A Basic Difference of Perspective on COVID-19

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Last night, I couldn’t help but object to more panic talk on Ken Block’s Facebook page related to conditions in New York City.  My point was only that we shouldn’t take conditions in one city to set policy for the entire country.  We need to differentiate between a place where people literally can’t step outside without sharing a 5x6x8 box with other people for several minutes and other places in the country were the economy can keep moving.

This point grew into something more when podcaster Bill Bartholomew responded:

Justin, how many Rhode Island physicians, PAs, NPs, EMS, police, fire, military, DOT, commerce have you discussed this matter with? You sound like you are denying the severity of the virus.

I realize this isn’t entirely fair, but “you sound like you are denying the severity of the virus” is starting to feel a bit like “you sound like you are denying the wisdom of the party.”  That’s especially true when Bartholomew rattles off a partially redundant list including wide-reaching government officials.  How are physicians, PAs, and NPs different in this context?  What do fire (as distinct from EMS) and DOT have to do with the severity of a virus? As for Commerce, it has been a PR arm of the governor’s administration since she took office. Nobody should expect cool analysis from an agency dedicated to implementing government-centric economic policy as boosterism for a particular politician.

To answer Bartholomew’s question, I’ve only “talked to” a few people who would fit on his list. One doctor with whom I’ve discussed the matter was spreading false information about the number of ICUs in RI relative to Italy. Even putting that aside, professionals in the thick of handling a problem are not the only people whose input is necessary. Their information comes with an understandable emphasis that must be filtered.

One filter that isn’t helpful is the filter of being “talked to” by media people. A doctor who thinks he or she might be quoted in a story is going to hedge, because the risk of being publicly wrong is so much greater than the benefit of being publicly right. So, instead, I’ve been listening to people discuss things in their own circles, and there are differences of opinion among them.  We just don’t know enough about COVID-19, and that observation applies to those who wish to take it casually as well as to alarmists.

As to the severity of the virus, I think we’ve been misapplying judgement. It’s dangerous for some, less so for others. Death rates vary hugely from country to country, seeming to have a general correlation with how well the country is run. (Here concern is justified, because RI isn’t particularly well run.)  Based on the latest data, it is around 1.4% in the United States. That’s a problem to address, but problems are seldom addressed well without calm and perspective.

Here’s a map showing each state by the number of cases per million of population.  NY is an outlier (and NYC would be even more so if it were distinguishable).  That may justify restrictive measures in NYC, in large part to contain the problem there, but that only puts more responsibility on the rest of the country to keep the economic ball rolling to limit the devastation.

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And that gets to the grand point that nobody is talking about — the line dividing Americans’ perspective on the contagion.  Here’s my view: We shouldn’t be a nation of sheep and sheep dogs.  This shouldn’t be the government taking care of us.  We’re all part of the solution: people out there doing what they do.  Working.  Stopping that isn’t preventing people from some sort of indulgence; it’s depriving them and the society of the benefit of what they do.

We the people have more to offer than staying home and being taken care of, and our reaction to something like this ought to recognize that fact.  Instead, we’re being increasingly denied the ability to make our own judgments.  The disturbing attitude that too many have accepted is “do what you’re told,” rather than “do what you can.”

Even if COVID-19 kills just 1% of those who catch it and if only 50% of the country ultimately does, that is a lot of people.  But recognizing that fact isn’t the entire story.  Changed daily habits like keeping some space, washing our hands, and resisting the urge to touch our faces can reduce that number without drastic steps.  Focused attention and increased awareness of vulnerable people would do the same.  Then we adjust the policy as circumstances merit.

Wanting to soldier on in your life isn’t an act of financial selfishness.  It’s an act of courage.  We don’t work only for money.  If we’re really only something like children being permitted to play at gathering money and spending it, then what’s the point for any of us?  That’s a big, big question in all of this panic, and if our answer continues to be what it has been, then I fear we’re facing a different sort of death… of the soul.



  • Guest

    Justin you totally surprise me with your contiuned doubts about this world-wide declared virus pandemic. Are you trying to be like the New Jersey family that had a family gathering dinner and now the father, mother, two daughters are dead from COVID-19 virus and two cousins are infected with COVID-19 and fighting for lifes in hospital?

