Where Will the Coronavirus Lead Us?

One should never underestimate the power of amnesia in human affairs. Even catastrophes on a vast scale are often soon forgotten, at least by those who were not directly affected by them. The young in Eastern Europe, it is said, know nothing of the ravages of communism, though they lasted decades and still exert an influence, and quite a lot think that socialism might be a good thing to try, as if it had never been tried before. Moreover, no memory exerts a salutary effect by itself unaided by thought and reflection: memory (even where accurate) has to be interpreted, and where there is interpretation there is the possibility of error and disagreement. To this day, economists argue over the causes and true lessons of the 1929 crash.

What lessons will we have learnt, or conclusions will we have drawn, from the Covid-19 epidemic, and what will its long-term effects be? Dogmatism could never be more out of place. It is even more difficult to predict social trends than the course of an epidemic. Projection is not prediction and speculation has an inherent tendency to over-dramatize.

We still can’t know when or how the epidemic will end, or how large and serious it will prove to have been. As I write this, there have been 10,000 deaths from the virus (or as some intellectually cautious people might put it, associated with the virus). There is still scope for multiplication by many times the number of deaths for this epidemic to be still be but a blip on the world mortality statistics: after all, there are 2,800,000 deaths annually in the US alone.

Of course, both exponential growth in the numbers of deaths and imagination can quickly inflate the size and effect of the epidemic. Exponential growth cannot continue for ever – a Staphylococcal colony in a Petri dish may grow exponentially for a time but will never take over the whole biosphere – but it can continue for long enough to produce a catastrophe. Imagination, perhaps, can make it grow even faster – in the mind; and thus a question in the future might be whether the virus itself, or the response to it, caused the more damage. It may prove as thorny a question as that of the causes of the First World War. From the present standpoint, the virus or the response to it seems certain to have caused an economic catastrophe, whether or not the response was wise or justified from the public health and reduction of mortality point of view. I write this in Paris, where thousands of small businesses face the possibility of a month and a half without custom, and hence with overheads but no income. Two small businessmen of my acquaintance are talking of bankruptcy after only a few days of shutdown, and their position can hardly be unique. The longer the shutdown, it goes without saying, the more bankruptcies there will be.

From the present standpoint, the virus or the response to it seems certain to have caused an economic catastrophe, whether or not the response was wise or justified from the public health and reduction of mortality point of view.

Are thousands of businesses to be left to sink, though not to sink without trace, for they will leave behind them a trail of unemployment, despair, and physical degradation for lack of upkeep of premises? Almost certainly the government will choose the alternative, namely to prop them up, but this is only the lesser of two evils, electorally if not economically, and has consequences of its own, all the more so because governments such as the French have for decades been running deficits even in good times and public debt is already high. To say après nous le déluge is no longer a bon mot, or even the description of an economic policy, but an acknowledgment of an unavoidable fate.

There will be acrimonious debates about whether the shutdowns were really necessary and whether they worked in halting the epidemic. Upon which answer prevails, socially if not intellectually or because it is the right answer in the sense of best approximating to the truth, will depend responses to future epidemics (we assume there will be some). In all these debates, many alternative facts, to coin a phrase, will be brought forward as evidence for a conclusion already arrived at or strongly desired. No one will give up his point of view simply on the first presentation of contradicting evidence.

There will no doubt be much post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning about what actually caused what. But there are even greater difficulties ahead that are not mere questions of fact. It seems for the moment at least that the epidemic kills mainly old people, the death rate increasing rapidly with age over 60 or 65. The numbers of years of human life lost to the epidemic will be comparatively small by comparison with the number of deaths itself. In terms of the number of years of life lost, the death of one twenty year-old equals the death of perhaps fifteen eighty year-olds. This is not to say that one twenty year-old is in any sense worth fifteen eighty year-olds, and in fact one averts one’s mind from such horrible calculations – except in retrospect and in theory. But sooner or later someone will attempt to calculate whether the health cost of the response (for impoverishment, as we are constantly told, even if only relative, is bad for health) has its health consequences.

How far will this episode mark our mentalities and for how long? I have been reading articles in the French newspapers, early in the period of mass house arrest, suggesting everything from a recovery of spiritual values to a reconsideration and rejection of what is invariably called in France neo-liberalism. In part, naturally, the strength of the effect will depend on how long the crisis lasts and on how profound its economic effects.

