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I’ve been talking to idiots, part II

Published by marco on

Ignoring so-called other experts

One friend sent me this article 8 MORE Experts Questioning the Coronavirus Panic (Off-Guardian), which includes varied citations from varied experts. The site is for people who’ve been kicked off of the comments section of the Guardian (hence “Off-Guardian”). The formatting and flow are terrible, but some of the information is OK (e.g. “He suggested that the real figure for the number of cases could be 10 to 20 times higher than the official figure. If he’s right, the headline death rate due to this virus will be 10 to 20 times lower than it appears to be from the published figures.”) but it’s mostly speculation.

Until we know more, we’re proceeding with the right strategy. We stay cautious in the face of a paucity of information. Once we know more, we can react less stringently, if the information bears out such a strategy. Perhaps for the next pandemic, we can be better-informed. For this one, we are where we are.

Exaggerating COVID numbers

The local Consumer Reports in Switzerland K-Tipp took it upon themselves to publish their own feelings that everyone is needlessly overreacting by pointing out that deaths where the flu is involved aren’t considered flu deaths. I.e. patients that die of complications which the flu perhaps exacerbated are considered to have died of the underlying condition, not the flu. In the case of Coronavirus, the methodology is the opposite.

A scandal. They have truly discovered that the Coronavirus would be only as bad as a seasonal flu if they weren’t being treated differently in the statistics to … what? What would be the reason? For Switzerland to deliberately kill its own economy as part of some mass hysteria? A global hysteria? That seems to be their theory. That were the clear-eyed and -headed editors of the K-Tipp at the tiller, we would be navigating this crisis with much more aplomb and much less fuss.

What they don’t explain away is the extra deaths, not only in Switzerland, but in many other countries. The morbidity numbers are way above the norm everywhere. These deaths have been attributed to COVID because it makes sense to do so. What else would you expect? What do they suggest? Should Switzerland use the methodology they use for the flu and, instead of reporting COVID numbers, they say that COVID isn’t a thing, but that their heart-attack numbers in March and April are through the roof, for utterly mysterious reasons?

That would be super-useful. It’s an interesting thing to point out, but the magazine could have come to the conclusion I just came to above, instead of promulgating the implication that COVID isn’t really a thing, that over half the world is sitting at home because of mass hysteria. They do no justice to the intelligent and well-trained medical personnel who are doing their damnedest to steer us through a crisis for which we are economically prepared, but not very socially or ideologically prepared.

Hence this article: people just can’t believe that the world can tell mankind what to do, instead of the other way around. But people are dying. Countries that deviate from the recommendations have much higher death-rates. The report for K-Tipp is what one can expect when things go right, when the plan works. Then they’ll complain that it was a hoax because, paradoxically, not enough people died.

Damned if you do; damned if you don’t. K-Tipp should go back to telling me whether I should buy my Rioja from Lidl or Aldi or telling me which bicycle helmet is the safest. They should leave their Trump-like conspiracy theories to journals that deal in these topics instead of scaring their aged subscribers into thinking that nothing is going on.

Their letters page is an echo chamber of people thanking them for their efforts in combatting the misinformation disseminated by the government. That would be all of the governments of the world, I guess. Unless Italy is killing people in droves—or OMG lying about it—just to support the Swiss government in its efforts to swindle its own people into … what? Shit, what do they want? People to stay at home? To destroy their own economy? To what purpose? You can’t just make a conspiracy theory: you have to work on motive a bit.

Other readers just attributed it to incompetence through and through and thanked the consumer magazine for taking time out of their busy schedule of evaluating cooking butter vs. premium butter to set the record straight vis á vis medical statistics. They noted that the government was stupid or crooked or incompetent enough to rely on experts, which was their downfall. Because everyone know that experts don’t know anything, by definition. It’s really nice to see that the U.S. doesn’t have a monopoly on this kind of thinking.

Voices of reason

The article Turning and Churning by James Howard Kunstler (Clusterfuck Nation) sanely and calmly discusses the “debate” about COVID and the effects of the lockdown on the economy.

