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SARS-Cov-2 and Conspiracy Theories

SARS-Cov-2 and Conspiracy Theories

SARS-Cov-2 is a novel virus, meaning that humans have never before encountered it. But it is also just one more in a pattern of pathogens that have, at a particular time, moved from the animal kingdom and spread widely among the human population, striking down some and passing over others. Given these facts—that it is new, and it is deadly—it is little wonder that all sorts of explanations are proffered. People do what people typically do: integrate new information into their existing belief systems. If those belief systems are complex and evidence based, that builds one sort of understanding. If the belief systems are organized around one or two basic attitudes and are generally data-poor, then the result looks a lot like any of the many conspiracy theories circulating. Major belief/attitudes around elites supposedly controlling events make any number of people reflexively doubt just about every official pronouncement about the virus. We are well into the second month of people minimizing the virus and its effects, usually based on little data, or on extreme cherry-picking of what available data there is. Here is a common-sense corrective to a lot of the various attempts.

Facts on the Epidemic

We love numbers. But reality is really tricky to quantify, especially the closer you look. And especially if you have really bad data. And when it comes to SARS-CoV-2 in the US we have really bad data. Because we have so few Covid-19 tests. And we don’t really know how accurate they are. And because people die of a wide variety of causes every day anyway. Which makes saying anything precise about Covid-19 and the SARS-CoV-2 virus really difficult.

The death rate of Covid-19 is just a wild guess. Because we don’t know how many people actually have it (in the US or in most of the world). Because we aren’t widely testing. Germany is widely testing. Their death rate is way lower than other countries. But that is probably because they are testing everyone, and so they catch all the mild and asymptomatic cases and include these in the count, whereas in the US you can’t get a test unless you are moderately to severely ill and in a hospital already. So the US has a much higher percentage of tested patients dying, and thus an artificially inflated death rate.

But such quibbles about the statistics represent clever people getting lost in the weeds; losing sight of the forest for the trees. The forest looks like this:

The statistics I’ve seen have the Covid-19 death rate for people under 55 at about 0.8%, or about 4x higher than the seasonal flu. Not so bad. Except that 75% of the US population is under 55. That’s 245 million people. If they all got the virus in a two-month period that is 1,960,000 deaths. Divide that number in half if you think only half the population gets it. Divide it in half again. And again, just because. That is still 245,000 deaths, and that is just the under 55’s; you still have to add the quarter of the population who are over 55 and are much more susceptible. In a typical year about 2.8 million people in the US die of all causes, or about 230,000 per month. And our profit-optimized health system runs at about 85% capacity. You can’t add 100,000+ per month to that without utter chaos, even if 96% of the under-55 population doesn’t need hospitalization. Which is why so many people are calling for physical distancing and shutting down public gatherings.

Some people try to dispute the death statistics around Covid-19 by pointing out that just because someone died in a hospital and had the SARS-CoV-2 virus present doesn’t mean that the virus killed them. And this is true. But largely besides the point. Even if a significant number of people who are on the Covid-19 death count would have died anyway, it is the marginal quantity that make this a crisis for the medical system. The marginal ones (economics term for the extra ones beyond what you would have had anyway) don’t have to be a particularly large number to be a problem. They start to stress the system. And they only have to be 20% of the total cases (let’s say that 80% would have died that week anyway) for the extra ones to overload the system. For individual people at the edge of death anyway, it may not matter if they die now or in October. But for the medical system it matters a whole lot if they ALL die during the next month. Why?

Once hospitals are full of Covid-19 patients they can’t see other types of patients. Or even moderately ill Covid-19 patients who would otherwise survive with moderate treatment. They are out of capacity. In plain terms, people who otherwise would have been saved will die of both Covid-19 and other causes. Some of them will be young. And/or rich. And they would have lived for years if the hospital wasn’t over-full. Understanding that, and the full scale of the pandemic, the smart folks are all advocating physical distancing.

So in the end the forest is that most healthy people will be fine. But enough people (both healthy and otherwise) will need intensive care that it is would be utter bedlam in the health care system for months had we all gone about as normal; crisis would have been so acute that millions would have died in a span of a couple months, and many of those would have been from other, preventable causes. With physical distancing having been taken up in much of the US for weeks already, it will still be pandemonium in the health care system for a long time, but the number of non-covid preventable deaths should be a lot lower.

Other logical reasons to flatten the curve include giving researchers time to work on cures and palliative treatments, and giving time for doctors and hospitals to figure out the most effective treatment approaches. Assuming that most of the population will eventually get it, that is a very good reason for a person to prefer to get it later rather than sooner. If we all get it in a month, hospitals are overwhelmed and most people will make it or die on their own. If the burden is spread out, many more people who get serious cases will get patient-centered treatment in settings that are not overloaded, and many more people will get treated with methods that have been established as giving them the best chance at recovery. Personally I’m not counting on an effective vaccine ending the crisis any time soon. But the possibility of one does weigh in favor of physical distancing and flattening the curve.

Common Sense Observations on the Shutdown

So how do we explain the sudden rush around the world to shut things down. Isn’t there something deeper going on? It can’t just be the inexorable logic of an overloaded health care system, can it? My first response, is, why not? But if you care to, you can do an economic interest analysis of who is for it and what they stand to gain. Given that, in the US, the interests of the moderately to very rich tend to be the main ones taken into consideration for political decisions, what do the rich as a class have to gain? Well, their lives, for one. The smart/rich people understand that no amount of money will get them or their loved ones medical care in the middle of a total medical system meltdown. And the rich and politically connected tend to be older, and thus more likely to need it medical care. So many can back the “shut it all down” approach out of simple self-interest. Because this approach is most likely to keep them alive if they happen to need a coronary bypass or have a stroke in the next six months. That is a totally plausible explanation. And that is literally what they are all saying publicly.

What about greed and profiteering being the “real” reason for the Covid crisis? Unfortunately it would appear that greed and profiteering is just normal behavior in our society under any circumstances. You don’t have to posit that the people who are trying to profit off Covid-19 actually caused Covid-19 to explain why either the virus or the profiteering is happening. Far more reasonable is that a significant number of people in our society will try to make money off anything and everything that happens. And we have plenty of evidence for that right out in the open.

As for deeper explanations, it fairly well established that materialism fears death above all else. And plenty of people have observed that in the US as well as other Western countries we have an unhealthy relationship with death. Most people tend to avoid thinking about it, uncertain weather there is anything on the other side. Further, our society also has an unhealthy relationship to physical pain and suffering. We equate suffering to evil, and our highest good is to eliminate it. This is also fundamentally a materialist orientation. Is it really so hard to believe that, when faced with a pandemic that threatens to bring widespread suffering and death, we as a society would choose to do just about anything, sacrificing many pleasures and much wealth, just to minimize it? And is it that surprising that, when framed this way, so much of the population is solidly in support of going along?

So many things about this virus are unprecedented. But that we as a society cannot agree to understand the basic facts is not. Reflexive anti-authoritarianism, lazy thinking, and confirmation bias all guarantee that there will be an unending stream of individuals with their own half-baked theories about what is really going on, backed by random statistics and out-of-context facts. Some of these will be produced by very clever people, some even highly credentialed. Some will bury the reader in technical terms and numbers. Others will be simple assertions full of impressionistic references to assumed tenets of shared belief (the New World Order, Seth Rich, the Deep State, etc.). But they all lack one thing. Balance.

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