Scylla, Charybdis & COVID-19

In Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis were monsters guarding opposite sides of the narrow strait between Italy and Sicily. Chart a course too close to one side, and Scylla grabs you. Try to steer clear of Scylla and you fall prey to Charybdis.

It’s hard to think of a better metaphor for the modern moment.

Except…in the Greek lore, the two monsters acted independently. Now, it’s more like each isn’t so much trying to snare you for itself as to drive you into the other’s clutches. And it’s something we seem to be doing our level best to assist.

Let me elaborate.

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Sweden v Georgia: Gambling on COVID-19

Sweden v. Georgia: it sounds like a sporting match—(can I have Sweden by 5½ points?)—but it’s actually a high-stakes alternative approach to the battle against COVID-19. (Photo © Ralf Roletschek, Wikimedia Commons.)

It began in Sweden, which—unlike other countries—has had no lockdown, no mandatory restrictions.  Instead, using a “trust-based” approach, it merely offered general guidance: work from home when possible, wash your hands, avoid unnecessary travel, and be particularly careful if you are older or suffer preexisting conditions. What it did not to was to shut down business, ban public gatherings, etc.

The impetus appears to have been a conclusion that the virus was bound to spread no matter how strict the control measures, so there was no point in being too draconian, so long as the curve was sufficiently “flattened” that health system wasn’t overwhelmed.

But Swedes are also a community-minded people, the plan’s architect Anders Tegnel told Nature:

As a society, we are more into nudging: continuously reminding people to use measures, improving measures where we see day by day that they need to be adjusted.

That decision has been, to put it mildly, controversial. As of April 25, Sweden had seen 18,177 cases, with 2,192 deaths—a much higher death rate than neighboring Norway, Denmark, Finland and Germany.

But, it has nevertheless flattened the curve and, Tegnel told Business Insider on April 24, enough people in Stockholm have already had the virus for the city (and soon the country as a whole) to develop enough herd immunity to ward off a massive rebound of infections in the fall.

Continue reading Sweden v Georgia: Gambling on COVID-19

White House Daily Briefings: A reporter’s view

Over the weeks, I’ve been unduly drawn to the daily drama of the White House’s coronavirus briefings. In part, it’s the fascination of watching a train wreck—and not just any train wreck, but the same one, day after day after day. (Art credit: 1920 Portland, Oregon train wreck, public domain.)

But I’ve also wondered how I’d react if I were one of the reporters in those briefings.

I’ve attended hundreds of press conferences. Mostly as a science writer, but also as a medical writer, and as sports writer. I’ve even done it in the politically charged arenas of environmental, food safety, or public health, three times with U.S. Cabinet Secretaries.

There’s a way in which reporters expect these things to play out.

Continue reading White House Daily Briefings: A reporter’s view

Living in IndigNation

We live in a culture awash with outrage. Whether it’s liberals versus conservatives, feminists versus “old white guys,” or almost anything else, it seems that everyone is doing everything possible to generate outrage against people on the other side of the aisle. (Image: Charles Le Brun, Wikimedia, courtesy of Wellcome Collection.)

Not that this is anything new. In a 2009 article in The Washington Post, Rick Perlstein listed examples going all the way back to the 1920s. “[T]he similarities across decades are uncanny,” he wrote, adding:

“My personal favorite? The federal government expanded mental health services in the Kennedy era, and one bill provided for a new facility in Alaska. One of the most widely listened-to right-wing radio programs in the country, hosted by a former FBI agent, had millions of Americans believing it was being built to intern political dissidents, just like in the Soviet Union.”

Perlstein was directing his criticism toward purveyors of right-wing outrage, but it’s not one-sided. When I started this paragraph, I hit up rightwingwatch.org, and found that only minutes before, it had posted the trailer to an upcoming conservative documentary whose poster featured a cartoon of Obama waving an American flag while concealing a hammer and sickle behind his back. Obama supporters, I was sure, would find this outrageous. But is it any worse than a 2006 left-wing political cartoon in which someone Photoshopped Elvish script onto George W. Bush’s wedding band, under the header “Frodo Failed. Bush has the Ring.”

