Month: April 2020

On Covid, Sweden Is Not The Answer

More and more news outlets are looking admiringly upon the Swedish government’s “experiment” of refusing to instate any lockdowns or other restrictions to stem the spread of Covid. In recent days, various commentators have described it as “the right approach“, a bold “gamble“, a case of “listening to science not fear“, an approach that is already “paying off” while “keeping cases low“.

There is just one problem with all these celebratory accounts: curiously, not a single one of them mentions any actual numbers from Sweden.

Happily, all the most relevant numbers are easily found at Wikipedia—and so, assuming one is versed in the mysterious arts of division and multiplication, it is not too hard to get an idea for oneself just how “successful” the Swedish approach has been thus far.

The upshot from these numbers, as of this writing, is simple to state: Sweden has not only far more Covid cases and deaths in total, but also vastly more cases and deaths per capita, than any of its Scandinavian neighbors (Denmark, Norway, and Finland) which have done lockdowns.

More precisely, in terms of total deaths from Covid, Sweden has more than five times those of Denmark, nearly eleven times those of Norway, and over twelve times those of Finland. Per capita, this translates to a death rate 3 times higher than Denmark, 5.7 times higher than Norway, and 6.6 times higher than Finland.

It might be prudent, therefore, for certain pundits to hold their applause for the Swedish approach… that is, unless their goal is actually elimination of population.

In all fairness, one can perhaps see how many Swedes, having already become accustomed to a culture of pervasive Doublethink—and in particular, politically-correct censoring of official data—might have convinced themselves that a policy that results in a vastly higher death rate really is a “success”.

But how did they seemingly convince so many outside of Sweden as well? Indeed, these glowing counterfactual celebrations of the Swedish approach are coming mostly from what is generally called ‘the right’—that is, from conservative and business-friendly publications.

Alas, this is but another example of how, when the issue at hand involves keeping greed-as-usual running and currencies flowing no matter the cost, our ‘rightists’ prove no less eager to warp, censor and ignore fundamental realities than their leftist counterparts. “Political correctness” finds its partner-in-crime in what we might call “Economic correctness”.

(No wonder the economy on the eve of the pandemic was even more wildly fragile, hyper-leveraged, indebted, unprofitable, and in a word, illusory than it was in 2008: firstly, because during nearly all of those intervening twelve years, it was “economically incorrect” to say anything but “the economy is fundamentally strong“; secondly, because most ‘rightists’ apparently do not trouble themselves with basic division and multiplication any more.)

Another possible source of the strange admiration for Sweden’s mounting Covidian fiasco has to do with the same knee-jerk sense of ‘contrarianism’ as was evident in, for example, many experts’ recent insistence that face masks actually increase the risk of catching coronavirus. Now, instead of going mask-less, the contrarians propose “herd immunity”, Swedish-style, as an alternative to social distancing, business closures, or lockdowns.

On this view, we should not simply try to avoid catching Covid in the first place, for this is but lowly common sense and must, ipso facto, be misguided; instead, the truly daring, nay superior intellect must agree that we should not only catch the virus, but should try to have everybody catch it as soon as possible!

This is in fact the germ (so to speak) of the “herd immunity” proposal, which quite recklessly (desperately?) gambles entire national populations on two increasingly dubious assumptions: a) that persons who have had Covid have truly eliminated the virus, and b) that such persons will be lastingly immune.

Such willful sloppiness of thought has, under the name “contrarianism”, been strangely confused with “expertise”, and thereby also with superior status. (This last promise—status—is no doubt why such idio-contrarianism is profoundly attractive to many.)

Yet whether the Swedish Covid Experiment and the blind praises sung of it derive ultimately from Marxist zealotry, market fundamentalism, or mindless contrarianism, the historical parallel that jumps to mind more than all others is one from Stalinist times. For given the very special combination of soaring catastrophe and equally soaring triumphalism that we now see, who can doubt that Swedish epidemiologists and their various enablers have become quite… dizzy with success?

