Politics versus Reality

One of the most depressing things about the discussion around COVID and lockdown measures in the US, and to a slightly lesser extent in the UK, is that it is almost entirely political, with very little crossing of party or ideological lines. This is most obvious in Trump supporters, because they are fighting in the face of the very bad numbers the US is producing, but it’s pretty evident on the liberal side, too, with incorrect information and hyperbole being shared on social media as fact. When I have pointed out that their facts are incorrect (as in the widely shared meme about Betsy DeVos, in which it was asserted that upwards of 14,000 children would die as a result of COVID), I’ve been met with either “I don’t care if it’s incorrect, I liked the sentiment” or, in the DeVos case, an indignant “We can’t send our children back until there are no COVID cases!” Let’s look at each of these arguments. For the “I don’t care” group, what is your goal? I recently responded to a post of a long essay responding to the “just a virus” crowd, purportedly from Anthony Fauci (since then, the author, Amy Wright, has acknowledged having written the essay). I mostly agreed with the sentiment, but some of the specifics, including some incorrect information about HIV, made it unlikely that the essay came from Fauci, particularly since he has stuck as much as possible to facts and has not engaged in emotional outbursts (“How dare you?”).

The complete dismissal of any reasoned approach evident in the “even one death is too much” crowd is also not likely to convince any but the already convinced. I’ve talked about this in previous posts, but it bears repeating. Unless you want to keep yourselves and your children completely isolated for the rest of your lives (and even that has its risks, of course), you can’t expect that we will have no COVID cases or COVID deaths, even with a vaccine, now that the virus is out there. For heaven’s sake, while all this was going on, there was a report of a case of bubonic plague in Inner Mongolia. In the 2018-2019 flu season, 211 children ages 5-17 died of influenza, according to the CDC. And that wasn’t a fluke. For the last five flu seasons, an average of 272 children a year died of influenza in the United States, yet I’ll bet a lot of you didn’t even think to get a flu jab for your child. In comparison (and the CDC doesn’t make comparisons easy, since they shift the age ranges), 16 children ages 5-14 and 190 children ages 15-24 have died of COVID-19. As a matter of fact, it isn’t until you get above about age 45 that you see more deaths due to COVID than you see due to flu. What most disturbs me about all of this, though, is not the hysteria or the misrepresentation, it’s the fact that a lot of you, who are perfectly capable of reading the statistics and adjusting your opinions based on evolving information, are allowing your politics, or more specifically, your hatred of Donald Trump, to form your opinions, with something close to “If he’s for it, it has to be bad. If he’s criticizing it, it must be right.” This was no more evident than in the squabbling over the BLM protests. I wrote earlier that the one weekend of protests, specifically in the UK, were not likely to create as much of a spike as the constant beach going and other gathering. But in the US, it went far beyond one weekend and many protests were far more crowded than their UK counterparts. You can’t tell people they can’t go to the beach because of the danger of crowds but act like protests are perfectly fine. Andrew Cuomo did not do that, acknowledging the likelihood of some increases in transmission, but most people on the left were silent about the possible connection, and the right, sensing weakness, pounced. Suddenly, the people who thought the whole crisis was overrated were criticizing the protesters for putting people in danger by attending protests.

This was not, of course, the only politicizing on the right. A friend of mine, over a period of a few days, has sent me at least three articles similar to this one, which correctly point out that New York’s total deaths are still much higher than the new hot spots like Florida, Texas and Arizona, but don’t acknowledge the absurdity of the comparison. Why is it absurd? Because, as I’ve said previously, New York was hit early and hard and made many of the same mistakes the entire world was making. Everyone knows that people with COVID were unknowingly sent back to nursing homes to make room in the hospitals for incoming patients. In addition, in the early days, many of the standard treatments, like ventilators, made the patients worse. With a previously unknown virus, the current rates of infection and death are far more indicative of how the state or country is handling the virus than going back to the beginning of the crisis, when certain countries, like Italy, and states, like New York, got hit before we knew what was happening. And if we do that, the numbers are striking. Since the beginning of the crisis, New York has had 35,596 deaths, which represent 0.18% of the total population of the city. Florida, in contrast, with a similar state population, has had only 5,653 deaths, so you can understand why people would be crying “foul” at the media’s presenting Florida as so much worse than New York. Surely, they say, this must be the bias of the mainstream media. But let’s look at statistics over the last month and the last week. New York had 734 deaths in the past month and 133 in the past week. The week with the highest number of New York deaths was the week of April 5. Florida, in the past month, had 2,689 deaths, or almost 4 times the number in New York and just about half of its total deaths. The past week is even more alarming: Florida recorded 848 deaths, which means that next month is likely to be higher than the last month. Indeed, the highest week so far was the last week we have data for, so Florida’s cases are still increasing exponentially. And this is even given the fact that we’ve come a long way in treating the disease from those dark early days, and we’ve taken steps to protect healthcare workers as well, so numbers should be decreasing.

