Fear Is Contagious. Fear Is Deadlier Than Coronavirus.

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Spanish flu of 1918 was unusual, amongst modern influenza outbreaks, because it killed young and otherwise healthy people.  One of the possible reasons for this is an immune reaction called “cytokine storm” in which overreaction of a bodily system leads to a cascade of other failures and eventually to death.  I’ll let my friends who are medical professionals correct me on the details, but that is the basic idea and sufficient explanation to set the stage for this blog post.

The Herd Reacts…

The psychology of human behavior, in particularly how it pertains to people in groups, is a fascinating study.  We are social creatures and because of this our own response to anything can be easily influenced by the reaction of group.  If one person or several, who are considered credible by the group, start to do something new, it won’t be very long before there are many others copying them.  That is how fads and fashions are born, that is why religious people conform, we want to share in the credibility of the credible by doing what they are doing.  We do this unconsciously, like the contagious yawn, and can help explain what happened last week.

All of the cancelations of the past few days may very well come down to the actions of one man.  Rudy Gobert, days before becoming the first NBA athlete to positive for the Covid-19 virus, decided it would be funny to deliberately touch all the mics and recording devices in a news conference.  This led to the NBA suspending their seasons and, like Mrs O’Leary’s cow kicking over the lantern starting the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, one man’s caviler attitude could very well have triggered the response of the NBA and the long list of other cancelations that soon followed.

It goes like this: The NBA canceled because 1) a few of their players tested positive, 2) they realized they were no longer in control of the situation, and 3) they could possibly be held liable if the death of someone’s grandpa could be traced back to one of their sporting events.  So, in the name of public safety and all things good and right, they decided to approach this unknown risk by abruptly ending their season.  This, in turn, very likely influenced other leagues to follow suit for fear of their own inaction, despite knowledge of risk, becoming a heyday for trial lawyers everywhere or simply a public relations disaster.

The more leagues and events that cancelled, the more others felt pressured to do the same.  Sure, this was something rationally justified, the idea of “flattening the curve” or slowing the spread of a disease by “social distancing” soon became common parlance, and yet the spread of this idea to start canceling events seems also to be very much like the simultaneous run on toilet paper.  Anxiety disorder is something I know a little about and, while I’ve never been tempted to hoard toilet paper, it certainly has gotten in the way of my better judgement. 

So is the reaction to Covid-19 wholly rational or was it post hoc rationalization and basically a collective panic attack?

Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself…

I have a friend who was an Air Force medic during the First Gulf War.  He told me an anecdote you’ll never hear reported in the news, a behavior that doesn’t make any rational sense and yet is something he encountered a few times in the lead up to combat in Iraq. 

Apparently some of the young soldiers were so keyed up and anxious that they couldn’t take the pressure of the wait anymore, they would find a place where they had a little privacy (the porta-potties as I recall) and take their own life using the firearm issued to them.

It makes absolutely no sense.  Why would someone, facing the danger of death, be so anxious that they would actually kill themselves?

In times of crisis people want to do something, anything, to lose that feeling of powerlessness.  That is probably the reason why many people have recently started to stock up on things that really would not help them.  That is why young soldiers, concerned about losing their life, took their own life rather than continue to wait in fear.  Fear often leads to an irrational response.  And our most educated and elite, given responsibility to make decisions, are not immune to this kind of irrational “do something” impulse either.  Our leaders are capable of panic as much as any of us.

It reminds me of the story of Easy Company, told in the series “Band of Brothers,” where the Company Commander, 1st Lieutenant Norman S. Dike Jr. (or “Foxhole Norman”), was portrayed as being frozen by combat and unable to make a decision.  He had obviously been talented enough to rise up through the ranks and become an officer, but apparently he lacked the calm and collectedness to be an effective leader outside of a controlled predictable environment.  He had to be replaced by a more common and practical man, with the right instincts to get the job done:

During the assault on Foy, Dike had ordered a platoon to go on a flanking mission around the rear of the town. During their charge, he ordered them to take cover. His subordinates informed him they were going to get killed because they were sitting ducks.  At the same time, Captain Richard Winters, former commander of Easy Company and the Battalion executive officer, tried radioing him to tell him the same thing. Having no idea how to control the situation, Dike froze. Carwood Lipton, at that time the company’s first sergeant, later put it: “He fell apart.” He was relieved during fighting at Foy by First Lieutenant Ronald Speirs under orders from Captain Winters, then moved on to become an aide to Maxwell Taylor, 101st Airborne Division.”

