Note: to newcomers to this blog — this is largely not a political blog. I am a complex systems scientist, and while I do write about politics from time to time, I have strong feelings against politicizing the pandemic. We are going to go through this together, whether we want to or not.
As we move into the beginning of July, numbers of detected COVID cases across areas previously less impacted by COVID-19 are accelerating rapidly. At the same time, official deaths from COVID continue to decline, though what may happen in the near term is far from clear.
There are many who believe that the pandemic is “just getting started.” I think this is false on a number of levels, and I’ve written about exactly why this is false in a number of posts. The pandemic did NOT start because powers-that-be became aware of it. The pandemic is actually following a natural, relatively uncontrolled trajectory in all but a few countries. There are some factors that seem to make a difference, and now there are enough participatory countries with demonstrable results — notably some level of social distancing and mask wearing slows the number of symptomatic cases considerably.
This is HIGHLY desirable, as what is happening “under the radar” is asymptomatic/extremely low symptomatic cases, that provide larger population immunity, and in the long term, absent a vaccine, be necessary to end the pandemic. It is not highly desirable in the least!! to take this as some reason to have “chicken-pox parties” or other such icks.
I’ve been reading about COVID-19 now for the past five months, and there are a few things, after reading about 100 medical papers, and tons of other media, that I think are true.
- The disease was initially called as being highly infectious, and easy to contract –and it is. We know this because we’ve inadvertently run dozens of experiments in places like cruise ships, aircraft carriers, prisons and meatpacking facilities. Once you crowd people together in moist environments, and they have to yell, everyone gets it quickly. That means believing it hasn’t already shown up in your neck of the woods is wrong.
- The asymptomatic version of the disease spreads relatively silently, and has little mortality threat if you are not immunocompromised. We know this because when rigorous population diagnosis is undertaken, as in Lombardy, Italy, or even New York City, population antibody rates range anywhere from 15%-70%.
- How you contract the disease is dose-dependent. What that means is if someone coughs in your face that has it, that is far worse than potentially contracting it from contact with surfaces or other low dose modalities.
- The disease seems to not spread outside easily. If it did, the recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, as well as people on the various beaches in the southern US, would be leading to wave after wave of deaths. That has simply not happened, and while certain outdoor exposure, such as BLM, seems to be accompanied by some level of mask wearing, a cursory glance at photos indicate a large number of people NOT wearing masks.
All these points of information actually help individuals how to understand how NOT to get the disease. And it’s actually pretty simple. If you’re immunosuppressed, then you have to stay inside away from people. If you’re not immunosuppressed, then it’s also simple. Stay out of bars. Don’t sing with other people. Don’t go to a mega-church. You will likely pick up COVID-19 in its asymptomatic form once it comes to visit your community. But it is highly unlikely you will contract the large-symptomatic/bad dose version of the disease that can kill you.
It’s worth it to take a minute to review exactly why singing and bars are so bad. Much has been made of singing — people in a choir aspirate droplets, as well as infectious aerosols, and the rhythmic breathing of people singing together is an important vector for people sucking in a large dose of coronavirus into their lungs at the same time.
Bars are a little different. Here, of course, we also have large numbers of people, grouped closely together, talking and drinking (think lots of fluids.) There is an interesting acoustic phenomenon that happens in bars, and everyone that has ever been in a bar has experienced it. It’s part of what’s called the Cocktail Party Effect, and it’s one of the fun phenomena that anyone who’s ever taken an acoustics class is familiar with. You can reference the Wikipedia link for more of the auditory details, but the short version that happens in a bar is this — people start off speaking softly. Over time, as the volume increases, people also increase their personal volume. This feedback loop continues until some auditory pain threshold is hit, and everyone stops talking all at once, and the room is silent. This cycle repeats itself throughout the course of the evening.
Considering that the “uncomfortable” threshold for human hearing is around 110 Db, and industrial noise (like running your power router or circular saw) is always around 100 Db, that means by the time you get to the sudden silent drop-off, people are really hollering. Especially if they’ve had a couple of beers. It’s not hard to see how this would turn anyone who had COVID-19 symptoms into a super-spreader. You’re literally screaming in the face of your friends.
