The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Tuesday, April 21, 2020
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I’ve pretty much ignored my blog for the past month. And yes, it has everything to do with the COVID epidemic. Not that I got sick — not so far anyway, thank goodness! Nonetheless, I’ve joined the ranks of the homebound. I’m not an essential employee (it’s times like this when you find out where you really stand!), so on March 20 my employer ordered me to work from home until further notice. They seem to be paying me for that, even though I’m not doing a whole lot from home. I send in an e-mail every day to let them know that I’m monitoring my work e-mail and will answer the phone for whoever calls. But not many people have been calling or writing. So I’m left with some free time (although there are still official things I do from home, given that I can link into my office’s computer system – they gave me a computer with a VPN drive). But I’m not making the best use of it, admittedly.

To be honest, I’m finding the COVID lockdown experience very disorienting, rather confusing. But, so are millions of others, or so I hear. Life is always changing and uncertain, but this situation has kicked the change and uncertainty levels up a few notches. Admittedly, I’ve got it a whole lot better than so many others, who don’t know how they are going to pay their next electric bill. My own financial situation does not seem immediately threatened, thank goodness. As to my health and my chances of catching the virus and having serious respiratory symptoms — well, I’m hoping that the further we get into this epidemic, the lower my chances are of getting it. But who really knows – that’s what uncertainty is all about.

For now, I’m just going to share a few not-so-profound thoughts or observations that I’ve had about what the virus is doing to the world around me. There are thousands of writers and commentators who are writing and speaking thousands of observations, about what has been happening and where things are going with regard to the many different aspects of our society — e.g. the economy, politics, government, international affairs, sports, art, religion, entertainment, travel . . . it’s amazing just how broadly a pandemic affects human society. Too much to talk about! But I’m gonna talk about a few inconsequential things anyway.

First thought — with regard to religion, I was brought up in the Catholic faith, and I am familiar with the New Testament. Including the story of how Jesus and his disciples would disregard many of the fine points of the Mosaic Law from the Torah (i.e., the heart of the Old Testament). And they were criticized by the more conservative Jewish leaders of the time, especially a group called the Pharisees, who were sticklers for observing every jot and tittle of the Law (but give them credit though for knowing the why and wherefore behind every little regulation; in the end, they felt that it was a road to holiness). Jesus’s group felt that there were bigger and more immediate spiritual issues to be addressed. And so they disregarded the Law’s prescription on hand-washing before meals (Mark 7:2, Luke 11:38, Matthew 15:2).

Well . . . I guess that we can assume that Jesus and his group were not facing a pandemic in their short time together! The COVID virus is teaching Christians that perhaps the Pharisees weren’t so wrong after all!

Next — the COVID disease and virus clearly originated in China — but that’s no reason to treat the Chinese community here in America any differently, right? Certainly we don’t assume that we are any more likely to catch the disease from a person of Chinese descent than anyone else? Well . . . maybe we do. About 2 Friday’s ago, my brother and I wanted to get some take-out Chinese food to share at our traditional Friday night family meal. We called a few places and tried to get an order in on-line via Grub Hub, but no dice — no answer, no response.

After scratching our head, we got in my brother’s car and decided to take a drive around. This is northern NJ, and there are Chinese take-out places all over; you normally don’t even notice them. We drove past about 7 or 8 different places, and . . . all closed. Some of them had printed signs in the window saying that they are closed because of the COVID pandemic, and will update the public at a later date on when they plan to re-open. Along the way we passed a slew of pizza and Italian food joints, all open for take-out.

We finally decided to go with Thai food as a Chinese substitute. There are several Thai restaurants in the area that are still open for takeout. So, too many people around here think that food from a Chinese restaurant has a greater chance of being touched by someone with COVID than at a pizza place or even a Thai restaurant. If those who are intentionally avoiding Chinese right now could be identified and queried, would they admit to this?

