Posted by Thersites on  UTC 2020-08-17 12:15 Updated on UTC 2020-08-20

A flu-like virus arises and spreads around the world – just like all the other flu-like viruses do from time to time. Unlike its peers, which have to make do with generic titles such as 'winter flu', this one acquires its own brand names and many brand managers around the world to curate it in the public's mind. One beautiful word is enough: Corona!

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Woodcut by Hans Holbein the Younger, 'The Old Man' from The Dance of Death, 1538.

Most who catch the disease will not even notice that they have had it, a few will have various symptoms. A very few – the already unwell or the medically vulnerable – may be pushed over the edge to their deaths by the infection, their expected departures brought forwards by days, weeks, perhaps a month. A tiny number of the otherwise hale and hearty, for no reason we can explain, are also hit hard by the infection.

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Woodcut by Hans Holbein the Younger, 'The Old Woman' from The Dance of Death, 1538.

President Trump likes a quinine derivative, others swear by zinc, others by… whatever. An acquaintance of your author's, someone who has travelled the world and been exposed to most of the pests and diseases to which mankind is heir, swears that frequent small doses of single-malt whisky will keep nearly all such things at bay. It seems to work for him: he is frequently the only one left standing (in an approximate manner) when all about have succumbed. What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. Most of the pronouncements and nostrums we have heard about COVID have the same epistemological status: maybe, maybe not, who knows? More research is needed.

The only thing that will save us, we are told, as wave after wave of COVID-19 epidemics crash over us in the future, is a vaccine. This new Object of Great Desire (OGD) will be no different from all the other OGDs that litter human history. Dreamers, charlatans and devils will take the stage to proclaim that the OGD will be here next week.

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Woodcut by Hans Holbein the Younger, 'The Doctor' from The Dance of Death, 1538.

It was the same with the cold vaccine (TBD), the flu jab (sort of works, if you're lucky) and even limitless energy from nuclear fusion (here in five years, ever since 1960, as the joke goes). Let's not even mention energy from renewables. OGDs loosen purse strings and mysteriously unlock great reserves of Money We Didn't Know We Had (MWDKWH). COVID-19 has been no exception.

The new virus flourishes in an environment of foetid uncertainty and rank ignorance. We have no data which is worth the effort of typing into a spreadsheet.

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Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Blind Leading the Blind.

Since nearly all those who die in these times already had a palette of life-threatening conditions or other vulnerabilities which could have taken them away at any time, it is impossible to produce reliable or meaningful figures for death rates caused by the new virus.

The published death statistics are utterly bogus – but all sense of shame at publishing such rubbish disappeared long ago. The harlots of organized science welcome all paying customers. Wes Brot ich ess, des Lied ich sing, mutter those permanently alarmed hookers, the Germanic researchers; 'He who pays the piper, calls the tune' burble the distinguished members of the anglophone learned societies discreetly. 'A pox on all their houses', shout the few who are still sane – very fitting language in the circumstances.

Testing (of indeterminate quality) has been ramped up rapidly, meaning that the number of cases of infection has also risen. It is impossible to produce reliable or meaningful figures for cases of infection, most of which will pass off with no or only minor symptoms. The death statistics, which are already meaningless, are currently generally falling, but because increased testing has pushed the number of people known to have the infection up, all sorts of manic measures are being hastily applied to get the imagined situation under imagined control.

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Sebastian Vrancx, The Blind Leading the Blind.

There is currently much talk of a number called 'R0' – a vitally important measure, we are told. Since this number is computed on the basis of all the other meaningless numbers collected, it is as bogus as they are: the well-known computing acronym GIGO – garbage in, garbage out – is still valid. Concepts such as R0 experience a brief half-life of supreme importance, only to fizzle out into irrelevance when new concepts arise.

Computations of this number for particular localities produce wildly inconsistent – bogus – results, the bad ones are used to justify local restrictions. The value of R0 for the nation is just a hyper-bogus average of all these bogus input values.

Remember 'herd immunity', that gilded idol around which experts and politicians danced a few months ago? It was the blessed state in which the virus could harm us no more and we could return to our careless normality of hand shaking, kissing and sneezing.

By a mechanism that has yet to be explained, herd immunity would paradoxically be achieved by preventing as many people as possible from being infected. After months of doing just this using 'lockdowns', experts are amazed that, according to their GIGO analyses, we are still nowhere near to achieving herd immunity.

Some voices now tell us that any immunity we acquire from this virus is only short-lived: a few months after an infection it can return for a second helping. Bang goes herd immunity, it seems. But, on the other hand, we apparently have things called T-cells, that have longer memories… and so on. All rubbish.

Since all the data – all the data – underlying the statistics is garbage, all international comparisons based on these statistics are within a large range of error equally bogus.

