A Blatant Lie, and the potential consequences

Unlike most hard-core partisans or overly cynical observers, I’m reluctant to accuse a politician of outright lying. Usually politicians manage to find some shred of truth in which to wrap their falsehoods, and many statements are assumption dependent, so you while you can often say something is wrong or false, you have to be careful about saying something is a lie, which goes to intent. Accusing a politician of lying is also inflammatory and doesn’t help the public discourse. But there is little room for nuance here: President Biden lied when he said Afghanistan was “never about nation building.” It was *always* about nation building, and he was an integral part of developing that policy.

The proof is easily seen in the October 2001 Bonn Agreement, which was the key legal basis for our intervention. That agreement is cited in UN Security Council Resolution 1386 and other documents authorizing the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and specifically says in the list of requests, to …

Urge the United Nations, the international community, particularly donor countries and multilateral institutions, to reaffirm, strengthen and implement their commitment to assist with the rehabilitation, recovery and reconstruction of Afghanistan, in coordination with the Interim Authority;

Multi-billion dollar legislation such as The Afghanistan Freedom Support Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-327, S. 2712) that was passed by Congress on November 15, 2002 and signed by the President (Bush II) on December 4, 2002 went through Biden’s senate committee. While many of the press releases have been lost or scrubbed from official USG web sites, some are still out there in various forms such as as at this State Department release from 2003, at a reliefweb link. Note the extensive list of reconstruction and capacity building projects. Resource inventories were made, roads and buildings constructed, institutions created.

from “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan”, U.S. Dept. of Defense, June 2008

So it seems the intervention was explicitly about “Nation Building” from the very beginning. Of course it was; the problem with Afghanistan all along was that it had no functional central government that could prevent groups like Al Qaeda from using it as a base. Biden, as a Senator and Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in 2001-2003, knew this. As Vice President during Obama he was involved in many of the additional capacity building efforts (aka “nation building”) during that period, such as the creation of a US style Central Bank system. Unless he is becoming senile (which would be a different, perhaps worse concern), there is little room to wiggle here: he lied.

Before someone points to all of Trump’s lies, that’s sort of irrelevant. He didn’t campaign on being a reality based leader. Even Trump’s followers admit he has a sometimes difficult relationship with the truth, so when he said something that was clearly false, it’s not like he ever actually promised to tell the truth. Most rational people had no hope or expectation that Trump would be truthful; and, of course, the media has been harping on Trumps “lies” for years. With Biden there may not have been a lot of hope, but there was an expectation of some level of honesty with respect to the big things. And the really sad part is Biden didn’t have to lie about this. He could (and should) have just concentrated on how the current situation got out of hand, and left the big picture of why the nation building didn’t work to a more appropriate occasion. But I guess he (or his speechwriters) just couldn’t resist trying to shift the blame. It was an opportunity to be a statesman. He failed.

I’ve been a bit surprised at the negative coverage of Biden’s performance this last week (even CNN has been harsh), we’ll see how long this new media fairness remains. But fair or not, the collapse of the US intervention in Afghanistan, and the President’s clearly self-serving and misleading statements have made a bad situation in the US worse: mistrust of politicians.

Over the last 20 years I have done numerous flights for Veterans Airlift Command (aka “Hero Flights”) taking wounded vets and their families back and forth to specialized medical treatment (since our Government can’t be bothered to do that), not to mention suffering the effects of TBI’s myself partly due to service in places like Afghanistan and Iraq nearly 40 years ago. It’s nice people say “thank you for your service,” but what those who serve in the military/foreign service/intelligence world really want and deserve is for their sacrifice to mean something. They want the world to be a better place because of what they – and more importantly those who lost their lives – went through.

