Nature is beating the hell out of our pandemic response
Our Covid behaviors and policies are radical and excessive.
Even so, nature is thwarting us in three areas: masks, testing, and lockdowns.
We need to think more clearly and carefully about how to deal with the virus.
“Nothing happens until something moves. When something vibrates, the electrons of the entire universe resonate with it. Everything is connected.”
Albert Einstein, 1879–1955
The year 2020 has tested us as never before, forcing us to face a veritable mountain of uncertainties:
· Learning about a novel coronavirus while it ravaged our society,
· Getting up to speed on the unfamiliar science and practice of epidemiology,
· Tracking incredibly varied pandemic experiences around the world,
· Assessing the implications of public health and economic policies,
· Sorting out conflicting expert opinions and predictions,
· Discounting the political and emotional spin placed on Covid information,
· Navigating new social mores and customs that vary from day to day, and
· Having close up lessons in how our fellow citizens cope with personal anxiety and fear.
Even now, after so many months of this mental effort, we have still retained an interest in taking this vast body of information and applying it to two key questions:
Are we safe, and will this ever end?
I know that all of the people that I have listened to this year do not have complete answers to these questions. This truly remains a time of ignorance and uncertainty, proven by the cruel fact that the pandemic is still roaring on after so many months.
My overall take is that this is a reasonably serious pandemic, worse than average and worse than a bad flu season, but nothing like the Spanish Flu or a number of other truly frightening past outbreaks.
Our collective reaction, by contrast, is right off the charts, an unprecedented social crisis with ongoing elements of compulsion, shaming, and blaming that add an extremely unpleasant edge to this already disruptive time.
There can be no question that our behaviors and associated public policies are radical and excessive.
How else to explain the conscious decisions of billions of people to unnaturally avoid each other, disrupt our childrens’ educations, divert health resources from non-Covid care, wreck the livelihoods of millions of workers and small businesses, and support amassing trillions of dollars in future liabilities?
And how else can we explain why a risk that is de minimis for normal healthy people can morph into a perceived killer disease that requires widespread isolation, social restrictions, and the upending of civic freedoms and traditional customs?
That all of these horrid outcomes could happen, and at the same time enhance the popularity of most political leaders, is one of the truly perverse marvels of this year from hades. It is simply amazing to me that most people actually support warping our society this way in the name of saving it.
The mistaken extremism of this collective response is ultimately proven by its on-going failure to stop the virus.
If social distancing, masks, lockdowns, restrictions, and the like actually worked, then this pandemic would have ended months ago, since we have thrown literally everything at it: our time, attention, effort, resources, technology, institutions, and money.
Instead, nature is treating us to humanity’s greatest ever lesson in humility. Despite our heroic efforts, we have had no discernable impact on the spread of this virus. That we cannot understand or accept this simple fact only adds to the epic folly of our time.
So, there is a massive perceptual discrepancy between what we have done (our extreme reaction), what we think we have achieved (control over the virus), and what has actually happened (an unimpeded pandemic).
We think that we can assert control, but that viewpoint is utterly mistaken. The error is in our mental reckoning of the situation and it starts with fundamentally flawed assumptions in so many areas.
Let’s look at three in particular (masks, testing, and lockdowns) and see where basic natural facts fatally undermine our beliefs and behaviors.
Everyone seems to believe in the efficacy of wearing masks, to judge from the observation that nearly everyone wears one.
It is bad enough that all of the scientific studies prior to 2020 have been ignored to reach this conclusion, as their primary lesson is that masking a virus does not diminish its spread.
What is worse is that today’s more relevant data are also being ignored.
For example, the only recent large scale random controlled experiment (rare in the epidemiological area) shows that masks have no significant impact on Covid infection rates for the wearer.
The macro data are equally convincing, showing that culturally-equivalent places with mask requirements and higher mask usage (like the US and Europe) are no better, and usually worse, at controlling Covid than those without such restrictions (Nordic countries and Australia).
For me, it is even more basic. There are only two physical places that a virus can exist for those who are infected: in the body or exhaled in the breath.
Putting a mask in the way of breathing may stop some particles momentarily, but there is no evidence whatsoever that they, and the other tens of millions of exhaled virions, will not continue to circulate outside the body and potentially infect others.
After all, that is how viruses operate. It’s a matter of sheer numbers and the odds are massively against us. Nature has the upper hand.
Like masks, viral tests are very popular. Have a sniffle, scratchy throat, a bit of fatigue? Get a test. Millions do.
