Note: This piece concerns itself with the social dynamics of COVID-19 and the memetic lag of various psycho-social structures for continental/multiply connected societies. Not islands, like Taiwan, New Zealand, and South Korea. If this statement doesn’t make sense to you, I recommend that you read this piece first.
The above island systems are also interesting — but they need their own piece. I do write some about Taiwan here.
One of the questions on many people’s mind about now is “When will the pandemic be over?” With case counts quite literally soaring, from different testing regimes, it’s a fair question. We’re also bombarded, especially those or us that are educated, to “believe science” or at least “believe scientists.” What that actually means I’ve covered in other pieces. There are no simple answers in this pandemic.
At the same time, every pandemic ends. As I wrote in this piece, the smallpox pandemic that the Aztecs experienced after Cortes exited the scene (to return afterward and conquer their empire) ended with 40% of the population dying. But it ended. It’s no surprise to find that the Aztecs got hit by the double whammy of a new virus (smallpox) plus seasonality that helped spread it. According to Wikipedia, the smallpox epidemic started in May, and lasted through to September of 1520. If you’re up on the literature, this sounds familiar for low latitude countries, that, for a variety of reasons, seem to spread their respiratory viruses over the summer months.
And this virus, too, will end. As I’ve written before, COVID-19, like virtually all viruses, is intensely affected both by seasonality and sociality. Both matter. If you have a super-spreader system like the New York subway, you’re likely to err on the unlucky side (24%) of antibody seroprevalence, whereas if you have less sociality (as in rural America) you have longer periods to build asymptomatic spread and inoculate/variolate your population before the bad season comes. I’ve used the wildfire analogy before with COVID, and it seems to be catching on (though obviously no one read this blog and stole it from me — and I do not endorse all the views in that piece!)
If you ignore the sound and fury associated with recent case counts — do remember that testing is awful (this is one piece, but there are so many of these it’s mind-boggling, yet still under-emphasized,) it’s uneven, the numbers are conflated, and it’s really only championed by empirical scientists that hang their hat on that kind of thing, as well as their followers, there’s really only one gold standard of statistic that matters. And even though THAT is weak (we have no idea of the various conflations going on regarding whether someone who died was on death’s door, and just happened to get COVID at the last minute) I’m standing by COVID death counts as our tarnished measure.
And that is interesting enough. Take a look at Canada, for example. What do you see?
What you get to see is that the pandemic is functionally over in Canada. And while there are still the COVID-doomers in both the government and on the sidelines touting increased case counts, the reality is that this thing is over. Officials in Canada who were previously hollering for tighter measures, a month after deaths have gone to zero, are backpedaling. Canadians are also tired of social restrictions, and are demanding a return to a more open, empathetic society.
It’s instructive to look at Sweden as well. Their death plot looks like this:
Sweden was the nation that pursued a moderate course of action of social distancing, closing some schools, and other agency-based, voluntary restrictions with the idea that the society could move to herd immunity. Scientists in the Swedish public health authority ran the pandemic response independent of Sweden’s political government. The end result was that, of course, there was no lag at all between the population and leadership. It is true that the leadership did make mistakes, especially regarding the management of care homes. But in the end, Sweden passed through, and now has virtually no COVID cases.
I’m including Spain — another example of a modestly Authoritarian yet still a parliamentary democracy — for reasons I’ll share below:
Though there seems to be reconciliation happening (see the spikes!) in the numbers used to produce these graphs, it’s pretty clear that Spain (even with all that sunshine) is a Northern Tier country. Its pandemic was over at the end of May, and all plots I’ve seen comparing Spain to other countries indicate Spain in the upper end of effectiveness (if there really is such a thing) in COVID prevention.
One thing that is amazing is how the media enforces the COVID control narrative. This should come as no surprise — reporters are often belief-based and status-driven, and status of sources matters. You don’t maintain high-status sources by making them look bad. So if the authorities say the pandemic isn’t over, well — the v-Memes will do the talking. But some people — in the case of the video below, a doctor — are confronted with what I call grounding validity. They’re sitting in the hospital, looking at their bed stocking rates. And they have opinions. The video below is stunning in watching how that very grounding validity works against the status-based social structure of far too many contemporary journalists. Highly recommended.
As I’ve said before, I am a fan of Ivor Cummins, on Twitter as the @Fatemperor. Ivor’s in Ireland, a nutrition specialist and ex-liaison engineer that I’ve written about here. And Ivor’s not very happy about the fact that Ireland’s death total has gone to zero now for 2.5 months, yet people are still calling for lockdown. Here’s their death curve.
What does it say about the psycho-social development of Ireland that its politicians are demanding lockdowns when the pandemic is so obviously over? Nothing good about empathy. And lots about the residual authoritarian Catholic culture of control.
Now let’s talk about the United States.
As I said earlier, COVID spread is a combination of seasonality and sociality. The seasonal aspect shows up in the US in two ways — the northern tier big bump came, peaking in April, and augmented by our super-spreader system called the airline system. The southern tier is following similar seasonal dynamics of low-latitude countries, with some type of peak mid-summer. This type of behavior can be seen in other countries as well, regardless of human intervention. Peru had a severe lockdown, but is demonstrating a similar curve. Colombia, less so, but the same pattern.
Sociality can make a difference, and also matters in the US — I saw an analysis of New Orleans around Mardi Gras — a big spike coming from the influx of travelers. But then things died down until seasonality came back in the early summer.
In the US, none of our authorities explain any of this with any sense of consequentiality. Instead, what we hear are shaming messages if we don’t agree, and overt politicization of the pandemic. I’ve written over and over that what causes pandemics to be held at bay is a.) coherence of action of the population, as well as b.) timing of interventions. It doesn’t do much good, for example, to have a lockdown once the bug has already spread.
What is more interesting to me is the messaging regarding, as well as time delays for admission that the pandemic is over, is the evidence that it gives for what type of v-Memetic system is in place inside a country. We can see Canada has maybe not the perfect system, but in the face of more rigorous measures, the people push back when the evidence isn’t there — consider them solid Communitarians. The Swedes straddle the Communitarian/Global Systemic boundary — they have the ability to take responsibility for individual actions, and at the same time hold fundamental principles of liberty as more important than the mistakes of their experts. High social cohesion also helps, and hearing public officials reflect on some of the failures demonstrate that Global Systemic v-Meme.
And what of the U.S? I’ve been following John Robb’s work lately. He’s got a great term called ‘networked tribes’ — and I’ve written about the dichotomous binning of information that has deeply affected the politicization and weaponization of the pandemic. When will our pandemic be over? It will end. But because of our v-Memetic discord, and the Networked Tribality of our message, it’s going to take a long time.
What’s the upshot of all this? Short version — pandemics are a time-dependent phenomena. This one’s been going on in the West since February for sure, peaking (dependent on latitude) in the North in April, and in the South in the middle of the summer. That’s clear from the graphs of data we sadly, actually know — people dying. The lag between people acknowledging that it’s actually over is, at some level, a memetic response of the system. The more authoritarian our system is, the less desirous it is of restoring empathy and giving up control, even in the face of clear evidence.
And here’s the deeply distressing thing. What does it mean when our system, regardless of political party, refuses to give any other interpretation to the pandemic other than we should never live a normal, free life again, under pain of death, while at the same time pushing past control actions and narratives that can be shown, through evidence, validity grounding and critical (and often complex) thought, not to work? I leave that one to you to ponder.