The crisis has revealed the fragility of things, from individual human life to the continuance of interconnected economic activity. From this revelation, some hope that we shall have learned not to take for rock solid what is in fact extremely fragile, and learn to rely less on what is external and superficial for our satisfactions an sense of security. For myself, I believe this to be unlikely, at least judging by my own case. I have been several times close to death through illness, but as soon as the danger was past I felt as invulnerable as I had before and even forgot, or at least pushed to the rear of my mind, the fact that I had ever been in danger. Recently, for example, I reviewed my own medical history and was surprised by how often I had been seriously ill, having started from the supposition that I had been healthy all my life. Even now, when I am in the age group most at risk from the infection, I rely psychologically on the fact that, unlike so many of those who have so far died, I am basically healthy. Such amnesia renders us careless, no doubt, but also allows us to carry on.

Moreover, the supposedly salutary effect of being thrown back on our own resources will probably be illusory, but rather reinforce our dependence on the internet and social media for our mental sustenance. The one thing our resources will not be is our own.

As to the effect on us from the point of view of political philosophy and political economy, it is certain to strengthen the case, at least for a time, for dirigisme – however long or short the crisis will be. The return of the state, declared one French headline, not without ideological delectation, as if the state (which in France is responsible for considerably more than half of the country’s GDP) had ever gone away or had been some kind of starveling, wasting away for lack of financial nourishment. Yet in spite of the enormous weight of the state, we find – according to the latest headlines – that facemasks are lacking for health staff in publicly-run facilities. This is not necessarily anyone’s fault because the crisis was not foreseen: but it makes you wonder how much of a country’s GDP the state must absorb before there are enough facemasks. South Korea is at the moment being held up as exemplary in the way it tackled the crisis, certainly by comparison with European countries, yet the state’s share of its GDP, at about 16 per cent, is less than a third of France’s. In other words, an inflated state may not be a strong or efficient state, just as a leg swollen by oedema is not strong or efficient merely because it has increased in size, rather the reverse.

If the epidemic, or rather the response to the epidemic, destroys thousands of small businesses that the state either cannot or will not rescue from bankruptcy, this might strengthen big business relative to small, since big businesses will be in a better position to weather the storm than small. And this in turn will reinforce the tendency to corporatism and oligopoly, even where the economic activity itself such as the manufacture of aeroplanes does not inherently conduce to it. Things will never be the same again? This is not the Black Death, which did as much to destroy medieval civilization as anything, nor is this likely to be. But the effects will not depend only on the facts of the case. Interpretation will be all.

Reader Discussion

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on March 24, 2020 at 13:34:54 pm

The response to this crisis reflects an underlying, and largely unnoticed fact about our current habits of discourse and public problem solving. A pernicious practice, which flourished in times of relative security, college aged solipsism and taken-for-granted affluence, has come to dominate public debate. That practice is the illogical and ultimately detrimental consideration of emotional responses and feelings. What started as "sensitivity" has metastasized into a paralyzing fear that one is going to be judged insufficiently heartbroken, or outraged, or concerned in their response to events. This is unhealthy and stupid. There is an obvious tell that this is the case: when someone asserts that the economic detriments outweigh the public health benefits, they are met with objections such as "what if it were your grandmother?" or "if it saves one life..." These are childish efforts to contaminate reason with emotion. They are not the way to address crises.

The response to the the present epidemic is influenced first by the notion that no one wishes to be accused of being non-caring. When a public health official announces a coronavirus associated death, he must genuflect at the altar of sentiment and show his caring credentials by declaring his grief at the event. This in itself is not bad. What is bad is that fear of being accused of not caring has joined fear of being called racist in producing poorly thought out, stupid and counterproductive social policies.

There are a number of factors that produce bad policy, that are easily observed in the current crisis. Bad policy results from, among other things:

1.) Desire to assign blame, so as to permit the comforting illusion that life would be perfect if not for the folly or malevolence of someone else;
2.) Cynical opportunism, using the crisis to promote what are ultimately selfish and short-sighted objectives;
3.) Misplaced priorities;
4.) Confusing wishful thinking with facts;
5.) Ignorance of history;
6.) Labeling common sense as "hate"
7.) etc.

