All decisions here, in either direction, could kill you.
As the sensemaking crisis goes into overload on COVID-19, many people are shutting down, many people are hyperventilating, and many people don’t know what’s real and what’s not. The signal to noise ratio on this is very badly weighted towards noise, with our mainstream media sources and politicians failing to be particularly helpful. And while COVID-19 could kill you, other things could kill you too, such as unemployment, starvation, or national civil war, and we need to look at all of those things honestly to pull the signal out of the noise. There are a lot of things to consider. Let’s look at the noise first.
I saw this in my social feed today. I think it’s a totally accurate depiction of the noise we’re all facing.
Well good news! A friend has broken down all the facts and everything we need to know about COVID-19!
1. Basically, you can’t leave the house for any reason, but if you have to, then you can.
2. Masks are useless, but maybe you have to wear one, it can save you, it is useless, but maybe it is mandatory as well.
3. Stores are closed, except those that are open.
4. You should not go to hospitals unless you have to go there. Same applies to doctors, you should only go there in case of emergency, provided you are not too sick.
5. This virus is deadly but still not too scary, except that sometimes it actually leads to a global disaster.
6. Gloves won’t help, but they can still help.
7. Everyone needs to stay HOME, but it’s important to GO OUT.
8. There is no shortage of groceries in the supermarket, but there are many things missing when you go there in the evening, but not in the morning. Sometimes.
9. The virus has no effect on children except those it affects.
10. Animals are not affected, but there is still a cat that tested positive in Belgium in February when no one had been tested, plus a few tigers here and there…
11. You will have many symptoms when you are sick, but you can also get sick without symptoms, have symptoms without being sick, or be contagious without having symptoms.
12. In order not to get sick, you have to eat well and exercise, but eat whatever you have on hand and it’s better not to go out, well, but no…
13. It’s better to get some fresh air, but you get looked at very wrong when you get some fresh air, and most importantly, you don’t go to parks or walk. But don’t sit down, except that you can do that now if you are old, but not for too long or if you are pregnant (but not too old).
14. You can’t go to retirement homes, but you have to take care of the elderly and bring food and medication.
15. If you are sick, you can’t go out, but you can go to the pharmacy.
16. You can get restaurant food delivered to the house, which may have been prepared by people who didn’t wear masks or gloves. But you have to have your groceries decontaminated outside for 3 hours. Pizza too?
17. Every disturbing article or disturbing interview starts with “ I don’t want to trigger panic, but…”
18. You can’t see your older mother or grandmother, but you can take a taxi and meet an older taxi driver.
19. You can walk around with a friend but not with your family if they don’t live under the same roof.
20. You are safe if you maintain the appropriate social distance, but you can’t go out with friends or strangers at the safe social distance.
21. The virus remains active on different surfaces for two hours, no, four, no, six, no, we didn’t say hours, maybe days? But it takes a damp environment. Oh no, not necessarily.
22. The virus stays in the air — well no, or yes, maybe, especially in a closed room, in one hour a sick person can infect ten, so if it falls, all our children were already infected at school before it was closed. But remember, if you stay at the recommended social distance, however in certain circumstances you should maintain a greater distance, which, studies show, the virus can travel further, maybe.
23. We count the number of deaths but we don’t know how many people are infected as we have only tested so far those who were “almost dead” to find out if that’s what they will die of…
24. We have no treatment, except that there may be one that apparently is not dangerous unless you take too much (which is the case with all medications). Orange man bad.
25. We should stay locked up until the virus disappears, but it will only disappear if we achieve collective immunity, so when it circulates… but we must no longer be locked up for that?
This depiction of the noise about COVID-19 is dead on. And people clamoring for the general population to restrict their sensemaking to only official channels: (A) Don’t seem to be aware of the tremendous fuckups that the official channels have already made on this, and, (B) Seem to be vehemently opposed to the most “official” channel in the country anyway.
This is a morass of sensemaking failure that could lead to things far worse than the viral infection that caused it. Let’s move forward by extracting the signal, the actual facts, that we can hang our hat on at this time.
The Tale of Two National Fuckups
This thing came from a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan, probably the Wuhan Institute of Virology. We don’t need evidence gift wrapped by the Chinese to make this case. We just need simple mathematics, and the case is rock solid.
