The political motives behind the naming of the Covid Omicron variant might prove to be a huge irony. The Greek letter Xi was skipped by the World Health Organization (WHO), undoubtedly to avoid any symbolic association between Covid and the Chinese dictator Xi Jinping. After all, he’s probably determined to bury discussion of the leak at the Wuhan lab that was the probable cause of this whole mess. The WHO was happy to provide cover. The irony is that the Omicron variant might well bring on a more gentle phase of the pandemic if early indications can be trusted. But in that case, my guess is Chairman Xi wouldn’t have appreciated the twist even if WHO had called it the Xi variant.
The Omicron variant was identified in the Gauteng Province of South Africa and announced by national health authorities on November 24th. The earliest known sample was taken on November 9th. The variant was subsequently diagnosed in a number of other countries, including the U.S. It has a large number of mutations, and initial reports indicated that the variant was spreading extremely fast, having suddenly outcompeted other variants to account for the majority of new cases in South Africa. It is apparently highly contagious. Moreover, Omicron has been diagnosed among the vaccinated as well as those having immunity from prior infections, which is usually more effective and durable than vaccination. Thus, it is said to have “immune escape” properties. Scary indeed!
However, Omicron seems to have been around much longer than suggested by its initial diagnosis in late November (and see this link for an extreme view). Cases in a number of countries show that it is already global; the lags involved in diagnosis as well as earlier contacts with spreaders suggest that Omicron’s origin could have been as early as late September. That means the spread has not been quite as fast as the first alarming reports suggested.
The reported symptoms of the Omicron variant have been quite mild, with fatigue being the most noteworthy. Omicron appears to have taken one mutation from the common cold, which, like Covid-19, is a type of coronavirus. And while there has been a surge in hospitalized cases in South Africa, most of these are said to be “incidental”. That is, these patients were admitted for other problems but happened to test positive for the Omicron variant. As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, the data is not always reliable.
It’s too early to draw definite conclusions, and this variant might prove to be more dangerous with time. In fact, some say that South Africa’s experience might not be representative because of its young population and high natural immunity. It also happens to be early summer there, when higher vitamin D levels help to boost immunity. So, there is a great deal of uncertainty about Omicron (and see here). Nevertheless, I’ll risk a jinx by momentarily contemplating an outcome that’s not terribly far-fetched.
Viruses mutate in ways that help ensure their survival: they must not kill too many of their hosts, which means the usual progression is toward less lethal variants. They may become more contagious, and new variants must be contagious enough to outcompete their ancestors. Viral interference can sometimes prevent multiple viruses from having a broad coexistence. That’s the likely phenomenon we witnessed when the Covid pandemic coincided with the virtual disappearance of the flu and other respiratory viruses. More to the point, it’s the same phenomenon that occurred when the Spanish Flu was eventually outcompeted by less deadly variants.
So it’s possible that a mild Omicron will put the pandemic behind us. If it proves to be as contagious and as mild as it appears thus far, it would likely displace Delta and other variants as the first phase of a new, endemic malady. That might even cut into the severity of the current seasonal wave. The Ethical Skeptic tweets thusly:
“So was Omicron an ultra fast-mutating magic terminator variant? A gift from God, or aliens…? … Or natural virility/genetic profile derived from a previous variant conferring immunity …”
That would be a wonderful outcome, but Omicron’s arrival in the northern hemisphere just as winter gets underway contributes to the uncertainty. It’s severity during the northern winter could be far worse than what we’ve seen in South Africa. We can hope this variant isn’t one truly deserving of Chairman Xi’s name.
Bill Gates’ considerable philanthropic efforts through the Gates Foundation are well known. Much of the foundation’s activity has focused on disease control and nutrition around the globe. Education reform has also been a priority. Many of these projects are laudable, though I’m repulsed by a few (see here and here). During the coronavirus pandemic, Gates has spoken approvingly of Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (lockdown measures), which are both coercive and ineffective (and see here). He has earned the enmity of anti-vaxers, of course, though I’m not anti-vax as long as the jabs are voluntary. The Gates Foundation funded the World Health Organization’s effort to provide guidance on digital vaccine passports, which is a de facto endorsement of discrimination based on vaccination status. His priorities for addressing climate change also raise some troubling issues, a few of which I address below.
Squeezing Policy from a Definition
Gates put a special Malthusian twist on a TED Talk he did back in 2010 using an equation for carbon dioxide emissions, which he’s reprised over the years. It gained a lot of notice in 2016 when a few sticklers noticed that his claim to have “discovered” the equation was false. The equation is:
CO2 = P x S x E x C,
where P = People, S = Services per person, E = Energy per service, and C = CO2 per energy unit.
This equation first appeared as the so-called Kaya Identity in a scientific review in 2002. Such an equation can be helpful in organizing one’s thoughts, but it has no operational implications in and of itself. At one level it is superficial: we could write a similar identity for almost anything, like the quantity of alcohol consumed in a year, which must equal the population times the ounces of alcohol per drink times the number of drinks per person. At a deeper level, it can be tempting to build theories around such equations, and there is no question that any theory about CO2 must at least preserve the identity.
There’s an obvious temptation to treat an equation like this as something that can be manipulated by policy, despite the possibility of behavioral links across components that might lead to unintended consequences. This is where Gates gets into trouble.