What those millions do not know, however, is that the common PCR Covid test is not fit for purpose.
It does not reveal whether a viral fragment is active or not, when it may have been active, whether the viral load is sufficient to cause a problem, the possibility of infection, the existence of any symptoms, or the possibility of further contagion.
It is simply a technique to replicate a sample of a person’s DNA until a viral fragment is identified. With 30 doubling cycles, this involves a billion times expansion, and at 40 doubling cycles, a trillion times expansion. Most PCR tests are in this range or higher.
While we assume that we are testing for the existence of a virus that is dangerous and contagious, what the PCR test actually does is to dig ever deeper into a haystack until we detect a viral fragment that simply signals its existence and nothing else.
What this means is that the very statistical basis of measuring this pandemic is corrupted.
We cannot trust the testing data, except in the very broadest sense when there is an exponential surge in the proportion of positive tests — and even then, we may be measuring the progress of population immunity rather than dangerous contagion.
And yet most places have mandatory quarantines for those testing, those found positive, and those chased down through contact tracing programs. The macro numbers are also used to decide the timing and magnitude of lockdowns and myriad restrictions at work, in public places, and even at home.
Seek and ye shall find. Nature provides the raw material in the form of viral fragments in our bodies, but the meaning we attach to that discovery is being misused and is turning our society upside down.
Lockdowns, now rebranded in many places as fire-breaks or circuit-breakers (to sweeten the bitter pill), are a common social control measure in 2020.
Never before have public authorities attempted to isolate entire healthy populations to prevent contagion. Quarantine has only ever been used to keep those with a serious disease away from the rest of a susceptible population.
In fact, standard pandemic policy prior to this year emphatically recommended against using lockdowns.
This whole-of-society experiment is probably the most radical policy instigated during this pandemic.
It has led directly to mass unemployment, business bankruptcies, debilitated public finances, and a suspension of civil rights to association, assembly, and movement.
Since isolating people from each other en masse seems to be exactly what is needed to break the chain of contagion, it is worth asking why the lockdown policy has failed.
One reason is the natural rise-and-fall of viral epidemics, expressed by Farr’s Law.
Lockdowns are not decided in social isolation according to public health considerations, but are very much political decisions. Political pressure builds up and declines as contagion naturally rises and falls, and so lockdown decisions actual follow the viral cycle rather than leading it.
Another reason is the stage in the pandemic when lockdowns are used.
In the early going, as in China, Taiwan, and New Zealand, there was simply little of the virus circulating and so strict isolation and quarantine could localize the contagion.
In other places, once the virus sunk its talons into more and more people, an always imperfect lockdown could not restrain the virus and ended up, at best, simply delaying the inevitable transmission.
A final factor is the interaction of the virus with the environment.
Cooler, drier, and less sunny places have had higher pandemic death rates and there is pronounced seasonality to viral contagion over time and between and within countries. Since almost every jurisdiction went into some form of strict lockdown, more variable environmental factors can better explain pandemic outcomes from one place to another.
Here again, we see that nature, in the guise of a virus driven to mass reproduce itself, has overpowered our most stringent public policies.
So, even though we think we are behind the wheel, it seems that nature is actually driving this pandemic.
There are, however, two places where we are free and clear of its pernicious grasp: our minds and our society.
We can choose to think clearly and carefully about how to deal with the virus.
That involves having an open discussion of the issues by taking account of all points of view, without engaging in slander and misrepresentation of unwelcome views.
It requires people to speak out so that we can have a full conversation, addressing every possibility and testing ideas and hypotheses in good faith.
Thinking deeper and longer will help, as it is noteworthy this year that so many people only seek out evidence that supports their already strongly held views. Society and nature are complicated and so we should not expect easy, obvious, and simple answers.
We need balance and proportion as well, so that we can assess inevitable trade-offs and come to reasonable policy decisions. We need to accept that there will always be unintended consequences, especially when we are attempting to affect the actions of everyone in society.
Finally, as public health officials are fond of saying, we should “be kind and be calm”. Respect for others is a necessary component in seeking out the truth of things and the way to do that is to actively listen, contemplate, and respond with affection and good humor.
Though we try and try to end this pandemic, it seems to me that it is mostly a fool’s errand. The result is that we have harmed far more people than the virus with our botched and excessive response.
To constant political calls of “do something”, I say “do no harm”.
We are today the very definition of hubris, with a misplaced view of our humble position in the natural world, and it is doing us absolutely no good.