Politicking Ourselves to Death
[et_pb_section admin_label="section"] [et_pb_row admin_label="row"] [et_pb_column type="4_4"][et_pb_text admin_label="Text"]Editor's Note: I am trying to leave the 2020 election behind, honestly I am, but it doesn't quite want to let go of us yet.
Donald Trump has been burrowing down, Norma Desmond-style, into fantasies about worming his way into a second term by uncovering a vast vote-rigging conspiracy and getting state officials in places like Michigan to overturn the result. I would like to try to refute all of this, but I don't have to because National Review's Jim Geraghty does a fine job of it, and in a way that is as gentle as could possibly be done for Trump supporters. (Jonah Goldberg brings a little more heat.) The key issue is this:
Trump campaign's lawyers are not making the same claims of massive widespread fraud and voter alteration in court. Lawyers face serious professional consequences for lying—that is, making an assertion that they know is not true, to a judge or jury—in a courtroom. Ask yourself, if what Giuliani and Powell are claiming is true, why is the Trump campaign not even making the accusation in court? Why are they not presenting evidence?
In other words, the press conferences and all the wild claims that are coming out of them are just theater, intended for some other purpose than to actually change the result of the election.
With that out of the way, on to the actual, real-world news of the post-election period.—RWT
The coronavirus pandemic is surging into a big, nasty third wave in the US, and there is one basic cause: Just about everyone decided that there was something more important than preventing the spread of the virus.
Heck, even the fact that we're talking about this third wave now—after it has been building for at least a month—indicates the extent to which we all allowed ourselves to be distracted by the election and could only bring ourselves to return to the pandemic after that drama is (mostly) over.
Now that we're ready to look, let's examine the numbers.
The first wave of the coronavirus hit very intensely in New York in the Spring, followed in mid-Summer by a somewhat smaller second wave as the virus spread out through the country, hitting across the South. It was less intense in specific locations, but broader in its reach, and daily death totals rose up to about half the peak they hit in the Spring.
Then as we reached the end of Summer, cases decreased and there was an extensive lull. This may partly have been due to higher temperatures breaking down the virus and was no doubt also due to people being able to move more activities outside, where the breeze can disperse particles of virus-bearing saliva before they are capable of infecting the people next to you. This is probably why the summer's protests did not set off an immediate wave.
But the number of cases and deaths never really trailed off all that much from the mini-peak in the Summer. We just got used to that elevated level. From that base, the pandemic has been building back up all through October and exploding in November, particularly across the Upper Midwest. In the Spring, a former colleague from The Federalist, which has been a center of coronavirus denial, belligerently assured me that COVID-19 was a phenomenon of the big cities back East and had nothing to do with the small town in the Midwest where she lives—so why should they have to adhere to any of the precautions advocated elsewhere? So where is the main center of the outbreak today? In small towns in the Midwest, precisely because they didn't exercise those precautions. The deadliest per-capita hotspot in the world in recent weeks has been North Dakota.
The New York Times provides some excellent charts and graphs, and you can see cases rising to heights far exceeding those of the Spring, though this is probably due mostly to more extensive testing—i.e., the fact that many cases in the Spring were never identified. But the more objective measure, daily COVID-19 deaths, is also nearly at the Spring peak of 2,000 per day and rapidly rising. Given the many incremental advances in treatment of COVID-19 since the first outbreak, I think we can take this as an indication that there are many more new cases now than there were early in the year.
This thing is spreading out of control and is already overwhelming hospitals again. At this rate, coronavirus will soon be causing 3,000 deaths per day. What does that mean? I means that if we don't do something dramatic and immediate to contain its spread, COVID-19 is likely to kill at least another 100,000 people before the end of the year.
And we're not likely to do anything dramatic and immediate, because apparently we just can't be bothered.
Politicking Ourselves to Death
We can look at the current spike as the third wave of the virus, but it's really just the first wave spreading out and dispersing across the country. It started out in the big cities, and people in smaller towns and rural areas thought they didn't have to worry. But now it's there, too, seeded all across the country and beginning to burst out everywhere at once.
How did we let this happen? Like I said, it's because everyone had something they thought was more important.
Public officials, for example, advocated restrictions for everybody else—but they're politicians, so of course schmoozing at expensive restaurants could not possibly be put on hold.
This has the same effect as the protests over the summer. The protests, by virtue of being held outdoors, did not lead to large, immediate breakouts. But they did have the effect of undermining the seriousness of coronavirus precautions. They sent the message that preventing the spread of this disease is not that urgent a necessity, and even the political faction that had been urging us to accept extreme measures like lockdowns was willing to throw it all out when something came along that they regarded as really important. So the other political faction decided that they could throw out all precautions in favor of the things they thought were important, whether that was going to a Trump rally or holding a big Thanksgiving dinner.
That our response to coronavirus has broken down along the lines of political factions is the whole essence of the problem. People have decided that there is something more important than fighting the pandemic, and for most of them, what is more important is fighting each other—and the science of the coronavirus outbreak has been subordinated to the needs of these partisan battles.