Voices From the Coronal Abyss

As the Covid disrupts the internationalist dream of a smoothly calibrated worldwide mechanism of personal, legal, and economic control, strange sepulchral voices can be heard issuing from the depths of the managerial and technocratic classes. For one example (from the Right), we may turn to today’s Spectator:

“The capacity for communication offered by 5G is stunning. It is much better to think of 5G as a network built for machines, since most of the network traffic will eventually be machine to machine. This will allow for massive data production, which will feed machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms, which in turn will continue improving the technology in a giant information feed-back loop.”

(He then goes on to imply that the 5G should not only be built, but it should be a state monopoly–one horror on top of another.)

What is most singular here is that this author thinks the above scenario is mostly wonderful and at any rate “inevitable” (and the pandemic, for him, makes it only more so, more perfectly logical and necessary). Though this writer clearly styles himself something of a maverick and visionary, he is for that a stunningly blind one, for the only actual problem he sees with such a Skynet-like system–in which millions of objects per square mile are minutely controlled and catalogued at all times by machines and their most privileged handlers & architects–is literally just that China might take over too much of it. That the amount of information involved will completely outstrip any conceivable direct human need does not even register to him. That the self-improving “feedback loop” he envisions will likely birth increasingly uncontrollable monstrosities does not matter to him.

It is very much as if such persons are driven–possessed, really–by an insane, completely unreflective urge to accelerate the world towards complete surveillance and AI takeover as rapidly as possible. And this urge, it bears mentioning, almost exactly parallels the urge that may have driven biological scientists, in the pursuit of no less “inevitable” gain-of-function and vaccine research, to create the Covid. They are, I daresay, the same urge. I therefore fear that the conjuring of a monster virus is but the first of many baleful Faustian conjurings to come: the conjuring of an AI totalitarianism, for example, is not all that far away, especially with such “visionaries” at the helm.

These monopolist-statist-corporatist voices, fascinatingly, span the political spectrum (such as it is). Here is another Voice from the Abyss–speaking, of all places, at the leftist, sometime-anticorporate opinion site Counterpunch–on the “need” for massive nationalized industries and surveillance:

“…scale of companies will not be regarded as a political problem if they can both deliver for consumers and show the capacity of following political direction for what the public’s needs are”

The title of this section is, astoundingly, “Big Business is Good Business”, a bald non-sequitur if ever there was one. In short, behemoth corporations are no problem as long as they obey the State’s direction and mollify “consumers”.

“…We still need a more robust form of regulation for these corporate behemoths, but via a system of regulation that is “function-centric,” rather than size-centric”

Again, massive corporate consolidation in itself is suddenly no longer a concern at all, as long as the corporation does what the State needs of it!

“…Privacy advocates are already expressing concerns about a growing and overweening medical surveillance state. These surveillance concerns lack historical context […] serious health problems were met by hardline government policies […] there was an understanding that personal concessions had to be made to manage a huge population and an advanced society; the Constitution was not a suicide pact. […] In light of coronavirus, cost savings of incorporating biodata into immigration and customs are a no-brainer for governments, and are certain to cause friction with individuals who may not want to give blood or saliva to get a visa or work permit […] But the scales have tipped in the other direction.”

So: of course we will have to be scanned and probed and invasively catalogued by the Government from now on! Both Left and Right now agree: it’s simply not realistic (and a little quaint) to expect anything other than a population of technologically-micromanaged pawns in the grip of massive nationalized industries going forward, because coronavirus. This is all simply the price of living in an “advanced” society (though with the disintegration of the idea of Progress, what “advanced” really means grows more and more confused with every day, as I have discussed elsewhere).

To sum up: Voltaire’s Bastards have already pivoted in response to the coronavirus. The Answers have already been decided upon, and they are remarkably similar to the old Answers. As we speak, the carcass of the old “globalized” world is being carved up, and different pieces promised, dedicated, traded, repackaged, to moderately differing formations that are composed, however, mostly of the same actors as before.

