Coronavirus Lessons: Fact and Reason?

After the Covid-19 pandemic is over (presuming an effective virus is developed) there will be a lot of looking back at the actual dangers the virus posed, and whether reactions to it were justified, over the top or too light and too late. We should find out what the death toll could have been if different measures had been taken, and whether the degree  impact on economies, business and jobs was justified or was an overreaction.

We should learn lessons from it, because sooner or later there is certain to be another virus that threatens the world.

Making pronouncements now about the whole thing, what should and shouldn’t have been done, is premature. We are currently experiencing perhaps the worst of the first wave of the virus after taking drastic action to contain Covid-19, but there’s a real risk of followup waves of infection, especially as people movement and border restrictions are lifted.

Some of the reactions have been as over the top as some of the predictions and warnings seem to have proved to be.

From William J. Bennett and Seth Leibsohn at RCP –  Coronavirus Lessons: Fact and Reason vs. Paranoia and Fear

Given the most recent mortality rates and modeling, it appears that the death toll in America from coronavirus will end up looking a lot like the annual fatality numbers from the flu. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Washington state is now projecting 68,841 potential deaths in America. It is also estimating lower ranges than that. The flu season of 2017-2018 took 61,099 American lives. For this we have scared the hell out of the American people, shut down the economy, ended over 17 million jobs, taken trillions of dollars out of the economy, closed places of worship, and massively disrupted civic life as we know it.

A few points on this opening statement.

Current projections of deaths should be more accurate as much more is known than a couple of months ago, so hopefully the US will only end up with 60-70,000 deaths from Covid.

But this is still a huge death toll from a single virus. While it may be similar to the annual toll from influenza it is largely on top of the flu toll, so it is still a substantial increased number of deaths.

And at this stage at least claiming ‘only 60,000 so what was the fuss about’ ignores what the death toll might have been if such drastic measures were not taken. If borders weren’t shut and lockdowns weren’t enforced it is certain the spread would have been worse, probably much worse. So a 60,000 toll doesn’t necessarily indicate an over reaction (it could), but to some extent it is due to success from the severe restrictions and drastic actions taken.

A panic and hysteria over a pandemic that does not look to be what so many frightened us into thinking has radically degraded this country. What should be the major lessons learned here? How did we go from an ethos of “Let’s Roll!” when America was hit by a major attack from outside forces two decades ago to “Let’s roll up in a ball”?

Maybe there was panic and hysteria in some places but I haven’t seen that. Sure there have been concerns and there has been fairly rapid action, but that action has largely been orderly. Most early criticisms were for not doing enough soon enough, and the US (led by Trump) is still arguing over who didn’t do enough soon enough.

Presuming “major attack from outside forces two decades ago” refers to 911 that’s a poor comparison. 911 was a one day attack that caused all US flights to be grounded, and resulted in major restrictions and impositions on travel that we still experience, and it resulted in a misguided war or three. ‘Let’s Roll!’ is a poor description of the reaction to 911 – there were complaints then of too much rolling in a ball.

911 was fundamentally different. the enemy was human sized, weapons were much larger than humans, and they could be seen and detected. As has been pointed out with Covid it is an invisible enemy, and is much harder to contain than terrorists, and  there is potentially a much bigger supply of enemies – viruses replicate, terrorists tend to die out and replication takes a lot longer, if it happens at all.

First, New York City is where the epidemic has struck the hardest. The media is centered in New York City. Although sensationalism is not new, something in the 21st century media landscape is: Reporting the news has been replaced with raising alarms, heightening political tensions, and funneling information through a strictly partisan lens.

Media overreaction has been an issue for a long time. It happens here in New Zealand. We have a minor problem with partisan divides here, but it is bad and getting worse in the US. That’s partly stoked by media (and right wing media is to blame as well as left wing media), but it’s largely a political problem, with politicians using the media to inflame and divide. Blaming the media is a bit like blaming bombs for wars. The media are tools of trade in a bitter US political battle. Some of the worst sensationalism and division is generated personally by the president using Twitter (but I guess at least his device keeps his fingers away from nuclear buttons).

