In reading “news” stories lately, not to mention various comments in social media about topics ranging from politics to COVID vaccines, I was struck again by the power of binary thinking, as well as how perceptions are manipulated by asking (and answering) the wrong question. Another frequent related problem is making assertions that are perhaps true, but presented out of context in such a way as to create a false perception. This usually results in the two “sides” talking past one another and a shouting match ensues; there is no shared worldview to even begin a discussion.
Here’s a concrete example regarding vaccines: In skimming a discussion about mRNA vaccines it was said by one advocate that there is no evidence or “mechanism” they cause birth defects. The problem is, that’s “true” as far as it goes but also misleading. Pregnancy was a specifically excluded condition during the trails reported so far, and all of the documentation submitted to the FDA said it was not assessed. As for mechanism, there are in fact several potential mechanisms where something could go wrong, given the rapid and complex cell division that occurs during the early stages. Is it rare? Possible or impossible? Probable? Likely? We just don’t know – there is no evidence. Last time I looked at least 18 people had become pregnant during the trials and are being closely monitored, but that’s a very small sample size, and until the children are several years old, it can’t be said for sure that there were not problems. It was also said no long term side effects have been reported. That is true but highly misleading: the vaccines were only developed less than a year ago, so there hasn’t been enough time for any long term effects to develop or reach a statistical threshold. So therein lies the problem – saying “there is no evidence” when there have been very limited (or no) studies is absolutely not the same thing as saying “there have been detailed studies an no problem was found.” That’s a distinction that is lost on many people.
For the record on this subject, here is what CDC says as of 7 January 2021: Based on how mRNA vaccines work, experts believe they are unlikely to pose a specific risk for people who are pregnant. However, the actual risks of mRNA vaccines to the pregnant person and her fetus are unknown because these vaccines have not been studied in pregnant women. We know COVID19 presents risks to pregnant women, so if in a high risk group (like a health care provider) it might make sense to be vaccinated with an mRNA vaccine despite the unknowns. Work from home and sensible about social distancing, etc? Maybe best to wait. It’s not an easy call, based on an objective view of the available data.
Again, this isn’t to be anti-vaccine. There are rational risk-benefit arguments for some, and over time as more data is collected and if the early results hold up, increasingly large segments of the population to take these vaccines. What bothers me is that people present it as a binary, “no brainier” choice. It’s just not that straightforward and it is hubris to assert that it is.
Unfortunately there is no shortage of hubris, exaggeration, and binary thinking in order to sway opinions in our public dialogue these days. I could cite many examples, from election fraud (it probably didn’t impact the results, but that’s not the point: the US election system is broken, with deep structural flaws such that it doesn’t meet standards it imposes on other countries), to social debates like LGBTQ issues or abortion or climate change or …
In short, it takes objectivity and careful analysis to reach good conclusions. This is especially hard given the political parties benefit from a sharply divided electorate, advocates for various issues minimize or are even blind to potentially adverse consequences, and demand you “take a stand”, and of course the media industry profits from the noise and drama all that creates. Please don’t feed that process, and try to understand that many situations are not sound-byte simple.
In short, life is complex. Don’t fall into the trap of absolutes.
What can be said about the events of the last week that hasn’t been said? A lot, actually, since most of what has been said on social and corporate media is either bullcrap or out of context, but I don’t think anybody wants to hear it. Not that I’ll let that stop me 😛
I’m starting to worry it’s too late, and the Russian commentator Vladimir Solovyov is right: “American is finished. Everyone knows this.” But on the off chance it isn’t, here are a few thoughts, because where this ends may be seen in places like Sarajevo …
Or Beirut …
Think that is being overly dramatic? A significant part of what I study how societies, organizations, governments, respond to disasters – often of their own making. And this society seems to be unraveling. And it shouldn’t be.
We need to keep perspective. The protest in the US Capital last week was barely even a halfway decent riot. Seriously, folks, get a grip: do a Google search for “national championship riot” and you’ll find scenes and reports of mayhem in support of a winning (or losing) sports team that are far in excess of the meager efforts of the MAGA crowd. Heck, the MAGA folks didn’t mange to overturn or burn even one cop car! As far as disrupting Congressional proceedings, again, that’s not terribly unusual, and people have even set off bombs inside the capital. That’s not to say there weren’t disturbing aspects – the collapse of security for one thing, and the President and others egging them on, but let’s not blow it out of proportion.
