Now that we have sprayed the whole jungle with Agent Orange in order to find out if anything nefarious was going on in there, the answers are starting to come back. Not any more.
Say that in your best Inspector Clouseau voice. Not any more.
Now that we survey the damage, along with the situation that seemed to say such damage was simply the price we had to pay, some people are starting to realize that this economy was a priceless Steinway. But . . . not any more.
What am I talking about?
One study that got a lot of attention last week came out of Stanford, and suggests that the number of people who caught the COVID virus may have been 50 to 80 times higher than we thought. This likely means that the disease was much more contagious than was thought, that it was much less deadly than was thought, and that we actually may be coming down the other side of the curve, rather than climbing up the threatening slope.
And that aircraft carrier that we heard so much about, the Theodore Roosevelt, has had its entire crew tested. And in those results, 60% of the positive results that came back were from sailors who were entirely asymptomatic.
And here is a strange one. At the Pine Street homeless shelter in Boston, they tested everybody there because of a cluster of cases. 397 people were tested, and of the 146 who tested positive, not a single one were exhibiting any symptoms.
In Chelsea, Massachusetts, in a hard-hit area, they stopped 200 people on the street at random to get a drop of blood from them, and found out that about a third of them already had antibodies for the virus, which means they had had it and hadn’t known.
And since you have read this far, you are probably interested enough to read this and also this. If you read the second one, as you certainly should have, you would have found out about another study, making the same point.
A new study in The New England Journal of Medicine supports the claim that COVID-19 is much more common and mild than first believed. Researchers from Columbia University in Manhattan tested every woman who presented in labor for COVID-19 from March 22 until April 4. Fifteen percent of the women tested positive for COVID-19, but, of these, eighty eight percent were totally asymptomatic. Also interesting, none of the women who tested positive were even sick enough to seek COVID-19 care; they simply came to the hospital to have a baby.
If these trends continue (as it looks like they very much will), what these reports do is reveal two important truths — the first one about the disease itself. This particular disease does not waltz into a population and do “just one thing to everybody,” like the Spanish flu did. It does not even appear to be a “severe flu.” This is not a symmetrical illness. For the majority of those who catch it, it does not even rise to the level of a cold, and yet to certain vulnerable demographic groups, it is far more deadly than the flu. This is not a “one size fits all” virus.
What Else It Teaches
So the second thing is this. We took extraordinary action as a nation on the supposition that it was a “one size fits all” kind of virus. We did not lock down the vulnerable populations; we locked down everybody. We did this because it was an “extreme emergency,” and the people who were going to be held responsible for what happened wanted to be seen doing something highly visible, whether or not it did any good, and whether or not it was counterproductive.
This was a classic case of “ready, fire, aim.” We took extraordinary and entirely misguided action before we knew what the situation actually was. How many of the computer models had inputs that assumed that this was an extraordinarily mild virus in most cases, and extraordinarily deadly in a small handful of cases?
When you are out hunting, experienced hunters will advise you not to shoot into the bushes because the sounds you hear “might be” an elk. Sure, they might be. They might be something else.
So we ought not to kid ourselves. Here in Idaho, the state of “extreme emergency” that was declared as the justification for all of this hoo hah is the same state of affairs that would justify a declaration of martial law. Mark that. You all have just witnessed the very same legal threshold that could be used to declare martial law. Shall I say that again? On ramshackle evidence this flimsy, this rickety, this wobbly, this slapdash, and this rinkydink, the governor could have put soldiers on every street corner.
You might reply that he didn’t do that. Yes, but I am simply pointing out that the law allows him to do what he just did, and also to declare martial law, because of an “extreme emergency.” And all the important toffs said that we were in fact having an extreme emergency. Personally I would have reserved that phrase for a Klingon invasion, or hail stones the size of cantaloupes, but apparently Idaho law says that we could in principle have soldiers on every street corner if the requisite number of news anchors get the wind up and politicians wet themselves.
Early on in this pandemic, falsely so-called, there was a clear divide between online commentators, and that divide went clean down the middle. On one side were those who thought the general alarm was justified, and that naysayers were being hazardous to the public safety. On the other side were the naysayers, me included, who thought that our responses were far too hasty, premature, and misguided. We argued there is more than one way for a nation to be devastated, and that there are more dangerous things in the world than viruses. This is because there is no vaccine for stupidity.
