Coronavirus: A Principled Response

First Principles

A Philosophical Question

Last evening a new acquaintance, and perhaps someday a friend, responded to one of my Twitter posts with a question that has plagued me since watching the events in China back in January.

It's just not obvious to me. People die all the time from new virus mutations. It infects entire societies. Why this one? Is it because it stays on surfaces for prolonged period?

Indeed. How and why is this different than SARS, the influenza epidemic of 1957, the Spanish Flu of 1918-20 or the Black Death?

I do not know? President Trump's Oval Office speech on 11 March used words that if a President in 1940, 50 or 80 had uttered would have positively impacted the spirit of the nation.

From the beginning of time nations and people have faced unforeseen challenges, including large-scale and very dangerous health threats. This is the way it always was and always will be. It only matters how you respond...

Spot on, common-sense, robust words. Tough times come, troubles arise and brave nations and people rise up to meet the challenge. None of what Trump said mattered the markets tanked, the news media went into a frenzy of speculation and attack and Americans, in general, acted like idiots. We bought up toilet paper but did not take any steps to avoid crowds. By Sunday 15 March, many took things seriously, reaction, overreaction and panic were the norms.

But as Harrison Frey asked via Twitter - why is this different? What first principle are we applying? Essentially he is asking, what is the nature of this thing, this coronavirus event?

What is the Nature of the Thing

It is certainly hard to tell. We were told by 'experts' you could only get this if you were within three feet of someone coughing. Some people pushed a campaign of #StayCalmWashYourHands. I saw this locally from the folks in charge of AUMC. Washing one's hands is certainly sage advice, but did the 'experts' really understand the nature of the thing? So why the different information coming out now 'it lingers in the air and on cardboard boxes too'?  Did we not have enough information because China refused to let anyone in to observe what was going on? Is the virus mutating? Are our experts incompetent? Is it all three in combination or some other factor I have not considered? Is the virus as dangerous as it appears in Italy? Was it just as China depicted, or did they cover anything up? Is Iran being completely honest about their mortality rates? Why did so few people on crowded cruise ships contract it and so few die?

These are tough questions? Without answering them, it is difficult to approach the nature of the event by analyzing the virus itself. One thing is certain, it is no longer 'crack-pot' to at least wonder if Chinese bioengineering work in Wuhan had anything to do with this. Was it an accidental release? Is this mutating because it was bioengineered?

Of course many in the US are still hung up on what to call the virus, reporters that have the opportunity to ask serious questions that might inform the public waste their chance with ridiculous #ChinaVirus questions. Not the issue at hand, unimportant and detracts from the important conversations.

Perhaps this is the nature of the thing, not the virus, but the level of distrust, stupidity and triviality that infects the media, the Fourth Estate. Perhaps the ineptitude, bias, and dishonesty of the media (something no honest person can deny exists) have contributed to a general sense of cynicism, distrust, and fear in the population.  Perhaps when we couple this cynicism with our cultural decline (loss of faith, identity, unity, civility and ethics) and add-in selfishness, sloth, greed, laziness and overall weakness in American people generally - the true nature of this becomes clearer.

This is certainly not how the generation that faced the Great Depression or WWII acted, we know that as a fact. The Spanish Flu of 1918-20 did not cause this sort of fear and reaction and as far as we can tell the Black Death. As a fact, we know we, as people have changed - perhaps that is the nature of this thing.

Existential Risks and Biotechnology (post from February 2nd)

What First Principles Apply

My conversation with Harrison centered on first principles - what applies here. Is all life is invaluable and no life is invaluable; or to paraphrase Spock, do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Is the cost to the economy, and the suffering and death that will necessary? How deadly would this have been if normal controls were instituted?

These are solid philosophical questions - but not applicable. The United Kingdon considered implementing a plan where a portion of the least vulnerable would contract the disease and they would implement measures to protect those most likely to have serious complications. The theory being eventually the population would build up immunity and stop spreading the disease and the economy could carry on. Winston Churchhill could have briefed such a plan in 1941, you can essentially hear the words he would have used - they would differ only slightly from Trump's words on 9 March. But again, this is not 1941, people have changed, the zeitgeist has changed. The UK government quickly abandoned their herd immunity strategy. Britons it seems are not as stiff-lipped and stalwart as their ancestors. Neither are Americans.

Since it is impossible to implement any policy that measures the cost to life of overreaction versus underreaction, in our present culture, we must seek other first principles to apply. The only one I can envision fits at this point I propose is 'societal continuity' - the preservation of the structure necessary for safety and order. it is a bit more Platonic than I prefer, but in the absence of everything else, people expect the government to maintain order so that there is not a war of all against all.

Faced with a population that is more and more apt to turn to the government for solutions to problems individuals and communities should solve; a people that are weaker, less moral and less robust than past generations; a society filled with greed, laziness and unethical behavior in an environment where people cannot trust their news media and fear abounds - the government, state and Federal, has had no choice but to act drastically. Social continuity must be maintained, for the health and safety of all.

But This is America By God!

 

The government cannot just tell bars to close, limit alcohol or gun sales or institute a curfew, not here! Apparently, governments in New York, Ohio, California, Lousiana, and South Carolina disagree. We have seen mayor rush to limit gun sales (because that is proven to stop a virus) and now we are seeing curfews and shelter in place orders. By what authority you say? By the authority we as weak, selfish and lazy Americans have given them.

If you are upset with the reaction of the government and the fear and behavior of your local citizens, look at what you have done to stop the age of entitlement that proceeded this event. Look to the progressivism, socialism and weakness that has captured public policy and the politician of each party, that we have voted for over the years that have slowly grown government. This event is our penitence, not the virus, but our inability to weather it like brave and free men. We have done it and you and I over the years allowed the situation to develop. We have only ourselves to blame.

Author: Barry

Southerner, father, husband, Christian and a retired Army field grade officer. Author of five books and of several papers and articles on ethics, culture, history, geopolitics and military affairs. He is the Executive Director of The Calhoun Institute and a partner at B&B Clark Consulting.

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