Which brings me to my first point: don’t give these half-assed amateurs who caused the damage more credit than they deserve; they should be ridiculed, not feared. Yet if you watch CNN, as one odious example, or read Facebook (which I have pretty much stopped doing), you will be bombarded by phrases like “insurrection” or “coup.” Well, I’ve seen a few insurrections and coup d’etats, and this isn’t anywhere near that, any more than the somewhat better organized and implemented BLM riots of last year were (and were called insurrections and worse in the right wing bubble). What we have in both cases are groups of people with legitimate concerns (such as Law Enforcement misconduct on the part of BLM, election integrity on the part of MAGA) are being exploited by a broken political system to deflect attention from their own failures and the real underlying problem that afflicts both BLM and MAGA: economic disparities and corruption. And don’t delude yourself: Democrat politicians have been exploiting the BLM destruction and violence (by excusing it) just as surely as they are by denouncing the MAGA efforts (by exaggerating it). Likewise, those Republicans who jumped on the MAGA and wagon have been playing with fire by doing the opposite, encouraging MAGA while demonizing BLM/Antifa. Both exaggerate the radical elements of the movements they dislike, and cover up or excuse those they want to manipulate, to try to get their respective agendas rail-roaded though because they can’t stand the light of a reasonable debate.
And before somebody screams “false equivalence”, sorry to burst the bubbles on both sides, but these two movements are EXACTLY equivalent in many respects: people with legitimate concerns that could and should be addressed within the normal political process are being encouraged by opportunistic elements to distrust the system and go outside the process to use disruptive, even violent protests to apply pressure to the system. Again, that is playing with fire.
I’ve tried to have conversations with acquaintances (I can’t call them friends any more) on both “sides” of this increasingly stark, largely reality free (IMNSHO of course) divide. Both sides have reached the stage where to even try to understand the other is seen an act of treason and betrayal, and the radical elements are now controlling the conversation, placing what should be a reasoned discussion of the complex but solvable problems facing this country into the starkest, most confrontational concerns possible. A similar situation arose before the “War of the Rebellion,” aka US Civil War. Both the “fire eaters” of the south and the radical abolitionists of the north wanted redemption by blood. The “other” is beyond redemption, and must be destroyed. And once it becomes a “religious” (ideological) war, reason no longer plays in to it. That is unbelievably dangerous, and has to stop. The “sides” need to communicate, understand, cooperate and compromise.
But what about tRump? Ignore him and he will go away in less than two weeks. Yes, he might continue to try to incite his more radical supporters, but the best way to deal with that is to not give them any more credit than they deserve, which is very little. By keeping the radicals fired up and making them seem important, you’re painting those who could quietly deal with Trump into a corner. It’s not likely that a lame-duck can do substantial, long term damage. The institutions are mostly in place to mitigate that. And both sides then need to do a gut check and minimize the demagogues – of which both have way too many. The media has a role here: don’t give the extremists credit, and seriously, objectively fact check everyone. “Advocacy journalism” – which is by far the dominant mode in the US – is probably the most toxic thing that can be done in this environment.
So tune down the rhetoric. Objectively listen to what your side is saying, and imagine how it sounds to the “other.” Recognize the “other” has legitimate concerns and more than likely just wants many of the same things you do, and even when it seems they don’t, often there are compromises that can be made. Be on guard for the fact that opportunistic politicians and media corporations/personalities are trying to exploit you, and are artificially ramping up the temperature of the debate. Realize there are a few individuals/groups who are just looking for any excuse for mayhem. They want to burn the existing system down. That almost never ends well. Don’t let them.
TLDR: everybody calm down and eat some fruit. I don’t have time for this political stuff. Now that I don’t have as many restrictions on my public activities, I’ve got some neat new projects (like with UNICEF and the African Risk Capacity), and am trying to roll out some cool stuff for my Patreon supporters as well as the great unwashed masses. So behave yourselves 😛
With the late season storms both here and in the West Pacific, and the developing catastrophe in Nicaragua/Honduras, haven’t formally checked in to see how the virus is doing until today … Yep, the virus is doing fine. Humans? Not so much. True, it’s not a Monty Python style dystopian “bring out your dead” kind of pandemic, but a lot of people are still passing away from this thing who would not have otherwise died. How do we know this? Forget the death counters popular on TV. As I have discussed before, the absolute numbers aren’t nearly as important as the concept of excess mortality – how many people are we losing who wouldn’t have died otherwise? For some more background on that take a look at this post. For those paying attention let’s jump right to the numbers. Here is the overall US chart for deviations in mortality over the last four years, as of the last week of October. Above average is above normal, below zero is below average. No, the numbers aren’t any more recent than the end of October. I’m so tired of ranting about the craptacular public health data reporting system in this stupid country, a system that is even worse than the stupid election system that can’t manage to count live ballots any better than it can dead bodies – the gallows humor there writes itself these days.
So it’s absolutely, unambiguously clear: something is killing ‘Muricans this year at greater numbers than past years, and it’s pretty clear it’s the SARS-COV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. And it’s not “just the flu”. “Just a bad flu” is what that spike in late 2017/early 2018 is. No, it’s not “Spanish Flu” bad, much less the Black Death, but it’s bad enough. Even correcting for the mild 2019 influenza season, (which is partly responsible for the early spike in COVID deaths – vulnerable people who would have died in 2019 lived into 2020 to fall victim to COVID instead), COVID has really distorted the mortality statistics.