Crises such as the COVID-19 epidemic result in tragedies and opportunities. They cannot be shaped to fit fashionable notions of "fairness." These are the facts. The best approach to dealing with these crises is not to ignore this fact, even if the knee-jerk response from unserious people is to make emotional accusations of being uncaring.

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on March 24, 2020 at 15:01:42 pm

If I may, allow me to add, or rather, edit Item #7 and replace "etc." with the irrational fear of punitive litigation against those deemed to be "insufficiently" caring.

I suspect that such a fear serves as the precipitate cause of such idiocies as closing golf courses, walking trails, etc while leaving Pot dispensaries open. One would think we have discerned a new science; one in which the formerly opprobious sedentary lifestyle of couch sitting, TV watching, chip eating in stale air has now been determined to be beneficial to ones health while a vigorous walk in the woods (one should see my tee shots, BTW) constitutes a real and present danger to both oneself and the rest of the polity.

Nice science, if you can pull it off! - especially as it serves as another predicate cause for governmental overreaction and the insipid and insidious introduction of what would otherwise be considered tyranny and deprivation of liberty.

No, I am not some raving libertarian looney BUT....
We have apparently decided to abandon empirical observation / verification for the psycho-social satisfaction associated with the (preening) presentation of ourselves as involved, engaged caring citizens / leaders.

Rumsfeld's comments on "known unkowns and unknown unkowns, etc. comes to mind.
What also comes to mind is this: "how caring is it to send innumerable small businesses into bankruptcy, to propel millions of citizens into potential default on mortgages and loans WHEN we do not, nor have we presently observe, the actual lethality of this ChiComm Virus.
Is there any calm common sensible people left?

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on March 24, 2020 at 15:12:38 pm

Dalrymple's observation:
"...a question in the future might be whether the virus itself, or the response to it, caused the more damage." strikes me as the KEY one right now!!!!!

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Patrick T Peterson
on March 24, 2020 at 15:12:17 pm

I must admit to a certain difficulty in accepting the seriousness of this crisis when those who *lead* (such as that term has been morphed over the years) demonstrate their fundamental unseriousness and (unknowing) skepticism over Wuahn Virus by a) stalling legislation aimed at relieving some financial pressure on the average american citizen and b) by imserting into legislation ostensibly designed for Wuhan Virus Relief such "Party Favorites" (as in a birthday party with goodies) as 1) financial assistance for Planned Parenthood, 2) new subsidies for solar panels, 3) regulation of aircraft carbon emissions, 4) public sector labor union privileges, etc etc etc.
If this be such a crisis, why laden the Relief Package with all manner of goodies?

But we do GET what we deserve in the form of execrable political types whose sole drive is to obtain, secure and enhance their power while posturing as the modern day equivalent of the aristocracy's "noblesse oblige." They do "feel your pain" - and are determined to capitalize on it!


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on March 24, 2020 at 20:08:37 pm

Why delay once the 15 day period is up and the elderly and most vulnerable have had the opportunity to separate themselves in a safe haven? The facts simply don’t add up as they continue to tell us 80% will not have serious enough symptoms to be hospitalized.




So strange.

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on March 24, 2020 at 20:08:39 pm

I must ask a question it appears no one has asked regarding the coronavirus crisis. What would lead five (now 8) state (not federal) governments to self destruct their own economies and trillions of dollars of wealth to save an infinitesimal number of already sick elderly people from dying now rather than in, say, a few months anyway? Is is sheer panic fabricated by the media? I don't think so. The reason that California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Nevada (and now Michigan and Washington) self-destructed their economies, and with it shut down the economy of the rest of the US and the entire world, must be something very large and threatening to which they are desperate to solve. That certainly is not the relatively tiny number of virus infections. Speculation may be often exaggerated as Dalrymple states, but we can make an educated guess. I believe what all these states have in common is that they are controlled by the Democrat Party and they are all looking into the abyss of municipal bankruptcy very, very soon unless they receive a federal bailout. As the financial analyst and writer of the book Why Civilization Die?, David Goldman, has stated: nations that are facing imminent death due to low replacement birth rates, are prone to desperate solutions such as terrorism. Same with states in the US. Facing imminent bankruptcy and decline of their party, desperate political parties and states will do desperate things: such as scuttle their own economies on the pretense of a world-wide epidemic, to get a federal bailout of their underfunded pension systems. That is the only thing I can think of that would rationally explain the seemingly irrational behavior of the five states and the states that have followed them. So yes, we are left with interpretation. But we have to also look at empirical aspects to deduce what the likely cause is. On empirical grounds, there is no justification of such a panic over the coronavirus. But the "noble lie" has been around since Plato. What has apparently just happened is that the entire country has been extorted by five states pending bankruptcy and existential threat to their political party, and have pursued economic warfare against all the other states. There has been a lot of talk on the internet of a civil war in the US since Trump. Well, we are apparently looking at it in the face. It is an economic war.