There’s a cautionary tale for those of us running classrooms in the fall (as I will be doing.) Some kind of acoustic buffering might well take the edge off any student infected with COVID-19.
There are other things that are becoming more clear as time goes on with COVID-19. First off, of course, is that the U.S. has done a pretty awful job of managing the virus. At the same time, it’s still poorly accepted that the U.S. is a truly continental ecosystem. All parts are connected to other parts — but we have demarcated parts! The US is not monolithic, like a nation-state in Europe might be. It is difficult, if not functionally impossible, to stop the spread of the virus. It will effectively go everywhere. While I may express admiration for Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand, we are not New Zealand – a functional island. We cannot truly protect our population from exposure, though I would argue we CAN effectively protect our population from high exposure – or at least do a much better job.
There is a great piece with maps in the New York Times that attempts to show how the virus spread throughout the U.S. The title is frustrating, because the virus isn’t looking to win or lose. The virus is simply spreading, and this kind of headline just reinforces limbic paralysis in our population. As of this posting, deaths from the virus is headed back down, albeit more slowly than in European countries, and it’s worth pulling this apart as we move forward.
First off, the virus arrived via air travel, and spread through the U.S. through the air travel network. It did this BEFORE the vast majority of Americans, or decision makers were aware, or took it seriously. The air travel network, prior to the start of memetic awareness of the pandemic, was the original super-spreader system. This is very clear when you look at the New York Times maps.
Once the virus, carried by air through our own high-tech super-spreader system, touched down, its efficacy in spread was directly related to the level of connection of a city’s mass transit system — in particular, its subways. There’s no surprise that NYC got hit as hard as it did. It has the most class/race/age-heterogeneous mass transit system in the U.S. The lines go everywhere, and everyone rides the subway.
But mass transit basically sucks in most of the rest of the U.S. And the other fascinating thing about the results of the disease, with the incumbent “second wave” hysteria, is that the disease highlighted the social divides across America. Many people will read this and grasp onto this — “a-ha! poor people get it worse because they are more exposed!” That is far from clear at this point. If the working poor got COVID worse, it would show up with a spike of service worker deaths. While there has been a ton of reporting on the potential risk to service workers (and service workers deserve protection!) the reality is I’ve yet to see a piece that shows increased mortality to service workers because of their jobs. Even people working in the meat packing plants, where there have been well-documented outbreaks, have not died at increased rates — feel free to provide a cite that proves me wrong in the comments.
Now things get tricky. What COVID-19 actually shows is the lack of linkage between classes in the U.S. because of a lack of direct sociability. The middle/upper/airplane-traveling classes simply don’t mix sociably, or more prosaically, drink together. People in the South just don’t mix with people from the West. The coasts may swap people, but the virus has to take the long road from the coasts to the center, or the south of the country. This is actually an amazing indicator of our empathy problem. Or rather, our lack-of-empathy problem.
In my home state of Washington, this has really held out in striking relief. The latest hotspot in Washington is the Yakima Valley. Heavily Hispanic, and one of the poorest parts of the state, Yakima is not on the middle-class, airplane super-spreader route. The Valley is the heartland of much of the state’s fruit orchards, whose fruit is primarily picked by migrant labor. As that labor has returned to the Valley, cases have spiked — though not deaths. Passed over by white folks in aircraft, it would not surprise me at all if the genetic vector for COVID in the Yakima Valley originates from Mexico. And while it is possible that it came up from California, from the Central Valley, I would also not be surprised if air travel from Mexico also helped bring up potential cases, as we gave the pandemic to Mexico. Now it is bouncing back, on a lower class strata, to the U.S. again.
What this means is that in the short term, causally reasoning through class strata and obvious social divides can tell us much about where or whether we can expect a “green fields” COVID pandemic to pop up, or whether we should expect an outbreak to be relatively easily contained because the virus has already burned through. Unfortunately, in the United States, we cannot have this conversation, because, at the same time, we are struggling with simplistic models of racial/ethnic separation. We live in a political environment where the obvious two sides — Left and Right — of the political debate are convinced they are in a cage match for pure survival. It breaks my heart.
But it does more than break my heart. Dichotomous thinking profoundly impedes the ability of a nation like ours, with many clearly delineated, but not accepted lines of demarcation to use knowledge for optimal solutions. We cannot respond in anything like an optimal, agile manner if our hands are wrapped around our perceived political adversaries’ throats.