What about the State of Georgia? Here’s that graph. Note with ha smaller sample size, it is “noisier”, but clearly the same story …
Before anybody says “oh, it’s getting better!” Remember these numbers are a couple of weeks old, and the lag between infection and death is around 4 weeks, so this is maybe 6 weeks behind the curve. The last few entries are certainly low as it can take four weeks or so to collect all the mortality data (insert primal scream here).
This graph looks like the normal cycling of a mostly out of control virus, where people notice it’s bad, react, it drops some, then they get complacent, and it rebounds, as well as the fact that we are seeing the virus move in to different populations in different areas. The other problem is that we are entering the normal respiratory virus season, and, flawed as they are, the other metrics – case counts, hospitalizations, positivity rates, and so forth – are all trending upwards. So it’s likely these numbers are about to trend higher.
Again, the problem with SARS-COV-2/COVID19 is that it’s bad – but not bad enough. It slots nicely into a place that scares some people in to overreacting, and others into under reacting, exacerbating existing fault lines in society depending on where you fall on the security/freedom and personal/collective responsibility prioritization scales.
So what do we do? Mostly it’s common sense. But that is in remarkably short supply. The problem is a critical mass of the population across the country (and even world)has to act responsibly. Otherwise the slow burn – punctuated with flare ups – will continue. And with flare-ups politicians will feel forced to “do something” dramatic, most likely things like shutdowns and restrictions which won’t work in the long run, but will further the social and political divisions, not to mention the incredibly fragile economic situation. An interesting question arises: If the mortality rate settles in to a new, higher value, say 20-30% above the previous average, will people ultimately just accept that and get on with life? It’s going to be interesting to watch the media coverage with respect to the statistics as the likely change in administration progresses. Will things actually be better next year, or will they just seem better with an (on the surface anyway) more coherent approach and a vaccine? When will the media give up on coverage and move on to other stories? Hard to say. Those are all issues just as important – maybe more so – as the biology and epidemiology of the virus itself.
I’m also very afraid that the vaccine won’t be the deus ex machina that people are hoping it will be. For starters, the 90%+ effectiveness reports are unlikely to be seen in widespread use. Those number always come down once things move in to general use, so there’s an expectations problem building. There’s also a fair enough chance one or more of several potentially unfavorable scenarios will come to pass – not the least of which will be that in the rush to get vaccines out, long term adverse reactions will start to crop up in six months or a year once widespread vaccination takes off. The other is potential risk is that immunity will decline rapidly and be seasonal at best. Great for the bottom line of Big Pharma, probably not so good for the rest of us.
Sense some frustration here? Yep. COVID19 long ago stopped being a mostly scientific problem, and after the behavior of both political parties in the US the last few years, only a hard core political activist affiliated with one of the tribes can be optimistic (aka delusional) about all this. Those of us in the real world will just have to continue to suffer through their shenanigans and try to keep out of the way …
Very few living Americans understand what real oppression or economic deprivation is like. It is important to understand and appreciate just how good modern western civilization has become. Saying that isn’t minimizing the fact we still have a lot of improvements to make, or that some groups have suffered as others benefited, but even the majority of the less fortunate in the US live at a level of safety, security, and wealth that is unimaginable for virtually all of the humans who have ever lived on this planet. We shouldn’t forget either concept: that we have made great strides, or that we are far from perfect, with a history that is at once both admirable and appalling. And our present circumstances are equally a mix of that good and bad.
Much of what passes for political discourse seems to focus on one aspect or another of our history and present situation without context. If you listen to political ads or read the rhetoric on social media, every issue is life or death, those who disagree are evil, and your views are utterly righteous and irrefutable. Republicans see the barbarians at the gates of civilization; Democrats see oppression and exploitation at every turn. However, ultimately both want the same things – a better life for themselves and their children. They just disagree on the details – although not as much as they are led to believe. Each political side asserts that to give power to the other will result in a dystopia making those dreams impossible. And each stokes fear by pointing out the armed, dangerous, violent supporters of the other – and make no mistake, both “sides” have them. But also make no mistake that they are small, and to inflate their numbers or importance is to give them power they do not have. By creating an expectation of violence, it fuels the potential for that violence as these groups feel they are more important and have more support than they actually have, leading them to act on that belief.
This is an unbelievably dangerous game of brinkmanship, and both sides are playing with fire. From what I can see as an outsider is that neither “side” here is evil. I would gently suggest that both sides hold to some seriously misguided views that cause a lot of harm, and the leaders of each party are in fact corrupt to the point of being evil, but most average people who are so fired up are not.