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Wayne Lusvardi
on March 24, 2020 at 20:52:24 pm

Very interesting theory and quite plausible.

It would not be a plausible theory if we lacked overwhelming corroborating evidence. But we have the supporting evidence, far more than adequate.

Since the Great Society the Democrat Party has wantonly practiced reckless disregard for fiscal responsibility. It has pandered for 56 years to a rapidly growing "show me the money" constituency; invited, sheltered and unlawfully-protected 20-25 million illegal immigrants so as to expand the Democrat Party's constituency, fought hammer and tongs to block laws aimed at limiting illegal voting, lobbied to expand voting by convicted felons so as to expand the Party's voting base, and now, this week, amidst an existential public health and economic crisis, the Democrat Party has blocked vitally-needed medical and economic relief to the middle class by conspiring in Congress to load onto federal relief legislation hundreds of billions of pay-offs to the Party's special interest constituencies.

All of this history points to the viability of Mr. Lusvardi's theory.

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on March 24, 2020 at 21:21:10 pm

With all due respect that seems too sinister. Could someone be threatening them or their family?

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on March 24, 2020 at 22:08:24 pm

This pandemic will exert an acute shock to the nation's political and economic institutions and its moral foundation, a shock which, after 60 years of severe moral atrophy, the nation will be unable to withstand without suffering permanent, frightful damage. I am a devotee of Richard Weaver's "Ideas Have Consequences" and a student of Camus' "The Plague," both of which support my thesis.

The negative effects will include major further weakening of the embattled middle class, the expansion of the entitlement class, further empowerment of major international corporations, the weakening of small business, the further impairment of federalism and empowerment of centralized, bureaucratic government and the increase of corruption and further weakening of the nation's moral fiber.

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on March 25, 2020 at 11:02:45 am

I wonder why WHO, or Bill Gates or The United Nations or Jorge Bergoglio, or The Center Of Disease Control, is not calling for the shutdown of the Wuhan Laboratory in Wuhan? The people in that area should be moved to a safe haven, and the lab should be fumigated immediately. Do you trust a globalism that denies that God Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage, and promotes the destruction of a beloved son or daughter residing in their Mother’s womb, and Euthanasia with the protection of your life or the lives of your beloved?

“It would be quite wrong to think of the anti Church as compromised only of Marxists or liberals. Quite the contrary. It has nothing to do with ideology, because it’s members are beyond actually believing in any ideology.”
-Brother Alex Bugnolo

Here, I would have to disagree with the good Brother, for it has always been the same old story, “and ye shall be like gods, declaring what is Good and what is evil.”

No doubt, for sometime the anti Church has been working to undermine Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, And Apostolic Church, and thus the “Freedom Of The Church”, to proclaim Life-affirming, Life-sustaining Salvational Love, God’s Gift Of Grace And Mercy, available to all those who desire to repent and believe this Good News.

As the Veil is being lifted, and the Great Apostasy is being exposed, it is not too late to “Return to Order”, by reorienting ourselves to The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, and be witnesses to an authentic “New Springtime.”

Do not fall victim to the globalist utopia endgame, for Utopia only exists in Heaven. The only way to Heaven is Through Christ, The Way, The Truth, And The Life (Light) Of Salvational Love, God’s Gift Of Grace And.Mercy, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost. Amen.

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on March 25, 2020 at 20:33:44 pm

At this time, it may be useful to reassess the issues, and subject them to cold-blooded analysis in light of the current data.

