Politics and COVID-19
I don’t care what political affiliation you have, no politician in the US or Canada has handled the COVID-19 situation in a way that can be deemed anything less than disastrous and incompetent. Initial mismanagement can be expected and forgiven. However, in the several months since this emerging threat became a pandemic, causing a chain reaction of poor decisions that brought the world to its knees, no state, province or federal government in the US or Canada has taken the necessary actions to gather the data and information we need to make fact-based positions.
Making matters far worse, media and popular communicators alike have endlessly scoured mountains of information in order to find tidbits that serve their own confirmation bias. Despite emerging information that should give the dichotomous and binary positions portrayed by communicators and the media pause to reconsider, as time goes on, both sides have dug their heels into the ground, unwilling to waver. Unfortunately, this trend is not particularly shocking, as we as humans often show a tendency to reduce every subject into a black and white narrative, forcing most people to “pick a side,” leading to the dehumanization of the other side and lack of any ability to see their point of view. Balanced, thoughtful news that depicts the uncertainties in both the facts and our decisions does not make for “good news,” as the majority wants to be spoon-fed their position and beliefs in a simple, clear way. I could whinge all day about how our education is not designed to teach us critical and analytical thinking skills and will do so in other blogs, but today is not the time or place.
COVID-19 is NOT “Just the Flu”
One common position being put out is that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu. As I detailed last week, while COVID-19 is nowhere near the threat that the case fatality rate (CFR) makes it seem, on the best low-end estimate I can reasonably make on the true infection fatality rate (IFR) combined with it being more infectious than the flu with no available vaccine, the death rate would likely eclipse that of the worst flu season in the last 10 years by a factor of 10, and in a shorter period of time.
This position arises from a common logical fallacy, in which people tend to think, “we were misled into thinking it was this massive threat, and that information is showing to be incorrect, ergo it is not a threat at all.” This logic does not follow. Just because our position is changing on the extent of the threat, does not mean it is not a threat at all. I want to assure readers, COVID-19 is a threat. Influenza is a threat that causes a massive burden on our healthcare system and economy. We have become complacent with influenza, and because it is a yearly occurrence, tend to view it as no threat. It is certainly a threat, particularly to infants and the elderly. Many who carry the position of indifference regarding influenza are succumbing to the familiarity heuristic in regard to COVID-19, in so much as similarities between the two infectious diseases lead to a preposterous downgrading of the threat to be nonexistent. “Since I am not worried about the flu, and this data suggests COVID-19 is only a bit more fatal than the flu, I should have no worries about COVID-19”. This is an error in logic for both previously mentioned reasons, and another I have brought up repeatedly in past blogs. COVID-19 is far more serious and dangerous than the flu, due to it being more contagious and more deadly by at least a factor of 50-100%. The flu is a serious concern that causes a tremendous burden, AND this is “in addition to”, not “instead of” other diseases, significantly amplifying the concern of overwhelming the capacity of our healthcare systems.
Social Distancing Is Working for the Stated Goal, Therefore, the Strategy Is the Correct One
The other side of the narrative is that because social distancing has flattened the curve, which was the initial goal, the actions were proven to be the correct ones. This is another logical fallacy, in which because a task was successful at achieving the stated goal, it is assumed that the result was beneficial. We need to be asking the hard questions, namely how do we weigh the damages against the lives that are being saved. I discussed this last week, and in just another week, more information has become available.
Social distancing was the right move in early March, when jurisdictions in North America started enacting measures. It was the right move for several reasons:
- We had a dearth of information on the true IFR. We had to assume and plan for worst-case scenarios.
- Governments in the US and Canada dropped the ball regarding containment efforts.
- Governments in the US and Canada completely dropped the ball at enacting widespread testing for COVID-19, meaning we had no idea about how widespread the virus was.