Where this clearly matters is in two manners. First, as I’ve made the case above, social class delineation profoundly affects our ability to understand the wave of COVID-19 as it passes through the social network of the U.S. — because this disease is highly social.
But secondly, it impairs our ability to create advice that would protect people’s health through building their personal immunity. The idea that one could take certain prophylactic measures and improve your risk portfolio with the disease is anathema. Instead, what we see is a shrugging of any responsibility turned into a vector of blame onto the other side of the political spectrum. Instead of taking a Vitamin D pill and getting some sunshine, or even understanding the effect of melanin on Vitamin D uptake, obvious paths are turned into racialized or politicized commentary.
And it’s on both sides, folks. We must constructively problem-solve through opening small businesses or we are going to be left without a small-business strata in our society. There is no small business that can stay closed for a year and not go bankrupt. If we are not mindful and proactive, small business will not survive the head-on assault of both COVID and Amazon.
At the same time, mass wearing of masks and maintaining social distancing is not a Lefty plot to infect you with another killer virus. Ask yourself how long you actually wear a mask in an interaction. When I go to Walmart or Safeway, I never spend more than 20 minutes in the store. 20 minutes wearing a mask isn’t going to kill me.
There are also critical, under-the-radar holes in our safety net that will prolong this thing. One is the safety net we provide for nurses. I learned just last night from a friend that nurses’ sick leave and vacation time are conjoined. If you don’t take off time when sick, you get that as a vacation day. And this time is also constrained as too low — 4 weeks for a whole year. What kind of incentive does this create to show up when mildly sick for work? I’m at a loss that this kind of thing can, or will be fixed by the end of this version of the pandemic. But can we at least learn a little bit?
And it goes on and on. I have yet to see any convincing paper that COVID spread is really touch-based. It’s not that you can’t get it from surface contact. But that’s just not the way this thing rolls. And the notion that you’re supposed to wipe and disinfect every surface between every use simply is not possible — nor necessary. I have a friend who runs a small personalized bakery in Portland. You go to his cafe’, create a personalized dessert, and he bakes it for you right on the spot. Between every cake (now limited because of seating because of social distancing restrictions) employees must change gloves. The cake goes into an oven that kills everything. The short version — there’s no way to make money when you add a pair of latex gloves into every order.
What is needed is an elevated understanding of two things. First off is the immunity stack — that people have varying susceptibilities to getting this thing. For the record, this is a colloquial version of the immunity stack:
- Antibodies created from interaction with the disease.
- T-Cells that combat the disease.
- Super-immune response (“goop-ers”) – people that produce enough mucus/bodily fluids that the virus can’t get started.
- Shared immunity from other coronaviruses — my veterinarian friends laugh at the idea they’ll get COVID. “How much calf diarrhea do you need to be exposed to get immunity from every coronavirus on the planet?”
Any seasonality of the virus is at LEAST due to the fact that our immune systems are stronger in the summer than in the winter, due to enhanced Vitamin D uptake. And I’ve advocated eating more saturated fat to help with mucus production.
Second is dispelling the popular myth that we can avoid exposure, and that we are on the front end of the pandemic. There is only one way to truly avoid exposure until the pandemic is past. You have to lock yourself in your room and not come out. It is INCREDIBLY infectious.
And we are FAR from being on the front end of this thing. Even if you don’t accept my argument that super-spreaders and situations are the way that people primarily get COVID, through high dosing, we have passed the only peak we know — the death toll (which is plenty suspect as well) — in most of the country for a while now. There may be some states, like Texas and Florida, that are truly behind the curve, though after reading this piece about COVID in the deep Amazon, I even doubt that. But if there’s been an outbreak in your state, it has likely gone everywhere. Science is still being done to evaluate it, but as this study from Penn State shows, because of a complex of factors, it’s been out there. And if you’re reading this, you’re not dead yet. The belief that we can avoid this thing entirely is literally destroying us a nation. It would be one thing if it were true. But it’s not.
There are still important unknowns. We know that you can achieve some degree of immunity. We don’t know how long that will last, and won’t know for a while. We can confront our nation’s fundamental problem with metabolic syndrome, and the immunosuppression that is concomitant impairs our individual ability to deal with the virus. This paper is a bit old — things are far worse now — but it’s pretty clear that obesity is a problem we all share, and the problem is not overeating — it is metabolic destabilization through poor diet.