The “official channels” have maintained for four months that this virus originated in a wet market in Wuhan, not at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is the world’s Mecca of studying emergent SARS coronaviruses that originate in bats. A lot of speculation by the media has gone into supporting this case, as well as the solid support of the Chinese government, but the case is obviously garbage. I grant that wet markets for exotic harvested wild meats are a great vector for something like this, but set that aside for a moment.
There are between a hundred and a thousand wet markets in China. There are well over a thousand wet markets in Vietnam. There are well over a thousand wet markets in Thailand. There are hundreds or thousands of wet markets in Laos, hundreds or thousands more in Cambodia, hundreds or thousands more in Burma and Myanmar and Malaysia. Nobody knows for sure, but it’s completely reasonable to estimate the total number of wet markets in East Asia being at least ten thousand.
But only one of these ten thousand or more wet markets is two blocks from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The chance that a brand new never before seen SARS coronavirus variant would emerge at the only wet market two blocks from a laboratory whose primary function is to study never before seen SARS coronavirus variants, specifically from bats, is simply too astronomical to believe. If a brand-new world epidemic virus were to emerge every day from a wet market in east Asia, it would be three years or more on average before one emerged from Wuhan. No honest scientist would believe that coincidence given what we know.
I’ve followed a lot of traffic from geneticists and epidemiologists saying this virus doesn’t seem to have the earmarks of being created artificially. They may be right. But that doesn’t mean that a diseased bat wasn’t transported to Wuhan and the virus escaped via an infected technician, or via an improperly disposed of specimen. Nor does it rule out the disease being a product of “gain of function” research on bats with lesser uncatalogued diseases.
The Chinese reaction was archetypically communist and cannot be trusted. In order, they imprisoned whistle blowers, denied the virus, admitted the virus but said it wasn’t transmissible, admitted it was transmissible and invited foreign journalists in to watch them build a giant hospital, turned everyone in Wuhan into The Bubble Boy, snuffed it out (officially), then kicked all the journalists out and reopened the city. Then after the journalists were gone, they beat up people trying to go to the hospitals with COVID-19 to keep their new cases number down, cremated a lot more people than the official death count, denied any reinfection after lockdown was ended, and then blamed the origins of the infection on the US Army. Which is obviously not true, because if the USA had developed the virus we’d have tests for it way sooner than we did.
Now granted, that could just be communists acting like communists, but the entire timeline tells of a cover up.
The USA’s fuckup was a fuckup of mid level bureaucracy that has been widely reported, but doesn’t seem to be widely understood despite the reporting. This article is a fabulous primer, but I’ll summarize.
The first case in the US was identified the same day as the first case in South Korea, January 21st. South Korea gave out regulatory approval to every company in the country that wanted to make a test within one week, by the end of January, and as a result created the best testing apparatus in the world. The FDA and CDC collaborated to prevent US companies and universities from developing tests until the middle of March, and only eventually stopped obstructing test development by administrative (Trump/Pence) fiat. One of the most egregious examples of this behavior, which was promulgated by bureaucrats at the FDA and CDC, is the example of Washington University’s Helen Y. Chu, who after testing someone in her ongoing flu study for COVID-19 and discovering she had a sample pool that may have many infections, was told, basically:
1) You just violated that test subject’s HIPAA privacy rights, and
2) You don’t have a permit to do COVID-19 tests, therefore
3) Stop testing.
If they had said the exact opposite, Seattle would have been controlled. Chu had everything in her hands to isolate the Seattle cases and possibly the lions share of the cases on the West Coast.
When universities and companies tried to develop their own tests, they were told to apply for a permit, and then only one permit was issued — to the CDC. The CDC then screwed up the test, and had to release a new one several weeks later. The backlash from the screw-ups came to a head the last day of February, where the FDA begrudgingly allowed some 5,000 labs (of the 260,000 labs in the country) to start working on tests.
The doors were finally thrown open to academic and private entities in full on March 15th, when HIPAA was waived for anyone working on COVID-19, and March 16th, when Vice President Mike Pence announced that all the rest of the labs could work on this without FDA interference.