As David Solway writes, Gates’ jumped to the conclusion that population drives carbon emissions, reinforcing a likely perspective that the human population is unsustainable. His benevolent solution? A healthier population won’t breed as fast, so he prescribes more vaccinations (voluntary?) and improved health care. For good measure, he added a third prong: better “reproductive health services”. Let’s see… what share of the 0.9 -1.4 billion reduction in world population Gates prescribed in 2016 would have come from terminated pregnancies?
In fact, healthier people might or might not want more children, but lower child mortality in the developing world would reduce certain economic incentives for high fertility. Another reliable association is between income and child bearing: an increase in “services per person” is likely to lead to smaller families, but that wasn’t given any emphasis by Gates. Income growth is simply not part of the narrative! Yet income growth does something else: it allows us to more easily afford the research and investments required for advanced technologies, including cleaner energy. These things take time, however.
Solway points to other weaknesses in Gates’ interpretation of the Kaya Identity. For example, efforts to slow population growth are not reliably associated with “services per person”, fuel efficiency, or carbon efficiency. In other words, carbon emissions may be powerfully influenced by factors other than population. China is a case in point.
Centralized industrial and social planning is generally ill-suited to advancing human well being. It’s especially suspect if the sole objective is to reduce carbon emissions. But Gates knows that lowering emissions without a corresponding drop in real income requires continuing technological advances and/or more efficient decisions about which technologies to deploy. He is a big advocate of developing cheap hydrogen power, which is far from a reality. He is also excited about carbon capture technologies, which are still in their infancy.
Renewables like wind and solar power play a large part in Gates’ vision. Those technologies cannot deliver a reliable flow of power, however, without either adequate backup capacity or a dramatic advance in battery technology. Gates over-promotes wind and solar, but I give him credit for acknowledging their intermittency. He attempts to come to grips with it by advocating nuclear backup, but it’s just not clear that he has integrated the incremental cost of the necessary backup capacity with other direct costs of these renewables… not to mention the considerable environmental costs imposed by wind and solar (see the “back-to-nature” photo at the top for a cogent illustration). Power storage at scale is still a long way off, and its cost will be significant as well.
We could deploy existing energy technologies to greater advantage with respect to carbon efficiency. We’ve already reduced CO2 emissions in the U.S. by substituting natural gas for less carbon-efficient fuels, but the Biden Administration would rather discourage its use. Gates deserves credit for recognizing the huge role that nuclear energy can play in providing zero-carbon power. Despite that, he still can’t quite bring himself to admit the boneheadedness of heavy reliance on intermittent renewables.
Bill’s “Green Premium”
Gates seems to have deemphasized the Kaya Identity more recently. Instead, his focus has shifted to the so-called “green premium”, or the incremental cost of using zero-carbon technology relative to a traditional source. Needless to say, the premium is large for truly zero-carbon sources, but Gates emphasizes the importance of using the green premium to guide development even in the here and now.
That’s fine, but it’s not clear that he gives adequate consideration to cases in which emissions, while not eliminated, can be reduced at a negative incremental cost via appropriate substitution. That describes the transition to natural gas from other fuels. This is something that markets can do without the assistance of ham-handed interventionists. Gates prefers nuclear power and says natural gas is “not a real bridge technology” to a zero carbon future. That’s short-sighted and reflects an absolutist mindset that ignores both the economic and political environment. The thinking is that if it’s not zero emissions, it’s not worth doing.
Gates emphasizes the need to sharply reduce the range of green premia on various technologies to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But the goal of net-zero emissions 2050 is based on the highly unlikely proposition that global catastrophe awaits failing net-zero. In fact, the predicted consequences of doing nothing are based on drastic and outdated carbon growth scenarios and rudimentary carbon-forcing models that have proven to be severely biased to the upside in terms of predicting global temperature trends.
The idea that 2050 is some kind of “deadline” is a wholly arbitrary determination. Furthermore, the absolutism with which such goals are stated belies a failure to properly assess the true costs and benefits of carbon-based energy. If we so much as accept the notion that fossil fuels have external costs, we are then expected to accept that zero carbon emissions is optimal. This is not “science”; it is doctrine propped-up by bizarre and false scare stories. It involves massive efforts to manipulate opinion and coerce behavior based upon shoddy forecasts produced by committee. Even carbon capture technology is considered “problematic” because it implies that someone, somewhere, will use a process that emits CO2. That’s a ridiculous bogeyman, of course, and even Gates supports development of carbon capture.
I’ve never felt any real antipathy for Bill Gates as a person. He built a fortune, and I used his company’s software for most of my career. In some ways I still prefer it to macOS. I believe Gates is sincere in his efforts to help humanity even if his efforts are misdirected. He seems to reside on the less crazy end of the spectrum of climate alarmists. He’s putting a great deal of his private resources toward development of technologies that, if successful, might actually lead to less coercion by those attempting to transform private energy decisions. Nevertheless, there is menace in some of the solutions to which Gates clings. They require concerted action on the part of central authorities that would commandeer private resources and abrogate liberty. His assertion that the world is over-populated is both dubious and dangerous. You can offer free health care, but a conviction that the population must be thinned can lead to far more radical and monstrous initiatives.
