The Fractal Pandemic

Coronavirus Roundup, Part 2

About a week ago, I sent out the first part of this roundup, noting how the Black Lives Matter protests destroyed the public messaging on the coronavirus pandemic, sending us into a new world where a large portion of the population will be ignoring all precautions against the virus.

Some of us will still be acting sensibly, and what we’re going to get for a while now is likely to be a mixture of precaution and denialism, with correspondingly mixed results.

If Everything Is an Epidemic, Nothing Is

First, though, another note about how the quarantine was undermined by its own advocates.

One of the shoes I’ve been expecting to drop is the correlation between global warming skepticism and denial of the coronavirus threat. So far, I’ve only seen it mentioned in passing by the New York Times.

The performance of my fellow global warming skeptics has been something of a mixed bag. Some have shown that they were skeptical of global warming because they cared about the science, others because it matched with their ideological or partisan loyalties.

In my case, I can describe the difference very clearly. About five years ago, I set down the scientific basis for my skepticism about man-made catastrophic global warming, and if you read it, you will find that none of the objections apply to coronavirus. For example, I was skeptical of projections made solely on the basis of computer models–but with coronavirus, we already have a lot of real-world results. I started taking coronavirus very seriously, for example, not because of the Imperial College models but because I saw how it tore through Northern Italy.

Some of this has to do with the relative speed it takes to see results in epidemiology versus climatology. As I noted back in 2015, climatology is by its nature a very slow science. The process of developing a theory, making predictions, seeing how they work out in reality, then refining the theory takes place over decades. In epidemiology, it takes place over weeks and months.

A lot of the difference, though, has to do with the fact that the field of epidemiology was not heavily politicized before we went into this. The prospect of a pandemic was mostly ignored by politicians, which is why so many of them were caught flat-footed. Infectious disease was not viewed as a political football or as a way for one ideological faction to impose its agenda under the cover of “science”–unlike climatology, which has served that role for almost 50 years now.

Yet there is one exception to that. It was not the study of infectious diseases that intruded politics into epidemiology. It was the attempt to shove into epidemiology, and the broader concept of “public health,” all of the things that are not infectious diseases. Obesity? It’s an epidemic. “Gun violence”? An epidemic. Racism? You guessed it. An epidemic.

That’s why you see some epidemiologists reversing themselves on social distancing and large gatherings, on the grounds that racism is also a “public health” problem, and “protest is a profound public health intervention.” Or you hear a former government official praise the recent protests as an attempt to address our “other national epidemic” of “systemic racism.”

You can see the temptation. The government’s quarantine powers are well-established, widely accepted, and quite sweeping, and we have just seen the vast extent to which people are willing to upend their lives–at least for a little while–and pay a big economic cost if they think it is necessary for stopping the spread of a deadly disease. You can imagine the envious eye cast on this by anyone with a big social cause to promote: If only people would agree to do the same for my agenda. So there have been various attempts to sneak in other social causes under the label of epidemiology and “public health.”

But this doesn’t have the effect they’re hoping for. Instead of giving greater urgency to their cause, it has the result of undermining actual epidemiology. In this case, calling racism a “public health” issue does not increase support for the protests. Instead, seeing how quickly the precautions against coronavirus were dropped when they became politically inconvenient, many people have been confirmed in the suspicion that lockdowns and social distancing were entirely political from the beginning.

This will eventually go down in the textbooks as a historic disaster in public health messaging–because when everything is an epidemic, nothing is.

Did the Lockdowns Work?

So were the lockdowns entirely political from the beginning? And did they make any difference in stopping the virus?

The rest of this edition is available only by e-mail to paid subscribers.

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