Insanarchy in the US

Have you heard of the coronavirus outbreak? Well, the US decided it’s not worth responding to, apparently.

In the race to provide the worst response to Covid, the US is headed for first place. Not even worldwide pandemics can stop American leadership from spinning the wheel of partisan nonsense. Politics have taken precedence [1] [2] over solutions, and ideological battle lines were drawn without proper regard for social distancing.

Let’s quickly examine the pointlessness of a handful of the current debates regarding this tenacious virus. Recently a lot has gone into discussing the impact of sending children back to school [3]. The proponents of this measure suggest the necessity of ongoing learning and bring up the inequalities related to at-home education which demonstrably deepens class inequalities [4]; alternatively they suggest that parents need to be able to leave their homes in order to work, something that’s not possible if children aren’t at school. Opponents of this position say that it’s too dangerous to let children return to school.

Somehow, this resulted in debates on whether children going to school in virus hotspots should wear masks; whether or not masks are effective; and whether or not children can transmit the virus. The prevalence of such debates across media outlets highlights a resounding and recurrent inability to look at responses to the virus from other countries and learn anything.

In short, taking the time to respond to these questions in any systematized or thorough manner (though, again, the experiences of Europe and Asia have pretty conclusively answered them already) [5] takes time away from actually managing the virus. The ability of children to transmit the virus wouldn’t matter if they weren’t exposed to it; the ability of masks to stop virus transmission wouldn’t matter if they weren’t the only safety measure being implemented; and whether or not children can transmit the virus is largely irrelevant, because other people are in a position to do so anyway.

All of this is the result of obsessive overfocus on data. In reality data should serve to guide the action that is taken; in America, data  instead serves to explain the impact of current inaction, then to dole out blame. Contextualisation is missing. Regardless of which Americans are dying, the people dying are clearly Americans. It follows that America should be dealing with it.

Another major issue is the focus on fatality. This is taking multiple forms: 1) the focus [6] on the number of dead; 2) the focus [7] on who is dying; and 3) the implied binary between dying of the virus and recovering with no symptoms or never having caught it at all. Untangling this nonsense is soberingly complicated: every aspect of Covid mis-think is interconnected to other bits of Covid mis-think. In addition, every aspect of Covid mis-think has multiple subcategories of mis-thought; it branches ever outward like some nightmarish nonsense tree. 

Let’s go down each of these paths.

First, focusing only on the death toll is ridiculous, almost as if keeping score. Focusing on the rate of death and spending endless amounts of time debating whether or not Covid is more deadly than the flu and how much more deadly is entirely unhelpful as well. It only serves to open the door to whataboutism, and doesn’t take away from the fact that the coronavirus pandemic is happening right now. Not to mention, any avoidable death that happens because we didn’t take the virus seriously or decided to wonder whether we were responding to other outbreaks appropriately is a tragedy. The amount of people who manage to forget this is unbelievable.

Then there’s the question of who’s dying. Implicitly, even considering this is a value judgment, because whatever the conclusion, it results in wondering “can we afford for these people to die?”. Not only is this a horrible question, and beside the actual point of “some people will die no matter what”, it’s also a way of categorizing away the virus and making demographics that aren’t as badly affected feel invincible. This is what drives events such as massive beach attendance [8] and anti-lockdown protests [9]. This is a misunderstanding of how statistics works based on people’s inability to undertake the “calculation” part of “calculated risk”; it’s a cold comfort to die knowing that you’re not in the most heavily-afflicted demographic.

Finally, focusing on death to the exclusion of anything else fails to reckon with the many other ways the virus is affecting the country. While there are clearly asymptomatic cases, being infected with the virus is, by all accounts, utterly debilitating, even for the young and the healthy [10]. Furthermore, unlike the flu, coronavirus lasts around a month [11]: even if we discount the deaths, the impact of such a contagious virus would already negatively impact the economy by making huge amounts of people unable to work for weeks at a time.

And the above estimate is only for cases classified as “mild”. For those whose battle with the virus in cases deemed serious or critical, there’s the additional issue of availability of material. This is where demographics once again stop mattering in individual cases: there are only so many ventilators to go around, and there’s only so much space in hospitals. If you need access to these facilities and they’re already at full capacity, you’re likely to die [12].

Then there’s what happens after supposed recovery from Covid, i.e. the one situation for which the lack of information actually is a major issue that requires immediate investigation. As of yet, we have no systematized knowledge of the long term impact of Covid on Covid survivors. There is reason to believe that the formerly infected can suffer from the effects of coronavirus [13] well after they’ve beaten their illness; in fact; multiple cases are showing significant post-viral organ damage [14], permanently reduced lung capacity [15], or long term impairment to the ability to focus [16]. All of the above symptoms have the potential to seriously harm the world economy, to say nothing of individual livelihoods. Worse yet, the possibility of reinfection has yet to be conclusively ruled out [17].

