One of my favorite love stories, the BBC adaptation of a Victorian era novel, North & South, features two very strong and compelling characters.
The first, Margaret Hale, the cherub-faced daughter of an English clergyman, is forced to move to the industrial North after her father’s resignation over a matter of conscience. The other is John Thornton, a mill-owner, a handsome man with piercing eyes, brooding and intense, and interest in the demure young woman.
Things started fairly well. But, that doesn’t last as the differences in their perspectives becomes clear. Margaret, compassionate and having lived a sheltered life, interprets the actions of John in a negative light and pulls away after witnessing his harshness towards an employee caught smoking. What she sees as just cruelty was actually Thornton’s concern for the safety and wellness of his workers given the extreme risk of fire.
It is in the last and final act where there’s a scene where the tension between the two finally disappears. Throughout the middle-act Thornton’s truly good character is slowly revealed. And, Margaret, having returned South, has reconsidered her own idealistic notions, now sees the merits to living in Milton, and decided to return North again. Meanwhile, John is going South, the two cross paths at a station near the midpoint and cue the music.
There is this wonderful part of the soundtrack in this climatic station scene, Northbound Train (listen here), that so perfectly accompanied the moment. It is understated and elegant, reflective, that builds in waves to crescendo and then slips away as wistfully as it came. Thornton’s steadfast devotion is finally rewarded with a kiss and happily ever after begins despite the painful struggle to get there.
When the Story Goes South…
During my pursuit of the impossibly (a preacher’s daughter, like Margaret) this story brought a little hope with the similarities to my own. It wasn’t that we were so terribly different in our desires as it was she never heard me. Her conclusions formed before the conversation even began. She had pronounced “you’re thirty years old living in Milton” (the actual name of the town) meaning, in translation, that I would hinder her big plans. And could not understand it was her boldness and ability to get out that attracted me.
My thesis then was that a composite of our unique strengths, seemingly incompatible, bound together by Christian love, would exceed what those of similar abilities could accomplish. My thinking outside the box combined with her represention of the Mennonite standard. And, while I’m never good at getting things started (hence being stuck in Milton) I’m extremely loyal and willing to sacrifice for the team. I knew my age and life experience was an asset. But she could not see my value.
Still, for the year or so following her initial rejection I believed. What a wonderful story we would have when all was said and done, right?
Anyhow, that music, Northbound Train, had seemed like the perfect bridal march. Partly in innocent faith, partly to bolster my failing confidence against the deluge of rational fears, this image of the impossibly walking the church aisle dressed in white. As would be the case in real life, tears would stream down my cheeks as the nightmare of the past decade was replaced by this wonderful dream of marital companionship and completeness.
The strong emotions that came with that gentle harp being replaced with one violin and then two, have now disappeared. The music is still beautiful, but my feelings of numbness have long replaced that panging desire for a well-defined conclusion to over a decade of struggle. What I got instead was a world more complex. The cynicism that I had fought tooth and nail was confirmed.
The sunshine through the clouds, endings sweet and perfect are not for everyone. And the reason we tell such lovely tales is probably because they’re so uncommon, the exception, and not the rule. Sure, we can see ourselves as the characters. But the impossibly will likely go on seeing me as the villain in her movie, her conventional guy as the hero, and has never once shared in my fairytale that love would prevail over our differences.
As Far As the East is From the West
It is hard to believe that nearly another decade has passed and I’m still alone. I’ve moved from Milton, left the religion of my childhood behind, even traveled to the complete opposite side of the world twice, and have changed from that guy perpetually unsure of how to find direction. No, I’m not a missionary, but I do genuinely love people and probably accomplish more of actual value than those duty-bound Evangelical types who see ‘the lost’ as their get-into-heaven projects.
More importantly, I’ve found another impossibly, a beautiful Filipina flower, a little lost sheep when I found her (struggling abroad, in Taiwan, to support her son back home) and now the one who keeps me strong despite our torturous wait. Unlike the Mennonite impossibility, we do not share a cultural or ethnic identity, our lives have been very different, yet we have our simple and devoted love in common—which has been just enough to sustain us through these past years.
However, after all I’ve been through, holding on to hope is hard. Could my visions of her arrival at the airport, on American soil, with Y-dran in tow, also be a delusion?
It has been over two years and eight months since we’ve held each other that one last time before we parted ways in Taoyuan International Airport. I had known the immigration process would be difficult, but could not have anticipated the pandemic and travel bans that make it nearly impossible to be with Charlotte. It really does start to bring those worries that I might be cursed to the forefront again and sometimes the despair does win.
The eternal optimism of youth wiped away by the rejection of the Mennonite ideal, now facing my rational fears and the fact that I’ve been hoping longer than Jacob worked for Rachel and without so much as a Leah in between, I can now fully identify with the wife of Job, “Are you still trying to maintain your integrity? Curse God and die.” The frustration is real. How long does one go on dreaming? When is it justified to wither away into bones, with life never to return again?
As far as the East is from the West is an expression, in Psalms 103:12, used to describe an impossible distance that cannot be bridged. And it could seem that, despite the abiding love of my bhest to encourage me onwards, I’ve jumped straight from the frying pan into the fire. We have had a bit of good news since I’ve last published a blog here, the USCIS approved the application, and yet will this impossibly ever become possible?
I see the successful couples. So lovely together. To them it feels preordained, meant to be, a dream come true. For me, on the outside looking in, there is now more uncertainty than certainty, not everyone gets that music at the end.
The past few weeks have been painful. I had a bad toothache on top of my chronic neck issues. Sleeping and eating became extremely difficult. Like a city that still hasn’t been able to repair the flood walls after the last devastating storm, it did not take much time before waves of despair washed over me.
Yes, I knew that eventually this round of suffering would likely end. Antibiotics did finally do their thing for the infected root after a few days of excruciating pain. But I’m also more keenly aware than ever of my own deteriorating condition. I have gone to the gym faithfully for years, live a generally healthy life, and yet it is all simply a matter of time before I’ll succumb to old age.
It’s been a rough year, maybe even a rough decade, as the strong have fallen and yet another romance seems to be up against impossible odds. The death of Uriah, despite my best efforts to prepare for the outcome of the terrible prognosis he received, is still difficult. And now the unexpected circumstances of the pandemic are a real threat to my most successful relationship.