Not that this drumbeat of outrage confined to politics. But what I’m interested in is a much more underlying issue: our culture’s insistence on substituting demonization for debate, outrage for self-examination.

Blogger Fred Clark, who publishes under the name Slacktivist, has a name for this state of perpetual outrage. He calls it “IndigNation” and views it as a type of addiction: an emotional drug that makes people “intoxicated by finding or manufacturing reasons to self-righteously puff themselves up with artificial umbrage.”

Continue reading Living in IndigNation

MLK and COVID-19 Politics

This afternoon, reading a book written long before anyone ever heard of COVID-19, I stumbled across a 60-year old quote that was so extraordinarily relevant to today’s situation it made me gasp.

I’d already been toying with blogging about the anti-quarantine protests that have been popping up around the country, inspired in part by a Facebook fiend’s wise comment about how to react to them (more about that in moment).

Most people I know are incensed that these protests are not only wrong-headed, scientifically, but have a strong chance of producing clusters of new cases that could extend the need for quarantine, endanger health workers, produce needless deaths, and do unnecessary damage to the economy.

Let me be very clear: I agree with that assessment. I also understand the temptation to call the protesters a bunch of names, much as I’m sure they are calling me and my friends libtards, or worse.

Then I read this quote, from Martin Luther King, Jr., reported by Robert Coles in his 1993 book The Call of Service (slightly condensed to avoid tl:dr)

Continue reading MLK and COVID-19 Politics

COVID Polarization

If you ask friends from overseas what they think of America’s COVID-19 crisis, their most likely response will be to tell you it’s political.

They find it baffling, because to them, this is a public health crisis in which what matters is finding how to chart a course in a world of uncertain information. Most recently, for example, a study from Stanford found that the infection rate in one California County (Santa Clara) was 50 to 80 times higher than previously estimated—i.e., that for every case severe enough to be detected by normal testing, there were 50-80 more mild enough to have flown under the radar.

If that holds true on a larger scale, that is an enormous discovery, vastly affecting models of how the disease might spread in the next few months.

But in American corona-politics, it’s not clear what that will mean.

Everyone knows that the country is divided into two, roughly equal camps, neither willing to believe a word the other is saying, each thinking the other is bending the truth to suit its political purposes.

Dealing with that type of thing has never been my forte. My Ph.D. set me up to be a policy-wonk. My goal wasn’t to figure out which tribe would triumph in any situation (or how to make them win), but to find the optimum way to solve problems for the overall good.

Right now, we have two camps with two views on what to do about COVID-19.

One is worried about minimizing the public-health effects of the pandemic.  That means extending social distancing, etc., as long as possible, in order to cut disease transmission to the utmost.

The other is concerned about the economy. People are suffering from things other than the illness, and if we extend the shutdown too long, there will come a point where it is hard to climb back out of it.

Each tends to demonize the other. But the reality is that both are right. It’s a trade-off, in which we have to determine not which camp is right, but how to balance their two concerns.

That is not the same thing as winning a partisan, fight. The sooner we, as a country, figure that out, the sooner we will find a true solution to this crisis.

Sturgeon’s Law of Politics

Sixty years or so ago, science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon got fed up with being asked why so much science fiction was so badly written. Rising to the defense of his field, he responded by saying it wasn’t actually any worse than any other. “Ninety percent of everything is crap,” he said.

It’s an adage now enthroned as Sturgeon’s Law. In any field you can name, the vast bulk of human endeavor is, at best, mediocre. The cream rises to the top, and, comparatively, there really isn’t a lot of it.

It’s an adage that might go along way toward explaining the sorry state of American politics—not because so much of what is said is crap, but because so few of us realize that this applies to both sides. Continue reading Sturgeon’s Law of Politics

Birthright citizenship and “subject to the jurisdiction thereof”

President Trump says he wants to issue an executive order rescinding birthright citizenship to children of illegal immigrants (and possibly other non-citizens). His opponents say, among other things, that such a move is unconstitutional.

But are they right? I’m going to argue “probably yes, but not for the reasons the news analyses I’ve seen think.” (My analysis would also make it unconstitutional for Congress to do this, as well.) Kinda wonky stuff, but here goes: Continue reading Birthright citizenship and “subject to the jurisdiction thereof”