Friday, May 15, 2020

"Lockdown v. COVID-19"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Lockdown v. COVID-19”
April 15, 2020

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
                                                                                    Hanlon’s Razor
Murphy’s Law Book Two, 1980
                                                                                    Attributed to Robert J. Hanlon
                                                                                    Scranton, Pennsylvania
The world has seen other pandemics, but the response to COVID-19 has been unlike anything the world has ever experienced. It is said we should not put a price on a life. Yet, that happens every day. Emergency rooms constantly make life and death decisions. When a hospital suspends a cancer treatment in favor of a COVID-19 patient, a life and death decision has been made. The closing of a food processing plant in Iowa or the downsizing of a shipping facility in Newark, both for fear of spreading COVID-19 are decisions that will likely cause starvation in underdeveloped countries. Every action has a consequence.

Experts in the field of epidemiology scare us through words. On Monday evening, listening to the president of New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, Dr. David Reich, I grew fearful. He spoke of pathogens and their mutability, and of molecular biology and infections. He lost me in his vocabulary. A friend sent a blog written by Dr. Erin Bromage who teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. Dr. Bromage wrote of how a single cough releases 3,000 droplets that travel across a room at 50 mph, while a sneeze releases 30,000 droplets that travel across the same room at up to 200 mph. If an infected person coughs or sneezes, 200,000,000 virus particles could be released. It’s enough to scare the bejesus out of the most fearless – that is until one realizes that any expert, in using unfamiliar words, can frighten someone less knowledgeable. As well, we ignore the fact that in our lifetimes, we have been exposed to trillions of virus particles. Perspective and common sense are needed. For example, each cubic meter of air contains ten trillion molecules, and each human is host to about 300 parasitic worms and 70 species of protozoa, many of which are employed in fighting infections. We are complicated beings who through millions of years of evolution have developed sophisticated immune systems. There is much we know, but more we don’t.

As accurate as what Dr. Reich said and what Dr. Bromage wrote, they do not change the fact that politicians unleashed an even deadlier response. We count those who die from COVID-19, but we ignore those who suffer and die from despair, depression and loneliness. It is balance we should seek. John Kass, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune recently wrote: “All I see is the imposition of extremes. Those of us who want to get the country back to work are portrayed as selfish fools who Just Want People to Die. And those who never want the lockdown to end are dismissed as fearful Coronavirus ‘Karens,’ peering through their windows, calling the police if they see someone walking on the street without a mask.”

The actor Matthew McConaughey, in a recent interview, spoke of the need for unity to fight COVOD-19, as Americans unified during World War II to fight Nazism and Japanese Imperialism. But his analogy is false. World War II was fought to combat assaults on freedom and western culture. Today we fight a virus. As well, the economic differences between then and now are enormous. Unemployment in the U.S. in 1940 was 14.7 percent. By 1943 it had declined to 1.9 percent. That crisis put people to work. Unemployment in December 2019 was 3.5 percent. Today it has risen to 14.7 percent. This crisis has seen unemployment soar. Last weekend, the editors of the Wall Street Journal wrote, “…this is the fastest jobs collapse in modern history.” COVID-19 is a virus that attacks, most aggressively, specific segments of our population – the elderly and the health-impaired. That is not to say other segments are immune. They are not. But we should be unified in our intent to protect the most vulnerable; we should be unified in our efforts to get the economy back on track, and we should be unified in our desire to protect the fundamental rights of all Americans to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to avoid what Alexis de Tocqueville warned as the “soft despotism” of unnecessary rules and regulations.

The economic consequences have been devastating. On April 14, CNBC estimated 7.5 million small businesses, 25% of all small businesses in the U.S., were at risk of closing. On the day earlier, MarketWatch, a website providing financial information, put the number at 43 percent. The valuation of all U.S. public equities has declined $6.5 trillion, negatively affecting 160 million Americans who have investments in retirement plans. A study released on May 4, 2020 by the nonprofit research institute JustFacts concluded: “…the total loss of life from all societal responses [world-wide] to this disease is likely to be more than ninety times greater than that prevented by the lockdowns.” They are referring, in particular, to food shortages in developing nations, a consequence of food processing plant shutdowns and disruptions to food deliveries. Consider borrowings. Three trillion dollars have already been appropriated by Congress. The House wants an additional three trillion dollars, a third of which would be earmarked for states to help bailout over-extended pension obligations. To put those dollars in perspective: during three and a half years of World War II, the U.S. spent $350 billion – $5 trillion in today’s dollars. We will spend more to fight this virus than we spent to conduct World War II.

The what of what happened is well known; it is the why that should focus our attention, and not only the why of the virus. Why shut the world down? Why take such draconian measures? Why did we listen to Cassandras using models with false inputs? We are told we must obey the science. But whose? Yours or mine? Are COVID-19 deaths undercounted or overcounted? Should we pay attention to Dr. Anthony Fauci’s flip or his flop? In the UK, according to the Office of National Statistics, all deaths in 2019 amounted to 0.0074% of the population; thus far this year (annualized through May3), they account for 0.0075% of the population. No politician likes to be called a Luddite, yet science is always a work in progress. Science has no horizon; it exists on an infinite continuum, limited only by curiosity, experimentation and risk. We have not reached the end of science, any more than we reached the end of history in 1991. Doctors agree that COVID-19 can be slowed but not contained. As Holman Jenkins wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “…pandemics in the past have ended not with the virus going away – the 1918, 1957 and 1968 strains are still with us.” We adapt to a virus’s existence.

COVID -19 is particularly toxic for the elderly and those with life-threatening diseases. Protecting the vulnerable should have been our first order. Instead, perverse incentives were offered to nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients, thereby threatening existing patients. Hospitals were incentivized to place COVID-19 patients on ventilators, while the same hospitals were directed to suspend elective surgeries and care for cancer and heart patients, the two largest causes of death in the United States. Schools and colleges, filled with the young who are less susceptible to the ravages of the disease, were closed, as were open-air parks and beaches. A commonsensical approach was never employed. Instead, models with phony input data were used to justify oppressive measures. Jobs are determined to be either “essential” or “non-essential,” when every job is essential to him or her who is employed. As Heather MacDonald wrote in City Journal last month: “It is not the role of a state bureaucrat to decide how essential an enterprise is. That is a judgement for consumers to make. To its employees, every business is essential.” People’s rights to assemble in prayer were denied. To satisfy media and political scolds, the public good was sacrificed.

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