The betrayed feeling among military veterans has been building, and the last 72 hours poured gas on it. Biden’s speech Monday obviously didn’t help. Will that have political and social impacts? I don’t know, but it certainly could both directly and indirectly. The Soviet involvement in Afghanistan has often been cited as one of the elements in the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the bitterness of the Afgansty (Afghan Vets) were an important social factor in that collapse. The state of Afghanistan on their departure is arguable; the Soviets certainly made a better job of it than the US has. The Soviets left in 1989, the government didn’t fall for three years, whereas our client state fell before we were even out of the country. In the Soviet Union, the impacts at home due to the perceived loss of credibility and treatment of veterans, coming on top of the mistrust created by events like Chernobyl, were all factors in destroying the credibility of the Party and when the economic stress of reform hit home the system collapsed.

Is COVID America’s Chernobyl? Is Afghanistan America’s, um, Afghanistan? As Mark Twain is alleged to have said, “History never repeats itself, but it rhymes.”

Somehow trust in our key political institutions must be restored. I’m not sure how that can happen given the deep endemic corruption in both political parties, fed by the ratings driven media system. But ultimately it’s up to you, the voters, to not stand for having leaders like Trump and Biden on the ballot – much less in office. Politicians won’t change until they are punished more for being misleading than they are for being honest. Demand the truth – not just from the other side, but especially from your own, and be adult enough to realize that often you won’t like it.

Massive #earthquake in #Haiti

As if Haiti needed any more misery … there has been a shallow 7.2 earthquake south of Petit Trou de Nippes in Haiti:

Click to enlarge.

Model estimates are that nearly 8 million people are at risk, with 1.5 million living in structures that are in partial or total collapse. Strong aftershocks are in progress, with one only 30 minutes later that probably collapsed many additional structures …

No tsunami risk, fortunately. The political chaos in Haiti will almost certainly mean that there will need to be a truly massive intervention to prevent a further catastrophe. Sadly, given what happened last time, I am not optimistic, and the long suffering people of Haiti are in for a lot more misery.

As a reminder and warning, when disasters hit in places like Haiti a number of well-oiled fund raising machines kick in with heart rending stories to cash in on your generosty. Make sure when you contribute, it’s to a reliable organization – and some of the big names actually have poor reputations. Sadly not that much of the money contributed for the 2010 earthquake actually did any good. I like Doctors without Borders, and there are some good religious based organizations like the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC). If you have doubts about an organization check Charity Navigator. If you can help, please do, but be careful …

On Double Standards

It’s always interesting to see how people react to posts that delve into current affairs, especially the intersection between science and government policy (which, to be clear, I’ve been working on for 30 years). On Facebook there will always be a “stick to the weather” comment (which is funny, since meteorology/climate is only about 40% of my work). And of course depending on whose axe needs grinding, there will be a charge of having a double standard. Lets take a look at that.

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Scientist or Administrator?

Scientists who move into administrative and policy positions have a very delicate line to walk. At some point, you’re no longer a scientist. Yes, you bring expert knowledge, and are hopefully better at backing policies that are supported by the science, but that doesn’t mean you are still making your judgments based on the scientific method: almost certainly, other factors are weighing in. The move from science to policy is a hard transition, and in my experience many who have done so often don’t internalize that they are no longer practicing scientists and now have a different role, responsibility, and relationship to the scientific endeavor. Perhaps it has something to do with the Peter Principle – that individuals who are competent – especially super-competent – are promoted out of those roles until they are in positions outside their level of comfort, competence, and experience.

It is painful to watch this process play out – and sadly I think we are watching it with Dr. Anthony Fauci. He has become such a lightning rod for both derision and worship it must be incredibly difficult for him personally. While it’s cool to have your own action figure …

You can really buy one of these: https://idealistico.com/products/dr-fauci-action-figure

… all the publicity and hate is hard to deal with. While of course not to anywhere near the same degree, having been publicly and very personally attacked over both science and policy (and more rarely praised as a paragon of Scientific and Manly Virtue 😛 ) it’s hard to take, and I really understand his frustration and pain. But he’s not doing himself – or most importantly the scientific enterprise – any favors with comments like these:

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Is “Tornado alley” shifting, and is coastal Georgia at greater risk?