The “green premium” promoted by Gates is an indirect measure of how far we must go to achieve parity in the pricing of carbon and non-carbon energy sources, as if parity should be an objective of public policy. That proposition is based on bad economics, fraudulent analyses of trends in carbon concentrations and climate trends, and a purposely incomplete menu of technological alternatives. Yes, the green premium highlights various technological challenges, but it is also a direct measure of how much intervention via taxes or subsidies are necessary to achieve parity. Is that a temptation to policymakers? Or does it represent a daunting political barrier? It’s pretty clear that the “median voter” does not view climate change as the only priority.
What does it take to shake people out of their statist stupor? Evidently, the sweet “logic” of universal confinement is very appealing to the prescriptive mindset of busybodies everywhere, who anxiously wag their fingers at those whom they view as insufficiently frightened. As difficult as it is for these shrieking, authoritarian curs to fathom, measures like lockdowns, restrictions on business activity, school closures, and mandates on behavior have at besta limited impact on the spread of the coronavirus, and they are enormously costly in terms of economic well-being and many dimensions of public health. Yet the storm of propaganda to the contrary continues. Media outlets routinely run scare stories, dwelling on rising case numbers but ignoring them when they fall; they emphasize inflated measures of pandemic severity; certain researchers and so-called health experts can’t learn the lessons that are plain in the data; and too many public officials feel compelled to assert presumed but unconstitutional powers. At least the World Health Organization has managed to see things clearly, but many don’t want to listen.
I’ll be the first to say I thought the federalist approach to COVID policy was commendable: allow states and local governments to craft policies appropriate to local conditions and political preferences, rather than have the federal government dictate a one-size-fits-all policy. I haven’t wavered in that assessment, but let’s just say I expected more variety. What I failed to appreciate was the extent to which state and local leaders are captive to provincial busybodies, mavens of precautionary excess, and fraudulent claims to scientific wisdom.
Of course, it should be obvious that the “knowledge problem” articulated by Friedrich Hayek is just as dangerous at low-levels of government as it is in a central Leviathan. And it’s not just a knowledge problem, but a political problem: officials become panicked because they fear bad outcomes will spell doom for their careers. Politicians are particularly prone to the hazards of “do-somethingism”, especially if they have willing, status-seeking “experts” to back them up. But as Scott Sumner says:
“When issues strongly impact society, the science no longer ‘speaks for itself’.
Well, the science is not quite as clear as the “follow-the-science” crowd would have you believe. And unfortunately, public officials have little interest in sober assessments of the unintended effects of lockdown policy.
In my last post, I presented a simple framework for thinking about the benefits and costs of lockdown measures, or non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs). I also emphasized the knowledge problem: even if there is some point at which NPI stringencies are “optimized”, government does not possess the knowledge to find that point. It lacks detailed information on both the costs and benefits of NPIs, but individual actors know their own tolerance for risk, and they surely have some sense of the risks they pose to others in their normal course of affairs. While voluntary precautions might be imperfect, they accomplish much of what interventionists hope will be gained via coercion. But, in an effort to “sell” NPIs to constituents and assert their authority, officials vastly over-estimate benefits of NPIs and under-estimate the costs.
NPI Stringency and COVID Outcomes
Let’s take a look at a measure of the strength of NPIs by state — the University of Oxford Stringency Index — and compare those to CDC all-cause excess deaths in each state. If it’s hard to read, try clicking on the image or turn your phone sideways. This plot covers outcomes through mid-November:
The chart doesn’t suggest any benefit to the imposition of greater restrictions, or more stringent NPIs. In fact, the truth is that people will do most of the work on their own based on perceptions of risk. That’s partly because government restrictions add little risk mitigation to what can be accomplished by voluntary social distancing and other precautions.
Here’s a similar chart with cross-country comparisons, though the data here ended in early October (I apologize for the fuzzy image):
But what about reverse causality? Maybe the imposition of stringency was a response to more severe contagions. Now that the virus has swept most of the U.S and Europe in three distinct waves, and given the variety and timing of NPIs that have been tried, it’s harder to make that argument. States like South Dakota have done fairly well with low stringency, while states like New Jersey with high stringency have fared poorly. The charts above provide multiple pair-wise examples and counter-examples of states or countries having faced hard waves with different results.
But let’s look at a few specific situations.
The countries shown above have converged somewhat over the past month: Sweden’s daily deaths have risen while the others have declined to greater or lesser degrees, but the implications for mask usage are unaltered.
And of course we have this gem, predicated on the mental gymnastics lockdown enthusiasts are fond of performing:
But seriously, it’s been a typical pattern: cases rise to a point at which officials muster the political will to impose restrictions, often well after the “exponential” phase of the wave or even the peak has passed. For the sake of argument, if we were to stipulate that lockdowns save lives, it would take time for these measures to mitigate new infections, time for some of the infected individuals to become symptomatic, and more time for diagnosis. For the lockdown arguments to be persuasive, the implementation of NPIs would have to precede the point at which the growth of cases begins to decline by a few weeks. That’s something we’ve seldom observed, but officials always seem to take credit for the inevitable decline in cases.
