might be in global warming

In H.G. Wells’ classic novel, The War of the Worlds, humanity is set upon by an unbeatable army of technologically-advanced aliens. All of mankind’s defenses barely slow the marauding army as it swiftly conquers humanity leaving the survivors to hide and try to survive. In the end, nature saved humanity by infecting the aliens with microbes that were novel to their alien immune systems.

The novel coronavirus feels like a “black swan” type catastrophe. I’m old enough to have lived through three or perhaps four of these panics: The 1999 Y2K panic, September 11, and the 2008 financial crash. Gather around, young people, for some unsolicited optimism about this current crisis.

There are signs that nature will save humanity from this virus. The main reason? Coronavirus doesn’t seem to do well in warm weather. 

Outside of China, the top infection zones are Iran (10,075 cases), South Korea (7,869 cases), Italy (12,462 cases), France (2,284 cases), Spain (2,277 cases) and Germany (2,078 cases). Tehran, the apparent epicenter of Iran’s infection, has an average March temperature high of 61 degrees and a low of 44 degrees. South Korea’s epicenter, Daegu, averages 54 and 38. One of Italy’s top infection zones, Bergamo, averages 57 and 39. In the United States, Seattle appears to be our top infection zone. Its temperatures in March average 52 and 42.

Contrast that to countries near China that have remained relatively unscathed. India has a mere 73 cases but averages temperatures of 91 and 70 in March. Vietnam, which shares a border with China, has a mere 39 cases. Vietnam’s largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, has an average March high of 93 and a low of 76. Thailand has had only 70 cases. It’s capital, Bangkok averages March temperatures of 94 and 78.

Hot places seem also to have fewer deaths. Vietnam has had no deaths. Cambodia, only one. India, only one. In contrast, Italy has had nearly 1,300 deaths as of this writing. 

There are exceptions. Canada has had only 117 cases and a single death. But the trend appears encouraging: As the summer sun warms our environment, so nature may slow this terrifying pandemic. Even more encouraging, the warm climates seem to feature a lower mortality rate. Fewer people catch the virus but even fewer die from it.

Is it possible to simulate these effects by turning up thermostats? By wearing heavier clothing? By exercising vigorously? It’s not known at this point. But a summer slow-down of the virus would buy critical breathing space for scientists to study and develop more effective countermeasures. 

As for the economic impact of the virus, there’s reason for optimism there, too. The fallout from the supply interruption of Chinese-based manufacturing doesn’t appear likely to spread to warmer venues such as Mexico, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The disruption in China will have a permanent effect of forcing the world to reduce its vulnerability to supply chains dependent on China. Long-term, that’s a good thing. 

In the short term, China has not yet recovered but nevertheless is operating at around 50 percent capacity. Many people predicted dire projections about coming pharmaceutical shortages because so many drugs are made in China. But, as a result of a major fiscal year 2016-17 supply disruption, “domestic companies have diversified their sourcing away from China. Accordingly, API imports more than halved to USD 408 million in FY2018 from USD 866 million in FY2014.”

Bottom line: The world is not about to end. Coronavirus, and the reaction to the pandemic, obviously will cause major disruptions. But as the weather warms, we have reason to hope for a respite. 

Yes, ironically, the key to humanity’s salvation (not doom) might be in global warming

Great America

The Finger of Trump
on a New Plague

Are we witnessing the beginning of a new plague? Will we, in years to come, need our Daniel Defoe to provide a chronicle of a deadly scourge?

Are we about to get a new Journal of the Plague Year? In that 1722 novel, Daniel Defoe’s protagonist gives a detailed, supposedly eyewitness account of the progress of the bubonic plague through London in 1665.

. . . in order to be certain of the truth, two physicians and a surgeon were ordered to go to the house and make inspection. This they did; and finding evident tokens of the sickness upon both the bodies that were dead, they gave their opinions publicly that they died of the plague. Whereupon it was given in to the parish clerk, and he also returned them to the Hall; and it was printed in the weekly bill of mortality in the usual manner, thus—


Plague, 2. Parishes infected, 1.

 

The people showed a great concern at this, and began to be alarmed all over the town, and the more, because in the last week in December 1664 another man died in the same house, and of the same distemper. And then we were easy again for about six weeks, when none having died with any marks of infection, it was said the distemper was gone; but after that, I think it was about the 12th of February, another died in another house, but in the same parish and in the same manner.

By the end of the novel, 100,000 are dead. Finally, the scourge abates.

“Nothing,” Defoe’s narrator writes, “but the immediate finger of God, nothing but omnipotent power, could have done it. The contagion despised all medicine; death raged in every corner; and had it gone on as it did then, a few weeks more would have cleared the town of all, and everything that had a soul. Men everywhere began to despair; every heart failed them for fear; people were made desperate through the anguish of their souls, and the terrors of death sat in the very faces and countenances of the people.”

