On the menu today: We could all dunk on people who were wrong in their early assessments of this pandemic, but the more pressing question is who is not learning from getting things wrong during this outbreak; one mainstream publication notices that the conventional wisdom on Florida was far from the truth; why the media’s reflexive partisan sympathies are leading Americans to not understand the virus and what policies work best to mitigate it; and a funny and brutally honest assessment of what’s coming to higher education.
Errors Are a Part of Life, but We Shouldn’t Cling to Them
According to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Research Center, as of this writing, the U.S. death toll from the virus is 85,906. Worldometers, which tends to run ahead of JHU count, puts the toll at 86,912.
You noticed that the arguments of “It’s just the flu!” or “This is comparable to the flu!” or “The flu kills more people each year!” stopped sometime in the past few weeks, didn’t you? Even the skeptics can count. (As our Robert VerBruggen noted, even that “the flu kills 80,000 Americans per year” statistic is a debatable statistical estimate.)
You may recall that at the end of March, President Trump said, “so if we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000, it’s a horrible number, maybe even less, but to 100,000, so we have between 100 [thousand] and 200,000, we altogether have done a very good job.” Many commentators, particularly on the Left, thought Trump had not merely moved the goalposts from his past statements that the virus would go away, or that it was not as dangerous as the flu, but was setting an absurdly low bar for a “good job.” At the end of March, the United States had barely 4,000 deaths. Surely, Trump had to be setting expectations at an unrealistically high number, so he could come back later and claim victory, right?
No, apparently not!
You may recall that by April 8, when deaths were at about 17,000, the IHME model — which week by week proved to be just too flawed to be useful — revised its projection to indicate the virus would kill 60,000 people in the United States over the next four months. That revision was 33,000 less than a week earlier, prompting many to argue that either the model was simply too imprecise to give any meaningful conclusions, or that the virus was less dangerous than initially thought.
It’s five weeks later, and we’re at 85,906.
I think highly of Dr. Anthony Fauci and think just about everything he says during this outbreak is worth careful consideration. But there’s no getting around the fact that some of his early assessments were really off base, too. On January 21, the day the first U.S. case was discovered, Fauci said during an interview, “obviously, you need to take it seriously and do the kind of things the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the Department of Homeland Security is doing. But this is not a major threat to the people of the United States and this is not something that the citizens of the United States right now should be worried about.” In another interview on January 26, he repeated, “The American people should not be worried or frightened by this. It’s a very, very low risk to the United States, but it’s something we, as public health officials, need to take very seriously.”
They call it a novel coronavirus because it’s new, not because everyone is supposed to finish writing a novel during quarantine. Because it is new, all of us are trying to understand it, and our previous experiences may or may not be applicable to this virus and this outbreak. I suspect that the way countries reacted to SARS-CoV-2 was heavily shaped by their experiences with the original SARS, H1N1, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Ebola virus, and Zika. Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore — all of those countries’ populations have endured much more severe outbreaks of contagious diseases in recent years. All of those countries’ populations have been conditioned to take any reports, or even rumors, about contagious diseases seriously. Other than H1N1, those previous outbreaks barely affected the United States and its citizens. Our experience told us that viruses in far-off lands almost never become a serious problem in this country.
The Hoover Institution’s Richard Epstein got an enormous amount of grief for writing an essay posted on March 16 about policies for the outbreak, initially estimating that the toll of the coronavirus would be only 500 people, and then revising it upward to 5,000, and then later to 50,000. Epstein called it, “the single largest unforced intellectual error in my entire academic career, when I included numerical estimates about the possible impact of the coronavirus in terms of life and death. Those estimates were obviously ridiculously too low.”
Epstein’s numbers were wildly off-base, but his concluding point in that essay wasn’t cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs:
The first point is to target interventions where needed, toward high-risk populations, including older people and other people with health conditions that render them more susceptible to disease. But the current organized panic in the United States does not seem justified on the best reading of the data. In dealing with this point, it is critical to note that the rapid decline in the incidence of new cases and death in China suggests that cases in Italy will not continue to rise exponentially over the next several weeks. Moreover, it is unlikely that the healthcare system in the United States will be compromised in the same fashion as the Italian healthcare system in the wake of its quick viral spread. The amount of voluntary and forced separation in the United States has gotten very extensive very quickly, which should influence rates of infection sooner rather than later.
All of us, from the president and Fauci to the kids down the street are trying to grapple with the unknown. Just about all of us are going to get something wrong at some point. Here we are, May 15, and we’re still not entirely sure whether children are largely immune to this virus, or whether some portion will develop “multisystem inflammatory syndrome” some months or weeks later. (The current leading theory is that this is some sort of delayed reaction by a child’s immune system after fighting off the virus.) Thankfully, this syndrome appears to be unlikely to kill children.
We think we’re less likely to catch the virus outside — it may be much, much less likely. Vitamin D might be a factor — or maybe it’s a more general sense that the vitamin is just good for your immune system in general. We’re not sure how long the antibodies against this virus will stay in human bodies. We’re pretty sure masks help, but we’re not sure how much, or how effectively people will wear them. A prominent virologist thinks he caught the virus through his eyes on a crowded flight because he was wearing a mask and gloves the entire time. It appears humans can spread the virus to dogs, but dogs cannot spread the virus to people.