What those data suggest is that the coronavirus does not spread as easily as thought. Claims that the virus could infect 60% to 80% of a population do not seem supported by the data, even if we give generous weight to the tails of the curve, such as those represented by the Diamond Princess cruise ship, Italy, King County Washington, and San Marino. It would appear that the at risk population is about 0.5 to 1% under "normal" circumstances, and considerably less under common sense infection prevention precautions. This does not mean that 99% of the population is immune; it means that susceptibility to infection is non-uniform among unexposed people, and that when the number of infections reaches about 1% of the population, the conditions for uncontrolled spread become unfavorable. This is not denial, or wishful thinking, or downplaying the virus; it is an assessment of the fact that:

1.) Approximately 20% of the passengers on the Diamond Princess, incubated in infection-favorable conditions were given diagnoses of COVID19;
2.) That in San Marino, which has the highest per capita case rate not on a cruise ship, the infection rate is 0.6%;
3.) In Hubei province, where the infection got loose, the rate is 0.11%. Even if you want to multiply by a skepticism factor of 10 to account for official Chinese mendacity, you still get around 1%;
4.) The infection rate in Taiwan is currently 0.001%
5.) The infection rate in South Korea is 0.018%
6.) The infection rate in Switzerland, the highest infection rate of any country of appreciable size, is 0.126%

We can also note that the trend in daily new cases as a percentage of total cases begins to consistently decline once that value reaches about 0.14. We can see, for instance that South Korea seems to have gotten a handle on the matter on about March 3, 2020. On the other hand, we can also see the "flares" that can occur in places like New York. We can note that more than half of the cases in the United States are in New York and New Jersey as are half of the new daily cases, but even then the trajectory of the cases follows that in areas that have more mature outbreaks. Washington state has had daily new infection rates less than 20%. So the scenario in which 180,000,000 Americans are infected and 10,000,000 die, while still possible, is not consistent with world-wide experience so far. Nor is the issue that, assuming the world represents an average to which the U.S. will adhere, there will be 300,000 infections and 15000 deaths. Those numbers are not (cold-bloodedly remember), extraordinary.

The issue is, much more precisely, ventilator availability. It is not that we expect no one to die of COVID-19, which is of course inevitable and therefore, reasonably acceptable; it's that we don't want someone to die if they could have been saved with adequate resources. The crisis arises from our values that we should not allow someone to die if can do anything about it, even if that anything becomes more and more extraordinary.

The issue, as explicitly stated is that we "don't want to overwhelm the healthcare system." How many excess deaths will occur if the system is overwhelmed versus if it is not, given the same number of COVID-19 cases? The issue is therefore ventilator and ICU bed allocation. To address this problem, we need a whole other data set: what are the risk factors for ending up on a ventilator, and what is the likelihood of survival if you do? What is the average length of time a patient who dies spends on a ventilator, and what is the same measure for someone who survives? What is the ventilator-day expense of COVID-19? If we can expand the availability of ventilators and ICU care, can we loosen economic restrictions elsewhere? (And of course there are non-medical economic impacts from COVID-19, days missed from work, lingering avoidance of certain businesses and activities, etc.)

Crudely then, the issue is avoiding overwhelming the healthcare system, and that is because of the possibility of some number of excess deaths that are difficult to quantify, but likely on the order of a couple thousand. The current strategies reflect this fact: "flatten the curve," " ramp up capacity." These excess deaths are the the target. What we need to decide is, at what point will we reach diminishing returns in reducing them, and how much are we willing to sacrifice to do so?

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on April 17, 2020 at 22:00:34 pm

[…] as least temporarily. Many have prognosticated on the long-term outcome, though few better than Theodore Dalrymple: “One should never underestimate the power of amnesia in human affairs. Even catastrophes on […]

on April 30, 2020 at 18:00:30 pm

[…] One should never underestimate the power of amnesia in human affairs. Even catastrophes on a vast scale are often soon forgotten, at least by those who were not directly affected by them. The young in Eastern Europe, it is said, know nothing of the ravages of communism, though they lasted decades and still exert an influence, and quite a lot think that socialism might be a good thing to try, as if it had never been tried before. Moreover, no memory exerts a salutary effect by itself unaided by thought and reflection: memory (even where accurate) has to be interpreted, and where there is interpretation there is the possibility of error and disagreement. – Theodore Dalrymple […]

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.


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