Or do they even realize it — is it just a matter of raw sub-conscious fear? Epidemics tend to drill down into the irrational subterranean layers of our minds. And that can be quite unfortunate! And yet, this is the era of on-line shaming, when any minute signal of disdain for another person that appears prejudicial or unfair triggers a loud choir of opprobrium via social media. You might feel good about forwarding a Tweet or Facebook pic of some schmuck who is chuckling to himself about the Downs kid doing the bagging in the next aisle over at the supermarket check-out. But at the same time, you just might just not feel like doing Chinese tonight . . .

One more thought, this one on the political level — I see that the computer models that have long been used by researchers to simulate disease epidemic progression have become a political hot-potato lately. If I understand this correctly, Democrats and progressives generally support the use of models to forecast how many people will become infected by the COVID disease with certain characteristics under different scenarios (such as degree of social distancing regulations). Republicans and Trump supporters seem critical and cynical about these models and also about the experts who run them and quote them.

Over the past 4 or 5 weeks, I have heard some very big numbers presented in terms of expected cases and deaths over the next few months. I myself have been a tad cynical about these numbers, especially the ones predicting death numbers around a quarter of a million and even more. Not that I am a Republican or Trump supporter — it’s just that I did some some crude computer modeling many years ago while in college, and in the past 5 years or so I have learned a lot about the computer models used to forecast weather. And I know that despite all of the sophistication in math and computer techniques available today, and despite all of the computing power available, the weather models can’t really say too much much about what the weather will be like more than a week out (even though the models will gladly run as far into the future as you like).

I had almost decided to pursue a career in computer modeling back when I was in college (I had trouble finding a job after finishing engineering school in 1975, and I had considered going back to grad school to get an advanced degree in operations research, which makes great use of system models). I would have never guessed back then that a situation would someday arise when the major political parties would take sides on computer modeling! Well, from my “I could have been a contender” point of view, the Republicans and Trumpistas are becoming like the “know-nothings” of old in condemning computer modeling. It clearly is needed as a tool to plan for major events such as a pandemic. But the Dems are also showing that they don’t know all that much about modeling when they embrace a particular output or forecast as the gospel truth.

Guys — leave the modeling to the computer geeks, and the interpretation of their results to professional planners, who know that any particular model output is just one outcome among many, not necessarily THE BEST outcome. A model can tell you what you need to think about and get ready for. But in a complex situation like COVID 19, which involves a first-time-around disease where so much about it is still unknown, no model can tell you up front where things are truly heading. As you learn over time and gather more data, your model outputs probably get more and more realistic. But if you are learning, then the models also are learning.

One final matter — I actually have a question about the epidemiological aspects of COVID, one that I have been pondering on a non-professional basis. I wonder: is social distancing really as effective against a COVID pandemic as the progressives make it out to be? Given how politicized the pandemic has become in the US, I will mention that pro-big government progressives (generally Democrats and leftists) seem to be quite enthusiastic and edified by the magnitude of power that governments have over our personal lives right now due to the epidemic.

And I suspect that they dream about maintaining such power in the future so as to impose universal health care run by the government, hunt down structural racism and provide reparations for historically oppressed groups, provide free college for all and forgiveness of student debt, eliminate income inequality, seize excess wealth, stop global warming with a “Green New Deal”, severely limit the prerogatives of major corporations and requiring that government and workers approve their day to day decision-making, cut military expenditures, open up the borders, etc. They would need a lot of Americans to accept a great deal of government direction in daily life, more than any native American has ever experienced (unless in jail or the military).

So I suspect that they hope that the COVID pandemic will turn out to be a “first taste” of what they plan for the public, and that the response to this first-taste will be “hmmm, not so bad, it did save a lot of lives”. However the protests against lockdowns now occurring in various state capitols indicate that this might be a stretch (although I do not agree with those protestors, not yet anyway).

Some time after the COVID situation finally settles down, either through natural means or by the hoped-for introduction of an effective vaccine somewhere down the road, the experts will do studies on what worked and how well did it work during the pandemic. I myself wonder what they will conclude about the social distancing and lockdown measures that we have experienced here in the US (and also about the more severe ones imposed in China). Will they affirm the progressive narrative, that lockdown and big government were very successful and saved thousands and maybe millions of lives? Or will the final evaluation be a bit more nuanced? Could a system of broad-based testing with vigorous isolation and contact tracking be more effective than lockdown and distancing, as the COVID experience of South Korea seems to indicate? If left unchecked, would the virus eventually infect most everyone, or are there a significant number of people with genetic biases and immune systems strong enough to stop it at some point?