So take a step back. I guess many of you have voted, but either way, there are in fact valid, rational reasons to vote for either candidate. Let’s try to take a calm look at Trump. One area that receives little attention is the area of Foreign Policy. While his actions there have been on the surface as chaotic and disruptive as on domestic issues, he has done something that apparently no other President since WW II has done: not start a war of aggression. He has successfully resisted the urging of his advisors to escalate in Syria, Ukraine, and other less well known conflicts. And that is huge. That said, there are solid reasons to be opposed to him. There is no argument that he is corrupt, chaotic, crude, divisive, and unpresidential. It’s hard to give him credit in any domestic area even when he deserves it. He mishandled the pandemic – period, full stop. Likewise, there are valid, reasons both for and against Biden. His administration will probably function in a “normal” manner. Domestically it is likely that solutions to problems will be proposed and implemented. About half the country won’t like those solutions (and they probably won’t work), but regular order will be restored, and that’s something we absolutely need. Would a Biden administration have done better on the pandemic? Probably some, but not nearly as much as partisans suggest – I doubt his policies would have dropped the death toll by more than 10%, with worse economic impacts. However, it is in the area of Foreign Policy where I feel Biden’s greatest dangers lie. He is an unrepentant neoconservative, and the lead people in his extensive (over 1000 people by some reports) foreign policy planing teams are the same cast of characters from the Clinton and Obama administrations that caused a raft of catastrophes around the world, ranging from the rupture of relations with Russian and triggering civil wars in a dozen countries with waves of migrants that have destabilized politics in Europe. So while a measure of domestic tranquility may return (depending on acceptance of his win), it is likely that a number of dangerous geopolitical situations will be inflamed, perhaps catastrophically. Biden is also thoroughly corrupt, albeit it’s an accepted, “institutional” corruption as opposed to Trump’s very personal and flamboyant grifting. Who is worse? Who is least dangerous? It’s a tough call. But you’re not an evil moron for voting for Trump, or trying to destroy America if you vote for Biden.
So let’s be realistic here: we aren’t in the last days of the Republic, nor the first days of the Reich. But they might end up being seen that way if Americans don’t get some perspective. The key is that things aren’t really that bad in the perspective of history, much less in comparison to how bad they could easily be. A win by either of these disreputable characters and their corrupt parties isn’t the end of the world. Those of you who are so emotionally engaged in various issues may react with rage to that statement – but have you ever passed a pile of rubble, a child’s broken toy nearby, the sickly smell of decay coming from the bodies trapped inside? Because that is the end result if you push too far, if you decide you can’t compromise, if you feel you have nothing to lose, and can’t let the other side win. I’ve seen the results of civil war up close. Those kinds of sights and smells haunt me, and reminds me of the fragility of civilization. It should haunt you.
Perhaps I’m being overly dramatic. But it is so easy for things to spiral out of control. And nobody believes it is possible until it’s too late.
It is also important to realize that the divisive tactics being used inside the US today are the same tactics that the US and revolutionary groups have used to foster instability and the overthrow of governments around the world over the last 30 years (and, using different techniques in the pre-internet age, before that). Identification of “hot button” issues, inflaming ethnic and class divisions, fostering distrust of institutions, manipulation and fragmentation of the media, selective support of extremist groups, using NGO’s as instigators of social unrest, these are the tools the US has used in places like Ukraine, for example, with instability and civil war often the end result. That the two major US political parties are turning these tactics inward is unsurprising given their power to motivate voters– and make no mistake that both are doing it. But it is also incredibly dangerous because it assumes that, after you win, you can de-escalate and calm people down enough to govern. It rarely works that way. And, given they have been the target of these tools for three decades, it is also not a big shock that countries such as Russia are turning the tables on America and using the same tactics that America used against them for so long. But that’s a different article: the bottom line is that getting upset about the effects of any outside players is missing two facts: we are mostly doing this to ourselves, and the US sort of deserves it for doing it so often to others.
So everyone, please, if the election results are chaotic, and “your” side didn’t “win,” take a step back unless you are damn sure that end point – the destruction of civil society – is really “better” or “justified” in the light of whatever you think is wrong. Will taking another election cycle, or decade, or even generation to get what you want too much to ask to avoid that fate? Are the all of the changes people are demanding really, in perspective, more horrible than the alternative? Of course, recognize the problems (and make sure you are seeing the real problems, not symptoms or distractions). Note what is yet to be done. Push, within the bounds of civil discourse, for change. If you disagree, resist that change, or propose other options, again, within the system (flawed as it is). Be cautious in your rhetoric – and actually listen to the other side, not what those who agree with you say the other side wants or thinks. On all sides, make sure the “solutions” your leaders propose are really going to solve the problems they claim they are, and are not just power and money grabbing schemes (looking at you, Green New Deal). Convince, don’t coerce. And be prepared to not get your way. And consider you may be wrong. Compromise is not a four letter word.
And never, ever, forget how much can be lost.
That is not an excuse for inaction, or an argument for the status quo. Reforms, especially economic, are in my view desperately needed because, again in my view, they are the source of so much that people perceive as wrong in our society, and our present system is clearly corrupt and unsustainable. Our use of resources, legal system, tax structures, and geopolitical strategies are simply insane. Neither party seems to have any interest in addressing these complex problems in a realistic way. That makes the current strife even more perplexing because, ultimately, no matter who wins, change will be difficult and incremental.
