Wednesday, April 22, 2020

"COVID-19 - Dissension Not Allowed"

Sydney M. Williams 

Thought of the Day
“COVID-19 – Dissension Not Allowed”
April 22, 2020

I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.”
                                                                                                            Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
                                                                                                            Letter to James Madison, 1787

Our reaction to COVID-19 has shown the best of us, but also the worst. Protection of the vulnerable – the elderly and those defenseless because of preconditions, ranging from obesity to diabetes – has been admirable. Healthcare workers willingly expose themselves to a novel virus, despite conflicting and changing reports as to its cause, properties, transmission and morbidity rates. Until recently, most of us have complied without complaint, acting with ovine-like acquiescence to draconian measures that have led to a “lockdown” of the economy and the loss of millions of jobs.

We obey common-sensical rules about social-distancing, wearing face masks, scrubbing our hands, not touching our face, sneezing into a Kleenex, and using gloves and disinfectants. Anything to slow the rate of infection of a highly contagious virus. But the lockdown of two thirds of the economy (as measured by those who do not have the option to work from home) has been pre-empted from debate. As well, some political leaders have taken lockdowns of the economy to an extreme – banning yard work, home construction projects or preventing citizens from using parks or playing golf. Some governors have used the pandemic as an excuse to get the federal government to help bailout their states’ finances. Others have talked of using Drones to monitor people’s behavior. Debate, as to the cause of COVID-19, is discouraged, as is seen in the disparagements of President Trump for calling the virus a Chinese or Wuhan virus, despite indisputable evidence that that was its origin. Those who raise questions about COVID-19 are called “anti-science,” in spite of the fact that the science regarding the virus, its characteristics, transmission and morbidity rates keep changing. We cannot forget we are in an election year. Republicans, who would like to keep the Presidency and the Senate and re-gain the House, would like to get the economy re-started as soon as possible, but without initiating a second surge of the virus. Democrats recognize that the economy has been Republicans’ strongest suit, so have an interest in the economic downturn lasting longer.

This debate favors Democrats, as we will not be totally free of the virus until a vaccine arrives, and that may be a year to eighteen months away – too long for any of us, Republican or Democrat. While the virus appears to have peaked, or to be peaking, deaths will continue to mount, especially given the way they are now counted. So, a restart of the economy will be accompanied by deaths that will be said to be caused by COVID-19 and are a consequence of a premature re-opening of the economy. Any restart will be slow, as people will be nervous and social distancing will remain in effect, whether by rule or by habit, which means that busses, subways, trains and planes will be slow to recover ridership. Most people will not immediately pile into crowded bars, restaurants or stores. It is hard to envision the economy coming back in “V” fashion. Too much damage has been done to people’s confidence. Republicans, in wanting to restart the economy, are in the right, in my opinion, but they have the tougher side of the argument.

Because of the extreme measures adopted, in respect to our economy, both parties, along with scientists, the task force and the CDC, have a self-interest in COVID-19 being seen as the most virulent of viruses to ever hit our shores. How else to explain the draconian measures taken?  It is cited as worse than the Spanish Flu of 1918, with 675,000 deaths in the U.S.; the Asian Flu of 1958, with 116,000 American deaths, and the Asian Flu of 1968, which killed 100,000 in the U.S. In none of those case was the U.S. economy shuttered as it has been in this instance. (Keep in mind, the populations in the U.S. during those three pandemics were, respectively, 106 million, 180 million and 205 million. Today we are a nation of 330 million people.) A high death count, but one lower than that suggested by Imperial College London’s model and others, is also in their interest, as it helps justify their decision to shutter the economy. The CDC now allows coroners to list COVID-19 as a “probable or presumed” cause of death, even if the patient had never been tested. It will only be when antibody testing becomes ubiquitous that we will learn how widespread COVID-19 has been and whether a herd immunity has developed.