There wasn’t anything we could do about the first reason, however, the second and third reasons were completely botched by the Canadian and US federal governments in varying capacities. Trump supporters love to cite that he acted first, despite condemnation from the left and the WHO, by shutting down travel to China. This would have been a sensible move, if anything was done in regard to figuring out the situation with the (possible) slowdown of transmission from this decision. In reality, the US federal government actively prevented actions to be taken to assess the extent of the viral spread. Researchers in Washington state were determining community spread, defying CDC and FDA orders to cease and desist COVID-19 testing, while Trump was saying in this exact timeframe to “stay calm it will go away.” What was he basing this off? No data, that is for sure, while departments within the federal government actively prevented researchers from gathering desperately needed information.
Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau was quoting at this time that travel bans were knee-jerk reactions that would not stop the spread of COVID-19, and that Canada had “no plans to enact any travel bans.” Just days later, he instituted travel bans. Not only did Trudeau not take any precautionary measures in terms of shutting down travel from countries with high rates of infection, various Canadian jurisdictions, including the federal government or the provincial government in BC, where the first outbreak began, made no efforts in widescale testing to determine the extent of the spread.
The shutdown was needed, but squandered. During the first weeks of the shutdown, governments should have utilized the woefully inadequate amounts of tests to conduct large-scale randomized testing of the population to determine the extent of how many were infected (antibody testing was not yet available). We now know that people were dying in Santa Clara county, California, as early as February 6th, meaning the virus was spreading by mid-January, and possibly a couple of weeks earlier in Washington state. One Italian town tested the entire population of 3,000 people in early March, finding 3% were currently infected. Championing this strategy is not “hindsight,” it was done elsewhere, called for at the time, and our governments failed to enact it, either in the USA or Canada.
So basically, our various governments, regardless of party or nation, failed us in the first steps of containment and risk assessment. Then they failed us on taking action once “the cat was out of the bag,” and now, they are failing us in regard to assessing the true risk in any balanced and reasonable way and forming plans of action to best respond. We should be outraged, and not just at any one person or party, but at both sides of our binary system. We should also be outraged at the media. Our system, designed to pit two sides against each other, is to blame for this catastrophe.
As I previously discussed, the Santa Clara antibody testing results showed results that are impossible for areas such as New York. There have been many criticisms of this pre-press paper, however, in the last two weeks, pre-publication results of two more antibody studies in the US have also indicated that far more have been infected than we know about. In LA county, researchers from the University of Southern California (USC) determined that 2.8-5.6% of the county’s adult population had had the virus, which is 221,000-442,000 people and 28-55 times higher than the confirmed cases. This, again, would bring the infection mortality rate down towards the 0.1-0.2 range, although deaths not attributed to COVID-19 could alter this projection, perhaps by up to 40%. A suburb of Boston, Chelsea, MA, with the highest confirmed infection rate in the state, determined that 32% of the population in that town had antibodies, by randomly sampling 200 people on a street corner (although there is significant criticism of this random sampling and small population size). This would indicate that 12,851 people in the town had had the virus at the time of sampling, and the confirmed cases in this time frame were only 712, 1/28th of the antibody estimates from the survey. I was unable to find the CFR for this small town at the time of the survey/study, but extrapolating from Massachusett’s CFR, which is around 5%, this would indicate only 35 deaths in Chelsea. Considering 16 are dead as of April 20th (5 days after) from one retirement home in Chelsea, I would predict the CFR for this town would be higher, even double. This would suggest an IFR of 0.18- 0.36%. Yet another antibody study just came out literally as I am writing this, on April 23rd, from New York state. The results of 3,000 people randomly tested across 19 counties showed that an estimated 21.2% of the state have been infected. This indicates bout 4.1 million New Yorkers have already been infected, and hints at an IFR of just below 0.4%. As I said last week, it is very possible that IFRs may start at 0.1-0.2% and rise to 0.4% or more as hospital systems become overwhelmed. Another antibody study in 760 people in Geneva found that only 5.5% of the population had been infected, indicating an IFR of about 0.7%. Unfortunately, the sources I have been able to find have not indicated the randomization process or what test was used, and the link to the study release is in French. I am hesitant to trust this study to be accurate, as it is much higher than the CFR in countries like Iceland that have tested large segments of the population for the virus, but not randomly.