It has been over two and half years, early January of 2019, since Charlotte and I have been physically together. I had visited her over the holidays two years in a row and might have done the same had a contractor, remodeling my house, not overstayed their welcome. So, thinking the immigration process would soon be underway, I had promised Charlotte that I would visit the next year if she was not here.
Unfortunately, as December of 2020 approached, it soon became very clear that I would not be able to keep my word. Travel into the Philippines, for a foreigner like me, had been banned. It was, to say the least, a huge disappointment. And, obviously, having not come through, my own credibility also took a huge hit. Sure, I could not have known, but then how do you assure of anything in times like these?
I’m still not allowed to visit my love and there’s no end in sight to our wait. The Philippines is unusually strict as far as allowing noncitizens into the country and the immigration process, already arduous, has slowed to a crawl in the current pandemic era. In any year prior to 2020 there’s a good chance that we would be buying plane tickets right now for her and her son. Now everything is uncertain.
It is torture. What has remained of my hopes is being severely tested. Sure, the first step of the K-1 Visa process may soon be underway (we submitted our paperwork at the start of the year) yet the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) hasn’t even started to review it. The estimated start of processing is 6 to 8 months, we’re on month 8, and they could deny our application. And that’s just the start, then it moves on to the US Department of State.
Very recently I’ve heard that the Embassy in Manila isn’t even doing the interviews right now and, if true, this would mean a tremendous backlog of cases. They’ll likely force Charlotte and Y-dran (her son) to get the experimental vaccine or at least make it exceedingly hard otherwise. I’m not completely comfortable with that and yet what choice does one have? They basically have us over the barrel. Even with full compliance we’re looking at possible years of additional waiting.
It is so completely unnecessary that Y-dran has to wait even longer to have a father in his life, so absolutely unfair that Charlotte’s patience continues to be punished with one more year of waiting, and that’s not to mention my own distress trying to decide what is best considering the circumstances. It seems every path I try to ease our suffering is met with a new obstacle.
Just today, as I further explored our options to visit or meet somewhere, I found the ticket prices for my go-to airline have about tripled from last time that I looked and are pretty much prohibitively expensive. I do not even mention that sort of thing to her right now because it is too depressing too talk about. Maybe I’ll do a GoFundMe to raise funds if there is actually an option for us to see each other.
At this point nothing else in my life matters besides my obligation to Charlotte and Y-dran. If it weren’t letting them down, it would be easy to jump off of a bridge given the current outlook. I’ve been stuck in this nightmare of having my most sincere romantic hopes be dashed by things unforeseeable for decades. I’ve already endured complications that extended our seperation for years and now this.
Prior to the pandemic we would likely have everything processed by now and would be purchasing tickets. Now it is perhaps foolish to believe that we’ll ever be together or at least not for many years. Which, given our current ages, and the ticking biological clock, could mean that we never have children. At the very least, I’ll be even older and in less favorable condition than I am now, which is a very hard pill to swallow for both of us.
I’ll admit that my resolve is being strained to the max. Given my physical battles and my history of seeing everything possible go wrong in pursuit of happily ever after, there is this nagging fear that the past couple of years have been wasted on a lost cause and that I’ve dragged down to other people with my own delusional faith. I know Charlotte could find another man. Am I selfish to hold on? How long do you keep dreaming before giving up?
The problem is, if I give up, I’ve given up on life and love—I have let cynicism win.
Then again, it does feel that the odds are stacked up against us. Why would this all happen right now, when we already had such a tough journey? We’re up against the world, a cold-hearted system that doesn’t care about our story nor our love. Those making these decisions, processing our paperwork, can hold out indefinitely without feeling an ounce of our pain. We’re not giving up although maybe we have picked a battle that can’t be won.
Recently, through the Freedom of Information Act, by request of Washington Post and BuzzFeed News, a trove of Dr. Fauci’s emails have been released and the revelations therein causing a great uproar online. On one side there’s the “I told you so” crowd doing their victory lap. While, on the other side, is the supposedly unbiased ‘fact-checkers’ and corporate media denial professionals trying to argue that there’s nothing to see here.
So, is Dr. Fauci a national hero, a seasoned expert who helped the nation navigate a crisis, or should his head be on a pike?
Let’s start with who Dr. Fauci is and why he is the focus of national attention…
Doctor in the Spotlight
Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., was born in Brooklyn, NY, on December 24, 1940, to parents who operated a pharmacy in the city, his grandparents were immigrants, he was raised Catholic and now considers himself to be a humanist. He was a standout basketball player in the private Jesuit high school he attended, went to Holy Cross University for pre-med, and then attended Cornell University’s Medical School. He married Christine Grady, in 1985, who is described as “an American nurse and bioethicist” in Wikipedia, and they have three daughters.
In early 2020 Fauci was selected to be part of the Trump administration’s White House Coronavirus Task Force (now serves as Biden’s chief medical advisor) and very quickly was singled out by the corporate media for his sometimes seemingly contrarian positions with the President. If anything, his elevated role and becoming the face of the pandemic response has more to do with partisan politics of those desirous use him as a foil against President Trump than it does with anything else. Even Fauci himself, in the emails, seemed confused about his new celebrity status.
There were many stories lauding Fauci. There is no indication that he wanted to become the public figure he has become. He did not have the power to tell states what to do. But now, because he was portrayed as this unquestionable expert, he has become symbolic of the shutdowns and mask mandates to many Americans. Fame, even if unasked for, is a two-edged sword. One can quickly transition from hero to heel once the spotlight begins to reveal their blemishes. By putting Fauci front and center of the Covid response, the partisans have given us ample reason to scrutinize just who he is.
I personally, as someone with a sister who is a medical doctor and another who is a nurse, I am also not comfortable with many of those trashing Fauci’s reputation. I’m equally opposed to demonizing him or trying him in the court of public opinion. That said, as one who has some life experience, I also understand the value of second opinions when it comes to medical interventions. Fauci’s opinion should have been considered one of many, as part of a task force, and should never have been positioned as a rival to the President. That was dirty politics, completely a media creation, and likely hurt the pandemic response.
The Politics of Pandemic
Ideally, in times of national crisis, where many lives are at risk, partisan politics would’ve been put aside and the nation would rally behind the leaders elected no matter their party affiliation. In that world, the President, informed by various economic and medical advisors, would make the executive decisions and government agencies would do their best to put these decisions to practice. However, in the current polarized hyper-partisan environment, and with a Presidential election looming in 2020, the pandemic was treated by many as simply another divisive political tool.