What we know can change. Perhaps our appetite for rubbing someone’s nose in their getting something wrong has created an enormous disincentive for anyone ever admitting they’re wrong — and an inadvertent incentive for stubbornly clinging to an assessment, even in the face of mounting counter-evidence.
Gee, Media World, Why Would Americans Be Divided Right Now?
Yesterday, Mike Allen’s newsletter over at Axios lamented, “America’s cultural wars over everything have weakened our ability to respond to this pandemic. We may be our worst enemy . . . An existential threat — such as a war or natural disaster — usually brings people together. Somehow, we’ve let this one drive us apart.”
Gee, do you think that deeply divided partisan reaction has anything to do with the fact that so much of the discussion of this virus and the response has been a wildly oversimplified and often flat-out factually wrong “Goofus and Gallant” tale of blue-state and red-state governors? Contrast the media coverage of Phil Murphy opening the Jersey Shore for Memorial Day weekend with that of Florida. Contrast the coverage of Brian Kemp reopening his state of Georgia and Jared Polis reopening his state of Colorado. Think about who’s discussing state policies regarding nursing homes and who isn’t.
Yesterday, Politico’s Marc Caputo and Renuka Rayasam acknowledged the obvious: A lot of people in the media want to tell a tale of heroic Andrew Cuomo and dumb Ron DeSantis, and they aren’t going to let a little thing like the data get in the way of that:
Florida just doesn’t look nearly as bad as the national news media and sky-is-falling critics have been predicting for about two months now. But then, the national news media is mostly based in New York and loves to love its Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, about as much as it loves to hate on Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
First, let’s just come out and say it: DeSantis looks more right than those who criticized the Sunshine State’s coronavirus response. According to the latest Florida figures, fewer than 2,000 have died, and around 43,000 have been infected. That’s a fraction of the dire predictions made for Florida when spring breakers swarmed the beaches…
Cuomo also has something else DeSantis doesn’t: a press that defers to him, one that preferred to cover “Florida Morons” at the beach (where it’s relatively hard to get infected) over New Yorkers riding cramped subway cars (where it’s easy to get infected). In fact, people can still ride the subways for most hours of the day in New York, but Miami Beach’s sands remain closed. Maybe things would be different if DeSantis had a brother who worked in cable news and interviewed him for a “sweet moment” in primetime.
Speaking of New York and the Worst . . .
Remember, in what feels like another era, when New York City mayor Bill de Blasio ran for president? And the vast majority of the country — including Democrats — spent five minutes listening to him and asked, “How the heck did this guy ever get elected to anything?”
You can make a strong argument that de Blasio and his team are the single-most destructive group of leaders in the country during this crisis. Yes, Trump blurts out something nutty like his injecting disinfectant comments with metronomic regularity. I would still argue de Blasio is worse, and it’s not just because he spent January, February, and early March telling New Yorkers to continue their usual routines, insisting into March that New Yorkers could not catch the virus from riding the subway.
But the head of his public hospital system, Dr. Mitchell Katz, advised the mayor on March 10, there is “no proof that closures will help stop the spread,” according to the New York Times. Fans of “herd immunity” have an ally in Katz, who concluded, “The good thing is greater than 99 percent will recover without harm. Once people recover they will have immunity. The immunity will protect the herd.” But he might not even be the worst figure in the city’s health system.
New York City’s health commissioner blew off an urgent NYPD request for 500,000 surgical masks as the coronavirus crisis mounted — telling a high-ranking police official that “I don’t give two rats’ asses about your cops,” The Post has learned.
Dr. Oxiris Barbot made the heartless remark during a brief phone conversation in late March with NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan, sources familiar with the matter said Wednesday.
Monahan asked Barbot for 500,000 masks but she said she could only provide 50,000, the sources said.
“I don’t give two rats’ asses about your cops,” Barbot said, according to sources.
The NYPD has recorded 5,490 cases of coronavirus among its 55,000 cops and civilian workers, with 41 deaths, according to figures released Wednesday evening.
Can we please do away with this reflexive belief among the media that Democratic officeholders and their appointed staff are inherently wise and good and compassionate and smart? Because this far-too-credulous faith in the good judgment of Democratic officeholders — and knee-jerk certainty that Republican officeholders are stupid and malevolent and reckless, and must always be wrong — is probably costing some people their lives.
ADDENDUM: A funny, and likely extremely accurate, assessment of what’s going on in higher education from Scott Galloway at New York University’s Stern School of Business:
At universities, we’re having constant meetings, and we’ve all adopted this narrative of “This is unprecedented, and we’re in this together,” which is Latin for “We’re not lowering our prices, b*****s.” Universities are still in a period of consensual hallucination with each saying, “We’re going to maintain these prices for what has become, overnight, a dramatically less compelling product offering.”
In fact, the coronavirus is forcing people to take a hard look at that $51,000 tuition they’re spending. Even wealthy people just can’t swallow the jagged pill of tuition if it doesn’t involve getting to send their kids away for four years. It’s like, “Wait, my kid’s going to be home most of the year? Staring at a computer screen?” There’s this horrific awakening being delivered via Zoom of just how substandard and overpriced education is at every level. I can’t tell you the number of people who have asked me, “Should my kid consider taking a gap year?”