More informed lockdown proponents have been hanging their hats on this paper in Nature by Seth Flaxman, et al, published in July. As Philippe LeMoine has shown, however, Flaxman and his coauthors essentially assumed their result. After a fairly exhaustive analysis, Lemoine, a man who understands sophisticated mathematics, offers these damning comments:
“Their paper is a prime example of propaganda masquerading as science that weaponizes complicated mathematics to promote questionable policies. Complicated mathematics always impresses people because theydon’t understand it and it makes the analysis look scientific, but often it’s used to launder totally implausible assumptions, which anyone could recognize as such if they were stated in plain language. I think it’s exactly what happened with Flaxman et al.’s paper, which has been used as a cudgel to defend lockdowns, even though it has no practical relevance whatsoever.”
The Economic Costs of Stringency
So the benefits of stringent lockdowns in terms of averting sickness and death from COVID are speculative at best. What about the costs of lockdowns? We can start with their negative impact on economic activity:
That’s a pretty bad reflection on NPI stringency. In the U.S, a 10% decline in GDP in 2020 amounts to about $2.1 trillion in lost goods and services. That’s just for starters. The many destroyed businesses and livelihoods carry an ongoing cost that could take years to fade, as this graphic on permanent business closures shows:
If you’re wondering about the distributional effects of lockdowns, here’s more bad news:
It’s possible to do many high-paying jobs from home. Not so for blue-collar workers. And distributional effects by size of enterprise are also heavily-skewed in favor of big companies. Within the retail industry, big-box stores are often designated as “essential”, while small shops and restaurants are not. The restaurant industry has been destroyed in many areas, inflicting a huge blow to owners and workers. This despite evidence from contact tracing showing that restaurants and bars account for a very small share of transmission. To add insult to injury, many restaurants invested heavily in safety measures and equipment to facilitate new, safer ways of doing business, only to be double-crossed by officials like Andrew Cuomo and Eric Garcetti, who later shut them down.
Public Health Costs of Stringency
Lives are lost due to lockdowns, but here’s a little exercise for the sake of argument: The life value implied by individual willingness-to-pay for risk reduction comes in at less than $4 million. Even if the supposed 300,000 COVID deaths had all been saved by lockdowns, that would have amounted to a value of $1.2 trillion, about half of the GDP loss indicated above. Of course, it would be outrageously generous to concede that lives saved by NPI’s have approached 300,000, so lockdowns fall far short at the very outset of any cost-benefit comparison, even if we value individual lives at far more than $4 million.
As AJ Kay says, the social and human costs go far beyond economic losses:
I cited specific examples of losses in many of these categories in an earlier post. But for the moment, instead of focusing on causes of death, take a look at this table provided by Justin Hart showing a measure of non-COVID excess deaths by age group in the far right-hand column:
The numbers here are derived by averaging deaths by age group over the previous five years and subtracting COVID deaths in each group. I believe Hart’s numbers go through November. Of greatest interest here is the fact that younger age groups, having far less risk of death from COVID than older age groups, have suffered large numbers of excess deaths NOT attributed to COVID. As Hart notes later in his thread:
These deaths are a tragic consequence of lockdowns.
Educational Costs of Stringency
Many schools have been closed to in-person instruction during the pandemic, leading to severe disruptions to the education f children. This report from the Fairfax County, VA School District is indicative, and it is extremely disheartening. The report includes the following table:
Note the deterioration for disabled students, English learners, and the economically disadvantaged. The surfeit of failing grades is especially damaging to groups already struggling in school relative to their peers, such as blacks and Hispanics. Not only has the disruption to in-person instruction been disastrous to many students and their futures; it has also yielded little benefit in mitigating the contagion. A recent study in The Lancet confirms once again that transmission is low in educational settings. Also see here and here for more evidence on that point.
It’s clear that the “follow-the-science” mantra as a rationale for stringent NPIs was always a fraud, as was the knee-jerk response from those who conflated lockdowns with “leadership”. Such was the wrongheaded and ultimately deadly pressure to “do something”. We can be thankful that pressure was resisted at the federal level by President Trump. The extraordinary damage inflicted by ongoing NPIs was quite foreseeable, but there is one more very ominous implication. I’ll allow J.D. Tucille to sum that up with some of the pointed quotes he provides:
“‘The first global pandemic of the digital age has accelerated the international adoption of surveillance and public security technologies, normalising new forms of widespread, overt state surveillance,’ warned Kelsey Munro and Danielle Cave of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Cyber Policy Centre last month.
‘Numerous governments have used the COVID-pandemic to repress expression in violation of their obligations under human rights law,’ United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression David Kaye noted in July.
‘For authoritarian-minded leaders, the coronavirus crisis is offering a convenient pretext to silence critics and consolidate power,’ Human Rights Watch warned back in April.
There’s widespread agreement, then, that government officials around the world are exploiting the pandemic to expand their power and to suppress opposition. That’s the case not only among the usual suspects where authorities don’t pretend to take elections and civil liberties seriously, but also in countries that are traditionally considered ‘free.’ … It’s wildly optimistic to expect that newly acquired surveillance tools and enforcement powers will simply evaporate once COVID-19 is sent on its way. The post-pandemic new normal is almost certain to be more authoritarian than what went before.”