No world leader’s response to Covid-19 was perfect. For example, had European governments followed Trump’s lead and shut down travel from China early on in the pandemic we might have had more time to prepare. It is easy to forget, but before social distancing and shutdowns became vogue, many social elites were minimizing the threat and calling Trump a racist for warning the world about the virus. In Italy, for example, they were urging people to give hugs to Chinese people to prove their own virtue. Our Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, urged her constituents to visit the crowded streets of Chinatown in San Fransico.
Trump was criticized for urging calm and being a cheerleader once the danger of Covid was finally realized. And, before that, was criticized for shutting down travel from China and accused of fear-mongering for speaking out. He could not win. He was resisted at every turn while trying to take steps to prepare and then accused of literal murder for the deaths in this country as if the world was somehow doing better. Few here would know that the US death rate is actually lower than that of Europe, per capita, but the stories here would focus on death totals to build the image of Trump’s failure.
Fauci, on the other hand, was not allowed to be criticized. He was praised endlessly as a representative of science, as bold and unbiased, a source of all truth and wisdom. His word was to be treated as irrefutable, god-like, his perspectives treated as the only one that mattered, and Trump asked over and over again, “will you follow Dr. Fauci’s recommendations?” It was presented as this horrendous thing that Trump may not take this one man’s advice on how to respond, as if there weren’t teams of other advisors to be heard and other concerns to be considered.
Every smart patient knows to get a second opinion on serious matters. Even the best physicians, experts in their fields, can misdiagnose or prescribe the wrong treatment. And this idea that “following the science” means worshipping or never questioning, men like Fauci is pure ignorance. It is dangerous ignorance.
But, as ignorant, is holding Fauci to an impossible standard because others put him on a pedestal.
On one hand, I completely understand the resentment that some hold towards this man that has come to symbolize the economic destruction brought on by state governors following Federal guidelines. However, much of what is being said now, in wake of the released emails, is as unfair as the coverage of the previous administration. Those against mask mandates and economic shutdowns are doing the same thing to Fauci as the corporate media propagandists did to Trump. His comments, like Trump’s comments, are being ripped out of context by many commentators, without explanation, and that’s a problem.
Yes, some of the emails show that Fauci withheld certain ideas about the origin of the virus and was initially dismissive of masking, yet nothing I’ve seen so far is smoking-gun evidence of his wrongdoing. Of particular interest is his involvement in funding the Wuhan lab, during the Obama administration, and whether or not this may have been a conflict of interest. And then there is the ethical issue issue with “gain of function” research that must be explored. My goal is to give fair treatment to the man and offer my own perspective as far as the content of the emails.
To Mask or Not To Mask?
One of the most contentious issues of the pandemic was the mask mandates. These state level policies, following the recommendations of the Federal government, were viewed either as life saving and scientifically proven or as terrible infringements on liberty and pretty much totally ineffective.
My own leanings, as someone who purchased a box of N95 masks in January of 2020, is that masks offer a marginal protection, if the correct type and properly used, and yet the mandates were basically useless. First cloth masks don’t offer the level of filtration that is necessary to trap the water droplets carrying the virus. Second, some countries required both a face shield and mask because they determined that masks alone weren’t effective.
The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through the material. It might, however, provide some slight benefit in keep[ing] out gross droplets if someone coughs or sneezes on you. I do not recommend that you wear a mask, particularly since you are going to a very low risk location.
And also saying this:
Masks are really for infected people to prevent them from spreading infection to people who are not infected rather than protecting uninfected people from acquiring infection…
Now, I believe he’s right in both cases. Masks only offer minimal protection. Covid spread through factories where everyone wore masks and states with mask mandates really didn’t fare better than those that did not. I understand that urge people have to “do something” and there are several flawed studies that back up the idea that masking is beneficial. However, I really do not see evidence that it makes a significant difference. Real life doesn’t match up with laboratory conditions. And thus that was likely behind Fauci’s pragmatic first take.
What is a bit unfair about the criticism about this apparent reversal in opinion on masks is that we all change our minds all the time. Sometimes I may disagree with some of my colleagues on something, state my own perspective, and then later amend as new evidence comes in. However, what is disturbing is where Dr Fauci explains this flipflop as being protection of mask supply for medical professionals. In other words, he is basically admitting to having lied to the American people about the effectiveness of masks. If that is the case then he should not be given a free pass.
The ‘Debunked’ Lab Leak Theory
One of those banned topics on social media was the theory that Covid-19 may have come from the lab in Wuhan, China. It made sense, a deadly virus emerges at a market within walking distance of Wuhan Institute of Virology, why not put that laboratory on the list of suspects? But for some reason discussion of this possibility was forbidden until very recently when it was revealed, through US intelligence, that researchers at this lab had become ill shortly before the virus turned the surrounding city into a warzone.
The Fauci emails also reveal that this possibility, even that Covid showed signs of being engineered for “gain of function” research, were discussed. Now, frankly, this is just good forensic science. It would be more shocking had this never been considered at all. And the batting this idea around alone is not proof that this is what had actually happened.
However, that so many literally conspired, with a foreign entity, to suppress this hypothesis (Big Tech censorship stifling the online conversation, corporate media fact-checkers claiming it had been debunked, etc) should be a cause for global outrage.
Of course, the most laughable claim of media propagandists, at the time, was that it was racist to link the virus to the Chinese Communist Party. Nevermind this was from the same people who had no problem with taking aim at wet markets and bat soup. But somehow that criticism of Chinese eating habits wasn’t a problem while taking a closer look at a laboratory that was studying coronavirus and bats was inappropriate.
Anyhow, given that Fauci had come out in full support of gain of function research and also been a force behind funding the Wuhan lab. Could it be this history explains the private discussion, in emails, and simultaneous public denial? Possibly, yes. It is very clear there’s a conflict of interest. Of course there’s a reason for him to keep a lid on what could be proof of his culpability for millions of deaths worldwide.
The result of Fauci’s silence, and corporate media stupidity and bias, is that something that should have been thoroughly explored months ago is only now being openly discussed. This has given a totalitarian regime, known for deception, more than enough time to cover up the truth and their role. Precious time has been wasted on what could be the biggest crime against humanity in the history of humankind. We have experienced a death toll and economic damages greater than twenty nuclear bombs, countless innocent lives destroyed, and the likely culprit was protected by a web of denial, collusion between Big Tech, the corporate media and high ranking government officials—like Dr. Fauci.