So remember that none of the gains either side hopes to achieve (or preserve) in the present political battles in the US are worth the cost of the collapse of our society and that pile of rubble.
On Friday the 18th of September, America lost one of its few clear voices of sanity in the field of Russia Policy. His passing would likely be overlooked in normal times, but with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg the same day, it has been lost in the noise. He deserves better. Chances are you’ve never heard of Dr. Cohen, much less been given the opportunity to hear his cogent, unbiased analyses unfiltered. Yet had his voice been widely heard, and his sage advice followed over the last three decades, the world you live in would likely be a far better, more stable place.
Dr. Stephen F. Cohen was a Professor of Politics and Russian studies at Princeton and later New York University. His 1969 Doctoral dissertation and early work was on a topic many would consider obscure, the ascension of Stalin over other “founding fathers” of the Soviet Union such as Bukharin. That work, backed by careful scholarship, asserted that the totalitarian style of Stalin was not an inevitable consequence of Leninism, much less Marxism. That may seem obscure and irrelevant, but it laid the stage for a fresh view (some would say revisionist) of Soviet Politics and, later, for how one looks at the post Soviet era and the emergence of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
I discovered Dr. Cohen when one of his books was recommended to me by one of my mentors, an old OSS guy who was fond of saying “never confuse the Soviet Union with Russia” – advice that many modern Russia analysts need to take to heart. Cohen’s 1984 book Rethinking the Soviet Experience was a bit of a slap in the face to someone raised on talk of the “Evil Empire.” It forced me to reconsider much of what I thought about Russia and the Soviet Union, and was part of a process that has led to a life-long interest in Russia as something more than comic book villains, but a country and people with a vast and complex history and who need not be our enemy. During the 1980’s and early 1990’s Dr. Cohen was often heard in the US media due to his knowledge of and contacts with Mikhail Gorbachev.
But that began to change in the mid 1990’s. Cohen clearly saw that Yeltsin and his American advisers (the so-called “Harvard Boys”) were setting up a disaster by enabling the plundering of the natural resources of the old Soviet Union, generating massive profits for the west and enriching a few Oligarchs while plunging the rest of Russia into a 1930’s style depression complete with gangsters and shoot-outs in the streets of Saint Petersburg. To say his warnings were unpopular among US leaders intoxicated with their new “hyperpower’ status, and international banks with eyes focused on short term profits is an understatement. His cautions over the eastward expansion of NATO and attempts to manipulate the emerging democracies in the former Soviet Block were likewise ignored. Over time he was called on less and less to opine on Russia, although he frequently appeared in Russian sources to try to explain America’s view on Russia.
In the his last decade, Cohen was virtually unheard in the major US Media. Although he continued to write for The Nation, that is almost certainly due to the fact his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, was editor and publisher (her reflections are here). His position on Ukraine that the west bears considerable responsibility for the turmoil there, and pointing out that many of our so-called “allies” are corrupt and rife with Nazi heritage and ideology did not fit the narrative of a popular, democratic, anti-Russian uprising that many want to portray. The last straw was probably his view that Russia’s responses in Ukraine are rational and perhaps even justified. By 2015, on the rare occasions his views were presented, it was only to be ridiculed, and phrases such as “Putin’s Apologist” were often used. Yet his views on Putin were nuanced, and take in to account the fact that a majority of Russians still support him over the restoration of order and financial security he restored after the catastrophic impacts of the Yeltsin era. Putin’s policies are sometimes at odds with what the US wants, but to point out they are rational from a Russian perspective is not necessarily to agree with them. It is simply to try to understand them, which is the only way to formulate realistic responses. Calling Cohen an apologist is just an excuse to ignore his arguments. It is disingenuous in the extreme, and dangerous because it implies that it is wrong to try to explain or understand a world leader or power opposed to the US.
The by-line of my blog is “You’re Doomed. Here’s why.” This is rarely more true than with this article. The way that calm, careful, “revisionist” analyses that challenge mainstream thought are systematically excluded from public debate (and often even internal government policy consideration where such open debate is vital) is a key reason why American foreign policy is so often unsuccessful. When discussed at all – often during some crisis – Americans are usually presented with simplified, grossly biased depictions of foreign policy situations. The comic-book caricatures of foreign leaders like Vladimir Putin never lends itself to the kind of nuanced approaches that are often called for. The New York Times was kind enough to run an editorial today as an example. These life or death matters deserve clear, informed debate. For the views of a brilliant analyst like Dr. Cohen to be insulted, marginalized, then finally ignored, is a key reason why this country is potentially headed towards a cataclysmic confrontation with Russia. It is a tragedy, avoidable if more would insist on considering nuanced views about the world like those provided by Steven Cohen.
Вечная Память (may your memory eternal), Dr. Cohen.