Conspiracy theories and extreme rhetoric have replaced fact and reason, as well as reasonableness. These dark impulses have been aided and abetted by a series of left-wing notions that have come to dominate our politics, giving us a new “paranoid style in American politics.”

Having just talked about “funneling information through a strictly partisan lens” the article launches into paranoia and sensationalism: “aided and abetted by a series of left-wing notions that have come to dominate our politic”. Blaming the left is as bad as blaming the right, but both sides seem blind to their own faults in this respect.

There doesn’t seem to be much fact or reasonableness here.

Aided and abetted by its mainstream media enablers and ideological soulmates, the left has warped our political rhetoric to a point beyond reason, impeding our ability to make calm and rational assessments. President Trump, for example, is not wrong or too conservative — he’s an “existential threat to America” and “worse than Hitler,” and, of course, responsible for all the deaths from COVID-19.

Cherry picking a couple of extreme examples of criticisms and then throwing in a ridiculous claim is warped.  Maybe someone has claimed Trump is responsible for all Covid-19 deaths, but that’s ridiculous. Someone else did actually claim that Covid-19 would be gone by summer, things would be back to normal by Easter and “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle—it will disappear” and those warped views got a lot more airtime.

Thus, when the virus came to our shores, Americans were primed enough to accept and cower in front of models of death telling us that two million of us would be killed.

Models didn’t claim that 2 million Americans would be killed. They projected that that sort of toll was possible if nothing was done to stop the spread of Covid-19. As it turned out a lot was done, and the toll seems likely to be much less. To an extent at least that’s success.

Now, after the damage was ignited by shutdowns and panic, the social destruction of this irresponsible fearmongering will take a long time to undo.

The damage from doing less would have taken longer to undo – and in fact deaths can’t be undone, even by Trump.

There are things that will take time to recover from, and some things are unlikely to be the same again. The cruise ship business has been badly effected – but did people stop cramming into cruise ships due to panic? I’d call it prudence.

Or any other institution. As part of our national affright, we engaged in a shuttering of our best forces of composition — such as churches, synagogues, schools — and our venues for physical exercise. Just at the time of their greatest needs, these services were ordered to be shut down.

If churches, synagogues, mosques and schools weren’t shut down no amount of praying would have prevented much worse problems than we have experienced. Some people may have suffered from not being able to worship as usual, but the suffering would have been quite a bit worse.

Sure negative impacts from what has been done will be felt for some time, but there will also be some positive outcomes (on top of saving many lives). Many people and many families have done more together than they have for some time in busy lives. People have gone back to cooking food from basics, teaching kids important skills, brought communities together in what had become a fractured society. There will be pluses and minuses from what we are experiencing.

Lesson Four: Understand there is public health, and there is public health. Does a virus that may take as many Americans as the seasonal flu require an upending of literally everything in our life, work, and recreational activity, affecting so much more of our other health, including mental health?

A repeat of a fundamental flaw in their argument – if much less upending was done the toll would have been greater and probably much greater than the seasonal flu.

Lesson Five: Do not be impervious to good or hopeful news. Compare this virus’ numbers and prognoses to other numbers and prognoses we have taken for granted without even knowing it. When data reveals that there is a .007% chance of dying from this disease in America, report that. When evidence shows there may be extant medicines that can treat the virus, encourage rather than anathematize that.

But data hasn’t revealed that there is a .007% chance of dying from this disease in America. It’s too soon to tell because all the data can’t be known yet. The chance of dying would have been much more if much less had been done to stop the spread of Covid. And I think their maths is screwy anyway, I can’t see where their .007% comes from.

This article is badly lacking in both facts and reason.

Leave a comment

26 Comments

  1. Alan Wilkinson

     /  16th April 2020

    Yes, it is premature. Still too many unknowns. Some things done too late, some unnecessary, some cruel, some harmful for sure.

    There will be lessons to learn and serious damage to fix. We live with the hope we can manage but if we can’t someone else will.

    Reply
  2. In contrast to the RCP article Nate Silver does actually look at facts and data in Has New York Bent The Curve?

    There is increasing evidence that New York City and New York state are turning a corner in their efforts to fight back COVID-19, and the timing suggests that the shifts may be a result of social distancing measures.