Acceptance of risk is a necessary part of a good life, and extreme efforts to avoid it are your own business. Government has no power to guarantee absolute safety, nor should we presume to have such a right. Ongoing COVID lockdowns are an implicit assertion of exactly that kind of government power, despite the impotence of those efforts, and they constitute a rejection of more fundamental rights.
Lockdowns have had destructive effects on health and economic well being while conferring little if any benefit in mitigating harm from the virus. The lockdowns were originally sold as a way to “flatten the curve”, that is, to avoid a spike in cases and an overburdened health care system. However, this arguably well-qualified rationale later expanded in scope to encompass the mitigation of smaller and much less deadly outbreaks among younger cohorts, and then to the very idea of extinguishing the virus altogether. It’s become painfully obvious that such measures are not capable of achieving those goals.
In the U.S., the ongoing lockdowns have been a cause célèbre largely on the interventionist Left, and they have been prolonged mainly by Democrats at various levels of government. In a way, this is not unlike many other policies championed by the Left, often ostensibly designed to help members of the underclasses: instead, those policies often destroy or wrongly obviate incentives and promote dependency on the state. In this case, the plunge into dependency is a reality the Left would very much like to ignore, or to blame on someone else. You know who.
The lockdowns have been largely unsuccessful in mitigating the spread of the virus. At the same time, they have been used as a pretext to deny constitutional rights such as the free practice of religion, assembly, and a broad range of unenumerated rights under the “penumbra” of the Bill of Rights and the Ninth Amendment. What’s more, the severity of the economic blow caused by lockdowns has been borne disproportionately by the working poor and the small businesses who employ so many of them.
Lockdowns are deadly. It’s not clear that they’ve saved any lives, but they have massively disrupted the operation of the health care system with major consequences for those with chronic and undiagnosed conditions. The lockdowns have also led to spikes in mental health issues, alcoholism, drug abuse, and deaths of despair. A recent study found that over 26% of the excess deaths during the pandemic were non-COVID deaths. Those deaths were avoidable or accelerated, whereas the lockdowns have failed to meaningfully curtail COVID deaths. Don’t tell me about reduced traffic fatalities: that reduction is relatively small relative to the increase in non-COVID excess deaths (see below).
The Ethical Skeptic (TES) on Twitter has been tracking a measure of lockdown deaths for some time now. The following graphic provides a breakdown of excess non-COVID deaths since the start of the pandemic. The total “pie” shows almost 320,000 excess deaths through September 26th (avoiding less complete counts in recent weeks), as reported by the CDC. COVID accounted for 202,000 of those deaths, based on state-level reporting. Of the remaining 117,000 excess deaths, TES uses CDC data to allocate roughly 85,000 to various causes, the largest (more than half) being “Suicide, Addiction, Abandonment, and Abuse”. Other large categories include Cardio/Diabetes, Stroke, premature Alzheimers/Dementia death, and Cancer Access. Nearly 32,000 excess deaths remain as a “backlog”, not yet reported with a cause by states.
Also of interest in the graphic are estimates of life-years lost. The vast bulk of COVID victims are elderly, of course, which means that any estimate of lost years per victim must be relatively low. On the other hand, most non-COVID, lockdown-related deaths are among younger victims, with correspondingly greater life-years lost. TES’s aggregate estimate is that lockdown-related excess deaths involve double the life-years lost of COVID deaths. Of course, that is an estimate, but even granting some latitude for error, the reality is horrifying!
John Tierney in City Journal cites several recent studies concluding that lockdowns have been largely ineffective in Europe and in the U.S. While Tierney doesn’t rule out the possibility that lockdowns have produced some benefits, they have carried excessive costs and risks to public health going forward, such as lingering issues for those having deferred important health care decisions as well as disruption in future economic prospects. Ultimately, lockdowns don’t accomplish anything:
“While the economic and social costs have been enormous, it’s not clear that the lockdowns have brought significant health benefits beyond what was achieved by people’s voluntary social distancing and other actions.”
Tierney also discusses the costs and benefits of lockdowns in terms of life years: quality-adjusted life-years (QALY), which is a widely-used measure for evaluating of the use of health care resources:
“By the QALY measure, the lockdowns must be the most costly—and cost-ineffective—medical intervention in history because most of the beneficiaries are so near the end of life. Covid-19 disproportionately affects people over 65, who have accounted for nearly 80 percent of the deaths in the United States. The vast majority suffered from other ailments, and more than 40 percent of the victims were living in nursing homes, where the median life expectancy after admission is just five months. In Britain, a study led by the Imperial College economist David Miles concluded that even if you gave the lockdown full credit for averting the most unrealistic worst-case scenario (the projection of 500,000 British deaths, more than ten times the current toll), it would still flunk even the most lenient QALY cost-benefit test.”
We can now count the World Health Organizationamong the detractors of lockdowns. According to WHO’s Dr. David Nabarro:
“Lockdowns just have one consequence that you must never ever belittle, and that is making poor people an awful lot poorer…. Look what’s happened to smallholder farmers all over the world. … Look what’s happening to poverty levels. It seems that we may well have a doubling of world poverty by next year. We may well have at least a doubling of child malnutrition.”