On the doom front, a few earthquakes, no tropical systems at the moment. Nothing different on the pandemic data front: it’s still so screwed up it is hard to draw any conclusions. Maybe things are getting better. Maybe we are in the eye of the storm, and a “second wave” is building. We can’t know that yet here in the US because the data collection and testing is so screwed up. But that isn’t stopping the finger pointing. Bloomberg ran an editorial yesterday entitled “The Pandemic Is Exposing The Limits Of Science.” The author, Ferdinando Giugliano, tries to draw parallels between the 2008 financial crisis and the SARS-COV-2 pandemic by asserting that the 2008 crisis showed the limits of economics in understanding the economy, and now he asserts the same regarding science and COVID-19. The editorial entirely misses the point in both cases.
For years, economists had been warning politicians (and business journalists) that there was a coming storm. Assets were over-priced, there was a well known real estate bubble, and leveraging had created an environment where several major financial firms were exposed to collapse, putting the banking system at risk. Business journalists pooh-poohed the “doomsayers,” and politicians cashed the checks of the financial services lobbyists and smiled. While it is true nobody knew exactly when the crisis would come, saying “nobody warned us that in Summer of 2008 it would hit” is like saying “well, you may have warned me driving 200 mph was dangerous but you didn’t warn me about the oil patch that caused me to skid off the road and hit a tree at 4:35 Saturday Afternoon.” That is absurd.
Giugliano writes “But on a range of issues — from containing the virus to prescribing effective treatments — we have seen some scientists and doctors jump to conclusions, only for others to give immediate rebuttals. (The contention over the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine is one example.) This seesawing has added to the sense of panic and confusion among ordinary citizens.” That is infuriating. The main reasons these became issues is that journalists failed to do proper reporting but in their constant need for “breaking” news it is “reporters” who jumped to conclusions, publicizing preliminary results that had not been peer reviewed. Scientists are in a catch-22: if we try to keep preliminary results confidential we are accused of a lack of transparency and hiding things from the public. If we are transparent, reporters grab and publicize raw results and misinform both the public and political readers who don’t read primary publications. The Hydroxychloroquine issue wasn’t pushed by scientists or doctors. It was pushed by politicians who were repeating irresponsible “news” articles based on raw, preliminary research.
So I would like to point the finger too. The middle one. At journalists and politicians of both parties who can’t be bothered to learn how science actually works, won’t listen to neutral subject area experts, then cherry pick and dramatize raw data and exaggerate uncertainty for their own agendas, placing the blame for a crisis elsewhere instead of where it belongs: on them.
This post should be short. Instead of trying to figure out what the crappy data indicates, it should be “the data says X so we should do Y.” While there are a couple of brighter spots, the overall COVID-19 testing, data collection, and reporting in this country continue to be nothing less than a MAJOR EMBARRASSMENT. Red states, Blues states, forget the tribal poo-flinging. Perhaps one party is worse than the other, but it’s the difference in degree, not in outcome: both parties have failed. So instead of having good information to make decisions with, we spend lots of time arguing over the “data.” And if everyone wants to be intellectually honest, based on the “data” we have, you could in fact argue for a range of options from maintaining strict mitigation measures all the way to “why bother, back to normal.” Which suits the political leadership just fine: if the data were clear, which policies would work best might be clear and they might have to agree on something, rather presenting stark contrasts which keep you angry and divided.
Let’s look at Georgia, since it was the first to “reopen”, and selfishly because I live here. So instead of having good information on which to base the reopening decision, and thence if the reopening decision was sound, we have to read entrails and cast runes to try to figure things out. But what it shows isn’t very comforting. Right now I’m focusing on the reported number of hospitalizations. Georgia’s data utterly inconsistent. They are reporting 15 new COVIDI19 hospitalizations yesterday. But the *total* number of hospitalizations went up by 129. Factor of 10 discrepancy. Which is right? Probably neither one. So let’s get another thing clear: reporting delays on top of the way the virus progresses through the population, means that trying to figure out the consequences of decisions made two weeks ago is frustrating at best, and potentially a less a waste of time. But … let’s give it a shot anyway.
Here is a plot of the changes in reported hospitalizations sorted by day of week. The “X” axis is weeks since March 19th (which were all zeros). The “Y” axis is the change in the total hospitalizations. Why by day of week? Because for a variety of reasons of both behavior and reporting, there is a very clear bias in reporting between the days of the week. So you can’t compare Tuesday to Monday, much less a weekday like Monday to Sunday. So here I’m just comparing Sundays to previous Sundays, Mondays to previous Mondays, etc. In theory, if the reopening is causing a spike in dangerous infections (those requiring significant medical care resulting in hospitalization), it should show up in this data.
What we are seeing isn’t comforting. We have three straight days of relative increases. And 4 of the last 5 days saw above normal increases (Friday was a draw). Conclusions? The trends don’t look good, but again this is very noisy data, so we will have to continue to watch carefully.
What does it mean to you? If you are re-engaging in everyday life, please be careful. Maintain your distance where possible, wear a mask when you cant (for others more than yourself). If you feel any symptoms stay home. Good hand hygiene is absolutely essential. Minimize contacts with surfaces. If you go out shopping, please please please DON’T PICK UP EVERY ITEM IN THE BIN! I’m looking at you, idiot who picked up and examined every bag of mixed veggies at Publix last week!