We are politicking ourselves to death.
The same people who are now bringing us election conspiracy theories spent the summer folding COVID-19 into a giant election conspiracy theory that goes something like this. President Trump was set to cruise to a landslide re-election on the basis of the strength of the economy. (In fact, he was well behind in the polls for the entire campaign.) Desperately seeking to prevent this, the Democrats and the media seized on the pandemic (or created it, depending on how deep into the conspiracy theory you go) and used it to panic people into shutting down the economy, tanking the stock market and spiking unemployment. According to this conspiracy theory, all the talk about coronavirus only served a partisan political purpose and would be dropped immediately after Election Day. "On November 4th, it will all open up," President Trump declared. "They want to make our numbers look as bad as possible for the election."
We're well past November 4 now, and it's not going away. But those who were inclined to listen to Donald Trump and believe him are still acting as if the whole thing is fake. We're even getting anecdotal reports of people in the ICU with COVID-19 still insisting that it's all overblown and fake news. Local newspapers in these areas are going into panic mode trying to convince people the pandemic is real.
Part of the reason coronavirus is spreading in small towns in the heartland is because that is where denial and indifference are highest. Consider this report from the Des Moines Register.
The coronavirus pandemic is sparking new levels of frustration for public health officials, who are struggling to reach Iowans infected with the virus, ask them who they've been around and request that they stay home for up to two weeks....
Christine Estle, a nurse who is administrator of the Jefferson County Health Department, in southeast Iowa...said it can be particularly aggravating to do contact tracing in a rural area.
Unlike public health officials in big cities, Estle and her colleagues at the small health department know many of the families they're calling to ask about potential exposure to the virus. But many residents let such calls go to voicemail, then decline to respond, Estle said. Others answer the phone calls but aren't forthright with the county nurses.
"It's to the point where we know people are lying to us," she said.
Estle said some people exposed to the virus will assure county health officials that they're staying home—but then the nurses will spot them in the grocery store or notice they've posted fresh vacation pictures on Facebook....
"Many people who have tested positive have told her that they recently attended large gatherings, such as Halloween parties or church services, without wearing masks.
It's normal for people to experience "pandemic fatigue." The rules of social distancing and strict hygiene are annoying and unnatural, and it take a lot of effort and discipline to keep complying with them. No political leader is responsible for this fact, but he can make it better or worse. The biggest impact the president of the United States can have on the nation's response to a pandemic is by conveying the best information to the public about how to protect against it, and to keep reminding them how to keep each other safe and why.
Instead, Donald Trump has fueled and supported the politicization of the virus, encouraging those who are inclined to ignore proper precautions to do so. Moreover, if you read that link about the contact tracers in Iowa, you will also notice how ill-prepared the state still is. There are too few contact tracers, and test results are taking too long to get to them, because no effort was ever made to create an effective nationwide test-and-trace system. So the cumulative effect of Trump's policies and public statements is that we don't have a system in place to contain the spread of the virus—and a large segment of the public would refuse to cooperate with such a system if we had it.
All of these factors are converging over the Thanksgiving holiday, during which millions of people are going to be traveling across the country and then sitting down in large groups, indoors, in close proximity and unmasked. All the evidence indicates that this is a terrible idea, and yet here it is happening right in front of us.
This is the point at which some of the more libertarian-minded folks (and not a few Objectivists) assert that people are capable of making their own assessments of the risk. Well, sure, they're capable of it, but in practice I've found that the people who are most adamant about making this argument are actually pretty bad at making their own assessments. What they usually mean by "we can make our own assessments of the risk" is "don't give me a hard time for ignoring the risk."
To give you a basis for rational assessment of the risk, let me point you to one typical example. We don't have enough contact-tracing efforts to contain the pandemic, but we have enough to give us cases studies to show how the virus spreads and how it kills people. Take this report.
A Maine wedding reception in early August has been connected to 147 cases of the coronavirus and three deaths, health officials reported.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday that the 147 people included both those who attended the ceremony and people who contracted the virus indirectly. The three COVID-19-related deaths were not among people who attended the wedding.
Robert Long, a spokesperson for the Maine CDC, told BuzzFeed News the number includes 72 cases at the York County Jail and 19 cases at the Maplecrest Rehabilitation and Living Center in Madison, Maine.
"One of the things that we've learned over the last six months...is that no outbreak is an island," said Dr. Nirav D. Shah, director of Maine CDC, during a Sept. 3 press briefing. "What this really hammers home is that outbreaks are not isolated events. One outbreak can quickly lead to several more outbreaks, especially in a close geographic area."
The most important detail in this story is that none of the people who died was actually at the wedding. So you may think you're only risking your own life, but you could be indirectly causing the deaths of people you have never met. Or somebody else may be unthinkingly doing that to you.
Look, I'm all for individuals making their own decisions about how to deal with the risks of a pandemic, and frankly, I think that's what you're all going to do anyway, because the government's power to coerce people is turning out to be pretty limited. So while you assert your right to make your own decisions, I'm going to be the guy reminding you to make that decision rationally.
