Sunday, April 26, 2020

No, the Shutdowns Are Not "Pointless"

See the source imageA controversial radio host named Bryan Fischer argues that "Shutdowns were pointless all along."  Citing Yitzhak Ben Israel, an Israeli general with a background in physics, math, and philosophy, Fischer argues that the coronavirus comes and goes in its own mysterious time, and will work its evil magic no matter what we do.  Italy suffered badly because of its poor health system.  Sweden is doing about the same as America, even though they have not shut their economy down as we have.   

See the source imageOur sacrifice has all been in vain!  Claims Fischer.  

I would argue, rather, that if this article is anything to go by, Fischer's BA degree in philosophy at Stanford University was in vain.  And for all the mistakes they have made, our present leaders are not the worst possible leaders, giving the worst possible advice.  

Fischer fails to cite those he differs with much.  By contrast, I will quote his entire article, word-for-word, and give a blow-for-blow description of where it goes wrong.  (Seventeen points in total.)  

"President Trump wisely has taken his first steps to reopen America, and has just as wisely reminded the nation’s governors that the ball is in their court.1 This is not just wise, it’s brilliant: if people are torqued at government restrictions, they will not have the president to blame. Their beef will be with their governors and their governors alone."
1. Trump first said the timing for reopening was entirely his decision.  After he said that, it seems, one of his advisors opened up the Constitution and showed him that it wasn't.  
"I’ve argued from the beginning of this manufactured crisis that far more damage will be done by the panic (2) than by the virus. It turns out I was right. And now a prominent Israeli professor (3) is confirming what I have said all along."
2. People of Fischer's ilk tend to use the word "panic" to refer to "taking strong measures to stop the spread of Covid-19."   Of course that's not the normal meaning of the word.  
3. The word "professor" doesn't tell us anything about the man's expertise.
"Yitzhak Ben Israel of Tel Aviv University, who is on the research and advisory board for one of the leading pharmaceutical companies in the world (Teva) (4), has concluded that all the lockdowns, all the shutdowns, all the closing of churches, schools, beaches, businesses, restaurants, and parks was nothing more than economy-destroying madness. It has all been unnecessary because coronavirus runs its own course no matter what governments do or do not do."(5)
4. Being on a board does not make one an expert in a relevant field, which Israel does not seem to be.  Beware of slippery writers.  
5. "Run its own course no matter what governments do or do not do."  That's the closest we have come so far to a thesis statement.  What does "run its own course" mean?  Keep an eye on that slippery shell.  
"Professor Ben Israel plotted the rates of new coronavirus infections in the U.S., the U.K., Sweden, Italy, Israel, Switzerland, France, Germany, and Spain - the countries that most resemble the United States in culture and governing structure.(6)  He discovered an amazing and even astounding thing. It didn’t matter whether a country pursued a severe incarceration-in-place policy like Israel, or went about business as usual like Sweden,(7) coronavirus followed precisely the same pattern. In the words of columnist Medina Melvin of Townhall, “coronavirus peaked and subsided in the exact same way. In the exact, same, way.”(8)
"Dr. Ben Israel’s research showed that all countries experienced identical patterns of disease progression. Infections grew steadily, even exponentially, until they peaked in the sixth week, and began to rapidly subside by the eighth week."
6.  If the virus doesn't care about government policies, why does it care about governing structure or culture?  Or is Fischer playing a confidence game here to exclude countries that quickly and effectively shut Covid-19 down?  Why not New Zealand?  Or Taiwan?  Or South Korea, which is also democratic, entrepreneurial, and advanced?  (True, a more relevant commonality between these three nations is that they are all islands, or effective islands, but Fischer doesn't mention that.) 
7. Sweden hasn't entirely "gone about its business as usual."  That's a simplification of their policies. 
8. Again, what does "in the exact, same, way" mean, exactly? 
Does it mean: (a) Epidemics rise exponentially, then begin to flatten into linear growth, plateau, then drop slowly, then rapidly?  Or (b) No matter what government does, the same percentage of people will get sick and die?  
The first is trivial, and irrelevant to Fischer's thesis, which is that it doesn't matter what government does.  Who cares what the shape of the curse is?  We care how high it gets, and whether lots of people live or die.  
But it is certainly not true that the virus "followed precisely the same pattern" in sense (b).   The death rate in Sweden, for instance, has so far been six times that of its neighbors Norway and Finland per capita.  (Which share cultures and governing styles with one another more than with the US!)  Maybe that disparity will narrow in the future, but that's the reality right now. 
Of the countries Fischer does name, Germany, which has one third to one fourth the number of deaths per capita of its fellow western European powers (UK, France, Spain, Italy), is the outlier so far.  If Israel is right about the timing -- eight weeks (though I am skeptical) -- then Germany is as much through this thing as Spain, but at a far lower cost in lives!  
So Fischer is cherry-picking and equivocating, to make a very dubious.  Slippery when wet!  
"Israel has imposed strict quarantines. It does not allow residents to even leave their neighborhoods to buy food.  Beyond that, they are only permitted to leave their homes for essential work and medical care."
"These restrictions applied even during Holy Week, when just a handful of worshipers were allowed at the Western Wall (the holiest site in Judaism) during Passover, and Easter Mass was performed at a nearly empty Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the site where Jesus was crucified. 
"In Stockholm, by stark contrast, cafes and restaurants are open. Kids are going to school and to soccer practice. Parks are full. Sweden, in other words, is open for business. People are practicing some social distancing, and gatherings of more than 50 people have been suspended.
"But the disease has followed the same arc in both places, which means Israel - and the United States - locked everybody down for no good reason."(9)