If the January 6th fracas is worthy of consideration for a Congressional Commission, then we really should dig deeper and investigate the true cause of a global pandemic that killed millions. No, there’s no smoking gun in the Fauci emails, or least none that I could see, and yet there is more than enough reason to suspect that one of our leading experts had tried to keep a lid on the Wuhan lab theory because of his own ties to the research. And still our corporate media speaks glowingly of him, as if he could do no wrong, the fact-checkers scurrying to tell us there is no bombshell revelation in the emails.
Dr. Fauci: Authority or Arrogant?
One thing that the pandemic has revealed and the emails only further confirmed, is the complete arrogance of our institutions. For whatever reason Fauci and others felt it was okay to mislead the American people, to tell the so-called “noble lie,” and then they wonder why trust is waning amongst the people they’ve deliberately deceived? Meanwhile, those who should be holding their feet to the fire, our ‘journalists’ (who now also see themselves worthy to pick winners for us rather than simply report), embarrass themselves with their fauning praise.
Is Fauci the sole source of all real science and truth?
No, absolutely not!
Is he a total fraud unworthy of his position?
Well, that is something worthy of investigation and yet to be determined. Innocent until proven guilty is still the law of the land. And I do not believe in trials in the court of public opinion. Again, while there are questions of ethics and culpability to be answered, that our corporate media should be asking rather than singing his praises, nothing in the emails implicates him of a crime.
My own thought, knowing what is known, is that making Fauci the fall guy would be letting too many others off the hook. Sure, he represents an accountability problem with the political establishment and elites who are protected by their own interests at the expense of the American people. No, they don’t simply “follow the science” nor are they invulnerable to group think or free from all bias. They’re human, like us, they make mistakes, they have political agendas and hidden motivations too. It isn’t about secret conspiracies so much as it is a matter of human fallibility, in general, and arrogance.
Over the course of the past year Fauci’s name has become synonymous with authority and science. But much of that is smoke and mirrors. He is truly only one qualified voice of many and was only made the face of the pandemic as a way to undermine Trump. This is pretty much the only reason why he is loved by one side and loathed by the other. Politics. The politics of the pandemic cloud good judgment. And those caught in this political fray deserve better than to be torn up by the mob or raised up like saints.
Fauci, given the voting patterns of NYC and government lifers, is probably as Democrat as one could be. That could explain some of the looks of tension, and tedious corrections, when Trump used his layman’s terms during press conferences. But, unlike the media narrative that constantly pitted him against the President, the emails showed this conflict between the men was massively overblown.
In the end, Dr. Fauci has the swagger of a Brooklynite, cocky or confident depending on who you ask, and amazing stamina for a man his age. But he should have never been made a celebrity, never turned into this unquestioned authority on matters of science or used as a tool of partisan politics.
Originally, a few years ago, I had planned a multi-part series, “The People Want A King,” to discuss the establishment of rulers in the Biblical narrative and make it applicable to our own times. The short version is that God gave his people a king, while warning them of the costs, because they wanted to be like other nations.
The costs were great…
Kings demanded more and more for themselves.
The centralization of power from many to few only increased the magnitude of corruption without providing a solution.
And, ultimately, the king could not provide the protection the people had sought when they established the throne.
People then, like people now, wanted an authority figure, someone to lead them and take responsibility for their lives. They ended up with nothing but trouble: Higher taxes, more wars for the glory of the crown, and a growing number of rules that applied to them but never the ruler. Even the good kings did horrendous things with the power that had been entrusted to them and our modern-day governments not much different in that regard.
Despite this, most people can’t even imagine a world without governments and many still look to leaders to act as a wise fatherly figure in times of crisis. Some would even like the government to play a nurturing role, they fantasize about this motherly figure that gives them everything and asks nothing but love in return. It seems that a majority of people believe that government leaders (or at least those of their own political party) are imbued with special powers of discernment and serve a role that can’t be questioned.
“Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.”
Christians are told on multiple occasions to pray for and respect civil authorities. We are told by St. Paul that the punishment of evil is for our good and therefore we should not resist. But that said, this idea that government leaders, the representatives of bureaus and bureaucracies, have some sort of god-like infallibility and superior wisdom is plain wrong. We cannot trust them to save us any more than anyone else. And if we learn anything from their mistakes we should know:
The Myth of Special Knowledge or Abilities
For the amount of faith that some seem to have in our institutions, you may think that our leaders have a near-perfect batting average. It does not take long to compile a list of huge government blunders and starting with the handling of Covid-19. The virus wasn’t even on the radar of many of our elected officials before things got bad in Italy and when they finally did respond they did in a manner that did not make sense.
For example, state governments forced nursing homes to take Covid-19 patients. They literally took Covid-19 directly to our most vulnerable populations, where 2/3rds of the deaths in my state have occurred. And, simultaneously, they prevented those least threatened by the disease from working or going to school—which resulted in an uptick of overdoses and suicides. This also at the same time Pennsylvania Health Secretary, Dr. Levine, was removed their own 95-year-old mom from a personal care home.
So, take your pick, gross incompetence, or plain evil, either way, state officials responded the exact opposite of what would actually make sense, in a way that would actually maximize the harm done, and these are the people we trust with our collective welfare?
And then there is the not so small matter of shutting down rest areas in a time when truck drivers, always essential, were as essential as ever. You would think that if the goal were to stop the spread of the virus you would want your road warriors to have clean and easily accessible restroom facilities, along with a safe place to sleep. But, to this day, many rest areas remain closed and those open have dingy unheated porta-potties rather than open their regular restrooms to travelers. In a time when health and hygiene is supposedly our focus, they have forced unsanitary and stressful conditions on essential workers. Even after being confronted on this, they continue to persist with this asinine policy with absolutely no regard for the well-being of truckers.
Sure, this could be a mistake. There certainly is no reason to assume that there is some sort of malicious intention here. But it does demonstrate that they lack a special power of discernment over the rest of us. It should make us consider that maybe their whole perspective is wrong. I mean, if their judgment of small matters is so poor, why should we take their word on large matters?
Could it be that those who were elected for their charisma and/or party affiliation and are not truly qualified to lead anything?
Could it be that various government officials were appointed for political reasons, made their careers in places where job performance didn’t actually matter too much, and are incompetent?