One of the big mysteries right now is just how prevalent has this disease become, and how many people might have been infected but experienced only minor if any symptoms? How many people confused it with a common cold? Only now are the blood tests for COVID antibodies being administered to population samples, in an attempt to address this issue. The first few studies, which have been small and very localized and thus not highly reliable, indicate that the virus may be much more prevalent than our present testing regime makes us think. The COVID virus may have transmitted much faster and more broadly than thought over the past 6 weeks. If so, then just how effective was social distancing? I am sure that it did slow the spread of the disease (and thus saved lives that would have been lost had the hospitals been further over-run with severe patients). But by how much?

I hope to be around long enough to read about those studies and what they conclude. Until they do come in, though, let me suggest that a lot of the declarations being made about the superb effectiveness and need for government-imposed social distancing and movement restriction (or, from the conservative side, the arguments that they were of little use and should have been discontinued after a very short time) are more a matter of opinion than science. Oh sure, the NY Times and CNN and PBS and Fox News will find and quote experts who affirm that the virus supports and justifies their political views; but I believe that the real jury of scientific consensus will be out on this matter for many months.

Final note: I know a guy who is just two years younger than me who got COVID19. He got over it just fine and went back to work (he is an essential employee in an elderly care facility). He said that it wasn’t bad, the fever went away after 2 days and the cough was gone after 5. But before I conclude that this virus is really a push-over, I knew a guy at work who recently died from it, and he was 18 years younger than me. COVID 19 is a serious health issue; I just wish that it hadn’t also become a serious political issue.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:59 pm      

  1. Jim, You have some excellent points here, asking some questions I have been wondering about too. It also occurs to me that this period seems to resemble the time WWII was raging. It amazes me how quickly and easily people (and me too) will give in to some serious impositions on our personal life. The same thing happened during WWII (which I remember; I was about 10 or 12 years old during that time). During WWII everything was rationed and, for all practical purposes very difficult to get–from basic foods like butter and eggs to clothing, anything made of metal (I remember making balls of tinfoil for the war effort), etc. Everything stopped and all energies of everybody seemed to be focused on the war effort, no sacrifice too big (or too small)–very similar to the intense focus of most people now on the Covid epidemic. After WWII it was surprising how quickly and easily people returned to their lives as lived before WWII; and I find myself presuming that people will resume life before Covid as soon as we know it is “over”–albeit those lives had been drastically changed in the process of such concentration in during both times. In some ways, it makes me proud of human beings on a global level, that they too can unite for the good of the rest of the world; a similar kind of union for a purpose as was the case during WWII.

    However, I find myself also wondering exactly what the value of all these various “things that will save us”
    will turn out to be. Maybe it’s the focus for the good of the group that is important for humans, more so than the individual little things that we are supposed to do. It remains to be seen. MCS

    Comment by Mary Sheridan — May 2, 2020 @ 10:02 am

  2. Certainly it is easy to comment after the post is a month old, but one of the things that remain is great uncertainty. I still have no idea how many in the US will die from this, but we have reason to believe that in a worst-case scenario, it could easily be seven figures – and maybe more than that if the virus mutates or it is found that the antibodies developed from getting the virus aren’t all that helpful in one way or another.

    You are correct of course that is foolish to put any kind of certainty with regards to forecasts on a virus that we have never seen and still do not understand,

    But one thing I feel confident in saying is that “”taking precautions in a world of uncertainty is smart – even if it turns out that we all eventually get exposed to the virus”. Take a look at the Taiwan experience so far – seven deaths to date. It is clear that no matter how you look at what happened, they are in a far better situation than what we are in.

    Comment by Zreebs — May 25, 2020 @ 12:10 pm

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