9. Now this argument is really weird.  It makes me wonder if Fischer may be either poorly informed, or just not so bright, Stanford philosophy BA notwithstanding.  Groteseque dishonesty is also possible, I suppose, and the hopes that his readers are gullible. 
Israel, with a population of nine million, has experienced 200 deaths from Covid-19.  Sweden, with ten million, has experienced 2000. 
Who can't find that out gross disparity with the click of a mouse?  Who is Fischer trying to fool, and why do they allow themselves to be hoodwinked?  
Or are we to care only about the timing of a curse, not about those extra 1800 lost lives? 
"Professor Ben Israel says the virus follows its own fixed pattern, which is not dependent on how much or how little freedom citizens are permitted to enjoy. “There is a decline in the number of infections even [in countries] without closures, and it is similar to the countries with closures.” While the “expansion (of coronavirus infections) begins exponentially” it “fades quickly after about eight weeks,” for reasons still unknown to epidemiologists. The virus seems to have its own life cycle." (10)
10.  Again, Fischer ignores the distinction between the shape of curves and timelines, and life vs. death.  
This is also magical thinking.  
Consider the most obvious case Fischer excludes: China.  It is simply a fact that if you lock everyone indoors for two months, the virus will die.  China proved that.  
The spread of disease is a science, not a magical black box.  Sneeze or cough droplets with viral particles in another person's face, and that person is likely to get sick.  Keep to yourself, and eventually you'll die or recover, and you won't be able to sneeze the disease along.   
But Fischer, and perhaps Israel if he's being represented correctly, wants us to believe the spread of a virus is magic.  We can't stop it.  We can't comprehend it.  Closing doors won't help.  Wearing masks won't help.  Staying home won't help.  We can only go about our lives and wait for it to run its course.  
It is as if medical science had never been invented.    
"Italy has an unusually high mortality rate, but Ben Israel attributes that more to Italy’s substandard health system, which also collapsed in 2017 because of the seasonal flu." (11)
11.  Others say Italy had a pretty good health care system, especially in the north, where Covid-19 killed so many.  Until now, Italy has enjoyed one of the longest life-expectancies in the world, far longer than the US.  
But Fischer doesn't seem to be aware that the disease was almost as deadly in Spain, Belgium, England, France, New York, and New Jersey, among other places.  I guess they all have especially bad health care systems, too?  Unlike, say, India, or Mexico?  
"The professor believes this evidence - actual evidence and data, not the projections of some model - indicate that there is no need for either quarantines or economic closures. 
"So what’s behind all the quarantines and lockdowns? Said Professor Ben Israel, echoing my words from the very beginning of this crisis, 'I think it’s mass hysteria. I have no other way to describe it. 4,500 people die each year from the flu in Israel because of complications, (12) so close the country because of that? No.'”  
See the source image
Nothing to see here, folks.  Just an ordinary church service! 
12. Some 15,000 people have died in Lombardy, which has a population about the same as that of Israel, over the past month or so.  And that's with most people NOT getting the disease.  Whether or not you call worrying about getting more than three year's worth of deaths in one month "hysteria" or not, depends I guess on your tolerance for coffins in your church.  
"Remember that our own mass hysteria was triggered by Dr. Fauci running to President Trump with the hysterical predictions Professor Neil Ferguson of the UK. Ferguson projected that 2.2 million Americans would die from coronavirus.(13)  That number has now been ratcheted down, by the University of Washington model Dr. Fauci now embraces, to about 61,000, (14) the number of Americans who die in a bad flu season.(15)  Ferguson has now reduced his projected death toll in the UK to 20,000, just four percent of his original prediction."
13.  Ferguson said nothing of the sort.  In fact, he explained the 2.2 million figure as being "in the (unlikely) absence of any control measures or spontaneous changes in individual behaviour."  So that was only if neither government nor even individuals change their behavior in any way.  And his team's paper very clearly said they did NOT expect that.  
It is remarkable how often that report is misrepresented.  Did Fischer even read it?  Why is he talking about a report he apparently hasn't read?  Or lying about one he has read? 