The gist of it is that we are simply to go from creepily centralized and invasive internationalist technocrat management, to creepily centralized and invasive nationalist technocrat management. In reality, not one shred of the Bastards’ thinking has actually changed, and (surprise) they have already nominated themselves to lead this exciting new project. Not one expert, no matter how formerly committed to the international project and no matter how egregiously in error while pursuing that project, need be replaced!

One can sum up these shifts with a paraphrase of Orwell: We are at war with Internationalism. We have always been at war with Internationalism.

This, of course, was to be expected. As energy descent and the collapse of civilizational structures proceeds–greatly catalyzed but not ultimately caused by the Covid–a retrenchment of mass control to smaller and smaller scales can be expected, along with an increasingly desperate tightening of such control. The international monster may be slain, but the statist monster still has mileage left. And so the Architects are instinctively trying to re-center the situation in terms of what they know by restarting mid-20th century national managerialism in a mid-21st century world. That this will be only a temporary, compensatory stage no doubt is lost entirely on them: they have already blinked away any other possibility.

The US has for a while been much closer to a Chinese-style corporatist surveillance state than most would like to admit. But if these kinds of techno-autocratic voices get their way, we will get there in a matter of months. My only lingering question is, how did it come about that an outlet like Counterpunch now serves as a platform to proposals that are essentially contiguous with fascism?

Absence of Competence: the Systemic Downplaying of Animal-to-Human Covid Transmission

It is safe to say that the deficiency of basic reasoning ability on full display in most of the world’s experts and media since the onset of the COVID19 pandemic now far surpasses what a mere few months ago would have seemed a ruthlessly cynical imagining. But it is interesting to note that much of this mental incapacity assumes a very consistent pattern.

Take the vital issue of animal transmission of COVID19. As of this writing, the CDC website reassuringly tells us:

“At this time there is no evidence that companion animals, including pets, can become sick with or spread COVID-19”.

The implication here seems to be that the assertion of “no evidence yet” singlehandedly disposes of the well-known principle that animals are often prime disease vectors. (Remember rodents and the Black Death, for just one example?)

In a similar vein, the UK Independent recently had this quasi-reassurance to offer:

“Several global health organisations have issued advisories saying there is no any [sic] evidence that pet animals can spread coronavirus or indeed be infected with it in the same way as humans. ‘Therefore, there is no justification in taking measures against companion animals which may compromise their welfare,” the World Organisation for Animal Health has said.’ “

Once again: “no evidence”, so no justification for even the least precaution.

Regarding Covid transmission by cats, in response to the discovery of a cat in Belgium that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID19), had high viral levels in its vomit and feces and showed clear signs of respiratory illness, we see the same pattern:

“Should we now be concerned about the virus spreading to cats? To be succinct – not yet. Several key questions need to be answered before any conclusions can be drawn from this case.”

Here the implication seems to be almost laughable: the virus, despite being extremely contagious and having just been shown to be capable of infecting and sickening one of the most widespread domestic animals in the world, will just have to wait its turn for “key questions” to be answered, before it will be permitted to spread from Covid-infected cats to humans.

Another news article on COVID19 in cats, happy-go-luckily titled “Cats, dogs, ferrets and coronavirus: What’s to worry about?” purports to inform us about new research showing that cats in adjacent cages are “able to infect each other”, and that cats in general “can catch coronavirus and maybe carry it”.

But we are instructed not to worry, because apparently cats “…are dead ends when it comes to transmitting to people, experts say.”

Next we are treated to the now-boilerplate “no evidence” refrain (never mind that we are actually being confronted by a pile of evidence):

“…infectious disease experts and multiple international and domestic human and animal health organizations agree there is no evidence at this point to indicate that pets spread COVID-19 to other animals, including people”.