In another condemnation of the public health consequences of lockdowns, number of distinguished epidemiologists have signed off on a statement known as The Great Barrington Declaration. The declaration advocates a focused approach of protecting the most vulnerable from the virus, while allowing those at low risk to proceed with their lives in whatever way they deem acceptable. Those at low risk of severe disease can acquire immunity, which ultimately inures to the benefit of the most vulnerable. With few, brief, and local exceptions, this is how we have always dealt with pandemics in the past. That’s real life!
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: allegations of the White House’s “poor leadership” and preparedness for COVID-19 (C19) are a matter of selective memory. At the link above, I “graded” Trump’s pandemic job performance through May. Among other things, I said:
“Many have criticized the Trump Administration for not being ‘ready’ for a pandemic. I assign no grade on that basis because absolutely no one was ready, at least not in the West, so there is no sound premise for judgement. I also view the very general charge that Trump did not provide “leadership” as code for either ‘I don’t like him’, or ‘he refused to impose more authoritarian measures’, like a full-scale nationwide lockdown. Such is the over-prescriptive instinct of the Left.”
The President of the United States does not have the constitutional authority to impose a national lockdown, though Trump himself seemed confused at times as to whether he had that power. However, on this basis at least, the ad nauseam denigration of his “leadership” is vapid. At this point, the course of the pandemic in the U.S. is less severe than in several other industrialized countries who didn’t even have Andrew Cuomo around to exacerbate the toll, and it’s still not as deadly in per capita terms as the Asian Flu of 1957-58.
Who exactly was “ready” for C19? Perhaps critics are thinking of South Korea, or parts of South Asia. Those countries might have been “ready” to the extent that they had significant prior exposure to SARS viruses. There was already some degree of immunological protection. Those countries also were exposed to an earlier genetic variant of C19 that was much less severe than the strain that hit most of the western world. These are hardly reasons to blame Trump for a lack of “readiness”.
A related charge I hear all the time is that Trump “ignored the advice of medical experts“, or that he “ignored the science“. Presumably, those “experts” include the darling of the Prescriptive Class, Dr. Anthony Fauci. On February 28, Dr Fauci said:
“Right now, at this moment, there’s no need to change anything you’re doing on a day by day basis.“
Likewise, Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control, said the following on February 27:
“The risk to the American public is low. We have an aggressive containment strategy that really has worked up to this time, 15 cases in the United States. Until the last case that we just had in Sacramento we hadn’t had a new case in two weeks.”
Then there is the World Health Organization, whichdownplayed the virus in January and February, and giving a convincing impression that it servied as a mouthpiece for the CCP.
In fact, the American people were badly harmed by wrongheaded decisions made by the “experts” at the CDC in January and February, when the agency insisted that testing could not proceed until a test of their own design was ready. Then, the first version it approved was discovered to be flawed! This set the testing effort back by well over a month, a delay that proved critical. It’s no exaggeration to say this bureaucratic overreach denied the whole country, and Trump, the information needed to properly assess the spread of the virus.
But let’s think about actual policy once it became clear that the virus was getting to be a serious matter in parts of the U.S. Here’s another excerpt from my post in May:
“Trump cannot be accused of ignoring expert advice through the episode. He was obviously on-board with Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx, Dr. Robert Redfield, and other health care advisors on the ‘15 Days to Slow the Spread‘ guidelines issued on March 16. His messaging wavered during those 15 days, expressing a desire to fully reopen the nation by Easter, which Vice President Michael Pence later described as “aspirational”. Before the end of March, however, Trump went along with a 30-day extension of the guidelines. Finally, by mid-April, the White House released guidelines for ‘Opening Up America Again‘, which was a collaboration between Trump’s health care experts and the economic team. Trump agreed that the timeline for reopening should be governed by ‘the data’.”
We should give Trump credit for shutting down flights into the U.S. from China, where the virus originated, late in January. That was an undeniably prescient move. Let’s also not forget that the original intent of the “15 Days” was to prevent hospitals and other medical resources from being overwhelmed. Today, the data show a strong seasonal tendency to the spread of the virus, but medical resources are not close to being overwhelmed, our ability to treat the virus has vastly improved, and its consequences are much less deadly than in the spring. That’s good progress, whatever the President’s detractors may say.
More than anything else, what Trump’s COVID critics fail to understand is that the executive leader of a republic is not possessed of monarchical powers. And in the U.S., the Constitution provides an additional layer of sovereignty for member states of the Union, a manifestation of the federalist principals without which the Union would not have been possible. The 15-day guidelines produced by the White House, and the guidelines for reopening, were consistent with this framework. The states have adapted their own policies to actual conditions and, if their leaders haven’t worn out their goodwill among voters, internal political realities. Those adaptations were often bad from my perspective, or even tyrannical, but sometimes good. That is exactly how our federalist system was designed to work.
This post is devoted to a few coronavirus policies and positions that trouble me.
Counting Deaths: People have the general impression that counting COVID-19 cases and deaths is straightforward. The facts are more reminiscent of the following exchange in the film Arsenic and Old Lace, when Jonathan Brewster angrily insists he has offed more souls than his sweet little aunties have poisoned with elderberry wine:
Dr. Einstein: You cannot count the one in South Bend. He died of pneumonia! Jonathan Brewster: He wouldn’t have died of pneumonia if I hadn’t shot him!
