• Play the sound file
[Music clip: Haydn's Derbyshire March No. 2, Harpsichord'n'kazoo version]
01 — Intro. And Radio Derb is on the air! Greetings, one and all, from your feverishly genial host John Derbyshire.
Major news of the week has been the coronavirus outbreak. I shall give over three long segments to that. Then I'll have some observations on the political state of play coming up to the South Carolina primary. Then I shall package up my other items in the closing miscellany.
You must excuse some extraneous sounds in the background here. I am at a friend's house with a lively dinner party going on in an adjacent room.
So how are we doing with this coronavirus? What's the prognosis?
At the optimistic end was coronavirus expert Professor John Nicholls at the University of Hong Kong, approximate quote from him: "It's a cold. Wash your hands." At the other end I quoted geneticist Greg Cochran, who thought that, worst case, down at the ten percent probability, fifty million people could die worldwide.
Professor Nicholls was coming at the issue from his work in the two previous coronavirus outbreaks: SARS in 2002-2003 and MERS, which has been bouncing around since 2012. Both of those had way higher fatality rates than this current outbreak, so Professor Nicholls' optimism was understandable. In more recent interviews he seems to be taking this latest outbreak a bit more seriously.
Greg Cochran is still over at the Chicken Little end of the spectrum. Quote from him last Sunday:
The natural course if you do nothing is, it infects something like half the people and it might kill, what? — a million, two million, three million people in the United States if you do nothing at all. [At 28m45s here.]
So there is still a good span of uncertainty here for the U.S.A.
Scenario A: Several thousand infections reported. Several dozen people die. When warmer weather comes the virus fades away, like SARS.
Scenario Z: Half the population gets infected. Two or three million die. When warmer weather comes the virus pulls back and regroups for next winter.
What will actually happen will be somewhere between Scenario A and Scenario Z. Around the midway point — say Scenario M — here's a different expert. I'm going to read off a quote from an excellent article in The Atlantic this week. It contains an inner quote from Harvard epidemiologist Professor Marc Lipsitch. Quote:
Lipsitch predicts that within the coming year, some 40 to 70 percent of people around the world will be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. But, he clarifies emphatically, this does not mean that all will have severe illnesses. [Inner quote.] "It's likely that many will have mild disease, or may be asymptomatic," he said. [End inner quote.] As with influenza, which is often life-threatening to people with chronic health conditions and of older age, most cases pass without medical care. (Overall, about 14 percent of people with influenza have no symptoms.) [You're Likely to Get the Coronavirus by James Hamblin; The Atlantic, February 24th 2020.]
Now you know as much as I do, or as anyone does, about the immediate prospects. For better understanding, it helps to get a handle on some of the underlying science. I've been trying to do this the past few days, and I'll pass on some of what I've picked up.
03 — Virus news: the science. The first thing to be said here is that I'm not a credentialed expert, only a scientifically-literate layman. Once you start digging around in this topic, you soon find yourself feeling humbled by the complexity of the phenomenon you're looking at. Virology and epidemiology are not for amateurs. And yes: In this field, I'm an amateur.
And when I said you find yourself feeling humbled, that only applies if you are a person capable of humility, which not everyone is. I've observed a number of major crises in my time, and it's been amazing how many non-credentialed non-experts come out of the woodwork, babbling fluently in the relevant jargon. So there's a string of plane crashes, and suddenly everyone seems to have an opinion about metal fatigue or Clear Air Turbulence.
Same here. Had you ever heard of R0 before last week? Me neither; now perfect strangers try to get me into a conversation about R0 in the supermarket line.
(If you haven't been to the supermarket lately, R0 is a term of art in epidemiology. Quote from the Healthline website:
R0 tells you the average number of people who will catch a disease from one contagious person. It specifically applies to a population of people who were previously free of infection and haven't been vaccinated. If a disease has an R0 of 18, a person who has the disease will transmit it to an average of 18 other people, as long as no one has been vaccinated against it or is already immune to it in their community.
End quote. See, you're smarter now than you were five minutes ago, thanks to Radio Derb. You're welcome!)
After all those disclaimers, what useful things can I tell you from my reading?
Well, to start with, let's get our terminology precise. I mentioned SARS and MERS, the outbreaks Professor Nicholls cut his teeth on, both being caused by coronaviruses. "Coronavirus," you see, is the name of a family of related viruses. This outbreak we're going through right now is properly called COVID-19, to distinguish it from the others in the family.
What's the death rate for COVID-19? If you want to get jargony: What's the CFR, the Case Fatality Rate?