The fatuous British worship of 'our' National Health Service meant that the management of the disease in the UK turned into a programme of quasi-Stalinist micromanagement – much like the daily operation of the NHS itself – and got entangled, day in and day out, in its own low-hanging absurdities.

The initial response of the British government was to 'protect the NHS', which meant discontinuing all normal healthcare services in order to concentrate on those with symptoms. As a result, a large number of elderly or chronically ill bed-blockers were sent home or back to their care homes to die on their own. They took the infections they had acquired in hospital back with them, infecting everyone else they encountered. Well, that certainly cleared the decks of 'threats' to the NHS (a.k.a 'patients'). It also gave the permanently embattled UK pension service an unexpected financial cleansing. The government should really do this more often.

Those who live in some other countries will find this measure quite bizarre. The NHS has become a state religion in the UK, giving it the right to keep faith in its own absurdities without fear of blasphemers.

At least those ejected from hospitals during the panic had the cold comfort that the most certain way to catch the infection, if they didn't already have it, was a stay in a hospital, so a rapid exit out of these nosocomial hellholes was the best thing that could happen to them in the circumstances.

The predicted tsunami of the dying sputtered out before it even beached. The man doing the predicting still has his job and is still predicting for the government's shilling; his emeritus title is probably in the post at this moment. Once the ill had been chucked out, many NHS staff ('angels in uniform') seemingly found themselves with little or nothing to do: to pass the idle hours they took to giving dancing performances on social media whilst waiting for the free pizzas to be delivered.

In order to provide some entertainment on the eerily silent wards, the UK government organized spookily Stalinist public demonstrations of solidarity with the workers in 'our' NHS, involving standing in the street and clapping into thin air.

Now that the sluggish trickle of the virus tsunami has sputtered out, the huge backlog tsunami consisting of the untreated, the undiagnosed, the ill and the dying, as well as all those ignored or sent home for the last six months, is rearing up at the doors of doctors' practices and hospitals. The same number crunchers who forecast the COVID tsunami that never was have tweaked their model parameters and come up with huge numbers of those now condemned by delay to die of cancer or the other conventional killers. The mantra for success in treating disease was always 'early detection'. We can now add six months onto 'early'.

Even as the wave rears up, it can hardly be expected that the NHS, already rickety and overloaded in pre-virus times, is going to cope with this inundation.

In the early days of the panic some unfortunate NHS workers did die, apparently from COVID. No one knows the full story yet, but it appears that there were insufficient quantities of adequate protective clothing available, meaning that in the course of doing their jobs these people were exposed to massive, multiple infectious doses of the virus which simply overwhelmed their immune systems. In small, everyday doses the new virus is relatively harmless to its host; in the extremely large doses these people received the virus can overwhelm the immune system in short order.

In the course of the panic, facemasks were at times mandated, at other times held to be useless. Granny's old knitted scarf could be pressed into service to cover the face if necessary – she, of course, was currently heading for a place where she wouldn't need a scarf.

The effectiveness of the face covering was irrelevant, it was the demonstration of conformity that mattered. The righteous who did what they were told and wore facemasks took to calling the disobedient ones ignorant, selfish mass murderers. Similar abuse was directed at those who chose not to clap on command and, in the unlikely event that a vaccine comes along, the same epithets will be used about those who choose not to get vaccinated. Vaccination may even be made compulsory – a statement which six months ago would have sounded absurd but which now seems all too real.

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Charlatans trading on superstition and ignorance: Jan Sanders van Hemessen, The Surgeon, or The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, 1550-1555. Image: ©El Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Discussed in Figures of Speech here.

In order to reduce the spread of the virus among the vast majority of the population who would anyway be unaffected by it, the concept of 'social distancing' was introduced. The difference between three, two and one metres of separation was never convincingly explained – just one more absurdity left floating around without any empirical justification. Animations were produced which showed that a single clearing of the throat in a railway carriage would be sufficient to kill all the other occupants. These animations were presented as scientific findings, but were really just visualisations of presuppositions.

Police rounded up those 'unnecessarily' in the fresh air; now we are told that the chance of picking up a COVID infection just hanging around in the open air is vanishingly small; a fact which, let's face it, we the sane always knew.

The mischief-making media showed us photos of crowded beaches and promenades, healthy people enjoying themselves, the crowd artfully foreshortened with telephoto lenses. In this jolly scene politicians and their hirelings seemed to experience some folk memory of ancient plagues with fleas jumping from body to body, or an infectious miasma enfolding them all. None of the great minds thought: 'Herd immunity – bring it on!'

Schools, those reservoirs of the asymptomatic, were all closed down, ending their economically vital child-minding and overrated educational functions. At least one parent now had to stay home to look after the little angels, the pointless directive which did more than anything else to sabotage the economy.