Military Wiki, Norman Dike

Could it be those whom have power in our institutions are men (and women) of similar caliber to Dike?  Smart, capable of working their way up through the established system, and yet lacking the courage necessary to lead society through uncharted waters?  Some of them freeze in fear, others overreact in their anxieties, while others (seeing the bigger picture) are more more able to make good decisions and navigate the stressful circumstances of the present moment.  Running the NBA or being at the top of a government agency does not mean that a person is qualified to manage a crisis and in some cases those in those positions are probably going to make matters worse rather than better.

Self-sabatoge, Fear-based Overreaction and Titanic Failures…

It is really hard to know, actually, in a politically polarized time, when many are willing to cut off their nose to spite their face, what is a real crisis and what is merely an opportunity to try to undermine a political opponent.  In fact, there are some in this country who seem quite willing to destroy the economy in a desperate bid to get their power back and a few who even seemed to cheer the plunge in the markets.  When some see personal benefit in feeding hysteria and panic, it is hard to know who too trust when clearly not everyone is on the same team anymore.  

But that said, I would tend to see the fear as being real and the reaction a sincere effort to prevent the worst case scenario from happening.  It was easy, as Covid-19, ravaged China, to deny the severity of the situation.  For one, the Chinese government is not the most trustworthy source of information (add to the that they had every reason to minimize the outbreak as not to scare away investment dollars) and, two, it is very easy to dimiss China as a them rather one of us.  The real wakeup call was Italy, a country clearly on par with our own in terms of medicine, and how quickly a few isolated cases suddenly exploded.  And, unlike China, where the government kept a tight lid on information, the truth was allowed to escape.

What has happened since I see as being similar to when a driver dozes off, wakes up while crossing the rumble strips, and reactively jerks the wheel.  Their immediate reaction may spare them a trip into the trees, but it could also be an over-reaction that takes them head-on into an incoming tractor trailer.  It could be too little too late.  There are those right now who call the idea of “flattening the curve” a “deadly delusion” an that only complete containment strategy will make a difference.  But then I begin to wonder has the opportunity to save those most vulnerable been missed a month or so ago when we failed to close our borders when it was clear that China was dealing with something unprecedented in our own times?

They say had the HMS Titanic ran straight into the iceberg, rather than barely grazed it, some would’ve died from the violent collision and yet the ship would likely haved stayed afloat.  It is also strong possibility that they could have avoided a collision with the iceberg altogether if they had only used the rudder rather than try to reverse the engines.  The Titanic, unlike many ships of the period, had two outer propellers run off piston engines and one in the center that was powered by a turbine.  The outer propellers could be reversed quickly, the inner could not, and the result of their attempt to reverse being turbulence over the rudder which made the magnificent ship unresponsive.

Sometimes I wonder if it is too late to spare the lives that will be lost if we slam headlong into Covid-19 and let be what will be.  Yes, people will die.  But people will die regardless and crippling the economy may only add to the death count.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe cancelling unnecessary activities and avoiding large group gatherings is a precaution worth taking, as is practicing good hygiene, washing hands, wearing masks and self-quarantine.  However, I would also argue that wrecking the economy will only make matters far worse and must also be avoided at all necessary costs.

In my own mind there is a vast space between paralyzing fear or irrational over-reaction and blinding arrogance.  We can and should be getting prepared, but with deliberate calm.  We are at war, the strength of our enemy is not fully known, we must not recklessly expose our vulnerable flanks, we dare never freeze in fear.  It would be wise to buy some time, to allow better countermeasures to be deployed and that does mean social distancing, less travel, more cleanliness, and really what should be common sense.

What Is Coming?

Despite our best effort, war is coming. We can expect that in the coming weeks that case numbers will jump dramatically and, not only that, but ICU beds will begin to fill at an alarming rate.  We could see abandoned shopping centers and malls converted into makeshift hospitals.  We will probably see some “wartime medicine” or triage, where those most likely to survive are given access to treatment over those who have only a slim chance are basically left to die, so snap out of your dismissive stupor and conspiratorial denial now or you will not be prepared for the battle of the coming days.  

That is the truth. 

We are emotional beings, not wholly rational. 

We make poor decisions, both collectively and individually, that can turn a dire circumstance into an absolute disaster.

If you are seeing this only in terms of politics, who gets blamed or who benefits, you are the problem more than the virus.  If you have filled your cart with toilet paper because suddenly you feel vulnerable and don’t know what to do, stop thinking only about yourself and stop feeding into the anxieties of others.  It is time to buckle down, put aside partisan differences, selfish ambitions, and act together as one nation again.