Yes, government leaders can get caught up in hype and hysteria just like the rest of us. No, neither they nor their advisors have a special power of discernment. This reality may be disconcerting to those who want a benevolent dictator to tell them what to do, nevertheless, it is true.
The same leaders who nonsensically force truckers to use the least sanitary option could also be blissfully unaware of the severe (and deadlier) economic impact they are inflicting on us. The same leaders who forced nursing homes to take Covid-19 patients, evidently knowing the likely outcome, could be completely calloused to the pain that they are inflicting on you.
Myth That Only Government Can Do Great Things
There are many who are skeptical of government and yet default to the idea that we need to provide us with various services. I mean, who would build the roads if it wasn’t for PennDOT, right?
Of course, never mind that PennDOT doesn’t build roads, they take our money through taxes and then subcontract the actual building to private companies. The reason for this is very simple: The government can never match private for-profit enterprises for efficient use of resources because there is simply no incentive to do so. Therefore, due to this disconnect, when the government does do anything themselves it is insanely expensive and prone to failure.
A prime example, from a century ago, was the competition between Samuel Pierpoint Langley and two brothers from Ohio, Orville and Wilber Wright, to build the first powered flying machine. Langley, funded by the government and fawned over by the media, he had all the right connections and credentials, but his overwrought design ended up in the Potomac River. The Wrights, by contrast, had little to no attention, didn’t even have high school diplomas, ran a bicycle sales and repair business, and beat Langley to powered flight with a very low budget and simple design. But, despite this, it is Langley’s name that graces an Army airbase, the CIA headquarters, and a NASA center.
Speaking of NASA, the agency has, at great taxpayer expense, done some amazing things. We take for granted the satellites in orbit, the trips to the moon and back, along with the many things this government agency had pioneered that have since become integrated into our own lives. Could one person ever rival these great accomplishments?
“Between 1970 and 2000, the cost to launch a kilogram to space remained fairly steady, with an average of US$18,500 per kilogram. When the space shuttle was in operation, it could launch a payload of 27,500 kilograms for $1.5 billion, or $54,500 per kilogram. For a SpaceX Falcon 9, the rocket used to access the ISS, the cost is just $2,720 per kilogram.”
But it isn’t just space flight that is made easier and less expensive through private innovation. No, at a time when the US Postal Service, a government entity that is supposed to be self-sustaining, can barely make ends meet, there is Jeff Bezos and Amazon making a tremendous profit while delivering tons of products. Sure, Amazon uses the Postal Service, and yet the lack of ability of the government enterprise to modernize and adapt to the current market conditions that is proving to be a fatal flaw. As they beg for another taxpayer bailout, Bezos and others will continue to prove that the same task can be done better and with lower overhead costs.
The idea that there is any worthwhile project that is beyond the reach of the brilliant innovators of the present, without it being financed directly by the government, is completely bogus. Yes, certainly, unlike the Wright Brothers, the Musks and Bezos of this generation do take every tax break or advantage offered to them by government. But you could eliminate all of that entanglement and they would still do it better than any government agency at a fraction of the cost. The government never actually does great things. No, at best it is only ever a middleman that hires people or companies, supposedly on our behalf, that does the great things.
Myth That Only Government Can Keep Us Safe
If you look at the big problems of the past couple of decades that may require government sized intervention, from the 9/11 attacks to the viral outbreak originating in Wuhan, there is a disturbing pattern that emerges. Not only did this super expensive security apparatus not stop the various events and keep us safe, but it may also have actually been the cause of these events due to their prior interventions.
There likely would not be the Islamic Republic of Iran today had it not been for the CIA’s meddling in the domestic politics of Iran. Osama Bin Laden had been an ally in our government’s proxy war against the Soviet Union before he became a threat that cost trillions. Our top US health advisor, across multiple US administrations, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is linked to the organization that funded bat and coronavirus research in a lab in none other than (drumroll, please) Wuhan, China.
No, this is not a conspiracy theory, I’m not even convinced it was malicious in intent in any of the cases above. I agree with Hanlon’s Razor, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” But, regardless, there is certainly a strong case to make that high-ranking government officials do not comprehend the consequences of their actions, do not account for the blowback, and their solutions often create bigger problems.
Are you sure you want the same people who created the problem, in the first place, to manage the response as well?
Maybe it is time for a second opinion…
And then there is the inconvenient truth that many in government are the actual criminals!
Well, not that those truly guilty are ever prosecuted by the same standards applied to us or others of lower political status. Case and point: General Flynn was criminally prosecuted for what amounts to a perjury trap and in the context of an investigation that had no legal basis, to begin with, but a certain prominent US politician lied under oath to Congress and never faced any real threat of punishment.
No, we are no better today than in the time of kings when it comes to equal justice. Those with real power (usually the combination of media and government agencies sympathetic) are never held accountable or to nearly the same standard that is applied to the average person. Even in Pennsylvania, where nursing homes were forced by the state government to take Covid-19 patients, guess who is being investigated by the state Attorney General for the resultant deaths? If you guessed the governor’s administration that ordered the sick into the nursing homes, then you would be wrong. Nope, instead, they will investigate the nursing homes, which is a typical “smokescreen” strategy or means to distract from those who truly should be held accountable.
The Myth of the Significant Party Difference
One of the most persistent and most blinding myths of politics is that the two parties represent something vastly different. If you are one of those Obama fanboys who still believes that his administration was scandal-free even now, because he says so, even after the “Fast and Furious” gun-running scandal, after weaponization of the IRS against political rivals, and actually believe he didn’t know anything about the Watergate-esque spying under his watch, then you are a complete tool. Likewise, if you see Trump as being a saint because he says some Christian things and posed with some pastors, then you are an insufferable fool.
The real difference between the two men is that Obama is and expects to be catered to as one who can wax eloquent in a manner that sends shivers down the legs of other social elites, while Trump is a populist who knows how to work a crowd and is old (or rich) enough not to care what the talking heads think. If you don’t see Obama as being as narcissistic and corrupt as Trump then you probably also side against Biden’s accuser, with a corroborated allegation of sexual assault, while screaming #believewomen only a couple years ago because that is what you were told to do. Trump might be a bully, an unapologetic Twitter troll, but Obama is the popular snob who snickers behind the backs of those of lower status while knowing how to work the system in his own favor.