After a while, the British public started getting back into the swing of things in pubs, restaurants, parks and on the beaches, accompanied by a daily litany of hectoring. Stay alert! At one point it was announced that if this dangerously carefree pub-going continued, schools would not be reopened. Or if schools were reopened, pubs and restaurants would have to close. The simple-minded citizenry could only scratch their heads and wonder what the one thing had to do with the other.

Now that the time for issuing results for academic examinations which were never taken based on work that was never done has inevitably arrived, the educational system has moved from the absurd to the surreal: just as in the management of the general epidemic, meaningless data is cobbled together, run through a model and produces… garbage.

The children affected by this garbage will for the rest of their lives look back on these qualifications and career decisions and wonder what might have been. Adults can shrug off a blip on their CV caused by the COVID-19 panic; exam results are forever.

The formerly monolithic class of wage-earners has been split into two: those who have to go to a location to perform their tasks – manual workers, shop assistants, people who deal with the public and so on – and those who can work from home, who no longer need to suffer the expensive misery of commuting or buying childminding and who have all their home comforts to hand. We cannot predict how this will develop, but as several people pointed out recently, work that can be done in a spare bedroom in Britain can just as well be done in a spare bedroom in India, China or any other low wage country.

So many trends that we took for granted now have to be reversed. For example, the COVID epidemic has called into question open plan office space with ever higher packing densities. Suddenly, in this new workplace normal, little boxes with light and fresh air are best. Lawyers will not be slow to represent infected employees. Our tip: buy shares in companies making and installing room partitioning systems.

Another serious split has become apparent, though it was always there: the difference between employees in the public and private sectors. The employees in the former were largely immune from serious economic repercussions – the state will always pay out other people's money no matter how useless or unnecessary the function. On the other hand, private sector workers are extremely vulnerable and many may lose their jobs. They will then become state employees in the welfare system being paid benefits of various kinds from other people's money.

Economists are of no help at all in the task of understanding the present crisis. Some say that several years of recession lie ahead (an 'L-shape'); some say a few months (a 'U-shape'); some say the economic recovery has already begun (a 'V-shape'). All speak with equal conviction, but at most only one of them can be right – or maybe they are all wrong.

The world appears to be bobbing on an ocean of debt, personal and national: some old-fashioned types see the debt as a key element of the coming apocalypse – the ship of state is taking on water and listing dangerously; some are relaxed about it – the ship will always stay afloat; some think that debt is of no consequence at all – mere numbers.

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Charlatans trading on superstition and ignorance: Hieronymus Bosch, Extracting the stone of madness, 1501-5.

We can take comfort in the well-founded observation that economics is not just the 'dismal science', it is the 'ignorant science': it has barely a single general law to its name that can be considered to be universally valid. If physics were like economics we would still be arguing about the relative merits of the Ptolemaic and the Copernican conceptions of the solar system or puzzling over the existence of phlogiston or oxygen.

Sociologists and futurologists have also run out of steam; not that they had much intellectual steam in the first place. Will life return to 'normal'? Will there be some sort of 'new normal'? Will we only meet in video conferences? Why would anyone start a family in these times? With fewer commuters using them will mass transport systems become even more uneconomic than they are at present? After decades of demonisation will the private car become the healthy transport option?

Who knows? No one, it seems.

Update 19.08.2020

Arriving in a timely manner, Jeremy Warner's article in the Daily Telegraph on 18 August makes many good points about the UK government's handling of COVID (and some other things), but is paywalled, unfortunately. Here are some key paragraphs about the COVID panic:

In other news, private hospitals in England are to be paid £10bn over the next four years to relieve pressure on NHS waiting lists, stretched to breaking point by pandemic-related cancellations. No day passes without some further, humongous expense.

In a war, you throw whatever you can at the enemy and worry about the costs later. But this is not a war; it is a disease, and by the standards of many past pandemics and killer conditions, not even a particularly potent one. The vast majority of those infected are either asymptomatic or only mildly discomforted. Covid has so far killed less than a million worldwide. Heart disease and stroke dispatches more than 15 million of us annually, lung cancer 1.7m and road accidents 1.4m. You wouldn’t close the roads to stop the latter.

Having scared the living daylights out of the public in the early stages of the pandemic, which is understandable in circumstances where we didn’t properly know the risks, the Government is struggling to reignite the sense of proportion so necessary in getting back to normality, and in the process has set us on the path to fiscal ruin.

According to the last Office for Budget Responsibility assessment, public sector net debt is set to grow by nearly £400bn this year, or around a fifth of GDP, under its “downside scenario”, sending the overall national debt to well in excess of 100pc of GDP.

By the end of the Second World War, Britain had clocked up national debts worth 250pc of GDP. It took 35 years to bring the burden down to less than 50pc, and that was against a backdrop of a strongly growing world economy and a baby boom. Today we have a weak world economy and an ageing population.

