Coronavirus: A Principled Response

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.

How the Coronavirus Changed the World

The title of this post might seem premature, to say the least. As I pen this post (13 march originally) there are 137,445 reported cases and 5088 deaths. On the grand scale, this is a drop in the bucket. The US has barely been touched, with only 1268 cases reported.

Despite that, we can already see, sense perhaps, that this is something more. Perhaps not because of the virus specifically. Mankind has faced such before. On a philosophical level, many people know that when presented with something like a new disease, the best thing to do it be smart and carry on.  But we are not simply carrying on, and that fact, not the virus itself, will be the catalyst for change. Something is off and has been off, for some time in Western Civilization. It is hard to define in a few words - trust, reason or an anchor and foundation might approach it best. Leaving aside the definition of what has been wrong in Postmodern Western Civilization, and accepting the premise that something exists, the current Coronavirus hysteria makes sense. What comes next, the ramifications make sense.

What Will Change?
  1. The 2020 Presidential election outcome has certainly changed. Unless something significant happens Trump has no chance of reelection. His words during his Oval Office address made historical and philosophical sense the other night - 'these things happen, we will hunker down and get through and take steps to keep the economy going'. In times past that would have been sufficient to calm fears, in 2020, in our new reality, it had no positive effect, people did not understand his words, the markets still panicked. The old way, solid wisdom from the past has no currency now. People will either come to see that an American First policy was right and needs to be implemented full-force - or they will see full-throated socialism as the answer.  It is Bernie or Trump, people simply will not choose a man like Biden, all things considered now (unless the Democratic party manipulates a choice that is somebody versus Trump and excludes Mao Bernie)

 

Scratch that - Trump has won reelection in the last three days (15-17 March). His press conferences have been measured, informative and reasonable. His administration's plan has been proactive, reactive, forward-thinking, innovative and creative. Partnering with industry, eliminating regulations to speed the delivery of medical supplies, data-focused response, various tools to save the economy. Only a fool could really throw rocks at this point (and such people would anyway). Biden (current Dem frontrunner) was in Pence's position when 13,000 Americans died of SARS with no response. The election is over. Trump's plan will get us out of this as long as Americans act responsibly. This was his crisis, and to the chagrin of his detractors, he rose to the occasion. 

2. Trust.  If people had a difficult time trusting anything they were told before after this is over they will trust even less. If 1.6 million Americans die and our hospitals are overwhelmed (worst case projection) people that were originally naysayers and believers alike will become convinced they were lied to. If it all passes with just a few thousand cases, naysayers will never believe an emergency (confirmation bias) and original diehard believers will distrust their preferred sources and outlets. Either way, we come out of this trusting everything less, believing almost nothing and basically becoming more nihilist. Unless...we look at some of the flawed premises that supported postmodernism and our culture prior to Cornavirus and find the foundation and anchor that was missing.

2. How we shop. If things get really bad and supply chains are strained or broken, people will question the current global economy. If things become just a little stressed and more people are sent home to telework, many will turn to online shopping for groceries. In the first instance, coming out of this, people may demand the government do more to return key industries to their own nations (food and medical supplies). In the second, milder scenario, people may find they really like having groceries delivered. This could almost kill the local supermarket.

3. How we worship. (or if we worship). Many churches will be canceling in-person services in the next weeks. Many of those will offer online service formats. Some people will become enamored with the idea. On the other side of this, churches may find fewer people in seats, opting for online viewing instead. Long-term, without the ties of in-person community relationships, online worship arrangements will invariably fail to maintain interest. Fewer people may actually attend church in any form after this is over. Conversely, this could spark America's fifth great Awakening. Old stale denominations and structures might change or fade away and something new and real, or perhaps revitalized, might replace them.

4. Our demographics. If the virus is anywhere close to the worst-case projections it will decimate the older populations. The Silent Generation and Boomers will die disproportionately.  Such a demographic change will affect the markets, government expenditures, how companies market products, and even the vacation industry. It will fundamentally, and quickly change many things.