To cap things off, the writers offer this bit of helpfully homicidal advice: “Yes, people should embrace their pets.”

So: we widely acknowledge that cats can contract the SARS-CoV-2 virus, get sick with it, pass it in their excretions and sneeze it out—but don’t worry folks, experts say there’s “no evidence” they can actually give it to you!

In the age of Covid, “evidence”, apparently, is not really evidence—until experts and the media tell you it is.

* * *

Such glib, misguided, and indeed intellectually insulting dismissals from expert bodies and media outlets on the question of SARS-CoV-2 animal transmission are disturbingly reminiscent of the recent debacle in which experts at CDC and elsewhere bizarrely maintained that N95 facemasks confer no protection against respiratory diseases, despite their obviously existing and being widely used by medical staff for that exact purpose. (A few experts—no doubt associating knee-jerk inversion of reason with a rugged “contrarian” image—even insisted that wearing such masks actually increases risk of infection.)

But even more, the dismissals of possible animal-to-human transmission of Covid closely resemble the WHO’s flatly disastrous and already-infamous January 19 assurance that

“Not enough is known to draw definitive conclusions about how [Covid] is transmitted, the clinical features of the disease, the extent to which it has spread, or its source, which remains unknown.”

In fact, by that time, Taiwan had already informed the WHO that this was false—that human-to-human transmission was almost certainly occurring. The WHO, likely captured by powerful Chinese backers who wished to downplay the threat, instead parroted the same “no evidence” line anyway.

The WHO’s decision to dismiss the possibility of human-to-human transmission, of course, proved utterly catastrophic. But the widespread expert failure to appreciate the potential of animal-to-human spread of SARS-CoV-2 until there is “definitive proof” seems to be closely mirroring the WHO’s failure on human-to-human spread, and it could prove nearly as calamitous.

* * *

Assuming there is not actual malice at play, we can only conclude that there is an astounding form of magical thinking in control behind all of these falsely-confident denials. For in all these cases we are, in effect, being told that the Covid could not possibly spread from a cat or other animal to a human (or, in the WHO case, from a human to a human) until our scientists establish definitively that it can.

In an oddly postmodern twist, the concept of “discovering” or “proving” a thing seems in this way to have subtly mutated into permission for that thing to exist or happen. We also see here exposed the modern belief in the occult potency of expert opinion; it is as if we have all along put aside scryers, priests and shamans merely in order to take up augury by “expert consensus”.

Notice also that in all the above statements downplaying the threat of SARS-CoV-2 animal transmission, a completely invalid form of inference is being deployed, and deployed blatantly: since we have “no evidence of spread” as yet, we therefore should act as though there can’t be any spread, and should take no precautions.

Our supposedly brilliant and erudite international disease experts are happily falling face-first into a basic logical error: to them, it now seems that absence of evidence really is evidence of absence. The burden of proof has thus been so wildly misplaced that even 95% conclusive evidence of a serious danger must be treated as if it were 0% conclusive; until it reaches 99.9% confidence, it should be ignored.

It is striking that the “precautionary principle”, so widely invoked on regulatory matters like saving the environment, suddenly goes out the window when the issue is instead the likelihood of people contracting a mass-murdering plague from their pets.

Perceptively, some have drawn a connection between this dysfunctional reticence and the essential character of “rule-by-experts”. Whereas crises such as pandemic or war demand rapid and intuitive decision-making where one must risk being wrong rather than do nothing and be routed, the modern academic is trained instead at all costs not to be wrong, leading him to delay and defer:

“That the sciences reject intuition minimizes their utility when the moment calls for haste (…) While the academic must cultivate doubt in order to test his theories, the wartime leader must dispel doubt.”

But even this interesting distinction cannot explain why, just as in the case of the WHO and human-to-human spread, so many of our experts are conspicuously misplacing the burden of evidence even when evidence is not absent by a long shot. A gift for “intuition” is hardly needed to see that a cat shedding large quantities of an exceptionally contagious virus very probably can transmit it to humans as well as cats.