We are, sooner or later, going to have to get back to living. I recommend thinking through the patterns I’ve discussed here, and finding ways forward. We all share the common need for our country to survive.
16 thoughts on “Sensemaking the U.S. COVID-19 Pandemic — Empathy in the Time of the Coronavirus (XI)”
And, as things stand, if you try to say these things over a social network, you’ll get shredded to pieces. That’s truly a tragedy of our society. There has to be a reason why people reacted in this counter-productive way, but I can’t understand why, or what could be done to improve. And think of what would happen if we were to face a truly serious threat in the near future — as it may well happen
Re: why they do that — it’s all that v-Meme-y stuff I write about. They’re locked in a limbic state, and can only grasp tools that support their fear. Now here’s a delicious glass of Kool-Aid — drink up! 😉
One thing is all the situations where it spreads well seem to be indoors. Maybe it needs an enclosed space to become concentrated enough to be virulent. Outdoor gatherings, even when large (protests, beaches, etc), don’t seem to lead to high rates of infections, much less increased rate of deaths. That is relevant since most of the recent mass socializing has been outside.
In this town, most places of business are closed, only doing carry-out, or have extremely limited number of customers. And the national level, we just saw our first major indoor political rally with Trump’s campaign and few people show up in attendance. Most people still seem to be social distancing, even avoiding church. So, it’s unclear what will happen when large indoor gatherings begin again.
The virus, as it is, probably is not a major threat. But the same was true of the 1918 flu. The first wave was mild. Various factors made the second wave so deadly. For one, it mutated into a more virulent form. And the uncontrolled spread of it earlier in the year increased the chance of it mutating. Plus, the second wave hit hard in the fall-to-winter when people are low in vitamin D and when the flu season in general began.
We have no particular reason to assume a second wave will be worse, of course. But it’s good to keep in mind that pandemics, by nature, aren’t always predictable in their development. It’s not a single factor but a combination of factors. This novel coronavirus might not have spread like it did in the first place if not for a perfect storm of factors: immunocompromise caused by diet, pollution, and stress; a global transportation system; environmental degradation that increases contact between humans and wildlife; et cetera.
Whether or not this pandemic turns out into anything more dangerous, the same set of risk factors remain in place. In fact, these and other risk factors could get worse over time, such as with worsening climate change, famines, and refugee crises. This isn’t a reason to be in a state of collective panic, but we do need to start taking the situation seriously, and the sooner the better.
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Here is a possible way COVID-19 could become fully pandemic or at least have a greater virulence and mortality. It could, of course, mutate. But even ignoring that, there are other factors. In particular, there can be a feedback loop of problems. Because of COVID-19, some meatpacking plants were shut down. This reduced the meat supply and increased the prices.
Fewer people are eating meat and so population levels of fat-soluble vitamins are down. This might not be a big deal right now because it’s summer. Most people are getting enough vitamin D from sun exposure, except certain populations with darker skin while living in northern countries further from the equator. It might not be until fall that the combination of lack of meat and lack of sun will become apparent.
This could exacerbate immunocompromise in a population already beset by metabolic syndrome, with 88% of the American population being metabolically unfit. If the novel coronavirus lingers and a bad flu season hits, the further immunocompromise could be increasingly deadly for those who normally would be unaffected by serious infections. No single factor might be significant and yet combined they could be deadly.
We are already a sickly population. But the tipping point from mere sickliness to mass infectiousness could be slimmer than we realize. Also, the rates of metabolic diseases are increasing year by year. The majority of Americans are predicted to be obese in the near future. How immunocompromised can we get before a deadly pandemic becomes next to inevitable?
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COVID-19 being more or less virulent and deadly, I’m not sure how anything has fundamentally changed. For the time being, we would be smart to implement and follow basic precautions that reduce risk factors: wearing masks and face shields, social distancing when possible, health checks (temperature, oxygen, etc) where needed, testing for infections, etc.