Wojtek Kopczuk, a professor of economics at Columbia University, quippedthat the “FDA sped up the process by removing itself from the process.”
The USA lost 45 days as compared to South Korea, at the same starting gun, entirely due to pencil pushers at the FDA and CDC. The important thing to take away from the Tale of The Second National Fuckup, is that no politician could have prevented this, unless they were willing to unilaterally step in, deplatform the FDA, burn HIPAA sooner, and bust the CDC down into an “advisory only” role. Not Trump, not Hillary, not Biden, not Bernie. The one politician who might have been able to do it, is the hypothetical caricature of Trump for which many Trump voters voted. And knowing how government works in the USA, it is unthinkable that this will get fixed, or that this won’t happen again the next time, because our universal bipartisan answer to government failure is more government.
And the government’s final response to needlessly wasting 45 days reacting to this, is to issue a 2 trillion-dollar bailout to pause the national economy for 56 days, so we can catch up, while everyone loses their jobs.
Case fatality rates (CFRs) for this thing vary tremendously by country, because the numbers don’t exist to properly calculate it. You’re not supposed to calculate a CFR until a confirmed case has either cleared or died, but everyone is calculating them in real time for COVID-19 by looking at deaths of confirmed cases. The math is all wrong. For one, we have some dead people who probably had COVID-19 and didn’t get counted because they didn’t get tested. For another, we have a lot more people who caught it and survived, but never got confirmed, because of the testing SNAFU. For a third, we have some currently alive cases who haven’t resolved in our numbers. This means the numerator in the fraction is wrong, and the denominator is very wrong. It is likely, on speculative analysis, that the final CFR for this thing will turn out to be very similar to the flu, as we see in South Korea and Iceland which have good testing. It’s “just” a flu that everyone gets all at once because nobody started with any immunity to it, which leads to more dead people. The spike of COVID-19 deaths we will see in the coming months are going to be several times higher than the flu deaths, because basically they’re several years-worth of flu victims squeezed into one year.
What would happen if this were as deadly as the measles? What if a “true” epidemic, of the style we’ve seen in the past, hit the highly connected, highly vectored, Marketplace Of Disease we call the “global economy?” Same infection rate, much higher CFR. This is the sort of thing the “preppers” have been thinking about for years.
The preppers didn’t need to run out and buy toilet paper. Or meat. Or rice. Or guns. But everyone else did — especially guns. Check out the March 2020 statistics for the FBI’s NICS Background Check System:
Firearm sales vary seasonally, owing to things like hunting season, Black Friday, Christmas, and such, but a good indicator of gun sales trends can be drawn by comparing a month’s sales to the same month from the prior year. In the past full year, every month except one has set a new monthly record. Look closely at March 2020. 3.7 million background checks were issued in March, in a simply unprecedented wave of sales. It’s a million-gun spike, ten times previous spikes.
Gun store owners told an interesting tale as well — these are almost all new owners. Most estimate around 75% of gun sales in March 2020 were first time buyers. That would constitute 2.8 million people, almost 1% of the total US population buying their first gun. Many of them liberal. Some of them prior supporters of gun control. Many foreign nations only have 1% gun ownership rate nationwide. We may have that many who became first time owners a month ago. And now the ranges are closed, and they can’t practice or train with their new purchase, and they’re sitting at home losing their jobs reading a stream of social media anxiety.
These numbers don’t even count peer to peer sales or gifts of prior owned firearms. And the other things people are buying? Nonperishable food, medicines, seeds, things to use at home. Prepper stuff.
The makeup of COVID-19 America now constitutes the following classes:
1) Previously armed previous preppers
2) Previously armed new preppers
3) Newly armed new preppers
4) Unarmed new preppers, lovingly referred to as “targets.” Bless their heart.
Nobody’s not a prepper anymore. Certain corners of the internet might call this a “Boogaloo Soup.”
But shooting people is a really hard, really terrible thing to do, so people don’t generally start shooting each other unless they have three things, not just one. First, they need the tools. Second, they need dire motivation. And third, they need psychological reinforcement that dehumanizes “the other,” some frame of reference or point of view that posits the person at the other end of the barrel as less human than themselves. We have the tools. Do we have these other elements?