Here, Dr. Einstein wears the shoes of public health authorities who claim that C19 deaths are undercounted. But lives counted as lost from C19, in many cases, are individuals who also had the flu, pneumonia, stroke, kidney failure, and a variety of other co-morbidities. Yes, other causes of death might be induced by the coronavirus, but like Johnny’s victim in South Bend, many would not have died from C19 if they hadn’t had a prior health event. In addition, otherwise unexplained deaths are often attributed to C19 with little justification.
Lockdowns: almost all of the “curve flattening” in late March and April was accomplished by voluntary action, which I’ve covered beforehere. The lockdowns imposed by state and local governments were highly arbitrary and tragic for many workers and business owners who could have continued to operate as safely as many so-called “essential” businesses. Lockdowns in certain areas were also blatant violations of religious rights. There is little to no evidence that lockdowns themselves led to any actual abatement of the virus. And of course, people are fed up!
The Beach: Right now I’m at a wonderful beach condo in Florida for a week. There are other people on the beach, mostly families and a few groups of friends, but there is plenty of open space. You will not catch the coronavirus on a beach like this. And there is almost zero chance you’ll catch it on any beach. In fact, the chance you’ll catch it anywhere outside is minuscule unless you’re jammed so tightly among hundreds of protesters that you can’t even turn around. Yet government officials have closed beaches in many parts of the country while allowing the protests to go on. Oh sure, they think people will CROWD onto beaches as if they’re at a BLM protest… except they’re not. Ah, then it must be banned! That takes a special kind of dumbass.
Waiting for Results: How could we have spent trillions of dollars as a nation on economic stimulus, much of it skimmed off by grifters, but we can’t seem to get sufficient resources to make calls to those awaiting test results? This is a case of misplaced priorities. Even now, people are waiting more than a week for their results, and many are wandering around in the community without knowing their status. Wouldn’t you think we’d get that done? We can conduct well over a half million tests a day, but can’t we find a few bucks to deliver results via phone, email, or text within 24 hours of processing results. This is truly absurd.
Vaccine Candidates: A similar point can be made about vaccine development: We are spending $5 billion on Operation Warp Speed to build capacity in advance for five promising vaccine candidates. These will be identified over the next few months, and it looks as if all five will come from established pharmaceutical majors. There are many more vaccine candidates, however, some being developed by smaller players using inventive new techniques. The OWS expenditure looks pretty meager when you compare it to the trillions in funds the federal government is spending on economic stimulus, especially when finding an effective vaccine would obviate much of the stimulus.
Treatment: Hydroxycloroquine has been found to lower the death rate from COVID-19 in a large controlled trial. Congratulations, morons, for trashing HCQ as a potential treatment, solely because Trump mentioned it. Way to go, dumbasses, for banning the use of a potential treatment that could have saved many thousands of lives.
Air Conditioning: I’m shocked that public health experts haven’t been more vocal about the potentially dangerous effects of running air conditioners at high levels in public buildings. The virus is known to thrive in cool, dry environments, which is exactly what AC creates, yet this seems to have been almost completely ignored.
Vitamin D: Likewise, I think public health experts have been far too reticent about the connection between Vitamin D deficiencies and the severity of C19 (also see here and here). The accumulating evidence about this association offers an explanation for the disturbingly high severity of cases among Black, Asian and Minority Ethnics (BAME), not to mention a possible role in C19 deaths among the generally D-deficient nursing home population. For the love of God, get the word out to the community that Vitamin D supplements might help, and they won’t hurt, and otherwise, tell people to get some sun!
Masks: I’m not in favor of strict mask mandates, but I have trouble understanding the aversion to masks among certain friends. Of course, there’s been way too much mixed messaging on the benefits of masks, and it didn’t all come from politicians! Scientists, the CDC, and the World Health Organization seemingly did everything possible to squander their credibility on this and other issues. However, a consensus now seems to have developed that masks protect others from the wearer and seem to protect the wearer from others as well. It should be obvious that masks offer a middle ground on which the economy can be restarted while mitigating the risks of further contagion. But even if you don’t believe masks protect the wearer, but only protect others from an infected wearer, donning a mask inside buildings, and when social distancing is impossible, still qualifies as a mannerly thing to do.
A “roundup” of findings on the safety of glyphosate shows that the herbicide is very benign, highly unlikely to pose any real threat to humans, and far less toxic than many common household chemicals and even natural hazards in the environment. However, the debate over glyphosate is heavily politicized, as illustrated by the unsavory details surrounding a report issued last year by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization (WHO). The IARC reclassified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” based on a few cherry-picked, poorly-designed studies with weak statistical power. That finding is inconsistent with the vast preponderance research, which shows that glyphosate is not a significant threat to human health.
