Monday, December 14, 2020

Covid Conspiracy

A correspondent sent me the following question.

Is this is a pandemic, or is it a conspiracy?
My thinking is that it is probably neither.

The basic facts are fairly well understood. There is no doubt that a new virus has emerged. Its origin is uncertain. Most likely it crossed over from animals, but there is a small probability that it was released deliberately by American or Chinese germ warfare experts to see how effective it would be. It is out now, so the origin does not matter much.

The nature of the disease is now fairly clear. It is very infectious for people in close proximity to infected people. The symptoms vary considerably. Most people have no symptoms at all. Many have very mild symptoms. A few (especially the elderly and those with other pre-existing conditions) get really nasty respiratory failure and related symptoms. Some of which last for a long time. For a few, it is fatal.

The number who will die is still uncertain, because it depends on how the virus spreads and how long it continues to be virulent. Numbers of deaths are still relatively low, but it is impossible to know what the rate would be if the virus had been allowed to spread like the 1919 influenza. The early estimates of epidemiologists were greatly overstated, I presume that they enjoyed being in the limelight. Governments assumed that they knew more than they knew.

The medical management of the disease has improved significantly. Good hospital care and appropriate drugs seem to be reducing the death rate.

The word “pandemic” is not very helpful. It has an administrative meaning that is determined by the WHO. When WHO declares a pandemic, various insurance outcomes follow, and clauses in agreements that have been made with the big drug companies kick in. Since big monies are involved, WHO has to have clear rules about what is a pandemic. The word pandemic has a fairly well-proscribed meaning in the world of insurance and drug company contracts, but it does not mean much for ordinary people.

The big issue is the government response to the virus. The difference between this situation and earlier events like the 1919 influenza and polio epidemic that affected children when I was growing up, people have a huge intolerance of death. The decline of faith has resulted in a growing fear of death. Whereas during World War 1, death had become normal, people now react very negatively to any unnecessary death. This puts big pressures on governments, who have promised to solve all life’s problems.

While they could get away with doing nothing about the 1919 flu, and actually made it worse by shifting troops around the world at the end of the war, modern governments are expected to prevent the spread and stop deaths from coronavirus. That is the reality, not a conspiracy. Although most governments are quite happy to seize opportunities to expand their power. That is not a surprise, because they have always done that.

Their big problem is uncertainty, as it is not clear what governments should do to stop the spread of the virus. Obviously, isolating people who are infectious from those who are vulnerable is the best way. How far governments can go in doing that depends on the extent to which their population will accept government controls. In a few countries, there is more resistance to government controls.

The problem is that the scientific evidence about what will prevent the spread of the virus is quite weak. For example, it is actually very hard to design (almost impossible) a study that would demonstrate clearly whether masks are effective for stopping the spread of the virus or not. You need two groups, one without masks, and the other with masks, but with both groups having an equal probability of contacting the virus. The latter condition is almost impossible to achieve in a real situation where people go about their lives in different ways, and the possibility of making contact with people is uncertain. The evidence for many other government actions is weak too, for similar reasons. We should be more realistic about what science can and can’t do.

Most governments take a cautious approach and try to do everything they think will help. This works well for politicians. No modern politician wants to be accused of doing nothing. But being accused of doing nothing, when there was something that could be done, plays badly in the next election. Being blamed for unnecessary deaths is not a vote winner. So politicians always play safe and do what can be done, knowing that if it does not work, they can always blame the bureaucrats and scientist who claimed it would work. Politicians are biased for action.

Politicians are all hoping that a vaccine will deal to the virus before the economic cost gets too great. The long-term effectiveness of vaccines is still uncertain. Whether, governments will make the vaccine compulsory will depend on attitudes in their country, but I suspect that the fear of death has become so great, that most people will have it voluntarily if the testing has been reasonably robust.

The problem with most conspiracy theories is that they are beyond the capabilities of the proposed perpetrator. In my experience, most governments struggle to do what they have promised, because their incompetence gets in the way. They will seize more power whenever the opportunity arises, but they are far less competent than the conspiracy theories assume.

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