In the end, remember, like the case of many who caught Spanish flu and died because of their strong (yet unhelpful) response, overreaction can be more deadly than the actual threat.  We cannot bring the economy to a grinding halt out of fear, instead we must thread the needle with a prudent and properly measured reaction.  There is no point in stopping the virus by killing the patient.  We should pray that our leaders are given extraordinarily wisdom and calm for this unprecedented event.

God bless!

My Final Position On Covid-19

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I’ve never been one to get caught up in the latest hysteria.  I tend to be a skeptic of everyone from fundamentalist doomsayers to their secular climate catastrophe counterparts. 

There are many things are not worth getting worked up about, things that I can’t really change myself or prevent, and it takes discernment to know what we should or should not be concerned about. 
The media tends to turn everything into a crisis.  Sensational headlines invite clicks and clicks produce ad revenue.  So, yes, minor problems or statistically unlikely scenarios do too often get blown out of proportion.  Politicians, for their part, love to capitalize on anxieties and fears of the public as a means to gain power for themselves. 

These false prophets of the corporate media and political establishment do a terrible disservice to the public, they are like the boy who cried wolf and eventually paid the price for his deception.

The cynical exploitation of the public by those who should be making them aware and leading out against real threats eventually leads to distrust of authority and an apathetic response.  Many take to heart the adage, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” and use it as a reason to reject all warnings from all established sources or at least those that do not comport with their own political alignment.  Unfortunately, an overreaction against all authority can also leave the ‘sheep’ vulnerable when the real ‘wolf’ finally does arrive.

My own concern over Covid-19 did not originate with the recent media hype over the story and the foolish efforts to politicize it against the current administration.  My concern began weeks ago and originated from my own personal analysis of the characteristics of this particular virus and the extreme Chinese response in trying to contain it.  Those who continue to trivialize the threat do not understand it, they are only reacting like those townsfolk fooled one too many times, and need to take a step back, take off their jaded lenses for a moment and reexamine the evidence.

No, Covid-19 is not the same as SAR’s, Swine Flu…

There are many silly memes out there about all the public scares that we have survived.  And all that is true.  But, while it is important to see the current claims of the media in the context of their previous record, it is also important to remember that even a broken clock is right twice a day and therefore must be able to discern for ourselves.

When I first became aware of the new (or novel) “Coronavirus” outbreak in Wuhan back in January there were several things that initially jumped out to me then and continue to stand out.  Covid-19, as it has more recently been designated, is not nearly as deadly as Ebola or some other flu viruses, nevertheless the Chinese effort to contain it has been extreme.

Chinese authorities have taken unprecedented steps to try to stop the spread, going as far as to quarantine huge industrial centers of millions of people and building massive new hospitals.  Why?  Well, probably because they have a reason to be concerned.  A country does not deliberately cripple their own economy to the extent that the Chinese have done without there being a good reason to do so. 

One reason to be concerned is that the Chinese, not wanting to scare away foreign investment, also have plenty of reason to try to conceal or downplay the reality on the ground.  That is why they made efforts to silence those who brought broader attention to the situation by sharing what they saw on social media.  They accused an optometrist, Li Wenliang (who himself would later would become infected and die while in treatment) of “spreading rumors” for telling the truth, so can we trust that they are telling us the full extent of what is happening now?

Li Wenliang

What we do already know is that Covid-19 is not as deadly as Ebola and other viruses.  But, according to current estimates, it still kills an alarming number of those who become infected:

“On Tuesday, WHO said the global death rate for the novel coronavirus based on the latest figures is 3.4% — higher than earlier figures of about 2%. The World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that the new coronavirus “is a unique virus with unique characteristics.””

However, it is not the death rate or that Covid-19 is extremely deadly that caught my attention. 

No, it was how transmissible and impossible to contain that it has proven to be.  In many cases, the most deadly viruses are less dangerous, on a world scale, because they kill their host quickly enough that it cannot spread far or they are not easily transmitted.  Covid-19, by contrast, does spread through the air, it has a long incubation period that makes it hard to detect those infected, it does kill a significant number of those infected, and has successfully spread around the globe in a matter of weeks.

But doesn’t the flu kill X amount of people per year?

One of the dumbest reoccurring comments I’ve encountered is of those who point to the higher death count of the flu as a reason not to be concerned about Covid-19.  Many have reasoned that since the flu has killed more people than Covid-19 this past year that therefore the flu is a bigger threat.  Of course, those making this claim have obviously not paid attention in probability and statistics or simply fail to grasp the difference between those killed previously and future death rates.