The only reason that I find Trump tolerable is that he offends who aren’t accustomed to being called out and is the underdog in the fight. The fact that Trump is loathed by the corporate media and political establishment, both Republicans and Democrats, is enough reason to like him. Most Trump ‘scandals’ amount to little more than elaborate misinformation campaigns. For example, when Trump suggested hydroxychloroquine had promise as a treatment option for Covid-19, something many doctors agree with, this was equated to telling people to drink poison and is still being ridiculed. Why? Well, because Trump said it and they hate him with a blinding passion. They would probably rather die than acknowledge that Trump is right.
But, in the end, I do not see Trump as a savior any more than any other politician. Sure, I am glad that he’s a challenge to the status quo. It’s fun to see his rivals become unglued and expose themselves as being as nasty under the thin veneer of their fancier, more sophisticated, language. However, the idea that any particular political party or person has all the right answers, or that Trump can be trusted with power more than anyone else, is balderdash. Trump should be mistrusted. He is as fallible as anyone else. My only complaint is that those attacking him, often for overtly political reasons, never face the same level of scrutiny nor are ever held accountable for their abuses.
The Myth of Having to Be Pro- or Anti-government
After writing all of that one might assume that I’m anti-government. I’m not. I believe that governments exist for a reason and abolishing them would not result in harmonious perfection. The same evils that plague government leaders would not simply go away because we eliminate the government and there is a moral order enforced by the state even if we do not fully agree with it. Sure, we may not like that a State Trooper gives us a speeding ticket and yet most of us are appreciative when a murderer is brought to justice in a way that we couldn’t do individually for ourselves.
In the Philippines, where the central state is relatively weak and law enforcement resources stretched thin, murderers often face no consequences. I know this from having experienced it first hand, the men who murdered uncle Roland are still free despite strong leads because the police there do not have the ability to follow up. By contrast, in the United States, even with the smallest leads, government investigators were able to find the killer of Sasha Krause recently and Marco Kauffman before that. That closure provided doesn’t bring back those loved ones taken away, but it certainly does help to take a killer off of the street and to provide some deterrence against others who would do evil.
If the United States government were to disband the relief from the tyranny we know would be extremely temporary and the peace short-lived as something would come in to fill the vacuum. A disorganized band of anarchists will do very little to stop even a Mexican cartel, let alone the People’s Republic of China, or anyone else who decided to take advantage. The peaceable folk who enjoy prosperity under the umbrella of government protection would either need to lose their disposition or learn to appreciate the taxation without representation of armed thugs who take whatever they want, including the innocence of their daughters, without ever needing to face consequences. We would be foolish not to consider the benefits of our imperfect order over the likely alternatives.
But, that said, I’m under no delusion as far as the righteousness of our social elites and governing authorities. They are as flawed and lacking in good discernment anyone else and often too often greedy for more power by any means.
Anyhow, I had sat on this post for a couple of weeks because I didn’t know how to finish. The tragic circumstances of George Floyd’s death, while in the hands of the Minneapolis Police, underscores the point of this blog quite well. No matter how intentioned or carefully formed, there is no escaping the reality that governments aren’t any better than the people that populate their nations. There is simply no escape for this reality, that no government in history or currently existing can save us from ourselves. The only hope for perfect justice is through faith in the kingdom where the fears, prejudice and greed, lust for power and lawlessness, are finally defeated in the hearts of men. Where we can govern ourselves according to the example of Jesus Christ.
False dichotomies pop up everywhere in the political discourse. You are either pro-life or you are a raging homicidal baby-killing feminist monster and, alternatively, you are either pro-choice or you are “at war with women” and would turn the world into “The Handmaid’s Tale” if ever given the chance. Of course, both sides of that dichotomy are grossly misrepresenting those on the other side. Some of the most vocal proponents of pro-life that I know are of the female gender, would rather not have their lives ruled by men or be treated like baby-making slaves. Likewise, many on the pro-choice side are intelligent and compassionate people who follow a different dogma as far as what does or does not constitute a separate human life.
Where you stand on the recent Covid-19 forced closures probably has much more to do with your politics than it does with your personal level of scientific sophistication. Sure, there are many, blinded by their own confirmation bias, who see everything they believe as being scientifically based and rational, but that is to be in denial of the role that their own emotions play in their judgment. The decision to shut down the economy due to the virus had has much to do with fear as fact. How do I know? Well, there weren’t a whole lot of reliable facts to go on when the decisions were being made. We had models, yes, but models are only as reliable as the data entered and the accuracy of the assumptions that they contain. Their predictions are not facts. What likely had a big influence is the scary stories coming from Italy and the lack of good information from China.
The Changing Understanding of Covid-19
I had been in favor of the shutdowns, initially, to give time to make a more accurate assessment of the actual threat and also to give time for our medical professionals to gear up amidst global shortages of personal protective equipment. Sure, many Americans are of the pigheaded mentality that they will drive eighty miles per hour into a blinding fog bank and then have massive pileups as a testament to their inability to slow down for anything. But it is only prudent to enter into a potentially deadly new situation, with many unknowns, with an abundance of caution. The arrival of Covid-19 onto the world scene was such a circumstance. The idea of social distancing to “flatten the curve” made sense at the time.
However, as a couple of weeks morphed into a month or more and the language of state politicians mysteriously shifted from slowing the spread (as we were told was the reason for the shutdowns) to trying to stop it entirely, while at the same time the there was growing evidence that the virus was not as deadly as first thought, was likely here earlier than had been previously known and may have actually reached the peak (unflattened before the shutdown measures had been implemented) in some places, I kept waiting for decision-makers to shift their policies according to the actual evidence. But they did not. Frozen by fear or too stubborn to revisit their previous decisions (or maybe even wanting to punish those opposed to their lockdowns and show who is boss, who knows?) there was no change. They were determined to plow ahead with their prior decision based on bad data, economic consequences be damned, so wear your masks, go to Walmart like good little citizens and shut up.
We all have an idealogical team we are pulling for, whether we realize it or not, and it can cloud our perspective of an issue. Sure, you might believe that your ignorance of virology is “common sense” (which, unfortunately, is probably common and yet good sense is not always common) and refuse to take reasonable precautions. Or you might think your own opinion (and that of the experts whom you agree with) is some kind of “scientific consensus” and an irrefutable fact. But the reality is that you might just be too arrogant (in your little knowledge or, rather, knowing just enough to be dangerous) to understand that there could be perspectives greater than your own. The frustrating part for me was always being caught between the false choices put out by those on either side of the political debate. Those calling the virus a hoax, dismissing the effectiveness of masks, and being generally ignorant only armed those pushing for control with a false moral imperative to double-down on their shutdown or die mantra.