That is much disputed, with serious authority figures giving numbers from less than one percent to more than three percent. That's pretty bad, but nothing like as bad as SARS, death rate around ten percent, or MERS, 36 percent. For the great Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 the CFR is thought to have been in the range ten to twenty percent, comparable to or somewhat worse than SARS. Regular, familiar flu, the kind you're liable to get any winter season, has a CFR less than 0.1 percent, that's one in a thousand.
To put it the other way round, rough approximations: COVID-19 is an order of magnitude more deadly than ordinary flu, but SARS and the Spanish Flu are an order of magnitude worse still than COVID-19. MERS, known to its friends as Camel Flu — and yes, that "M-E" stands for "Middle East" — is off the charts, exceptionally lethal, much worse than SARS.
So why haven't we been having worldwide panics about MERS or SARS? Well, one reason is the different life strategies of different viruses. A virus may be too lethal for its own good. If a virus causes you to get really sick really fast, and then kills you, well, plainly that's suboptimal for you, but it's also bad for the virus. It's stuck in a dead, decomposing host without having had time to spread itself around. SARS, MERS, and the Bird Flu we started hearing about twenty years ago, are all of this kind. They're really nasty if you get them, but they have trouble spreading.
A smart virus, on the other hand, lodges itself in you, making you feel unwell for a while — perhaps even making you feel nothing very much, leaving you asymptomatic — so you can walk around spreading it to other people before eventually taking to your bed. COVID-19 seems to be smart like this.
And then there's the issue of whether one infection immunizes you against future infections, as with those childhood diseases that, once you've had them, you'll probably never get them again — chickenpox, for example. Your system develops antibodies that can recognize future infections and fight them off. With coronaviruses, our systems don't seem very good at this. There's a report from China that one in seven of patients who've had COVID-19 and recovered, get infected again.
Another complication is the age issue. Fifty years ago this month the philosopher Bertrand Russell died of the ordinary flu; but hey, he was 97 years old. As it happens, I recall that I was recovering from a bout of flu myself when the news of Russell's death came through. He died: I'd taken a couple of days off work. There's the difference between being 97 with the flu and being 24 with the flu.
When we got the news earlier this week that there had been COVID-19 deaths in Italy, I went looking for details. As of Tuesday there had been seven deaths in Italy. Ages of the deceased: 77, 77, 68, 84, 88, 80, 62. Two of those people were younger than me, so I'm not smiling here. And sure, much younger people have died, like Dr Li Wenliang, who tried to sound the alarm in China back in December. Still, if you're a healthy young person, you can be forgiven for not being in much of a panic about COVID-19 on your own account, though that shouldn't stop you worrying about elderly loved ones.
That's as much science as I can offer you. There is of course plenty more on the internet. I hope I've at least given you pointers to some issues worth exploring.
What about the social, economic, and political aspects of this outbreak? One more segment.
04 — Virus prospects: social, economic, political. As uncertain as things are, I can say with good confidence that we're not looking at an Earth Abides scenario. That was the brilliant 1949 novel about a plague that killed off all but a scattered handful of human beings.
It's not even likely we're facing a somewhat lesser social catastrophe, like the one in your favorite pandemic movie, whatever it is: Wikipedia lists 43 of them.
Strangely, it seems to me, no-one ever made a movie of Earth Abides. Why not? It's a lovely novel, a great favorite of mine in my teen years. The closing pages, where Ish — the Last American — is dying in extreme old age on the Golden Gate Bridge, decades after the Great Disaster, in the care of young men armed with spears, bows and arrows … that closing scene brought tears to my eyes. Forgive me: I can't resist giving you the book's last paragraph. Quote:
Then, though his sight was now very dim, he looked again at the young men. "They will commit me to the earth," he thought. "Yet I also commit them to the earth. There is nothing else by which men live. Men come and go, but earth abides."
I'd guess we'll have some moderate social disruption — more international travel bans, some schools and workplaces closed, lots of overtime for doctors and nurses — but if you've been stockpiling canned food and ammunition, you've been over-reacting.
The economic consequences will hit harder than the social ones. The securities markets are in free fall; if you have any kind of investment portfolio you know all about it. Will this be as bad as 2008-2009? I'd guess it could be. We survived that, though, and we'll survive this.
Here in America the politics of COVID-19 could get interesting. It's happening in an election year, of course, under a President who'd like to get a second term. Expect lots of reassuring talk from Washington that the federal government is totally on top of the situation.
That in fact is what we got on Wednesday when President Trump gave a news conference about the outbreak, telling us that the feds are, quote, "very, very ready" for whatever develops. Trump spoiled the effect somewhat by comparing COVID-19 to regular flu when, as I've pointed out, COVID-19 is at least ten times more lethal than flu, so if the same number of people get this as get that, there'll be ten times as many deaths.