Libertarians in a Pandemic
The most horrific thing about the third wave of the pandemic is that it comes during the final stretch, when we can see the end in sight—but we have to watch while people take careless risks that will kill another 100,000 people before we get there.
We can see the end in sight because of the development of three vaccines, which have just come out of accelerated large-scale trials and are about to be produced and distributed. These vaccines will go first to health-care workers and first responders, then to the elderly and vulnerable, then eventually to the rest of us, so it will be some months yet before they begin to have their full impact. It will also be interesting to see to what extent conspiracy theories and the politicization of the pandemic cause some people to refuse the vaccines. We may keep on politicking ourselves to death for a little while longer.
But at least the long-sought-after technological solution to the pandemic is arriving.
The first announcement came from Pfizer, then from Moderna, and now from AstraZeneca.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are reported to be 95% effective. The AstraZeneca vaccine is slightly less effective but cheaper and easier to store and distribute. What is most interesting about them is the method by which they were developed, which promises to shorten the development of future vaccines.
Traditional vaccines work by introducing either the actual virus, or part of it, into the body to 'trick' the body into thinking it's being invaded by the virus and induce an immune response. To avoid actually causing disease, the virus is either attenuated (weakened) as in MMR vaccines, or inactivated (killed), as in the influenza vaccine. Another strategy is to use only a piece (subunit) of the virus, such as in the shingles vaccine.
Manufacturing these vaccines, however, requires growing the virus in large quantities (in chicken eggs for flu vaccines, for example). The process takes months, which slows down the development and mass production of the vaccine. That, plus the nonzero risk of developing disease-like side effects, is not ideal during a raging pandemic.
The two mRNA vaccines, however, don't use an actual virus at all. Messenger RNA includes instructions for cells to assemble proteins and can be synthesized in about a week, using available genetic technology and the known genetic sequence of the virus. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, the mRNA used is a copy of the part of the viral RNA that contains assembly instructions for the 'spike protein' that gave coronaviruses their name ("corona" means "crown").
That's the scientific reason why these vaccines are ahead of schedule. Just as interesting is the regulatory reason. Pfizer did not take government funding as part of Operation Warp Speed, the federal government's effort to speed up development of a vaccine, looking instead to the profits it expects to make from massive demand for its product. But it has benefited from expedited regulatory approval, which raises some questions about whether slow and burdensome FDA regulations are necessary for other drugs.
Early on, there were a few people who crowed that "there are no libertarians in a pandemic," meaning that nobody could still advocate freedom in an emergency. Well, it looks like a vaccine is going to be available ahead of schedule because of deregulation and the profit motive.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
But that raises one last question: What about those profits? Believe it or not, this has been controversial, with some denouncing drug-company "profiteering."
Pfizer and its German biotech partner, BioNTech, stand to make an astonishing £9.8bn next year from a coronavirus vaccine. Suggestions that pharmaceutical companies should not profit from the world's most severe crisis since the second world war were dismissed in July as "radical" by Pfizer's CEO; and, perhaps, many will overlook such profiteering amidst the wave of gratitude.
The specific argument here is that pharmaceutical companies benefit from government-funded scientific research, so therefore they owe the government the rights to all the value of everything they produce. It's the old "you didn't build that" argument: Anything the government does to benefit you gives it a right to everything you make.
That argument doesn't hold up very well because it's just a rationalization for the attack on profits, not the real motive. The real motive is the twisted morality of altruism.
The common-sense response to pharmaceutical companies making profits on a coronavirus vaccine is that they deserve it for producing something of such enormous value. If Pfizer and other companies make tens of billions of dollars, that is only a tiny portion of the trillions of dollars of value they will create by opening up the economy to normal activity—not to mention the value of the hundreds of thousands of lives they will save.
But to the altruist, it is precisely the fact that a product is valuable to the world that gives them a right to seize it. I mean, we wouldn't want to be "leaving a life-saving industry in the hands of a profiteering monopoly." The very fact that an endeavor is life-saving, the fact that it offers an enormous value to the world, is the reason why its creators are not entitled to any compensation.
In short, under altruism, it really is true that no good deed goes unpunished.
Fortunately, this is not yet the universal rule, and it looks like most of the companies producing vaccines do intend to profit from them—profits the rest of us will gratefully pay in order to be able to return to normal life.
But don't return quite yet. Remember that this will still take a while, and don't relax your vigilance so close to the end. Don't let the attempt to subordinate science to the usual political culture wars distract you from evaluating the best evidence about the spread of the coronavirus and the progress of the vaccines.
As for myself, I'm having Thanksgiving with only my immediate family, these who have been in a shared "bubble" since the beginning of the pandemic. After that, I'm going to be hunkering down even more in the expectation that everyone else's Thanksgiving is going to be a superspreader event that brings the third wave of the pandemic out of the Midest, over the Blue Ridge Mountains, and into Virginia.
The end of our plague year is in sight, and some time in 2021, we will begin to celebrate the return of normal life. In the meantime, be careful out there.[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column] [/et_pb_row] [/et_pb_section]