Last week, perhaps realizing that there was no way to deny that the Florida numbers were bad, Governor Ron DeSantis and the local Fox News affiliate in Orlando decided to question the veracity of the numbers. According to Fox 35 Orlando, some labs were not reporting negative results, thus making it look as thought there was a much higher percentage of COVID-19 in the communities they served. Of course, we do have a use for those negative numbers. In a perfect world, where not only sick people are being tested, those totals would help us understand the real rate of infection in the population. This would enable us to make better estimates of how deadly the disease actually is. A German study did precisely that and came up with a mortality rate of 0.4%.  But, in the absence of universal testing, and for comparative purposes, the positive tests (number of cases) and the number of deaths is what helps you see how your state is doing compared to other states and how your country is doing compared to other countries. I’ve purposely confined myself to the number of deaths, because, although it’s not true, if we were testing far higher numbers of people than other countries, we’d show more cases even if we weren’t doing any worse than another country. But deaths are deaths, even if some people have tried to claim that hospitals have a profit motive  for incorrectly labelling a death a COVID-19 death. Florida, in the past month, had deaths equal to 0.011% of its population, compared to New York, with 0.004%, and compared to the United Kingdom, also at 0.004% (which, ironically when we compare it to the US, makes it the shame of Western Europe) and Spain, for which you have to extend another decimal place to see any percentage at all (0.0002%).

I had commented a while ago that someone in one of the states with rising numbers was going to say, “Well, of course, our current numbers are worse. New York already killed off all its vulnerable people!” And somebody just said that to me. How does that stack up? New York has had deaths equal to 0.18% of its population, so it doesn’t seem particularly probable that everyone likely to die from COVID has already died. According to the New York Department of Health, in 2010, there were approximately 750,000 people over age 70 living in New York. Given the general aging of the population, that number probably increased substantially in the past 10 years, but we will conservatively estimate 750,000. Even if every COVID death had hit this age group, there would still be over 700,000 elderly people living in New York. That doesn’t even begin to take into account all the younger vulnerable people living with a variety of conditions, some of which we haven’t even identified yet, that make them susceptible. No, no matter how you present the numbers, it seems far more likely that the more stringent approach adopted by states in the northeast, and by most countries in Europe and Asia, has had a positive effect.

And this is where I come back to politics and a middle ground. Because of bad leadership and inconsistent and self-serving messages, the US is in the horrible position right now of not being able to resume business as usual, no matter how much they want to. With only 4.2% of the world’s population, with a head start, when countries like Italy grappled with the illness weeks ahead of the US, and with a lot more money than many of these countries, the US has racked up a shocking  23% of the world’s deaths. Countries that are desperate for tourist dollars are still banning big-spending US tourists, even as they open their doors to visitors from other countries. There is no way that anyone can think the US has done a good job. What’s the solution? I don’t think we can wait for a vaccine, even though the scientists in the UK and the US have been doing unbelievable work trying to produce one in record time. Instead, we need to stop fighting and realize that both sides want the same thing—to open up safely. It’s fairly obvious to anyone looking at the global picture that the countries that took lockdowns the most seriously, and invested in good test, track and trace systems are now coming out of lockdowns more or less safely. Paul Krugman warned over two months ago that if we started opening up too early, we’d almost guarantee a second lockdown. California has already seen this happen, and states like Georgia and Florida are also slowing their openings, at least at local levels. The problem is that, much like the UK (more on this next time), many states never really shut down before they started opening up. If we all stopped arguing, and took the simple steps we’ve been told to take for months now—wash your hands, stay six feet apart, wear masks—we could actually start to come out of this weird limbo we all find ourselves in. If people were told, “We know you don’t like masks, but if you wear them, you’re more likely to be able to go to sporting events sometime in a few months,” I think they’d wear the masks. We just need the messengers to stop confusing the message to make political points.

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