As these reports I cited above started to come out, I saw one responsible voice online (who had been among the alarmed) acknowledge that these new reports were indeed good news, but that we needed to guard ourselves against confirmation bias — seizing on reports that bolster what we were saying all along, and ignoring reports that might put a dent in what we had been arguing.
Let me acknowledge the fairness of this exhortation, and give just one example going slightly the other way. Much was made (by me, among others) of the fact that the model from Imperial College that had predicted 500K deaths in the UK was later revised to somewhere south of 20K deaths. That is quite a drop, eh? But now it appears that the deaths in the UK from this virus are going to exceed 20K, probably sometime this coming week. If our arguments are pursuing the truth, we ought to acknowledge whatever truths come our way, whether or not they fit tidily into what we have previously said or argued. If we are after the truth, then every fact should be our friend.
But another thing should be noted about confirmation bias, and it is not a trivial point. This debate has not been academic. It has not been conducted in a seminar room, where the participants can go out for a beer afterwards to hash the points out further. For the naysayers, our suggestion was that we should proceed very slowly and find out what we were dealing with first. The side arguing for principled alarm were arguing for shutting down the biggest economy in the world, throwing trillions of dollars down the wormhole, throwing millions of people out of work, and you know the rest of it. Now, let us say that the chances of both sides of the debate being wrong was 50/50. It is never fun to lose a debate, and so if the debate were merely academic, the chances that both sides would be tempted to fudge the facts if the facts started to go the wrong way would also be around 50/50.
But in this debate, suppose a set of facts turn up that demonstrate I was incontrovertibly wrong about everything. I should have been an alarmist, and by trying to persuade the general public otherwise, I was posing a risk to the health and safety of the American people. But I man up, and say I shouldn’t have done that. What is going to happen is that some people are going to think that I might not be as arrogant as they assumed. I keep my job, I keep my position, and former adversaries extend the right hand of fellowship.
But suppose facts start turning up that demonstrate that the health experts running this carnival were wrong about everything. And this is not a hypothetical, because that is exactly what is starting to turn up. If they look into the camera and say we were totally wrong about everything — and there should never have been a shutdown. That would be career suicide, for politicians, for public health officials, for media celebrities. Because a lot of out-of-work Americans have a really sore head, and they want to talk with the people who beaned them.
In short, confirmation bias is, on this one, heavily incentivized in one direction only, and that is the direction of covering up the hinder parts of decision makers and thought leaders.
The Short Term Politics of this Thing
Examined with a dispassionate eye, the political theater surrounding all of this has been the theater of the absurd. And at least the original theater of the absurd movement was trying to be that way.
The opponents of the president who were going to use this thing to make Trump preside over the biggest failed economy in history failed to take into account the fact that they were not going to be able to “out-reality-television” him. Once it became clear that this was going to be a pandemic, come hell or high water, Trump promptly took his foot off the brake, and sought to make it the biggest, baddest pandemic ever, one that he swooped in and saved us from. That original 2.2 million dead number? The one that reddens the forehead of every thinking person? Trump is going to dine out on that number clean through the election. And nobody is going to be able to call him on the lie because it is their lie.
This last thing is not directly a COVID thing, but concerns our friend Joe Biden. The allegation of sexual assault that has recently been made against him is being handled very differently than the allegations against Justice Kavanaugh were. I know, stop making those pretend shocked faces. But I don’t think this is rank hypocrisy, even though everybody involved is capable of such hypocrisy. No, I think this bomb under Biden has a long fuse. The Democrats need a COVID warrior on the ticket, and Biden has already promised to pick a woman veep. Since the governor of Michigan may well be the most detested politician in America, I think we can rule her out. So Biden picks someone like Kamela or Warren, their convention is a week in the rear view mirror, the bomb goes off, and everybody stage manages a way to get Cuomo somewhere on the ticket.
Couple all this with everyone’s dawning realization that the first Biden/Trump debate will be like somebody taking a flamethrower to a stick of cotton candy.
I am not predicting all this. But I think it.