Lack of proper randomization in sampling and potential false positives and negatives in the tests (of which the exact accuracy is widely debated) means that none of these antibody studies can be taken as completely accurate. That said, they all point to the fact that the virus has infected far more people than we know, and that the IFR is at least an order of magnitude lower- likely somewhere between 0.1 and 0.4% (I estimated 0.2% last week). Many leading experts have stated that if the virus was spreading for months, we would have known about it, yet the evidence suggests it was spreading at latest since early January in the US without us knowing, weeks before the first confirmed case. It is not unbelievable to think that cases could have started in December, as millions flew in and out of Wuhan during this time. Deaths and cases, which would have started as a trickle, could have been falsely attributed to the flu, and may have been contributing to what has been a particularly deadly flu season. Only more autopsies going back further will show if this is the case, the results (if true) serving only to bolster the antibody testing data.
To reiterate again, even with this new data, COVID-19 is very, very serious. This new data does not mean the entire pandemic was a “hoax,” a position many are trumpeting. It simply means we need to re-evaluate our plan moving forward; something many are unwilling to acknowledge. As I discussed last week, the long-term implications of our actions could very well lead to far more deaths, and shortening of lifespans, than what we are saving. Data out of England and Wales suggests that for every COVID-19 death, there is also a rise at a rate of 1 in 3 for deaths from other causes above historical data. It is not unreasonable to think that the social isolation, stress, and abrupt lifestyle changes have contributed to this, in addition to people being hesitant or unwilling to go to the hospital for non-COVID-19 related issues. On top of this, it is projected that disruptions to the supply chain will double the amount of people in the world facing a food crisis or at immediate risk of starvation, bringing the total from 135 million to a projected 265 million by the end of 2020. These are real, immediate deaths we need to consider, on top of the indirect issues the shutdown will bring about in creating human suffering, death, and shortening life span, such as decreased health and fitness, decreased mental health, and increased crime due to poverty.
So, what is the solution? COVID-19 is serious and will create a tremendous burden, but our actions could very well be far more disastrous than the worst outcome the virus could have brought. First, we need to hold the media and politicians accountable for slandering and distorting the facts around any nation that defies the narrative. Sweden, infamously to most, opted for very lax social distancing measures and only advised isolation for the sick and the elderly, with the measures for the healthy coming in to play much later than other nations. Both politicians and the media from the left and right have decried their actions and mocked them as foolish. Articles have been written about “Sweden’s failed plan,” with many popular sites, bloggers, and communicators treating their plan with utter contempt. The big criticism on Sweden’s results? The death rate is far higher than other countries in Scandinavia. This falsely presumes that Sweden’s goal was to maximize the amount of lives saved from COVID-19. This is clearly not the case, with their goal being to act in order to preserve as much as possible, allowing the nation to come out in better shape than their neighbours. Sweden’s CFR also is far less of an issue than many would have you believe, as they have not conducted nearly as much testing as their neighbours. If you correct their death rate for tests per population, it is only about 30% higher than Norway and 20% higher than Denmark.
What does Sweden think about how their plan is playing out? They think it has been a success, and has proven to be effective, with cases and deaths plateauing despite the relaxed measures. During this time, Sweden has left schools, restaurants, cafes, and gyms open during the pandemic, simply encouraging citizens to act responsibly and follow social distancing procedures. Swedes are seeing the results, and the ruling party’s approval rating has soared. This type of solution is needed urgently in North America. We need to continue certain measures. I believe it should be temporary law to require retail outlets and public places to disinfect surfaces, such as grocery store carts. Businesses should still be required to keep social distancing practices in place, unless employees have had the virus and are now immune. The elderly and those at high risk should continue to isolate, and we should continue to support them in this way. We need to continue some measures, but we desperately need to relax others and get people back to work. Not only for the impact this will have for years and decades, but to save lives. If we don’t, we are committing to this for another 12-18 months, and the longer this drags on, the worse the devastation will be. We need to continue building up herd immunity, while working to function as a society and putting in reasonable practices to protect the most vulnerable.