Sure the flu has absolutely killed more last year before Covid-19 arrived on the scene, but it only kills a fraction of a percent and nowhere near even the low estimates for Covid-19.  In other words, if Covid-19 were to continue to break containment, as it has consistently, and spreads around the world, it will likely kill millions of people worldwide.  In fact, if you multiply the current estimate of death rate out to the US population, that’s well over 11 million Americans, and that’s assuming everyone else who becomes seriously ill, needs to be intubated and weeks of ICU treatment or would probably die, is getting good medical care.

Responding to the news that a grizzly bear has escaped containment by pointing out that a mountain lion also killed last year only shows how little a person understands the situation.  Sure, the grizzly isn’t going to kill everyone in the neighborhood, but it is certainly a bigger threat than the mountain lion, it actually compounds the danger, it only adds another deadly creature when one was bad enough and certainly isn’t going to improve the experience for those living in the neighborhood of where it now roams free.  

Grizzly vs Cougar

At very best Covid-19 being on the loose only adds to the misery of flu season and, at worse, well…

Do I think it is the end of the world?

My cousin Mel suggested that there are two ditches that people fall into, those who see it as “the normal flu here, move along,” and the “Run!!!!!” 

I’m not sure what camp he would place me in, but I believe that there is definitely a middle ground between those two extremes.  My own position is that Covid-19 does present a unique threat to the ‘normal’ flu, in that it is a novel virus and currently killing by at least a whole order of magnitude greater or more.  But, at the same time, I’m not in that window of those most vulnerable and most people will survive. 

So, no, it is not the end of the world.  Humanity has come through many similar events, many plagues far worse than a virus that potentially kills 3.4% of the current population, and here we are.  Covid-19 won’t kill us all.  As of March 6th, at the time I am writing, the virus has already killed 14 here (in America) and 3,300 worldwide.  Not much when you consider how many die in automobile accidents, etc.

Do I think it is a big joke?

No, absolutely not!

If Covid-19 continues to get past all containment lines, as it has, and spread into the general population the death rates could be much higher as our medical infrastructure would reach capacity, as supply chains break down (watch this video) due to the extreme worldwide demand coupled with decreased production, and more people, afraid of the infection, began to stay home rather than go to work and risk their health.  

In an era of just in time deliveries and global supply chains, we are actually more vulnerable than ever if the proverbial excrement were to hit the proverbial fan and would very soon learn how very dependant we are on those who produce, transport and distribute our goods.  Even those in rural areas cannot escape the potential fallout if there was a breakdown of the systems that we take for granted as potentially millions would flee urban areas in search of basic necessities or simply to get away from the chaos.

Even if the social order didn’t collapse and death rates remained at current levels, are you really going to say that burying three out every hundred people you know is not a big deal?  That could include your grandparents, your parents, possibly close friends, and coworkers.  It could also mean that you spend weeks in the ICU, as medical bills pile up, gasping for breath and wishing to die, thinking you might and possibly even being right.  I would not do anything where there is a three percent chance of death for myself or a friend, would you?

Should you panic?

I’m reminded of the refrain of a movie “Bridge of Spies” where Tom Hanks plays a lawyer defending a captured KGB spy and asks his client, who is likely facing death at the hands of the Russians if he’s turned over or the Americans if he is not, “aren’t you worried?”  To which the old spy answers, with a deadpan expression, “would it help?

Bridge of Spies

Panic would do absolutely nothing to help a person trying to survive a deadly viral outbreak and is something that must be avoided.  It is why you see the true experts (not the talking heads on the media) taking a measured approach and treating Covid-19 as if it is not a big deal.  Ultimately, what will be will be and tanking the economy ahead of time, with dire predictions, would only make matters worse.

If the worse case scenario were to play out fear would likely be as big a threat as the disease itself and that is why I say…

Prepare Now!

The best way to prevent future panic is preparedness.  No, I’m not talking about taking things to an extreme, you probably won’t need that hazmat suit and I’m doubtful converting your life-savings to gold is a good idea.  But having a few weeks of food stocks (canned goods, dried beans and rice) along with purified water, iodized salt, ethyl alcohol, and other disinfectants, some N95 masks, all things that could be good to have around anyways, could be enough to ride out the worst case scenario.  