None of the above is being discussed in any sort of detail. Instead, this week focused partially on the first canine death related to Covid-19 [18]. Which, to be clear, could have been avoided with a more effective lockdown. 

The US has true structural advantages in dealing with the coronavirus: a free, decentralized government has the ability to respond to nebulous threats as they arise instead of being trapped in chain-of-command issues; a proactive federal response lends greater weight to states’ actions. The low population density and hyperfocus on cars as the main method for transportation give individuals the means to isolate themselves effectively without too much of an impact on quality of life; a robust (if expensive) medical system has the capacity to handle significant viral surges.

In the end, all of these advantages were squandered by squabbling, partisanship, and presidential madness. Instead of looking at a problem and solving it (we have a leaky pipe, let’s call the plumber), the US has largely explained away the problem, making it a consequence of the persons who should have been working to fix it (we have a leaky pipe, let’s call the plumber a fascist) [19]. The coronavirus is portrayed as an uncontrollable malevolent entity that can’t be stopped [20]. As a result, the implicit focus has been living with the virus instead of eliminating the virus. This resulted in a worst-of-all-worlds scenario where half-measures are taken (semi-lockdowns inconsistently applied across state lines) [21] and then reversed before the problem was even close to being solved. Whether you believe that the federal government or the state governments should have led the response to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s clear that the response has been dirt poor.

Coronavirus must be handled with the degree of seriousness such a threat warrants. And frankly, the US is still not taking it seriously.

1. Grace Segers, “What’s in the House Democrats’ $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill?”, CBSNews, May 15 2020
2. Jacob Pramuk, “Senate GOP unveils coronavirus relief plan with 70% wage replacement in unemployment insurance”, CNBC, July 27 2020
3. Eleanor Aspegren, “Back-to-school reopening plans have few details on how many COVID-19 cases would close schools”, USA Today, July 19 2020
4. Valerie Strauss, “How covid-19 has laid bare the vast inequities in U.S. public education”, The Washington Post, April 14 2020
5. Changyong Ree and Poul Thompson, “Emerging from the Great Lockdown in Asia and Europe”, IMFBlog, May 12 2020
6. Tom McCarthy, “US public increasingly skeptical of Covid-19 death toll, poll finds”, The Guardian, July 21 2020
7. Whet Moser, “Why Changing COVID-19 Demographics in the US Make Death Trends Harder to Understand”, The COVID Tracking Report, June 26 2020
8. Sam Levin and Vivian Ho, “Thousands of people pack California beaches despite coronavirus concerns”, The Guardian, 27 April 2020
9. David Crow and Patti Waldmeir, “US anti-lockdown protests: ‘If you are paranoid about getting sick, just don’t go out’”, The Financial Times, April 22 2020
10. Matthew Rozsa, “CDC warns many young adults with COVID-19 report severe long-term side effects”, Salon, July 27 2020
11. Reviewed by Liza Maragakis, “Coronavirus Diagnosis: What Should I Expect?”, Johns Hopkins Medicine
12. Abigail Beall, “The heart-wrenching choice of who lives and dies”, BBC, April 29 2020
13. Jennifer Gershman, “Patients May Continue Experiencing COVID-19 Symptoms After Infection Recovery”, July 14 2020
14. John Sperati, “Coronavirus: Kidney Damage Caused by COVID-19”, Johns Hopkins Medicine
15. Jim Reed and Sophie Hutchinson, “Coronavirus: Warning thousands could be left with lung damage”, BBC, June 23 2020
16. Anna Medaris Miller, “Coronavirus survivors share their experiences with delirium, brain fog, and memory issues”, Business Insider, July 9 2020
17. Caroline Johnson and Ariana Eunjung Cha, “Can you get coronavirus twice? Doctors are unsure, even as anecdotal reports mount”, The Washington Post, July 23 2020
18. Natasha Daly, “Exclusive: Buddy, first dog to test positive for COVID-19 in the U.S., has died”, National Geographic, July 29 2020
19. Jonathan Easley, “Biden: Trump’s coronavirus response has been ‘nakedly xenophobic'”, The Hill, May 18 2020
20. Scott Morefield, “We Can’t Stop Coronavirus, But We Can Limit the Damage We’re Doing to Ourselves”, Townhall, July 20 2020
21. Stephen Loiaconi, “Fauci says ‘diversity of response’ undermined US efforts to contain coronavirus”, Fox 11 News, July 31 2020

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