5. Our view of government. China, apparently did a pretty good job of controlling Coronavirus. They mobilized armies of workers, built hospitals from scratch, sent armed groups to drag suspected infected from homes and perhaps even build temporary crematoria (unconfirmed). Those are the sorts of things a totalitarian government is good at, all of those actions can only occur in a nation where the government has a lot of control and the people few rights. If all of this goes south in the West, many people will wonder why their government did not act as effectively as China. Some people will long for totalitarianism. Others, the wiser among us, will realize we have come to rely upon government too much for many things. This could change us into dystopian totalitarianism of return us to our individualistic roots.

6. Working from home. With massive levels of telework going on one of two things will happen. 1) people will come to view the corporate management model for what it is, a stupid prison. Companies may come to see the savings and benefits of remote employees. OR 2) humans being human, many will mess up this opportunity, and not work and corporate pea brains will assume they were right from the beginning, instead of admitting that perhaps they have hired the wrong people.

7. Online school. With all major universities transitioning to online learning for the rest of the semester students might just begin to wonder why they are going in debt and paying outrageous tuition, rent, and fees for the privilege of sitting in a room with someone that really does not teach them much anyway. This might just bust the entire education bubble.

8. Cynicism. If nothing really comes of the Coronavirus but a few thousand infected and some 'old people dying', many people will become entrenched in their cynicism. If there is ever a truly deadly, population destroying germ to emerge in their lifetime, they will simply blow it off and not act. In a way, Coronavirus might be preparing mankind for just that sort of stupidity. If it is very bad, worst-case scenario situation, many may adopt a 'ring around the roses' attitude - we all fall down. Conversely, we could come to see the ineptitude and dishonesty of institutions like the media and rebuke them and cause something better to emerge.

Those nine effects are almost guaranteed, depending upon the severity or lack thereof in each element.

Right now, 13 March 2020, only some areas in America are experiencing anything close to a 'run on the stores'.  Over the next few days, we will begin to see the picture better as cases pop up in areas where people are basically non-plussed at present. What all that means and how people act, and what they start saying they want the government to do will determine other elements that might signal real and permanent change. I will add those as the situation unfolds.

My daughter and I have toyed around in various discussions with the Strauss-Howe Fourth Turning generational theory. She commented to me "might this be the crisis that they spoke about that changes everything for my generation?" (she is a Zoomer) ---Yes darling, it perhaps could be, this could change many things - perhaps almost everything.

15 March 2020 Update: The Trump administration today in a press conference demonstrated innovation and creativity, partnering with industry and by-passing the ineffective CDC to expedite testing. Man does not control nature, and no matter how loudly some scream for government to fix this the simple fact is governments cannot control everything, nor should they try. Asking for too much, in a panicked rush will only have negative long-term costs to freedom and prosperity. This may all become terrible, it may just be an annoyance, either way, we must endeavor to persevere and retain our values and principles.

Something of note, Italy's mortality rate is at 7.3 percent as of today. That is outrageously high. These numbers throw all sorts of doubt on the numbers that China reported. Those 'fake news' sites that reported crematoria and smog from the smoke they produced in Wuhan perhaps deserve a second look. Did we ever really believe we could trust much of anything China released about their outbreak? All we know for sure is it was very serious in China, serious enough for them to shut down an entire industrial region and cordon off millions of people. I am not suggesting the situation in Italy will repeat elsewhere, but it is within the realm of possibility. It is worth considering if you are still on the fence thinking life can go on as before right now. Take steps to take care of your loved ones!

I have noticed some 'conservatives' trending progressive and calling out Trump for 'not doing more'. Do more like what? Do you want the Federal government to send armed groups into homes to drag people out or lockdown entire cities like China or nationalize industries perhaps? We are Americans, we have different principles to uphold. We need to do all we should but we cannot become something we are not, and should not want to be, just based upon fear. We need to be reasonable, cautious and stalwart and weather this like free-men!

Also, the Google built website that the Trump administration promised and the regular news outlets called a hoax went live today. https://www.projectbaseline.com/study/covid-19/. We really cannot trust any of the news companies in the US to be truthful, perhaps this situation will finally make that clear to all.