“Here’s what I think about the disease just now (subject to further evidence): it’s not just another flu. It operates differently, it’s more lethal, it affects many organs and can damage them permanently, and it spreads rapidly. That seems to have been the consensus of public health officials the world round who promoted the lockdown policy ­– and it’s hard to believe that they all got snookered into that.”

This is the part that the haters don’t seem to talk about: they’re proposing a worldwide conspiracy or worldwide incompetence without a motive and without describing how it would possibly work. They lean on the statements from unimpeachable sources like consumer magazines or right-wing neoliberal politicians (see below) and discount all of the information that’s inconvenient to them, while keeping the information that serves their purpose (e.g. play down number of deaths, but cling to the 2-3% figure that no country has right now and that was cited at the beginning of the year, based on China’s data, which they are also now claiming is faked while at the same time citing the parts they like).

Those that are worried about the economy are blaming the lockdown measures instead of the utter flakiness of an economy that couldn’t even survive a love tap to say nothing of a lockdown as severe as this one. The economy has been a house of cards for decades and it’s been super-fragile and even more fantastical since 2008. But it’s the lockdown that’s at fault, not the fragility of the stupid system that they built. Kunstler continues

“The plague didn’t cause the economic crash. But the lockdown response certainly accelerated, amplified, and ramified it. The crash happened because we built up a hyper-complex, over-scaled, just-in-time economic system with all its ecological redundancy edited out for the sake of efficiency, making it hyper-fragile. The system’s basic power module (fossil fuel) was failing on a cost-basis and we tried to compensate for that with debt. The debt got out of hand in both sheer quantity and from the dishonest games that bankers and politicians were playing with it. All of this happened for the reason that most things happen in history: it seemed like a good idea at the time. (Emphasis in original.)”

The article Quarantine Day 37 by Carol Miller (CounterPunch) also urges caution with “opening back up” or “going back to normal”:

“For everyone dying to go back to work I ask for extreme caution. You might actually die, or someone you know and love might actually die.

“Somewhere between 25% and 50% of the people infected with COVID-19 have no symptoms. The US has not tested enough people to truly understand the scope and life cycle of this virus in the US.


“I was notified again on April 18th, after a 4th round of COVID-19 tests, that I am still positive for the virus. I still have no symptoms.

“I am a poster child for all the unknowns of OCVID-19. How long will someone carry the virus with no symptoms? How long will someone with virus be contagious? If there are shreds of virus clinging to the nasopharynx are they actually contagious or noncontagious? Science has no answer to any of these questions yet.”

Why don’t we just test everybody?

But let’s get back to dodgy and shady ideas and theories. The article A Third Solution by Paul Buchheit starts off quite well, with the following summary:

“it’s not “just the flu”. It is something much more dangerous. Catching this virus is a bit like playing a round of Russian roulette. […] For those of us less at risk, the danger is still present, but it’s as though the gun is pointed towards someone else, someone more vulnerable, because we can easily pass the virus along to them without even realizing that we have it.

“There’s also the issue of long-term effects. This disease is new, so we really have no idea. It’s likely that more severe cases, those requiring hospitalization, present serious risk of permanent damage to the heart, lungs, and other organs. […] We also don’t know how long immunity lasts or what will happen if people catch it a second time next year. We hope that it will be milder the second time, but it could be worse.”

The rest of the article devolves into suggesting a “third solution”, which is really the first solution everyone would want: full tracking. Because Buchheit created GMail, he seems to think that he can give something a new name and the venture capital funding will come pouring in for his new venture of testing everyone all the time. He might be right. Of course, there a few technical hurdles in the way, most of them math- and physics-based.

We’d all love to have every person be tested every morning non-invasively and with 100% accuracy and self-reporting, etc. but there are a lot of hurdles between where we are and that utopia. He’s not telling us anything that we don’t already know, but we need a plan to get there from where we are (which is at about 2% tested in most OECD countries, to say nothing of herd immunity of 60-70%).

This sounds like the advice people like this love to give to the poor who can’t afford to feed their families. They come up with the bright idea that those people should make more money. Not helping.

Fantasy Propaganda Numbers

The article Can We Stop Using the 60,000 Death Projection Number? by Dean Baker (Beat the Press) points out that the NYT, as recently as April 23rd, was still using 60,000 COVID-related deaths as a ceiling for the U.S. On that day, deaths were just a hair under 50,000 and were still increasing at a steady clip of about 2,000 per day.