It is instead as if our experts are either intellectually unable to infer simple consequences from the ample evidence they already have, or are so afraid to make such inferences that they simply refuse to try. (This may incidentally explain why, despite the extreme “carefulness” of academic culture, vast portions of scientific and notably biomedical literature have turned out to be false anyway.)

As John Ralston Saul once said: “not only do we not reward thought, we punish it as unprofessional”.

In this sense, the scientific embrace of skepticism and uncertainty, though seemingly a method of error-proofing, has increasingly come at the expense of reasoning ability and clarity of communication and thus become an epistemic blight in its own right. In order to eliminate all “false positives”, the expert refuses to draw even a tentative conclusion, even when such a conclusion is both obvious and urgently needed. She thus feels reassured that she has avoided any serious error. But the result of this unreasoning hyperconservatism is not a higher level of truth, but simply a higher rate of “false negatives”.

Yet the false negative, by implying normality where there is none, is typically far more dangerous than the false positive, which merely produces worry when there is no threat. Unfounded worry can be frustrating. Unfounded complacency can be deadly.

* * *

Evidence continues to come in: aside from the already-mentioned research on Covid spread between felines, and the case of the cat in Belgium, which contracted COVID19 and suffered similar symptoms to those of human patients, there have so far been a number of reports of dogs testing “weakly positive” for SARS-CoV-2, as well as another cat in Hong Kong which tested fully positive (though without symptoms so far). Even the tigers at the Bronx Zoo have contracted the coronavirus now, through contact with an asymptomatic Covid-positive human trainer.

It is worth noting that none of this was unexpected from a biochemical perspective, or at least not to those who maintained a sliver of an open mind to the possibility. In fact, there has been clear genetic evidence available for at least the past 3-4 weeks that human ACE2—the cellular receptor through which SARS-CoV-2 attaches itself and gains entry to cells—is highly similar to the ACE2 of a number of other species, and that therefore these other species are very likely also susceptible to infection. To quote one recent publication:

“On the basis of structural studies and biochemical experiments SARS-CoV-2 seems to have an RBD that binds with high affinity to ACE2 from humans, ferrets, cats and other species with high receptor homology”.

Fortunately, it appears that dog and rodent ACE2 binds SARS-CoV-2 only poorly if at all, reducing—though not eliminating—the risk that these animals will readily transmit the virus in Black Death style. But cats (and possibly pigs) are another story.

Not only do we now have ample evidence that felines can catch SARS-CoV-2 and get sick from it, we have also just learned that approximately 15% of all cats tested in the city of Wuhan carry antibodies to the virus—strong evidence that the virus will have already spread widely among domestic animals wherever many infected humans have been present.

And yet how do media outlets report this news? Can you guess? By telling readers that “pet lovers have ‘no cause for alarm’”, and reassuring them that there is “no evidence to suggest the coronavirus can pass from cats to humans”.

That’s right—the “no evidence” refrain, all over again. And as if to compound the absurdity, the main concern apparent in more and more reports of feline Covid actually seems to be about pets getting the virus from people, rather than people getting it from their pets!

So again we see the extraordinary transformation from “discovery of truth” to “permission to be true”. Your cat may be carrying the same exact virus as has killed tens of thousands of people, you see, and that virus is extremely transmissible, of course, even between cats—on all that we agree—but if the virus comes out of cat rather than a person, until a scientist proves otherwise, why, somehow it magically becomes non-transmissible to humans. After all—there is “no evidence” to the contrary!

Welcome to the crowning glory of decades of epistemological disintegration in the sciences, education, and society at large, peremptorily brought to its ultimate fruition by the gruesome arrival of the Covid. And so long may the triumphant, carefree motto of our new Covidian era ring brightly through the body-strewn streets:

“No evidence—no problem!”