    But overall, the news is positive in New York. It’s also a sign of the importance of social distancing — which means that the rates of new cases could increase again if measures are relaxed.

    It’s perhaps more likely, though, that New York has been beating COVID-19 by a relatively thin margin so far, and therefore it doesn’t have a lot of margin for error. That’s a lot better than the alternative case where the city and state were losing the fight and the number of hospitalized patients continued to rise at their earlier rates. But it also means that city, state and regional leaders will have to be smart about reopening the economy and relaxing social distancing measures.

    https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/new-york-coronavirus-curve/

    Reply
  3. Gezza

     /  16th April 2020

    But this is still a huge death toll from a single virus. While it may be similar to the annual toll from influenza it is largely on top of the flu toll, so it is still a substantial increased number of deaths.

    Excellent point. One that has often got neglected in the commonly-cited comparisons with annual seasonal flu deaths & those most likely to succumb to it.

    Reply
    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  16th April 2020

      But is it really on top of the flu toll? Surely many of the dead would have died of the flu and the lockdowns will suppress flu deaths at least as much as covid.

      Reply
      • Griff.

         /  16th April 2020

        But is it really on top of the flu toll? Surely many of the dead would have died of the flu and the lockdowns will suppress flu deaths at least as much as covid.

        Presently 2,000 deaths a day from Coivd in the USA even with the extreme measures being taken to limit its spread.
        61099/365 = 167 a day in the worse flu season in the last decade.
        Can you understand the difference? Or is your motivated reasoning that in control of your cognitive ability like the muppet’s Pete started with?
        Here is a hint 2,000 is more than an order of magnitude bigger than 167 !

        Reply
        • Alan Wilkinson

           /  16th April 2020

          Keep your eye on the ball instead of playing the man, Griff. I’m not making a case they are comparable diseases. That depends on stuff we probably don’t know yet but looks unlikely. All I’m saying is that Gezza’s statement isn’t logically correct.

          Reply
        • Pink David

           /  16th April 2020

          “61099/365 = 167 a day in the worse flu season in the last decade.”

          Flu’s do not last the year. They peak exactly the same way Covid-19 has.

          You already know this, so my only conclusion is that this is a deliberate lie. Why do you feel the need to make such an obvious lie?

          Reply
        • Pink David

           /  16th April 2020

          Here is the data for Italy showing the terrible flu year they had in 2016. Excess deaths were 24,981. Why did they not lock everyone into their homes?

          https://www.ijidonline.com/action/showPdf?pii=S1201-9712(19)30328-5

          Reply
      • Gezza

         /  16th April 2020

        Yes, but remember these arguments are usually being made in the context of what action, if any, needed to be taken to limit the spread of Covid19. If none were taken; if it were left to run the ordinary course of a seasonal flu with no current vaccination available the deaths from (or with) Covid19 would have to be counted as additional to tbe normal flu toll.

        Reply
        • Alan Wilkinson

           /  16th April 2020

          The absence of the lockdown still leaves the likely overlap between the two sets of victims. They are not additive.

          Reply
          • Gezza

             /  16th April 2020

            Why aren’t they? How many flus are current this year, assuming SARS-COV2 is not one of them, which I don’t think it is?

            Are you trying to suggest someone can be suffering the symptoms of more than one bug at the same time? If so, can you support that with any links?

            Reply
            • Alan Wilkinson

               /  16th April 2020

              No, you miss the point. If Covid 19 is active it will kill many of those who would have died from the flu. Therefore the total dead will be less than Covid 19 deaths plus normal flu deaths.

            • There will certainly be overlap, but I think also certainly there will be significant’l more deaths from Covid if allowed to spread, as the rest home in particular and wedding examples have shown.

            • Gezza

               /  16th April 2020

              I was under the impression the fatal symptoms of Covid19 were more specific than flu?

  4. duperez

     /  16th April 2020

    What’d we learn form the virus? That when there’s a big party all the nutcases come out to play. And all the irrational come out to tell us how all other commentators are irrational.