Sitting on the Pin of a Needle

Back in early February, when Coronavirus was still a ‘joke’ to many on the internet I suggested that there was something more to Coronavirus than the narrative painted by Western media. Only crazy people were talking about a global pandemic or that this thing, while not a world-ending event, might affect us all. Not true today, what we see now are several weaknesses in our system.

Tucker Carlson was spot on tonight about this, watch the video.

Sitting with a friend at lunch recently, he mentioned that he had read my February post and offered an alternative theory. In February, I suggested this version of Coronavirus came from a failure to contain work at a lab in Wuhan. Much more evidence has emerged since to support that conclusion. My friend suggested that the Chinese did this intentionally.

I am not prone to believe complicated explanations for things, not when simple solutions suffice. However, one cannot dismiss the possibility. Consider if you will the infection and mortality rates reported in China compared to rates in Italy. The Italian percentages are off the chart higher. Consider China’s threats today concerning tariffs on medical supplies. One could work out a scenario where China did this intentionally, they were prepared and capable of dealing with it internally and knew the world would turn to them in the aftermath for supplies. It could have been a strategy to break US tariffs against China. It is an evil notion, but plausible.

If we dismiss the intentionality of all this we are still left with a few facts.

  • Globalization of the economy has resulted in us being dependent upon another nation for an entire sector of goods.
  • As I mentioned in February, something that has become apparent since, the government reaction was slow.
  • As we are now seeing, if this was ‘the big one’ our system is pretty fragile.
  • Businesses and organizations are not your friends – places that can facilitate telework ought to be doing so but most are not. Cities ought to be canceling large gatherings but most are not. Sports events should be modified (Master’s and March Madness looking at you) but the almighty dollar prevails – shame on the decision-makers!

I see the memes, all the fear, all the worry over the last several decades. In some way, this all feels just like another news cycle, a SARS redux. We know instinctively it will not end civilization as we know it – but it has shown a light on just how fragile and weak the veil separating our comfortable lives from chaos really is.

Before the virus has really even gotten started it has negatively affected the economy. The stock market plunge today was far worse than the pretty significant event a couple of weeks ago. Real people have lost a lot of real money that will not magically reappear for a while. This will have a significant ripple effect.

Have you been on Amazon lately? Things are different. This is just the beginning.

Don’t take me wrong. This is not TEOTWAWKI. However, people will die, the economy will take a hit and Americans for the first time in decades are about to see first hand what it means not to be able to buy certain products. Coronavirus is a small thing relatively – imagine if this had been more infectious and more deadly.

We sit perched precariously on the pin of a needle. We do not realize it because life seems so comfortable and things seem so plentiful. Take away some of that excess, security and comfort and add a little fear, desperation and anxiety and civilization begins to look a lot less civil.

Don’t go crazy, but I think we all need to take some steps now to ensure we can take care of our own in the coming days and perhaps learn something from this – what if this had been much worse, what would we do to take care of our loved ones?

Stay home if you can, work from home if you can, watch church on the internet, don’t shake hands and buy extra groceries. And, through it all, look and realize what this small thing is about to do to civilization as we know it – the effect. Things fall apart!

Read Rod Dreher’s piece. I have been wrong often about Dreher, he is spot on here.

Existential Risks and Biotechnology

Yeah, I do not believe in coincidences!

Apparently, Twitter just banned Zero Hedge for proposing a Coronavirus theory similar to what Josh Clark talks about in episode # six of his podcast The End of the World – gain of function biotechnology laboratory research.

I wall say it, it is too early in the news cycle to be taken seriously, I may be termed a conspiracy guy. But based upon legitimate open-source info, this smells like an engineered phenomenon, an accident, but man-made.

The internet is abuzz with all sorts of false information about Coronavirus, perhaps from official and fringe sources alike. Zero Hedge certainly qualifies as an outlet on the fringe. Whether than makes them always wrong, I cannot say. Josh Clark is certainly not always correct in his treatment of the issue in his podcast linked below – but he raises curious facts.