Trump blamed the stock market dive on, quote, "the Democratic candidates standing on that stage making fools out of themselves," end quote. That was a seriously dumb thing to say. You don't need any expertise in the financial markets to know that the downturn is caused by fears about supply chains, airlines, hotels, anything to do with movement of goods and people.
Peggy Noonan nailed it in the Wall Street Journal Thursday, quote:
It would be extremely reassuring if a temporary armistice were called in the cold war between the White House and congressional Democrats. If the virus is as serious as I think it is, no one will look back kindly on anyone who acted small.
That's right. And regardless of how anyone acts, if America takes a big hit — down at the Greg Cochran end of the spectrum — a great many Americans will blame the administration, making Trump's chance for re-election even slimmer than, according to me, it already is.
With that rather unsatisfactory summary, I leave you. As I said, I'm an amateur here. This is a tough topic to report on, with many difficulties and uncertainties.
I'll just close with my recommendation for the proper personal approach to any big disruptive crisis, if that's what this turns out to be. My recommendation is that you practice defiant normality under Sir Winston Churchill's great precept: "KBO" — Keep buggering on!
Let's see. Ctrl-F "virus" … 13 hits. Hey, at least they're talking about it. What do they say?
Bloomberg says President Trump fired the administration's pandemic specialist two years ago. I didn't know we had one. What did he fire him for? A lot of federal bureaucrats need firing. Not an impressive point, Mr Mayor.
Bloomberg again, quote:
Some of the biggest threats that we face are not only things like counter-terrorism but issues like global health security and the coronavirus, that rely on the ability to listen to scientists, listen to your own intelligence and coordinate with an international community that this President has alienated because his idea of a security strategy is a big wall.
Bloomberg's idea of a security strategy is to throw the borders wide open and take away our guns. I'd prefer Trump's wall, if he'd only get on with building the darn thing.
Then one of the moderators asked Amy Klobuchar if she would, quote, "close the borders to Americans who have been exposed to the coronavirus in order to prevent an outbreak here in this country?" End quote. That doesn't make much sense. Close the borders to Americans? Although yeah, the way the Democrats are trending, probably they'll be on board with closing the borders to Americans but opening them to everyone else.
Bernie Sanders and Tom Steyer both extruded some boilerplate about the need for international co-operation against pandemics, and — yes! — global warming, but that was it where viruses are concerned.
I should say, having mentioned Tom Steyer, who up to now has barely registered with me, I should say that I am now as enthusiastic about him as I could possibly be about a Democrat — which is not saying a lot, but it's saying something — since he told us that, quote:
I am for term limits of 12 years for every congressperson and senator.
Yesssss! I doubt we shall ever get congressional term limits, as the congressroaches themselves would have to vote for them — which is to say, vote against their own power and privileges, a thing that history offers basically zero examples of. Still, it's good to hear term limits mentioned, although I think 12 years is too generous. Two years would be my choice.
Ctrl-F on "immigration" got three hits, none of them saying anything substantive. On this most important issue of all, that will shape the country our children and grandchildren inherit, none of these big Democratic players, in two hours of air time, had anything significant to say.
My overall impression from the transcript was in fact that I am not living in a very serious country. Bernie Sanders wants to help blacks and Latinos sell marijuana. Elizabeth Warren is obsessed with Bloomberg's office banter from thirty years ago. Joe Biden wrote all our laws. Uh-huh, uh-huh.
Not a serious country. Perhaps this just isn't a very serious world. It was a serious world, back in the Cold War, and before that in WW2 — so from 1941 to 1991. For fifty years there things were really serious, with some real existential threats. Since '91 we've retreated back into the playpen: MeToo, Black Lives Matter, women in submarines, rights for illegal aliens, transgender bathrooms …
"Life must be filled up," said the sage. With nothing of pressing urgency to occupy us, we fill up our lives with petty squabbling and children's games. Perhaps COVID-19 will awaken us.
06 — Miscellany. And now, our closing miscellany of brief items.
Imprimis: If COVID-19 by itself is not enough of a sign that the End Times are approaching, note that it is coming upon us accompanied by a plague of locusts.
This is really serious. The photographs and videos of the locust swarms in East Africa are terrifying. The countries afflicted are the poorest in the world, with of course some of the highest fertility rates in the world. For the food economies of these nations, the locust swarms are a catastrophe.
It's not just Africa. The swarms have been spreading into West and South Asia. Pakistan and India are already affected.