There are still vulnerable demographics. There are few Americans who never come into contact with anyone at risk (elderly, poor, minority, or those with pre-existing conditions like asthma, obesity, diabetes, etc). Simply out of respect to others and concern for their well-being, we should lessen unnecessary potential exposure. It’s the kind thing to do.
Most of these measures are simple. They come at no great cost or discomfort. There is no rational or moral reason against at the very least wearing a mask. Put it on when around others in stores and public areas, and then take it off again. For many people, that consists of only a few minutes of mask-wearing a day. This isn’t a time to turn masks into politicized symbols of partisan loyalty and groupthink, not that such rhetoric is ever useful in shutting down rational thought.
Looking back on the whole situation, I’m not sure how we could have responded differently under the conditions in dealing with a highly infectious disease we didn’t understand. We should’ve been better prepared for a pandemic in the first place, but the fact of the matter is we weren’t prepared. That lack of preparation made a shut down necessary and inevitable. Public health preparation could’ve prevented that, though. Simply ensuring enough PPE for most people could’ve decreased public panic.
The US government failed on multiple levels. Because we weren’t prepared, we didn’t have the supplies needed. And so in fear of their being a run on PPE, it appears that government and health officials lied to the public about masks being effective. So, people didn’t wear masks and then were reluctant to do so when officials later contradicted themselves and even then most officials refused to model their recommendations by wearing a mask when in public.
In general, the response was uncoordinated, divisive, and confusing. Shut downs were slow to be implemented and were patchy. What was closed and kept open often seemed completely arbitrary. None of this inspired confidence in a society that for decades has had declining public trust in government. Now reopening has been a mess and the lack of trust adds to the reluctance many feel. Worse still, it’s not clear we will be better prepared if and when a worst pandemic comes along, especially as public trust is likely to decline further.
All of that said, one can imagine much more effective and democratic ways in which our government could’ve responded. Honesty, transparency, and accountability would’ve helped greatly, of course. But prepared or not, officials could’ve taken action more quickly such as the federal government getting hold of needed items such as PPE and ensuring all states were well supplied. Testing, tracing, and selective quarantines should’ve been done more quickly and more widely as well.
Even if we did that, it might’ve been wise to still have had an initial shut down or at least some restrictions. But with measures of risk reduction in place, a shut down might not have been necessary at all or else only in specific places. We could’ve kept most of the economy running, such as with government-mandated barriers put into key locations of exposure where people are concentrated in enclosed spaces. With those measures taken, public trust could’ve been strengthened, moral panic avoided, and politicization stopped before it began.
Now imagine if we could take seriously the issue of immunocompromise from diet, air pollution, lead toxicity, and stress — all of which directly relates to our ever worsening inequality in health risk factors. We should’ve been facing these problems long ago. But it’s far from being too late. There is no better time than a mass crisis to mobilize public opinion and political will. Simply changing official dietary recommendations (low-carb, nutrient-density, fatty animal foods, etc) right this moment cold ensure that the population heads into fall and winter with improved metabolic health and immune functioning.
Ignoring COVID-19, these improvements in public health would still reduce healthcare costs and save numerous lives. And if we don’t make these improvements, we could bankrupt our country over the coming decades. Besides, such a sickly population is problematic in so many other ways and isn’t likely to contribute to a healthy society and political system in general. Yet we seem paralyzed in inaction, apathy, and cynicism. If a pandemic doesn’t inspire and motivate us to face this growing existential crisis, then what will? When the next pandemic or something equally bad comes along, then what?
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Maybe I should say that I’m generally in agreement with you, about this and many other topics. We share a similar view of the world with similar influences (e.g., spiral dynamics). But there is a slightly different edge to my thought on certain topics like COVID-19. What we have in common is a general attitude about how to deal with public health issues. And we both come from a background of understanding the importance of low-carb diet and metabolic health, including how it relates to addiction and dysfunction. Where we diverge slightly, though, is that I’m feeling a bit more cautious.
It’s possible I’m being unduly biased by spending so much time with my elderly parents who are in the vulnerable population. I wouldn’t be as cautious for myself as I’m relatively young and healthy, but I am concerned about my parents’ state of declining health. That resonates with my general sympathy for other susceptible populations, such as the poor and minorities, who are out of positions of power and excluded from public debate. That is fundamentally wrong on a level of both morality and democracy, and is one of the numerous signs that we’ve become a banana republic.