Embarrassed by his own bafflement about the future, your author is comforted to find that Warner is also baffled and, unlike most other commenters these days, is not afraid to admit it:

If I had any solutions, I’d obviously mention them, but other than inflating the debt away, which is tricky while attempting to maintain a low interest rate environment, I don’t have any. A good starting point, however, might be a little more honesty with the public.

Update 20.08.2020

Numerical garbage does not become valid by being processed (GIGO). Nor does it become valid by agreeing with your prejudices –that is 'confirmation bias' and we should condemn it wherever it occurs.

An article by a doctor published by the Mises Institute on 15 August illustrates this problem. We mad laissez-faire free-marketeers on Figures of Speech are of course well disposed towards the Mises Institute in general; we might be expected to welcome an article from them supporting our anti-lockdown stance, particularly when it contains beautiful graphs such as this:

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Alarm bells ring out already in the first sentences describing this graph:

Figure 1 illustrates the daily mortality attributed to covid-19 in Sweden, New York, Illinois, and Texas. The figure plots the daily number of deaths per million population. This figure illustrates the rise and fall of deaths from covid-19 in four different policy environments.

The emphasis is ours, but our readers will spot the problem immediately: the numbers for the 'mortality attributed to covid-19' are garbage which no quantity of beautiful graph plotting can improve. GIGO – this graph is useless, misleading and should be immediately rejected as such.

Powerline is a lawyerly American website for which we on Figures of Speech have the highest regard. Unfortunately, they picked up the Mises article and ran with it, knowing themselves that it was garbage:

First, a note of caution. I don’t know, and I am not sure whether anyone knows, whether different countries (or even states) count “COVID deaths” in the same way. If American states follow CDC guidance, a “COVID death” does not mean that COVID was the cause of death. It means that a person 1) died, and 2) had COVID. Thus, gunshot victims have been counted as COVID deaths. Do European countries follow this extremely misleading practice, and do states follow it uniformly? I don’t know. With that caveat, here is the chart.

A 'caveat' does not lift garbage into validity. John Hinderaker, the author of the Powerline article, is a clever chap who clearly knows that the graph is statistical nonsense: he says so himself. But the confirmation bias of wanting to find something that supports his own position overwhelms him and so he publishes the garbage anyway despite his caveat. We data-Calvinists should not allow ourselves to succumb to such temptations.

Update 20.08.2020

A much more credible analysis comes from the statistician William M. Briggs, who has been doggedly tracking the statistical aspects of the COVID hysteria from its inception. His latest piece, Coronavirus Update XXVII: The Central Fallacy of the Panic, contains much that is worth reading, but one graph in particular shows how to avoid the garbage data of 'COVID mortality':

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The difference in weekly all-cause deaths in the USA, 2020 minus either 2018 or 2019. Image: William Briggs [Click to open a larger version in a new tab.]

Here’s a different way to look at it. This is the difference in weekly deaths, 2020 minus either 2018 or 2019.

Again, the difference around Week 12 or so is clear, as is the difference in early weeks in 2018—but then we recall the flu was bad then. Once again, the dip at the end is due to late reporting.

But if we sum the differences between Week 12 (when divergence begins) to Week 30 (before drop off), we get 189,000 for 2018 and 166,000 for 2019. (Once we add in Weeks 31 and 32 after the reports are updated, these figures will change). The CDC estimates by Week 32 there were 151,559 coronadoom deaths (so far).

In other words, from 166 to 189 thousand represents the “excess deaths” because of the coronadoom crisis, either due to the bug itself, or due to government “solutions” (nursing home deaths, increase in suicides, untreated fatal heart attacks, etc.). If we accept the CDC’s official figure, then the government caused about 10-20% of “excess” deaths, coronadoom the rest (it’s worse for the government, because this doesn’t count coronadoom exacerbation from nursing home deaths, etc.).

Now by Week 30, there were 1,667,277 total deaths in 2018, 1,659,227 in 2019, and 1,834,156 in 2020. Population increased about 1 million per year during this time (of citizens; illegals, who knows). So we’d expected roughly 30/52 * 1 million = 577 thousand more people by the 30th week each year. Population in 2018 was about 326.8 million by Week 30, and in 2019 it was 327.8 million, and it was about 328.2 million in 2020.

Thus the rate of dead to total bodies by Week 30 was: 0.510% in 2018, 0.506% in 2019, and 0.558% in 2020 (note the decimal point!). So even accounting for population increase (but possibly not illegals) we have a relative increase of anywhere from 9.5 to 10% more deaths for by Week 30, and an absolute increase anywhere from 0.048-0.052%. Crude estimates, of course.

Remind me how many people went out of business, lost their jobs, how much the government spent, and so on and so forth?

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