There are currently three tropical systems stalking the earth: Typhoon Vongfong has just swept through the Philippines, causing significant but not catastrophic damage. There are two “invest” (potential storms), one off Florida, and one in the Bay of Bengal (as of noon, a tropical depression being tracked as IO012020). Here is the “big picture” for this morning … of these, the one to watch is the one in the Bay of Bengal; it has the potential to be deadly if it hits the highly populated coasts of West Bengal and Bangladesh.
Hurricane planning presents difficult issues in the best of times. While Emergency Managers and politicians don’t like to think of it this way, and often simplistically (and wrongly in my view) present it to the public as a “err on the side of caution with few consequences” kind of thing, in fact when you evacuate an area you are disrupting society, and that carries with it both economic and human life consequences, especially for the elderly, infirm, and at the lower end of the economic spectrum for whom there is little safety net. If you dig into the mortality statistics, every evacuation has killed people. The gamble is that you are saving more people than you are killing.
In recent years, with the move away from a “civil defense” approach to emergency management and towards a more “law enforcement” based approach, larger and larger populations are included in evacuations. I’ve discussed this before: the current philosophy in the US is that you want to get all “non essential” people out of disaster areas until basic services are restored (electricity, streets clear, internet and cable TV back on 😛 ). In other words, to be blunt, the risk threshold has been changed from “life and limb” to “irritable and inconvenienced.” So emergency managers have fallen in to the habit of pretty widespread evacuations. I think this is a bad thing in general, but that’s a longer discussion. In the world with the SARS-COV-2 virus running around, whether that is a good approach or not is irrelevant: it has become potentially deadly.
In a pandemic, you want individuals to severely limit contact with people outside their immediate circle, to avoid spreading the disease. This is the basic concept behind “social distancing” and limiting travel: every additional person you come in to close contact with, be it from breathing the same air or touching the same surface, you increase your chances of getting – and spreading – the virus. This is especially true for travel. You really don’t want people traveling outside their immediate communities. Even one person can cause an explosive outbreak, as was seen in the Albany Georgia area. So you can see how an evacuation is absolutely incompatible with trying to keep a pandemic under control. Scattering people across the region (and in fact country), traveling by car (which means rest room visits, stopping to eat, and so forth, in multiple locations) staying in crowded shelters or hotels, then bringing them back together a few days or week later, is probably the worst possible thing you could do.
So, what should emergency managers do, and what should the general public do? My suggestion is to go back to basics. What is your risk from physical harm? And for that, we need to go back to the basic rule of thumb with respect to hurricanes: the majority of deaths are from storm surge and inland riverine flooding. Especially for weaker storms (Cat 1 or 2), wind is not such a direct threat to life if you live in a reasonably well buillt home (although having a tree fall on your house is terrifying, and potentially deadly, we’re talking about overall statistics here). So the cardinal rule is “evacuate from water, shelter from wind” with the caveat that for mobile homes, almost any winds above tropical storm strength are potentially deadly, so they need to seek shelter.
And this is where additional planning needs to take place. In recent years there has been a trend in coastal counties to not open local shelters. This should change. Now. There is absolutely no reason why, in Chatham County GA for example, there should not be shelters in-county for category 1 and tropical storm purposes. Yes, absolutely, we need to get people off the islands and out of mobile homes. But sending them far inland is a problem. In a COVID19 world this becomes more critical, as we really don’t want people having to travel great distances to crowded shelters and exposing themselves to people outside the community – both for their safety and ours.
For Category 2 it becomes a bit dicey but evacuating the county makes sense, and for a direct Category 3 landfall potential clearly the entire county should go, even in a potential pandemic. Bypassing storms such as we have had in recent years are always tricky. In all cases, however, the focus needs to be on the potential conditions in the county rather than the conditions in the storm. Just because it is a Category 2 hurricane offshore doesn’t mean it represents a Category 2 threat to the county.
Special needs populations like the elderly, those with immune problems or other physical issues like needing oxygen, etc., have special considerations. But, again, evacuate from water, shelter from wind is the cardinal rule, but with the twist that you need to be aware of the potential for longer term power outages as being a threat to life. If you are in a vulnerable location, by all means get out. In that case, if you have to evacuate, again try to stay in a known environment close to home. But the normal, usually minimized risks of stress and travel for the elderly are now compounded by the risk from COVID-19, moving the needle a bit more towards staying (if in a secure structure with supplies, considering power needs).
So the basic rules are: if in a flood zone, get out; the risk from the storm is greater than the risk from the virus. If in a mobile home, same advice. If in a reasonably well constructed house outside the flood zone, shelter in place up to Category two winds. By the way, now is the time to do some limb trimming, and if there is a dead/diseased tree nearby, think about that. Also pay particular attention to cleaning up potential sources of wind blown debris – lawn furniture, that junk in your backyard you’ve been meaning to get rid of, etc. Don’t wait to the last minute.