The people making the political decisions are those least affected by public health issues in general and those with the best healthcare in the world. It’s an inequality not only of wealth but more importantly of political power, social privilege, resources and opportunities, and access to political and public platforms of speech. It’s also an inequality of who suffers the consequences of a failed democracy, oppressive police, mass incarceration, corrupt dietary guidelines, brutal history of racism and classism, and vast externalized costs (including but not limited to lead toxicity, air pollution, etc).
That inequality rubs me the wrong way. It’s what generally draws me toward a liberal view with some elements of leftism. But by nature I’m not a radical of any sort, although the times sometimes makes me feel radicalized. That is one thing that gets lost, in how liberals are not left-wingers, two entirely different species. Right-wingers and even corporatist Clinton Democrats would portray someone like me as a radical, even as my opinions mostly line up with the center of majority American opinion. The entire political elite of both parties is to the right of most Americans on most issues. So, who is radicalized, the American people or the political elite?
In the US, liberals are often more conservative than those who identify as conservatives. Ideologically, one would think conservatives should embrace the precautionary principle and yet they rarely do. From public health to environmentalism, it’s actually liberals who are most conservatively cautious. That is seen particularly with COVID-19. The conservative response of precautionary principle was to shut down areas of risk and take protective measures for the public good, in order to maintain social order and promote trust in authority. So-called conservatives, often actually radical libertarians, have attacked this kind of conservative response while so-called liberals have defended it.
This demonstrates the social strangeness and ideological confusion of American society. Symbolic politics, far beyond politicization of masks, is more important than actual ideology. But the polarization of this politicization hasn’t been equal on both sides. Interestingly, at least until Trump, Democrats have been more supportive of government even when Republicans are in power, whereas Republicans switch between being authoritarians when in power and libertarians when out of power. This is what gets my hackles up during times of shared crisis like this. It’s not really about Covid-19 or George Floyd. The entire system has become problematic and getting worse all the time. This makes it all the more difficult to discuss the specific issues in isolation because none of it really is separate.
So, it’s not only masks that have become political symbols. The entire COVID-19 situation has become symbolic, not only of political quagmire but of an entire social order under stress. That is why the protest movement could so easily erupt out of the pandemic lockdown, even though they don’t outwardly appear related. The mainstream media superficially looks at everything as separate issues. We are lacking a systems approach and an integral perspective.
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An excellent comment. I sympathize with your situation. The problem is that the middle-class and poor were in a world of hurt before this whole thing got started. And they are going to be even worse off the longer the economy is shut down. This ‘balancing of harms’ thing is the real dilemma.
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I understand and agree. There is no simple right position. It’s rather messy and there are all kinds of unintended consequences and unforeseen costs. I’m not necessarily arguing for the original shut down, much less another shut down. That was sort of my point in another comment.
If we had a more well functioning social democracy with less inequality and a greater focus on public good, including public health, we would’ve been better prepared and maybe could’ve avoided shut downs entirely. That is to say, if we were more like Sweden, we could’ve done what Sweden did with relatively minor restrictions.
Then again, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. And if my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle. There are so many ‘ifs’ one could ponder. Sadly, we have to deal with American society as it is and that leaves us with many challenges that we collectively don’t know how to face, even if we had the political will to do so which we don’t.
So, even as we may theoretically agree on much, the devil is in the details. Reality on the ground is not so clear, in how to move forward on any of these fronts. But the point being, in the immediate situation, moral panic is not useful. Basic precautions in risk reduction is all that is needed, not that we can agree on even something that simple.
I guess we’ll muddle forward somehow. To be honest, I’m not so worried about the short term, not even a possible second wave of COVID-19. We would survive a continuation of this pandemic with a mutation or other conditions that brought it to the level of the 1918 flu. Many millions dead wouldn’t destroy our society, however unhappy it would be for so many.
My concerns are more general and longer term. I worry about where our society is heading. I suspect we are entering an era of mass catastrophe with one crisis after another and worsening over time. We are barely beginning to see what will come out of climate change. And for decades, I’ve sensed we’ve been in another cold war and are on the edge of WWIII. Much of it has to do with inequality that is growing not only nationally but globally.
This minor pandemic is a dress rehearsal for events to come. That is my suspicion. We’ll find out if this prediction will come true.