    Look at President Dounald Trump and how his demenor has changed from dismissive to the now somber state as reality sinks in as the numbers of COVID-19 cases rise, states go into lock down, economy is screeching to a halt, unemployment is rising and stock market begins to start crashing

    I’ll not go into when this administration was informed about this impending pandemic because books will be written about all the failures once we survive this pandemic but it will go down in history as a very dark mark against the political party and its supporters. This whole virus ifection was tracked on the internet with data points and graphic infection rates per each country in almost realtime day by day as it happned on general public sites and it was alarming that the U.S.A. was not preparing. It was one of the sites I scan each day and it poped up on major news sites.

    In my job capacity before retirement, I provided support to both RI Emergency Management Agency and FEMA runing disaster training simulations emergency preparedness training. There were always training simulations going on testing different “what if this happens”.

    The current mathematical probability simulation is if U.S.A. does nothing there will be approximately 2.2 million coronavirus COVID-19 deaths across 50 states. If the U.S.A. goes into lock down and states shelter in place, the death rate gets cut in half to approximately 1 million deaths across 50 states.

    Currently in the United States there are 21,365 COVID-19 infection cases and 266 deaths and we are a little over two months into virus pandemic. The infection rate is almost 50/50 between younger than 50 and older than 50.

    Rhode Island Governor (March 21, 20) announced 12 new cases bringing current total COVID-19 cases to 78 (March 18, 20 post Justin wrote RI had 23 COVID-19 cases). RI Gov. has no plans to order “shelter in place” due to economic negativity it would cause. The greenback is stronger than saving resident’s lifes!

    In Hawaii currently there are 67 COVID-19 confirmed or presumptive cases. Of the 67 three are mainland tourists that had close contact with a COVID-19 positive person but still decided to vacation in Hawaii where they fell sick and tested positive. 62 are Hawaii residents that travel to mainland or out of U.S.A. returning to Hawaii where they tested positive.

    Yesterday 2 Hawaii residents tested positive with no out of state travel history, relationship to a family member or friend that has tested positive or associated with a person that has tested positive making them first confirmed community spread COVID-19 virus people. Hawaii Department of Health is staate-wide randomly testing neighborhoods looking for the virus in the communities.

    State-wide State of Hawaii by governor’s or county mayor’s emergency orders is on “shelter in place” order as of 8:30 am March 20, 2020 for next 15 days which might be extended to stop the virus spread. Tourists have been informed to stop coming to Hawaii for next 30 days. Those tourists that are already in Hawaii fall under the same “shelter in place order. Everything is shut down including beaches. Cruise ships will be allowed to dock but passengers and crew can not disembark vessel. All passengers including returning Hawaii residents arriving by airline at all Hawaii airports from out of state will be medically screened for COVID-19 virus and ordered to quarantine for 14 days before being allowed into general public.

    The big problem is people that are infected with coronavirus and are asymptomatic are the ones spreading the coronavirus around across all age groups verses people that are symptomatic (identified and treated) across all age groups This is why we need to go into lock down to separate people so the asymptomatic people can be identified and treated.

    • Justin Katz

      I really am trying to find the data that will change my mind, but so far nobody’s been able to supply it.

  • Monique Chartier

    “My point was only that we shouldn’t take conditions in one city to set policy for the entire country”

    Good point. Do three states with coronavirus outbreaks justify country-wide, economy-killing draconian measures? Some people are saying the economy will just bounce back. Not sure it’s that easy – in large part, when 80% of businesses are small businesses and so many of them are currently being eviscerated.

  • bagida’wewinini

    You are so wrong. I am out of work not by my decision but by the fact that quahogs are not being sold and there is no market for them during this health emergency. I see why the voters in your town recalled you. You rigid ideology about the role of government has you now advocating the opposite of the healthcare professionals advising the elected (and not recalled) officials as to the best way of dealing with an unprecedented emergency. Your extreme libertarianism and religious beliefs have little to offer as reason and rationality is what is needed now. The most you can do now is to go sit down somewhere and try to not infect anyone

  • bagida’wewinini

    “Even if COVID-19 kills just 1% of those who catch it and if only 50% of the country ultimately does, that is a lot of people.”

    Even though Justin missed the percentage of those who may die as a result of their contracting this virus by two or two and a half percent, he admits “that is a lot of people “. A lot of people is who he is apparently willing to sacrifice to the status quo of those who profit financially. The self avowed defender of life says those deaths are acceptable as long as there is no disruption to the financial health of the present status of wealth in the country. Wealth over Health.

    • Justin Katz

      That’s a malicious misreading of what I actually wrote.