A Plea for a Rhetorical Ceasefire in the Politicization of the Covid19 Pandemic

When it comes to country (even state & county) comparisons of Covid19 data, it’s best to be suspicious of politicos, their ideologues & sensationalistic media, who, because of confirmation bias, have cherry-picked numbers to portray the pandemic as either more or less severe than it really is.

The reason they do this, of course, is to either scapegoat or exonerate government leaders for political purposes.

Such a politicization, typically, will cynically characterize those leaders’ responses in terms of – not just in/competency, but – moral turpitude and scientific illiteracy.

Too often, such politicizations will either over- or under-exaggerate the short & long term consequences of lockdowns (vis a vis their various durations & extents) in terms of economics, mental health and educational & career development, etc

Further, even the more nuanced comparisons of per capita mortality & case severity by country are seldom sufficiently nuanced. Specifically, they fail to adjust for salient demographics, like GDP,
population density, age, gender, life expectancy, prevalence of
obesity, diabetes & other comorbidities, quality of
health infrastructure – nurses, doctors, icu’s, etc

As a result, the nature & extent of government mandated measures, for better & for worse, get over-exaggerated, precisely because other salient factors get ignored. And those factors, in some early studies, were much better predictors of per capita mortality & case outcomes than variations in government mandates.

So, when it comes to finding the sweet spots between the flattening of covid case & economic recession curves (keeping in mind the drastic, multifarious consequences of both), toward such multiple ends as reducing both mortality & healthcare overcapacity, there need be no (can’t be a) one-size-fits-all lockdown percentage or duration in order to realize a given country, state or county’s goals, as aimed to fall within a generally acceptable sweet spot range.

For all sorts of eminently defensible reasons, Western democracies will have experienced higher per capita mortality rates by the time the pandemic has, hopefully, run its course or been otherwise thwarted by vaccines & treatments. And such differentials, I promise, will not be reflective of varying levels of enlightenment, whether of political, moral or scientific natures. Rather, as seen thus far, other demographic factors will more so account for them.

Such differentials as between, on one hand, the US & Western Europe, and, on the other, what are effectively totalitarian dictatorships, especially are not reflective of an enlightenment of any sort or suggestive of strategies I’d wish to emulate?

It is a strength – not a weakness – of our federalist system, the best governmental experiment in humankind’s history, that New York & California can adopt one strategy, Texas & Georgia – another.

Did some states reopen too soon? I think so. Does that mean, however, that I believe some governors operated wholly outside the bounds of what I would defend as politically, morally or scientifically defensible?

Not in my view.

I would only suggest some have, roughly seems to me, sub-optimized. Even then, for the most part, our leaders are, less often truly statesmen & stateswomen, most often followers, whose chosen strategies will reflect a given population’s most current political sensibilities (which can shift like hurricane winds). Necessarily, then, they must judiciously calibrate the degree of governmental coercivity that will be most effective & truly enforceable for their particular constituency, that is — without precipitating widespread revolt & noncompliance. That factor will differ from topic to topic, state to state, even county to county. Such subsidiarity & diversity reflect values we should not ridicule and dare not sacrifice.

Our democratic republic, as an experiment, has many laboratories, which, given time & experience (often painful), will gift ourselves & the world the Best Practices that – historically have & in this case will, again – serve humankind on manifold fronts & in multiform ways.

Often, a governor must calibrate & titrate executive responses to a constituency which is climbing what is a steep learning curve. Those, who pretend the answers & strategies are apparent & the learning curves shallow for human realities surrounding pandemics, lack – not only the right answers, but – even the right questions. This is true for the experts. How much more true it must be for Joe & Jane Citizen?


The way I feel about it, presently, is that all of the politicization of this pandemic, coming from all directions, is positively repugnant.

Still, I’m going to give all politicos, ideologues & sensationalistic journalists, as well as myself and other citizens, a pass.

This is a once in a century event. We’re relatively confused & understandably anxious.

Does this mean that I don’t think certain persons have given in to various kinds & degrees of confirmation bias?

No.

Does this mean that I don’t think many persons of all persuasions have taken positions out of pure political expedience & said things that are transparently & utterly laughable, even sad & hurtful?

No.

What I’m inviting others to join me in doing is to give everybody a Free Covid19 Pass.