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There was one particularly amusing point of debate. Normally, it’s the political left arguing for Scandinavian-style social democracy, ignoring for the moment that it was actually a powerful and radical left-wing in the early 20th century that pushed democratic reforms, often with nation-wide strikes, in many Scandinavian countries. Anyway, Northwestern Europe in general demonstrates what a strong political left looks like when expressed as genuine democracy, what many Americans claim to be or aspire to.
Even right-wingers who deny that the United States is a democracy and instead proclaim our country to be a ‘republic’ couldn’t help but praise Sweden’s strategy of public health during COVID-19. That is rich considering their success was inseparable from their leftist politics, including universal healthcare that supports a healthy population. American right-wingers can’t now honestly argue that leftist politics are highly effective.
We Americans on the political left should hold those right-wingers to this praise they made of Sweden, in their arguing we should emulate them. Indeed, let’s copy their success by also becoming a healthy and well-functioning social democracy that saw strong democratic reforms from a radical left-wing. If we can do that, we on the political left should promise right-wingers that we won’t lock down the economy in the next pandemic. That seems a fair compromise.
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To put it in context, here is a specific example. The Navajo nation has been hit the hardest of any major population in the country. For every 100 people who come up positive as infected, about five people die of COVID-19. A one in 20 chance of survival would not be comforting. People in such a community would be rationally fearful of getting infected.
Could you imagine if whites, especially among the middle-to-upper class, all across the country died at the same rate? Republican politicians, Trump supporters, Fox News viewers would have demanded an authoritarian lock down far greater than what we’ve seen so far. And right-wing militias would be patrolling the streets of their communities to ensure citizens complied with restrictions and to keep out unwanted outsiders.
That is what bothers me. Our view of such things is myopic, even among good liberals. The Navajo nation, as with blacks, is so vulnerable to health risks because of centuries of racist oppression that in many ways continues. It’s not really COVID-19 killing them. That is merely the last link in a long chain of causes. We’re unable to publicly talk about this and so it erupts as a protest movement.
Yet you’re correct that locking down vulnerable populations is far from an optimal response, as we need to begin dealing with the root causes. We can’t do that, though, until it’s part of public discussion and political debate. Nothing will be resolved. If anything, with rising inequality, the situation is most likely to get worse, until it resolves itself when stresses and conflicts become too great (Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler).
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The Navajo are a great example of a combo of ethnic/racial persecution and total dietary collapse. The first is well-documented. The second, not so much. Don’t get me started on fry-bread.
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The diet angle is more immediately relevant. It is one of the easiest actions we could take as a society to vastly improve metabolic and immunological health. I see the inequality issue as inseparable from that, but I understand there is more debate around it.
Here is something amusing. Mongolia, not the US government, is sending the Navajo nation the PPE needed.
By the way, my sister-in-law has been far more worried than I have. For all my criticisms about various things, I actually don’t have much fear about COVID-19, other than concern about specific demographics and populations.
I was trying to console my sister-in-law. She lives in a poor river town, mostly whites but a fair number of minorities. The economy is dependent on prison employment. It’s not a healthy population and few are wearing masks or social distancing.
Now schools will be reopening all across Iowa and the local school administration is going to take no actions for risk reduction. So, it will be an experiment with the first major concentration of the population in enclosed spaces.
She is worried about her daughter, but also herself as she works in a local public school. I tried to convince her to not worry, since there is nothing she can do about it anyway. Besides, as you argue, it’s going to spread one way or another, although later might be better if a vaccine comes along.
I sympathize with her. My brother is far from healthy and their daughter appears to be suffering from failure-to-thrive, something my mother is familiar with from working with special needs children. So, it’s not the best situation.
Still, worry does not help. Chances are that nothing will come of it and no one in the family will die or get severely sick. For the time being, most populations have low mortality rates.
But maybe the sense of conditions being out of personal control increases anxiety. The campaign season and politicization of masks isn’t helping either. She is a partisan Clinton Democrat and so everything is interpreted accordingly.
The one positive with COVID-19 is it really shut down most of the campaigning. In a normal campaign year, there would’ve been endless media about the candidates. But combined with protests, COVID-19 has sucked all of the oxygen out of the room.
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