Covid-19, while certainly deadly for many and even if those terrifying early estimates of a 2-4% death rate had held true, is nowhere near the Spanish flu. The real number, given growing evidence gathered by antibodies testing and from various ships where everyone was tested, shows a true death rate closer to 0.5% which isn’t too different from the seasonal flu over the course of an average year. Yes, it did certainly stretch our medical resources thin, and likely would’ve with or without the shutdowns, yet there is little evidence to show that our economic self-sabotage actually saved lives. No, if anything, we may have simply destroyed opportunity for those most vulnerable here and around the world for no real gain. It is quite possible, even probable, that more will die as a result of the forced shutdowns than were saved. In the end, the decision to shut down the economy was never a question of shut down or die. For many, it may very well be shut down and die.
False dichotomies are dangerous. They are lies. This polarization of our many choices can come with tragic results.
Economic Shutdowns Also Kill People
In my many discussions about Covid-19 I’ve run into many reoccurring and economically illiterate sentiments, like this one: “I’m sorry but I can’t believe I’m reading this. No compassion for human life and suffering?” That in response to a well-written article weighing the benefits against the costs of the economic shutdown. Apparently, in this person’s emotion soaked and one-dimensional brain, the only way you can show compassion for human life and suffering is to keep people caged in their homes and unable to feed themselves?
As a starting point, there was never a scenario where there could be zero deaths from Covid-19. That ship had sailed long ago, in China, when the authorities there continued to let people from the epicenter travel around the world (although not domestically) and sailed when many Western leaders were more concerned with things like “xenophobia” than the virus. Maybe had Europe joined the Trump administration in banning travel from the source of the outbreak there may have been a chance of containing it. But it was already too late by the time concern about the virus and death tolls had finally exceeded worries about political correctness and virtue signaling about race. Places like New York City and Los Angeles were going to see tens of thousands dead regardless of what was done at that juncture.
When the shutdowns began, in earnest, the virus was already deeply entrenched. The first verified case in France, for example, has been recently discovered to have been back in December already and much earlier than initially thought. It had likely spreading while some politicians here were still encouraging people to crowd the streets of Chinatown and was definitely being passed around while Italian leaders were telling people to hug Chinese people (from Wuhan, no less) in a misguided effort to prove they weren’t racist. The die had been cast and we were in for a wild ride.
But what we did have a choice over is how we responded to the threat. Certainly, the virus had not reached us all, and we could not know (without significant testing) if the peak of infections was a couple of weeks out or still months ahead. If the virus had reached relatively few of us and the death rates were already skyrocketing then the most desperate measures were completely justified even if it cost some lives. On the other hand, if the virus had already been in circulation for months and the hospitals weren’t already jampacked, there was very little to be gained and plenty to be lost from sweeping anti-economic measures. Those with strong social networks and a fat wallet, like the Hollywood celebrities urging us plebes to stay at home while they sip martinis in their hot tub, might not get it, but there are serious consequences to economic shutdowns even if you do not personally experience them.
For those who still think that there’s no harm done by shutting down (simply because they are amongst the privileged less affected and able to put food on their own tables), keep reading.
This idea that the economy is about Wall Street and stock portfolios is complete and utter nonsense. The concern many have about the shutdown has nothing to do with the fiction you hold of Scrooge McDuck swimming in his vault full of gold coins and perpetually worried about losing his wealth. Not at all. First, no billionaire (other than the Hollywood fantasy villain version) actually has moldy money, billionaires are billionaires because they make good investments and their investments are often in life-sustaining industries, like healthcare. Second, most of the economy is Y-O-U. The economy is, simply put, our transactions together, the labor we use to produce things of value to trade with others for our wants and basic necessities.
That out of the way…
Domestic Abuse, Drug Overdoses, and Suicide Rates
Shutdowns have consequences and the consequences are often much more devastating for those most vulnerable. I think often of my waitress and waiter friends, people in the restaurant industry, who have suddenly without warning had their entire income stream dry up by the executive fiat of someone who gets their paycheck via the state treasury or through an accumulation of assets. Sure, Trump and Congress have taken action to offset some of these losses by direct payments, unemployment compensation has been extended to many who might not otherwise qualify and yet that will do nothing for those permanently unemployed.
For many in the world, in the same way that Covid-19 is deadly to those with comorbidities, an economic shutdown is (or will be) that proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Sure, you can say that the guy devastated by the bills piling up and his bank account drying up, his business being shuttered, should see the bigger perspective. But that is no different from saying that we should not care about Covid-19 deaths because those most impacted were dying anyway and that their comorbidities actually killed them. The fact that not everyone is as financially healthy as you are or as emotionally able to weather the storm caused by the shutdown doesn’t undo the damage done to those who are more vulnerable.
The socio-economic cost of the shutdowns should be factored into the decision as much as the potential gain. Sure, there is a possibility (although it is not proven) that the shutdowns may spare a few that would otherwise have perished from the virus and accompanying complications. But there is definitely an uptick in things such as domestic violence and child abuse that comes with forcing weak and emotionally vulnerable people to stay confined together, away from their sources of stress relief and friends, for months. Believe it or not, not everyone shares your advantages in mental health, not everyone can keep doing their work via Zoom, we aren’t equal in this together as some will proclaim, some are isolated alone, and with only their suicidal ideations to keep them company for the duration.
And, for those of you looking down your noses in condemnation of the shutdown protestors at state capitals, thinking that your own rationality and compassion is what is guiding you, think again. True compassion would have some sympathy for those who are suffering from the economic consequences of the hasty and arbitrarily enforced shutdowns. Unlike you, they might not be able to afford to shelter in place for months at a time. The truth might be that you, in your fearful overreaction to Covid-19, simply do not care enough about their livelihoods being ripped out from under them and are too ignorant of the economic consequences, the increase in domestic abuse, drug overdoses, and suicides that accompany economically dire circumstances.
It is certainly no more dangerous to do a couple of laps around a state capital, than it is to go to Home Depot, Walmart, or the grocery store. I suspect the real issue some have has to do with political affiliations. It is a moral superiority contest between them and those who decided that the risk of government overreach and economic ruin is greater than the virus. Some would rather live in denial of the serious economic consequences they’ve imposed on others, ignore the evidence of the suffering caused by their selfish demands for safety at all costs (to their neighbors), and maintain their dangerous tunnel vision?