Remember the parable about the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) where some came prepared with extra oil, thus were ready for the bridegroom, while the others had run out and desperate?  That story has some general application and can be applied to our attitudes pertaining to Covid-19.  It is better to have some foresight, to be aware of the various scenarios that could play out, and plan accordingly, rather than wait until the last minute when it is already too late.  There is still time (at least as I write this) to be reasonably prepared and that is my suggestion.

Failure to anticipate and plan accordingly can be fatal…

As 339 students boarded the MV Sewol, a Korean ferry, for a school outing, I’m doubtful any of them could’ve imagined the nightmare that would soon play out.  I’m still haunted by the videos made as they chattered nervously while the stricken ship began to list.  They had been told, by those in authority on the vessel, to stay put in their cabins—and that is exactly what they did up until those final moments of terror as the ship capsized.  Had they been proactive, had they disobeyed and went on the deck rather than allow themselves to be trapped, they would have easily avoided a terrible fate.

MV Sewol

People would do many things differently had the chance. The ill-fated OV-099 Challenger would never have left the launch pad had warnings about potential O-ring failure not been ignored.  Likewise, had those trying to tell the Titanic about icebergs been heard rather than told “shut up” by the overworked radio operator, or had the lookouts decided to break the lock for the binoculars rather than squint into the darkness without them, countless lives would have been saved and the Titanic not become a symbol of excessive human pride.

OV-099 Challenger

We are able to make predictions based in available evidence.  But many are distracted (or just plain oblivious) and otherwise unable to sift through the information to find the signs of danger and make the correct call.  I would venture a guess that those thousands who have contracted Covid-19 had no idea, when the first symptoms started to show, that they would have their lives upended.  Those who died probably thought this was just another flu, like the many they had experienced before, and their lack of awareness would not save them.  

And yet we can’t prepare for everything...

We can’t know the future. An asteroid could collided with our planet tomorrow, end life as we know it, and there is very little we could do now to be ready for that.  

But, that said, there are many things we are able to anticipate and should.  If you are not concerned about pandemic, I suggest you do some reading about the Spanish flu or Black Death and consider that we would not necessarily be any better off the day that the ‘perfect storm’ flu finally does arrive. Vaccines cannot be developed overnight (sorry, antivax conspiracy theorists) and a third of world population (including you) could be gone before an effective solution was found.

That is reality.  There are many who had their lives planned out, they had hopes and dreams, before meeting their unexpected demise.

Death is coming, are you ready?

Sounds dark and yet it is true.  If it isn’t Covid-19 it will be something else and it is good to live with a little awareness of our true vulnerability and eventual end.  We might make better use of our time if we were a bit more mindful of death.  

Fools laugh when they should be sober and consider their time is short.  There are many things that are easily take for granted could be wiped away in an instant.  Those of us born at the top can have a tendency towards arrogance.  But neither God nor the universe care about your feelings of self-importance and one only needs to consider how many powerful civilizations have collapsed as fast as they rose in prominence.  Oftentimes the “writing on the wall” was there and had they not been too drunk with their own hubris they may have changed course.

I’ve needed to deal with my own regrets for having not taken an illness seriously enough.  It simply did not occur to me that an eighteen month old child could die from what had seemed to be mundane and easily treated medical issues.  Had I known what would happen to her I would have moved heaven and Earth to be sure that she received top notch treatment.  I’ve dealt with years of post-traumatic stress symptoms as a result of my own failures then.  And even today it is a reminder to be vigilant and to do today what is too easily put off until tomorrow.  Being ready for death means living a worthwhile existence in the present moment.

So what is my final position of Covid-19?

In the end, I’m not losing any sleep over Covid-19, it is still something on the horizon and what would it help to get all worked up about it?  

At the same time, I do believe it is a serious threat and am glad for the resources being directed to combat and contain the virus.  We should be taking precautions for the good of ourselves and our communities.  A little more conscientiousness in our society could do a whole lot of good.  Consider the example of the Japanese who, because of measures taken to stop the spread of Covid-19, had a far less severe flu season this year.  Think about it.  If we were to practice a little better hygiene and show a little more respect to the reality of our environment we could, at very least, avoid suffering through a few days of sickness.

I really do not know for sure what will happen in the coming weeks, months and years.  The disruptions caused by Covid-19, already being experienced, will probably be short-term.  We might even forget about the whole story by April.  Soon enough, by the diligent efforts of some, a vaccine will be developed and those skeptical of the attention being brought to this virus can convince themselves this success is proof they were right not to be concerned.  But it is very likely that millions around the world will not see next Christmas. 

If you are a man over fifty it very well could be you.

Are you ready?