Is Tornado Alley shifting, “spreading to the South, leaving a trail of DEATH AND DESTRUCTION” as this morning’s local Savannah newspaper dramatically blared? And is coastal Georgia at greater risk? Let’s see what grumpy cat has to say:

Grumpy Cat calls BS on another media scare piece …

There has been a series of articles on potential changes in tornado climatology in the last few weeks, and the local paper in Savannah, as part of the USA TODAY network, has run a couple of dramatic front page articles on the subject including a front page Sunday feature that happened to coincide with some tornado potential from the passage of Tropical Storm Claudette, and another dramatic front page spread this morning (Wednesday). As I read these articles, I saw a lot of red flags, especially for being in the local paper and not pointing out that a lot of what was said did not apply to the Savannah area (including a local supplemental article supposedly focused on Georgia). It has been about 10 years since I was involved in active tornado research, and while I do try to keep up with things, it’s always possible to miss something, so I spent a fair bit of time the last couple of days catching up before writing this post. The bottom line is that while it had some great points about changing population and demographics, the implication that tornado activity is changing in some drastic way and that the risk was dramatically changing in the south – and particularly the implication that the local Coastal Georgia/South Carolina area has changed – was simply misleading.

The biggest technical issues are around the reliability of the historical data and the way the overall scenario was presented. However there are wider issues. This kind of overly dramatic reporting isn’t helpful in providing perspective, and are fueled by wider availability of raw data sets that anyone can download and manipulate, combined with scientists who naturally want to see their research publicized but often don’t get to see the final articles before they reach the public, and a sound-bite driven culture that has permeated even what should be more thoughtful long form pieces. These articles are a (cough) perfect storm, coming together to create a misleading train wreck. This is a complex topic, so will have to take some time to work through this to get a more balanced perspective.

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Savannah’s Port and Megaships

Wednesday the largest ship to ever call at the Port of Savannah snaked its way up the Savannah River. The news coverage I’ve seen was all positive, basically echoing the press releases from the Georgia Ports Authority, commenting on the size of the crowds that came out to see the 1300 foot ship, and similar fluff coverage (link goes to WTOC TV). Entirely missing was the perspective that this kind of global commerce is destructive to local and national economies, and has created an unstable situation. The collapse of this system will create disruptions across the entire world. Sound dire? Well, this is doomwatch … so let’s look at two reasons this isn’t a good thing: economics and resiliency.

GPA Savannah Container Port (Enki Research Photo)

Economics: The economic implications of this kind of global shipping is often hidden. During the studies of the deepening of the Savannah harbor, and periodically since, the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) trots out economic analyses of the “benefits” of the port. I’ll be blunt: these “analyses” are misleading – even bogus. One key problem is that all the numbers about local jobs or regional impact overlooks the lost manufacturing jobs, and the distortion of the US economy from a balanced producer/consumer economy in to a consumer dominant economy supported by a service sector. This is one of the factors behind the increasing levels of disparity in income in the US, and the depressed middle class sector in the country: those middle class, manufacturing and repair service type jobs disappear since cheap goods means it is more “cost effective” to import and replace rather than repair them when they fail or break. Of course, it is only “cost effective” if you ignore the resources wasted in a throw-away world, but that is a different issue.

You’ll notice when GPA reports statistics, they talk about containers and tonnage exported, rather than the overall value of imports vs exports. If you run the numbers that way, billions of dollars a year (and therefore tens of thousands of manufacturing and related jobs) flow out of the US to foreign countries, some hostile such as China. In other words, China is treating the US like an extractive colony – but the US goes along with it because US based companies profit from the somewhat lower retail prices, even though the average person sees only marginal benefits. Ten or even 20% lower prices doesn’t mean much if your neighbors are either out of work or working lower paying jobs, or your taxes are high to cover social costs. You have to look at the whole society impacts – not just narrow sectors.

One of the reasons behind the American Revolution was that Great Britain restricted certain kinds of manufacturing in the Colonies. It makes sense from a colonial/control standpoint: extract the raw materials, force the colonies to buy the finished products. That way the net value is not equal – money flows out of the colony and enriches the mother country, and makes the colony dependent on them. China has been doing this to the US for at least three decades now – and we’re actually cooperating with our own subjugation.