See below why you ought to listen
The End Of The World with Josh Clark

I admit that is a pretty catchy title. So catchy that when my wife and I were on a road trip a few weeks back she voted a hard ‘no’ when I suggested we listen to it. However, it is perhaps not what she assumed it to be. Josh begins with the question, if there are billions of stars and millions and millions of planets in the universe, statistically, many of them should have produced life and some of that intelligent life. If the scientific answer regarding the formation and timeline of the universe is correct, we simply should already be aware of other life.

Unless life is so unique it exists only here (God? or some scientific reason that makes life statistically improbable?) I could personally accept that God made life unique, but let’s stick in the realm of how a scientist might answer this apparent problem or paradox in their theories.

Josh does a good job of explaining the paradox

Science might attempt to answer this paradox by stating 1) life is hard to form, or, 2) life is easy to develop but also easy to eliminate, or, 3) life is easy to develop, but intelligent life is difficult to sustain.

Item number one would place Earth in some improbable cosmological lottery, if life is so hard to form that it has only formed here, among all the possible other options, it makes us a statistical anomaly (or designed by God).

If life is easy to develop but also easy to eliminate through various disasters, then why are we here and still do not see anyone else? Why did we and nobody else, out of millions and millions of possibilities, make it? This would mean, again, Earth and humanity are winners of a cosmological lottery (or God).

If number three is correct, this assumes there was nothing particularly improbable about us getting to this stage of history and development, yet we look around and do not see anyone else. Why? Josh describes the answer as the great filter, a set of problems that intelligent life would have to navigate to exist much past us and our level of development.

Just look around as some of the technology that we are only beginning to play with, even though we only dimly understand it; AI, biotechnology, physics experiments at the quantum level, etc. Passing the great filter, in this sense, is a civilization learning to both create and control AI without creating the terminator. To master bioengineered food, drugs, and germs without accidentally releasing an extinction-level pandemic. And finally to master physics at the quantum level without blowing up the world. All of those dangers are perhaps low probability, but at the extreme, they are highly dangerous, as they potentially end civilization.

The great filter then is this set of challenges a civilization has to solve as they become just smart enough to play with the ‘fire’ but not yet wise enough to fully understand it.

More on the Great Filter

So what does this have to do with coronavirus? As Josh points out biotech laboratories are all over the world. Several years ago many of these labs began gain of function research. Essentially this is the process of speeding up the development of viruses by stimulating the artificial selection of some of the most horrendous traits. This can result in a much more lethal, more contagious and more resilient virus. Many scientists view this as a way to get ahead of bad germs so that we might be able to fight them if they appear in the wild.

Of course, Josh also points out that the numerous ‘high containment’ labs around the world have a pretty poor history of containing the bad stuff inside. He suggests the great filter might consist of one of these Franken-viruses escaping from a lab and decimating the population.

Two points are interesting, the sheer number of these labs around the world doing this sort of research and the number of mistakes that have been documented to occur.

Zero Hedge was banned from Twitter because of an article they posted, suggesting that Coronovirus originated in just such a lab in Wuhan China. They listed the lab and the lead scientist from that lab. We will perhaps never know if this is exactly what occurred but based upon the track record of such labs and the sort of gain of function research routinely going on; it is possible. Worth discussing for those with a dog in the fight.

Coronavirus certainly does not seem to present an existential risk to mankind. Not in its present form. It does not seem lethal enough and it does not spread fast enough. It could perhaps end up being bad, or it might burn itself out. But it does not seem to be a civilization killer.

What is interesting about this whole situation is just how slow the world has reacted. Last Friday when the State Department announced real travel restrictions, the doctors they brought out said essentially, ‘at first we did not know infected individuals could be asymptomatic and infectious, now we do”. We are now three or four weeks into the outbreak, and nations are just now taking anything close to real action. If this were the sort of virus that could end, or severely depopulate mankind, we would be far too late in reacting.

If the great filter is a real thing, if biotech labs are as inept at maintaining containment as Josh points out, then we seem rather unprepared when a serious virus escapes one day.

Public policy guys need to consult somebody (philosophers and theologians) to help guide scientists in these efforts. Big money throwing cash at mad scientist without wise people thinking past stage one is dangerous.