It’s widely known that our modern cross-tribal trust, when we speak of the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe, is historically low. We have described this in many ways on HWFO, and some good indicators came from studies in the run up to the 2018 midterms, which were already marred with political violence.
HWFO November Housekeeping will take place in two sections. First, we’ll recap some of our culture war analysis pieces…
And now we have Democrats mailing ricin bombs to Republicans, Republicans mailing mock explosives to Democrats, Democrats shooting up Republican campaign offices, and white nationalist loonies who hate Trump and think he’s a shill for Jewish globalists shooting up synagogues.
All that happened before the impeachment trial.
A graph from that article highlights alarming polling numbers from an APSA 2018 study.
Be very clear, at the peak of the Syrian Civil War, the total number of combatants on all sides only numbered 2% or less of the population on a per capita basis. We have 1% new gun owners alone, a national gun ownership rate around 30%, and a projected number of Red or Blue tribal goons who support terrorism to be up around the 15% range before COVID-19 entered the picture.
But the statistics supporting cross tribal terrorism aside, one of the best indicators of literal dehumanization might be to look at marriage polls.
People who identified with a party had even more intense feelings. In 1958, 33 percent of Democrats wanted their daughters to marry a Democrat, and 25 percent of Republicans wanted their daughters to marry a Republican. But by 2016, 60 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans felt that way.
Compare that to gauges of classic racism, the most historically significant American tradition of dehumanizing “the other.”
Opinions about interracial dating and marriage on a personal level have also evolved significantly. In 1971, 48% nationally said they would not approve of their own children dating someone of another race, while 28% said they would approve.
Put simply, the Red Tribe / Blue Tribe cultural divide in the United States is thicker than mid-20th century racism. We have all the dehumanization we need for a civil war, and all the gear. We’re just not motivated yet.
A lot of people I speak to don’t seem to understand that the economy is not just something we do to manipulate a stock market. It is the fundamental way that humans provide for our needs, including food, and has been since we came down out of the trees and settled on this idea of “labor specialization.”
I spoke to a lady in the Philippines a few weeks ago. She’s in her 20s, poor, and lives in Manilla in a two-bedroom apartment with five other women. Not uncommon there. She teaches English as a Second Language over the internet to Japanese people. Or at least she did until their lockdown.
She told me stories from the ground floor in Manila. When their lockdown went into effect, tens of thousands of people hit the roads and walked home to their family villages in the rest of the country, in a mass pedestrian migration that took many days. They just walked. Slept on the side of the road. She stayed, and explained how their lockdown was being managed by the local matron in charge of a block of apartment buildings, who was acquiring food and delivering it to them, while the army patrolled the streets. She said the Army was very nice, and that everyone was in good spirits, because Filipino people are generally good spirited people. But the topic among everyone was when the food would run out, and whether more people were going to die from the lockdown than the virus.
Her Facebook account was deactivated last week.
I don’t know why.
People in Africa are revolting against the lockdowns now, and with very good reason. The median life expectancy in many areas of Africa isn’t much over 65, and their rate of the sorts of comorbidities that are leading indicators for COVID-19 fatalities is extremely low. Few obese people, few diabetics, few old people. In a morbid sort of way, COVID-19 deaths will be very small throughout Africa because a combination of other factors, malaria and malnutrition among them, have already cleared out the people most likely to die from it. One of their leading sources of death is malnutrition. Africans should objectively abandon lockdown now, if not yesterday.
Lesson: The calculus of when to come off lockdown is different everywhere, and the damage the lockdown does must be accounted for in this calculus.
There aren’t a lot of great studies on the fatality rate of recessions in the United States, but the best I’ve read was by Daniel Sullivan and Till von Wachter. Their sample pool was unfortunately limited to high seniority male workers in Pennsylvania from the 1970s on, but we might make some assumptions and apply it to the general pool. They found that overall mortality rates of their sample set increased by between 50% and 100% in the year following the year they got laid off. And while that effect declines sharply in further years, it remains at 10% to 15% higher twenty years later.
Let’s presume the mortality rate among the poor who get laid off is near the top of this band, and let’s further presume that the net chance of death over the time scale generally adds up, to a 100% increase in overall mortality due to an unemployment event.