Resiliency: Lost in the discussions over the ports and global commerce discussions are the social stability aspects, in that a mostly consumer based economy is vulnerable and ultimately unsustainable. The COVID pandemic came very close to crashing the US economy and even stability of the society. Critical supplies such as plastic tubing almost ran out because no US companies make them, and the global system of moving goods and supplies came to a standstill with the quarantines and shutdowns. In the past a disruption might cause a rise in prices, but many critical goods are no longer manufactured in the US. The loss of supply lines – be it due to natural disaster or geopolitical instability – can rapidly spin in to a crisis since there is diminished or nonexistent ability to replace the lost sources of those goods.

Underlying all of this is a philosophical meta-question: what is the purpose of an economy? In the US, the purpose of the economy is primarily geared to create shareholder profit. Human factors such as the dignity of work, providing a sustainable livelihood for the average person, and social stability are all lost in the pursuit of maximum quarterly profits. The celebration of the arrival of the Marco Polo is that distorted worldview writ large.

So for a variety of reasons, the global system of commerce that has evolved in to massive transfer of the manufacture of goods that could be made anywhere to a few areas like China (generally with exploited/oppressed workers), all in the name of increasing profit margins, has created a hidden global crisis that could for a variety of reasons trigger a collapse of the economy – with societal turmoil following close behind.

Rather than celebrating, at least we should be mourning, and better yet protesting if we had any sense.

Sources of Information

People often ask me where to find good information on various topics. Here are some thoughts on various sources of “news”, and a bit about how I assimilate and interpret them. Be aware that a couple of these sources are blocked by the social media watchdogs so you won’t find some links here – you’ll have to type them in. Note that citing a source or reading it is NOT endorsement or belief – in fact, a few of these are outright propaganda outlets (Xinhau as an example). In other cases, they may express views that are somewhat repugnant but are important to understand what the people who sponsor those sites are thinking, or to be able to have discussions with people who get their information from them so as to be able to discuss events with them and perhaps persuade them to reconsider their views.

For hurricane and earthquake hazard information it’s easy and not controversial: the US National Weather Service is the place to go. Few news/weather sources do their own global numerical weather modeling; the rest just regurgitate, interpret (sometimes badly), and dramatize NWS and other national and regional meteorological center data (like the European Center). So if you want solid, drama free forecasts, just go to the source – you already paid for it with your taxes anyway! For earthquakes, the US Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Program is the ultimate source.

On the pandemic, it gets a bit trickier. Most of the sources are pushing an agenda and/or cheerleading (even if it’s an agenda that I agree with and is mostly “good”, I’m nervous that it’s sometimes driven a lot by politics), and the reliable neutral information is often technical and requires a lot of specialized knowledge, changes rapidly, and is occasionally contradictory. The best bets are the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH). You won’t go much wrong following their guidance (THEIR guidance, not what some talking head tells you their guidance is!). I also check in on what the European Medicines Agency, National Health Service (NHS, the UK health system), and the German medical authorities are saying to see what their treatment guidelines are, and how/why they differ from US guidelines.

There’s a lot you need to know, but haven’t been told … (ISN, just before being raided)

For other news topics, sadly, most of the time my answer to “what’s the best source of news” is “there isn’t one.” Almost every source has biases, distortions, and these days outright lies of both omission and comission. That situation has changed for the worse over the last 20 years and the balance has shifted from “biased within the limits of the facts” to “pushing a specific narrative with little regard for the facts.” However, as Garek, a character from Star Trek DS-9 would say: Knowledge is knowing someone is lying to you. Wisdom is knowing the truth in the lies.

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Binary Thinking

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.

Not a big Star Wars fan, but it has its moments.

What can be said about the last week?

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 …

Woman braving sniper fire to get food, 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 😛

Pandemic Update: things still going great (for the virus …)

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.

Click to embiggen this utterly depressing graphic.

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 …

Yet another depressing graphic.

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 …