    We learned too that the conservative worst case scenario way of looking at things and acting, which has wrought ‘social destruction through irresponsible fear-mongering,’ has in all likelihood assured the survival of those who knew better what to do and allow them to tell us that forever.

    We did not have to learn that the randomness of things means that those who live to flaunt their sagacity are free to do that and aren’t busy, distracted by mourning and burying their dead spouses, offspring or siblings. Not that it would distract them if it were the flu that takes them, after all it’s just the flu, you’ve got to expect it, we always have numbers go like that. You’ve got to expect it and accept it.

    Bennett and Leibsohn’s article is badly lacking in both facts and reason? No reason to discount it of course. Are they senators, congressmen or presidential candidates? They clearly have the credentials.

    Reply
  5. Reply
    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  16th April 2020

      If it’s not testable it’s not science.

      Reply
      • Duker

         /  16th April 2020

        Thats the Science of electrons and quantums and quarks, actually they have incredibly high thresholds for ‘proof’, far and away from what applies elsewhere
        We are talking medicine and health here and they have their own protocols and established procedures.

        Reply
        • Alan Wilkinson

           /  16th April 2020

          Rubbish.

          Reply
          • Duker

             /  16th April 2020

            https://skepticaleducator.org/why-medicine-is-not-science/

            Medicine is the application of science to the treatment of illnesses. It is hard for the layman to grasp the idea that medicine is not science, because the coverage of “science” in the major source of public information, the media, is restricted almost entirely to medicine.
            No GP would regard themselves as a ‘scientist’ , those with medical degrees who ‘do science’ are almost totally devoid of patients.

            Reply
    • artcroft

       /  16th April 2020

      Sadly, under level 4, the red line eventually converges with green line

      Reply
      • Gezza

         /  16th April 2020

        I’m not so sure about that. Over what period of time? Have you got a link showing that ?

        Reply
    • Tom Hunter

       /  16th April 2020

      What’s being deliberately missed in childish charts like that one is that the models best-case scenarios, ones accounting for all manner of actions like lockdowns, still completely over-stated the projections for hospitalisations and deaths – by 400% in the case of NYC day after day through April.

      Same with Minnesota, which is a good comparison with NZ for population size, density and so forth: The IHME projections were 74,000 deaths worst-case, and tens of thousands with a lockdown. Now they’re projecting several hundred deaths but the actual death toll is not even 100 and the incubation period means that can’t be a result of that state’s lockdown. As a result hard questions are starting to be asked of the state government.

      Even harder ones are going to be asked about Neil Ferguson and his Imperial College model – which seems to be the source for the IHME model and perhaps ours as well – because it’s now coming out how often he and the model have made similar claims in the past with Mad Cow, Foot and Mouth, Swine flu, Bird flu etc. In each case the fantastic numbers he claimed never approached reality, and in the case of FMD and Swine flu, British government reviews were not impressed by his modelling. Yet nothing about those models appears to have changed, with no apparent revision or update in comparison with reality, which is absolutely unscientific. But gven the economic destruction being wrought this time I think those models will be now.

      Reply
      • Sars killed 20 here and about 4000 had it, but we didn’t go into lockdown and bugger the economy because of it. Flu affects 2-230,000 here and kills 5-600, but again, we don’t carry on like headless chooks. It’s no more pleasant to die of flu (which is also a coronavirus) than of Covid, I imagine, except that the dying person can have their family with them and the family can have a funeral.

        Reply
        • Duker

           /  16th April 2020

          Flu here is more like 30. and thats with vaccines and anti viral treatments established.
          They knew that Covid had a longer incubation time than flu and had a larger portion of those people with no symptoms.
          So the transmission had greater risk factors

          Reply
    • Pink David

       /  16th April 2020

      There is no evidence for your exponential ‘business as usual case. The only thing justifying this are computer models that have been shown time and again to have no predictive ability.

      We also have comparative data from other countries that have not undertaken lockdowns showing there is no evidence of any benefit from the lockdown. Even between US states there is zero co-relation between lockdowns and deaths.

      Anti-body testing is very likely to show the lockdown was pointless and, ultimately, profoundly destructive.

      There will be accountability and ‘it would have been much worse’ line will not save you.

      Reply

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