Of course, who knows, in the current political climate, maybe some would rather the protestors killed themselves than peacefully vent their pent up frustrations?
But this is far bigger than domestic politics…
Economic Downturns, Food Shortages, and Starvation
The most troubling and continuing consequences of the imposed shutdowns is the impact it is having on the agricultural industry and food supply chain. It was very early on when the stories started to cross my newsfeed about small farmers, in the Philippines, being forced to dump their produce. If one understood the labor that it took (most Americans can’t even imagine), that these farmers would give up their meager profits, it is hard to understand. But that is what happens when the market is closed down, there is no refrigerated warehouse to store their vegetables until things reopen again. And, sure, some of it is distributed to their neighbors, and yet the real demand comes from the cities. So the cities are cut off from their suppliers and the poor farmers from their buyers and only source of income.
I’ve realized recently that many people can’t understand logistics even at the most basic level and see the actions of agricultural producers here as being greedy or suspicious. When I mentioned how producers were culling herds due to processing plants being closed over Covid-19 concerns and the possibility of people starving, I had a guy respond with the following, “If we don’t want people to starve let’s start by distributing this food that is being wantonly destroyed by the factory farms.” His ‘solution’ may seem reasonable at first glance. I mean, why not? But then you have to considfer that these big producers would not just throw away their profits. They aren’t that stupid. And if they can’t process this protein then you can be 100% sure that government or anyone else is going to replace their production capacity. They are the specialists.
Sure, like in rural parts of the Philippines, the neighbors to these massive barns will get all the pork or poultry they will ever need. However, that’s nibbling around the edges of the problem. The real reason we have these “factory farms” is not to supply Union County and the surrounding communities. No, not at all! The real market for this meat is the big cities. So, while it is great that some rural neighbors get to fill their freezers at a below-market price, that is going to do very little for the needs of those downstream and cut off from their food source. A couple of “community gardens” in Brooklyn can’t offset the literal tons of beef, pork, and vegetables that are imported into that city every day. Don’t get me wrong, I love a ‘feel good’ story as much as the next guy, but this isn’t an issue that will be solved by a couple of generous farmers.
The abrupt shutdowns and closures are causing incredible bottlenecks that cannot be easily resolved overnight. Closing down schools and restaurants, for example, meant that all of the food in that pipeline, packaged for that kind of usage, was now jammed up. There are some grocery stores now selling meats that were originally intended for restaurants. But the retooling cannot happen like the flip of a switch. That is why some dairy processors, what specialized in supplying schools, had to dump their milk at the same time grocery shelves had run dry of the staple. That is why potatoes are piled up to rot in Idaho. When networks within the supply chain break down, when the market is majorly disrupted without warning, there are shortages in some places and over-supplies in other places.
Those big animal operations need to keep moving things along, the whole process can’t be held up for long before there are major problems, finished pigs need to be moved along or there is no room for the feeder pigs to go. Sure, they can change the feed to try to keep the finished pigs at a particular weight for a period of time. But eventually, something as to give. That is why there are piles of dead pigs a hundred feet long, going to waste, and soon enough the shelves will run empty as well. It will seem strange. Many won’t understand how it is possible, but it is happening and it is happening like a slow-motion train wreck.
That all said, I’m not afraid for myself or most Americans. We might miss out on a steak or pork chop. We will likely pay a little more for our food in the coming months. However, my real concern is for those in the many places around the world where people work hand to mouth. The rickshaw driver in Mumbai can’t afford to pay more for his family’s food and especially not after being locked in his own house for months. The person in a Manila slum, already living on “pagpag” (a Taglog term meaning “garbage chicken” or literally food pulled from the trash) will not do well when others are fighting over the disappearing scraps as food becomes scarce. Many in the world live on a very small ration, meat is a luxury to them, and now have been deprived of their income in a desperate fight against a virus that may not even be stopped by their sacrifice.
Making the Right Trade-offs…
There is no question about the seriousness of Covid-19. I have a close friend in NYC who lost two friends. They were both my age and died in their own homes. It is not a virus that should be laughed off or treated as no big deal. Tens of thousands have died and tens of thousands more will likely die and in a relatively short period of time. Sure, many of these people may have had comorbidities and yet they would very likely have been with us for many more years had they not had their encounter with this deadly virus.
It is possible that some could be saved from Covid-19 through the shutdowns. There is no solid evidence that this is the case. Nevertheless it is possible. That said, it is also possible that our efforts only prolonged or even worsen the pandemic by preventing “herd immunity” from ever happening, which means we could suffer more deaths from Covid-19 and also the experience the hardships of the economic shutdown.
Whatever the case, the “shut down or die” mythology needs to be confronted. Those looking for a perfect solution here are living in fantasy land. The hope that a vaccine will be developed quickly and then become widely available is (sorry, anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists) basically a Hollywood fiction. We still don’t have a vaccine for SARS or MERS and may never have a vaccine for Covid-19. So, this idea that we can just hunker down and wait this out is not realistic. Sure, I would be glad to be proven wrong, it is possible, but there are also huge trade-offs to our waiting that need to be discussed.
Speaking of trade-offs: According to ASIRT, 1.35 million people die in car accidents every year (over 38,000 in the US) and an additional 20-50 million are injured (4.4 million US), some with permanent disabilities as a result. This, unlike Covid-19, is a ‘pandemic’ that disproportionally impacts the young and with no pre-existing health conditions. We could, quite easily, in the name of safety, ban all automobiles and save far more lives in a couple of years than the shutdowns ever would. Of course, we would never do that, we have valued the freedom of movement and economic advantages over the risk of serious injury or death. I suppose people feel more in control behind the wheel, but if we were really in control of the outcome of our trip then nobody would leave home knowing that they would get into a fatal car crash, would they?
Based on what we now know about the virus and death rates we should not have shut down the to the extent that we did. We may have saved a little on the front end, compared to Sweden who remained open, and yet will very likely end up in the same place as far as Covid-19 and far worse off in terms of the economic consequences. My fear is that many more will perish as a result of the shutdowns than from the virus. Millions of the world’s young and most vulnerable are suffering right now, as I write this, and could die of starvation. A good analysis must weigh all factors. We cannot be zoned in so much on one problem and only one solution that we cannot see any others. The virus from China is bad, but the panicky response of governments around the world may have made it many times worse.
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.”
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.