It’s too important a reality to treat as facilely as it has been thus far. Let’s observe a rhetorical ceasefire & turn our focus to keeping safe, staying healthy & helping all in need.

After all, there’s no shortage of persons of all persuasions, who have taken all sorts of positions regarding all sorts of other things out of pure political expedience & who have said so many other things that are transparently & utterly laughable, even sad & hurtful!

So, let’s throw the rascals out & vote our heroes & heroines in for all those other reasons, which existed prior to the pandemic.

And, if one simply can’t resist covid19 sniping, please  let’s not demonize or valorize Texas vs New York. All of our states are going to come out of the crisis with differentials that will take years to properly analyze & sufficiently nuance in terms of curve-flattening effectiveness for both the viral &, the more elusive but eventually sufficiently quantifiable, recession-based consequences.

Let’s, instead, focus on why, for all intents & purposes, Covid or otherwise, we’d still rather live in our Western democracies (including Sweden) than China, N. Korea or Russia.

For now, I’m going to research further how the entire premise of this essay might collapse based on a drill down into the Covid19 data coming out of Germany. I may have to eat crow and suggest we’d all be better off emulating them? My guess is that’s not going to be the case, but … who knows?

Published earlier this year – a prologue to the above essay:

Desperately Searching for the Sweet Spot of Epidemic & Recession Curve-Flattening

The public polling seems to show that a significant minority thinks our pandemic-control measures have gone too far, even as a significant majority supports continued efforts at social distancing. ~ Michael Brendan Dougherty

Let these debates flourish as we pursue the truth together!

Let’s be humble enough to admit that the truths regarding pandemics can be incredibly elusive, even for the experts that model such realities, epidemiologically & economically.

There are some, however, who have suggested (with the most arrogant, ad hominem faux-erudition) that these truths are out there in plain sight, that the world’s governmental, epidemiological & economic experts are parading around naked and blind to such truths, all the while unwittingly foisting untold evils on the world, enabled by a complicit unthinking public.

Now, it’s one thing to make such sweeping charges in so facile a manner, but, per the time-honored wisdom practiced by most historians & sociologists, once one has analogically (not to mention with a callous insensitivity) invoked the spectre of various types of Nazi complicities to make one’s case, the audience can rest assured that the cards about to be played will reveal a losing hand.

To wit, consider Jack Kerwick’s diatribe:

After facilely psychoanalyzing the world in one fell, dismissive swoop, suggesting that the vast supermajorities of experts & their trusting followers, alike, have unthinkingly bought into their precautionary Covid19 strategies, Jack inventories the costs they somehow failed to consider:

“It can, and already has, led to incalculable pain and suffering. It is no stretch to call these evils. Consider all that has occurred over the last six or seven weeks or so, since the dawn of The Great UnReason.”

Regarding items 1-9, all I can ask of Jack is:

“Really? You believe that the world’s governments, public health experts, epidemiologists, economists, medical & hospital associations have been blind to these costs? And, thanks to the blog of a part-time philosophy teacher, they’re now going to gasp a collective ‘Oops!’?”

Seriously?

Even regarding item 10, the Third World consequences of food supply disruptions, those projections, themselves, come from Arif Husain, the chief economist at the World Food Program, a United Nations agency.

Regarding the Third World, as well as here in the states, for that matter, as better info emerges, strategies will get tailored to account for country to country & intra-country regional variations. We won’t be deploying such blunt instruments as we’re able to augment our tool chests. Consider this early April Foreign Policy article:
https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/10/poor-countries-social-distancing-coronavirus/

Kerwick goes on:

“The masses of Americans who have bought hook, line, and sinker, without a moment’s hesitation, the Zombie tale of an Apocalyptic Virus are as well responsible for the immense suffering that their endorsement has left in its wake.”

Of course, Jack’s not just talking about the average John & Mary Doe, but the American Hospital Association, American Medical Association, American Nurses Association, Liz Cheney, Lamar Alexander, Lindsey Graham, Mitt Romney & Bill Cassidy, not to mention those who extend William F. Buckley’s legacy at the National Review.

There are more sober voices, thankfully:

From Michael Brendan Dougherty at the National Review:

If you judged by social media, you’d think that America in the coronavirus crisis had a pro-lockdown faction led by Dr. Anthony Fauci and a “let it rip” faction led by a handful of red-state governors and professional conservative saber-rattlers. This may be a useful narrative for people whose jobs thrive on controversy, myself included. It may even be helpful for organizing our thoughts on the virus. But mostly, it just isn’t true.