The mortality rate for the working age population is on average, per CDC data, around 200 per 100,000, so a 100% increase would be an additional 200 per 100,000. The St. Louis Fed projects unemployment to top 47 million people in the wake of our COVID-19 response. If we presume that only 41 million of these people are directly due to the response, which seems reasonable given prior unemployment numbers, we can calculate82,300 people killed by the lockdown. A recent article by the admittedly partisan National Review calculated a similar number by different means.
If the lockdown saves half a million people, perhaps this is worth it. If we value the lives of working age people higher than we do aging retirees or people in nursing homes, perhaps it’s not. If the lockdown doesn’t actually save that many people anyway, because our treatments in the hospital don’t help that much, then this entire calculation gets a lot muddier. And all this ignores the hunger element, which for the USA is tied in with both the Potential Boogaloo and the food service industry.
Hunger Is the Indicator
I routinely post on my Facebook wall how many people I know who (Have contracted COVID-19) / (Have Recovered) / (Have Died) / (Are Newly Unemployed).
My friends all respond with their counts. Most know fewer than I who’ve contracted it, and only a few know someone who’s died. But the greatest variation in the numbers is in the “unemployed” category. My friends who are tied up in the entertainment, food service, or bar industries have “unemployed” numbers in the hundreds, or say they are simply uncountable. And food service is a huge link in the supply chain of hunger, a chain that’s been broken, and the breaks in the chain have now officially spilled back into agriculture itself.
According to the New York Times, tens of millions of pounds of fresh food are being destroyed by the nations farmers because we closed restaurants, hotels, and schools. 3.7 million gallons of milk per day are dumped out on the ground. Farmers are currently plowing under fields of fresh produce, because they have no choice. It seems absurd on its face, but it’s entirely predictable. The banana you buy in the grocery store looks different than the bananas they use in restaurants. Nobody makes onion rings at home. Everybody bought potatoes and rice for three weeks, and now have to figure out what to do with all the storable starch they bought instead of buying lettuce. The Times indicated that 5% of the total nation’s milk supply is being dumped out every day, and that will grow to 10% if we stay on lockdown too much longer.
The Times narrative speaks about tragedy in the industry, and with good reason, but the terrifying thing lies below the surface. It’s conceivable that bailout money could keep those industries alive, but there is no amount of bailout money that will dig that onion out of the ground. And the onion served a more important purpose than farming revenue. It was food. It prevented hunger. That’s what the economy is for, remember?
On the whole, US farmers export over 20% of what they produce, according to the USDA. But 18% of the food Americans ate, before the lockdown, was eaten away from home. In a perfectly elastic economy, nobody would starve in the US from closing all the restaurants because a 20% reduction in food production will simply lead to 20% less food exported, and we would hoard the remaining food for ourselves. But that’s not how things work. If a food factory is built to put food into export boxes instead of grocery store boxes, it’s going to continue to do so. Especially now, when foreign countries are probably already struggling with their own food shortages and we are their bread basket. In a very real way, buying up all those potatoes during the Great Grocery Rush of 2020 took a potato out of some kid’s mouth in another country, so now they might starve. And in a very real way, if we don’t open the restaurants up soon, and get the prior supply chains working again, we are very likely to end up with long term food shortages here.
And that’s the last element we need to start shooting each other.
Although I’m a prepper, and I’ve got plenty of food in my garage, you may not be. And if I was you, and my children were starving, I might try to shoot someone and take their food. And if you are you, and you try to do that to me, you might get shot. Expand to the national case.
If that happens, we will have the Tools for the Boogaloo, which are guns. We will have the Dehumanization for the Boogaloo, which is our political and cultural tribalism. And we will finally have the Motivation for the Boogaloo,which is our kids need to eat.
The Boogaloo Soup will be complete.
And should that happen, it will kill far more people than COVID-19, and will kill far more people than the unemployment from our response to COVID-19. It will be the greatest tragedy in the history of our nation, because we will have brought it all upon ourselves, from our own Freakoutery.
The soup timer is ticking. Beginning of May would be a great time to get our asses in gear.