The Farmer’s Daughterprovided a good summary of the issues shortly after the IARC’s ruling was announced last year. She offers the following quote from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):
“The U.S. EPA classified glyphosate as Group E, evidence of non-carcinogenicity in humans. The U.S. EPA does not consider glyphosate to be a human carcinogen based on studies of laboratory animals that did not produce compelling evidence of carcinogenicity.“
European regulators reached similar conclusions and are rather damning in their assessment of the IARC’s findings, though Brussels recently disregarded their findings and decided to ban the sale of glyphosate for gardening. In this post at Biology Fortified, Anastasia Bodnar discusses the low toxicity of glyphosate with links to several recent studies on its safety. And here is the Risk Monger blogs’s list of “ten reasons why glyphosate is the herbicide of the century“:
Controlling invasive weeds leads to better agricultural yields
Better yields = less land in production = more meadows and biodiversity
Extremely low toxicity levels compared to (organic) alternatives
Allows for no or low till farming – better for soil management
Reduces CO2 emissions (compared to organic)
Glyphosate saves lives
It is much more affordable and effective than other options
Glyphosate is off patent so no single company is profiting heavily from it
Glyphosate-resistant crops allow for more ecological weed management practices
There is overwhelming scientific evidence that glyphosate is safe for humans
How, then, did the IARC reach such a negative conclusion? Again from the Risk Monger, David Zaruk, the IARC hired just one external technical advisor, Christopher Portier, an activist previously employed by an NGO, the anti-pesticide Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Portier has no technical background in toxicology, and the IARC apparently went to pains to avoid references to his affiliation with the EDF. Moreover, the IARC’s conclusion seems to have been preordained:
“The IARC study rejected thousands of documents on glyphosate that had industry involvement and based their decision on carcinogenicity on the basis of eight studies (rejecting a further six because they did not like their conclusions).“
The lead author of the report, Kathryn Guyton, gave a speech in 2014 in which she stated that herbicide studies slated for 2015 showed indications of a link to cancer. Just how did she know, so far ahead of time? And then there’s this revelation:
“According to the observer document, the glyphosate meeting started with the participants being told to rule out the possibility of classifying the substance as non-carcinogenic.“
Zaruk believes there is internal pressure for the IARC study to be retracted. The organization has suffered a great loss of credibility in the scientific community over the report. In addition, WHO has remained neutral thus far, but they are expected to address the issue this month.
Zaruk and Julie Kelly provide a more succinct summary of the issues in “The Facebook Age of Science at The World Health Organization” at National Review. The suggestion made in the title seems to be that WHO’s decision might be swayed by public pressure, measured by Facebook “likes” by the superstitious, such as unknowing David Wolfe devotees, rather than science:
“Environmentalists and organic companies tout phony studies claiming that glyphosate is found in everything from breast milk to bagels. … Meanwhile, farmers who use glyphosate to protect their crops and boost yields are caught in the crossfire. Even if glyphosate is banned, they will need to use another herbicide, probably more toxic, because the romantic notion of hand-weeding millions of acres of crops is promoted only by those who have never done it.“
I’ll keep using Monsanto’s Roundup, thanks! Or a competitive brand of glyphosate. To close, here’s a quote from Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist blog on the embrace of pseudoscience at the IARC and elsewhere (including social media):
“Science, humanity’s greatest intellectual achievement, has always been vulnerable to infection by pseudoscience, which pretends to use the methods of science, but actually subverts them in pursuit of an obsession. Instead of evidence-based policymaking, pseudoscience specialises in policy-based evidence making. Today, this infection is spreading.“
Postscript: On May 16, WHO announced that glyphosate is “unlikely to cause cancer in people via dietary exposure.” Here is a Q&A from WHO regarding its assessment, explaining that it is based on risk as opposed to mere hazard, upon which the earlier IARC report was based. This is good news!
“Free” birth control was offered under Obamacare. The Left claims that the OTC proposal is a conspiracy to eliminate federal funding of birth control and shift the cost burden back to women. Yet the bill does not change the coverage requirement in any way.
The Left claims that the change to OTC will increase the cost of birth control. On one level, this is the same as #1. However, some have argued that the change will actually drive up the cost of contraception, and that’s a whole different level of delusional economics. Filling prescriptions involves much greater use resources than OTC, particularly the time of the physician and staff, the pharmacist, and the buyer. OTC would also remove a barrier to competition in the provision of birth control, which would reduce costs.
Some physicians require an examination and even tests before they’ll write a birth control prescription, which can run into hundreds of dollars. Naturally, many of them would like to retain this flow of business, yet according to Melchior, “…the World Health Organization and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have confirmed that doctors can safely prescribe the pill without a full examination.” Freeing women of the need for a doctor’s blessing would improve access unambiguously.
Melchior also reports that “Planned Parenthood alone makes around $1.2 billion each year from contraceptive services.” Naturally, Planned Parenthood would like to protect that flow of revenue, but the availability of OTC birth control would expose it to competition.
What nonsense people spout in defense of their political agenda, not to mention their rents! The proposal for OTC birth control should be a slam-dunk liberalization, one that no self-respecting Liberal or Libertarian should oppose. But apparently, for the Progressives, helping women is secondary to preserving state control and the “statist quo”.
In advanced civilizations the period loosely called Alexandrian is usually associated with flexible morals, perfunctory religion, populist standards and cosmopolitan tastes, feminism, exotic cults, and the rapid turnover of high and low fads---in short, a falling away (which is all that decadence means) from the strictness of traditional rules, embodied in character and inforced from within. -- Jacques Barzun