That's got the Chinese worried. They've come up with a plan to counter the locust swarms. The plan is: ducks. Quote from MSN News:
At least 100,000 ducks are expected to be sent to Pakistan as early as the second half of this year to combat a desert locust outbreak, according to Lu Lizhi, a senior researcher with the Zhejiang Academy of Agricultural Sciences. The ducks are "biological weapons" and can be more effective than pesticide, said Lu, who is in charge of the project in tandem with a university in Pakistan.
All the duck … sorry: all the luck in the world with that, comrade. My understanding of ecology is no better than for epidemiology, but I have to wonder: What happens when the ducks have eaten all the locusts? What will they eat then?
Item: Will COVID-19 turn us all into germophobes? It might. I've already seen scattered references on Twitter about how unhygienic it is to shake hands.
Well, yes, it is. A Japanese bow or a traditional Chinese bai greeting — one hand folded over the other in front, elbows out, slight bend from the waist — these are much healthier.
We don't have much common sense in these things, though. I have always wondered why I'm supposed to wash my hands after using the urinal. I take a full shower every morning. At an average moment on an average day, I'm sure there are way more germs on my hands than there are on my generative organ; so it would make more sense to wash the organ after doing the business. I dutifully wash my hands anyway, just in case anyone's looking.
I doubt we'll take up oriental practices, though. The bowing and bending is a bit too submissive for us Western individualists. We'll probably switch to fist-bumps. The losers here will be Freemasons, who will have to figure out some new way to communicate their presence to each other.
Item: We got a verdict in the Harvey Weinstein show trial on Monday this week. The movie mogul was found guilty on two of the five charges against him. Of the two charges, one dates from 2006, the other from 2013.
The essence of the first charge is that Weinstein performed cunnilingus on the plaintiff against her will in his Manhattan apartment. The essence of the second is that Weinstein raped this different plaintiff in a Manhattan hotel room.
Apparently neither plaintiff had the presence of mind to whack Weinstein upside the head with a table lamp. More fatal to their cases, I should have thought, neither plaintiff made any report of the offense at the time; and both had cordial relations, including consensual sexual relations, with Weinstein after the alleged outrages, accompanied by friendly email exchanges.
In the who-whom narrative of oppressors and victims that has taken over our culture, reason and evidence count for nothing. Weinstein is a rich old white guy; the plaintiffs are sobbing, emoting women. Guilty!
Sentencing will be March 11th. Weinstein could get 29 years for these imaginary offenses. That's about twenty years more than DeShawn would get for a genuine knife-at-the-throat act of rape. This is what passes for justice in today's America.
Item: Reporting on the Weinstein case two weeks ago, I grumbled that I couldn't find a picture of the judge in the case, New York State Supreme Court Judge James Burke. It's unusual to not be able to find a picture of someone that distinguished.
An appreciative shout-out, therefore to the listener — she knows who she is — who located a picture of the judge for me. He is, as my listener comments, "a rather dorky-looking white man with glasses." He's a trustee of the Altman Foundation, which does good works around New York City. My listener found Judge Burke's picture on their website.
Whether the works the Foundation does really are good, or whether, like so many other philanthropic foundations, the thing has been taken over by Social Justice Warriors hostile to everything normal, customary, and patriotic, I am in absolutely no position to judge.
Item: Wednesday this week was Trayvon Martin Day. Well, it would have been, if the petition by CultMarx anti-white website change.org had got any traction. Alas, it didn't. When you go to the page for that particular petition, it says:
Only 54, huh? How does that compare with other change.org petitions. Let's see …
And Trayvon Martin only got 54? So I guess that even among the ethnomasochist goodwhites who patronize change.org, sympathy for violent teenage thugs with backpacks full of burglary tools is limited. Good to know.
Item: Finally, permit me a wee nostalgia trip. Tuesday this week was Shrove Tuesday, known to us all in my English childhood as Pancake Day. That was the one day in the year our mothers made pancakes.
These were not the thick fluffy pancakes you get in an American diner, served with maple syrup. Pancake Day pancakes were broad but thin, served rolled up after being dosed with sugar and lemon juice. My mouth's watering just remembering them.
Do they still have Pancake Day over there? Or has it been banned for violating Sharia Law, or some directive from the Ministry of Multicultural Sensitivity? I'd rather not know.
07 — Signoff. That's it, ladies and gents. I've gone and depressed myself with that last item there. Pancake Day, eh … Thank you for listening, though, and remember the Order of the Day: KBO!
After all that stuff about COVID-19 there is only one song proper to see us out.
There will be more from Radio Derb next week.
[Music clip: Peggy Lee, "Fever."]