Or there’s the article Roaming Charges: Killing Yourself to Live by Jeffrey St. Clair (CounterPunch), which points out that Citigroup analysts were confident that 60% of the American public could be tested by the end of April (6 days away at time of publication) and 95% by the end of May. This, although only 1% of the population had been tested at the time and less than .05% were being tested per day. They would have to pick up testing by 140x (or 14,000%) in order to hit that target.

They predict, based on their numbers, that 90% of the workforce could then safely return to work by mid-May. That a bank is this bad at math—even CitiBank—is frankly unbelievable, so they’re clearly just lying to manipulate the stock market. Or maybe they’ve been talking to Paul Buchheit, cited above.

Be Sweden. Duh.

Or there’s this video Herbert Kickl zieht Bilanz “Kanzler Kurz hat Menschen bewusst in Angst und Schrecken versetzt!” (YouTube) (German) that another friend sent me, commenting that this guy is finally willing to speak truth to power and to shame his fellow parliamentarians for having turned Austria into a police state as their COVID response, when Sweden is showing the world that another way is possible, that COVID can be held under control with only slight restrictions on gathering size, but otherwise stores and restaurants can stay open.

All numbers in the following discussion are from early Sunday morning, April 26th (World-o-meters).

Despite Herr Kickl’s vehemence, he’s comparing against only Sweden, which he describes as a paradise of no-COVID/no-restriction/booming-economy, unlike all of the other chickenshit countries. But we can compare Sweden very nicely to Switzerland and Austria because they are all pretty much the same size, population-wise. Today’s numbers show that Sweden has 20% more cases than Austria and are growing at ~600 cases per day where Austria is below 100 cases per day and is basically ready to start the “dance”. Sweden danced first without using the hammer. Also, they’ve tested less than 1% of their population where Austria and Switzerland are at about 2.45% and 2.85%, respectively.

 Daily New Corona CasesIt doesn’t look like dancing first is actually working for Sweden, though (just like failed for the UK, which entertained the idea only briefly). Their increase in cases is steeper, their total deaths are 4x higher than Austria and they’re only at the beginning of their intensive infectious period (see the chart to the right). Without using the “hammer” that other countries have, it’s unclear how they’re going to keep their infections under control. It’s most likely that they’re not: their approach looks like they’re going for herd immunity, as England did, at first. It soon spiraled out of control for England. It is likely to do so for Sweden as well.

Just because it takes a few weeks longer or the pattern looks slightly different doesn’t mean that Sweden has found a magical solution to COVID that escaped everyone else. But let’s put a pin in that. Herr Kickl staked his career on the numbers; I’ve got no skin in the game, but I’m betting against him. If he “wins” and Sweden “wins”, then we all win—as long as we can figure out how they did it.

Switzerland currently has more cases than Sweden overall (~29,000 vs. ~18,000) but Sweden already has about 35% more deaths than Switzerland. For closed cases, Sweden is showing a 69% mortality rate from COVID, which is about twice as high as anyone else (and is also kind of shocking). I’m hoping that’s a statistical anomaly that will drop down as more of the milder cases recover. Switzerland is also at ~200 new cases per day, which is 1/3 of Sweden. Switzerland and Austria are dropping; Sweden is still increasing.

Of course, it’s possible that these numbers are wrong or off by a lot. We’ve all heard about how the tests might be too negative or too positive or improperly applied or not applied enough or applied to the wrong people or improperly reported or … a million other things that can happen with statistics. But they’re all we have—and they’re all that Klickl had too when he police-state–shamed his fellow parliamentarians. We should all be willing to acknowledge error bars instead of projecting an impossible confidence.

It makes no sense to yell at parliament about their “drastic” measures a few days ago, when no-one really knows how this is all going to work out for Sweden. I would check back in two weeks and see how it went before drawing any conclusions. There’s a good chance that it will follow England in a delayed and desperate lockdown—a delay that they will likely pay for with avoidable deaths.

But, hey, they got to eat in restaurants longer while we all sat at home, so that’s something.