Sweden is, in effect, an entire nation acting as a control group in order to determine the effect of the “treatment”, i.e. the plans put in force by other nations. This is great from a scientific standing, terrible from a political one. Those putting the “treatments” in place have significant reason to want to make sure their actions were perceived as the right ones. Unfortunately, Sweden’s plan is a slap in the face for other nations, politicians, and experts, and we cannot expect a jump to action on following suit. For any politician or government appointed medical expert or epidemiologist to admit that Sweden’s plan worked, is to admit that they failed us and contributed to this chaos due to fear, incompetence, and inaction. We can expect to see the “plans” continue, with potential slight alterations, so that those making the plans can save face. Unfortunately, chaos breeds opportunity, and those in charge tend to be opportunists.
Politicians Capitalizing on the Pandemic
Both Canada and the US’ leaders have used this pandemic to bolster their own careers, crafting decisions that fit their own politics. Trudeau has made sure to announce relief fund after relief fund, making sure not to skip over areas where he know he will get support from his base, such as a 9 billion relief fund for students that can’t find summer work, and 300 million dedicated to Indigenous-owned small- and medium- sized businesses, because apparently a pandemic affecting everyone is a good opportunity to give the Indigenous people extra. This isn’t a debate about the wrongs committed against Canada’s indigenous people, and the shortcomings in the actions and reactions taken for decades to address it. I could write a series on this topic alone. It is a criticism at seizing this opportunity to show that he, Justin Trudeau, cares about Indigenous people.
South of the border, Donald Trump has taken such actions as slowing down the distribution of relief checks to ensure his name and signature were on them, undoubtedly coming at an extra cost to the nation. Further, the federal government relief funds have disproportionately aided large corporations, with little relief coming to small- and medium-sized businesses, with an additional relief package being crafted to help small businesses after widespread criticism. Trump has also contemplated tax cuts which include decreasing capital gains tax, something that will not assist the majority of those suffering financially from COVID-19. The pandemic is seeing a disproportionate effect on small- and medium-sized businesses, which are being absolutely crushed, while many large corporations are unscathed and even expanding operations. Policies like this is how you get an oligarchy, for those that don’t believe the US is already one.
The big question is, how much relief should be given? There are risks regarding plunging a nation into debt or printing more currency to devalue a nation’s dollar relative to its’ neighbours. I mused on Facebook March 20th
“Printing currency doesn’t work as it creates rapid inflation. This is true because each nation's currency is relative to their neighbors and trading partners in a global economy. This pandemic is affecting the entire planet. The UN should step up and do something useful; determine a set amount of currency each government can print for their nation, as relief, so that each economy and the savings of individuals and corporations remain intact relative to the start of the pandemic. This should be pursued as an option rather than accruing debt, which can never be repaid, to the central banks.”
Of course, the UN doesn’t have this authority, but they could certainly put a small committee together to ascertain how much aid each country needs, and recommend what each government should print. This would leave it up to each nation to participate in a goodwill manner, which is something that may as well be fantasy. There will always be politicians that will go against what is recommended, to give their nation an upper hand, meaning it is unlikely this type of suggestion could even be initially agreed upon.
COVID-19 is serious, but our solutions have been severely lacking. Politics and self-serving bias from those in charge, regardless of which party or affiliation, has formed much of the narratives going on with the current pandemic, creating binary positions that are not rooted in fact, nor the public’s best interest. Politicians and the media are always a cause for concern, however, during this pandemic, the fear, uncertainty, and daily changes to decisions has created a warped scenario in which the messaging is much further from reality than under normal situations. We need to hold those in charge, both for policies and communication to the public, accountable. The media has failed us in keeping our politicians accountable, as they distort positions to support their favoured party. We must criticize those we support to a greater degree than those we disagree with. Without holding those we support to the same standards as those we criticize, we cannot hold them accountable and they will eventually betray us. That is if we are even paying attention enough to know they are betraying us.