We cannot and should not ignore the role played by China. They kept the virus, its characteristics and its origins, under wraps for too long. They were devious, whether intentionally or not. For example, on January 23 they banned flights within China from Wuhan, but not flights from Wuhan to other parts of the world, including Europe and the U.S. We cannot forget that the WHO and the CDC downplayed the transmission rates of the virus (even commenting in January that it was not transmissible from human to human), when China had to have known how contagious it was, and so should have the WHO. What we know now is that the virus is highly contagious. We know it came from Wuhan, most likely from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Chinese scientist Shi Zhengli has for fifteen years warned that bats she works with at the Institute, harbor coronaviruses, which pose serious risks to humans. As speculation has mounted that she may have been the source of the pandemic, she denies any culpability, reminding one of Hamlet’s Queen Gertrude: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The New York Times reported on April 4 that 390,000 people traveled from China to the U.S. during the month before President Trump placed a ban on travel from China – a period when China knew of its deadly consequences. We also know that most Chinese college students in the U.S. (about 400,000) would have returned to their campuses after the Christmas holidays. Should we believe that no one coming from China in December and January carried the virus to the U.S.?

How widespread is the virus? No one knows. Stanford researchers have tested 3,000 residents in Santa Clara County, about 1.5% of the population, for coronavirus antibodies. The results suggest that between 2.5% and 4.2% of people had contacted COVID-19, a population 50 to 85 times greater than the number of cases reported. Similar tests in San Miguel County, Colorado suggest that one to two percent of the County had been infected and perhaps ten times carry the virus. The differences between the two counties may reflect demographics – Santa Clara has two million residents and includes San Jose and Palo Alto, while San Miguel County has a population of 8,191, extending west from Telluride to Slick Rock. Taken together, both tests suggest that the total infected population of the U.S. is likely ten to eighty times official numbers. That also would be the inference of a report from the Los Alamos National Laboratory that concluded an infected person passes the virus to 5.7 people – twice what the WHO said in February. More serological tests are needed, but the data suggests a herd immunity exists. As well, both tests indicate the morbidity rate is lower than claimed.

The United States, because of its wealth and success, has become complacent. We have seen complacency in markets near peaks, when hope rules and skepticism dissipates; we have seen it in athletic teams, when a winning streak feels it can go on forever; we have seen it in businesses. We have seen it in universities. We see that complacency today in politics where social justice rides above the rule of law, and where over a million and a half people in California voted for an avowed socialist; and we see it in activists who divert water from farmers in California’s Central Valley to protect the Delta smelt. Even in the $2.2 trillion aid package to help people and businesses hurt by COVID-19, Congress earmarked $25 million to the CDC to study gun violence. Nevertheless, this coronavirus has made people realize that viruses are not political, that they recognize no borders, nor do they care for social or economic status. Stay-at-home rules have made us more aware of the importance of things we miss – family, friends, church, weddings, anniversaries, graduations and, yes, funerals.

Yet, what strikes one most forcibly about this pandemic is not its severity – the three other pandemics mentioned above infected and killed more people – but the unquestioning compliance with rules to “shelter-in-place,” a manifestation of complacency toward liberty. It has been the willingness of the people to accept, without doubt, question or protest, measures that have been harmful to their pocketbooks and, more important, to their freedom. This is not to dismiss the seriousness of the coronavirus, especially for the vulnerable, but we can never forget that totalitarian regimes begin with disallowing dissension and controlling thought. We have grown soft. Our wealth has moved us to substitute comfort for freedom – universal healthcare, education for all and a guaranteed income, at the expense of individual independence. However, a change is underway. After almost six weeks of shutdowns there have been protests in at least twenty states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington. There are sure to be others. These are the people most harmed from the economic shutdown. “Liberate Michigan,” said President Trump in a tweet last week, providing encouragement for those who must to return to work but dismaying for elitists, like the editor of our local paper.

The concern of an existential threat, and the balance that must be found between safety and freedom, was a worry for Alexander Hamilton. In Federalist 8, he wrote: “Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates.” Hamilton’s concern was war; today, we cannot allow a desire for safety be reason to surrender freedom. Think of Londoners during the Blitz.   

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