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COVID: From Catastrophe to Victory

October 31, 2021

Love is dangerous, especially in time of plague.   The people you love can spread Covid quickly, unconsciously, and lethally. So can your friends, your co-workers, the carer at the nursing home and the usher at the movie theater.  Covid uses human connection to kill and maim, and social connection is a large part of what makes us human.   Talking and breathing is how Covid obtains what it wants: to get into as many individuals and species as possible, and stay there.  We can wear masks, but we’re not going to stop breathing.

So Covid has changed us, split our lives in two.  There’s Before Covid, and there’s After Covid.  As after major events like 9/11, we don’t see the world the same way.

One of the benefits of living in civilization is safety.  We want a place to live which won’t be attacked or flooded.  When a fire breaks out we expect the fire department to arrive fast and risk their lives to save our home.  We want grocery stores to have plentiful food and toilet paper. We want the power to stay on. We’d like our kids to go schools without being run over by drunks and come back, better educated,  to safe and sound homes.

Covid blows that up.  You can get sick singing at church or chatting with the hairdresser. You can get infected and feel fine, then turn paranoid psychotic in a month.  Feel okay and weeks later have a ticker going a mile a minute pulsing a brain that can’t add.  Come out of hospital and find you legs, arms and head in constant pain, get short of breath going to the bathroom.

And Covid is good at mutating.  We have the original variant, plus so far four major successors in just 18 months. More are waiting in the wings.   AIDS patients in South Africa may carry 20 genomic variants in the same body.  We also know from excess death statistics, how many more die than expected,  just how lethal Covid is. 

Excess deaths is a hard number to manipulate or fake. In the 1919 pandemic, excess deaths went up 12%.  Last year in the U.S., with just eight months of pandemic, excess deaths increased 16%.  Americans haven’t died this fast in over a century, really since the Civil War.  Overall around the world, perhaps 10-15 million have died of the disease, while a serious multiple of that number have been maimed for life.

What happens when everything blows up?  People go crazy.

Politics and Covid

Public health folks like to think we’re impartial and non-political. Nonsense.  In the U.S. today, the time you get out of bed is political.

But public health people do enjoy arithmetic.  The closest analogue to the U.S. in political fractiousness and culture is Australia.  They’ve had 98% less deaths than we have.

Why?  They followed the standard pandemic playbook – testing, tracing, quarantine, isolation.  In the U.S. the playbook wasn’t played, it was stomped on, trashed, and ripped to shreds.  In late February of 2020, when the U.S. government knew of several epidemics on the West Coast, a national messaging campaign told everybody things were better than okay.  As Kayleigh McEneny said at the time, “The coronavirus is never coming” to the U.S.  Later, Easter was the terminal date when the virus would “disappear.”  Soon social media exploded with lies and fabrications that Goebbels would find outrageous.

Since then we’ve been told the virus would go away from bright lights, bleach, hydroxychloroquine, and now horse de-wormer.  Our political battlers prefer villains and heroes, yes and no answers.  Public health recognizes that  biology changes minute by minute, everything is contingent, all events must be seen in probability terms that shift continuously. Nothing stays the same, and advice must change with the data. No one can be a perfect predictor.

The end result is a war of ourselves against ourselves.  We fight about masks and vaccines, concerts and passports.  We scream at, beat up and  even shoot each other.  Some of us define a divine right to infect, as if playing Russian roulette became a national sport.

So we’re scared and worried.  We fear daily life.  We miss seeing our friends and family with the ease we were once granted.  We want our old lives back. We fear they’re not coming back.

From Catastrophe to Victory

The good news is that Covid will be defeated.  The species survives even if individuals don’t. Our innate biological intelligence, how we turn information into useful knowledge, will see us through.

It always has.  We always beat the plague, even when millions die.  There’s a good reason a large fraction of our DNA comes from viruses.  We’ve been fighting bugs long before we were human.  So does virtually every species on earth.  In the forever arms race between viruses and us, humans survive.  Viruses mutate, and so do we – the “somatic hypermutation” that produces novel antibodies is something we can do every second.  

They try to kill us. We  fight back. Evolutions works.   Catastrophe leads to victory.

In the end we always win.

But it would be nice if we were a little smarter about it.  So here are few potential rules:  1. Don’t tell Mother Nature what to do.  She’s liable to tell you to drop dead.  That’s true for viruses and climate 2. My Health = Your Health.  To beat Covid you cooperate across the whole globe. Humans can be very, very good at this. We took out smallpox and polio. Viruses needs hosts, like to mutate. Humans travel. To get myself safe, you need to be safe, too. 3. As they often do naturally, people need to act on probabilistic risks. Is it worth it to go to the movie theater today, six days after vaccination?  What’s the risk of my kid going to that birthday party?  We think probabilistically every time we get in a car, take a drink or walk down the street. Covid demands we do it more consciously. 4. Ideology can kill you just as fast as a bullet. Don’t vote for people who get you dead. Vote for life, yours.  The world is as it is, not as we want it to be.  

Will this catastrophe lead to victories?  It already has.  In the mRNA vaccine platforms, we have new ways to fight present and future pandemics, not to mention cancer.  We’ve cooperated scientifically to get over six billion jabs in people’s arms.  We’ve learned from others around the world.

Biological intelligence will get us through Covid.  But we’ll get through a lot faster if we also use our native intelligence. If we plan and cooperate, we’ll save economies and a lot of money. 

And not waste many more millions of lives. 

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