14. Sorry to say, the 61,000 projection will likely be exceeded by Tuesday.  100,000 looks more likely now, for the first wave.  
15.   The UW figure also consciously depends on variables, such as how we act.  The numbers have changed, because our behavior changed.  To pretend these were given as fixed numbers, is either astoundingly dishonest or stupid.  
"Ferguson predicted in 2001 that mad cow disease would kill 150,000 in the UK. The actual death toll? One hundred and seventy-seven. Why anybody gives Ferguson’s numbers any credibility at all, let alone histrionically closes down the most successful economy in history, is one of the mysteries of the ages." (16)
16. Given that Fischer is telling falsehoods about Ferguson's "predictions" in the present case, I will save myself the trouble of asking for a reference for this claim, beyond noting that he didn't give one. 
"So, the Israeli professor has demonstrated that our coronavirus closures were a disastrous, colossal, catastrophic mistake.(17)  Americans have lost jobs and businesses because of this, and some of those jobs and businesses may not come back for a long time. It will take us a decade to repair the damage we have done in just one month of cravenly surrendering to panic and fear."
17.  General Israel (again, a philosopher, mathematician, physicist and military man, not a biologist or doctor) has shown nothing of the sort.  But Fischer has shown he will cherry-pick, or simply ignore, data to make his point.  He has shown he will look at data showing ten times as many people die in one country as another, and say the two cases are exactly the same.  He has shown he will misrepresent those he wishes to make look foolish.  (Notice that while I have quoted his entire article, he doesn't even give the short relevant quotes to prove his case against Ferguson.)  He has shown that he believes in magic, in viruses that break through locked doors and spread in a mysterious fashion beyond anyone's control.   He has shown that when the need arises, he can ignore the world's largest country where the virus originated, to make his point. 
It seems Fischer has been banned in some forums for his previous quackery.  I do not agree with that decision.  I prefer error out in the open, where it can be refuted.  But that he is a dishonest quack, is pretty clear.  
"Here’s hoping - and praying - that every governor in America will reopen his state so that America can get back to being America again." (18)
18.  Amen.   And here's hoping we get the disease well under control first, and institute strict measures in testing and contract tracing to keep it there.  
Then we need to start thinking about paying off this horrendous debt we have accumulated, and dealing with China.  The challenges before our generation are great, indeed.  Burying our heads in the sand at any stage will not help us meet those challenges.  

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