Herman Cain wrote a book titled “The Right Questions.” The premise of the book is simple. If you don’t ask the right question, you will get an answer that ranges from useless to wrong. While he was writing about political subjects, the principle is universal. To get a useful, correct answer, you must ask the right question. Our Quixotic Quislings of Quarantine (Q3s) are so blinkered that they don’t even know that they aren’t asking the right question.
The news has been full of stories detailing how the number of Wuhan Flu (COVID 19) cases in a particular place have doubled over the last day or two. This is a huge change from weeks ago where the story was about a new case or two each day. We can plot those numbers as a sharp upward curve.
The US is already on the near-vertical part of the curve. Most new cases come from people who can’t tell you who might have given it to them. They got it “in the wild.” And since Science magazine suggests that the stealth carrier incidence is about 85%, that’s going to continue.
Q3s talk about “bending the curve.” They want to “slow the growth” of Wuhan Flu. We don’t have a vaccine, and won’t have one for months or years. That leaves Q3s with one possible tool: quarantine, also known as “social distancing.” Now we are suffering through a wide array of “non-essential business closures (how do you define “essential”),” “shelter in place,” and other measures designed to keep us from contacting each other. There’s an intrinsic apparent rationality to this idea.
If you’re in New York and I’m in Florida, I can’t pass any disease to you. At some distance less than that, transmission becomes possible. So the CDC has declared that we should all stay at least six feet apart. Now Costco is letting people in by batches after similar numbers have departed. Seminole County (FL) has decreed that stores will mark six foot spacing on the floor near cash registers.
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These are blunt instruments, very much unlike the carefully targeted South Korean approach. If you have a pulse, you are punished. With restaurants closed, you can’t eat out, even at widely spaced tables. Many beaches are closed, even though solar UV is one of the best disinfectants. Political leaders have decided that Wuhan Flu is so dangerous (it isn’t) that mere contact is as bad as contracting Ebola.
The consequences of such policies are horrible. Massive numbers of people no longer have jobs, leading to the government printing more money than ever in history. Shuttered stores can’t pay rent. Self employed entrepreneurs are up the proverbial creek. And social unrest is just around the corner.
Many other diseases will go untreated. Because “elective” procedures are cancelled, women won’t get mammograms. Small cancers will grow until they require disfiguring surgery that has lower survival rates. Colonoscopies won’t get done, leaving colon cancers to grow. Hernias won’t get repaired, leading to incarceration, bowel obstruction, and deaths. I could go on. Our economic woes resulting from massive government intervention are likely to be much worse than 2008, where a half million extra cancer deaths can be attributed to that downturn. That’s roughly fifteen times the total number of Wuhan Flu deaths as of now.
There are so many affected people in the US at this point that it is impossible to do the work that South Korea has done to contain its outbreak. The disease is “in the wild,” and will overwhelm all measures. To make this clear, let’s do a thought experiment.
Let us assume that all “non-essential” people don’t leave their homes. As NY Governor Cuomo commented, this may have the paradoxic effect of increasing disease transmission, since there could be a carrier in the home (Diamond Princess Effect). Ignoring the question of how they pay for it if no one is working, someone has to get food. If it’s by delivery, if the person handling the purchase is a stealth carrier, that Chinese food may be contaminated and give the disease to the household. Ditto for their mail. If they go to a grocery store, their chance of not being exposed is vanishingly small.
In short, Wuhan Flu has advanced much too far for lockdowns and closures to have a material effect. Mass gatherings are probably not a good idea, but those are a minor part of the economy. It’s the everyday transmission that simply can’t be stopped. It’s like trying to get the smell of smoke out of the air. Not happening.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that we should be making people sick. What I am saying is that we can’t stop them from getting sick. It’s not possible. The genie is out of the bottle. The horse is out of the barn. Pandora has opened her box. Pick your metaphor. The price for trying to reverse the process is simply too high. There is no statistical improvement we can make that will balance the incredible cost we are imposing on our society through massive economic hardship.
This brings us back to the original question. What question should we ask? If we can’t stop the overall spread, what can we stop? If I’m sick, I can reduce the chance of infecting you (individually) by not going out any more than is absolutely essential. And I can wear a mask to cut that risk down a bit more, since it will stop droplet spread. But what about the person with no symptoms?
The asymptomatic person could be well or could be a stealth carrier. There’s no way to know without testing that just isn’t available. But the odds are very much that if you look well, you are. Are we going to lock everyone up or take hourly alcohol showers on the off chance that someone might transmit Wuhan Flu?
This leaves one group: the high risk population. If you’re under 60, the chance that you’ll have a serious complication or die from Wuhan Flu is very small. So we’re looking at Seniors, particularly those with other diseases such as COPD, Type II Diabetes, and heart disease. The Italian experience shows that they should avoid exposure wherever possible.
If we ask the right question, we’ll find that the horrid economic effects of futile lockdowns and business closures are neither necessary nor effective. As South Korea found, people with Wuhan Flu need to be isolated. And people who are already sick need to protect themselves from Wuhan Flu. It’s about taking care of yourself. That’s called “personal responsibility.”
Fortunately, effective treatments, such as hydrochloroquine with azithromycin, are rapidly being found, giving the lie to doomsday predictions. President Trump is right. We need to re-open America for business. Soonest.