It was all the fault of Donald Trump, of course, though Defoe neglects to point that out. 

A week ago, I wrote about the president’s masterly press conference about the coronavirus. As Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) observed, the president’s decision to suspend flights between the United States and China early on in the epidemic was “the single most consequential and valuable thing” done to slow the course of the malady. 

That’s not how his political opponents spun it, of course. The president was denounced as “racist,” “xenophobic,” etc. by the Left, but that talk dried up as panic began to take over. In that earlier column, I mentioned Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. He was writing about Tulipomania in 17th-century Holland—when a single tulip bulb might go for more than the price of your house—financial bubbles, and the like. But we seem to be seeing a medical version of that now. 

As I have noted, we do not know how rapidly or how widely the virus will spread, nor do we know how deadly it will be. People over 65 seem to suffer more serious illnesses than younger people, especially if they have underlying health problems. As is the case with other maladies, the older and frailer you are, the more likely it is that you will die from the coronavirus.

That said, it is worth maintaining some perspective on the disease. In early February, the CDC estimated that at least 12,000 people had died from the flu from October 1, 2019 through February 1. That number might be as high as 30,000. So far, CDC estimates, some 31 million Americans have caught the flu this season. Somewhere between 200,000 and 370,000 of those have been hospitalized because of the virus. 

As for deaths, the CDC estimates that it will probably equal or surpass the 2018-2019 season when there were 34,000 flu-related deaths in America. (The 2017-2018 season saw 61,000 deaths.) Writ large, the World Health Organization estimates that the flu kills between 290,000 and 650,000 annually.

Contrast those numbers with the numbers we have seen so far regarding the coronavirus. On Saturday, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency in New York. Perhaps that was the prudent thing to do. But I note that, as of today, there have been 78 who have tested positive for the virus in New York. Across the nation, more than 380 people have tested positive to coronavirus, and 19 people have died. 

Are we witnessing the beginning of a new plague? Will we, in years to come, need our Daniel Defoe to provide a chronicle of a deadly scourge? 

We do not know. But I suspect not. There will be more cases and more deaths. But we are reacting, and perhaps overreacting, to limit the spread of a disease whose lethality seems scarcely more serious than the common flu? 

I am not quite sure when we will be able to look back, probably with some slight embarrassment, and say we really overdid the sanitary wipes, the face masks, and the paranoia. Still, the great Balliol don Benjamin Jowett was right: “Precautions are always blamed. When they are successful, they are deemed to have been unnecessary.”

Great America

San Francisco Goes Viral: Coronavirus and Chaos

With more than two-dozen cases of the virus in the Bay Area, we may soon see what San Francisco values most.

Nature abhors the vacuous idea that it cannot strike when and where it wants, that it cannot spread its wealth of power among the rich and powerful, that it cannot eradicate income inequality by destroying people of all incomes.

We may soon see the worst of human nature if an American city succumbs to the fury of Mother Nature, if a city like San Francisco becomes a forbidden city, if an export from China starts a class war in Chinatown, Fillmore, Mission Bay, Nob Hill, and Corona Heights.

We may soon see the coronavirus consume the City by the Bay.

If the virus strikes the city we may soon see the soft fascism of fear, of liberals rending their garments without mourning their loss, of residents saying good riddance rather than goodbye to the city’s homeless.

Gone will be any sense of common sense, as residents mistake the disappearance of the sick with the death of sickness itself. Not unlike the false argument that because San Francisco has no cemeteries (save two), and because no burials happen in San Francisco, no one who lives in San Francisco dies. Not unlike all other falsehoods people tell themselves in order to live.

Listen, then, to the cries amid the noise.

Listen to the chaos of the poor and dispossessed, as trucks sweep the roads and spray the streets, as workers clean the ground and clear the air.

Look for these things to happen in the light of night, beneath clamshells and cobra heads of steel, where light poles shake and buzz.

See what happens next, in the daylight, when parks reopen and panic reappears. Because even if residents were to collect every sheet of plastic and remove every scrap of paper, even if they were to burn every blanket and destroy every piece of garbage, they would not be safe.

Nothing can inoculate residents from paranoia.

Far from loving one another, far from honoring their Father who art in heaven, residents may soon fortify their city and stick closer to Big Brother. 

They may soon revert to type, reviving racist policies and policing the descendants of an ancient race, reducing many races—the Malays, the Mongols, the Bengalis, the Bhutanese—into one race of Chinese Americans.

Should these things happen, should the most liberal city in America act like the most hypocritical city in the world, should the champions of tolerance prove to be tribunes of intolerance, we will hear a chorus of excuses.

We will not, however, hear a single apology.

We may soon see what San Francisco values most.