MBD continues:

There is a good reason to hesitate to judge, namely our ignorance. Plagues are a time for scapegoats and blame-shifting precisely because they deal out suffering such a seemingly unjust and random fashion. Our leaders say they will follow the science, but they can’t, really. With a heretofore-unseen virus such as this one, the science is more like inherited wisdom and intuition from previous, similar maladies, at least at the start. What follows is a confused rush to catch up through trial and error. The results are not always pretty, or immediately useful. And although those who stay with their own carefully constructed echo chambers might think otherwise, where COVID-19 is concerned the evidence has not come down decisively on one side or the other of the false lockdown/let-’er-rip dichotomy.

 

The point I’m arguing has nothing to do with who’ll ultimately be right in the curve-flattening cost-benefit calculations. I’m solely here to make the point that, whichever side turns out to be wrong, it won’t be because they weren’t thinking or unaware of the tragic tradeoffs articulated in “Jack’s” questions.

As it is, the more successful the interventions, the more likely they’re going to be later misinterpreted as overreactions.

Because there are both epidemiological & economic trade-offs & risks, medical scientists & economists should collaborate to approximate a range of data-driven strategic sweet-spots. And they have.

This Goldilocks calculus should get reapplied as new information becomes available & uncertainties recede. And it has.

So, the curve theories that policy-makers rely on, when devising strategies to confront the threats of epidemics, should involve the flattening of both epidemic & recession curves, and economic, social, political & medical scientists should all provide input. Such is the case.

The disease & economic models employed for policy responses can vary widely in their approaches and assumptions, giving widely divergent results. And, the modelers should be transparent about the variables and assumptions used. And they have been.

I seriously doubt, though, that those of us who grasp the norms, above, should be credited with articulating some original, novel, brilliant observation, when we suggest that policy-makers should strive to avoid costly precautionary overshoots?

And, as we observe that such costs should not be too narrowly conceived?

Soon enough, scientists & policymakers, over a period of years, through rigorous research & vigorous investigations, will be asking:

Did the precautionary mitigation strategies work?

Were they never needed in the first place?

For now, I really don’t know.

And, for sure, Jack Kerwick doesn’t!

We manifestly do not and cannot know enough, yet, to say whether the world’s experts, collectively & pervasively, miscalculated their epidemic-recession curves for this pandemic.

In this recent pandemic, did the world’s best epidemiologists, economists & governing machineries, as well as most of those who’ve placed their faith in these authorities, sadly but truly, display a “curious, but quite authentic, inability to think“?

Did they really ignore the above-stated, time-honored norms?

Did they really ignore the the kinds & depths of pain & suffering that have ensued in the wake of their mitigation strategies?

My guess is that, ultimately, a majority report will vindicate the world’s policy makers, finding that they took adequate measures based on sufficient information as available at the time. And that they indeed asked all the right questions. It will likely indicate, from the benefit of hindsight, that more optimal measures could’ve been taken based on better information, which didn’t surface for various reasons, some benign but unavoidable, some due to bad faith and indefensible.

There will always be minority reports, too. It’s important that their voices of dissent not be suppressed, scientifically or politically.

But let us not confuse the sane voices of legitimate dissent with the shrill ad hominems of echo chamber ideologues.

CyberBibliography:

https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/a-covid-cost-benefit-analysis/

https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/04/the-value-of-lives-saved-by-social-distancing-outweighs-the-costs/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevebanker/2020/04/08/social-distancing-are-the-costs-of-shutting-down-the-economy-worth-it/

Poor Countries Need to Think Twice About Social Distancing

https://www.cassidy.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/cassidy-urges-people-to-listen-obey-cdc-state-government-coronavirus-guidance

https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/from-our-experts/economists-and-epidemiologists-not-at-odds-but-in-agreement-we-need-a-broad-based-covid-19-testing-survey

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/flattening-the-covid-19-curves/

COVID-19 Models: Can They Tell Us What We Want to Know?

Flattening the Coronavirus Curve Is Not Enough

Social distancing, politicized: Trump allies are urging an end to isolation, worrying public health experts

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