It didn’t have to be this way. SARS appeared in 2003. Since then there has been a lot of research, and some previous “warning shots” (MERS, 2012) that clearly said “get ready.” But it’s worse than that: after 9/11, the potential for biological warfare based terrorism was a extensively studied and considered. Money was spent, plans were suggested, little action was taken. So at least three administrations have dropped the ball on pandemic planning (and those plans that did exist were largely ignored). Even worse was what has happened this year. We had over two months of solid intel (and credible reports of more than three) that something bad was on the way. The present administration did virtually nothing. The Congress, who gets much of the same intel, did nothing. Yes, Presidential leadership would have been optimal, and President Trump’s administration Failed, but I didn’t see reports of stacks of legislation being sent to his desk, and much of a response would have had to come from the legislative end of Pennsylvania Ave. So in short, the Legislative and Executive branches of the US Government, both political parties, failed the American people. Very little can be argued about that except by die hard partisans.
Next, after the gross under-reaction, there was an arguable overreaction in some ways. Measured, targeted approaches of shutting down “high contact” activities while preserving other less risky commercial activities were not taken: a one size fits all “shut it all down” approach was the norm – cause in part by the lack of testing and/or plans. States imposed their will on municipalities, when stronger or weaker measures may have been appropriate depending on the locale. But politics aside, those kinds of targeted actions require technical things that the US just doesn’t have: a coherent and reliable testing, tracking, and isolation system.
I see a lot of people who are viewing the economic impacts of the SARS-COV-2 outbreak as an opportunity for change. Across the political spectrum activists for various causes are practically salivating over the opportunity to use the crisis to implement their favorite agendas.
Climate change? Great! The crashing oil markets are the perfect time to act!
Social Justice? Great! The economic and health system disparities made clear by the virus are the perfect time to act!
Iran? Great! Their weakened state, internal unrest, along with the insulation of a down oil market, make this the perfect time to act!
China? Great! Their weakened state, internal unrest, anger over their handling of the the crisis make this the perfect time to act!
The list seems endless. And all of those forces are interacting in the political process, slowing down economic interventions in the real economy (the Fed and other reserve banks are propping up the markets, but I hope most people realize that the stock and bond markets are no longer much related to the real economy). There’s just one problem: all of the potential for change is potentially delusional.
It seems pretty obvious that the global political and economic system is on the verge of a cascading collapse, probably merely weeks or at best months away. I have discussed this with several colleagues, and while we are coming at it from different directions (some from economics, some from geopolitics) we end up in the same place. And that should give everyone some pause. What will be the trigger? There so many to choose from it’s hard to say. In the US, tens of thousands of small businesses are on the verge of failure. Those businesses all have mortgages, pay rents, pay taxes, buy stuff from other businesses – as do their employees. Once those go, the domino effect (zipper effect, whatever you want to call it) will rapidly lock up or even collapse the entire financial system, especially state and local governments dependent on tax revenues. Consider one small, often overlooked aspect: that welfare benefits are distributed using the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system. That uses debit cards to provide benefits to recipients. What happens if banks stop extending credit and the electronic money system becomes restrictive or locks up? What happens if grocery stores can’t accept EBTdue to their own credit issues or delays in state payments? Millions of people in the US would suddenly be cut off. In areas where the EBT has been disrupted for even 24-48 hours, social unrest (rioting, looting, etc) has rapidly ensued. That these happened in isolated, urban high crime areas means they didn’t capture the public attention, but if that happens nationally … well, it will be ugly. I could terrify you with various geopolitical scenarios as well. Most of these are of “low” probability (some 1 in 5, some 1 in 10), but when you have a bunch of “low” probability events, the chances of one of them happening start to approach 1.0. And they all end up in the same place: something happens that causes the fragile, overly interconnected and over leveraged credit and financial system to go into a death spiral. Once it happens, it will be hard or impossible to stop, given that if any one “trigger” happens, like a string of firecrackers it will set the others off. So that brings us to this:
There isn’t time to use this crisis to craft some wonderful transition to a brave new (Marxist, Progressive, Green, NeoCapitalist, ‘Murican!, Libertarian, whatever) world. We have to stop the collapse at all costs and buy time. Or none of those things will mean anything. The Congress is set to pass a boost in funding to the Paycheck Protection Program and some other tweaks today. It is woefully inadequate by an order of magnitude (trillions are needed, not hundreds of billions). Even re-opening is not likely to help at this stage (even assuming there are not repercussions or fall “second wave”).
If the system collapses, no matter what the trigger, there won’t be any opportunities for change. Yes, we need to move to something more sustainable. If we get past this crisis that will take on even more urgency because it is doubtful we will get another chance. To use a medical analogy, the patient is in about to go into cardiac arrest; we can worry about diet and exercise when we get the heart beating again. But for now, we need to stop pushing for the next thing until we can have some confidence there will even be a next thing …